THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXIII – Robots and Ghouls

Once again, I collect and rank the last several films I saw. Some I really loved. A lot were interesting and inadvertently humorous. None I hated. Film is subjective. These lists are a celebration of that.

Enjoy. And, as always, if you have a recommendation for me… give it to me.

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24. Full Moon Features sure knows how to make one hell of a trailer. They produced a lot of schlocky horror flicks that, sadly, don’t always measure up to their ads or nifty concepts. Lurking Fear (1994) is the story of a man fresh out of prison who goes to dig up money buried with a corpse on a spooky, stormy night. Too bad for him that naughty gangsters are also after the money. And also a cadre of ghoul hunters are chilling at the same cemetery, hoping to finally end the evil reign of these ill-defined creatures once and for all. Also a pregnant woman. It’s a mess, but has some OK atmosphere and Jeffrey Combs is in it and he’s always fun to watch.

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23. The movie with the infamous “Garbage day!” scene. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) is a bad movie held together by the even more laughably bad performance by Eric Freeman. He absolutely makes this movie. The first third of the film is a rehashing of the first film. They use lots of footage from the original. It’s like movie SparkNotes. So you can skip the first one. It looks bad, but not nearly as fun. Mean nuns. Murderous Santas. A bland horror tale of revenge with some laugh out loud moments.

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22. Evilspeak (1981) is the classic story about a bullied nerd (Clint Howard) at a military academy who discovers a Satanic library in the basement and uses computers to help him summon demons to get revenge. It’s got a few pretty memorable scenes (mostly involving violence and murder), but it feels long in the middle when the movie has teased us enough and we just want to see the Carrie styled bloodbath.

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21. I love cowboy westerns and have always disliked John Wayne. He’s good in a couple movies (True Grit, Stagecoach), but he’s just one of those iconic actors that never made a positive impression on me. But this movie has Maureen O’Hara and a pretty straightforward plot. I had seen Big Jake (1971) as a kid and caught it again recently. Some decent shootouts and suspense. He’s just trying to rescue his kidnapped grandson.

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20. Highway to Hell (1991) is a fantastically dark action-horror concept mired by the filmmakers insisting it be a lowbrow comedy. Our young protagonist’s girlfriend gets kidnapped by a literal cop from Hell. The rest of the movie is the adventure through Hell (looking a lot like the American Southwest) and onto Hell City to get her back. Because it plays so silly and cutesie, the stakes never feel that high and most of the comedy does not really work (unless Gilbert Gottfried playing Hitler in a cameo is hilarious to you). There are a few fun special effects here and there, but ultimately there’s not enough visually to make Hell feel like much more than a sunny stretch of highway in Arizona.

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19. Robot Holocaust (1986) is a straight awful movie. Terrible sets. Even worse costumes. And the acting! The main villainess delivers her lines like she is just coming off anesthesia. It’s no Starcrash, but we laughed a lot and sometimes that’s all I ask for in my sci-fi schlock.

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18. Pumpkinhead (1988) is not great, but I admire that it does try to be different. When a man’s young son is accidentally killed by vacationing teens, he goes to a witch to make a deal and perform the rites needed to conjure the demon known as Pumpkinhead. Lance Henikson plays the tortured father who becomes linked with the monster he has unleashed. The practical effects of the creature and the witch’s swamp are highlights visually.

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17. Zoo (2007) is that documentary about the guy who died from having sex with a horse. The film also takes a distant but humanizing look at zoophiles in general and how that underworld sometimes operates in strange corners of society. More pensive than shocking, the movie focuses on individuals rather than go into gruesome detail of the incident. Almost Lynchian.

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16. Visually sumptuous, gorgeously ornate costumes, breathtaking locations, and a script so convoluted and incomprehensible you may be scratching your head as to how many rewrites it didn’t get during its infamous 25+ year production history. Terry Gilliam’s cinematic oeuvre creaks from bold, hallucinatory, and inspired to unwieldy and frustrating with indulgent bombast eclipsing anything meaningful. I still rank much of his pre-2000s work among my favorite films, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019) is a problematic and unsatisfying mess that continuously picks up plot threads that don’t really go anywhere. The film has moments of brilliance. When it leans into the fantasy and the adventure aspects, it approaches something, but it’s ultimately a far more cynical, grouchy, and out of touch film that unceremoniously dispatches characters, plot threads, stakes, and messages with awkward weightlessness. What is it all about? What is the story? What is being said? It is very dense and it looks great and has a fine cast (wish Adam Driver’s protagonist had at least one redeeming quality or that we actually felt the magnitude of Jonathan Pryce’s character arc or that the wonderful Olga Kurylenko and Joana Ribiero were more than just eye candy as both have fantastic screen presence). As the more straight Don Quixote elements were the best bits, it makes me wonder how great the film could have been had it been more of a straight adaptation of the famous novel instead of the deeply uninteresting non-redemption story of a cowardly, asshole film director who ruins the lives of those around him. Unless that is the point. How autobiographical is this movie?

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15. Behind the Curve (2018) is another documentary. This one takes a look at the flat Earth movement. If you’ve seen any of the thousands of YouTube videos exposing the truth about how our planet is actually flat and everyone is just lying to you…for some reason, then you’re already familiar with the typical arguments and talking points. All of which are easily debunked. Behind the Curve, rather than focus on the wacky claims put forth, instead chooses to make the viewer more intimate with the personalities behind the movement. Sure, they’re all a bit delusional and seem to hold more than a few bizarre beliefs for similarly baffling reasons, but behind that glazed look in their eye is an inquiring human mind that has maybe just gone astray. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to challenge their claims. It just gives them enough rope to hang themselves. The hubris and myopia are real things that effect us all. If you’re interested in cults, conspiracy theories, and how people can get sucked into those worlds and stay there, it’s an interesting peek into that space.

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14. For low-key horror films, Green Room (2015) almost succeeds in being brilliant. A broke punk band gets a gig playing in an old barn in the woods that just happens to be a hub for neo-Nazis. That should be enough to get the ball rolling, and had it been it I think this movie would have been a lot more satisfying. There’s an added plot of a murdered man (Anton Yelchin’s character sees too much) and then the Nazi leader (Patrick Stewart) shows up to contain it all. Had it just been the fact that punks were duped into performing there and that their onstage anti-fascist antics incite the white supremacist mob to violence, I think things would have been much more streamlined and interesting. But it seemed the movie was almost uncomfortable with just saying that Nazis are bad in and of themselves. As is, it’s decent. Better than a lot of horror in the same vein. But could have been great.

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13. Mystics of Bali(1981) wastes no precious time in getting into it. An attractive American girl wants to learn the most powerful magic there is. For some reason. Her Filipino friend (who she continues to tease with the promise of a relationship) agrees to introduce her to a witch in the jungle. She meets the witch, but the witch only wishes to use the foolish girl. She turns the girl into a penanggalan: a traditional Filipino floating vampire head with all of the internal organs hanging out the neck. This is more than just a bad a movie. It’s wonderfully weird. It’s slow to get going, but once the nonsense begins, it keeps going until we learn that white women, like jungle witches, are not to be trusted and that if you have one magic uncle and he dies, don’t worry. You probably have another, more powerful ghost uncle to save the day.

