Emily the Criminal, and a few more movies

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Emily the Criminal

Emily has a criminal record, but it's petty stuff — a DWI, and an assault charge. She's also swimming in student loan debt, doing restaurant work, and wishing she was an artist.

Emily won me you over in the first scene, storming out of a job interview where the suit asking questions wanted to ask too many, too nosy questions. She's played by Aubrey Plaza, so she'd already won me over, long as she's not endorsing milk. 

She's looking for a way to make even a low-level living, but the movie is filmed on location in America, where everything's stacked against little people. With her record and unwillingness to take crap, there aren't a lot of options, so Emily ends up taking a shady job, doing work that's shady and soon gets shadier. But it pays well.

"You shouldn't have been here. It's your fault."

Actually, you should be here.

Unlike everything else Plaza's been in, this is not a comedy, at all. It's a thriller, film noir in color. It starts good, gets better, and builds to a conclusion as tough as broken glass. It even has something to say, without being preachy about it.

Anyone remember To Live and Die in L.A.? That's what this reminds me of — it has that grit, tension, and attention to detail, albeit with less glitz and flash.

Emily the Criminal is the first and so far only feature film by writer-director John Patton Ford. It's dynamite, explodes in all the right places and ways, and Mr Ford is a name worth remembering.

John Billingsley and Gina Gershon have small but memorable bits.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Miracles (1989)
a/k/a Mr Canton and Lady Rose

Jackie Chan of the 1980s and '90s was a favorite of mine, usually in double features in San Francisco. Chan's stunning DIY action sequences, light comedy, and poorly-translated subtitles were a perfect mix.

Well, here's an old Chan movie I'd never seen, and someone's taken the time and expense to dub it into English, even writing and dubbing lyrics for the musical sequences, but… it's simply not very good.

At least, it's not very good with these uncaring American actors voicing the lines. Chan's 'voice' is so very not his voice, and his voice is a big part of his appeal. Also, I miss the poorly-translated subtitles.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

"We shall show you that New York City is a dream created by higher beings as a temporary lodging place in the earthly sojourn."

Zach Galligan plays Adam, who dreams of being an artist, though he doesn't know or care what kind of art he intends to pursue.

This is a 1980s film, filmed as if it's a 1940s film — black-and-white, kinda quaint set design, over-earnest performances.

It's written and directed by Saturday Night Live's long-time short filmmaker, Tom Schiller, and produced, of course, by Lorne Michaels, who owns everything connected to SNL and dulls everything he does.

You might or might not remember the leading man, Galligan, as the dullest part of Gremlins and Gremlins 2, and nothing much else. He's always been an empty space on the screen, and while this might be his best performance ever, he's still a blank.

Nothing Lasts Forever is quirky and unique but often boring, with an unlikely but beautiful theme of artists banding together to survive and help each other.

With its concept and a stellar cast of walk-ons — Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, Bill Murray, Mort Sahl, and even soapmaker "Dr" Emanuel Bronner as himself — one can only wonder what this movie might've been like with a better actor in the lead, and maybe without the involvement of Lorne Michaels. It would've been better, certainly.

MGM deemed the film so disastrous, it was never released, though (obviously) pirated copies are easy to come by. Since the film leaked, hipsters have ecstatically claimed it's a masterpiece, but that's a bit much.

It's a sporadically enjoyable bus ride to the moon with some weird, whimsical moments, and it earns its happy, feel-good ending. Along the way, though, everything stops so Eddie Fisher can sing "Oh My Papa," and there are numerous other baffling detours. Even when it's telling its story, what's happening and why is of less than great interest.

But the flick is far out, which is short for "far out of the ordinary," and that's a good thing.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

Animal House (1978)

The Arnelo Affair (1947)

At the Circus (1939)

Bamboozled (2000)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Brain Donors (1992)

Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

Dark Days (2000)

Edge of Fury (1978)

Elysium (2013)

Ghosts with Shit Jobs (2012)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Invisible City (2009)

Labyrint (1963)

Our House (2006)

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)


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 twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. My favourite Joni Mitchell song, my favourite performance, and the best argument for Ladies of the Canyon being a stronger album than Blue. This one's called "For Free".



    1. Never heard that before. Excellent as poetry.

      Ms Mitchell's website says, "Joni added these lyrics to the song during the 1983 tour:

      Playing like a fallen angel
      Playing like a rising star
      Playing for a hat full of nothing
      to the honking of the cars"

  2. "Emily The Criminal"

    Liked it, but didn't love it.

    She could cut her debt in half by simply drinking tap water in a reusable bottle, like a normal human, instead of bottled water. I swear she goes through a dozen bottles on screen, who knows how many off screen. That's the kind of detail that tells me that this film is not made by someone who's working class or struggling. Small issue, but important.

