The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVII – Wrapping Up 2015

 As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.
Although, it must be said, I did not dislike any of the films this time. Even the lowest ones on the list might be worth checking out and I’m glad I watched them.
Meh/Misguided:

“What was that? You backwards troglodyte, you. Have some wine.”

The Last Supper (1995), directed by Stacey Title, has a good premise, but quickly proves it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. A group of pretentious college liberals decide to poison conservative idiots over dinner and bury them in the backyard. It’s quirky. It’s dark. But it’s a little too smug for its own good. It presents simplistic caricatures of right wing beliefs (some of which are genuinely held by a frightening portion of the population, but they are played so ham-fistedly it fails to register as meaningful) and pretty much zero attempt at presenting a left wing perspective (apart from murderous hatred toward their ideological adversaries). Bill Paxton (Twister) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) make memorable appearances, but it is probably Courtney B. Vance (The Hunt for Red October) who steals most of the show with his cold, calculating performance as the group’s ringleader. Also stars Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels).

Not exactly Don Bluth.

What do you get if you cross The Secret of NIMH (1982) with Watership Down (1978) and try to tell a gritty noir with cats? You get the bizarre German cartoon Felidae (1994). While I don’t count this as a good film, I can give it some points for trying something offbeat and I did want to know where the story was going. My beef: you can be an adult animation without being so forced and unnatural about it. The unintentionally awkward cursing and gory violence is so over the top at times that it feels more like South Park than Chinatown. The serial murder mystery itself is a bit of a letdown and our protagonist, Francis, is so feckless and flat that it barely registers when he’s fleeing danger or having casual sex with feral felines. It doesn’t work, but as a curiosity, it’s not a total waste of time and the animation isn’t bad.

Stop it and make “Hellboy 3.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) looks gorgeous and was eagerly anticipated by me, but something was missing. In its earnest attempt to pay homage to classic haunted house films like The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents (1961), it just comes off as a bad aping of those superior films. I was also reminded of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and the wild color palette was reminiscent of the exaggerated Italian horror flicks of Mario Bava (Black Sabbath) and Dario Argento (Suspiria). Hearkening back to such classic ghost-mansion cinema can be a good thing…as long as it improves upon or diverts from them in some innovative way. I still love del Toro and I love the sumptuousness of the costumes and sets and the dense atmosphere, but a romantic horror tale that lacks both decent romance and horror counts as a bit of a misfire for me. Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and The Devil’s Backbone are all marvelous examples of the slowburn terrors that lurk in the Mexican auteur’s wheelhouse. Maybe my problem is I watch so many films that they have to work extra hard to titillate me.
Interestinger:

As a kid I remember reading in an old Guinness Book about Hoffman portraying the widest age range ever in this film. I wonder if anybody has it beat yet.

Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directed the strange revisionist western Little Big Man (1970) starring Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man). The film—told in flashback—may be one of the earlier examples of cinema being sympathetic to the Native Americans, portraying them as victims of a truly horrific genocide and the white Americans as the evil, arrogant savages stealing lands without mercy or feeling. It’s quite episodic and perhaps a little too cartoonish for the seriousness of the subject matter, but it’s odd quirkiness makes it at least a watchably uneven history lesson. I enjoyed Hoffman and Faye Dunaway (Network), but ultimately the portrayals of the Native tribes and the American generals were so comic-booky and naive, it took away from what could have been a very impactful film.

“I need you to scream directly into my soul.”

Toby Jones (The Mist) stars as an English sound engineer working on Italian horror flicks in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It’s a slow, seemingly plotless movie that lingers on one timid sound man’s gradual descent into a subtle madness. It takes its time and you may want it to do more or go deeper, but I was engaged enough with the character that I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going…or if it would go anywhere at all.

“I do Wes Anderson and movies like this now. Murray Christmas, folks.”

Gosh, is it that time in Bill Murray’s career already? I love Bill Murray and nearly all Bill Murray movies and, while I can’t say the same for Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent (2014), I won’t say it’s not passably amusing. Murray plays a crotchety old war vet who reluctantly befriends a precocious young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in this schmaltzy dramedy that seems intent on hitting many of the predictable indie beats. Despite it’s familiar formula and a few questionable accents (my brain knows Murray too well to accept the NYC brogue he dons), the charm of the cast (including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) makes you forgive a multitude of contrivances.

Where Are We Now?:

Dumb luck.

In the spirit of Forrest Gump (heck, Little Big Man too), a lovable but somewhat simple old man recounts his wild history-romping life with peaceful detachment in Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). Allen Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) decides to escape the nursing home and embarks on a lackadaisical adventure  full of stolen money, gangsters, car chases, new friends, and at least one elephant. Throughout the modern day shenanigans, Allen tells of his life as a haphazardly globe-trotting self-taught demolitions expert devoid of political affiliations (he’s on every side of history from revolutionaries to Franco to Stalin to Truman). It’s a light-hearted comedy with a refreshingly pensive pulse.

You know Francis Ford Coppola, right? His daughter directed “A Very Murray Christmas” on Netflix. …and yeah, he did “The Godfather.”

Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) directs Gene Hackman (The French Connection) as a surveillance expert whose own past and the potential futures of those he spies upon addle him in The Conversation (1974). This is one of those gritty 70s movies your film professor talked about and I’m only just now getting to it. It’s a gradual descent into paranoia and ethical dilemmas. Also features John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon).

Prepare to be alienated.

Gregg Turkington stars as a burnt-out comedian (in the spirit of his Neil Hamburger character) hitting gig after depressing gig in the Mojave desert in Rick Alverson’s Entertainment (2015). The characters are unpleasant and dim and thoroughly exhausted. The film itself feels Lynchian in its elliptical oddness. The weird insights we get into these unlikable people and their circumstances speaks more to our own human interactions than our demand to be entertained by a clown.

Getting Higher:

Yes, one of his friends is Zero from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age tale of three high school kids from Inglewood who wind up with a bag full of unwanted drugs is a colorful breeze. Dope (2015) hits a lot of familiar genre marks, but, like St. Vincent, gets by on its style, wit, and charisma of its lead (played by Shameik Moore). It may not be the most original story, but its attitude covers a lot.

The main villain is a lactose-intolerant transvestite obsessed with increasing his social status by way of genocide. We haven’t seen that before.

Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) were marvelous stop-motion fantasies with edge and flair to spare. Laika Studios’ The Boxtrolls (2014) is another cinematic gift brimming with imagination and style. A young boy, raised by the hunted subterranean creatures, must rediscover who he is and unite the warring civilizations. An amazing voice cast (Sir Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and more) and spectacularly realized hand-crafted visuals make this family adventure a memorable treat.

The kid is annoying in this movie…but I think that’s part of the point.

 “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook (2014)”, an Australian horror flick directed by Jennifer Kent. When a strange picture book appears on her son’s shelf, a widowed mother (Essie Davis) unwittingly unleashes a most unnerving evil presence that latches onto them. What follows is a gripping examination of the negative powers of grief and loss. The Babadook is far more insidious than a mere supernatural monster. And that is one of the reasons this chiller lingers in the memory.
Visions:

I know. I know. I’m late to the game. I still think I love “Bronson” more.

I finally watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) stars as a stoic mechanic and getaway driver who becomes increasingly entangled with criminals after he helps out his next door neighbor (Carey Mulligan). Like all Refn work, it’s languid and stylish and brooding and violent and absolutely hypnotic. Also stars Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Christina Hendricks.

Get a good look. This is what socialism looks like.

 Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) is a masterful example of heist cinema. It has all the ingredients that would eventually become the staple of the genre and, for an early outing, it hits the marks extremely well. The setup and ensuing heist is fantastic, but as things turn sour in the aftermath of the crime, blood is let and it all culminates into a magnificent, heart-pounding final act.

Why don’t we dress like this?

For people who like the 80s and like awkward indie flicks and like hilariously over-the-top gore, Turbo Kid (2015), directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, is a blast and a half. In a post-apocalyptic 1997, Mad Max-ian marauders on bicycles rule the wastelands. Where Kung Fury (2015) ran out of steam minutes into its short runtime, Turbo Kid maintains a straight face and continues to present absurd visions of violence, wild characters, and wacky dialogue delivered in earnest with unyielding confidece. It looks great and the cast does a fine job with the bonkers material. Laurence Laboeuf in particular shines as the unflappably weird Apple.

“Fan Service: The Motion Picture”

I took the Kool-aid. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a great big-budget science-fantasy speeder chase down Nostalgia Lane. There’s plenty stupid to the plot, but the cast shines (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Harrison Ford) and the special effects scintillate. It’s amazing how much more immersive and tangible models, puppets, animatronics, real locations, and constructed sets are. And humor. And engaging characters. And emotional depth. And recognizable stakes clearly established in each lightsaber and spaceship altercation. While it’s an extremely busy story and it does retread a lot of the original film’s plot points, it also just feels good to be back in the Star Wars universe. This is the movie fans have been waiting for since 1983.

