THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXII – Why Oh Why?

More movies of any stripe ranked against each other in an exercise in arbitrariness!

Sorry, guys. There’s a LOT of pretty disappointing ones on this list.

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21. Bats(1999) is the worst kind of creature feature. Lazy, tedious, too expository, and not nearly enough funny special effects. The bat noises are funny and so are some of the puppets. But this makes Eight-Legged Freaks look like a masterpiece of horror.

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20. Conquest (1983) is unwatchable. Seriously. I didn’t even finish it. It’s unwatchable. And I mean that in a few different ways. For one, the protagonists have negative charisma and are impossible to like. Two, every scene features drab, gray characters in a drab, gray world annoyingly back-lit to the point of silhouette and consistently obfuscated by plumes of smoke/mist coming from…somewhere. Directed by Lucio Fulci (Don’t Torture a Duckling and A Woman in Lizard’s Skin), this is an unpleasant looking Italian-Mexican-Spanish co-production mercifully featuring at least some nudity and some creative violence. I actually dug the character design of the villainous (a topless, cavewoman g-string clad figure with a big, golden head and covered in snakes. Bold. Tacky. Completely insane). It’s artier than much of the artless sword-and-sorcery epics of this era, but it’s pretty bad. And smoky.

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19. Running Free (1994) is the story of a clinically obnoxious 12 year old boy and the wolverine who loved him. It’s the sort of family adventure ilk my mother would have let me borrow from the library. Sure, the acting is bad and the general plotlessness is laughable, but they did have a helicopter, at least one good explosion, a decent plane crash, and the beautiful Alaskan wilderness as their backdrop. It’s a coming-of-age tale that’s an insult to the intelligence of 12-year-olds everywhere. Most of those crappy direct-to-video movies I did rent back in the day had a lot more going for them.

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18. After Conquest, I thought maybe Barbarian Queen (1985) might be a bit better. And although it was largely a totally artless skin flick with lackluster action, the female cast was attractive (in an aggressively objectifying way) and you could actually see what was happening in each shot due to not having smoke everywhere. Barbarian Queen is problematic in several other ways, but the visibility inches this Argentinian production ahead of Conquest. It at least gave us some laughs while it made us feel completely filthy for watching it.

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17. Tae-bo legend Billy Blanks stars in a truly awful sci-fi action movie about a school for assassins that trains its members with embarrassingly realized virtual reality. Expect No Mercy (1995), if the title tells you anything, is a nondescript and dull flick that could be about anything. “Expect no mercy” isn’t even a decent tagline. There are a few scenes that are laughably fun, but not enough to warrant a re-watch anytime soon. Spoiler alert: I did shed a tear for the iguana guy.

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16. Geena Davis stars as a pirate queen and already you see what’s wrong. Cutthroat Island (1995) is a swashbuckling adventure comedy infamous for being a flop and bankrupting a studio. There is production value and, genuinely some of the action sequences are executed very well. The big problem with this is tone. Davis and co-star Matthew Modine have no chemistry and Modine is given the task of speaking entirely in awkward smart-ass remarks that are meant to infuse his character with charm and charisma, but accomplish just the opposite. It’s miscast and too long, but you gotta give credit for the location cinematography and lavish sets and props to Davis to doing a lot of her own stunts. Almost every scene has a hundred extras in it, all intricately adorned in period buccaneer garb. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on a Xena: Warrior Princess kick, but had they cast Lucy Lawless and Bruce Campbell this could have been fire.

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15. TerrorVision(1986) is a horror comedy that’s running of cheese-factor fumes. An extra-terrestrial monster (the Hungry Beast) is mistakenly beamed down to Earth via a Floridian’s new satellite dish. The slimy, grotesque creature materializes out of television sets to gobble up members of the cartoony Putterman family. Where They Live and The Stuff used science-fiction/horror to create clever social satires on the state of American consumerism, TerrorVision is content to just be a dumb monster movie. Most of the laughs come from just how over-the-top every single detail of this campy film is. It has one or two pretty decent scenes and some quotable lines, but the tone is just so goofy and gleefully brainless that, although perhaps the filmmakers’ intentions, it disappoints because it always feels like it could have been better. A bit more gore could have elevated it. I did like the ending and the creature was pretty gross. So points for that.

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14. Kung-fu and British horror finally get the crossover we didn’t know we wanted until The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). Hammer Studios teamed up with the Shaw Brothers and the results are a bit of a charming mess. It’s not a great movie, but it’s trashy and silly enough to sort of warm your little heart. Peter Cushing appears once again as vampire hunter Van Helsing, now in China to battle an endless army of vampire zombie slaves. He lets his Chinese counterparts do most of the battling.

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13. Taraji P. Henson stars in Proud Mary (2018), a sort of throwback to blaxploitation films like Coffy and Foxy Brown. Mary is an assassin trying to atone for her sins by taking in an orphaned boy. But as the body count rises, Mary’s problems only get more complicated. You can tell there’s love going into this, but the finished result is a somewhat bland film punctuated by moments of style and funk. When it cuts loose and has fun, it’s great and justifies some of the contrivances. It just plays it too safe most of the time.

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12. A yearning for nostalgia had me re-watch Disney’s Hercules (1997). You all know it. And I had much the same reaction as an adult as I did as a kid. It’s gorgeously and stylishly animated. James Woods as a snaky car salesman Hades and his demon henchmen, as well as the three fates, are hilarious. The singing muses were fun. And that’s about it. Danny DeVito’s voice is too distracting as Hercules’ trainer, Phil. The romance is meh. The story just isn’t particularly fulfilling. Which is a real shame. Because, again, the 2D animation is among Disney’s best. I get it if you love it. To me, it’s just missing too many elements to be good. And I’m not even touching the bastardization of Greek mythology.

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11. Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) is a fantastically grim dark comedy about a man in over his head, just trying to get home. John Landis’ Into the Night (1985) is a bit of a mild success in a similar genre. Jeff Goldblum is an insomniac engineer who gets involved with a beautiful jewel thief (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and spends the next 48 hours trying to shake the bad guys and stay alive. It has romance and comedy, but…how can we say it? Not enough to be called a romance or a comedy. There’s some suspense and then some cartoon slapstick. Not John Landis’ best film, but if the cast intrigues you (and there are a few fun cameos), you could do worse.

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10. Adam McKay writes and directs the story of Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale) in Vice (2018). It’s a cheeky, nonlinear patchwork that presents the man’s opportunistic rise to power but somehow never manages to clearly establish his motivations or convictions (the movie tries to take care of that by brushing it aside early on). Bale is good, as is a lot of the cast, but the movie feels more like an exercise in montage editing than a serious political drama of any magnitude. It’s breezy enough, but far from the hard hitting political biopic it could have been.

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9. I begrudgingly enjoyed Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). Why begrudgingly? Because that’s the reaction a decent re-imagining can sometimes garner. Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Karen Gillan star as the video-game avatars of our high school protagonists trapped in the cursed Jumanji. It has some clever gags, a great cast, creative suspense elements, and they get their mileage out of the gender swapping schtick. Ultimately, it’s a slick family adventure that’s smarter than it had to be and decidedly doing something different with the source material and it works. It just has that squeaky clean sheen. You know the one? Where everything is set-dressed to perfection? I just hate that. But if I can overcome my curmudgeonly temperament to enjoy this guy, it’s can’t be that bad.

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8. If you’ve read this blog before, you know I seem to unfavorably give the advantage to well-executed schlock. Red Sonja (1985) is the second sequel in the Conan trilogy. (I think. The world seems familiar and Arnold’s back, but he’s playing a different guy.) I call this type of film ESL cinema. Mostly Italian crew and then star Brigitte Nielsen in Danish and Arnold is Austrian so the script is odd to begin with and then the line readings the next wave of surreality. It’s a fun, brainless sword-and-sorcery adventure with lots of violence and a few monsters and some truly great sets. Ennio Morricone does the score too! I can’t rate it higher because there’s this annoying child king who’s in it and he sucks. Sorry, little buddy. You nailed those fight moves though!

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7. The Legend of Suram Fortress (1985) Sergei Parajanov (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors) co-directs with Dodo Abashidze to deliver a surreal collection of tableaux vivants (fans of Parajanov’s The Color of the Pomegranates will undoubtedly find some comparisons to be made) that tell a Georgian folktale of a crumbling fortress that seemingly demands a sacrifice. It may not be for everyone, but for those with a taste for Eastern European symbolic visual poetry, it’s definitely worth a look. Even if The Color of the Pomegranates is probably the more ambitious and superior film.

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6. T2 Trainspotting (2017) is the sequel I don’t if anyone expected to see for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996). Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle are back to show us what has happened in the last 20 years. It’s been awhile, boys. Glad to see you again. Obviously, tensions are high since Renton double-crossed everyone and Bregbie’s been to jail. Some folks are just lifelong junkies, but maybe they were cheated out of a second chance? It’s a decent flick for fans of the original. Anjela Nedyalkova plays a new character, Veronika, who makes a nice complicated addition to the ensemble.

