THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXII – The Quickening

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

More Fun:

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 HorrorsWhat 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XV – Judgement Day

As always, listed from lowest to the highest (in my opinion).

Meh/Misguided:

Obligatory old Hollywood actors prove they still got it caper movie.

The Monuments Men (2014) had a great cast (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and a British guy) and a great premise (the true story of art historians sent into WWII to rescue stolen relics of incalculable value from Nazi destruction). Sadly, it’s a bit of snoozer. Some isolated character moments, but not enough to merit a second viewing. It all feels vaguely like watching shadow puppets of the dramatic beats of far better films. I really wanted to like this one. [Full disclosure: I did fall asleep at one point so maybe there’s 15 minutes towards the end that are amazing].

“What do you mean my character isn’t German in this movie?”

Tim Burton has done drama with the right amount of quirk in the past. He proved it with Ed Wood and Big Fish, but unfortunately Big Eyes (2014) falls flat. Despite the acting powers of Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Amy Adams (Enchanted), this true story of a robbed artist (Margaret Keane) feels too weightless for the emotions to register and much of the comedy is awkward. Had it been more focused on being dramatic or more focused on being comedic it might have worked, but the whole spectacle bears the hollow echo, “Burton did this?”

“Geez. It’s been awhile since something funny happened. What if we put silly lights on our heads and pretended to be aliens?” “Dan, that’s the kind of thing that made ‘Nothing But Trouble’ suck.”

Director John Landis is responsible for some of the best loved comedies of the 80s (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, ¡Three Amigos!, Coming to America and then he killed those people making The Twilight Zone). Spies Like Us (1985) is not one of the more remembered ones. Built like a Hope-Crosby Road picture, SNL stars Dan Aykroyd (Ghostbusters) and Chevy Chase (Community) play two dimwit patsies used by the government as spy decoys.  In truth, the movie starts out somewhat promising, but somewhere between Pakistan and arming the Russian nuke the laughs start to disappear and the plot is not nearly clever enough to sustain the remaining onscreen shenanigans. It’s a watchable film, but not the most memorable and not consistently funny.

Getting Better:

“If we wink at the camera like we know it’s silly the audience will let us be as silly as we want and imagine they are clever, my dear boy.”

Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) likes things awesome and while I enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014) better than Kick-Ass, I ultimately wished I was watching an Edgar Wright or Guy Ritchie movie instead. It’s not bad by any means. I had fun while I was watching it and the cast was good (Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, and it was good to see Mark Strong be a good guy for once), but like all cartoons trying to be action movies the lack of grit can only be hidden beneath so many winks. It’s like a less edgy Men In Black acting out James Bond clichesand no aliens.

I want to watch this back to back with 1934’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers.” The unintentionally scary masks and costumes are fantastic.

The LSD-laced writings of Lewis Carroll have been adapted to the screen too many times to count. Sometimes with great success and innovation. Sometimes not so much. Norman Z. McLeod’s  Alice in Wonderland (1933) lands squarely in the middle. The most standout aspect of the production is the nightmare parade of facial prosthetics. Seriously, half the cast looks like the radiator girl from Eraserhead. It hits the story’s marks in a fairly traditional way and features a lot of big name actors of the day (woefully disfigured under pounds of cheek-enhancing makeup). Some of the casting is appropriate: Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees) is the White Knight and that makes sense but then Carey Grant (Philadelphia Story) as the Mock Turtle is just weird and doesn’t work. The movie is worth it for W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick) as Humpty Dumpty though.

“Admit it. You don’t care what we do as long as we look cool doing it,”

Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) orchestrates the rape of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with such period pizzazz that you forgive Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). The movie just loves being a movie and I enjoyed the action mayhem, period atmosphere, clinkety-plunkety score, and watching Robert Downey, Jr. (Tropic Thunder) and Jude Law (Road to Perdition) exchange quips. I remember literally nothing about the plot, but I doubt if I ruminate too long on it my viewing experience would be improved.

Stranger Tides:

Bring the kids.

Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is a surreal Czech arthouse piece tying together weird rodent vampires and pubescent menstruation. Visually it is very well done, but I couldn’t kid you it’s for everyone. It reminded me a lot of Louis Malle’s Black Moon. Sumptuously photographed, the film has a unique, sexually-charged fantasy atmosphere that captivates and confounds.

