The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXI – A Star Wars Story

Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.

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Bamboozled (2000) is a satirical look at race as it is portrayed on American television. Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and starring Damon Wayans, this pairing may make it difficult to find the tone of the movie. There are serious themes worthy of unpacking here, but the tone feels off. Sometimes it’s silly and almost clever and then the sledgehammer comes down along with heavy emotions. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) pitches a blackface minstrel variety show to the network as a joke, but they love the idea and run with it. The most effective moments, in my opinion, feature the actors in the show going through the conflicting process of donning the dehumanizing makeup. Despite a clever premise and what feels like great potential for scathing satire and serious conversation, the movie is a bit of a dud.
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That’s Not Funny (2014) is a documentary about comedy and taboo topics directed by Mike Celestino. It talks about what offends and why and why it may not even matter. It’s a dry examination that works mainly because it’s so straightforward. For people already entrenched in the comedy world, it doesn’t offer much new insight, but for the casual comic observer maybe there’s more value in it.
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Train to Busan (2016) is a Korean zombie movie directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. It’s more of a sleek action movie than a bleak horror thriller. It hits a lot of familiar zombie movie markers, but setting it on the KTX (a train I have taken many times) from Seoul to Busan gave it a dose of novelty. It’s not a great zombie flick, but it has some fun moments and for people who don’t like their horror too moody, scary, or bloody Train to Busan might be a decent alternative. Dong-seok Ma (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is easily the best part.
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Sausage Party (2016) is the story of food discovering the horrible truth about their destiny. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and written by Seth Rogen and company, this unrelentingly crass smorgasbord of Pixar and piety skewering satire boasts more creativity than it probably needed. There’s a lot of juvenile jokes, but also a satisfying adventure arc as well as a cute social commentary (spoiler alert: religions are just evolved permutations of old stories to find reason and hope in a horrifying universe and living in a world where Rick and Morty exist makes the satire here seem amateurish and trite). A bit obnoxious, but still funny and the animation is quite good. The Stephen Hawking character in the third act elevated the whole shebang for me.
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Off Limits (1988) is a buddy cop movie directed by Christopher Crowe. What sets this police investigation action thriller apart is that it’s set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines star as McGriff and Albaby, two loose cannon military cops trying to uncover who’s murdering all the prostitutes with mixed race kids. It’s a bit of a trashy premise and an underwhelming revelation in the finale, but the middle bits have enough suspense, tough-guy talk, and memorable standoffs that it feels good revisiting this mostly forgotten buddy flick. Co-starring Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Keith David, Scott Glenn, and David Alan Grier.
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True Lies (1994) is a classic action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron (Aliens). Although I had seen it on TV as a kid a few times, this was the first time I actually sat down to watch the whole thing. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her most fun roles), a bored wife who thinks he’s a computer salesman. After learning the truth of her husband’s identity and a truly provocative striptease, the couple both become mixed up in a terrorist plot (headed by Art Malik). While I personally prefer the more sincere Schwarzenegger action movies (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Commando) than the winking parodies, this is honestly a lot more fun than Last Action Hero. The action set pieces are fun (horse in the elevator?) the film never takes itself terribly seriously. Tom Arnold is obnoxious, but the presence of Tia Carrere makes up for that maybe.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a science fantasy adventure that takes place like 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ends a few minutes before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) begins. But if you’re not a giant Star Wars nerd then I guess you could you say this is a wartime espionage adventure set in outer space.
OK. Because this is Star Wars and, like many of you, the original trilogy was a very important part of my formative years, I feel I should be slightly more in depth. I realize my tastes are fairly predictable. I love the original trilogy (Empire Strikes Back still being one of my favorite space movies), intensely dislike the prequels, and upon re-watching The Force Awakens sober, I’m not a fan (it looks great, but some of the awkward humor and acting choices along with the cloying nostalgia and the disquieting sense of the messy, convoluted script being composed by a committee checking off boxes sucks a lot of the fun out for me). That said, I basically enjoyed Rogue One. There’s stuff I hated too. Who knows what I’ll think if I see it again.
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Things I liked:
1. The cinematography and abundance of real props, sets, locations, etc. all serve to make the world feel real and lived in and steeped in a detailed and immense intergalactic history. The costumes and most of the puppets also look great (the squid guys are looking sillier and sillier though). This movie genuinely feels like an expansion of a familiar fictional universe.
