The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode One – the first episode

You know it’s a crime. You love movies and you have your opinions. This means anytime you don’t like something people get to call you a snob. Can we help it if we see a lot of movies? Well, probably, but who would want to?

What follows are the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Bad:

“We’re such positive role models for impressionable tween girls.”

It’s yet another sad day for vampire and werewolf movies everywhere. The film I thought the least of was Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011). For clarity’s sake I have been faithfully watching every Twilight film with Rifftrax (God bless you, MST3K guys, wherever you are). We get it, Stephanie Meyer. You don’t like sex or Native Americans. Much has already been said about the schmaltz factor and the potentially detrimental ideas it puts into susceptible preteen minds. These movies are about as entertaining as watching fake high school kids try to talk to each other. So this entry is nonstop laughably bad and ultimately not much happens, but it is the closest Twilight movie to actually feeling almost like it might want to be trying to consider being a horror movie, but it still doesn’t work. I really cannot find these movie’s appeal. But then, they are not made for me. I did almost like that one werewolf chick in it though. I like a strong jawline.

All of the other films on my list I actually did like on some level. So do not be alarmed if any film should be listed so close to Breaking Dawn.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“So this is what happens when you eat the yellow snow…”

I like Frank Zappa’s music and his whole persona. That being said, I found 200 Motels (1971) to be an endurance test. I definitely respect it’s surreality and hyperactive oddness, but there are times when the product was just a little too draining and sloppily assembled. Or maybe that was Zappa’s intent all along. If the theme is all about how touring can make you crazy, I must say I would expect more from Mr. Zappa’s presentation of this thesis. He is a talented weirdo and there are some pretty solid bits speckled throughout and a lot of good songs (if you like Frank Zappa). It’s a purposely grotesque oddity and bizarro time capsule that I don’t know who exactly I would recommend it to. It stars the Mothers of Invention, Ringo Starr, Theodore Bikel, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Pretentious? Moi?!”

I had heard of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) before I had seen it, but name only. That was actually more set up than I’m sure the movie would have liked me to have. It’s a movie about a relationship (and that is all I am willing to say regarding the curious plot). It’s not that I mind that the story is purposefully difficult to follow. It’s more that I somehow felt cheated. I felt as though it were leading me toward something concrete and the initial elusiveness was just a frill. It’s not a bad movie by any means. It kept me interested for the most part. Juliet Binoche (Three Colors: Blue, Chocolat) gives a fantastic performance and the beautiful Tuscan scenery is elegant and rich. Her co-star is decidedly a little more weak and in a movie with only two characters it can stand out. I admire some of the odd choices made, but a film that wants to remind me this much of Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset really ought to be better than them.

“This whole thing might even make Lewis Carroll uncomfortable.”

This next one I had wanted to see for sometime. Louis Malle (Au Revoir Les Enfants, My Dinner With Andre) is s strange director and Black Moon (1975) is always credited as his most unusual. As a fan of Zazie dans le métro (1960) I had to see how this movie could be weirder. Trust me. It’s weirder. Minimal dialogue and plot and lots of unkempt animals. A girl wanders through a strange landscape full of gas masks, tanks, naked children, and rotund talking unicorns. The film is very much inspired by Lewis Carroll, but it has more of a twisted edge in that it seems to be treating female puberty as the proverbial Wonderland. I can’t say that I enjoyed it a lot, but I was transfixed by it’s strangeness and the sick, inexplicable turns it was willing to take. If you like badger murder and teens breastfeeding nasty old ladies then this is the film for you.

“So…women are the devil? I get it.”

Blue Valentine (2010) was one that got a lot of praise and I can see why. Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award nominated performance certainly isn’t the only thing going for it. This delicate indie film follows the deterioration of a relationship and it does a pretty good job. My only real beef with the film is that it couldn’t surprise me. Friends told me it was amazing and that I should see it and I could tell from the synopsis exactly what it was going to be. Sure enough. It was. It’s still well acted and well-constructed (cleverly bouncing back and forth between past and present) but it just couldn’t surprise me. Not that I’m a baby and need to be surprised all the time. It was sad and inevitable and in then end I just felt bad for the guy. Everyone gets dealt a bad hand here. Blue Valentine is not the sort of movie I would generally gravitate toward, but it’s well done and a great anti-romance flick. I like depressing films, but I’ve seen better. Watch it instead of Breaking Dawn. And watch Blue Velvet instead of this. What the heck.

Guilty Pleasures:

“The screen can hardly contain all of our pathos!”

