Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.
I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.
Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.
Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).
It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.
I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.
Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.
I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.
One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.
I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.
As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys.
Comedian Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) stars in Trainwreck (2015), a mean-spirited by-the-numbers rom-com with one or two really good laughs. Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) directs and Bill Hader (SNL) co-stars as the perfect but vaguely awkward man who lets an alcoholic Amy treat him like garbage until she decides to just be with him. It’s a story of a character’s personal growth, but if you never really like the character you won’t care and if you’re not sure if she’s even learned anything you may be hard-pressed to call it an arc. I don’t care what the genders are, people being selfish and crappy to each other is neither romantic nor charming. Also features Alison Brie, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park, and Dave Attell.
I did not get Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). I did not dislike it. I just didn’t quite get it. Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), sporting a truly wonderful mustache, is a quiet man at a surreal mansion getaway where tenants are required to find a mate within 45 days lest they be turned into an animal (Colin chooses a lobster). I think it’s a metaphor for the social stigmas of being single, but it was all a little too dry and slow for me. A tepid, but refreshingly strange outing to the cinema. Also stars Rachel Weicz, Michael Smiley, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw.
It took me awhile to get into the rhyming dialogue and beat poetry delivery of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015). Lysistrata (played by the fabulous Teyonah Parris) starts a revolution to end gang violence in the bloody streets of Chicago by getting all women to deny their men sex of any kind until the shootings stop. It’s a bit stagey at times (in a stylized but awkward way that doesn’t always work), but the energy and humor and pulse of desperation make this movie worth a look. A bit tonally uneven, which is a shame because I feel like there’s a great film in there somewhere. Also features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson.
Guilty pleasures and amiable lectures:
Quentin Tarantino. An obnoxious egotist who makes some fun movies. The Hateful Eight (2015) looks great and packs some great people into its tiny cast. A bounty hunter called The Hangman (Kurt Russell) escorting his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution gets snowbound in a shifty cabin full of untrustworthy characters. The moments of tension are great—although nothing close to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained—and it has a few surprises, but when every character is so hateful it can become hard to care about what happens to them. Samuel L. Jackson is half the reason the movie is as entertaining as it is. Jackson has a fantastic mental showdown with Bruce Dern’s character too. Also stars Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.
Samurai Cop (1991) is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It truly is one of the BEST bad movies out there and you owe it to yourself to watch it now. The surprise sequel Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) is decidedly underwhelming by comparison. The film spends a lot of its time winking at the audience and dusting off all of the old cast for their own quality moments of varying hilarity. Instead of a crappy old school B-action movie we get a seriously incomprehensible Lynchian mess of flashy colors and lady murder. In a post screening Q&A, Matt Karedas (Joe “Samurai Cop” Marshall, himself) expressed disappointment with the finished product and said he was uncomfortable murdering so many women in the film, feeling it was against Joe’s character. For however impossible the plot is to follow, I loved a lot of the cheesy winks and wacky, forced cameos. Bai Ling and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau add a lot of over-the-top zany surreality to the finished product, but seeing Mark Frazer and so many of the original cast reprising their roles in this stupid film was just what I needed. It looks like everyone is having fun. And this movie actually gave me newfound respect for Bai Ling. She plays it well beyond eleven. Fans of the original will undoubtedly be as dismayed and baffled as Matt, but should check it out anyway for a stupid adventure with your favorite cult movie heroes.
Jason Strouse’s quiet little comedy-drama about an ineffably likable high school teacher (played wonderfully by Matt Letscher) is sweet. It’s charming. It’s actually a bit too clean and simple at times. But Teacher of the Year (2014) manages to more closely resemble the anxieties of actual teacher life than most teacher flicks. Mitch Carter (Letscher) is a great educator who has to make a choice between staying where he’s always been or taking a bigger job across the country. The cast is good (Keegan-Michael Key and the Sklar Brothers add needed hilarity) and it has enough satisfying character moments to eclipse some of its contrivances. It’s not pretentious and it should make you smile, whether you’re in education or not. Co-stars Tamlyn Tomita, Jamie Kaler, Larry Joe Campbell, and Sunny Mabrey.
