Movies I Have Never Seen #12: Faces (1968)

What is it: Independent film pioneer John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film, an intense, almost unbearably voyeuristic look at the disintegration of a middle-aged couple’s marriage told over the course of one free-wheeling night of affairs, drunkenness and messy, messy lives. A sharp break from more formal storytelling in film, Faces often feels like it’s being made up on the spot, threatening at any second to collapse on itself. It was and still is divisive – Pauline Kael hated it, but Roger Ebert called it “astonishing.” “He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live,” Ebert wrote. The way we live is, of course, messy, unorganised and often makes no sense to us. Cassavetes tried to show us ordinary life in a way sometimes called “cinematic jazz.” A cult taste at the best of times, Cassavetes died too young but his fingerprints can be seen all over film today – The New Yorker has said that he “may be the most influential American director of the last half century.”

Why I never saw it: I grew up on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg and it took me years to broaden my cinematic tastes a bit. “Cassavetes” was one of those arty names that always seemed to float just beyond the horizon, daunting by its sheer reputation. Would I like this stuff? Would he be someone like Robert Altman or Kurosawa, who blew me away and showed me whole ways of thinking, or would he be someone like Fellini, who I still haven’t quite managed to crack? 

Does it measure up to its rep? Faces is more than 50 years old now, and yet it’s still confrontational and raw. There’s a reason Cassavetes’ work is still pored over and analysed today. He attempted to show us real life in a way that feels totally improvised (but wasn’t). He made movies his way, outside the studio system. Faces was a tiny production, made in glittering 16mm black-and-white with an endlessly probing camera that anticipates today’s reality TV. It ended up getting nominated for Oscars and riding the wave of groundbreaking movies circa 1967-68 like Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate that were slowly breaking down Hollywood’s ossified ways. But Faces is far more punk rock than The Graduate’s sly and polished Simon and Garfunkeled cynicism. 

Faces is a story that’s as old as time – a couple get tired of each other, experiment with other people, then end up back where they started – but it’s the way Cassavetes tells this story that makes it feel like the audience is eavesdropping on something they weren’t meant to see. With game actors like the astounding Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and (in other films) Peter Falk and Ben Gazarra, Cassavetes built up a company of like-minded souls who wanted to use cinema to probe into the heart and mind. 

Cassavetes pushes you, with his scenes of drunken, plotless hijinks or gritty, intense arguments, to the point where you sometimes ask yourself why you’re sticking with this movie, only to find as the credits roll that you can’t stop thinking about it. Faces demands you engage with it, question it, not half-watch it while scrolling on your phone. These days, that feels like a challenge. 

His characters often do inexplicable, nasty and self-sabotaging things. And we often do that in real life, too – good god, the number of times I finish up a day thinking, “Why did I do this thing? Why did I act that way?” Cassavetes used film to try to explain the human spirit, an impossible and yet endlessly fascinating task.

Faces tests your patience – every Cassavetes film I’ve seen seems overlong at the time, but you aren’t ready for them to end. The controlled chaos of their production is the antithesis of tightly-controlled blockbusters, and movies like Husbands or A Woman Under The Influence leave you feeling vaguely battered, half-drunk yourself, and yet… somehow happy to be alive, to be here on this endlessly complicated world, flawed and broken like everybody else in Cassavetes’ cinematic universe. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but if you’re one of those people who want movies to entertain and only entertain, you may give up the ghost. Stick with it, and you’ll be left with a movie that both frustrates and haunts you, and may just end up sucked down the Cassavetes wormhole. 

The cosmic horror of being Nicolas Cage

There have been many different Nicolas Cages

There was the offbeat comic who emerged in movies like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the Oscar winner or nominee of Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, the askew popular action hero in Con Air and Face/Off, and the somewhat lost jobbing actor who appeared in an seemingly endless parade of barely-noticed flicks with titles like Rage, Arsenal and Kill Chain. He’s appeared in well over 100 films.

No matter what the material, Cage is always at least a little interesting even in the worst of movies, and a well-deserving cult has formed around him. I’ve been a fan at least since the Vampire’s Kiss days, when I rented a somewhat random VHS tape and ended up staring slackjawed at the screen, wondering what the hell I’d just seen.

