Screen Junkies » Cult Films Movie Reviews & TV Show Reviews Sun, 30 Nov 2014 14:24:21 +0000 en hourly 1 The Film Cult Presents: Hard Candy Fri, 19 Sep 2014 17:27:29 +0000 Philip Harris The revenge Page’s character takes out on Wilson is calculated, diabolical. It’s hard to argue that Wilson's character doesn’t deserve it, so I won't. That said, there is a sense of the predatory to Hayley. She’s been working at this.

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Okay, kids. This week, we’re going dark. After reviewing Contact last week, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work the week before as a tribute to the recently passed comedy icon, I thought it was a good time to take a bite out of a weird, uncomfortable movie that also happens to be awesome.

Before she was Juno, Ellen Page was Hayley, a smart teen who at first glimpse seems innocent and vulnerable. We meet her through a flirtatious online chat she carries out with Jeff, played by the eternally beautiful Patrick Wilson, the all-round good guy photographer with the beautiful LA house and the smile to match. What follows, after they decide to meet in person, is a cat and mouse game that under the helm of any other, less-talented actors would veer into schlocky kitsch. But with Wilson and Page leading the charge, what we get is a psychological thriller about the atrocities of sexual child abuse.

I cannot understate how awesome Ellen Page is in this movie. I’m pretty sure she was born an acting genius. Her acting is acute, visceral. Still only a teen, her timing is perfect, and the breadth of her chops is masterful. From one moment to the next she’s vulnerable then vindictive, logical then irrational.

Her acting is most assuredly matched by Patrick Wilson’s, who’s been making amazing, understated movies for years. He plays the good guy with a secret so well that when you find out he ‘s a child molester you’re so disappointed you can’t help but start to root for Ellen Page’s character Hayley. He’s got that glint in his eye, that charismatic laugh. He’s got it all, just as so many predators do, the perfect blend of nice guy sexy to lure his victims.

The revenge Page’s character takes out on Wilson is calculated, diabolical. It’s hard to argue that Wilson’s character doesn’t deserve it, so I won’t. That said, there is a sense of the predatory to Hayley. She’s been working at this. She didn’t just find this pedophile in the street. She’s been hunting him, just as he’s been hunting his own victims. She’s been working overtime to concoct a trap for her prey. And what a trap it is. I’ve never seen a faux castration play so well on screen. She then, not unlike Hanibal Lector, goes straight for the mind. She knows how to get under Jeff’s skin, whispering what will happen if he doesn’t turn himself in, and ultimately, if he doesn’t kill himself, which is her ultimate goal.

I love movies in which there is no happy ending. For instance, my favorite movie of all time is Rosemary’s Baby. I love when no on wins. I get so sick of everyone living happily ever after. That’s not life. No, in a movie where the two main characters are both a little nuts, and one of them is an actual pedophile, motherfuckers are gonna die.

Using his ex-girlfriend against him, Hayley leads Jeff to the roof of his LA home where she slips a noose around his neck. This scene, in which she convinces him to commit suicide, is reminiscent of the famous scene in Hitchcock’s Rebecca in which Mrs. Danvers tries to convince the new Mrs. de Winter to jump from the window of Manderlay. Thankfully, Mrs. De Winter doesn’t jump. Jeff—the beautiful photographer with the seemingly perfect life—does jump.

One of the great things about this film is what makes other films like Rosemary’s Baby so amazing. Not one moment of child abuse is depicted on screen. The abuse is only ever vaguely spoken of. I don’t like torture porn movies where young people are hurt. I can’t handle that shit. Not only do I think it’s unseemly, but I also think it’s more effective to leave it all to the imagination. That’s where the real danger lies, in our mind.

Hard Candy is a great, low-budget psychological thriller that everyone should see. You’ll never watch Juno in the same way again.

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The Film Cult Presents: Contact Fri, 12 Sep 2014 15:34:22 +0000 Philip Harris Based on the Carl Sagan SciFi classic of the same name, and directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame, Contact is the tale of Ellie Arroway, a scientist who has devoted her life to finding evidence of alien life.

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Remember when Jodie Foster was relevant? When her acting was pure and everyone related to her onscreen struggles? She used to show such range, such acting genius. And yes, I’m talking about Freaky Friday. Jokes aside, there was a time when Jodie Foster wasn’t the unofficially lesbian, ironic friend of Mel Gibson, when her craft was the gold standard. And yes, of course, as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, she was truly magnificent. In all honesty, however, I think she was better in this week’s Film Cult pick: Contact.

Based on the Carl Sagan SciFi classic of the same name, and directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame, Contact is the tale of Ellie Arroway, a scientist who has devoted her life to finding evidence of alien life. Not unlike Clarice Starling, Ellie is a bit of an outsider, the genius girl ready for her chance to shine. Well, Ellie gets it, damn the consequence. Not only does she find strong evidence of alien life, but said evidence is actually a blue print for a time space transporter she gets the privilege of using. When her pod falls through the building-sized, spinning three rings—man, only 2001: A Space Odyssey compares to the depiction of deep space on film.

Also thrown into the film, for spiritual conflict and terrible sexual chemistry, is the character Palmer Josh, played by none other than Mr. “all right, all right, alright” himself, Matthew McConaughey. This was when McConaughey was his most beautiful. His character is so conservative, so laced up. It’s hard not to imagine him naked. That said, Jodie’s real life sexuality seeps through the surface of her character, because their sexual tension is about as strong as mine is with my landlady’s dog. In fact, I’m more intimate with my—I’ll stop there.

This film has been the punch line of many jokes, never really getting the respect it deserves. It definitely hasn’t been canonized, and yet when talking to my nerd friends, each of them has something kind to say about this movie, how they loved it, and how they wish it was better known. I couldn’t agree more.

Ellie is facing an uphill battle. Anyone who spends their time waiting for Aliens to make a house call has to be a strong person. These people searching and searching are just another brand of outsider. Facing almost as much ridicule as Bigfoot hunters, Alien hunters rarely get any respect. They are persevered as silly, crazy folk. Yes, there’s the possibility that the green people are out there (I WANT TO BELIEVE) but no one, especially an over-educated, PhD should spend their lives waiting, listening to static out in the New Mexico desert. That said, Ellie, we get it. To chase something that may not be there, to yearn for the fantastic, is a calling. It’s a an answer to a question that only other people ask. To the person, to the devoted, there is no other option. There was never a question.

Yes, Contact, can read a little cheesy at times, but I’m alright with that. In the climax montage of Ellie’s journey through space, she sees a radio-transmission site on Vega, almost loses her compass, and falls (nauseatingly, I might add) through a few wormholes. And when she finally sees the “celestial event” about which she says they should have sent a poet, the camera zeroes in on her left eye, which to me is the most important statement of the movie.

I love how this movie takes the SciFi model and uses it as an entryway into the mind, into the self. Yes, Ellie must travel across the universe (literally) to see inside herself, to face her dead father, to come to terms with what happened to her. It’s a beautiful statement on the idea that once things become so big, they become exceptionally tiny, and vice versa. The universe contains our mind, and our mind, the universe. Through the wormhole, it’s all the same.

Trippy, pseudo-philosophies aside, Contact is a fun movie for SciFi nerds, movie buffs, or just fans of interesting storylines. Check it out if you haven’t seen it in awhile, and if you have never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. Also, check out a pretty fierce Angela Bassett as Rachel Constantine, the White House Chief of Staff.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Heat Fri, 29 Aug 2014 17:38:57 +0000 Philip Harris Warning: Spoilers Ahead! I’ll admit it: I’m not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan. I find her precious nature to be cloying and often tedious. I can’t sit through any of...

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

I’ll admit it: I’m not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan. I find her precious nature to be cloying and often tedious. I can’t sit through any of the Miss Congeniality movies and not for a moment did I consider spending money on Gravity. I’ve nothing against her; I just don’t particularly like her movies. Except one, The Heat. And really, I only truly like this movie because Sandy is aggravated by the genius of Melissa McCarthy.

The Heat is your average formulaic buddy-cop comedy. Two strangers are forced into an unlikely partnership in order to take down a local drug lord; family gets involved; there’s a minor twist; yada yada yada. I didn’t even want to see this movie, and I definitely wasn’t going to see it in theaters. I only saw it because I had nothing to do on a Friday night (like every Friday night) and my parents had gotten it from Netflix. With no better prospects, I plopped down with them and was amazed at what I saw.

The brilliance of The Heat isn’t so much about the acting, which is great by the way, but more so about the writing. Gags in buddy-cop movies always feel like throw-aways, those stupid jokes that pock the surface of everything from Lethal Weapon to Dragnet. I was expecting these sorts of gags. Nope, these were actually funny.

Kate Dippold wrote The Heat, and I’ve decided I want to be her friend. Having written episodes for Parks and Rec, I guess it makes sense that The Heat would be a laugh a minute. And it is. Not that I timed it.

Character development in these sorts of comedies isn’t always easy, but from the jump we understand that Ashburn (played by Bullock) is an arrogant, blow-hard FBI agent. In the films first scene, she uncovers drugs and weapons when an entire team of operatives is unable to. She’s smug and no one likes her, even commenting behind her back “No wonder she’s single.” All these jokes play well. They set up who she is; they set up the possibility of future conflict. Why this scene (and the rest of the movie) is funny is due in part to the extra quips written in. After Ashburn has revealed more drugs and weapons are being stashed that meets the eye, another FBI agent looks at the sniff dug and yells, “Dick!” I’m sorry, shaming a dog for not finding illegal weapons is hilarious simply because you can’t believe that what you’re seeing is actually happening. But it is, and it just gets funnier.

Mullins, played by Melissa McCarthy, the most talented of the McCarthy family I should add, delivers some of the funniest lines with the driest delivery I’ve ever seen. When a nurse tells her she can’t use her mobile phone in a hospital she pulls a gun and says, “Oh yeah? How ‘bout now? Can I use it now?” When asked what time she’ll be returning to the station she says, “Go fuck yourself o’clock, okay?” But in true Kate Dippold fashion, the added quip, “…if there’s no traffic” just makes it all the more amazing.  When busting down a door in a drug dealers apartment only to discover an old woman on the toilet, she asks, “Who closes the door to take a shit?!” So good!

The Heat has been on the premium channels for a while, so I’ve seen it a lot recently, and whenever it’s on I cannot turn it off. It did well in the box office, but I don’t really remember that much about it when it was released. I know it more as being played on Netflix and on television almost always. Like I said before, the plot is exactly what you’d expect from the genre. That said, its popularity is beginning to grow. Tumblr is filled with gifs and screen grabs. My family and I quote lines all the time to each other: “I hope it burns your fucking dick off.” “I’m sorry I don’t have poached eggs in rubies for you to eat.” “Are you a narc?” Check out The Heat. It’s a hilarious movie you won’t regret having seen. Keep an eye out for the extraordinary secondary cast including: Jane Curtin, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Tony Hale, Kaitlin Olson, and even Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block, who all make memorable, hilarious appearances.


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The Film Cult Presents: American Gigolo Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:56:10 +0000 Philip Harris The Film Cult Presents: American Gigolo, the 1980 film about sex and fashion that became a cult classic for its eighties aesthetic.

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After a few weeks of overly personal, emotional Film Cult columns, I thought I’d write on just a plain old campy mess of a movie called American Gigolo. Many of the movies I write about aren’t particularly well made but have some sort of lasting resonance with a small, but devoted fan base. Well, American Gigolo is a poorly made movie that I’m not sure has any devoted fan base beyond those of us who love eighties fashion and over-the-top kitsch.

Not unlike other classic cult films, say Showgirls for instance, the film makers made American Gigolo in complete earnest. Paul Schrader wrote and directed the film and really thought it was going to be a provocative gem. You may know Schrader from his work as writer (and co-writer) of such greats as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. American Gigolo is not among his most well made films, but it’s certainly my ironic favorite.

Let me set the scene for you. It’s early 1980 in the City of Angels. Pastels rule landscape, and money flows down Rodeo Drive like cheap rosé. Women aren’t as powerful as they will be in the following decades and therefore are forced to stay home while their power-broker husbands work in wood-paneled offices in Century City. What’s a lonely and rich woman-of-a-certain age supposed to do with her days? Macrame? That was for their mothers. Soap Operas, sure, but all those commercials for wheel chairs and panty liners. Nope, in the land of palm trees and wide streets, a wealthy older woman with nothing but time on her hands wants one thing: to fuck a hot younger guy for money. The king of those male hustlers? Julian Kaye, portrayed by the baby-faced (but man-bodied) Richard Gere.

Julian is a man of distinguished taste and many languages. He owns a black Mercedes convertible, snorts only the best cocaine, and is exclusively bedecked by Giorgio Armani. He runs a fast life, zooming up PCH or out to Palm Springs for whatever adventures his clients have planned for him. But, is his life too fast? He encounters “rough tricks”,  run-ins with drug dealers. Is he dancing to close to the edge?

The short answer is yes, he is. There’s danger everywhere he turns, from drugs to his gay pimp, with whom he’s always slightly flirting but also slightly afraid of. Of course, back in 1980, the gay community was something to be afraid of–men in leather, making out in dark clubs with chains and loud music. But the true danger Julian encounters is not the gay men whom he’s always seemingly just about to join. The real danger is Michelle Stratton, played by the eternal Lauren Hutton, with whom he’s in danger of falling in love. There’s not much to say about the plot as there isn’t really a plot. There’s a murder, some running, and some rock-bottom moments, and then of course, Michelle vouches for Julian and they finally allow themselves to be together. One doesn’t watch American Gigolo for the plot. That is, of course, if one’s getting drunk with their friends and wants a good laugh for the night. No, one watches American Gigolo for the aesthetic.

