Stranger than Paradise, and six more movies

Today's movies include crappy sci-fi from J J Abrams, a couple of so-so action flicks, two musicals, a documentary about a crazy moviemaker who never made a movie, and one of the best independent films of the 1980s.

• A Gray State (2017)
• The Chain Reaction
• Cloverfield
• Inferno
• Stranger than Paradise
• Strangers in Paradise (1984)
• Wake Up and Dream (1946)

The Neverending
Film Festival


And the Douggie for Best Picture goes to... Stranger than Paradise.

Honorable mention: Strangers in Paradise (which is not the same film) and Wake Up and Dream.

Not coincidentally, all three are not at all normal films.

— — — 

A Gray State (2017)

This is a documentary about someone I'd never heard of and wouldn't have liked. David Crowley was a pre-QAnon conspiracy freak who palled around with the repugnant Alex Jones, and made a crowdfunded trailer for a conspiracy movie to be called Gray State, which isn't this movie. This is A Gray State.

Crowley never made his movie. Instead he killed his wife, daughter, and himself, so if you've yearned to see the true story of a murderous wingnut who wanted to make a movie, this is the movie for you.

"It's hard to imagine how it all went so wrong," says a TV reporter covering the triple-killing. "David Crowley, a talented, promising young filmmaker…"

Wait, was Crowley a filmmaker? He only made a trailer, and that trailer isn't even three minutes long, so it seems odd that this feature-length documentary shows only brief clips from the trailer, not the whole thing. I googled it and watched the trailer myself:

Over a bombastic drum soundtrack, "Hot Head Productions presents," black helicopters, RFID tags, a child's arm being branded by government agents, ominous worries about the Federal Reserve, air flights grounded, travel restricted, martial law, National Guard deployed to stop rioting, empty shelves in grocery stores, FEMA agents in riot gear, military commandos in camouflage invading Minneapolis, warfare in the streets, Americans being hooded and shot in the head by US soldiers, more FEMA agents in riot gear, cities in ruins, buildings in flames, and couples screaming as they're pried apart. The tag line is, "With every weapon of the state turned against us, how long can we resist?"

This is Goebbels level shit.

"The way I would pitch this thing is, America has finally had enough," says an indy studio head who was ready to bankroll Crowley. "The population of this country has had enough of the corrupt government, and they make a stand. I think, to this day, there's still a built-in audience for a film like this."

Yeah, no doubt about that. Half of Americans hate science, facts, democracy, and America, so if Crowley had made Gray State, it would've been a big hit with his fellow libertarians, tea partiers, and the QAnon crowd. There would've been sequels and spinoffs and maybe a sit-com.

Instead of being the new right-wing auteur, he's dead, along with his wife and kid, so those would-be ticket-buyers are of course pushing theories that Crowley and his family were murdered by the feds, because the government feared the truths his movie would've revealed. 

I am weary of a movie that doesn't even exist, by a moviemaker who never made a movie.

As for this movie, the filmmakers don't seem to buy the bluff that Crowley was murdered by shadowy goons, but they do seem intent on softening Crowley's legacy. A long list of his friends are interviewed, and they all agree that he had his faults, had some issues, but still, he was a great guy. There's a lingering close-up of his family dog.

However warm and cuddly he might have been, I'd say Crowley was despicable. I can't bring myself to even a smidgen of sadness that he's dead, and he's not worth an hour and a half of your time.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Chain Reaction (1980)

An under-thrilling sci-fi thriller from down under. 

There's been a leak of nuclear contaminants at the Western Atomic Longterm Dumping Organization (WALDO), and the corporation in charge wants to keep it quiet, but one fatally exposed scientist sneaks out to warn Australia.

After that, there are car chases and other action movie tropes, because despite all the nuclear waste, this is more of a B-level action flick than sci-fi.

Some well-staged car chases, though, if that's your thing, staged by Mad Max director George Miller. Miller did not direct the rest of the movie, though, or it would've been better.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Cloverfield (2010)

I've never been a fan of J J Abrams. What I've seen from him is ordinary — competent but uninspired TV, like Alias, Felicity, and Lost. In cinema, he's responsible for the ongoing dullness of Star Trek and Star Wars movies, so I wasn't expecting much from Cloverfield, but some younger co-workers at my last job told me it was great, so here goes.

It opens with long, tedious sequences purportedly filmed on some guy's cell phone, which means that the camera jiggles all over, there are staticky jump cuts, etc. We watch boring conversations between a couple on their way to a party, and then boring conversations at the party. There's nothing even quasi-interesting in these opening scenes. It is revealed, for example, that Rob and Beth had sex, but I already hated both of them so I only hope they used protection.

After 18 minutes and 33 damned seconds of this extreme boredom, the building shakes, the lights flicker but immediately come back on, and at long last, a movie is maybe underway.

