The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode VI – Stop Me!

Kill yourself:

We should quit while we're ahead.

We should quit while we’re ahead.

I already wrote at length about The Lone Ranger (2013). Read why it sucks HERE and save ten bucks.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

It’s weird to see a film by the Coen Bros. (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) so far down on a list like this, but their version of The Ladykillers (2004) is just terrible. A decent cast, colorful setting, and great cinematography can’t make this garbage barge float. It looks pretty and some fun, goofy faces but the comedy and tone is so off. Sorry, Coens, but you don’t get to take one of my favorite British comedies and remake it dumber and with fart jokes. You are better than that. Stars Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Irma P. Hall.

Meh:

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) is almost a lot of fun. I watched it because Stanley Tucci was in it and Ewan McGregor’s mustache and hair looked cool. I really did appreciate this film’s levity and that it managed to have scary monster fights in sunny daylight (unlike Pacific Rim) It’s light and weightless and anodyne. The special effects aren’t great and the story is fairly simple, but you could do worse.

Remember "Badlands"?

Remember “Badlands”?

Terrence Malick is responsible for several interesting and visually stunning movies (Tree of Life) and while his latest, To the Wonder (2012), is indeed beautifully shot, but its murky, elliptical plot comes off as a little pretentious. Looks good, but don’t really connect with the aimless story, which is a shame, because I feel like he was touching upon some important issues about love, faith, and feeling culturally isolated. Stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams.

That might make you a vegetarian.

This might make you a vegetarian.

I wish John Dies at the End (2012) was a better movie. It has so much wonderfully sick, inspired lunacy going for it and many of the zany twists are pulled off nicely. Dropouts have to save the world from a metaphysical alien drug that could destroy everything. The stuff Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-tep) tries to pull off here is crazy. Only he could pull it off. Or maybe Sam Raimi. Alas, much of the finished product feels disjointed and half-baked. It has made me want to read the book though. Paul Giamatti has a supporting role.

You can fly? That's weirdly charming.

You can fly? That’s weirdly charming.

Woody Allen only makes two kinds of movies: masterpieces and mediocres. I might be the only person in the world who was not smitten by the musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Some of the songs are cute and fun and it does have a couple funny moments, but ultimately it feels like a Hallmark card. It’s corny and harmless, but maybe Woody Allen doesn’t do ‘sweet’ as well as other things. Features Woody, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Eward Norton, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore, and more.

Getting More Interesting:

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

It Was the Son (2012) is an Italian movie about paying debts to the mob following the unfortunate death of a young girl. The film looks great and has some interesting characters and a killer final two minutes. It’s not higher up because my brain wasn’t sure whether it was watching a comedy or a drama. I think it’s a bit of both, but I don’t know if it all congeals the way it should. I also probably shoould watch it when I’m not on a plane.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? ---Yeah, pretty much.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? —Yeah, pretty much.

There was nothing but praise for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) so my lukewarm feelings were met with some hostility. It’s a fine film with some fine performances and shows one of the most important acts of legislation in American history. It looks normal and has a few of those scenes where a side character says something important at just the right time and a few scenes wrought with sudden emotional weight or a perfectly timed monologue. I guess it all felt a little safe and simple. Maybe that’s what was needed, but I be curious to see what a different director might have done with it.

Godzilla could still kick it's ass.

Godzilla could still kick it’s ass.

Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was the perfect guy to direct the kaiju-homage flick, Pacific Rim (2013). I wish I liked this one more. The first few monster fights were fun, but they become repetitive. The robot suits are great, but they kill off the Russian and Chinese guys too soon. I thought it was going to be a fun all-the-countries-band-together-to-fight-the-monsters type thing. Most of the main characters are boring and tool-ish and the “drifting” thing is weird and ill-explained. I like the old kaiju movies for their cheesiness, and it was fun to see awesome special effects realize them with affection and detail, if only the story and characters had gotten a similar upgrade.

Here we go:

Choke me.

Choke me.