The Final Crest:

Maybe don’t bring the kids to this one.

Folks who love fairy tales that don’t shy away from the darkness will undoubtedly enjoy the sumptuous Tale of Tales (2015), directed by Matteo Garrone. A series of haunting medieval yarns overlap in this anthology of old Italian fables by Giambattista Basile. Stylish and sexy but also savage and grotesque, it’s an uncompromisingly adult trek through fairy tale kingdoms that comes highly recommended. Features Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, and Vincent Cassel. Weird and beautiful.

“Nobody respects Santa Claus anymore.”

It may be hard to explain why I liked Miguel Llansó Crumbs (2015) so much. In a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia, a hunchbacked scavenger named Candy (Daniel Tadesse) embarks on a private adventure to request Santa Claus (Tsegaye Abegaz) to allow him to reclaim his Kryptonian throne and board a perpetually hovering spaceship with his woman. It’s slow and surreal and might best be described as Turbo Kid as imagined by Werner Herzog. It may not be for everyone, but it has enough innovative and clever details to entertain an odd person like me.

“I killed Mufasa. His vagina was all wrong.”

For some reason, this weird film has not left me. David Cronenberg (Videodrome) directs Jeremy Irons (Lolita) as a pair of identical twin gynecologists in this enigmatic thriller, Dead Ringers (1988). When they split sexual duties with a famous client (Geneviève Bujold) it opens up the doors of insecurity in both of them. When she discovers the trick they’ve been playing on her and ends it, the brothers begin a spiraling journey into obsession, addiction, and a longing to understand the nature of their individual identities. It’s a disturbing slow-burn, but worth it if you get Cronenberg and you want to see one of Irons’ best performances.

Whatever. Any recommendations for me?

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVI – Z for Zombie

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.

Terrible:

This never happens in the movie.

I actually had to stop watching Mesa of Lost Women (1953) before the third act. It is a slog to get through. As much as I enjoy some of the hammy acting and weird kinkiness (the tarantula woman’s sexy dance was funny watching with grandma), the poor quality of the picture and sound and slow nothingness of the pace made it difficult to follow. I like actor Harmon Stevens’ placid and infantile hypnotized grin after one of the spider women stabs him (with something??), but then it was depressing seeing a sad looking Jackie Coogan (Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, The Addams Family‘s Uncle Fester) as the mad scientist who operates out of some weird Mexican cave. No idea how it ended. Did I mention the terrible two measures of tensionless score that’s stuck on repeat?

But it seems better in stills.

Ever think about how Casablanca would be improved by being set in a post apocalyptic future and giving Bogart massive gazongas? Well Barb Wire (1996) starring Pamela Anderson Lee may be just the thing for you. Pam is an ex-freedom fighter and a club owner and a stripper who moonlights as an agent/assassin and a hooker. It’s as ridiculous as you can imagine, and I guarantee you that whatever you’re picturing in your head is better, sexier, and more coherent than what they filmed. Despite trying so hard to be sexy and action packed, it just comes off as cold and stilted for the most part. I did like Big Fatso (Andre Rosey Brown) and a lot of the line deliveries were so bad they were hilarious. Udo Kier, Clint Howard, and Boba Fett’s dad co-star.

This guy reminded me of Hedonism Bot from Futurama.

I didn’t expect much from the David Carradine sword-and-sorcery vehicle literally called The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984) and boy was I overestimating it. It’s basically a ripoff of Yojimbo (or Fistful of Dollars) but set in a poorly defined fantasy world. Where Mesa of Lost Women was hard to watch, this one is at least entertainingly bad (for the most part). At least there’s tons of needless and degrading nudity (so much so that there’s even a dancer who has four breasts—like they couldn’t find a way to get enough tits into this movie already) and at least two cheesy puppet monsters.

I Didn’t Entirely Get It:

It’s a lot of this.

The premise for Kon Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (1962) is cute enough: daily life as seen alternately from a 2 year old’s perspective and that of his parents. It’s not a bad little film, I just found it somewhat tedious. At best it’s an interesting look into Japanese life in the 60s, but the baby narration was too eloquent and all-knowing to be taken seriously and the family drama felt bland (but maybe that was the point??).

Don’t get too excited. It’s not nearly this trippy.

Sorry, 1960s Japan. Kazui Nihonmatsu’s Genocide (1968) wasn’t wacky enough. Oh, it’s wacky alright, and I would recommend it, but it never lives up to it’s gorgeously surreal title sequence. A disaster movie about bugs staging a revolt against humanity could stand more bug photography (a la Phase IV) and less loony pantomiming…although that does add to its silly charm. In fairness, any plot that features a female holocaust survivor turned evil mad scientist who wants to poison humanity with bug juice to make them go insane and die has to at least be seen. It’s silly. It’s zany. It’s that kinda fun B-movie, not-everything-makes-sense sort of thing. But a movie about killer bugs needs more bugs. One point of interest is the starkly anti-American position it takes. In that regard it reminded me a little bit of the Korean film The Host. Charlie is great. If you see it, you’ll learn who Charlie is.

Getting Better:

Lots of pretty scenery.

John Maclean’s Slow West (2015) is a spectacularly photographed arthouse western about a young Scottish man (Kodi Smit-McPhee) searching the untamed American frontier for the woman he loves with the help of a cynical outlaw (Michael Fassbender). It’s a slow-going movie more akin to Dead Man than Silverado, and it is littered with strange western tableaus. I liked it just fine until in a scene that figuratively pours salt in our hero’s wounds he literally has a jar marked “salt” get broken over his head and poured into his wounds. It was such a laughable, on-the-nose moment that it took me out of the drama faster than Japan’s Maglev train. Not a literal train. That would be silly. Recommended for fans of artsy neo-westerns and great cinematography.

See? No Brad Pitt.

Call me a Philistine. I don’t care. I get why Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962) is such an influential science fiction film, but I regrettably confess that having already seen Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (which pilfered the plot of La Jetée) I was a little let down. La Jetée is a French short film told entirely with still black and white photographs and voice-over narration. It chronicles a man who is haunted by childhood memories and is made to travel through time. It’s good. It’s told in an innovative way. But ultimately (don’t hate me, film people) I liked the Bruce Willis movie better and found it more detailed and dramatically satisfying.

Pay attention to that plant in the top left.

Who’s more affable and likable and all-American than Henry Fonda? [Well, Jimmy Stewart, but that’s the subject of another day.] Honestly, I never got the appeal of Henry Fonda. He was always so slow and serious to be a believable person (although I do enjoy a lot of his movies—Young Mr. Lincoln being one of them). Mister Roberts (1955) is one of those gung-ho American navy movies your grandfather watches because he was in the navy (at least it is with my grandfather). Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men), James Cagney (White Heat), William Powell (The Thin Man), and Jack Lemmon (Glengarry Glen Ross) star in the movie about a real swell officer (Fonda) on a ship too far from battle to see action, the crew who loved him, and the commanding officer who was a bit of dick to everybody (Cagney). It’s got a few really great scenes, a few really hokey scenes, and it does feel a bit too long. It’s more Operation Petticoat than M*A*S*H. Soapy, but it’s worth a look just for some of the psychological showdowns between Fonda and Cagney.

More Worth It:

Every time she talks all I hear is, “I’m the boss, applesauce!”

John Patrick Shanley adapts his own stage play to the screen with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Doubt (2008) is an austere little movie about a no-nonsense nun (Streep in her best Judge Judy voice) who suspects a priest (Hoffman) of molesting a young boy, but she has no proof and we—the audience—are not entirely sure who to believe. It’s a simple and effective drama with good acting and cinematography. Fans of the play will like it and fans of movies that do not give easy answers will too.

Shut up. I liked it.

[Full disclosure: I moved to Spain last week. I saw this movie in Spanish and I don’t really speak Spanish, but I think I got the gist. So maybe this is a testament to visual storytelling?] I didn’t like Despicable Me enough to bother with the sequel, but I was consistently entertained by the adorable gibberish, cutesy antics, and energetic animation of Minions (2015). It was creative and funny and I liked watching the weird characters get in and out of trouble. I also enjoyed some of the sixties tunes. It’s a different premise for sure: a species that evolved a psychological need to be subservient to a powerful master (preferably evil) searches for the perfect leader to ally with.

Grimly Good:

It’s how would have wanted to go.

Shôhei Imamura is a legendary Japanese filmmaker whose work I have not really explored yet. Boo, me. I know. Vengeance is Mine (1979) is a bleak portrait of a thief and murderer named Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata), based on real life criminal, Akira Nishiguchi. It explores his relationship with his family and a few women he cons. It’s not a sentimental film. It doesn’t glamorize crime. There are really no positive characters in the film (I did like the old lady who had been a jailbird herself). It’s gritty and gloriously shot. Fans of Japanese cinema or crime drama should not miss this one.

