The Best Movie Critic + review

Ben's 24 Hour Movie Fest Write-Up!

Hey gang, Ben here. A few years back Justin, myself, our significant others, and some friends started a tradition of getting together in January or February every year to watch movies for 24 hours straight. The fests started with only a handful of attendees, but over the years attendance has boomed to the point that unless we move to a bigger venue, we literally don't have room for any more people. We switched to more manageable 12 hour fests for the last two years, but this year we decided to get back to business with a legit 24-hour fest. Between our fests in Denver and Butt-Numb-A-Thon in Austin, I have personally attended seven 24-hour fests. This one is the first that I was able to stay awake the entire time for, probably because the lineup was spectacular, the snowy shut-in weather was a great backdrop, and the company was perfect.

DANGER: DIABOLIK

Justin started us off off with a bang. Danger: Diabolik very well may have been my very favorite movie of the fest. Less a spy spoof than the most ludicrous, over-the-top James Bond movie you could ever imagine, but if Bond was an international thief. Diabolik steals for the love of wealth, certainly, but he is just as interested in showing off. For example, when the government melts the world's gold supply into one giant gold brick so that Diabolik can't possibly steal it, what choice does he have but to do just that? This is a Dino De Laurentiis production much in the same vein as Barbarella. As much fun as that one is, however, Danger: Diabolik is the stuff my childhood dreams were made of. The Ennio Morricone score is amongst his best; I still have "Deep, Deep Down" stuck in my head two days later.

WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION

Witness for the Prosecution was a sort of class reunion for the seasoned movie festers in the audience. Director Billy Wilder also did One Two Three which was screened 3 years ago. Star Marlene Dietrich appeared in Destry Rides Again, which screened 2 years ago. Both Elsa Lanchester and Una O'Connor were in last Halloween's Bride of Frankenstein. Finally, Charles Laughton, director of past fest favorite Night of the Hunter, steals the show here. It seems these days that Laughton is more remembered for his single, admittedly brilliant outing as director than for his varied and distinguished career as an actor. It was certainly the case with this weekend's audience. That's why it was so wonderful to see Witness with this crowd. As the movie started, you could almost hear everyone thinking, "Oh, a black and white courtroom drama, great... " Then, a single line passes through Laughton's lips, and the entire audience was his for the next two hours. Laughton is one of the best actors in the history of the movies, and Sir Wilfred is one of the best roles in the history of movies. Dietrich, Wilder, O'Connor, Lanchester, and Tyrone Powers all bring their A-game, but the success of Witness for the Prosecution belongs to one man, Charles fucking Laughton.

THE TASTE OF TEA

Friends of The Movie Advocate Suzi and Eric brought the next movie, The Taste of Tea. The rest of us had never heard of the movie, a 2004 Japanese indie directed by Katsuhito Ishii. When the movie started and I realized I was about to spend two and a half precious movie fest hours watching an Ozu-influenced, rural Japanese family drama, I wasn't exactly thrilled. I want everyone to know that, because I think it will mean more when I say that The Taste of Tea blew me away. This is an epic story, navigating the lives, dreams, struggles, and fears of dozens of characters with pathos and fondness. There are some truly hilarious moments - the "Mountain Song," which I can't explain, you just have to see it, and the subplot where adolescent Sanchiko (Maya Banno) tries to figure out how to get rid of an imaginary giant version of herself that follows her around - and some truly poignant and profound moments - "wacky grandpa" Akira Todoroki (Tatsuya Gashuin) watches his daughter-in-law (Satomi Tezuka) walk in the rain, and we see the simple beauty of the moment through his eyes, captured in his memory forever. I could write volumes on what The Taste of Tea is all about, but if you are reading this, whoever you are, just watch the damned thing. It's great, and it doesn't have nearly the reputation it deserves.

