The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVIII – Here We Go Again

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys.

Meh:

Remember. It’s funnier than an average rom-com, but that’s a low bar.

Comedian Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) stars in Trainwreck (2015), a mean-spirited by-the-numbers rom-com with one or two really good laughs. Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) directs and Bill Hader (SNL) co-stars as the perfect but vaguely awkward man who lets an alcoholic Amy treat him like garbage until she decides to just be with him. It’s a story of a character’s personal growth, but if you never really like the character you won’t care and if you’re not sure if she’s even learned anything you may be hard-pressed to call it an arc. I don’t care what the genders are, people being selfish and crappy to each other is neither romantic nor charming. Also features Alison Brie, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park, and Dave Attell.

If we keep running we might find “The Road to Wellville.”

I did not get Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). I did not dislike it. I just didn’t quite get it. Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), sporting a truly wonderful mustache, is a quiet man at a surreal mansion getaway where tenants are required to find a mate within 45 days lest they be turned into an animal (Colin chooses a lobster). I think it’s a metaphor for the social stigmas of being single, but it was all a little too dry and slow for me. A tepid, but refreshingly strange outing to the cinema. Also stars Rachel Weicz, Michael Smiley, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw.

No peace. No pussy.

It took me awhile to get into the rhyming dialogue and beat poetry delivery of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015). Lysistrata (played by the fabulous Teyonah Parris) starts a revolution to end gang violence in the bloody streets of Chicago by getting all women to deny their men sex of any kind until the shootings stop. It’s a bit stagey at times (in a stylized but awkward way that doesn’t always work), but the energy and humor and pulse of desperation make this movie worth a look. A bit tonally uneven, which is a shame because I feel like there’s a great film in there somewhere. Also features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson.

Guilty pleasures and amiable lectures:

Close the door! You’re letting Tarantino’s ego out!

Quentin Tarantino. An obnoxious egotist who makes some fun movies. The Hateful Eight (2015) looks great and packs some great people into its tiny cast. A bounty hunter called The Hangman (Kurt Russell) escorting his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution gets snowbound in a shifty cabin full of untrustworthy characters. The moments of tension are great—although nothing close to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained—and it has a few surprises, but when every character is so hateful it can become hard to care about what happens to them. Samuel L. Jackson is half the reason the movie is as entertaining as it is. Jackson has a fantastic mental showdown with Bruce Dern’s character too. Also stars Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.

So it has come to this. I’m doing a Samurai Cop sequel.

Samurai Cop (1991) is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It truly is one of the BEST bad movies out there and you owe it to yourself to watch it now. The surprise sequel Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) is decidedly underwhelming by comparison. The film spends a lot of its time winking at the audience and dusting off all of the old cast for their own quality moments of varying hilarity. Instead of a crappy old school B-action movie we get a seriously incomprehensible Lynchian mess of flashy colors and lady murder. In a post screening Q&A, Matt Karedas (Joe “Samurai Cop” Marshall, himself) expressed disappointment with the finished product and said he was uncomfortable murdering so many women in the film, feeling it was against Joe’s character. For however impossible the plot is to follow, I loved a lot of the cheesy winks and wacky, forced cameos. Bai Ling and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau add a lot of over-the-top zany surreality to the finished product, but seeing Mark Frazer and so many of the original cast reprising their roles in this stupid film was just what I needed. It looks like everyone is having fun. And this movie actually gave me newfound respect for Bai Ling. She plays it well beyond eleven. Fans of the original will undoubtedly be as dismayed and baffled as Matt, but should check it out anyway for a stupid adventure with your favorite cult movie heroes.

I came here for Keegan-Michael Key. Excited for “Keanu”!

Jason Strouse’s quiet little comedy-drama about an ineffably likable high school teacher (played wonderfully by Matt Letscher) is sweet. It’s charming. It’s actually a bit too clean and simple at times. But Teacher of the Year (2014) manages to more closely resemble the anxieties of actual teacher life than most teacher flicks. Mitch Carter (Letscher) is a great educator who has to make a choice between staying where he’s always been or taking a bigger job across the country. The cast is good (Keegan-Michael Key and the Sklar Brothers add needed hilarity) and it has enough satisfying character moments to eclipse some of its contrivances. It’s not pretentious and it should make you smile, whether you’re in education or not. Co-stars Tamlyn Tomita, Jamie Kaler, Larry Joe Campbell, and Sunny Mabrey.

A bit more on board:

I’m the best part of the movie and barely mentioned on the poster. Admit it. You can’t pronounce my name.

I love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and even lower tier Coens is still watchable (Ladykillers is pushing it though). Hail, Caesar! (2016) is not a masterpiece, but it is breezy and fun. The story is pulled in perhaps too many directions (The Big Lebowski made it work). Ultimately we may be a little fuzzy on what was being said and why we should care (Burn After Reading did it better). It’s all rather showy and cartoony (Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona were more successful here). It’s about old Hollywood (Barton Fink, while weird, was far more engaging). It tries to depict a crisis of faith (A Serious Man, anyone?). In the end, Hail, Caesar! is a series of wacky scenes vaguely connected and told in the mock-buildup fashion of classic Coen shaggy dog tales. Not great. But not bad. Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich (possibly the best part of the show), and a host of cameos from Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Clancey Brown, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, etc. So what’s it about? The red scare? The calculated fakeness of showbiz? Who cares? Eat your popcorn.

