The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode IV – A Jew Pope

Yeah. That title has nothing to do with anything.

Once again I list off the last few movies I saw. Once again they are ordered by what what I thought of them. Kindly interact if you feel I have misordered them.

Utter Rubbish:

Whatever happened to the man who gave us “Austin Powers”?

Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (2003). It’s an unwatchable godawful tragedy. Thank God Seuss died before he could see this. It makes the Jim Carrey Grinch look like Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Meh and/or Misguided:

What do you mean we’re ‘laying it on pretty thick’?

The year was 1977. Immortal classics such as Star Wars and Annie Hall were in theaters. Also Ralph Bakshi made Wizards (1977). I confess I am far from a Bakshi fan although I do think he was talented and did make a few pretty solid movies (American PopThe Lord of the Rings, and Coonskin are pretty good), but all in all Bakshi’s roughness and idiosyncrasy do not always mesh for me. I know Wizards has something of a cult following, but for me this rather ham-fisted parable of love and magic versus war and weaponry just felt like a big sloppy mess. Most Bakshi films I don’t like I usually find something I admire in them and this one is no exception. I do give it credit for being a renegade hair-brained muddle. Nobody would ever make a movie like Bakshi’s movies.

Not the bees!

Phase IV (1974) is an oddball movie for a lot of reasons. Ants taking over the world had been done before (Them!) but never like this. It’s almost an art-house science fiction b-movie and it was directed by Saul Bass, the illustrious and industrious title designer for such films as North by NorthwestAround the World in 80 DaysPsychoSpartacusIt’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and many more. Phase IV is the only feature he ever directed and for as hammy and silly as some of it might be you gotta give it some credit for going against the grain. The ants have a bizarre plan for humanity and the ending is actually weird enough to be chilling. Sports some interesting visuals and some very neat footage of ants. Michael Murphy (Manhattan) is in it too. Almost feels like it could be an unofficial sequel to Quatermass and the Pit.

Why are we even trying? With Burton’s name on this bad boy we’re guaranteed to make a bazillion dollars.

What ever happened to Tim Burton? He had some solid films in the beginning culminating with the perfect Ed Wood. While many of his more recent endeavors might be rather disappointing Frankenweenie (2012) almost isn’t. Like most Burton, it looks amazing. The sumptuous black-and-white photography, clever cinematography, beautiful animation, and wonderfully inspiring character designs are pitch perfect. The nods to such classic monster movies as The MummyNosferatuFrankenstein, The BirdsGremlins, and even Gamera are cute and whimsical (I especially liked the Gamera bit even if it was a little too obvious). I even liked the Boris Karloff lisp Martin Short (Three Amigos!) lent to Nassor. Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman) also is funny as the freaky girl. Surprisingly what I objected to was the very thing many critics lauded. I don’t think this film has much of an emotional center and what little it does is unwieldy and half-baked. I think it’s slightly better than the 1984 short it was based on, but it lacks reason. The movie moves like a freight train and despite the 3D technology the characters themselves fall totally flat (with the possible exception of Martin Landau’s all-too-obvious liberal professor). The movie pedals on in search of plot, but never lands on a fully developed one, but the puppets are pretty and watching them dance might almost be worth it. But I don’t know why I should care about these characters. Even the central idea of coping with loss is shattered in the finale, making the film even more hollow. Sad misfire. I thought this could have been the one. And I still don’t get the title. How does “weenie” fit in here?

Sir Galahad. The Chaste.

I like Michael Palin. Anything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to A Fish Called Wanda to his travelogue documentary show. Naturally when I heard about The Missionary (1982), a film he wrote and starred in I had to see it. He plays an intelligent but naively puritanical turn-of-the-century British missionary who, upon returning from a stint in Africa, gets sent to evangelize to Britain’s harlot population. He wants to be married to his fiance and he wants to do his new job well, but when he winds up reluctantly losing his virginity (over and over and over again) to a slew of women just desperate for a nice, innocent, and compassionate man like himself things get sticky. It’s a recipe for comedy, but it’s not as funny as it should be. Palin plays the role fine and memorable Brits like Maggie Smith (Gosford Park), Trevor Howard (The Third Man), Michael Hordern (Watership Down), Denholm Elliott (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and even David Suchet (Agatha Christie’s Poirot) get in the mix, but the execution never lives up to its clever premise. Ultimately the film ends up looking like its protagonist, quaint and affable but too flaccid to be memorable.

Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder. 1789.

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) is stupid, but it doesn’t care. It has moments of near Mel Brooksian zaniness but falls a little short. Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) and Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are fun, if undercooked in this comedy of mistaken identities and the French Revolution. There are just enough good jokes to make it worth watching once. You will be sick of hearing “1789” and you will hate yourself for still laughing at it in the end.

Well, I Was Entertained:

I am your father.

A vintage British post-apocalyptic b-movie with aliens, robots, and zombies? Count me in. The Earth Dies Screaming (1965) starts out with some wonderfully bleak imagery and continues to sputter forth some fun chills until its ambiguous conclusion. A small band of survivors form an uneasy alliance and wait to see what happens next. Classic set-up. It actually reminded me of Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended (1955)—which I think is a better movie, but oh well. Add in a bit of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) too. Now I know I said aliens, robots, and zombies, but keep in mind this is a low-budget affair and so largely minimalist. It lags at times but it’s all good fun. The atmosphere keeps the film together.

Puns trump plot in these waters.

Aardman Studios is responsible for such genius works as Wallace & GromitCreature Comforts, and Chicken Run and although 2012’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (I use the original title because it is funnier and more aptly reflects the movie’s anarchic sense of humor) might not be a classic, it is an enjoyably high-spirited farce. The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and crew are swashbuckling buccaneers and love their mascot, Polly…who is a dodo bird. It’s about trying to get the Pirate of the Year Award and trying to stop Charles Darwin from kidnapping Polly and sacrificing him to a gluttonous Queen Victoria, but who really cares. The plot is so proactively weightless nothing matters much and the movie knows it. The film is really just fun animation with action and one hilariously clever joke or sight gag after another. And it actually works! Strong voice cast helps as well.

Who’s this new Hulk guy? He’s pretty good.

I’m picky when it comes to superhero movies. I liked The RocketeerThe Incredibles, the Hellboy movies, and the first half of the original Superman. That being said The Avengers (2012) took me by surprise because I hadn’t enjoyed any of the masturbatory movies leading into it. From the trailers I thought this film should have been called Tony Stark Riffs On the Avengers, but it was indeed more. It comes down to this: if you care about the heroes and give them some depth then the menace can be almost inconsequential. And Loki totally is. Director/writer Joss Whedon knows how to write interesting characters. Plain and simple. You write some solid characters and I too will thrill when Hulk smashes Loki (arguably the most satisfying moment of the movie).

I found this. And I’m keeping it.

I liked the first Men in Black (1997). The sequel was pretty joyless, but it had one or two decent elements. How Men in Black 3 (2012) managed to be as fun as it did I’ll never know. Once again there’s a certain freshness and the cast is clearly having some fun. Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is actually fun again and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) makes a great young Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive). Again, it’s okay if the villain is inconsequential because it’s about the heroes. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) finds new life in a series that didn’t need to be more than one movie. Also Michael Stuhlbarg’s (A Serious Man) character actually brings a weird serenity to the final product as well.

Even Warmer:

You’re letting me in? Thank god “Daredevil” never got an Iranian release.

Before people hate me for putting Argo (2012) so close to Men in Black 3 just consider the remainder of this list. Ben Affleck’s (Dogma) film has been receiving some high praise and there’s no doubt: it is a good movie. It is a thrilling political suspense yarn with a crazy but true premise and some not-so-subtle jabs at Hollywood, the CIA, and Iran. I must start by saying that I liked the movie a lot, but it is not the epic political thriller I was promised. It is not on par with The Battler for AlgiersZ, or All the President’s Men. It is probably closer to Munich. Actually the film almost feels like a cross between Munich and Wag the Dog. Maybe a littler better than Munich but not as interesting as Wag the Dog. Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!) and John Goodman (Barton Fink) are great, but the rest of the characters feel thin. The problem is I actually wanted to know more about this event and I feel like either the movie only touches on the surface or maybe there just wasn’t enough there for a great movie. Argo could use a little more meat on its bones and more character development, but it still does manage to be entertaining and exciting the whole way.

IT’S ALL REAL!

