Zodiac (2007; rewatch) — Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle when the paper receives a letter from someone claiming responsibility for a couple of recent murders. The letter taunts the police, threatens to do it again, and includes a code he says will reveal his identity. While the police (including characters played by Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Elias Koteas, Donal Logue, and Dermot Mulroney) try to solve the cases on their end, Graysmith becomes even more obsessed with the case than the paper’s crime reporter (Robert Downey, Jr.). It’s a tense, well-crafted recreation of the real-life events based on Graysmith’s own book.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969; first-time watch) — An agonizingly tedious look at the lives of a number of Japanese cross-dressing “gay boys” with a whole lot of repetition, a whole lot of the song “O, Du Lieber Augustin” that would probably be better suited for a circus or an amusement park, and not much of interest except for a few seconds of shock at the end of the film.
Alligator (1980; rewatch) — David (Robert Forster) is a homicide detective who discovers that several human and animal deaths are the work of a giant alligator living in the sewers. Things get political when the alligator’s size is attributed to improper disposal of test subjects at an animal research facility, and its wealthy owner (Dean Jagger) pushes the mayor to have David fired and bring in a big game hunter (Henry Silva) to take care of the problem. It’s such a fun movie, thanks in part to a terrific John Sayles script and in part to Forster’s self-deprecating focus on his receding hairline.
Blood Beach (1980; rewatch) — When people start disappearing on the beach, Police Captain Pearson (John Saxon) and Sergeant Royko (Burt Young) enlist help from shore patrol officer and playboy Harry (David Huffman). It’s got some good moments, but the end is highly unsatisfying when we get neither a good look at the creature or a solid explanation for what’s really been going on.
Piranha (1978; rewatch) — While trying to track down a couple of missing teenagers, Maggie (Heather Menzies-Urich) and Paul (Bradford Dillman) learn that a supposedly shut-down military research facility isn’t so shut down after all, and Dr. Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) has been creating a highly aggressive and resilient species of piranha. Unfortunately, they only learn that after letting them escape, putting a downstream summer camp (run by Paul Bartel) and a brand new water park (run by Dick Miller) in grave danger. Another wonderful film with a John Sayles screenwriting credit.
Cruel Jaws (1995; first-time watch) — In one of the most blatant Jaws rip-offs ever made (including footage taken directly from films in the Jaws series and other Jaws knock-offs, and musical cues stolen from other movies, including Star Wars), a shark is terrorizing a coastal town that relies on tourism. The mayor, in cahoots with a real estate tycoon, demands that everything stay open, leading to the deaths of many people. It’s a horrible movie with no creativity, and yet it’s a pure joy to watch in its brazen thievery.
American Ninja (1985; rewatch) — A military base in the Philippines is having problems with ninjas stealing their equipment. Joe (Michael Dudikoff) is a new recruit who isn’t used to the “don’t put up any resistance” tactic they normally use, and he acts to save the Colonel’s daughter (Julie Aronson) using a mysterious set of skills that, thanks to his amnesia, he can’t remember learning. This sets off a chain of events that leads to a lot of fighting and exposes a lot of corruption. Also featuring Steve James, and John LaMotta, it’s a deeply flawed and highly enjoyable movie.
Ninja in the U.S.A. (aka Ninja U.S.A.; 1985; first-time watch) — An American businessman is in the drug trade. The cops know it, but he’s good at escaping legal trouble. He’s also got an army of ninjas to help him when things get rough. But when he goes too far and kidnaps a cop’s new bride, all bets are off. It’s a fairly similar plot to American Ninja, but with a lower budget, terrible dubbing, more slow spots, and more insanity.
All the President’s Men (1976; rewatch) — After a group of men are arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, a pair of rookie newspaper reporters (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) start digging deeper and stumble onto a massive espionage operation and cover-up that goes all the way to the top. It’s an incredible film, with a top-notch cast that also includes Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, and Meredith Baxter.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997; rewatch) — Late into the night after some July 4th celebrations, a group of recent high school graduates (Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Ryan Phillippe, and Freddie Prinze, Jr.) accidentally run over someone on a dark, isolated road. They dump the body in the water and vow never to speak of it again. But one year later, someone starts taking their revenge. It’s a painfully bad teen slasher that hasn’t gotten any better with age.
MASH (1970; rewatch) — During the Korean War, an irreverent group of Army surgeons (including Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall, and Fred Williamson) work near the front lines trying to do what they can for wounded soldiers. They do what they can to keep the mood light, even in the midst of death and destruction all around, and they succeed admirably, but not everyone feels that’s appropriate.