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5. The Lego Batman Movie(2017) could have been a lazy, soulless cash grab and still have been a huge commercial success. However, much like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a little bit of love and effort make the proceedings far more clever and enjoyable than they had any right to be. Yes, there are jokes and knowing nods to previous Batman incarnations and a stellar voice cast, but the real treat (for me at least) was the wholesome—if a skosh maudlin—plot. All of the character arcs build and snap together in as satisfying a way as a handful of Lego pieces. It’s funny because, in its own transparently on-the-nose way, it is ultimately rather touching and shows it really “gets” Batman. That it takes the emotions of its Lego cast as seriously as it does, it gets a big laugh out of me.

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4. Going in, I knew nothing of Class of 1984 (1982). And I am so glad I went in cold. It starts as a ham-fisted melodrama about a new teacher in a cartoonishly evil inner city school ravaged by teen gangsters, but then it turns into a positively delicious revenge thriller. Disgruntled teachers everywhere can watch this for catharsis (but don’t get any ideas). Features a somewhat out-of-place Roddy McDowell and a very young Michael J. Fox in supporting roles. I admire a movie that finds cruelly creative ways to brutally murder its teen cast. In all seriousness, it’s not a great film at all. I loved it.

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3. Oddball Kyle Mooney stars as a kidnapped boy who’s been raised in an underground fantasy (created by Mark Hamill) in Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear (2017). It’s not a comedy per se. When James (Mooney) is awkwardly reunited with his biological family, he struggles because he feels no connection to them and they know nothing of “Brigsby Bear”, an imagined bizarro VHS series conjured for whatever reason by his abductor (Mark Hamill). All James knows is if “Brigsby Bear” isn’t real, he wants to make it real. And the story that unfolds in exactly the way you might imagine ironic viral video culture to do so. It’s more of a quirky indie drama that ultimately leaves you just feeling good inside. I loved it.

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2. How have I never seen The Last Dragon (1985) before? Seriously. This is almost as good as Samurai Cop. It’s more competently shot and assembled, but no less outlandish and wonderfully cheesy. From our excruciatingly fay and naive kung fu teen protagonist (Taimak) to the wonderful scene-chewing bombast that is the film’s villain, Sho’nuff/The Shogun of Harlem, The Last Dragon never lets up. Fans of action schlock and kung-fu are sure to love this one.

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1. There’s a Chinese mummy (that isn’t exactly what it seems) on train crossing the frozen Russian wilderness. But once you look at it, it takes your soul. Or something. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star as rival scientists (my favorite flavor of rivalry) in The Horror Express (1972). Throw a dapper Telly Savalas in there for good measure. It’s a bit cheesy, but all the better for it. Glowing ghoul eyes and zombie Cossacks and Hammer-styled gore and atmosphere. For fans of this era of horror or of Lee or Cushing will enjoy this breezy spook flick with all its murder and mayhem confined to one claustrophobic train.

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIV – Fury World

Ordered by my increasing opinion of them.

Walk Away:

Incidentally, I think the black rhino just went extinct this year.

Robin Williams (Hook), Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom), and Catherine Keener (The 40 Year Old Virgin) star in Danny DeVito’s Death to Smoochy (2002). How you could make a black comedy about the seedy underbelly of children’s entertainment so bafflingly unfunny is anyone’s guess. You would think the jokes would write themselves. I remember wanting to see this when it first came out, hearing it was terrible, then hearing it had a cult following and wasn’t that bad. I thought maybe it would be like Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, reviled for being so dark but discovering reports of its suckitude were greatly exaggerated upon my own personal viewing. Nope. This is a garish groaner that thinks it’s wackier than it really is. Stick with Matilda or War of the Roses.

Meh/Misguided:

Terry might be the most comically evil character in cinema history.

OK. OK. OK. The Karate Kid, Part III (1989) is in no way anything less than a ludicrous mess of nonsensical garbage piled upon a plate made of lunacy. It’s messages are contradictory. It’s thrills are awkward, comically contrived, and unearned. It’s lead actor (Ralph Macchio) is clearly coked out of his mind. It’s motivations are embarrassingly childish. Yet, all these truly ugly miscalculations make it humorous in the same way we enjoy Troll 2 and The Room.

Get it? It’s eating “Jaws”. It’s a metaphor. You know, symbolism? Darn it all, we are clever bastards. …On another note, how many sharks must they go through a day to feed this thing. Great whites can’t be cheap.

I wanted to like this one. Dinosaur movies are something of a rarity and I was excited to go back to the park. Alas, Jurassic World (2015) is a joyless, candy-painted shot of novacane. It looks colorful, but I felt nothing the whole film. The original Jurassic Park (1993) is a cherished classic, yes, and two of the in-between sequels are sort of okay to varying degrees, but this latest entry feels even more geared toward children and the Marvel superhero audiences. It isn’t the overuse of CGI, either. For me it lacked character, discovery, tension, or genuine thrills (you need character for thrills to register). The best, most highly rendered special-effects in the business can’t save a foundering script or a lack of charisma. Ironically, the film’s central satirical parable of the necessity of upping the ante to awaken jaded audiences produces the blandest entry in this ever diminishing franchise. It’s faster, hammier, cheesier, lazier, stupider, less challenging, and ultimately has trouble forcing the fun. The first Jurassic Park was a milestone of cinema at the time and it was unlike anything audiences had ever seen before. In Jurassic World‘s failed attempts to infuse steroids into the series, its creators have fashioned a movie that looks exactly like all the other sterile, terrible kiddie action movies of the last several years. Instead of being happy it’s less insulting than the Transformers movies, we should be asking for better movies. At least dinosaurs fight each other in it.

Guilty Pleasures:

“I Love Lucy”? Oh, so your parents were talented. I see, Desi, Jr.

Horror legends Vincent Price (House of Wax), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein), Christopher Lee (The Wicker Man), and John Carradine (House of Dracula) star in the creaky comedy-horror B-flick The House of Long Shadows (1983). The actors’ ages are showing and you’re worried for their joints every time they lift a pewter goblet and, truth be told, the story is dopey and the script, for the most part, fails at being either comedic or horrific. However, if you’re a fan of the withering cinematic warlocks listed above, you’ll probably enjoy watching them effortlessly outshine both the silly script and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

I’m gonna hijack the Declaration of Independence.

Con Air (1997) is of historical significance if only because it may be the first film Nicolas Cage’s zaniness broke free of its previously Oscar-winning tethers. Donning the worst mullet, worst Southern accent, and worst back-story, Cage and a stuffed bunny board a prison plane full of psycho mutinying inmates (John Malkovich, Ving Rhames, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and others make up the airborne cast). It’s dumb, loud, and a mostly unintentionally hilarious blast in the spirit of Face/Off. It’s nonstop nuttiness in the guise of a serious action thriller. Also features John Cusack (1408) and Colm Meaney (Get Him to the Greek).

Interestinger and Interestinger:

ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

Right after I heard the news of Christopher Lee’s passing I watched Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966). Hammer vixen, Barbara Shelley (Village of the Damned), co-stars in this loose biography of the bizarre Russian mystic who weaseled his way into the last Czarina’s good graces. It may not be the most memorable movie, but it’s got some good moments and Lee gives a fun performance as the titular hypnotizing wacko. Tom Baker (Dr. Who) is still my favorite Rasputin though.

God…all the plaid.

Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) puts some gorgeous black and white photography to good use in Nebraska (2013). Bruce Dern (Silent Running) and Will Forte (SNL) star as an alcoholic, dementia-addled old man and his good-natured, long-suffering son respectively. Woody Grant (Dern) believes he’s won some prize and demands to go to Omaha to retrieve his cash (everyone else knows it’s all a scam). Reluctantly, his son David (Forte) agrees to take him—if only to ensure the stubborn patriarch’s safety. When Woody starts telling family and locals of his dubious earnings before he’s even collected the nonexistent dough, the small town drama begins…but not without some comical Midwestern moments. It’s pleasant, humorous, and ultimately a tender little film.

They’re just reading about the Rachel Dolezal thing.

This film is timely, intriguing, and—while somewhat high on its own cleverness—raises a lot of good points…if in a smug and sort of pretentious manner. Justin Simien and Adriana Serrano’s Dear White People (2014) is the closest thing we have to a Do the Right Thing for generation-blog. Black, white, and mixed race ivy league students verbally spar over racial privilege and politics. It’s wonderfully cast and hits its points efficiently and does a good job of leaving enough ambiguity for audiences to mull over. And it delivers its messages in a genuinely funny and entertaining way. For a movie dealing with so many hot button issues it’s a wonderfully watchable film.

