Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Nope. Nuh-Uh. Done. : "Luna Park" (2013)

I finally found it. The film that broke me. Caught it on Amazon Prime, and once it was over, I have a new WORST FILM I HAVE EVER SEEN. This is laughable garbage that I don't have the energy to cover here, much less list a bunch of affiliate links to see for yourself. I think I'm retiring from film criticism right now, if not forever, because this film may have made me dumber, and I need to crack open some books and try to revitalize my brain cells again.

No, you know what? I'm not going to let this film beat me. I can be stronger than this film. Click on the links, watch it, and tell me this isn't the worst film ever made, from the acting, to the plot, to the final twist that had me laughing through my tears. Don't wait for another Gay Pride Month/Season/Year to kick off, watch it now. I dare you.

Monday, July 12, 2021

This Is the Zodiac Speaking: "Zodiac" (2007)

It's hard to make a suspenseful film about a true life series of infamous unsolved murders. Investigators comb through evidence, reporters cover the story, but in the end, we know how it's going to turn out- they don't catch the guy. Director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt take Robert Graysmith's book and turn it into one of the best films of the 2000's.

Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a political cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1960's. A few murders pop up here and there, nothing out of the ordinary, until the killer contacts the newspaper, sending a cipher and egging on the police. Jaded crime reporter Paul Avery (a great Robert Downey, Jr.) begins coverage, and inspectors David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo, in one of his few roles I can stomach) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are brought in to investigate. The self-named Zodiac killer begins making outlandish threats, and continues his attacks, as Graysmith becomes obsessed with the case that would eventually affect his family life and career.

I want to say that Fincher shoots this in a straightforward manner, but his direction is by no means simplistic. He avoids the camera acrobatics that rendered "Panic Room" silly at times, but every shot is rich in detail and meaning. Nonchalant scenes like Avery going to visit a source, or Graysmith in a basement with a stranger, are turned into cringeing suspense by Fincher, Vanderbilt, cinematographer Harris Savides, and editor Angus Wall. Every scene is rich, there is nothing wasted or any lull (and I have not viewed the extended version of this film yet). The cast is fantastic across the board, with more mention going to John Carroll Lynch as a prime suspect. The number of performers with speaking parts is massive, but I was never confused and the who's-who list of character actors go about their business, doing what they do best. I am not a fan of Mark Ruffalo, and I haven't warmed up to Gyllenhaal in anything yet, so this is among their strongest work that I have seen. The soundtrack is awesome, you'll never listen to Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" the same way again.

I ignore the internet chatter about the Zodiac killer, a popular trend is that "my dad was the killer" and hurried books with iffy evidence are written. I read Graysmith's compelling first book on the crimes, but I doubt we will ever know who Zodiac was. I hope I'm wrong, closure is needed for the families. Another popular trend these days is the limited series true crime documentary, but this film does not pretend to be that. This is Robert Graysmith's story (who is now a true crime writer), and it's excellent. How this received ZERO Oscar nominations in a year that saw "Juno" and "Transformers" get recognition is beyond me.

-Directed by David Fincher
-Screenplay by James Vanderbilt based on the book by Robert Graysmith
-Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Chloe Sevigny, Brian Cox, John Carroll Lynch, Elias Koteas, Philip Baker Hall, Dermot Mulroney, Donal Logue, Charles Fleischer, James Le Gros, Candy Clark, Adam Goldberg, Ione Skye, John Getz, Jimmi Simpson
-Media: Streamed on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 157 minutes
-Rating: (* * * * */* * * * *)
-MPAA Rated (R), contains physical violence, gun violence, gore, profanity, sexual references, adult situations, alcohol and tobacco use

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Are You Being Served?: "The Twilight Zone {Episode 1.34}: The After Hours" (1960)

Marsha White (Anne Francis) goes into a large department store seeking a gold thimble as a gift for her mother, and never leaves the building.

