The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode V – Some Good’ns in Here

Once more. The last few movies I’ve seen by order what I thought of them. Had I seen a few of these earlier my Best of 2012 list would have been different. Ah well.

It sucks:

Gettin' too old for this s***.

“Gettin’ too old for this s***.”

Saw Expendables 2 (2012). It sucks. It stars Sly, Statham, Ahnold, the Dolf, the black guy from those awesome Old Spice commercials, JCVD, Mr. Willis, Lone Wolf McQuade, Jet, also some woman. While it is one of the worst film’s I’ve seen all year I must confess it is more watchable than any of the Transformers movies.

Meh and/or Misguided

"No, you see it's offensive to be with special needs because we're really just making fun of the preconceive stereotypes people have about special needs."

“No, you see it’s not offensive to people with special needs because we’re really just making fun of the preconceived stereotypes people have about special needs.”

Bias alert. I’m not a big fan of Ben Stiller or the Farrelly Brothers. They’re not all bad, but most of the time they’re just not my thing. There’s Something About Mary (1998) was considered a crowning achievement for both of them in many ways, hailed as a modern comedy classic. One or two somewhat funny scenes aside, this was disappointing. I liked Dumb and Dumber better. Perhaps it was just built up too much and I missed it when it was new. Keith David as Mary’s stepdad in the beginning was the funniest part of the whole movie.

"Darn. Miss. The man at the store assured me this was the best tiger blood.""The target's over here, dude."

“Darn. Miss. The man at the store assured me this was the best tiger blood.”
“The target’s over here, dude.”

Roman Coppola (CQ) is sort of like a more Jared Hess-y wannabe Wes Anderson. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2013) has a snazzy retro style, but it never deserves its smugness. The cast is good (Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Katheryn Winnick, and Patricia Arquette) but the story is just so empty. A graphic designer’s girlfriend breaks up with him and he has some surreal daydreams. This needed more than a few rewrites. There are some ideas you could tell might resemble clever ideas had they kept at it.def

"An audience might not like any of these weak, overwrought stories alone so we'll just have 30 at once."

“An audience might not like any of these weak, overwrought stories alone so we’ll just have 30 at once.”

Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski Brothers (V for Vendeta) helm the admirably ambitious film Cloud Atlas (2012) is a fractured fairytale of reincarnation and interconnectedness of all individuals throughout history. I’ll admit the snappy editing almost had me fooled it was a good movie until about halfway through. The simplistic message told in “the Inception effect” (obfuscation to create the illusion of depth) not only manages to rip-off The Soylent GreenBlade RunnerOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and more, but additionally puts the actors through multiple segments wherein they must where embarrassingly awkward ethnic makeup. A friend said the white actors in “yellow-face” look like Christian Slater. Gripes aside, it does manage to be entertaining if rather weightless—despite its pretentions to the contrary.

Some fun at last:

help

“Hey, a piano in the snow. Should we sing or something?”

Help! (1965) is another anarchic Richard Lester (The Bed-Sitting Room) film starring The Beatles. I was really expecting more. While it does have some clever lines and a few zany sight gags I couldn’t help but compare it to A Hard Day’s Night which was wittier and sharper and Yellow Submarine which was way more surreal and joyous. The biggest problems are the silly plot isn’t quite silly enough, the Beatles themselves seem bored, and there aren’t nearly enough Beatles songs. Watchable, but I just know two other Beatles movies that are great. It also features Leo McKern as an insane Egyptian priest.

"Yippee-kay-oi-vey."

“Yippee-kay-oi-vey.”

The Frisco Kid (1979) is a comedy western about a Polish rabbi trying to cross the United States. It stars Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford and is directed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen). This is an incredibly mixed bag that I kind of wish would be remade with a more consistent tone and a more competent eye for comedy. So much of it just doesn’t work, but the fun premise and Gene Wilder’s performance redeemed it for me.

"Here we go."

“Here we go.”

I was hoping for something like In Bruges. While John Michael McDonagh’s film, The Guard (2011), isn’t near as clever, it is pretty darn entertaining. Brendan Gleeson is a casually racist but sinfully lovable Irish cop who winds up helping Don Cheadle, an anal FBI agent looking for drug dealers. It’s not a heavy movie. It’s just a fun, fast talking police buddy movie with some satisfying violence. It doesn’t want to be In the Heat of the Night. The dialogue crackles with smugness and wit. Mark Strong and Liam Cunningham costar as some very enjoyable baddies. If you like your comedy dry and Irish, check this movie out.

