Movies again. Further down you go on the list, the more I liked it. What did you see?
Salomè (1972), directed by Carmelo Bene, is an Italian is a neon arthouse extravaganza featuring raucous debauchery in King Herod’s palace and vampire Jesus. Apparently I have an artsiness threshold because I could not finish this one. I can’t even review it because I didn’t watch enough of it to make any sort of assessment. But I include it here because, although it may not have been my cup of tea, it sure was weird and people, at minimum, should know this thing is out there. I’m sure it’s for someone, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood for psychedelic ass slapping.
Italian schlock cinema is notorious for ripping off other films, but perhaps O.K. Connery (1967) is remarkable in how brazen it is. Sean Connery’s brother, Neil Connery, plays the brother of the famous fictional secret agent, James Bond. I genuinely felt bad for the goatee’d Neil as I’m sure he’s been compared to his brother outside of this travesty of a film. It’s a bad 007 knockoff, but I will admit to liking the theme song.
I got on a weird Soviet fantasy flick kick and watched Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1961). Directed by Aleksandr Rou, t’s based on a collection of short stories by Nicolai Gogol. I enjoyed the charming innocence of the stories and the dated special effects. There’s a romance and some comedy and a few fun creatures. I wish I had been able to find a cleaner copy.
Purveyor of big-titted camp cinema, Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and legendary film critic, Roger Ebert (Siskel & Ebert), worked together in 1970 to bring to life the legitimately bonkers musical satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This is one wacky movie with insane melodrama and hilariously awkward dialogue delivered with incredible earnestness and ineptitude. This is a cinematic endurance test, but the zaniness and relentlessly disorienting editing make this oddity anything but boring.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maybe too arty and winky to laugh out loud at for its entire run time. Enter Neil Breen. Neil Breen is the writer, director, producer, and star (in addition to credits for “music department” and “production design”—which might explain why there are so many bleached human skulls and leg bones along the roadside of the Nevada desert) of Double Down (2005). And this perfect storm of incompetence, naivete, and delusional hubris is just what makes this one of the best movies you could ever see. Self described as an “edgy action thriller”, most of the film is spent observing a paunchy, uncomfortable middle-aged man skitter around the desert and pretend to type on five laptops (plugged into nothing) as he eats cans upon cans of tuna fish while his nonsensical inner monologues try to explain what the hell he’s doing. Haunted by his past and obsessed with what comes after death, he plans some sort of biochemical terrorist attack on Las Vegas. He writes himself to be the smartest and best at everything but the script’s betrayal of how little the writer actually understands regarding how the world functions is just adorable. It’s like if Donald Trump made a movie.
Back on the Soviet fantasy wagon is Viy (1967). Based on another Nicolai Gogol story, the plot concerns a recent seminary student, Khoma, who ends up killing a witch, whose father makes him stand vigil alone, praying over her corpse for three nights. Each night, more menacing things happen to haunt Khoma. Flying coffins and goblins abound. I’ll admit it’s a little slow, but the ending was crazy enough for me to recommend. The special effects are, again, very dated, but I found the quirky and charming. There is also a more loose adaptation of the same story made in 2015.
When I first saw Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) I was perhaps too young to appreciate it. It freaked me out to be honest (as did the show. Chairy?! Come on! Nightmare fuel.). Having since matured, I decided to revisit the quirky road movie of the weird man-child’s quest to find his stolen bicycle. While I may not have the same nostalgia many associate with Burton’s feature directorial debut, I can finally say I get it. The character (played by its creator, Paul Reubens) is annoying and the world he inhabits is a plastic, colorful explosion of 80’s tackiness. The story is episodic and the humor very odd. But it’s subversive and great too. Glad I gave it a re-watch.
Not sure many have heard of Tom Schiller’s Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). Produced by Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), this never released oddity stars Zach Galligan (Gremlins) and features Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mort Sahl, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, and Futurama’s Lauren Tom. Designed to emulate the cinema of the 1930s and utilizing copious amounts of stock footage, it follows one young man’s saga to become an artist. At turns cutting and funny, at others rather slow and aimless, it doesn’t always work, but it’s good-natured oddness and cast make this Guy Maddin-esque journey of self-discovery that takes you from New York City to the Moon and back worth a look for the curious movie consumer.
The Raid (2011) is an Indonesian martial arts action thriller about cops trying to get a bad guy in a very tall building. That’s all you need as an excuse for the impressive fight choreography that follows. The best action movies sometimes have the simplest setups. A few twists and turns keep things interesting and absurd amounts of shooting and punching keep it exciting throughout.
Iconic entertainer Josephine Baker stars in Princess Tam Tam (1935), a French melodrama that would probably be considered culturally insensitive today, but is charming nevertheless—thanks to Baker’s infectious exuberance. A French novelist takes a shine to a free spirited but uncouth (by Parisian standards) Tunisian girl named Alwina (Baker). He takes her back to Paris and tries to introduce her to society as Princess Tam Tam. Think My Fair Lady meets Dersu Uzula (but instead of an old Siberian mountain man, it’s a vintage Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Baker dances and sings and exhibits a wildly playful and extremely likable screen personality (more than can be said of much of the rest of the film). It’s occasionally stilted, but it has some great moments peppered throughout.