Not unlike Grey Gardens, American Gigolo is one of those cult classics that really only has a life because it so perfectly captures a specific moment in fashion. In Grey Gardens it’s the quirky, DYI fashions of Little Edie, while in American Gigolo, it’s the ultra-glam Beverly Hills set of 1980s Los Angeles. Mr. Schrader really doused American Gigolo with syrup in this respect. I know many a designer who has been influenced by this film, many men and women who cite American Gigolo as their style muse for evening looks and seasonal fashion lines.

Having Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton wear all of these fabulous clothes doesn’t hurt. Lauren Hutton was (and is) a model for all time, a beauty discovered by legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland and heralded for not fixing the gap in her teeth. She is known for her philanthropy and activism, often spending months in Africa helping those less fortunate. All of that is ignored in this film however, since Mr. Schrader has essentially turned her into a mannequin. If she were a great actress, this would be different. Alas, she’s not. She’s beautiful, knows how to carry a woven red leather clutch, and is just vulnerable enough to believe she can crack Richard Gere’s muscled shell. And let me tell you, that’s enough reason to watch the movie.

Gere and Hutton dance around each other, surrounded by a world of shoulder pads, jersey dresses, and chunky jewelry. Their chemistry is real, which I can only imagine is another reason the movie was made. Re-watching it this week, I like to believe that if the movie were remade, Julian would be played by James Franco. Both are hams, and both are hot enough to pull off the whole vaguely gay hustler thing the character demands. Who would play Michelle? Hard to say. I think Idina Menzel would be great in the part. Maybe make it a musical and really gay it up.

God bless Paul Schrader. He had no idea he was making a mess, and he didn’t learn his lesson, seeing how he was also the director of The Canyonswhich was so awful it’s now masterpiece in debacle. That said, thank god Paul Scrader made American Gigolo. It’s the perfect post card for the fashion, decadence, and insanity of early eighties Southern California.

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The Film Cult Presents: Hook Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:30:57 +0000 Philip Harris Like the rest of the world, I too have been mourning the untimely and tragic death of supernova comedian Robin Williams. My Facebook newsfeed has been blossoming with tributes, some...

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Like the rest of the world, I too have been mourning the untimely and tragic death of supernova comedian Robin Williams. My Facebook newsfeed has been blossoming with tributes, some annoying, others delightful. As the week comes to an end, I’ve found myself remembering more and more of his work, the breadth of his career mushrooming in my mind. I’ve written about Robin before in this column, most recently for his beautiful work in the quirky 90s film, Toys. I also briefly mentioned him in my review of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as the detachable-headed King of the Moon, a role for which he was not credited and yet stole the show. There are many movies I could write about today: Jumanji, One Hour Photo, Patch Adams, or Death to Smoochy. None of these films became true classics in their genre, and yet all of them are memorable because of him. But, today I’m going to write about my favorite Robin Williams film: Hook.

The Peter Pan story had been told a multitude of times prior to the making of Hook. There had been live-action films, the Disney animated classic, stage productions, and even television specials. Was that reason it didn’t do well financially? Why Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 32%? Its critics sight an overabundance of sentiment and schlock. You know what I say to those critics? Who the hell cares? Hook is a brilliant film. Yes, it’s syrupy at times, but only in the best, most memorable ways possible. The greater themes of the movie—courage, self-discovery, the importance of family—all rise above any and all overly-sentimental traps throughout the film. And the only reason the film works, the only reason we can look past all that cloying storytelling, is Robin Williams.

As Peter, the overworked father being forced to holiday in England with his rambunctious family, Robin puts his inner demons to work. We see the darkness under the clown. He is angry and lashes out as his wife and children. On his face, from one moment to the next, can be seen rage, guilt, and disappointment, each expertly expressed by an acting master. He’s so convincing as the angry father that the transformation he’s about to undertake is even that much more powerful.

Once in London, he and his family stay with Wendy, the woman who raised him from childhood. Wendy is portrayed by the eternal Maggie Smith. Her fragile strength is disarming. When she tells Peter the truth of his identity, their chemistry is crackling. And why does she tell him who he really is? Well, Captain Hook (played by Dustin Hoffman) has kidnapped Peter’s children and demands Peter go back to Neverland to rescue them.

What follows is the journey we all must take. As an adult, Peter has forgotten who he is. He no longer sees the joy and fun in life, having forgotten how to play and use his imagination. Upon returning to Neverland, Peter becomes the classic skeptic, disbelieving everything. Having been ruled by a kid named Rufio since he left, the Lost Boys have been running wild without leadership, hoping that Peter would someday return. When he does, they can’t really believe it. In the movies first truly heart-wrenching scene, only one boy believes Peter is truly Peter Pan. He makes Peter kneel down and starts rubbing his face, searching for some proof that the ageing, stressed-out man before them is the great Peter Pan.



Sometimes, it takes the wisdom of an innocent heart to see who we truly are. As adults, we pour ourselves into our own children, our relationships, our jobs. But who are we? Did we forget how to play or what used to bring us joy? Let the child in you search your tired, caffeinated face for the eternal youth within. Robin is so vulnerable in this scene, allowing the young actor to reach into his soul. I often think the reason this film never did as well as it should have was because so many of us are discomforted by the idea of looking that closely at ourselves. Maybe what we’re witnessing in the above scene is too raw, too real for the average bro or chick to handle.

One of the other truly powerful scenes in Hook is the dinner scene. Once Peter has begun his training, he is exhausted. Swinging around trees isn’t as easy as it used to be. He sits down, ready for a huge meal, only to discover there’s no food in the steaming pots. It takes a game of insulting one another, of believing, to make the food appear.



These two scenes embody the theme of self-discovery in Hook. They show us that belief reminds us of who we truly are. And its this discovery that allows Peter the strength and courage to face his fears and rescue his children.

As we all now know, Robin wasn’t able to rescue himself. Perhaps he forgot the lessons Hook taught us all. Perhaps he forgot that in another world he would never age and adventure would always be just over the next hill. Maybe that’s where he went. I don’t know what demons possessed Robin, but I can tell you that even though they took his life, they have not won. As the fans have shown us in the last week, all of us still believe. Robin may have stopped believing in himself, but we will never stop believing in him.

When he finally takes ownership of whom he truly is, nothing can stop Peter from rescuing his children. He fights hook and wins. He delegates power and leaves the Lost Boys in able, kind hands. Still an adult, yet always a child, once the day is saved, he knows he must go back to the real world. He has a life there, a family and a job. But, after his adventures in Neverland, he is not the same. He is a man filled with love and hope, magic and belief. This is when we get to see Robin at his most energetic, crawling into Nana’s doghouse, making snow angels, and jumping onto window ledges. The family reunited, the film ends with Uncle Tootles flying around Big Ben.

Each of us has our own journey to take, our own revelations and self-discoveries to unearth. Let Hook be your starting and ending point for this journey. Let the magic of Robin’s acting show you how to feel. Let it allow you the space to cry and laugh, jump and play. Let the genius Robin Williams left behind remind you that even though we’ve all lost a friend, we still have his work, and that all it takes is one happy thought to fly.

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The Film Cult Presents: Go Sun, 10 Aug 2014 18:32:56 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! In the spring of 1999, just before I graduated from high school, I met a young man named Zoe. He was a few years older and, I...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

In the spring of 1999, just before I graduated from high school, I met a young man named Zoe. He was a few years older and, I thought, far worldlier than I. We met on a now defunct chat room late one night after my parents had gone to bed. I fell instantly in love with him and a few weeks later he took a bus into Hollywood one morning so we could meet. He had a black eye and over the course of that day he stole my watch, confessed that he lived in some detention camp for wayward youth, and told me he loved me. He’d told the authorities that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral. As an innocent kid from the LA burbs, all of this seemed terribly attractive and exciting to me. I lived with my parents in Glendale, where there was always fresh watermelon, newspapers, and plenty of protection.

Because of his lie to the authorities, Zoe was kicked out of his living situation and went to live with a friend who had a mobile home out in Yucaipa. The last time we spoke, after my parents’ banned me from seeing him, was on the phone one night after he’d gotten high with his friend, had sex with said friend, and called to tell me that he wanted me to see a movie called “Go.” He said this movie was exactly the kind of life he wanted us to live together—running wild, going to raves, taking drugs. As he spoke of this movie, of how much it meant to him, I realized that we would never be together. After all, I wasn’t even eighteen, and something about “Go” felt dangerous, like it had unleashed a devil in him from which I quickly withdrew.

I never saw Zoe again. I graduated from high school and went to community college. After Y2K failed to bring the melodrama it had promised, I became bored with life, caring nothing for my own future, giving no time to the venture of self. Then, one Saturday afternoon, my brother rented “Go” from Blockbuster.

“Go” is three interweaving story lines of multiple young people on the verge of danger at the end of the twentieth century. A girl tries to scam a drug dealer. A traveling Brit tries to outsmart a pimp, and two gay guys try to escape a pyramid scheme. The jokes are fast, not particularly smart, but always sarcastic, which resonated with me instantly. The plot is all right. It’s not brilliant, but it’s entertaining. The cast is phenomenal. Scott Wolf, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Jay Mohr, and even Katie Holmes, each play major roles throughout. In fact, Wolf and Mohr are the aforementioned gay couple. It’s fascinating to watch each of these now mega-famous actors cut their teeth in a quirky film about a rave and drugs. Katie Holmes was still wholesome, while Timothy Olyphant made the perfect skeezy drug dealer who was equal parts hot and hilarious. Also, keep your eyes akimbo for a then unknown Melissa McCarthy toward the film’s end.

My brother and I loved it. We integrated quotes into our daily vernacular almost immediately: “Don’t go all 818 on me.” “I don’t even give my friends head.” “Look at your shirt, bitch. This ain’t Hawaii.” I saw what Zoe had loved about the film. None of the young characters appear to have parents. They all have cars and clothes and schedules fit for middle-aged, full-time workers. They were all pretending to be adults, not realizing that pretending to be something you’re not always turns out bad. Zoe wanted his life to be a movie in which beautiful teens are hit by cars and don’t die, in which your friends are always available to get high and go on adventures. As you can imagine, his life was not this. He was doing drugs in a mobile home out in the desert.

I knew my life wasn’t like the characters’ in “Go.” Hell, my life wasn’t even like Zoe’s. I didn’t do drugs and until then only ever did anything as dangerous as meet strangers off the internet, which, granted, was dangerous enough. Still, I knew that the characters in “Go” were still the cool kids in high school. That is, not me, which I’d grown to accept years earlier. Still, I wanted a taste of that life. The danger from which I’d originally detracted now seemed exciting to me.

Over the years, “Go” has actually become a family favorite. We watch it at least twice a year, each family member delighting in their own contained excitement of vicariously living a fictional character’s story arch. The jokes seem less funny, but the actors are all still beautiful, especially Timothy Olyphant who is shirtless throughout. I wonder if my family members ever wonder what their lives could have been had they gone on more dangerous adventures. To me, now a man in my thirties, “Go” seems almost innocent in its depiction of pre-2000 debauchery. Everyone thought the internet was going to take us to different worlds, never once thinking that it would eventually just make the world smaller. Justin Bieber was a six-year-old living in Canada. Facebook didn’t exist.

When my family now suggests we watch “Go” I always have to convince myself to watch it with them. I recently realized that the comfort of living vicariously through a character’s life is not something I need. In the years following my initial viewing of “Go”, I flew to Chicago to meet another man I met on the internet, spending a weekend with him in his dorm room and subsequently cheating on my boyfriend back in Los Angeles. I did the same a year later, this time going to a rave in San Francisco with a stranger, only to be stranded in a Sacramento parking lot at five the next morning. That same year, when I was nineteen, I popped a blood vessel in my right eye during a long weekend in Las Vegas. I shortly after dropped out of community college and soon found myself in Hollywood apartments at three in the morning with strangers, frequently allowing myself to dance in West Hollywood clubs until I was so dehydrated that I had to make out with bartenders for free bottles of water.

No, “Go” is not a way for me to live something I never got the chance to. “Go” is a reminder of the innocent kid I was and how that kid, because of a black-eyed druggie named Zoe, learned to never let any of my crazy, and sometimes idiotic, adventures go too far. For when I thought I might be in too much danger, when that devil would appear, I could hear Jay Mohr whisper a single word in my ear.   


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The Film Cult Presents: Cookie’s Fortune Fri, 01 Aug 2014 21:04:26 +0000 Philip Harris Cookie’s Fortune was not a financial success, making just shy of one percent profit, and ask most people if they’ve seen it, they’ll probably reply in the negative. And yet, it’s a perfect film.

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Here at The Film Cult I often review movies that happen to be personal favorites but for some artistic or technical reasons they aren’t actually very good. Cookie’s Fortune was not a financial success, making just shy of one percent profit, and ask most people if they’ve seen it, they’ll probably reply in the negative. And yet, it’s a perfect film. I recently reviewed Elizabethtown, another film about family in the south, and while I love that movie, it has a lot wrong with it. No such wrongs exist in Cookie’s Fortune.

The plot revolves around the death of Cookie, a family matriarch who, in the late twilight of her life, is beginning to forget things and spends most of her time thinking about her passed-on husband. She lives in a tiny town with quirky family members circling her all the time. Her trusty comrade is Willis, who ends up being the wrongly accused suspect of his dear friend’s death.