She is ushered into a waiting elevator, the operator (John Conwell) runs an express lift that drops her off on the ninth floor. The floor seems abandoned, with the exception of a strange saleswoman (the always great, and rather menacing, Elizabeth Allen) who has no other merchandise in the sales displays except for the item Marsha is looking for. Marsha goes back down in the elevator, spooked by the encounter with the saleswoman and the abandoned floor, and discovers the thimble is damaged. Seeking out the complaints department, she is told that the building she is shopping in doesn't have a ninth floor, and without a receipt they cannot do anything with the thimble...

Douglas Heyes directs Rod Serling's tight little script, with some fantastic makeup and cinematography. The cast is wonderful, capturing the retail world that hasn't changed that much in the ensuing six decades or so (I should know, I spent almost twenty years working at two Target stores). One drawback I had was Heyes' playing the episode as a tense and horrific tale that the twist explanation couldn't live up to. The finale and climax are fine, but the preceding minutes had me geared up for something more wrenching than what played out. All in all, a good episode that I give (* * * 1/2) out of five stars.

-Directed by Douglas Heyes
-Written by Rod Serling
-Cast: Anne Francis, Elizabeth Allen, James Milhollin, John Conwell, Patrick Whyte, Nancy Rennick
-Media: Viewed on MeTV
-Running Time: 25 minutes
-Rating: (* * * 1/2/* * * * *)
-Rated TV-PG, contains mild adult situations

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Double Oh My Gawd: "Casino Royale" (1967)

Over the years, I have watched this film twice. It's still a disaster of the highest caliber.

A retired James Bond (David Niven, creator Ian Fleming's original inspiration for 007) is called back into duty to battle SMERSH. The world has recruited a bunch of different people to pose as Bond, including Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers), who will eventually do a battle of playing cards and wits against Le Chiffre (Orson Welles, who would have made a fantastic villain in a real James Bond film).

Sorry, but although the screenwriters, credited and uncredited, were inspired by Fleming's first Bond novel, the plot is non-existent and difficult. I'm not sure why half a dozen or so directors were needed, and the film lets down one of the greatest casts ever assembled onscreen. This should have been so much more, the money is certainly there, but I was bored stupid. A second viewing after my first twenty years before took me three days to get through. The only laughs come from what must have been Woody Allen's desperate ad-libs to try and salvage his scenes. I was embarrassed for Niven and Kerr. Welles isn't in this long enough. Sellers looks miserable. The behind-the-scenes drama: the quittings, the firings, the walk-outs, and the waste of money is more compelling than the film. On a positive note, the art direction and set decoration is amazing and should have received Oscar notice. Burt Bacharach's score is repetitious and annoying, but his and Hal David's song "The Look of Love" is beautiful. The Bond franchise is ripe for spoofing, and has been done much better in the Austin Powers and Johnny English films.

This isn't really a James Bond film per se, but it is a curiosity for completists. It's also awful, one of the biggest bombs in movie history, a train wreck that you can't look away from. Consider me shaken, not stirred.

-Directed by John Huston, Ken Hughes, Val Guest, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish
-Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz & John Law & Michael Sayers suggested by the novel "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming
-Cast: David Niven, Ursula Andress, Peter Sellers, Deborah Kerr, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, Daliah Lavi, William Holden, John Huston, Charles Boyer, Kurt Kasznar, George Raft, Peter O'Toole, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Burt Kwouk, David Prowse
-Media: Streamed on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 131 minutes
-Rating: (*/* * * * *)
-Rated TV-14, contains physical violence, gun violence, mild gore, brief female nudity, sexual references, adult situations, tobacco and alcohol use

--Nominated for 1 Academy Award, with no win--
Best Original Song- "The Look of Love" (lost to "Talk to the Animals" from "Doctor Dolittle")

Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Party Was a Riot: "Happy Birthday, Marsha!" (2018)

Mya Taylor takes on the role of LGBT icon Marsha P. Johnson in this unfocused short film that wants to be more.