Beyond Our Borders:

Me and my shadow…

Set in a weird Iranian town called Bad City, Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) is a sumptuously photographed off-beat vampire flick that feels like a slowly creeping dream. It’s dark, doleful, deliberately paced and, while it most assuredly won’t be for everyone, it’s a rich example of inventive horror that explores vampire tropes in ways that rival Let the Right One In or Only Lovers Left Alive. You’ll never look at the ghostly specter of a flowing black burka atop an aimless skateboard the same way again…if you’ve ever seen that before to begin with. Like a lot of offbeat neo-vampire fair, it’s a wry but sexy slow-burn.

Ever see Hogan’s Heroes?

La Grande Illusion (1937) is a classic jailbreak POW movie directed by Jean Renoir (La bête humaine). The story concerns French officers and soldiers being held captive by the Germans during World War I. What sets La Grande Illusion apart is its daringly human portrayal of the enemy. People are people and just happen to be French or German. For a classic war movie, it is almost refreshingly absent of nationalism. It’s rightfully ranked alongside The Great Escape, Stalag 17, and The Bridge On the River Kwai.

Finding Our Way Through the Shadows:

Yup. Looks like traffic court.

Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) adapted a story by Franz Kafka with Anthony Perkins (Psycho) in The Trial  (1962). Shot in Europe, the story unfolds like a subtle nightmare. A man is put on trial, but is never told the charges and he becomes entangled in the fuzzy dream logic of this world’s chaotic legal system. It feels like a trip down the rabbit hole and the cinematography and gritty interiors and landscapes add such strange beauty and texture to this peculiar project that was apparently, like many of Welles’ films, under-appreciated at the time of its release.

The mummy strikes!

Here’s a challenge readily embraced by director Delmer Daves: can you hide your protagonist’s face for the first half of your movie? Better yet, film most of it in POV. Somehow Dark Passage (1947), starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) and Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), nails it and, rather than it coming off as a cheap gimmick, really utilizes the unfamiliar technique for solid narrative effect. It’s a classic mystery noir about a man who escaped from prison (convicted for the murder of his wife). While there are many brilliant scenes in the movie and clever camera angles, my favorite bits might be the conversation with the taxi driver and subsequent meeting with the plastic surgeon. The POV really pulls you into the story in a surprising and effective way.

Admittedly, I’ve only seen Bullitt on a plane, but I liked this better than Bullitt.

A quiet getaway driver played by Ryan O’Neal (Paper Moon) is trying to avoid being set up by an obsessed police detective (Bruce Dern). That’s really all you need to know for Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Not to be bogged down with too much dialogue or too complicated a plot, The Driver is all gorgeous 70s style and fantastic car chases. The film exudes coolness. Isabella Adjani (The Possession) also co-stars. Watch it. It’s great.

Really, a Tough Call:

That honestly can’t be good for the rabbit.

Fans of the Coen Bros.’ Fargo may be familiar with the oft reported case of a Japanese woman who, believing the film to be a true story, went searching for where Steve Buscemi buried the suitcase full of money in the snow. The Zellner Bros.’ Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) is a fictionalized version of how that woman came to America in search of that money. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim) gives a heart-breaking and deeply internalized performance as Kumiko, a sad misfit obsessed with treasure hunting. Her journey from the alienating officetels of Tokyo to the isolating snowdrifts of Minnesota is weird, awkwardly comical, and touchingly disconsolate. This movie comes highly recommended. It’s a quiet and vaguely surreal film that sits with you hours after watching it.

Maybe even more enjoyable than The Road Warrior.

Everyone saw it. Everyone loved it. And, truly, I get it. Mad scientist George Miller’s fourth installment of his Australian cult series, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), really is a masterpiece of dystopic action and brutal but balletic car carnage. There’s an adrenaline that doesn’t quit and a score that pulses aggressively forward and an explosion-filled chase crammed with Frankenstein vehicles that doesn’t let up. It’s got a lot typical Miller quirk and visual inventiveness. Tom Hardy (Bronson) and Charlize Theron (Prometheus) stoically lead the way through a stark, unforgiving desert, but it is Nicholas Hoult’s character, Nux, who gradually becomes the real emotional core of the film. Motorcycle grannies, bungee guitar mutants, muscle cars souped up with spikes and tank treads, and chainsaw-wielding gas-mask guys atop 50 foot pendulums swinging over erupting furnaces of vehicular devastation not your thing? You may not enjoy this, if that be the case. Whether you’re a longtime fan of the Mad Max series or a newcomer, this is gleeful, calculated, visceral mayhem. It ought to be a crime to be this bonkers and badass.

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.

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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.

The Last Few Movies I saw: Episode XII – Screw the Oscars

Once again. Here we go. As always, in order of what I thought of them. I apologize in advance if my cinematic snobbery is more obvious this time around.

But I Hate It:

1

“The Great Dictator” reboot. Now with more dick jokes.

There was a lot of hoopla surrounding Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy, The Interview (2014). The hacking, the threats, the pulling-from-theaters, the backlash, the fervent speeches in the name of free expression, yet for all the political brouhaha, The Interview is ultimately just another infantile Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy. All the women are bimbos (entering each scene with our stoner protagonists muttering stuff like, “Bro, she’s so hot. I think I wanna bang her”). All the potential for smart satire sapped, squandered, missed entirely. All humor gleaned copiously from the shallow well of butt-stuff jokes. The special effects aren’t bad and there are maybe one or two lines that are funny on their own, but if you want to be entertained beyond a fifth grade level I’d look elsewhere. How Team America: World Police managed to be 100 times more ballsy, offensive, prescient, culturally significant, and funny is something I’m still processing. Somehow The Interview winds up being less mature in all the wrong ways and the comedy sadly suffers from that. Despite almost threatening World War III, this cinematic enema is truly a waste.

4

I’m gonna steal the Septuagint.

Overtly Christian films are notorious for being awkward, terrible, and, as a result, quite unintentionally hilarious. This is Left Behind (2014). Nicolas Cage staring in an action remake of a dopey Kirk Cameron direct-to-video movie based on a pulpy religious novel series ripped off from a 1970s Christian Twilight Zone type flick called Thief in the Night which was inspired by a surreal bit of modern dogma that gained popularity in the 20th century sounds like it couldn’t be boring, right? Alas, this one is so bland it doesn’t even function well as a so-bad-it’s-good movie, but there are a few scenes that are very inadvertently funny. Nearly every element of production smacks of incompetence yet the absurdity never reaches the sublime like in movies like Troll 2 or The Room. But, I’d sooner watch this with some friends than The Interview.

Meh:

BIG HERO 6

At least there’s enough squishy cuteness to keep you with it until the end.

Big Hero 6 (2014). Go on. Hate me. I liked the energetic animation, a lot of the humor, and the relationship built between Hiro and Baymax, but the plot itself I found rushed, predictable, and weightless while the villain was glaringly absent and the side characters were uninspired. Weirdly, the most uncooked element of this superhero origin story was the superhero part. It’s inoffensive and breezy and kids will like it, but I’ve come to expect a little more from family films. Let’s hope the sequel has a more engaging villain and plot. Not awful, just a yawner.

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

God, is it over yet?

I feel like all three Hobbit movies have some great costumes, special effects, environments, and at least one decent scene in each of them. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) might be the most exhausting and watch-checking outing to Middle-Earth yet. No, I didn’t hate it. And it was a fun surprise to hear Billy Connolly’s voice (he plays the dwarf that rides the pig). I feel the same as I do about Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing; if it were half as long it would be twice as good. There’s a lot of talent being put into these films, but the action is so planned and drawn out and the drama-y stuff is so hammy with nothing connecting us to the characters that it becomes a slog to get through. Regrettably, I don’t think I’ll be sad if I never watch these movies again.

1

How come there’s no Captain Canada? Or Captain Bangladesh? Does East Timor or Luxembourg have a Captain?

I’m not the biggest Marvel fan. Having said that, I actually really enjoyed a lot of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The car chases were excellent and a lot of the on-the-ground fists-punching-faces action was fantastic. I enjoyed the storyline of Captain America on the lam and Shield being infiltrated by Hydra. I liked the stuff with Nick Fury and Dr. Zola and Robert Redford. What killed some of the fun for me was the actual Winter Soldier part and the cartoony fight in the spaceships at the end. The last act looked like all the things that bore me with Marvel superhero movies. It all looks like the same suspenseless mayhem. HOWEVER, the first 2/3 of the movie were so fun and well done that I admit I liked the movie a lot more than I expected.

Higher Times:

1

The Munsters vs The Addams Family. Go!