Kinda wish there were more zombies like the melty guy and bisected dog and headless guy.

I don’t know why I never really got into zombie movies. Especially when I really do enjoy a lot of them (White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later, etc.). Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made his directing feature debut with The Return of the Living Dead (1985). It’s a fantastic bit of horror comedy, fully embracing its zaniness but still giving us some decent writing and fun characters. Two employees accidentally release a canister-o-zombie and things only escalate at an alarming rate from there. The zombies can’t really be killed so that makes it a little trickier. Classic fun.

Not exactly “The Thing” or “The Fly”, but it’s a slimy time to be had.

H.P. Lovecraft gets adapted a lot. I have no idea what the original story looked like, but Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) directs one crazy, slimy, prosthetic-filled science fiction horror yarn with From Beyond (1986). An unexplained “science machine” reveals another dimension filled with phosphorescent flying eels that are surrounding us at all times. When sexual deviant, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), gets his head bitten off by an unseen monster, his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) gets institutionalized unless he can prove his sanity to a kind doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree). Returning to the attic in the mysterious house, they get multiple scary encounters with Pretorius’s new, monstrous form. The movie is absolutely nuts and I loved it…probably loved it more because so little of it makes any sense. The special effects are great and gross.

Rising Above:

The face British people make when they see a spider crawling on your shoulder.

Sherlock Holmes has appeared in more forms than almost any other fictional character. Hammer Studios’ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) was not the first nor the last adaptation of this specific Arthur Conan Doyle mystery, but it might be the best known and liked. Directed by Terence Fisher (he did a lot of Hammer horror movies) and starring Hammer icons Peter Cushing (Star Wars) as Holmes and Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) as Sir Henry, it has all the Victorian style and spooky atmosphere Hammer was famous for. A great outing for lovers of the legendary sleuth.

It really could have been one hell of a movie.

I had reviewed Island of Souls and Island of Dr. Moreau in past lists. Souls (1932) being fantastically good and Moreau (1996) being a baffling, disjointed disaster of a movie. Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) is a documentary that seeks to elucidate us all as to what happened and how everything went so so very wrong on the set of the infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer. David Gregory’s doc features extensive interviews with cast and crew, giving incredible insights into what it was like working on this nightmare project and how everything fell apart at an exponential rate. If you loved Lost in La Mancha or ever saw the 1996 film you owe it to yourself to watch this. It’s absolutely bonkers what went on.

Gagin’s casual disregard for literally everyone but himself make him an interesting hero.

Ride the Pink Horse (1947) is an interesting film noir. Our hero, Gagin (director Robert Montgomery), is an unlikable small time crook and army vet on the hunt for Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and the money he feels Hugo owes him. What makes the film memorable is the dusty New Mexican town setting and some of the colorful side characters like Pancho (Thomas Gomez), Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and an old FBI agent (Art Smith)…not to mention the giant marionette from your nightmares, Zozobra (god of bad luck), paraded through town at night only to be immolated by the villagers as part of their local festival. If you enjoy noir, this one comes highly recommended.

My Favorites This Time Around:

This scene is actually a really clever sight gag if you end up watching the film.

Another zombie movie. Why do I keep thinking I hate zombies? Before Ip Man, Wilson Yip directed a low-budget teenage horror comedy set in a Hong Kong shopping mall called Bio-Zombie (1998). It’s great fun. When there’s no onscreen action, there’s plenty of wonderful character business propelling the plot. Our main characters, Woody Invincible (Jordan Chan) and Crazy Bee (Sam Lee), are lowlifes, thieves, bullies, and obnoxious dressers. They pal up with two sexy ladies, Jelly (Suk Yin Lai) and Rolls (Angela Ying-Ying Tong) to battle the hordes of advancing zombies. There’s also a lovable sushi chef nerd (Wayne Lee) who brings a lot of comic tragedy to the already zany project. I highly recommend this Hong Kong zombie flick.

A lot of awkwardness in their hotel room.

I have loved every one of Satyajit Ray’s films that I’ve seen. (Check out The Apu Trilogy if you are unfamiliar with him.) Joi Baba Felunath: The Elephant God (1979) is an Indian detective film featuring sleuth Feluda (Soumitra Chatterjee, Apur Sansar) and his two friends—his young cousin (Siddhartha Chatterjee) and the pulp novelist (Santosh Dutta)—trying to locate a missing statuette. The mystery is full of great locations, rich scenes, spooky meetings, and some levity. The characters are fun and, coming from America, it’s sort of exciting to see an original Indian genre film with no songs. One memorably suspenseful scene features the comic relief novelist facing an old knife thrower who may be losing his sight and is definitely suffering from a severe cough. This is actually a sequel to an earlier detective movie featuring Feluda, but I haven’t seen it.

Just like “Homeward Bound,” kids!

Hungarian filmmaker, Kornél Mundruczó, takes you on a gritty and uncomfortable journey through the eyes of a canine named Hagan in White God (2014). A young girl, Lilli (Zsófia Psotta), and her furry best friend have to live with her grouchy divorced father (Sándor Zsótér). Not wanting the dog—and the city not wanting mixed breeds—he gets rid of Hagan. While Lilli goes through a lot of growing up and looking for her dog, Hagan goes on a brutal journey through serious abuse on the streets and the world of dog fighting before finally leading a Spartacus-esque revolution of death-row mongrels, exacting revenge on their tormentors as they storm through the city. It’s about growing up, remembering how to be a family, and about how we treat outsiders. The cinematography and performances are great (both human and dog) and the tension keeps on building. Read any metaphor you want into it or just take it as is. It’s brilliant filmmaking.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XV – Judgement Day

As always, listed from lowest to the highest (in my opinion).

Meh/Misguided:

Obligatory old Hollywood actors prove they still got it caper movie.

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].

“What do you mean my character isn’t German in this movie?”

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?”

“Geez. It’s been awhile since something funny happened. What if we put silly lights on our heads and pretended to be aliens?” “Dan, that’s the kind of thing that made ‘Nothing But Trouble’ suck.”

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.

Getting Better:

“If we wink at the camera like we know it’s silly the audience will let us be as silly as we want and imagine they are clever, my dear boy.”

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 clichesand no aliens.

I want to watch this back to back with 1934’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” The unintentionally scary masks and costumes are fantastic.

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.

“Admit it. You don’t care what we do as long as we look cool doing it,”

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.

Stranger Tides:

Bring the kids.

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.

“Maybe if I open my eyes wider they won’t notice my huge Dumbo ears.”

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.

“Don’t look now, but you’re both white.”

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.

My reaction to TV’s “Big Bang Theory.”

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.

Warmer Climes:

Noir! Everybody noir!

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.

“Yeah. It’s sad.”

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.

Before “Point Break” did the mask thing.

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 poster is so much cooler than the film itself.

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.

Summit:

I’m strong through the finish ’cause I eats me spinach…

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.

“This the new shipment of traitorous slags? Good work. SUPER MARIO BROS. NEVER HAPPENED!”

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.

Get used to the wacky car horn if you watch this one.

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.

“I crush you!”

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.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIV – Fury World

Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.

Walk Away:

Incidentally, I think the black rhino just went extinct this year.

Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.

Meh/Misguided:

Terry might be the most comically evil character in cinema history.

OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.

Get it? It’s eating “Jaws”. It’s a metaphor. You know, symbolism? Darn it all, we are clever bastards. …On another note, how many sharks must they go through a day to feed this thing. Great whites can’t be cheap.

I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.

Guilty Pleasures:

“I Love Lucy”? Oh, so your parents were talented. I see, Desi, Jr.

Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

I’m gonna hijack the Declaration of Independence.

Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).

Interestinger and Interestinger:

ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.

God…all the plaid.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.

They’re just reading about the Rachel Dolezal thing.

This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.

Beyond Our Borders:

Me and my shadow…

Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.

Ever see Hogan’s Heroes?

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:

Yup. Looks like traffic court.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial  (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.

The mummy strikes!

Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen Bullitt on a plane, but I liked this better than Bullitt.

A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.

Really, a Tough Call:

That honestly can’t be good for the rabbit.

Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.

Maybe even more enjoyable than The Road Warrior.

Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XIII – Avengers 2 is in there somewhere, I wager.

I am unstoppable. As always, organized by my increasing enjoyment of them.

Meh/Misguided:

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

I imagine the helper monkey industry suffered a blow after this flick hit VCR’s across America. George Romero (yeah, THAT George Romero) directs this horror thriller about a quadriplegic law student whose monkey-nurse, Ella, links minds with him to exact a series of revenge killings in Monkey Shines (1988). It’s ridiculous, silly, and full of laughable monologues, but that’s kinda why I watched it. Stupid, but enjoyable because it is so nonsensical  and stupid. John Pankow and Stanley Tucci co-star.