Cookie’s Fortune takes its time. The filmmakers introduce the slow pace of the Mississippi lifestyle gradually, carefully, ensuring that by the time the action starts you’re fully steeped in the culture: Beautiful women sing the blues. The local sheriffs fish together. The children play in the street and trains slither through heavy heat. Wide shots of the river or aerial shots of the town’s single traffic light linger just enough for you to relax, for your shoulders to drop.

The action itself is gradual with cautiously revealed characters and relationships. If the actors weren’t so talented, this gradual development might come off as tedious, but with Charles S. Dutton and Glen Close leading the pack, there’s no fear in boredom.

The light touch and comedic tone that warms the entire film plays as perfect counter balance to the gruesome aspects of the film’s central crime, the death of Cookie. The locals involved in the death are each quirkier than the rest, with Julianne Moore providing the most quirk in one of her most underrated roles. Her graduation to confident self-respect by the end of the film is one of the many delights the film has to offer.

The ensemble cast, cobbled together by director Robert Altman, works so wonderfully together that you forget Liv Tyler is Stephen Tyler’s daughter or that Lyle Lovett used to be married to Julia Roberts. They in habit their characters and deliver their lines with one hundred percent commitment, making the absurdity of some of the gags feel like high art.

From the moment of Cookie’s death, the audience knows who the killer is, and watching this cuckoo salad of suspects and family members try to figure out the mystery is a Shakespearean comedy of errors. You have the police, then the family, and then of course the other townspeople who just want to make sure everything will be sorted out by the Easter pageant. The plot in Cookie’s Fortune is a loose fitting garment perfect for that late spring heat. Like the rest of the film, it takes its time until the last moment when it all comes together and everything makes sense, sort of. The true killer is never found, but of course, what does happen is so much more delicious. Almost as delicious as catfish enchiladas.

Cookie’s Fortune didn’t change anyone’s lives. It didn’t stop the presses nor win any awards.  It’s a movie about family’s and pride, towns and their people. What a family doesn’t need is a scandal, but what you need is to see this film.


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The Film Cult Presents: Toys Fri, 25 Jul 2014 17:15:02 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Toys didn’t get a fair shake. I saw it in the theater when I was a teenager, and the visual effects mesmerized me. It was a Magritte...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Toys didn’t get a fair shake. I saw it in the theater when I was a teenager, and the visual effects mesmerized me. It was a Magritte painting come to life. I never understood why I didn’t do well, especially with such a phenomenal cast. Toys was one of those movies that just didn’t click with audiences. Not only was it a flop at the box office, it was nominated for a Razzie, which by the way, it didn’t win.

Starring Robin Williams, Robin Wright, and LL Cool J, Toys tells the story of the Zevo family, which owns and operates the Zevo Toy Factory. The patriarch, who is about to die, decides to give the company to his brother, who in turn wants to start creating war toys, which his nephew Leslie (Robin Williams) thinks is a bad idea. One is inclined to agree with Leslie, seeing how introducing war toys into the magical world being almost literally painted before one’s eyes would be a travesty to the abounding magic. A family drama ensues, things get pretty dark, and then everything turns out okay.

One of the reasons the movie didn’t do well was because of its marketing. I really need to have a talk with marketing departments. I get that they are trying to attract the largest audience, the most money. “We gotta make our money back,” and all that, but come on. Don’t try to sell me a kid’s movie when what you’ve actually got is an art-house film swarming with surrealist imagery and sounds. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that marketing departments are among the biggest (and most useless, yet necessary, if you can wrap your head around that) headaches in the film industry.

Toys was marketed as a children’s film, a film filled with fun characters, happy music, and beautiful cinematography. They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Toys is far from a children’s film. I’m not even sure it’s a film for grownups. Like so many of the films I write about, it’s for the displaced person who doesn’t want to leave the comfortable world they’ve come to know because they know the outside world is dangerous. Toys is for the outsider, that person who didn’t want to play war games with the other children, who instead wanted to create their own worlds by looking at the clouds, pondering the universe around them, and spinning through their imagination. They didn’t want to kill; they wanted to create.

Toys takes the imagination of these kinds of minds and puts it on film. The message is beautiful, and the acting is great. It’s a shame this film didn’t get more of an audience because it should be a classic. To me, and many others from the comments I see on Youtube and other media outlets, it is and will always be a classic.

One of the stunning aspects of the film is also the music, which in part may have had something to do with the film’s failure. Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn did the music, and while beautiful and serene, there’s a sense of danger and distance to it. It’s sort of like when your in an airport in Belgium and you hear synth music pumping the background. Your jet-lagged; everything is beautiful, and some perfectly composed music the likes of which you’ve never heard of before seems to be following you around. It’s beautiful; but it’s different. And for American audiences in 1992, it may have been too different. You’d be hard pressed to find a copy of the soundtrack now, but listening to some songs on Youtube this week, I realized how ahead of their time they really were, and how stunning they sound now. It’s the same sound that Trevor Horn would later bring to Tina Turner’s album Wildest Dreams, which he produced the entirety of in 1995.

Tina Turner aside, Toys is a dark, broody meditation on the trappings of childhood. It’s the sort of film that questions the very notion of growing up. Who says one must leave the fantasy and toys behind? Grown ups in this film are marked as the kind of people who want to kill. That’s the message, that if you decide to grow up, you want to play at killing things. Who wants that? The alternative in Toys is to stay imagining, to stay alive through the magic of the imagination. Sadly, in this world where men and women who hold on to the child-like wonder of life (including the toys that accompany it) are labeled as weird, so much so that a movie that celebrates leaving open of the jeweled gates of childhood imaginings was thought too out there to be worth spending money on. Watch Toys again, groove to Trevor’s synths, and let your imagination out of the gate.

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The Film Cult Presents: Elizabethtown Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:10:50 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to make a movie steeped in sentimentality, forced “moments”, and a pretentious soundtrack. Kristen Dunst looks like she’s competing for hipster of the decade, and I am not even really sure why Paula Deen is among the cast. That said, Orlando’s American accent not withstanding, Elizabethtown is one of those movies that never got a fair chance. Yes, everything I said is true, but Elizabethtown is one of those movies I can’t shake, and ever time I bring it up to someone who has seen it, they can’t help but gush about how much they love it. How can a movie so obviously flawed be so good?

The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward. Orlando plays Drew Baylor, a business and marketing genius about to launch a shoe that will change the world of covered feet. On the release of his grand invention, he discovers the product is a dismal failure which will lose his company over 900 million dollars. Later that night, his girlfriend dumps him, and just as he’s about to commit suicide, he gets a phone call from his sister telling him his father has died. He’s then asked to take his father’s favorite blue shirt to Elizabethtown, Kentucky for the funeral.

We never meet Drew’s father. We never see them together, and when the father appears in flashbacks or family photos, he’s so unfamiliar that one doesn’t really feel anything for him. A movie maker of Cameron Crowe’s caliber knows what he’s doing, however. The emotional thread of the film is that Drew, because of the flop of his multi-million-dollar shoe, can’t process his father’s death. He’s numb and can’t cry over the fact that his father has died. In this, Drew’s numbness mirrors the viewer’s apathy toward to the father character. I’m not sure that once Drew releases his emotions during the road trip that punctuates the film’s end is enough for us to have the same reaction, but I definitely shed a tear every time I see that moment, which we’ll get to in second.

On his way to Kentucky, Drew meets Claire Colburn, played by Kristen Dunst. Her over-familiar, bubbly hipster schtick is overwrought and borders on tedious throughout the whole film. In fact, I credit her strange character, and the subsequent relationship she has with Drew, with overshadowing the rest of the film as bad. Herein is the movie’s largest flaw. It’s marketed as a romantic comedy, when really it’s about acceptance and grief. Ignoring the banal relationship these two troubled, yet beautiful, people undergo is the best way to watch Elizabethtown. The relationship aside, there are some truly poignant moments in the film.

In Elizabethtown, Drew is reunited with the Southern family he’s never known. These are the first of the more poignant moments the film offers. There’s nothing quite as special as being welcomed by a group of people who love you and are related to you for no other reason than you are family. The montage of him being introduced to his family and friends in that big southern house reminds one of being a child, surrounded by all the adults I naturally took for granted but were gone too soon. You can almost smell the food and hear the gossip and television in the background.

The other poignant moment is the one I mentioned earlier, when Drew finally succumbs to the emotions of his father’s death while on the road trip Claire has constructed for his return to the west coast. With his father’s ashes seat-belted beside him, Drew takes his father on the road trip they never had, scattering his ashes at some of the country’s most important landmarks. The moments at the landmarks are cheesy, but the solo car moments are beautiful. It’s those moments in the car, those deep revelations only found on long car trips with oneself that bring Drew, and me, to tears. You can see Drew’s mind working through the past, letting things go, and yet despite the shoe debacle, the new girl with whom he’s about to reunite, and the huge family he just rediscovered, it’s when he’s by himself that he remembers a single moment playing with his father as a child. We see a young drew pumping his hand up and down, his father doing the same, and then we cut to adult Drew in the car, finally facing responsibility, doing the same gesture, crying his heart out.

Along with a few moments of pure comedy—Susan Sarandon’s eulogy and tap dance routine, the other guests at Drew’s hotel, and Alec Baldwin’s cameo—these aforementioned poignant moments make this movie a personal favorite and an un-heralded cult film. If you’ve never taken a road trip with your dad, if you’ve never allowed yourself to be swallowed by your family, you should watch this movie. And if none of those things sound appealing to you, you should watch it merely for the fact that Orlando Bloom is so beautiful in regular, non-elf clothing, that it’s almost uncomfortable to behold. Almost.

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Viewer Discretion Advised: Eight Of the Most F*cked-Up Movies Ever Made Tue, 15 Jul 2014 01:00:27 +0000 bgoldstein By Dustin Seibert During a recent transatlantic flight, I had the occasion to watch Martyrs, a 2008 French horror film that just made its way to iTunes this year. Part...

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By Dustin Seibert

During a recent transatlantic flight, I had the occasion to watch Martyrs, a 2008 French horror film that just made its way to iTunes this year. Part of the “New French Extremity” movement, “Martyrs” is one of a number of movies from the country in recent years with transgressive (read: totally f*cked-up) content that has resulted in controversy, outright bans and heavy edits in order to be released in certain countries. Needless to say, my wife had a few choice words for me every time she glanced over at my iPad while Martyrs was playing.

Only a couple of the films on this list are considered New French Extremity Movement, but they all have a few things in common: First, none of them would ever, ever, ever be released as their director intended through a mainstream Hollywood studio. Second, you don’t wanna watch any of these flicks with a woman you just started dating unless she’s really “alternative” or particularly open-minded. Finally, with few exceptions, these films don’t bother with happy, tidy denouements…the likes of which often drive American cinema.

Some critics find reasons to praise films like these on this list as “haute art cinema,” using adjectives like “beautiful” and “thought-provoking.” But if we’re keeping it one-hunnid, much of this stuff is pure exploitation from the minds of people looking to push the envelope as far as they can. And nothing’s wrong with that — as long as your stomach can handle it.

1. A Serbian Film:
Easily one of the most disturbing films ever put to celluloid, A Serbian Film is the feel-good story of a down-on-his-luck porn star who agrees to submit to extreme acts for a snuff film. I could list some examples of the worst moments, but there’s almost too much to choose from — it’s as if the film’s writers sat down with a 20-sided die, with each side representing a morally repugnant, sexually violent act, rolled a few and tossed the results in the film’s final version. There’s simply no leeway with this one, which is why it’s been banned in a bajillion countries or ridiculously edited in a few of the countries willing to screen it. The film’s final act will make you cry and throw up at the same time. Approach with caution.

2. A L’interieur (Inside) (2007):
One of the best horror movies I’ve seen in the past decade, the film does just about everything right to cook up genuine dread and tension, not to mention bucketloads of gore. A simple home invasion flick at heart, the story involves a mysterious French dame going after another French dame, who happens to be bursting-at-the-seams pregnant, in her own crib. The invader’s goal: cut the unborn baby from her stomach. The aggressor has her reasons, but I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own. No movie on this list comes more recommended than this one.

3. Irreversible (2002):
The first movie I ever watched on this list, I wasn’t quite prepared to watch what they subjected Italian sex kitten Monica Bellucci to in this film. Her 9-minute vicious rape and beating still stands as the most psychologically intense assault I’ve ever seen on screen (including the other films on this list). Between that and the head-splooshing beating in the beginning of the film (which plays in reverse chronologically), this French film will stay with you long after you hit the stop button; unlike most others on this list, it received legitimate honors in film festivals.

4. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975):
Not quite sure where to start with this one, outside of the fact that there’s probably no other film in existence that revels in making its performers eat shit. Literally. A handful of rich, amoral bastards in post-Mussolini 1940s Italy kidnap a bunch of teenagers and subject them to every act of filth-flarn-filth, including rape, eating biscuits filled with nails and getting branded, scalped and forced to eat trays of crap. It’s subtitled, grody, and otherwise pretty lame to sit through. For curious masochists only.

5. The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011): The original Human Centipede was more of an exercise in gross ideas and less in graphic imagery. But when writer/director/clearly normal human being Tom Six was criticized for not having enough gore in it, he said, “Oh yeah, well fuck y’all!” and created a sequel where he went balls-to-the-wall. There’s a lot to pick from in this film, but the scene of the antagonist plucking out a victim’s healthy teeth one by one? I may have actually winced, and I’m an effing statue.