It’s hard to see a pattern sometimes in Cage’s relentless productivity, allegedly at least some of which is due to money troubles

But one clear underlying theme has developed in some of Cage’s recent work – one man facing the cosmic horror of an uncaring universe, an idea straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s been a string of movies in recent years where Cage takes his abilities to the outer limits, portraying a string of gruff, stoic men fighting against the random chaos and carnage the universe can produce. In movies like Mandy, Color Out Of Space, Willy’s Wonderland and Pig, Cage has morphed into a kind of bronzed icon of the doomed hero, a figure out of myth and horror who simply fights back, the best he can. 

Not all of these movies are created equal – Willy’s Wonderland is a goofy B-movie lark while Pig is a surprisingly touching drama – but what they all feature is Cage, uncaged, taking bold chances that didn’t seem possible in the days when he was doing fluff like Honeymoon In Vegas. He’s done his share of unmemorable generic action flicks, but when he wants to, Nicolas Cage still surprises you. 

In 2018’s Mandy, an almost unbearably dark slice of psychedelic horror, Cage’s wife is murdered by a Satanic cult and he amps up for a run of heavy-metal vengeance. In Willy’s Wonderland, he’s a mute janitor who ends up fighting animatronic cartoon characters in a haunted funhouse. In Color Out Of Space, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s groundbreaking cosmic horror tale, Cage and his entire family are overwhelmed and transformed by a malign presence from beyond the stars. And in Pig, what seems to be yet another riff on John Wick, about a recluse whose pet pig is stolen, turns into a surprisingly melancholy, affecting meditation on revenge and acceptance that doesn’t go anywhere you expect it would. Pig isn’t steeped in fantasy like the other three films, but at its heart we still have Cage as a man fighting back against fearful, overwhelming forces – in this case, all of modern society. 

In all four of these movies, Cage is a solid, looming figure – he’s bulkier, beardier than he was in his lanky 1990s stardom, a hulking presence. And in each of them, he faces a world that’s out to hurt him, in which fate is unpredictable and often malign. He does more with his eyes and a piercing stare than a lot of the excitable gestures of his earlier career. 

It’s a good fit for Cage in his latter years (he’s now 57), because he’s channeled that quirky likability of his earlier films into a more ominous allure. Even in a strange experiment like Willy’s Wonderland, where his character is mute the entire film, he holds your attention in a movie that would be fairly unmemorable without him. And in something like the justly well-reviewed Pig, where he’s also highly restrained, he’s still very capable of breaking your heart a little bit as a hermit who is also kind of a sage. 

I’m digging Cage’s cosmic horror phase. I know there’ll be several more Nicolas Cages to come before his career is done – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing an elder statesman Cage – but in a world where everything we knew seems to be a bit uncertain and shaky these last few years, Nicolas Cage staring into the void and fighting back against its horrors seems like the perfect man for the times. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #11: Isthar (1987)

What is it: First off, before we get into Ishtar, let’s talk about how awesome Elaine May is. With the late Mike Nichols, she was half of Nichols and May, a hilarious and subversive comic duo who took America by storm in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with their dry, improvisational wit inspiring folks like Steve Martin and David Letterman. A lot of their stuff is still pretty darned funny today. After Nichols and May ran their course, Elaine May became a screenwriter, director and wry actress in her own right – her fingerprints are all over movies as a writer and “script polisher” including Tootsie, The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Reds and Heaven Can Wait

May’s work as a film director never got quite as famous as her former partner Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) but her small filmography – just four movies as director – is a treasure trove of askew, insightful comedy that’s well worth hunting out. You’ve got Walter Matthau in the 1971 black romantic comedy A New Leaf, a perfect little offbeat love story between spoiled rich jerk Matthau and May herself as a ditzy botanist; the twisted hit man buddy comedy/drama Mikey and Nicky with a fantastic John Cassavetes as a man having a nervous breakdown and Peter Falk as his best friend; and her masterpiece, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, starring the late great Charles Grodin and an absolutely luminous Cybill Shepherd in one of the meanest, most biting romantic satires I’ve ever seen. May was a pioneer for women in filmmaking – when she signed a deal with Paramount to make A New Leaf in the late 1960s, she was the first female director in decades to break that glass ceiling, in a world where female directors were as rare as snow leopards in a desert. But she also fought with the studio bosses from her first film to her last, culminating in her being fired from Mikey and Nicky and actually stealing some of the film canisters and hiding them in a garage in a bit that sounds like it was ripped straight from an Elaine May movie. 