Things become interesting:

"Don't ask me what it means."

“Don’t ask me what it means.”

In Raoul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of the Stolen Paintings (1979) two narrators work to uncover a mystery. This dreamlike film employs ethereal tableaux-vivants (reminiscent of The Mill and the Cross) to look deeper into the art world as the narrators restage all of the paintings with real people to search for clues and possible connections in the series of paintings. Bizarre, slow, and interesting.

"Why don't people wear sailor pants anymore?"

“Why don’t people wear sailor pants anymore?”

Harry Kümel’s (Daughters of Darkness) strange horror film Malpertuis: The Legend of Doom House (1971) needs patience more than it needs explanation. Virtually every synopsis, no matter how brief, ruined the twist at the end. It is slow and very weird, but the cinematography and the imagery are never boring. Just know it’s a haunted house movie and let the questions keep building until the final act. Orson Welles and Jean-Pierre Cassel have supporting roles.

"You see under closer and more distorted scrutiny it's even more racist than you thought."

“You see under closer and more distorted scrutiny it’s even more racist than you thought.”

So I found the makeup in Cloud Atlas comical and possibly racist. How in the blazes do I let The Mask of Doctor Fu Manchu (1932) off the hook? Well, I guess I don’t exactly. The campy horror film with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy in absurd Asian makeup is exactly as ridiculous as it wants to be. It’s a silly movie with admitted xenophobic undertones, but I like it as a cultural oddity. During that time it was not uncommon for big name actors to where ethnic makeup and rely on insensitive stereotypes. Does that make it right? No. But we can observe these films with a different lens today. But really it’s the torture devices and pulpy situations that make this a great watch.

"It's meta."

“It’s meta.”

Albert Brooks presents one of the more creative depictions of the Afterlife in Defending Your Life (1991). When a simple man (Brooks) dies and discovers you must go on trial to prove you possess courage in order to pass to the next level of existence. If the court finds you afraid then you are sent back to earth in another body. Rip Torn is his attorney, who pours through the files to prove his client’s bravery, but it isn’t until he meets Meryl Streep, another recently deceased person, that he realizes there are things worth fighting for. Cute jabs at bureaucracy, Los Angeles, and reincarnation abound in this easy going comedy.

Even better:

"When people see this they'll realize how gay all my movies really were."

“When people see this they’ll realize how gay all my movies really were.”

Speaking of Karloff, Gods and Monsters (1998) is a quiet biopic about the last days of Frankenstein director, James Whale. The story deals with Whale’s illness, his memories of the Great War, his stubbornness as an artist, his homosexuality, and his possible relationship with a gardener played by Brendan Fraser. While Fraser might be an odd choice, he’s not bad and it is Sir Ian McKellan’s Oscar-nominated performance as James Whale that makes this simple movie what it is. It’s a sad but witty affair.

wreck it ralph

“Have some candy!”

So Disney has been having trouble competing with its own Pixar movies. Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph (2012) might just be on par with some of the competition. It’s pretty to look at, boasts some clever visuals, lots of humor, and some heart with a simple message. It’s a spectacle, but an adorable and action-filled one. Alan Tudyk and Jack McBrayer’s voices were the humorous highlights for me. Paranorman was the best animated feature this year, however.

"Gonna punch some wolves."

“Gonna punch some wolves.”

Would you believe Liam Neesan does more than punch wolves in The Grey (2011)? Joe Carnahan’s movie was woefully mismarketed. It’s a far more subtle, tragic, and existential story than the misleading trailers would have you to believe. It’s kind of like a much better version of The Edge.

Greatness beckons:

"Well, these are just filthy. Do you have more?"

“Well, these are just filthy. Do you have more?”

With Barbet Schroeder’s (Barfly) documentary Koko, a Talking Gorilla (1978) the title says it all. The film explores the rift between humans and animals. Koko, the famous gorilla who was taught sign language, allows to get closer to animals than perhaps thought possible. Communication is a tough barrier, but Koko’s handlers work tirelessly to overcome this barrier. The film ends posing a series legal dilemmas regarding Koko’s total lack of rights despite her apparent intelligence.

mishima 2

“Do you ever feel disconnected from the things in this world?”

