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

Kill yourself:

We should quit while we're ahead.

We should quit while we’re ahead.

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

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

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

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

Meh:

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

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

Remember "Badlands"?

Remember “Badlands”?

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

That might make you a vegetarian.

This might make you a vegetarian.

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

You can fly? That's weirdly charming.

You can fly? That’s weirdly charming.

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

Getting More Interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godzilla could still kick it's ass.

Godzilla could still kick it’s ass.

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

Here we go:

Choke me.

Choke me.

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

Deja vu!

Déjà vu!

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

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

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

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

Animals!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop taking things so seriously and enjoy life:

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

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

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

beauty is embarrassing

Throw down that strongbox and answer the question.

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

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

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

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

Three parts greatness:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1…

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

Ever stalwart:

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

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

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

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

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

Apex twins:

Love is hard sometimes.

Love is hard sometimes.

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

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

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

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

What did you see? Anything good?

The Rape of “Fantasia” — Italian Style!

Walt Disney produced one of the most daring animated feature achievements in history when his studio full of talented artists developed Fantasia (1940). From bow to stern Fantasia is a masterwork, a wondrous marriage of classical compositions and powerful animation. It’s beautiful, humorous, imaginative, and willing to surprise at every turn with each new animated technique used to interpret the gorgeous music. Several years after this celebrated film a little Italian movie was made, a sardonic response or riff on this immortal classic.

12More recently I had discovered that my local library carried an old, worn-out VHS of this strange foreign artifact and, as I’d been searching for it for quite some time, I made ready use of my library card. Sadly it is not available in the United States on DVD of Blu-ray yet. With the film in my bookbag, I traveled to yet another library (my old alma mater and then-current place of employment) to utilize their free VCRs. There I was, alone with my thoughts, a headset, a 9 inch TV screen, and a scratchy, used copy of Bruno Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo (1976).

An over-confident narrator informs us that we will be witnessing an unprecedented event: brilliant, original animations set to legendary classical music compositions…until Hollywood calls him mid-speech and tells him that someone named Bizney or Frisney already did that in 1940. BUT THE FILM MUST GO ON! And go on it does.

13A group of embittered old ladies are harvested into a livestock truck to be escorted to the theater where their instruments await. With the geriatric band of curmudgeonly females in place, the pompous, bloated, cigar-chomping conductor enters (he reminded me of a svelter Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life). The tacit animator is brought out of the dungeon to sketch the music live as it is played. The animator’s slanted desk provides much opportunity for slapstick gags and it proves to be a constant struggle for the mousey, mustachioed artist. With the warped live-action re-imagined elements of Fantasia set, the orchestra comes to life.

11Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is first on the program. A sad, dumpy satyr lopes along through a lush garden inhabited by sleek, sultry, and noticeably nude wood nymphs. The satyr, recognizing his lack of physical appeal, attempts to beautify himself, but nothing works and he gradually shrinks away into misfortune and comical melancholy. The piece presents very human insecurities regarding self-image and unfulfilled desires for sex and love. Like many a great comedy, this short has fun at the expense of its doomed protagonist. This piece has some wonderful sight gags and clever bits of surrealism (such as tempting trees made of legs and boobs, etc.).

You couldn’t have a film like this and not have the ornery conductor beat up on the old ladies. So he does. Don’t worry. But right after his assault on granny we get Antonín Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46. This cartoon features a man who will do anything to get away from his intolerable society. He leaves the rocks to build a hut, but everyone in the rocks copies him. He next builds a house and a tower, but the rest of the mindless population just follows suit. He can’t get away! It all culminates in a humorous game of Simon Says that doesn’t go exactly the way the little rebel hoped.

17There is a slop break for the orchestra and nasty tins full of gruel are ladled out to the old ladies and the animator (who fights to keep it on his slanted drawing desk) while the conductor and the narrator enjoy a decadent candlelit meal. When all the food is gone and the woeful animator, still not having ingested a morsel, reaches for a Coke that is snatched away and glugged down by the greedy conductor. He then tosses the bottle carelessly into the audience. Taking cues from both his own anger and the image of a flying bottle, the animator proceeds to sculpt another brilliant short to the tune of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro.

6This is perhaps the best segment of the whole film. A nearly empty Coke bottle is tossed by a careless astronaut and left on some unknown planet. The remaining drops ooze out of its glass prison and develop eyes, then a nose, sentience, and finally locomotion. The amorphous blob evolves into more complex and surreal organisms and soon an entire food chain and ecosystem is formed and we are following a parade of boneless, squishy dinosaur-like creatures to Boléro‘s wonderful tempo. A mischievous and rather unscrupulous ape-like creature uses a club to kill random critters. As the tormented procession of evolutionary oddities marches on they are badgered by tornadoes, the cross, a spear, a tank, freeways, and are ultimately done in by a booming metropolis. An enormous statue of a man stands alone, but it too finally crumbles and the ape-like creature emerges from the wreckage and shrugs.

