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.


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:


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 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:


“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.


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.



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.


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.


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:


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.


“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:


“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).


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


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:


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.


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.



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:


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.


“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 Two – yeah, I did it again.

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

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

Oh No:

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

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

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Dear Lord, make some better Christian movies.”

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

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

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

“Snuffy? Like Snuffleupagus?”

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

Guilty Pleasures:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officially Good: 

“Paris blows.”

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

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

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

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

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

Greatness Beckons: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I still got it.”

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

“Do you forgive me for ‘Pinocchio?'”

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

Another Invigorating Apex:

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

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

“I hope you like low angles.”

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

“Ah…we had a good run.”

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

“Not even Bruce Campbell could defeat us.”

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

“‘Super Mario Bros.’ never happened.”

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

Whew. I am a huge nerd.

What are the last things you saw? Anything good?

Previous list can be found HERE.