I don’t know why I keep watching old Godzilla movies. They’re all the same and I’ve seen it a hundred times already and the first one was really the only one that was a real movie. Maybe they just make me appreciate Pulgasari more. It’s some sort of sick tradition. It’s why we keep watching James Bond movies. Most of them are bad, but they’re fun and nostalgic. All this to say I watched Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) recently. It’s more of the same. Big dumb rubber monsters trash Japanese cities. In a word: awesome. There are three basic plots to a Godzilla movie: Godzilla is a bad guy; Godzilla is a good guy; Godzilla is tricked/talked into being a good guy. This time Mothra has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and be the good guys. After much monster political debate on the merits of protecting humanity, they agree and team up to fight Ghidrah, a hideous hydra dragon from outer space (unnervingly with no arms). My one complaint with this movie (and it’s a big one) is that Mothra never metamorphosizes out of his larval stage. Maybe they were afraid of having too many flying monsters. Oh, but the Twin Fairy chicks are back…but the Mothra song is different and sucks now.

“You should see what I taught them to do with their blowholes.”

George C. Scott teaching dolphins to speak English (that’s right) only to be sabotaged by corrupt government officials who want to use the English speaking dolphins to blow up the president should be a comedy. The dolphins actually sound more like balloons getting the air let out of them when they do vocalize. The Graduate director, Mike Nichols, does what he can with the ludicrous premise of Day of the Dolphin (1973), but how could this be saved? It’s loopy and stupid, but I strangely liked it. George C. Scott (Patton) and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) are talking to dolphins in a cockamamie story about the military raping science for sadistic ends. For all it’s foolishness I found myself enjoying it and the score by Georges Delerue is actually really great. Agent Flipper to the rescue!

Getting Better:

“Despite each segment being extremely short I doubt this generation will have the patience to sit through all of them.”

Life in a Day (2011) is an interesting experiment. It is compiled from footage sent from all over the world, but all shot on the same day. I suppose it does document a great deal and people in the future will be able to look to this film and see what the world was like in a more accessible way than say Baraka. I like it for the experimental reasons and for what the future may be able to get from it, but the way technology is going, the point might be moot. We already document everything. Maybe the novelty of it being shinier and in one place will make it more convenient than scouring youtube. It was enjoyable, but I wonder what stuff was cut. How much unpleasantness that went on that day did we miss? All in all, it’s a noble documentary effort that I will still unfairly compare to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.

“Shouldn’t we be under ‘Guilty Pleasures?'” —“Probably, but SHHHH!”

Two of the most awesome movies in history collided. Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece Seven Samurai has crashed into Star Wars and we end up with Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). George Peppard (The A-Team), Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) star in this B-movie epic. Almost no explanations and already we get thrust into a space aged retelling of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, with fitting nods to these movies that preceded it. The people of the planet Akir are called the Akira and George Peppard dresses like an old timey cowboy despite flying a spaceship. Not much character development. Only convoluted space fights. I will say this, despite all its laughable bits, it’s actually more imaginative than it needed to be. Instead of seven samurai, they get seven spaceships with different alien races in each of them, some of which are pretty interesting. I liked the Nestor and the Kelvin. Some notes: Richard Thomas’s spaceship looks like balls straight on (but like a uterus from above) and this movie has a lot of weird cleavage (from only one character). It’s no Star Crash or Ice Pirates, but it’s still a good space crap flick. So A Bug’s Life was a remake of a remake.

“Jack owes me crack.”

I am a fan of Conan O’Brien and Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011) is perhaps an appropriate documentary about him traveling around after being kicked off of NBC. He’s a desperate, sad, and tortured clown underneath that tall, orange wave. It has some truly funny bits and makes him more human. It may not be a perfect movie, but it will please fans of Conan’s antics. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate portrait of a man kicked around by an unfair network board, but with an addiction to entertain, and what that man can do when he has fame still following him. The scene where he’s belittling Jack McBrayer had me on the floor laughing.

Greatness Beckons:

“What stereotype? Every culture loves booze.”

When a ship carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky crashes off the shore of a parched Scottish village you know exactly what’s going to happen. Whiskey Galore! (1949) is a funny, breezy British comedy directed by Alexander Mackendrick (director of one of my favorite comedies, The Ladykillers with Alec Guinness). There are many humorous predicaments that arise, for instance the ship crashes on Sunday so they have to wait until Monday to get the booze so as not to break the Sabbath. The whole town banding together to hide the loot from nosey authorities might remind some folks of the more recent Waking Ned Devine. It’s a splendid, gentle comedy with a hilariously astute epilogue following a fun car chase. For those with a taste for sly British comedy, definitely watch this one.