“Maybe if I open my eyes wider they won’t notice my huge Dumbo ears.”

Everyone knows Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, but not as many people have seen George Melford’s Spanish language Drácula shot on the same sets as the Browning film and released in the same year (1931). It is pretty much shot-for-shot the American version HOWEVER it actually has more creative editing, more daring camera moves, and sexier wardrobe for its female leads. The downside? Carlos Villarias is a pretty hammy Dracula lacking the calculated menace of Lugosi’s interpretation and, for my money, Edward van Sloan is still a better Van Helsing than Eduardo Arozamena. It’s a fun experiment to watch them back to back and see what each movie did better than the other.

“Don’t look now, but you’re both white.”

Despite all us progressive liberal honkies feeling like we get it already with the white privilege and have nothing more to learn, the Jose Vargas’ MTV documentary White People (2015) still offers some insight into individuals in denial. And it is fascinating watching people learn. It’s worth checking out whether your eyes gloss over when someone starts talking about race issues in America or you’re already a social crusader.

My reaction to TV’s “Big Bang Theory.”

Everybody has seen the exploding head scene, but that’s hardly a spoiler for David Cronenberg’s (The Fly) Canadian science-fiction thriller Scanners (1981). A man suffering from the effects of what he will soon discover to be telepathy embarks on a journey to stop his evil twin. Michael Ironisde and Patrick McGoohan make up the more memorable additions to the cast. It’s a surreal dream with a couple gross out bits to keep you on the edge of your seat. Cronenberg scale: perhaps on par with Videodrome and a whole lot better than eXistenZ.

Warmer Climes:

Noir! Everybody noir!

Legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang (Metropolis) takes another stab at film noir after M with Ministry of Fear (1944). Ray Milland (Dial M for Murder) is released from an asylum and gets immediately entangled in a Nazi web of espionage and baked goods. He makes friends with a woman played by Marjorie Reynolds (The Time of Their Lives) and tries to stay alive amidst air raids and assassins long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was so important about that cake. It does have an awkward comedy stinger in its epilogue (a lot of thrillers from this era do), but the first act alone makes it all worth it.

“Yeah. It’s sad.”

Pixar made another movie and, if we’re honest, they are held to a higher standard than most family animations. Inside Out (2015) follows a little girl and her internal emotions as they move to a new city. A simple premise, but the cleverness and visual inventiveness doesn’t let up. It’s cute and funny, but I think, perhaps more importantly, it might help young people process their feelings and understand themselves better. Who knows? Not every movie teaches us the value of emotions we are culturally taught to suppress. Would make a good (if emotionally taxing) double feature with Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.

Before “Point Break” did the mask thing.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt), is a gritty crime drama following an aging gunrunner, played by Robert Mitchum (Cape Fear), who becomes an informant to avoid jail time. Setups, double crosses, bank jobs, and unapologetic 70s aesthetics play big roles in this movie. Also features Peter Boyle (Young Frankenstein) and Richard Jordan (The Hunt for Red October).

This poster is so much cooler than the film itself.

This next one I know full well to be a B-picture. I was not expecting much when I popped in East of Borneo (1931), incidentally also directed by Drácula‘s George Melford. The story is pulpy: a jilted lover runs away to the jungles and gets mixed up with a culty ruler so his estranged wife travels to the equator to track him down and aplogize. It’s pre-code so it has a bit more skin and violence than films made later in the 30s, but the bigger reason to watch it is for all the animal footage. Anacondas, tigers, monkeys, leopards, orangutans, and lots and lots of crocodiles (played by alligators). Rose Hobart (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) stars in this steamy jungle melodrama that was never meant to be remembered.