The Laughing Woman (1969; rewatch) — Dr. Sayer (Philippe Leroy) frequently hires women to be his sex slaves. But one weekend, the girl he was expecting canceled at the last minute, and he kidnaps one of his coworkers to participate instead. She’s soon caught in a web of Stockholm Syndrome as things get weirder and creepier. It’s got a lot of misogyny and shock value, but it’s often so ridiculous that all of the negatives just drift into the background.
Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998; first-time watch) — After Kirikou crawls out of his mother and into the world, he learns that his village is under siege by an evil sorceress. She’s taken nearly all of their men, stolen all their gold, and dried up their water supply. Tiny Kirikou decides that he needs to do something about it. It’s an incredible animated film based on an African folk tale that crams so much comedy, creativity, and charm into a very tight 74 minutes. It’s a crime that it’s such a little-known film.
Snake Deadly Act (1980; first-time watch) — The son of a kung fu expert unknowingly falls in with his father’s mortal enemy, learning various fighting styles (including snake and the highly unlikely lobster style) along the way. Even if the plot is somewhat cryptic, there’s a ton of fighting and some great comedy.
Fists of the White Lotus (aka The Clan of the White Lotus; 1980; first-time watch) — After the members of the White Lotus Clan destroy the Shaolin Temple and kill its master, two of the remaining Shaolin students, brothers in law, kill the head of the White Lotus Clan. So the White Lotus retaliates, killing one of the Shaolin students, leaving the other to seek further revenge while caring for his widowed pregnant sister. But his attempts at revenge keep failing because his technique can’t touch that of the White Lotus master. It’s an incredible film that pulls of the rare feat of having multiple endings without feeling like it goes on too long.
Return of the Five Deadly Venoms (aka The Crippled Avengers; 1978; first-time watch) — A kung fu master’s wife is killed by having her legs cut off in the same attack that left his son armless. The son is given iron arms, and they eventually team up with a man with iron legs, a blind man, a deaf-mute, and an idiot, all in an effort to seek revenge against the evil tiger-style fighters that were responsible for the initial attack. It’s a good enough film when you see it in a very sleep-deprived state, but it’s probably much better when you can give it the focus it deserves.
Bastard Swordsman (1983; first-time watch) — Every ten years, the head of the Wu Ti clan fights the head of the Wu Tang clan. And every ten years, the head of the Wu Ti clan defeats the head of the Wu Tang clan. The Wu Tang chief’s only hope is to master the mysterious and mystic silkworm style of kung fu, but he’s killed before he gets the chance. There’s a servant working at the Wu Tang temple that is the butt of everyone’s jokes because he doesn’t know who his father is, and it shouldn’t come as much surprise to anyone who knows the title of the movie who might save the day. It’s a fun movie with great wirework, but its logic doesn’t stand up well to any degree of scrutiny.
The Young Master (1980; rewatch) — Dragon (Jackie Chan) and Tiger (Pai Wei) were orphans who were taken in by a kung fu school. After Tiger defects to a rival school, he finds himself unwanted by either and becomes involved in a scheme to break a prisoner out of police custody. Dragon is mistakenly thought to be the one responsible, and he’s pursued by the police while also working to restore his friend’s honor. Everyone in this movie is either an unbearable asshole or an overly-emotional douchebag, and most people are both. It’s a thoroughly awful experience.
The Saber Tooth Dragon vs the Fiery Tiger (aka The Greatest Plot; 1977; first-time watch) — After the king dies, his will decrees which of his sons will be his successor, and it’s not the one that everyone expected it to be. Nor is it a good choice, because the new king is totally self-centered, unwilling to accept even the slightest criticism, and in every other way a complete asshole. At a celebration in honor of a war hero, the drunken hero offends the king, and the king makes his life miserable so that he finally commits suicide. His companions vow to get revenge. It’s kind of a dull movie. It’s certainly not the greatest plot, and it does nothing to warrant such an awesomely dumb title as The Saber Tooth Dragon vs the Fiery Tiger.