This one is a re-watch. I remember borrowing this from the library a lot when I was a kid. File this under nostalgia. The Munsters’ Revenge (1981) is really only for fans of the 1960s sitcom. It’s little more than a really long episode and only works if you know the characters already. Poor Yvonne De Carlo is given nothing to do. The positives about this TV-movie is that it broadens their world a little more and gives us Sid Caesar doing accents as an eccentric villain. It also puts Marilyn Munster in a cavegirl bikini and features a new family member modeled after the Phantom of the Opera. If you enjoy the idea of Grandpa (Al Lewis) and Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) going on an adventure to clear their name (they’ve been framed by robots) and have a high threshold for haunted house puns then check it out.

“I’m Eddie Wilson.” *peels off mustache*

This was built up for me a lot by a good friend. Enjoying this charming dramatic misfire with some beers is recommended. Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives (1989) is a sequel about Eddie Wilson running away from his past as a rock legend. Having survived a car accident decades ago, he changes his identity and becomes a construction worker and grows a mustache. Nobody recognizes him, but soon Eddie (Michael Paré), under the alias Joe West, wants to make music again and forms a band, but there’s just no denying that sound. It’s low-budget, silly, melodramatic, but actually pretty fun and has some good tunes along the way.

The Joy Builds:

Moral of the story: almost every man you meet is a potential rapist.

Moral of the story: almost every man you meet is a rapist.

Troubled white girl is sad so she goes into nature to get in touch with herself and battle the demons of her past. Yes, Wild (2014), directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, isn’t as bad is should be. The cinematography is great and the locations are impressive. Witherspoon and Laura Dern give solid performances. As the story unfolds we are treated to flashbacks that help us get to know her character and motivations a little better. So maybe her problems aren’t the worst, but they’re hers. A good 70% of what made me like the movie so much was the use of “El Condor Pasa” by Simon and Garfunkel.

3

“I’m Eddie Wilson too!” *puts mustache back on*

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) is a fascinating documentary about a man and his battle with manic-depressive order and his artistic genius. The film examines his life, his music, and his problems with compassion and admiration. Daniel Johnston’s illness leads him to fixate of surreal themes and his own perfectionism. Listening to his work and how he recorded much of it, all while hearing from his friends and family, builds him into a kind of legend, making him an even more intriguing and tragic character.

Not quite my tempo, little drummer boy!

Not quite my tempo, little drummer boy!

J. K. Simmons is always a fun actor to watch and it was great to see him get the complicated lead character of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). Fletcher (Simmons) is a sociopathic slave-driver of a jazz conductor. His physical demands and cruel mind games are demented and unacceptable and he tests everything a young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) has in him. The film looks gorgeous and it is unapologetic. You will respect characters and then hate them and then wrestle with both feelings at once, trying to decide where the line should be drawn and whether the ending is happy or sad. The truth is, Fletcher has more interest in talent than individuals and even if his results are good, you may forever be concerned about his methods and the ethics of it all. It’s a surprising and strangely challenging little film.

We Climb Higher:

3

“Say ‘it might be a tumor’ one more time!”

I had never actually watched John Milius’ epic, Conan the Barbarian (1982), all the way through before. As a kid I recall catching snippets on TV…and sometimes confusing it with Beastmaster (apologies). This is one brawny movie. James Earl Jones plays a hypnotic villain with snake-like powers, Sandahl Bergman is sexy and badass, and Arnold Schwarzenegger himself (while struggling with the language) definitely looks the part and rounds this fantasy epic out perfectly. Conan is probably one of the best sword and sorcery flicks out there and it still holds up as an entertaining action adventure today. It also boasts a fantastic score by Basil Poledouris (The Hunt for Red October).

3

You can get it if you really want.

If “El Condor Pasa” influenced my fondness of Wild, then the reggae pulse of Jimmy Cliff in Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) definitely had a hand in how I interpret this amateur Jamaican crime drama. It’s a simple story of a guy who wants to make music but becomes a drug peddler on the run from the law. The patois might be difficult to understand, but it adds authenticity and the some of the songs may be overused, but they’re great so who cares? Although quite rough around the edges, The Harder They Come is what it is.

Alan Partridge in the studio

“Ah-HA!”

I like Steve Coogan and watching Alan Partidge: Alpha Papa (2013) inspired me to start consuming the Alan Partridge TV series. The film does a great job of delivering clever lines and keeping it broad enough for new audiences. Selfish social nitwit and radio host, Alan (Coogan), gets his friend Pat (Colm Meaney) fired to save his own job, but when Pat loses it and holds the whole studio hostage it’s up to Alan to save everyone’s life…as long as he doesn’t have to apologize or lose ratings. I laughed out loud quite a bit.

The Air is Thinning. The Sherpas are Dying:

3

Say what you will about Roman Polanski. He’s no Bill Cosby.

Ewan McGregor is hired to replace a recently deceased ghost writer for a former prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010). As the ex-politician is becoming embroiled in a growing international scandal, more secrets are uncovered and the mysteriousness surrounding the previous ghost writer’s death is revealed it seems that our hero is in grave peril. Like a lot of Polanski films, the more you know the more danger you put yourself in. It is a taut, atmospheric, suspenseful, and enigmatic thriller that creeps up on you and pulls you in. Co-starring Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrell, Tom Wilkinson, Jim Belushi, and Eli Wallach.

You’re not getting out of this movie, kid. Not without seeing a lot more of your parents completely naked.

So, I’ll be honest. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s fever dreams committed to celluloid are not for everyone. Having seen all of his films from El Topo to Santa Sangre, I was ecstatic to see that the 85 year old Chilean surrealist auteur was returning to the director’s chair after a 23 year hiatus. The Dance of Reality (2014) appears to be Jodorowsky’s most personal work. It is a weird, episodic, dreamlike autobiography of his childhood and a fascinating examination of his own father. It is a compassionate, mesmerizing, and uncomfortable work—like most of his canon. He may be old, but he hasn’t lost any of his madness or his fixation with amputees.

4

I know it’s a sound stage, but I want to go to India in part because of this movie.

I re-watched another favorite from my childhood. Zoltan Korda’s Jungle Book (1942) stars Sabu (The Thief of Bagdad) as Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves. The film is a fine collection of wildlife photography, detailed matte paintings, and questionable snake puppets. If you have a fondness for older films, I’d say watch this one soon. Sabu is as charming as always and Joseph Calleia gives a great performance as the fearful and sinister town leader (and defeated but wiser storyteller that bookends the film), Buldeo. It’s a polished but intimate spectacle. You can tell the Kordas really cared about making quality films.

4

KAW!

Michael Keaton plays a washed up superhero actor trying to salvage his artistic integrity by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). The drum score does not let up and the camera never seems to cut away and we begin to wonder if our protagonist is having a psychotic breakdown as voices and hallucinations from his past haunt him more and more. The performances are all wonderful (Keaton, Emma Stone, and Ed Norton especially) and the style is mesmerizing and builds the tension in a very unique way.  The incredible cinematography was handled by the great Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life).

The Mighty Peak:

4

Life is so lame.

Even if you don’t fully appreciate Jim Jarmusch’s specific style or sense of humor, you may still appreciate the detailed atmosphere and fine performances in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston are immortal hipsters, or vampires, to be precise. They’ve lived countless years and have become completely detached from the human (or ‘zombie’) world. Rather than highlight the blood sucking antics of sexy demons of the night, the story focuses around how one couple spends eternity and the minutiae of dealing with pesky problems and the logistics of relocating following more serious crises. Mia Wasikowska co-stars as an obnoxious vampire party girl whose immaturity the lovers have waning patience for and John Hurt plays a vampiric Christopher Marlowe. It’s altogether sumptuous, sexy, and slow-burning. Whether your driving around the battered streets of Detroit or stalking the alleys of Tangiers, be on the lookout. There be vampires. One of the most refreshing vampire flicks since Let the Right One In.

4

“I bet I could have saved ‘Zardoz.’ Boorman should have asked me.”

John Boorman may have made one of the artiest man-movies with Point Blank (1967). Ultimate screen badass, Lee Marvin, is Walker, a man out for revenge and money. That’s all you really need going in. For a revenge action thriller the movie is quite stylish and ethereal, unfolding like a weird dream. As I watched it I was reminded of Seijin Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (which came out in 1966 and 1967 respectively). I don’t know what it is, but some movies just feel sexy. Co-starring Keenan Wynn, Michael Strong, Angie Dickinson, and Carroll O’Connor.

“Wooooo. It’s a ghost cup.”

And my favorite of this bunch is a comedic mockumentary about vampires from New Zealand called What We Do in the Shadows (2014). A documentary film crew is given permission to follow around a group of vampire flatmates (played by Jermaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh, Ben Fransham, and newly deceased, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer). The movie is a delight from start to finish with wonderful characters and clever jabs at classic vampire tropes and all of the mundane problems those tropes entail. It’s a brilliant horror-comedy that I look forward to watching again. (For Flight of the Concords fans, in addition to Jermaine Clement, Rhys Darby plays the leader of a pack of well-mannered werewolves.)