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12. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan takes on a journey into America’s diet. In Defense of Food (2015) covers a lot of basic stuff, but it does so in such an engaging and open way that it pulls you in. From the history of manipulative health language in advertising to the villages of small African tribes that live as organically as possible, Pollan is eager to discover what we should eat and how we can enjoy the food we eat.

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11. Just look at that still. That is amazing. Motel Hell (1980) is the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff you can find, I’d wager. Human heads popping out of the ground like vegetables. A cannibal bed and breakfast. A pig headed chainsaw duel. This movie is cheap, fast, and hits you just when it needs to. Like greasy fast food.

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10. Luigi Cozzi’s The Adventures of Hercules(1985) is a sword and sorcery sequel that has wacky Italian production written all over it. We really wanted to watch the original with Sybil Danning (Howling 2), but we had to make do. Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty son of Zeus. It’s very episodic and most of the scenes are clunky exposition for how to solve a problem that will be solved within the next three minutes. It’s wonderfully, watchably schlocky. I’m pretty sure they rotoscoped the t-rex battle from the original King Kong for the constellation fight at the end. It’s great and I can’t wait to find the first Hercules.

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9. Mark Duplass plays a man with terminal cancer. Ray Romano is his somewhat socially awkward neighbor. Together they go on a short road trip to pick up some medically prescribed suicide pills. This is Paddleton (2019). It’s a quiet and low-key dramedy that keeps its distance and deals with a difficult subject in a straightforward and sensitive way. Romano is perfectly cast.

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8. Shallow Grave (1994) is a sly little film about three roommates (Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston) in Edinburgh and it was Danny Boyle’s directorial debut. When their new roommate dies in the flat, the trio aren’t sure what to do. Mainly because it turns out he had a suitcase full of money. How does one dispose of a body? How long before they can spend the money? What happens if someone comes looking for it? What happens if you can no longer trust your close friends? Streamlined and efficient black comedy.

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7. Harmony Korine (Gummo) assembles one wacky cast (Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, and Jimmy Buffet) in The Beach Bum (2019). It’s the story of a Key West hippie, poet, and stoner (perhaps a redundant collection of words) and his meandering life. You could say it’s about him trying to get money, but that wouldn’t be quite right. It’s more about a wandering spirit that moves in any direction it pleases. I may prefer Spring Breakers for its bolder presentation and harrowing, unpredictable story, but The Beach Bum, while far more subdued and accessible, still boasts plenty of visual style. Like most of Korine’s work, it’s a fascinating glimpse into another American subculture.

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6. Holy moly did I love Fright Night (1985). It’s like the perfect 80s movie. Great soundtrack. Great cast (Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, and Roddy McDowell are so much fun). And some of the best vampire deaths ever filmed. What is a boy to do when a sexy vampire moves in next door? Call his local skeptical horror movie TV presenter and slay him! Genuinely loved this campy, sexy, spooky, fun flick.

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5. Rashida Jones composes a beautiful biographical documentary of her talented father in Quincy (2018). Quincy Jones is one of the most important names in modern American music and music production. This movie is a loving portrait of the man, his life, his troubles, his flaws, and his amazing contributions to the world of music.

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4. Art is a weird sort of thing. Struggle: the Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (2018) is a documentary about discovering an eccentric Polish genius lives right around the corner. From this beginning, we launch into a retrospective of the life of sculptor and esoteric artist Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987). He’s an odd, little old man, when the film introduces him. Underground comic artists and LA hippies develop a keen fascination in him and then they discover he was actually one of the most important sculptors and possibly the greatest Polish artist of the 20th century. And he’s a bit of a character.

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3. Netflix has been running Love Death Robots. It’s a brilliant concept with some amazing artistry, but, in my opinion, some lackluster writing and, ultimately, I did not like the series. I do hope they push it and get better if they continue. Robot Carnival (1987) is the animated robot anthology that I wanted. Each segment is handled by a different director. Some stories are soft and poetic. Others are bombastic and raucous. I loved the visual richness and inventive styles and mesmerizing stories. Like all anthologies, you’ll have your favorites. This had been on my radar for a long time and I’m glad I finally watched it.

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2. Animator Nina Paley left a very good impression on me with Sita Sings the Blues. I had to applaud its humor, style, novel implementation of music, and narrative inventiveness. Seder-Masochism (2018) is a musical epic comedy brimming with clever satire and incendiary religious commentary while packaged in a bright, colorful package. The story takes Nina’s curious goat character interviewing her Jewish father about her upbringing and juxtaposes it against her retelling of the history of religion, from early man’s worship of feminine Earth mothers to the violent conquest of patriarchal monotheism and into the present day of continual bloodshed over holy real estate. It covers a lot of ground and has a lot of hot takes that may upset or tickle you, but with the lively animation and tunes, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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1. I know I’ve seen the Sidney Lumet masterpiece 12 Angry Men (1957) before, but I on a whim I gave it a re-watch, and seeing it again with adult eyes made me reassess its greatness. It’s a tough feat to set a whole movie in one room and keep the dramatic beats going and create visual distinctiveness within acts. A lot of these points come down to staging, lighting, and cinematography. But it also has a fantastic script and is wonderfully cast. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Joseph Sweeney, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jiří Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Edward Binns are twelve men locked in a jury room, tasked with determining the fate of a young man who has been charged with the murder of his father. The atmosphere is tense from the get go and only tightens as the men debate and talk out the whole meaning of “reasonable doubt” and what their duty is as jurors. The twists, summer heat of the setting, and character quirks keep the drama electric. 12 Angry Men is an American classic and a very patriotic film in the sense that it depicts the ideals of what this one aspect of the judicial system was meant to be. It is inspiring. Lumet, director of Network, Serpico, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon brought this stage play to cinematic life with confidence and finesse. This is a classic for good reason and marvelous lesson in writing, acting, and filmmaking.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXII – Why Oh Why?

More movies of any stripe ranked against each other in an exercise in arbitrariness!

Sorry, guys. There’s a LOT of pretty disappointing ones on this list.

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21. Bats(1999) is the worst kind of creature feature. Lazy, tedious, too expository, and not nearly enough funny special effects. The bat noises are funny and so are some of the puppets. But this makes Eight-Legged Freaks look like a masterpiece of horror.

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20. Conquest (1983) is unwatchable. Seriously. I didn’t even finish it. It’s unwatchable. And I mean that in a few different ways. For one, the protagonists have negative charisma and are impossible to like. Two, every scene features drab, gray characters in a drab, gray world annoyingly back-lit to the point of silhouette and consistently obfuscated by plumes of smoke/mist coming from…somewhere. Directed by Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling and A Woman in Lizard’s Skin), this is an unpleasant looking Italian-Mexican-Spanish co-production mercifully featuring at least some nudity and some creative violence. I actually dug the character design of the villainous (a topless, cavewoman g-string clad figure with a big, golden head and covered in snakes. Bold. Tacky. Completely insane). It’s artier than much of the artless sword-and-sorcery epics of this era, but it’s pretty bad. And smoky.