And then there’s 1987’s Ishtar, her fourth and final film as a director, a word that became shorthand for “box office disaster.” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were massive stars at the time, and an epic road trip buddy comedy starring them as hack musicians caught up in a Cold War-era spy plot seemed like it’d be a box office bonanza in the heady 1980s. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. May, still around at 89, never directed another major Hollywood movie again, although she did continue working as a screenwriter and occasional actress and these days she’s widely remembered for her career highs rather than the occasional lows. 

Why I never saw it: While I’m a connoisseur of fascinatingly bad movies – I proudly own Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room and Toxic AvengerIshtar was seen as more of a bloated classic Hollywood misfire than a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I only finally got to it recently because I’ve been watching May’s utterly charming earlier films, and it felt like it was time to finally come to terms with the one that basically ended her directing career. The reason Ishtar flopped are many, but it basically boils down to money and hubris. May had a reputation as an indecisive and somewhat spendthrift director, which worked for smaller character-focused work like The Heartbreak Kid, but Ishtar was one of those big booming ‘80s comedies where excess was part of the furniture. Throw in the big egos of Beatty and Hoffman and the studio heads, and autopsies of Ishtar show it’s clearly a case of far too many cooks labouring over a rather mediocre, overstuffed dish. 

Does it measure up to its rep? So how bad is this film, anyway? At the time of its release in 1987, you’d have thought Ishtar was a child-eating serial killer, so bad was its press. Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful” and endless reams of newspaper and magazine copy focused on the wasteful big budget and production dramas. But while there have been efforts to reclaim Ishtar in the years since as some kind of underrated gem, in reality it’s somewhere in between. Distanced from all the drama about budget and production, it’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s also a clunky patched-together beast that lacks the tight focus of a twisted buddy comedy like May’s Mikey and Nicky

Here’s the main problem – you’re asked to buy Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two of the world’s biggest movie stars, as sad-sack loser songwriters convinced of their own genius. Their star power overwhelms the premise. Hoffman comes off marginally better – “overconfident loser” is part of his whole vibe – but Beatty, much as I like him, is simply not plausible as a fumbling dimwit. Beatty can play losers – the iconic Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s doomed gambler in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the corrupt politician having a nervous breakdown in the terrific Bulworth – but he’s not right for this role at all. When the movie focuses on Hoffman and Beatty as failed musicians performing their terrible songs, it’s fitfully amusing, but when the action shifts to Morocco, where they’ve somehow managed to land a few gigs, it turns into one of those very ‘80s spy action comedies with a convoluted, confusing plot about lost magical maps and duelling factions in the Middle East. A little bit racist now in its ogling of the culture and traditions of a “foreign land” (a scene where Hoffman starts screaming in pidgin Arabic does not age well), Ishtar loses what little grounding it had when it goes to Morocco. I will admit the recurring gags with a blind camel are pretty good, though.

Ishtar has the bones of a decent movie in it – recast Beatty with someone like an ‘80s Michael Keaton, trim the Morocco adventures and focus more on two loveable loser songwriters, and it might work, but then it’d probably be a different movie entirely. Elaine May’s comedy is at its best when it picks at the recognisable foibles and flaws in everyday life and exaggerates them. When you start having Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in a pitched gun battle with helicopters in the Moroccan desert, you lose that. Regrettably, May’s career took the brunt of the Ishtar fallout and the resulting backlash hurt women directors in general, which seems more than a little unfair as it sounds like Warren Beatty and others own a fair bit of the blame as well. 

Worth seeing? More of an interesting failure rather than a world-shattering bomb for the ages, it’s a compromised, uncertain comic romp lacking the focus of May’s other films. If you’re making a pilgrimage through history’s “biggest bombs” it’s worth seeing, but on its own merits the pleasures are sporadic at best. I’d definitely start with The Heartbreak Kid if you want to get a better feel for May’s witty charms. Ishtar may have bombed, but Elaine May’s career was more like that of a shooting star. 