Battle Royale (2000): I’ve always considered Battle Royale the spiritual predecessor to The Hunger Games. Except, the latter book was able to be adapted into a Hollywood film palatable for mainstream audiences, while I can’t see how on earth Battle Royale could work in Hollywood. One of the least gory films on this list, it’s still screwed up by virtue of the fact that it focuses on kidnapped high schoolers violently dispatching one another. Those Japanese, boy…

7. I Spit on Your Grave (original and remake):
These movies are about a woman getting delicious — and very violent — revenge on her attackers. The issue is, her revenge comes after a brutal, unflinching gang rape that the camera almost seems to delight in. After 36 years, it’s still considered incredibly controversial and disturbing, having invited the ire of many well-respected film critics. The original’s creator promises it’s a feminist film, but let’s be honest: most women wouldn’t get anything from watching this movie except justifiably upset. A remake was released in 2010 (which spawned a sequel in 2013), so clearly there’s still an audience for it.

8. Aftermath (1994):
It’s difficult to even categorize this as a movie so much as a perverted man’s idea of art, though some folks are happy to consider it so. Filmed almost entirely in a morgue, the 32-minute flick is disturbing not just for its depiction of autopsies (which basic cable made less taboo a decade ago) but for its unnamed mortician’s masturbation over and sexual defilement of a young lady’s corpse. I suppose there’s some masochistic, perverse gain from watching this once, but I have to wonder about the person who, say, watches it more than once or purchases it on DVD.

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The 7 Greatest Films That Took Place Entirely on Trains Wed, 25 Jun 2014 17:04:17 +0000 Jared Jones By Jared Jones After a year-long creative dispute with Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein — the man Gary Oldman would likely refer to as Hollywood’s H.J.I.C (Head Jew in Charge) —...

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By Jared Jones

After a year-long creative dispute with Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein — the man Gary Oldman would likely refer to as Hollywood’s H.J.I.C (Head Jew in Charge) Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer is finally set to receive a limited theatrical release here in the States this weekend. This should come as thrilling news to fans of Ho’s previous films, 2006’s epic monster flick The Host and 2009’s similarly excellent Mother, as well as the rapidly increasing number of Americans with train fetishes. As someone who lies firmly in both camps (emphasis on firmly), I quite literally could not be more aroused excited.

Snowpiercer is essentially the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott reimagined in the ice-age dystopia of 2031, only swap the Cleveland Avenue bus for a train carrying the Earth’s only remaining inhabitants and Rosa Parks for the Flame On guy. If that didn’t sell you on this movie, I don’t know what you’re even doing here. In any case, Snowpiercer got me thinking long and hard (also, firm) about other train-based movies, which can only mean that I am about to rank the ones I can remember in descending order for you because Internet.

#7 – Unstoppable

Denzel Washington stars as a know-it-all, smooth-as-jazz train engineer paired with, get this, a fresh-faced white dude on the first day of his new job. Ropes are shown, wise is cracked. Not before long, ol’ Denzel and his newbee partner are forced to partake in a suicide mission to catch a runaway train carrying more deadly chemicals than George W. Bush could dream up as an excuse to invade a Middle Eastern country (topical). Hijinks and ‘splosions ensue.

#6 – Night Train

Leelee Sobieski might be the worst actress in the history of the world, but she has really nice boobs and this movie was actually kind of decent. Lovecraft-ian, even. Three strangers find a dead body on a train that happens to be in possession of a butt load of diamonds, or maybe they’re emeralds, it’s not really important. Anyway, they all agree to do the logical thing and chop said dead guy into pieces while killing off anyone who dares question them. Co-starring Steve Zahn and the incomparable Danny Glover.

#5  The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Fun fact: The guy who directed this movie went on to direct Jaws 4: The Revenge, which is quite possibly the stupidest film ever made.  

#4 – The Lady Vanishes

Yesterday I witnessed a shirtless teenager sporting no less than five teardrop tattoos walk into a convenience store and attempt to steal a bag of Cheetos by smuggling them in his ass. I know this because, for whatever reason, the kid’s pants were belted around his lower thighs in what I can only assume was an act of defiance against both the societal norms of dress code and the concept of gravity. Anyways, the kid tried to make a run for it when he saw that the owner had also taken exception to him, and literally tripped over his own pants before being tackled by the owner.

What I’m saying is that I wish we could go back to the days when everyone dressed as classy as the people in Alfred Hitchcock movies. Even homeless dudes had an evening suit back then. It was a simpler, better time, and somewhere out there, there is a 15-year-old picking cheese crumbles out of his ass hair that agrees with me.

#3 – Snakes on a Train

Full disclosure: I have not seen this movie. I have, however, read the film’s plot synopsis on its Wikipedia page, which I will now repeat to you verbatim:

“Although taking the same basic idea from Snakes on a Plane (lots of deadly snakes loose on a claustrophobic, high speed means of transport), the background story of how the snakes end up on the train is completely different.

In the movie, writer Eric Forsberg created a woman who has been put under a Mayan curse which causes snake eggs to hatch inside her belly and eat their way out. In order to recover the “lost pieces” of herself (the snakes), she must travel to Los Angeles where a powerful Mayan shaman can lift the curse. She takes the snakes along with her in small jars. While on the train, bandits attack her, allowing the snakes to escape and endanger the rest of the passengers.

Eventually, and inexplicably, she herself transforms into a gigantic snake and swallows the moving train whole.

Six passengers managed to escape unharmed and one of them performs magic to make her vanish. However one girl is shown to have been unknowingly bitten, suggesting the curse will remain.”

To recap: Mayan shamans, magic, and snakes eating trains. WHERE YOU AT NOW, HITCHCOCK?!

#2 – Under Siege 2: Dark Territory

By far the easiest selection of this list, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory sees Steven Seagal return as Navy cook-turned killing machine Casey Ryback and take on a group of international terrorists who hijack the train he happens to be traveling on with his niece. You know, kind of like how a group of terrorists hijacked the submarine he happened to be serving on in the first film. In any case, Dark Territory is the sort of gritty, powerful action flick that actually dares ask the tough questions, like “Why would a group of highly-skilled terrorists not check the manifesto of the train they were about to hijack to ensure that a counter-terrorism specialist was not on board?” But that’s just for the film scholars to decide when dissecting this masterpiece in 2025.

I love how they refer to Segal’s character as “the cook from Under Siege” in this trailer, as if to say, “This character was so unmemorable in the first incarnation that using his name to hype the second would accomplish nothing.” You gotta appreciate that kind of honesty.

But seriously, this movie is awesome. The only reason I didn’t rank it #1 was due to the fact that it features Kurtwood Smith yet a distinct lack of foots in asses.

#1 – Source Code

Believe it or not, there aren’t that many great films which take place entirely on a train. I blame texting (also, airplanes). Hidden beneath the smoke of such dumpster fires as Atomic Train, Death Train, and the band Train, however, is Source Code, a solid little sci-fi thriller directed by Moon’s Duncan Jones and starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

The plot of Source Code is incredibly similar to this year’s Edge of Tomorrow, in that Gyllenhaal plays an army soldier (pilot) forced to relive the same scenario over and over until he stops some terrorists from blowing up a train with their Tesseract or what the f*ck ever. While some critics have claimed that the film veers toward the overly sentimental with its conclusion, most agree that Source Code is ultimately a great popcorn flick that manages to be entertaining *and* thought-provoking. Movie-going audiences obviously agreed, as the film grossed nearly $150 million worldwide on a $32 million budget. HEAR THAT, MICHAEL BAY?! WE CAN HANDLE THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, YOU WALKING CAN OF AXE BODY SPRAY.

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The Film Cult Presents: Gosford Park Fri, 13 Jun 2014 17:35:28 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead! Before he gave the world Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made a brilliant film that could very easily be considered the little brother of Downton. One could...

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Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead!

Before he gave the world Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made a brilliant film that could very easily be considered the little brother of Downton. One could even call it, just as Miami Rhapsody is to Sex and the City, a film prototype of the television series to come. Filled with quick wit, pomp and circumstance, and Maggie Smith’s piercing looks, Gosford Park is a cozy romp into British peerage. Now, sure, the mansion in Gosford is nothing compared to Highclere Castle, the home of Downton. That said, Wrothman Park, where the exteriors of Gosford and a few other scenes were shot, is an admirable facade, giving great respect to the classes of guests that converge under its roofs for a weekend of shooting, bridge, and, because we’re in a giant mansion in the thirties, murder.

Which brings us to cast. Gosford Park is a glittering assemblage of Britain’s greatest stars, including Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Richard Harris who would go on to play Professor Dumbledore in five of the Harry Potter movies alongside Dame Maggie Smith, also in Gosford Park . When it comes to secondary cast, we’ve got an adorable Ryan Phillippe, Emily Watson and Charles Dance, who American audiences now know as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones. So often, British stars are used to make characters in an American blockbusters evocative, making Gosford Park a joy to watch, as all these greats don’t have to deal with silly costumes or synching with CGI magic. All they have to do is act, and in this film they act like there’s no tomorrow. Also keep a lookout for a young Clive Owen smouldering below stairs.

Julian Fellowes is a genius. He has such a sense of timing, of nuance. Wielding this amount of characters, as he also does in Downton Abbey, is daunting just to watch. I can’t imagine writing them all and keeping track of their storylines. And yet, Mr. Fellowes manages with great ease. From the the most common of chamber maids to the master of the house each character is drawn with such attention and warmth that every player feels necessary, not a single wasted character in the bunch.

The story, like any aristocratic bunch of blue bloods, is twisted and at times cumbersome. Much is played off screen, leaving the viewer to figure out for themselves that Charles Dance and Richard Harris are brothers in the film. But those ambiguous facts make the viewing of this film all the more enjoyable. Beyond the core mystery of who killed the head of the house and why, is the mystery of how everyone is related. The movie culminates in an unexpected reveal that comes after what the viewer thinks is the climax. It’s a joy for attentive movie goers, over-thinkers, and film nuts.

The attention to detail is as perfect as expected. Not a napkin or diamond is out of place, madam’s hot chocolate waiting for her just as she’s about to go to bed. Even the dropping of a Bloody Mary on muddy cement (and its almost instantaneous cleaning) is done with such panache one can’t help but read something of the doomed fate of the English gentry in all that red and brown liquid mixing together among the broken glass.

Gosford Park makes life in the English countryside look just as glamorous as it was awful. Shared bathrooms, washing clothes in a basin, and nearly getting shot while hunting birds, let alone all the hangers-on clamoring for your money. Shit was rough back in the day. That said, Gosford Park depicts the pitfalls and luxuries so well that I can’t say I wouldn’t give up the Internet and pool for cold water basins and nights of classical music.

If you’ve seen this movie you totally get what I mean. They’ve been showing the movie a lot on the premium channels, and whenever it’s on, I can’t help but see what’s going to happen, for with such a overlapping and nuanced stories built around numerous complicated characters, Gosford Park is one of those movies that unfolds anew with each re-watching. Every time I see it, I learn something new, another layer of the onion is revealed.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Ninth Gate Fri, 06 Jun 2014 17:13:21 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Okay, I, like most of the human race, am a Johnny Depp fan. Did you catch my saccharine praise fest of Edward Scissorhands a few months ago?...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Okay, I, like most of the human race, am a Johnny Depp fan. Did you catch my saccharine praise fest of Edward Scissorhands a few months ago? It’s awesome. You should go read it. And yes, I saw Transcendence, and boy was that a shit show. Which is my point, I believe in being a fan, but I also believe in being an honest, responsible fan. I’m perfectly willing to call out my favorite actor (or president) when they’ve done awful work. And Johnny has done some awful work. I mean, who saw The Tourist? Eesh.

The Ninth Gate is an anomaly. I know it’s a bad film. It has a lot wrong with it. It’s mostly Depp’s character Corso carrying around a book while being chased. And yet, I’m totally mesmerized by every frame. Granted, I am fan of Roman Polanksi’s work. A big fan. I don’t endorse his sexual proclivities, but I am perfectly capable of separating the man from his work. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are two of my all-time favorite films, and I’d write about them here if they weren’t actually considered classics.

The Ninth Gate is about books. That’s another reason I can’t help buy love this movie. I’m a writer. I’m a reader. I have piles of books on my desk, shelves overflowing with tomes my friends and family are afraid I’ll ask them to help me move one day. Mr. Polanksi made a movie for book people with The Ninth Gate. This is a movie for the book nerd in all of us. And let me tell ya, Johnny Depp makes a hot book nerd.

Set in recent times, The Ninth Gate is about a less-than-ethical book dealer (Depp) hired by Frank Langella to authenticate his copy of an ancient book called The Nine Gates of The Kingdom of Shadows, reportedly written by Satan himself. Only three copies exist, and Langella’s character wants to be sure his is real, so Depp searches the world to try and find the other copies. He has no problem finding the other two copies. Of course, things go wrong and, which is so common in a Polanksi film, a conspiracy larger than himself starts to engulf Depp’s character. French aristocrats are choked with their Hermes scarves. Scaffolding collapses. Strangers are seen out of the corner of one’s eye.

The plot falls apart three quarters of the way through, leaving the beauty of Emmanuelle Singer the only thing really to watch. Depp is at his most awkward in this film, never really committing to being either sexy or nerdy. He generally chooses the latter, which I personally think is very sexy. The beauty of this film is in its seriousness. Much like the cult classic Showgirls, The Ninth Gate was made in complete earnest. No one had a clue it would be such a shit show. I love movies like this. Does anyone remember the Madonna catastrophe Swept Away? Sure, I own it, but whatever, it’s an awful but amazing movie.