Streets of Fire (1984; rewatch) — Pop singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is kidnapped in the middle of a concert by The Bombers, a motorcycle gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe, shirtless in vinyl overalls), with Greer (Lee Ving) as second in command. Her former boyfriend, Tom Cody (Michael Paré), makes a deal with her manager and current boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) to go get her. Tom teams up with ex-army drifter McCoy (Amy Madigan) for the rescue job. Directed by Walter Hill and also featuring Bill Paxton, Elizabeth Daily, and Ed Begley, Jr., the film is a fun “Rock & Roll Fable” in a highly stylized world with a great soundtrack.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975; rewatch) — R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is sent to a mental hospital for evaluation after he tries to use an insanity plea to make his prison sentence easier. He ends up under the oppressive thumb of the power-hungry Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who has things the way she likes them and is willing to use underhanded measures to keep it that way. After bonding with the other patients (including Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, and Vincent Schiavelli), McMurphy tries to instigate changes that make things more fair and bring a sense of normalcy, but Ratched isn’t having it. Even if it’s more fictionalized and less cutting than Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital, but it’s still a tremendous film capable of evoking a powerful reaction.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985; rewatch) — After being exposed to a toxic gas left over from a failed Army experiment, two medical supply warehouse employees (James Karen and Thom Mathews) realize that they don’t feel so great, and also that things that had previously been dead are now alive. They call their boss (Clu Gulager), who tries to arrange a disposal of the reanimated tissue with the mortician (Don Calfa) next door, but this only exacerbates the problem and sets off a chain of events leading to mass destruction, starting with a group of punks (including Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, Miguel A. Nuñez Jr., Brian Peck, and Mark Venturini) who happen to be nearby. It’s one of the best zombie and funniest movies ever.
Jaws 4: The Revenge (1987; rewatch) — After her son Sean (Mitchell Anderson) is killed by a shark, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) is convinced that it’s out to get her and what’s left of the family. Her son Michael (Lance Guest) convinces her to come with him and his wife Carla (Karen Young) to the Bahamas while he researches conchs with his partner Jake (Mario Van Peebles). While Ellen falls for local pilot Hoagie (Michael Caine), the shark begins its assault. This is a terrible movie, but Master Pancake Theater’s mocking made for a very fun screening.
Beat Street (1984; rewatch) — A group of friends try to find ways to express their art. There’s a DJ who’s interested in mixing new music, a graffiti artist who specializes in subway trains, and several breakdancers. They’re determined not to let life and reality (including parents and other family obligations, the police, and competition) get in their way. It’s basically an extended music video that is overly long and light on plot, but it’s packed with music and does a reasonably good job of holding your interest.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016; first-time watch) — A documentary about the frequent failings of city planners to modernize cities without destroying neighborhoods, creating slums, increasing crime, and in general not achieving their desired goals. Although the ultimate focus is on the New York City face-off between activist Jane Jacobs and famed city planner Robert Moses, that focus is a surprisingly small amount of the film. It’s a fairly dull documentary that should have been much more interesting than it is.
The Little Hours (2017; first-time watch) — After a servant (Dave Franco) gets caught cheating on the wife (Lauren Weedman) of his master (Nick Offerman), the servant is taken in by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), head of a convent featuring some very irreverent nuns played by Molly Shannon, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci. It starts a little slow and dry, but ultimately becomes pretty funny. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/16/the-little-hours/.
A Ghost Story (2017; first-time watch) — Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are married, but not so happily. Their biggest struggle seems to be about their house, where Casey wants to stay but Rooney wants to move. Rooney ultimately wins that battle when Casey is killed in a car accident that leaves him as a white-sheet-covered ghost who stays in the house and follows it and its inhabitants as time marches on. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/16/a-ghost-story/.
A Brighter Summer Day (1991; first-time watch) — When the Communists took over mainland China, a number of families fled to Taiwan to escape their rule. Si’r’s family was among them. It’s a better life, but Si’r can’t seem to stay out of trouble, both at school (where he’s been relegated to night school for poor performance) and in the streets. He’s got his own feud with the head of one of the gangs, and he likes a girl who’s dating someone who’s pretty dangerous in his own right. It’s a slow film that takes four hours to play out, but it doesn’t drag or feel too long.
Mean Streets (1973; rewatch) — Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is a low-level criminal who’s always broke and borrowing money from everyone and never paying it back. He’s also got the kind of awful personality that makes you wonder why he hasn’t been killed a thousand times over. Most of that thanks goes to his friend Charlie (Harvey Keitel), who does his best to smooth things over with everyone Johnny has offended. The people in it are often so unpleasant that you really have to wonder why the film is as beloved as it is.
The Driver (1978; rewatch) — A professional getaway driver (Ryan O’Neal) and a dirty detective (Bruce Dern) battle it out in the streets of Los Angeles. The detective knows who the driver is, but can’t ever seem to get any evidence against him, so he resorts to setting him up. A Walter Hill film featuring Isabelle Adjani and Ronee Blakley, it’s got some good car chases, but it’s at its best in the slow-crawl pursuit at its climax.
The Hidden (1987; rewatch) — Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) is a homicide detective who’s trying to catch a spree killer who was a model citizen until two weeks ago. FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives to help just as the killer is captured, only to find that another formerly-innocent killer has popped up to take his place. It’s an alien who keeps traveling from body to body and Gallagher is the only one with the means and knowledge to stop it. Also featuring Clu Gulager, Claudia Christian, Lin Shaye, and Danny Trejo, it’s a very fun movie that keeps you on your toes.