Agree? Disagree? What did you see?

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode X – So we meet again.

Once again I give you a list of the last few movies I watched ordered by my increasing opinion of them. Ones that didn’t impress me so much are at the top and further down you scroll the more I loved them. Weirdly, for this time, even the movies I didn’t really like I still found interesting. Basically, there’s nothing on this list I wouldn’t recommend. I’m not sorry any of these movies were made.

Meh/Misguided:

zerotheorem

“The Church of Batman the Redeemer needs you.”

Those who know me know I love me some Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), but since the dawn of the aughts I haven’t been wild about any of his cinematic fever dreams. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was the most interesting recent outing of his, but even that felt troubled and jerky. Christoph Waltz stars in the low-budget sci-fi, The Zero Theorem (2013). There are a lot of ideas going on and most of them are good ideas; the meaning of life, the loneliness of existence, the persistent search for understanding, the desperate desire for connection and control, the alienation of a technological society, etc. Some of the imagery and background gags were enjoyable too. Gilliam’s got some tricks up his sleeve, but why does this film feel like an unfinished student play at times? A lot of it feels stagey and the comedy feels a little out of place. I like some of the surreal turns, but I sort of wish this was a darker movie with less awkward comedy and less bright colors. I wanted to feel the heaviness and emptiness that I believe it was trying to convey. I’d call this movie “leftovers from Twelve Monkeys and Brazil”, but those would have had more balls and personality.

snowpiercer

Movie to movie you can never tell how elfen and pretty she will be or how grotesque and haglike she will be. I sort of love Tilda Swinton.

Snowpiercer, aka Seolgungnyeolcha (2013) seems to have gotten a lot of high praise from critics and I’m somewhat baffled as to why. It is a vaguely smarter dumb action movie than the average dumb action movie. It’s quirky humor/bloody violence combo rings profoundly of either tone deafness or an awkward cultural translation. Korean filmmaker, Joon-ho Bong (The Host), is no slouch behind the camera, but the mostly non-Korean cast seems lost or weirdly out of place. Tilda Swinton is fun as a sniveling, Coke bottle-eyed cartoon character villainess, but ultimately the film’s stifling depression and dourness outweighs its more fun and imaginative strokes. The satire feels stale and obtusely obvious and the dialogue probably could have withstood a few more once-overs. Maybe if it had been a wholly Korean movie with a more consistent tone it would have been great. Who knows?  It needed more Kang-ho Song. Less Chris Evans.

noah

And two black swans?

Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) has not directed a movie yet that is not worth seeing. That said, Noah (2014) ranks rather low on my Aronofsky totem pole. It’s a far more consistently joyless experience than Snowpiercer, but I suppose that’s to be expected in a story about God killing everyone. The mythic quality is what worked best about it. I guess I just wanted less mopey-ness in a biblical epic. Aronofsky’s take on the Nephilim—turning them into creaking rock monsters—was interesting but, dare I say it, abrupt and overused. The last act had me yawning and checking my watch. This is a movie with a lot of interesting ideas and is artfully made and it actually feels closer to a biblical legend than anything I’ve seen before (yes, including The Ten Commandments), but it just wasn’t my cup of tea and maybe I can’t exactly put my finger on exactly why. Did it want to retell a famous religious epic? Did it want be a character study of a man’s quest to please his maker? Did it just want to get an environmentalist message out there? Perhaps all in one? I wish this movie was as fun for me to watch and dissect as was the absurd religious controversy surrounding it. Chalk it up to my artless personal taste, but watch it anyway.

Let there be fun:

anchorman2

“The skeleton ran out of shampoo in the shower…the human torch was denied a bank loan.”

If you liked Anchorman, then you’ll probably enjoy Anchorman 2 (2013). It’s more of the same and still pretty funny. While the zany spark of madness that was “What is this movie?!” in Anchorman is gone, this sequel manages one or two worthy qualities. Kristen Wiig is hilarious as Brick Tamland’s equally infantile love interest and the plot surrounding the sensationalization of 24 hour news is on point with the real travesty of the state of modern media. It may not be as fresh, sharp, and guffaw-inducing, but you get what you pay for.

guardians_of_the_galaxy

“Remember that episode of “Little House on the Prairie” where Laura gets a pet raccoon and then it gets rabies and then Michael Landon has to kill it and they all cry and then it turns out that it was a different raccoon that had rabies and then the pet raccoon comes back and they all cry again? That episode friggin’ kills me.” *click-click*

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was fast, exciting, fun, and not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Was it one of the best Marvel movies to come around? Yes, but I haven’t exactly been a huge fan of the Marvel superhero movies. Not being familiar with the comics, however, this was an enjoyable and consistently entertaining space adventure with some welcome humor (and there could have been more…let’s see if this baby gets the Hellboy 2 treatment in the sequel), some likable characters (big surprise that Drax was more than a bloodthirsty oaf—he turned out to be very interesting), and a healthy dose of classic rock surging through its central nervous system. I liked it. I’m glad it was so successful. I hope director James Gunn is allowed to take even more risks in the sequel.

lego

I wonder if they got any corporate sponsorship.

Chris Pratt was in another fun movie this year: The Lego Movie (2014). It’s colorful and clever. More colorful and clever than I was expecting. There were some genuinely smart and innovative gags and the story was fun and functional oo. Who knew a move based on a child’s building toy would have had so much life?

“Seriouser and seriouser,” said the White Rabbit:

mostwantedman

“But vhy are ve all schpeaking English?”

One of the last films to feature Philip Seymour Hoffman is a spy thriller about German counter-terrorism based on a novel by John le Carré called A Most Wanted Man (2014). It is a pensive, decidedly un-glamorous story of the war on terror as seen through the eyes of Intelligence operatives. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had more stylishness, but this is a welcome gritty edition to a genre that seems to have few admirers these days. When a Chechen refugee comes to Hamburg he has the eyes of several spy factions watching him. The central pull of the subdued drama deals with the emotions on the personal level of espionage and the backstabbing and calculated, sting-like setups. Director Anton Corbijn trusts the story, his talented cast, and grounded realistic approach to pull us in. Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, and the rest of the cast are good as well.

calvary

“It’s shite, m’boy.”

Martin McDonagh and John Michael McDonagh have allowed us to see Brendan Gleeson in some of his finest performances. They’ve also apparently made some sort of deal where they get to kill him a lot in their movies too. J. M. McDonagh’s Calvary (2014) is an enjoyable character study. Gleeson is a country priest in a small Irish village where everybody knows each other. The first scene has a hidden man behind the confessional tell the priest that he will kill him the following Sunday. The priest knows who it is, but doesn’t tell anyone. Instead we get a week long of soul-searching. There are many memorable scenes of poetic simplicity. Just watching these folks interact with each other would be entertaining enough, but the added suspense of the fatal secret the protagonist carries adds much tension and weight to this thoughtful, beautifully shot film.

Dawn of the Docs:

audienceof1

And God said let there be more crappy movies made in his name!

Extracting twisted pleasures from observing the destructive delusions and inevitable failures of others is why the Germans invented the word schadenfreude. An Audience of One (2007) is a documentary that follows the big Hollywood dreams of a strange pastor (only recently introduced to the movies) who pools his congregation’s money to make a Christian-themed Star Wars space adventure. Between the amateur casting, the lack of production coordination, the costly trips to Italy, and the electricity being cut from not paying their bills and illegally staying in the studios, this man’s poor obsessed vision is a woeful trainwreck of biblical proportions. By the end of the film you get the impression that Pastor Richard Gazowsky is insane and running his church’s money (and congregations faith and patience) into the ground. Thank god they got it all on film.

bigriverman

“You’re cute, but where is there a giant glass boot full of beer?”

Borut Strel aids his father, Martin Strel, an internationally championed distance swimmer from Slovenia, in this documentary by John Maringouin, Big River Man (2009). Strel is overweight, borderline alcoholic, and he has swum the Danube, the Mississippi, as well as the Yangtze, and, at age of 53, he set his sights on the Amazon. The film introduces our peculiar protagonist and then follows him on his preparations and eventual arduous tackling of the Brazilian behemoth. All 5,268 kilometers of it. We watch as the river takes its toll on him and his psychotic American navigator descends into madness and the doctors tell him to stop and his son looks on and watches. It’s like Herzog and Colonel Kurtz rolled into one (if that isn’t redundant). Strel’s stubbornness and charisma are ultimately what steer this film and they are mighty rudders indeed.

dune

“If you’ve seen any of my movies then you’ve probably seen either me or random members of my immediate family completely naked and having sex with amputees.”

