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.

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Last Few Movies: Episode VIII – Revenge of the Spliff

Mostly newer movies this time. And I will begin by saying that several of these I watched on my 16 hour flight to New York and the 16 hours back to Seoul so perhaps a few deserve a re-watch. Again, in order of what I thought of them.

Ick:

enders game

“Starship Troopers” anyone?

I’ve not read the book, but by and large the stilted performances and bland feeling trump the best intentions of Ender’s Game (2013) to shine the light on how we dehumanize our enemies and infect our young with the sickness of war. It’s not terrible, but not something I will be seeing again. Some awkward child acting and Harrison Ford looks like he’s asleep. Nothing with Sir Ben Kingsley in it is completely unwatchable though.

Any movie with scantily clad jungle women can't be all bad.

Any movie with scantily clad jungle women can’t be all bad.

What do Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, and dinosaurs have to do with each other? Nothing and Caveman (1981) proves it. I like those old no-dialogue cheesy cave-people movies with scantily clad females and wonky dinosaurs, alas this spoof never gets its timing right and becomes quite dull, despite some very fun stop-motion creature designs.

Meh and/or Misguided:

silent movie

Yes, the Marcel Marceau scene is humorous, but I think I would rather watch a straight Marcel Marceau movie.

Before everyone hates me, let me just say that I love a good many real silent movies and I absolutely love Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and a solid 4/5 of History of the World Part I. That being said, Mel Brooks, in my humble opinion, has a few misfires, but at least they’re daring and gutsy misfires most of the time. Mel Brooks spoofing silent comedies in Silent Movie(1976) with an A-list cast sounds like it couldn’t miss, unfortunately it does. Real silent comedies (the great ones) were never so sluggish and could usually surprise and delight without telegraphing too loudly a yawn-worthy gag during strainingly long setups.

windy city heat

Take a long second and get used to this face.

Either Windy City Heat(2003) is the meanest and longest practical joke on the dumbest guy around or it’s the biggest waste of time imaginable. I’m still not sure if any of it was real, but it did have a few laughs at the expense of the dimwitted documentary subject who is made to believe he is being groomed for stardom (and being constantly challenged with the fragility and artifice of it all).

in god we trust

Oral Andy

Marty Feldman is a smart guy and a very enjoyable performer. His skewering of American religious corruption with In God We Tru$t (1980) could have been great, instead of merely pleasantly inoffensive. Feldman is an affable innocent, a sheltered monk sent out into the real world. H meets a hooker with a heart of gold (Louise Lasser), a religious snake oil salesman (Peter Boyle), a greedy televangelist (Andy Kaufman), and God himself (Richard Pryor). The satire is obvious and plays it too safe in the end, but Feldman’s performance is charming (he also wrote and directed this one) and the first act is solid.

brave

Wocka-wocka. Wanna hear a funny-ass joke?

Disney-Pixar’s Brave (2012) might have been great had it not aimed to be so silly. The best bits of this film’s undercooked story are the dramatic elements and the believable human relationships. Too often it shoots low and goes for cutesy or crass and it doesn’t seem to mesh well in the end. The animation is gorgeous though.

Real Mixed Bags-style over substance:

dracula

Bill & Ted’s Spooky Excursion

I re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992) recently. I remember disliking it when I first saw it. This time I appreciated its manic energy and wild experimentation and its zany, irreverent style a bit more. The film is a sexy visual pleasure with a big-name cast…unfortunately most of which are woefully miscast. It’s other sin might be that it’s a bit messy and unfocused. I enjoyed the imagery and the melodrama and bold atmosphere, but my appreciation may have ended there. Gary Oldman is pretty good in it though. Credit to Coppola for treating the sacred subject matter with such visual innovation.

grandmaster

You’re not Donnie Yen.