A bit more on board:
I love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and even lower tier Coens is still watchable (Ladykillers is pushing it though). Hail, Caesar! (2016) is not a masterpiece, but it is breezy and fun. The story is pulled in perhaps too many directions (The Big Lebowski made it work). Ultimately we may be a little fuzzy on what was being said and why we should care (Burn After Reading did it better). It’s all rather showy and cartoony (Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona were more successful here). It’s about old Hollywood (Barton Fink, while weird, was far more engaging). It tries to depict a crisis of faith (A Serious Man, anyone?). In the end, Hail, Caesar! is a series of wacky scenes vaguely connected and told in the mock-buildup fashion of classic Coen shaggy dog tales. Not great. But not bad. Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich (possibly the best part of the show), and a host of cameos from Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Clancey Brown, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, etc. So what’s it about? The red scare? The calculated fakeness of showbiz? Who cares? Eat your popcorn.
Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a gleefully dark Christmas story full of demonic gingerbread men, ghoulish holiday gifts, and the wicked elf ruler of them all. A boy accidentally curses his family’s stressful yuletide proceedings when he summons the dark version of Santa Claus: Krampus. It’s silly and simple, but the surreal sense of dread, coupled with the right tone of comedy, propel this anti-holiday flick beyond Gremlins (perhaps). Did I mention the fantastic creature effects? The evil Jack-in-the-box and the nightmarish lord of them all look wonderful! The use of puppets and suited monsters definitely add to the uneasy texture of this kooky flick. Features an extended stop-motion flashback sequence and Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Conchata Ferrell, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.
What if you could get the two lowest FIFA ranked teams in soccer and have them compete against each other on the same exact day as the World Cup final? Two Dutch soccer fans did just that and made it into a documentary called The Other Final (2003). If you like underdogs, this is for you. It’s underdogs versus underdogs! Watching the sadly forgotten teams of Bhutan and Montserrat meet on the patchy green amicably and in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is a charming little departure from big commercial athletics. As a bonus, I learned more about the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat than I ever knew before.
Let’s take it up a notch:
I’m a Stephen Chow fan. Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle are masterpieces of comic fantasy. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) is a fantastically innovative adventure and compelling retelling of the classic Chinese legend. While some of the ambitious visuals may falter beneath occasionally uneven special effects, one must applaud Chow’s typically confident direction of the impossible mayhem. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in this action-packed tale of demon hunters and romance unrequited. Like Chow’s previous films mentioned, Journey to the West is accessible to children for its monsters and fantasy but complex and surprising in its narrative cogs. At the end of it all, I found myself both exhausted and delighted at having seen something unique. Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, and Huang Bo star.
Kristen Wiig (SNL) plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and decides to make a show based on herself (her thoughts, her memories, her hobbies, etc.) in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me (2014). Honestly, I can’t imagine a single other person playing this character. Wiig straddles a weird line between comedy and sympathy for mental illness. The usual obvious satirical fodder of television politics rears its head too, but the real heart of the film comes from the endearing character and Wiig’s performance. There’s a lot of goodies in this clever little movie that I’ll just recommend you watch it. Also features Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, and Alan Tudyk.
If you got excited by Tommy Wiseau’s mention in Samurai Cop 2, then you’re going to love this: The Room fan Rick Harper got deep into Wiseau’s world a few years back. So deep they may not be on speaking terms anymore. So deep he tracked down most of the original cast and crew and made a documentary about the famously awful cult movie. I had the special privilege of seeing the world premier of Room Full of Spoons (2016) in Madrid. If watching The Room brings you joy; if Tommy Wiseau fascinates you with his captivating oddness; if you’ve ever had questions about how the film was made or where Tommy comes from…watch this documentary.
2016 Oscar winning film about the Catholic priest pedophilia cover up, Spotlight (2015), is solidly cast, well written, and an important reminder of the significance of investigative journalism in our world. This is like the sister film of All the President’s Men (1976). Not merely satisfied with looking into the interviewing process of gathering data via cold calls, personal interviews, and reading through old documents, Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, deals a lot with the nature of the politics game and media strategies involved in a high profile, high risk scoop dependent on secrecy and facts. And the personalities uncovering the story bring added realism to this slow-burn drama. Stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.
