Last Few Movies: Episode VIII – Revenge of the Spliff

Mostly newer movies this time. And I will begin by saying that several of these I watched on my 16 hour flight to New York and the 16 hours back to Seoul so perhaps a few deserve a re-watch. Again, in order of what I thought of them.

Ick:

enders game

“Starship Troopers” anyone?

I’ve not read the book, but by and large the stilted performances and bland feeling trump the best intentions of Ender’s Game (2013) to shine the light on how we dehumanize our enemies and infect our young with the sickness of war. It’s not terrible, but not something I will be seeing again. Some awkward child acting and Harrison Ford looks like he’s asleep. Nothing with Sir Ben Kingsley in it is completely unwatchable though.

Any movie with scantily clad jungle women can't be all bad.

Any movie with scantily clad jungle women can’t be all bad.

What do Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, and dinosaurs have to do with each other? Nothing and Caveman (1981) proves it. I like those old no-dialogue cheesy cave-people movies with scantily clad females and wonky dinosaurs, alas this spoof never gets its timing right and becomes quite dull, despite some very fun stop-motion creature designs.

Meh and/or Misguided:

silent movie

Yes, the Marcel Marceau scene is humorous, but I think I would rather watch a straight Marcel Marceau movie.

Before everyone hates me, let me just say that I love a good many real silent movies and I absolutely love Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and a solid 4/5 of History of the World Part I. That being said, Mel Brooks, in my humble opinion, has a few misfires, but at least they’re daring and gutsy misfires most of the time. Mel Brooks spoofing silent comedies in Silent Movie(1976) with an A-list cast sounds like it couldn’t miss, unfortunately it does. Real silent comedies (the great ones) were never so sluggish and could usually surprise and delight without telegraphing too loudly a yawn-worthy gag during strainingly long setups.

windy city heat

Take a long second and get used to this face.

Either Windy City Heat(2003) is the meanest and longest practical joke on the dumbest guy around or it’s the biggest waste of time imaginable. I’m still not sure if any of it was real, but it did have a few laughs at the expense of the dimwitted documentary subject who is made to believe he is being groomed for stardom (and being constantly challenged with the fragility and artifice of it all).

in god we trust

Oral Andy

Marty Feldman is a smart guy and a very enjoyable performer. His skewering of American religious corruption with In God We Tru$t (1980) could have been great, instead of merely pleasantly inoffensive. Feldman is an affable innocent, a sheltered monk sent out into the real world. H meets a hooker with a heart of gold (Louise Lasser), a religious snake oil salesman (Peter Boyle), a greedy televangelist (Andy Kaufman), and God himself (Richard Pryor). The satire is obvious and plays it too safe in the end, but Feldman’s performance is charming (he also wrote and directed this one) and the first act is solid.

brave

Wocka-wocka. Wanna hear a funny-ass joke?

Disney-Pixar’s Brave (2012) might have been great had it not aimed to be so silly. The best bits of this film’s undercooked story are the dramatic elements and the believable human relationships. Too often it shoots low and goes for cutesy or crass and it doesn’t seem to mesh well in the end. The animation is gorgeous though.

Real Mixed Bags-style over substance:

dracula

Bill & Ted’s Spooky Excursion

I re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992) recently. I remember disliking it when I first saw it. This time I appreciated its manic energy and wild experimentation and its zany, irreverent style a bit more. The film is a sexy visual pleasure with a big-name cast…unfortunately most of which are woefully miscast. It’s other sin might be that it’s a bit messy and unfocused. I enjoyed the imagery and the melodrama and bold atmosphere, but my appreciation may have ended there. Gary Oldman is pretty good in it though. Credit to Coppola for treating the sacred subject matter with such visual innovation.

grandmaster

You’re not Donnie Yen.

