THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XIII – Avengers 2 is in there somewhere, I wager.

I am unstoppable. As always, organized by my increasing enjoyment of them.

Meh/Misguided:

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

I imagine the helper monkey industry suffered a blow after this flick hit VCR’s across America. George Romero (yeah, THAT George Romero) directs this horror thriller about a quadriplegic law student whose monkey-nurse, Ella, links minds with him to exact a series of revenge killings in Monkey Shines (1988). It’s ridiculous, silly, and full of laughable monologues, but that’s kinda why I watched it. Stupid, but enjoyable because it is so nonsensical  and stupid. John Pankow and Stanley Tucci co-star.

"Ridiculous."

“Ridiculous.”

I was truly disappointed. Dirty Work (1998) may star comic geniuses, Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange (and feature Don Rickles, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Jack Warden, and be directed by Bob Saget), but it has that lazy, squeaky clean Happy Madison stamp all over it. The movie wastes Norm and Artie’s talents with the obvious, by-the-numbers plot and yawn-inducing script. It has one or two entertaining scenes and some great line deliveries speckled throughout, but for a big Norm MacDonald fan this was a letdown. It does, however, boast the funniest prison rape scene.

Better, but still kinda meh:

"Henchman" doesn't sound as cute, I guess.

“Henchman” doesn’t sound as cute, I guess.

Gru is an evil genius who wants to prove his thievery prowess is not outdated by stealing the moon. He adopts three orphan girls who show him the value of family. He has an army of eraser-like minions for comic relief and added cuteness factor. Despicable Me (2010) is a likable enough little film with some nice design and cool gadgets, but it never quite wows.

Wokka. Wokka.

Wokka. Wokka.

For completion’s sake I watched Muppets Most Wanted (2014). It’s not exactly a bad movie, just maybe not a great Muppet movie. The stuff that works best is the stuff that’s a little more daring, unusual, and un-Muppety, while the Muppets themselves feel somewhat stale and lost in the wrong movie. I chuckled at a few gags, I enjoyed the gulag stuff, and I liked a few of the songs quite a bit, but I think these Muppets need to retire or be taken in a more interesting direction.

Okay…:

Get it?

Get it?

Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) directs this pitch black comedy about mental illness starring Ryan Reynolds. The Voices (2014) is not funny. Comedic mainly in premise and presentation, its content is downright disturbing. Jerry (Reynolds) talks to his dog and cat and they talk right back. Representing opposing sides of his chemically imbalanced brain, they confuse him to the point of serial murder. The voices themselves (also played by Reynolds) are well defined and interesting, the cinematography and effects are handled beautifully, and the supporting cast (Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver) are fine, but for some reason I could never shake the uncomfortable meshing of horror with this strange sense of comedy. In Monsieur Verdoux it works because he’s not mentally ill, he’s just a greedy, murdering jerk. Maybe it’s brilliant and I’m just missing it, but for me this was a tragedy in comedy clothing.

Jane

Hiya, big boys. Ya miss me?

Bob Hope spews one-liners and Jane Russell is tough as nails in the cowboy comedy, The Paleface (1948). It’s not Bob Hope’s best and it bears a lot of the cringe-worthy Native American stereotypes common of this era of Hollywood. The whole time I kept wishing it was My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields and Mae West (the married relationships in both movies are similar). It’s whatever. All in all, an inoffensive comedy romp…except for Native Americans.

1

Spoiler alert: we’re all full of alien ghosts.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) is a documentary about the Church of Scientology. We see all the seedy inner workings, the lies, the scandals, the power struggles, the ruined lives. It’s something that would be truly interesting to someone who had no idea what the Church of Scientology was prior to viewing. The movie is a great primer and lesson in cult practices with genuinely fascinating central figures. My problem was that I was familiar with most of this stuff before I watched it so it never struck me as anything groundbreaking. Having visited their free museum in Hollywood and gotten a free street stress test (for laughs) already, I gotta say: they do a crap job of covering up being a pack of deranged wackos. Someone who needs this documentary to tell them that has clearly never discussed Scientology with a Scientologist before. It’s an important expose on stuff that should already be common knowledge.

Now with more tableaux vivants.

Now with more tableaux vivants!

A Field in England (2013) is a black-and-white minimalist psychedelic period drama set in an empty field near a 17th century battle. If that doesn’t get you, you probably won’t like this. A cruel alchemist enlists some deserters to dig up treasure for him. There is eating of magic mushrooms and violence. It’s slow and weird and has a lot of dick. It had some individual scenes I really enjoyed, but I never “got” what it was about. Maybe I need to watch it again.

Fun:

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yeah, yeah. I saw Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Avenger’s: Age of Ultron (2015). I’ll come clean, I still don’t entirely get the appeal of most of the Marvel superhero movies. I don’t think they’re all bad movies. They just all look like the same candy-colored cartoon violence buildings-exploding movies. I never feel the weight of the threat and I never really feel tension or suspense in any of them. Call Nolan’s Batmans overly dour and brooding, but at least I felt the tension and stakes. That said, the best bits for me were the smaller character moments (Thor’s face when Captain Planet almost moves the hammer) and some of the dialogue was punchy and fun. Most of the action blurs together, but I did enjoy Iron Man fighting the Hulk. Not having read the comics, I have no idea what the magic stone things are or what they do or what the flying robot guy with the cape was or what his powers are and a bunch of other stuff was lost on me, but I can’t say it was a poorly done movie. It was exactly what I thought it would be and exactly what the audience is looking for, I’m sure.

Argh, it's a  bug's life for me.

Argh, it’s a bug’s life for me.

If you thought A Bug’s Life was too talkie, check out Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2013). Based on a series of French short animations, this quirky comedy features adorable cartoon bugs against real life backgrounds. Wordless, and relying entirely upon humorously juxtaposed sound effects (flying beetles sound like car traffic), wide-eyed expressiveness, and cuteness factor, the film tells the story of a lost baby ladybug who helps a colony of ants protect its bounty of sugar cubes. It’s slight and simple, but cute and clever enough to sustain your attention. The chases and battles are pretty fun.

A Trip:

"No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived."---James Randi

“No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”—James Randi

I’m a fan of magician, skeptic, and chicanery-exposing James Randi. An Honest Liar (2014) is a documentary that covers portions of his fascinating life (mirroring much of the life-trajectory of Houdini) and his mission to reveal spiritualist con-artists for the charlatans they are. It’s a loving tribute to the old codger. Like Going Clear, it may not cover anything new for people already familiar with the man’s life work, but it was nice to see it all in one place.

Most reckless family project ever!

Most reckless family project ever!

In all honesty, Roar (1981) is not a good movie. Yet, I love it. Meant to be squirrelly family comedy with animal hijinks, the film actually plays like a taut, nail-biting thriller. Let’s back up. Tippi Hedren (The Birds) wanted to make a movie with lions. In order to realize her dream, she and her family raised hundreds of lions and big cats for several years. The story shows a family trapped in a house with these aforementioned hundreds of lions (and a few tigers, cheetahs, panthers, and a couple bull African elephants). Wacky, right? Except there’s no special effects or stunts. It’s just an actual family in constant peril and threat of being mauled by mobs of wild carnivores. It is one of the most insane movies I’ve ever seen. Much of the cast and crew (including Tippi’s children) sustained multiple injuries from animal attacks throughout the filming. This film is madness manifest.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can't be all bad.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can’t be all bad.

The Monkees’ surreal musical Head (1968), may not quite live up to the same high-spirited whimsical anarchy of The Beatles’ films (although, it might be better than Help!), but it’s got enough zany meta quirk powering its engines that it’s still a fun romp. The film is basically a series of mostly unrelated vignettes and episodes mocking television, war, advertising, and whatever else set to some great tunes from The Monkees. Bonus points for having the most bizarre use of Victor Mature ever.

Here at the institute, we're all about science.

Here at the institute, we’re all about science.

