The two most interesting genres to experience with large groups of people are comedies and horror movies. Comedies are really interesting to me, particularly when the audience goes against the grain of what the movie wants from them.
Ever been to a movie where no one laughed? Isn’t that great? It doesn’t really change whether or not I like the movie. I just find it interesting to watch the movie, while also trying to get a sense of how everyone is handling the awkward energy that the film has now given us to deal with. It’s not an energy that necessarily comes from everyone thinking the movie sucks. They just don’t know how to respond to something. Which might mean that the movie isn’t funny or scary, because there’s the idea that if a movie doesn’t get a desired response immediately, then it is a failure.
Some movies want immediate responses. Some want to bother you later on. Then there are the movies that so completely remove you from your expectations, you don’t really know what to say or think. These are the films I’m talking about, when I talk about movies that can be really interesting, in terms of how the audience around you is responding to the proceedings.
Swiss Army Man is a good example of what I’m talking about, at least in my experience with it. You had a theater full of people who at least didn’t appear to be big connoisseurs of fart jokes. Yet here they were, squirming, laughing quietly, or trying to cut off their chuckles in mid-stream. I loved the movie’s odd, hilariously downbeat energy, and one of the most empathizing performances of Paul Dano’s career. I also initially thought, after the first fifteen minutes of the movie had passed by, and no one had reacted to that in any noticeable way, that everyone hated the movie. I was wrong. At the end of the film, the chatter outside of the theater was positive, excited. I don’t think they were faking it either.
This whole experience doesn’t have any bearing on the quality of the movie. I just like knowing that there are other things about the experience going on. A weird crowd is one of the things that keeps me going back to theaters.
Shin Godzilla (2016): B+
Despite a somewhat anticlimactic ending, Shin Godzilla is the best one from Japan in a very, very long time. That takes into account how long it’s been since Toho released a new installment. Titled Godzilla Resurgence, the film brings the cliché of “breathing fresh air” to mind. Yet there is very little about the movie that feels clichéd. Considering the film is Toho’s 29th in a 31-movie franchise (and their third time rebooting the character and universe, as well), that’s significant.
Despite the storytelling limitations of these films, writer/director Hideaki Anno (along with co-director Shinji Higuchi) manages a Godzilla that is equal parts humorous and genuinely tense. When it comes to some of the film’s more horrific, unsettling moments, it certainly makes sense that Anno is also the guy who destroyed our souls with Neon Genesis Evangelion. For a movie that has to deliver on certain expectations (we’re at least partially here to see Godzilla throw a fit in Downtown Tokyo), Anno finds a lot of room to create a Godzilla film that is unique in more ways than one. It’s largely entertaining, with most of the acting being serviceable (with Yutaka Takenouchi being quite good). It’s also painstakingly realistic as a Godzilla movie will ever perhaps be. The fact that something like that also manages to meet most of what we want from a Godzilla film gives Shin Godzilla distinction in a lengthy, enduring franchise.
City of Women (1980): B-
Although you can make a pretty solid case for Federico Fellini’s sexism, his best movies are nonetheless exhilarating. If you can get past how few of his female characters went beyond Madonna types and whores, the feverish, silly, often moving elements of his work are overwhelming in their gifts. City of Women doesn’t belong in the range of his best works, but it’s still largely fun. A little self-indulgent? Yeah, but I find it forgivable.
City of Women is long, and it’s occasionally a little too unpredictable for its own good. It still keeps us engaged with Marcello Mastroianni’s performance (more or less his character from 8 ½, and the intoxicatingly elaborate dreamlike qualities of the story. Well, it’s really less of a story, and more of a lengthy collection of incidents and scenarios. We follow Mastroianni’s completely hapless, emotionally crippled (yet simultaneously charming, and pretty cool) middle-aged arrogance through increasingly bizarre sequences. It begins on a train. It goes through several elaborate visions of heaven, hell, and all the in-betweens. It is a film populated entirely by Mastroianni’s Snàporaz, and then the many women who make up his past, present, and future. His fantasies and flawed reasoning work with him and against him. More often than not, they work against him. It doesn’t need to be two hours, but people who like this kind of thing will be glad that it is.