I gave a needed re-watch to a film I never really got on board with as a child. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our home did not celebrate the knockoffs I later came to love. Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars have since become films I frequently recommend. Knowing this, and somewhat prompted by “Trailers From Hell“, I gave The Last Starfighter (1984) another chance. No, not all of the effects hold up (some of the earliest examples of CGI), but it is such an amiable breath of fresh air that it hit me just right. A video-gamer named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) living in a dusty trailer park gets a surprise visit from a strange alien visitor (The Music Man‘s Robert Preston) sent to recruit him to defend a distant planet. Alex’s alien mentor, Grig (played by Dan O’Herlihy), is an understandably favorite character. It’s basically everything you want it to be. It’s unapologetically fun and squarely 80s sci-fi cheese. Maybe never confused with a truly “great” film, I submit we retain slots for the wonderfully good.
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is a hypnotic, elliptical enigma. If you thought Primer was alienating and indecipherable, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Categorized as a sci-fi movie, imdb.com summarizes the plot thusly: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Which is more than the film itself clearly communicates and more succinct than I could blurb. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it immensely. But then…I also liked Beyond the Black Rainbow and Under the Skin a lot too.
High-Rise (2015) is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. Tom Hiddleston plays a businessman who moves into the latest architectural wonder created by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). It’s got all the modern conveniences and it is stylish beyond compare, but things gradually devolve into anarchy as the classes and perceived entitlements of its tenants begin to clash. This is not Snowpiercer. This is not an action movie. The objectives are intentionally vague. It’s brand of satire is unabashedly dark and murky. It’s sexy and weird and claustrophobic. Also stars Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.
Here’s a slow-burn that caught me off guard. I went to see Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) knowing pretty much nothing about it. I think that helped. The story of a group of estranged friends reuniting under cryptic circumstances—and what increasingly feels like a cult pitch—sucks you in and holds you under as the tension and suspense uncomfortably builds before a final act that does not disappoint. The driveway to this California dinner party is lined with warning signs. Watch it. Stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch.
This is the end:
After all that, what could I list as my top three films? (As my whims sit these evening anyway.)
S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has been lauded. And for good reason. Bone Tomahawk (2015) blows Tarantino’s latest film out of the water. Kurt Russell is Sheriff Hunt. He and his elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a greasy gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and one man with a broken [possibly gangrenous] leg (Patrick Wilson) go on a rescue mission to save the cripple’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a mysterious tribe of albino cannibal troglodytes. Valley of the Gwangi was cowboys versus dinosaurs. Now we got cowboys versus cave-people. And for however schlocky the synopsis may sound, this is a genuinely good movie. It is sensitive and earthy. More drama than gore-fest (though, there’s a bit of that too). It’s a well-written surprise whose humor and heart make it more than just that movie with the cannibal troglodytes in the wild west. And can we just give all of the acting awards to Richard Jenkins for his performance already? The man is glorious. Also features Sid Haig, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, James Tolkan, and Sean Young.
How does a kinetic comedy-drama about a jealousy & meth-fueled transgender sex-worker on Christmas Eve in Hollywood filmed entirely on iPhone 5s sound? The very first scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) sets up everything you need to know: Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of prison and just found out her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cisgender chick (Mickey O’Hagan). In addition we have the subplots of Sin-Dee’s best friend (also trans, also a sex worker), Alexandra (Mya Taylor), quiet ambitions of being a singer and an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) trying to avoid his family on Christmas Eve to find Alexandra. The whole chaotic pot comes to a boil and we, the audience, are there for the show. Maybe you don’t feel like you relate to any of these characters. Perhaps it all sounds too much like an episode of Cops. Or maybe you don’t mind walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and observing their lives and their dreams and their problems. These characters are not the typical archetypes of American cinema. It may take a moment to step into their world and get used to the frenetic tempo and saturated colors, but perhaps you shall be rewarded.