Paul Schrader (probably most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) made a bold move with Mishima – A Life in Four Chapters (1985). It’s a beautifully surreal and intentionally episodic biopic about an obscure (to the west) writer and the whole film is in Japanese. It’s beautiful and strange and deals with the enigmatic Yukio Mishima’s sexuality, his obsessions, his written work, and the final bizarre moments of his life.

"I have conquered science! Why haven't I conquered gloves?"

“I have conquered science! Why haven’t I conquered gloves?”

Peter Lorre made a huge impact as the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, but his first big American movie, Mad Love (1935), might be even more deranged because it is more stylized and ludicrous. Karl Freund’s (The Mummy) movie is a sick Grand Guignol tale of the macabre. Lorre is a perverted mad scientist who transplants a knife throwing murderer’s hands onto the wrists of a famous pianist (Colin Clive) in order to get his fiance (Frances Drake). It’s a different point of view on the silent classic The Hands of Orlac.

"Politics was always a big petty mess."

“Politics was always a big petty mess.”

Advise and Consent (1962) is a fantastic political drama with a rocking allstar cast and an eerily still significant storyline that resonates today. Directed by Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) was controversial in its day, and while it might seem tamer today it is no less chilling and frustrating. The killer cast features Henry Fonda, Walter Pigeon, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, Peter Lawford, Don Murray, Lew Ayres, and (in his last role) Charles Laughton. This movie is the anti-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In a good way.

Always left me smiling and satisfied:

"And the award for most awesome film of the year goes to..."

“And the award for most awesome film of the year goes to…”

I mentioned earlier my mild disappointment that The Guard was not as great as In Bruges. Well, In Bruges director, Martin McDonagh, brings an intelligent Irish wit to Seven Psychopaths (2012). It’s equal parts violent killer movie, road movie and buddy comedy, and meta analysis of the mechanisms of writing for a genre and cliches. The cast is brilliant (Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, and others) and like In Bruges and Six Shooter it deftly balances loss and levity. One of my favorite movies of 2012.

"That's right, kid. Barney Fife was a great, big *****************."

“That’s right, kid. Barney Fife was a great, big *****************.”

Andy Griffith (The Andy Griffith Show) plays way against type in A Face in the Crowd (1957), an expert political satire directed by the great Elia Kazan (On the WaterfrontEast of Eden). Griffith is a folksy free spirit who speaks his mind and becomes a surprise media sensation. As he cackles and jokes over the airwaves his influence grows out of control and it turns out he’s actually a bit of a sociopath. This is an amazing movie.

"What, what?"

“What, what?”

There’s a special talent in making a film that is equally funny and tragic. Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George (1994) is a tremendous movie with loads of wonderful performances and extravagant costumes. What do you do when the king takes leave of his senses? How do you get him back? How will the government stay intact? Nigel Hawthorne and Helen Mirren head the amazing cast. If you had a whole day to murder I’d suggest a triple feature of this, Amadeus, and Barry Lyndon.

"How about a nice spot of DIE!"

“How about a nice spot of DIE!”

My absolute favorite film of late is an obscure British wartime propaganda piece called Went the Day Well? (1942). A quaint English town in the country is being craftily infiltrated by Nazis posing as British soldiers. Additionally, the townsfolk have already tried to help them before they realize what’s afoot. When the truth is revealed, the violence begins and the villagers must band together and take back their town from the Nazis and save England. It’s like an awesome version of Red Dawn. The characters are smart and likable. The pacing is solid and action is satisfying. The threats are real and menacing. Think about this: in 1942 this was not only a real fear but a real possibility. This is a grade A vintage thriller. The movie was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti (who also directed the ventriloquist dummy sequence from the equally great Dead of Night) and features Leslie Banks (The Most Dangerous Game). I love this movie.

What did you see last? Anything good?

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Two – yeah, I did it again.

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Oh No:

“Why are a lot of my movies showing up on this list of disasters?”

This was actually a fairly good bunch of movies so luckily the “bad” will be short. Knowing (2009) is so almost bad it might as well count as bad. It stars the infamous Nicolas Cage (Adaptation, Con Air) and was directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I Robot, but I’d say it’s Dark City that keeps him on the radar). The world might be ending and somebody knew all the key dates for major world disasters and recorded them years ago. Knowing has a lot of interesting ideas floating around in it but somehow it can never feel like something more than an improved Left Behind or a not as good Signs (sorry, spoilers, if you’re picking up the clues). It’s mostly almost bad, but more bad than good yet still sort of interesting. Ah, just watch it and you tell me. I don’t think it deserved to be as critically panned as it was. It’s probably on par with most crappy thrillers that get decent reviews.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Dear Lord, make some better Christian movies.”

