THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXII – The Quickening

Movies again. Further down you go on the list, the more I liked it. What did you see?

Salomè (1972), directed by Carmelo Bene, is an Italian is a neon arthouse extravaganza featuring raucous debauchery in King Herod’s palace and vampire Jesus. Apparently I have an artsiness threshold because I could not finish this one. I can’t even review it because I didn’t watch enough of it to make any sort of assessment. But I include it here because, although it may not have been my cup of tea, it sure was weird and people, at minimum, should know this thing is out there. I’m sure it’s for someone, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood for psychedelic ass slapping.

Italian schlock cinema is notorious for ripping off other films, but perhaps O.K. Connery (1967) is remarkable in how brazen it is. Sean Connery’s brother, Neil Connery, plays the brother of the famous fictional secret agent, James Bond. I genuinely felt bad for the goatee’d Neil as I’m sure he’s been compared to his brother outside of this travesty of a film. It’s a bad 007 knockoff, but I will admit to liking the theme song.

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I got on a weird Soviet fantasy flick kick and watched Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1961). Directed by Aleksandr Rou, t’s based on a collection of short stories by Nicolai Gogol. I enjoyed the charming innocence of the stories and the dated special effects. There’s a romance and some comedy and a few fun creatures. I wish I had been able to find a cleaner copy.

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Purveyor of big-titted camp cinema, Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and legendary film critic, Roger Ebert (Siskel & Ebert), worked together in 1970 to bring to life the legitimately bonkers musical satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This is one wacky movie with insane melodrama and hilariously awkward dialogue delivered with incredible earnestness and ineptitude. This is a cinematic endurance test, but the zaniness and relentlessly disorienting editing make this oddity anything but boring.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maybe too arty and winky to laugh out loud at for its entire run time. Enter Neil Breen. Neil Breen is the writer, director, producer, and star (in addition to credits for “music department” and “production design”—which might explain why there are so many bleached human skulls and leg bones along the roadside of the Nevada desert) of Double Down (2005). And this perfect storm of incompetence, naivete, and delusional hubris is just what makes this one of the best movies you could ever see. Self described as an “edgy action thriller”, most of the film is spent observing a paunchy, uncomfortable middle-aged man skitter around the desert and pretend to type on five laptops (plugged into nothing) as he eats cans upon cans of tuna fish while his nonsensical inner monologues try to explain what the hell he’s doing. Haunted by his past and obsessed with what comes after death, he plans some sort of biochemical terrorist attack on Las Vegas. He writes himself to be the smartest and best at everything but the script’s betrayal of how little the writer actually understands regarding how the world functions is just adorable. It’s like if Donald Trump made a movie.

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Back on the Soviet fantasy wagon is Viy (1967). Based on another Nicolai Gogol story, the plot concerns a recent seminary student, Khoma, who ends up killing a witch, whose father makes him stand vigil alone, praying over her corpse for three nights. Each night, more menacing things happen to haunt Khoma. Flying coffins and goblins abound. I’ll admit it’s a little slow, but the ending was crazy enough for me to recommend. The special effects are, again, very dated, but I found the quirky and charming. There is also a more loose adaptation of the same story made in 2015.

More Fun:

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When I first saw Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) I was perhaps too young to appreciate it. It freaked me out to be honest (as did the show. Chairy?! Come on! Nightmare fuel.). Having since matured, I decided to revisit the quirky road movie of the weird man-child’s quest to find his stolen bicycle. While I may not have the same nostalgia many associate with Burton’s feature directorial debut, I can finally say I get it. The character (played by its creator, Paul Reubens) is annoying and the world he inhabits is a plastic, colorful explosion of 80’s tackiness. The story is episodic and the humor very odd. But it’s subversive and great too. Glad I gave it a re-watch.

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Not sure many have heard of Tom Schiller’s Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). Produced by Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), this never released oddity stars Zach Galligan (Gremlins) and features Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mort Sahl, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, and Futurama’s Lauren Tom. Designed to emulate the cinema of the 1930s and utilizing copious amounts of stock footage, it follows one young man’s saga to become an artist. At turns cutting and funny, at others rather slow and aimless, it doesn’t always work, but it’s good-natured oddness and cast make this Guy Maddin-esque journey of self-discovery that takes you from New York City to the Moon and back worth a look for the curious movie consumer.

 

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The Raid (2011) is an Indonesian martial arts action thriller about cops trying to get a bad guy in a very tall building. That’s all you need as an excuse for the impressive fight choreography that follows. The best action movies sometimes have the simplest setups. A few twists and turns keep things interesting and absurd amounts of shooting and punching keep it exciting throughout.