Nabwana I.G.G. has been making insane, low-budget action movies in the slums of Uganda for years. I was introduced to his work via Alan Ssali Hofmanis, an American who moved to Uganda and dedicated his life to helping Nabwana complete more films. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), on all accounts, could not be a good movie. But it is. The plot is all but incomprehensible and the effects and props are fakey-fake. But this was made in the slums. For nothing. And a mad, anarchic joy permeates every moment of this glorious, cacophonous proceedings. Unlike The Room, which I love because it is terrible, I love Captain Alex because it was so alien and new and wonderful. By way of the Voice Joker (gleeful narrator who vaguely helps tell the story between wisecracks), we are given a glimpse into life in the slums and, more tellingly, their interpretation of American action cinema, the genre they were first introduced to and the one they choose to troll. They are having fun. Infectious fun. I can’t guarantee that you will like it as much as I did. But after hearing the history of slum cinema from Alan and viewing this feature on the big screen at midnight I only know one thing: I can’t wait to see Nabwana’s next film in which I may have a brief cameo getting my own head blown up by the Ebola Hunter. Call me crazy, this was my favorite movie-going experience in awhile.
That’s my list. Disagree? What did you see?
What do you get if you cross The Secret of NIMH (1982) with Watership Down (1978) and try to tell a gritty noir with cats? You get the bizarre German cartoon Felidae (1994). While I don’t count this as a good film, I can give it some points for trying something offbeat and I did want to know where the story was going. My beef: you can be an adult animation without being so forced and unnatural about it. The unintentionally awkward cursing and gory violence is so over the top at times that it feels more like South Park than Chinatown. The serial murder mystery itself is a bit of a letdown and our protagonist, Francis, is so feckless and flat that it barely registers when he’s fleeing danger or having casual sex with feral felines. It doesn’t work, but as a curiosity, it’s not a total waste of time and the animation isn’t bad.
Toby Jones (The Mist) stars as an English sound engineer working on Italian horror flicks in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012). It’s a slow, seemingly plotless movie that lingers on one timid sound man’s gradual descent into a subtle madness. It takes its time and you may want it to do more or go deeper, but I was engaged enough with the character that I didn’t mind not knowing where it was going…or if it would go anywhere at all.
Gosh, is it that time in Bill Murray’s career already? I love Bill Murray and nearly all Bill Murray movies and, while I can’t say the same for Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent (2014), I won’t say it’s not passably amusing. Murray plays a crotchety old war vet who reluctantly befriends a precocious young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in this schmaltzy dramedy that seems intent on hitting many of the predictable indie beats. Despite it’s familiar formula and a few questionable accents (my brain knows Murray too well to accept the NYC brogue he dons), the charm of the cast (including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) makes you forgive a multitude of contrivances.
In the spirit of Forrest Gump (heck, Little Big Man too), a lovable but somewhat simple old man recounts his wild history-romping life with peaceful detachment in Felix Herngren’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). Allen Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) decides to escape the nursing home and embarks on a lackadaisical adventure full of stolen money, gangsters, car chases, new friends, and at least one elephant. Throughout the modern day shenanigans, Allen tells of his life as a haphazardly globe-trotting self-taught demolitions expert devoid of political affiliations (he’s on every side of history from revolutionaries to Franco to Stalin to Truman). It’s a light-hearted comedy with a refreshingly pensive pulse.
Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) directs Gene Hackman (The French Connection) as a surveillance expert whose own past and the potential futures of those he spies upon addle him in The Conversation (1974). This is one of those gritty 70s movies your film professor talked about and I’m only just now getting to it. It’s a gradual descent into paranoia and ethical dilemmas. Also features John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon).
Gregg Turkington stars as a burnt-out comedian (in the spirit of his Neil Hamburger character) hitting gig after depressing gig in the Mojave desert in Rick Alverson’s Entertainment (2015). The characters are unpleasant and dim and thoroughly exhausted. The film itself feels Lynchian in its elliptical oddness. The weird insights we get into these unlikable people and their circumstances speaks more to our own human interactions than our demand to be entertained by a clown.
Rick Famuyiwa’s coming-of-age tale of three high school kids from Inglewood who wind up with a bag full of unwanted drugs is a colorful breeze. Dope (2015) hits a lot of familiar genre marks, but, like St. Vincent, gets by on its style, wit, and charisma of its lead (played by Shameik Moore). It may not be the most original story, but its attitude covers a lot.
Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) were marvelous stop-motion fantasies with edge and flair to spare. Laika Studios’ The Boxtrolls (2014) is another cinematic gift brimming with imagination and style. A young boy, raised by the hunted subterranean creatures, must rediscover who he is and unite the warring civilizations. An amazing voice cast (Sir Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, and more) and spectacularly realized hand-crafted visuals make this family adventure a memorable treat.