Johnson was a mysterious drag queen who may or may not have sparked the 1969 Stonewall riots that ushered in the gay liberation movement. I had to do a little research on her, since the film was not very forthcoming with the facts. Johnson is seen getting accosted by the NYPD, and eventually landing at Stonewall to celebrate her birthday when cops show up to close the place down. The fictionalized version of events are intercut with black and white footage of the real Johnson, laughing and talking in an interview that seems to have gone awry.

Taylor is fine has Marsha, and should be considered for her role if Johnson's life story is ever filmed. It certainly wouldn't be a boring film- apparently drag queens were looked down upon by much of the LGBT community before being accepted, and Johnson's death has never been resolved. Johnson had a history of mental problems as well, ending up on harsh drugs and being hospitalized on occasion. What performer wouldn't want to sink their teeth into this role? However, this short film plays like an extended trailer to try and raise more money for a feature-length biopic. Gossett and Wortzel have a nice small bite here, but again, I had to do some research to find out what exactly was happening.

"Happy Birthday, Marsha!" is middling with just as much to admire as there are detriments. Marsha P. Johnson's story needs to be told soon, and in this age of woke, Hollywood needs to put its money where its mouth is. (* * *) out of five stars from me.

-Written and Directed by Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel
-Cast: Mya Taylor, Eve Lindley, Grace Dunham, Silas Howard, Ken King, Rios O'Leary-Tagiuri, Kristen Parker Lovell, Cherno Biko
-Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 14 minutes
-Rating: (* * */* * * * *)
-Unrated, contains mild physical violence, some profanity, mild sexual references, adult situations, alcohol and tobacco use

Friday, June 11, 2021

Or Maybe the Killer Is to Blame for the Killings?: "Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer" (2020)

Yet another true crime mini-series arrives on a streaming platform, chronicling the story of a serial killer's romantic relationship with a woman who is still scarred by the experience. Oh yeah, and feminism stuff.

Single mother Elizabeth Kendall brought home a very nice man named Ted Bundy after meeting him in a bar one night. He got along great with her daughter, Molly, and would often bring his brother Rich on outings. Elizabeth and Ted become an item, Ted is welcomed into her family, but then he began to change. Young women were being attacked and disappearing around the area, but this dream man couldn't be responsible, could he?

While director Trish Wood directs the hell out of this thing, punctuating the generic talking heads interviews with family photos and shots of a car similar to Bundy's winding around the countryside, a mistake is made from the beginning by lumping partial blame for one of this country's most infamous killers at the feet of Republicans and the patriarchy. Interviews with heartbroken family members and women who somehow survived Bundy's murderous attempts are interspersed with footage and backhanded comments about Bundy's political leanings and the women's liberation movement, all of which have very little to do with the subject at hand. You have the long term girlfriend of Ted Bundy, but you focus on how female reporters and cops had to fight the good-ol'-boys system in order to cover his crimes? Elizabeth and Molly are the rightful focus of the miniseries, the film takes a similar approach to "John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise" by getting important interviews with people besides the usual investigators and lawyers, but oh here's another clip about how hard it was to cover the trial. Can we call a moratorium on reporter interviews in these things?

While I can appreciate what the women in the documentary suffered through, the tangents became distracting. How dare I, a white male, question the focus of this, you might be thinking. As a victim of childhood abuse, and a Broadcasting major in college, I can and do question it. I didn't see liberal progressive politics get blamed for Chicago local Democratic politician John Wayne Gacy's murders. Gacy had his picture taken with the First Lady of the United States, for goodness' sake, but hey remember Watergate? With no irony whatsoever, women defend their "right" to have an abortion yet speak of the loss of these women and what they could have been if this MAN hadn't come along and killed them. Wood doesn't delve too deeply into the more grisly aspects of Bundy's crimes, or his sex life with Kendall, either. Some reporters are seen fawning over the murderer during the trial, but one cop is criticized for the reading of an indictment in front of Bundy and media cameras- a power play that completely worked yet he's still catching grief for it. No fawning reporters were forthcoming with apologies after Bundy was found guilty and eventually executed, they just moved on to the next trial of the century and their personal bias on it. Don't ever think mainstream media is there to disseminate information for the good of the many. They want your eyeballs on their commercials in between show segments, or watching an ad before a story online.