Panos Cosmatos concocts a truly weird and deliberately paced sci-fi horror about telepathy in Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Trapped for the purposes of study, a young woman is observed by a cold and mercurial scientist at the Arboria Institute. There isn’t much dialogue and not much is explained, yet the film is so visually striking and surreal that it has a weird appeal. The textures and atmosphere and colors and cinematography are so hypnotic that I could recommend it on aesthetics alone. The brokenness of the doctors is fascinating and the imagery sticks in the mind. Not for everybody, but certainly for some.

The Curious Sandwich:

Yeah...

Yeah…

I re-watched Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space (1999). I loved it when I first saw it, but strangely it might have been even funnier on this second viewing. Maybe because I now have had experience working in an office and I too have become increasingly critical of the inanity of professional formalities. The movie is still hilarious and still a biting indictment of what adulthood is expected to be. Still Judge’s best film and still a breath of fresh air. The great cast includes Ron Livngston, Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader, Jennifer Aniston, John C. McGinley, and Stephen Root.

Already over "Gangs of New York."

Already over “Gangs of New York.”

Sergio Leone’s films seemed to get longer the older he got. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) feels like the 4 plus hours it is, but its atmosphere is so rich and its scenery so sumptuous that you don’t mind soaking in the beautifully realized details of an old New York City long gone. Robert De Niro and James Woods are Jewish gangsters growing up during the Prohibition. Told in flashback, we witness the friendships, betrayals, murders, and regrets of a lost era. While the movie is slow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful cinematography or New York City look more detailed and gorgeous.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

Dave Chappelle stars as a weed loving janitor who must raise money with his stoner roommates to get their buddy out of the slammer (he’s jailed for accidentally murdering a diabetic police horse via Funions and pizza). Their plan is to sell weed, but when Chappelle falls in love with a substance teetotaler he has to choose between the kush or the bush. Yes, Half Baked (1998) truly is a stoner classic that I had somehow never watched in its entirety. Thing is, it’s legitimately funny and Chappelle proves to be the perfect leading man for this story. Cast highlights include Steven Wright, Clarence Williams III, Jim Breur, Harland Williams, and a bevy of fun cameos (Tommy Chong, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, etc.). Rachel True is hot, but playing a thankless role as the hot girl.

Yeah, I sandwiched Leone’s crime epic between two infantile comedies from our childhood.

Ever Stalwart:

Oh, I'm sure he makes it.

Oh, I’m sure he makes it.

William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a pre-Code Depression-era road drama about kids of laid off fathers who decide to become train-hopping hobos rather than be a financial burden on their families. It’s a simple, if somewhat optimistically unbelievable, premise but the journey they go on is fascinating, mired by troubles, and despite amputations, thuggery, and possible rape somehow still resiliently optimistic. It’s a very American film. It’s a side of humanity that is both harsh and rarely depicted in old Hollywood flicks (sans Charlie Chaplin movies). Gritty yet sweet, Wild Boys of the Road is a curious time capsule that any cinephile should investigate.

"What kind of clown are you?" "The crying on the inside, I guess."

“What kind of clown are you?”
“The crying on the inside, I guess.”

How had I never seen Bill Murray’s only directed movie? [Co-directed with Howard Franklin] Quick Change (1990) is a great comedy about the post bank heist anxieties of trying to navigate New York City to get to the airport on time. Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid are bank robbers who have had enough of the daily grind and so decide to retire early. Jason Robards is the cop hot on their trail. It’s great suspense and great comedy. I was especially pleased to see Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci in supporting roles. Despite Quaid’s overly hammy performance, the movie manages to be a sweetly cynical crime caper.

CONSUME

CONSUME

Much like Half Baked, I had never sat down and watched John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) all the way through. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who stumbles upon a secret. When he dons the weird sunglasses he sees the world for what it is: an elaborate advertisement to force humans to blindly consume. Naturally, the conspiracy is all orchestrated by gross, lipless aliens. It’s got some great lines, ridiculous fights, wonderful social satire, and a grim dose of truth. It also has one of the best movie endings ever. EVER! Keith David co-stars.

The Wave Finally Peaks:

This car is ready for the rave.

This car is ready for the rave.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton star in Alex Cox’s darkly weird cult sci-fi comedy, Repo Man (1984). Otto (Estevez) is a punk who winds up repossessing cars with a bunch of lunatics who like to pop uppers and wax philosophic about the art of being a repo-man.  It’s a truly unique movie that is neither obvious nor exactly easy, but it is an unforgettable and quirky viewing experience.

Also you'll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Also you’ll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Federico Fellini directs the great Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954), but the real star is Giulietta Masina. It’s the story of a poor, naive country girl who is sold to a nomadic strongman. Though she is optimistic and full of wide-eyed wonder and good humor, her sweet character and odd appearance earn her no respect in the eyes of her abusive master. It is a compelling drama set against the landscape of rural Italy.

Life is but a dream.

Life is but a dream.

Robert Altman made some pretty enigmatic movies in his time. As loopy as Brewster McCloud was, 3 Women (1977) might even be more odd…if less obviously so. Sissy Spacek is an awkward country waif who gets a job nursing the elderly. She immediately attaches herself to the awkward and vapid Shelley Duvall character. They develop a strange, uncomfortable bond and bizarre connection with a silent painter played by Janice Rule. After an accident their roles are turned upside down and the mystery of who these characters are only gets weirder. This movie is a quiet type of insanity and I really had no idea where it was going scene to scene. As baffling as much of it is, I kind of loved it. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about it.

"Keep driving."

“Keep driving.”

My favorite of the bunch is The Hitch-Hiker (1953) directed by Ida Lupino. It’s a simple set up. Two fishing buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on their way through Mexico pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be sociopath and serial killer (William Talman). The rest of the film is a series of tense situations as the killer plays sick mind games with the two helpless men as they try to figure a way to communicate and outsmart their captor before he kills them both. It’s a fabulous vintage suspense thriller.

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode IX – Dragons Maybe!

I’m pleased to say there were no movies I hated this time around. Some duds, but no outright scorn. Once again, listed in order of my subjective opinion of them.

Meh/Misguided:

"Why does god need a spaceship?"

“Why does god need a spaceship?”

I recently re-watched Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!(1996), the star-packed, big-budget effects-extravaganza sci-fi spoof of classic 1950s B-movies and space schlock flicks (and all inspired by a somewhat obscure series of trading cards). For me, this films teeters on the brink of having the potential to be utterly brilliantly wonderfully hilarious and the actual tone deaf, sloppy mess it really is. Even if it is a royal misfire, you gotta admit it was a truly valiant attempt at something fascinatingly odd. If only its execution matched its ambitions.

Not "Tideland"!

Not “Tideland”!

I finally saw Terry Gilliam’s short film, The Wholly Family (2011). I like a lot of Gilliam’s cock-eyed filmography. This one never clicked with me. A bratty kid has a nightmare where punchinellos do weird things and serve him pasta (the film itself was funded by a pasta company). It has a decent atmosphere and some interesting imagery, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a seasoned auteur. Or maybe it does and I just didn’t see it. Whatever.

At least that one guy in "South Park" makes a little more sense.

At least that one guy in “South Park” makes a little more sense.

The original 1932 Island of Lost Souls turned out to be one of my favorite movies. This wonky remake from 1996 is a paltry ersatz travesty. Marlon Brando is making some truly weird choices as the title character in John Frankenheimer’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. Val Kilmer also strikes some bizarre notes. Then there’s the casting of a slightly wormy David Thewlis as the protagonist. Most of this suspenseless cautionary tale of science gone haywire focuses on fun animal-man makeup. The original from 1932 is a truly spectacular bit of pulp horror—equal parts delight and fright. This remake actually is a bit of a B-movie. It’s technically awful and I know it, but I sort of liked that about it.

Somewhat Steadier Hands:

The Russians aren't coming. The Russians aren't coming.

The Russians aren’t coming. The Russians aren’t coming.