“Have you seen ‘Puss’n’Boots?”

I like Pedro Almodóvar’s movies (All About My Mother, Volver), so I was used to his sneaky style of disguising information and hiding the truth until the appointed time, but even I was surprised by where The Skin I Live In (2011) went. I cannot reveal much, but it is a great and demented movie. Is this Almodóvar’s version of horror? It’s far more disturbing and subtle than most mainstream horror movies. Get a copy, invite friends over and tell them you’re watching an Antonio Banderas movie. Tell them nothing more and then watch their faces contort as they assemble the puzzle in their head. The Spanish The Skin I Live In keeps with the plastic-surgery-gone-awry film spirit along with the French Eyes Without a Face (1960) and the Japanese The Face of Another (1966).

“How is it half of our lives seem to unfold in a two-dimensional world?”

I am a huge admirer of Karel Zeman (The Stolen Airship, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen). He is a Czech filmmaker with an unhealthy obsession with stop-motion animation, and his bizarre, bold, and unrepentantly stylized use of special effects throughout his films are always innovative and dazzling. His satirical look at the Thirty Years War is quite funny, and maybe more focused and consistent than his previous features. The Jester’s Tale (1964) follows the picaresque exploits of a man swept away by the changing tides of a Europe at war with itself. Zeman portrays political alliances to be quite literally as fickle as the changing winds. It’s clever, funny, and the unique special effects are truly charming.

“She’s takin’ ’em off! Quick! Get the the firepole!”

Milos Forman is known for his American films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, but not many folks this far west get to see his work from his home country. The Czech film (another Czech film, I know), The Fireman’s Ball (1967) is a smart if simple comedy about, quite aptly, a fireman’s ball. More specifically a fireman’s ball where many things do not go right. Prizes for the raffle keep disappearing and no young ladies want to be a part of the beauty pageant—this leads the creepy, old fireman to approach the girls themselves and create many awkward moments. It may not make you laugh out loud the whole time, but it will keep a smile on your face. Another thing worth mentioning is that it was a cast of non-actors.

A Satisfying Zenith:

“Shoe’s untied.”

Stanley Kubrick should be a familiar name. He’s the mad genius behind movies like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut. Having seen most of his cannon, save for two of his earliest works, I was delighted to finally make acquaintance with Barry Lyndon (1975). This enchanting period epic stars Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) as the eponymous Barry and features some absolutely gorgeous cinematography (revolutionary too in that Kubrick used a special lens and all natural lighting) as well as some intensely choreographed classical pieces by Handel, Schubert, Bach, Vivaldi, and others. This rise and fall of a no-account Irish vagabond is mesmerizing, if a bit cold, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. It feels like we are in an 18th century painting at times (The Mill and the Cross, anyone?). If you like your duels then you gotta see this one, and it’s battle scenes rival Full Metal Jacket (and maybe even Paths of Glory).

Almost done.

“Right this way, Mr. Samurai…Bwahahahaha!”

I saw Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) several years ago and was greatly impressed. It was a hypnotic, erotic, horror tale set in feudal Japan and truly much of its imagery was haunting. Kuroneko (1968) is a worthy accomplice. It is an atmospheric, seductive ghost story that has much more than meets the eye. It actually deals with a few feminist issues in a way, much like Kenji Mizoguchi in Ugetsu. Ghosts are murdering samurai and only one detective is brave enough to figure out why. It sounds simple, but he is compromised in more ways than one when he takes on the assignment. For those who like their horror to be sleek, spooky, and utterly beautiful to look at do not miss this movie. One thing: Tim Burton may have borrowed elements from this film—as well as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—for Batman Returns.

“California Dreamin’….”

I admit it. I need to see more Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love, 2046). But I don’t have to see more to know that I really loved Chungking Express (1994). From stem to stern you are looking at a sweet, cunning, impressionistic, romantic masterpiece. As folks shuffle in and out of a seedy diner we enter into their lives and watch their pain and longing for love. The characters, although very entertaining, have a certain reality to them. I found Faye Wong’s character in particular to be immensely adorable and appealing. Chungking Express may seem to treat romance like fast-food at times, but I still love how the mechanics of the movie work. It’s a real movie movie.

“Are we not men?”

