The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

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I’ve decided to focus on older, more obscure movies to review here, since everyone else (and their mothers!) seem to have the blockbusters and new releases pretty well covered. My buddy, Jack Wolf, might decide to review some more popular, contemporary films on this site. But, until then, you’re probably not going to get anything but offbeat, esoteric picks from me.  So, with that in mind, I decided to [finally] watch The Handmaid’s Tale from 1990. I’m blatantly hoping that the recent success of the Hulu series — which I have never seen, by the way — will drive some traffic here. (Oh, and I’ve never read the Margaret Atwood novel either.) But the old film, which stars Natasha Richardson alongside Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, is still quite disturbing in 2018.

The movie, which takes place in the fictional but terrifyingly-plausible country of “Gilead,” highlights just how poisonous the marriage of Church and State can be, depicting a conservative, patriarchal police state in which fertile “handmaids” are forced into surrogate motherhood for powerful, barren couples. This dystopian nightmare was efficiently — if a little clinically — committed to film by the German director, Volker Schlöndorff, who effectively swapped uptight, sexually-repressed nuns with relentless, bloodthirsty Stasi… with strange and chilling results: Brutal brainwashing techniques, public hangings, and hysterically violent lynch mobs keep the masses of Gilead in line. But nothing is more hauntingly bizarre than the super-awkward sex/rape scene between the fully-clothed Robert Duvall, the extremely spiteful Faye Dunaway, and their poor handmaid, sandwiched between them in the missionary position.

The dated and admittedly stilted production does an admirable job, bringing this cautionary tale of religious fascism and fanaticism to life. Most of us (with brains) have awoken, over the past few decades, to the fact that sexism is utterly rampant in the world — and that organized, orthodox religion has, generally, helped to keep the proverbial “foot,” first referenced by Sarah Grimpke, firmly on the necks of our sisters. But, since the President of the United States is currently trying to rush a horrifyingly-conservative Supreme Court Justice through the confirmation process, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably more relevant mow than it’s ever been before.

Because it was so brutal and genuinely frightening, I award this dated movie three pot leafs out of five (as I shudder at the current state of the union):
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The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

Klute (1971)

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This is a fine film in many ways. It held my attention, from beginning to end, with its dark, mysterious plot, while the script toyed with some extremely interesting themes and ideas. However, Klute only scratches the ugly surfaces of its taboo subjects, merely highlighting, for example, that call girls can be cultured and complex characters. (Duh.) And that darkness lurks in the hearts of some men. (Surely, we already knew that.) Ultimately, I can’t help thinking that the subject matter has been explored further — and with defter hands — in other films.

Donald Sutherland is a weird-looking dude. But he’s also a great leading man. Jane Fonda is awesome, and I do suppose she deserves the awards that she won for this role. But the scenes in which she’s talking to her psychologist — as well-acted as they are — literally ignore the “show, don’t tell” rule that I try to live by as a writer. The best thing about Klute is Roy Scheider, who plays a pseudo-intellectual, nearly-respectable pimp. But the movie is kind of like Taxi Driver… if Taxi Driver had been directed by Adrian Lyne.

Before it meanders to a climax, Klute finds time to backhandedly blame its victimized call girl for the violent assaults she endured/unleashed. But my main problems are actually related to the direction and cinematography: There’s not much action in the film, but when it does occur, it borders on disorienting. Also, many scenes are so dimly lit that it’s difficult to discern what’s going on.

I suspect that I should award Klute three pot leafs out of five, but I’m going to be harsh on the technical crew and give it only two:
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Klute (1971)

The Killing (1956)

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Long before Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, or A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick was featuring super-creepy masks in his films. In The Killing, an ugly clown mask hides the face of Sterling Hayden, who plays an incredibly likable rogue who plans and executes a daring heist with a group of aging criminals at a crowded horse track. The movie, which inches me closer to completing Kubrick’s entire filmography, is, unsurprisingly, above-average for the noir genre.