"Ridiculous."

“Ridiculous.”

I was truly disappointed. Dirty Work (1998) may star comic geniuses, Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange (and feature Don Rickles, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Jack Warden, and be directed by Bob Saget), but it has that lazy, squeaky clean Happy Madison stamp all over it. The movie wastes Norm and Artie’s talents with the obvious, by-the-numbers plot and yawn-inducing script. It has one or two entertaining scenes and some great line deliveries speckled throughout, but for a big Norm MacDonald fan this was a letdown. It does, however, boast the funniest prison rape scene.

Better, but still kinda meh:

"Henchman" doesn't sound as cute, I guess.

“Henchman” doesn’t sound as cute, I guess.

Gru is an evil genius who wants to prove his thievery prowess is not outdated by stealing the moon. He adopts three orphan girls who show him the value of family. He has an army of eraser-like minions for comic relief and added cuteness factor. Despicable Me (2010) is a likable enough little film with some nice design and cool gadgets, but it never quite wows.

Wokka. Wokka.

Wokka. Wokka.

For completion’s sake I watched Muppets Most Wanted (2014). It’s not exactly a bad movie, just maybe not a great Muppet movie. The stuff that works best is the stuff that’s a little more daring, unusual, and un-Muppety, while the Muppets themselves feel somewhat stale and lost in the wrong movie. I chuckled at a few gags, I enjoyed the gulag stuff, and I liked a few of the songs quite a bit, but I think these Muppets need to retire or be taken in a more interesting direction.

Okay…:

Get it?

Get it?

Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) directs this pitch black comedy about mental illness starring Ryan Reynolds. The Voices (2014) is not funny. Comedic mainly in premise and presentation, its content is downright disturbing. Jerry (Reynolds) talks to his dog and cat and they talk right back. Representing opposing sides of his chemically imbalanced brain, they confuse him to the point of serial murder. The voices themselves (also played by Reynolds) are well defined and interesting, the cinematography and effects are handled beautifully, and the supporting cast (Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver) are fine, but for some reason I could never shake the uncomfortable meshing of horror with this strange sense of comedy. In Monsieur Verdoux it works because he’s not mentally ill, he’s just a greedy, murdering jerk. Maybe it’s brilliant and I’m just missing it, but for me this was a tragedy in comedy clothing.

Jane

Hiya, big boys. Ya miss me?

Bob Hope spews one-liners and Jane Russell is tough as nails in the cowboy comedy, The Paleface (1948). It’s not Bob Hope’s best and it bears a lot of the cringe-worthy Native American stereotypes common of this era of Hollywood. The whole time I kept wishing it was My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields and Mae West (the married relationships in both movies are similar). It’s whatever. All in all, an inoffensive comedy romp…except for Native Americans.

1

Spoiler alert: we’re all full of alien ghosts.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) is a documentary about the Church of Scientology. We see all the seedy inner workings, the lies, the scandals, the power struggles, the ruined lives. It’s something that would be truly interesting to someone who had no idea what the Church of Scientology was prior to viewing. The movie is a great primer and lesson in cult practices with genuinely fascinating central figures. My problem was that I was familiar with most of this stuff before I watched it so it never struck me as anything groundbreaking. Having visited their free museum in Hollywood and gotten a free street stress test (for laughs) already, I gotta say: they do a crap job of covering up being a pack of deranged wackos. Someone who needs this documentary to tell them that has clearly never discussed Scientology with a Scientologist before. It’s an important expose on stuff that should already be common knowledge.

Now with more tableaux vivants.

Now with more tableaux vivants!

A Field in England (2013) is a black-and-white minimalist psychedelic period drama set in an empty field near a 17th century battle. If that doesn’t get you, you probably won’t like this. A cruel alchemist enlists some deserters to dig up treasure for him. There is eating of magic mushrooms and violence. It’s slow and weird and has a lot of dick. It had some individual scenes I really enjoyed, but I never “got” what it was about. Maybe I need to watch it again.

Fun:

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yeah, yeah. I saw Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Avenger’s: Age of Ultron (2015). I’ll come clean, I still don’t entirely get the appeal of most of the Marvel superhero movies. I don’t think they’re all bad movies. They just all look like the same candy-colored cartoon violence buildings-exploding movies. I never feel the weight of the threat and I never really feel tension or suspense in any of them. Call Nolan’s Batmans overly dour and brooding, but at least I felt the tension and stakes. That said, the best bits for me were the smaller character moments (Thor’s face when Captain Planet almost moves the hammer) and some of the dialogue was punchy and fun. Most of the action blurs together, but I did enjoy Iron Man fighting the Hulk. Not having read the comics, I have no idea what the magic stone things are or what they do or what the flying robot guy with the cape was or what his powers are and a bunch of other stuff was lost on me, but I can’t say it was a poorly done movie. It was exactly what I thought it would be and exactly what the audience is looking for, I’m sure.

Argh, it's a  bug's life for me.

Argh, it’s a bug’s life for me.

If you thought A Bug’s Life was too talkie, check out Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2013). Based on a series of French short animations, this quirky comedy features adorable cartoon bugs against real life backgrounds. Wordless, and relying entirely upon humorously juxtaposed sound effects (flying beetles sound like car traffic), wide-eyed expressiveness, and cuteness factor, the film tells the story of a lost baby ladybug who helps a colony of ants protect its bounty of sugar cubes. It’s slight and simple, but cute and clever enough to sustain your attention. The chases and battles are pretty fun.

A Trip:

"No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived."---James Randi

“No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”—James Randi

I’m a fan of magician, skeptic, and chicanery-exposing James Randi. An Honest Liar (2014) is a documentary that covers portions of his fascinating life (mirroring much of the life-trajectory of Houdini) and his mission to reveal spiritualist con-artists for the charlatans they are. It’s a loving tribute to the old codger. Like Going Clear, it may not cover anything new for people already familiar with the man’s life work, but it was nice to see it all in one place.

Most reckless family project ever!

Most reckless family project ever!

In all honesty, Roar (1981) is not a good movie. Yet, I love it. Meant to be squirrelly family comedy with animal hijinks, the film actually plays like a taut, nail-biting thriller. Let’s back up. Tippi Hedren (The Birds) wanted to make a movie with lions. In order to realize her dream, she and her family raised hundreds of lions and big cats for several years. The story shows a family trapped in a house with these aforementioned hundreds of lions (and a few tigers, cheetahs, panthers, and a couple bull African elephants). Wacky, right? Except there’s no special effects or stunts. It’s just an actual family in constant peril and threat of being mauled by mobs of wild carnivores. It is one of the most insane movies I’ve ever seen. Much of the cast and crew (including Tippi’s children) sustained multiple injuries from animal attacks throughout the filming. This film is madness manifest.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can't be all bad.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can’t be all bad.

The Monkees’ surreal musical Head (1968), may not quite live up to the same high-spirited whimsical anarchy of The Beatles’ films (although, it might be better than Help!), but it’s got enough zany meta quirk powering its engines that it’s still a fun romp. The film is basically a series of mostly unrelated vignettes and episodes mocking television, war, advertising, and whatever else set to some great tunes from The Monkees. Bonus points for having the most bizarre use of Victor Mature ever.

Here at the institute, we're all about science.

Here at the institute, we’re all about science.

Panos Cosmatos concocts a truly weird and deliberately paced sci-fi horror about telepathy in Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Trapped for the purposes of study, a young woman is observed by a cold and mercurial scientist at the Arboria Institute. There isn’t much dialogue and not much is explained, yet the film is so visually striking and surreal that it has a weird appeal. The textures and atmosphere and colors and cinematography are so hypnotic that I could recommend it on aesthetics alone. The brokenness of the doctors is fascinating and the imagery sticks in the mind. Not for everybody, but certainly for some.

The Curious Sandwich:

Yeah...

Yeah…

I re-watched Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space (1999). I loved it when I first saw it, but strangely it might have been even funnier on this second viewing. Maybe because I now have had experience working in an office and I too have become increasingly critical of the inanity of professional formalities. The movie is still hilarious and still a biting indictment of what adulthood is expected to be. Still Judge’s best film and still a breath of fresh air. The great cast includes Ron Livngston, Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader, Jennifer Aniston, John C. McGinley, and Stephen Root.

Already over "Gangs of New York."

Already over “Gangs of New York.”

