Short month, long movie list!

I hit some good marks in February. I’m trying for a more balanced movie diet after spending 2020 mostly on thrillers and dramas. February included rewatches of some of my favorite movies, but I’ve still only seen one new movie this year (the very good One Night in Miami, on Amazon Prime).

Here’s the list from February. As always, italics indicates a first time watching the movie, and red indicates a staff pick.

  • Vertigo (1958): Not much to say about this that hasn’t been said over the past six decades (for example, Roger Ebert’s review). It’s fascinating and weird and iconic, and Kim Novak is great, and the script is undercooked: the reveal should come earlier, and at least be hinted at earlier in the film. The emotional beats all land well, but I always think about the plot when I watch this.
  • The Terminator (1984): Masterpiece of low-budget action. I was really happy to watch this again, as it had been a couple of decades. I prefer Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but so much of why that movie works was because of groundwork laid here.
  • Sunshine State (2002): In a ranking of John Sayles movies, I’d put this in the bottom few. It is still an interesting movie, especially Edie Falco and Angela Bassett. It has a lot of Sayles’ favorite topics and themes (single parents, the march of progress versus the working class, friction between generations), but it feels less essential than City of Hope or Silver City (see below).
  • My Dinner with Andre (1981): I don’t know if you can find this on streaming. I bought the Criterion release during their half-off sale. This is one of my favorite movies. The premise is as straightforward as you can get (actor/playwright has dinner with a friend who is rumored to have gone a little unhinged), but this works to the film’s advantage: we have a lifetime of experience with understanding the progression of a meal at a restaurant, which helps us stay grounded and mark the time as Andre Gregory talks, for instance, about improvisational rituals in a forest in Poland. There has never been a shortage of writers writing about the importance of writing, or actors discussing the importance of acting, but it has rarely been done this well. The conversation in My Dinner is absurd and profound and sad in equal measures.
  • Paris, Texas (1984): Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell in the Texas desert landscape. Quiet and tremendous movie that takes its time as it unspools the story of what would drive a man to disappear for four years.
  • True Lies (1994): What if James Bond was a family man? This movie steals a ton of iconography and stunts from the Bond franchise (including the Florida Keys bridge stuff from License to Kill). The one thing it should not have taken was the Bond tendency to stage a dramatic finale for the film… and then have that lead up to a second dramatic finish which unfurls over 30 more minutes. This should have ended at the nuclear detonation instead of the bad slapstick in Miami with the Harrier jet. Jamie Lee Curtis is the only reason that the domestic part works, such as it does. It’s a tough row to hoe, though, watching our protagonist stalking his wife and her would-be beau, especially after 16 years of gaslighting her during their marriage.
  • The Hunt for Red October (1990): I’m all for Harrison Ford movies. He’s a great movie star. However, I think that Alec Baldwin made for a better Jack Ryan, and I prefer this movie to the subsequent Jack Ryan films. The cast here is incredible, highlighted by Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, and James Earl Jones. This is a really interesting Cold War thriller.
  • Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991): This was the director’s cut, which added back in about fifteen additional minutes. As with Waterworld, this apparently had a lot of important plot details hacked out of the theatrical cut of the film. For instance, the hooded cabal that we see once in the theatrical cut actually is comprised of barons and other nobles who are actively plotting with the Sheriff to seize the lands of England and redistribute them among themselves For another, the Sheriff forces marriage on Marian so he can present a child with royal blood when he and the barons overthrow King Richard. Understanding his motivations gives context to why he is so manic and weird in the last third of the film. We also noticed the heavy Sam Raimi influence this time around (fish-eye lenses, the projectile cam, characters yanked through the air like rag dolls, jarring shifts in tone within scenes). Overall, the movie is fun and bad, but the director’s cut is less bad.
  • The Brother from Another Planet (1984): Odd, interesting sci-fi movie. Joe Morton plays a mute fugitive alien who crashes in Harlem, and integrates into society through the goodwill of strangers. John Sayles and David Strathairn play Men in Black pursuing him. The percussive soundtrack (afro-beat? calypso-adjacent?) is really awesome, but the movie is pretty shaggy overall. The themes of community and acceptance are never heavy-handed, and Morton totally makes it all work. Such a great actor.