Summit:

I’m strong through the finish ’cause I eats me spinach…

This one is a re-watch but it had been awhile and I had forgotten how good it was. The inimitable Jackie Chan stars in The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), the pseudo-sequel to Chan’s 1978 hit Drunken Master. Set in the early 20th century, the plot concerns the British trying to smuggle rare Chinese artifacts out of the country. Wong Fei Hung (Chan) has tricky relationship with his father and an even trickier one with alcohol—if he drinks he gets Popeye-like strength and becomes a master of the art of Drunken Boxing. But who cares about the plot? The action sequences are some of the best Jackie Chan has ever done (the fight in the restaurant and the final battle being highlights). Nobody punished his body for art as much as Chan and the end result is a glorious medley of comedy kung-fu violence. Bonus points for Hung’s kick-ass step-mom hilariously played by Anita Mui.

“This the new shipment of traitorous slags? Good work. SUPER MARIO BROS. NEVER HAPPENED!”

So I love kung-fu and Jackie Chan, but I also love British gangsters and Bob Hoskins and The Long Good Friday (1980), directed by John Mackenzie, is one of Hoskins’ shining acting moments. Hoskins is the lead as Harold, a gangster trying to close a deal when his men start getting murdered by rival gangs. Haunted by bombs and desperate to sniff out the traitor before it’s too late, Harold must come to terms with the vulnerable position his choices have placed him in. I may love Mona Lisa more, but the final scene of this is cinema gold and it lingered with me for days. Helen Mirren (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) co-stars.

Get used to the wacky car horn if you watch this one.

Dino Risi (Profumo di Donna) tells the story of an uptight student who gets roped along with a carefree lunatic on his holiday in Il Sorpasso (1962). Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z) is the student, Roberto, who has never really lived and Vittorio Gassman is the pushy woman-chaser, Bruno, who has perhaps lived too much. From Rome to the wide, open countryside Bruno escorts Roberto on a hedonistic journey full of surprises, foils, and memories. The friendship they develop and the wacky episodes they get mixed up in are great, but there is a darker undertone that makes it more than a sleight comedy. It’s a beautiful and funny film. It reminded me of Zorba the Greek too.

“I crush you!”

And finally. My favorite film of the bunch. F for Fake (1973) is a film essay about the nature of forgery, ownership, deceit, truth, and art from mastermind Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Third Man, The Trial, Mr. Arkadin). Everything Big Eyes tried to do but oh so much more. Welles stands in as our cherubic narrator, posing as a magician in a broad-brimmed hat. What begins as an examination of art forger Elmyr de Hory soon meanders into the realm of poetic pontification on authorship and artistic expression. You will hear lies and promises to be lied to. Take it all as “ecstatic truth” (as Werner Herzog would say). The film is fascinating and truly a unique viewing experience. I highly recommend it.

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??

For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.

Alice in Svankmajerland

I once had a double-feature with this movie and The Happiness of the Katakuris. It was epic, I tell you.

Curiouser and curiouser!

As some held their breath in eager anticipation to see what director Tim Burton (Batman, Ed Wood) would do to Lewis Carroll’s much-celebrated—and oft times committed to celluloid—classic novel, I recalled an earlier adaptation: Jan Svankmajer’s  Alice (aka Neco z Alenky) (1988). If you are like me and hated the Burton incarnation then maybe you should check this one out.

Don't be scared.

Here’s Alice…

I am a huge fan of Lewis Carroll’s work and both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) and am always excited to see another artist’s take on the strange tale. The earliest film adaptation I’ve seen was Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland which was made in 1903. It’s a charming short film with some interesting effects. The most famous version is probably Walt Disney’s 1951 animated classic. The Disney cartoon is full of wonderful colors and imaginative surprises and deserves its slot next to Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) as some of Disney’s finest animated achievements (those are my personal favorites anyway). Lewis Carroll’s book has been filmed so many times and has employed the aid of such talents as Peter Sellers, W. C. Fields, Kate Beckinsale, Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp, and even once scored by Ravi Shankar, but perhaps the most innovative and fascinating take on this treasured story is from the soil and pipe-filled mind of surreal Czech animator, Jan Svankmajer (Faust, Conspirators of PleasureLittle Otik, and Lunacy).

