THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXXIII – Robots and Ghouls

Once again, I collect and rank the last several films I saw. Some I really loved. A lot were interesting and inadvertently humorous. None I hated. Film is subjective. These lists are a celebration of that.

Enjoy. And, as always, if you have a recommendation for me… give it to me.

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24. Full Moon Features sure knows how to make one hell of a trailer. They produced a lot of schlocky horror flicks that, sadly, don’t always measure up to their ads or nifty concepts. Lurking Fear (1994) is the story of a man fresh out of prison who goes to dig up money buried with a corpse on a spooky, stormy night. Too bad for him that naughty gangsters are also after the money. And also a cadre of ghoul hunters are chilling at the same cemetery, hoping to finally end the evil reign of these ill-defined creatures once and for all. Also a pregnant woman. It’s a mess, but has some OK atmosphere and Jeffrey Combs is in it and he’s always fun to watch.

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23. The movie with the infamous “Garbage day!” scene. Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987) is a bad movie held together by the even more laughably bad performance by Eric Freeman. He absolutely makes this movie. The first third of the film is a rehashing of the first film. They use lots of footage from the original. It’s like movie SparkNotes. So you can skip the first one. It looks bad, but not nearly as fun. Mean nuns. Murderous Santas. A bland horror tale of revenge with some laugh out loud moments.

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22. Evilspeak (1981) is the classic story about a bullied nerd (Clint Howard) at a military academy who discovers a Satanic library in the basement and uses computers to help him summon demons to get revenge. It’s got a few pretty memorable scenes (mostly involving violence and murder), but it feels long in the middle when the movie has teased us enough and we just want to see the Carrie styled bloodbath.

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21. I love cowboy westerns and have always disliked John Wayne. He’s good in a couple movies (True Grit, Stagecoach), but he’s just one of those iconic actors that never made a positive impression on me. But this movie has Maureen O’Hara and a pretty straightforward plot. I had seen Big Jake (1971) as a kid and caught it again recently. Some decent shootouts and suspense. He’s just trying to rescue his kidnapped grandson.

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20. Highway to Hell (1991) is a fantastically dark action-horror concept mired by the filmmakers insisting it be a lowbrow comedy. Our young protagonist’s girlfriend gets kidnapped by a literal cop from Hell. The rest of the movie is the adventure through Hell (looking a lot like the American Southwest) and onto Hell City to get her back. Because it plays so silly and cutesie, the stakes never feel that high and most of the comedy does not really work (unless Gilbert Gottfried playing Hitler in a cameo is hilarious to you). There are a few fun special effects here and there, but ultimately there’s not enough visually to make Hell feel like much more than a sunny stretch of highway in Arizona.

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19. Robot Holocaust (1986) is a straight awful movie. Terrible sets. Even worse costumes. And the acting! The main villainess delivers her lines like she is just coming off anesthesia. It’s no Starcrash, but we laughed a lot and sometimes that’s all I ask for in my sci-fi schlock.

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18. Pumpkinhead (1988) is not great, but I admire that it does try to be different. When a man’s young son is accidentally killed by vacationing teens, he goes to a witch to make a deal and perform the rites needed to conjure the demon known as Pumpkinhead. Lance Henikson plays the tortured father who becomes linked with the monster he has unleashed. The practical effects of the creature and the witch’s swamp are highlights visually.

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17. Zoo (2007) is that documentary about the guy who died from having sex with a horse. The film also takes a distant but humanizing look at zoophiles in general and how that underworld sometimes operates in strange corners of society. More pensive than shocking, the movie focuses on individuals rather than go into gruesome detail of the incident. Almost Lynchian.