If you like sado-masochism, Japanese nudity, and genitalia-severence then this is the movie for you. Nagisa Ôshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is based on the true story of a steamy romance that requires increasing amounts of pain incorporated into the act of sex until their mounting obsession results in tragedy. It’s got a lot of sex, but it ain’t always sexy and that’s part of the point, I think.

Deja vu!

Déjà vu!

Peter Lorre and Syndey Greenstreet star in this film noir based on an Eric Ambler novel. Jean Negulesco’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is a bit of a poor man’s The Third Man, but it’s not bad. A pulp novelist becomes mixed up in a real-life European double-cross. It’s got a few decent twists and is a lot of fun if you like your noir.

It wasn't the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

It wasn’t the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

Jack Black gives a strangely nuanced performance in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011). Based on a true story, this little pseudo-mockumentary chronicles the events leading up to the murder of a nasty spinster (Shirley MacLaine) by the ineffably good-natured Bernie (Black). Justice isn’t all black & white and behind every small town tragedy is a hundred smaller stories.

Animals!

There's a predatory animal behind me. It's symbolism.

There’s a predatory animal behind me. It’s symbolism.

I’ll admit there’s not a whole lot terribly special about Murders in the Zoo (1933), but the finale really got me. Lionel Atwill stars as another nefarious ne’er-do-well in another crime melodrama. The lecherous zoo keeper isn’t exactly the most menacing of screen villains and maybe he doesn’t use his animals as much as we might like, but it’s a light romp through the pulpy shadows. It’s a typical genre piece from the period, but the ending is worth it.

Our movie's tiger than your movie's tiger and it's not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Our movie’s tiger is better than your movie’s tiger and it’s not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) paints a sumptuous adventure-survival tale with sweeping CG strokes in Life of Pi (2012). The colors and effects and music are great. The story is engaging and exciting. The guy who plays the Canadian author is terrible. It also suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambiguous ending—that I say was handled slightly better in the book. All in all, it’s a worthy screen adaptation of the fun story of a young boy adrift at sea with a tiger.

Stop taking things so seriously and enjoy life:

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? "Man of Iron." Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn't in it.

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? “Man of Iron.” Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn’t in it.

I was somewhat dismissive of the first two Iron Man movies, but Iron Man 3 (2013) was a lot of fun. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black, gives us more laughs and more exciting action. Robert Downey, Jr. is as snarky as ever and Sir Ben Kingsley provides one of the more interesting twist-foils in any superhero movie. Iron Man might be kind of fun, but wandering Mechanic of Tennessee is more interesting.

beauty is embarrassing

Throw down that strongbox and answer the question.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) is a pleasing documentary about kooky, renegade media artist Wayne White. After working on several TV shows (including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, and Shining Time Station) he turned his attentions to painting offensive and humorous slogans on top of thrift-shop landscape paintings. Puppet-maker, painter, sculptor, whatever, he’s eccentric and he can’t stop.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie---minus Salma and Harvey. It's so close.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie—minus Salma and Harvey. It’s so close.

Here’s the thing: I might actually hate 30-40% of this movie, but I love the rest. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is a wild, genre-bending grindhouse splatterfest from director Robert Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino. Some bad guys kidnap a family to escape across the border and hide out at a rowdy desert bar that is run by…demon vampires! It’s ridiculous fun and the final matte painting composite shot is awesome. It’s a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous fun but it seriously needs to be almost entirely recast (with the exceptions of Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek).  Also features George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, John Saxon, Cheech Marin (he can stay), Danny Trejo (he needs to do more cool stuff), Tom Savini (he can stay too), and Fred Williamson (he needs to do more cool stuff too).

Three parts greatness:

Tune in again in 9 years for "Before Brunch."

Tune in again in 9 years for “Before Brunch.”

The third installment of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s romantic series, Before Midnight (2013) sees the characters aging more and more. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset comes to a close…maybe? Taking place on one day at the end of a family vacation in Greece, we witness how they deal with their relationships, careers, divorce, children, and each other. While it might be sad that they seem more at each other’s throats than ever, perhaps it is the only logical place these two headstrong characters can go. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first two films, this latest chapter is rewarding for those of us who love these characters already and want to see what will happen next.

These aren't the state secrets you're looking for.

