10 Words or Fewer Summary: Douchey Ben Stiller Has Mid-Life Crisis, Pisses Everyone Off
I have a soft spot for movies that find compassion for hard-to-like characters, so Greenberg was right up my alley. A funny and entertaining look at the life of a cynical, hypocritical failure approaching middle age, Greenberg is the kind of movie critics prefer to dismiss as navel-gazing white guy problems because of how close it hits home. Built around an excellent, slow-boiling performance from Ben Stiller and plenty of strong supportive performances (Greta Gerwig! Rhys Ifans! Mark Duplass! Jennifer Jason Leigh!), Greenberg is another effective examination of American existential ennui from director/writer Noah Baumbach. Fortunately, the cynicism is tempered with pathos and hope.
Pootie Tang (2001)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Superhero fights crime with his belt, speaks gibberish
Pootie Tang is a near-glorious mess of a movie – frenzied, fragmented, borderline incoherent (an 80 minute running time with over 10 minutes of credits, actual shots of unfinished special effects, etc.), and somehow enjoyable in spite of itself. The backstory of the film is half the fun: directed by an up-and-coming Louis C.K., Paramount nearly had an aneurysm when the cut he delivered garnered some of the worst test screening results ever reported. Louis was essentially fired – he was barred from the editing room and the movie was re-cut in an attempt to make something more palatable to mainstream audiences. Perhaps owing some of its je ne sais quoi to its chaotic development, Pootie Tang’s absurdist charm works its magic even as you’re groaning at awful jokes and scratching your head at missed opportunities and bizarre non sequiturs. Somehow, against all odds, some of the jokes work, and the fact that you’ve never seen anything quite like it carries you to the finish line. Pootie himself never becomes grating or tiresome (though the movie itself undoubtedly does), thanks to a surprisingly communicative and skilled performance from Lance Crouther, who would’ve made an excellent silent film star.
Trees Lounge (1996)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Alcoholic Steve Buscemi becomes a regular at local dive bar
Speaking as someone who would pretty much sign up for anything Steve Buscemi tried his hand at (Buscemi poetry, Buscemi fan-fiction, Buscemi pottery – you name it), I was eager to catch this 90s effort he directed, wrote, and starred in. Trees Lounge is understated and poignant – it understands quite a bit about alcoholism, never glamorizing or demonizing it. The result is almost like one of Raymond Carver’s prosaic tales of run-of-the-mill, drunken melancholy. While the story focuses on a down-on-his-luck barfly, he’s just one of many depressing regulars at the titular Lounge, a forgotten dive bar that Buscemi captures with impressive authenticity. Besides Carver, the film feels a bit like a live-action depiction of The Simpsons’ Moe’s Tavern.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Boy gets trapped in suburban home filled with feral children
This surprisingly good, underrated horror flick is an entertaining mix of genuine creepiness and bizarre humor. Child actor Brandon Quintin Adams is surprisingly strong, and Everett McGill (oft-clad in leather Gimp attire) and Wendy Robie, reprising their Twin Peaks marriage, are delightfully over-the-top as a villainous, incestuous couple. The first and second act are quite tense, blackly funny, and surprisingly clever, but, unfortunately, the third act is increasingly formulaic and goofy. It seems like important scenes were cut, as unintroduced characters pop up near the end and unnecessary plot twists force their way into the resolution. Still, this is a visually inventive and enjoyable horror film, skillfully performed and ably directed by Wes Craven.
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Dashiell Hammett embroiled in a mystery only he could write
I had never even heard of Hammett until a few years ago, which seemed odd – celebrated German auteur Wim Wenders coming to Hollywood to tackle hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett sounds like the kind of curiosity that any film geek would go out of their way to track down. Apparently the film suffered an almost epic level of production issues, but the result is a delightfully shaggy, inebriated enterprise – driven by an iconic lead performance from Frederic Forrest, with colorful supporting performances (Peter Boyle!), a labyrinth plot, and wonderfully chaotic mise-en-scène sumptuously recreating 20s era San Francisco. Witty and entertaining, this meta-noir is a worthy oddball.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Sound Effects Artist Works on Italian Horror Film, Loses Sanity
Most contemporary horror films owe more to the gross-out antics of There’s Something About Mary than to the unsettling ambiance of The Shining – for decades now, we’ve been subjected to horror that merely aims for superficial, knee-jerk shocks. But Berberian Sound Studio is a fantastic, understated throwback, one of the few horror efforts in recent years to emphasize mood and atmosphere over jump cut scares and gore. Intriguingly constructed, and filled with foreshadowing and hidden clues, the film beautifully employs sound to build suspense and layer the narrative. It also offers a fascinating look at old-school sound engineering in a pre-computerized era where schlubby-looking dudes need to stab watermelons next to a microphone to create the sounds for a trashy horror film.
TWA Flight 800 (2013)
10 Words or Fewer Summary: Absorbing, Frightening Conspiracy Theorist Documentary on Infamous Plane Crash
I am absolutely not a conspiracy theorist (I barely have the cranial firepower to construct conventional theories, never mind conspiratorial ones), but TWA Flight 800 struck a nerve with me. I grew up Long Island and have vague memories of the fateful explosion that occurred off the coast of East Moriches in the summer of 1996 – and it just so happens that I coincidentally watched this documentary on the 18th anniversary of the crash, which effectively creeped the shit out of me. Stirring and provocative, TWA Flight 800 is a well-mounted look at a particularly controversial disaster. It painstakingly examines the investigation that followed, pointing fingers at the various agencies involved for covering up the truth. Frighteningly persuasive, though by its end you may wish that the filmmakers had played less of a role in the on-screen proceedings and let their investigative work speak for itself.