Scary Movie Review: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

I started off the month of October with the goal of watching and reviewing one horror movie each day of the month.  Today I finish the project having achieved that goal.  In fact, this will be my 34th scary movie review of the month, although you can quibble about whether or not all the movies were scary.  I’m finishing off with an old favorite of mine.

Title: Shaun of the Dead
Release Date: 29 March 2004
Director: Edgar Wright
Production Company: Studio Canal | WT² Productions | Big Talk Productions[

Shaun of the Dead masterfully combines an homage to classic zombie horror movies with a comedy spoof of zombie horror movies and actually zombie horror movie scares. I remember really wanting to see this movie back when it was first released and then be very squicked out by the gore, especially one scene towards the end (I was a lot more sensitive to movie violence in my 20 & 30s than I was in my teens or now in my 40s).  Despite that, this is a movie I’ve always loved and it remains my favorite of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy ahead of Hot Fuzz and World’s End.

Shaun (Simon Pegg) is a directionless young man in a dead end job and a disappointment to his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), who breaks up with him early in the movie.  A lot of people believe that his problems stem from his lifelong friendship with deadbeat Ed (Nick Frost) dragging him down. When a zombie apocalypse breaks out, Shaun surprisingly rises to the moment as he rounds up Ed, Liz, her flatmates Diane (Lucy Davis) and David (Dylan Moran), his mother Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and his stepfather Phil (Bill Nighy). Their safe house, naturally is his local pub, The Winchester Arms.

I know a lot more horror/zombie lore now than I did in 2004, so I got more of the references on this viewing such as Ed shouting “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” I’ve also learned in the interim that Pegg gained famed working with Jessica Stevenson Hynes on Spaced which explains the significance of her cameo as Shaun’s friend Yvonne.  I’d forgotten how many of the most memorable scenes are packed into the end of the film, so I was really wondering “When is X going to happen?” when I saw there was only 20 minutes left.  That’s not to say the early part of the film is just as good, as I especially enjoy the running gag of Shaun and Ed being completely oblivious to the zombie apocalypse.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Better Off Dead (1985)

Title: Better Off Dead
Release Date: August 23, 1985
Director: Savage Steve Holland
Production Company: A&M Films | CBS Theatrical Films

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) becomes suicidal after his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss) dumps him for an obnoxious jock,  but his increasingly elaborate attempts to kill himself fail spectacularly.  This doesn’t sound like the premise for a comedy, but in the hands of Savage Steve Holland it becomes an iconic teen movie of the 1980s.  The absurdity of Lane’s life is everywhere, from his eccentric parents (played by tv veterans Kim Darby and David Ogden Stiers), the Korean drag racers who talk like Howard Cosell, and an extremely persistent paperboy (and this only scratches the surface of the oddities in this movie).  The soundtrack is also eclectic with songs by Howard Jones, Van Halen, Neil Sedaka, Frank Sinatra, and Muddy Waters, among others.  Lane’s life turns around when he befriends French exchange student Monique (Diane Franklin) who helps him regain his confidence.

This was one of my favorite movies when I was younger, mostly because it is so extremely silly with hilarious, quotable dialogue. On the downside, it gave me the unrealistic hope that my teenage romantic woes might be solved if only my school got a cute foreign exchange student.  But it only occured to me on this rewatch that so much of the absurdity serves to reflect the heightened emotions of teenagerhood.  I’m guessing that I’m probably ranking this movie too highly based on nostalgia, but those memories are an important part of my experience with this movie, and besides it still makes me laugh.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Say Anything… (1989)

TitleSay Anything…
Release Date: April 14, 1989
Director: Cameron Crowe
Production Company: Gracie Films

Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) is a well-liked teenager with a lot of nervous energy and a passion for kickboxing, who lives with his older sister (Joan Cusack) and young nephew. Diane Court (Ione Skye) is a academic high achiever who feels she’s missed out on the social connections of high school.  At the time of their high school graduation, Lloyd decides he wants to ask Diane out although his friends Corey (Lili Taylor) and D.C. (Amy Brooks) say she’s out of his league. Nevertheless, with persistence, Lloyd and Diane form a bond and begin a whirlwind romance in the summer before she leaves for a fellowship in England.  Things hit a snag when Diane’s close relationship with her divorced father Jim (John Mahoney, soon to remain in Seattle and be Fraser’s father) is shaken by an IRS investigation into his embezzling funds from the residents of the retirement home he operates.

That’s the basic plot of the movie, but it really doesn’t say anything  (ha!) about why this movie is so special.  More than any other teen movie of the period, the characters feel like real human beings with natural behaviors and motivations.  Cameron Crowe’s script is sharp with lots of memorable dialogue.  And the editing is interesting, really showing the development of a relationship over a period of time without excessive exposition.  Then there’s the iconic soundtrack featuring songs by Fishbone, The Replacements, and, of course, “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.  But seriously, this movie is sooooo much more than that boombox scene.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Moonstruck (1987)

Title: Moonstruck
Release Date: December 18, 1987
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Star Partners II Ltd.