For people who like the 80s and like awkward indie flicks and like hilariously over-the-top gore, Turbo Kid (2015), directed by François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, is a blast and a half. In a post-apocalyptic 1997, Mad Max-ian marauders on bicycles rule the wastelands. Where Kung Fury (2015) ran out of steam minutes into its short runtime, Turbo Kid maintains a straight face and continues to present absurd visions of violence, wild characters, and wacky dialogue delivered in earnest with unyielding confidece. It looks great and the cast does a fine job with the bonkers material. Laurence Laboeuf in particular shines as the unflappably weird Apple.
I took the Kool-aid. J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a great big-budget science-fantasy speeder chase down Nostalgia Lane. There’s plenty stupid to the plot, but the cast shines (Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Harrison Ford) and the special effects scintillate. It’s amazing how much more immersive and tangible models, puppets, animatronics, real locations, and constructed sets are. And humor. And engaging characters. And emotional depth. And recognizable stakes clearly established in each lightsaber and spaceship altercation. While it’s an extremely busy story and it does retread a lot of the original film’s plot points, it also just feels good to be back in the Star Wars universe. This is the movie fans have been waiting for since 1983.
It may be hard to explain why I liked Miguel Llansó Crumbs (2015) so much. In a post-apocalyptic Ethiopia, a hunchbacked scavenger named Candy (Daniel Tadesse) embarks on a private adventure to request Santa Claus (Tsegaye Abegaz) to allow him to reclaim his Kryptonian throne and board a perpetually hovering spaceship with his woman. It’s slow and surreal and might best be described as Turbo Kid as imagined by Werner Herzog. It may not be for everyone, but it has enough innovative and clever details to entertain an odd person like me.
For some reason, this weird film has not left me. David Cronenberg (Videodrome) directs Jeremy Irons (Lolita) as a pair of identical twin gynecologists in this enigmatic thriller, Dead Ringers (1988). When they split sexual duties with a famous client (Geneviève Bujold) it opens up the doors of insecurity in both of them. When she discovers the trick they’ve been playing on her and ends it, the brothers begin a spiraling journey into obsession, addiction, and a longing to understand the nature of their individual identities. It’s a disturbing slow-burn, but worth it if you get Cronenberg and you want to see one of Irons’ best performances.
It is fascinating to watch the goals and underlying social themes shift in the Planet of the Apes series. I’ll come out and say it. I love the series. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 starring Charlton Heston is one of my favorite movies. Definitely one of my favorites from the sixties. I just got out of a showing of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), the latest incarnation and direct sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Without hesitation, Dawn is the new second best Planet of the Apes movie.
For starters, I should begin by mentioning that I saw it in Korea and, while the dialogue was in English, whenever the apes were signing things the subtitles were all in Korean. At first I was concerned I might be missing crucial plot points, but kudos to the amazing effects team at WETA and the motion-capture performers for making silent ape dialogue wholly understandable. I feel bad for the 5 year old Korean girl who sat next to me and buried her terrified face in her hands for the film’s duration.
Our story begins where Rise left off. The intellectually enhanced and organized ape revolutionaries had escaped into the forests beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. An infected pilot, unwittingly carrying a deadly virus developed in a lab, embarked on a tragic journey that would effectively spread the disease to every corner of the world, wiping out a majority of Earth’s human population and all semblance of order and civilization. Now, several years later, the humans live in a tribal post-apocalyptic nightmare and are quickly running out of power and means to utilize their limited resources. Meanwhile, ape society is flourishing in the wilds and a developing culture is forming strong social bonds. Caesar is the leader of the apes.
The troubles in this movie begin when humans stumble into ape territory in search of a lost dam that might help restore power to their ailing ruins of society. A shot is fired and a chimpanzee is hit. Caesar, rather than having his mighty army make short work of the lost search party, shows mercy and banishes them. This introduces the conflict that is firmly seated at this movie’s core: trust and tribal bonds. Caesar has a clear duty to protect his people (and he, and the rest of the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans harbor an understandable fear and hatred of humans—*see previous film) and the humans have a clear duty to themselves to protect their own and get the power back to avoid more violent anarchy. Communication proves difficult for no matter how well-intentioned some peace-seeking individuals on either side of the table are, it only takes a few reckless or wicked individuals to keep tensions high and trust destroyed.