I like Alan Arkin so I tracked down Marshall Brickman’s Simon (1980). It’s the story of a group of scientists with too much time and money on their hands who brainwash a naive psychology professor (Arkin) into thinking he is an alien. His new-found delusion makes him more volatile than anticipated and he seeks to solve all the problems of contemporary American life with some borderline ham-fisted satire. Sometimes astute and funny, other times dated and full of itself, Simon is a nominally enjoyable little move.

"What do you mean you had Kramer 'whacked.'"

“What do you mean you had Kramer ‘whacked.'”

Everyone was raving about Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (2013). So I watched it on a plane. It’s a pleasant little movie about a struggling California masseuse who starts dating again. She winds up falling for a schlubby divorcee. The trouble comes when her new friend, Catherine Keener, happens to be the woman who divorced her new boyfriend. It’s a quiet slice-of-life film that has a some good laughs and really gets some mileage out of its subtle premise. The performances are good too.

Who else is getting Ray Liotta flashbacks?

Who else is getting Ray Liotta flashbacks?

Martin Scorsese. I trust him to know cinema. I’m ambivalent toward Leonardo DiCaprio. And Jonah Hill can be funny sometimes. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is an entertaining film overall. It’s very long, sometimes funny, sometimes annoying, joyously offensive, and possibly a decade too late. It has some great scenes as it chronicles the rise and fall and speedy recovery of colossal bastards in the stock trading business. It does what it does, but I liked it better when it was Goodfellas.

"That was very good, Cole."

“That was very good, Cole.”

Full disclosure: I missed the first 10-15 minutes of Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012). That said, I really liked what I saw. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a gangster has to kill people sent back in time. The problem is that the man he has to kill is his future self. Once you get past the putty nose and the random telekinesis, it’s quite a good science-fiction thriller with loads of suspense and a thought-provoking finale. The best time-traveling Bruce Willis movie since Twelve Monkeys.

Things Become Even More Interesting:

"Can I use this new social network thing of yours to locate some missing dalmatians?"

“Can I use this new social network thing of yours to locate some missing dalmatians?”

Probably Noah Baumbach’s most famous film, The Squid and the Whale (2005) is a painfully honest look at the invented and real problems of a white middle-class family in New York. Divorce, puberty, trust, virginity, mind games, plagiarism, pseudo-intellectualism, and how we deal with all of it abound in this smartly written and uncomfortably funny yarn. The great cast features Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and Jesse Eisenberg.

"This thing'll be harder to recover from than that one time Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd pulled that stunt back in the 80s."

“This thing’ll be harder to recover from than that one time Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd pulled that stunt back in the 80s.”

Call me crazy, I found J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) a lot more interesting and suspenseful than Wolf of Wall Street. The comparison comes from both films dealing with real corruption at the top. Margin Call is a wonderfully cast drama about the first few hours of an impending financial meltdown at a big investment bank. The great cast and sharp pacing and real-life grounding lend this film the credibility it needs.

Koreans know how to emote.

Koreans sure know how to emote.

Sometimes it is the circumstances surrounding a film viewing that greatly influence your opinion of it. (Example: had I not seen The Phantom Menace with my dad on opening night I doubt I would remember it at all.) I saw Joon-ik Lee’s Wish (2013) at a small bar that was hosting a discussion about rape. The film itself tells the real-life story of an 8 year old Korean girl who was violently raped and the subsequent quest for justice, physical and emotional healing, and a hope for a return to normalcy. It is a very emotionally charged film and aside from a subplot that has the father dress up like a cartoon character and an unrealistic scene where the rapist mocks the father while essentially confessing, it’s a good movie that deals with important issues. The real case ended up influencing Korean law in a positive way. The real father of the girl also answered questions following the screening. It was a moving experience altogether.

The Road Winds Ever Onward:

"I don't trust you when you're not playing a quiet crazy person, Brain."

“I don’t trust you when you’re not playing a quiet crazy person, Brain.”

Would you believe I never saw John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981) all the way through before? Well, I hadn’t and it was a lot of fun. The president is held hostage in a future burnt-out Manhattan that has been converted into a giant prison and only Kurt Russell can rescue him. It’s gritty, silly, weird, and violent. Really, just wandering the nightmarish apocalyptic New York hell-scape is worth the viewing. Put some nice 80s action in there and it’s the icing on the cake. Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Pleasence are some of the supporting cast.

Side-effects may include fever-dream hallucinations.

Side-effects may include fever-dream hallucinations.

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962) is a wild, stream-of-consciousness, bulldozer to the expectations of what animation is supposed to be. Harry Smith’s surreal cut-out animations are reminiscent of the work of Gilliam and Svankmajer. Despite not having a narrative, the dance of the papers becomes hypnotic and fascinating. It won’t be for everybody, but for those with the right kind of mind, it’s a zany vintage treat.

It's Asia. Sex shops are everywhere.

It’s Asia. Sex shops are everywhere.

This next one is interesting. I had never seen a film like João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s The Last Time I Saw Macao(2012). Essentially they just film random corners, streets, hallways, and people in Macau guerrilla style and lay a noir-type mystery narration over it. You really never see a main character, apart from the occasional hand reaching for a door knob or clasping a mysterious birdcage. It appears to be a mixture of the filmmakers’ actual memories of Macau and a murder plot involving a missing transgendered singer. It’s haunting and enigmatic. I don’t wish all movies were made this way, but I’m glad at least one was.

The Music Swells:

Be prepared to see amazing colors and fabric designs in addition to having your heart ripped out.

Be prepared to see amazing colors and fabric designs in addition to having your heart ripped out.

Andrew Dosunmu paints a gorgeous but troubled portrait of Nigerian immigrants in Brooklyn in Mother of George (2013). The unique cinematography playing with focus and off-center framing may take a little getting used to, but if it clicks you might just find it wonderful. It immerses you in a beautiful and colorful exotic world and then dishes out some serious drama. When newlywed Adenike (played wonderfully by Danai Gurira) cannot conceive a child and her husband (Isaach De Bankolé) refuses to go to a doctor, her deeply conservative mother-in-law pushes her to see a witch doctor and conceive secretly with the husband’s brother. Needless to say, the emotional anguish that follows is hefty.

Moral: don't take the drug known as culture.

Moral: don’t take the drug known as culture.

There’s something so sumptuously elegant within the animated minimalistic lines of Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, and Benjamin Renner’s whimsical and insanely adorable Ernest & Celestine (2012). A mouse cannot be friends with a bear, so the old mice warn, but orphan Celestine doesn’t believe it—especially after she meets the outcast Ernest. Their inter-species friendship flies in the face of the prejudices of both mouse society and bear society. This is a really sweet movie with beautifully styled animation, soft colors, and some of the cutest images you’ll see. Say what you want. I loved it.

The Cymbals Crash Mightily:

"What's the most you've ever lost in a coin toss?"

“What’s the most you’ve ever lost in a coin toss?”

A vintage French documentary about slaughterhouses might not sound like a feel-good movie…and it really isn’t. Georges Franju’s Blood of Beasts (1949) is a difficult film to get through, but I would encourage everyone to see it. It unapologetically shows the butchering of animals for human consumption in an all too matter-of-fact way. Franju is not trying to demonize the butchers, or even the consumers of the meat. The camera points merely to show and leave you with your own feelings on the subject. It’s grisly and unpleasant and I had to look away several times, but I will never forget it and I hope it changes how I look at eating meat even if it doesn’t quite make me a vegetarian.

Grandpa from "King of the Hill"???

Grandpa from “King of the Hill”???

Lon Chaney, Sr. is great and I would watch him in just about anything. Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920) stars Chaney as Blizzard, a wicked but ultimately sympathetic deformed crime boss. Having lost his legs in childhood due to a surgical mishap following an accident, Blizzard grows up evil and twisted. The plot concerns investigators trying to find out more about his organization and Blizzard’s chance meeting with the surgeon who handicapped him. Like the best Chaney movies it is weird and tragic and has a memorable twist ending.