Say “War on Christmas” one more time.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a gleefully dark Christmas story full of demonic gingerbread men, ghoulish holiday gifts, and the wicked elf ruler of them all. A boy accidentally curses his family’s stressful yuletide proceedings when he summons the dark version of Santa Claus: Krampus. It’s silly and simple, but the surreal sense of dread, coupled with the right tone of comedy, propel this anti-holiday flick beyond Gremlins (perhaps). Did I mention the fantastic creature effects? The evil Jack-in-the-box and the nightmarish lord of them all look wonderful! The use of puppets and suited monsters definitely add to the uneasy texture of this kooky flick. Features an extended stop-motion flashback sequence and Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Conchata Ferrell, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.

The closest I’ve gotten to being interested in soccer.

What if you could get the two lowest FIFA ranked teams in soccer and have them compete against each other on the same exact day as the World Cup final? Two Dutch soccer fans did just that and made it into a documentary called The Other Final (2003). If you like underdogs, this is for you. It’s underdogs versus underdogs! Watching the sadly forgotten teams of Bhutan and Montserrat meet on the patchy green amicably and in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is a charming little departure from big commercial athletics. As a bonus, I learned more about the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat than I ever knew before.

Let’s take it up a notch:

You will forever think differently about fish, pigs, and monkeys.

I’m a Stephen Chow fan. Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle are masterpieces of comic fantasy. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) is a fantastically innovative adventure and compelling retelling of the classic Chinese legend. While some of the ambitious visuals may falter beneath occasionally uneven special effects, one must applaud Chow’s typically confident direction of the impossible mayhem. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in this action-packed tale of demon hunters and romance unrequited. Like Chow’s previous films mentioned, Journey to the West is accessible to children for its monsters and fantasy but complex and surprising in its narrative cogs. At the end of it all, I found myself both exhausted and delighted at having seen something unique. Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, and Huang Bo star.

And I want to come out on a swan.

Kristen Wiig (SNL) plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and decides to make a show based on herself (her thoughts, her memories, her hobbies, etc.) in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me (2014). Honestly, I can’t imagine a single other person playing this character. Wiig straddles a weird line between comedy and sympathy for mental illness. The usual obvious satirical fodder of television politics rears its head too, but the real heart of the film comes from the endearing character and Wiig’s performance. There’s a lot of goodies in this clever little movie that I’ll just recommend you watch it. Also features Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, and Alan Tudyk.

Say “Tommy Wiseau” in the mirror three times and a drama student rejoins the fastfood industry.

If you got excited by Tommy Wiseau’s mention in Samurai Cop 2, then you’re going to love this: The Room fan Rick Harper got deep into Wiseau’s world a few years back. So deep they may not be on speaking terms anymore. So deep he tracked down most of the original cast and crew and made a documentary about the famously awful cult movie. I had the special privilege of seeing the world premier of Room Full of Spoons (2016) in Madrid. If watching The Room brings you joy; if Tommy Wiseau fascinates you with his captivating oddness; if you’ve ever had questions about how the film was made or where Tommy comes from…watch this documentary.

What’s this Panama Papers thing I keep hearing about?

2016 Oscar winning film about the Catholic priest pedophilia cover up, Spotlight (2015), is solidly cast, well written, and an important reminder of the significance of investigative journalism in our world. This is like the sister film of All the President’s Men (1976). Not merely satisfied with looking into the interviewing process of gathering data via cold calls, personal interviews, and reading through old documents, Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, deals a lot with the nature of the politics game and media strategies involved in a high profile, high risk scoop dependent on secrecy and facts. And the personalities uncovering the story bring added realism to this slow-burn drama. Stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.

MORE! MORE!

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It was a slow night.

I gave a needed re-watch to a film I never really got on board with as a child. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our home did not celebrate the knockoffs I later came to love. Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars have since become films I frequently recommend. Knowing this, and somewhat prompted by “Trailers From Hell“, I gave The Last Starfighter (1984) another chance. No, not all of the effects hold up (some of the earliest examples of CGI), but it is such an amiable breath of fresh air that it hit me just right. A video-gamer named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) living in a dusty trailer park gets a surprise visit from a strange alien visitor (The Music Man‘s Robert Preston) sent to recruit him to defend a distant planet. Alex’s alien mentor, Grig (played by Dan O’Herlihy), is an understandably favorite character. It’s basically everything you want it to be. It’s unapologetically fun and squarely 80s sci-fi cheese. Maybe never confused with a truly “great” film, I submit we retain slots for the wonderfully good.

Him: There’s pigs. Her: I know.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is a hypnotic, elliptical enigma. If you thought Primer was alienating and indecipherable, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Categorized as a sci-fi movie, imdb.com summarizes the plot thusly: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Which is more than the film itself clearly communicates and more succinct than I could blurb. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it immensely. But then…I also liked Beyond the Black Rainbow and Under the Skin a lot too.

Imagine how betrayed you’d feel if this picture was all you knew about the movie.