These aren’t the state secrets you’re looking for.

Carol Reed (The Third Man) directs Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1959). A milquetoast expat vacuum salesman living in Cuba with his daughter gets commissioned by the British government to be a spy. A slight embellishment gets blown out of proportion in this Cold War comedy and tensions and fears run high as the impromptu spy desperately tries to hide his fib and keep people from getting killed. Also stars Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Noel Coward.

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1...

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1…

Living in Oblivion (1995) is a must-watch for any aspiring filmmaker. Yes, even moreso than Ed Wood. It’s a dark comedy about the struggles and trials of making a low budget independent movie. The mounting tensions, increasingly short fuses, and unraveling strings of sanity are catalogued in three parts, each taking a different perspective. Anyone who has ever worked on a set will recognize every single crisis showcased here and anyone who has not might wonder why anyone would ever want to make a movie if it takes so many headaches. Steve Buschemi, Katherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, and Peter Dinklage star.

Ever stalwart:

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

French comedian and filmmaker, Pierre Étaix, keeps pantomime alive (like Jacques Tati) in Yo Yo (1965). It’s a quaint, cute, and visually inventive comedy about a billionaire who loses everything and joins the circus to find love. The sets and sight gags are wonderful and the story is sweet and complete.

It's been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

It’s been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

The perverse Australian cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) is sick and twisted and abrasive and strangely pensive, cutting, and eloquent. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is locked in his sadistic and abusive mother’s basement for 30 years before he escapes only to be confronted by a harsh, terrible, beautiful, tragic, funny, demented world he could never be prepared for. Like Being There and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, we learn much about society by watching these obtuse yet perceptive innocents interact with a world we have just learned to accept. Bubby has to learn everything all over again. It’s a deranged and graphic satire full of horrors and heart.

Apex twins:

Love is hard sometimes.

Love is hard sometimes.

In the Mood for Love (2000) is a sad romance about isolation, longing, and missed opportunities. Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express) directs Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) and Maggie Cheung (2046) as two lonely souls in 1960s Hong Kong. Both feel disconnected from their never-present spouses and seek to enjoy the company of each other, but gradually develop deeper feelings. Through simple interactions and quiet conversations their love grows, but their situation, their culture, and the disaffected sands of time continue to erect barriers. It’s a beautiful film full of regret.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would’ve weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

Mystery Train (1989) is easily my favorite Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes) film. There are three mostly unrelated stories set in Memphis on the same day. There is a yuppie Japanese couple straining to see their romanticized image of a fabulous musical metropolis rich in blues history. There is a stranded Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who must share a hotel room with a vacuous American chatterbox. And then there is the story of the chatterbox’s unemployed and irascible English boyfriend and his friends (including Steve Buschemi) who try to keep him from hurting himself and others until the sober dawn. All the characters must spend the night at a dilapidated city hotel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee.

What did you see? Anything good?

A Mellow Submarine

If you are a fan of the tiny, little, obscure British band, The Beatles (occasionally you hear them mentioned today), or are a fan of bizarro animation—or even if you just like puns—then it is absolutely imperative that you view The Yellow Submarine (1968). With director Charles Dunning’s team’s incredibly lucid and inventive animation (inspired by the artistic styles of Heinz Edelmann) and some great songs from the legendary Beatles this super-mellow psychedelic trip of a film was brought to glorious, acid-dropping life.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river...

Picture yourself in a boat on a river…

The film follows Richard Lester‘s two previous live-action films, The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). Like these films, Yellow Submarine would be a wild comedy with loads of silly Beatle antics, but this time it would be animated, rendering complete free range over the psychedelic tone and tundra. The Beatles themselves were not terribly keen initially with the idea of the film, so their speaking voices in the film were cast to other actors doing Beatles impressions (John Clive, Geoffrey Hughes, and Paul Angelis). Evidently, when the film was nearing completion the real Beatles saw the footage and loved it and thus agreed to appear as live action cameos at the finale. If the ringing endorsement from John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr isn’t enough, then I don’t know what would be. The film features several fantastic songs including “It’s Only a Northern Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” “Nowhere Man,” “All Together Now,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Yellow Submarine,” and more.