Polanksi’s strength is in beautiful tableaus. He catches the old world charm of French libraries and the dusty streets of Spain with exquisite detail and authentic understanding. The attention to detail is astounding. A scene in which Depp’s messenger bag is overturned by a lover, his stuff spilling on to a hotel floor, comes to mind. There’s a notebook and tissue and keys and a wallet. It wreaks of verisimilitude, giving the movie that extra push into decent territory. The books are so old, so well worn, you can almost smell the leather and the fading pages.

Not one of Depp’s classics, and basically the same plot as Polanski’s more recent film The Ghost Writer, The Ninth Gate is still a fun movie that I discover people secretly love. Whenever it’s on Cinemax, I leave it on. I even have it saved in on my recorded list in my DVR for those moments when I just need something on. It’s not a great film, but it’s badass, and you should definitely give it chance.

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The Film Cult Presents: Hanna Fri, 16 May 2014 17:54:11 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoilers Ahead! I don’t normally review movies this recent, but having just seen it appear on another website’s list of ten movies one may have overlooked in the last...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

I don’t normally review movies this recent, but having just seen it appear on another website’s list of ten movies one may have overlooked in the last several years, I thought I’d give Hanna some due diligence, as I believe/pray/hope it will become a cult classic in years to come. It certainly deserves cult film status. While not a blockbuster, it’s still considered a financial success, having brought in a worldwide total of $63,782,078. While the movie’s numbers are solid, the fact remains many still have never even heard of or seen this film, which is disheartening because I think it’s one of the best films made in the last five years.

The premise is your classic sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her dad and has been trained as a total bad-ass ninja then is told she must meet her dad in Berlin after he alerts the CIA to their whereabouts. Hanna is also told that a woman named Marissa will try to kill her, so she better have been paying attention during all those karate and hunting lessons. Well, everything goes to plan, and maybe this is the only flaw in the movie: the big “reveal” is seen from a million miles away and everything expected to happen generally does. But, what happens is so much fun and exquisitely shot that I give the movie a pass for running out of steam three-quarters in.

In no small part is Hanna’s awesomeness due to its cast, which includes the queen of everything Beyoncé isn’t, Cate Blanchett, who celebrated a birthday earlier this week. As Marissa, her steely eyes and perfect southern accent give her such a sinisterly fun quality, one can’t help but be seduced by her intensity and earnestness, knowing full well that she wants to kill Hanna and you, if she had the chance. It’s one of Cate’s more understated roles (no Oscar nods or monarchs here) but it’s one of her most underrated. Incidentally, for another underrated Cate Blanchett vehicle, you should rent Bandits. She’s hilarious.

Moving on, Eric Bana, who I’d love to be my daddy stuck in the woods with any day of the week, plays Hanna’s father with an iron jaw and focused precision that wreaks of strength and confidence. Little good it does him. Saoirse Ronan, whom everyone should go see in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as Hanna has an ethereal beauty to her, so much so that one can almost believe that, while she’s a cold-blooded killer, her innocence is completely intact. Speaking of cast, keep an eye out for Michelle Dockery, Lady Mary herself, in an almost missable moment.

Cinematography is the other main reason this movie is so engrossing. The opening shots of a snow-covered Finland give justice to the stark beauty inherent to a desolate landscape. The same can be said for the shots taken of the dessert when Hanna escapes the CIA. To start in a landscape that feels very “north of the wall” then to take the viewer to the desert, where you can almost feel your own arms begin to sunburn, only to end up in an abandoned amusement park in the German forest leads me to believe that the filmmakers knew the whole film couldn’t run, as no story can, on premise alone. Run out of story? Only have chases left? Perfect, use stylistic choices any serious Tumblr addict would go mad for.

In reviewing this film, I’d also be remiss to mention several fun sequences. The first is when an English family help Hanna escape the desert. Hanna finds her equivalent in this family, a girl named Sophie, who is the comic core of the whole film. She delivers her quips in such perfectly obnoxious way you can’t help but be sad when Hanna must leave them behind. Really, Sophie’s hilarious. Also not to be missed is a super-quick fight sequence with Eric Bana. Again, it’s really the style here that’s most important. I don’t think this scene is an ode to The Wiz, but I could be wrong, because it looks like the same set, to me anyway. And finally, the other great scene is the chase in the shipyard, where all those crates provide enough wacky opportunities to give the whole thing a Bond feel that is rad as fuck.

With that, Hanna is an awesome film about a teenager ninja with a face made for Instagram. She’s got a hot dad, a secret she doesn’t even know, and one of the greatest actresses of our time is trying to kill her. What more could the public want beside a plot and premise that saw its way through to the end of the movie? Everyone’s so picky these days. This is a fun movie with gorgeous shots, hot actors, and yes even some great one-liners.

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The Film Cult Presents: Death on the Nile Fri, 09 May 2014 17:28:06 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Minor Spoilers Ahead! In the late seventies, fading movie stars used to join ensemble casts in campy films to stay working, to keep their names in the public eye....

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Warning! Minor Spoilers Ahead!

In the late seventies, fading movie stars used to join ensemble casts in campy films to stay working, to keep their names in the public eye. The Towering Inferno was one such movie. Death on the Nile, this week’s Film Cult Presents selection, is also one of these movies. Bette Davis had been famous—I mean, famous—for over thirty years by the time Death on the Nile was filmed. She’d already done Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which some marked as a comeback, and yet, she still felt the need to be in movies below her, movies that were downright kitschy. It’s a shame what the business of show does to its aging stars.

That said, Death on the Nile remains one of my favorite films of all time. I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie narratives. They’re always set in some glamorous locale like Mesopotamia, on the Orient Express, or in the Caribbean. Someone sort of deserving bastard ends up dead and a group of people who all benefited from the death are examined, one by one, usually in catty brilliance, until Hercule Poirot (the Belgian sleuth portrayed perfectly in this film by Peter Ustinov) or Miss Jane Marple (the old lady with the steel trap mind) remember a seemingly innocuous fact and save the day just in time for tea.

Death on the Nile fits this mold. A rich heiress is newly married to a handsome playboy. They spend their honeymoon going down the Nile, and when the heiress turns up dead, all the passengers are suspects, as everyone has a motive. Hercule Poirot does his damnedest to eliminate suspects, but it’s clear everyone wanted the beautiful Mrs. Simon Doyle dead. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. This mystery is too much fun to be ruined. Check it out for yourself and see if you can figure out who the culprit is.

Despite the fun of the mystery, did I mention that Maggie Smith is Bette Davis’ paid companion? She and Davis, the most talented actors in the bevy of suspects by far, spar and and snap at each other more than contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s brilliant.

Also in attendance on the luxury cruiser is Mia Farrow, whose waif innocence is heartbreaking yet anchored in the prowess of her talent. Interesting to note that Mia Farrow is the best friend of Mrs. Doyle whose murder is the core plot of the film. Mrs. Doyle is played by Lois Chiles, who also played Mia’s close friend in The Great Gatsby four years earlier. Their chemistry is still as stunted and random as it was on West Egg. Saving the day from their flat interactions is Angela Lansbury, delivering a showstopping performance as a boozy romance novelist with feathers in her bedazzled turbans and over-the-top gesticulations highlighting each of her sex-laden axioms. She’s a hurricane of hilarity, and her tango is as fierce as they come:

No expense was spared on the shoot. The locale is authentic, and the costumes and jewelry are also as such. The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. The cinematography also pulls no punches, not that it’s difficult to make ancient monuments in Egypt look bad. Shooting on site gives the film strong verisimilitude, which is always necessary when the story is a basic whodunit. Regarding the authenticity of location, Bette Davis famously said, “In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors stunt men.” Well said, Ms. Davis. Well said.

That aside, the pace of the film is surprisingly strong for a mystery that plays out on a giant paddle boat. The star power may have something to do with that, although there are moments when one feels the writers could have cut some scenes short. The plot exposition becomes a little tedious towards the beginning, and in order to make all the suspects seem truly capable of murder, their hatred of Mrs. Doyle gets hammered in pretty solidly.

Of the many Agatha Christie adaptations, it’s easy for this to get lost in the shuffle, what with Murder on the Orient Express considered a classic. Still, this is one of the better ones. This and Evil Under the Sun (which also stars Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith) are definitely my favorites. It’s escapist, fun movie-making at its finest. If you love a bit of camp and a whole lot of murder, then Death on the Nile is right up your river. Besides, what’s better than seeing a bunch of rich people kill each other?

P.S. Keep a look out for a young Jane Birkin, three years before she shared a plane with Jean-Louis Dumas and he named a thirty thousand dollar bag after her.

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The Film Cult Presents: Addams Family Values Fri, 02 May 2014 16:52:17 +0000 Philip Harris The sequel to the creepy and spooky sequel that made the Addams clan a symbol for the intelligent outsider.

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Warning! Spoiler Alert!

“Gomez, wonderful news. I’m going to have a baby–right now.”
I like to imagine that on a bleak hill somewhere in Los Angeles, maybe tucked away in a forgotten part of Griffith Park, a crumbling mansion houses a mysterious and kooky family prone to histrionics and macabre glamor. And no, I’m not talking about Grey Gardens. This family is bigger, has far more money, and has come to symbolize the intelligent outsider. I’m talking, of course, of the Addams Family. Cue the theme song:

As far as sequels go, Addams Family Values isn’t that great of a movie. This is no The Godfather II.  In terms of plot, Addams Family Values (along withe the first movie, The Addams Family) suffers from one of the most difficult story-telling conundrums of the modern age. How do you write a believable conflict for a family that thrives on, and truly revels in, conflict with the laws of physics, nature, and danger? The writers came up with two answers. One, create a threat to their money. And the Debbie storyline (murderous gold-digger marries Uncle Fester for the family fortune) shows they hardly tried their best. In fact, that plot is particularly shameful since it was the plot of the first movie. The Fester/Debbie relationship is only saved by the fact that Joan Cusack is hilarious. Her comic timing and over-the-top facial expressions save a majority from the movie being too tedious.

The more intelligent answer to the conflict conundrum of the Addams clan is to put them in direct conflict with the outside world. Perfect, let’s send Wednesday and Pugsley to summer camp to interact with normies. When you first encounter the family you’re sort of repulsed, a little confused, and very often scared. You don’t think you could relate to them, thinking that you’d relate to the folks at the summer camp rather than the dark and twisted Addams crew, but once you’ve spent a few moments in the Addams mansion, you begin to wish you were  part of that family. They have a loyalty to each other and a certain classic aesthetic that they all take very seriously. Who else has a family cemetery adjacent to their dilapidated mansion? When the money-thieving Debbie realizes Wednesday, who is nobody’s fool, is onto her, she convinces Morticia and Gomez to pack them off to camp.

The camp segments of this movie (and boy, I said a mouthful there) are among the greatest moments in the Addams franchise. So much so, that the famous Thanksgiving pageant they put on entitled “A Turkey Named Brotherhood” is venturing into classic territory. With Wednesday (portrayed masterfully by Christina Ricci) leading a tribe of perceived social pariahs and misfits, white supremacy is thwarted by the greater truths and principles of indigenous genocide. This is the movie’s genius. Yuppie white families are the greatest enemies of the Addams philosophy. In the first movie, when a girl scout asks Wednesday if her lemonade is made of real lemons, Wednesday retorts, “Are you girl scout cookies made of real girl scouts?” And when the first Thanksgiving is dissolved into a vigilante riot scene—the pilgrims burning, the camp counselors roasting on a spit—Wednesday, who is finally in her element, strikes a match as the Addams theme swells.

The Addams family isn’t weird because their pet is a dismembered hand. The Addams Family is weird because society has created a stigma against actual taste and intelligence. When Debbie has succeeded in taking Uncle Fester from the family, Morticia (played by a black-clad Angelica Houston at her most Goddess-esque) stands in Debbie’s tacky home and forgives her for everything she’s done (enslavement, a sexual spell) but what she cannot forgive is Debbie’s use of pastels. When in the opening sequence, a pastel-clad little girl tells Wednesday and Pugsley how her “mommy kissed daddy and the angel told the stork, and the stork flew down from heaven and left a diamond under a leaf in the cabbage patch, and the diamond turned into a baby!” Pugsley says, “Our parents are having a baby too,” to which Wednesday dryly adds,

The Addams credo should be “We stand for truth and good taste.” Instead, of course, their credo is actually “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us.” I like to think that their weapons against a world that doesn’t understand them is truth and a level of self-love gurus spend a lifetime looking for. They delight in their own eccentricities because to themselves they aren’t eccentric. It’s perfectly normal to have your family weddings in the cemetery. It’s perfectly normal for children to play with a guillotine and dress up your infant little brother as Marie Antoinette. At first you laugh at them, but soon you want to be them.

And in closing, I’d be remiss to mention the great Raul Julia who truly has only one great scene in the entire movie. As the family patriarch, he gave a life to the Gomez character that easily dethrones John Astin as the consummate Gomez. Raul Julia’s passing robbed the world of a beautiful, talented man who gave believable life to a horny husband obsessed with murder and mayhem. In Addams Family Values, as his brother is taken from him, as his children are carted off to their personal version of hell, Gomez takes matters into his own hands when the police (played, naturally by Nathan Lane) fail to help him. I leave you with his glorious meltdown.