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19. Running Free (1994) is the story of a clinically obnoxious 12 year old boy and the wolverine who loved him. It’s the sort of family adventure ilk my mother would have let me borrow from the library. Sure, the acting is bad and the general plotlessness is laughable, but they did have a helicopter, at least one good explosion, a decent plane crash, and the beautiful Alaskan wilderness as their backdrop. It’s a coming-of-age tale that’s an insult to the intelligence of 12-year-olds everywhere. Most of those crappy direct-to-video movies I did rent back in the day had a lot more going for them.

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18. After Conquest, I thought maybe Barbarian Queen (1985) might be a bit better. And although it was largely a totally artless skin flick with lackluster action, the female cast was attractive (in an aggressively objectifying way) and you could actually see what was happening in each shot due to not having smoke everywhere. Barbarian Queen is problematic in several other ways, but the visibility inches this Argentinian production ahead of Conquest. It at least gave us some laughs while it made us feel completely filthy for watching it.

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17. Tae-bo legend Billy Blanks stars in a truly awful sci-fi action movie about a school for assassins that trains its members with embarrassingly realized virtual reality. Expect No Mercy (1995), if the title tells you anything, is a nondescript and dull flick that could be about anything. “Expect no mercy” isn’t even a decent tagline. There are a few scenes that are laughably fun, but not enough to warrant a re-watch anytime soon. Spoiler alert: I did shed a tear for the iguana guy.

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16. Geena Davis stars as a pirate queen and already you see what’s wrong. Cutthroat Island (1995) is a swashbuckling adventure comedy infamous for being a flop and bankrupting a studio. There is production value and, genuinely some of the action sequences are executed very well. The big problem with this is tone. Davis and co-star Matthew Modine have no chemistry and Modine is given the task of speaking entirely in awkward smart-ass remarks that are meant to infuse his character with charm and charisma, but accomplish just the opposite. It’s miscast and too long, but you gotta give credit for the location cinematography and lavish sets and props to Davis to doing a lot of her own stunts. Almost every scene has a hundred extras in it, all intricately adorned in period buccaneer garb. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on a Xena: Warrior Princess kick, but had they cast Lucy Lawless and Bruce Campbell this could have been fire.

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15. TerrorVision(1986) is a horror comedy that’s running of cheese-factor fumes. An extra-terrestrial monster (the Hungry Beast) is mistakenly beamed down to Earth via a Floridian’s new satellite dish. The slimy, grotesque creature materializes out of television sets to gobble up members of the cartoony Putterman family. Where They Live and The Stuff used science-fiction/horror to create clever social satires on the state of American consumerism, TerrorVision is content to just be a dumb monster movie. Most of the laughs come from just how over-the-top every single detail of this campy film is. It has one or two pretty decent scenes and some quotable lines, but the tone is just so goofy and gleefully brainless that, although perhaps the filmmakers’ intentions, it disappoints because it always feels like it could have been better. A bit more gore could have elevated it. I did like the ending and the creature was pretty gross. So points for that.

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14. Kung-fu and British horror finally get the crossover we didn’t know we wanted until The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). Hammer Studios teamed up with the Shaw Brothers and the results are a bit of a charming mess. It’s not a great movie, but it’s trashy and silly enough to sort of warm your little heart. Peter Cushing appears once again as vampire hunter Van Helsing, now in China to battle an endless army of vampire zombie slaves. He lets his Chinese counterparts do most of the battling.

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13. Taraji P. Henson stars in Proud Mary (2018), a sort of throwback to blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. Mary is an assassin trying to atone for her sins by taking in an orphaned boy. But as the body count rises, Mary’s problems only get more complicated. You can tell there’s love going into this, but the finished result is a somewhat bland film punctuated by moments of style and funk. When it cuts loose and has fun, it’s great and justifies some of the contrivances. It just plays it too safe most of the time.

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12. A yearning for nostalgia had me re-watch Disney’s Hercules (1997). You all know it. And I had much the same reaction as an adult as I did as a kid. It’s gorgeously and stylishly animated. James Woods as a snaky car salesman Hades and his demon henchmen, as well as the three fates, are hilarious. The singing muses were fun. And that’s about it. Danny DeVito’s voice is too distracting as Hercules’ trainer, Phil. The romance is meh. The story just isn’t particularly fulfilling. Which is a real shame. Because, again, the 2D animation is among Disney’s best. I get it if you love it. To me, it’s just missing too many elements to be good. And I’m not even touching the bastardization of Greek mythology.

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11. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) is a fantastically grim dark comedy about a man in over his head, just trying to get home. John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) is a bit of a mild success in a similar genre. Jeff Goldblum is an insomniac engineer who gets involved with a beautiful jewel thief (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and spends the next 48 hours trying to shake the bad guys and stay alive. It has romance and comedy, but…how can we say it? Not enough to be called a romance or a comedy. There’s some suspense and then some cartoon slapstick. Not John Landis’ best film, but if the cast intrigues you (and there are a few fun cameos), you could do worse.

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10. Adam McKay writes and directs the story of Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) in Vice (2018). It’s a cheeky, nonlinear patchwork that presents the man’s opportunistic rise to power but somehow never manages to clearly establish his motivations or convictions (the movie tries to take care of that by brushing it aside early on). Bale is good, as is a lot of the cast, but the movie feels more like an exercise in montage editing than a serious political drama of any magnitude. It’s breezy enough, but far from the hard hitting political biopic it could have been.

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9. I begrudgingly enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). Why begrudgingly? Because that’s the reaction a decent re-imagining can sometimes garner. Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan star as the video-game avatars of our high school protagonists trapped in the cursed Jumanji. It has some clever gags, a great cast, creative suspense elements, and they get their mileage out of the gender swapping schtick. Ultimately, it’s a slick family adventure that’s smarter than it had to be and decidedly doing something different with the source material and it works. It just has that squeaky clean sheen. You know the one? Where everything is set-dressed to perfection? I just hate that. But if I can overcome my curmudgeonly temperament to enjoy this guy, it’s can’t be that bad.

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8. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I seem to unfavorably give the advantage to well-executed schlock. Red Sonja (1985) is the second sequel in the Conan trilogy. (I think. The world seems familiar and Arnold’s back, but he’s playing a different guy.) I call this type of film ESL cinema. Mostly Italian crew and then star Brigitte Nielsen in Danish and Arnold is Austrian so the script is odd to begin with and then the line readings the next wave of surreality. It’s a fun, brainless sword-and-sorcery adventure with lots of violence and a few monsters and some truly great sets. Ennio Morricone does the score too! I can’t rate it higher because there’s this annoying child king who’s in it and he sucks. Sorry, little buddy. You nailed those fight moves though!