The movie is intelligently written, well acted, and like the previous film features some top-notch computer special effects and spectacular action scenes. I really liked Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but in all honesty Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is easily the superior film. Rise was great, but I had a few problems with it (mainly archetypal cartoony human characters like the evil money-loving bureaucrat, the benevolent scientist, the ape racist who works with apes, the girl, etc.). Thankfully, most of the problems are corrected in Dawn. The strongest chapter of Rise was the ape sanctuary scenes where Caesar, an intellectually superior animal, has to learn real ape society rules and rise to power to become their leader. With almost no dialogue or humans, the film soars to fascinating heights and keeps the tension building in these impressively animated sequences. Dawn plays like an extension of those scenes and centers around the apes cultivating their own society, while the human subplot focuses on mankind desperately trying not to slip back to the dark ages.
Rise, perhaps, put a little too much into the fun fan-service of referencing the 1968 classic. Without knowing what the signed ape dialogue was specifically, I don’t think I saw much evidence of this in this new film. The only reference might be the music which did remind me strongly of the original in places. Dawn still has a weaker human storyline, but their role is vital for the story. Dawn is about establishing peace and trust in a volatile situation. Mankind itself is not the enemy. There are a few cartoonishly dickish humans who muck up the works more than a few times, but they are symbols of the fear and closed-mindedness that is also present in the ape society. Koba, a chimpanzee (or bonobo, who knows?), is the real villainous foil. His fear, anger, and hatred—regardless of how personally justified or rooted in past experiences—stands for the fear, hatred, and self-interest that blocks cultural progress everywhere.
1. Where did the apes get the horses?
2. What are the ape sentiments toward monkeys and tarsiers? Slow lorises?
3. Why no gibbons? Gibbons are apes.
4. Not a question, but we were so close to seeing a bear fight a gorilla in the first 10 minutes! So close! And they blew it by having it fight some chimps.
5. Why aren’t there more orangutans? I love orangutans.
6. Why is it apes versus humans? Humans are technically apes too. The title “Planet of the Apes” is actually not that descriptive. We currently live in the “Planet of the Apes.”
I said at the beginning that what I find interesting is how the same series can change its tone and message with the shifting of the cultural tides yet still operate under the same basic rules. The original Planet of the Apes from 1968 was about dogmatism versus science and the possibilities of the collapse of human society and the possible future of ape evolution. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) was about making more money. That’s about it. A little bit concerning the dangers of nuclear weapons at the end. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) dealt with how we react to outsiders and how we defend our own self interest at the expense of outsiders (because they be different!). Conquest of the Planet of the Apes(1972) was about racism and revolution. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) was about making money again, but also about how some of the best social rules must sometimes be compromised or broken to keep the peace (hit on again in Dawn—one very appropriate nod the earlier movies). The Tim Burton one (2001) was about “remember these movies?” Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) shifted tone to be about scientific ethics and perhaps ecology, especially in how we treat animals. It asked questions like: Is it okay to treat animals the way we do simply because we don’t perceive them to be on our intellectual level? Are we really the most important species? Could another surpass us? Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) focuses much of its energy on the tenuous nature of diplomacy in hostile territory where emotions run high. It basically states that emotion should not rule the roost when it comes to maintaining peace—and that this message rings strongly for both sides. In a sense, Dawn is a critique on the hazards of nationalism and isolationism and how it only takes a few extremists to characterize and demonize an entire social group. It is easy to see how a simple tit for tat exchange can escalate quickly to tragic ends. This is something we witness throughout history and today in human geopolitics and conflicts.
Moral of the story: peace is hard and destruction is easy.
All in all Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is probably one of the more socially significant blockbusters out there at the moment. It suffers from some less interesting human characters (minus Gary Oldman who manages to be more than the archetype you might expect from the trailers). The effects are mesmerizing to watch and the fight sequences are high octane, high emotion thrill-scapes. If you enjoyed anything about the earlier films this is a welcome treat with a bigger brain than most of the series and what appears to be a genuinely prescient conscience concerning escalating real-world geopolitical tensions. I recommend it.