High-Rise (2015) is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. Tom Hiddleston plays a businessman who moves into the latest architectural wonder created by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). It’s got all the modern conveniences and it is stylish beyond compare, but things gradually devolve into anarchy as the classes and perceived entitlements of its tenants begin to clash. This is not Snowpiercer. This is not an action movie. The objectives are intentionally vague. It’s brand of satire is unabashedly dark and murky. It’s sexy and weird and claustrophobic. Also stars Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.

Well, at least it’s not Scientology.

Here’s a slow-burn that caught me off guard. I went to see Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) knowing pretty much nothing about it. I think that helped. The story of a group of estranged friends reuniting under cryptic circumstances—and what increasingly feels like a cult pitch—sucks you in and holds you under as the tension and suspense uncomfortably builds before a final act that does not disappoint. The driveway to this California dinner party is lined with warning signs. Watch it. Stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch.

This is the end:

After all that, what could I list as my top three films? (As my whims sit these evening anyway.)

That’s never a good sign.

S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has been lauded. And for good reason. Bone Tomahawk (2015) blows Tarantino’s latest film out of the water. Kurt Russell is Sheriff Hunt. He and his elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a greasy gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and one man with a broken [possibly gangrenous] leg (Patrick Wilson) go on a rescue mission to save the cripple’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a mysterious tribe of albino cannibal troglodytes. Valley of the Gwangi was cowboys versus dinosaurs. Now we got cowboys versus cave-people. And for however schlocky the synopsis may sound, this is a genuinely good movie. It is sensitive and earthy. More drama than gore-fest (though, there’s a bit of that too). It’s a well-written surprise whose humor and heart make it more than just that movie with the cannibal troglodytes in the wild west. And can we just give all of the acting awards to Richard Jenkins for his performance already? The man is glorious. Also features Sid Haig, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, James Tolkan, and Sean Young.

Caitlyn who?

How does a kinetic comedy-drama about a jealousy & meth-fueled transgender sex-worker on Christmas Eve in Hollywood filmed entirely on iPhone 5s sound? The very first scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) sets up everything you need to know: Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of prison and just found out her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cisgender chick (Mickey O’Hagan). In addition we have the subplots of Sin-Dee’s best friend (also trans, also a sex worker), Alexandra (Mya Taylor), quiet ambitions of being a singer and an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) trying to avoid his family on Christmas Eve to find Alexandra. The whole chaotic pot comes to a boil and we, the audience, are there for the show. Maybe you don’t feel like you relate to any of these characters. Perhaps it all sounds too much like an episode of Cops. Or maybe you don’t mind walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and observing their lives and their dreams and their problems. These characters are not the typical archetypes of American cinema. It may take a moment to step into their world and get used to the frenetic tempo and saturated colors, but perhaps you shall be rewarded.

Welcome to Wakaliwood.

Nabwana I.G.G. has been making insane, low-budget action movies in the slums of Uganda for years. I was introduced to his work via Alan Ssali Hofmanis, an American who moved to Uganda and dedicated his life to helping Nabwana complete more films. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), on all accounts, could not be a good movie. But it is. The plot is all but incomprehensible and the effects and props are fakey-fake. But this was made in the slums. For nothing. And a mad, anarchic joy permeates every moment of this glorious, cacophonous proceedings. Unlike The Room, which I love because it is terrible, I love Captain Alex because it was so alien and new and wonderful. By way of the Voice Joker (gleeful narrator who vaguely helps tell the story between wisecracks), we are given a glimpse into life in the slums and, more tellingly, their interpretation of American action cinema, the genre they were first introduced to and the one they choose to troll. They are having fun. Infectious fun. I can’t guarantee that you will like it as much as I did. But after hearing the history of slum cinema from Alan and viewing this feature on the big screen at midnight I only know one thing: I can’t wait to see Nabwana’s next film in which I may have a brief cameo getting my own head blown up by the Ebola Hunter. Call me crazy, this was my favorite movie-going experience in awhile.

That’s my list. Disagree? What did you see?

Around the World in 80 Days: Is it Really the Worst Best Picture?

Premise: In 1976 Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It beat Taxi DriverAll the President’s MenBound for Glory, and Network. While most of us love Rocky, we do feel like there were definitely some better movies nominated that year that maybe deserved it more. Rocky was the safe pick.

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I'm Sly!

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I’m Sly!

Sometimes it’s a tough call. My Fair Lady beat Mary PoppinsBecketZorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove in 1964. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat JawsDog Day AfternoonNashville, and Barry Lyndon in 1975. Those years were anyone’s game.

On rare occasions I all-encompassingly agree with the Academy’s decision (e.g. On the Waterfront was an obvious win). Sometimes a winner is reviled or labeled “overrated” by folks were preferred other nominees (e.g. CrashRocky, etc.). Rarer still is the occasion when I must defend a snubbed winner.

I know exactly why Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners, but I am here to defend it. I’m in an awkward place because this is actually one of my favorite movies. . . but did it deserve the Oscar? Let’s take a look at the successes and shortcomings of Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.

atw80d13 drink

*slurrrrp*

Perspective: 80 Days beat out Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper is a conflicted Quaker), Giant (James Dean finds oil), The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein ensure happy and balanced America-Thai relations FOREVER!…it’s actually still banned there, I think), and The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille makes the religious epic to end all religious epics).