Charlton Heston and the humbling of the alpha male

Charlton Heston, screaming on the beach. Charlton Heston, bleeding out in a fountain. Charlton Heston, being dragged off to the insane asylum.

“I feel lonely.” – Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes

There’s a special place in my heart for Heston’s dark apocalypse trilogy of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the three brutal dystopian futures of Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. I’ve watched each of these movies multiple times over the years, and Heston’s clench-jawed, manly man everyman struts through each one of them like a soon-to-be-deposed king. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Heston had a gung-ho heroic image polished in such films as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. But in the 1970s, he cleverly subverted his image with this run of bleak sci-fi classics, each of which positions Heston as a so-called “superior man” who’s repeatedly humbled.

In every one of these films, he loses, hardly the “heroic narrative” but perfectly in place for the pre-Star Wars bleak vision of much 1970s science fiction. In Apes, he’s discovered he’s been a fool all along, and that his most cynical ideas about humanity have come true. (In the underrated and utterly nihilist Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Heston only pops up briefly to bleed to death and bring on a nuclear apocalypse, making the first movie’s ending seem positively idyllic.)

In The Omega Man, Heston dies Christ-like, shot down and bloody while trying to save the world, while in Soylent Green, he’s hauled off by the police to an asylum or worse, spouting crazy conspiracy theories about humans being turned into food.

Matthias: “You are discarded. You are the refuse of the past.”
Neville: “You are full of crap.” – The Omega Man

It’s easy to see Heston as a dinosaur from another age 50 years on, especially with his image off the screen. Heston in later life was a pretty gung-ho Reagan conservative and infamously a cheerleader for the National Rifle Association. (However, for those who want to paint him entirely as some Trumpian troll in real life, it’s worth noting that he was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.)

But on the screen on the 1970s, Heston’s image was crucial to making the doom trilogy of films work. Our first sight of him in Planet of the Apes is him alone, on a spaceship, smoking a cigar (!!!) and ruminating about man and his place in the universe. In The Omega Man, he spends much of the movie alone in his doomsday bunker of a house, the “last man on earth.” In the crowded future of Soylent Green, he’s rarely alone, but his gradual uncovering of the title conspiracy leaves him utterly alone in a crowd by the end.

Yet what I like about Heston’s clench-jawed manly man image in the apocalypse trilogy is that it’s always on the verge of cracking. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood’s earlier films also served up manly men archetypes, yet Heston’s arrives imperfect from the get-go in these films. He’s the portrait of the American white male circa 1970, screaming “it’s a madhouse” as the world around him changes in ways he can’t fathom. The seeds for the popularity of the flawed, “un-Hollywood” leading men of the 1970s played by DeNiro, Pacino or Hoffman are found here.

Heston is so watchable for me in these films partly because he is humbled, again and again, in this apocalypse trilogy. In Apes, he’s reduced to a mute, naked beast, running through the bush in terror.

Life is a series of humiliations for us all, really, of attempts to climb to the top of the heap and constantly finding the flaws within.

Heston’s vivid presence keeps these films alive today, even with his sometimes retrograde sexism and unquestioned white privilege. The subtle ways the narratives in these films question his status stand out now. The opening half hour of so of Planet of the Apes, before those apes come along, is a showcase for his diamond-sharp, Darwinian worldview. One of the central images of Planet of the Apes is him realising he’s no longer the alpha male, again and again.

George Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? YOU led me around on a LEASH!
Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.
George Taylor: Now you know better.

Mere minutes after this exchange, Heston’s Taylor is left weeping on an empty beach, pounding sand and beholding the ruin of his world.

Movies I Have Never Seen #10: Nightmare Alley (1947)

What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’s Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair. 

Why I never saw it: Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs.  At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far. 

Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film. 

Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you. 

Vertigo: So, is Jimmy Stewart the bad guy here?

Vertigo is a masterpiece. Or is it problematic? Why not both?

