The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

This is probably my most-logged film on letterboxd and is sure to rank highly in my inevitable Best of Decade list, but this revisit was special as it’s the film I chose to watch the night before I got married. There’s no hidden meaning to that choice (I don’t think) beyond it being a favourite and a film so relentlessly entertaining I had no time to succumb to night-before nerves. FWIW the wedding was great and I’m now happily married. No quaaludes involved though sadly.

Watched on blu-ray

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The Dark Half (1993)

Romero clearly loves King’s sensibility as this goes a long way to retain the spirit of the source novel, despite being a totally batty idea to visualise on-screen. Timothy Hutton makes a meal our of the dual roles with Romero encouraging him to go as big as possible when playing the psychotic George Stark. I’m a sucker for both creative forces this is indebted to so even though this really only succeeds as a pretty good King adap and solid Romero-goes-Orion effort, it’s a reliable display of their individual charms.

This also has that 90s mid-budget, supernatural studio thriller flavour that was a big part of my formative years a movie-obsessed kid. I could have just as easily plucked a VHS of this off the shelves in the video shop in my pre-teen years and it would have soaked into my DNA. Not because it’s particularly revelatory, but because I would have watched it to death. The kind of movie that really takes me back.

Watched on Eureka blu-ray

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The Clovehitch Killer (2018)

This is one of those crackerjack thrillers that really sneaks up on you. Just when you’re comfortably nestled into The Clovehitch Killer and think you know how it’s going to play out, the film will switch gears and take you somewhere you didn’t expect. It’s structurally surprising but unfolds in such a clinical, matter-of-fact manner, it’s enough to make your blood run cold. Director Duncan Skiles favours distant, methodical masters and deliberate cutting rather than showy coverage and that, paired with just how banal all the environments and people look, make this a disquieting, gripping watch. There’s a home invasion sequence (showcased on the film’s poster) that is among the most unnerving scenes I’ve sat through recently. Dylan McDermott is terrific too.

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Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

I really liked this film’s approach to the horror anthology format. The simple conceit of the haunted book ties the stories together efficiently and the way it’s structured as an ever escalating series of spooky episodes happening to the same handful of characters avoids the stop/start lull which plagues most movie anthologies. This is probably my favourite horror anthology since Trick ‘r Treat, at least as far as American movies are concerned. It also has incredible October/Autumnal/Halloween vibes that were no doubt lost or diluted on the audiences who saw this in August. The period production design and monster designs are also stellar. Maybe going into this with low expectations helped but I was pretty blindsided by how much of this really worked for me.

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Sorority House Massacre (1986)

I always get this mixed up with Slumber Party Massacre, a film I’ve seen, so I thought I’d confuse myself further by finally watching this one too. Turns out a massacre of the Sorority House kind is a little less interesting than the Slumber Party incarnation. This is a hollow and tinny little genre film, not much in the way of revelatory shocks or narrative (obviously) but there’s a few positives worth shouting out.

It’s clear this was directed from a woman’s eye. The obligatory gratuitous “girls get naked” sequence doesn’t spend all of its screen-time on showcasing jiggling appendages, instead director Carol Frank transforms the scene into a light-hearted pop video – albeit of the softcore variety – about sorority girls trying on a bunch of outfits. Cute!

Considering it clocks in at a very slight 76 minutes, the way this drip-feeds a thin backstory via psychotronic dream sequences is an odd choice but not unwelcome but it does make the build-up a bit of a chore. Thankfully once the madness kicks in, there are some striking images that pierce through. I remember a knife in a fireplace, and also a couple randomly having sex in a tipi in the garden which soon doubles up as a pretty inspired backdrop for a savage murder. Beyond that, a lot of Sorority House Massacre is already slipping from my memory, which isn’t surprising considering a lot of its sparse content is barely there already. Might give this another go one day.

Watched on Amazon Prime

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Rambo III (1988)

I always find myself tuning out of this one, despite all the impressive practical mayhem on show. It’s astounding to think that there are actual human beings involved in some of those stunts. Unfortunately everything is beefed up, oiled down and sandblasted to the point where I just don’t give a shit. A macho masterpiece maybe, just not my preferred brand of 80s Stallone. At the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II you have to wonder, where the hell do you go from here? Rambo III provides the answer: nowhere interesting.

Watched on blu-ray

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Troll 2 (1990)

Yep, just as wacky and brain-numbingly bad as you’ve heard and yep, it’s also riotously entertaining. Part Herschell Gordon Lewis offspring, part WTF concoction of unquantifiable proportions. The characterisation and (attempts) at tone shift so suddenly that it’s liable to give you whiplash. I especially enjoyed the actors staring dead-eyed at their co-stars while waiting for them to finish their lines. It’s a good showcase for paint-like gunk-as-gore and cheapo rubber Halloween masks though.

Watched on Eureka blu-ray

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Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1996)

There’s an entire lineage of neglected female-minded American indie movies running parallel to the those solidly established in the canon. So alongside Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Hal Hartley, or Kevin Smith’s movies you have films like Susan Siedelman’s Smithereens, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust and Allison Anders’ Gas Food Lodging. And then there’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, which is about as scrappy, raw and obscure as 90s indie movies get. It’s also one of the best.