Bill. But who is he really? And who are any of us?

Bill. But who is he really? And who are any of us?

Many might know Don Herzfeldt as the animator of the brilliant short Rejected (2000) and several other wonderfully warped short subject cartoons. His first feature, It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) is a deliciously deranged elliptical examination of identity, memory, reality, and insanity. Protagonist, Bill, a simple stick man with a hat, stumbles through life wondering who he really is and trying to remember and rationalize random snippets from his past. It’s all served up with Herzfeldt’s trademark darkly surreal humor that balances a kitten on the edge of a knife. There are many serious philosophical questions beneath this wild collage of quirkiness.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Three – Revenge of the List

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of 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.

Run Away:

“Are you wearing sunglasses?”

It is a three way tie between three truly wonderfully awful movies. Dinosaur Island (1994), L.A. Streetfighters (1985), and Ultra Warrior (1990). They are all B-movies so perhaps should not be judged so harshly, but they all have unique problems. It’s okay that Dinosaur Island has cheesy special effects but it wants to be sexy and funny but fails miserably at both. It’s like a team of horny 14 year old boys wrote it. L.A. Streetfighters is your typical bad kung fu movie, but the allegedly high school age characters look like they’re in their 4os and the lighting is so appallingly abysmal that most of the time you can’t tell what’s going on. It resembles a black void that periodically emits dubbed punching sound effects. The plus side is that the DVD menu for L.A. Streetfighters has a ridiculous three question multiple choice quiz about events in the movie (and the quiz does not even have the right answers consistently). Lastly is Ultra Warrior which is a jumbled mess of cheese and sci-fi schlock and robbed footage and exposition from other movies (Turkish Star Wars much?). It must be seen to be believed.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Quick! Quick! Say something current or vulgar!”

I’ll say it. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012) just didn’t work for me. Near every single joke felt ripped directly from an episode of Family Guy, which I suppose is great for some folks. More than anything else I took offense to the piles of clichés that made up the script. Everything from the movie-proposal-fakeout to the well-meaning-guy-keeps-lying-to-the-girl to the celebrity-of-niche-nostalgia-pops-up-and-parties-way-too-hard to the no-really-I’m-raunchy-but-look-suddenly-I-have-a-semblance-of-awkward-sentimentailty-so-I-actually-have-a-heart-in-addition-to-old-dick-jokes. Apart from a few funny lines and some solid comic timing from Marky Mark (although he was funnier in The Other Guys) this movie doesn’t bring much new to the whole cute-characters-who-say-adult-things-and-smoke-pot genre. I will say this though, it is better than Paul and Mila Kunis is sexy. Ultimately I liked the foul-mouthed chain-smoking teddy bear from Wisit Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog (2004) better.

“What do you mean? Of course Chinese people roll their R’s.”

I like Anna May Wong so naturally I had to search out and watch Chu Chin Chow (1932), an old British operetta loosely retelling the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. It’s not a wholly bad movie and it does have its points, but bits of it are so odd. Mostly English actors playing Arabs and Chinese (typical of the era), and a few very forgettable songs, strange attempts at humor punctuated by disturbing violence (for the time) and torture give it a weird energy. Anna May Wong is good and the sets are lavish and the one dude with the super low voice is cool, albeit bizarrely placed at times, but then there’s Fritz Kortner. Kortner plays the king of the 40 thieves, but he is so hammy and weird that single-handedly I think he damages the film more than any other element while simultaneously making it a uniquely strange spectacle. Watch this if only to finish off Wong’s film cannon. I did like the slave girl song.

Guilty Pleasures:

“Be careful, honey. You’re having eyebrows for two now.”

Fortress (1992) is your typical shot-in-Australia post-apocalyptic prison-break action movie starring everyone’s favorite lug and Highlander, Christopher Lambert (Highlander). It’s so bad and stereotypical of the times I actually loved it. Granted, I was laughing the whole ride through, which was obviously not the film’s intention, but who cares. The year is 2017 and you’re only allowed to have one child and abortions are illegal so the government murders your family and puts you in super-jail if you try to have a second kid. It’s got all the classic moves. There’s the stereotypical lineup of prison inmates like the tough guy; the evil man-rapist; the Mexican guy who likens human guts exploding to a burrito; the nerdy computer-whiz guy with the huge glasses (Jeffrey Combs!); the omniscient black guy; and a wormy bad guy (Red from That 70s Show) with terrible hair who tries to steal the protagonist’s lady . Lasers and cyborgs and ‘splosions. It’s all pretty hilarious. It’s no Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky(1991), but you will “lol” most heartily.

“Yeah. Whatever happened to Keanu?”

For folks who wondered what happened to the other guy from Bill & Ted movies, just watch Freaked(1993). Alex Winter plays a snotty celebrity who tells his life story to Brooke Shields. Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation) is apparently mutating people for his sick and demented South American freak show. It’s a twisted yarn of corporate greed and toxic waste that unfolds like what would happen if David Cronenberg were adapting MAD Magazine. Freaked quickly maneuvers from the merely subversive to become a gross-out surrealist comic head-trip that continues to aspire for greater anarchy and greater heights of scatological humor until its ultimate conclusion. Maybe it doesn’t always work, but enough of the jokes are solid and the special effects are top notch (Thomas C. Rainone, Steve Johnson, Screaming Mad George, and teams of others make some truly grotesque and innovative creatures). The Butthole Surfers also provide some tunes and Bobcat Goldthwaite plays a sockhead. It’s more of an abstract novelty than anything else, but I admit I did find much of it bizarrely amusing. Also Mr. T is a woman in it.

“New drinking game: you take a shot at every anachronism.”

This next sucker is unique. Ed Harris (Gone Baby Gone) is William Walker in Alex Cox’s Walker (1987). Perhaps the whole film doesn’t exactly work, but it’s so weird you can’t look away. The truth is mixed with much delirium in this crazed account of the 19th century American dude whose reckless devotion to Manifest Destiny made him a Nicaraguan president. The tone is dreamlike and the movie is yucky and unpleasant and is full of purposeful anachronisms (Zippo lighters, Time magazine, computers, helicopters, etc.) to draw parallels to contemporary events. As the story unfolds more and more anachronisms creep into frame and the atmosphere becomes increasingly anarchic and ethereal. I don’t think it all congeals together for a pleasing whole, but I found Walker so fascinating and offbeat that I actually liked it despite some unwieldiness. The music is also pretty interesting.

Getting Warmer:

“They’re hugging right behind me, aren’t they.”

Frank Capra is one of the most recognizable names from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He’s the man responsible for such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and It Happened One Night to name a few. Perhaps that is why You Can’t Take it With You(1938) does not rank higher on my list. I thought it was great, but at this point I find it gets predictably Capra-esque. It’s the same reason a lot of Ingmar Bergman films blend together in my memory. Jimmy Stewart (Harvey), Lionel Barrymore (Key Largo), Edward Arnold (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) star and it’s got a lot of great moments, but it’s a little uneven and there are quite a few storylines all at once. Barrymore in particular gets a lot of time to shine in this film. It’s the classic story of two people who love each other but come from different worlds. One comes from an uptight, legalistic, and aristocratic family, the other from a simple, warm, and freewheeling family. It’s class warfare! Seeing how Capra always manages a happy ending perhaps this is the perfect movie for the Occupy Wall Street generation.

“Pass the grapefruit, doll. Ever seen ‘The Public Enemy’?”

I like director Norman Jewison. He can do anything: The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler On the Roof, Rollerball, you name it. The Thomas Crowne Affair (1968) is a snazzy romantic crime flick in which a wealthy Steve McQueen (Bullitt) steals and then woos insurance investigator Faye Dunaway (Network). Though the energy may lag at times in the middle it does sport some super 60s collage camera tricks, some great twists, and one of the sexiest chess games ever filmed. Perhaps the biggest reason why I liked this one so much was the theme song. It’s like what “The Self Preservation Society” song added to the original Italian Job. “The Windmills of Your Mind” is such a deliriously near-nonsensical 60s song. It was written by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and sung by Rex Harrison’s song, Noel.