Pepperland.

Pepperland.

Like many band-centric musicals, the plot takes a comfortable backseat to much of the music and mayhem, but the plot is still enjoyable enough on its own.

Peaceful Pepperland is under attack by the nasty Blue Meanies who have zero tolerance for anything but rampant negativity. They set strange monsters out into Pepperland and bean all of the citizens with big, green apples, transforming them into silent, blue statues. Fortunately, Old Fred, the sailor, gets away in the Yellow Submarine. Advised by the Mayor to get help, he sails through land, air, and sea until he discovers Ringo.

Ringo takes Old Fred to the Beatle house where he meets George, John, and Paul. Old Fred is struck by the foursome’s uncanny resemblance to the former protector’s of Pepperland: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Together they go on a quest to find Pepperland again and free it from the Blue Meanies. Naturally some singing is required for the trek as they sojourn across the Sea of Time to the Sea of Science to the Sea of Monsters to the Sea of Nothing to the Sea of Heads to the Sea of Holes to the Sea of Green. After “Eleanor Rigby” I’d say that some of my favorite songs are featured on their path through the seven seas. Once they arrive in Pepperland the Beatles must use the power of music and love to set the Pepperlanders free and bring happiness to the oh-so-blue Blue Meanies. If all you need is love then certainly we can all get along, right?

Sea of Monsters

Sea of Monsters

In a time when all violence, hate, and wars can be solved by flowers, long hair, and drugs, Yellow Submarine proved to be another megaphone expounding on the subject. It heralds a message that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. The bad guys are never really bad, they just need to see what they’re missing in order to come around. Yellow Submarine proves you don’t need rigorous conflict to tell a fun story (just like David Byrne’s True Stories). Indeed, the ‘battle’ between The Beatles and the Blue Meanies’ minions is the least interesting part of the movie. The exciting bits come from their mind-altering explorations through the Seas and the songs they sing along the way. The film achieves a sort of ultra-relaxed mellow. The world is fantastical enough on its own so why fight? The film voices the generation’s creed better than most. This movie is what the hippie ideology was all about. Make love, not war…because war is unnecessary and evil and love permeates every aspect of peace, kindness, and understanding.

Sea of Heads

Sea of Heads

It’s a tough toss up as to who the real star of the movie is. Is it the music or the pictures? The animation morphs and contorts with such lushness and playful abandon that it dazzles the eye and tickles the funny bone and remains completely in step with the songs. Some of the songs are so wonderfully hypnotic, delirious, and playful that, perhaps, without them the pictures would feel incomplete. The perfect marriage of music to picture is nothing short of amazing. Yellow Submarine is like a pop version of Disney’s Fantasia. The colors and shapes are completely free and wild and it might prove difficult to refrain from joining in and singing some of the classic tunes. “It’s all in the mind,” so the recurring line goes.

Stand off.

Stand off.

People have said that this movie is just about drugs, specifically LSD. I think this is unfair, for although there is logic behind the assumption considering the era and source of much of the material, I submit that it is more a celebration of the imagination and creativity (which some might argue is the purpose of LSD, but it would still merely be the train rather than the destination). You don’t need drugs to see the magic. It’s already there. Lewis Carroll, M. C. Escher, and Terry Gilliam didn’t need it. Perhaps the filmmakers of Yellow Submarine were simply reveling in the fact that animation could do anything. The movie is more about the magic of a perfect world where everything is peaceful, musical, and mellow.

Yellow Submarine is brisk, funny, and full of wonder. A good movie takes you places and Yellow Submarine definitely does that. It’s a highly imaginative and enjoyable experience. It’s weird, wild stuff and it won’t be for everybody, but if you like the message, the incredible artwork, or great Beatles songs then check it out. (On a personal note, I do wish “Strawberry Fields” was in this movie). Perhaps the hippie lifestyle isn’t as prevalent as it was in the 1960s when this film came out, but then perhaps there are certain messages that we can all get behind no matter what part of the century we’re from.

Heroes.

Heroes.

Make love, not war. All you need is love. It’s all in the mind.