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16. Visually sumptuous, gorgeously ornate costumes, breathtaking locations, and a script so convoluted and incomprehensible you may be scratching your head as to how many rewrites it didn’t get during its infamous 25+ year production history. Terry Gilliam’s cinematic oeuvre creaks from bold, hallucinatory, and inspired to unwieldy and frustrating with indulgent bombast eclipsing anything meaningful. I still rank much of his pre-2000s work among my favorite films, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019) is a problematic and unsatisfying mess that continuously picks up plot threads that don’t really go anywhere. The film has moments of brilliance. When it leans into the fantasy and the adventure aspects, it approaches something, but it’s ultimately a far more cynical, grouchy, and out of touch film that unceremoniously dispatches characters, plot threads, stakes, and messages with awkward weightlessness. What is it all about? What is the story? What is being said? It is very dense and it looks great and has a fine cast (wish Adam Driver’s protagonist had at least one redeeming quality or that we actually felt the magnitude of Jonathan Pryce’s character arc or that the wonderful Olga Kurylenko and Joana Ribiero were more than just eye candy as both have fantastic screen presence). As the more straight Don Quixote elements were the best bits, it makes me wonder how great the film could have been had it been more of a straight adaptation of the famous novel instead of the deeply uninteresting non-redemption story of a cowardly, asshole film director who ruins the lives of those around him. Unless that is the point. How autobiographical is this movie?

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15. Behind the Curve (2018) is another documentary. This one takes a look at the flat Earth movement. If you’ve seen any of the thousands of YouTube videos exposing the truth about how our planet is actually flat and everyone is just lying to you…for some reason, then you’re already familiar with the typical arguments and talking points. All of which are easily debunked. Behind the Curve, rather than focus on the wacky claims put forth, instead chooses to make the viewer more intimate with the personalities behind the movement. Sure, they’re all a bit delusional and seem to hold more than a few bizarre beliefs for similarly baffling reasons, but behind that glazed look in their eye is an inquiring human mind that has maybe just gone astray. The movie doesn’t go out of its way to challenge their claims. It just gives them enough rope to hang themselves. The hubris and myopia are real things that effect us all. If you’re interested in cults, conspiracy theories, and how people can get sucked into those worlds and stay there, it’s an interesting peek into that space.

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14. For low-key horror films, Green Room (2015) almost succeeds in being brilliant. A broke punk band gets a gig playing in an old barn in the woods that just happens to be a hub for neo-Nazis. That should be enough to get the ball rolling, and had it been it I think this movie would have been a lot more satisfying. There’s an added plot of a murdered man (Anton Yelchin’s character sees too much) and then the Nazi leader (Patrick Stewart) shows up to contain it all. Had it just been the fact that punks were duped into performing there and that their onstage anti-fascist antics incite the white supremacist mob to violence, I think things would have been much more streamlined and interesting. But it seemed the movie was almost uncomfortable with just saying that Nazis are bad in and of themselves. As is, it’s decent. Better than a lot of horror in the same vein. But could have been great.

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13. Mystics of Bali(1981) wastes no precious time in getting into it. An attractive American girl wants to learn the most powerful magic there is. For some reason. Her Filipino friend (who she continues to tease with the promise of a relationship) agrees to introduce her to a witch in the jungle. She meets the witch, but the witch only wishes to use the foolish girl. She turns the girl into a penanggalan: a traditional Filipino floating vampire head with all of the internal organs hanging out the neck. This is more than just a bad a movie. It’s wonderfully weird. It’s slow to get going, but once the nonsense begins, it keeps going until we learn that white women, like jungle witches, are not to be trusted and that if you have one magic uncle and he dies, don’t worry. You probably have another, more powerful ghost uncle to save the day.

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12. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan takes on a journey into America’s diet. In Defense of Food (2015) covers a lot of basic stuff, but it does so in such an engaging and open way that it pulls you in. From the history of manipulative health language in advertising to the villages of small African tribes that live as organically as possible, Pollan is eager to discover what we should eat and how we can enjoy the food we eat.

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11. Just look at that still. That is amazing. Motel Hell (1980) is the best Texas Chainsaw Massacre knockoff you can find, I’d wager. Human heads popping out of the ground like vegetables. A cannibal bed and breakfast. A pig headed chainsaw duel. This movie is cheap, fast, and hits you just when it needs to. Like greasy fast food.

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10. Luigi Cozzi’s The Adventures of Hercules(1985) is a sword and sorcery sequel that has wacky Italian production written all over it. We really wanted to watch the original with Sybil Danning (Howling 2), but we had to make do. Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty son of Zeus. It’s very episodic and most of the scenes are clunky exposition for how to solve a problem that will be solved within the next three minutes. It’s wonderfully, watchably schlocky. I’m pretty sure they rotoscoped the t-rex battle from the original King Kong for the constellation fight at the end. It’s great and I can’t wait to find the first Hercules.

