The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVII – Wrapping Up 2015

 As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science.
Although, it must be said, I did not dislike any of the films this time. Even the lowest ones on the list might be worth checking out and I’m glad I watched them.
Meh/Misguided:

“What was that? You backwards troglodyte, you. Have some wine.”

The Last Supper (1995), directed by Stacey Title, has a good premise, but quickly proves it’s not as clever as it thinks it is. A group of pretentious college liberals decide to poison conservative idiots over dinner and bury them in the backyard. It’s quirky. It’s dark. But it’s a little too smug for its own good. It presents simplistic caricatures of right wing beliefs (some of which are genuinely held by a frightening portion of the population, but they are played so ham-fistedly it fails to register as meaningful) and pretty much zero attempt at presenting a left wing perspective (apart from murderous hatred toward their ideological adversaries). Bill Paxton (Twister) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy) make memorable appearances, but it is probably Courtney B. Vance (The Hunt for Red October) who steals most of the show with his cold, calculating performance as the group’s ringleader. Also stars Cameron Diaz (Charlie’s Angels).

Not exactly Don Bluth.

What do you get if you cross The Secret of NIMH (1982) with Watership Down (1978) and try to tell a gritty noir with cats? You get the bizarre German cartoon Felidae (1994). While I don’t count this as a good film, I can give it some points for trying something offbeat and I did want to know where the story was going. My beef: you can be an adult animation without being so forced and unnatural about it. The unintentionally awkward cursing and gory violence is so over the top at times that it feels more like South Park than Chinatown. The serial murder mystery itself is a bit of a letdown and our protagonist, Francis, is so feckless and flat that it barely registers when he’s fleeing danger or having casual sex with feral felines. It doesn’t work, but as a curiosity, it’s not a total waste of time and the animation isn’t bad.

Stop it and make “Hellboy 3.”

Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) looks gorgeous and was eagerly anticipated by me, but something was missing. In its earnest attempt to pay homage to classic haunted house films like The Haunting (1963) and The Innocents (1961), it just comes off as a bad aping of those superior films. I was also reminded of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and the wild color palette was reminiscent of the exaggerated Italian horror flicks of Mario Bava (Black Sabbath) and Dario Argento (Suspiria). Hearkening back to such classic ghost-mansion cinema can be a good thing…as long as it improves upon or diverts from them in some innovative way. I still love del Toro and I love the sumptuousness of the costumes and sets and the dense atmosphere, but a romantic horror tale that lacks both decent romance and horror counts as a bit of a misfire for me. Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and The Devil’s Backbone are all marvelous examples of the slowburn terrors that lurk in the Mexican auteur’s wheelhouse. Maybe my problem is I watch so many films that they have to work extra hard to titillate me.
Interestinger:

As a kid I remember reading in an old Guinness Book about Hoffman portraying the widest age range ever in this film. I wonder if anybody has it beat yet.

Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) directed the strange revisionist western Little Big Man (1970) starring Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man). The film—told in flashback—may be one of the earlier examples of cinema being sympathetic to the Native Americans, portraying them as victims of a truly horrific genocide and the white Americans as the evil, arrogant savages stealing lands without mercy or feeling. It’s quite episodic and perhaps a little too cartoonish for the seriousness of the subject matter, but it’s odd quirkiness makes it at least a watchably uneven history lesson. I enjoyed Hoffman and Faye Dunaway (Network), but ultimately the portrayals of the Native tribes and the American generals were so comic-booky and naive, it took away from what could have been a very impactful film.

“I need you to scream directly into my soul.”

Toby Jones (The Mist) stars as an English sound engineer working on Italian horror flicks in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It’s a slow, seemingly plotless movie that lingers on one timid sound man’s gradual descent into a subtle madness. It takes its time and you may want it to do more or go deeper, but I was engaged enough with the character that I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going…or if it would go anywhere at all.

“I do Wes Anderson and movies like this now. Murray Christmas, folks.”

Gosh, is it that time in Bill Murray’s career already? I love Bill Murray and nearly all Bill Murray movies and, while I can’t say the same for Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent (2014), I won’t say it’s not passably amusing. Murray plays a crotchety old war vet who reluctantly befriends a precocious young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in this schmaltzy dramedy that seems intent on hitting many of the predictable indie beats. Despite it’s familiar formula and a few questionable accents (my brain knows Murray too well to accept the NYC brogue he dons), the charm of the cast (including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) makes you forgive a multitude of contrivances.

Where Are We Now?:

Dumb luck.