5Back in “reality” a gorilla attacks the animator, it snows in the theater, and there is an impromptu dance sequence. Then it’s back to the drawing board for Jean Sibelius’ Valse Triste. This is the saddest piece on the program as it features the optimistic hallucinations of a starving-to-death stray cat (think Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”). The cat lives in a ruin of an old house that sits like an island amidst a see of identical cubed buildings. The cat imagines what the house might have been like in its glory days and soon phantoms of past owners appear and fade away. Hungry and alone the cat fades along with the phantoms and what was once a glorious home full of stories, art, and character gets the wrecking ball.

14Next it’s Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major. A fastidious cartoon bee meticulously sets her table (a daffodil full of pollen). Her silverware, napkins, and television all in place and the sun just right she prepares to dine, but is disturbed by a necking couple out for an amorous tumble in the field. This delightfully amusing piece is punctuated by a very funny escalating altercation between the conductor and the animator. Will the arts never see eye to eye?

The last musical piece is Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (which was featured in Fantasia 2000). The music ever so cleverly reinterprets the saga of Adam and Eve. The twist in this version is that the people won’t take the fruit and so the snake eats it himself…and gets thrust into a hellish world of consumerism and pornography (perhaps the same thing?). The snake is tormented by giant demons and exposed to all manner of diabolical and sexually-charged advertisements and other harvests of materialism.

15When the cartoon concludes the animator runs off with the cleaning woman and the orchestra folds, leaving the narrator with no other choice but to ask the dimwitted “Frankenstini” to find a finale. The finale is a grotesque amalgam of images, violence, and what-have-you set to a disruptive cacophony of musical pieces overlapping each other until finally reaching its delirious apex in a violent explosion.

I’ve heard differing arguments for this film; some praising it, others seeing it as a trivial parody of a classic. I admire this film. It is not Fantasia nor does it wish to be. Fantasia was a beautifully imagined experiment executed with precise artistic flourishes and a languid pace. It is an undisputed classic. Allegro Non Troppo might not be as artistically complex, but it is every bit as cunning and all the more biting with its sharp, sardonic wit. Fantasia dealt with what music makes us feel and imagine and did an astounding job. Allegro Non Troppo uses music to conjure cynical but humorous ideas of society and humanity. It deals with adult themes such as urban development, isolation, modernization, death, pain, frustration, sexual longing, and societal disenfranchisement and it does so all with a wry sense of whimsy. Nothing is ever on so grand a scale as it was in Disney’s classic, but this humble film’s intimacy places it in a unique position for a more subtle social satire without distracting presumptuousness. Only a comedy could muse so sharply and eloquently about such human topics. And some segments beautifully parody Fantasia, such as the satyr bit when compared to the centaur scene or their own distinct takes on the march of evolutionary progress.

9I think the films compliment each other nicely and the music is just as lovely and well utilized to convey an idea or story, although perhaps not quite as memorable. The idea of setting clever toons to classic tunes is a fun one. Heck, even Tiny Toon Adventures did an episode like that. I recommend this film (if you can find a copy of this elusive specimen) for anyone who loved Fantasia…or hated it.

Top 1o Reasons to See Allegro Non Troppo

1. Old ladies get beat up and mistreated. Comedy gold!

2. Although the animation might not be as colorful or grandiose as Fantasia, it has a great style all it’s own that Disney could never have pulled off.

3. One thing Allegro Non Troppo does that might suit today’s ADHD audiences is keep all of its musical segments very short. I love Fantasia, but as a kid I always felt like some of those things went on forever.

4. It’s not the artistic slap in Disney’s face you might be expecting, but it’s probably close.

5. The Boléro sequence is a great bit of animation that definitely rivals Disney’s portrayal of the dinosaurs. The difference being that the Fantasia sequence you might show to a biology class, the Allegro Non Troppo sequence you might show to a biology, history, philosophy, or theology class. Think the intro to the animated Dilbert TV show, but much more sly and smarmy.

26. I won’t tell you it’s more sophisticated than Monty Python’s stuff, but some of it definitely reminded me of their style of humor.

7. The animated interaction with the music is subtle but very effective.

8. You might actually laugh and cry. Maybe you won’t. Shut up and watch it.

9. How often do you get to see this much artistic talent coupled with great classical music AND a snarky sense of humor?

10. It’s cleverness and irreverence is overshadowed only by its humorousness.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 2, 2011