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7. The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) Sergei Parajanov (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors) co-directs with Dodo Abashidze to deliver a surreal collection of tableaux vivants (fans of Parajanov’s The Color of the Pomegranates will undoubtedly find some comparisons to be made) that tell a Georgian folktale of a crumbling fortress that seemingly demands a sacrifice. It may not be for everyone, but for those with a taste for Eastern European symbolic visual poetry, it’s definitely worth a look. Even if The Color of the Pomegranates is probably the more ambitious and superior film.

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6. T2 Trainspotting (2017) is the sequel I don’t if anyone expected to see for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle are back to show us what has happened in the last 20 years. It’s been awhile, boys. Glad to see you again. Obviously, tensions are high since Renton double-crossed everyone and Bregbie’s been to jail. Some folks are just lifelong junkies, but maybe they were cheated out of a second chance? It’s a decent flick for fans of the original. Anjela Nedyalkova plays a new character, Veronika, who makes a nice complicated addition to the ensemble.

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5. The Lego Batman Movie(2017) could have been a lazy, soulless cash grab and still have been a huge commercial success. However, much like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a little bit of love and effort make the proceedings far more clever and enjoyable than they had any right to be. Yes, there are jokes and knowing nods to previous Batman incarnations and a stellar voice cast, but the real treat (for me at least) was the wholesome—if a skosh maudlin—plot. All of the character arcs build and snap together in as satisfying a way as a handful of Lego pieces. It’s funny because, in its own transparently on-the-nose way, it is ultimately rather touching and shows it really “gets” Batman. That it takes the emotions of its Lego cast as seriously as it does, it gets a big laugh out of me.

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4. Going in, I knew nothing of Class of 1984 (1982). And I am so glad I went in cold. It starts as a ham-fisted melodrama about a new teacher in a cartoonishly evil inner city school ravaged by teen gangsters, but then it turns into a positively delicious revenge thriller. Disgruntled teachers everywhere can watch this for catharsis (but don’t get any ideas). Features a somewhat out-of-place Roddy McDowell and a very young Michael J. Fox in supporting roles. I admire a movie that finds cruelly creative ways to brutally murder its teen cast. In all seriousness, it’s not a great film at all. I loved it.

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3. Oddball Kyle Mooney stars as a kidnapped boy who’s been raised in an underground fantasy (created by Mark Hamill) in Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear (2017). It’s not a comedy per se. When James (Mooney) is awkwardly reunited with his biological family, he struggles because he feels no connection to them and they know nothing of “Brigsby Bear”, an imagined bizarro VHS series conjured for whatever reason by his abductor (Mark Hamill). All James knows is if “Brigsby Bear” isn’t real, he wants to make it real. And the story that unfolds in exactly the way you might imagine ironic viral video culture to do so. It’s more of a quirky indie drama that ultimately leaves you just feeling good inside. I loved it.

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2. How have I never seen The Last Dragon (1985) before? Seriously. This is almost as good as Samurai Cop. It’s more competently shot and assembled, but no less outlandish and wonderfully cheesy. From our excruciatingly fay and naive kung fu teen protagonist (Taimak) to the wonderful scene-chewing bombast that is the film’s villain, Sho’nuff/The Shogun of Harlem, The Last Dragon never lets up. Fans of action schlock and kung-fu are sure to love this one.

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1. There’s a Chinese mummy (that isn’t exactly what it seems) on train crossing the frozen Russian wilderness. But once you look at it, it takes your soul. Or something. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star as rival scientists (my favorite flavor of rivalry) in The Horror Express (1972). Throw a dapper Telly Savalas in there for good measure. It’s a bit cheesy, but all the better for it. Glowing ghoul eyes and zombie Cossacks and Hammer-styled gore and atmosphere. For fans of this era of horror or of Lee or Cushing will enjoy this breezy spook flick with all its murder and mayhem confined to one claustrophobic train.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXXI – None of the “Saw” Movies Ranked

Happy New Year. I do it again.

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16. Shane Black is back and directing The Predators (2018). This is perhaps not what some fans were hoping for. I wish I had more to say about it. I really like the original with Schwarzenegger, and the first sequel with Danny Glover was pretty fun overall (I’m drawing a blank on the one with Adrian Brody on the planet. I know I’ve seen it, but I don’t remember much from it. The Alien crossovers don’t count.), but I didn’t find this new movie very entertaining. Or thrilling. Or scary. Or funny. You know when a movie just feels like stuff. This felt like stuff. I still believe in Shane Black’s wit and writing. Hoping we’ll get something better next time.

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15. The Green Lantern (2011). That’s right. The one with pre-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds. And, honestly? Not as bad as I was expecting. If I compare it to other superhero movies, it’s not that great, but I kind of liked the concept of an intergalactic council harnessing the power of will to manifest anything. I realize that’s just describing the character’s super power from the source material. And yeah. That’s kind of it. It just lent itself to having some innovative action. The effects are also a weakness, but the ideas they’re trying to pull off are kinda cool. But then I also didn’t hate Ang Lee’s Hulk either.

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14. It’s a perennial favorite and I’ve never liked it. White Christmas (1954) is the story of war buddies turned song-and-dance men trying to put on a big show in a Vermont hotel that’s run by their old army captain (Dean Jagger). I may love Danny Kaye in The Court Jester, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Inspector General, and other comedy adventures, but here he’s too sappy and maudlin and it has never worked for me. Bing Crosby is as Bing Crosby as he gets, which is fine. I dig his drowsy, detached line deliveries. The plot is weird. It glosses over the arguably more interesting war and the duo’s rise to fame and then just decides to focus on Danny trying to get a dame for Bing and then putting on an overproduced Christmas variety show in a failing bed and breakfast. Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney play the dames (and thank god they have better chemistry than the leading men). Some decent songs and some very fake looking sets.

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13. Sometimes you watch a movie to get a hit of nostalgia while also having a good laugh. Surf Ninjas (1993) might be peak 90s 10-year-old boy fantasy. Super chill brothers who love to surf, hate school, and always have a smart aleck remark discover they are actually lost royalty of a small Southeast Asian island nation. The only problem is that an evil and completely hammy Leslie Nielson is playing the despot. With the power of surfing, and being a ninja (sort of), and having random untapped kung-fu abilities and handheld video game based clairvoyance, the two boys (and a particularly obnoxious Rob Schneider) will restore peace to their kingdom. If you’re in a mood, you could do worse.

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12. I love old movies and I love monsters. That said, gimmick maestro William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus (1961) may only be passably entertaining today. Sardonicus is a man afflicted by a face disfiguration. It happened when he was robbing his father’s grave and his mouth became eternally contorted into a ghoulish grin. Enter the physician (played by Ronald Lewis) and the long journey of persuasion to get him to operate. It has some effective scenes, but Mr. Castle’s bookend cameos to fake a little audience interaction kind of take you out of a pretty decent film. Now it plays more as a curiosity time capsule.

