Protomartyr’s Joe Casey on the Highs and Lows of His Pandemic Movie Watching
His viewing habits varied from highbrow arthouse fare to forgotten trash (“If I lived on the Criterion Channel alone, I’d be a pretentious asshole”), and gradually skewed towards lighter entertainment as ponderous films about death and dying understandably lost their luster. We narrowed his massive list of watched films down to 10 and chatted about each, from a thrilling Indian action movie starring a rampaging buffalo to a Hugh Grant/Drew Barrymore rom-com to his unironic appreciation of Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
The 2019 Richard Curtis-penned ‘Yesterday’ posited a world in which only one struggling musician remembers the music of the Beatles, which he then tries to pass off as his own while remaining oblivious to the affections of his best friend.
Joe Casey: I was ready to be charmed by it. I saw the bad reviews, and I thought to myself, “I’m sure it’s cloying and mawkish, but it can’t be that bad.” I’m kind of a soft touch. I just saw Dream Horse, and I was crying during it, so I thought maybe people were being too harsh on Yesterday, but no, they’re right, it’s a bad movie. It’s one of those movies I hate that has the completely wrong idea about the music business. It has this very Boomer idea, nostalgic idea, about rock and roll and how the Beatles were this big thing, and it works against the movie to have that be the central conceit. I really did not like its attitude towards the music business and the Beatles, and the idea that if John Lennon wasn’t famous he’d be a happy man.
The problem is that the movie thinks that it’s very heartwarming and very clever, but it’s not. So that’s the worst kind of movie to try to sit through, because it’s making jokes and they’re just not landing. They really thought this was going to be the big hit of the year and the Beatles company was saying “This is what’s going to push Beatles music for a new generation.” Something always tries to come along that keeps the Beatles as the only music that people listen to. Being in a band that tries to make a living from being a band and playing at festivals and things, your relatives see this movie and they think, “Oh, this is the struggle you have, you have an acoustic guitar and you’re trying to write songs, but you might throw it all away for the love of a woman…” or something.
Lizzie Borden’s 1983 underground feminist sci-fi film ‘Born in Flames’ takes place in an America where socialism has taken over, only to become exploited for racist and sexist agendas. A Women’s Army takes up arms to fight the good fight, which includes both physical resistance and a street-level media campaign.
Casey: It’s almost the exact opposite of the millions spent on Yesterday. If you describe the plot or the acting or even the lighting, it’s a very shoddy movie, but that’s what gives it its power and makes it great. I had heard about the soundtrack for years and really enjoyed it, and this is one of the things where because of streaming, I was able to see this after years of hearing about it. When you have that kind of expectation, it can really let you down, but this was a real time capsule of the period it was made, and a movie like this couldn’t come out nowadays. That world is gone now, so it was a window into something that wasn’t that long ago, but seems like a thousand years ago, while still talking about things that are important today.
Growing up I’d be like, “Any punk, movie, I’ve got to see,” and a lot of those movies are terrible in retrospect. I like how this actually has a plot, a science-fiction setting, trying to do something beyond their means and failing at it somewhat, but that’s what gives it its power, I think. There are some movies here that are for causes or for people, but at the end of the day, they’re written and funded by a bunch of white guys, and this is one where that’s not the case. It was a pleasant surprise and wins points for how rough around the edges it is. “Love solves everything” isn’t the answer in Born in Flames.
Known for his epic meditations on mortality and struggle, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr’s 2000 metaphysical drama ‘Werckmeister Harmonies’ explores the violent past of Eastern Europe.
Casey: I’d seen The Turin Horse right at the beginning of the band, so it was really influential on me, and the same with this. This is cinema with a big C, and kind of slow cinema, which can be very tedious and very boring, but I thought that The Turin Horse and this one keep your interest. I tried to watch a lot of Eastern European movies and especially wanted to see more Czech films, and this is one that’s hard to find. I still have a Netflix DVD account, and that was the only way I was able to find it. I’d heard about it for years, and it lived up to the hype. It’s one I wouldn’t necessarily recommend, because it’s very long and ponderous. With a lot of these Eastern European movies you feel like you’re not getting everything because they’re making references to life under communist regimes and folklore that goes over your head, but the images in this one get stuck in your mind. It’s worth checking out, and it’s one of his shorter films, which helps.
Czech filmmaker Pavel Jurácek is best known as the screenwriter of the beloved satire ‘Daisies’, and his brief career in film came to a close with ‘Case For a Rookie Hangman,’ a surrealist adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.