The Killing delves a bit deeper than most of its contemporaries into the motives and desires driving its central characters — as well as the hubris that eventually leads to their downfalls. One of the more interesting characters involved in the heist is a Russian chess master played by Kola Kwariani, who mumbles philosophical dialogue with a strong accent that is difficult to understand (but rewarding if you’re able to). Plus, Marie Windsor plays a scheming and conniving gold-digger with such unchecked greed and ambition that it makes the viewer’s skin crawl at times. There’s not much gunplay in the film but when the shooting starts, it’s both unexpected and unnerving — as it often is in real life. Plus, there are a couple of references to Pagliacci that effectively underpin some of the characters’ tragic story arcs.

Unfortunately, the moral edicts of the time period largely dictate how the movie ends — and an overly-zealous narrator makes the whole thing seem like an inverted, criminal-minded Dragnet episode. But with its tight 85-minute running time, The Killing is an effectively simple — and surprisingly relatable — story that’s told with an extremely sure hand. (Even the final shot, with the words “The End” emblazoned across it, is gorgeously symmetrical.)

I could ramble on about Kubrick’s outstanding use of lighting and space — his amazing dolly sequences, etc. But, suffice it to say, four pot leafs out of five:
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The Killing (1956)

The Hateful Eight (2015)

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When I learned that Tarantino’s 8th film was going to be called The Hateful Eight, I didn’t think that it would actually be a hateful film. But after watching it, I’m happy to award this movie our site’s lowest possible rating: a single, lowly pot leaf out of five! Not only does The Hateful Eight bore the mind and offend the senses, it’s also mean-spirited and unintelligent.

To say that I expected more from Mr. Tarantino would be an understatement. All of his other films — even the mediocre Django Unchained — are worth multiple views. The man basically created a new kind of crime sub-genre with “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992 and filmmakers from around the world have been emulating his verbose, frenetic style ever since. He was able to keep his sword sharp for two full decades, releasing contemporary kung-fu flicks, gritty grindhouse romps, and riveting historical fiction.

But the Hateful Eight treats its audience like a customer at Dick’s Last Resort and the result is simply no fun. Even the blood-vomiting scene, which I was tempted to laugh at, was executed in predictable, pedestrian fashion. And the director’s non-linear storytelling techniques that typically shock and amaze wind up wasting everybody’s time with pointless reveals and supposedly edgy expositions. It’s just not as interesting — on any level — as the man’s previous work.

Almost gleefully, I award this movie one pot leaf out of five:
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The Hateful Eight (2015)

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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Despite being a watered-down, gaijin-version of the 1995 animated film by the same name, the latest feature-length GitS flick — the first live-action production to enter into the canon — is still a wonder to behold. This visual feast of cutting-edge CGI “reboots” (if you will) the story of Major Kusanagi, a human brain in a [sexy] cyborg body that investigates cyber crimes in a near-future, cyberpunk reality. Sadly, it is true that most of the esoteric intrigue of the original has been deleted to make space for a simpler and semi-predictable plot. But I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised by the final result: It’s a gorgeous and exciting homage to the classic anime (with many scenes taken directly from its superior predecessor) and it succeeds at eliciting some rather genuine compassion for its central, robotic characters.

Fans of the GitS franchise, which now includes four movies and two-and-a-half long-running TV series, have plenty to squabble about, of course. (And, yes, it is lame that Caucasian actors were cast in the lead roles of this traditionally Japanese production.) But Scarlett Johansson was fine and Michael Pitt (who was listed as “Michael Carmen Pitt” in the opening credits) was great, while Pilou Asbæk (who played Batou) and Takeshi Kitano (who played Aramaki) completely stole the show.

I was truly terrified that “Hollywood” would butcher these beloved characters of mine on-screen. But, in IMAX 3D, they looked stunning — and, more importantly, the underlying themes of memory and identity, which are recurrent throughout the GitS series, are thankfully intact. There are no improvements per se; the animated entries still boast all of the Major’s high-water marks. But this new, live-action version manages to hit all the right buttons. (The filmmakers even worked in an awesome spider-tank scene.) Just try not to expect anything to be as good as its source material.