SPACE IS THE PLACE

Sun Ra was a crazy dude. Space is the Place is a train wreck of a movie, but like a train wreck, it's hard to turn away. I can only offer my best guess as to what the hell it was about. Sun Ra travels through time and space in a far-out insectoid spaceship, wearing the latest in aluminum foil ancient Egypt-wear, and spreading a message of hope to the black race. In some cosmic desert, he and "The Overseer" (Ray Johnson) play a card game for the souls of black people... or something. Sun Ra encourages ghetto youth not to be slaves of the machinations of The Man, but then he sells out for a record deal. It's baffling: as soon as you think, "Hey, Sun Ra's message is hopelessly garbled," someone on screen will make that exact comment. So was Ra self-aware? Was this all on purpose? Space is the Place is so amateurishly produced that I find it hard to believe that Ra and his crew knew what they were doing. But I still have a nagging impression this was all on purpose. Far out...
SLAPSHOT

I know that hockey comedy Slapshot is supposed to be the “ultimate guy movie,” but I have to admit I just don’t get it. According to the Slapshot model, being a guy is synonymous with being an amoral skeezer. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against watching movies about amoral skeezers, but I don’t really get the point with Slapshot. And I don’t buy the argument that the movie is about how our culture and media promote violence while ostracizing sex. Certainly that theme shows up here, especially in the third act, but I think you’d have a hard time articulating an argument that that’s what Slapshot is about. The characters are all too despicable for this to be a “fun romp,” but there’s not enough meat for it to be much more than that. Slapshot is far from being a bad movie, but I still don’t understand the cult following that has grown around it. Entertaining, if a bit troubling.

THE MAGNIFICENT WARRIORS

The Magnificent Warriors (also released under the title Dynamite Fighters) shouldn’t work. It’s a 1987 Hong Kong cash in on the success of the Indiana Jones series. An impossibly young Michelle Yeoh stars as a leather jacket wearing, whip cracking martial arts expert who flies around China in a yellow biplane picking up dangerous and shady odd jobs. She’s hired by Chinese nationalists to fly a town leader out of Japanese-occupied Manchuria to the safety of Canton so he can relate secret Japanese plans to the Chinese. Believe it or not, the plot actually is about 20 times more complicated than that sounds. Judging by the standard criteria of quality filmmaking, Magnificent Warriors is a total train wreck: it has more characters than it knows what to do with, it starts as an adventure movie but ends up as an epic battle movie, and the pacing is really spotty. However, using the totally rad criteria of badass movie watching, Magnificient Warriors is fucking awesome! Michelle Yeoh proves her mettle as one of the biggest martial arts badasses of all time. Her fight scenes are unbelievable, and she doesn’t stop; she just keeps kicking and punching and jumping for an hour and a half straight. The ass-kickery combined with superficial Indiana Jones flair would have been enough to make this worth watching, but in addition, much of the comedy in Magnificent Warriors is surprisingly on point for a cheesy Hong Kong B-movie. The Magnificent Warriors is not a “great film,” but it is a fucking awesome movie. This was one of girlfriend Beth’s pick. We happened upon it by accident last summer while channel surfing in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was preceded by a Cambodian government PSA about how it’s cool to wash your hands.

NIGHT ON EARTH

In 5 cities (L.A., New York, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki), 5 cabbies pick up 5 fares. The events occur simultaneously, so there is some nice symmetry when the movie opens with the sun going down in L.A. and ends with the sun coming up in Helsinki. Jarmusch isn’t for everyone, and Night on Earth is no exception. It move’s slowly, there is little to no connective tissue between stories beyond the cab ride conceit, and in the end we haven’t learned any big lessons through the juxtaposition of these stories. Nevertheless, Night on Earth has a lot of attitude, offers interesting perspective into the idea of global urban connectivity, and is genuinely entertaining and well acted. Tom Waits wrote the incidental music, and the whole production ends up coming across like some long lost Waits album adapted for the screen.

JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS

Our friend Keith - notable around these parts as the programmer of the Watching Hour - brought 2001 camp-spectacular Josie and the Pussycats. I feel like this movie is a mixed bag - a lot more clever than it's given credit for, but not self-aware enough to stand on its own legs as the scathing show biz critique it so desperately wants to be. The over the top advertisements that crowd every frame of the movie are great. The fact that Josie and the gang are walking, talking Hollywood cookie-cutter cliches even before they're tapped for superstardom, not so much. Or was that on purpose? Hard to tell. I think it's slightly disturbing that the drop-dead gorgeous Rosario Dawson is shot as if she's a awkwardly built, big boned cow compared to her anorexic castmates Rachael Leigh Cook and Tara Reid. On the other hand, Alan Cumming is once again great, which makes me question why I like that guy so much if I can't think of any movies he's been in that I've loved. I think he and Eddie Izzard should get together and make a buddy comedy. Where was I? Josie and the Pussycats is hit or miss for me, but it was a perfect movie fest movie, and a candy-coated adrenaline rush for the time of night it played.

SHOGUN ASSASSIN

After years of Wu Tang albums and Tarantino-orchestrated hype, I finally got to see Shogun Assassin, thanks to Justin. This movie is just the epitome of cool. One badass warrior and his toddler versus every ninja in Japan. The action and gore are worth the price of admission alone. The high volume of arm severing, decapitation, head splitting, and blood geysering will make you dizzy. Unfortunately, I was suffering from a bad case of "the 5am’s" when this movie played, so I found myself drifting a bit during any scene that wasn’t wall-to-wall action. Shogun Assassin seems pretty great, but I’ll have to see it again – or better yet watch the supposedly superior Lone Wolf and Cub cuts – to be sure.

WILD AT HEART

Wild at Heart was my selection. I am not usually a fan of David Lynch. Too often, his movies come off as a combination of Freudian surrealism and nihilistic narcissism, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Wild at Heart has plenty of classic Lynchian elements, but here they’re put to use for good instead of evil. All of the bizarre and uncomfortable Lynch staples are present – shady, maleficent organizations with uncanny scope and reach, weird and inexplicable peripheral characters, and a pulse that’s more free-associative than reality based. However, all of Lynch’s excesses are framed as obstacles to the success of one of the best romances ever put to screen. Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) exist in the lineage of great “couples on the run.” They are the halfway point between Kit and Holly from Badlands and Jessie and Tulip from Preacher. When Lola sighs, “This world is wild at heart and weird on top,” there’s a real question whether her and Sailor’s boundless love and passion will be able to survive it. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a David Lynch movie, but Wild at Heart is a profound expression of the gauntlet even the most committed lovers must run. Unfortunately, watching the movie bleary eyed at 7am after nearly 24 hours of being awake, it was understandably difficult for the movie fest crowd to get much deeper than the “woah, crazy shit” level of appreciation. I sincerely hope everyone who was there goes back to check this out in a well rested state, because Wild at Heart has so much to offer.

EXPLORERS

Explorers was the last movie of the day/night/day. Adolescent Ethan Hawke teams up with adolescent River Pheonix when the former begins having dreams where he flies around inside Tron-esque 3D schematic diagrams. Pheonix’s Wolfgang is a child science prodigy who quickly realizes that the pair could actually use these dream-schematics to write a workable computer program that projects a real-life, inertia-less, “drivable” forcefield bubble. As far fetched as that concept sounds, the best part about this Goonies-ish, Navigator-ish kiddie adventure is that it skews much more toward the science end of science fiction than any of its 80s brethren. The majority of the movie is these kids building doodads and getting exciting about math and physics and stuff. That director Joe Dante was actually able to successfully express passion for learning and scientific exploration in a kid’s movie is an astounding feat. The movie takes logical steps toward its bizarre conclusion, but once we arrive at the movie’s third act the crazy ante is still upped to ludicrous levels. Let’s just say that practical effects maestro Rob Bottin (The Thing, The Howling, Robocop, Total Recall) shows up wearing his big boy pants with some of the most bizarre work of his bizarre career. It was a fight to stay awake from Shogun Assassin on, but I had to fight nodding off the hardest with Explorers. My 8am celebratory Budweiser didn’t help. I’m glad I tortured my eyes and body and stuck it out to the end, because the last 20 minutes of the fest were amongst the weirdest.

-Ben

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