Then we get genre-cliché TV news bulletins, things start blowing up, and it becomes sadly clear that the entire movie is faux-filmed on a cell phone, like The Blair Witch Project.

It's a style I'd call chaos vérité — lots of "Oh my God" and "Holy shit," and screaming and "What is happening?" as the camera shakes epileptic and we're given occasional quick glimpses of invaders from outer space or something.

It is the easiest, cheapest way to pass something off as a movie, and it's a genre from which only one worthwhile movie has emerged, to my knowledge, and that's The McPherson Tape (1989). It's certainly not this mess.

The horrendous camerawork and hysterical scripting is supposed to feel real, not like a movie, but I was hoping for a movie. There's not a single scene in Cloverfield that seems properly focused and framed, not a moment of dialogue that doesn't feel badly ad-libbed, and this is intentional.

Verdict: BIG NO, not without motion sickness pills.

♦ ♦ ♦

Inferno (1999)

Somehow I missed this in my roundup of Infernos a while back, sorry.

Jean-Claude Van Damme's motorcycle breaks down in the middle of the desert, but fortunately he has whisky and hallucinates an old buddy who spouts faux Native wisdom.

The buddy is Danny Trejo, who's always fun to watch but who's Mexican-American, so it's weird watching him chant and pretend at being Native. There's also Pat Morita in a diner, reading an unfaded newspaper with the headline, "Congress declares war on Japan," though this movie is clearly not a WW2 period piece. 

I could've done without the rape jokes, and didn't need to see Van Damme fuck two women one after the other, before falling in love with a third woman. But Inferno is standard JCVD fare, which means someone's done Van Damme wrong, and he's a patient man, but at some point, you know, butts must be kicked.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Stranger than Paradise (1984)

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, this is the film that made his name. It's a movie that couldn't have come from Hollywood, as it follows no formula, fits no genre except its own. One of its biggest dramatic moments is an argument over "I Put A Spell on You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The only familiar face is Richard Edson, who parked cars in Ferris Bueller's Day Off two years later. 

Stranger than Paradise is about Willie, who doesn't even think of himself as part of the family, but who's been cajoled into letting his Hungarian cousin Eva stay in his New York City apartment. Willie thinks Eva is a pain in the arse, but Willie's friend Eddie thinks she's cute.

Eventually Eva moves to Ohio, and even more eventually Willie and Eddie follow, and then the three of them go to Florida, all very platonically.

"Here, let me tell you a joke, all right? There's three guys, and they're walking down the street. One guy says to the other one, Hey, your shoe's untied. He says, I know that. And they walk—

"No... There's two guys walking down the street, and one of them says to the other one, Your shoe's untied. And the other guy says, I know that, and they walk a couple blocks further, and they see a third friend, and he comes up and says, Your shoe's untied. Your shoe's un—

"Aaah, I can't remember this joke. But it's good."

And there ye go. Not much happens in Stranger than Paradise, and what happens happens slowly, like life. The film is entirely made of tiny moments, but it adds up to something big. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Strangers in Paradise (1984)

Whoops, I was looking for Stranger than Paradise (above), and landed on this movie by mistake.

It's a musical about a hypnotist from Nazi Germany who gets cryogenically frozen to escape Hitler. After the war, a group of American wackos thaw the hypnotist and bring him to the USA, hoping to use his famous mind-control powers to rid the world of illicit sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. 

It's written, directed, and produced by German auteur Ulli Lommel, who plays the hypnotist, and also plays Adolph Hitler. 

Obviously, everything here is ridiculous, but the singing and dancing is fun, and most of the songs are pleasant quick-tempo rock'n'roll. This certainly isn't Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it has some of that movie's vibe.

"For me it's forbidden."

"Oh, then we should definitely do it. Most things that are forbidden are such fun."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Wake Up and Dream (1946)

Jeff (John Payne) is a farmer who wears a suit, and he's in love with Jenny (June Haver), but he always calls her Miss Jenny and she hates that. She grew up on a farm, so she's decided she'll never marry a farmer, which means Jeff is out of luck. Miss Jenny deserves better, anyway.

Jeff is at least 35, but he has a kid sister about 5, named Nella, and Nella's worried because the movie is set during World War II and Jeff has enlisted in the Navy.

It's a musical, with sappy songs all in the 1940s style, where an entire choir sings the lyrics. Don't give up yet, though.

Pretty soon, Jeff goes missing in action, which greatly improves the movie because he's a boring doofus. In his absence, Wake Up and Dream becomes a kooky movie about Miss Jenny, young Nella, and some old coot who's built a boat hundreds of miles from water. Even better, once Jeff disappears, the musical numbers stop, and it becomes a quaint, quirky fairy tale.