Thank goodness the CG motion-capture Disney-Zemeckis remake was cancelled.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May, 18, 2010

Gentlemen, to Bed!

Simplicity still works. Michael Winterbottom has reminded us that sometimes comedies work best when they are slight and intimate. His naturalistic approach to filming two funny men talking at various restaurant tables is a refreshing bit of British humor. The Trip (2010), directed by Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is a much needed break from typically nauseating and formulaic brainless comedies churned out by big American studios.

If you’ve seen Winterbottom’s earlier film with Coogan and Brydon, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005) you might have chuckled quite a bit, but if you’re like me then you probably laughed most at the end credits where Coogan and Brydon verbally spar against each other in an empty theater. They’re just being themselves and they’re just goofing off and it is hilarious. While Tristram Shandy is a big in-joke on the legendary voluminous novel rather than a faithful adaptation, The Trip is simply Coogan and Brydon joking with each other in expensive restaurants. In a way it is an extension of the end credits for Tristram Shandy and perhaps a funnier take on My Dinner With Andre.

Steve Coogan plays Steve Coogan, a talented but unsettled actor typecast as a comedy character. Rob Brydon plays Rob Brydon, a stable bit comedy actor and impressionist gently content with his station. Steve has to take a trip up north to sample foods from ritzy restaurants for a magazine. Not wishing to go alone, and his American girlfriend busy in the States, he reluctantly invites Rob to tag along. That’s the setup and that’s all you need.

Coogan inadvertently reveals his insecurities as they jest and dine throughout the film. Brydon acts as a more playful counterpart with less regard for keeping up appearances. I presume the two boys get along better in real life than how they act with each other on collaborations like this. Their snarky jabs and jeers and funny but biting. Coogan chases women and considers plastic surgery and ponders his place in the universe as a man beyond 40. Coogan is not particularly keen on Brydon’s incessantly comfortable mugging and tries to call his agent or his girlfriend any chance he gets. There is much subtlety to this film and it reveals much about manhood, insecurity, and male relationships. In many ways it reminded me of a more subtle Sideways. In a way it is the story of many men who see themselves as charming losers desperately clawing after attention.

Enough delving into the fragile complexities of mandom. What really establishes this film is the comedy element. This movie has some of the best (and most natural and believable and funny) impression battles ever put on film. Michael Caine, Al Pacino, Anthony Hopkins, Woody Allen, Ronnie Corbett, Richard Burton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stephen Hawking, Richard Gere, Ray Winstone, Michael Sheen, Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit), Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, and more show up in this movie (all expertly channeled through the mediums of Brydon and Coogan). Some who have seen the movie might not remember all of the aforementioned impressions and that is because the movie is actually a cutting from the six episode series that aired on British TV. The series is fantastic and has more wonderful content than could be fit into the film, but the movie works very well as a standalone representation—even if the mirth be truncated just a touch.

Many folks in the United States will be familiar with Steve Coogan from a few American films (Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder, Around the World in 80 Days, The Other Guys), but in The Trip he is allowed to not only be funny but he may be even more dimensional and interesting to watch. Rob Brydon might be a stranger to most of you American folks, but you will fall in love with him pretty quickly I’d wager. I sure did.

All in all I found The Trip to be one of the most refreshing comedies I’ve seen in years. It was humorous and affecting. I loved it. If you like sly British wit, impressions galore, subtle snippets of human fragility, or diabolically ornate culinary presentations then this might be the film for you. I dare not say anymore, but if you’re sick of cheap, lowbrow flicks that sooner deliver a yawn than a smile then check out Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip starring the hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

“Gentlemen to bed!”

http://monkeyarchive.com/2011/07/the-trip-2010-dvdrip-xvid-ouzo/

http://themostbeautifulfraudintheworld.blogspot.com/2011/08/cinematheque-reviews-trip.html

http://deeperintomovies.net/journal/archives/6259

http://www.2am.co.uk/article/home/michael-winterbottom-s-tv-series-the-tri/1135#0

Of Dogs and Bunny Rabbits

Warning: These are not children’s movies.

