The Last Few Movies I saw: Episode XI – Or: the movies I liked better than Interstellar

And now…once again…the last few movies I saw in the order of how good I thought they were. Please, correct me.

The Insipid:

1a

For girls who don’t want to experience actual silent film comedy.

I don’t care how loved this movie is. Benny & Joon (1993) is pandering schmaltz. Having said that, it’s much better than you’re average schmaltz. Johnny Depp plays an eccentric man-pixie whose off-beat whimsy showcases an almost unreasonable obsession with silent film comedies. He falls in love with a woman who is actually crazy (played by Mary Stuart Masterson). Instead of wacky hijinks, we actually get a more believable confrontation with some of the consequences of mental illness—including a brother (Aiden Quinn) who loves both of them, but above all wants to protect his sister. Why do I put this so low on the list? Admittedly, it’s not terrible (and who doesn’t love The Proclaimers?), but for me it runs afoul of Patch Adams-ifying mental illness as well as drama. I didn’t hate it, but there wasn’t much there to begin with for me to have any feelings about one way or the other. It’s ultimately a little too neat, despite some of the risks it gets really close to taking.

Dawn of Gross:

These next two films I actually actively dislike. Which is to say I feel far more strongly about them than Benny & Joon, but Benny & Joon was innocuous and forgettable, and there’s something weirdly appealing about devastating, grotesque misfires that burn holes in your memory. I’ll come clean though. After seeing one of these (you’ll know which one), I may not be in my right mind.

1b

“And that was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death, an experience which I don’t hesitate strongly to recommend.”

Alan Parker (Pink Floyd The Wall, Angel Heart) isn’t a bad director. And part of me admires the ambition and potential behind this project. The Road to Wellville (1994) is a period comedy about the zany Dr. Kellogg (Anthony Hopkins with big, fake teeth and a Col. Sanders drawl) and his upstate health haven where he promotes loopy diet and exercise regimens and maddeningly sexless lifestyles to all his patients. Bridget Fonda takes her ailing and unassailably horny husband, Matthew Broderick, to Kellogg’s dystopic Wonka-verse to return him to full health. So many uninteresting subplots and genuinely cool contraptions abound in this scatological romp through penis inspection, excrement handling, powdered derriere jiggles, failed breakfast formula sputum, and sexual revolution revelations. Despite some truly impressive sets and a refreshingly unromantic period atmosphere, the lack of effective humor or plot and the abundance of poop references make this perhaps a well-intentioned but failed endeavor. The cast also includes Lara Flynn Boyle’s jaundiced breasts, muddy Dana Carvey’s toothless smile, John Neville not playing Baron Munchausen, multiple takes of Michael Lerner regurgitating ground corn meal into a bucket, and John Cusack.

1c

I want to hurt this movie in the way it hurt me.

I think I hate this movie. I definitely dislike it more than Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville. Why do I rate it higher? I fear this movie broke me. It’s been over a month and I still vividly see every single gross, disgusting, cringe-worthy, dry-heave inducing scene. In detail. Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers) wrote, directed, and starred in Nothing But Trouble (1991), an unflinchingly loathsome cinematic spectacle worthy of inspection at Dr. Kellogg’s clinic. As a kid I remember seeing this in the video store all the time and wanting to see it. The cover looked so weird and it had Dan Aykroyd in it! I only recently saw it and for that I am glad. Lord only knows how messed I’d be if I had seen it as a young’n. Demi Moore convinces rich jerk, Chevy Chase, to drive her to Atlantic City for some reason. They bring along two wacky Brazilian siblings, but on a detour through the back roads of New Jersey they get busted for running a red light and are escorted by John Candy to Valkenvania’s dilapidated courthouse for trial. The century-old judge, played by Aykroyd (who actually resembles Rev. Billy Graham, but with—not kidding—a severed penis for a nose), refuses to let them go. An onslaught of dark, grotesque nonsense masquerading as comedy ensues. John Candy in drag; a Rube Goldbergian roller coaster that strips human flesh from bone; two slimy, half-naked man-babies who live in—and presumably on—garbage; a random appearance by Digital Underground featuring Tupac; and a legitimately uncomfortably irrational romance between Moore and Chase makeup the landscape of this revolting and incredibly expensive production. The story is inane. The imagery is willfully gross. And it is only as unfunny as it is perplexing. I hate it, but I fear it tainted my soul with its toxic poison. For as much as I wanted to, I could never look away from the screen. I would sooner watch Benny & Joon and The Road to Wellville again, but I would sooner watch Nothing But Trouble again with other people in the room just to explain to them how terrible the movie really is. This movie really is awful in every way, but it left such a huge dent in my psyche I have to put it above the two previous films.