So I was a little disappointed with Androcles and the Lion (1952). Perhaps it was partially because I did not realize it was going to be a comedy. Maybe I didn’t think anybody besides Mel Brooks would stage a comedy in a coliseum. Unlike Brooks, however, the comedy is very sweet and there really isn’t any edge. I’m a fan of Alan Young (Mr. Ed, The Time Machine, and the voice of Scrooge McDuck) and he’s okay here. Victor Mature (The Robe, Samson and Delilah) I’ve never been wild about. I think it’s his face. Jean Simmons (Spartacus) is pretty and Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, Murder By Death) is a hammy annoying wife lady. Robert Newton (Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days) plays the most interesting character…and he’s still fairly simple. Finally Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes) is Caesar. Decent cast, no? That’s not the problem. This sword and sandal show plays like a bad Sunday school lesson. It has a very juvenile tone. I’d say maybe it’s just a kid’s movie, but then there’d still be really boring parts the kids would want to fast-forward through (the Mature-Simmons romance for one). Ultimately more cheesy than purposely funny and the tacked on spirituality schtick just does not fly or seem believable. In fact, it feels a little insulting. The lion costume at the end is pretty jarringly awful too.

“Any of you clowns seen ‘Dumbland? It’s friggin’ hilarious'”

I am a fan of David Lynch (Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) but this one I’ve never fully gotten along with. I re-watched Dune (1984) because I remembered not liking it as a kid, but a friend kept insisting I needed to see it again. I can honestly say I respect it more as an adult, and I really admire Lynch’s guts in making a totally anti-Star Wars sci-fi flick when people were only craving more Star Wars, but I still don’t think it works. This translation of the dense Frank Herbert novel is emotionless, bizarre, murky, and downright incomprehensible. It’s got some great visuals and some killer guitar riffs (particularly when they ride the sandworms into battle. That’s cool), and the cast of Lynch regulars is there, but nothing clicks with the story and the voiceover internal monologues feel really inappropriate. Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Brad Dourif (Wise Blood), Sean Young (Blade Runner), José Ferrer (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), Linda Hunt (Silverado), Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: TNG), Sting and others are all there, but more just blank faces in wild costumes than characters (except for Dourif who’s always on his own wavelength). Dune is an epic that sports incredible production design and dark tone, but Lynch is better when he’s more focused and intimate I think. Originally Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) was supposed to direct this behemoth with Pink Floyd and Salvador Dalí aiding in the production. What a gloriously surreal trainwreck that would have been! Maybe worse than Lynch’s take, but I’d want to see it.

“Snuffy? Like Snuffleupagus?”

Spike Lee is a talented guy. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing are masterpieces. I wanted to like Crooklyn (1994) more. It has a lot going for it. The story of a spunky young black girl growing up 1970s New York City directed by Spike Lee should be great. It’s colorful and actually has a gentler charm and sweetness than he’s ever used before and Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, The Piano Lesson) gives a wonderful performance as the struggling mother of five rowdy kids and wife to a deadbeat musician (Delroy Lindo, Get Shorty), but it’s also episodic, melodramatic, and contrived at times. It’s a movie I enjoyed in segments, but the whole eluded me. I still have no idea why all the footage when Troy goes down south to live with her awful aunt is squished (because the atmosphere is stifling? We get it, but it looks terrible). Not bad, just so-so and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that despite some contrivances it does seem to have a heart. I’m just sad because it could have been a lot better.

Guilty Pleasures:

“It’s a comedy!” —“No! This is serious!”

I kinda like the old hokey Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. They’re silly and dated and very cheesy, but there’s a vintage charm and weird energy about them. The film adaptation directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter) is a weird mixture that is so uneven and odd that I kinda like it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a mess from start to finish. Some of the cast and crew seemed to think it was a comedy, others a very serious drama, and still others just found great camp in it. The production, sets, and costumes (like Dune) are a lot of fun and very in step with the original series, but with a much bigger budget. I was excited when I found out Queen did the theme songs, but it sounds like they were just phoning it in. The acting goes from bad to silly to campy to deadly serious. The tone is all over the map, but that’s the main reason I liked it. Sometimes things not working really makes it work. The cast includes folks like Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Timothy Dalton (The Rocketeer), Ornella Muti (Oscar), and the king of jovial hamminess, Brian Blessed (Hamlet)—here Blessed is a boisterous winged man whose garments seem to consist primarily of strategically placed belts. Still not as good as Barbarella or Starcrash but it’s that type of movie.