I'm not making light of the impact Bundy had on hundreds, if not thousands, of lives. The fact that we may never know how many people he killed, and how many families will never know closure, is awful. But don't blame "society" or "men" for the actions of one. Casting aspersions like that, without knowing an individual's (like myself) story, only drives people away, not bring them into a community of similar experiences.

-Directed by Trish Wood
-Cast: Elizabeth Kendall, Molly Kendall, Rich Bundy, Steve Winn, Ted Bundy
-Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 231 minutes
-Rating: (* * 1/2/* * * * *)
-Rated TV-MA, contains gore, profanity, sexual references, strong adult situations

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Required Viewing: "John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise" (2021)

The crimes of John Wayne Gacy are finally given the documentary mini-series treatment, with both frustrating and heartwrenching results.

Gacy was a construction contractor in the Chicago area, active in local community causes. He was also a closeted homosexual who took his self-loathing to extremes by picking up "young men and boys" (a phrase you will hear ad nauseum throughout) and taking them back to his home where they would be raped and murdered. Because he was active in the 1970s, there was no internet and not a lot of cooperation between the myriad of police stations in the Chicago suburbs. A teenager disappearing was probably a runaway, so not a lot of attention was paid. Eventually, Gacy's last victim was a kid who would never have run away from home, detectives tailed and eventually arrested Gacy after a troubling confession to his lawyer, and the full extent of his crimes became known. Almost thirty bodies were found buried in the crawlspace underneath his suburban home, and when he ran out of room there, some were dumped in a local river.

Bookending all the talking heads and recounting of his crimes are clips from a jailhouse interview between Gacy and FBI profiler Robert Ressler. Gacy maintains his innocence, yet talks matter-of-factly about his various sexual leanings. He was a blowhard, a narcissist, and a liar. Even after Gacy's execution in 1994, the documentary explores a property in Chicago where Gacy may have buried more victims. He was charged with 33 murders, but hinted the number could be as high as 45, and then the viewer must witness the red tape and bureaucracy behind possible victim mis-identification and police again butting heads with families who want closure. Also frustrating is that as of this writing, six of Gacy's victims are unidentified. Because of Gacy's sexuality, could there be a stigma attached to his victims that would keep a family from coming forward? And if so, how awful is that?

I wrote John Wayne Gacy in the early 1990s while he was in prison, and got a questionnaire back, asking about my sexual preferences and outlook on his crimes. I was looking to write a screenplay about his crimes (a decent film had not been made at that point), but his form response creeped me out so much, I dropped the project and tossed the letter. He did sign it, and I guess it might be worth some money today, but I was very uncomfortable about the situation. I am a victim of childhood abuse, and my abuser once used John Wayne Gacy as a boogeyman when threatening me not to tell what happened. Growing up, I read all I could find about the case, since I was twelve and thirteen years old, and had no clue who this man was.

Bringing in Gacy's sister, and family members of some of his victims, is long overdue. All are not only sympathetic, but proof that those young men and boys were not the only ones harmed. Gacy ruined hundreds of lives. He has two children out there somewhere who have never come forward. One of his surviving victims, and another former employee, would both end up committing suicide. Even today, over forty years after the murders, Chicago is still reeling from the John Wayne Gacy case.

