The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Dr. Frank-n-Furter looks saucy in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

“I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.”

There’s no film that embodies the term “cult classic” more than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Directed by Jim Sharman (Shock Treatment, The Night, the Prowler) and starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, this delightfully deviant rock opera started showing in 1975 and saw its greatest success with midnight showings. Some theaters have been hosting midnight showings regularly since 1975, making this the longest theatrical release in history. This quirky film gathered a strong cult following and became a cultural phenomenon, and it’s widely regarded as one of the most successful independent films in history. Despite coming out in 1975 (with the original stage play coming out 1973), this is still sharper and edgier than most films being made today. It doesn’t really discuss controversial topics so much as celebrate them, and this is more fun than most other films from any era.

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BlacKkKlansman

Flip Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth examine a KKK membership care in BlacKkKlansman

“There’s never been a black cop in this city. We think you might be the man to open things up around here.”

There are a lot of films that are good, but far fewer that are both good and important: timely, thought-provoking, painfully honest, and still entertaining. BlacKkKlansman, directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X) and starring John David Washington and Kylo Ren, is an entertaining film that really spells out how racism in America took its current form and went mainstream, starting in the 70s. The script is clever and it has some hilarious moments, some genuinely touching moments, and some suspenseful moments to keep it from getting dull. But the real genius of the film is how it tackles such a difficult and misunderstood topic and breaks it down and makes it easy to follow, tracing the idea’s lineage from years in the past to today. The blatant racism can be difficult to watch, but this film is undoubtedly one of the most important of recent years, especially in today’s political climate.

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Spanglish

Flor hugs Cristina in Spanglish

“When people exist under one roof, a tiny society forms—the stuff of novellas. Masters and servants unconsciously dancing in lockstep. So that when things go wrong, problems converge.”

When someone mentions the American immigrant story, we have lots of examples of Europeans coming to America in the 1800s to start their new life in the new world, but we don’t have a lot of examples of modern immigrants from other places who are trying to do the same thing. Spanglish gives us the perspective of a young girl immigrating to America with her single mother from Mexico. Written and directed by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) and starring Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Shelbie Bruce, this is a film that really captures the beauty of Mexican-American culture and evokes some deep feelings that you don’t often see in film. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie. The plot feels at times like a sitcom and some of the situations feel a bit forced. But the feelings it stirs up and the ideas it deals with are specific, unique, and very real. How many other films deal with cultural appropriation, white guilt, and gender stereotypes while keeping things light, funny, and watchable? Reviews on this film were very mixed—as of writing this, this is the lowest-ranked film on my list according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with a 52% approval rating. But this is a film I’ve loved for years and enjoy every time I watch it.

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Colossal

Gloria and Oscar watch the news in Colossal

“Have you ever noticed how it just keeps destroying everything in its path but it never looks down?”

Mark Twain once said, “If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.” Now, Mark Twain clearly had something against St. Louis, but that’s not my point. My point is that if you’re ignorant about something and you live in a place where nobody is going to point that out to you, you’re likely to remain ignorant about that your entire life. I lived in small-town Florida for most of my adolescent and young adult life, and let me tell you: in those towns, it is very hard to come by people who will challenge you to think outside of the microcosm of small towns in America.

Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) and starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, is a high-concept film with a lot to say about life in a small town. It’s very metaphorical, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s trying to say. That’s not a bad thing, because it has a lot to say and it will probably speak differently to different people. It’s kind of a dark comedy, kind of a story of redemption, and kind of a giant monster movie (in a literal sense). It got some bad reviews from people who likely missed the points it was trying to make and saw it as an ill-conceived monster movie, but there’s a lot here for people who are willing to dig into the film a bit more.

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In Bruges

Ken and Ray sit on a bench in In Bruges

“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset.”

There are many films about hitmen, but In Bruges is different. It doesn’t show a slice of life like similar films do. Instead, it uses light allegory, dark humor, and razor-sharp wit to tell a story of growth and atonement for two distinct characters who both happen to be hitmen. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this film is at times funny and at other times depressing, and it goes way deeper than telling the story of a string of contracted hits. This film hits the deepest parts of the soul for these two flawed protagonists as they struggle emotionally with the lives they live. This film is funny, poignant, and definitely worth a watch.