I read Richard Adams’ Watership Down in 4th grade. It was a book that examined different types of society but all the characters were rabbits. Many people may be familiar with this popular book and I’m sure some people are familiar with Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation, which came out in 1978. If you saw the movie Watership Down when you were a kid you might remember most notably the abundance of blood (for a cartoon about talking bunnies, it is a smidge on the gory side). All things considered, Martin Rosen (who had never directed a movie before) makes a pretty darn good job of translating Watership Down to the big screen.

Frith speaks!

Frith speaks!

I read Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs in high school. My biggest surprise came well into my college career when it was brought to my attention that there was a film adaptation of it as well. Lo and behold Martin Rosen also made Plague Dogs into a movie in 1982, this time with even greater command of his animated medium.

Definitely read Richard Adams’ books, but I would encourage you to also investigate their film companions directed by Martin Rosen. It is obvious that Rosen has a deep respect and affection for Adams’ writing and does not compromise the integrity of either story, nor does he insult the audience by dumbing things down or belittling the characters. Rosen respects his audience and trusts them to be savvy enough to track along with him. Both films are great adaptations from great literature.

Fiver's ominous vision.

Fiver’s ominous vision.

 

Watership Down, for those who are unfamiliar, is the story of some renegade rabbits. When the runty prophet rabbit, Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers in the film), predicts bunny genocide, Hazel (the amazing John Hurt) leads a group of fellow rabbits far away (against the wishes of their chief, voiced by Sir Ralph Richardson). The rabbits journey across the English countryside in search of a new warren, but the way is paved with trouble and bloodshed. There are other societies of rabbits with varying ideological positions on the nature of things and many battles will need to be fought before the end. Yes, they are bloody and it’s not exactly a kid’s movie.

There are some wonderful moments of suspense, peril, and surreal horror The rabbits’ relationship to their god, Frith (Michael Hordern), is a fascinating and touching representation of faith. Watership Down is not a sunny, happy Disney flick. It feels more like an historical account complete with myths and some original language (think Tolkien writing for a rabbit world). The movie also features the voices of Denholm Elliott and Zero Mostel (the role of the bumbling seagull, Kehaar, would be Mostel’s final film performance) and there’s even a very  beautiful song by Art Garfunkel. Both the book and film are a pleasure.

scary bunny

The filling in of the warren.

Plague Dogs might be the darker story. Two battered dogs (voiced by John Hurt and Christopher Benjamin) escape a research laboratory in England and start their uncertain quest for happiness. They spend their time killing sheep to survive, but soon their attacks catch the attention of the humans and they realize they must become wild animals in order to stay alive. They get some pointers from a cunning fox who becomes a valuable—if not always trusted—ally.

Farmers report dog attacks on their livestock and the media investigates. Before long, some miscommunication leads everyone to believe that the dogs are infected with Bubonic Plague (hence the title). Starving and struggling in the wilderness the two dogs fight to survive and soon they must decide whether or not there ever was anything to hope for. This philosophical story asks the question: what if everything that drives us is just an illusion or a dim memory of a lost moment in time? Once again, Rosen adapts Adams’ tale very well. Technically it’s not as bloody as Watership Down but the violence is a little more disturbing and some of the dialects will be near incomprehensible to American audiences.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

In context, this might be one of the most soul-crushing moments in any movie. Ever.

The British cut of the film is longer than the American cut, but it is paced much better and it keeps little character moments that really serve to develop the story and engage the audience a little more. If you can find the British cut I would recommend you see that version.

 

I showed Plague Dogs to a few friends and many of them really enjoyed it, but several people found it terribly depressing…which it is. I would say it all depends on how you look at it. Just as some people might find hope or doom in the finale of Brazil, I would say the film leaves the ending open to interpretation. I find endings like that make the experience more personal to the viewer. It is bittersweet to say the least.

drowning

Depressed yet? This is like the first scene.

Watership Down and Plague Dogs make for unusual books, but turning them into films might have been even more daring. Both films are adult dramas featuring talking animated animals. Difficult projects to market, but ultimately rewarding for the lucky few who still seek them out today. Both books come highly recommended and I would suggest that after finishing them you look into watching the movies too.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 3, 2009