“You’re happy. I hate that.” *throws folder at temp*

Today George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994) would be quickly forgotten, but as an early nineties low-key indie type movie it mostly works. Kevin Spacey (American BeautySe7en) plays Meryl Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada. He is Buddy Ackerman, a manipulative, megalomaniacal, malevolent dingbat who happens to be an important Hollywood producer. He psychologically and emotionally bullies and abuses his naive bumpkin assistant (Frank Whaley, The Doors and Buddy Faro, remember that show? The one with Dennis Farina?) so much that eventually something must be done. The assistant fights back. Told in flashbacks Swimming With Sharks is half dark comedy and half revenge thriller and it half works as both. I liked it somehow despite it’s cliches…maybe they weren’t as cliche then. It reminded me a little of Suicide Kings with Christopher Walken. It’s a bleak and cynical view of the Hollywood system, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Watch it for Spacey’s delightfully wicked performance.

“I know. I know. We’ve all done better.”

I watched this next one because I like Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, The Out of Towners) and I like Walter Matthau (Bad News Bears, Hopscotch). The Front Page (1974) is a double remake (but the first screen version that kept all the swearing) directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) and if it looks and feels like a stage play…it’s because it was (although far better a transition than Rhinoceros). Lemmon is a retiring reporter about to be married to Susan Sarandon (Rocky Horror Picture Show), but his irascible chief editor (Matthau) doesn’t want to lose him. The trouble kicks in when, on his way out, he gets caught up in the story of his career and can’t let his buddy reporters get the scoop so he bounces back and forth between leaving for his woman and staying for his story. After a bumpy first act I must admit the movie picked up after about the halfway point and got more interesting. It’s a lesser Wilder picture and it does feel pretty stagey, but it has a few decent moments that make it worth it. Charles Durning (O Brother Where Art Thou?), Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny), Harold Gould (The Sting), and Carol Burnett (Annie) co-star. Not great, but you could do worse.

“Good-bye, Jeeves. I die. I’ll see you at the finale.”

My last guilty pleasure was The Ghoul(1933). It’s one of those movies that’s hard for me not to like. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is a dying archaeologist (or something) who has ensured his immortality using ancient Egyptian magic, so long as his faithful butler (Ernst Thesiger, The Bride of Frankenstein) can do what he is told immediately after his death. It’s your typical shadow enshrouded haunted house movie and it moves a little slow, but it’s got fun atmosphere and pretty solid finale. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Kathleen Harrison (Scrooge) co-star. My only real beef is that Karloff is barely in it.

Officially Good: 

“Paris blows.”

I need to watch more African movies. I say that every time I watch one. America has pretty easy access to European and Asian cinema, but Africa’s a different story. I’ve only seen a few films by celebrated Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (Xala, Moolaadè) and Black Girl (1966) was his first feature. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a solid movie. A young Senegalese girl named Diouana is hired by a white French family to be a nanny, but when they relocate back to France everything changes. Diouana was looking forward to seeing Europe, but she is relegated to the house and must be a common servant. Her pride and misfortune make her increasingly despondent and her deteriorating attitude sets her at odds with her employer. Black Girl has some delicate nuances to it that make it more interesting than it might have been. The last act is what got me the most, but I couldn’t ruin it for you.

“Silence. The ‘Munsters’ is coming on.”

Is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire(2000) a good movie? Some might debate the point, but I sure liked it. It starts with a simple premise: what if German director F. W. Murnau had made a Faustian deal with the devil to make the world’s greatest horror movie and Max Schreck really was a vampire? The reason why this works is because it is treated with a twisted sense of humor in addition to the spookiness. It’s a weird, claustrophobic, and eerily intimate movie and if you know your movie history it’s pretty funny and entertaining. Willem Dafoe (Boondock Saints, Clear and Present Danger) gives a mesmerizing performance as Max Schreck the insatiable vampire and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) Malkoviches away as an amoral, crazed Murnau. Udo Kier (Manderlay), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Eddie Izzard (The Cat’s Meow) co-star. In many ways Shadow of the Vampire is way more interesting than remaking Nosferatu. Besides, Werner Herzog already did a pretty great remake in 1979. This is an enticing alternate history of the making of the definitive vampire movie, Nosferatu. Creaky, spellbinding film even if it does make Murnau out to be a snuff film director. Ironic Murnau made a version of Faust in 1926?