In the spirit of Forrest Gump (heck, Little Big Man too), a lovable but somewhat simple old man recounts his wild history-romping life with peaceful detachment in Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). Allen Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) decides to escape the nursing home and embarks on a lackadaisical adventure  full of stolen money, gangsters, car chases, new friends, and at least one elephant. Throughout the modern day shenanigans, Allen tells of his life as a haphazardly globe-trotting self-taught demolitions expert devoid of political affiliations (he’s on every side of history from revolutionaries to Franco to Stalin to Truman). It’s a light-hearted comedy with a refreshingly pensive pulse.

You know Francis Ford Coppola, right? His daughter directed “A Very Murray Christmas” on Netflix. …and yeah, he did “The Godfather.”

Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) directs Gene Hackman (The French Connection) as a surveillance expert whose own past and the potential futures of those he spies upon addle him in The Conversation (1974). This is one of those gritty 70s movies your film professor talked about and I’m only just now getting to it. It’s a gradual descent into paranoia and ethical dilemmas. Also features John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon).

Prepare to be alienated.

Gregg Turkington stars as a burnt-out comedian (in the spirit of his Neil Hamburger character) hitting gig after depressing gig in the Mojave desert in Rick Alverson’s Entertainment (2015). The characters are unpleasant and dim and thoroughly exhausted. The film itself feels Lynchian in its elliptical oddness. The weird insights we get into these unlikable people and their circumstances speaks more to our own human interactions than our demand to be entertained by a clown.

Getting Higher:

Yes, one of his friends is Zero from “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age tale of three high school kids from Inglewood who wind up with a bag full of unwanted drugs is a colorful breeze. Dope (2015) hits a lot of familiar genre marks, but, like St. Vincent, gets by on its style, wit, and charisma of its lead (played by Shameik Moore). It may not be the most original story, but its attitude covers a lot.

The main villain is a lactose-intolerant transvestite obsessed with increasing his social status by way of genocide. We haven’t seen that before.

Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) were marvelous stop-motion fantasies with edge and flair to spare. Laika Studios’ The Boxtrolls (2014) is another cinematic gift brimming with imagination and style. A young boy, raised by the hunted subterranean creatures, must rediscover who he is and unite the warring civilizations. An amazing voice cast (Sir Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and more) and spectacularly realized hand-crafted visuals make this family adventure a memorable treat.

The kid is annoying in this movie…but I think that’s part of the point.

 “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook (2014)”, an Australian horror flick directed by Jennifer Kent. When a strange picture book appears on her son’s shelf, a widowed mother (Essie Davis) unwittingly unleashes a most unnerving evil presence that latches onto them. What follows is a gripping examination of the negative powers of grief and loss. The Babadook is far more insidious than a mere supernatural monster. And that is one of the reasons this chiller lingers in the memory.
Visions:

I know. I know. I’m late to the game. I still think I love “Bronson” more.

I finally watched Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) stars as a stoic mechanic and getaway driver who becomes increasingly entangled with criminals after he helps out his next door neighbor (Carey Mulligan). Like all Refn work, it’s languid and stylish and brooding and violent and absolutely hypnotic. Also stars Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, and Christina Hendricks.

Get a good look. This is what socialism looks like.

 Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) is a masterful example of heist cinema. It has all the ingredients that would eventually become the staple of the genre and, for an early outing, it hits the marks extremely well. The setup and ensuing heist is fantastic, but as things turn sour in the aftermath of the crime, blood is let and it all culminates into a magnificent, heart-pounding final act.

Why don’t we dress like this?

For people who like the 80s and like awkward indie flicks and like hilariously over-the-top gore, Turbo Kid (2015), directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, is a blast and a half. In a post-apocalyptic 1997, Mad Max-ian marauders on bicycles rule the wastelands. Where Kung Fury (2015) ran out of steam minutes into its short runtime, Turbo Kid maintains a straight face and continues to present absurd visions of violence, wild characters, and wacky dialogue delivered in earnest with unyielding confidece. It looks great and the cast does a fine job with the bonkers material. Laurence Laboeuf in particular shines as the unflappably weird Apple.

“Fan Service: The Motion Picture”

I took the Kool-aid. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a great big-budget science-fantasy speeder chase down Nostalgia Lane. There’s plenty stupid to the plot, but the cast shines (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Harrison Ford) and the special effects scintillate. It’s amazing how much more immersive and tangible models, puppets, animatronics, real locations, and constructed sets are. And humor. And engaging characters. And emotional depth. And recognizable stakes clearly established in each lightsaber and spaceship altercation. While it’s an extremely busy story and it does retread a lot of the original film’s plot points, it also just feels good to be back in the Star Wars universe. This is the movie fans have been waiting for since 1983.