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11. Michael Crichton writes and directs Runaway (1984) starring Tom Selleck, Cynthia Rhodes, Gene Simmons, and Kirstie Alley. In a world where robots are commonplace, what happens when one man decides to turn them into murderous death machines for possibly no reason? You call Tom Selleck and his thick, lustrous mustache to deal with it. It’s a quiet little science fiction thriller with modest aspirations and pretty decent climax. The spider robots were unintentionally adorable.

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7. I’m pretty sure this recent Netflix release has been getting all the advertising it needed from memes. Birdbox (2018) is like if The Happening was good. Something (demons??) is causing all who see it to commit suicide. Sandra Bullock is a reluctant mother who finds herself among the few still fighting to stay alive. It has moments of suspense, but the nonlinear editing sucks a lot of tension out. And the central gimmick of not being able to look is perfectly frustrating. I quite liked it and thought it was clever enough for a “family horror flick” (but maybe I’d be less impressed had I seen A Quiet Place which apparently treads similar ground). If you dig apocalyptic suspense thrillers with the last remnants of civilization disintegrating around you, but always wanted those hellscapes to have more John Malkovich, then boy are you in for a treat.

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10. Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island‘s somewhat surreal and incorrigibly silly sense of humor takes on the Happy-Madison formula of man-child misfit having to raise money and/or save the person by the deadline. Hot Rod (2007) is the story of an aspiring stunt man (Samberg) and his quest to gain respect from his dying, abusive stepfather (Ian McShane). It funny. Isla Fisher, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Jorma Taccone, Will Arnett, Chris Parnell, and Sissy Spacek fill out the cast.

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9. Full disclosure: I did not finish this one. I fell asleep and hope to one day finish this oddball flick. If I can ever find it again. John Michael McCarthy’s The Sore Losers (1997) is hard to describe fever dream of a movie and very rough around the edges, but it’s punk aesthetic and sense of anarchy amidst the sleaze and grime make it something you can’t just dismiss. An immortal alien comes to 1954 Earth to kill twelve random people. And that’s about the most I could reckon was happening.

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8. Who’s game for watching Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon meander around and eat expensive food for a third time? Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Spain (2017) once again pairs the two British actors together for some subtle drama and celebrity impression sparring. Maybe the novelty is wearing thin on some of you, but it’s divertingly entertaining for the rest of us.

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6. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) is German director Werner Herzog’s attempt to explain the internet. For a thing we are all connected to and for something that has become so dominant so quick, I was mesmerized learning about it. Lo and Behold is a fascinating look behind the motherboard. It may all seem like science fiction, but with Herzog behind the documentary camera, it all feels almost as if it were fantasy.

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5. This is another re-watch. I probably saw Rumble in the Bronx (1995) several times on TV as a kid. Jackie Chan movies were a wonderful tonal shift from the American style action flicks. Rumble, First Strike, and the Drunken Master movies were among my favorites. And this hasn’t really changed. Revisiting it again, I am perhaps more impressed with the action sequences and balance of danger and whimsy. It’s VERY Jackie Chan. He’s completely and unwaveringly good and noble (seemingly, his best friend is a 10 year old boy in a wheelchair). Conversely, the villainous gang members are wicked and heartless (except for the sexy Françoise Yip who warms up to Jackie). It’s all a silly spectacle with loads of bad dubbing, hammy lines, and cheesy plot contrivances, but it’s hard not to enjoy those too. Great fights and dangerous stunts. Anita Mui (who plays Jackie’s stepmother in Legends of the Drunken Master) is hilarious whenever she’s on screen. Directed by frequent Chan collaborator, Stanley Tong.

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4. There have been so many teen sex comedies chronicling intrepid and frequently awkward kids on the daunting quest of trying to lose their virginity. The Last American Virgin (1982) is a remake of director Boaz Davidson’s own 1978 Israeli film, Lemon Popsicle. The story follows Gary, Rick, and David, three high school buds learning about sex the fun way. And the embarrassing way. And the heartbreaking way. Gary (Lawrence Monoson) loves Karen (Diane Franklin), but Karen loves Rick (Steve Antin). Classic. It’s a funny and kind of sweet slice-of-life movie with a good cast and all the melodrama raging teen hormones can give you. It is perhaps doubly fascinating to consider this film on a continuum of coming-of-age teen movies. Perhaps closer to Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) than Rebel Without a Cause (1955). And the music! Oingo Boingo, U2, Devo, The Police, The Cars, Tommy Tutone, and more. It’s a wall-to-wall killer soundtrack.

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3. If you think have ridiculous neighbors, this documentary is for you. Shut Up, Little Man (2011) chronicles the unlikely cult phenomenon of two roommates surreptitiously audio-recorded their next door neighbors’ absurdly comical drunken verbal battles through the walls. Tapes were made and shared among friends and randos and then efforts for expanding the recordings of dubious legality into other mediums for profit. It’s weird, funny, and kind of heart breaking in a way. And it’s exactly the type of oddball subject I demand when viewing a documentary.

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2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) is a darkly whimsical western anthology film about mortality and the wild frontier from the Coen Brothers. And it is as sublime as it is cruel. Like many of their previous movies (Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, Hail Caesar!), Buster Scruggs is more a philosophically nihilistic windup with the joke being that there ultimately isn’t a real punchline. It’s bleak and morbid and irreverent, but ultimately unfolds like a shaggy dog story, where the journey is more important than the destination. Sort of like life itself. This rather bloody and dusty trail may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will prove to be a rewarding diversion for those with an appetite for the gleefully grim.

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1. Young People Fucking (2007) is a Canadian sex comedy that does something special for a comedy. It’s actually funny. Not only that; it’s clever. Written and directed by Martin Gero and Aaron Abrams, the film follows multiple couples at different phases of a relationship over the course of one night and demonstrates how the complex act of sex plays out for each. The big cast is balanced well, expertly written, and wonderfully acted. Sometimes painfully awkward, sometimes hopeful and touching, Y.P.F. (as it is alternately known) is consistently entertaining. I’m always a little biased when a comedy genuinely makes me laugh out loud.

And if you like my movie lists, I also do comics on Patheos.

Beyond Bat Country: Madness in Every Direction

Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman

That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.

"Let's get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?"

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?”

All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.

the reptile zoo

the reptile zoo

Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.

Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.

Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in RangoFear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.

Get in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.

2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.

3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.

4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.

5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!

6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.

7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.

8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.

9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.

10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011

Tucci for the Money

Charlie Chaplin. Woody Allen. Albert Brooks. Jacques Tati. Sydney Pollack. Warren Beatty. Clint Eastwood. Mel Gibson. Recognize the pattern yet? How about actors who are also famous for directing—many times in films they themselves star in. They played iconic roles like the Tramp, Monsieur Hulot, Dick Tracy, Braveheart and many more. These are huge names that bear much weight whether they are exercising their skills behind the camera or in front of it, but for every big name that crosses the rift from actor to director (or vice versa) there is a sea of smaller names that have also dabbled on both sides. Danny DeVito is remembered more for his appearances in Taxi (TV), Batman Returns (1992), or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (TV) and most Americans probably don’t hear his name and instantly think of the director of Matilda (1996) and The War of the Roses (1989), but even Danny DeVito is still a fairly famous name. Raise your hands if you know and love Mr. Stanley Tucci.

