Last Few Movies: Episode VII – Still Random

Look. Another list. Again, ranked in order.

Stop it:

Real

Stay in that coma. If you wake up, you might realize how dumb and implausible all this is.

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa ineffectively rips off InceptionShutter Island, The Cell, and a bunch of forgettable recent horror movies for Real (2013). A man must go inside his wife’s subconscious to awaken her from a coma, but after about the third twist it’s hard to care (a good twist is supposed to clarify not wipe the slate clean rendering all previous scenes moot, or it’s supposed to surprise rather than be telegraphed 20 minutes in advance, OR it’s supposed to make sense instead of being ridiculous for the sake of surprise). The story is laughable, the acting is melodramatic and cheesy, and it’s way too long. There was some potential in the beginning and there’s a few decent jump scares but ultimately…just no. Points for having a dinosaur in the homestretch, but points taken back for it not making sense and being stupid.

Do you feel that? That is sound of my powerfully sexy baritone voice vibrating your chair.

Do you feel that? That is sound of my powerfully sexy baritone voice vibrating your chair.

I like blaxploitation movies and I was excited to see one that was inspired by The Exorcist. Carroll Speed is the title character in Abby (1974). I wish this was more fun (especially for having such a fun censorship history fraught with lawsuits). I really enjoyed the beginning and I actually liked the exorcism finale, maybe because those had the most interesting insights into who or what the demon really was and had more William Marshall (Blacula himself). Sadly the big, long middle stretch is very boring and predictable.

Stay gold, Ponyboy!

Stay gold, Ponyboy!

Why do I find bromance melodramas written by women so cloying and irritating? People say I’m crazy, but I hated reading The Outsiders in middle school. Green Street Hooligans (2005) is the story of Elijah Wood trying to be tough enough to hang with idiot British football hooligans. It’s predictable, overly sentimental, manipulative, and unintentionally funny when it’s not supposed to be. The film seems to be reaching to both glorify and criticize the zeal of these uneducated youths. It celebrates their passion and loyalty while at the same time condemning their irresponsibility and their misplaced priorities. The biggest thing that bothered me was just how dumb and unlikable all the characters were. Yes, many real people are that dumb and annoying, but watching real people would be more interesting. It’s an interesting sub-culture that I’d like to see as a documentary.

Meh and/or misguided:

^douche.

^douche.

Mansome (2012) is Morgan Spurlock’s examination on male vanity. It features interviews with funny celebrities and weird real life characters with strong opinions. Sadly the movie never formulates a question and never nears any form of conclusion. There are some isolated segments that are fun and telling, but it never comes together to say anything or even try to say anything new.

See that over there? That's an imaginative funny yet life-affirming movie with Ben Stiller in it. I call it a snow leopard.

See that over there? That’s an imaginative funny yet life-affirming movie with Ben Stiller in it. I call it a snow leopard.

I’m a fan of James Thurber and a fan of Danny Kaye and a fan of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. This made Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) a particularly banal and toothless slog that tries its damndest to be life-affirming. I loved the cinematography, earthy locations, music choices, and I like Kristen Wiig. Beyond that it’s an empty affair that dashes from country to country with no specific destination in mind. If the comedy was funnier or the flights of fancy more imaginative I could have easily overlooked the tired, simple story and boring archetypal characters.

They came the sales. They stayed because they formed a cult to counter their fears of inter-dimensional beings.

They came for the sales. They stayed because they formed a cult to counter their fears of inter-dimensional beings.

Some people kept recommending this one to me and I’ll be honest, The Mist (2007) isn’t half bad…or actually it’s exactly half bad. Director Frank Darabont, no stranger to adapting Stephen King, tackles the intriguing premise and microcosmic study of mob mentality and the origins and dangers of religion fairly well. Marcia Gay Harden is good as the uber-deluded conservative Christian nutjob and I liked Toby Jones as the steadfast store clerk. Some of the monsters are cool and it’s well-paced, but it feels too heavy-handed at times and the ending, while shocking and bleak, feels like standard Twilight Zone conclusion. It’s worth a look. Just don’t hope for too much.

Movie tropes but with less understanding.

Movie tropes but with less understanding.

Abdullajon, or Dedicated to Steven Spielberg (1991) is an Uzbek re-imagining of E.T. A strange boy with no penis crash lands and is adopted by a clumsy middle-aged farmer. There’s never any suspense as they explain everything that will happen in the next scene before it happens. It’s never really warm or funny—perhaps through translation. The characters aren’t terribly developed and the situations rely heavily on magic-boy gimmicks (that they keep repeating). There’s a random twist that isn’t really explained and is sort of resolved inexplicably without much happenstance. Most of the second half of the film seems preoccupied with the fact that the alien boy can make hoes (the gardening tool, now) float. The town enjoys riding hoes to the market until the major confiscates them. The only real reason to watch this kind of slow and uneventful movie is for the silly special effects (which are few and far between) and just the odd mundanity that the film treats its subject.

