Friday, April 7, 2023

Notes on Film: The State of Movies Today

 by Anthony King

I just like them.

Thanks to a trip to the theater and a handful of tweets from several different people this week I've been thinking about something: what is the likelihood that the year I decide to watch as many new releases as possible, the people who usually watch all the new movies are lamenting the fact that new movies aren't very good? More in a bit, but first, what I've been watching.
If the underwater rape mutants from Barbara Peeters's Humanoids from the Deep (1980) made their way east and bunked in the sewers and abandoned subway tunnels with the cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers from C.H.U.D. (1984) and wreaked havoc in New York City, you would get Tim Kincaid's Breeders (1987). In a year that Mr. Kincaid also gave us Robot Holocaust AND Bad Girls Dormitory, he succeeded in making Humanoids even sleazier. The film opens with a woman being assaulted on the street by a gnarled and gooey monster that bursts through the skin of an amiable older German fellow. Worry not, though, because NYPD Det. Dale Andriotti (Lance Lewman) is on the case! Our hero dick goes to the hospital to question the victim who insists she can't remember anything and wishes she were dead, to which he replies, “You're not dead, you're alive! If you're alive, you can remember!” I assume exclamation points were in the script, but you'd never guess from Lewman's line reading, which only makes sense that he now narrates PBS documentaries. Andriotti then teams with the doctor in charge, Gamble Pace (Teresa Farley) who tells him, “This is the type of case that makes me want to kill every man born!” Again, the punctuation was script only because nobody is acting with any kind of passion here. The movie progresses with the grotesque alien parasite overtaking men's bodies, bursting forth, and sexually assaulting several women. The most memorable scene comes early during a photo shoot with a bikini model (Frances Raines) named Karinsa. The photographer calls for lunch, and when asked if she'll be joining, Karinsa replies, “I'll fit into those suits better with a workout and no lunch,” and then directly proceeds to snort a couple rails of cocaine before stripping nude and doing stretches (including deep lunges). The photog returns, collapses, the monster tears off its skin suit, and gets to the assaulting. The acting is very bad, the sleaze is all-encompassing, the music kicks tons of ass, and the incredible special make up effects by Ed Trench are mesmerizing.
I recently did a podcast with our own Rosalie Lewis about Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) which prompted me to watch another Malick that had long lived on my watchlist: Days of Heaven (1978). Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, and Linda Manz, this is a period piece about a wealthy bachelor (Shepard) who owns several acres in Texas where he grows wheat. During the fall harvest he hires migrant workers who travel down from the north. Among these workers are a man (Gere) who flees Chicago after accidentally killing his boss, his girlfriend (Adams), and his sister (Manz). Shepard falls in love with Adams and Gere tells her to reciprocate the feelings so the three of them have somewhere to live. A love triangle ensues, jealousy reigns, and plagues beset the beloved Shepard and his wheat. After watching Badlands and Heaven, I can't help noticing that Malick is a master of patience in film and the ultimate “show-don't-tell” director. He's a vibes only type of filmmaker, and I now know I am INTO vibes only types of movies (which is probably why I love Sadvember types of movies!).
Finally our whole family headed to the theater for what seems to be the surprise hit of 2023 so far, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Chris Pine leads a merry band of swindlers to rescue his daughter and steal a relic that can reanimate his dead wife. The movie is fine. The performances are fine. The comedy is fine. The action is fine. Everything about this movie screams fine (read: mediocre). Pine is the best Chris for a reason, nobody does smug like Hugh Grant, and I will always be in love with Rodriguez. But there was zero chemistry between any of the actors. I can't recall ever seeing a movie where each person was perfectly cast yet none of them gel together AT ALL. Everybody did exactly what they were supposed to do but it was like none of them were acting together. I saw someone tweet, “We have a franchise, people,” and while I don't hate that idea, I think this cast needs to go on a teamwork retreat or something before the next film starts shooting because I'm convinced they all hate each other.

This leads perfectly into the topic at hand. I was talking to my friend James a couple months ago and he seemed a bit disenchanted with what lie ahead on the movie release schedule. Our own Adam Riske tweeted something similar this week: “The saddest thing about the current state of movies for me is how few convey any relatable human experience or behavior.” In the past month I've seen or heard at least a dozen similar sentiments. While I agree, I think what we're being force fed en masse are spectacles that are nothing more than blatant cash grabs. Obvious, yes I know. While I'm sure it's great, John Wick: Chapter 4 seems to me like they're just riding the cabbage wave until it peters out. Movies with deeply human stories are relegated to indie arthouse, theaters whereas in the past these movies would appear for (at least) a weekend at the multiplex. The problem is that indie arthouse theaters are usually only located in mid-sized to large cities. We have two in Omaha but even they pad their schedules with family movies.
What's great, though, is that we have 100-plus years of cinema from which to choose. We don't HAVE to watch the latest thing that everyone's talking about. I'll be honest, I watched the trailer for Barbie, and while I love Greta Gerwig and Ryan Gosling, I don't understand what the hell this movie is supposed to be or who it's for. Of course I'm going to see it because I need answers to these questions, and I can appreciate the total oddball approach to the material, but this is just a live-action The Lego Movie, right? As I look at my in-progress discoveries list of the year I see movies that are seemingly not made anymore. Two Rode Together (1961), Breathless (1983), Tender Mercies (1983), Stage Door (1937), The New Centurions (1972), The Minus Man (1999), and the list goes on. The movies are just sitting there, waiting for you to watch them. Having just re-watched Marjoe (1972) for the umpteenth time I'm reminded that there are countless documentaries available with stories to tell that will break you, inspire you, make you laugh or cry, make you angry or happy. But most importantly there are movies, narratives and documentaries, from the past 100 years with stories about interesting characters, just ripe for the picking.
I recently shared my top 10 new releases of the year so far. Three are major releases (Scream VI, Infinity Pool, and M3gan), one got a brief theatrical run (Plane), and the rest are direct to streaming. Four of these movies tell deeply human and profoundly interesting stories, and only one got a major release (Infinity Pool, yes I still believe it's a movie about addiction). Narvik, currently in the number three spot on my list, is a WWII tale told from a Norwegian point of view, about placing one's pride and love on life's scale. It's currently streaming but buried on Netflix. Another movie floating among the jetsam of the Netflix library is the Covid-centric Spanish police thriller Infiesto (#4). Here we have a story about two cops dealing with work-life balance, obsession, and a world being ravaged by an unknown disease. Then there's Attachment (#8), a Danish horror-drama about two women who have recently fallen in love, but a scornful mother and a secret wedges animosity and distrust between them. Attachment made a festival run last year and is now streaming on Shudder. A common thread strings these three films together: they are distinctly not American. Whether that has any clout to it or not is a question for another column. But as I watch new movies – something I rarely did the past few years – I'm starting to realize American producers with any sort of money really aren't interested in telling stories about relatable humans. Neon is an Austin-based distributor, but even Infinity Pool (#5) is a very non-American movie. My point is this, the state of movies today is grim at best, yes, but we have two options before us: 1.) We can spend most of our viewing time watching older movies; and 2.) We have to work a little harder to seek out interesting new movies, because they're out there, but we have to enjoy the thrill of the hunt in order to find them.

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