“No. Your voice is stupid.”

Enough has been written about Christopher Nolan and his Batman movies so what else could I say? The Dark Knight Rises(2012) is a bit clunky and sprawling with a lot of seemingly wasted ideas peppered throughout and most of the action is not that satisfying, but you gotta give it a lot of credit for trying to be so epic and being the most un-superhero movie perhaps ever. I liked the beginning a lot where Batman is a retired recluse—even if I’ll never buy Christian Bale in a beard. I still kinda wish Tom Hardy’s Bane was more like Bronson. Now that would have been a movie! Dark Knight Rises is a bit of a mess and, yes it might be overly long and overly serious, but it was good enough for the previous two installments. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are not perfect movies either, but they are entertaining overall. For me Batman was never better than in Batman: The Animated Series from the early 90s, perhaps mainly because they capture the mysteriousness and some of the weird detective atmosphere. Rises is a fitting conclusion if a bit unwieldy. The darkly satirical jab at Occupy Wall Street worked for me too for the most part. We could have done without Matthew Modine and the Robin bit at the end, but maybe the Scarecrow cameo evens it all out somehow.

“Well, hurray for Captain Spalding…”

If you like stuff like My Dinner With Andre (1981) or Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party (2005)—which I did—then maybe you’re ready for Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Spalding Gray’s (True Stories) one man show is essentially a monologue that ties together several events from his life during the filming of The Killing Fields. Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married), but really I suppose it could have been directed by anyone, this movie takes you into Gray’s life and his unique point of view on the world. Despite being essentially one man sitting on a dark stage narrating several personal accounts I can’t say I was ever bored. Spalding Gray is an entertainer and knows how to weave a good yarn.

Oh What Fun:

“Yessir. Nobody knows the wild west quite like Italians.”

Here’s another who, like Thomas Crowne Affair, I wound up liking even more because of the theme song. Spaghetti westerns really are their own genre. They are not just cowboy movies made in Italy. There are more violent, subversive, and gritty. Director Sergio Corbucci may not be Sergio Leone, but Django (1966) starring Franco Nero (Camelot, Die Hard 2) is definitely worth checking out. A nameless gunslinger wanders through the desert dragging a coffin. Already such wonderful mythic imagery! Folks inquire as to who is in the coffin, but Django always answers cryptically. Since Django claims no allegiances he finds himself at war with two feuding gangs. Fortunately he is a resourceful fellow…also his coffin is actually the case for a Gatling gun. Think part Fistful of Dollars (1964) and part Desperado (1995).

“I’m the Pinball Wizard you heard tell about.”

I have a confession to make. I only recently saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975). It’s the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard (Roger Daltrey) who becomes a cult leader. I like Oliver Reed (The Devils) and I like the Who and I liked a lot of the songs and guest stars (Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, etc.) but I don’t think it’s my favorite. It really has some solid scenes and some great songs, but I admit I began to feel exhausted and tired before the end. Ken Russell’s style can be very abrasive and I think it works for this story overall, but it just ran out of steam for me. I felt I had seen all its tricks too soon. The beans scene kinda grossed me out a little. Jack Nicholson’s cameo was a fun surprise though and the music kept me hooked.

*Bang*

French filmmaker Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires) made hundreds of films between 1906 and 1924 and popularized the series form. I recently stumbled upon the Fantômas series which is comprised of five movies made between 1913 and 1914. They concern a diabolical criminal and master of disguise, Fantômas (René Navarre), and his detective pursuer, Inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon). While the stories themselves may feel slow and dated, they do have their moments of style and fun pulpy flair. The cliffhanger endings were good and some of the seedy Parisian underbelly nods were a lot of fun, but the real reason I liked them so much was simple: these suckers are one hundred years old. When these old timey guys are hopping trains and trolleys on cobblestone streets and dousing gaslights in their bowler hats and ludicrous mustaches you gotta remember; this is their contemporary world. Watching the Fantômas movies is like watching history. I love silent comedies, but most of the ones I watch are American, and I love German Expressionism, but those are all filmed on stylized sets. Fantômas goes outside in what is, to me, a foreign land in a different time.

“You take that back what you said about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Another confession. I hadn’t seen Guy Ritchie’s rough ‘n’ tumble crime comedy, Snatch (2000). Am I last person in America to see it? Maybe. I won’t say much about it, except that I had a lot of fun watching it, and while it may not measure up to Sexy Beast, this all-star brawl might be my favorite thing Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) has done. Foul-mouthed, fast-talking, violent crooks, macho hooligans, and too-tough mafiosos not your thing? Look elsewhere. Brad Pitt and the whole cast are great in this ensemble of cool. The style is manic and in your face, yet controlled and very sly. Sometimes I like a movie that just loves being a movie. Snatch is one of those.

Tralalala:

“I’m not gay. I’m an entertainer.”

I actually had to watch Casablanca (1942) again before I fully appreciated Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972). Liza Minelli (who has always made me feel uncomfortable for some reason) stars as Sally Bowles, the sexual starlit of the Kit Kat Klub in Weimar Republic Germany. As she romances her way into the lives of two men, one being the uptight stranger Brian Roberts (Michael York), it seems that things are getting harder in Germany as the Nazi Party begins its rise to power. The relationships between the characters are rich and fascinating, but I found the off-the-cuff representation of the setting to be particularly interesting. Here’s a movie set in the years leading up to WWII and it’s not really a political story and it leaves no resolution to the mounting political tensions. It’s the story of people during a specific time. Yes, they all have feelings regarding the encroaching fascist regime and singing Nazi youth, and yes our historical hindsight gives us, the viewer, a more suspenseful narrative than the characters can perceive, and it is here where the film’s power lies. They are all caught up in the march of history. I also enjoyed Joel Gray’s flamboyant performance as the emcee. There are a few really memorable scenes, one being the eerie final moments, that stay with you after the film is over.

“Yeah, I’m still here.”

Before Steve Martin, Spencer Tracy was Father of the Bride (1950). Spencer Tracy (Judgement at Nuremberg, Bad Day at Black Rock) is a great actor, but his subtle and sly wit is rarely at the forefront. He always has that secret twinkle of wisdom, but in Vincente Minelli’s Father of the Bride he is the comic victim of fatherhood. When his daughter, Kay (Elizabeth Taylor), tells him she’s getting married his imagination and fears get the better of him. Soon he’s spending more money than he ever thought and gradually realizing the shifting role of a father as he watches his daughter grow up. Perhaps an interesting double-feature with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

“This is not a cave painting. This is actually a tattoo on the side of my torso.”

The camera pushes in and through the black, mystery-enshrouded shadows we see…rocks. Werner Herzog’s documentary on cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), is enigmatic and captivating. These old stones tell stories and present day scientists are learning more and more about the complex artistry committed to the walls thousands of years ago. Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) knows how to be interesting and he manages to give the subject an almost mythic quality as he interviews experts who do not see our long dead ancestors as being that distant. There even seems to be hints to a deeply spiritual nature tucked away within all mankind. It was originally made for 3D, but I saw it on TV and it was fine.

Gotta Love It:

“You boys ain’t from around here, are you?”

Next up it’s an Israeli film directed by Eran Kolirin called The Band’s Visit (2007). For those who enjoy quiet melancholy and gentle cultural humor this is a great story. An Egyptian police band, sent to play at an Arab arts center inauguration, gets on the wrong bus and winds up in a podunk Israeli town. Like Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, this is a comedy that deals with different cultures that do not always get along. The slow, subtle setups are perfect and the sad but sweet relationship between the band leader (Sasson Gabai) and a rather progressive local woman (Ronit Elkabetz) give the movie a solid emotional core, while the peripheral characters are free to provide humorous segues. I chuckled throughout and then felt a small well of sadness…but in a good way. The Band’s Visit is touching, simple, and sublime.