The air grows thinner:

The cartoons you love and took you 10 seconds to understand, now stretched to TV special length.

The cartoons you love and took you 10 seconds to understand, now stretched to TV special length.

Gary Larson is the reason I wanted to learn how to read when I was little. He is also one of the reasons I started cartooning. The TV animated special Tales from the Far Side (1994) is a pleasant treat. If you like The Far Side then odds are you’ll enjoy this at some level. The problem is it’s not terribly great or groundbreaking. If the entire 30 minute run-time was as fast and funny as the first 30 seconds then I’d love this. Sadly it tries to stretch the single-panel gags out for way too long. Larson’s cartoons do not take long to set up. What made the beginning unique was the kooky, surreal farm music and the long panning shots across a cartoon canvas with animated hijinks continually appearing. What made the opening inventive was when it showed us clues and as the camera kept panning we got the payoff. It’s good, but not as great as the source material deserves or the intro promises. The sequel which came out in 1997 is thrice as good and plays more as “Cartoon Faces of Death” they kill so many people. Could Gary Larson be the brains behind the Final Destination series?

Han shot first.

Han shot first.

The American Astronaut (2001) is a very low budget and arty independent science-fiction musical comedy directed by Cory McAbee. There’s a lot to really respect in this humble little project: the clever way to portray space travel with no money, the noir lighting and Maddin-esque minimal yet surreal sets, and then the concept of the villain (“He’s a birthday boy.”). Why I don’t rate this higher is just because I wanted more out of it. Eraserhead spoiled a lot of us and we demand more from this sort of aesthetic. There’s one or two pretty good songs and a couple memorable scenes and stylish images, but I found it a little too slow.

The apocalypse better be more consistently funny than this.

The apocalypse better be more consistently funny than this.

I laughed really hard at the trailer and the concept for Seth Rogan’s This is the End (2013). And the movie itself actually has those scenes that I laughed at in the trailer. Unfortunately it doesn’t have much more…except for some confused theology. I loved Craig Robinson. But then I always love Craig Robinson.

A rare moment without special effects.

A rare moment without special effects.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) is long. Once again the title character is smothered by cartoon action violence, amazing sets, dour monologues about magic and quests, impressive special effects, meandering plot devices, and more. It’s a watchable mess, but don’t expect to feel anything during or afterwards. Like the previous Hobbit movie, there are one or two really good scenes, and those are the quiet scenes where we learn about the characters.

Base camp:

Every matador needs a gimmick.

Every matador needs a gimmick.

Peter Sellers dons brown-face to play a cocksure novice matador/troubadour before hoodwinking the sexy Britt Ekland and succumbing to blue-face at her vengeful hands in The Bobo (1967). It’s not really a funny movie, but you grow fond of the character. It’s not really a happy movie, but we accept that life doesn’t always work out. It’s not really a fast-paced movie, but what can you do? It’s a lesser Sellers and not essential, but you could do worse.

Thank god I got rid of the Clooney guy. He's was grating on me.

Thank god I got rid of that Clooney guy. He’s was grating on me.

Gravity (2013) was an incredible and amazingly immersive visceral experience and survival story that utilized state-of-the-art technology and fantastic cinematography to convey a rather simplistic story that will be easy to ignore on a TV screen. Director Alfonso Cuarón knows what he’s doing and for people who want to know what it feels like to be crying Sandra Bullock in space without pants, it must be seen in 3D IMAX. How hard will you fight for your life? Watching two characters deal with that question is powerful enough to ignore some of the awkward dialogue.

I miss cel animation.

I miss cel animation.

I actually hadn’t seen this all the way through before. Lilo and Stitch (2002) is beautifully drawn, funny, and sensitive. The relationship between Lilo and her sister is excellently portrayed with sensitivity and nuance. The alien stuff is fun too. I was surprised by the quietness and cleverness of this movie and that it never felt the need to ingratiate me, it’s cute but it earns that cuteness by being so real…despite have alien stuff.

He slimed me.

Don’t that beat all.

We may never know what blazes Andrzej Zulawski Possession (1981) really is or how it happened, but we have it so shut up and enjoy. Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani are freakishly over the top in this story of a disintegrating relationship that turns into a psychological horror with perplexing and slimy aesthetics reminiscent of Lynch and Cronenberg. This movie is the definition of irrationality and madness. I can’t spoil it, but it’s nonstop crazy.