This might be the looniest one on the list. Daisies (1966) is a zany, surreal, Dadaist Czech comedy directed by Vera Chytilová. Two girls get into many kooky shenanigans and loopy hijinks in search of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I can’t explain too much, but suffice to say it is weird, wild, random, and only a select few will really appreciate it. I think Enid from Ghost World would totally dig it.

Show some emotion, Spacey! Enough of this smarmy monotone!

If you want to watch great actors cuss each other out and look stressed then watch Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Penned by David Mamet this is a fun little film about a crazy deadline and quota set upon several real estate agents. There’s mystery, passion, anger, frustration, and lots of cursing. I barely care about the big picture and answering all the little questions in this somewhat stagey movie because it’s just nice watching good actors sink their teeth into these characters and this dialogue. Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Jack lemmon (The Apartment), Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark), Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), and the tension is always building.

Higher Ground:

Get ready for the beautiful monotony.

For movie nerds who will be mad I didn’t rate Argo higher I know I will be crucified by serious cinephiles for not rating Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) higher. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the film. It is very windy. As always Tarr’s (Werkmeister Harmonies) film is long, lurid, cryptic, and gorgeously filmed with minimal cuts. The Turin Horse is a dour Nietzschian riddle on the repetitive monotony of existence and the weighty despair of life versus the oblique horror of an inevitable impending death and the nothingness beyond. Is life worth it? seems to be the question. Does my enjoyment of the film match my respect for the craft? Not exactly. This is the sort of film where the real pleasure comes from the discussions that follow. Alas, I watched it alone and the film suffers.

Shaken not…yeah. I know you know.

James Bond is an interesting franchise. I actually only think their are three or four truly good 007 movies in a series that I will watch no matter how stupid they get. Skyfall (2012) is a delightful return to form and an interesting step in a somewhat new direction. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) does something with James Bond that has never really been done before. He touches on who he really is as a psychological being. It still has its share of brainless action setpieces along with over-the-top villains with zany motives and invincible computer prowess, but the final act really makes it. Loaded with symbolism, pathos, thoughts on aging, and nods to the original iconography, the final act makes us remember why we love James Bond. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Judi Dench (A Fine Romance), Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona), Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), and Albert Finney (Murder on th Orient Express) are all in good form. Naomie Harris (21 Days Later) might have gotten more to do.

Birdie num nums…cue Dr. Bombay!

Is The Party (1968) the greatest thing Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) or Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther) ever did? Not by a long shot. It’s also possibly somewhat racist (although perhaps less offensive than Sellers’ role in Murder by Death). It’s a simple story many of us can relate to: the awkward outsider tries to mingle with the big-shots. The film’s genius lies in its simplicity and wonderful sight gags. Peter Sellers is an unwanted, accident-prone East Indian background actor who gets mistakenly invited to a Hollywood brouhaha. Sellers’ comic timing and innocent likability as the incessantly socially misstepping Hrundi V. Bakshi are a joy to watch.

If you get in close, defocus, and gradually move back and the story will come into focus.

Last Year at Marienbad(1961) is a Rubix cube. Directed by Alain Resnais, this beautiful and enigmatic narrative throws out linear storytelling in favor of experimenting with the film medium. Perhaps it is comparable to Lynch’s Mulholland Dr in structure, but it is prettier to look at. It is dreamlike, elegant,  and ethereal. Don’t you dare tell me what it means. I will figure it out myself!

Almost Done:

“Ishtar” this!

Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) has made some violent movies. Straw Dogs (1971) is a brutal study of the nature of violence. It doesn’t make me feel good. The images and consequences are not pleasing. This is specifically designed NOT to be a satisfying revenge movie. Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man) is David Sumner, a spineless American milquetoast mathematician trying to live his life with his wife (Susan George) in rural England, but the rowdy, manly, and aggressively horny locals make things challenging for the couple. Between the extremely uncomfortable rape scene to the wanton bloodshed in the finale there is plenty to chat about afterwards. The tension consistently mounts until the very end. What drives seemingly peaceful men to such horrific lengths? Peter Vaughan (Brazil) and David Warner (Time Bandits) co-star.

Surreal phallic imagery?