“A hasty jest, you say? I shall make ribbons of them.”

I like swashbuckling and I like a well-placed verse. Cyrano de Bergerac(1950) has both to spare. José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny) gives a spectacularly energetic and sharp performance—one that got him an Oscar—as the legendary tragic poet and swordsman whose vanity and large nose keep him from revealing his true feelings to the woman he loves. He must feed sugary lines to another man to court her, and thus his self-wrought torment goes. While it might lose some steam by the end it’s almost understandable considering how vigorous it is at the outset. Cyrano de Bergerac is a classic tale filled with wonderful swordplay, even sharper wordplay, and a wonderful balance between comedy and tragedy. The film is good enough on its own, but it is Ferrer’s dynamic performance that elevates it to greater heights.

“So French it hurts.”

I liked The Artist (2011), but something made me appreciate director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin even more. OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS117: Lost in Rio (2009) are what did it. Dujardin plays the ridiculously dimwitted, chauvinistic, racist, and closed-minded French secret agent, OSS117, in what might best be described as a sort of European Austin Powers. They might be a little more stylish and classy, but they’re just as funny. Between Dujardin’s hilarious elastic facial expressions and Hazanavicius’s camera tricks that successfully parody the film styles of the 1950s and 1960s, both movies are a hoot. There are some truly fantastically funny sequences in these guys. It was even funnier coming so close after watching The Thomas Crowne Affair. I laughed quite hard and I got an even better appreciation for their more recent send-up of silent Hollywood films with The Artist. Whether you’re a James Bond fan or not, odds are you will enjoy these very pleasing comedies.

The Crescendo Swells:

“Cogsworth? Lumiere?”

I recently re-watched Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and I only mention it here because I only liked it before. Now I admire it. You know the story—or at least the sanitized versions—so I need not go into detail. I will say this though, it is refreshing to see a fairytale that respects its audience. This is a rich, imaginative film that is written seemingly almost without children in mind. Surely they will enjoy the magic and the special effects, but there is an interesting maturity to the story. Cocteau’s brilliant and innovative style are wonderful to behold and his small touches of gazing statues and candelabras suspended by human arms forming out of the walls are still dazzling and fun.

“Ah. Douglas. I knew your father.”

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) was remade several times, but only once with the incomparable Ronald Colman (Lost Horizon). This one is another swashbuckler and again, it is the leading man that makes it so memorable. It’s a classic tale of mistaken identities, when a vacationing Brit meets his doppelganger, who happens to be royalty (Colman plays both roles). When the monarch is drugged, the tourist must take his place until things can be sorted out and the coup availed. Assisting Ronald Colman is a stellar cast including C. Aubrey Smith (Tarzan the Ape Man), Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Gunga Din), Raymond Massey (East of Eden), and a young David Niven (Around the World in 80 Days). The sword fights and intrigue are great, but Ronald Colman is just always so English and understated that I believe everything he says.

“Should I tell him about ‘The Hebrew Hammer?'”

Maybe I give this one too much credit, but I was in the right mood. 2 Days in Paris (2007) is like if Woody Allen were French and he were adapting Meet the Parents. But it’s all Julie Delpy. She wrote, directed, and starred in this playfully painful analysis of a romance turning sour. In many ways it feels like an extension of her character from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Delpy’s writing is sharp and clever and Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan) is excellent as the exasperated American boyfriend trying to hold it all together. Neither character is wholly likable, which maybe gives it that cynical edge that I find invigorating. I always find it refreshing when comedies can be totally believable. I have not seen her sequel, 2 Days in New York with Chris Rock, but I don’t know how it could be better than this funny and insightful movie.

“Sorry if Batman didn’t make it high enough for you.”

You either like Guy Maddin or you don’t. Odds are, if you’ve heard of him, you probably like him. Maddin has mad a career out of making movies that look like they were made in the 1930s. From Archangel to The Saddest Music in the World, he is always tinkering and playing with what a film can be and how far the language of old cinema can be stretched. My Winnipeg (2007) is particularly interesting because it’s halfway to being a documentary, but with fantastical flourishes that Herzog might even be afraid to pull. It’s the story of Guy Maddin trying to film his way out of the terminally dreary Canadian city of Winnipeg. He tries to re-stage fragments of his childhood with his controlling mother playing herself while he also tries to reassemble lost memories and warped bits of Canadian history to figure out who he is and what Winnipeg has become. It’s a totally surreal and somewhat hypnotic fairytale of nostalgia raped by the passage of time and the longing to escape one’s past and move on. Not really fiction, not entirely fact. My Winnipeg lies on the fringe and obviously relishes every bent minute of it there. I kind of love it.

But enough about me. What did you see last? Anything good?

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Two – yeah, I did it again.

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of 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.

Oh No:

“Why are a lot of my movies showing up on this list of disasters?”

This was actually a fairly good bunch of movies so luckily the “bad” will be short. Knowing (2009) is so almost bad it might as well count as bad. It stars the infamous Nicolas Cage (Adaptation, Con Air) and was directed by Alex Proyas (The Crow, I Robot, but I’d say it’s Dark City that keeps him on the radar). The world might be ending and somebody knew all the key dates for major world disasters and recorded them years ago. Knowing has a lot of interesting ideas floating around in it but somehow it can never feel like something more than an improved Left Behind or a not as good Signs (sorry, spoilers, if you’re picking up the clues). It’s mostly almost bad, but more bad than good yet still sort of interesting. Ah, just watch it and you tell me. I don’t think it deserved to be as critically panned as it was. It’s probably on par with most crappy thrillers that get decent reviews.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Dear Lord, make some better Christian movies.”

So I was a little disappointed with Androcles and the Lion (1952). Perhaps it was partially because I did not realize it was going to be a comedy. Maybe I didn’t think anybody besides Mel Brooks would stage a comedy in a coliseum. Unlike Brooks, however, the comedy is very sweet and there really isn’t any edge. I’m a fan of Alan Young (Mr. Ed, The Time Machine, and the voice of Scrooge McDuck) and he’s okay here. Victor Mature (The Robe, Samson and Delilah) I’ve never been wild about. I think it’s his face. Jean Simmons (Spartacus) is pretty and Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, Murder By Death) is a hammy annoying wife lady. Robert Newton (Oliver Twist, Around the World in 80 Days) plays the most interesting character…and he’s still fairly simple. Finally Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes) is Caesar. Decent cast, no? That’s not the problem. This sword and sandal show plays like a bad Sunday school lesson. It has a very juvenile tone. I’d say maybe it’s just a kid’s movie, but then there’d still be really boring parts the kids would want to fast-forward through (the Mature-Simmons romance for one). Ultimately more cheesy than purposely funny and the tacked on spirituality schtick just does not fly or seem believable. In fact, it feels a little insulting. The lion costume at the end is pretty jarringly awful too.

“Any of you clowns seen ‘Dumbland? It’s friggin’ hilarious'”

I am a fan of David Lynch (Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) but this one I’ve never fully gotten along with. I re-watched Dune (1984) because I remembered not liking it as a kid, but a friend kept insisting I needed to see it again. I can honestly say I respect it more as an adult, and I really admire Lynch’s guts in making a totally anti-Star Wars sci-fi flick when people were only craving more Star Wars, but I still don’t think it works. This translation of the dense Frank Herbert novel is emotionless, bizarre, murky, and downright incomprehensible. It’s got some great visuals and some killer guitar riffs (particularly when they ride the sandworms into battle. That’s cool), and the cast of Lynch regulars is there, but nothing clicks with the story and the voiceover internal monologues feel really inappropriate. Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet), Virginia Madsen (Sideways), Brad Dourif (Wise Blood), Sean Young (Blade Runner), José Ferrer (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), Linda Hunt (Silverado), Max von Sydow (Minority Report), Jack Nance (Eraserhead), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: TNG), Sting and others are all there, but more just blank faces in wild costumes than characters (except for Dourif who’s always on his own wavelength). Dune is an epic that sports incredible production design and dark tone, but Lynch is better when he’s more focused and intimate I think. Originally Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) was supposed to direct this behemoth with Pink Floyd and Salvador Dalí aiding in the production. What a gloriously surreal trainwreck that would have been! Maybe worse than Lynch’s take, but I’d want to see it.

