As always, listed from lowest to the highest (in my opinion).
The Monuments Men (2014) had a great cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and a British guy) and a great premise (the true story of art historians sent into WWII to rescue stolen relics of incalculable value from Nazi destruction). Sadly, it’s a bit of snoozer. Some isolated character moments, but not enough to merit a second viewing. It all feels vaguely like watching shadow puppets of the dramatic beats of far better films. I really wanted to like this one. [Full disclosure: I did fall asleep at one point so maybe there’s 15 minutes towards the end that are amazing].
Tim Burton has done drama with the right amount of quirk in the past. He proved it with Ed Wood and Big Fish, but unfortunately Big Eyes (2014) falls flat. Despite the acting powers of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Amy Adams (Enchanted), this true story of a robbed artist (Margaret Keane) feels too weightless for the emotions to register and much of the comedy is awkward. Had it been more focused on being dramatic or more focused on being comedic it might have worked, but the whole spectacle bears the hollow echo, “Burton did this?”
Director John Landis is responsible for some of the best loved comedies of the 80s (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, ¡Three Amigos!, Coming to America and then he killed those people making The Twilight Zone). Spies Like Us (1985) is not one of the more remembered ones. Built like a Hope-Crosby Road picture, SNL stars Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and Chevy Chase (Community) play two dimwit patsies used by the government as spy decoys. In truth, the movie starts out somewhat promising, but somewhere between Pakistan and arming the Russian nuke the laughs start to disappear and the plot is not nearly clever enough to sustain the remaining onscreen shenanigans. It’s a watchable film, but not the most memorable and not consistently funny.
Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) likes things awesome and while I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) better than Kick-Ass, I ultimately wished I was watching an Edgar Wright or Guy Ritchie movie instead. It’s not bad by any means. I had fun while I was watching it and the cast was good (Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, and it was good to see Mark Strong be a good guy for once), but like all cartoons trying to be action movies the lack of grit can only be hidden beneath so many winks. It’s like a less edgy Men In Black acting out James Bond cliches…and no aliens.
The LSD-laced writings of Lewis Carroll have been adapted to the screen too many times to count. Sometimes with great success and innovation. Sometimes not so much. Norman Z. McLeod’s Alice in Wonderland (1933) lands squarely in the middle. The most standout aspect of the production is the nightmare parade of facial prosthetics. Seriously, half the cast looks like the radiator girl from Eraserhead. It hits the story’s marks in a fairly traditional way and features a lot of big name actors of the day (woefully disfigured under pounds of cheek-enhancing makeup). Some of the casting is appropriate: Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees) is the White Knight and that makes sense but then Carey Grant (Philadelphia Story) as the Mock Turtle is just weird and doesn’t work. The movie is worth it for W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick) as Humpty Dumpty though.
Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) orchestrates the rape of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with such period pizzazz that you forgive Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). The movie just loves being a movie and I enjoyed the action mayhem, period atmosphere, clinkety-plunkety score, and watching Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder) and Jude Law (Road to Perdition) exchange quips. I remember literally nothing about the plot, but I doubt if I ruminate too long on it my viewing experience would be improved.
Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a surreal Czech arthouse piece tying together weird rodent vampires and pubescent menstruation. Visually it is very well done, but I couldn’t kid you it’s for everyone. It reminded me a lot of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. Sumptuously photographed, the film has a unique, sexually-charged fantasy atmosphere that captivates and confounds.
Everyone knows Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but not as many people have seen George Melford’s Spanish language Drácula shot on the same sets as the Browning film and released in the same year (1931). It is pretty much shot-for-shot the American version HOWEVER it actually has more creative editing, more daring camera moves, and sexier wardrobe for its female leads. The downside? Carlos Villarias is a pretty hammy Dracula lacking the calculated menace of Lugosi’s interpretation and, for my money, Edward van Sloan is still a better Van Helsing than Eduardo Arozamena. It’s a fun experiment to watch them back to back and see what each movie did better than the other.
Despite all us progressive liberal honkies feeling like we get it already with the white privilege and have nothing more to learn, the Jose Vargas’ MTV documentary White People (2015) still offers some insight into individuals in denial. And it is fascinating watching people learn. It’s worth checking out whether your eyes gloss over when someone starts talking about race issues in America or you’re already a social crusader.
Everybody has seen the exploding head scene, but that’s hardly a spoiler for David Cronenberg’s (The Fly) Canadian science-fiction thriller Scanners (1981). A man suffering from the effects of what he will soon discover to be telepathy embarks on a journey to stop his evil twin. Michael Ironisde and Patrick McGoohan make up the more memorable additions to the cast. It’s a surreal dream with a couple gross out bits to keep you on the edge of your seat. Cronenberg scale: perhaps on par with Videodrome and a whole lot better than eXistenZ.
Legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang (Metropolis) takes another stab at film noir after M with Ministry of Fear (1944). Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) is released from an asylum and gets immediately entangled in a Nazi web of espionage and baked goods. He makes friends with a woman played by Marjorie Reynolds (The Time of Their Lives) and tries to stay alive amidst air raids and assassins long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was so important about that cake. It does have an awkward comedy stinger in its epilogue (a lot of thrillers from this era do), but the first act alone makes it all worth it.
Pixar made another movie and, if we’re honest, they are held to a higher standard than most family animations. Inside Out (2015) follows a little girl and her internal emotions as they move to a new city. A simple premise, but the cleverness and visual inventiveness doesn’t let up. It’s cute and funny, but I think, perhaps more importantly, it might help young people process their feelings and understand themselves better. Who knows? Not every movie teaches us the value of emotions we are culturally taught to suppress. Would make a good (if emotionally taxing) double feature with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is a gritty crime drama following an aging gunrunner, played by Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear), who becomes an informant to avoid jail time. Setups, double crosses, bank jobs, and unapologetic 70s aesthetics play big roles in this movie. Also features Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) and Richard Jordan (The Hunt for Red October).
This next one I know full well to be a B-picture. I was not expecting much when I popped in East of Borneo (1931), incidentally also directed by Drácula‘s George Melford. The story is pulpy: a jilted lover runs away to the jungles and gets mixed up with a culty ruler so his estranged wife travels to the equator to track him down and aplogize. It’s pre-code so it has a bit more skin and violence than films made later in the 30s, but the bigger reason to watch it is for all the animal footage. Anacondas, tigers, monkeys, leopards, orangutans, and lots and lots of crocodiles (played by alligators). Rose Hobart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) stars in this steamy jungle melodrama that was never meant to be remembered.
This one is a re-watch but it had been awhile and I had forgotten how good it was. The inimitable Jackie Chan stars in The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), the pseudo-sequel to Chan’s 1978 hit Drunken Master. Set in the early 20th century, the plot concerns the British trying to smuggle rare Chinese artifacts out of the country. Wong Fei Hung (Chan) has tricky relationship with his father and an even trickier one with alcohol—if he drinks he gets Popeye-like strength and becomes a master of the art of Drunken Boxing. But who cares about the plot? The action sequences are some of the best Jackie Chan has ever done (the fight in the restaurant and the final battle being highlights). Nobody punished his body for art as much as Chan and the end result is a glorious medley of comedy kung-fu violence. Bonus points for Hung’s kick-ass step-mom hilariously played by Anita Mui.
So I love kung-fu and Jackie Chan, but I also love British gangsters and Bob Hoskins and The Long Good Friday (1980), directed by John Mackenzie, is one of Hoskins’ shining acting moments. Hoskins is the lead as Harold, a gangster trying to close a deal when his men start getting murdered by rival gangs. Haunted by bombs and desperate to sniff out the traitor before it’s too late, Harold must come to terms with the vulnerable position his choices have placed him in. I may love Mona Lisa more, but the final scene of this is cinema gold and it lingered with me for days. Helen Mirren (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) co-stars.
Dino Risi (Profumo di Donna) tells the story of an uptight student who gets roped along with a carefree lunatic on his holiday in Il Sorpasso (1962). Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z) is the student, Roberto, who has never really lived and Vittorio Gassman is the pushy woman-chaser, Bruno, who has perhaps lived too much. From Rome to the wide, open countryside Bruno escorts Roberto on a hedonistic journey full of surprises, foils, and memories. The friendship they develop and the wacky episodes they get mixed up in are great, but there is a darker undertone that makes it more than a sleight comedy. It’s a beautiful and funny film. It reminded me of Zorba the Greek too.
And finally. My favorite film of the bunch. F for Fake (1973) is a film essay about the nature of forgery, ownership, deceit, truth, and art from mastermind Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin). Everything Big Eyes tried to do but oh so much more. Welles stands in as our cherubic narrator, posing as a magician in a broad-brimmed hat. What begins as an examination of art forger Elmyr de Hory soon meanders into the realm of poetic pontification on authorship and artistic expression. You will hear lies and promises to be lied to. Take it all as “ecstatic truth” (as Werner Herzog would say). The film is fascinating and truly a unique viewing experience. I highly recommend it.