Girl, we couldn’t get much higher:

You ain't never had a friend like me.

You ain’t never had a friend like me.

Sometimes some great music and a splash of color goes a long way. A classic Indian tale gets the animation treatment with The World of Goopi and Bagha (2013). When two abysmal musician misfits get blessed by some forest demons they will use their new powers to make peace and marry princesses and have adventures. It’s simple, but a lot of fun.

Need a movie for date night???

Need a movie for date night???

A selfish and immature Charles Grodin tries to woo a manipulative and immature Cybill Shepherd on his honeymoon in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972). This may be the darkest love story ever committed to celluloid. It’s bleak, ugly, frustrating, awkward, pessimistic, and extremely accurate. This movie should be analyzed in high school health classes. And it’s funny too!

Moral of the movie: don't leave fruit out during a wind storm.

Moral of the movie: don’t leave fruit out during a wind storm.

The Blessed Bukhara (1991) is a lyrical, enigmatic, episodic, nonlinear snapshot of a city and its inhabitants. This long movie from Tajikistan will not be for everybody. It’s a hard movie, steeped in politics and culture and obscure but containing mesmerizing imagery. Several scenes still stay with me—like so many fascinating films from this region. Director Bako Sadykov makes bold choices that could have been pulled from Parajanov or Tarkovsky. I wish it was better preserved!

Where is the Cornetto wrapper?

Where is the Cornetto wrapper?

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost team up with director Edgar Wright again for the comedy science-fiction horror homage, The World’s End (2013). It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s inventive, it’s violent, and it’s an authentic look at male relationships. Hot Fuzz, I think, still beats it in my book, followed by Shaun of the Dead, but this movie is still a lot of fun and reminds us why we love these guys. I actually kind of wish they’d make the movie they start in the final three minutes.

Nerd out on what's written on the white board. You know you want to.

Nerd out on what’s written on the white board. You know you want to.

Suckers for genre-deconstructions look no further than Cabin in the Woods (2012). I may hate teen splatterfests, but I like movies like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. I like clever ideas that are smarter than their genre’s limitations. This one takes your typical slasher setup and goes all out meta on us while adding in a bonus layer of fantasy and then a brand new type of horror. Well cast, brilliantly written and paced, and featuring some truly inventive horror turns and twists, Cabin in the Woods offers thrills with a wink and a brain geared for comedy.

I'm just a sweet transvestite from...oh, crap. Wrong movie.

I’m just a sweet transvestite from…oh, crap. Wrong movie.

People might hate me for rating Shock Treatment (1981) so highly and I will be the first to admit that Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s pseudo-sequel collaboration pales in comparison to the joyous cult flick, Rocky Horror Picture Show. That being said, as big a mess, this is a bumpy ride that really enjoyed. It’s got some good visuals, an interestingly prophetic plot, and some fantastic songs that match Rocky Horror. It’s zany, uneven, and actually a lot of fun. Barry Humphries and Charles Gray are highlights of the cast. “Duel Duet” is one of the best songs in the movie.

The peak:

DF-02128FD.psd

The horrific true story of Solomon Northrup is brought to life in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful performance—all the more potent because he has to convey so much with saying so little. He is pushed so far and you see what humans will do for their own survival and what some will and won’t sacrifice. It’s a stifling, frustrating, maddening story about a dark chapter in American history. If I have one criticism it is Brad Pitt’s distracting cameo in the third act. Also, is it just me or is Paul Giamatti playing the same role he had in Burton’s Planet of the Apes? I did like seeing Alfre Woodard and Benedict Cumberbatch. . . and Michael Fassbender gives a nasty performance. 12 Years a Slave is an important history lesson that must never be forgotten. If Django Unchained is the revenge-filled catharsis we wanted for American slavery, this movie is the bitter pill that reminds us that our pasts are far from pristine.

Still..."Barry Lyndon" has more and better duels.

Still…”Barry Lyndon” has more and better duels.

Powell & Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is a colorful,  decades-spanning saga of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), a career soldier in the British army. The title itself is somewhat misleading. It’s a gorgeous looking movie, with a very subtle satirical edge that affectionately criticizes old school British militarism and outdated WWI era sentiments. The first act easily has some of my favorite bits (travel, duels, and new friends), but the whole movie treats Candy as a sympathetic human being. I’m sure it was quite bold in 1943, but even as a far quainter story today it’s still worth a look.

Cute and terrible and funny and diabolical and cunning and ignorant and helpless and dependable and so much else.

Cute and terrible and funny and diabolical and cunning and ignorant and helpless and dependable and so much else.