“Snuffy? Like Snuffleupagus?”

Spike Lee is a talented guy. Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing are masterpieces. I wanted to like Crooklyn (1994) more. It has a lot going for it. The story of a spunky young black girl growing up 1970s New York City directed by Spike Lee should be great. It’s colorful and actually has a gentler charm and sweetness than he’s ever used before and Alfre Woodard (Star Trek: First Contact, The Piano Lesson) gives a wonderful performance as the struggling mother of five rowdy kids and wife to a deadbeat musician (Delroy Lindo, Get Shorty), but it’s also episodic, melodramatic, and contrived at times. It’s a movie I enjoyed in segments, but the whole eluded me. I still have no idea why all the footage when Troy goes down south to live with her awful aunt is squished (because the atmosphere is stifling? We get it, but it looks terrible). Not bad, just so-so and I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that despite some contrivances it does seem to have a heart. I’m just sad because it could have been a lot better.

Guilty Pleasures:

“It’s a comedy!” —“No! This is serious!”

I kinda like the old hokey Flash Gordon serials with Buster Crabbe. They’re silly and dated and very cheesy, but there’s a vintage charm and weird energy about them. The film adaptation directed by Mike Hodges (Get Carter) is a weird mixture that is so uneven and odd that I kinda like it. Flash Gordon (1980) is a mess from start to finish. Some of the cast and crew seemed to think it was a comedy, others a very serious drama, and still others just found great camp in it. The production, sets, and costumes (like Dune) are a lot of fun and very in step with the original series, but with a much bigger budget. I was excited when I found out Queen did the theme songs, but it sounds like they were just phoning it in. The acting goes from bad to silly to campy to deadly serious. The tone is all over the map, but that’s the main reason I liked it. Sometimes things not working really makes it work. The cast includes folks like Max von Sydow (The Virgin Spring), Topol (Fiddler on the Roof), Timothy Dalton (The Rocketeer), Ornella Muti (Oscar), and the king of jovial hamminess, Brian Blessed (Hamlet)—here Blessed is a boisterous winged man whose garments seem to consist primarily of strategically placed belts. Still not as good as Barbarella or Starcrash but it’s that type of movie.

“You’re happy. I hate that.” *throws folder at temp*

Today George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks (1994) would be quickly forgotten, but as an early nineties low-key indie type movie it mostly works. Kevin Spacey (American BeautySe7en) plays Meryl Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada. He is Buddy Ackerman, a manipulative, megalomaniacal, malevolent dingbat who happens to be an important Hollywood producer. He psychologically and emotionally bullies and abuses his naive bumpkin assistant (Frank Whaley, The Doors and Buddy Faro, remember that show? The one with Dennis Farina?) so much that eventually something must be done. The assistant fights back. Told in flashbacks Swimming With Sharks is half dark comedy and half revenge thriller and it half works as both. I liked it somehow despite it’s cliches…maybe they weren’t as cliche then. It reminded me a little of Suicide Kings with Christopher Walken. It’s a bleak and cynical view of the Hollywood system, but perhaps not entirely inaccurate. Watch it for Spacey’s delightfully wicked performance.

“I know. I know. We’ve all done better.”

I watched this next one because I like Jack Lemmon (The Apartment, The Out of Towners) and I like Walter Matthau (Bad News Bears, Hopscotch). The Front Page (1974) is a double remake (but the first screen version that kept all the swearing) directed by Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) and if it looks and feels like a stage play…it’s because it was (although far better a transition than Rhinoceros). Lemmon is a retiring reporter about to be married to Susan Sarandon (Rocky Horror Picture Show), but his irascible chief editor (Matthau) doesn’t want to lose him. The trouble kicks in when, on his way out, he gets caught up in the story of his career and can’t let his buddy reporters get the scoop so he bounces back and forth between leaving for his woman and staying for his story. After a bumpy first act I must admit the movie picked up after about the halfway point and got more interesting. It’s a lesser Wilder picture and it does feel pretty stagey, but it has a few decent moments that make it worth it. Charles Durning (O Brother Where Art Thou?), Austin Pendleton (My Cousin Vinny), Harold Gould (The Sting), and Carol Burnett (Annie) co-star. Not great, but you could do worse.

“Good-bye, Jeeves. I die. I’ll see you at the finale.”

My last guilty pleasure was The Ghoul(1933). It’s one of those movies that’s hard for me not to like. Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is a dying archaeologist (or something) who has ensured his immortality using ancient Egyptian magic, so long as his faithful butler (Ernst Thesiger, The Bride of Frankenstein) can do what he is told immediately after his death. It’s your typical shadow enshrouded haunted house movie and it moves a little slow, but it’s got fun atmosphere and pretty solid finale. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Kathleen Harrison (Scrooge) co-star. My only real beef is that Karloff is barely in it.

Officially Good: 

“Paris blows.”

I need to watch more African movies. I say that every time I watch one. America has pretty easy access to European and Asian cinema, but Africa’s a different story. I’ve only seen a few films by celebrated Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène (Xala, Moolaadè) and Black Girl (1966) was his first feature. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a solid movie. A young Senegalese girl named Diouana is hired by a white French family to be a nanny, but when they relocate back to France everything changes. Diouana was looking forward to seeing Europe, but she is relegated to the house and must be a common servant. Her pride and misfortune make her increasingly despondent and her deteriorating attitude sets her at odds with her employer. Black Girl has some delicate nuances to it that make it more interesting than it might have been. The last act is what got me the most, but I couldn’t ruin it for you.

“Silence. The ‘Munsters’ is coming on.”

Is E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire(2000) a good movie? Some might debate the point, but I sure liked it. It starts with a simple premise: what if German director F. W. Murnau had made a Faustian deal with the devil to make the world’s greatest horror movie and Max Schreck really was a vampire? The reason why this works is because it is treated with a twisted sense of humor in addition to the spookiness. It’s a weird, claustrophobic, and eerily intimate movie and if you know your movie history it’s pretty funny and entertaining. Willem Dafoe (Boondock Saints, Clear and Present Danger) gives a mesmerizing performance as Max Schreck the insatiable vampire and John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich) Malkoviches away as an amoral, crazed Murnau. Udo Kier (Manderlay), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Eddie Izzard (The Cat’s Meow) co-star. In many ways Shadow of the Vampire is way more interesting than remaking Nosferatu. Besides, Werner Herzog already did a pretty great remake in 1979. This is an enticing alternate history of the making of the definitive vampire movie, Nosferatu. Creaky, spellbinding film even if it does make Murnau out to be a snuff film director. Ironic Murnau made a version of Faust in 1926?

“I agree. Madeline Kahn needs to be celebrated more today. She was a talented and underrated comedienne.”

Peter Bogdanovich made some good movies back in the day. The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, and such are pretty great. What’s Up, Doc? (1972) is a charming throwback to the screwball romantic comedies of 1930s. Barbra Streisand (Hello, Dolly!) aggressively (yet playfully) tries to get the attentions Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon) who is engaged to Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles) while several identical suitcases keep switching hands. Hijinks and hilarity ensue. Plenty of good one-liners, funny characters, slapstick gags, cartoon violence, and a fantastic car chase at the end make this worth a look. Kenneth Mars (Young Frankenstein), Michael Murphy (Manhattan), John Hillerman (Magnum P. I.), Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation), and Austin Pendleton (Finding Nemo) all make memorable appearances. If you like Doris Day/Rock Hudson comic romances and zany thirties mayhem and chic seventies style then check this one out.

Greatness Beckons: 

“I say, Billy Bob Thornton and John Heder? Well that jolly well doesn’t sound like a good time at all.”