A bride without a head!

A wolf without a foot!

I never saw this movie back when it came out and probably wouldn’t have appreciated, so I’m glad I got to watch it with more mature eyes.  The movie is a romantic comedy set among the Italian American community of Brooklyn which feels at first like it’s going to be getting laughs from broad ethnic characteristics but evolves into something deeper and a touch magical. Loretta Castorini (Cher) is a young widow who is very pragmatic and unsentimental and feels her life has been cursed by bad luck.  She accepts the marriage proposal of Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) whom she likes but doesn’t love out of this sense of pragmatism.  Johnny’s one request for Loretta is that she talk to his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to help them reconcile before the wedding.

Implausibly, but satisfyingly, Loretta and Ronny fall instantly in love and find something they’ve both been missing in their passion for on another.  Around this main story are also the stories of Loretta’s parents.  Her father Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is having an affair with a longtime mistress.  Her mother Rose (Olympia Dukakis) suspects her husband’s infidelity and has a (platonic) dinner with serial philanderer Perry (John Mahoney) to question him about why men behave the way they do.  Loretta’s Grandpa (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), along with his dogs, watches over all of this like a wise Greek chorus.

Despite the average-length runtime of this movie, all of these characters and their subplots are fully realized.  It almost feels like it could be a pilot for an ongoing series about the Catorini and Cammareri families.  But I suppose we will not be getting the Moonstruck Cinematic Universe anytime soon.  I’m glad I finally watched this move which is deservedly considered a classic.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Title: When Harry Met Sally…
Release Date: July 14, 1989
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment | Nelson Entertainment

When Harry Met Sally… is kind of the uber-romcom, a story so successful that Hollywood spent the next 20 years trying to recapture it, often in movies starring Meg Ryan.  Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Ryan) first meet sharing a car ride to New York City after graduating from University of Chicago in 1977 (and good work by the makeup artists in making Crystal look convincingly like he could’ve graduated at the same time as Ryan when he’s actually 14 years older).  They meet again five years later on a flight.  Despite not getting along well on either occasion, when they meet for a third time in 1987 they form a friendship that gradually leads to romance.

The central premise of this movie – “Can a man and a women just be friends?” – and the gender essentialism (“all women/men think that way!), has always bothered me.  But on this viewing it doesn’t feel as didactic as I remembered.  There’s also the fact that for most of the movie, Harry is really a jerk (what in 80s parlance would be called “a male chauvinist pig.”)  It’s really a credit to Crystal’s charm that both Sally and the audience can grow to like Harry enough to care about this relationship.

The movie also succeeds on just one iconic scene after another enriched by Nora Ephron’s dialogue (not too mention Reiner and Crystal’s additions).  Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby are terrific in supporting roles as Sally and Harry’s best friends Marie and Jess.  And there’s the soundtrack of jazz standards with contributions from Harry Connick, Jr.  Really it all adds up to one of the best comedies, best romances, and best movies of all time!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

Title: The Gods Must Be Crazy
Release Date:  10 September 1980
Director: Jamie Uys
Production Company: C.A.T. Films

The Gods Must Be Crazy was one of my favorite movies when I was young, starting at the age of 10 when I first saw it on the big screen. There was a notorious XXX theater in the downtown of my hometown, but I guess gentrification arrived in 1984 and it reopened as an art house cinema.  The first time I entered that theater was to see The Gods Must Be Crazy and it felt very cosmopolitan to watch a movie made in Africa at an art house cinema.  I then watched it many, many more times on tv and video.

Before I start the review, I should note that there are some problematic elements of The Gods Must Be Crazy. First, it was partially filmed and funded in South Africa without ever mentioning apartheid or any indication of racial inequality (I noticed on this watch that they mention “Botswana” multiple times, but never say “South Africa”). Second, it deals with the San people (or the “Bushmen” as they’re called in the movie) in a condescending manner, depicting them as an isolated tribe of hunter-gatherers which wasn’t at all true to life at the time the film was made.  With that said, this is one of the first movies made in sub-Saharan Africa to become a worldwide hit and succeeds due to a brilliant combination of mockumentary with political satire, romantic comedy, and straight-up slapstick.

The mockumentary part deals with Xi (Nǃxau ǂToma), a member of a San tribe who finds a glass bottle that’s initially thought to be a useful thing, but as there is only one it begins to sow jealousy and division among the family.  They determine the bottle is an evil thing an Xi is tasked with carrying the bottle to “the end of the world” to return it to the gods.  The scenes with the San are narrated documentary-style with a professorial, anthropological tone by Paddy O’Byrne.