I’m sad to list Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster(2013) so low on this list, especially after listing In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express in the top two when they appeared on these lists in the past. I liked The Grandmaster‘s impeccably powerful visual sense (Wong Kar Wai is a master) but the story felt muddled and it was difficult to focus on many of the characters. There was a point in the film when I was exhausted with all the closeups. One can only spend so much time that close to a human face. The fight scenes were beautifully choreographed by Woo-ping Wen and elegantly shot (albeit a bit too close) against the most lurid of poetically rich backdrops and I did enjoyed Ziyi Zhang’s performance and her character’s arc was the most compelling. Alas, I found myself pining for a less pretentious kung fu movie…like Ip Man.

prometheus

I’m sorry. You must answer in the form of a question. What was your wager?

So much debate and controversy surrounding Prometheus (2012), Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. It’s a visual treat with some fun touches and great design, but it will be compared to the first two Alien movies. No getting around it. The big joke was that the movie raises so many more questions than it answers, but I think that was part of the point. I enjoyed it. It’s worth watching. Not fantastic, but it’s smarter and gutsier than a lot of lame and lazy science fiction flicks.

Guilty Pleasures:

monsters university

Pay no mind that Billy Crystal and John Goodman are in their 60s and still getting work playing college boys.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I watched Monsters University (2013). I wasn’t the biggest fan of Monsters Inc. It was alright, but I might have enjoyed the prequel even more. The animation pops more and is more colorful, the sight-gags are sharper, and writing feels weirdly mature. It’s a typical college movie of nerds vs. jocks and students vs. faculty—which was familiar but competent and fun—but the film’s message in the end got me: no matter how hard you work for it sometimes you don’t get the thing you want the most. Sully has to learn not to be slacker and work for success but also how to be a friend, which is nice, but Mike’s lesson is much harsher. It hits a nerve most kiddie films never dare to hit.

bad grandpa2

I farted!

Yeah, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) is actually weirdly heart-warming and not as mean-spirited as you might expect. It’s weird that it genuinely seems to be all in good fun. Compare it with the piercing barbs of Borat. There’s a story in there too amidst the hidden camera hijinks, and it almost never mocks or belittles the real bystanders. I laughed and was surprised by the balance it set.

frozen

They think I’m annoying?

Frozen (2013) is a pretty animated music video with some snappy, funny writing. The story subverts the traditional Disney heroine who always needs a man to save her, which was refreshing. It’s good that a film like this tries to focus on family relationships, if only they did a better job of sculpting that dynamic. The rock trolls were unnecessary and weird. Olaf was cute.

Getting Juicier:

her

She just found the porn he downloaded on her.

Who knew that the serious depiction of a romantic relationship between a grown man with a mustache and a computerized voice would be so compelling and fascinating? Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, is a weird little sci-fi romance featuring a subdued image of the near future and tells us more of humans today than maybe we’d like to admit. We are turning more and more to our artificial things to comfort us and stave away loneliness, but what if these artificial interfaces were more autonomous than we were prepared for? And not in a killer robot Terminator kind of way. It’s a quiet, delicate, and thought-provoking movie.

all is lost

I should have gone to Bolivia.

Life of Pi without the tiger or maybe Gravity without space and less clumsy dialogue and characters. J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost(2013) finds such a majestic poetry in its simplicity. When a man (played by Robert Redford in a near wordless solo performance) wakes to discover a hole in his small yacht, he will stoically put his survival instincts to the test in the middle of the ocean. It’s haunting and mature. A refreshing departure.

Free Willy!

Free Willy!

Blackfish (2013) is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about a killer who happens to be an orca and the possible cover-up and the possibly dark underbelly of amusement parks that utilize wild animals as performers. I may not know much about whales, but I see all animals as intelligent, interesting creatures that deserve far more respect and space than we give them. This documentary reminds us that nature is unpredictable, emotional, and suffering as much if not more than us.

frances ha

Some days you can’t get out of the tub.

Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) tackles middle-class privileged aimlessness once again, this time with Greta Gerwig as his muse in Frances Ha (2012). Shot in glorious black and white, this story follows a drifting and foundering New Yorker as she tries to figure out what her life is about. It strikes very close to home for me and I like that. Gerwig gives a wonderful performance.

king of comedy2

At least he’s doing better than Woody Allen in “Take the Money and Run.”

I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s criminally overlooked The King of Comedy (1982). Robert De Niro is an oblivious weirdo who dreams of being a comedian like his Johnny Carson-esque hero (who he stalks) played by Jerry Lewis. Like After Hours it’s a very dark comedy and like Kundun it seems no one has seen it. The fan’s obsession drives him to ignore crucial details and ultimately causes his destiny to unfold in perhaps an insane or perhaps an insanely calculated way.

Nearing the Summit:

god on trial

Not that I want to side with any Germans right now, but maybe Nietzsche was right.

God On Trial (2008) is a British TV drama that takes place in a concentration camp during World War II. In it, the Jewish prisoners awaiting their fates decide to debate whether God is good or not. It is actually a very gripping tale as you see these men wrestle with their faith in one of the most dehumanizing places. It becomes their therapy and it will bring many to seriously question everything they ever knew.

We're on the road to nowhere.

We’re on the road to nowhere.

I like the Coen Brothers and I was pleased with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Beautifully photographed, very well acted, strangely  structured, and darkly, delicately humorous. Like Monsters University, this movie deals with what you cannot obtain. It’s a tragically true story with a wonderfully realized setting. It’s bleak but perhaps a needed medicine. The songs were good and several scenes really stick with you. Anyone in the arts has gone through similar trials and can relate.

waiting for superman

It’s because I’m black.

Another documentary? Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman (2010) is a close examination at some of the problems with America’s public education system. What about it doesn’t work and why? What reforms have been tried? What trends do we see repeating? Who are the faces of the children who are drowning in the broken corners of the system? It’s an important film that ought to be considered by all.

im all right jack

Don’t forget to look for the union label.

It’s almost fitting I put I’m All Right Jack (1959) right after Waiting for Superman. Both deal with unions and corruption. This British comedy starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, and Peter Sellers, is an impeccably acerbic satire that skewers all rungs of the social ladder. The sins, hypocrisies, and foibles of all: the upper class, the industry moguls, the labor unions. All are put on display for our amusement.

Orgasm:

innocents

“So bury me underneath the willow Under the weeping willow tree So that he may know where I am sleeping And perhaps hell weep for me”

What a sumptuously atmospheric tale of horror this one is. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) stars Deborah Kerr as a governess (she’s gonna get type-cast if she’s not careful) to two freaky kids in a mysterious mansion in the British country. Something horrible happened before she got the job and something evil still lurks within the house. Spooky hijinks ensue.

grand budapest hotel

“Why do you want to be a lobby boy?”

Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), combines a stellar cast headed by the great Ralph Fiennes and colorful, whimsical, stagey aesthetics to a caper comedy that unfolds during the troubling onset of World War II. It’s a positive film with good feelings and then twinges of whistfulness and sobriety. It’s glamorous while poking fun at the glamor. The plot is fun and loose, and allows for some fun intrigue and chases, the setting is magical and a fascinatingly nuanced character unto itself, and the frame of a story within a story within story encapsulates the theme of where stories come from and perhaps, why we tell them. Nobody orchestrates this kind of stuff like Anderson. I quite loved it. Incidentally it would make a good double-feature with Cabaret.

act of killing3

The vanity of the slaughterers of hundreds or more. And America financially aided much of their massacres. All in the name of snuffing out communism.

Another documentary?! Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) is a bizarre, difficult, sickening, grim, and emotionally arresting film that must be watched. Proud former Indonesian death-squad executioners, torturers, and militia are allowed to stage their proudest atrocities in their favorite film genres. At what point will it click that what these men did was heinous? Will it ever click? Are men so cowardly and evil capable of empathizes with their victims? The results will surprise and disturb you. Humanity is a strange thing. I cannot recommend this movie enough. The final two scenes have lingered with me for weeks.