Three documentaries in a row?! Deal with it. As a film nerd, I have long been obsessed with the film that never was; Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) had planned to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune and he planned to use the talents of H.R. Giger, Pink Floyd, Jean Giraud, Dan O’Bannon, David Carradine, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dalí, and more. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), directed by Frank Pavich, chronicles the obscure Chilean artist’s doomed project. Jodorowsky is one of the pioneers of the midnight/cult movie and one of the most personal and bafflingly bizarre filmmakers of all time. Watching him retell the tale of how his most ambitious project went kaput is both dazzling and heart-breaking. If this charming documentary is the closest we will ever get to seeing Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune then so be it.

A wonderful place:

longgoodbye

The 1970s: when being an aimless, schlubby, unkempt, smartass slob meant you could be a movie star.

Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) is responsible for some of the great American movies and his contemporary retelling of Raymond Chandler’s mystery, The Long Good Bye (1973), is definitely worth a look. It’s a small movie with seemingly little frills. Set in 70s LA, Elliott Gould stars as detective Philip Marlowe, but honestly the mystery hardly matters. Great mystery stories, for me anyway, are more about the detective character and the atmosphere. Altman’s film has both atmosphere and character so little else matters. The dialogue crackles and the scenes unfold unpredictably.

judex

…it’s French. Wearing a tuxedo and a rooster mask while holding a dead pigeon is like saying “hello” for them.

Georges Franju (The Blood of Beasts) directs this enchanting pulp mystery and homage to early 1900s Louis Feuillade serials, Judex (1963). A mysterious cloaked figure threatens the life of a corrupt banker and our story begins. The sumptuous photography and healthy smatterings of surreal delirium create a charming atmosphere full of intrigue, poisons, capes, disguises, blackmail, stage coaches, bird masks, magic, and murder. It’s pulpy fun with enough twists and turns to keep things going, but the look of the film is really what sold me. I’ve never seen Feuillade’s Judex from 1916, but having seen his entire Fantômas series I’d say this seems like a worthy tribute.

congress

It’s like if “Cool World” was good and had a really good story and it was just good. Y’know?

Waltz with Bashir director, Ari Folman weaves a refreshingly weird tapestry of impeccable animation, surreal plot devices, and societal allegory with The Congress (2013). Robin Wright stars as herself. She’s an industry star who made it big with a few early hits, but has since become difficult, torn between work and personal life, and acting less and less (although she’s also in A Most Wanted Man). Her agent (Harvey Keitel) pushes her to sign a new contract that will give her entire identity to Miramount Studios. They scan her whole body and own her emotions, figure, expressions, voice, etc. and can keep her forever young to sell movies, products, whatever. Years into the future she will travel back to the studio to see what they’ve done to her soul. In a drug-induced cartoon hallucination we see the future: humans will eat and drink their favorite personalities in order to don their artifice…but it will all be a fictitious delusion, a sinister, apathetic distraction. This is easily the most intriguing and innovative film on this list and while it’s not my number one today, I can’t recommend this fever dream enough.

The bell chimes midnight:

snowblood

“Don’t ever call me…doll.” Because the world needs more Space Jam references.

So yeah, apparently Tarantino did borrow copiously from Toshiya Fujita’s bloody revenge thriller, Lady Snowblood (1973). Meiko Kaji stars as the baby conceived and born for the sole purpose of avenging the rape of her mother and the murder of her mother’s husband and son. Broken up into chapters with such epic titles as “Crying Bamboo Dolls of the Netherworld”, this blood-soaked journey into unrepentant slashings is full of fantastic scenes of violence and murder. It’s pulpy, but beautifully shot and the main heroine proves a formidable force. If you liked the Lone Wolf and Cub series or the Kill Bills then watch this beast. I love the ending too.

priscilla

Memento guy, Agent Smith, and the original General Zod together at last.

Stephen Elliott’s road comedy about two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and an aging transexual (Terence Stamp) leaving Sydney to cross the outback for a mysterious drag show is fabulous entertainment. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) has become a bit of a cult classic and it’s actually a lot of fun. Stamp absolutely steals the show as the Eeyore-esque Bernadette and the surreality of gaudy, bawdy cross-dressing colors shimmering in the Australian desert is great to look at. While episodic and some of its plot elements feel somewhat contrived, the movie is grounded in its characters and the real problems of prejudice they sometimes face. It’s funny, exciting, and it packs some emotional punch as well.

killingfields

At least it gave Spaulding Gray something to talk about.

The Mission director, Roland Joffe, took on Khmer Rouge and foreign spillover into Cambodia from the Vietnam War as the subject of this next movie, The Killing Fields (1984). Sam Waterston and Haring S. Ngor star as journalists, Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran. This is a truly harrowing story of survival—think All the President’s Men meets Hotel Rwanda. When the embassies evacuate and all foreign citizens are forced to leave, Dith Pran is left on his own and must withstand hellish ordeals including both physical torture and violence and psychological manipulation. This is one of those historical footnotes that gets glossed over in American textbooks and it is an important lesson. We should be confronted with these images and humanize the victims. The Killing Fields comes strongly recommended.

tampopo

Yes. “Ramen” means “noodles.” When you say “ramen noodles”, you are really just saying “noodles noodles.” Stop it.

Yeah, I sandwiched the heavy political survivalist drama between two quirky, funny movies. What of it? My favorite film of late was Tampopo (1986). Like Bad Boy Bubby, I had been meaning to see this for awhile now and what a treat it turned out to be! Directed by Juzo Itami (A Taxing Woman), this adorably weird celebration of Japanese noodles was a breath of fresh air at the end of a hard day. A tough as nails truck driver and ramen enthusiast (Tsutomu Yamazaki) rides into town (along with his sidekick played by Ken Watanabe) on a stormy night. One fistfight at a noodle shop brings him into the life of demure shop owner, Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto). The trucker agrees to help Tampopo make the best noodles in town and together they enlist the help of old masters and experts to get every detail absolutely perfect. Apart from the main storyline, there are several non sequitur subplots involving various characters and their humorous interactions with food. There’s a spaghetti-eating instructor, a gangster and his lover who love to incorporate edible elements into their intimate activities, a man returning from the dentist, and more. Most of these side-stories do little more than remind us that food is loved and experienced by all of us. Tampopo is a sumptuous medley of tasty bites to nosh and ponder.

Last Few Movies: Episode VII – Still Random

Look. Another list. Again, ranked in order.

Stop it:

Real

Stay in that coma. If you wake up, you might realize how dumb and implausible all this is.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa ineffectively rips off InceptionShutter Island, The Cell, and a bunch of forgettable recent horror movies for Real (2013). A man must go inside his wife’s subconscious to awaken her from a coma, but after about the third twist it’s hard to care (a good twist is supposed to clarify not wipe the slate clean rendering all previous scenes moot, or it’s supposed to surprise rather than be telegraphed 20 minutes in advance, OR it’s supposed to make sense instead of being ridiculous for the sake of surprise). The story is laughable, the acting is melodramatic and cheesy, and it’s way too long. There was some potential in the beginning and there’s a few decent jump scares but ultimately…just no. Points for having a dinosaur in the homestretch, but points taken back for it not making sense and being stupid.

Do you feel that? That is sound of my powerfully sexy baritone voice vibrating your chair.

Do you feel that? That is sound of my powerfully sexy baritone voice vibrating your chair.

I like blaxploitation movies and I was excited to see one that was inspired by The Exorcist. Carroll Speed is the title character in Abby (1974). I wish this was more fun (especially for having such a fun censorship history fraught with lawsuits). I really enjoyed the beginning and I actually liked the exorcism finale, maybe because those had the most interesting insights into who or what the demon really was and had more William Marshall (Blacula himself). Sadly the big, long middle stretch is very boring and predictable.

Stay gold, Ponyboy!

Stay gold, Ponyboy!

Why do I find bromance melodramas written by women so cloying and irritating? People say I’m crazy, but I hated reading The Outsiders in middle school. Green Street Hooligans (2005) is the story of Elijah Wood trying to be tough enough to hang with idiot British football hooligans. It’s predictable, overly sentimental, manipulative, and unintentionally funny when it’s not supposed to be. The film seems to be reaching to both glorify and criticize the zeal of these uneducated youths. It celebrates their passion and loyalty while at the same time condemning their irresponsibility and their misplaced priorities. The biggest thing that bothered me was just how dumb and unlikable all the characters were. Yes, many real people are that dumb and annoying, but watching real people would be more interesting. It’s an interesting sub-culture that I’d like to see as a documentary.

Meh and/or misguided:

^douche.

^douche.

Mansome (2012) is Morgan Spurlock’s examination on male vanity. It features interviews with funny celebrities and weird real life characters with strong opinions. Sadly the movie never formulates a question and never nears any form of conclusion. There are some isolated segments that are fun and telling, but it never comes together to say anything or even try to say anything new.

See that over there? That's an imaginative funny yet life-affirming movie with Ben Stiller in it. I call it a snow leopard.