I probably first saw Stanley Tucci in the family comedy about the lovably large St. Bernard, Beethoven (1992). Tucci played one of the sleazy, comic henchmen. Despite his seemingly small role in a quaint little dog movie, he and fellow henchman, (played by Oliver Platt) stole every scene they were in. Tucci is one of those great and talented character actors who you see in every movie, but whose name you always have trouble recalling. From flicks like Undercover Blues (1993), Road to Perdition (2002), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julie & Julia (2009), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010) and many more, Stanley Tucci is an extremely enjoyable performer to watch. Which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to Big Night (1996) and The Impostors (1998), both of which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Big Night was co-written by Joseph Tropiano and co-directed by Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger, who also has a small role in the film). It is the intimate story of food, family, and all other things Italian (I admit my bias here). Primo (Tony Shalhoub, Monk) and Secondo (Tucci) are two brothers who have immigrated from Italy to find a new life in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo is chasing the American dream while Primo cooks tirelessly away in the kitchen of their Italian restaurant. A particularly humorous gimmick comes from Primo’s disdain for change and the simple American palate that cannot appreciate his authentic cuisine. Their restaurant is losing money and to make matters more degrading, their pandering competitors across the street have booming business. Secondo goes behind Primo’s back and makes a deal with Pascal (Ian Holm, Alien), the seedy owner of the other more popular restaurant. Pascal claims he can get jazz singer Louis Prima to dine at their restaurant. All they have to do is invest everything they have left and blow it all on one big night to save them from bankruptcy. The film follows all of the preparations for the big night, from inviting guests and ordering flowers to the meticulous creation of all of the wonderfully appetizing foods. Folks show up from all over as they patiently await the celebrity’s arrival and enjoy mouth-watering Italian dishes: the prized dish being the legendary timpano. They dine and dance the night away and the courses of food and entertainment just keeps on coming. Hearts will be broken, dreams will be crushed, backs will be stabbed, and serious lessons about food, family, and pride will be learned before it all comes to a cathartic conclusion.

Big Night is a quiet and modest film with much substance and subtlety. It creates many small human moments and maintains an endearing intimacy. Big Night knows that a great Italian dinner does not just involve food. It is a delicate sculpture, a calculated symphony of smells and sounds. We start with the appetizers and gradually build until we reach the main course…but it doesn’t end there. More courses of good food come out to ease us out of the dining experience. And then we breath deep. We talk. We laugh. We cry. We play games. We tell stories. We have drinks. Tucci’s film is a bittersweet one and it will be hard not to be enchanted by its good-intentioned charms. The cast includes Tucci, Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), Tony Shalhoub (Monk), Ian Holm (Alien), Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet), Allison Janney (Juno), Campbell Scott (Rodger Dodger), Marc Anthony, and Liev Schreiber (Sphere).

After the success of Big Night Tucci returned to the directing chair for a pleasant throwback to classic screwball comedies with The Impostors. Tucci plays Arthur, an out of work actor in Depression-era New York City. When Arthur and his roommate, Maurice (Oliver Platt), accidentally insult a hot-headed Shakespearean drunken hack (played by Alfred Molina) they find themselves fleeing from the police and wind up stowing away on a cruise ship inhabited by a cracked assortment of peculiar personalities. Like Big Night, The Impostors has assembled another great cast of wonderful character actors. In addition to Tucci, Platt (The Three Musketeers), and Molina (Chocolat); Tony Shalhoub (Galaxy Quest) is a Russian spy bent on blowing up the bourgeois pigs aboard the ship; Lili Taylor (The Addiction) is a soft-spoken stewardess in love with a guy who can barely speak English (Matt McGrath); Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) is an abused actor; Campbell Scott (in one of his best roles this side of Rodger Dodger) is a deranged, fascistic German crewman; a shrewish gold-digging Dana Ivey (Home Alone 2) and her exceptionally morose and homely daughter played by Hope Davis (About Schmidt) are the destitute aristocrats; Allen Corduner (Topsy-Turvy) is the timid captain who pines for his lost love; Isabella Rossellini (The Saddest Music in the World) is a deposed queen running away from it all; Steve Buschemi (Fargo) is suicidal crooner, Happy Franks; Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints) is an aggressively sexually ambivalent (or perhaps not so) tennis enthusiast; Michael Emerson (Lost) is Molina’s long-suffering assistant; Allison Janney (The West Wing) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) are tough-talking criminals; and Woody Allen (Bananas) is a neurotic New York playwright (what else). The cast alone is reason enough to watch the film. Tucci is a very generous director in that he gives each performer plenty of time to shine and have fun with their screwy roles.

The story is little more than a set-up to get talented character actors to play funny personalities and do slap-sticky things in quick succession. The Impostors is another modest film who finds the most joy in just assembling the characters and having fun (during the end credits the entire cast dances off of the set and into the street). It is very apparent that everyone is having a great time and it’s quite infectious. The gags are clever and refreshing. At times the film is reminiscent of Hope and Crosby, at other times it is like Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers and there is even a silent movie scene at the beginning that hearkens back to the work of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The Impostors is a fine throwback to classic comedy and the humor is refreshingly gentle and nonabrasive.

Some have complained that Tucci’s directorial work is very stagy (in these two examples as well as in Joe Gould’s Secret and Blind Date). The whole spectacle seems to be rather distant and stagnant at times, as if the material were better suited to a theater performances. This may be the case, but I would never kid you by saying that the simple approach is not effective or enjoyable. Tucci seems to write and direct more for the actors rather than for the razzmatazz of the camera. His camera does not employ grandiose sweeping shots and it is not full of intense closeups. The technical wizardry is minimized completely. Tucci’s films are more about watching the actors create characters using only what abilities God has given them. The photography and editing are merely there to format the story for a cinema screen. I happen to find his technique refreshing and very effective for the flavor of stories he is telling. So maybe Big Night and The Impostors are stagey. Kill me, they’re still wonderful movies. Watch ‘em.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 10, 2011

Best Movies of 2012

I have actually talked about a few pretty solid movies that came out this past year. While some highly anticipated movies may have failed to live up to their immense hype, fear not! for there was cinematic redemption in 2012. I think I shall bequeath to you, dear ones, my own personal Favorite Films of 2012. (I am so sorry I did not see any 2012 documentaries).