“I agree. Madeline Kahn needs to be celebrated more today. She was a talented and underrated comedienne.”

Peter Bogdanovich made some good movies back in the day. The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and such are pretty great. What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is a charming throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of 1930s. Barbra Streisand (Hello, Dolly!) aggressively (yet playfully) tries to get the attentions Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) who is engaged to Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles) while several identical suitcases keep switching hands. Hijinks and hilarity ensue. Plenty of good one-liners, funny characters, slapstick gags, cartoon violence, and a fantastic car chase at the end make this worth a look. Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein), Michael Murphy (Manhattan), John Hillerman (Magnum P. I.), Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation), and Austin Pendleton (Finding Nemo) all make memorable appearances. If you like Doris Day/Rock Hudson comic romances and zany thirties mayhem and chic seventies style then check this one out.

Greatness Beckons: 

“I say, Billy Bob Thornton and John Heder? Well that jolly well doesn’t sound like a good time at all.”

The original School for Scoundrels (1960) is a lot of fun. I mainly watched it for the cast which included the inimitable Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies), the illustrious Alistair Sim (Scrooge, The Ruling Class), and Ian Carmichael (I’m Alright Jack). Henry (Carmichael) is a lowly, innocent peon who wants to be a “one-upman” and get a degree from Mr. S. Potter’s (Sim) school of “Lifemanship.” With this degree he will never be behind and always get the girl and the last word and no one will take advantage of him because he is too busy taking advantage of everyone else. If Henry is Donald Duck then Raymond Delauney (Thomas) is Gladstone Gander in this movie. Delauney is a huge tool and master at one-upmanship and when the two of them are after the same girl (Janette Scott, The Day of the Triffids) it will take all of Potter’s tricks to help Henry be the victor, but Henry still has a stronger moral compass. A funny battle to get the girl full of wicked head games.

“Nyet. It doesn’t look like Johnny Weismuller is down there. It’s safe to drink from this stream.”

Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates) is a singularly unique voice in Soviet cinema. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) was his first big foray into film as a place to truly experiment with what the camera could do. It is an energetically photographed tale of a Carpathian villager who falls in love and is plagued by tragedy and, eventually, sorcery. It is a strange movie, but hypnotic and captivating. We are transported into an almost mythical landscape that begs us to live in the shoes of one lowly man for a spell. Those who see Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors will not soon forget its imagery or its musical rhythms. Watch this before Pomegranates; it’s a much needed stepping stone before entry into the near unclassifiable.

“‘Jurassic Park’ was the ultimate feminist movie.”

I’m a sucker for adventure and despite a slow middle act, the immediately hooking intro and exciting climax make She(1935) a worthy contender in the genre. Produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), She was adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s novel and features some wonderful escapism. When Leo Vincey (nonstop cowboy, Randolph Scott) is given a deliciously enthralling mission from his dying uncle he goes off to search for the lost fountain of youth that his ancestor allegedly discovered 500 years ago. Avalanches and cannibals lead them to a subterranean tribe of people who worship their never-aging female master (“She who must be obeyed”). She believes Leo to be her lover (Leo’s ancestor) from 500 years ago and refuses to let him leave. A fun production with nice sets and fun action. Co-stars Nigel Bruce (Rebecca and frequent Dr. Watson).

“Yeah. I still got it.”

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) likes being cool and putting cool people in cool movies doing cool things and although Jackie Brown(1997) might strike one as oddly restrained for a Tarantino flick, it’s actually one of his very best. Sexy blaxploitation star Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown) is Jackie Brown, a poor stewardess who runs illegal money over the border for cocky arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, Sphere, The Caveman’s Valentine, Die Hard 3). When she gets busted by the fuzz she realizes she has been living in an all too precarious situation and hatches a plan to two-time the cops and Ordell and run away with a bunch of money. It’s a fantastically good crime caper movie that also features a touching love story between Jackie and a sympathetic bail bondsman played by Robert Forster (The Black Hole). Jackie Brown also showcases Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Bridget Fonda (The Road to Wellville), and a decidedly odd turn for Robert De Niro (Heat, Raging Bull). And the music chosen for this movie is great!