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9. Mark Duplass plays a man with terminal cancer. Ray Romano is his somewhat socially awkward neighbor. Together they go on a short road trip to pick up some medically prescribed suicide pills. This is Paddleton (2019). It’s a quiet and low-key dramedy that keeps its distance and deals with a difficult subject in a straightforward and sensitive way. Romano is perfectly cast.

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8. Shallow Grave (1994) is a sly little film about three roommates (Ewan McGregor, Kerry Fox, and Christopher Eccleston) in Edinburgh and it was Danny Boyle’s directorial debut. When their new roommate dies in the flat, the trio aren’t sure what to do. Mainly because it turns out he had a suitcase full of money. How does one dispose of a body? How long before they can spend the money? What happens if someone comes looking for it? What happens if you can no longer trust your close friends? Streamlined and efficient black comedy.

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7. Harmony Korine (Gummo) assembles one wacky cast (Matthew McConaughey, Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence, Stefania LaVie Owen, Jonah Hill, and Jimmy Buffet) in The Beach Bum (2019). It’s the story of a Key West hippie, poet, and stoner (perhaps a redundant collection of words) and his meandering life. You could say it’s about him trying to get money, but that wouldn’t be quite right. It’s more about a wandering spirit that moves in any direction it pleases. I may prefer Spring Breakers for its bolder presentation and harrowing, unpredictable story, but The Beach Bum, while far more subdued and accessible, still boasts plenty of visual style. Like most of Korine’s work, it’s a fascinating glimpse into another American subculture.

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6. Holy moly did I love Fright Night (1985). It’s like the perfect 80s movie. Great soundtrack. Great cast (Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse, and Roddy McDowell are so much fun). And some of the best vampire deaths ever filmed. What is a boy to do when a sexy vampire moves in next door? Call his local skeptical horror movie TV presenter and slay him! Genuinely loved this campy, sexy, spooky, fun flick.

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5. Rashida Jones composes a beautiful biographical documentary of her talented father in Quincy (2018). Quincy Jones is one of the most important names in modern American music and music production. This movie is a loving portrait of the man, his life, his troubles, his flaws, and his amazing contributions to the world of music.

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4. Art is a weird sort of thing. Struggle: the Life and Lost Art of Szukalski (2018) is a documentary about discovering an eccentric Polish genius lives right around the corner. From this beginning, we launch into a retrospective of the life of sculptor and esoteric artist Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987). He’s an odd, little old man, when the film introduces him. Underground comic artists and LA hippies develop a keen fascination in him and then they discover he was actually one of the most important sculptors and possibly the greatest Polish artist of the 20th century. And he’s a bit of a character.

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3. Netflix has been running Love Death Robots. It’s a brilliant concept with some amazing artistry, but, in my opinion, some lackluster writing and, ultimately, I did not like the series. I do hope they push it and get better if they continue. Robot Carnival (1987) is the animated robot anthology that I wanted. Each segment is handled by a different director. Some stories are soft and poetic. Others are bombastic and raucous. I loved the visual richness and inventive styles and mesmerizing stories. Like all anthologies, you’ll have your favorites. This had been on my radar for a long time and I’m glad I finally watched it.

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2. Animator Nina Paley left a very good impression on me with Sita Sings the Blues. I had to applaud its humor, style, novel implementation of music, and narrative inventiveness. Seder-Masochism (2018) is a musical epic comedy brimming with clever satire and incendiary religious commentary while packaged in a bright, colorful package. The story takes Nina’s curious goat character interviewing her Jewish father about her upbringing and juxtaposes it against her retelling of the history of religion, from early man’s worship of feminine Earth mothers to the violent conquest of patriarchal monotheism and into the present day of continual bloodshed over holy real estate. It covers a lot of ground and has a lot of hot takes that may upset or tickle you, but with the lively animation and tunes, it’s a breath of fresh air.

