Movie Roundup – July / September 2021

Here are some other films I watched from July to September, in alphabetical order.

The Abyss (1989)

written and directed by James Cameron

The Abyss is really two movies. One is an underwater action thriller in which a group of oil platform workers is recruited by a SEAL team to recover a lost nuclear sub. The other is a sci-fi spectacle about aliens hiding deep beneath the ocean surface. The first works very well, with some tension-filled sequences that rank among writer/director James Cameron’s best work (the scene in which the rig’s designer [Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio] drowns on purpose so she can get revived later is a doozy). But the second doesn’t quite gel with the first, arriving at a hokey climax in which the extraterrestrials learn about humanity. Ugh. Still, The Abyss is Cameron’s final solid effort before succumbing to the even cheesier Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).

Rating: ***

Count Me In (2021)

written by Claire Ferguson, Sarah Jobling, and Mark Lo

directed by Mark Lo

I play some keyboards (badly) and dabble in guitar (worse), but what I’d really like to learn is drums. Some of my favorite musicians are drummers, from Rush‘s Neil Peart to Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain. This doc about drumming includes the likes of Stewart Copeland (The Police), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Cindy Blackman (Santana), and others waxing poetic about the power and energy of percussion. It’s fun enough, but I wish more time had been devoted to exploring different genres, styles, and techniques. Also, where the hell are Ringo Starr, Meg White, Bill Bruford, Vinnie Colaiuta, Leah Shapiro… I know, I know, can’t have ’em all. Still, if you like to bang the sticks, Count Me In will make you smile.

Rating: **½

The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

written by David Reynolds

from a story by Chris Williams, Mark Dindal, Roger Allers, and Matthew Jacobs

directed by Mark Dindal

After the success of The Lion King in 1994, Disney turned to its co-director, Roger Allers, to develop an epic Inca-themed story. That film, Kingdom of the Sun, got stuck in production woes for years, until Disney decided the whole thing had turned too serious and brought in another director, Mark Dindal, to make it funnier. Out of the ashes was born The Emperor’s New Groove, which I’d never bothered with. To my surprise, it ain’t half bad. Selfish ruler Kuzco (David Spade) gets turned into a llama and must try to get back his humanity – both physical and emotional – with the help of peasant Pacha (John Goodman). There’s a welcome lack of songs, plenty of jokes and action, and an amusing supporting character named Kronk (Patrick Warburton) who’s dumb and dumber rolled into one. The Emperor’s New Groove is a light-hearted diversion.

Rating: **½

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

written by John Carpenter and Larry Sulkis

directed by John Carpenter

Ghosts of Mars is without a doubt one of the worst things John Carpenter has ever directed. Where to begin? It’s badly acted, clumsily staged, and nonsensical. The special effects are terrible. Whatever virtues Ice Cube has, being a badass anti-hero is not one of them. And when the heroes find the titular howling villains from the red planet, they look like rejects from a Mad Max film. It’s completely laughable. However, Ghosts of Mars is a slight improvement from the terrible Escape from L.A. (1996), if only because it’s so lo-fi. It also has a pretty good metal soundtrack by Carpenter featuring Anthrax, Steve Vai, and others. Had Carpenter gone all camp on this, he might have had a cult classic.


The Happening (2008)

written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

The Happening is not a good movie. However, it’s not as bad as all its detractors would have you believe. It’s just kind of ridiculous, with an end-of-the-world premise in which the human race is killed by… plants. As a shorter, Twilight Zone-ish episode, it could’ve worked. Stretched to a feature, there’s only so much writer/director M. Night Shyamalan can do. You can see glimpses of his genius here and there, but coming after the bizarre Lady in the Water (2006), this was just another big disappointment. Don’t let the trees hear me.