The Conversation (1974; rewatch) — Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a private investigator who specializes in audio surveillance. He’s hired for a very difficult job: to record a conversation between a couple of people moving around in a busy, noisy area. He manages to pull it off and then becomes obsessed with the subjects and their conversation. It’s an incredible, tense film with top-notch acting.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986; rewatch) — A crime syndicate is taking over karate dojos across the country to use as a front for their operations. Tom Stillwell (Timothy Baker) runs a dojo in LA, but he’s forced to shut it down and flee the city after he takes a beating from the syndicate’s top martial artist (Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing a Russian). Tom gives up karate, but his son Jason (Kurt McKinney) doesn’t want to and gets the ghost of Bruce Lee to train him to defend himself against the evil Seattle karate thugs that won’t leave him alone. It’s a blatant rip-off of The Karate Kid, but with about as much quality as The Miami Connection. It’s pretty amazing.
Dunkirk (2017; first-time watch) — In 1940, the Nazis had pushed their way through France, leaving hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers trapped in Dunkirk, just across the channel from the UK. Wanting to evacuate the soldiers but not weaken their ability to defend their homeland, the British pressed their civilian citizens to use their own boats to form rescue parties. It’s surprisingly short for a Christopher Nolan film, but also surprisingly dull with relatively few shining moments. It also really suffers from its use of nonlinear storytelling. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/21/dunkirk/.
The Spirit of the Beehive (1973; first-time watch) — After watching Frankenstein and being frightened by the film, a young girl believes the monster is real and living in a nearby abandoned building. She loses touch with reality and runs away from home. It’s a wonderful, haunting film.
Night of the Living Dead (1968; rewatch) — When the recently-deceased start coming back to life, a shell-shocked woman takes refuge in an empty house. She is soon joined by a much calmer and more assertive man who tries to get things done, and then they discover that two other couples are already in the cellar. As the cannibalistic creatures try to get at them from the outside, there’s plenty of fighting on the inside while they try to decide what to do. It’s a historic film that launched an entire class of horror films, sadly screened in honor of writer/director George Romero’s passing.
Grease (1978; rewatch) — After spending the summer together, Danny (John Travolta) and Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) don’t expect to see each other again, until Sandy shows up at Danny’s school. Danny is popular and has a reputation, so he’s not the nicest guy to Sandy at first. It’s a musical with several popular songs, and there’s a strong supporting cast (including Stockard Channing, Dinah Manoff, Joan Blondelle, Frankie Avalon, Sid Caesar, Lorenzo Lamas, and a criminally underused Eddie Deezen), but it’s just not a great movie. Fortunately, Master Pancake was on hand to mock it, and they did a very good job with it.
The Wilgus Stories (2000; first-time watch) — A series of three stories centered around a boy named Wilgus at different ages that could have just as aptly been called Riding in Cars with Assholes. In the first story, “Fat Monroe”, he hitches a ride with Ned Beatty, who is an asshole. In the second story, “Night Ride”, he’s riding around with his drinking and gun-happy uncle, who is an asshole. In the third story, “Maxine”, he gives an older woman and childhood crush a drinking-and-smoking-filled ride home after she has just had an unproductive visit with her pregnant daughter. It’s short, and there are good things about it, but having likable characters isn’t one of those things.
Jungle Trap (2016; rewatch) — A group of people travel to the jungle to the site of an abandoned hotel in search of an idol, only to find the hotel haunted and their lives in danger. It’s a fun movie, but the story behind it (shot in the late 1980s but only now getting a released after sitting in a barn for a quarter of a century) is even better.
Killing Ground (2016; first-time watch) — A couple takes a New Year’s camping trip to a remote area with a waterfall, only to find other people already there. Or at least, it seems that there should be. There’s a car and a tent, but no people. But thanks to an interesting way of telling the story, we know more about what’s going on than the characters do. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/24/killing-ground/.
The Beguiled (1971; first-time watch) — A wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood) is found by a student at a southern school for girls, and they take him in to allow him to recuperate. All the girls fall in love with him, and it leads to jealousy, which leads to a bigger problem. It’s not quite as good as the new Sofia Coppola version, but it’s still a good watch, especially when you get to see it projected from a perfect 35mm print.