Sergio Leone’s films seemed to get longer the older he got. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) feels like the 4 plus hours it is, but its atmosphere is so rich and its scenery so sumptuous that you don’t mind soaking in the beautifully realized details of an old New York City long gone. Robert De Niro and James Woods are Jewish gangsters growing up during the Prohibition. Told in flashback, we witness the friendships, betrayals, murders, and regrets of a lost era. While the movie is slow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful cinematography or New York City look more detailed and gorgeous.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

Dave Chappelle stars as a weed loving janitor who must raise money with his stoner roommates to get their buddy out of the slammer (he’s jailed for accidentally murdering a diabetic police horse via Funions and pizza). Their plan is to sell weed, but when Chappelle falls in love with a substance teetotaler he has to choose between the kush or the bush. Yes, Half Baked (1998) truly is a stoner classic that I had somehow never watched in its entirety. Thing is, it’s legitimately funny and Chappelle proves to be the perfect leading man for this story. Cast highlights include Steven Wright, Clarence Williams III, Jim Breur, Harland Williams, and a bevy of fun cameos (Tommy Chong, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, etc.). Rachel True is hot, but playing a thankless role as the hot girl.

Yeah, I sandwiched Leone’s crime epic between two infantile comedies from our childhood.

Ever Stalwart:

Oh, I'm sure he makes it.

Oh, I’m sure he makes it.

William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a pre-Code Depression-era road drama about kids of laid off fathers who decide to become train-hopping hobos rather than be a financial burden on their families. It’s a simple, if somewhat optimistically unbelievable, premise but the journey they go on is fascinating, mired by troubles, and despite amputations, thuggery, and possible rape somehow still resiliently optimistic. It’s a very American film. It’s a side of humanity that is both harsh and rarely depicted in old Hollywood flicks (sans Charlie Chaplin movies). Gritty yet sweet, Wild Boys of the Road is a curious time capsule that any cinephile should investigate.

"What kind of clown are you?" "The crying on the inside, I guess."

“What kind of clown are you?”
“The crying on the inside, I guess.”

How had I never seen Bill Murray’s only directed movie? [Co-directed with Howard Franklin] Quick Change (1990) is a great comedy about the post bank heist anxieties of trying to navigate New York City to get to the airport on time. Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid are bank robbers who have had enough of the daily grind and so decide to retire early. Jason Robards is the cop hot on their trail. It’s great suspense and great comedy. I was especially pleased to see Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci in supporting roles. Despite Quaid’s overly hammy performance, the movie manages to be a sweetly cynical crime caper.

CONSUME

CONSUME

Much like Half Baked, I had never sat down and watched John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) all the way through. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who stumbles upon a secret. When he dons the weird sunglasses he sees the world for what it is: an elaborate advertisement to force humans to blindly consume. Naturally, the conspiracy is all orchestrated by gross, lipless aliens. It’s got some great lines, ridiculous fights, wonderful social satire, and a grim dose of truth. It also has one of the best movie endings ever. EVER! Keith David co-stars.

The Wave Finally Peaks:

This car is ready for the rave.

This car is ready for the rave.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton star in Alex Cox’s darkly weird cult sci-fi comedy, Repo Man (1984). Otto (Estevez) is a punk who winds up repossessing cars with a bunch of lunatics who like to pop uppers and wax philosophic about the art of being a repo-man.  It’s a truly unique movie that is neither obvious nor exactly easy, but it is an unforgettable and quirky viewing experience.

Also you'll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Also you’ll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Federico Fellini directs the great Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954), but the real star is Giulietta Masina. It’s the story of a poor, naive country girl who is sold to a nomadic strongman. Though she is optimistic and full of wide-eyed wonder and good humor, her sweet character and odd appearance earn her no respect in the eyes of her abusive master. It is a compelling drama set against the landscape of rural Italy.

Life is but a dream.

Life is but a dream.

Robert Altman made some pretty enigmatic movies in his time. As loopy as Brewster McCloud was, 3 Women (1977) might even be more odd…if less obviously so. Sissy Spacek is an awkward country waif who gets a job nursing the elderly. She immediately attaches herself to the awkward and vapid Shelley Duvall character. They develop a strange, uncomfortable bond and bizarre connection with a silent painter played by Janice Rule. After an accident their roles are turned upside down and the mystery of who these characters are only gets weirder. This movie is a quiet type of insanity and I really had no idea where it was going scene to scene. As baffling as much of it is, I kind of loved it. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about it.

"Keep driving."

“Keep driving.”

My favorite of the bunch is The Hitch-Hiker (1953) directed by Ida Lupino. It’s a simple set up. Two fishing buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on their way through Mexico pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be sociopath and serial killer (William Talman). The rest of the film is a series of tense situations as the killer plays sick mind games with the two helpless men as they try to figure a way to communicate and outsmart their captor before he kills them both. It’s a fabulous vintage suspense thriller.

The Definitive Subjective Ranking of the Best Theatrical Muppet Songs

I grew up watching the Muppets. Loved The Muppet Show, Muppet BabiesFraggle Rock, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Hour, you name it. The Muppets’ variety act lent itself to parodying countless popular songs over the years, but it also led to numerous original songs, some of which are really hard to forget. This is a ranked list of the original songs from the theatrically released Muppet movies (the lack of cover songs kinda kills Muppets from Space, unfortunately).

Is this list subjective and based on my temporary whims? Definitely. Disagree? Tell me your favorite Muppet songs. But I did. I ranked 50 Muppet songs. Like a goddamn man. A MAN!

[Pictures and composers names taken from Muppet Wiki.]

Sorta Forgettable:

me

50. Let’s Talk About Me – (The Muppets, 2011) Chris Cooper gets crazy as Tex Richman and sings a mean-spirited hip hop number. Sadly, it’s not that memorable. [Bret McKenzie]

Wedding.mtm

49. He’ll Make Me Happy – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) While it’s nice to see all the characters at Kermit and Piggy’s wedding it’s just too slow. And isn’t Piggy a modern, liberated pig? Does she really need a frog to make her happy? What’s the message here? [Jeff Moss]

The_Magic_Store

48. The Magic Store – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) After so many great songs in their very first big screen adventure, I’ve always felt their big closer was a bit of a letdown. The spectacle feels artificial. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

Whistling_Caruso

47. Whistling Caruso – (The Muppets, 2011)  It’s whistling. Walter whistles to save the show. It’s okay, I guess. [Andrew Bird]

Mary_-_Me_Party

46. Me Party – (The Muppets, 2011) It’s light and breezy and gives Amy Adams and Miss Piggy something to do. Not the worst, but not my favorite. [Bret McKenzie and Paul Roemen]

Rightwhereibelong

45. Right Where I Belong – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) Kermit snaps out of his amnesia after a truly jarringly insult-filled rant against Miss Piggy. Then we get this slow, forgettable little ditty. [Jeff Moss]

Canttakeno

44. You Can’t Take No for an Answer – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s a montage of Muppet rejection as they walk around the city. Like a lot of songs from Manhattan, it’s not the most memorable. [written by Jeff Moss]

Weddingchart-1080p

43. Somebody’s Getting Married – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s cheery. It’s upbeat. But why does it make me feel like everything is so forced? Did every single Muppet really care this much about Kermit and Piggy tying the knot? The highlight is the dancing tuxes. [Jeff Moss]

Something_better

42. Something Better – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) The two Brian Henson (son of Jim) directed Muppet films actually are some of the strongest for song consistency. Both Treasure Island and Christmas Carol boast some strong musical numbers. This trio of the boy Hawkins, Gonzo, and Rizzo is not one of them. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

A Bit More Personality:

Go_back_there

41. I’m Going to Back There Someday – (The Muppet Movie, 1979 and Muppets from Space, 1999) This is where the Gonzo mythos officially started. On the show he was a background character, but in the movie he became more fleshed out and this was his most bizarrely sobering moment. He’s hinting at suspecting that he’s an alien from outer space, yet it’s strangely serious and wistful. It’s a little slow, feels out of character for the usually more zany Gonzo, and I never really got it, but it ain’t bad. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

number1

40. I’m Number One – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) Ricky Gervais sings with Kermit’s doppelganger, Constantine, and it’s got a few great lines, but it goes a little too long and Ricky seems like he might be playing it almost a little too kid-friendly. I found that distracting and it didn’t entirely work for me. [Bret McKenzie]

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

39. Interrogation Song – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This one has so much personality and a lot of clever lyrics and Ty Burrell gives his all as the Interpol agent, but I was still trying to get over the new Sam the eagle voice and this song, while funny, felt to be the most kidsy Muppet song ever. A little too soapy and kidsy for me, I guess. [Bret McKenzie]

Rat_scat

38. Rat Scat (Something’s Cookin’) – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) This song introduces Rizzo the rat and company, but it’s more of an amusing spectacle than a great song. [written by Jeff Moss]

boomshakalaka

37. Boom Shakalaka – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996)  It builds a lot of tension and suspense for the big comedy reveal of Miss Piggy being an island goddess who then takes an awkward fall down a flight of stairs, but there’s not a whole lot to it lyrically. [Hans Zimmer and Nick Glennie-Smith]