  • High Fidelity (2000): An all-time favorite. Iconic performance from Jack Black, stellar soundtrack, interesting premise. It is fun to watch an abrasive, borderline unlikeable character like Rob as our lead, and I think it works mostly because John Cusack is charming enough to keep us invested even when the character is making yet another playlist or sliding into infidelity.
  • Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987): Dang-ass masterpiece. Steve Martin plays against type as the uptight WASP and John Candy plays the red-nosed character. The pairing works, and, for what it’s worth, I think that the movie also would be a dang-ass masterpiece if you swapped the roles of the two leads.
  • Top Secret (1984): I wanted to rewatch this, as I hadn’t seen it since about 1990. It sucks. Sucks sucks sucks. The idea that this is the same creative team as The Naked Gun and Airplane! is stunning.
  • Tropic Thunder (2008): I think that Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux made things harder on themselves than they needed to when writing this movie. Yes, they kind of manage to justify the presence of a character in blackface in the film: they make it very clear that they are not portraying a Black person, they are skewering the idea of an idiot White actor thinking that he can justify blackface because it is for a dramatic role. And they kind of manage to justify the repeated use of the R word with Stiller’s character playing a mentally disabled character just for the awards season buzz. However, neither of these things are ok, and they are unnecessary for the film to work. The movie is extremely funny despite these missteps, but your mileage may vary.
  • Silver City (2004): Some light Bush-era political satire from John Sayles. The idiot scion of a powerful political figure keeps falling upward thanks to his father’s Svengali, and we’re all powerless to stop megacorporations that flout regulation and ethics in the name of profit. It is fun to see Danny Huston in a rare good-guy role, and a bumbling, lighthearted one at that. The movie has a great cast and has the usual Sayles stuff (interconnected storylines, etc.: see Sunshine State above). Pretty good, but if you are looking for a Sayles movie to watch, steer toward Matewan, City of Hope, or Lone Star.
  • City of Hope (1991): This movie is so good. So good. As is often the case with indie films or low-budget films, the distribution rights can be a thorny tangle, preventing a movie from getting a DVD or Blu Ray release despite interest in the film or filmmakers. In this case, this movie is massively overdue for a nice restoration treatment but there isn’t even a rumor of that happening. HOWEVER, this movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, so you should go watch it. Local councilmen, shady businessmen, born losers, racist cops, good cops, angry kids, and single mothers populate the fictional Hudson, New Jersey, and they are played by an array of Sayles regulars. The ending is a gut punch that ranks among the best that I’ve seen in the past year, as it manages to underline the movie’s themes while also being dramatically poignant. Huge recommend.
  • Sgt. Bilko (1996): lol. This is also a huge recommend, but for different reasons. Steve Martin plays a lovable con artist who runs the motor pool on a military base. The stakes are super low, the characters are quick-witted and/or buffoonish in just the right ways, and Phil Hartman is a delightful villain. This is a primo movie for when you want to shake off the stress of the day.
  • Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993): It is wild just how much this movie directly lifts from Prince of Thieves. I know that this is pretty common among spoofs in general and 80s/90s Mel Brooks in particular, but watching these movies within a day of each other, it was amazing how many subtle things were lifted out of the Costner film. I’d recommend watching the two movies as a double feature, as I think they complement each other perfectly.
  • Wild at Heart (1990): What a cuckoo movie. Really interesting performances from Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, but I think that the Diane Ladd scenes are too soap operatic, and the Wizard of Oz stuff is a little heavy-handed. Shout-out to whoever picked Willem Dafoe’s prosthetic teeth, which are among the most disgusting in movie history.
  • The Birdcage (1996): Another dang-ass masterpiece. One of my favorite movies of all time: the banter, the bickering, the dramatic wailing, everything works well. The movie also looks more vibrant and cinematic than most modern comedies (other than Paul Feig, basically), and heavy hitter Emmanuelle Lubezki as cinematographer shines a light on the incredible set and costume design. (Lubezki, if you recall, did the cinematography on the gorgeous films The Revenant (2015), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and The Tree of Life (2011)).
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): I really enjoyed my February. Holy moly. Another comedy with hucksters conning other hucksters, which is my favorite kind of movie. That they never made a sequel is one of the great missed opportunities in movie history. (“G’day, Nikos, Chips O’Toole here.”)