Rating: **

In a Lonely Place (1950)

written by Andrew P. Solt and Edmund H. North

based on the novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

directed by Nicholas Ray

In In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a young girl. His neighbor, an aspiring actress named Laurel (Gloria Grahame), believes him to be innocent. They fall in love, but as time passes she discovers that Dix has a knack for losing his temper. Could this sweet man indeed be a cold-blooded killer? Bogart is great in the role, giving his own brand of macho vulnerability a chilling touch of violence. The final moments of In a Lonely Place are heartbreaking, as Laurel realizes it doesn’t really matter if Dix is innocent, just that he very well could’ve been guilty. And that’s enough.

Rating: ***

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016)

written and directed by Osgood Perkins

I enjoyed Osgood Perkins’ stylish 2015 creeper The Blackcoat’s Daughter, so I was looking forward to his sophomore effort I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. This time, Perkins turns his attention to ghosts, or perhaps more accurately, the way in which their presence lingers on. A nurse named Lily (Ruth Wilson) accepts a job offer to take care of an ailing horror writer (Paula Prentiss) and discovers that one of the novelist’s books, The Lady in the Walls, is about a real woman who was killed in the same house years ago. It’s stylish, entrancing, and scary, a slow-burner that digs deeper than usual by focusing on the buildup rather than the jump scares. And while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it definitely fills mine.

Rating: ***

Jungle (2017)

written by Justin Monjo

based on the book Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg

directed by Greg McLean

In 1981, a young man by the name of Yossi Ghinsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) traveled to South America to explore the Amazon. He met three other travelers and together set out to find an indigenous village deep in the rainforest. The trip took a physical and mental toll on the men, and after a dangerous journey downriver, Ghinsberg eventually found himself lost and alone. Jungle depicts Ghinsberg’s near-death tale with a convincing performance by Radcliffe and several harrowing moments (fire ants, quicksand, worms under the skin – yikes) that will make you think twice about putting your Indiana Jones hat on.

Rating: **½

The Lighthouse (2019)

written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers

directed by Robert Eggers

Writer/director Robert Eggers follows his stellar The VVitch (2015) with another ingenious tale in which two stranded lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) start to go insane from isolation. The Lighthouse is a veritable work of art: Everything feels authentic, from the costumes to the tower itself, built from scratch in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia; the cinematography is in gorgeous black-and-white, shot on vintage lenses; and just like in The VVitch, the dialogue is period-accurate, this time to the late 1800s. Eggers doesn’t screw around. Surreal, enthralling, and maddeningly obtuse, The Lighthouse is the type of literary horror that transports you.

Rating: ***

The Lost Boys (1987)

written by Janice Fischer, Jeffrey Boam, and James Jeremias

from a story by Janice Fischer and James Jeremias

directed by Joel Schumacher

The Lost Boys was silly when it first came out in 1987, and it’s even sillier now, with its gang of motorcycle-riding vampires, big hairdos, shirtless sax players, and the sight of Corey Haim singing I Ain’t Go No Home in the bathtub. But it’s still a lot of fun, as two brothers (Jason Patric and Haim) face off against a bunch of undead fiends led by Kiefer Sutherland long before he became Jack Bauer. The Lost Boys works precisely because it mixes scares with laughs, and the strong ensemble cast – including Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander as goofy vampire hunters – clicks well. There are better 80s bloodsucker flicks, like Fright Night (1985) and Near Dark (1987), but The Lost Boys still has a distinct, um, bite.

Rating: **½

Mandy (2018)

written by Panos Cosmatos and Aaron Stewart-Ahn

from a story by Panos Cosmatos

directed by Panos Cosmatos

If the image above doesn’t make it completely clear, Mandy is a bloody revenge pic in which Nicolas Cage plays Red (appropriate), a logger who goes berserk once his girlfriend Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) gets brutally killed by a freakish cult. The whole thing plays like a bizarre psychedelic dream, painfully slow during its first hour and then LSD-infused in its hyperkinetic second half. Mandy could’ve been shorter, but if you’re like me, you’ll have fun with its dreamlike imagery and tongue-in-cheek violence. Besides, any movie that has King Crimson’s Starless playing over the main credits is already a must-see in my book.

Rating: **½

Carlos I. Cuevas