But then the same narration is used to describe scenes of “civilized” people in a big city (which I assume is Johannesburg) to hilarious effect. Which introduces the next thread of the film, Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a woman decides to become a teacher in a rural village. She is given a lift by a biologist, Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), who is extremely awkward around women.  Their pairing provides the romcom and a lot of the slapstick.  Finally, a revolutionary, Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), goes on the run with his soldiers through Botswana after failing to assassinate the President of a fictional neighboring nation.  All of these threads come together in a genuinely funny way.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Chungking Express (1994)

Title: Chungking Express
Release Date: 14 July 1994
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production

I really had no preconceptions of this movie but it was still not what I expected.  I guess I thought there would be more trains?  Instead this is a wonderfully weird movie, and I’m not sure I quite understood, but nevertheless I really enjoyed the vibe.  In some ways it reminds me of Amélie (and I would no be surprised if it influenced that later movie), but mostly it is its weird, wonderful thing.

Chungking Express is actually two short films that are tangentially related.  Both of them feature Hong Kong cops as protagonists although we don’t see either of them doing much policing.  In the first story, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pines – or pineapples – over a woman who broke up with him. He’s then briefly brought into the world of a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin) who remains effortlessly cool despite wearing a ridiculously large blonde wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat at all times.  In the other story, a snack bar employee named Faye (Faye Wong) falls for her customer, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is also bereft after a break up with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow).  She begins to influence his life in bizarre ways.

That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because there are some interesting twists I don’t want to spoil.  Nevertheless, this movie feels more like a mood than a narrative.  The cinematography is interesting as well, sometimes feeling like it’s painted in watercolors.  There are a lot of shots through windows, mirrors, curtains, etc, that make everything feel dreamlike.  This is definitely a movie worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Title: The Seven Year Itch
Release Date: June 3, 1955
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Charles K. Feldman Group Productions

One of my great discoveries of watching lots of classic movies over the past couple of years is learning how Billy Wilder has directed some of the greatest films of all time.  Unfortunately, The Seven Year Itch is not one of them.  The movie begins with an obnoxious stereotype of the Native peoples of Manhattan that doesn’t even have anything to do with the rest of the movie.  It follows with a scene of men delivering their wives and children to Penn Station for their summer vacations and then joining a gang leer at the attractive younger women passing through.  This is one of those movies where it’s supposed to satirize the worst behaviors of masculinity but somehow just ends up presenting those behaviors.

Tom Ewell stars Richard Sherman a middle-aged executive who is among the men staying in the City when his family goes on vacation. He thinks very highly of his attractiveness to women and has vivid fantasies of extra-marital romance (as well as paranoid fantasies of what would happen to him if he gets caught).  These fantasies and Sherman’s ongoing monologue make up the bulk of the movie and really are a drag.

Luckily, this movie has Marilyn Monroe who plays the attractive young woman staying in apartment upstairs from Sherman.  Monroe’s character isn’t given a name but in a great meta moment Sherman says she could be Marilyn Monroe.  Literally everything else that’s funny in this movie comes from Monroe’s performance.  Her character’s naivety perfectly balances Sherman’s endless plotting.  And she gets all the best one-liners such as “When it gets hot like this, you know what I do? I keep my undies in the icebox!” and “Hey, did you ever try dunking a potato chip in champagne? It’s real crazy!” Well, it’s all in the delivery

This is a movie that fans of Billy Wilder and Marilyn Monroe will want to watch this movie, for completionist sake, if nothing else.  But I feel that overall whatever intentions of making a good comedy/satire really fell flat.

Rating: **1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Christmas Movie Marathon Review: The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

Title: The Bishop’s Wife
Release Date: December 9, 1947
Director: Henry Koster
Production Company: Samuel Goldwyn Productions

Post-World War II cinema offers many examples supernatural beings offering inspiration to the film’s protagonist.  These include angels (A Matter of Life and Death and It’s a Wonderful Life), Santa Claus (Miracle on 34th Street), and the … ghost(?) of a girl (Portrait of Jennie). Add to this The Bishop’s Wife, in which Cary Grant plays the dapper angel Dudley who answers the prayers of the titular Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) and his wife Julia (Loretta Young).

The problem is that Henry has become estranged from Julia and their old friends because he’s caught up in fundraising for a new cathedral.  And so Dudley steps into help by showing Julia a good time and falling in love with her.  This movie gets really awkward really fast especially since Dudley is awesome and Henry is a fuddy-duddy and we don’t really know who we should be rooting for in this bizarre love triangle.  There are some lovely performances and some charming moments, but the movie just feels off to me.  It’s not a surprise that it didn’t become a Christmas classic.

Rating: **1/2