Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Recent Viewings: Ping Pong Summer & A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

So it's been awhile since I just talked movies here on the blog. Used to be I would just post whatever came to mind whenever I wanted, and then I kind of got back-logged on posting about stuff I've picked up at Goodwill and everything else has sort of dropped off again. So... since I've seen a bunch of interesting films just recently, I thought I'd take a minute to talk about a couple of them to kind of get back in the habit of doing that again. 

In the past few months I've seen some summer blockbusters like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World, and while they were pretty fun what I really want to focus on with this post is a pair of smaller, quieter films that I watched on streaming that have very honestly been some of the best movies I've seen this year so far. Let's start with the first one, a throwback-to-the-80's flick called:

Ping Pong Summer has been on my radar for a little while now. I'm a fan of the Cult Film Club podcast, and noticed they had put together an episode based on this movie. I'd never heard of it at the time, and assumed it was some old 80's flick that I had just never heard of. I put off listening to the episode on the off-chance that I would track this down and see it soon (still haven't listened to the podcast, but plan to soon). It was the blog Flashlights Are Something to Eat run by Tim Lybarger that really got me to seek out the movie however... Why you may ask? Because he revealed that it was streaming for FREE on Amazon Prime. (And if Lybarger likes it, odds are the WORLD will like it.) 

The family Summer vacation. A (sometimes painful) rite of passage.

Written and directed by Michael Tully, the movie is actually from 2014 but is set in 1985. It's a retro endeavor in the same vein as movies like "Adventureland" and "Take Me Home Tonight". But I'm not really sure the similarities to those films extend much further past that detail. Where those two films felt like they were trying to BE 80's movies or semi-faithful recreations thereof, I would argue that "Ping Pong Summer" takes advantage of it's 80's setting to the MAX but tells its story through a very self-aware, very current-day filter. If I had to compare this film to any others, it would be some sort of bizarre mish-mash of "Napoleon Dynamite" and "The Way Way Back," neither of which were definitively 80's set-films, but felt like they could have been. Like "The Way Way Back" this is a movie that seems to be about a boy floundering for acceptance in a temporary summer community, and like "Napoleon Dynamite", it revels in the absurdity and bizarreness of the excessively mundane world we find ourselves living in day-to-day.

According to Teddy Fryy, one can never have too many spoon straws.

"Ping Pong Summer" obviously has some DNA donated to it from 80's films in general, with elements of "National Lampoon's Vacation", "Better Off Dead", and "Karate Kid" liberally sprinkled throughout, but it's interesting how much it doesn't lean too far in any particular direction. It's a movie that in equal measures can't seem to decide if it's a spoof/parody, a commentary on 80's culture, a genuine coming-of-age story, a kids' film, or a "remember when" nostalgia piece. It feels a little muddled at times because of this, and as a viewer you may be tempted to try and latch onto one definition or another... but trust me. Don't. It's way more fun if you just smile and enjoy the trip to Ocean City.

Leathery relatives. Genuine beach people.

The movie stars Radford "Rad" Miracle, who goes to Ocean City with his family every summer. This year, Rad brings with him a burning love of Ping-Pong and parachute pants. His goth sister hates his guts, his parents are kind of lame, and Rad just can't seem to fit in with the locals. UNTIL he meets Teddy Fryy and gets brought to the "Fun Hub" which is basically a rec room with some arcade games and a snack bar... but it becomes Rad's oasis of cool. That is, until he's challenged by Lyle, the local rich kid who seems to take insane pride in his own ping-pong skills.

Pictures: the fiery, blazing awkwardness of your teenaged crush.
And your regrets for not "going through with it" when it comes to that kiss...

It could be argued that in some ways the trashy souvenir store opulence that IS Ocean City is a sort of character in the film itself, as is the 80's time period. They both definitely lend a voice to the proceedings. As for the others, Rad is awkward, unsure of himself, but desperately wants to fit in and be one of the cool kids. He just wants to feel comfortable in his own parachute pants. Teddy Fryy is a walking 80's cartoon character with some of the most incredibly earnest but awkward dialogue in the film. His rap skills are stilted and his jheri curl is on point.