“Do you forgive me for ‘Pinocchio?'”

As long as we’re talking crime, how about Jim Jarmusch’s (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) movie about three men on the lam in Down By Law (1986). Shot in gritty black and white and giving us a really textured look at New Orleans, Down By Law is the story of three dudes who wind up reluctantly teaming up for  a jailbreak. Cool dudes, Jack and Zack, are played by musicians John Lurie (frequent Jarmusch collaborator) and Tom Waits (Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and manic Italian immigrant, Roberto, is Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful). It’s gritty, funny, and full of lingering shots that force you to look at them. No fast cuts here. Unyieldingly low-key and pleasantly quiet, this is not a movie for everyone. Lurie, Waits, and Benigni are a lot of fun together. “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream.”

Another Invigorating Apex:

“Don’t do drugs and stay away from The Blue Angel.”

Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, The Pride of the Yankees) directed what might just be the best teacher movie ever with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) is the eponymous Mr. Chips, an aging British school teacher who is being honored for his long years of service. This somewhat sappy movie is told in flashback and hopefully  will make you think differently about all the teachers you had growing up. We see his highs and lows and we come to see Mr. Chips as a complicated person with loves, hopes, dreams, and cares as human as those of his many students. He is a tie to another time. Perhaps it has been my own brief and unexpected experiences as a teacher, but I know you fall in love with schools and kids and you always wonder if you made any difference to them. Goodbye, Mr. Chips feels like a cross between Mr. Holland’s Opus and Kurosawa’s Madadayo, but superior to both of them. It’s sweet and touching and Robert Donat’s performance makes it great. An interesting double-feature with The Blue Angel.

“I hope you like low angles.”

Michael Caine (Sleuth, The Dark Knight) is cool and Britain in the sixties was super-cool. America had westerns, China had kung-fu, and England had spy movies. The Ipcress File (1965) is a deliciously stylish sixties British spy flick with all the right moves from start to finish. It’s not as bleak and hard-nosed as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but it’s bolder and more believable than most of the James Bond movies. Cold war secrets and double-cross make it a classic tale of espionage, but it’s sumptuous style and kooky artistic angles make it a legend.

“Ah…we had a good run.”

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertoclucci (1900, Last Tango in Paris) had the rare opportunity to film an anti-communist movie inside of China in The Last Emperor (1987). John Lone (Rush Hour 2) is Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. His lifetime saw many great and terrible changes. Crowned when he was three years old he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City—he also is shocked to learn years later that his rule only extends as far as the city’s walls and that the charade continues chiefly for the servants. It’s a fine historical piece that shows the shifting of allegiances, the desperation for significance, and wild journey through many conflicting forms of government. A grand epic production with lots to look at and Peter O’Toole (Becket) and Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) co-star. Interesting double-feature with Scorsese’s Kundun.

“Not even Bruce Campbell could defeat us.”

This was a good bunch of movies overall. Army of Shadows (1969) was a masterpiece that has eluded American audiences for decades. Directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge), this dense and methodically crafted political thriller ranks up alongside Costa-Gravas’ Z and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. During WWII the French Resistance is a shrewd and necessarily surreptitious beast, but when one of their chiefs (Lino Ventura) is betrayed it sets a whole new set of tactics into motion. We are forced to examine the harshness and mundanity of life under the big German microscope. By the end of the film you will have questioned everything. It’s beautifully shot but it’s not a glamorous film. It is a dangerous, cold, and clandestine world where you may have to kill your brother. It’s a real life 1984.

“‘Super Mario Bros.’ never happened.”

Finally—not that it is the best movie on this list, but it was my favorite—is Mona Lisa (1986) directed by Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire) and starring a personal favorite of mine, Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nixon). George (Hoskins) gets a job driving around a beautiful call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) and he gradually develops an affection for her and agrees to help her find a missing girl, not realizing entirely what Simone is all about and how dangerous this new job is. Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job) plays a seedy crime boss and Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye, Harry Potter) plays George’s artistically bent best friend. Mona Lisa is a great drama and character study and I really was rooting for Hoskins’ character (and he gives a fantastic performance—that was nominated for an Academy Award). Hoskins is always fun to watch but he is in superb form here. The film has a grimy, discomforting sexy vibe to it and it really gives the actors room to play. If I didn’t love it so much it wouldn’t be here.