Premise: In 1976 Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It beat Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, and Network. While most of us love Rocky, we do feel like there were definitely some better movies nominated that year that maybe deserved it more. Rocky was the safe pick.
Sometimes it’s a tough call. My Fair Lady beat Mary Poppins, Becket, Zorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove in 1964. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, and Barry Lyndon in 1975. Those years were anyone’s game.
On rare occasions I all-encompassingly agree with the Academy’s decision (e.g. On the Waterfront was an obvious win). Sometimes a winner is reviled or labeled “overrated” by folks were preferred other nominees (e.g. Crash, Rocky, etc.). Rarer still is the occasion when I must defend a snubbed winner.
I know exactly why Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners, but I am here to defend it. I’m in an awkward place because this is actually one of my favorite movies. . . but did it deserve the Oscar? Let’s take a look at the successes and shortcomings of Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.
Perspective: 80 Days beat out Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper is a conflicted Quaker), Giant (James Dean finds oil), The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein ensure happy and balanced America-Thai relations FOREVER!…it’s actually still banned there, I think), and The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille makes the religious epic to end all religious epics).
Around the World in 80 Days was a bold widescreen period epic that employed nearly 70,000 extras and nearly 8,000 animals and required moving crews of thousands to relocate equipment and people to thirteen different countries. In addition to the wild costumes, exotic locations, and incredible set-pieces; countless Hollywood hotshots were given cameo bit parts throughout the film. Some movie star extras include Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown, Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jose Greco, Hermoine Gingold, Charles Boyer, Red Skelton, John Mills, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, and more.
Full Disclosure: Friendly Persuasion is good, but High Noon was the Gary Cooper film that should have won something. I actually haven’t seen Giant (yet), but I’m not a big Elizabeth Taylor fan and wonder if it really could be better than East of Eden for Dean flicks (my favorite). The King and I is a lavish, vibrant, and somewhat racist pageant show that boasts a few great songs and a lot of tedious bits. We can’t be too down on The King and I for racial mischaracterization because 80 Days is actually guilty of the same (and in way more countries). Finally, The Ten Commandments is an incredible visual feast with another epic cast list, and while I still do love a lot of the biblical melodrama and the impressive score, this film sometimes does feel too long (still maybe better paced than Ben-Hur though…but Ben-Hur is probably the better film).
I’ve heard it said that Around the World in 80 Days is proof you can buy an Oscar—due to its high production costs and lavish flourishes. But come on! The King and I and The Ten Commandments might be even more lavish and even flourishier. The only real difference here is that Around the World in 80 Days seems less pretentious.
I’m also somewhat biased because I do like travelogue adventures, Jules Verne, and levity.
The Skinny: Following a long prologue about the possibilities of technology and the influence of prophetic science-fiction writers on scientific progress, presented by Edward R. Murrow who shows us Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. . . our story finally begins.
Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is an exceedingly punctual and fastidious 19th century British gentleman. On a whim over a game of whist he decides to prove to his aristocratic colleagues that he can successfully circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. The wager is set.
Fogg takes his amorous new servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), along for the ride.
Detective Fix (Robert Newton), a Scotland Yard agent under the suspicion that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, pursues.
Despite the demands of the trek, Fogg and Passpartout manage to find the time to rescue an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) too.
Modes of transportation include trains, ships, coaches, hot air balloons, horses, ostriches, elephants, and more.
Lands traversed include England, France, Spain, India, China, Japan, the United States, and then some.
The Good: The cast and characters themselves are great. So Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly Indian, but Cantinflas certainly isn’t French (as he is described in the book). Niven is the perfect Fogg and Cantinflas is one of the most fun movie sidekicks of all time as Passepartout.
The film boasts some snappy dialogue, riddled with wit and smarm (one of the screenwriters was American humorist S. J. Perleman). There is an abundance of clever lines and welcome character moments. The script never let’s us forget the stakes or to remind us that it’s all for fun.
The scenery is great and the film makes wonderful use of the widescreen photography. Remember, in 1956 most people hadn’t really seen much of the rest of the world. This was their chance to get the Disney-fied Haliburton experience from the comfort of a theater seat.