1.fly-with-the-crane 2

Rui Jun Li’s Fly With the Crane feels more like a National Geographic documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. This movie throws you into rural China and makes you a fly on the wall to the events as they unfold. Retired coffin-maker Lao Ma (Xing Chun Ma) is an old man and his adult children treat him more and more like a bothersome piece of furniture. In addition the government is outlawing burials. How will Lao Ma’s soul fly with the crane if he is cremated and turned into smoke? It might be the most unglamorous movie and unromantic about death. This is a devastating, subtle, and unflinching film. I left the theater feeling uncomfortable at how disturbingly sad and real it all felt. Who was the hero? Did he win? What was won? Perhaps I rate this one highest because it left the biggest impact on me. Months later I’m still thinking about it.

2.once-upon-a-time-in-anatolia-2

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (technically made in 2011, but it’s receiving much recognition this year) was a beautiful and enigmatic Turkish police investigation movie. How many other films about boring law enforcement procedures could be this steeped in lush cinematography, subtle existentialism, and dense mustaches? It’s the sort of movie that only moves as much as it has to because it knows a keen observer will be immersed in the story. I was never certain where the plot was heading or what it what it would ultimately say in the end, but that detailed unpredictability made it interesting and every moment was pregnant with possibility. The film feels like real life, but better photographed. Color me captivated.

3.Holy-Motors-2

Possibly the most alienating movie on my list is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Actor Denis Lavant gets into a limousine and goes from place to place donning various inexplicable disguises and acting out even more freakish and varied scenarios. It is a grotesque, bizarre, surreal, episodic, and aimlessly unpredictable movie. It is definitely not for everyone. While I’m certain there are countless interpretations I can only share my own. The man is a performer (whether or not he is a literal actor or a symbolic everyman is up to you). He only knows how to change roles and perform, even if nobody is watching. So who is he really? Who are we? Who are we pretending to be and why and when will we stop? What would we do if we stopped? What would be left?

4.monsieur-lazhar-2

There is a surplus of awkwardly manipulative educator movies. That said, Monsieur Lazhar, Philippe Falardeau’s French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag)—with a concealed past—who becomes a teacher following an unexpected suicide, sidesteps many a cliche. The characters feel real and down to earth and their pain is not overblown for cinematic effect. Emotions are treated with realism and respect. It was refreshing. It’s a humorous and telling examination of the teacher-student relationship. I daresay it is the best teacher movie since Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).

5.moonrise-kingdom-2

Love it or hate it. For all the gripes I might have with sylized filmmaker, Wes Anderson, I can honestly say I have enjoyed most of his movies. Moonrise Kingdom might be up there with Rushmore (1998) for me. If it is a smirk at immature romances or a critical prod at supposed mature ones or a humorous juxtaposition it doesn’t matter. It’s beautiful to look at with its creative imagery and very funny in its surreal deadpanned execution. That it achieves its greater intent is just the icing on the cake.

6.chicken with plums 2

From the same mind that penned Persepolis (2007) comes another tale of humor and angst in Iran. Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Chicken With Plums is crafted into an expertly visually entertaining film. Satrapi even aids with directing alongside Vincent Paronnaud. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) stars as a musician, father, and husband who simply decides to die. The results feel like Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapting Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It manages to find a comfortable tone betwixt whimsy and anguish. It’s an innovative film that finds clever ways to express some of its more surreal elements. It’s a little film in many ways but it’s everything it needs to be.

7.Beasts of the Southern Wild - 6

Beasts of the Southern Wild is not a perfect film, but it’s one of those instances where I admire it’s audacity and ambition so much that I forgive it many of its shortcomings. Pint-sized protagonist, Quvenzhané Wallis, gives a wonderfully captivating performance as Hushpuppy in this imaginative examination of Hurricane Katrina as a mythic fable. The music and cinematography really help this film to soar as well. This movie showed me things that I have just never seen in a movie before. Watch Benh Zeitlin’s film for a taste of what else film can be. Was it this year’s Tree of Life? I don’t know about that but it does utilize the medium in some innovative ways.

8.sleepwalk with me 2

I am a fan of comedian Mike Birbiglia so natuarlly I really enjoyed his directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me. It’s a solid indy comedy that manages to feel fresh and personal rather than merely quirky and offbeat. Birbiglia essentially plays a younger version of himself (alter-ego Matt Pandamiglio), a struggling comedian with a stress-related sleeping disorder and some serious concerns regarding his potential future with his girlfriend. It’s a simple and very relateable story. My only complaint is that the comedy album and one man show it is based on is a lot funnier. But translating a series of jokes into a humorous drama film is no easy trick either. Kudos, Mike.

9.skyfall 2

James Bond was back and more satisfying this year with Skyfall. This time we get a glimpse at 007’s destructibility and his inner demons. Director Sam Mendes brings us psychologically closer to the famous spy than ever before. It’s wonderfully shot, has great brainless action, and there are many nods to past elements that made the character such a staple. It actually feels closer to the more classic, grittier British espionage thrillers of the 60’s that weren’t James Bond.

10.In Another Country 2

In Another Country hit me at just the right time. Three French women (all played by Isabelle Huppert) have small relationship-based adventures at the same bed and breakfast. I saw this film just a few months after moving to South Korea. Sang-soo Hong’s character-driven nonlinear vignettes are strange, humorous, and fascinating. Like I said, I am somewhat biased as I really appreciate the clash of western culture against Korean culture. Many of the incidents in the movie were quite familiar to me.   Its a humble and intimate movie, but it’s definitely worth a look.

What the heck? One more.

11.pirogue 2

The Pirogue was another simple but human story. As a movie about desperation at sea in a tiny, vulnerable vessel I am sure it will be upstaged by Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation. Moussa Touré’s Senegalese movie follows several men as they attempt a dangerous and illegal sojourn to Europe in the hopes of finding work and a better life. Their tragic fates are shared by many unfortunate real life immigrants. For a film that takes place entirely on a boat it never gets boring. There is always energy and tension. More than just a film for Europe and Africa, this is a film for Arizona too.

And one more extra. Because you are worth it.

12.comedy 2

This last one will definitely divide people. It is not a fun movie. The ironically titled The Comedy is to hipsters what Easy Rider (1969) was to hippies. Perhaps there is more romance and mythos to hippiedom, but that’s just the point. It’s the end of an era and if this newer era of hipsterdom appears vapid and less than enthralling then its conclusion can only be merciful this time around. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s, Tim Heidecker stars (Eric Wareheim also makes an appearance) as a pathetic and revolting aging hipster whose thinning insulation of irony is steadily revealing that there is just not much too him. Strip away the aversion to sincerity these characters have and they are totally empty. It is an occasionally funny and frequently uncomfortable movie that questions just how far can the hipster’s ironic ideology go before it burns out.

Note: I have since seen Django Unchained and Seven Psychopaths. Had I seen them earlier my list probably would have looked a little different.

The Movies You Did Nazi

So you’ve probably seen some of these but for the sake of the Nazi/not-see pun I ran with the title.