Try not to stare into the eyes (or denim vest) of pure evil.

The love interest for Rad, Stacy Summers, has what is rumored to be at worst a cocaine habit, and at the very least a serious sugar problem. She is fickle throughout, equal parts aloof and encouraging until she get's off the "Funky Punch" and get's her head straight. The villains of the piece, Lyle and Dale chew the scenery in the scenes they're in, being unbelievably evil for a couple of ping-pong loving teens. Dale on his own has some of the most disturbingly quotable lines in the movie, such as: "Inseminate him!" and he wears his hero worship (or is it more?) for Lyle on his sleeve. Lyle meanwhile is your typical well-to-do bully. You've met him before. He could have fit smoothly into the Cobra Kai. Rad's parents, played by Lea Thompson and John Hannah are loving and supportive, if a bit confused by their children, and play the typical 80's parents to a tee. And of course there is Rad's goth sister, who exists simply to be the annoyed sister.

Randy Jammer: Fish wielding neighborhood vigilante and Ping-Pong aficionado.

And then there's Randy Jammer, played by Susan Sarandon. Rad meets Randy as his neighbor first, and then through a series of encounters, Rad discovers Randy is a ping-pong pro. He begs Randy to coach him and Sarandon does her best Mrs-Miyagi-with-a-beer-glass-as-big-as-her-head impression (that beer mug was one of the few things to draw a legit bark of laughter from me, as the humor in this film is usually kind of subtle) as she guides him through an afternoon of "making contact" and "recovery routines".

Our heroes reconnoiter. 

Rad struggles to win the girl, and beat the bad guy at ping-ponging, to prove his own self-worth and win the respect and admiration of his family, his temporary summer friends, and Susan Sarandon. This could literally have been a Saved By the Bell-esque Saturday morning live action tween show in mini-series form and no one would have batted an eye. You might read that like it's an insult, but I don't mean it as one. It's this kind of middle-of-the-road quirkiness that gives the film charm. What it lacks in weight it makes up for in fun 80's-style fluff or awkward situations that catapult you back to your own childhood (in the 80's or otherwise).

Over all, Ping Pong Summer is a fun ride. I recommend it to nostalgia fans and fans of weird, awkward humor. I watched it on Amazon Prime, and for all I know it's still on there, so if you're a subscriber, check it out. Now on to something a little different than a week at Ocean City playing ping-pong...

I don't remember when I first heard about "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" but I know that when I noticed it was available to stream on Netflix that I'd already heard good buzz about it. I could simply describe it as an Iranian vampire movie... but to leave it at that would be a HUGE disservice (especially considering it is NOT in fact an Iranian film! It was filmed in California!). Much like "Ping Pong Summer" above, "A Girl..." (as I will call it from now on) dances across several blurred lines for genres, influences, and themes. 

He totally stole that cat. (It's the director's cat)

Bad City is... well it's a bad city. And in Bad City, there lives an assortment of rumpled, depressed, broken people who go through their routines as a mode of survival. Arash, played by Arash Marandi,  is a young man caring for his heroin addicted father. You get the idea that Arash is perhaps at his core, a romantic, but one who is also kind of morally grey. In fact, "A Girl..." at it's heart is much less a horror film and much more a noir film. It's probably very much for this reason that the movie is filmed in black and white. Arash is not so much a hero as he is a damaged young man trying to find his way. He wants money, he wants love, he wants the good life but is floundering as to how to get any of those things, when there are obvious monsters (not the vampire) who have already achieved these things for themselves all around him. 

Trading a cape for a chador and the wings of a bat for a skateboard.

And then there is the vampire, referred to only as "the Girl". We don't know what to make of her at first, as she stalks and kills one particularly prominent character early on in the film. This is the most violent and "gory" moment in the movie. In fact, as far as vampires go the girl is a fairly tame one, only making a couple more kills in the entire movie. But that's because this film is not about her being a killer necessarily. It is about life being drained away in various forms, whether literally at the fangs of a vampire, or the life and culture gulped up the greedy oil derricks pumping away in several scenes of the movie, or life sucked away by time and missed opportunities, or drugs, or vanity... or whatever else there is in life that can take from you or be taken from you. The girl is listless and powerful, and you get the idea that she is lonely and bored in her existence. We actually see her toying with people in Bad City more than killing them.