When_love_is_found

36. When Love is Found – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)  This song reprises “When Love is Gone”, but with an obvious shift to a more joyful tone. It’s a good payoff at the end, but this reprise does not outclass the original somber theme sung my the crestfallen Belle. [Paul Williams]

When_love_is_gone

35. When Love is Gone – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) I know. Everyone hates this one. The thing is, it’s not a bad song. It’s serious, yes, but appropriately compelling. Sung mournfully by Scrooge’s lost love by a woman who had the thankless task of being completely serious in a movie with wacky felt animals and monsters. [Paul Williams]

Officially Muppets:

Walter-Man

34. Man or Muppet – (The Muppets, 2011) So this won the Academy Award for best song. Jason Segel and Walter explore their identity crises and it all comes to a satisfyingly silly conclusion. It’s funny and Muppet-y, but I submit this is not yet the best song from The Muppets. [Bret McKenzie]

cabin fever

33. Cabin Fever – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) The crew gets a little stir crazy and it’s the perfect timing for a wacky song. It happens at a lull and it operates purely as filler, but it’s welcome filler. The line, “And now that we’re all here, we’re not all there,” is perfect Muppet lyrical lunacy. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

together again

32. Together Again – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984 and Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) It’s buoyant and one of the more iconic Muppet songs. It’s a pleasant and small Kermit-led charmer. [Jeff Moss]

Sayinggoodbye

31. Saying Goodbye – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) It’s a touching farewell that sees many beloved characters going their separate ways. It’s a surprisingly human moment from the Muppets. [Jeff Moss]

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

30. We’re Doing a Sequel – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is Most Wanted‘s version of “Hey a Movie!” from Muppet Caper. It even has villain Ricky Gervais popping in, echoing Charles Grodin’s appearance in the Caper opening. It’s cute and has some nice pop culture references, but “Hey a Movie!” is tough to beat. [Bret McKenzie]

Night_life

29. Night Life – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This is an unapologetically abrasive Electric Mayhem song whose loud beats are matched and timed with the backfiring of their ramshackle, multicolored tour bus. The joke is that this is why they don’t get many gigs, but I actually like this willfully obnoxious jam. [Joe Raposo]

Hispaniola_Figurehead

28. Sailing for Adventure – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) It’s funny and has a solid tune with some classic comedy lyrics (“People die by falling overboard!”). It lags a bit when Hawkins and Long John Silver sing, but overall it’s a song full of the anticipation of a high seas adventure. [Barry Mann]

Higher and Higher:

Scrooge3

27.  Thankful Heart – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This was the bouncy finale song Scrooge earned. It fills the screen with all the characters he was a dick to throughout the film and suddenly all is right with the world. It always puts a smile on my face. [Paul Williams]

Blessusall

26. Bless Us All – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) Another one most people probably forget, but it’s one of the sweetest and most tender songs the Muppets ever did. Framed as a prayer around the Cratchit family table, little Robin leads and even Miss Piggy appears genuine in this quiet moment of tearful thankfulness. Fully aware they are all on the edge of tragedy, the family takes stock of what they do have—even if it all only be temporary. [Paul Williams]

Scat

25. Christmas Scat – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This is about the only time there has ever been a genuine connection apparent between Kermit and Robin. Nobody ever likes Robin, but this short, upbeat scene shows a beautiful affection that had never been previously shown. [Paul Williams]

MMWtrailerNov20-0082

24. The Big House – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) Prison jokes set to music featuring Tina Fey with Jemaine Clement, Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, and a solitary confinement-bound Josh Groban singing backup. It introduces Kermit to the gulag. It’s so enjoyable I can even get over rhyming getaway with get away. [Bret McKenzie]

Marley_and_marley

23. Marley and Marley – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This might be the weirdest Muppet song ever. Longtime peanut gallery hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, become actual characters in the Dickens classic as Jacob and Robert (Bob?) Marley. It’s mostly dark and dour, a terrifying warning about the consequences of greed and selfishness, yet it takes breaks for a couple offbeat “doh-ho-ho” jokes. The suitcases sing backup as Scrooge is wrapped in ghostly chains. [Paul Williams]

GMC-UnderwaterBubbles

22. Miss Piggy’s Fantasy – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This number is purposely over-the-top and it is hilarious. Pretty much anytime Miss Piggy has a number, it’s going into her absurdly treacly imagination. Synchronized swimming ballet reminiscent of Busby Berkeley and Charles Grodin lip synching in a truly hilarious manner make this a great one. It’s trying to outdo the previous film’s “Never Before, Never Again” and maybe it comes close, but not close enough. [Joe Raposo]

Feelslikechristmas

21. It Feels Like Christmas – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) The jovial Ghost of Christmas Present sings this very cheery introduction to the joy of Christmas morning. We see so many characters spreading good cheer and love that it really is quite infectious. [Paul Williams]

Steppin_Out

20.  Steppin’ Out With a Star – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This is a really nice sequence showing Kermit getting ready for his big date with who he thinks is Lady Holiday. It has all the excitement of getting ready to go out on a first date. Fozzie and Gonzo also join in the fun. The puppetry was always impressive in this sequence as well. [Joe Raposo]

Even More Fun:

mmw

19. I’ll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu) – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is the most Flight of the Conchords song Bret McKenzie ever snuck into a Muppet movie. It’s a very funny and kinda sexy sequence where Constantine dials up the faux-charm and promises Miss Piggy all the romantic things in the world—including armadillos. [Bret McKenzie]

Propirate

18. Professional Pirate – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) This is a high stakes song about moral ambiguity and it’s funny as hell. Tim Curry leads the pirate chorus as they try to lure Jim Hawkins to their side and betray Captain Smollet. A regular sea shanty, but with some Muppet spice. [Barry Mann]

Canyoupicturethat

17. Can You Picture That? – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This is probably the best Electric Mayhem song. They rock out in an old church as they disguise Fozzie’s Studebaker. It’s a lot of fun and ends on a nice joke when Kermit and Fozzie finally see their psychedelic work. Fozzie: “I don’t know how to thank you guys.” Kermit: “I don’t know why to thank you guys.” [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

Neverbefore

16. Never Before, Never Again – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) Miss Piggy’s imagination certainly is a wild place. She first lays eyes on Kermit the frog at a fair and immediately goes into a hilarious dream montage borrowing cues from every romantic cliche off a pulp romance novel cover. This might be the funniest Piggy song. Highlights include her pretty much amorously forcing herself on the all-too-gallant amphibian in a field and her final note that turns into an abrasive scream. [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

Piggy_and_Kermit

15. The First Time it Happens – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) It’s a peaceful waltz where Kermit and Miss Piggy fall in love and we are completely in their heads. This is one of the few times in Muppet history where the pig and the frog are on the same page romantically…maybe because nothing is spoken. [Joe Raposo]

happy song

14. Life’s a Happy Song – (The Muppets, 2011) Jason Segel and Walter sing this joyous and silly intro to the film. It sets a safe and light tempo that borders on self-parody. After this song you accept the soft, sweet cheesiness of the rules for this new Muppet world. McKenzie’s songs always felt more intimate and cute compared to the bigger sounds of some of the previous films’ scores. This is a nice introduction to that change. [Bret McKenzie]

Powerful Stuff:

always love you

13. I’m Gonna Always Love You – (The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984) This is another moment that’s all Piggy. Once again her imagination runs wild and we get the first appearance of the Muppet Babies as she fantasizes about what it would have been like had she met Kermit when they were all babies. It’s a catchy and stupidly cute little tune. [Jeff Moss]

Love_led_us_here

 

12. Love Led Us Here – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) This might be the most powerful moment between Kermit and Piggy. As Capt. Smollet and Benjamina, they dangle upside-down off a cliff as a candle burns through the rope. Realizing the end is near they stop fighting and embrace their fate as they profess their love and pontificate on how destiny has led them to what seems like disaster, but maybe it has brought them closer. It’s weirdly emotional. [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

IslandHeads

11. Shiver My Timbers – (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996) Following a fantastic instrumental prologue and a salty Billy Connolly narration, we are plunged into a densely atmospheric pirate adventure with weird Muppet critters singing an ominous warning while cutthroat buccaneers bury their treasure. It’s got an intense build and it’s one of the few Muppet songs that actually feels dangerous. And the tikis. My god, the tikis. “One more time now.” [Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil]

greatmuppetcaper-01

10. Hey a Movie! – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) This might be the fourth wall breaking-est song the Muppets ever did. They pretty much give away the whole story and set the tone for the rules of their movie world. This was the first time the Muppets were not about being a variety show and were just straight up diving into genre storytelling, but they retained their sense of anarchy throughout and this song showcases that perfectly. [Joe Raposo]