Somewhere along the lines of maybe Godfrey Reggio mixed with Tarsem yet different. Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow (2005) is an artistic vision of nature and humanity. It consists of occasional poetic letters read by narrator, Laurence Fishburne (King of New York), and sumptuous sepia tableaux vivants whose indelible juxtapositions heighten the romanticism of the concept. You will see old African women lay down with cheetahs in the dunes and taut muscly bodies swim alongside elephants and whales. Stem to stern it is a gorgeous work of art that takes the poetic pulse of mother nature. This anti-Herzog film is more ballet than movie.

I am so so very alone.

Ever since I saw The Apu Trilogy I have loved Indian auteur Satyajit Ray. Devi (1960) is another emotional and difficult movie that almost seems hewn from ideas that could very well have been featured in The Apu TrilogyDevi is different, however. It seeks to deactivate bizarre cultural superstitions and challenge long-held beliefs with reason, logic, and the display of devastating consequences. Featuring many of the same cast members as Apu, this movie chronicles the life of a simple woman (Sharmila Tagore) after her father-in-law has a dream she is the goddess Kali. Her life changes and she is worshipped, kept in a shrine, and brought dying children to heal. The psychological toll is takes is spooky and subtly done. The family is torn apart and everything will be questioned by the end but we may not get any easy answers.

Who wants to make a Jack-o-lantern?

Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) keeps surprising me. Night On Earth (1991) offers something unique. It merely seeks to put us in five different taxi cabs in five different parts of the world and just let us observe some truly interesting cabbies. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always fascinating, this enjoyable anthology features Winona Ryder (Little Women), Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing), Isaach De Bankolé (Manderlay), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), and Matti Pellonpää (Leningrad Cowboys Go America). Tom Waits does the music too.

Acme:

The West. America. China. Mexico. Now…Anatolia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) is a Turkish film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It concerns the events of a murder investigation in the homogeneous Turkish steppes. What struck me about the film was that the whole time I had no idea where it was going or what it was ultimately going to say, but I never cared. The movie sucks you in with its rich characters and shifting points of view. The cinematography is spectacular as well. Although not much really happens it somehow strikes an almost mythic chord that resonates with you long after the movie ends. It is a movie about the truth and about deception but there is more to this cryptic and extremely subtle tale than meets the eye. It is also among some of the best collections of mustaches I’ve seen in a while.

Do you remember those stupid cherubim?

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) makes this list for the third time in The In-Laws (1979) directed by Arthur Hiller (Silver Streak). This movie actually features two of the most interesting actors to watch: Arkin and Peter Falk (The Princess Bride). It starts off with such an obvious premise that I was totally amazed by how hilarious it actually was. Arkin is an uptight conservative dentist whose daughter is marrying the son of a wacked-out nutjob and pathological liar, Falk. It sounds like it could be a long lost brother of The Odd Couple, but amazingly it’s a lot faster and funnier. This movie started to surprise me about ten minutes in and it just continued to be inventive and ingenious. Arkin is so wonderfully understated and Falk is so delightfully matter-of-fact about his cray-cray that we let the film take us wherever it wants. And it does take you to some unexpected places. I was laughing out loud the whole time.

I do two things. Two things! Wheelchairs and drag! Do you understand me?

I love Tod Browning (Dracula). Freaks and much of his silent work with Lon Chaney, Sr. are masterpieces. The Devil-Doll (1936) has Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) playing a wronged Devil’s Island escapee who inherits a mad scientists methods of miniaturizing people and turning them into murder slaves. To exact his revenge, however, he must disguise himself as an old woman who runs a creepy toy shop. If that sounds crazy, then you haven’t seen much of Browning’s work. The atmosphere, the pathos, the innovative special effects, and the ridiculousness of the plot all service this bizarre fever-dream of a movie.

My god. There watching “Dreams That Money Can Buy” in there.

I need to see more Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast). Blood of a Poet (1932) is a deliciously surreal series of vaguely intertwining images and anecdotes. Cocteau was an artist of many fields, and film was just another avenue he could trod to churn out strange material. Blood of a Poet feels like a dream and is drenched in dream logic and spectacularly realized surreal illusions. This film is easier to watch than Un Chien Andalou because it contains more a sense of wonder and beauty, whereas Buñuel and Dalí were experimenting more with shock and Dadaist non-symbols. Something about the age of this film adds another element of legend to it. It’s a captivating riddle dance that feels both alien and personal. I kind of love it.

That’s it. What did you see? Anything good??

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