I insist upon four pot leafs out of five:
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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

High-Rise (2015)

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It’s not a thriller, as advertised. It’s actually a really violent and bizarre satire of capitalism, in which the “society” of tenants in a high-rise apartment building falls apart during a series of power outages.

I’ve never read the book it’s based on but, strangely enough, High-Rise reminded me of both Monty Python and A Clockwork Orange. (It’s also very reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles’  Blindness.) It was cynical and disorienting, with lots of sex and gory violence. There are no likable characters to be found and a couple of dogs are killed for, I believe, extremely dark humor. I’ll admit that I did chuckle at some of the sharp dialogue but overall, the movie was kind of a chore to get through. (And I disagree with this particularly bleak take on humanity “under pressure…” even though many artists seem to insist that it’s authentic!)

Anyway, I should really give High-Rise two leafs because I didn’t like it much… but some sick part of me did appreciate the fact that it was so unique and anti-establishment. High-Rise is only for the more adventurous and/or subversive viewers among us.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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High-Rise (2015)

Deadpool (2016)

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The movie was great… but let me back up: It had been a stressful day and I thought, “I deserve to go see a movie! Deadpool! Yes, I have been waiting to see this one.” But to be totally honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of how slapsticky it looked. (I get it. It’s satire. It’s self-aware.) Well, it is and does a brilliant job of it! I was hopeful for all the reasons why I’m worried the Deadpool copycat movies will be not so clever. This is a Marvel movie rated R! I have been waiting for this ever since my disappointment with the first X-men movie. Wolverine kills people! Where was that shit?!

I mean, comic book movies have forever fallen flat in the cinema. The raw, powerful, sexy violence from the comic books never translated to the screen. A couple of the movies got some of the comedic moments right. For example, I loved when Spider-Man took the elevator, back when that type of subtle humor was fairly fresh. So I was excited to see that Marvel was finally getting some balls, but I was disappointed because I never followed Deadpool. (I would love to see a real Wolverine movie that takes place entirely in the snowy forests of Russia, where he’s hunting and/or evading Omega Red for a solid two hours of deadly cat and mouse. But back to Deadpool!)

Anyway, I was starving so I decided grab some “Shop House,” which, in case you are unaware, is a delicious Thai food /Chipotle style restaurant. I got a rice and chicken bowl with sliced broccoli and butternut squash — with a spicy red curry — and and some shredded papaya coleslaw, along with some toasted garlic. (I know right?! I was all stomach rumbles on my way over to the theater.) The theater is usually pretty lax on entrance security, so I confidently walked in with my crumpled paper bag as if it was just leftovers that I wasn’t really thinking about. (In hindsight, I should have used a J-crew bag.) But the dude said, “no food,” and I was all like, “Really man?” And he was all, “Yeah, I’m sorry bro.” So I walked outside and took a couple bites. (It was freezing.) I tried to stuff the rest in my jacket, but it was too obvious. So I decided to to put it up against my lower back with a solid shirt-tuck and a snug jacket zip. The guy inspected me for extra fatness on my way back in and decided that I was good to go. (I even waited in line with my back to to by snacks just to play it “extra cool!”) After finishing up my meal during the previews — as planned — I thought it was time to get into my Sour Patch kids. I was trying to be extra gentle and not open it with a vertical slit-style opening. (Nobody likes to eat candy like that!) I like a good ol’ potato chip “pull-open” style. But there was nothing, nothing, nothing, and then… SOUR PATCH KIDS EVERYWHERE! A small handful were salvaged and enjoyed. And this whole thing was possibly only witnessed by one fellow patron behind me, who was polite enough not to vocally express her judgment of me.

So… Deadpool. Ok.

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Deadpool (2016)