Phantasm V: Ravager (2016): C-
Quite frankly, Phantasm V: Ravager might be the messiest entry in the franchise yet. For those of us who have been there for the previous installments, that is a monumental achievement. But it’s ultimately fine. Even if you don’t catch a sense of the lengthy, sometimes troubled production history of this film, Phantasm V is fun. I most certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen the previous entries.
For everyone else, it’s a bit confusing, but it’s also a fine sendoff for this series. Reggie Bannister has always been one of the great underrated heroes of horror. His everyman ice cream truck driver is looking a little worse for wear, when the film opens. It doesn’t help that The Tall Man (a wonderful final performance from the great Angus Schrimm) continues to fuck with his head at every possible turn. Ravager endeavors to be two things. It wants to be a fitting tribute to this series, particularly the first film. It also wants to be its own unique entry in the saga. Then there is the challenge of wrapping things up, since you’re the last one, if you want to make time for that. Phantasm: Ravager tries to put things to rest in the most spectacular, proper fashion possible. It succeeds enough to make it watchable.
Even in the moments when it drags, or gets too close to the limitations of the budget, Phantasm V is endearing. It isn’t on the level of the first film, or even the third one, but it’s still pretty good. Once in a great while, it’s much more than that.
Mascots (2016): C-
Speaking of movies that don’t quite live up to what we were hoping for. Director and writer (along with Jim Piddock, who also appears in the movie) Christopher Guest knows mockumentaries about endearing fringe groups and unassuming, low-key eccentrics. Best in Show and A Might Wind are both hilarious and sincerely kind to their subjects. This is even true when these movies are clearly poking fun at human behavior, while observing the ludicrous social contracts we’ve all agreed to take part in. Those movies are masterworks of comedy.
Mascots, available on Netflix, aspires to that same level of insight and humor. A lot of the elements that have worked so well for Guest in the past are here. This includes the cast, which features Guest regulars like Jane Lynch, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Bob Balaban, Ed Begley Jr., and others. Even the subject matter, concerning a gathering of sports mascots for a major competition, is right along the lines of what you’d expect from Guest.
But it all kind of falls apart. There are long passages in which very little is seemingly going on. Low-key is seemingly replaced by non-existent, more often than not. The parts that are genuinely funny, often expressed in Guest’s trademark minimalist approach to writing and directing, just don’t come along enough to keep this thing going. The movie easily belongs to Chris O’Dowd’s gleefully non-ironic “bad boy” of mascots. Unfortunately, he isn’t in the movie nearly as much as you want him to be. The curious absence of Eugene Levy (who almost certainly doesn’t turn anything down) and Catherine O’Hara are just too glaring to ignore. You’ll probably get through the entire film. I don’t imagine you’ll ever feel particularly compelled to watch it again.
This Sporting Life (1963): B+
Confession: I never really liked the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films. I still think Michael Gambon proved to be a better fit for the character. Even so, Harris was one of the great figures of immense presence in his area. A legitimate hellraiser and man of unpredictable temperament, Harris proved to be a perfect actor for the working class dramas that Britain became associated with in this time. This Sporting Life is probably the best example of that. It’s also the performance that brought Harris to prominence, although this would later be followed by a long period of indifference from critics and audiences alike.
This Sporting Life is bleak stuff. It is an epicenter for the death of dreams and hope. There is not a single moment in This Sporting Life that’s going to amuse you. To be sure, you’ll be enthralled. Just don’t expect a lot of chuckles. Don’t even expect to smile, even as Harris’ rising footballer Frank Machin is given the faintest of flickers of happiness. You know where this story is going. You can’t look away, largely due to Harris’ sneering charisma. He is unforgettably natural in his instincts and reactions.