The original School for Scoundrels (1960) is a lot of fun. I mainly watched it for the cast which included the inimitable Terry-Thomas (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies), the illustrious Alistair Sim (Scrooge, The Ruling Class), and Ian Carmichael (I’m Alright Jack). Henry (Carmichael) is a lowly, innocent peon who wants to be a “one-upman” and get a degree from Mr. S. Potter’s (Sim) school of “Lifemanship.” With this degree he will never be behind and always get the girl and the last word and no one will take advantage of him because he is too busy taking advantage of everyone else. If Henry is Donald Duck then Raymond Delauney (Thomas) is Gladstone Gander in this movie. Delauney is a huge tool and master at one-upmanship and when the two of them are after the same girl (Janette Scott, The Day of the Triffids) it will take all of Potter’s tricks to help Henry be the victor, but Henry still has a stronger moral compass. A funny battle to get the girl full of wicked head games.

“Nyet. It doesn’t look like Johnny Weismuller is down there. It’s safe to drink from this stream.”

Sergei Parajanov (The Color of Pomegranates) is a singularly unique voice in Soviet cinema. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) was his first big foray into film as a place to truly experiment with what the camera could do. It is an energetically photographed tale of a Carpathian villager who falls in love and is plagued by tragedy and, eventually, sorcery. It is a strange movie, but hypnotic and captivating. We are transported into an almost mythical landscape that begs us to live in the shoes of one lowly man for a spell. Those who see Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors will not soon forget its imagery or its musical rhythms. Watch this before Pomegranates; it’s a much needed stepping stone before entry into the near unclassifiable.

“‘Jurassic Park’ was the ultimate feminist movie.”

I’m a sucker for adventure and despite a slow middle act, the immediately hooking intro and exciting climax make She(1935) a worthy contender in the genre. Produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), She was adapted from H. Rider Haggard’s novel and features some wonderful escapism. When Leo Vincey (nonstop cowboy, Randolph Scott) is given a deliciously enthralling mission from his dying uncle he goes off to search for the lost fountain of youth that his ancestor allegedly discovered 500 years ago. Avalanches and cannibals lead them to a subterranean tribe of people who worship their never-aging female master (“She who must be obeyed”). She believes Leo to be her lover (Leo’s ancestor) from 500 years ago and refuses to let him leave. A fun production with nice sets and fun action. Co-stars Nigel Bruce (Rebecca and frequent Dr. Watson).

“Yeah. I still got it.”

Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) likes being cool and putting cool people in cool movies doing cool things and although Jackie Brown(1997) might strike one as oddly restrained for a Tarantino flick, it’s actually one of his very best. Sexy blaxploitation star Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown) is Jackie Brown, a poor stewardess who runs illegal money over the border for cocky arms dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson, Sphere, The Caveman’s Valentine, Die Hard 3). When she gets busted by the fuzz she realizes she has been living in an all too precarious situation and hatches a plan to two-time the cops and Ordell and run away with a bunch of money. It’s a fantastically good crime caper movie that also features a touching love story between Jackie and a sympathetic bail bondsman played by Robert Forster (The Black Hole). Jackie Brown also showcases Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice), Bridget Fonda (The Road to Wellville), and a decidedly odd turn for Robert De Niro (Heat, Raging Bull). And the music chosen for this movie is great!

“Do you forgive me for ‘Pinocchio?'”

As long as we’re talking crime, how about Jim Jarmusch’s (Stranger Than Paradise, Dead Man) movie about three men on the lam in Down By Law (1986). Shot in gritty black and white and giving us a really textured look at New Orleans, Down By Law is the story of three dudes who wind up reluctantly teaming up for  a jailbreak. Cool dudes, Jack and Zack, are played by musicians John Lurie (frequent Jarmusch collaborator) and Tom Waits (Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and manic Italian immigrant, Roberto, is Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful). It’s gritty, funny, and full of lingering shots that force you to look at them. No fast cuts here. Unyieldingly low-key and pleasantly quiet, this is not a movie for everyone. Lurie, Waits, and Benigni are a lot of fun together. “I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream.”

Another Invigorating Apex:

“Don’t do drugs and stay away from The Blue Angel.”

Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, The Pride of the Yankees) directed what might just be the best teacher movie ever with Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Robert Donat (The 39 Steps) is the eponymous Mr. Chips, an aging British school teacher who is being honored for his long years of service. This somewhat sappy movie is told in flashback and hopefully  will make you think differently about all the teachers you had growing up. We see his highs and lows and we come to see Mr. Chips as a complicated person with loves, hopes, dreams, and cares as human as those of his many students. He is a tie to another time. Perhaps it has been my own brief and unexpected experiences as a teacher, but I know you fall in love with schools and kids and you always wonder if you made any difference to them. Goodbye, Mr. Chips feels like a cross between Mr. Holland’s Opus and Kurosawa’s Madadayo, but superior to both of them. It’s sweet and touching and Robert Donat’s performance makes it great. An interesting double-feature with The Blue Angel.

“I hope you like low angles.”

Michael Caine (Sleuth, The Dark Knight) is cool and Britain in the sixties was super-cool. America had westerns, China had kung-fu, and England had spy movies. The Ipcress File (1965) is a deliciously stylish sixties British spy flick with all the right moves from start to finish. It’s not as bleak and hard-nosed as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but it’s bolder and more believable than most of the James Bond movies. Cold war secrets and double-cross make it a classic tale of espionage, but it’s sumptuous style and kooky artistic angles make it a legend.

“Ah…we had a good run.”

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertoclucci (1900, Last Tango in Paris) had the rare opportunity to film an anti-communist movie inside of China in The Last Emperor (1987). John Lone (Rush Hour 2) is Pu-Yi, the last emperor of China. His lifetime saw many great and terrible changes. Crowned when he was three years old he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City—he also is shocked to learn years later that his rule only extends as far as the city’s walls and that the charade continues chiefly for the servants. It’s a fine historical piece that shows the shifting of allegiances, the desperation for significance, and wild journey through many conflicting forms of government. A grand epic production with lots to look at and Peter O’Toole (Becket) and Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) co-star. Interesting double-feature with Scorsese’s Kundun.

“Not even Bruce Campbell could defeat us.”

This was a good bunch of movies overall. Army of Shadows (1969) was a masterpiece that has eluded American audiences for decades. Directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï, Le Cercle Rouge), this dense and methodically crafted political thriller ranks up alongside Costa-Gravas’ Z and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers. During WWII the French Resistance is a shrewd and necessarily surreptitious beast, but when one of their chiefs (Lino Ventura) is betrayed it sets a whole new set of tactics into motion. We are forced to examine the harshness and mundanity of life under the big German microscope. By the end of the film you will have questioned everything. It’s beautifully shot but it’s not a glamorous film. It is a dangerous, cold, and clandestine world where you may have to kill your brother. It’s a real life 1984.

“‘Super Mario Bros.’ never happened.”

Finally—not that it is the best movie on this list, but it was my favorite—is Mona Lisa (1986) directed by Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, Interview with the Vampire) and starring a personal favorite of mine, Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nixon). George (Hoskins) gets a job driving around a beautiful call girl named Simone (Cathy Tyson) and he gradually develops an affection for her and agrees to help her find a missing girl, not realizing entirely what Simone is all about and how dangerous this new job is. Michael Caine (Zulu, The Italian Job) plays a seedy crime boss and Robbie Coltrane (Goldeneye, Harry Potter) plays George’s artistically bent best friend. Mona Lisa is a great drama and character study and I really was rooting for Hoskins’ character (and he gives a fantastic performance—that was nominated for an Academy Award). Hoskins is always fun to watch but he is in superb form here. The film has a grimy, discomforting sexy vibe to it and it really gives the actors room to play. If I didn’t love it so much it wouldn’t be here.

Whew. I am a huge nerd.

What are the last things you saw? Anything good?

Previous list can be found HERE.