P.S. Keep a lookout for a pre-Sex and the City Cynthia Nixon.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Fri, 25 Apr 2014 16:42:25 +0000 Philip Harris WARNING! SPOILER ALERT! Today, I review one of the lesser known classics in fantasy filmmaking: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. While its overarching plot is a successful battle against the...

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Today, I review one of the lesser known classics in fantasy filmmaking: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. While its overarching plot is a successful battle against the Ottoman Empire, the detail and delight in this film are both astronomical, and in one scene, quite literally.  You’d be hard pressed to find another film as fantastically rendered as the Baron.

Beyond fighting the Ottoman empire, the more-focused plot is a feverish jump between past and present, both of which become as ambiguously mingled as fact and fiction. The Baron, who is believed to be a mythical character, is being portrayed in a play within the movie. Said play is being acted by down-and-out, bit players who are doing all they can to entertain an audience constantly distracted by artillery attacks from the Turks beyond the city walls. When an old man appears, claiming to be the real Baron Munchausen, everyone scoffs. That is, until the set is transformed into a Turkish pavilion, a pipe-organ plays an opera called “The Torturer’s Apprentice,” and an entire fortune in gold is won in a bet over a bottle of port. And believe you me, this is just the beginning.

From there, we go to the moon to meet a king with a detachable head, played by a strangely uncredited Robin Williams. Using a rope to climb off the point of the crescent moon, the Baron, accompanied by an angelic yet street-wise Sarah Polley and Monty Python alum Eric Idle, falls from space—wait, a word about space in this movie. This is what I love about films. I saw this movie in 1988. My grandmother took my brother and me to a tiny, independent movie house called The Rialto in South Pasadena. She said that if it was too scary we could leave. As an eight year-old, sitting in that red velvet chair between my little brother and my elegant grandmother, by the time the Baron and his merry band of misfits are climbing down a rope attached to the moon, the gears of the universe moving around them, the signs of the horoscope literally swimming past them, I knew we weren’t leaving. To see space expressed with such imagination, such fantasy—that’s what I loved and still love about the possibility of film. Sorry, I digress.


From the moon, we fall to the center of the earth where we encounter Venus, played by Uma Thurman herself in one of her first roles. Her on-screen husband, Oliver Reed as Vulcan, smashes coal into diamonds for her. When the Baron begins to make eyes at Venus—and after they literally waltz on air in a ballroom made of fountains and clouds—Vulcan becomes angry and they’re thrown into a whirlpool which drops them in the middle of the ocean where they’re promptly eaten by a giant fish. I won’t tell you what happens next because I’m not really sure what happens next.

A box office failure, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen never got its due rewards. Many blame the ending, which to be honest is the most vague, strangely written endings I’ve ever encountered. I’ve seen this movie easily 50 times, and I’m still unclear as to what happens. Terry Gilliam—the film’s long-suffering, tormented genius director—famously said that five more minutes could have saved the movie. I don’t need five more minutes. It’s brilliant as it is. I wish it’d been a commercial success because I would have loved to have seen more movies like this, more films that take one’s imagination on a true journey. There are no metaphors here. That actually is space. That isn’t a painting of the Venus; that is Venus.

As far as themes go, Baron is yet again pretty special. The theme isn’t something as boring as love. It’s not about heroes or faith or anything as banal as good vs. evil. The ultimate theme is deeper than these. As the Baron tells his adventure stories to the citizens of a city under siege, he becomes younger. His wrinkles fade and he stands taller, newly filled with life. His storytelling, real or not, keeps the literal manifestation of death at bay. Joan Didion once wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen tells us that stories keep us young. As long as we can tell our stories, as long as there’s a chance that the Baron’s adventures could be real, death will remain in the shadows and the war will stay on the other side of the wall.

A classic in my family, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has given my brother and me lines to confuse people with since we first saw it at The Rialto: “Open the gates!”;”Beautiful ladies,” and the sing-songy, “What will become of the Barrrrroooonn?” among them. With an uncredited role by Sting, an uncredited role by Terry Gilliam himself, and a starring role by the stunning John Neville, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has never gotten the kind of respect it deserves. While a commercial failure, critically it was received well by almost anyone who has ever seen it, myself included. So snatch a rose, grab your snuff box, and use your knickers and petticoats to fly away into the angelically clouded skies of your imagination.


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The Film Cult Presents: Shaun of the Dead Fri, 18 Apr 2014 16:12:09 +0000 Philip Harris Warning! Spoiler Alert!   There’s a lot a competition for best zombie movie. Some might say the best was the racially tinged horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. They...

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Warning! Spoiler Alert!


There’s a lot a competition for best zombie movie. Some might say the best was the racially tinged horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. They wouldn’t be far off the mark. If you’re a sixteen-year-old girl you might say it’s Warm Bodies. If you’re a bro obsessed with Bill Murray, you might go with Zombieland as your fave. Mine, and frankly the best, is Shaun of the Dead. I love Simon Pegg. In his down time from acting in blockbuster behemoths he’s always crafting together a brilliant gem close to his, and our, nerdy heart. These gems are invariable entertaining: Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Paul—all great, but none are as brilliant as Shaun of the Dead.

A hapless dote with a shite job and a lovable slob for a best friend realize they have to save their loved ones when the zombies attack. Such a simple premise. It’s those simple premises in the hands of brilliant writers that always turn out for the best. For instance, a newly wedded couple moves into the Dakota and gives birth to the Antichrist? Done and done, Rosemary’s Baby was a hit novel, a classic horror film, and even an upcoming miniseries staring Zoe Saldana. Simple premises lead to esteemed legacies. And Simon Pegg is on his way.

Zombie movies rise several times a year, always reminding us that the dead are never really gone and  that what our true natures are brutal and savage. It’s the vanquishing of the zombies, the chopping off of their heads or the burning of their rotting bodies, that reassures us that we may might just hold off the end times (that horrid moment when we devour each other) just a little longer. The human race demands an endgame, and zombie narratives (along with comets, disease epidemics, and natural disasters) are our favorite art form in which to experiment with the our own demise. And it’s the most personal. We can’t fight comets. We can try to fight aliens. We can’t see diseases, but just ask Brad Pitt what happens when the disease turns people into zombies. We can seek shelter when the tsunamis, earthquakes, and storms come, but look how well that went for the dinosaurs. A zombie apocalypse is personal because it’s us. How do we fight ourselves when we’ve suddenly become a danger to each other? I mean, besides with a cricket bat.

Taking this theme and concept to a British suburb, Shaun of the Dead is characteristic of many zombie narratives in that it uses the undead invasion as a prism in which to see Shaun’s closest, interpersonal relationships: the girlfriend he is doomed to disappoint, the loser friend he should have ditched years ago, and the mom and stepdad for whom he’ll never be good enough. While essentially a loser in the beginning of the film, he becomes the leader of his kith and kin’s survival party, showing us through humor and heart that it might just take the most dire of circumstances to reveal one’s heroic nature. This heroic nature is tester (spoiler alert) in the movie’s greatest moment in which his mother becomes a zombie and he must kill her. It’s a heart-wrenching moment tucked exquisitely among the action and humor.

And speaking of humor, we can’t forget that Shaun of the Dead is simply funny as hell. A feast for the observant nerd, the film is typical of other Simon Pegg vehicles in that subtle jokes are paid off hours later, delightfully telling details are thrown in for those watching close enough, and references to B-plots and other narratives are scattered among the bloody river of English Wit. It’s generally difficult to translate British humor into American lexicon, so I get it if some don’t find this movie as entertaining as I do. It might help to know that instead of saying a phone line is “busy” the Brits say “engaged.” It may help to also know that a common nickname for men called David is “Davs”, pronounced like “calves.” That said, most of the jokes work just fine, and what starts as a series of awkward situations slowly turns into hilarious, action-packed romp.

Actors to watch out for. Shaun’s mom? Yup, that’s Penelope Wilton, more commonly known as Mrs. Crawly, Mathew’s mother on Downton Abbey. When Shaun’s crew meets their counterparts in the alleyway? Yup, that’s Martin Freeman, before he became Dr. Watson and Bilbo Baggins, as Shaun’s doppelgänger. And be sure not to miss a sutble Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepfather.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Witches Fri, 11 Apr 2014 17:07:31 +0000 Philip Harris Based on books by master storyteller Roald Dahl, The Witches is one of those children’s movies that’s downright frightening.

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Poor Luke can’t catch a break. His American parents die in a car crash during a family trip to Norway. His grandmother collapses on his birthday in a diabetic coma after she gives him two mice. A literal witch tries to lure him out of a tree house with a poisonous snake. And, oh yeah, he spends the majority of this brilliant film as a mouse.

One of the many movies based on books by master storyteller Roald Dahl, The Witches is, much like Return to Oz which I reviewed last month, one of those children’s movies that’s downright frightening. I don’t know what it is about children’s movies, but since the beginning of children’s cinema—from when Snow White‘s Queen hires a man to cut out Snow’s heart up until Elsa an Anna’s parents die in a shipwreck—young protagonists are thrown into parentless, dire situations. I’d love to see a classic children’s movie in which the parents are fine, in which the children aren’t in real danger. Of course, there’d be no movie if that were the case.

Well, young Luke is in definite danger. But, even before we get to Luke’s storyline, one of the most frightening moments in The Witches happens at the very beginning, when Luke’s grandmother tells the story of her young, schoolgirl friend Erica who disappears from the streets of Norway at the hands of the Grand High Witch. Eventually, the girl reappears, but only (and disturbingly) in her parents’ oil painting. Trapped in the painting, we see the child age: first a young girl, then a woman,  and finally a hunched-over hag who one day literally fades out of the picture.

From there, after his parents die, Luke, his grandmother, and his mice go to the English seaside for a holiday. There, woefully, a convention of witches is convening to discuss how to better kill the children of England. And in the first time I was ever introduced to her as an actress, Angelica Houston herself plays the Grand High Witch. She is the diva of all divas, only being out-eviled possibly by Maleficent. Angelica’s performance is dramatic and over-the-top, all things befitting a grand high witch who wants to turn British kids into mice so she can step on them. Adding to the magic, after Angelica takes off her face and scalp (yup, you read that right) the Grand High Witch is portrayed by a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation that is straight out of a child’s nightmare. It’s great, and I never thought a molded piece of polyurethane could out act Angelica Houston.

In a delightful cameo, Rowan Atkinson plays the befuddled hotel manager, wondering where and why all the women convening are itching their scalps, as he tries to rid the building of all the new mice scattering about. His facial expressions and physical performance are on perfect display. Also making a pre-fame appearance is Jane Horrocks who you’ll remember as the ever-idiotic Bubble from Britain’s greatest television program ever, Absolutely Fabulous.

Through the phenomenal storytelling of Roald Dahl, whose imaginative plots and premises are among my favorite in the whole world (I mean, come on, James and the Giant Peach?) The Witches moves pretty fast through a compelling narrative. While still maintaining its classic children’s movie edge, the journey Luke must go on to no longer be a mouse and save the children of England from a murderous witch is harrowing. He must overcome kitchens filled with knives and boiling pots of soup as well as the witches themselves who love nothing more then to stomp on the mouses, splattering their guts all over the floor. Those moments are just this side of wince-inducing, which makes them actually fun.

There are  definitely some strange cuts in this movie. We move from Norway, to England, to the seaside pretty fast, but the delicious evilness and wicked witchery more than makes up for those awkward cuts. And I’m not the only one who feels this way either. In a very unprecedented score, The Witches is one of the few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to have a full 100% backing. I couldn’t agree more.

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The Film Cult Presents: Edward Scissorhands Fri, 04 Apr 2014 17:00:17 +0000 Philip Harris WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Edward Scissorhands is definitely flawed. The ending is a predictable Saturday-matinee mob scene. The plot is loosely hung on a frame-work of stock characters and a fairy-tale...

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Edward Scissorhands is definitely flawed. The ending is a predictable Saturday-matinee mob scene. The plot is loosely hung on a frame-work of stock characters and a fairy-tale premise that started with Beauty and the Beast, probably before. It’s moral could ultimately be summed up as, “be nice to those who are different,” and the middle of the movie is an episodic adventure formula of what Edward can do with his hands to impress his new suburban neighbors. So why do I love this movie so much? Let’s explore why Edward Scissorhands is one of my favorite films of all times, and I don’t mean that lightly, for there are moments within that touch the sublimely heartfelt in a way no other movie can.

First and foremost, Johnny Depp and I should be friends. I think it’s pretty clear we would totally get each other. I mean, we could talk about buying islands, doing drugs with Hunter S. Thompson, what it’s like to live in France. You know, all the normal things. But, what we could really bond over is his first role in a Tim Burton film, Edward Scissorhands. Beating out Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and even Michael Jackson, Depp was given the part because upon his first time reading the script he wept like a newborn. I feel that, Johnny. I feel that. It’s that emotion that Depp brings to the forefront in his portrayal of Edward, that elementally gentle monster who can’t help but hurt those he loves because his very nature is dangerous.

Second, Winona Ryder as Kim. What better way to ensure chemistry between your lead actors than to have them be a real-life couple. When they look in each other’s eyes, you know it’s real. You can hear them laughing in Depp’s house overlooking the Sunset strip. You can see them walking around Venice, looking for hemp cloth and big rings that will turn their skin black, the fate of their relationship written in the stars above Los Angeles. Winona’s face, framed by that horrible wig, breaks your heart, and even as the grandmother telling her grandchild how the snow began in their neighborhood, you can’t help but fall in love with her.