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Iconic entertainer Josephine Baker stars in Princess Tam Tam (1935), a French melodrama that would probably be considered culturally insensitive today, but is charming nevertheless—thanks to Baker’s infectious exuberance. A French novelist takes a shine to a free spirited but uncouth (by Parisian standards) Tunisian girl named Alwina (Baker). He takes her back to Paris and tries to introduce her to society as Princess Tam Tam. Think My Fair Lady meets Dersu Uzula (but instead of an old Siberian mountain man, it’s a vintage Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Baker dances and sings and exhibits a wildly playful and extremely likable screen personality (more than can be said of much of the rest of the film). It’s occasionally stilted, but it has some great moments peppered throughout.

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Here’s the Jim Henson Company and cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family) stars as the leader of a coven of witches that meet at a hotel to plot to kill children…by turning them into mice. Irritating child acting aside, this is a lot of fun. This is one of those kid’s movies that’s not afraid to be scary. And the grotesque makeup and ghoulish transformations certainly work well, as does the puppetry. Co-stars Mai Zetterling and Rowan Atkinson.

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Cult filmmaker John Carpenter (The Thing) directs the Lovecraftian thriller, In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) stars as an insurance investigator sent to track down a Stephen King type author in a fictitious town where evil lurks behind every corner. The film, while imperfect, boasts some fine atmosphere and Lovecraft inspired creatures. I quite enjoyed it. Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, and Charlton Heston co-star.

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Beautiful Girls (1996) is a sweet little movie featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Martha Plimpton,  and Uma Thurman. Old high school friends meet again in a snowy Massachusetts town for their school reunion. It’s a quiet slice of life built out of good feelings, love, and wistfulness, but more than anything it’s just a pleasant experience to spend some time with these characters that somehow all feel familiar.

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By far my favorite premise for a movie on this list. In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament (2015) God is a grouchy old fart with a wife he dislikes and a headstrong daughter. They live in a crappy apartment in Brussels where he capriciously manipulates the lives of tiny mortals. When his rebellious daughter, Ea, sneaks into his office and onto his computer she decides to text everyone on Earth the dates of their deaths, plunging the world into a chaotic existential crisis. She then escapes to Earth and enlists the aid of a homeless man as a scribe to write a Brand New Testament. If Jesus rewrote the Old Testament, Ea is determined to one up her big brother. The story is a series of episodes surrounding Ea’s new disciples and the rules of physics and nature she eschews.

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From Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, writer/director Shane Black knows how to make a solid buddy action comedy. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star in The Nice Guys (2016). And it is loads of fun. A broke gumshoe (Gosling) – and his daughter (Anjourie Rice) – and a brutal enforcer (Crowe) find each other at adds as they unravel a murder mystery set against the backdrop of gaudy 1977 Los Angeles. The dialogue crackles and the plot allows plenty of room for comedy and danger. Kim Basinger and Keith David co-star.

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Frank Oz deserves more respect as a comedy director. More than a celebrated member of the Jim Henson Company (famously voicing Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover, Yoda, and more), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of HorrorsWhat About Bob?, and Death at a Funeral are just a few of the gems he directed. In & Out (1997) tells the story of a high school English teacher (Kevin Kline) in a small town, days before his wedding (to Joan Cusack), who is outed as gay by a former student (Matt Dillon) on national television. While it may not be as progressive as it was 20 years ago, it does give the always enjoyable Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) a chance to play another high-strung character. It’s the sort of positive, feel-good comedy I sort of miss and the social commentary is handled with the right amount sensitivity to balance the broader comedic strokes. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, but I really liked it. Co-stars Tom Selleck, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, and Bob Newhart.

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Debonair Carey Grant (North by Northwest) and titillating Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) star in Charade (1963), directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain). When Regina Lampert (Hepburn) returns from a ski trip  to discover her husband has been murdered and that the killers and the CIA (led by Walter Mathau) are after a missing $250,000, she becomes entangled in one of the more stylish comedy-romance-thrillers this side of Alfred Hitchcock. Mrs. Lampert must locate the money, avoid getting murdered, uncover hidden identities, and look fabulous doing it while she seduces a mysterious American (Grant). If you love classic Hollywood (and I find it hard to dislike Audrey Hepburn or Carey Grant and their very specific styles for line delivery) then check this one out. It’s colorful, suspenseful, and sexy. Also features James Coburn and George Kennedy.

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Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) writes and directs the truly brilliant and chilling horror/satire Get Out (2017). Brimming with cutting racial commentary and a mounting atmosphere of suffocating paranoia, this is a perfectly pitched and very prescient horror. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to the country to visit his white girlfriend’s family. Subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments are made with seemingly good intentions, but there’s something off about all the black people in the house and Chris, though trying to keep calm, is getting nervous. Turning important social topics into an effective genre film is an excellent way to communicate to a general audience. And it handles its subjects with great intelligence. It’s a perfect execution of its premise and talking points. See it in theaters. Also stars Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery, and Stephen Root.