The Final Crest:

Maybe don’t bring the kids to this one.

Folks who love fairy tales that don’t shy away from the darkness will undoubtedly enjoy the sumptuous Tale of Tales (2015), directed by Matteo Garrone. A series of haunting medieval yarns overlap in this anthology of old Italian fables by Giambattista Basile. Stylish and sexy but also savage and grotesque, it’s an uncompromisingly adult trek through fairy tale kingdoms that comes highly recommended. Features Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, and Vincent Cassel. Weird and beautiful.

“Nobody respects Santa Claus anymore.”

It may be hard to explain why I liked Miguel Llansó Crumbs (2015) so much. In a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia, a hunchbacked scavenger named Candy (Daniel Tadesse) embarks on a private adventure to request Santa Claus (Tsegaye Abegaz) to allow him to reclaim his Kryptonian throne and board a perpetually hovering spaceship with his woman. It’s slow and surreal and might best be described as Turbo Kid as imagined by Werner Herzog. It may not be for everyone, but it has enough innovative and clever details to entertain an odd person like me.

“I killed Mufasa. His vagina was all wrong.”

For some reason, this weird film has not left me. David Cronenberg (Videodrome) directs Jeremy Irons (Lolita) as a pair of identical twin gynecologists in this enigmatic thriller, Dead Ringers (1988). When they split sexual duties with a famous client (Geneviève Bujold) it opens up the doors of insecurity in both of them. When she discovers the trick they’ve been playing on her and ends it, the brothers begin a spiraling journey into obsession, addiction, and a longing to understand the nature of their individual identities. It’s a disturbing slow-burn, but worth it if you get Cronenberg and you want to see one of Irons’ best performances.

Whatever. Any recommendations for me?
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Facing Your Fears: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid

I loved movies my whole life. There were a lot of things I saw in movies that really freaked me out when I was young. These are the ones that left the most profound scars on my youthful psyche. I give you: The Top 13 Movies That Freaked Me Out When I Was a Kid.

Seriously. Why do this to children?

Seriously. Why do this to children?

13. Pink Elephants, Heffalumps and Woozles. Thank you, Disney, for haunting my childhood with not one, but two very scary songs about elephants. Dumbo (1941) has the “Pink Elephants on Parade” song—where drunk Dumbo and Timothy Mouse hallucinate some truly nightmarish pachyderm-themed imagery. Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare after meeting Tigger was also frightening to me as a kid.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

Eerily prophetic of what would happen to the real life Val Kilmer.

12. You’re all pigs. Most people might remember a nasty troll turning into the two-headed Eborsisk and ripping his brother in half in Willow (1988), but for me there was a scarier scene. The scene where the evil sorceress turns the army into pigs. It was a particularly jarring morph scene that rattled my young impressionable mind.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

Two decades later this image still really bothers me.

11. Pigs are still scary. The song “I Found a New Way to Walk” performed by the Oinker Sisters on Sesame Street. I actually can’t explain this one. Something about those dead-eyed, floppy mouthed, felt pig puppets with no pants singing in that black void really got to me. That the song is frighteningly catchy too only makes it worse. For whatever reason, this clip from “Sesame Street” scared me when I was little and, truth be told, still kind of unnerves me today.

That's a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

That’s a bone-chilling image to thrust into your kiddie space adventure.

10. There’s a wolfman in Star Wars?! The glowing eyes, drooling maw, nightmarishly slow and calculated movement, and that jarring noise he makes are all super scary to a kid of four. I dreaded the Tatooine cantina scene for that reason. Outside of that, the only other thing that ever bothered me in the entire Star Wars universe was when Luke takes Darth Vader’s helmet off. I think it was his scabby head.

Dwight Frye always dies.

Dwight Frye always dies.

9. Dwight Frye dies twice. He got to play two different creepy sidekick guys who die in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In the original he is the doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, who gets his comeuppance off-screen—although you do hear his cries echo through the moldy castle corridors. When Dr. Frankenstein arrives, the monster has hung Fritz’s lifeless corpse from the rafters. In the sequel he is Dr. Pretorias’ nasty henchman, Karl. The enraged monster throws him off a castle during a storm. Something about the lifeless dummy falling, arms akimbo, accompanied by Frye’s hideous screams is still unnerving in its fakeness.