Another Elaine May movie. A New Leaf (1971) is a weird and pessimistic romance between a spoiled, woman-hating egotist (Walter Matthau) who has to get married or lose everything and a gawky, oblivious bookworm (Elaine May). Matthau is a perfect murderous jerk, but he manages to endear himself to the audience nonetheless. May is clumsy and annoying, but she too manages to be quite lovable. It’s actually a very clever movie that, like The Heartbreak Kid, says more about the real dynamics between men and women than most serious movies. A New Leaf has a more cartoony sense of comedy, and it serves the story well. The setups and payoffs are all good and, despite its macabre premise (he wants to kill her a la Monsieur Verdoux), it’s actually really sweet.

The Nitty Gritty Mitty Committee

I know. I know.

I know. I know.

So what’s with this trailer for the new movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)? I feel like more people need to see this. The trailer. I have no idea if the movie’s any good. All we know is it’s been in development for a long time. Folks like Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey and Sacha Baron Coen and Johnny Depp were originally attached. Now all has changed again.

Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig star in the story of a pencil pushing daydreamer who escapes from reality with his fanciful imagination where he’s always the hero who gets the girl. The imdb synopsis hints that there is a real life adventure in the mix too as he races around the world to save his job and the job of the woman he loves.

Taste the indie.

Taste the indie.

All of this is immaterial. The trailer is what I’m talking about. Silent, artfully photographed, ambiguous—leaving much of the plot a vague mystery—and set to the soulful tune of “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men. Seriously, the song is awesome and mournful and magical. It is a bit of an indie-gasm, but it’s sweet and pensive and it dominates the atmosphere of the entire taciturn trailer. My point is, it seems like a weird choice.

It’s a ballsy move. I’m glad they did it. I just can’t help but wonder if the film itself will have a remotely comparable tone to that of the song. It reminded me of the trailer for ParaNorman (2012) that featured no dialogue or plot explanations and instead just showed silent images from the film while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays. To me, it was bold and one of the most memorable trailers of recent memory. Is Mitty pulling a similar stunt?

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa...

Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

I’m actually a big fan of the 1947 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Danny Kaye. The Court Jester (1955) is funnier, but there’s a weird surreal energy to Walter Mitty that I actually appreciate more. Mitty meets the girl who haunts his dreams and gets mixed up in a murder plot involving hidden WWII treasure and a group of killers (including Boris Karloff) led by a mysterious man named “The Boot.” In this film, Mitty’s phobias and fantasies are used against him as his foes, in an effort to hide their crimes he has witnessed, manipulate him into thinking he’s really suffering from a mental breakdown. Soon Mitty questions what is real and must weigh having a normal life with a boring wife and terrible mother-in-law or waking up to the real fantasy and save the day for the girl of his dreams. It’s actually a great little movie and most of the dream sequences are charming and brilliantly plugged into the main action. Kaye gives a fine performance as well.

Since James Thurber’s original 1939 short story focuses on the character and leaves out any complicated plot, any film adaptation is free to go in almost any direction as long as Mitty is a timid milquetoast daydreamer who imagines he can be more important than he really is. Thurber apparently hated the 1947 version.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

A little more grim and surreal this time around.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) has even been labeled a stretched adaptation of Thurber’s short story. The protagonist (Jonathan Pryce) is a socially impotent bureaucrat who goes on wild flights of fantasy to escape his stifling reality. He also meets the girl of his dreams and gets mixed up in a bigger narrative, like the Danny Kaye movie. Gilliam’s film is decidedly darker and more warped, but the basic structure is there.

All this makes the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel like it would have been more in the vein of A Night at the Museum or some crap rather than the moody and brooding Where the Wild Things Are. When I heard Hollywood was remaking it, that’s what I assumed anyway. Then I saw this weird trailer. This trailer would definitely turn off movie-goers looking for simple, broad comedy and by-the-numbers guy-gets-girl plot. Is it a gag or bad miscalculated marketing?

Where does this road lie.

Where does this road lie?

Then I saw that Ben Stiller was directing the movie too. Even the ‘dumb’ comedies he directed are smart. Consider the sharpness and satirical edges of The Cable GuyZoolander, or Tropic Thunder. Maybe this will be a more interesting film after all. The screenwriter, Steve Conrad, is also known for more nuanced than broad comedy (The Weather ManThe Promotion. . . Pursuit of Happyness isn’t a comedy, but he wrote that script too).

I’m not sure what to think anymore. All I know is this: that gutsy trailer with the fantastic—if perhaps ill-placed—song has actually got me interested. If I never hear another word of dialogue from the movie I’ll probably see it.

Sean Penn?!

Sean Penn?!

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle Sept. 14th, 2013.