    Also, I have less than zero sympathy for someone with student debt. Yes, all education - even university - should be free. I didn't have money, but neither did I even have the luxury of parents or advisors who could tell me how to navigate the morass of financial aid forms. Hell, I never even spoke to a high school guidance "counselor" until fall of my senior year - little late at that point, yeah? My options were A) Suck dick and B) Eat shit. The system and my parents utterly failed me. And they wonder now why I despise them.

    And like a lot of recent 'blue collar" crime films, I'm guessing the director here comes from money and/or industry connections. Jeremy Saulnier, Scott Cooper, all these guys have made watchable films in this milieu, but as you well know, you don't get to make films any more - especially with established stars, like Plaza (whose parents were "an attorney and a financial advisor") - unless you know someone or blow someone. And since everyone nowadays is a fucking prude scold, blowing someone is out of the equation.

    As for plaza, I like her too, but she's becoming typecast. Even here, she's utilized for her particular sort of impatient bitchiness, much the same as Catherine Keener made a career out of. I think Plaza is more likable, but Keener has been in better films, whatever that's worth. Whatever happened to charm? George Sanders was one of the bitchiest actors in all of cinema, but also one of the most likable.

    You really should outta watch the great Mike White's "White Lotus". Plaza is in the second season, and it's the most complex character she's ever played, thanks to the excellent writing. The first season is a total masterpiece, and the second is less novel, but both are worth watching. And that's a show that, despite being set among the rich, says more about the poor than something like "Emily".

    1. This is why I love you, man. I watched EMILY twice and don't even remember any water bottles, but I'm sure it's cuz they're so ubiquitous I no longer see them, same as I couldn't tell you what shoes she wore.

      My wife had huge student debt, and it was a recurring crisis all through her life and even after her death, so I have more sympathy in that regard. They target kid idiots (kidiots! because they're easy prey, and leech off 'em forever. Abrogate all student debt, says I.

      Many valid points you make sir.

      WHITE LOTUS -- an anthology, says Wikipedia. Each season stands alone, with a fresh cast? I don't want to get into something long-running unless it's over, so's I can binge it...

    2. > you don't get to make films any more ... unless you know someone or blow someone.

      So true. Even the movies I like are almost certainly made by people I'd hate.

      There was some slight hubbub years ago, about people making movies with their smart phones. DIY moviemaking on the cheap. Not much more required than the (not-insignificant) funds to buy a phone with a good camera.

      I may have seen one or two of those handheld movies, but by now it ought to be a genre. Anything that small you could nudge me toward?

    3. First season is distinct, complete. Second season carries over maybe two characters, otherwise complete as well.

    4. Season 1, episode 1, is downloading now...

    5. I was just going to say that Plaza apparently will be in Coppola's upcoming dream project "Megalopolis" which I hope is the greatest film ever made, as I adore Coppola more than just about any other director, and find his interviews entirely inspiring and genuinely humanistic. He's also the least hypocritical of all the movie brats - he puts his money where his mouth is.

      I mention him because he was the person more than anyone else, 40, 50 years ago, trumpeting new technologies (videocassettes, then cell phones) as democratizing filmmaking. Well, that hasn't quite happened, but when he says it, I think he really means it, and wants it to happen.

      My understanding is, even the best cell phones or consumer grade cameras require the addition of a good (expensive) traditional camera lens to make the end result look like film. Shane Carruth made "Upstream Color" with a sub-$1000 camera I believe, and it looks fantastic.


      There's probably a whole school of cell-phone filmmaking, just as there was SOV (shot on video) in the the late 80s/early 90s. And there's mumblecore and Dogme 95, both often used off the shelf digital technology. Then there's directors like Michael Mann or David Lynch, both of whom have been recently using deliberately harsh looking digital imagery and swear they'll never return to film.

      I think Soderbergh has shot several films on his iPhone, and this guy Sean Baker who the critics love but I don't care for, and I'm sure others. My guess is most people use it, post it to youtube as a calling card, get hired for whatever bigger project, and then use typical Hollywood digital equipment (which is why 99% of modern "film" looks like ass. Give me grain - lots of grain - and scratches and skipped frames and cigarette burns, I love that stuff).

      Were I to make a film, I would do everything possible to use 8 or 16 mm, because I love the look.

    6. As always, thank you for the info and education.

      I don't much care what devices are used in making a movie, except that cheap devices mean cheap people can make cheap movies, and that's terrific whether their movies are any good or not.

      Movies have always been an art form for rich people, but it no longer needs to be that way.

      Didn't know Soderbergh was on board.

      Now I'm adding UPSTREAM COLOR to my list, and the first thing I'm hoping is that its apparently nonsensical title means something.

    7. Oh shit, I thought you saw "UC" already? It may end up being Carruth's last film, as he's been "cancelled".

      It's really great. Wildly ambitious - maximal where "Primer" was minimal.

    8. Coming soon, to a screen very near me.


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