I got to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller again this past weekend, on the big screen for the first time, and it never fails to amaze me with its bold colours and dazzling imagery. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most perverse works, on the surface another glossy, stylish tale of murder and mystery but underneath, it plunges deep into the depths of sex and longing. 

(Spoilers ahoy for a 63-year-old movie follow:)

Vertigo starts as a thriller, turns into a mystery, pivots into a love story, and then goes right back around to where it began again. It’s about the cruelty love can create, in the perils of obsession. Vertigo‘s reputation has risen over the years, and it was named the best movie of all time in the critics’ Sight and Sound poll a few years back. But some also say that Vertigo is overrated and rather, well, problematic in its take on women. 

“Problematic,” like “woke,” can sometimes turn into one of those words that doesn’t really mean any more than “I don’t like this thing.” Vertigo is problematic, but a problem means something you’re supposed to figure out, something you twist and examine in your head and come to your own conclusions about. 

Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie is a haunted man, a former police detective traumatised by his near-death on the job, laid out in the smashingly tense opening sequence, and the resulting fear of heights it’s given him. When old friend Gavin approaches him and asks him to spy on his peculiar-acting wife Madeleine, Scottie is hesitant, but takes the case. But Scottie finds that distant, mysterious Madeleine (a luminous Kim Novak, perhaps the ultimate Hitchcock ice queen) ends up captivating him far more than he’d ever dreamed. He falls for her, but then she apparently dies in a hideous suicide/accident. 

Scottie is shattered, sinking deep into his fixations, seeing Madeleine everywhere. When he stumbles across a woman named Judy who vaguely resembles her, he falls for her and takes control of her life, remaking her hair, wardrobe and style so she’s a dead ringer for Madeleine. Spoiler alert: She actually is Madeleine, in hiding after one of those typically twisty Hitchcock murder plots. She was hired by Gavin to pretend to be his wife and suck Scottie into being a witness, and is actually a cog in a conspiracy to have Gavin’s actual wife murdered (she was the one killed in the “suicide”). It’s convoluted and far-fetched, but basically the plot is an excuse for Hitchcock to delve deep into the tropes of obsession, and boy does Vertigo deliver. 

There’s been a lot written about Hitchcock’s relationships with his actresses, and his unpleasant habit of moulding them like clay into his blonde, icy vision of what a woman “should” be. Certainly a lot of what he apparently did was utterly wrong, but the obsessiveness of his art itself still created a potent cinematic world, never more layered in meaning than it was in Vertigo

Casting good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, well on the way to losing the aw-shucks charm of his earlier work with nuanced portrayals in movies like Rope and Rear Window, was Hitchcock’s masterstroke. He’s the embodiment of the male gaze here, at first passive and objective, but gradually invading Madeline/Joan’s “new life” and remaking her to fit the girl in his head. The scenes where “victim” Scottie turns the tables to prod Joan are still hard to watch today. It’s one of his best performances. If Hitchcock saw himself somehow as the hero in his films, then he’s revealing an awful lot about his own predilections and flaws here. 

In something like North by Northwest, there’s a clear hero in Hitchcock’s tale. But Scottie’s behaviour in Vertigo pushes back against the hero role. You’re set up to identify with him as genial Jimmy Stewart at the start, but over the course of the film, Stewart’s amiable grin develops into a creeper’s unnerving stare. He abuses his “new” Madeleine Judy with persistence, not with a slap but with mental cruelty, shaping her into the woman he thinks he lost. But like all relationships, it’s complicated, and Hitchcock here makes both parties culpable in their obsessive dance. 

While Scottie acts wrongly, let’s not forget that in Vertigo, Judy/Madeleine is a character who aided in an innocent woman’s murder, so she’s no angel here. But is she the villain? 

The real villain is probably the dodgy husband Gavin, who vanishes to Europe and doesn’t pay a price for his sin. He’s simply a plot element in Hitchcock’s little pantomime of obsession. Vertigo is a murder mystery where the murderer barely matters. 

Madeleine/Judy pays a price at the end of Vertigo, as the plot drives her back to same place she assisted in her double’s murder, and a spooky bit of vengeance (actually, a baffled nun with an amazingly poor sense of timing) leads to her own death. She pays a price for the sins orchestrated by the men in her life. 

