I’m pleased to say there were no movies I hated this time around. Some duds, but no outright scorn. Once again, listed in order of my subjective opinion of them.
I recently re-watched Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!(1996), the star-packed, big-budget effects-extravaganza sci-fi spoof of classic 1950s B-movies and space schlock flicks (and all inspired by a somewhat obscure series of trading cards). For me, this films teeters on the brink of having the potential to be utterly brilliantly wonderfully hilarious and the actual tone deaf, sloppy mess it really is. Even if it is a royal misfire, you gotta admit it was a truly valiant attempt at something fascinatingly odd. If only its execution matched its ambitions.
I finally saw Terry Gilliam’s short film, The Wholly Family (2011). I like a lot of Gilliam’s cock-eyed filmography. This one never clicked with me. A bratty kid has a nightmare where punchinellos do weird things and serve him pasta (the film itself was funded by a pasta company). It has a decent atmosphere and some interesting imagery, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a seasoned auteur. Or maybe it does and I just didn’t see it. Whatever.
The original 1932 Island of Lost Souls turned out to be one of my favorite movies. This wonky remake from 1996 is a paltry ersatz travesty. Marlon Brando is making some truly weird choices as the title character in John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Val Kilmer also strikes some bizarre notes. Then there’s the casting of a slightly wormy David Thewlis as the protagonist. Most of this suspenseless cautionary tale of science gone haywire focuses on fun animal-man makeup. The original from 1932 is a truly spectacular bit of pulp horror—equal parts delight and fright. This remake actually is a bit of a B-movie. It’s technically awful and I know it, but I sort of liked that about it.
Somewhat Steadier Hands:
I like Alan Arkin so I tracked down Marshall Brickman’s Simon (1980). It’s the story of a group of scientists with too much time and money on their hands who brainwash a naive psychology professor (Arkin) into thinking he is an alien. His new-found delusion makes him more volatile than anticipated and he seeks to solve all the problems of contemporary American life with some borderline ham-fisted satire. Sometimes astute and funny, other times dated and full of itself, Simon is a nominally enjoyable little move.
Everyone was raving about Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (2013). So I watched it on a plane. It’s a pleasant little movie about a struggling California masseuse who starts dating again. She winds up falling for a schlubby divorcee. The trouble comes when her new friend, Catherine Keener, happens to be the woman who divorced her new boyfriend. It’s a quiet slice-of-life film that has a some good laughs and really gets some mileage out of its subtle premise. The performances are good too.
Martin Scorsese. I trust him to know cinema. I’m ambivalent toward Leonardo DiCaprio. And Jonah Hill can be funny sometimes. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is an entertaining film overall. It’s very long, sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, joyously offensive, and possibly a decade too late. It has some great scenes as it chronicles the rise and fall and speedy recovery of colossal bastards in the stock trading business. It does what it does, but I liked it better when it was Goodfellas.
Full disclosure: I missed the first 10-15 minutes of Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012). That said, I really liked what I saw. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a gangster has to kill people sent back in time. The problem is that the man he has to kill is his future self. Once you get past the putty nose and the random telekinesis, it’s quite a good science-fiction thriller with loads of suspense and a thought-provoking finale. The best time-traveling Bruce Willis movie since Twelve Monkeys.
Things Become Even More Interesting:
Probably Noah Baumbach’s most famous film, The Squid and the Whale (2005) is a painfully honest look at the invented and real problems of a white middle-class family in New York. Divorce, puberty, trust, virginity, mind games, plagiarism, pseudo-intellectualism, and how we deal with all of it abound in this smartly written and uncomfortably funny yarn. The great cast features Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and Jesse Eisenberg.
Call me crazy, I found J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) a lot more interesting and suspenseful than Wolf of Wall Street. The comparison comes from both films dealing with real corruption at the top. Margin Call is a wonderfully cast drama about the first few hours of an impending financial meltdown at a big investment bank. The great cast and sharp pacing and real-life grounding lend this film the credibility it needs.
Sometimes it is the circumstances surrounding a film viewing that greatly influence your opinion of it. (Example: had I not seen The Phantom Menace with my dad on opening night I doubt I would remember it at all.) I saw Joon-ik Lee’s Wish (2013) at a small bar that was hosting a discussion about rape. The film itself tells the real-life story of an 8 year old Korean girl who was violently raped and the subsequent quest for justice, physical and emotional healing, and a hope for a return to normalcy. It is a very emotionally charged film and aside from a subplot that has the father dress up like a cartoon character and an unrealistic scene where the rapist mocks the father while essentially confessing, it’s a good movie that deals with important issues. The real case ended up influencing Korean law in a positive way. The real father of the girl also answered questions following the screening. It was a moving experience altogether.