Third, for being a sentimental movie about love and difference, the social commentary is caustic. The American dream of owning a house, having a cheerleader for a daughter, having barbecues with your friends, watering your lawn on a Sunday afternoon, watching football games with your son—all of that means nothing to Edward. In fact, all of that is as dangerous to him as he is to it. Ambrosia salad is awful, and the suburbs will destroy anything that doesn’t fit into its nauseatingly pastel world. By the end of the movie, when Edward realizes he must return to his mountain-top castle, he begins to literally destroy the neighborhood. As mentioned earlier, the middle of the movie is an episodic chunk of what he can mundanely do with his scissors: shrubs shaped like dinosaurs, asymmetrical haircuts for pet and owner, salad chopper, etc. Throughout all that safe suburban stuff, you’re just waiting for him to really use blades. As the townsfolk begin to swarm, after they’ve decided he’s dangerous, he destroys the wallpaper, vandalizes one of his topiaries, and punctures a stranger’s tire. And in the end, our morbid curiosity is rewarded when we get to see him finally take a life. He learns, even though he wants to so badly, he can never be a part of Kim’s life, and in so realizing, he will take down as much of that life to the best of his ability.

Also, it’s the soft moments, the nuanced yet simple writing (by the gifted screenwriter Caroline Thompson) that gets at the movie’s true heart. Take for instance, the ethics quiz Edward’s surrogate father, played by Alan Arkin, gives him near the plot’s climax. When given the scenario of finding a suitcase full of money, Edward must choose what to do: A, keep it. B, use it to buy gifts for his friends and loved ones. C, give it to the poor. D, give it to the police. When Edward replies that he’d give it to his loved ones, his surrogate mother, played by the heart-warming Diane Weist, sighs and says “Oh, Edward, it does seem that that’s what you should do, but it’s not.” Edward acts from a place of pure love, that debilitating, dangerous love that exists in the wild beyond those suffocating neighborhoods where the right answer is to give the money to the police.

But ultimately, for me anyway, it’s the moments between Edward and The Inventor, played by an aging Vincent Price in his last film role, that make this movie. In scenes with virtually no dialogue, we see The Inventor use his frightening, Gothic machines to make heart-shaped cookies. We see him read humorous poetry to a half-made Edward, instructing him that it’s okay to smile when something is funny. And in the film’s greatest moment, during a Christmas flashback, the great Inventor–the father who “didn’t wake up”–attempts to give his creation and son Edward a pair of real hands. The moment is devastating, and every time I see it, just like Johnny, I weep like a newborn.

Remember when Tim Burton used to make epic fairy tales about true outsiders in fantastical circumstances? Beetlejuice? The Nightmare Before Christmas? Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Before he started making movies based on product potential, he made movies for us, the weird and nerdy who love like everyone else but hurt just a little more. Edward Scissorhands was the best of those films, and when Edward reached his lethal hand to us, we accepted it, blood and all. Edward Scissorhands is the greatest gift Tim Burton has given to us outsiders. I hope someday he remembers we’re still here.


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The Film Cult Presents: Battle Royale Fri, 28 Mar 2014 17:10:28 +0000 Philip Harris WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Battle Royale got a lot of press when the first Hunger Games movie came out. Hipsters were up in arms with protestations of “Rip off!” and “It’s...

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Battle Royale got a lot of press when the first Hunger Games movie came out. Hipsters were up in arms with protestations of “Rip off!” and “It’s been done!” I like to give The Hunger Games the benefit of the doubt. It’s not exactly the same movie. Don’t get me wrong, the similarities are striking: both based on a novel about a bunch of kids thrown together and forced to kill each other. There the similarities end, though. I know; I know. Those are big similarities, practically the entire premise of both movies being identical. True. True. But, The Hunger Games is a YA movie about Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth looking really hot in melodramatic circumstances. Battle Royale isn’t about heartthrobs. The Hunger Games is also a meditation on the nature of reality television. Battle Royale is about discipline, about keeping children in order, which I’m all for. I wouldn’t say I’m all for letting them go at each other with automatic weaponry, but I’m all for keeping them in line.

But, back to melodrama for a moment. Both of these movies thrive on melodrama. Where The Hunger Games uses melodrama in the District Twelve—the gray tones, the glory of being a baker of stony bread—Battle Royale uses melodrama in flashbacks fit for a Lifetime movie. These flashbacks, however, are used to establish and deepen characters. Does it work? Hard to say. The flashbacks are shot with enough feathered filtering to make Robert De Niro look like Nicole Ritchie. It works in that we now know more about the characters, thus making us more invested than we were before. Could the flashbacks be better? Oh, sure. But, then again, this is Japanese horror we’re talking about. Character development is hardly a subtle venture.

I’d be remiss to discuss the violence in Battle Royale. Talk about melodrama! People are gettin’ sliced and shot all over this island. You’re definitely expecting it, but it’s still totally unnerving when they shoot the first kid in the briefing room. Once out in the wild of Okishima, the blood and flesh fly like a haircut by Edward Scissorhands. Operatic in its ubiquity, the violence of Battle Royale starts off unnerving, moves into being almost humorous with its schlocky goriness, and then, which I’m assuming was director Koushun Takami’s ultimate point, becomes everyday, natural.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Stellan Skarsgard discusses his latest controversial take as Seligman in Lars von Trier’s much-hyped Nymphomaniac films. Discussing the ubiquitous  body parts, he states,  “Showing body parts…eventually becomes as normal as eating porridge in the morning.” And so it is with the violence in Battle Royale. It’s exciting at first, disturbingly graphic, but by the end, you understand that these are the rules. This is the world. People kill each other, and they’ll do it to survive, and they’ll do it to love whom they want.

While a meditation on the discipline of children and a statement on the numbness we experience in the face of constant violence, Battle Royale is also about how children hold the passwords to the future. It’s a beautiful comment on the technological gap between the current first-world youth and the generation before them. In any school in the world, in any family, it’s the nerdy kid who has the power. He or she instinctively knows what their adults will never master when it comes to using modern-day technology. Have you ever tried to teach your father how to use Instagram? I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the nerdy kids that will save the world. They’re the ones who will override the security system and beat the game developers at their own game.

Battle Royale hits all the notes The Hunger Games didn’t. There are no heartthrobs or politically disenfranchised hillbilly’s trying to scrape a life together coal mining and studying mushrooms in the Appalachia . Battle Royale is about uniformed children learning to fend for themselves on a deserted island, an island whose natural beauty is the perfect backdrop for the kinds of exquisite murders and suicides that are the meat and potatoes of any self-respecting Japanese fairy tale. Currently available on Netflix live, Battle Royale deserves a night of your attention. Just make sure you’ve already eaten.

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The Film Cult Presents: Death Becomes Her Fri, 21 Mar 2014 17:03:48 +0000 Philip Harris “Now a warning!?” Obviously Meryl Streep is a genius. Within my lifetime I think she may break Katharine Hepburn’s record for most best actress Oscars. The Great Kate has four,...

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“Now a warning!?”

Obviously Meryl Streep is a genius. Within my lifetime I think she may break Katharine Hepburn’s record for most best actress Oscars. The Great Kate has four, her first in 1934 and her last in 1982. Poor Meryl only has three, her first in 1979 and her most recent in 2011 for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. If only Meryl had been nominated for her consummate portrayal of Madeline Ashton in Death Becomes Her. If only the Academy had realized her true artistic acuity. Then again, they didn’t nominate her for her work in She Devil, so I guess it makes sense they’d overlook Death Becomes Her.

Death Becomes Her is not a great movie. It may not even be a good movie. Still, it’s pretty freakin’ awesome. With only a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it remains one of those strange, one-off films by cinema greats that becomes a cult to its most ardent fans. With material so wacky and a plot line that sort of dissipates half way through, it’s the star power of Meryl, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis, along with some amazing, if not a tad dated, special effects that make this movie a gem.

The premise is simple: a love triangle complicated by a pink potion that reinstates a person’s optimum beauty and renders the drinker immortal. Streep, Hawn, and Willis are the love triangle, and their chemistry throughout the movie is not only believable but hilarious. For some reason you believe Streep and Hawn are former best friends. I can see them right now having lunch in Santa Monica, gossiping while their salads go untouched. And Willis is just attractive enough as a the dorky Dr. Menville to make him worth fighting over. When the elixir of life is thrown into the mix, all hell (and bone density) breaks loose.

This film is most famous for its special effects and one liners. When the tensions of the love triangle reach their crescendo, physical fights break out in absurdly delectable ways. And yet, there they are, happening right before your very eyes. They shoot each other through the stomach (“And I can see right through you!”) They push each other down the stairs (“You’re in the shit house now pal!”) And they bash each other in the bean with shovels (“Will you please put your head on straight so I can talk to you?”) The scene where Streep’s body adjusts back to its former glory is still believable some twenty-odd years later.

Let’s talk about cameos. I’m not sure you could call Isabella Rossellini’s role a cameo, as she’s pretty fundamental to the story. But, I just can’t believe they got her to do it. She’s the forever young Lisle Von Rhuman, living in a Gothic palace somewhere above Sunset Boulevard. She’s wears necklaces as blouses, and yes, that’s Fabio as her body guard. Her acting is so deliciously over the top that every time she appears, you just hope for more. When she reappears in the third act, stepping out of a pool completely nude, you almost cheer. Other notable cameos are Sydney Pollack as the uncredited doctor, who examines Streep’s living dead body, and the late great Alaina Reed-Hall who turns in a great performance as Hawn’s long-suffering psychologist.

Turning in another uncredited performance is Los Angeles itself. Without ever really saying it, the only way any of this seems plausible is the fact that it’s all going down in LA. Only in LA is Greta Garbo still hiding out after drinking Rossellini’s potion. Only in LA are we willing to give up everything to live forever in perfect beauty, always remembered as the stars we once were. LA is the gilded lint trap for the rest of the country, catching all the once-beautifuls and the gorgeous dreamers in its palm fronds. Here, no one notices if your skin needs a touch-up because it’s starting to crack and reveal the dead gray beneath. Everyone is too busy hustling their own dream to notice the dead bodies in the back of the church or the car being pushed over Mulholland Drive. No one will notice you shot your best friend through the stomach, for as Streep confidently declares after Willis is worried about people hearing the gunshot, “Neighbors? In twelve years in Los Angeles, have you ever seen a neighbor?”

Like I said, Death Becomes Her is not a great movie, but it’s indelible kook is irresistible. It still plays on the premium channels all the time, and everyone I know can quote it for hours (“Make some room from for my friend for Christ’s sake. But, keep your ass handy.”) And, did I mention it won an oscar for best special effects? It did, and rightly so. While maybe not a critically acclaimed classic, it’s a comedy cult classic that I, and millions of others (mostly gay men, sure) are proud to call a favorite.

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The Film Cult Presents: Crumb Fri, 14 Mar 2014 16:58:12 +0000 Philip Harris WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was...

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When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was kept on the top shelf of the tallest bookshelf in our den because they thought it was far too adult for me or my younger brother. Maybe they’d forgotten I was over six feet tall. One afternoon, home alone from school, I popped the tape in our old VCR and was overwhelmed with sex: narrated sexual acts, graphic sexual drawings, and even a woman pornographer discussing the sexual appetite of the documentary’s subject. Thereafter, every afternoon I would fast-forward through the “boring” parts in order to get to the sex. I was in teenage boy heaven.

Eventually, my parents returned the tape, and I didn’t see Crumb again until last June when Turner Classic Movies showed it at eleven PM on a Saturday night. Jumping at the chance to revisit some of my old provocations, I decided to watch the film from beginning to end for the first time. I was astonished.  As a kid I’d relegated Crumb to the same category as the Hustler magazines I’d found in my uncles’ bathrooms. Childhood treasures rarely hold up once the veil of innocence is destroyed by forms, taxes, and Trader Joe’s, but this was not the case with Crumb. It didn’t take long to realize that Crumb wasn’t porn. It was an honest portrait of an artist and his dysfunctional family.

Robert Crumb is most famous for his 1968, one-page comic “Keep on Truckin’” which became a counterculture slogan in the late sixties and early seventies. He’s also famous for illustrating the cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album Cheap Thrills. After the fame of those two projects, he collaborated with such luminaries as writers Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar, illustrating many of Pekar’s American Splendor comics. Recently, Robert Crumb drew an unabridged depiction of the book of Genesis. He’s become so important to the world of comic illustration that for a cool thousand bucks you can purchase a six-volume, hardcover boxed set of his sketchbooks. By the time director Terry Swigoff convinced him to make the biographical documentary in the mid-nineties, Robert Crumb had already spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the tormented issues of his life through his art, providing Swigoff with an evocative wealth of material to (unapologetic pun incoming) draw upon. Crumb is relentless in its honesty, and it’s that honesty that both repels and endears us by the end of the film.

Early in the documentary, Robert Crumb admits to having been sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. He obsessively draws women from his youth with whom he was infatuated. His depictions of sexual acts are uber-misogynist, turning women into sexual non-entities their pimply, deranged male counterparts use to act out various perversions. And yet, as evidenced in the film, women loved him. Throughout the movie, female fans are describing his large penis, offering to model for him, and defending his sexual fantasies. The conundrum is real for the viewer. Here is a strange man who uses his genius level talent to depict headless women in disgusting, racist, and nightmarish situations. Crumb pulls no punches in depicting the physiological foundation for his obsession with hardcore variances. The documentary’s message is clear: to understand what perverted the artist’s mind, one need look no further than his family.