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1. I know I’ve seen the Sidney Lumet masterpiece 12 Angry Men (1957) before, but I on a whim I gave it a re-watch, and seeing it again with adult eyes made me reassess its greatness. It’s a tough feat to set a whole movie in one room and keep the dramatic beats going and create visual distinctiveness within acts. A lot of these points come down to staging, lighting, and cinematography. But it also has a fantastic script and is wonderfully cast. Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Joseph Sweeney, Jack Klugman, Ed Begley, Jiří Voskovec, Robert Webber, and Edward Binns are twelve men locked in a jury room, tasked with determining the fate of a young man who has been charged with the murder of his father. The atmosphere is tense from the get go and only tightens as the men debate and talk out the whole meaning of “reasonable doubt” and what their duty is as jurors. The twists, summer heat of the setting, and character quirks keep the drama electric. 12 Angry Men is an American classic and a very patriotic film in the sense that it depicts the ideals of what this one aspect of the judicial system was meant to be. It is inspiring. Lumet, director of Network, Serpico, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon brought this stage play to cinematic life with confidence and finesse. This is a classic for good reason and marvelous lesson in writing, acting, and filmmaking.

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Beyond Bat Country: Madness in Every Direction

Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman

That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.

"Let's get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?"

“Let’s get down to brass tacks. How much for the ape?”

All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.

the reptile zoo

the reptile zoo

Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.

"So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”

Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.

Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).

The Rum Diary

The Rum Diary

Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.

Where the Buffalo Roam

Where the Buffalo Roam

Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.

Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in RangoFear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.

Get in.

Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.

2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.

3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.

4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.

5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!

6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.

7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.

8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.

9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.

10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

inferno

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

thief cobbler

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

silver globe

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

lost horizon

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

ivan terrible

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

wa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

1e

I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.

Trilogy Gilliam

"It's..."

“It’s…”

Terry Gilliam is a highly imaginative man with a background as a cartoonist and animator. He has a famous history with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he makes extremely high-concept yet personal fantasy films that usually have a dark sense of humor and a wonderfully skewed (but not far off) view of the world. Here is responsible for such wonderful films as Twelve Monkeys (1995) (best Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt performances!) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (best Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro performances!). And his Python stuff is amazing! Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Terry Gilliam has been a unique and fascinating voice in the world of film.

Metropolis meets Dali

Metropolis meets Dali

I was meh on Jabberwocky (1977); mixed on The Fisher King (1991); disappointed by The Brothers Grimm (2005): a little iffy on Tideland (2005); and not quite sold on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), but he is still one of my favorite filmmakers. Gilliam always offers tantalizingly askew visuals blended with humorous surrealism. I don’t have to think hard to come to the conclusion that my all-time favorite movies from Mr. Gilliam are from his unofficial “Dreamer Trilogy”: Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three feature protagonists who are stuck in a bureaucratic/materialistic world and must deal with the unapologetic clash of fantasy and reality. In these worlds dreams are the only escape.

"Hello. I'm Hood."

“Hello. I’m Hood.”

Time Bandits features the dreamer character as a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock). Kevin’s parents are tedious TV-heads who seem aloof at best. Kevin prefers reading about history and magic and amazing battles rather than watch nauseating game shows with his parents. When a group of time-traveling dwarfs (played by Jack Purvis, David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Kenny Baker, Mike Edmonds, Tiny Ross: former Ewoks, Oompa Loompas, elves, and aliens from other science fiction and fantasy films—Kenny Baker was R2-D2!) show up in Kevin’s room on the lam from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson), Kevin winds up on the adventure of a lifetime.

"Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

“Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”

The Time Bandits travel through time with the only map of all the holes in the universe (the fabric of which is evidently far from perfect). They burgle people throughout history. The ragtag band meet up with an insecure Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), a prissy Robin Hood (John Cleese), noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and many other fun characters (played by Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Katherine Helmond, Jim Broadbent, etc.) all whilst being pursued by the Supreme Being who wants his map back. Then there’s Evil (in a delightfully wicked performance from David Warner). Evil wants the map for himself so he can rule the world. The film is a nonstop delight of eccentricities and oddities. Warner, Cleese, and Palin steal some of the best lines.

How decisions are made.