  • In the Mouth of Madness (1994): My least favorite John Carpenter film, and that includes the spotty Vampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001). There are still things to like here: Sam Neill puts in some great work as the slowly unraveling lead; the special effects are mostly awesome; the premise is novel. However, the movie feels too short but also feels like there is not enough plot for what was filmed (a narrative framing device is rarely the sign of a well-written script). We could have used more investigation from Neill’s character, instead of him basically arriving to town and everything resolving immediately. There aren’t a lot of good Lovecraftian horror films, though (The Vast of Night and The Lighthouse are the best two in decades), so take what you can get if eldritch horror is your kink.
  • Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953): Less essential than Jacques Tati’s other films like Mon Oncle (1958), this nonetheless is fun and quirky. I especially love all of the gags with Hulot’s weird, old-timey automobile.
  • The Odd Couple (1968): Another two-hander comedy masterpiece. It is interesting how the movie is structured, with more time spent on the build-up and fallout from Felix and Oscar cohabitating than is actually spent on them cohabitating. I noticed this time around how much it is staged and shot like a stage play rather than a movie.
  • Psycho (1960): I was most struck this time around by Anthony Perkins’ performance. He makes some really interesting choices, especially for 1960. I still dislike how the movie ends, basically like a morality tale episode of Dragnet, but it is pretty shocking and transgressive up to that point.
  • Blade of the Immortal (2017): So many loose limbs and blood worms. Fun, in a Ninja Scroll (1993) kind of way.
  • Conan the Destroyer (1984): This is such a huge missed opportunity. The cast is really weird and interesting (Wilt Chamberlain’s only acting credit! Andre the Giant in an uncredited turn as the horned monster god! Tracey Walter as the archetypal high fantasy thief! GRACE JONES!). The set design and costumes are so sweet. The special effects are cool and dated in a pleasing way. However, the PG rating doomed the movie, as it lacks the edge that makes the first movie a classic. And it is really gross to have the Olivia D’Abo character mooning for Conan given both the actress’ and character’s age.
  • Big Trouble in Little China (1986): Dang-ass masterpiece. I love this period in John Carpenter’s career, when he’s writing and directing homages to Howard Hawks and John Ford and, here, the Shaw Bros. Kurt Russell is maybe the only person who could thread the needle on being the hunky leading man of the action movie who is also the bumbling sidekick to the real hero of the story. (Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham can almost pull it off, FWIW.) The movie has tons of weird moments and I like that they make zero attempt to make the magic and powers of the characters consistent. Who cares about that stuff, you nerds. :p
  • The Counselor (2013): I really expected this movie to be good. It really wasn’t. Javier Bardem’s haircut and Cameron Diaz are the highlights. Brad Pitt’s death scene is great. But overall, this needed to be weirder, or more fun, or darker, or more interesting. There’s just not much here given the talent involved.
  • Den of Thieves (2018): Everyone who recommends this movie says “It’s like a Michael Mann film!” Which makes me wonder if they are watching the same Michael Mann films that I am. Sure, there’s a thief crew and a police crew, and there is a long gunfight in a crowded area. But saying “It’s like Heat” is like saying that Reese’s Cups and pizza are similar because they are both circular and are sold in sealed packages. This movie doesn’t spend enough time on either crew, and spends way too much time on puffy-faced, drunk-ass Nick (Gerard Butler), who is a red bull and vodka hangover dressed in way too many bracelets and rings to be taken seriously. I hate that Pablo Schreiber is wasted in this movie. I did like the bank robbery misdirect, and the FRB heist.
  • Christine (1983): The special effects in this movie are incredible. I have no idea how they did the scenes where Christine repairs herself. The movie’s unfortunate legacy, though? It earnestly opens and closes with George Thorogood and the Destroyers “Bad to the Bone.” Y I K E S.
  • Joe Versus the Volcano (1990): This movie is weird as hell, and I love everything except for the ending. It’s a perfect 10 until the last 20 minutes, which knocks 2 points off that score.
  • Priest (2011): The opening preamble is animated and very cool. The movie proper is grey on grey scenes with a ludicrous premise and runs about 70 minutes, excluding the opening.
  • Once upon a Time in the West (1968): I love Jason Robards, and he’s fun as hell in this. I still don’t understand why he does the shoe-gun thing on the train, other than for his own amusement.
  • Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh (2019): One of my favorite standup comedians being pretty frank about his bouts of depression. It’s a cathartic experience.
  • Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): Another John Carpenter, another iconic movie score, another batch of cult actors in a movie paying homage to Howard Hawks, this time the all-time-great Rio Bravo (1959).


See you in March!