But what about Scottie? The last shot of Vertigo is of him standing, aghast, at a great height, contemplating the ruin of his own life. Perhaps he’s conquered his vertigo and perhaps he hasn’t. Perhaps he falls. Perhaps he doesn’t. It’s no heroic epiphany.

Is he the villain here? Sometimes he is, sometimes he’s not. The pleasures of Vertigo after all these years is how dizzy it leaves you with ambiguities, and how the heart can make the head spin, over and over. Hitchcock was a flawed human being for sure, but in Vertigo, he turned those flaws into unforgettable images. 

Now showing: The beauty of boutique blu-rays and DVDs in a streaming world

I think I’m turning into a film snob. Maybe we all should, to bring back a little bit of the magic of the movies. 

It’s been a grim year or so for cinema as the great communal art form it was for so much of the past century. Theatres have closed, video stores are history, and streaming, while there’s a lot of great things about it, caters to the mob and the algorithms, and obscure or older movies are harder than ever to find (especially in NZ, where we don’t have all the streaming services sprouting up in the US).

But I dig going to the cinema and seeing treats old and new, and I do miss the video store era. Physical media is hurting and DVDs are vanishing from the shops even down here in the Antipodes, but for dedicated film nuts there’s still a booming niche market in what are often being called “boutique blu-ray” distributors. These companies are dedicated to lovingly repackaging and curating old movies with an appreciation for the art they are, whether they’re lofty dramas or goofy cult trash. It’s a world film nuts can get lost in – and spend too much money in – but I still love seeing ornate, beautifully assembled editions of my favourite movies arrive in the mail. Who knew that the 1960s Japanese kaiju flick Mothra could look like such a work of art?

Unlike a streaming selection, they’re there whenever I want them, and the plentiful special features, gorgeous box art and essay-filled booklets are all part of the handsome little bespoke packages. You do need a good solid multi-zone player – and boy, I wish someone would explain to me why companies still insist on antiquated region coding on these discs in the age of one global marketplace. Anyway, one of the big appeals of DVDs when they first arrived was special features, but their potential ended up in just one too many boring commentary tracks by disinterested movie stars. Happily, the special features on boutique labels tend to dig deeper, treat their films with real interest and curiosity, and don’t just come off as vapid marketing exercises. 

Criterion is the grandaddy of all cineaste labels, dating back to the 1980s and the laserdisc era and still the gold standard of assembling a modern pantheon of movies from Chaplin to Kurosawa to Michael Bay. The Criterion Collection numbered editions (now well over #1,000) appeal to the gotta-have-it-all collector’s mentality and their always-amazing cover art often makes you see a familiar movie in an entirely new light. I’ve picked up many old favourites like The Princess Bride, Blue Velvet and The Life Aquatic through Criterion, but also been introduced to countless cinema classics I just took a punt on from seeing the cover art and the beckoning prestige of that Criterion label. 

But Criterion aren’t alone these days in gorgeous exhumations of old movies, with a whole slew of similar film archivists popping up in recent years. There’s Arrow Video, who tend a bit more modern with things like a wonderful package of ‘80s teen sex comedy Weird Science that gives that film way more critical appreciation than I ever thought possible.

Shout! Factory and their subsidiary Scream Factory are kings of grand cult and horror movie packages like John Carpenter’s The Thing, while Kino Lorber do an amazing job digging deep into world film and silent film history with gems such as their box set of F.W. Murnau’s groundbreaking work.

The UK’s Indicator do some of the most beautiful packaging in the industry and deep dives into the hidden treasures of film. Also in the UK, Eureka Video have become a particular favourite of mine lately with their looks into vintage kung-fu with Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan or the forgotten non-Frankenstein work of Boris Karloff.

Even a relatively new cult exploitation-focused outfit like Vinegar Syndrome has proved to me that I never knew I needed an amazingly comprehensive box set of beloved cheesy barbarian ‘80s flick The Beastmaster, but now that I’ve got it, it shall never leave my side. 

I could go broke investing in all the fancy box sets and special editions these companies are spitting out, but I also appreciate them massively in a day when DVDs have been shoved aside to the bargain bin dumpster in most big box stores if they even exist at all, and consumers are happy to stare on their tiny phone screen at the latest Netflix series that everyone will have completely forgotten about a week from now.