Finally, the film I thought the most highly of that I saw recently was The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the BountyThe Hunchback of Notre Dame) stars as a mad scientist who is using evil science to accelerate animals’ evolution so that they may become weird hairy humans. This is my kind of movie. It’s got a wonderfully pulpy premise (courtesy of H.G. Wells), great set design, a scantily clad female, and Bela Lugosi looking like the “Pogs” guy. The mad scientist genre can be a great one and this might be one of the best (alongside the first two Frankenstein movies). A classic atmospheric pre-code horror flick with edge, uncomfortable bits, grim foreboding, and suspense. I couldn’t tell you more. The movie is great and I just loved it. It just gives me one more reason to believe that the 1930s were one of the best decades for American film.

For those who have still been curious about my movie tastes, perhaps this layout might clarify a few things. What were some of the last few films you saw and how would you rank them?

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The Other Toy Story

Nighty night.

Nighty night.

Jiří Barta is renowned as a master of stop-motion animation. He is hailed alongside fellow Czech animator, Jan Švankmajer. He has also had a dickens of a time getting a new movie made, but he has finally done it. Jiří Barta’s latest creation, the feature film In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? (2009) (aka Na půdě aneb Kdo má dneska narozeniny?) [update: recently released on DVD in the US with English dubbing under the title Toys in the Attic], is a wonderfully imaginative fairytale adventure. I was blessed enough to see it for the LA premiere at the Silent Movie Theater for their animation festival.

Scenes from Golem.

Scenes from Golem.

Some of the most innovative animators in the world seem to be coming from Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Eastern Europe. Names like Yuriy Norshteyn (Tale of Tales), Alexander Petrov (The Mermaid), Karel Zeman (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne), Ivan Maximov (From Left to Right), Jiří Trnka (The Cybernetic Grandma), George Pal (Tubby the Tuba and Puppetoons), Jan Balej (One Night in One City), Ivan Ivanov-Vano (The Battle of Kerhzenets), Jan  Švankmajer (Dimensions of Dialogue), Władysław Starevich (The Mascot), and Barta are all names to look out for. If any of these names are mere foreign words to you, then you definitely need to check out some of their brilliant work.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

Stop-motion rat corpses. Seriously.

In the Attic represents Jiří Barta’s return to stop-motion animation after several years of trying to get his failed Golem project off the ground (and the small amount of footage he did produce for Golem is nothing short of staggering). Barta has achieved much recognition for his enchanting short animated films (many of which can be seen in the excellent Barta DVD compilation Labyrinth of Darkness), but has completed only one previous featurelength movie, The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1985). Unlike the dark, gnarled near-nightmarescape of Pied Piper, however, In the Attic is a far gentler film and made to be appreciated by children.

Check out Pied Piper, it is also quite good.

Barta’s newest movie is a richly textured, quiet, and tranquil story punctuated by some fun action and brilliant cinematic innovation and magic. At heart In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a light rescue movie filled with fun characters, exciting peril, cross-country journeys, and wild vehicles. It is the story of old toys in an attic and although the subject matter might remind you of Pixar’s Toy Story, the dazzling inventions will hearken back to Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit adventures, while the style remains more reminiscent of the opening of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and some things dreamed up by the Brothers Quay or Švankmajer. In the Attic might remind you of all of these things, but it is all Jiří Barta.

Choo choo.

Choo choo.

The story is simple and sublime and despite being geared at children it does have some potent anti-communist political themes. It takes place, quite aptly, in an attic—the rest of the title comes from the recurring gimmick of the characters rolling the dice every morning to decide whose birthday they will celebrate that day. Buttercup is a sweet little doll who lives in an old trunk in the attic along with her friends; the sleep-loving Teddy, a tattered stuffed bear; the quixotic Sir Handsome, a battered and delusional marionette; and the feisty Schupert, a ball of clay with a pencil nose. She cooks and cleans for them and the boys go off to work on the railroad or fight inflatable alligators and all is idyllic tranquility (so women’s lib). Indeed, I was beaming with delight and my smile could not be suppressed by the sheer cuteness of the whole spectacle.

Buttercup.

Buttercup.

Naturally, conflict must enter in on the scene and disturb the quaintness of it all (unless you happen to be Hayao Miyazaki, who doesn’t seem to require villains to tell a great story). A mechanical tube with a human-like eyeball spies the peaceful lives of the attic denizens, reporting back to its master via an old television set that is obsessively monitored by a ruthless, old, cigar-chomping, golden bust with Hunter S. Thompson shades and an entourage of bugs and mismatched bits of rubbish. The tarnished voyeur spies Buttercup in her tatterdemalion serenity and concludes that he must have her for himself. Perhaps he thought of it himself or perhaps the nasty earwig with spectacles and a Dalí mustache who whispers wicked things into the head’s ear put the idea in his brain.