Casey: When we tour in Europe, the touring company is based in Prague, and one of their drivers was really pushing the idea that Czech stuff is the pinnacle of the arts. While something like Daisies gets a big retrospective, this one didn’t seem like it was included in that. Surrealism in film doesn’t really do it for me very often, or it has to be followed through or completely take over the whole movie. Dream sequences drive me nuts. This is consistently surreal through the whole thing in a way that I really appreciated and thought was done very well, which can also become very tedious. But this one is visually amazing, I can follow the plot, it’s based on Jonathan Swift, and then you find out that it’s the director’s last movie because the authorities said, “This is against the government and you’ll never make a movie again,” and so he never did, it makes you wonder what would have happened with his career after.
A visceral action movie from the south Indian state of Kerala, ‘Jallikattu’ follows a buffalo on a rampage after it escapes from a slaughterhouse.
Casey: Even though I’m sure millions of people saw it in India, I felt like I was the first person to see this movie, I was like, “Nobody’s talking about this, I haven’t seen anything about it.” I don’t watch a lot of Indian movies, but if I hear one is especially good, I’ll watch it. This is from southern India, so it’s not a Bollywood movie, it’s amazing visually, and the sound design will rock your world. It’s a pure action movie, and a window into a world that I didn’t know existed. It’s over one day as they’re trying to capture this cow that gets loose, and it reminds me of what movies do really well as a visual medium, and they make this cow into the Terminator, it’s just mowing through guys, and you see guys risking life and limb for stunts.
It’s also not just about a cow, you get a sense of the village and the characters through side tangents and time jumps and flashbacks. It’s very in your face and modern, and has a really bizarre, surreal ending, which I felt it had earned. It’s everything thrown at the screen, and probably made for a fraction of what a Hollywood blockbuster is made for. It made me want to explore more non-Bollywood Indian movies.
The 2020 Pixar feature ‘Soul’ tells the story of a jazz musician making his way through the afterlife, featuring voiceover work from Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey.
Casey: Right off the bat, I don’t like animated movies that much, or Pixar movies. My biggest problem with a lot of these is as they’ve gone on, they seem like they’re less and less for kids, and this one was the ultimate one where I was like, “I think I would have hated this as a kid.” It’s another one that I think really got music wrong. As a kid I was really scared of death and even the idea of an afterlife, your little brain starts to think about what eternity is and you can’t comprehend it. So I think it’s a really dumb idea of what the afterlife is, it feels almost like an objectivist afterlife, and they’re trying to make fun of bureaucracy or something, but I don’t know what it’s trying to say, and I don’t think a kids’ movie should be that complicated.
They’ve done profound movies before, and people say Up is good, but it’s only profound for the first 10 minutes, and the rest is about a guy with a flying house. Disney and Pixar have gone up their own asses, and I don’t like it. I also felt like it really paid lip service to “Oh, we have Black people in our movies now,” and the guy just has no control over his life. You finally have a lead character who’s a Black guy, and then to have him completely at the whims of society…maybe that’s the idea, but it also paid lip service to the idea of what jazz is. It was very off to me. It felt like if Amazon had an afterlife. You could tell it was a bunch of rich people sitting around, smoking a joint and saying, “What is it like after you die? Let’s teach our children this.” It might be fine for adults, but it’s probably very confusing for kids.
Geraldine Chaplin stars in Alan Rudolph’s 1978 psychological thriller ‘Remember My Name’ as a vengeful ex-wife on the warpath after her release from jail.
Casey: This is one where after seeing it I felt like, “Why is no one talking about this?” It felt like a lost classic, they don’t make movies like this anymore. Right off the bat, the cinematography is amazing, it’s the guy who did all the Jonathan Demme movies, the acting is amazing, the plot threads the needle of showing a person going crazy but you still like them even though they’re doing horrendous things. A lot of movies now, the audience needs its identification character right away, the good guy has to be good and that has to be clear in the first five minutes, and this has no good guy or bad guy. It’s one of Alfre Woodard’s first movies, Tim Thomerson is in it, for any Dollman fans, and Dennis Franz.
I’d seen Geraldine Chaplin in other things and thought she was always playing frail, whiny characters, and then you see her in this and wonder why didn’t more people use her like this, it’s an amazing performance where she’s playing the wronged, crazy woman. There are scenes that are like a horror movie where she’s a stalking monster, then she’s very tender or very sexy, and Anthony Perkins is totally jacked in this movie. I’m not a big Robert Altman guy, but it has an Altman feel to it, a Jonathan Demme feel, the soundtrack is good, it’s a lost gem that you’re really glad when you finally see it. I don’t want to oversell it, but I think if people go into it neutral, they’ll be surprised by how good it is.
Val Kilmer gave one of the defining biopic performances as Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s fanciful portrayal of the career of the Doors.
Casey: It has a special place in my heart, but then on top of it, I think it’s a really well done movie. We’ve been drowned in the last gasp of these Boomer nostalgia biopics where they’re all stealing from The Doors more than something like Coal Miner’s Daughter or the earlier ones that did it better. The Doors was the first one that was like, “This is rock and roll, baby, it should move and feel like it.” So I do appreciate it on a very camp and corny level, because when I was growing up, I avoided the Doors with a passion, I didn’t listen to them, and it was only during college where I thought some of the Doors wasn’t that bad, and maybe Oliver Stone movies that are over the top are actually really good. After college, it was a joke for me and my friends where we’d watch The Doors movie way too much.