Breath. It’s Behind Us Now:

Crazy, Stupid, Love

And the guy from The Drew Carey Show who has been a supporting character in so many movies and you see him all the time and you swear you’re going to learn his name this time but you never learn his name.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) was a pleasant, little movie with a pleasing cast. I liked it. It was cute. I accepted the coincidences and contrived conundrums out of simple enjoyment in the writing and the performances from Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, and Analeigh Tipton. That is all.

1e

Enjoy a quiet moment without Anthony Quinn or Anna Magnani screaming. Just passing bottles. Serenity.

Anthony Quinn has played almost every nationality so why not Italian? Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, Judgment at Nuremberg) directed the WWII comedy-drama about a small Italian village that must work together to hide over a million bottles of wine from German soldiers using the town as a base. The premise is good, no? The scenery is nice, the cast is fine (Quinn, Anna Magnani, Giancarlo Giannini, Hardy Krüger), the production is attractive, but there’s something missing in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969). For a movie that’s pretty much The Hiding Place but with alcohol instead of Jews, there’s not much suspense or sense of danger. Most of the comedy is not particularly hilarious either. Quinn was much better in Zorba the Greek and Guns of Navarone. Here he’s way too bombastic. The movie goes on way too long and, ultimately, it’s plot was a little too close to the far superior Whiskey Galore! (1949). It’s pleasant enough, but watch Whiskey Galore! instead. It’s funnier and more suspenseful.

Now We’re Cookin’:

1f

Gotta love early two-strip Technicolor. Creates a wonderfully ethereal atmosphere.

House of Wax (1953) is widely regarded as one of Vincent Price’s best films and a superior remake to 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. I may be in the minority, but I actually like the 1933 one better. Michael Curtiz’s (Casablanca, Captain Blood) direction, Ray Rennahan’s (Gone With the Wind) cinematography, and Anton Grot’s (The Sea Hawk) set designs are great. Horror staples Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill star in the story of a disgraced sculptor who yearns to cast real wax-dipped humans in his comeback museum. Technically, I think Doctor X (1932) is the better film, but I like the lady reporter played by Glenda Farrell better than the guy reporter in and the ending is really good. It’s weightless, pulpy fun. If you’ve seen my previous lists you know I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. Naturally, I love it.

1a

You never loved me!

If you’ve ever wanted to see one man pretending to be Richard Nixon screaming and crying in a room for an hour and a half then Robert Altman’s (M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye) Secret Honor (1984) is right for you. Philip Baker Hall, looking nothing like Nixon (not that that ever stopped Anthony Hopkins), is Nixon. Disgraced, he rambles a fractured and twisted stream-of-consciousness litany of his past shortcomings and present rationalizations. It’s well acted and humanizing in its portrayal of the complicated former president. It’s a better drama than a political film, in my humble opinion.

Upgrade:

1b

You’re a talking dog who owns a house. Why is that not more of a deal in this universe?

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014) is seriously the best feature-length adaptation of a Jay Ward cartoon. Not that that’s saying a whole lot [George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle]. Director Rob Minkoff pulls off a breezy, hip, smart time-travel comedy-adventure that retains the spirit of the original cartoon show. The puns and history warp would have been enough, but the animation, exceptional voice work (most notably Ty Burrell), and the heartbeat underneath make it more than a passing whim. This was more fun than I expected.

Our robot looks like a coffee table, sits horizontally between us in the cockpit, yet doesn't have cup-holders.

Our robot looks like a coffee table, sits horizontally between us in the cockpit, yet doesn’t have cup-holders.