Around the World in 80 Days was a bold widescreen period epic that employed nearly 70,000 extras and nearly 8,000 animals and required moving crews of thousands to relocate equipment and people to thirteen different countries. In addition to the wild costumes, exotic locations, and incredible set-pieces; countless Hollywood hotshots were given cameo bit parts throughout the film. Some movie star extras include Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown, Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jose Greco, Hermoine Gingold, Charles Boyer, Red Skelton, John Mills, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, and more.

atw80d8 sinatra

“Sgt. Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.”

Full Disclosure: Friendly Persuasion is good, but High Noon was the Gary Cooper film that should have won something. I actually haven’t seen Giant (yet), but I’m not a big Elizabeth Taylor fan and wonder if it really could be better than East of Eden for Dean flicks (my favorite). The King and I is a lavish, vibrant, and somewhat racist pageant show that boasts a few great songs and a lot of tedious bits. We can’t be too down on The King and I for racial mischaracterization because 80 Days is actually guilty of the same (and in way more countries). Finally, The Ten Commandments is an incredible visual feast with another epic cast list, and while I still do love a lot of the biblical melodrama and the impressive score, this film sometimes does feel too long (still maybe better paced than Ben-Hur though…but Ben-Hur is probably the better film).

atw80d14 bike

+5 points for penny-farthing.

I’ve heard it said that Around the World in 80 Days is proof you can buy an Oscar—due to its high production costs and lavish flourishes. But come on! The King and I and The Ten Commandments might be even more lavish and even flourishier. The only real difference here is that Around the World in 80 Days seems less pretentious.

I’m also somewhat biased because I do like travelogue adventures, Jules Verne, and levity.

The Skinny: Following a long prologue about the possibilities of technology and the influence of prophetic science-fiction writers on scientific progress, presented by Edward R. Murrow who shows us Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. . . our story finally begins.

There's a Visine for that.

There’s a Visine for that.

Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is an exceedingly punctual and fastidious 19th century British gentleman. On a whim over a game of whist he decides to prove to his aristocratic colleagues that he can successfully circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. The wager is set.

Fogg takes his amorous new servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), along for the ride.

Detective Fix (Robert Newton), a Scotland Yard agent under the suspicion that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, pursues.

Despite the demands of the trek, Fogg and Passpartout manage to find the time to rescue an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) too.

Modes of transportation include trains, ships, coaches, hot air balloons, horses, ostriches, elephants, and more.

Lands traversed include England, France, Spain, India, China, Japan, the United States, and then some.

atw80d4-balloon landing

What do you mean matte paintings would be cheaper than all this travel?

The Good: The cast and characters themselves are great. So Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly Indian, but Cantinflas certainly isn’t French (as he is described in the book). Niven is the perfect Fogg and Cantinflas is one of the most fun movie sidekicks of all time as Passepartout.

The film boasts some snappy dialogue, riddled with wit and smarm (one of the screenwriters was American humorist S. J. Perleman). There is an abundance of clever lines and welcome character moments. The script never let’s us forget the stakes or to remind us that it’s all for fun.

atw80d7 wager

So British it hurts.

The scenery is great and the film makes wonderful use of the widescreen photography. Remember, in 1956 most people hadn’t really seen much of the rest of the world. This was their chance to get the Disney-fied Haliburton experience from the comfort of a theater seat.

The film has a loose buoyancy to it and never loses its spirit of fun and adventure—even when the ubiquitous threat of immolation at the hands of politcally incorrect uncouthed savages looms large. There is a pleasing and self-depricating sense of patriotism for both Brits and Yanks alike. That it can manage to be both cavalier and suspenseful at the same time is something of a noteworthy feat as well.

This is a great album.

This is a great album.

The score is fantastic. Composer Victor Young creates wonderful atmosphere and momentum. There are several very memorable themes. Each country and character gets special musical treatment. Seriously, find the soundtrack and listen to it. It is sublime.

The great intro credits artist, Saul Bass, also provides a very fun cartoon at the end. . . that summarizes the entire three hour film in about seven minutes.

atw80d1

Saul Bass is amazing.

The Bad: The production itself is a staggering achievement and that this ambitious globe-trotting feature is not a mess are positives, however, there are some problems. The movie, perhaps by design, is structured in a fairly episodic manner (there are a lot of isolated mini-adventures throughout, but that seems unavoidable in a story like this. Heck, the original Jules Verne novel is crazy episodic).

atw80d11 stranded2

Cantinflas, Niven, Newton, and MacLaine wait for a train.

The film’s camera direction is actually stultifyingly unimaginative. Very basic shots. Establishing shots and two shots and wide shots. That’s about it. Nothing particularly inspired in the cinematography department, but it could be argued that the content being filmed was so impressively orchestrated that it needed no distracting angles or frills.