I’m sad to list Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster(2013) so low on this list, especially after listing In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express in the top two when they appeared on these lists in the past. I liked The Grandmaster‘s impeccably powerful visual sense (Wong Kar Wai is a master) but the story felt muddled and it was difficult to focus on many of the characters. There was a point in the film when I was exhausted with all the closeups. One can only spend so much time that close to a human face. The fight scenes were beautifully choreographed by Woo-ping Wen and elegantly shot (albeit a bit too close) against the most lurid of poetically rich backdrops and I did enjoyed Ziyi Zhang’s performance and her character’s arc was the most compelling. Alas, I found myself pining for a less pretentious kung fu movie…like Ip Man.

prometheus

I’m sorry. You must answer in the form of a question. What was your wager?

So much debate and controversy surrounding Prometheus (2012), Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. It’s a visual treat with some fun touches and great design, but it will be compared to the first two Alien movies. No getting around it. The big joke was that the movie raises so many more questions than it answers, but I think that was part of the point. I enjoyed it. It’s worth watching. Not fantastic, but it’s smarter and gutsier than a lot of lame and lazy science fiction flicks.

Guilty Pleasures:

monsters university

Pay no mind that Billy Crystal and John Goodman are in their 60s and still getting work playing college boys.

I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I watched Monsters University (2013). I wasn’t the biggest fan of Monsters Inc. It was alright, but I might have enjoyed the prequel even more. The animation pops more and is more colorful, the sight-gags are sharper, and writing feels weirdly mature. It’s a typical college movie of nerds vs. jocks and students vs. faculty—which was familiar but competent and fun—but the film’s message in the end got me: no matter how hard you work for it sometimes you don’t get the thing you want the most. Sully has to learn not to be slacker and work for success but also how to be a friend, which is nice, but Mike’s lesson is much harsher. It hits a nerve most kiddie films never dare to hit.

bad grandpa2

I farted!

Yeah, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) is actually weirdly heart-warming and not as mean-spirited as you might expect. It’s weird that it genuinely seems to be all in good fun. Compare it with the piercing barbs of Borat. There’s a story in there too amidst the hidden camera hijinks, and it almost never mocks or belittles the real bystanders. I laughed and was surprised by the balance it set.

frozen

They think I’m annoying?

Frozen (2013) is a pretty animated music video with some snappy, funny writing. The story subverts the traditional Disney heroine who always needs a man to save her, which was refreshing. It’s good that a film like this tries to focus on family relationships, if only they did a better job of sculpting that dynamic. The rock trolls were unnecessary and weird. Olaf was cute.

Getting Juicier:

her

She just found the porn he downloaded on her.

Who knew that the serious depiction of a romantic relationship between a grown man with a mustache and a computerized voice would be so compelling and fascinating? Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, is a weird little sci-fi romance featuring a subdued image of the near future and tells us more of humans today than maybe we’d like to admit. We are turning more and more to our artificial things to comfort us and stave away loneliness, but what if these artificial interfaces were more autonomous than we were prepared for? And not in a killer robot Terminator kind of way. It’s a quiet, delicate, and thought-provoking movie.

all is lost

I should have gone to Bolivia.

Life of Pi without the tiger or maybe Gravity without space and less clumsy dialogue and characters. J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost(2013) finds such a majestic poetry in its simplicity. When a man (played by Robert Redford in a near wordless solo performance) wakes to discover a hole in his small yacht, he will stoically put his survival instincts to the test in the middle of the ocean. It’s haunting and mature. A refreshing departure.

Free Willy!

Free Willy!

Blackfish (2013) is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about a killer who happens to be an orca and the possible cover-up and the possibly dark underbelly of amusement parks that utilize wild animals as performers. I may not know much about whales, but I see all animals as intelligent, interesting creatures that deserve far more respect and space than we give them. This documentary reminds us that nature is unpredictable, emotional, and suffering as much if not more than us.

frances ha

Some days you can’t get out of the tub.

Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) tackles middle-class privileged aimlessness once again, this time with Greta Gerwig as his muse in Frances Ha (2012). Shot in glorious black and white, this story follows a drifting and foundering New Yorker as she tries to figure out what her life is about. It strikes very close to home for me and I like that. Gerwig gives a wonderful performance.

king of comedy2

At least he’s doing better than Woody Allen in “Take the Money and Run.”