I imagine Interstellar (2014) will not be nearly as fun on a TV screen. Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) takes us on a space adventure with equal parts awe and suspense. The cinematography, score, special effects, and emotional core make the film resonate beyond all the nit-picky shortcomings (like how come Michael Caine doesn’t age? I mean, I guess he’s sitting in a chair now. Is that alone meant to convince me he’s 30 years older?). I liked the robots, I liked the look, I like the music, and I liked the ending. There’s stuff I didn’t like, but who cares? For all the movies where they go inside a black hole, this is easily the best. Although, like Jay Ward film adaptations, it’s not saying much. No, that’s technically not a black hole in 2001: a Space Odyssey.

Your welcome. Sleep well.

Your welcome. Sleep well.

Surreal Italian horror/thriller films from the 70s are sort of their own genre. A Lizard in Woman’s Skin (1971) is a fine example of what Americans think of when they think of the giallo subgenre. Director Lucio Fulci paints a hyper-sexual, psychedelic mystery thriller complete with copious amounts of nudity and drug induced hallucinations. Despite all the lesbian orgy scenes I was somewhat disengaged from the film…until the chase scene through the cellars and cathedral organ, complete with hundreds of bats getting stuck in the she-protagonist’s hair. It’s wonderful. The weird, disemboweled dog medical experiment fever-dream is pretty much seared into my brain. The cutest thing about this movie though? It’s sort of a Reefer Madness for LSD. It’s adorable.

The Cable Car Elevates Us Even Higher:

*pew* *pew*

*pew* *pew*

WWII was a brutal time in history, but it got us some pretty damn good movies. Carol Reed (The Third Man, Our Man in Havana) gave us a wartime espionage suspense thriller starring Rex Harrison, Margaret Lockwood, and Paul Henreid that features a climactic cable car chase. Even while playing a cold double agent Harrison still manages to be fey. It feels sort of like Shanghai Express but directed by Alfred Hitchcock and with Nazis. Long story short: watch Night Train to Munich (1940). This movie also features a couple of British stock characters (Charters and Caldicott) who love cricket. This humorous duo appeared in several English movies around this time and they play a very significant role in this.

Is it obvious I'm wearing a wig?

Is it obvious I’m wearing a wig?

I need to see more movies directed by Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron). He has regrettably been a cinematic blindspot that I have been meaning to catch up with. Danton (1983) chronicles the final days of Georges Danton (Gérard Depardieu) during the French Revolution. Maximillien de Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) is his political enemy during this time of great squalor and social unrest. If you liked Les Misérables but wanted less singing and more heads getting guillotined then this is the movie for you. Sumptuous costumes and fancy sets bring the history to life, but I can’t say you won’t be frustrated by the injustices endured by the characters.

Bring tissues and a stress ball.

Bring tissues and a stress ball.

I was recommended a documentary by a friend. I trust his judgement. I watched Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008) without doing any research on it. I had no idea what it was about beyond a filmmaker (Kurt Kuenne) making a movie-letter to a boy about a dad who had been killed. Throughout the experience I was moved, angered, and brought to tears. I’d actually rather not give too much away. Probably best if you watch this fresh and let the frustrating emotional roller coaster drag you along for the heart-breaking ride.

The Top Three:

Hang in there.

Hang in there.

Black Cat, White Cat (1998) is a Yugoslavian comedy about gypsies, gangsters, double-crosses, weddings, and hiding bodies. Director Emir Kusturica (Underground) brings the wacky story to life with a pleasing ramshackle aesthetic. Geese covered in crap and gold teeth better be your thing. Matko Destanov (Bajram Severdzan) borrows money from old, wheelchair-bound hood, Grga Pitić (Sabri Sulejmani), under the false pretense that his father, Zarije (Zabit Memedov), is dead. He recruits his cocaine-loving pal, Dadan Karambolo (Srdjan Todorovic), for a hustle-job to steal a train carrying oil. Dadan two-times Matko and puts him into debt unless he agrees to let his son, Zare (Florijan Ajdini), marry his dwarf sister, Afrodita (Salija Ibraimova), but Zare is in love with Ida (Branka Katic). To the erratic tempo of a twangy jaw-harp, the plot propels onward. Black Cat, White Cat is a fun movie with enjoyable characters, grit, humor, and even a little warmth.