See that over there? That’s an imaginative funny yet life-affirming movie with Ben Stiller in it. I call it a snow leopard.

I’m a fan of James Thurber and a fan of Danny Kaye and a fan of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This made Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) a particularly banal and toothless slog that tries its damndest to be life-affirming. I loved the cinematography, earthy locations, music choices, and I like Kristen Wiig. Beyond that it’s an empty affair that dashes from country to country with no specific destination in mind. If the comedy was funnier or the flights of fancy more imaginative I could have easily overlooked the tired, simple story and boring archetypal characters.

They came the sales. They stayed because they formed a cult to counter their fears of inter-dimensional beings.

They came for the sales. They stayed because they formed a cult to counter their fears of inter-dimensional beings.

Some people kept recommending this one to me and I’ll be honest, The Mist (2007) isn’t half bad…or actually it’s exactly half bad. Director Frank Darabont, no stranger to adapting Stephen King, tackles the intriguing premise and microcosmic study of mob mentality and the origins and dangers of religion fairly well. Marcia Gay Harden is good as the uber-deluded conservative Christian nutjob and I liked Toby Jones as the steadfast store clerk. Some of the monsters are cool and it’s well-paced, but it feels too heavy-handed at times and the ending, while shocking and bleak, feels like standard Twilight Zone conclusion. It’s worth a look. Just don’t hope for too much.

Movie tropes but with less understanding.

Movie tropes but with less understanding.

Abdullajon, or Dedicated to Steven Spielberg (1991) is an Uzbek re-imagining of E.T. A strange boy with no penis crash lands and is adopted by a clumsy middle-aged farmer. There’s never any suspense as they explain everything that will happen in the next scene before it happens. It’s never really warm or funny—perhaps through translation. The characters aren’t terribly developed and the situations rely heavily on magic-boy gimmicks (that they keep repeating). There’s a random twist that isn’t really explained and is sort of resolved inexplicably without much happenstance. Most of the second half of the film seems preoccupied with the fact that the alien boy can make hoes (the gardening tool, now) float. The town enjoys riding hoes to the market until the major confiscates them. The only real reason to watch this kind of slow and uneventful movie is for the silly special effects (which are few and far between) and just the odd mundanity that the film treats its subject.

The air grows thinner:

The cartoons you love and took you 10 seconds to understand, now stretched to TV special length.

The cartoons you love and took you 10 seconds to understand, now stretched to TV special length.

Gary Larson is the reason I wanted to learn how to read when I was little. He is also one of the reasons I started cartooning. The TV animated special Tales from the Far Side (1994) is a pleasant treat. If you like The Far Side then odds are you’ll enjoy this at some level. The problem is it’s not terribly great or groundbreaking. If the entire 30 minute run-time was as fast and funny as the first 30 seconds then I’d love this. Sadly it tries to stretch the single-panel gags out for way too long. Larson’s cartoons do not take long to set up. What made the beginning unique was the kooky, surreal farm music and the long panning shots across a cartoon canvas with animated hijinks continually appearing. What made the opening inventive was when it showed us clues and as the camera kept panning we got the payoff. It’s good, but not as great as the source material deserves or the intro promises. The sequel which came out in 1997 is thrice as good and plays more as “Cartoon Faces of Death” they kill so many people. Could Gary Larson be the brains behind the Final Destination series?

Han shot first.

Han shot first.

The American Astronaut (2001) is a very low budget and arty independent science-fiction musical comedy directed by Cory McAbee. There’s a lot to really respect in this humble little project: the clever way to portray space travel with no money, the noir lighting and Maddin-esque minimal yet surreal sets, and then the concept of the villain (“He’s a birthday boy.”). Why I don’t rate this higher is just because I wanted more out of it. Eraserhead spoiled a lot of us and we demand more from this sort of aesthetic. There’s one or two pretty good songs and a couple memorable scenes and stylish images, but I found it a little too slow.

The apocalypse better be more consistently funny than this.

The apocalypse better be more consistently funny than this.

I laughed really hard at the trailer and the concept for Seth Rogan’s This is the End (2013). And the movie itself actually has those scenes that I laughed at in the trailer. Unfortunately it doesn’t have much more…except for some confused theology. I loved Craig Robinson. But then I always love Craig Robinson.

A rare moment without special effects.

A rare moment without special effects.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is long. Once again the title character is smothered by cartoon action violence, amazing sets, dour monologues about magic and quests, impressive special effects, meandering plot devices, and more. It’s a watchable mess, but don’t expect to feel anything during or afterwards. Like the previous Hobbit movie, there are one or two really good scenes, and those are the quiet scenes where we learn about the characters.

Base camp:

Every matador needs a gimmick.

Every matador needs a gimmick.

Peter Sellers dons brown-face to play a cocksure novice matador/troubadour before hoodwinking the sexy Britt Ekland and succumbing to blue-face at her vengeful hands in The Bobo (1967). It’s not really a funny movie, but you grow fond of the character. It’s not really a happy movie, but we accept that life doesn’t always work out. It’s not really a fast-paced movie, but what can you do? It’s a lesser Sellers and not essential, but you could do worse.

Thank god I got rid of the Clooney guy. He's was grating on me.

Thank god I got rid of that Clooney guy. He’s was grating on me.

Gravity (2013) was an incredible and amazingly immersive visceral experience and survival story that utilized state-of-the-art technology and fantastic cinematography to convey a rather simplistic story that will be easy to ignore on a TV screen. Director Alfonso Cuarón knows what he’s doing and for people who want to know what it feels like to be crying Sandra Bullock in space without pants, it must be seen in 3D IMAX. How hard will you fight for your life? Watching two characters deal with that question is powerful enough to ignore some of the awkward dialogue.

I miss cel animation.

I miss cel animation.

I actually hadn’t seen this all the way through before. Lilo and Stitch (2002) is beautifully drawn, funny, and sensitive. The relationship between Lilo and her sister is excellently portrayed with sensitivity and nuance. The alien stuff is fun too. I was surprised by the quietness and cleverness of this movie and that it never felt the need to ingratiate me, it’s cute but it earns that cuteness by being so real…despite have alien stuff.

He slimed me.

Don’t that beat all.

We may never know what blazes Andrzej Zulawski Possession (1981) really is or how it happened, but we have it so shut up and enjoy. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are freakishly over the top in this story of a disintegrating relationship that turns into a psychological horror with perplexing and slimy aesthetics reminiscent of Lynch and Cronenberg. This movie is the definition of irrationality and madness. I can’t spoil it, but it’s nonstop crazy.

Girl, we couldn’t get much higher:

You ain't never had a friend like me.

You ain’t never had a friend like me.

Sometimes some great music and a splash of color goes a long way. A classic Indian tale gets the animation treatment with The World of Goopi and Bagha (2013). When two abysmal musician misfits get blessed by some forest demons they will use their new powers to make peace and marry princesses and have adventures. It’s simple, but a lot of fun.

Need a movie for date night???

Need a movie for date night???

A selfish and immature Charles Grodin tries to woo a manipulative and immature Cybill Shepherd on his honeymoon in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972). This may be the darkest love story ever committed to celluloid. It’s bleak, ugly, frustrating, awkward, pessimistic, and extremely accurate. This movie should be analyzed in high school health classes. And it’s funny too!

Moral of the movie: don't leave fruit out during a wind storm.

Moral of the movie: don’t leave fruit out during a wind storm.

The Blessed Bukhara (1991) is a lyrical, enigmatic, episodic, nonlinear snapshot of a city and its inhabitants. This long movie from Tajikistan will not be for everybody. It’s a hard movie, steeped in politics and culture and obscure but containing mesmerizing imagery. Several scenes still stay with me—like so many fascinating films from this region. Director Bako Sadykov makes bold choices that could have been pulled from Parajanov or Tarkovsky. I wish it was better preserved!

Where is the Cornetto wrapper?

Where is the Cornetto wrapper?

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up with director Edgar Wright again for the comedy science-fiction horror homage, The World’s End (2013). It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s violent, and it’s an authentic look at male relationships. Hot Fuzz, I think, still beats it in my book, followed by Shaun of the Dead, but this movie is still a lot of fun and reminds us why we love these guys. I actually kind of wish they’d make the movie they start in the final three minutes.

Nerd out on what's written on the white board. You know you want to.

Nerd out on what’s written on the white board. You know you want to.

Suckers for genre-deconstructions look no further than Cabin in the Woods (2012). I may hate teen splatterfests, but I like movies like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I like clever ideas that are smarter than their genre’s limitations. This one takes your typical slasher setup and goes all out meta on us while adding in a bonus layer of fantasy and then a brand new type of horror. Well cast, brilliantly written and paced, and featuring some truly inventive horror turns and twists, Cabin in the Woods offers thrills with a wink and a brain geared for comedy.

I'm just a sweet transvestite from...oh, crap. Wrong movie.