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable gets a respectful retelling and a built-in sequel in computer and stop-motion animated film The Little Prince (2015), directed by Mark Osborne. I could gush about the brilliant character design and clever architecture of the adaptation or the clever art direction and sensitive performances, but I was perhaps most touched by its thematic depth and wealth of imagination. The story follows a young girl (Mackenzie Foy) who escapes her mother’s rigidly organized plans for her life by befriending an old aviator (Jeff Bridges) who met the Little Prince many years ago. At each encounter the old man reveals more of the story and ruminates on life and its meanings. The movie also goes beyond the original narrative and embarks on a quest to figure out what happened to the Little Prince after his final meeting with the snake. Somber and adult while also also being playful and childish is a tight rope to walk, but the filmmakers succeed here and deliver a thoroughly beautiful and emotionally resonant work of art. The voice cast also includes Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd, Bud Cort, Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, and James Franco. Osborne is supposedly adapting Jeff Smith’s graphic novel, Bone, and I hope it is a success.

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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 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.

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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.

Where East is Wes

Wes Anderson. There. I said it. Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Some people hate this guy. Others love him seemingly to a fault. I’m a fan. Not rabid, mind you, but I do think he is a pretty solid and unique filmmaker. Are his films smug? Maybe. But maybe some people just do smug better than others. Sir Ian Richardson is like the beast of smugness in House of Cards and it’s awesome.

The setting is a northeastern forest island notorious for occasional rough rain squalls. The year: 1965.

When young, outcast orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman), runs away from the Khaki Scouts the troops assemble under the distraught supervision of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club). Their mission: bring Sam back alive. The island police officer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) is informed and the manhunt is on. What the characters do not know is that Sam is headed for a pre-planned secret rendezvous with his beloved pen-pal, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam had fallen in love with Suzy a year ago at a Noah’s Ark play and they have been corresponding via secret love letters right underneath the noses of the meddling adults in their life. Sam has no family and Suzy hates her painfully distant family. Both are classified as emotionally disturbed. When Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, and Frances McDormand, Fargo) realize she is gone they call the police and the intimate letters are discovered, but the hunt is now more complicated—the runaways do not want to be found.

Before we reach a rousing conclusion the film takes a borderline Blue Lagoon turn, but handles it far more delicately and with the added human touch of comedy. We also watch as the Khaki Scouts reconsider their role in this adventure; Social Services (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) threatens to send Sam to a Dickensian orphanage; the Khaki Scout Commander (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) forgets his medicine; Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) gets paid in nickels; and our omniscient and typically dry narrator (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps reminding us of a rapidly approaching violent weather system. The abstract inclusion of an all-knowing narrator who has no interest or stake in the protagonists and instead is totally preoccupied with the trivialities of the elements is a particularly humorous touch.

The lovers prove their unflappable resilience through many a harrowing obstacle. In spite of all the grownup forces coming down on them, they maintain and fight to stay together through thick and thin. The irony is that their simple and immature relationship proves more hardy and meaningful than any of the snuffed romances of the adults in this universe. It’s pretty adorable.

The film is full of softness. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Anderson’s movies. They have a gentle, calculated current flowing through them. There’s also a charming innocence, best manifested in the story of Sam and Suzy running away to live off the land. It’s cute, quirky, and always a pleasure to look at. I’d say the filmmaker that reminds me most of Wes Anderson might actually be the legendary Jacques Tati. Tati had a brilliant knack for clever shot setups, stillness, suspended moments of comedy trapped in time, and softness. Anderson has a similar style (but quite different as well) and he seems to love showing us something that we will never confuse with real life. It’s a movie, so let us delight in what we can do that we cannot have in real life. His worlds are sort of like living cartoon panels. Perhaps why Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a seamless transition into the world of animation.

Moonrise Kingdom might be more of the same, but it also might be something a little different. It’s got the typical dollhouse cross-section layouts and quirky, unnatural mise-en-scène. Then there’s the pleasingly otherworldly color schemes and ornate clothing and details. There’s also deadpan emotional stand-offishness and quiet, amusing line delivery. All the standard Wes Anderson flair is there. It seems to be his first real romantic comedy (the other films have romantic elements and kooky love triangles but it’s rarely the central focus) and it’s also his first movie about camping. I have to mention this because the camp thing (not campy, but actual camp) it sort of is its own genre. There’s stuff like Bushwhacked (1995), Heavyweights (1995), Camp Nowhere (1994), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Meatballs (1979), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) to name a few (notice not the horror flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp). I daresay, though this list may be on the weak side, some folks still have nostalgic reactions to them. Do we count Space Camp (1986)? All this to say that Moonrise Kingdom is probably the best camp movie. Ever. The romance bit is of note because it is one of the more inventive love plots to come around in a long time. Ignoring that it’s a Wes Anderson movie, it’s a standout camp movie and a standout romantic comedy.

All in all I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom. If you like Wes Anderson already then there won’t be a problem. It feels totally refreshingly un-Hollywood (despite the impressive cast) yet unmistakably American. It’s richly textured and wonderfully shot and the music and song choices are great. If you don’t like Wes Anderson, I don’t know that this will convert you, but maybe it will. It might be his sweetest film yet. Possibly his best since The Royal Tenenbaums.