5

If this doesn’t work it could be curtains.

I like Jack Benny. His understated style of comedy appeals to me. That said, Ernst Lubitsch’s (The Shop Around the Corner), To Be or Not to Be (1942) isn’t exactly a comedy. It is, but it’s not hilarious like a typical screwball farce of the era. The delicate mechanisms of the complicated plot are more of a concern than gags for this WWII movie set in Poland. Actors Maria and Joseph Tura (Carol Lombard and Jack Benny) and their whole company must act as double-agents to save the lives of several families whose identities have been compromised by a Nazi double-agent. The plot thickens when Benny discovers his wife’s not-so-secret admirer (Robert Stack), but even with emotions at an unstable high, the show must go on if they want to live through the night. It’s easy to see why Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) is more celebrated today. Chaplin was a more influential artist and icon and Dictator is genuinely a lot funnier and more fiercely political. To Be or Not to Be, however, has the more interesting storyline and more relatable characters and situations—never letting the grander picture upstage the human drama between the individual characters and never devolving into episodic slapstick routines. The solutions to their problems are innovative and surprising too as the story twists and turns. I was never sure what was going to happen next. Both were made during the war, but Dictator always felt distant, like a commentary from a far-off observer—which is what it was. To Be or Not to Be actually feels closer to the action, perhaps because of its more consistently serious structure and tone. I’ve seen Dictator at least 30 times, but I’m eager to watch this wartime comedy again soon.

It's amazing how little this film will remind you of E.T.

It’s amazing how little this film will remind you of E.T.

Here’s another I could not predict, scene to scene. Really, anything could have happened next. Everyone’s praised this one and I will too. Under the Skin (2013) really is like no film you’ve seen before. Perhaps it’s closest comparison being a hybrid of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Species, but even that doesn’t do justice to this stealthy, surreal contemplation on humanity given to us by director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Scarlett Johansson goes through the motions of her alien mission to eat(?) human males around Scotland, until she meets a few people who alter her perception of humans and, in turn, her understanding of herself. But it’s so much more interesting than that. This is a very enigmatic and pensive film that takes its time, but, for me, it never felt slow. There is so much to constantly ponder and soak in. This is the sort of movie that you just watch as if you are in a dream. And I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It, for lack of a better cliche, got under my skin. Under the Skin was my favorite film I saw recently. I highly recommend it if you’re the sort of person intrigued by truly poetically surreal science-fiction. Or nudity.

BONUS: Short Film Festival

1

Werner Herzog Defends Dade (2011) dir. Lindsay Scoggins (USA). Old Herzog field footage synced up with some guy rambling about Florida that turns into a rap. At less than a minute long, it does not overstay its welcome.

1d

Inside the Mind of Colin Furze (2014) dir. David Beazely (UK) [documentary]. Colin Furze is an inventor, a tinkerer, a mechanical artist. Watch him soup up vehicles and appliances.

1e

Xenos (2014) dir. Mahdi Fleifel (UK/Denmark/Greece) [documentary]. A few Palestinians stuck in a destitute Greek economy consider if life were any better in the Lebanese refugee camps. It’s not a subject we think about a lot.

1e

Marilyn Myller (2013) dir. Michael Please (UK) [animation]. A stop-motion marvel (from the creator of The Eagleman Stag) about a perfectionist’s unyielding yearning to be perfect. The visuals are great.

1e

Person to Person (2014) dir. Dustin Guy Defa (USA). A record store owner can’t seem to get a strange. attractive woman out of his home. It’s funny and let’s you soak in the atmosphere. The character seems endearingly odd perhaps because he seems more realistically written than his situation. I enjoyed it a lot.

1e

More Than Two Hours (2013) dir. Ali Asgari (Iran). A man races to find a hosptial that will treat his bleeding girlfriend…but the sexual nature of her injury causes the medical professionals to deny her or insist on reporting them to the authorities as their out-of-wedlock sexual activity is quite illegal. It’s frustrating and affecting. I recommend it.