The sole feature film by Sarah Jacobson, whose career was tragically cut short when she died aged just thirty two, is a riot grrrl yell of rebel filmmaking. The film concerns itself with a circle of friends who either work or hang out at a dingy cinema, and is fuelled by their frank and astute conversations about sex, friendships, insecurity, shitty jobs and any number of other twenty-something Gen-X concerns. It’s a film about the little things, the little people in life, the things that mean everything when there’s nothing else to worry about. The way Jacobson so casually immerses you in this particularly specific orbit is a real delight. It is playful and humane, full of curious observations and empathy but it retains a realistic edge, especially in its depiction of sexuality, that feels transgressive.

The brazen and explicit approach to Mary Jane’s sexcapades, further dirtied down by the lack of light and noisy 16mm photography, not done to shock but simply to depict, warts and all, no doubt laid a groundwork that people like Lena Dunham (Girls) and Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) would expand on decades later. It is wholly sex-positive, but doesn’t skip the messiness as well as the trial and error that comes with a young woman slowly discovering her own body and gaining confidence in her own pleasure.

As a portrait of 90s twenty-something female neurosis, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is a wonder. As a feat of DIY, lo-fi filmmaking, it is an unsung lightning bolt. It achieves everything Clerks strives for but with a more astute eye and from a more radical perspective. It’s exactly the kind of idiosyncratic, singular voice-fuelled discovery that really gets me excited about independent filmmaking and swooning over the creativity and will-power that dreamed it up. How incredibly sad that we never got more Sarah Jacobson movies. Her voice was silenced way too soon but thankfully, through this film, you can still hear it scream so loud.

Watched on AGFA blu-ray

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Troll (1986)

As far as fantasy horror goes, Troll is a quirky, quaint affair. What begins with a little girl visiting oddballs in her apartment building eventually gives way to the twisted troll narrative the title promises. While certainly dark and strange, the film never abandons that child-like eye and sense of innocence. It’s weirdly sweet and nonchalant. As twisted as the imagery gets, it never feels depraved and oppressive but happy, curious, like a kid’s TV show after hours. It helps that the titular troll is such a cute little guy with his happy face. But that too adds to the subversive sense of weird. There’s still something wrong. Parallel to all that, you’ve also got Michael Moriarty bugging the fuck out in the way that only he can do. He’s the David Byrne of 80s actors (barring David Byrne himself of-course) and it’s always a pleasure to watch his choices bulldoze over everything else in a scene.

While not really a major work of its kind, the accomplished effects and Buechler’s handle on the fluctuating tone mean this is certainly a lot better than its notoriously terrible (and completely unrelated) sequel has led many to believe. It stands up there with other adolescent spook films that deal with fringe horrors and diminutive ghoulies. This made me think of The Gate more than once.

Watched on Eureka blu-ray

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El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)

Very much a continuation of Breaking Bad‘s autumnal, desaturated last few episodes rather than the scorching sand and blue skies drug western that concluded in the seminal “Ozymandias”. This isn’t an essential coda by any stretch of the imagination, and basically acts as a Jesse Pinkman-centric “Granite State”, but as a Breaking Bad superfan I was always going to be in the bag for whatever Vince Gilligan was cooking up even if that last shot of Jesse in the show achieves in a matter of seconds everything this strives for over two hours. Anyway…

It helps that El Camino is directed with the same disciplined, steady-hand which made the series such a visual splendour. Again, it continues in the same mode as “Felina”, with Gilligan’s penchant for scenes unfolding in single sleight-of-hand master shots or framing images from within odd nooks and crannies in the decor on full display. Remember that shot in the finale where Skyler was on the phone in her kitchen, then the camera moves to reveal Walt was stood there the whole time blocked from view? I think about that shot all the time and there’s more of that good stuff here. Regardless of its connection to one of the greatest TV shows of all time, I would still consider this one of the most confidently directed thrillers of the year.

Most of all though, it’s terrific to see Aaron Paul shine again. This is a welcome reminder of just how good an actor he is, the kind of reminder Hollywood has failed to give us since the series concluded. This Jesse Pinkman is a lot different to the bumbling, sensitive knucklehead that dominated most of the show. He’s still recovering from the fallout of his days as a caged animal, meaning this is a much darker and dour experience than the “Jesse Pinkman Movie” we might have imagined in the series’ heyday. Paul nails it all though, delivering one of my favourite performances of the year, no doubt heightened by just how much history we have with this character. I especially loved his scene with Robert Forster (RIP, so sad!), when you can see him slip back into his naively cocky Pinkman persona as he tries to outsmart a smarter opponent which, of-course, completely backfires. It’s a brief but important glimmer of hope that the old Jesse is still in there. Just lovely.

A lot of my good will towards El Camino comes from just how much the show, these characters and its creators meant to me during its run. I really went into this skeptical and half-convinced I would groan my way through it, but I was instead sucked in and more or less entirely on its wavelength. There are some missteps, sure. Jesse Plemons’ appearance can’t help but be jarring in terms of continuity and the way Jesse just casually shoots down his opponents like the fastest gun in Albuquerque doesn’t feel true to the character who spent entire seasons grieving over the loss of lives. I also think that cameo was entirely unnecessary and further hampered by a bad skullcap and the fact that Paul, now in his forties, just can’t get away with playing a Jesse circa-Season 2 anymore. Beyond that though, this could have been a lot worse. I didn’t realise how much I wanted a new slice of this universe to chew on.

Farewell, Jesse Pinkman.

Watched on Netflix

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