At the time there was a very heavy-handed nostalgia trip of “Jim Morrison is a poet,” and I don’t think this movie necessarily presents him as a poet or as a rock god, it’s more like he’s a big dummy who stumbled into fame and died way too soon. Val Kilmer really does a great job, and every single role in this is a character actor you love or somebody slumming it, and it made me appreciate their music more after watching it. It takes something you’d think is corny or terrible and elevates it to the point where you say, “Maybe this is as good as they say it is,” while also presenting him as a buffoon. I learned a lot of tricks of the trade from watching The Doors. Crispin Glover as Andy Warhol alone is worth the price of admission.
Elaine May wrote, directed, and starred in the 1971 comedy A New Leaf, a story about a timid but sweet botanist and heiress who finds herself being pursued by a desperate playboy (Walter Matthau) seeking financial security.
Casey: Elaine May movies are something I thought of as, “These could never be funny,” I figured they fell under the Neil Simon, Woody Allen, urbane New York upper class thing. And all I ever heard growing up was that Ishtar was shorthand for “a flop.” So going back and seeing A New Leaf and realizing that it’s actually funny and how dark it is, it stands against how comedies don’t often age well, and I was surprised at how fresh A New Leaf was, and then to follow it with The Heartbreak Kid, which is also very funny, and then Mikey and Nicky, which is better than a lot of John Cassavetes movies, it’s weird how you can misread somebody for years. It seems like she’s getting a reappraisal, and it’s amazing when you find out about these movies and say, “Wow, they did her dirty, too bad she’s dead,” but no, she’s alive.
This one was a nice surprise, and it feels like it’s very influential on what modern comedies are doing, but nobody cites it as a connector. It reminds me the guy who directed Come and See, which is the most brutal war movie ever made, but before then he was a comedy director, and his movies were like Wes Anderson movies, the framing is the same, the style of humor, and then he goes and makes the most brutal movie of all time. That’s another case where I saw his movies and thought, “Has anyone pointed out that Wes Anderson just ripped this guy off completely?” One takes place at a summer camp, and it’s straight out of Moonrise Kingdom, and the same thing with A New Leaf, where it’s influenced so many people and it’s never been known to me. For a new generation, it’s great to see something like that and say, “How is this still funny?” while also being dark.
One of Hugh Grant’s last romantic comedies, ‘Music and Lyrics’ cast the star as a washed-up musician whose career is given a boost when he begins collaborating with a houseplant waterer played by Drew Barrymore.
Casey: I watch a lot of romantic comedies and I always come away saying, “That was all right” or “This was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” I think it’s because if I watch enough of them, I think I will appreciate the things they repeat, the tropes, and notice when one does it well. I don’t necessarily like Drew Barrymore that much, but I really dislike Hugh Grant quite a bit, and the guy who directed this had made five or six Hugh Grant movies, so this is his guy. It starts out where you think it’s going to be a funny take on the music industry, but what frustrated me is that it gives you the wrong idea of what a music manager does. Brad Garrett is his manager, and Hugh Grant is supposed to be washed up, but Brad Garrett is there every day in a suit saying, “OK, buddy, I got this gig and that gig for you.” I wish I had a manager like that, who would try to get me jobs.
It’s one of those movies where romantic comedies have to have a part where they break apart, and the reasoning in this one doesn’t serve the characters. She’s suddenly like, “We must never sell out!” and it makes no sense. And they have a character that’s somewhere between Taylor Swift and Christina Aguilera during the Xtina period, they can’t tell if they want to make fun of her or treat her as a secret genius, so they do both, and it comes off weird where they’re tut-tutting her for dancing too sexy but then later on, “No, that’s empowering,” so the movie doesn’t know what to do with her. It’s like watching a music biopic and saying, “Walk Hard did this better and funnier,” and They Came Together is the romantic comedy version of this.
This movie has the cardinal sin of having the climax be that the slutty Taylor Swift is going to play Madison Square Garden and she’s going to invite the washed up Hugh Grant to take part since he helped write the song, him and Drew Barrymore are on the outs, all these preteen girls are there. He’s playing this song on the piano, and it’s the most boring, listless song. If I was in the audience I’d be like “Boo!” No one would give a shit. I’ve been onstage, and I know that every moment you think is a beautiful, cathartic moment, usually the audience doesn’t know or give a shit. If some guy came onstage who you don’t know who he is and he has a song you’ve never heard of, you’d walk out the door. But I’ve seen worse romantic comedies. I was probably cranky that night.