183 minutes is a long commitment and you notice more when scenes linger at that length. Most of the movie clips along nicely and there are very few boring scenes. The flight over France, the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain, and the train ride through the Indian jungle, however, as great as they are, do feel like they go on a tad too long. Perhaps they were just so taken with what they were filming they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it.

atw80d12 train

Sir Topham Hatt blew his whistle, but Percy kept on chugging, defiant to the end.

Some of the cultural representations might feel a little insensitive today. The angry mob that chases Passepartout after he shoos a cow in India; the bloodthirsty Native Americans attacking the train; German actor Peter Lorre being Japanese (a reference to his Mr. Moto days).

The ending is really perplexing. It’s funny, I guess, but even as a kid it felt tonally wrong. The last thirty seconds of this three hour movie are just so bafflingly off that if it wasn’t for the Saul Bass cartoon that immediately followed I reckon even more people would dislike this movie. You can’t invest three hours into something that is going to be written off so flippantly and strangely in the homestretch. It’s a decent joke, but it just comes at the wrong time.

The Leftovers: The novelty of seeing all those old Hollywood celebrities comprise the background atmosphere may have lost some its luster over time as many of the then-famous faces are now unknown to many today.

atw80d5 henrietta

The suspenseful journey across the Atlantic is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

It’s not a great anthropological exploration of the many cultures around the world, but it’s not really trying to be (more a series of snapshots). With regards to its hasty and generalizing representations it can be likened to the It’s a Small World ride at Diseneyland. Oversimplified, but, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.

So what is it? It’s an adventure movie, a road movie, a comedy, a joking prod at British classism, a wild western movie, a suspense movie, and tack on a somewhat limited romance as well.

Ultimately: I suspect people think that Giant or The Ten Commandments should have won. I suspect they feel that Around the World in 80 Days was too light and fun to be important and too sweeping and grandiose while failing to be more artistic. I suspect they feel it was gimmicky and perhaps kitsch. Too broadly painted to be taken seriously.

atw80d9 colman

New plan: the team from Guns of Navarone will free the Prisoner of Zenda.

Honestly, Around the World in 80 Days is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, but for me it still is a great feel-good crowd-pleaser. When I was a little kid borrowing this from my local library I had no idea it was such a hotly contested Oscar winner. I didn’t even know what the Oscars were or that it had won. Perhaps I am too nostalgic for it, but I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to hate this movie.

Maybe The Ten Commandments should have won. I don’t know. It’s not like the Oscars actually have any bearing over how good or bad a film really is. The Court Jester, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! weren’t even nominated that year (because comedy, science fiction, and atomic parables with giant lizards are not high art).

Thus saith the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord.

There have been plenty of wins, and even nominations, I didn’t particularly care for. There have also been plenty of movies I thought were great that never even got nominated. Does the say-so of “The Academy” really matter? Maybe not. So for all those haters out there who like to downplay Around the World in 80 Days, let me just remind you: get over it.

And while I still think Network and the other 1976 nominees were better than Rocky I don’t begrudge Rocky. Good for Rocky. But I have my alternative preferences.

picture references:

http://wall.alphacoders.com/by_sub_category.php?id=172040

http://floobynooby.blogspot.kr/2012/04/saul-bass-1920-1996.html

http://tehparadox.com/forum/f89/around-world-80-days-1956-a-5139594/

http://thebestpictureproject.wordpress.com/tag/red-sea/

http://silentlondon.co.uk/2011/05/23/a-trip-to-the-moon-and-silent-animated-shorts-at-the-barbican-26-june-2011/

http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1435873280/tt0048960?ref_=ttmd_md_nxt

http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/02/worst-movies-that-won-oscars/around-the-world-in-80-days

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on May 20, 2014.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode IV – A Jew Pope

Yeah. That title has nothing to do with anything.

Once again I list off the last few movies I saw. Once again they are ordered by what what I thought of them. Kindly interact if you feel I have misordered them.

Utter Rubbish:

Whatever happened to the man who gave us “Austin Powers”?

Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (2003). It’s an unwatchable godawful tragedy. Thank God Seuss died before he could see this. It makes the Jim Carrey Grinch look like Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Meh and/or Misguided:

What do you mean we’re ‘laying it on pretty thick’?

The year was 1977. Immortal classics such as Star Wars and Annie Hall were in theaters. Also Ralph Bakshi made Wizards (1977). I confess I am far from a Bakshi fan although I do think he was talented and did make a few pretty solid movies (American PopThe Lord of the Rings, and Coonskin are pretty good), but all in all Bakshi’s roughness and idiosyncrasy do not always mesh for me. I know Wizards has something of a cult following, but for me this rather ham-fisted parable of love and magic versus war and weaponry just felt like a big sloppy mess. Most Bakshi films I don’t like I usually find something I admire in them and this one is no exception. I do give it credit for being a renegade hair-brained muddle. Nobody would ever make a movie like Bakshi’s movies.

Not the bees!

Phase IV (1974) is an oddball movie for a lot of reasons. Ants taking over the world had been done before (Them!) but never like this. It’s almost an art-house science fiction b-movie and it was directed by Saul Bass, the illustrious and industrious title designer for such films as North by NorthwestAround the World in 80 DaysPsychoSpartacusIt’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and many more. Phase IV is the only feature he ever directed and for as hammy and silly as some of it might be you gotta give it some credit for going against the grain. The ants have a bizarre plan for humanity and the ending is actually weird enough to be chilling. Sports some interesting visuals and some very neat footage of ants. Michael Murphy (Manhattan) is in it too. Almost feels like it could be an unofficial sequel to Quatermass and the Pit.