1moresleep

9. One More Sleep ’til Christmas – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) This song is so soft and happy it’s hard not to love. It really does feel like a special night as Kermit and the rat bookkeepers tidy up and walk home, taking a moment to even join some skating penguins. “There’s no such thing as strangers when the stranger says ‘hello.'” [Paul Williams]

ForkinRoad

8. Movin’ Right Along – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This was the charming, pun-filled road song that became the pulse of the whole film. Fozzie and Kermit are so full of hope for their new lives. You really buy their camaraderie. [Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams]

The Final Countdown:

pictures

7. Pictures in My Head – (The Muppets, 2011) This was my favorite song from The Muppets. In it, Kermit quietly reflects on his past regrets and his fading memories of his distant friends. We’d never seen Kermit this wistful and defeated before. It was strange and sad and then sculpted itself into something hopeful and magical as all the pictures came to life and sang to Kermit before retreating back into its own pessimism. Wonderfully crafted and kinda moving. [Jeannie Lurie, Aris Archontis, and Chen Neeman]

MCC-Screengrabs-George-a

6. Scrooge – (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992) What a great intro to a movie and a character. This was the first Muppet movie to try to be a reinterpretation of a classic bit o’ literature and they had to set the stage right and explain the tone and geometry of this world quickly. They did a great job and give many obscure characters a chance to shine as the camera movesd to every Muppet-filled nook and cranny of this Victorian street. It explains who Ebenezer Scrooge is with both levity and brevity. Alongside passages taken verbatim from Dickens we also get more Muppet-y lines like “Even the vegetables don’t like him.” Genius. [Paul Williams]

GMC-MuppetsOnBikes

5. Couldn’t We Ride? – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) Following a quarrel between Piggy and Kermit, this sublime song is pure elation. It’s Caper‘s version of “Rainbow Connection”. All the Muppets are riding bicycles without a care in the world. It was an impressive feat of puppetry as well. What starts as a quiet moment between a frog and a pig becomes a universal feeling of good feelings and serenity. [Joe Raposo]

MMW-SomethingSoRight

4. Something So Right – (Muppets Most Wanted, 2014) This is an epic moment that follows Miss Piggy’s emotional uncertainty following an uncharacteristic proposal from a frog who she thinks is Kermit. It’s a solid song with emotional depth and cashes in on the precedented joke that Piggy is a Celine Dion fan. Celine does indeed join in for a nice cameo, as does Dr. Teeth, Floyd Pepper, Scooter, Rowlf, Pepe the prawn, and even the rarely used Lew Zealand and Link Hogthrob (Beaker steals the scene with six well-placed “mee’s”). Piggy has another fantasy about her life with Kermit—having freak babies and growing old together. It’s a wonderfully executed song and features the most random assortment of side characters. It’s Most Wanted‘s “Pictures in My Head” moment and I daresay, it surpasses it. [Bret McKenzie]

Rainbow_connection_1

3. Rainbow Connection – (The Muppet Movie, 1979, The Muppets, 2011) What? The Muppet anthem classic isn’t number one? Blasphemy! Outrage! Well, it’s just my opinion. This really is one of the sweetest songs ever and it’s easy to see its universal appeal. Rather than go after jokes and gags, Kermit simply sings from the heart, putting words together for no other reason than they sound pretty and full of hope. The perfect introduction to the optimistic world of the Muppets [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

SomethingBetter

2. I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along – (The Muppet Movie, 1979) This is a quiet moment of male bonding between Kermit the frog and Rowlf the dog (both voiced by Jim Henson). They sing a duet lamenting their failed love lives. It’s simple, playful, real, and even finds time for a few welcome jokes. It’s like a scene from Casablanca and at the end we feel closer to both of them. [Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher]

Happiness_Hotel_Song

1. Happiness Hotel – (The Great Muppet Caper, 1981) “Happiness Hotel” is an apologetic welcome to a shabby, hole-in-the-wall inn when Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo get to England. It’s sung in a bouncy, rinky-dink sort of way by the entire Muppet peanut gallery. It’s loaded with gags, puns, clever dialogue, and rhymes. What makes it great is it has that mock-apology sensibility that The Muppet Show always had. The whole idea of The Muppet Show was that a motley band of misfits and oddballs were trying to put on a variety show every week with Kermit and others usually trying to cover up backstage mishaps or onstage shenanigans while Statler and Waldorf heckled in the sidelines. The show was supposed to be about a flawed revue act that the characters were always apologizing for but, just like this song, the pretend problems are what made it great and funny. This song feels like a loving and energetic tribute to the original spirit of the old show. And it ends on a stinger where long-suffering straight man, Sam the eagle, opens his door, scans the room tacitly, and then finally mutters, “You are all weirdos.” Classic. [written by Joe Raposo]

Originally published for net.sideBar March 30, 2015.

http://www.netsidebar.com/the-definitive-subjective-ranking-of-the-best-theatrical-muppet-songs/

The Last Few Movies I saw: Episode XII – Screw the Oscars

Once again. Here we go. As always, in order of what I thought of them. I apologize in advance if my cinematic snobbery is more obvious this time around.

But I Hate It:

1

“The Great Dictator” reboot. Now with more dick jokes.

There was a lot of hoopla surrounding Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, The Interview (2014). The hacking, the threats, the pulling-from-theaters, the backlash, the fervent speeches in the name of free expression, yet for all the political brouhaha, The Interview is ultimately just another infantile Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy. All the women are bimbos (entering each scene with our stoner protagonists muttering stuff like, “Bro, she’s so hot. I think I wanna bang her”). All the potential for smart satire sapped, squandered, missed entirely. All humor gleaned copiously from the shallow well of butt-stuff jokes. The special effects aren’t bad and there are maybe one or two lines that are funny on their own, but if you want to be entertained beyond a fifth grade level I’d look elsewhere. How Team America: World Police managed to be 100 times more ballsy, offensive, prescient, culturally significant, and funny is something I’m still processing. Somehow The Interview winds up being less mature in all the wrong ways and the comedy sadly suffers from that. Despite almost threatening World War III, this cinematic enema is truly a waste.

4

I’m gonna steal the Septuagint.

Overtly Christian films are notorious for being awkward, terrible, and, as a result, quite unintentionally hilarious. This is Left Behind (2014). Nicolas Cage staring in an action remake of a dopey Kirk Cameron direct-to-video movie based on a pulpy religious novel series ripped off from a 1970s Christian Twilight Zone type flick called Thief in the Night which was inspired by a surreal bit of modern dogma that gained popularity in the 20th century sounds like it couldn’t be boring, right? Alas, this one is so bland it doesn’t even function well as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but there are a few scenes that are very inadvertently funny. Nearly every element of production smacks of incompetence yet the absurdity never reaches the sublime like in movies like Troll 2 or The Room. But, I’d sooner watch this with some friends than The Interview.

Meh:

BIG HERO 6

At least there’s enough squishy cuteness to keep you with it until the end.

Big Hero 6 (2014). Go on. Hate me. I liked the energetic animation, a lot of the humor, and the relationship built between Hiro and Baymax, but the plot itself I found rushed, predictable, and weightless while the villain was glaringly absent and the side characters were uninspired. Weirdly, the most uncooked element of this superhero origin story was the superhero part. It’s inoffensive and breezy and kids will like it, but I’ve come to expect a little more from family films. Let’s hope the sequel has a more engaging villain and plot. Not awful, just a yawner.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

God, is it over yet?

I feel like all three Hobbit movies have some great costumes, special effects, environments, and at least one decent scene in each of them. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) might be the most exhausting and watch-checking outing to Middle-Earth yet. No, I didn’t hate it. And it was a fun surprise to hear Billy Connolly’s voice (he plays the dwarf that rides the pig). I feel the same as I do about Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing; if it were half as long it would be twice as good. There’s a lot of talent being put into these films, but the action is so planned and drawn out and the drama-y stuff is so hammy with nothing connecting us to the characters that it becomes a slog to get through. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ll be sad if I never watch these movies again.

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How come there’s no Captain Canada? Or Captain Bangladesh? Does East Timor or Luxembourg have a Captain?

I’m not the biggest Marvel fan. Having said that, I actually really enjoyed a lot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The car chases were excellent and a lot of the on-the-ground fists-punching-faces action was fantastic. I enjoyed the storyline of Captain America on the lam and Shield being infiltrated by Hydra. I liked the stuff with Nick Fury and Dr. Zola and Robert Redford. What killed some of the fun for me was the actual Winter Soldier part and the cartoony fight in the spaceships at the end. The last act looked like all the things that bore me with Marvel superhero movies. It all looks like the same suspenseless mayhem. HOWEVER, the first 2/3 of the movie were so fun and well done that I admit I liked the movie a lot more than I expected.

Higher Times:

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The Munsters vs The Addams Family. Go!