Alfred Molina's first movie appearance,

Alfred Molina’s first movie appearance,

8. The first 10 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Spiders, booby traps, impalements, rotting corpses, poison darts, and a terrific sense of suspense—especially for children. Had I stuck around for the grand finale at that tender age I don’t know where I’d be now.

It's the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

It’s the ever advancing closeups that did it, man.

7. A Hitchcock trifecta. I succumbed to the terror of Psycho‘s shower sequence (1960) and I’ve had trouble with shower curtains ever since. The wonders Hitchcock must have done for the glass shower industry. The Birds (1963) also has some good scares, especially when she finds the dead old man with his eyes pecked out. No one remembers Torn Curtain (1966) and it’s not a great one, but the scene where Paul Newman murders the hitman with the oven disturbed me.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

No one ever listens to the old Chinese guy.

6. The Gremlins in Gremlins (1984). The sequel was hilarious, but Joe Dante’s first movie was nightmare fuel. It forever changed how I experience the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Those little slimy cocoons and the gleefully malevolent violence that followed really rattled my young, impressionable mind.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

Alas, no photos could be found of the nasty executioner guy.

5. The ugly torturer guy gets sandwich impaled. Remember the crappy Disney Three Musketeers from 1993 with Chris O’Donnell and Tiger Blood? The scene where Oliver Platt fights the jailer at the end is horrific. The guy is big and ugly and sweaty and half naked for starters. Then he gets slammed onto a wall of nails. He twitches and Platt moves in to inspect and he suddenly starts yelling like some sort of animal. Finally the other half of the spike-wall hinges shut—sandwiching the poor bastard in a bloody grid of iron and spikes. Rated PG.

Remember me, Eddie?

Remember me, Eddie?

4. Judge Doom gets run over by a steamroller. I was two years old when I first saw Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). It’s one of my favorite movies now, but when I was little I was scared to death of this movie. The scene where Judge Doom (Doc Brown! No!) gets run over by a steamroller is an unsettling bit of family-friendly horror. That he peels his own flattened body off the floor, sucks some helium to re-inflate himself, pops his eyeballs out, and somehow becomes stronger is just bone-chilling to a two-year old.

He doesn't eat people though. He just chews 'em and then throws 'em.

He doesn’t eat people though. He just chews ’em and then throws ’em away.

3. All the deaths in King Kong (1933). The original King Kong has also graduated to one of my favorite movies. Again, it was horrific and brutal as a child. People get chomped, smashed, and squished by a rampaging giant gorilla. Additionally, the budding dinosaur fanatic in me was flabbergasted that the apatosaurus was portrayed as a carnivore.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

Nightmare fuel, that is.

2. Gold guy’s face after getting impaled in Flash Gordon (1980). I never watched all of the ridiculously stupid-awesome movie that is Flash Gordon until I was much older and more appreciative of the camp factor. When I was but a lad, the only portion of this film I saw was the ending where green-cloaked guy with a gold mask comes out and says some dick things before he is thrown onto a big plank with spikes on it. His body flattens on the spikes and then there’s a disturbing closeup of his face: a gross sound-effect accompanies the dude’s eyes and tongue bugging out like worms emerging from a metal apple.

I couldn't find a really good still so you're just gonna have to watch the whole movie.

I couldn’t find a really good still so just take my word for it.

1. Violence and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). A lot of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies blend together for me and most of them had scary finales where everyone is captured, tortured, or horrifically killed by politically incorrect tribal guys. This first movie was the scariest to me. Never mind the animal cruelty, racism, and the fact that Tarzan is pretty much a rapist who gets lucky when his captive lady gets Stockholm syndrome. For starters, if memory serves, a pack of territorial hippos capsize the explorers’ rafts and then crocodiles get a bunch of the guys. That’s nothing. The ending is where it became too much. The surviving explorers and their porters are captured by a tribe of scary pygmies who sacrifice them to a man in a giant sloppy gorilla suit. One by one they are thrown into the pit. Before Tarzan shows up to graphically gouge apart the ape’s face with his knife, the monstrous primate repeatedly smashes Cheeta (the Chimpanzee sidekick) against a rock—the image of the big faux-ape swinging the smaller doll ape around still haunts me. Finally they use the carcass as a shield against the pygmies’ arrows before the elephants show up to trample their village. Movies were brutal back then, man. Brutal and racist.

(It was also the inspiration for my own shabby attempt at short film with Stewed).

Originally published for net.sideBar on Sept. 18, 2013.