The film has a loose buoyancy to it and never loses its spirit of fun and adventure—even when the ubiquitous threat of immolation at the hands of politcally incorrect uncouthed savages looms large. There is a pleasing and self-depricating sense of patriotism for both Brits and Yanks alike. That it can manage to be both cavalier and suspenseful at the same time is something of a noteworthy feat as well.
The score is fantastic. Composer Victor Young creates wonderful atmosphere and momentum. There are several very memorable themes. Each country and character gets special musical treatment. Seriously, find the soundtrack and listen to it. It is sublime.
The great intro credits artist, Saul Bass, also provides a very fun cartoon at the end. . . that summarizes the entire three hour film in about seven minutes.
The Bad: The production itself is a staggering achievement and that this ambitious globe-trotting feature is not a mess are positives, however, there are some problems. The movie, perhaps by design, is structured in a fairly episodic manner (there are a lot of isolated mini-adventures throughout, but that seems unavoidable in a story like this. Heck, the original Jules Verne novel is crazy episodic).
The film’s camera direction is actually stultifyingly unimaginative. Very basic shots. Establishing shots and two shots and wide shots. That’s about it. Nothing particularly inspired in the cinematography department, but it could be argued that the content being filmed was so impressively orchestrated that it needed no distracting angles or frills.
183 minutes is a long commitment and you notice more when scenes linger at that length. Most of the movie clips along nicely and there are very few boring scenes. The flight over France, the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain, and the train ride through the Indian jungle, however, as great as they are, do feel like they go on a tad too long. Perhaps they were just so taken with what they were filming they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it.
Some of the cultural representations might feel a little insensitive today. The angry mob that chases Passepartout after he shoos a cow in India; the bloodthirsty Native Americans attacking the train; German actor Peter Lorre being Japanese (a reference to his Mr. Moto days).
The ending is really perplexing. It’s funny, I guess, but even as a kid it felt tonally wrong. The last thirty seconds of this three hour movie are just so bafflingly off that if it wasn’t for the Saul Bass cartoon that immediately followed I reckon even more people would dislike this movie. You can’t invest three hours into something that is going to be written off so flippantly and strangely in the homestretch. It’s a decent joke, but it just comes at the wrong time.
The Leftovers: The novelty of seeing all those old Hollywood celebrities comprise the background atmosphere may have lost some its luster over time as many of the then-famous faces are now unknown to many today.
It’s not a great anthropological exploration of the many cultures around the world, but it’s not really trying to be (more a series of snapshots). With regards to its hasty and generalizing representations it can be likened to the It’s a Small World ride at Diseneyland. Oversimplified, but, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.
So what is it? It’s an adventure movie, a road movie, a comedy, a joking prod at British classism, a wild western movie, a suspense movie, and tack on a somewhat limited romance as well.
Ultimately: I suspect people think that Giant or The Ten Commandments should have won. I suspect they feel that Around the World in 80 Days was too light and fun to be important and too sweeping and grandiose while failing to be more artistic. I suspect they feel it was gimmicky and perhaps kitsch. Too broadly painted to be taken seriously.
Honestly, Around the World in 80 Days is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, but for me it still is a great feel-good crowd-pleaser. When I was a little kid borrowing this from my local library I had no idea it was such a hotly contested Oscar winner. I didn’t even know what the Oscars were or that it had won. Perhaps I am too nostalgic for it, but I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to hate this movie.
Maybe The Ten Commandments should have won. I don’t know. It’s not like the Oscars actually have any bearing over how good or bad a film really is. The Court Jester, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! weren’t even nominated that year (because comedy, science fiction, and atomic parables with giant lizards are not high art).
There have been plenty of wins, and even nominations, I didn’t particularly care for. There have also been plenty of movies I thought were great that never even got nominated. Does the say-so of “The Academy” really matter? Maybe not. So for all those haters out there who like to downplay Around the World in 80 Days, let me just remind you: get over it.
And while I still think Network and the other 1976 nominees were better than Rocky I don’t begrudge Rocky. Good for Rocky. But I have my alternative preferences.
Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?
The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).
That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.
All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.
Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.
Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.
Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).
Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.
Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.
Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in Rango. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.
Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.
2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.
3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.
4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.
5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!
6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.
7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.
8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.
9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.
10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011