The Zodiac Killer (1971; rewatch) — An unknown killer is on the loose in San Francisco. Maybe it’s a truck-driving, womanizing deadbeat dad. Maybe it’s a mailman who prefers rabbits to women. Maybe it’s a man who’s proud of his burglary prowess. This movie was actually a ploy to try to capture the real Zodiac Killer, devised by the owner of a chain of pizza restaurants. It’s not well made, but it’s surprisingly fun and often unpredictable.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975; rewatch) — A pair of men (Al Pacino and John Cazale) enter a bank just before closing time with the intention of robbing it, but everything starts going wrong. One of their cohorts flakes out on them. The bank doesn’t have that much money on hand because they just missed a pickup. And the cops show up before they can make their getaway. Neither wants to go back to jail, so they’ve got to try to find a way out of this, with just them and their hostages against an army of law enforcement. Masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet and also featuring Charles Durning, Carol Kane, and Chris Sarandon, it’s a terrific film and surprisingly progressive for its time.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965; first-time watch) — Norah (Juliet Prowse) is a pretty young woman who works at a dance club. She’s started getting threatening and harassing phone calls. She doesn’t know the identity of the caller, but we do. It’s Lawrence (Sal Mineo), who also works at the dance club and has taken to watching her through her apartment window and following her around. And to make matters worse, Norah keeps encountering unwanted creepiness from the people she goes to for help, including a cop (Jan Murray) who specializes in sex crimes and her boss (Elaine Stritch). It’s a very dark movie with a lot of artful sleaze that goes in unexpected directions.
The Witch’s Mirror (1962; first-time watch) — A husband murders his wife and marries a new woman. The ghost of the murdered wife comes back to seek her revenge on the husband and the new wife. The first half is well done, but kind of slow, but it really gets going in the second half with a kind of Mad Love or Eyes Without a Face vibe.
The Curse of the Doll People (1961; first-time watch) — After four men steal an idol from a voodoo-practicing tribe, a witch doctor places a curse on them. Then he sends his killer dolls, often delivered by his zombie, to kill each of them in turn. It’s an interesting premise and a good ending, but the bulk of the film is too slow and repetitive.
The Untamed (2016; first-time watch) — An alien octopus comes to Earth to have sex with humans, including Verónica, who introduces it to Fabián, his sister Alejandra, and her husband, Ángel. The encounters are intensely pleasurable for the women, although they can be overwhelming. They don’t work out as well for the men. It’s heavily inspired by Zulawski’s Possession and a number of Cronenberg films, but it’s not on par with any of them. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/29/the-untamed/.
Boy and the World (2013; first-time watch) — After his father leaves, a young boy goes out looking for him and encounters many strange things and frightening things. It’s very simply animated with pencil-drawn stick figures, almost like that done by Don Hertzfeldt, but with a bit more color. It’s clearly got a message, but it’s not always clear what exactly that message is.
Der Fan (aka The Fan aka Trance; 1982; first-time watch) — Simone (Désirée Nosbusch) is obsessed with German pop singer R (Bodo Steiger). She’s written him several letters and has all but ruined her academic life by frequently skipping school to wait for the mailman in hopes of a reply, and by a complete lack of concentration when she does make it to class. When it becomes clear that her parents won’t continue to put up with her behavior, she runs away and actually gets the chance to meet him. But things don’t go in quite the way she had envisioned. It’s a good movie that is fairly predictable until the end, where it goes off the rails in a pretty enjoyable way.
The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981; rewatch) — Pat Kramer (Lily Tomlin) is a housewife and a mother. Her husband Vance (Charles Grodin) is an advertising executive who works on accounts for a number of household chemicals. When Pat is exposed to a particular combination of those chemicals, she begins to shrink. Doctors (including one played by Henry Gibson) can’t figure it out. The whole thing turns into a tragedy, a media circus, and a plot for world domination (including Ned Beatty and John Glover). It’s a really fun, mostly family-friendly film, with Tomlin breaking out a few of her beloved characters.
The Running Man (1987; rewatch) — After being framed for mass murder, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) ultimately finds himself on a game show (hosted by Richard Dawson) in which criminals must face a series of trained killers for a chance at a pardon. Richards, along with cohorts played by Yaphet Kotto and Maria Conchita Alonso, must survive encounters with Jim Brown, Toru Tanaka, and Jesse Ventura in this unoriginal and poorly acted but highly entertaining film full of terrible puns.
Atomic Blonde (2017; first-time watch) — Just as the Berlin Wall is about to fall, a list of British spies is on the loose and threatens the safety of many people. Lorraine (Charlize Theron) is sent in to meet up with David (James McAvoy) to track down that list before it falls into the wrong hands. It’s a totally unoriginal plot that plays out in a thoroughly uncreative way, but there are some good fights, and there is some good music. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/07/31/atomic-blonde/.