2. It is different enough in tone and execution to make up for my qualms with Force Awakens being too similar. Even if not all of those choices work.
3. I liked the robot and the two Chinese guys. K-S20 (Alan Tudyk) gets the best lines and Chirrut Îmwe  (martial arts master, Donnie Yen, basically playing space Zatoichi) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have a nice friendship (just about the only interesting relationship in the movie) and are kinda cool. Wish they had had more to do.
The story is reminiscent of WWII commando adventures. This ain’t exactly The Devil’s Brigade or Guns of Navarone, but it seems to come from that tradition. It’s just got great space battles too…which maybe makes up for a lot of the characters being rather tepid by comparison. Which brings me to my next segment.
Things I didn’t like:
1. The two main characters, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), look good but are rather flat in the personality department. This really killed the intended impact of the finale for me. The central figures should not be an emotional vacuum in a movie like this. The rest of the characters are sadly forgettable.
2. Some of the fan service nods to the other films are handled well, but there’s still a lot of awkward inclusions.
3. Possible spoiler: there are a couple characters from the original 1977 movie that make appearances, but due to old age or death they are performed by CG versions of the actors (or touched up original footage in the case of a few pilots). In each instance it is strikingly disorienting. The CG humans are finely rendered (we’ve come a long way since The Scorpion King), but their inclusion is dumfoundingly distracting and unnecessary. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory, and it feels super weird. It does, however, make me want to watch The Congress again.
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Darth Vader’s in it too and they make him scary again. It’s a big improvement over the whiny, pathetic prequel Anakins and his descendant, Kylo Ren. I just couldn’t remove the image from my head of an 85 year old James Earl Jones reading lines into a microphone in a gray, squishy room. But I’m weird and this is just how my brain works.
All things considered, Rogue One, while not stellar, is a ballsy Star Wars movie in a lot of ways. I like some of the freshness that Gareth Edwards was allowed to bring to it and admire some of the risks Disney took (not all). There’s a lot that just doesn’t work in this movie and it’s pretty emotionally dead, but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably enjoy it even with its imperfections. There’s a reason people hold this series to a high personal standard. Like them. Hate them. At this point, they are intrinsically designed to be over-analyzed and talked about forever. It’s annoying, but who doesn’t like to indulge just a little bit?
Also stars Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Jimmy Smits.
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Swiss Army Man (2016) is a bromantic comedy about a hopeless misfit (Paul Dano) and a farting corpse with a penis that points north (Daniel Radcliffe). It was written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Although savagely surreal and whimsical, the movie creates a weirdly touching relationship between the two characters. The curiosity and innocence of the corpse causes Hank (Dano) to relive a lot of experiences and emotions and see much of his own life from a new perspective. As a surreal adventure comedy it works and as a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the nature of identity, it also somehow works. Check this one out.
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Arrival (2016) is a minimalist science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Amy Adams stars as the American linguist who figures out how to communicate with the enigmatic alien squid monsters. If you want a movie about boring old diplomacy then this is it. The central theme of the story is that communication takes time but it is time that must be given if the quest for understanding is a pure one. It also examines how language structures understanding of the physical world (and potentially our understanding of time itself). Gorgeously shot and thoughtfully acted. A highly recommended film. Also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
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A History of Violence (2005) is a modern noir directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers). Viggo Mortensen (Return of the King) stars as a small town guy who becomes a local hero after he stops some bad dudes. This act, however, unleashes nothing but trouble for him and his family as aspects of his past are questioned and unearthed and more mob guys show up and begin harassing his family. Like all Cronenberg films, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The lead performances are quite good (Maria Bello is a standout as Mortensen’s wife). It’s a small, tightly told story with suspense and a few turns that genuinely surprised me. Also stars Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Stephen McHattie.
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True Romance (1993) is a crime drama about a comic store geek (Christian Slater) who marries a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and steals her pimp’s (Gary Oldman) cocaine. Written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), this star packed thriller crackles with exciting dialogue, unpredictable encounters, and stylish directorial flourishes. It’s violent, funny, flashy, unapologetic, and damn good fun. I feel dumb for having not seen this one before. Don’t make my mistake! Co-starring Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, David Rapaport, and Samuel L. Jackson.
So what did you see recently?
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Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

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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.