Whew. I am a huge nerd.

What are the last things you saw? Anything good?

Previous list can be found HERE.

It’s Not Easy Being Grinch

It’s that time of year again. Christmas is a time for family, food, fellowship, and film! Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Christmas Story (1983), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), Die Hard (1988) and so on have all become holiday staples and there are so many more. I really wanted to write a review on a holiday movie but I was super torn as to which one to pick as so many have a very special place in my heart. It was ultimately down to a coin-flip between Trading Places (1983) and Scrooge (1951) and the winner was (quite surprisingly) Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966). I know, right.

Not the Ron Howard/Jim Carrey one.

This extremely memorable TV holiday special is not a classic by mere happenstance. American word master and gibberish-inventor (if it only but served the meter and rhyme), Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), published this cherished rhyming fable in 1957. It has since been welcomed into countless homes, and for good reason. The wonderful words–both real and fictitious—and the amusing and creative rhymes, the stylized and whimsical artwork, and the simple yet timeless message that Christmas doesn’t come from the store, all work together in a very special way. It’s hard not to love the book, but who could have the cinematic fortitude to transform this classic yarn into moving pictures? How about Looney Tunes animator and director, Chuck Jones?

Charles Martin “Chuck” Jones was a perfect choice to bring to life Dr. Seuss’s tale of the nasty old Grinch who hates Christmas and has nothing but disdain for the Whos down in Whoville. After making so many beloved classic animated shorts starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Roadrunner, etc., and proving he indeed had the knack for comic fable with such shorts as One Froggy Evening (1955) and The Dot and the Line (1965), Jones’ style and sensibility fit Dr. Seuss’s world of cautionary mayhem very well. (I do still wonder what the film might have been like had Bob Clampbett animated it though). Jones even found room to add some of his own touches to the story. The look is Jones’s take on the look of Seuss which, in itself, is fairly fascinating, but Jones also had fun with other elements. The part of the Grinch’s tacit dog sidekick, Max, was expanded so that there was always at least one other Jonesesque joke going on amidst the silly Seussiness.

So the amazing story with its wonderfully whimsical way with words was set and the animated artwork and anarchic comic timing were ready to fire away, but there was still one important piece missing. Who could possibly effectively tell the story of the Grinch, giving both Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones room to play while making it all their own? How about British actor and horror film icon, Boris Karloff (best known for his portrayal of the Monster in Frankenstein, 1931). Boris Karloff was both narrator and the voice of the Grinch himself. With immaculate diction and fantastic timber, the 79 year-old horror legend, festooned the film with his own very welcome presence. His reading of the piece is still really quite impressive.

For good measure, one more element was tossed into the mix: the killer song, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch.” The song is great and it’s made even better by the deep, rich vocalist who sang it (who was uncredited!). That singer was Thurl Ravenscroft who is best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger (he was also the Vacuum Cleaner from The Brave Little Toaster, 1987). Now Chuck Jones was directing a Christmas poem written by Dr. Seuss that was being read by Boris Karloff while Thurl Ravenscroft would sing bass behind it all. Everything was now in place and everyone was in tip top form for this modest television production that would become a holiday favorite to be celebrated for years to come.

The story was simple. An ornery, old, green creature, the Grinch, would watch the Who-folk celebrate Christmas every year and every year he would glare down from his cave in the mountain above Whoville and let his hatred fester until one year he decides to do something about it. The Grinch does not understand Christmas, but he knows he cannot let the wretched spectacle continue so he plans to steal Christmas from the Whos so they can see how foolish they are. The Whos, however, do not need the presents that the Grinch steals because Christmas is bigger than commercialization: it’s alive in our hearts. The Whos don’t even seem to notice that all of their holiday decorations and presents are missing as they link arms and sing. The Grinch then repents of his wicked ways and seeks to redeem himself and return the gifts and he is formally welcomed into the Who community and they all celebrate together.

So blow your flu-flubers and bang your tar-tinkers this holiday season with a small film you all love and remember. Make Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas! a part of your Christmas. Make it a double feature alongside A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)! Tidings of comfort and joy this holiday season to all. “Welcome, Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.”

picture sources:

misfittoys.net

ouuc.org

cartoongallery.com

balboamovies.com

cbsnews.com

chud.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 22, 2009.

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.

frankenstein10

Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.

Kinky.

Kinky.

Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009