The Road Winds Ever Onward:
Would you believe I never saw John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) all the way through before? Well, I hadn’t and it was a lot of fun. The president is held hostage in a future burnt-out Manhattan that has been converted into a giant prison and only Kurt Russell can rescue him. It’s gritty, silly, weird, and violent. Really, just wandering the nightmarish apocalyptic New York hell-scape is worth the viewing. Put some nice 80s action in there and it’s the icing on the cake. Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasence are some of the supporting cast.
Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) is a wild, stream-of-consciousness, bulldozer to the expectations of what animation is supposed to be. Harry Smith’s surreal cut-out animations are reminiscent of the work of Gilliam and Svankmajer. Despite not having a narrative, the dance of the papers becomes hypnotic and fascinating. It won’t be for everybody, but for those with the right kind of mind, it’s a zany vintage treat.
This next one is interesting. I had never seen a film like João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao(2012). Essentially they just film random corners, streets, hallways, and people in Macau guerrilla style and lay a noir-type mystery narration over it. You really never see a main character, apart from the occasional hand reaching for a door knob or clasping a mysterious birdcage. It appears to be a mixture of the filmmakers’ actual memories of Macau and a murder plot involving a missing transgendered singer. It’s haunting and enigmatic. I don’t wish all movies were made this way, but I’m glad at least one was.
The Music Swells:
Andrew Dosunmu paints a gorgeous but troubled portrait of Nigerian immigrants in Brooklyn in Mother of George (2013). The unique cinematography playing with focus and off-center framing may take a little getting used to, but if it clicks you might just find it wonderful. It immerses you in a beautiful and colorful exotic world and then dishes out some serious drama. When newlywed Adenike (played wonderfully by Danai Gurira) cannot conceive a child and her husband (Isaach De Bankolé) refuses to go to a doctor, her deeply conservative mother-in-law pushes her to see a witch doctor and conceive secretly with the husband’s brother. Needless to say, the emotional anguish that follows is hefty.
There’s something so sumptuously elegant within the animated minimalistic lines of Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner’s whimsical and insanely adorable Ernest & Celestine (2012). A mouse cannot be friends with a bear, so the old mice warn, but orphan Celestine doesn’t believe it—especially after she meets the outcast Ernest. Their inter-species friendship flies in the face of the prejudices of both mouse society and bear society. This is a really sweet movie with beautifully styled animation, soft colors, and some of the cutest images you’ll see. Say what you want. I loved it.
The Cymbals Crash Mightily:
A vintage French documentary about slaughterhouses might not sound like a feel-good movie…and it really isn’t. Georges Franju’s Blood of Beasts (1949) is a difficult film to get through, but I would encourage everyone to see it. It unapologetically shows the butchering of animals for human consumption in an all too matter-of-fact way. Franju is not trying to demonize the butchers, or even the consumers of the meat. The camera points merely to show and leave you with your own feelings on the subject. It’s grisly and unpleasant and I had to look away several times, but I will never forget it and I hope it changes how I look at eating meat even if it doesn’t quite make me a vegetarian.
Lon Chaney, Sr. is great and I would watch him in just about anything. Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920) stars Chaney as Blizzard, a wicked but ultimately sympathetic deformed crime boss. Having lost his legs in childhood due to a surgical mishap following an accident, Blizzard grows up evil and twisted. The plot concerns investigators trying to find out more about his organization and Blizzard’s chance meeting with the surgeon who handicapped him. Like the best Chaney movies it is weird and tragic and has a memorable twist ending.
Many might know Don Herzfeldt as the animator of the brilliant short Rejected (2000) and several other wonderfully warped short subject cartoons. His first feature, It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) is a deliciously deranged elliptical examination of identity, memory, reality, and insanity. Protagonist, Bill, a simple stick man with a hat, stumbles through life wondering who he really is and trying to remember and rationalize random snippets from his past. It’s all served up with Herzfeldt’s trademark darkly surreal humor that balances a kitten on the edge of a knife. There are many serious philosophical questions beneath this wild collage of quirkiness.