Here’s the Jim Henson Company and cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family) stars as the leader of a coven of witches that meet at a hotel to plot to kill children…by turning them into mice. Irritating child acting aside, this is a lot of fun. This is one of those kid’s movies that’s not afraid to be scary. And the grotesque makeup and ghoulish transformations certainly work well, as does the puppetry. Co-stars Mai Zetterling and Rowan Atkinson.
Cult filmmaker John Carpenter (The Thing) directs the Lovecraftian thriller, In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) stars as an insurance investigator sent to track down a Stephen King type author in a fictitious town where evil lurks behind every corner. The film, while imperfect, boasts some fine atmosphere and Lovecraft inspired creatures. I quite enjoyed it. Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, and Charlton Heston co-star.
Beautiful Girls (1996) is a sweet little movie featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Martha Plimpton, and Uma Thurman. Old high school friends meet again in a snowy Massachusetts town for their school reunion. It’s a quiet slice of life built out of good feelings, love, and wistfulness, but more than anything it’s just a pleasant experience to spend some time with these characters that somehow all feel familiar.
By far my favorite premise for a movie on this list. In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament (2015) God is a grouchy old fart with a wife he dislikes and a headstrong daughter. They live in a crappy apartment in Brussels where he capriciously manipulates the lives of tiny mortals. When his rebellious daughter, Ea, sneaks into his office and onto his computer she decides to text everyone on Earth the dates of their deaths, plunging the world into a chaotic existential crisis. She then escapes to Earth and enlists the aid of a homeless man as a scribe to write a Brand New Testament. If Jesus rewrote the Old Testament, Ea is determined to one up her big brother. The story is a series of episodes surrounding Ea’s new disciples and the rules of physics and nature she eschews.
From Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, writer/director Shane Black knows how to make a solid buddy action comedy. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star in The Nice Guys (2016). And it is loads of fun. A broke gumshoe (Gosling) – and his daughter (Anjourie Rice) – and a brutal enforcer (Crowe) find each other at adds as they unravel a murder mystery set against the backdrop of gaudy 1977 Los Angeles. The dialogue crackles and the plot allows plenty of room for comedy and danger. Kim Basinger and Keith David co-star.
Frank Oz deserves more respect as a comedy director. More than a celebrated member of the Jim Henson Company (famously voicing Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover, Yoda, and more), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, and Death at a Funeral are just a few of the gems he directed. In & Out (1997) tells the story of a high school English teacher (Kevin Kline) in a small town, days before his wedding (to Joan Cusack), who is outed as gay by a former student (Matt Dillon) on national television. While it may not be as progressive as it was 20 years ago, it does give the always enjoyable Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) a chance to play another high-strung character. It’s the sort of positive, feel-good comedy I sort of miss and the social commentary is handled with the right amount sensitivity to balance the broader comedic strokes. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, but I really liked it. Co-stars Tom Selleck, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, and Bob Newhart.
Debonair Carey Grant (North by Northwest) and titillating Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) star in Charade (1963), directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain). When Regina Lampert (Hepburn) returns from a ski trip to discover her husband has been murdered and that the killers and the CIA (led by Walter Mathau) are after a missing $250,000, she becomes entangled in one of the more stylish comedy-romance-thrillers this side of Alfred Hitchcock. Mrs. Lampert must locate the money, avoid getting murdered, uncover hidden identities, and look fabulous doing it while she seduces a mysterious American (Grant). If you love classic Hollywood (and I find it hard to dislike Audrey Hepburn or Carey Grant and their very specific styles for line delivery) then check this one out. It’s colorful, suspenseful, and sexy. Also features James Coburn and George Kennedy.
Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) writes and directs the truly brilliant and chilling horror/satire Get Out (2017). Brimming with cutting racial commentary and a mounting atmosphere of suffocating paranoia, this is a perfectly pitched and very prescient horror. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to the country to visit his white girlfriend’s family. Subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments are made with seemingly good intentions, but there’s something off about all the black people in the house and Chris, though trying to keep calm, is getting nervous. Turning important social topics into an effective genre film is an excellent way to communicate to a general audience. And it handles its subjects with great intelligence. It’s a perfect execution of its premise and talking points. See it in theaters. Also stars Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery, and Stephen Root.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable gets a respectful retelling and a built-in sequel in computer and stop-motion animated film The Little Prince (2015), directed by Mark Osborne. I could gush about the brilliant character design and clever architecture of the adaptation or the clever art direction and sensitive performances, but I was perhaps most touched by its thematic depth and wealth of imagination. The story follows a young girl (Mackenzie Foy) who escapes her mother’s rigidly organized plans for her life by befriending an old aviator (Jeff Bridges) who met the Little Prince many years ago. At each encounter the old man reveals more of the story and ruminates on life and its meanings. The movie also goes beyond the original narrative and embarks on a quest to figure out what happened to the Little Prince after his final meeting with the snake. Somber and adult while also also being playful and childish is a tight rope to walk, but the filmmakers succeed here and deliver a thoroughly beautiful and emotionally resonant work of art. The voice cast also includes Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd, Bud Cort, Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, and James Franco. Osborne is supposedly adapting Jeff Smith’s graphic novel, Bone, and I hope it is a success.