John Ireland, usually a tough guy in the movies, plays a wandering dentist who flunked out of dental school. The not-quite dentist tries pitching woo at Miss Jenny with lines like, "Maybe you don't realize it, but a fine set of molars is a rare thing."

For no logical reason, "Off to See the Wizard" from The Wizard of Oz plays as part of the score through the back half of the movie, but it's not sung on screen.

Verdict: YES, I guess, just because it's so strange.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. Okay here was my reaction after re-watching A Gray State for the first time since it came out:

    1. Crowley was manipulative and living in a total delusional state his entire life. It's sort of soft-played (like many other things as you mention) but the part where he and his friends would film themselves playing army men was key to understanding this. He basically created a fake war, then he saw the real thing and completely flipped out. Anyone would, but being tacticool was part of his identity. Later he leaves the camera on when he's alone at home and he's still dressing up he's a special forces guy rather than like most other infantry, a guy defending a sewage plant in the middle of nowhere.

    2. He had no idea how to make a film, but was manipulative enough to convince (mostly amateurs, but some actual people) that he did. That "storyboard" on his wall is the funniest thing I've ever seen. To see him gesturing at this mounted pile of notes and strings like it's full of deep meaning actually made me laugh out loud.

    3. Nonetheless, this goes to something that I thought of when you reviewed "Collapse." The vaguely hippie-ish people I know used to be into conspiracies that seemed kinda fun. Dead JFK, aliens, shit like that. Watching this is a good temperature check on the haywire Id of America. There's nothing fun about any of this. These people are living with self-made monsters in their heads.

    4. The second time I watched it, the mystery shifted from "why did he do this" to "what took it so long to finally happen" because if anyone was destined to go on a murder/suicide spree, this was it.

    5. I can now give you the ultimate spoiler. That tender moment with their dog at the end with the warm music? Crowley locked that dog in the house with him. That dog ate their bodies.

    The filmmaker was once a collaborator with Werner Herzog and has similar ideas about truth in film I think...

    1. Wow, man. Thanks for the thought you've given this, given me.

      The kook's storyboard reminded me of when I tried writing novels. Too many threads to keep track of. I don't know whether storyboarding a movie would be easier or more difficult than doing it with a book, but it was too difficult for me. That was one of the moments when I briefly empathized with Crowley.

      > ...conspiracies that seemed kinda fun...

      Your hammer hits the nail into my head. There was a time when conspiracy theories were fun for me. I played with them in the 1990s, but I never let them take over my life. Gave up that hobby after 9/11/2001, as it became clear to me that the hobby had been taken over by simple-minded maniacs.

      Your point 4 is what's coming soon. America has millions and millions of people completely stoked on horseshit conspiracy theories, believing nonsense that -- if true -- could justify almost any response. They're going to feel fully justified, and there are going to be some awful events. Crowley was, I think, nothing special. He was just one of the millions. Time bombs, all of them.

      If that bit about the dog was in the movie, I missed it. When I was a kid, my mom told me never to give the dog uncooked meat; she said it would make the dog crave raw flesh, eat people, and have to be put down. I have no idea if that's true, but my mom said it so probably not.

      And here's a spoiler for you: Werner Herzog was executive producer of A Gray State.

      Thanks again, friend.

  2. Stranger Than Paradise, the Jarmusch film, includes Lower East Side legend Rockets Redglare in the card game scene, Richard Edson who was an early drummer for Sonic Youth before finding some success in the acting trade, including being the mild-mannered brother in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (Lee and Jarmusch were both NYU film grads), John Lurie (of the No-Wave band Lounge Lizards and later of Fishing With John and Painting With John) and the beguiling Eszter Balint, who also has an interesting music career.

    I love a number of Jarmusch's films (though not all) including Mystery Train with Screaming' Jay Hawkins as the desk clerk and Tom Waits' voice as the radio DJ, Night On Earth, Ghost Dog, Broken Flowers and Only Lovers Left Alive.

    What's interesting (to me) is that both Strangers and Do the Right Thing show different neighborhoods of NYC at different ends of the '80s. (The Lower East Side of Jarmusch's film really was that bombed out and desolate in the early '80s). They both feature characters playing music on their portable players. Screaming' Jay in Paradise, Public Enemy in Right Thing and both films co-star Richard Edson. Both films mesmerize. -- Arden

    1. Rockets Redglare is a great non de plume, and I'd thought I'd never heard of him, so it's surprising how many movies he's been in that I've seen and liked.

      And Richard Edson was in Sonic Youth? Jeez, publishing a blog is very educational. :)

      Listening to some Eszter Balint now, and very liking some of it.

      I've seen half a dozen Jarmusches and never not liked one, but I'll keep trying. Edson seems to be interesting in everything, and anyone I like, I go collecting their movies. First up for Edson: Frankenfish (2004).


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