I’m just a sweet transvestite from…oh, crap. Wrong movie.

People might hate me for rating Shock Treatment (1981) so highly and I will be the first to admit that Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s pseudo-sequel collaboration pales in comparison to the joyous cult flick, Rocky Horror Picture Show. That being said, as big a mess, this is a bumpy ride that really enjoyed. It’s got some good visuals, an interestingly prophetic plot, and some fantastic songs that match Rocky Horror. It’s zany, uneven, and actually a lot of fun. Barry Humphries and Charles Gray are highlights of the cast. “Duel Duet” is one of the best songs in the movie.

The peak:

DF-02128FD.psd

The horrific true story of Solomon Northrup is brought to life in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful performance—all the more potent because he has to convey so much with saying so little. He is pushed so far and you see what humans will do for their own survival and what some will and won’t sacrifice. It’s a stifling, frustrating, maddening story about a dark chapter in American history. If I have one criticism it is Brad Pitt’s distracting cameo in the third act. Also, is it just me or is Paul Giamatti playing the same role he had in Burton’s Planet of the Apes? I did like seeing Alfre Woodard and Benedict Cumberbatch. . . and Michael Fassbender gives a nasty performance. 12 Years a Slave is an important history lesson that must never be forgotten. If Django Unchained is the revenge-filled catharsis we wanted for American slavery, this movie is the bitter pill that reminds us that our pasts are far from pristine.

Still..."Barry Lyndon" has more and better duels.

Still…”Barry Lyndon” has more and better duels.

Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a colorful,  decades-spanning saga of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a career soldier in the British army. The title itself is somewhat misleading. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, with a very subtle satirical edge that affectionately criticizes old school British militarism and outdated WWI era sentiments. The first act easily has some of my favorite bits (travel, duels, and new friends), but the whole movie treats Candy as a sympathetic human being. I’m sure it was quite bold in 1943, but even as a far quainter story today it’s still worth a look.

Cute and terrible and funny and diabolical and cunning and ignorant and helpless and dependable and so much else.

Cute and terrible and funny and diabolical and cunning and ignorant and helpless and dependable and so much else.

Another Elaine May movie. A New Leaf (1971) is a weird and pessimistic romance between a spoiled, woman-hating egotist (Walter Matthau) who has to get married or lose everything and a gawky, oblivious bookworm (Elaine May). Matthau is a perfect murderous jerk, but he manages to endear himself to the audience nonetheless. May is clumsy and annoying, but she too manages to be quite lovable. It’s actually a very clever movie that, like The Heartbreak Kid, says more about the real dynamics between men and women than most serious movies. A New Leaf has a more cartoony sense of comedy, and it serves the story well. The setups and payoffs are all good and, despite its macabre premise (he wants to kill her a la Monsieur Verdoux), it’s actually really sweet.

The Incomplete Masterpieces You Didn’t See…and maybe never will

Imagine if Stanley Kubrik had been able to make his Napoleon movie!

If one were to compile an unabridged list of unfinished movies I don’t know how long it would be…but it would be long. Films are tough work and sometimes they hit snags. They run out of money, are plagued with deaths or injuries, or sometimes they’re just abandoned. There’s a lot of history we’re missing as a result of these missing works of art. Sometimes movies are salvaged from tragedy—think Bruce Lee dying before completing Game of Death or worse, Peter Sellers dying without completing any new footage for Trail of the Pink Panther. Richard Pryor’s Uncle Tom’s Fairy Tales and the infamous The Day the Clown Cried (in which Jerry Lewis played a depressed clown in a WWII concentration camp) are lost and will remain incomplete forever.

What follows are just a few movies that could have been. Let the totally arbitrary countdown begin.

don quixote

1. Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) always has problems when he’s making movies. A fellow Monty Python alum said of him in an interview that, “[Gilliam] only works when he is in opposition.” Gilliam is one of my favorite directors because he takes bold, strange chances and because even his movies that I don’t care for are still unmistakably personal and visually sumptuous. There are several movies Gilliam was supposed to have directed over the years but perhaps the most infamous and the one that was closest to being realized was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It was meant to be a retelling of Don Quixote but with an added time travel element and classic Gilliam surrealism. Poor Gilliam has been trying to get this thing made for ages. The chronicling of one attempt to make the film with Johnny Depp can be seen in the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002). You can see all the footage that was shot, but the movie was quite far from being complete. The production was no match for floods, injuries, and military planes flying overhead. Gilliam keeps trying to make it, but the cast keeps changing. Don Quixote was switched from Jean Rochefort to Robert Duvall (Network) for a restart that never happened. I hope the film one day will get finished and then we can all see it. I was personally hoping Michael Palin (Life of Brian) might play Quixote actually.

inferno

2. The French Alfred Hitchcock, as he is occasionally known, had an unfinished work as well. Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le Diaboliques, The Wages of Fear) was supposed to make Inferno in 1964. The footage that was completed is enchanting and hypnotic and combines both color and black and white photography. Production was stunted by illness, weather, pressure from local authorities, and finally halted when Clouzot suffered a heart attack. Although the movie was never finished you can still see what was done in a 2009 semi-documentary by Serge Bromberg. Once again, we were robbed of another pretty cool looking flick from a master of thrills and suspense.

thief cobbler

3. Richard Williams’ The Thief and the Cobbler I have already written about, but it definitely makes the list. Williams worked on this gem for over 25 years. We have a few versions floating around now. There’s the one that was completed—but not by Williams—and released by the studio but with added songs, voiceovers, and the added animation sequences are definitely NOT on the same level as Williams’. Then there’s a few “re-cobbled” editions which can be found online. They combines pencil tests and sketched stills to fill in the missing pieces and appropriately remove the studio’s additional material. Even unfinished The Thief and the Cobbler is an incredibly enjoyable movie and a mesmerizing achievement for animation.

silver globe

4. This next one might just be the greatest science fiction film never made. Directed by Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Zulawski, On the Silver Globe had production shut down by the government in 1977. Communism was tough on art. It was finally released in 1988, but in its incomplete form. For the portions of the movie that were not done Zulawski just seems to have taken a camera and ran around the Polish subway system while narrating all the action and dialogue verbatim from the script. Confusing? Why yes, but no more than the rest of the film. It starts out as an erratic POV movie about stranded astronauts and the birth of a new race and then the philosophy and craziness takes off. You will see things and hear things that I daresay have never been duplicated in any other film that I’ve seen. On the Silver Globe is a dense and wildly ambitious movie that can be difficult to follow, but you gotta stick with it because even if you don’t know where it took you, you will certainly experience unfinished greatness.

lost horizon

5. Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, You Can’t Take it With You) is known for making wonderfully American and somewhat squishy movies with great casts and even greater morals. He’s an American institution and his movies are culturally iconic. So why had I never heard of Lost Horizons (1937)? It’s an epic fantasy action adventure story about the discovery of the legendary utopic city of Shangri-La. It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and it starred Ronald Colman (Prisoner of Zenda), Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace), and Thomas Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) among others. Okay, technically it’s not unfinished exactly. It is missing footage and the DVD today includes the audio and some stills from the missing scenes and some sequences that were previously cut are very damaged. It’s mostly complete, only missing a few bits here and there. When I first saw it I said, “Frank Capra directed this?” It was so different from all his other movies and it was incredible. See this movie. My only complaints with this film are that it does get a little slow in the middle and it comes so close to having a startlingly elegant and enigmatic finale but foregoes it in favor of a simple and happy closed knot. Oh, well. It’s still awesome. If the first ten minutes don’t suck you in, you’re an idiot.

ivan terrible

6. Sergei Eisentein (Battleship Potemkin, Alexander Nevsky) got away with the first two installments of his remarkable epic biographic film Ivan the Terrible (1944, 1958). Had Communist censorship not hindered the progress on the second film (paranoid Joseph Stalin kind of put it together that the movie was also a criticism of his rule) and had Eisenstein not died before he could conclude the third film we might have had another fantastic movie trilogy. It’s a historical masterpiece and the first two films are well worth looking at. Just a shame to be left wanting more.

wa

7. In the late 1930s producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong, She) and special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien (The Lost World, King Kong, Mighty Joe Young) wanted to make a movie called War Eagles. Willis O’Brien left so many wild ideas unfilmed and maybe this one isn’t the most missed by the majority of people, but screw it. It sounds awesome. The plot was to concern Vikings who ride giant eagles and fight dinosaurs in New York City. This might be the greatest loss to cinema ever.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/nov/02/gilliam-lynch-kubrick

http://thefadeout.wordpress.com/2011/04/

http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/richard%20williams

http://www.leslaboratoires.org/en/date/illegalcinema-100-0

http://cosmicvisions.blogspot.kr/2009/12/search-for-shangri-la.html

http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/nikolai%20cherkasov?language=pl_PL

http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/9076637