The song "Dancing Girls" by Farrah has been obsessively replaying on my iPod ever since I saw this scene.

That she has a morbid sense of humor and a deep love of music are obvious. The girl dances to records in her apartment when she isn't out mimicking old men on the street to creep them out, or stealing skateboards from children. But the girl as a character by no means feels simple or silly, instead she seems all the more sad for these antics. The way actor Sheila Vand plays the girl, she feels endless and powerful like the dark and deadly blade of a knife in the dark. To see such a creature desperately trying to feel something is bleak indeed.

Don't do ecstasy and dress up as Dracula. #truth

I wasn't sure what to make of "A Girl..." during the first 30 minutes or so. There is struggle as we establish the characters, and a death by exsanguination, and honestly I almost considered turning it off because I had no idea where all of this was going. But then... Arash meets the Girl and things start to change (Actually, there are some incredible scenes just before this event that caught my interest as well, but this meeting is the major turning point). The scene in which the two meet and interact for the first time is the best in the entire movie. You see the change in the Girl almost immediately, and while you aren't sure what her intentions are at first, this first encounter between the two is so satisfying I almost teared up a little. 

The cat always manages to come between them.

I found the end of the movie shocking in its simplicity and satisfying in the way that everything in the story feels resolved yet nothing in the story truly is resolved. It's that beautiful ambiguity that makes you wonder what the future holds for the characters. This movie was INCREDIBLE. It is moody and visually beautiful. It plays with the tropes of vampire films, Iranian culture, and uses the techniques of filming in black and white to their utmost potential here. The use of a chador in the place of a traditional vampire's cape is genius, and looks beautiful in many of the shots, as it is often the darkest, blackest thing on screen, even in the darkest scenes, and you wonder if there is some double-edged commentary here, using a symbol of female modesty as the dual symbol of the vampire.

Overall, I would describe "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" as a noir fairy tale, but not in any kind of ironic or sarcastic way. The director describes it as a "vampire spaghetti western." There are genuine elements of all those kinds of storytelling and it is an incredibly well-put-together film for it.

So there you have it folks! A couple of movies I've watched recently on streaming service that really made an impression on me. I'll be back soon enough with some Geeky Goodwill Goodies, so keep your eyes peeled for that and in the meantime, Happy Hunting!


  1. Well crap. I am not sure my first comment went through. So I will try this again. I have not seen Ping Pong Summer but I have heard good things so I am wanting to check it out. As for A Girl... I absolutely love this movie. I was absorbed in it. It reminded me of a Val Lewton type film. The girl freaks a kid out and for a second you don't know what she will do to him until you realize she is only taking his skateboard. It was creepy cool. I don't advocate scaring children to steal from them but it was certainly one of the many reminders in the film that she is certainly a predator. I also liked that she was a predator going after men who were using and disrespecting women. I would say she is a hero with a dark edge to her. The title alone is so misleading in a good way. I had placed this film on my queue having no real idea what it was about so I saw horror and assumed it was about a woman walking home alone and being stalked or attacked. I was glad to be wrong. Of course that moment she meets Arash is just great. Both aren't sure what to ale of each other but it becomes a very nice love story, even thought it is a complicated one. Also the music. I love the music so much. Just a great movie and I really enjoyed reading your review on both films. Very enjoyable! Hope all is well!

    1. Everything you said here I agree with 100%!!! I'm not familiar with Val Lewton at all, except I know the name of "The Cat People" as a famous film. I'll have to check him out.

      I definitely agree that The Girl is a dark hero. You don't realize it at first, and you kind of wonder why she's a hero at times, if she does it to break up the boredom or what... But in the end its interesting to see what her interest in Arash does to shake up her whole persona. There's the scene in the truck at the end when she's worried... and I remember thinking it was the first time in the whole film that we'd seen her emotionally invested in anything. The fact that she's WORRIED about ANYTHING is huge in and of itself. She was such an incredible character.

  2. I will have to give these a watch sometime Derek.

    1. Yes indeed! I don't think you'll be disappointed!


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