Robert was one of five children: two brothers, who are featured in the film, and two sisters who decided not to participate. The familial portrait that emerges is one of parents constantly fighting, an abusive father who broke Robert’s collarbone as a child, and an amphetamine addicted mother. Charles, the oldest of the Crumb children, was also an artist, often taking after his tyrannical father by commanding Robert to draw for and with him. This fraternal overbearing affected Robert his whole life. In Crumb, now famous and wealthy, Robert confesses that he still thinks of Charles’ approval when he draws. Charles, who fought a physiological urge towards pedophelia his whole life, was also beaten regularly by their father, leaving such an indelible mark that in his adult life he never left his mother’s house, reread the stacks of novels in his room, and obsessively drew line designs in his notebooks. His depression is given the same raw treatment as Robert’s sexuality because the only way to portray Robert Crumb’s life is to go all the way in, to show Charles’ matted hair, his messy room, and the hatred in his face when he’s yelling at their mother. He’s the twisted, deranged heart of the documentary, and in tragic concordance, Charles committed suicide shortly after the documentary was released.

While Robert turned to sexual perversions and writing to save himself from insanity, his younger brother Max turned to painting and asceticism. Crumb shows him living in bleak circumstance, meditating on a bed of nails, eating near nothing, and devoting his life to sexual chastity after having molested female strangers on the subway in his youth. Due to his portrayal in the documentary, his paintings have taken on a life of their own, and he now supports himself through their sales. One of the film’s most harrowing moments is when Max demonstrates his ritual of swallowing and passing a 30-foot cloth ribbon through his body while seated atop his bed of nails. He is still alive and still lives in San Francisco.

Crumb‘s critical backbone is honesty. It’s a documentary that benefits from the participation of its still-living subject. By the end, we know who Robert Crumb is and the familial hell from which he came. That said, it’s easy to recognize his genius, to acknowledge the contribution he’s made to the world of comics, but it’s not as easy to forgive and accept his misogynist art. I would be remiss not to take I’m to task for it, to accept it as even remotely okay in terms of current gender-role representation. The questions I would ask are, why is the work famous? Why is it popular? Perhaps Robert Crumb has been one of the few talented and brave (re: crazy) enough artists to be honest about what’s on his mind, what haunts the recesses of his perversions. For an outcast kid from a family of depressed tyrants, maybe its all he had. Maybe, when he was being bullied and felt suicidal, his talent, dreams, and horny thoughts were all he had. At seventeen, Robert Crumb decided that becoming a great artist would be his greatest revenge, deciding to reject conforming when life rejected him. His art is complicated, but his story is crystal clear to anyone who’s ever hoped their art would save them.

Here’s the original extended trailer:

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The Film Cult Presents: Return to Oz Fri, 07 Mar 2014 18:01:51 +0000 Philip Harris Decapitation, electroshock therapy...this is a Disney movie??

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I have three vivid memories of watching Return to Oz as a child: once at school, once at a cabin in the woods, and once at my cousin’s house. I remember being sort of scared each time, but I also remember an increasing exhilaration and being totally mesmerized each time I saw it. I was a weird kid. Re-watching the film this week, however, I was mostly just scared. How is this even children’s movie? Within the first ten minutes, a wife is disgusted with her lay-about husband who isn’t rebuilding the family hovel. A ten-year-old girl can’t sleep, a chicken is threatened to lay eggs or die, and said ten-year-old is sent to a clinic for electroshock therapy only to escape and fall into a river during a lightening storm. Let’s not be fooled, dear readers. Even at a PG rating, this is no kids’ movie. Also, it’s hardly a sequel. There are elements that echo The Wizard of Oz, and by “echo“ I mean the fading cries of a lost childhood, but to really see the beauty (yes, beauty) of Return to Oz, director Walter Murch’s only feature film, one must try and see it for what it truly is, a dark comedy of fantastical errors.

But first, we simply can’t ignore the elephant-of-a-different color in the room. Because I’m a living, breathing human being, The Wizard of Oz takes up around 9 percent of my waking consciousness. I can’t get through the day without tripping over references to MGM’s 1939 ultra-classic. There was even a tribute (its millionth) at the Oscars this past Sunday. References sprout up in pop culture all day, every day, and frankly I’m getting sick of it. Return to Oz is a well-deserved rebuke of the Oz-haze American culture has been under since Dorothy dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East, taking the sugary mystique of The Wizard of Oz and twisting its nipples into kinky, purple submission. It hurts so bad, yet it’s intriguing and strangely enjoyable.

But, let’s return to Oz. See what I did there? It’s been about six months since the dreaded twister schlepped Dorothy Gale over the rainbow. As you know, with the help of her stolen ruby slippers, she finally returns to the splendor of the Kansas plains. Back home, however, her only real friend is a chicken named Billina. Toto’s been very stand-offish since they got back. Also, she’s having trouble sleeping. That’s when the over-burdened Aunt Em and Uncle Henry decide to give her electroshock therapy, which is clearly the only option.

Alone in her cell at the clinic, Dorothy hears the cries and screams of other patients (foreshadowing the taunts of the wheelers) and the piercing creaks and squeaks of a stretcher’s rusty wheels (again foreshadowing the wheelers.) Her lunch box, which is really just a bucket, is taken from her by Nurse Wilson, who is clad head-to-toe in Victorian black, referencing the original Wicked Witch of the West. Don’t worry about Dorothy’s lunch box being confiscated, though. She finds a tree ripe with them once she gets to Oz and travails the deadly desert which turns any living thing that touches it to sand. The machine administering her electro-therapy is a face, foreshadowing TikTok, Oz’s one-robot army. The vapid ghost girl who appears in Dorothy’s cell to tell her how to escape is holding a jack-o-lantern for no real reason other than to foreshadow Jack the Pumpkinhead who appears later in the movie.

With all these plot seeds planted, all that’s needed is a natural disaster to get Dorothy to Oz. Cue the electrical storm! One lightening strike and a chase through the woods later, Dorothy and the vapid girl ghost fall into a river and survive only by the grace of the floating chicken coup they find in the raging rapids. Dorothy passes out only to awaken in Oz! Tada! Billina, the aforementioned Chicken, has replaced the vapid ghost girl and can now talk, turning into a wise-cracking, sassy sidekick with lines like, “Glad it isn’t fried chicken,” and, “All this way to see a bunch of stiffs.” You can rewatch the movie yourself for the contexts of those gags, which, honestly, are pretty funny.

Dorothy finds her way out of the deadly desert, gets her lunch box from the lunch-box tree (Billina: “What happened to breakfast?”), and she discovers her aunt and uncle’s house the original twister swept away. But, this is no longer Munchkinland. This is a forest, an actual, on-location forest. No more popping technicolor or lolly-pop guilds, just an empty, broken-down house in the middle of the woods. It’s not unlike The Blair Witch Project. Anyway, the yellow brick road has been turned to rubble, and all Dorothy wants at this point is to see the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. Following what’s left of the yellow brick road, she finds herself in the ruins of the Emerald City. Here’s where it begins to really sink in for the viewer. Everything you loved about The Wizard of Oz has been literally destroyed. Return to Oz should have been called The Wizard of Was. It’s in the Emerald City where we meet the Wheelers.

Ah, the Wheelers, those bastions of childhood nightmares. I remember them being scarier. Don’t get me wrong, they’re frightening as hell, but their their costumes are straight out of Solid Gold. Without the wheels they wouldn’t look out of place at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. That said, they still say things like, “You have to come out sooner or later. And when you do, we’ll tear you into little pieces and throw you in the Deadly Dessert.” Charming. To escape the Wheelers, Dorothy hides in an old storage room where she meets TikTok, the one-robot army of Oz. He’s a kind, steam-punky pile of spheres with no heart and an obligation to protect Dorothy. Of course, he can’t, and they end up in a castle with a headless woman.

Princess Mombi is her name, and decapitating beautiful women is her game. Truly, her big thing is that she has a gallery of heads she interchanges depending on her mood. She’s absolutely terrifying, and her original head (in cabinet 31) is actually Nurse Wilson from the electroshock clinic, played the divine Jean Marsh. Well, Princess Mombi traps Dorothy, Billina, and TikTok in her attic, where she keeps all her antiques. While up there, Dorothy gets really pale and hungry and ends up having sex with her brother. Sorry, wrong movie. More believably, Dorothy meets a stick man with a pumpkin for a head who calls her Mom. To escape, they tie a taxidermy moose head to a sofa, attach to it some palm fronds, and, using Mombi’s powder of life, fly out of the tower and across the Deadly Desert to the mountain palace of the Gnome King.

The Gnome King is angry. You’d be angry too if you were called the Gnome King and there wasn’t a single gnome to be found in all of Oz. He’s had his eye on Dorothy since she arrived, proving that in Return to Oz the hills literally have eyes. The Gnome King, a man made of the mountain rock, is afraid of Billina the chicken, of course, but since she’s hiding out in Jack’s pumpkin head, the rock giant has the all-clear to torment Dorothy with no fear. Dorothy discovers that the Gnome King is responsible for destroying the Emerald City, claiming the emeralds therein really belonged to him. He also has taken the Scarecrow and turned him into a knickknack in his room of curiosities and ornaments. All the villains in this movie are obsessed with objet d’art. In Saw-like fashion, the Gnome King wants to play a game with Dorothy. She has three chances to choose which knickknack is the Scarecrow. If she guesses wrong, she too will be turned into a knickknack. Before she guesses, however, the Gnome King, who reveals he’s in possession of the ruby slippers, offers her the chance to go home and forget everything about Oz. Dorothy, being a ten-year-old girl from the Kansas sticks, gallantly decides to play the king’s game even though it might turn her into a tchotchke imprisoned under a mountain for the rest of time. Given the options, I can’t say I blame her. Naturally, she chooses correctly, the Gnome King freaks out, and Billina saves the day by laying an egg in the Gnome King’s mouth. The vapid ghost girl reappears back in the emerald city, amongst all the celebrations, and reclaims her seat as Ozma, Queen of Oz. With the help of the ruby slippers, which now adorn Queen Ozma’s tootsies, Dorothy returns home to the moderate relief of the Kansas-folk.

While completely insane and totally dismissive of the 1939, beloved classic, Return to Oz, with the right amount of ironic distance, is still a 100% enjoyable experience. Yes, the themes are helter-skleter. Is it about home? Is it about believing in yourself? Is it about friendship? Is it about how the smallest of things (like, an egg) can save the day? Who knows? Who cares? The cinematography is epic, evoking the eerie fantasy-scapes of other eighties classics like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. The sound-editing is masterful. Then again, director Walter Murch was first and foremost a sound engineer. Fairuza Balk, whom I’m convinced basically played the same character with PTSD in The Craft, is actually pretty believable as a ten-year-old able to dodge all the movie’s mishegas. While maybe not able to truly hold up to the magic I saw in it as a child, Return to Oz is still a wild ride and a fun time. The next time you and your friends want to take a trip down memory lane and still get a laugh, pick up this cult classic. And let’s face it, a lunch-box tree would be pretty awesome.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Wicker Man Fri, 28 Feb 2014 19:12:46 +0000 Philip Harris Oh, to go back to the days when naked people sang songs in circles on the solstice.

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Let’s get the bad part out of the way. Nicolas Cage and the great Ellen Burstyn remade The Wicker Man in 2006 to devastating results. While the original holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the half-baked, pathetic remake maintains a strong 15% rating. If you ask me, that’s about fourteen percentages too generous. Let’s pretend it doesn’t exist. OK, great.

The Wicker Man is shrouded in mystery. Different versions of the film have floated around for years, the holy grail of which being an apparently 102-minute version that’s been lost for decades. A 99-minute director’s cut is the version upon which I base this review and the current standard. Perhaps one day we’ll all get to see the original 102-minute version. Then again, maybe one day we’ll all meet on Summerisle and have an orgy in the park. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The plot is simple and like any great story can be summed up in one sentence: A virgin police officer named Sergeant Howie travels to an island called Summerisle, populated by pagans, to investigate the kidnapping of a girl called Rowan. Weird ish goes down from the jump-off, when first no one on the island claims to have heard of Rowan, yet she has a mom, an empty grave, and a desk at the schoolhouse. Then, after being offended by all kinds of awesomely debauched pagan stuff—the aforementioned orgy in the park, the girl who must put a frog in her mouth, the umbilical cord on the tree—Sergeant Howie discovers a ritual human sacrifice is set to take place on May Day in order to bring back the island’s failed crops. After he’s presumably left the island, he dons a customary costume for the big day and (surprise!) it’s actually he who will burn in the wicker man on May Day.

Pagan Parade - The Wicker Man

This movie works for several reasons. The first is that it’s so straightforward. The viewer wonders, “No, this can’t be happening. Wait a tick, it is happening!” And then it happens. Bam! Roll credits. Its natural progression comes from writer Anthony Schaffer using as his source material the 1890 anthropological study by James Frazer called The Golden Bough. The annotated 1922 edition is worth picking up on Amazon. Within its hundreds of pages, Mr. Frazer describes the pagan rituals of tribes and communities from all over the planet, making his seminal work a grab-bag for weird human behavior. The point is, the rituals in The Wicker Man are real. Much like The Godfather is a compendium of mafia lore and stories, The Wicker Man is a smorgasbord of pagan fun. Oh, to go back to the days when people sang songs in circles on the solstice.

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