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The Producers

Leo and Max chat in The Producers

“A flop—that’s putting it mildly! We’ve found a disaster, a catastrophe, an outrage! A guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty! … Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Wow!”

It’s been a long time since World War II ended, so it’s become more acceptable to joke about Hitler. But there was a musical parody of Hitler that hit much earlier. The Producers was released in 1967—a mere 22 years after the war ended—so it’s easy to forget today how audacious this film was in its time. Directed by Mel Brooks (Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles) and starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, this film was made to be vulgar, and it’s the film’s audacity that makes it such an enduring classic. (Brooks’s parents were both Jewish immigrants who had escaped from WWII Europe, so if any director has a right to joke about Nazi Germany, it’s this one.) Honestly, Mel Brooks films are kind of hit or miss for me. I loved Spaceballs, but wasn’t so crazy about Blazing Saddles. The Producers, a movie about a flop, is a certified hit. This is one of Brooks’s finest films, and it’s stood the test of time, even warranting a remake in 2005 (that wasn’t nearly as good).

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Dead Poets Society

John Keating teaches a roomful of teenage boys in Dead Poets Society

“Oh captain, my captain.”

The 80s were a time of great financial growth, but also great greed, and Generation X was getting old enough to have an opinion about it. Gen X started their own cultural movement in the 90s and basically torched everything to the ground, but it started with some general unease in the 90s. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) and starring Robin Williams and a host of young talent, makes an interesting statement to the emerging Gen X ideology by showing how their parents dealt with that same problem of greed and success at the detriment of truth and beauty in the 1950s. This is admittedly not a universal movie—it delves deeply into Romantic and Transcendentalist ideologies and definitely appeals to lovers of old books more than the general population. But there’s a lot here that teenagers of any age will relate to. Whether you agree with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau or not, there’s plenty to think about and plenty to like in this film.

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PK

PK and Jaggu pose in PK

“You all say that it’s only one god. I say, no… there are two gods. One is the one who created us all. The other one is the one created by people like you.”

I’m not an expert in Bollywood film—in fact, before this past weekend, I had never watched a real one all the way through—but the category is so big, I know I can’t ignore it. Some guys at work recommended to me PK, the highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time. I have to say: I absolutely loved it. Directed by Rajkumar Hirani (3 Idiots, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S.) and starring Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma, this film shows us a classic scenario: an outsider comes to a familiar setting (in this case, the city Delhi, which may be foreign to American viewers) and shows us how absurd we can be. But PK delves into some more philosophical issues and begins asking deeper questions about life and religion that I haven’t really seen in film before. This is also a fun, quirky comedy that’s entertaining throughout. If you’re wanting to get started in Bollywood film, this is a great place to start.

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Say Anything

Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court share a romantic moment in Say Anything

“What I really want to do with my life—what I want to do for a living—is I want to be with your daughter. I’m good at it.”

Scruffy underdog wins the heart of the most popular girl in school. That’s a story that played out a lot in the 80s and 90s, but Say Anything manages to go deeper than most other films that follow this formula. Directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) and starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, this film is simultaneously a teen love story and a metaphor for Generation X coming of age. It was for Gen X what The Graduate was for Baby Boomers and what Lady Bird was for Millennials: a chance for them to define their relationship with the previous generation, on their terms. The 80s were a time of great financial growth and security, but also rampant corporate greed and some unscrupulous actions, and Gen X had become old enough to say something about it. But it’s also a great teen love story with emotional depth and humor. Is this the perfect teen movie? If not, it’s awfully close.

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Fargo

Marge Gunderson smiles in Fargo

“And for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know.”

Picture in your head a plot where a man hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can keep most of the ransom money paid by her father. There’s murder and a big investigation. Unless you’ve seen Fargo, I highly doubt the picture in your mind is set in small-town Minnesota. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (True Grit, The Big Lebowski) and starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, Fargo turns the normal police-investigating-a-string-of-murders plot on its head by focusing on simple, conservative small-town folks and largely incompetent, unsympathetic characters. These aren’t people in the dark underbelly of some large city, these are people who get excited when new stamp designs come out. Under the hood, this is a black comedy as well as a crime drama, and the writing is top-notch. If you’re looking for something different and clever without being over-the-top, this might be it.

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