Why are we even trying? With Burton’s name on this bad boy we’re guaranteed to make a bazillion dollars.

What ever happened to Tim Burton? He had some solid films in the beginning culminating with the perfect Ed Wood. While many of his more recent endeavors might be rather disappointing Frankenweenie (2012) almost isn’t. Like most Burton, it looks amazing. The sumptuous black-and-white photography, clever cinematography, beautiful animation, and wonderfully inspiring character designs are pitch perfect. The nods to such classic monster movies as The MummyNosferatuFrankenstein, The BirdsGremlins, and even Gamera are cute and whimsical (I especially liked the Gamera bit even if it was a little too obvious). I even liked the Boris Karloff lisp Martin Short (Three Amigos!) lent to Nassor. Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman) also is funny as the freaky girl. Surprisingly what I objected to was the very thing many critics lauded. I don’t think this film has much of an emotional center and what little it does is unwieldy and half-baked. I think it’s slightly better than the 1984 short it was based on, but it lacks reason. The movie moves like a freight train and despite the 3D technology the characters themselves fall totally flat (with the possible exception of Martin Landau’s all-too-obvious liberal professor). The movie pedals on in search of plot, but never lands on a fully developed one, but the puppets are pretty and watching them dance might almost be worth it. But I don’t know why I should care about these characters. Even the central idea of coping with loss is shattered in the finale, making the film even more hollow. Sad misfire. I thought this could have been the one. And I still don’t get the title. How does “weenie” fit in here?

Sir Galahad. The Chaste.

I like Michael Palin. Anything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to A Fish Called Wanda to his travelogue documentary show. Naturally when I heard about The Missionary (1982), a film he wrote and starred in I had to see it. He plays an intelligent but naively puritanical turn-of-the-century British missionary who, upon returning from a stint in Africa, gets sent to evangelize to Britain’s harlot population. He wants to be married to his fiance and he wants to do his new job well, but when he winds up reluctantly losing his virginity (over and over and over again) to a slew of women just desperate for a nice, innocent, and compassionate man like himself things get sticky. It’s a recipe for comedy, but it’s not as funny as it should be. Palin plays the role fine and memorable Brits like Maggie Smith (Gosford Park), Trevor Howard (The Third Man), Michael Hordern (Watership Down), Denholm Elliott (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and even David Suchet (Agatha Christie’s Poirot) get in the mix, but the execution never lives up to its clever premise. Ultimately the film ends up looking like its protagonist, quaint and affable but too flaccid to be memorable.

Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder. 1789.

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) is stupid, but it doesn’t care. It has moments of near Mel Brooksian zaniness but falls a little short. Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) and Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are fun, if undercooked in this comedy of mistaken identities and the French Revolution. There are just enough good jokes to make it worth watching once. You will be sick of hearing “1789” and you will hate yourself for still laughing at it in the end.

Well, I Was Entertained:

I am your father.

A vintage British post-apocalyptic b-movie with aliens, robots, and zombies? Count me in. The Earth Dies Screaming (1965) starts out with some wonderfully bleak imagery and continues to sputter forth some fun chills until its ambiguous conclusion. A small band of survivors form an uneasy alliance and wait to see what happens next. Classic set-up. It actually reminded me of Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended (1955)—which I think is a better movie, but oh well. Add in a bit of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) too. Now I know I said aliens, robots, and zombies, but keep in mind this is a low-budget affair and so largely minimalist. It lags at times but it’s all good fun. The atmosphere keeps the film together.

Puns trump plot in these waters.

Aardman Studios is responsible for such genius works as Wallace & GromitCreature Comforts, and Chicken Run and although 2012’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (I use the original title because it is funnier and more aptly reflects the movie’s anarchic sense of humor) might not be a classic, it is an enjoyably high-spirited farce. The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and crew are swashbuckling buccaneers and love their mascot, Polly…who is a dodo bird. It’s about trying to get the Pirate of the Year Award and trying to stop Charles Darwin from kidnapping Polly and sacrificing him to a gluttonous Queen Victoria, but who really cares. The plot is so proactively weightless nothing matters much and the movie knows it. The film is really just fun animation with action and one hilariously clever joke or sight gag after another. And it actually works! Strong voice cast helps as well.

Who’s this new Hulk guy? He’s pretty good.

I’m picky when it comes to superhero movies. I liked The RocketeerThe Incredibles, the Hellboy movies, and the first half of the original Superman. That being said The Avengers (2012) took me by surprise because I hadn’t enjoyed any of the masturbatory movies leading into it. From the trailers I thought this film should have been called Tony Stark Riffs On the Avengers, but it was indeed more. It comes down to this: if you care about the heroes and give them some depth then the menace can be almost inconsequential. And Loki totally is. Director/writer Joss Whedon knows how to write interesting characters. Plain and simple. You write some solid characters and I too will thrill when Hulk smashes Loki (arguably the most satisfying moment of the movie).

