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

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

It sucks:

Gettin' too old for this s***.

“Gettin’ too old for this s***.”

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

Meh and/or Misguided

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some fun at last:

help

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

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

"Yippee-kay-oi-vey."

“Yippee-kay-oi-vey.”

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

"Here we go."

“Here we go.”

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

Things become interesting:

"Don't ask me what it means."

“Don’t ask me what it means.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's meta."

“It’s meta.”

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

Even better:

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

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

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

wreck it ralph

“Have some candy!”

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

"Gonna punch some wolves."

“Gonna punch some wolves.”

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

Greatness beckons:

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

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

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

mishima 2

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

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

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

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

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

"Politics was always a big petty mess."

“Politics was always a big petty mess.”

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

Always left me smiling and satisfied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What, what?"

“What, what?”

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

"How about a nice spot of DIE!"

“How about a nice spot of DIE!”

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

What did you see last? Anything good?

It’s STILL Alive…

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

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

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

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

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

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

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

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

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

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

frankenstein10

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

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

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

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

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

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

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

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

Kinky.

Kinky.

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

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

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

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

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

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

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