Does that make me sound like a film snob? Well, I probably am a bit, but I’m happy to wear it. I love a good popcorn flick like anybody does, and yeah, I watch stuff on my phone too sometimes, but I also want film to continue to matter. The disappointingly inert and unloved Oscars this year (despite some very good films nominated) just felt like another nail in the coffin of the idea of movies feeling a little bit special.

I’m just enjoying the companies like Criterion, Arrow, Eureka and others who treat movies as something more than another disposable distraction in a world full of them, who treat movies as little miracles whether they’re beloved world classics or gory guilty pleasures, and who make them feel like events once again. 

Can you really watch too many kung-fu movies?

I’m not a violent man. I’ve been in like three actual fights in my life, and think I lost 2.5 of them. But I do love a good ass-kicking on the screen, the weird poetry of movie violence. 

In the pandemic era, there’s been no steady flow of blockbuster superhero epics and action flicks to look forward to. So I’ve been spending an unseemly amount of time diving into the past in search of an adrenaline fix, and eventually asking myself: Can one watch too many kung-fu movies?

I dig a good flying kick to the face, and have long loved the acrobatic chaos of Jackie Chan or the slick killer grace of legendary Bruce Lee. The scarcity of cinema visits and new movies to watch the last year or so has led me to dive even deeper into the wonderful, wacky bottomless world of martial arts cinema, a true “shared universe” of peak human suffering and mythological endurance, where men are battered, beaten and rearranged into new shapes without the benefit of CGI. There are literally thousands of movies churned out by Hong Kong and other studios in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and for every gem I’ve seen I discover another half-dozen I haven’t. 

There’s something visceral and exciting for me about seeing that Shaw Brothers studio logo opening up a film, a sign that the story ahead will provide epic action and mythic storytelling — maybe not so much character development or realistic human interaction but hey, that’s not why we’re here. Betrayal, vengeance, revenge and redemption – that covers the vast majority of themes, dressed up with an infinite number of brutal actions. 

I slid into the habit of watching more and more kung-fu flicks in recent months as a remedy to the chaos of the outside world – here, all problems can be solved by a good backwards kick-flip.

I drank in more classic kung-fu movies I’ve long meant to see, like The Prodigal Son, with Yuen Biao and the wonderful late Lam Ching-ying in one of the best zero-to-hero storytelling arcs; Sammo Hung’s hilarious bulky grace in The Magnificent Butcher and other films, the bloody King Boxer/Five Fingers of Death with its ripped eyeballs and music so memorably sampled by Quentin Tarantino; endearingly awkward Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer and One-Armed Swordsman; the immensely creepy Mr. Vampire with its gloriously weird hopping “jiangshi” Eastern-style vampires. 

More recently, there’s the amazing work of Donnie Yen in films like the awesome Ip Man series and insanely intense battles in Kung Fu Killer or SPL (Kill Zone). Yen combines Clint Eastwood’s stoic Man With No Name allure with a dazzling speed and grace that’s made him one of the most exciting action heroes to watch perform in ages. 

Not every martial arts movie is equal – the attempts at humour in many “kung fu comedies” is often very broad, dated and sexist and too frequently, rather rapey for my tastes. The cheaper and goofier the movies are, the more raw and silly the experience. The cheapest kung-fu flicks like this massively fun bargain-basement box set I got a while back are watched more as archaeological experience than anything. 

Still, as much as I love these movies, one can overdose. When I start imagining everything in subtitles and every interaction involving duel of honour kicks and punches, I’ve got to back off sometimes and watch something which features actual human beings having actual conversations. The heightened, performative world of martial arts movies is such a self-contained world that it’s a shock to the system to see people in another movie going out to dinner without tables being overturned and bodies flying over the buffet. The pleasures of a good kung-fu flick are endlessly simple joys for me, but it’s never good to dine too much on just one thing. You can’t live on potato chips alone.