I found this. And I’m keeping it.

I liked the first Men in Black (1997). The sequel was pretty joyless, but it had one or two decent elements. How Men in Black 3 (2012) managed to be as fun as it did I’ll never know. Once again there’s a certain freshness and the cast is clearly having some fun. Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is actually fun again and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) makes a great young Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive). Again, it’s okay if the villain is inconsequential because it’s about the heroes. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) finds new life in a series that didn’t need to be more than one movie. Also Michael Stuhlbarg’s (A Serious Man) character actually brings a weird serenity to the final product as well.

Even Warmer:

You’re letting me in? Thank god “Daredevil” never got an Iranian release.

Before people hate me for putting Argo (2012) so close to Men in Black 3 just consider the remainder of this list. Ben Affleck’s (Dogma) film has been receiving some high praise and there’s no doubt: it is a good movie. It is a thrilling political suspense yarn with a crazy but true premise and some not-so-subtle jabs at Hollywood, the CIA, and Iran. I must start by saying that I liked the movie a lot, but it is not the epic political thriller I was promised. It is not on par with The Battler for AlgiersZ, or All the President’s Men. It is probably closer to Munich. Actually the film almost feels like a cross between Munich and Wag the Dog. Maybe a littler better than Munich but not as interesting as Wag the Dog. Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!) and John Goodman (Barton Fink) are great, but the rest of the characters feel thin. The problem is I actually wanted to know more about this event and I feel like either the movie only touches on the surface or maybe there just wasn’t enough there for a great movie. Argo could use a little more meat on its bones and more character development, but it still does manage to be entertaining and exciting the whole way.

IT’S ALL REAL!

This might be the looniest one on the list. Daisies (1966) is a zany, surreal, Dadaist Czech comedy directed by Vera Chytilová. Two girls get into many kooky shenanigans and loopy hijinks in search of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I can’t explain too much, but suffice to say it is weird, wild, random, and only a select few will really appreciate it. I think Enid from Ghost World would totally dig it.

Show some emotion, Spacey! Enough of this smarmy monotone!

If you want to watch great actors cuss each other out and look stressed then watch Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Penned by David Mamet this is a fun little film about a crazy deadline and quota set upon several real estate agents. There’s mystery, passion, anger, frustration, and lots of cursing. I barely care about the big picture and answering all the little questions in this somewhat stagey movie because it’s just nice watching good actors sink their teeth into these characters and this dialogue. Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Jack lemmon (The Apartment), Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark), Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), and the tension is always building.

Higher Ground:

Get ready for the beautiful monotony.

For movie nerds who will be mad I didn’t rate Argo higher I know I will be crucified by serious cinephiles for not rating Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) higher. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the film. It is very windy. As always Tarr’s (Werkmeister Harmonies) film is long, lurid, cryptic, and gorgeously filmed with minimal cuts. The Turin Horse is a dour Nietzschian riddle on the repetitive monotony of existence and the weighty despair of life versus the oblique horror of an inevitable impending death and the nothingness beyond. Is life worth it? seems to be the question. Does my enjoyment of the film match my respect for the craft? Not exactly. This is the sort of film where the real pleasure comes from the discussions that follow. Alas, I watched it alone and the film suffers.

Shaken not…yeah. I know you know.

James Bond is an interesting franchise. I actually only think their are three or four truly good 007 movies in a series that I will watch no matter how stupid they get. Skyfall (2012) is a delightful return to form and an interesting step in a somewhat new direction. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) does something with James Bond that has never really been done before. He touches on who he really is as a psychological being. It still has its share of brainless action setpieces along with over-the-top villains with zany motives and invincible computer prowess, but the final act really makes it. Loaded with symbolism, pathos, thoughts on aging, and nods to the original iconography, the final act makes us remember why we love James Bond. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Judi Dench (A Fine Romance), Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona), Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), and Albert Finney (Murder on th Orient Express) are all in good form. Naomie Harris (21 Days Later) might have gotten more to do.

Birdie num nums…cue Dr. Bombay!

Is The Party (1968) the greatest thing Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) or Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther) ever did? Not by a long shot. It’s also possibly somewhat racist (although perhaps less offensive than Sellers’ role in Murder by Death). It’s a simple story many of us can relate to: the awkward outsider tries to mingle with the big-shots. The film’s genius lies in its simplicity and wonderful sight gags. Peter Sellers is an unwanted, accident-prone East Indian background actor who gets mistakenly invited to a Hollywood brouhaha. Sellers’ comic timing and innocent likability as the incessantly socially misstepping Hrundi V. Bakshi are a joy to watch.

If you get in close, defocus, and gradually move back and the story will come into focus.

Last Year at Marienbad(1961) is a Rubix cube. Directed by Alain Resnais, this beautiful and enigmatic narrative throws out linear storytelling in favor of experimenting with the film medium. Perhaps it is comparable to Lynch’s Mulholland Dr in structure, but it is prettier to look at. It is dreamlike, elegant,  and ethereal. Don’t you dare tell me what it means. I will figure it out myself!

Almost Done:

“Ishtar” this!

Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) has made some violent movies. Straw Dogs (1971) is a brutal study of the nature of violence. It doesn’t make me feel good. The images and consequences are not pleasing. This is specifically designed NOT to be a satisfying revenge movie. Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man) is David Sumner, a spineless American milquetoast mathematician trying to live his life with his wife (Susan George) in rural England, but the rowdy, manly, and aggressively horny locals make things challenging for the couple. Between the extremely uncomfortable rape scene to the wanton bloodshed in the finale there is plenty to chat about afterwards. The tension consistently mounts until the very end. What drives seemingly peaceful men to such horrific lengths? Peter Vaughan (Brazil) and David Warner (Time Bandits) co-star.

Surreal phallic imagery?

Somewhere along the lines of maybe Godfrey Reggio mixed with Tarsem yet different. Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow (2005) is an artistic vision of nature and humanity. It consists of occasional poetic letters read by narrator, Laurence Fishburne (King of New York), and sumptuous sepia tableaux vivants whose indelible juxtapositions heighten the romanticism of the concept. You will see old African women lay down with cheetahs in the dunes and taut muscly bodies swim alongside elephants and whales. Stem to stern it is a gorgeous work of art that takes the poetic pulse of mother nature. This anti-Herzog film is more ballet than movie.

I am so so very alone.

Ever since I saw The Apu Trilogy I have loved Indian auteur Satyajit Ray. Devi (1960) is another emotional and difficult movie that almost seems hewn from ideas that could very well have been featured in The Apu TrilogyDevi is different, however. It seeks to deactivate bizarre cultural superstitions and challenge long-held beliefs with reason, logic, and the display of devastating consequences. Featuring many of the same cast members as Apu, this movie chronicles the life of a simple woman (Sharmila Tagore) after her father-in-law has a dream she is the goddess Kali. Her life changes and she is worshipped, kept in a shrine, and brought dying children to heal. The psychological toll is takes is spooky and subtly done. The family is torn apart and everything will be questioned by the end but we may not get any easy answers.

Who wants to make a Jack-o-lantern?

Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) keeps surprising me. Night On Earth (1991) offers something unique. It merely seeks to put us in five different taxi cabs in five different parts of the world and just let us observe some truly interesting cabbies. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always fascinating, this enjoyable anthology features Winona Ryder (Little Women), Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing), Isaach De Bankolé (Manderlay), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), and Matti Pellonpää (Leningrad Cowboys Go America). Tom Waits does the music too.

Acme:

The West. America. China. Mexico. Now…Anatolia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) is a Turkish film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It concerns the events of a murder investigation in the homogeneous Turkish steppes. What struck me about the film was that the whole time I had no idea where it was going or what it was ultimately going to say, but I never cared. The movie sucks you in with its rich characters and shifting points of view. The cinematography is spectacular as well. Although not much really happens it somehow strikes an almost mythic chord that resonates with you long after the movie ends. It is a movie about the truth and about deception but there is more to this cryptic and extremely subtle tale than meets the eye. It is also among some of the best collections of mustaches I’ve seen in a while.

Do you remember those stupid cherubim?

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) makes this list for the third time in The In-Laws (1979) directed by Arthur Hiller (Silver Streak). This movie actually features two of the most interesting actors to watch: Arkin and Peter Falk (The Princess Bride). It starts off with such an obvious premise that I was totally amazed by how hilarious it actually was. Arkin is an uptight conservative dentist whose daughter is marrying the son of a wacked-out nutjob and pathological liar, Falk. It sounds like it could be a long lost brother of The Odd Couple, but amazingly it’s a lot faster and funnier. This movie started to surprise me about ten minutes in and it just continued to be inventive and ingenious. Arkin is so wonderfully understated and Falk is so delightfully matter-of-fact about his cray-cray that we let the film take us wherever it wants. And it does take you to some unexpected places. I was laughing out loud the whole time.

I do two things. Two things! Wheelchairs and drag! Do you understand me?

I love Tod Browning (Dracula). Freaks and much of his silent work with Lon Chaney, Sr. are masterpieces. The Devil-Doll (1936) has Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) playing a wronged Devil’s Island escapee who inherits a mad scientists methods of miniaturizing people and turning them into murder slaves. To exact his revenge, however, he must disguise himself as an old woman who runs a creepy toy shop. If that sounds crazy, then you haven’t seen much of Browning’s work. The atmosphere, the pathos, the innovative special effects, and the ridiculousness of the plot all service this bizarre fever-dream of a movie.

My god. There watching “Dreams That Money Can Buy” in there.

I need to see more Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast). Blood of a Poet (1932) is a deliciously surreal series of vaguely intertwining images and anecdotes. Cocteau was an artist of many fields, and film was just another avenue he could trod to churn out strange material. Blood of a Poet feels like a dream and is drenched in dream logic and spectacularly realized surreal illusions. This film is easier to watch than Un Chien Andalou because it contains more a sense of wonder and beauty, whereas Buñuel and Dalí were experimenting more with shock and Dadaist non-symbols. Something about the age of this film adds another element of legend to it. It’s a captivating riddle dance that feels both alien and personal. I kind of love it.

That’s it. What did you see? Anything good??