I could nitpick certain aspects of the documentary, we spend too much time with the crusading reporter who covered the story and not enough time watching the Gacy/Ressler interview, but this miniseries should be required viewing, especially for the ridiculous "serial killer culture" fans who are out there. I would have liked to see much more about his victims. I don't know if the pain of the past has stopped many families from coming forward and talking, but five hours could easily be done on the lives of these young men and boys, whether they were honor students or troubled youth who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. There shouldn't be a stigma attached to losing a family member to a sexual sadist, and I hope this documentary will prompt more people to come forward and tell their story. Their silence only bolsters Gacy's continued hold over their lives.

-No Director or Writer Credited
-Cast: Craig Bowley, Karen Kuzma, Eugenia Godzik, Patti Syzc-Rich, Anthony Antonucci, John Wayne Gacy
-Media: Streaming on Peacock (although I watched it on YouTube; I refuse to give NBC News, or any mainstream news outlet, any money if I can help it)
-Running Time: 308 minutes
-Rating: (* * * * */* * * * *)
-Rated TV-14, contains strong sexual references, strong adult situations


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Clawing for Dramamine: "Infected" (2021)

What starts out as a cross between "28 Days Later" and a Jason Bourne movie, quickly turns into a stomach-churning chore to sit through, thanks to some atrocious camerawork.

Dan (director Dan Rickard) washes up on a British beach with no memory of how he got there or where he came from. He is also ignorant of recent history, as a virus has decimated half the population, turning victims into bloodthirsty (running) zombies. Groups of people are immune, no one knows how the virus is spread, and Dan takes up with a houseful of angry young people who steal food during the day and hide indoors wiling the hours away. Group leader Sam (Chris Wandell) is onto Dan right away, as not only is the group hunted by the zombies, but suddenly military personnel are after Dan as well.

Also known as "Infected: The Darkest Day," and "Darkest Day," this movie could easily have fit into the "28 Days Later"/"28 Weeks Later" cinematic universe. The practical gore effects are very good, as is the makeup. The acting is hot and cold across the board, with Wandell coming off best as the hotheaded group leader. Unfortunately, most of this film is almost impossible to watch. The sound is terrible enough, but Rickard's constant shaking of his camera had me ill. Entire frames of film would blur out of focus. The editing makes "Transformers" look like "Barry Lyndon," as I had no clue what was happening in half of the action pieces. It's shot so badly, I wasn't sure who all lived in the safe house until some of them escaped to a camp, and a few were killed along the way. We are never given any clues as to Dan's real story and motives, so the big reveal about his identity is dead on arrival. I didn't care, I was trying to settle my stomach from screen time that looked like someone nailed a digital camera to a hardware store paint can shaker.

Do not adjust your televisions, this film was seriously shot and edited this way. I suggest taking a day's break halfway through, like I did, you'll end up thanking me.

-Directed by Dan Rickard
-Written by Dan Rickard and Will Martin
-Cast: Dan Rickard, Samantha Bolter, Christianne van Wijk, Chris Wandell, Richard Wilkinson, Christian Wise
-Media: Streamed on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 81 minutes
-Rating: (1/2*/* * * * *)
-Unrated, contains strong physical violence, strong gun violence, strong gore, profanity, adult situations, alcohol use

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Get Your Shoes On, We're at Grandma's House: "306 Hollywood" (2018)

My second documentary in a row where the film makers play with the genre conventions, and once again, this angle doesn't work.

Elan and Jonathan Bogarin's grandmother has just passed away at the age of 93, and their family is tasked with going through the house to get it ready to sell. The siblings, being incredibly weird, decide to get to know their beloved family member better by going through her possessions and cataloging them, analyzing why she or her late husband held onto innocuous items as band-aid dispensers, false teeth, and new toothbrushs.

Unfortunately, the Bogarins' efforts to put a positive, "fun" spin on the house clean-out backfires. They stage dance numbers, overanalyze their own emotions at the loss (which seems to mostly be detachment), and even humiliate the poor old woman. Grandma was a fashion designer, and they show video of her stripped to her underwear as they try to get her into one of her dresses. This isn't an episode of "Hoarders," but the Bogarins make the loss of Grandma about them, instead of celebrating the woman's life. Losing a loved one is something we can all associate with (as I write this, my father is currently in hospice and the family is in an uproar), but I felt the siblings weren't facing the cold hard truth of grief and loss, and instead they deal with it by keeping it at a distance, while quirking up the screen.