Nazis make great villains. They’re easy to spot, easy to pinpoint in history, and easy to hate. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Shock Waves (Peter Cushing plays a Nazi zombie in that one), it’s always been easy to hate these guys. Nobody’s going to forget Christolph Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds anytime soon. In eager anticipation of the new movie Iron Sky (2012)—where Nazis on a secret moon-base prepare to attack earth in space zeppelins (Gingrich, you fool!!!)—I am reminded of other some Nazis that made it to a ripe old age to be bad guys for a younger generation.

Marathon Man (1976), directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy), is a pretty famous one, but I am surprised by the number of people who still haven’t seen it. It’s back when Dustin Hoffman was the hottest ticket in town, but the real reason to watch the film is the menace of the evil Nazi, Dr. Szell, played by the illustrious Laurence Olivier (Sleuth, Rebecca, Spartacus). I won’t waste time with the intricacies of the wonderfully thrilling plot, but the several scenes that make this movie famous should be good enough for anybody. An incognito Dr. Szell being recognized by Jewish Holocaust survivors in New York City as he tries to get his precious diamonds appraised is a fantastic bit of cinematic suspense. This scene was also spoofed in an episode of Seinfeld. Then there’s the infamous dentist sequence in which Olivier tortures Hoffman with dental equipment. He’s a Nazi AND a dentist? Can this guy get more evil? Oh, he just murdered those innocent bystanders.

“Is it safe?”

Laurence Olivier appeared in another 70s Nazi movie, only this time as an old Jewish man trying to solve a mystery in The Boys From Brazil (1978). Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) directs this sort of loopy conspiracy theory plot about geriatric Nazis stuck in South America (much like Szell). The Nazis are played by James Mason (Lolita, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Gregory Peck (Captain Horatio Hornblower, The Guns of Navarone). That’s right. Peck. Gregory Peck plays a Nazi. Not only that but he’s supposed to be Dr. Josef Mengele! Atticus Finch is Mengele in this movie!

I say this movie is a little loopy because it centers around Peck and Mason making dozens of clones of Adolf Hitler and planting them all around the world, strategically re-staging all the original Hitler’s boyhood traumas (nature vs. nurture schtick). The idea of old men living in the jungle hatching a convoluted plot to make an army of Hitlers is, well, just kinda nuts. As far as conspiracy theory flicks go, Capricorn 1 was probably better, but I like The Boys from Brazil more just because it’s so weird. Detective Yiddish Olivier is also a fun plot element. As a Holocaust survivor he’s got to settle the score. He has a personal stake in all of this. It’s a fun, hokey movie with science gone wild and some dog attacks. Steve Guttenberg (Police Academy) is also in it, but he gets killed off pretty quick.

Stanley Kramer (Inherit the WindHigh Noon) has produced and directed many films about race relations and important political issues and while Pressure Point (1962) might not stack up so well next to The Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it’s a decent flick all the same. The main feature was directed by Hubert Cornfield. The great Sidney Poitier (SneakersIn the Heat of the Night) plays an unflinching psychiatrist who must get to the bottom of why a racist American Nazi (played by Bobby Darin) keeps having nightmares. The film is a little awkward—I chiefly blame the bookend cliche of the “That reminds me of the time when…” conceit, but the movie as a whole is not a total waste of time. Poitier and Darin are both very good and there are some truly surreal sequences that try to delve into the psyche of the patient. Grown men trying to climb out of sinks, voices emerging out of the wrong mouths, swinging meat, pipes that turn into knives, and a game of tic-tac-to that gets more than a little out of hand are all some of the fascinating images you will take away from this otherwise fairly forgettable movie. The cinematography is pretty solid all around.

Peter Falk (Murder by Death, Wings of Desire) also has a brief appearance and is credited as being a ‘special guest star.’ I never understood having ‘special guest star’ for a movie. Like they don’t normally star in this movie but here they are. Pressure Point is a little stagey, but well acted and some memorably weird sequences. It reminded me vaguely of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Really quick shout out to John Landis’s The Blues Brothers (1980). Let’s face it, this movie is an overlong and gloriously bombastic tribute to great blues musicians and wild car chases. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and John Belushi (Animal House) and a host of awesome comedy and blues cameos make this John Landis (An American Werewolf in London) flick a classic, but don’t forget Henry Gibson (Magnolia) as an uptight neo-Nazi out for revenge against the Blues Brothers for wrecking their Skokie-like protest (all before Danny Kaye did Skokie for TV too). The cops, hillbillies, crazed flame-torch wielding exes, the army, and everybody else was chasing the Blues Brothers, why not Nazis too? I especially love their homosexual confession as they plummet to their deaths.

The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Man in the White Suit with Alec Guinness. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit with Gregory Peck. The Man in the Moon with Jim Carrey. How about The Man in the Glass Booth with Maximilian Schell? Schell (The Black Hole, Topkapi) was the defense attorney in Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961), but it is his captivating and manic performance as Arthur Goldman in Arthur Hiller’s The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) that really caught my attention. I can only say Hiller (The Out of Towners, Silver Streak) directed it because it is Schell’s performance that makes it. This is such a bizarre and interesting film. Maximilian Schell plays a wealthy eccentric Holocaust survivor living in luxury in New York City. Prone to both irreverent outbursts critical of religion and flashback spells that make him temporarily catatonic, Arthur Goldman is a strange persona indeed, but he just gets stranger. When a group of Israelis kidnap him with the intent of putting him on trial for war crimes (they believe Goldman to be a falsified alias), Goldman goes totally berserk, but not in the way you might expect. He completely shifts personas and becomes the Nazi war criminal he is accused of being. He insists on defending himself and that he be allowed to wear his Nazi uniform. The idiosyncratic Jewish New Yorker and Holocaust survivor metamorphosizes, without batting an eye, into a barking Nazi lunatic with total devotion to the extinct Cause. During the wild trial Goldman must be kept in a glass booth to keep his offensive testimonies and unhinged craziness in check. When it appears that much of the evidence against Goldman is forged (and by Goldman himself) the Jewish court has to re-evaluate everything. The audience is confused too. Who has he been fooling and why? We knew Goldman was nuts but which persona was his fake one? It’s not as clear as we once thought. This is a fascinating and bizarre film that really resonated with me. It’s been weeks and I still can’t shake it. Is it the story of post-war trauma or Jewish guilt? Is it Schell’s insane Oscar-nominated performance? Is it the chilling final minutes? I don’t know, but I can say that despite the film’s cinematic shortcomings I would recommend it.

Interestingly, The Man in the Glass Booth was also based on a novel written by the great Robert Shaw (Jaws, The Sting) who also played a Nazi himself in Battle of the Bulge (1965) opposite Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men).

Nearly 70 years after the war and Nazis are still iconic screen villains. Sometimes serious (Schindler’s List), sometimes silly (Dead Snow), but always recognizable. If you are looking for some truly different films about Nazis check out some of the titles I’ve mentioned in this article. Some of these should be fairly easy to come by because they’re so famous (Marathon Man, The Blues Brothers), but I would encourage you to check out the others as they offer something much more offbeat than your typical fair.