1

Swimmer (2012) dir. Lynne Ramsey (UK). It’s surreal, hypnotic, and stunningly gorgeous in its rich black and white photography. My favorite short of the bunch.

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Richard Nixon Sat On a Wall…

In lieu of the politics of late…

Somewhere in the back of my mind there is a room full of nothing but all of the very best political movies that my resilient retinas have allowed entry. Amongst such wonderful films as Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Costa-Gravas’ Z (1969), Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981), etc. there sits one movie on a shabby desk with crumpled papers and notepads littering an otherwise visible typewriter. This movie is Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men (1976) starring Robert Redford (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) as the now legendary journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who uncovered the Watergate Scandal that ousted Nixon from his presidential office.

When nobody seems to be questioning a possible link between five Cubans breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building and an ever-expanding list of politicos who are remaining decidedly tacit about the whole ordeal, Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) starts pestering his boss, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards, Once Upon a Time in the West), at the Washington Post to let him write more on the subject. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) is assigned the project alongside the newer Woodward. No other papers seem interested in Watergate and more than half the country never heard of Watergate, but Woodward and Bernstein are determined to find the truth and discover why people keep changing their stories. What is everybody hiding? Through the anonymous source “Deep Throat” a.k.a. W. Mark Felt (Hal Holbrook), Woodward is encouraged that he is on the right track, but confounded by how ambiguous and elusive his source is . . . Ben Bradlee proves even more confounded by their lack of solid evidence. With bigger and bigger names being pulled from the investigative hat with no nameable source, and Bradlee’s neck on the line, it boils down to an all or nothing stance for the Washington Post to take…and they risk it all. If the Committee to Reelect President Nixon was involved with the Watergate burglary (and they deny it vehemently) then the Washington Post will be in a lot of trouble, but if Woodward and Bernstein are correct then it will be quite a story.

That’s the basics of what happens in the movie and the book it was based on (written by Woodward and Bernstein), but the real important thing to take away from this fantastic film is the power of the press and investigative reporting. This movie champions journalists and real journalism like no other, specifically American journalism. Watching this film it is hard not to realize how blessed we are that we live in a nation where this story could have happened. John Peter Zenger would be proud. Regardless of how our leaders may attempt to conceal the truth, let us never forget that we live in a nation where the truth can be uncovered as long as the drive to expose it exists. This brings me to another inspiring aspect of the film: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein themselves! They dug. They didn’t have to. They risked a lot (before either of them had reputations), not because they were asked to (Bradlee wanted them to stop in the beginning), but because the truth was somewhere to be found. Was it so the American people would know? Was it to bother the government? Was it for the story? Was it for their own pride? Was it because the authoritative power of the truth was inherently driving them? Maybe it was just so people could be reminded that they could find the truth, even if nobody cared.

Freedom of the press and free speech is not merely a right as an American. It is an obligation. A questioning and discerning public should keep its government from misstepping too drastically.

Where Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) desperately charges that the American people must know the truth at all costs (and does a good job of it), All the President’s Men never feels like it’s pushing any sort of agenda. Questions must be asked and answered because it is the natural way of humankind. It is how the youngest child learns and why should it be any different for the rest of us? All the President’s Men is one of the finest examples of investigative reporting caught on film and should inspire the reporters of today. Virtually the whole movie is Woodward and Bernstein asking questions and probing reluctant people through phone calls—practically half the movie is shots of people talking on the phone—and doorstep visitations and parking garage rendezvous.

In addition to the themes, the very craft of the film is great. The cast is perfect and the direction, writing, editing, cinematography, etc. are all top notch as well. There’s a reason it was nominated for so many awards (including Best Picture). All the President’s Men, in addition to being one of the greatest American movies, is one of the most American movies and it says and does things that can’t be said or done too often.

I was just thinking, this might make an interesting (if a bit strange) double-feature with Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). That way you’d get two different extremes of American journalism. Just imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had teamed up with Hunter S. Thompson! No. That’s way too far.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 13, 2010