I wanted to like this film, and admire the Bogarins' bravery, but by the end, I was annoyed. Save the wacky, cold detachment for your thesis mumblecore screenplay. It's okay to love and miss your grandma.

-Directed by Elan Bogarin and Jonathan Bogarin
-Written by Elan Bogarin, Jonathan Bogarin, Nyneve Laura Minnear
-Cast: Elan Bogarin, Jonathan Bogarin
-Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 94 minutes
-Rating: (* */* * * * *)
-Unrated, contains profanity, some sexual references, some adult situations

Monday, June 7, 2021

Almost, But Not Quite, Maybe Someday: "Halston" (2019)

This odd film decides to play with the conventions of the documentary genre, before seemingly getting bored by its bold choice. The film is supposed to be about Halston, the design icon (and one of the few personalities I know of since the world of fashion bores me stupid) but between this and the equally blah "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston," why can't anyone get this right?

Roy Halston Frowick exploded on the fashion scene out of nowhere (in this case, Iowa) with Jackie Kennedy's pillbox hat. He was as flamboyant as his designs, which he made for the "common" folk; dresses that could be worn by everyday people who don't have an army of stylists and assistants to help them dress in the morning. His ambitions got the better of him, as he fell in with corporate America, and after a disastrous spell with JCPenney, this household name from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s faded from view and died of AIDS in California in 1990.

There is an odd framing device where actress Tavi Gevinson is a narrator playing some sort of researcher looking through old videotapes of Halston in his prime. Some of the interviewees are portrayed by actors, and the entire idea is weird. Tcheng didn't need it. In "The Arbor," actors were brought in to mouth the interviews of the friends and family of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, and that documentary was compelling and perfect. Here, it felt like the film makers had some footage from a biopic that they decided to incorporate into a documentary instead of dumping the project altogether. There's currently a miniseries out there somewhere, with Ewan McGregor miscast as the designer, that I might seek out someday. Halston was a force to be reckoned with, but between this film and "Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston" (a jokey documentary that works a little better with the man's life), it's strange that no one can quite capture this subject well. Some one needs to sit down with Liza Minnelli and record everything she can remember about her friends and life, because her interview and quips are a highlight here. She's tough and funny about her best friend, and she has lived through a hundred lifetimes of success and heartache.

Roy Halston Frowick seemed to be torn about his Midwest upbringing, which is also unfortunate. He glosses over his childhood in interviews, yet called his mother every week. He went back home once to reminisce, but without calling attention to himself or telling anyone. He had a suite of offices in the middle of New York City, literally looking down on the little person, but tried to get his designs into the hands of middle America through partnerships with corporations like JCPenney. He was an interesting character, with an interesting life, but can no one find anybody in Flyover Country who grew up with him and wants to share some stories? Has anyone tried? Come on out, we don't bite.

Finally, a couple of decades ago, I found a necktie in a thrift store in Minot, North Dakota and bought it for a dollar. It was faded pink, and a little ratty from age, and since I rarely wore neckties, I donated it back to the same thrift store years later when I was readying to move. The Halston name was on the necktie, and now I wish I had kept it. Halston deserved better, both in life and afterward.

-Written and Directed by Frederic Tcheng
-Cast: Liza Minnelli, Marisa Berenson, Joel Schumacher, Bob Colacello, Tavi Gevinson, Halston
-Media: Streaming on Amazon Prime
-Running Time: 105 minutes
-Rating: (* * */* * * * *)
-Unrated, contains some profanity, brief male nudity, some sexual references, some adult situations, alcohol and tobacco use, drug references