This one is a re-watch. I remember borrowing this from the library a lot when I was a kid. File this under nostalgia. The Munsters’ Revenge (1981) is really only for fans of the 1960s sitcom. It’s little more than a really long episode and only works if you know the characters already. Poor Yvonne De Carlo is given nothing to do. The positives about this TV-movie is that it broadens their world a little more and gives us Sid Caesar doing accents as an eccentric villain. It also puts Marilyn Munster in a cavegirl bikini and features a new family member modeled after the Phantom of the Opera. If you enjoy the idea of Grandpa (Al Lewis) and Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) going on an adventure to clear their name (they’ve been framed by robots) and have a high threshold for haunted house puns then check it out.

“I’m Eddie Wilson.” *peels off mustache*

This was built up for me a lot by a good friend. Enjoying this charming dramatic misfire with some beers is recommended. Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives (1989) is a sequel about Eddie Wilson running away from his past as a rock legend. Having survived a car accident decades ago, he changes his identity and becomes a construction worker and grows a mustache. Nobody recognizes him, but soon Eddie (Michael Paré), under the alias Joe West, wants to make music again and forms a band, but there’s just no denying that sound. It’s low-budget, silly, melodramatic, but actually pretty fun and has some good tunes along the way.

The Joy Builds:

Moral of the story: almost every man you meet is a potential rapist.

Moral of the story: almost every man you meet is a rapist.

Troubled white girl is sad so she goes into nature to get in touch with herself and battle the demons of her past. Yes, Wild (2014), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, isn’t as bad is should be. The cinematography is great and the locations are impressive. Witherspoon and Laura Dern give solid performances. As the story unfolds we are treated to flashbacks that help us get to know her character and motivations a little better. So maybe her problems aren’t the worst, but they’re hers. A good 70% of what made me like the movie so much was the use of “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel.

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“I’m Eddie Wilson too!” *puts mustache back on*

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) is a fascinating documentary about a man and his battle with manic-depressive order and his artistic genius. The film examines his life, his music, and his problems with compassion and admiration. Daniel Johnston’s illness leads him to fixate of surreal themes and his own perfectionism. Listening to his work and how he recorded much of it, all while hearing from his friends and family, builds him into a kind of legend, making him an even more intriguing and tragic character.

Not quite my tempo, little drummer boy!

Not quite my tempo, little drummer boy!

J. K. Simmons is always a fun actor to watch and it was great to see him get the complicated lead character of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). Fletcher (Simmons) is a sociopathic slave-driver of a jazz conductor. His physical demands and cruel mind games are demented and unacceptable and he tests everything a young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) has in him. The film looks gorgeous and it is unapologetic. You will respect characters and then hate them and then wrestle with both feelings at once, trying to decide where the line should be drawn and whether the ending is happy or sad. The truth is, Fletcher has more interest in talent than individuals and even if his results are good, you may forever be concerned about his methods and the ethics of it all. It’s a surprising and strangely challenging little film.

We Climb Higher:

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“Say ‘it might be a tumor’ one more time!”

I had never actually watched John Milius’ epic, Conan the Barbarian (1982), all the way through before. As a kid I recall catching snippets on TV…and sometimes confusing it with Beastmaster (apologies). This is one brawny movie. James Earl Jones plays a hypnotic villain with snake-like powers, Sandahl Bergman is sexy and badass, and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself (while struggling with the language) definitely looks the part and rounds this fantasy epic out perfectly. Conan is probably one of the best sword and sorcery flicks out there and it still holds up as an entertaining action adventure today. It also boasts a fantastic score by Basil Poledouris (The Hunt for Red October).

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You can get it if you really want.

If “El Condor Pasa” influenced my fondness of Wild, then the reggae pulse of Jimmy Cliff in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) definitely had a hand in how I interpret this amateur Jamaican crime drama. It’s a simple story of a guy who wants to make music but becomes a drug peddler on the run from the law. The patois might be difficult to understand, but it adds authenticity and the some of the songs may be overused, but they’re great so who cares? Although quite rough around the edges, The Harder They Come is what it is.

Alan Partridge in the studio

“Ah-HA!”

I like Steve Coogan and watching Alan Partidge: Alpha Papa (2013) inspired me to start consuming the Alan Partridge TV series. The film does a great job of delivering clever lines and keeping it broad enough for new audiences. Selfish social nitwit and radio host, Alan (Coogan), gets his friend Pat (Colm Meaney) fired to save his own job, but when Pat loses it and holds the whole studio hostage it’s up to Alan to save everyone’s life…as long as he doesn’t have to apologize or lose ratings. I laughed out loud quite a bit.

The Air is Thinning. The Sherpas are Dying:

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Say what you will about Roman Polanski. He’s no Bill Cosby.

Ewan McGregor is hired to replace a recently deceased ghost writer for a former prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010). As the ex-politician is becoming embroiled in a growing international scandal, more secrets are uncovered and the mysteriousness surrounding the previous ghost writer’s death is revealed it seems that our hero is in grave peril. Like a lot of Polanski films, the more you know the more danger you put yourself in. It is a taut, atmospheric, suspenseful, and enigmatic thriller that creeps up on you and pulls you in. Co-starring Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrell, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Belushi, and Eli Wallach.

You’re not getting out of this movie, kid. Not without seeing a lot more of your parents completely naked.

So, I’ll be honest. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fever dreams committed to celluloid are not for everyone. Having seen all of his films from El Topo to Santa Sangre, I was ecstatic to see that the 85 year old Chilean surrealist auteur was returning to the director’s chair after a 23 year hiatus. The Dance of Reality (2014) appears to be Jodorowsky’s most personal work. It is a weird, episodic, dreamlike autobiography of his childhood and a fascinating examination of his own father. It is a compassionate, mesmerizing, and uncomfortable work—like most of his canon. He may be old, but he hasn’t lost any of his madness or his fixation with amputees.

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I know it’s a sound stage, but I want to go to India in part because of this movie.

I re-watched another favorite from my childhood. Zoltan Korda’s Jungle Book (1942) stars Sabu (The Thief of Bagdad) as Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves. The film is a fine collection of wildlife photography, detailed matte paintings, and questionable snake puppets. If you have a fondness for older films, I’d say watch this one soon. Sabu is as charming as always and Joseph Calleia gives a great performance as the fearful and sinister town leader (and defeated but wiser storyteller that bookends the film), Buldeo. It’s a polished but intimate spectacle. You can tell the Kordas really cared about making quality films.

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KAW!

Michael Keaton plays a washed up superhero actor trying to salvage his artistic integrity by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). The drum score does not let up and the camera never seems to cut away and we begin to wonder if our protagonist is having a psychotic breakdown as voices and hallucinations from his past haunt him more and more. The performances are all wonderful (Keaton, Emma Stone, and Ed Norton especially) and the style is mesmerizing and builds the tension in a very unique way.  The incredible cinematography was handled by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life).

The Mighty Peak:

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Life is so lame.

Even if you don’t fully appreciate Jim Jarmusch’s specific style or sense of humor, you may still appreciate the detailed atmosphere and fine performances in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are immortal hipsters, or vampires, to be precise. They’ve lived countless years and have become completely detached from the human (or ‘zombie’) world. Rather than highlight the blood sucking antics of sexy demons of the night, the story focuses around how one couple spends eternity and the minutiae of dealing with pesky problems and the logistics of relocating following more serious crises. Mia Wasikowska co-stars as an obnoxious vampire party girl whose immaturity the lovers have waning patience for and John Hurt plays a vampiric Christopher Marlowe. It’s altogether sumptuous, sexy, and slow-burning. Whether your driving around the battered streets of Detroit or stalking the alleys of Tangiers, be on the lookout. There be vampires. One of the most refreshing vampire flicks since Let the Right One In.

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“I bet I could have saved ‘Zardoz.’ Boorman should have asked me.”

John Boorman may have made one of the artiest man-movies with Point Blank (1967). Ultimate screen badass, Lee Marvin, is Walker, a man out for revenge and money. That’s all you really need going in. For a revenge action thriller the movie is quite stylish and ethereal, unfolding like a weird dream. As I watched it I was reminded of Seijin Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (which came out in 1966 and 1967 respectively). I don’t know what it is, but some movies just feel sexy. Co-starring Keenan Wynn, Michael Strong, Angie Dickinson, and Carroll O’Connor.

“Wooooo. It’s a ghost cup.”

And my favorite of this bunch is a comedic mockumentary about vampires from New Zealand called What We Do in the Shadows (2014). A documentary film crew is given permission to follow around a group of vampire flatmates (played by Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Ben Fransham, and newly deceased, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). The movie is a delight from start to finish with wonderful characters and clever jabs at classic vampire tropes and all of the mundane problems those tropes entail. It’s a brilliant horror-comedy that I look forward to watching again. (For Flight of the Concords fans, in addition to Jermaine Clement, Rhys Darby plays the leader of a pack of well-mannered werewolves.)

Agree? Disagree? What did you see?