When I find myself with idle images of Jackie Chan somersaulting over furniture or Donnie Yen working the wing-chun dummy dancing in my brain at bedtime, it’s a sign to back off a little bit. But I always know I’ll be back, primed for yet another tale of endlessly acrobatic human beings and the damage they can do. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #9: Zardoz (1974)

What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”

Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal. 

Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride. 

Review: Godzilla Vs. Kong, the monster mash we all needed

In a way, I’ve been waiting for this rematch most of my life. I grew up watching and rewatching 1962’s King Kong Vs. Godzilla on a battered Christmas gift VHS tape, my first exposure to classic kaiju movies. 

I won’t claim that ‘60s clash of the titans is an objectively good movie, but man I loved it back in the day, watching rubbery Godzilla and Kong stomp on model houses all over Japan. The Kong in that movie is awful looking, like a hairy Danny DeVito who was hit by a truck, but that didn’t really matter. It was all about the spectacle.

I’ve been a fan of Godzilla movies ever since, as I’ve written about before, and so decades after that VHS tape went to pieces, I went into an advance screening of the long-awaited Godzilla Vs. Kong this week with a kid’s eager anticipation. I was seeing it on the IMAX screen, really the only way to watch such a movie, and I left with my ears ringing and a mild headache after nearly two hours of chaos and carnage. It was loud, ridiculous and utterly fantastic. 

Look, you know going into a kaiju movie what to expect – lots of city-crushing action, some human melodrama, and a willing suspension of disbelief. By all those standards, Godzilla Vs. Kong succeeds admirably. They’ve been building up to this “Monsterverse” clash since 2014’s Godzilla reboot. Without spoilers, they create a good reason for the monsters to battle, throw in a few welcome surprises, and director Adam Wingard nicely straddles the line between kitsch and combat in a very fast-paced ride. Godzilla is the meaner, far more alien monster, and Kong is the more relatable human surrogate, but in the end they’re both just giant creatures smashing up everything in sight. 

Spoiler alert: The monsters do fight in two epic battle scenes, and it’s quite a sight. (The movie’s first clash, a battle at sea, is an all-time kaiju clash highlight.) Although I’ll always have a sentimental attachment to the 1962 flick, the action in this remake blows it out of the water. While these more recent Monsterverse movies can have an annoying tendency to have battles happen at night/in the rain, Godzilla Vs. Kong mostly stages them cleanly and coherently. The special effects work to bring Kong to life is particularly good, giving the big lug a real sense of personality. You could argue that maybe Godzilla isn’t in the movie enough, but actually, he usually racks up less screen time than you’d think if you look at charts like this uber-geeky fan study. The point is the impact he makes when he’s on screen. 

Godzilla Vs Kong actually reminds me a lot of the movies in Japan’s utterly bonkers Millennium series circa the year 2000, which married the zaniness of the original ‘60s Showa era movies with a slick, modern vibe and special effects, and a madcap “anything can happen” feeling. You can do a gritty realism version of Godzilla but you’ll never really better the dark Cold War paranoia of the original 1954 classic.

The key really is to not take these movies too seriously – a flaw that the sluggish Godzilla 2014 was particularly guilty of, while the underrated Godzilla: King of the Monsters managed to be a bit more interested in smashing over hushed awe. GvK takes on a Jules Verne-esque vibe that embraces the mysteries of lost worlds, a theme which we also saw in the great 2017 Kong: Skull Island (still the best of these “Monsterverse” movies, I think). 

The humans are mostly there to fill the gaps between battles, and medium-famous names like Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown and NZ’s own Julian Dennison get the job done. Those “family drama” issues that hobbled King of the Monsters are barely sketched in with each human just getting one or two character traits (scientist has a dead brother; woman adopts troubled orphan; guy loves conspiracy theories). The humans in GvK are almost shorthand approximations of human beings, but who goes to these movies for the humans? You have to just accept that in any realistic kaiju movie the human characters would be dead in the first five minutes and move on, rolling over the implausibilities and basking in the spectacle. 

And boy, there’s a lot of spectacles in Godzilla Vs. Kong. It’s the cinematic equivalent of three energy drinks and a bucket full of M&Ms, and it might leave you with a bit of a sensory overload hangover, but in 2021, there’s no blockbuster I’d rather see than a giant monkey punching a giant lizard right in the face.