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

As a fan and follower of Mr. Svankmajer and a great admirer of his aforementioned features and short subject works (The Ossuary, Dimensions of Dialogue, Down to the Cellar, Et Cetera, etc.), I can honestly say that Alice (1988) is my favorite of his. Despite the stylistic liberties the jarring and idiosyncratic director takes, Svankmajer stays surprisingly true to the spirit and the plot (or plotlessness) of Carroll’s book—it does lack the poetry and clever wordplay, but Svankmajer employs his own unique brand of humor and wit. Those of you familiar with the story of Alice and her adventures will recall it all began when Alice followed a little white rabbit down a tunnel where she became suddenly immersed in a world of nonsense. By combining live action (mostly the part of Alice played by Kristyna Kohoutova) and brain-bending stop-motion, Svankmajer fashions a dark, near-nightmarish world fashioned from earth, termite-ridden wood, peeling paint, drafty basements, sawdust, animal skeletons, rotting meat and vegetables (all his favorite obsessions).

alice cookies

Magic cookies!

The White Rabbit is a taxidermy beast with bug-eyes, a velvet hat and coat, and a huge rip in his chest that bleeds wood chips and sawdust (so he fastens himself shut with a safety pin, licks clean his pocket watch, and scurries off hastily). Alice pursues the White Rabbit across a barren field of plowed dirt where she crawls into a writing desk and emerges in a dank, winding basement. She tumbles through the floor, takes a dark, ramshackle elevator passing skulls and jars of preserved foods. Alice grows big and small in a tiny, dirty room while she sobs about not being able to get into the beautiful garden on the other side of the door. Alice is harassed by an army of animals sculpted from the mismatched bones and bits of strange creatures, crockery, and other taxidermy critters. She frequently becomes a toy doll during the course of her journey as well. Alice enters a room full of tube socks burrowing through the wooden floors whilst she converses with a denture-wearing “Caterpillar.” She participates in a hallucinatory tea party with the wind-up March Hare and wooden, obsessive-compulsive Mad Hatter. She accepts the Fish Footman’s invitation and is placed on trial before the Queen of Hearts where a most nonsensical proceeding follows.

Bwahahahaha!

Bwahahahaha!

There is no music and almost no dialogue—every spoken word is uttered by Alice herself and the camera cuts away to an extreme closeup of Alice’s mouth reciting “said the white rabbit/caterpillar/mad hatter, etc.”

Did I molt again?

Did I molt again?

Svankmajer does little to alter the story, but his visuals are not exactly inspired by Sir John Tenniel. The oneiric atmosphere is startling and disturbing. It’s a film you can almost taste and feel underneath your fingernails. Watching Alice is like watching a tapeworm choke out a mouse dressed as the pope, it’s disgusting but at the same time immensely unique and sort of funny. Svankmajer is a master of textures (and none of them smooth or soft). He likes the dirt and pine needles strewn about the floor and the coming of the maggots when the meat turns rancid. These are fascinating subjects that he explores in many of his works. Svankmajer seems to like to give every minuscule object a history and past. Every nick in the chair, every bit of mold in the drain, every stain on the wall, or gnawed bit of turnip tells a story and makes the atmosphere alive and dense in an almost too vivid and unsettling way. He is a filmmaker you will either love or hate. His visuals are potent. His comedy is dark and strange. His sound effects are abrasive and tinny. And his take on Alice might be the most original.

"Time's fun when you're having flies." ---Kermit the Frog

“Time’s fun when you’re having flies.” —Kermit the Frog

If you don’t like uncooked steaks scuttling across a shelf or for bread to sprout nails when you try to bite it or if the thought of a mouse pounding spikes into your head and building a fire in your hair bothers you, then perhaps this movie is not for you. If you don’t like the taste of sawdust, ink, or fruit jams filled with tacks then maybe you should watch something else. If dark, enclosed, cold spaces full of bony creatures lurking in the corners aren’t your cup of tea then I suggest you do something else with your time. HOWEVER, if you are bold and adventurous and willing to experience a different type of filmmaking then I hesitate not to recommend this brilliantly bent masterpiece of the surreal. For tickets to live in the wet and warped mind of Jan Svankmajer for an hour and a half, find a copy of Alice (1988). You’ll never forget where he takes you. Consider yourself warned. Now go with my blessing.

Keep your temper.

Keep your temper.

And for godsakes, skip the Burton one.

alice test gif

SHIRT?

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” February 16, 2010.