How decisions are made.

Brazil follows the daydreams of an adult man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in a not-too-distant future nightmare that blends the styles of the 1940s with archaic projections of the space age alongside Gilliamesque flights of fancy. The look of this film is amazing and the story is a sort of amalgam of James Thurber, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka.

It's only a state of mind.

It’s only a state of mind.

Sam is a spineless cog in the creaking wheel of bureaucratic progress (although progress is pretty static in Gilliam’s take on the world). His mother (Katherine Helmond) keeps getting plastic surgery; his apartment is being trashed by disgruntled electrical technicians (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor); terrorists—or maybe it’s the government?—keep bombing places; Sam’s best friend (Michael Palin) happens to torture people for the state; and a strange underground vigilante/heating engineer (Robert DeNiro) seems to be the only one who makes any sense in this cock-eyed reality. Other members of the cast include Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughan, Jack Purvis, and Charles McKeown. While Sam is hard at work in the relentless machine, he dreams he is a winged superhero battling samurai, rescuing the girl, and fighting obstacles that vaguely mirror the problems in his waking life. When Sam discovers that his dream girl (Kim Griest) really exists he will attempt to take on the system to save her life and save the day, because when the real world is as bleak as it is in Brazil sometimes dreams are the only things worth fighting for.

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining june. We stood beneath an amber moon And softly murmured 'someday soon.'"

“Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June. We stood beneath an amber moon. And softly murmured ‘someday soon.'”

The humor is dark, the hallucinations deliriously captivating, the tone gritty and gray, and the solutions elusive and thought provoking. The scary message still rings true today. I still feel Brazil to be one of Gilliam’s absolute best and most significant films.

"A eunuch's life is hard."

“A eunuch’s life is hard.”

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen based on Rudolph Raspe’s novel, puts us in the seat of aging fantasist, Heironymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville). The Baron seems out of place in the Age of Reason, but seeks to set the record straight about who he is in a bombed out theater in a battered town under siege by the Turk. Everyone has been treating the Baron’s stories as fiction until young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) believes him and the two go on a fantastic adventure to find the Baron’s extraordinary friends who can help save the town. They travel to the moon in a balloon to rescue the Baron’s amazingly fast companion, Berthold (Eric Idle), but the King and Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) have other plans.

"He's not going to get far on hot air and fantasy."

“He’s not going to get far on hot air and fantasy.”

They then descend into the center of the earth via the volcano of Mt. Etna where they meet the short-tempered god, Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and lovely goddess, Venus (Uma Thurman). There they also discover the Baron’s super strong friend, Albrecht (Winston Dennis). After they pass through the center of the earth and emerge on the other side they’re swallowed up by a giant sea monster and inside they find several broken ships and two more of the Baron’s disassembled band: the hawk-eyed sharpshooter, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), and the dwarf with a mighty wind for breath, Gustavus (Jack Purvis). It’s up to Sally to believe in the Baron whenever he gets discouraged and to chase away the Grim Reaper whenever he tries to collect the Baron’s soul. Once they reunite with the Baron’s trusty steed, Bucephalus, Sally and the band of geriatric heroes return to the town to battle the Turk and silence the fantasy-hating Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Thus the old dreamer conquers all through the power of fantasy.

"The body is dead. Long live the head."

“The body is dead. Long live the head.”

You will notice many recurring actors in Gilliam films as well as an apparent affinity for tattered, complex garments and incessant use of extreme wide-angle and deep focus lenses. He gets compared to Tim Burton sometimes because they both have very strong visual styles that dictate a unique tone, but they are very different filmmakers indeed. Burton’s aesthetics originate from silent German Expressionist cinema. Gilliam seems more inspired by Heironymous Bosch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gilliam should have directed Alice in Wonderland! Terry Gilliam is a talented dream-weaver and when he is at his best, it’s sits uneasily with you. When he’s at his most off, it is still fascinating to observe. Gilliam celebrates the wonders and the horrors of the untamed imagination. I admire and am in awe of where Gilliam seeks to take us and I hope you too will take the tour.

Enter if you dare...

Enter if you dare…

Originally published for the “Alternative Chronicle” December 10, 2009.