The puppet master?

The puppet master?

The evil golden head deploys hordes of beetles to terrorize poor Buttercup and hires a house cat to don clothing and trick the doll girl into stumbling into his bent corner of the attic. Once inside the land of evil, Buttercup is placed under arrest until she agrees to wed the head. She is forced to clean out the furnace all day and all night while the head’s cronies only dump more soot and ash on top of her whenever she gets done. Buttercup remains defiant to all of the head’s advances.

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

The dark part of the attic (a la postwar East Germany).

Back on the other end of the attic, Sir Handsome and Teddy discover their beloved Buttercup is missing. Together they start on a quest to bring her back from the land of evil. A brave lady mouse—who runs the attic radio—tinkers together to construct a flying machine out of an old vacuum cleaner and other discarded junk. She and a plump piglet toy band together with all of the other little toys and scraps (mostly wooden chess pieces) and fly out to meet Teddy and Sir Handsome who are already well on their way.

Pillows bloom and rise out of old dressers and steadily rise only to link together and snow on them like big, fluffy clouds. The cat opens up a wardrobe unleashing an inundation of blue sheets, cloaks, and fabrics to represent a terrible flood for the traversing toys. Most of the perils are truly imaginative and, yes, adorable.

What fun.

What fun.

At last our heroes meet up together, but then are plagued by more moth-eaten horrors sent by the golden head in the land of evil. The golden head has spies everywhere and will not tolerate simple toys trespassing on his side of the attic, nor will he risk Buttercup’s emancipation before he can brainwash her and make her his. Don’t worry. Things get hairy, but it all works out in the end and Barta has more animation tricks up his sleeve to share before this delightful excursion comes to a pleasing finale.

The Head.

The Head.

Jiří Barta’s In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a beautiful film with much to love and to look at. It is sweet and charming and full of imagination and quirky gimmicks—like Teddy’s vanity when he shines his nose and brushes his teeth incessantly or Schubert’s battle to stay in one piece during a rainstorm on the roof—and the entire family is sure to enjoy it. I do admit that I love the Toy Story movies, but there is a big difference between these films and much of it has to do with the animation style. The slick and beautiful computer generated world of Toy Story is colorful and complex and it reminds me of certain toys I had growing up, but In the Attic is rich like a quilt made by your great-great grandmother. The characters of In the Attic feel like toys that always were. Where Toy Story’s characters are more like adults who understand the preciousness of the love of a child and depend on it yet banter and reason like grownups, In the Attic’s characters are independent and have the personalities and subtleties that only a child would give them during playtime. In addition to actually being three-dimensional they behave as I would imagine toys would behave had they lives outside of a child’s imagination.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

Teddy brushing his teeth.

All in all In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today? is a rare treat. It’s a completely innocent child’s fairytale full of adventure and friendship. It’s rich in nostalgia and imagination and it’s really cute. As I sat in the theater and let the simple, dully colored, tattered figures do their dance, I wanted to believe in this attic universe. It felt like how I always imagined my grandfather’s basement to be when I was a kid. His basement was full of old gadgets, toys, objects, pictures, and furniture and I always suspected that whenever I turned off the lights that it had a mind of it own.

Schupert.

Schupert.

Although still not available on home video, I have since emailed the production company of this film and they have responded with hints of an English dub for re-release for British and American theaters and possibly a subsequent DVD/bluray release. Let us hope that we may soon obtain copies and curl up under an old blanket by the fire and watch it with our families. [Update: yeah, scratch all that. It’s out now].

Top 1o Reasons to See In the Attic: Who Has a Birthday Today?

1. It’s an adorable movie the whole family can enjoy.

2. It marks a legendary animator’s return to his craft.

3. They travel by land, air, and sea on their quest.

4. The mechanisms and social structure designed by the characters in the film are really clever and fun to watch.

5. It has deeper political themes instead of tired pop-culture references for the adults in the audience.

6. Jiří Barta fashions an entire world with its own rules and it is a pleasure to admire.

7. It’s got it all: damsels in distress, heroes, villains, monsters, adventure, inventions, and comedy.

8. If Švankmajer’s Alice was too dark or weird for you then this is a good alternative.

9. Teddy’s cheeks when he smiles are so freaking cute!

10. There is a weird thing with a pocket watch toward the end that is amazingly cool.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 13, 2010