I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s criminally overlooked The King of Comedy (1982). Robert De Niro is an oblivious weirdo who dreams of being a comedian like his Johnny Carson-esque hero (who he stalks) played by Jerry Lewis. Like After Hours it’s a very dark comedy and like Kundun it seems no one has seen it. The fan’s obsession drives him to ignore crucial details and ultimately causes his destiny to unfold in perhaps an insane or perhaps an insanely calculated way.

Nearing the Summit:

god on trial

Not that I want to side with any Germans right now, but maybe Nietzsche was right.

God On Trial (2008) is a British TV drama that takes place in a concentration camp during World War II. In it, the Jewish prisoners awaiting their fates decide to debate whether God is good or not. It is actually a very gripping tale as you see these men wrestle with their faith in one of the most dehumanizing places. It becomes their therapy and it will bring many to seriously question everything they ever knew.

We're on the road to nowhere.

We’re on the road to nowhere.

I like the Coen Brothers and I was pleased with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Beautifully photographed, very well acted, strangely  structured, and darkly, delicately humorous. Like Monsters University, this movie deals with what you cannot obtain. It’s a tragically true story with a wonderfully realized setting. It’s bleak but perhaps a needed medicine. The songs were good and several scenes really stick with you. Anyone in the arts has gone through similar trials and can relate.

waiting for superman

It’s because I’m black.

Another documentary? Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman (2010) is a close examination at some of the problems with America’s public education system. What about it doesn’t work and why? What reforms have been tried? What trends do we see repeating? Who are the faces of the children who are drowning in the broken corners of the system? It’s an important film that ought to be considered by all.

im all right jack

Don’t forget to look for the union label.

It’s almost fitting I put I’m All Right Jack (1959) right after Waiting for Superman. Both deal with unions and corruption. This British comedy starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, and Peter Sellers, is an impeccably acerbic satire that skewers all rungs of the social ladder. The sins, hypocrisies, and foibles of all: the upper class, the industry moguls, the labor unions. All are put on display for our amusement.

Orgasm:

innocents

“So bury me underneath the willow Under the weeping willow tree So that he may know where I am sleeping And perhaps hell weep for me”

What a sumptuously atmospheric tale of horror this one is. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) stars Deborah Kerr as a governess (she’s gonna get type-cast if she’s not careful) to two freaky kids in a mysterious mansion in the British country. Something horrible happened before she got the job and something evil still lurks within the house. Spooky hijinks ensue.

grand budapest hotel

“Why do you want to be a lobby boy?”

Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), combines a stellar cast headed by the great Ralph Fiennes and colorful, whimsical, stagey aesthetics to a caper comedy that unfolds during the troubling onset of World War II. It’s a positive film with good feelings and then twinges of whistfulness and sobriety. It’s glamorous while poking fun at the glamor. The plot is fun and loose, and allows for some fun intrigue and chases, the setting is magical and a fascinatingly nuanced character unto itself, and the frame of a story within a story within story encapsulates the theme of where stories come from and perhaps, why we tell them. Nobody orchestrates this kind of stuff like Anderson. I quite loved it. Incidentally it would make a good double-feature with Cabaret.

act of killing3

The vanity of the slaughterers of hundreds or more. And America financially aided much of their massacres. All in the name of snuffing out communism.

Another documentary?! Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) is a bizarre, difficult, sickening, grim, and emotionally arresting film that must be watched. Proud former Indonesian death-squad executioners, torturers, and militia are allowed to stage their proudest atrocities in their favorite film genres. At what point will it click that what these men did was heinous? Will it ever click? Are men so cowardly and evil capable of empathizes with their victims? The results will surprise and disturb you. Humanity is a strange thing. I cannot recommend this movie enough. The final two scenes have lingered with me for weeks.

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Where East is Wes

Wes Anderson. There. I said it. Bottle Rocket (1996), Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and now Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Some people hate this guy. Others love him seemingly to a fault. I’m a fan. Not rabid, mind you, but I do think he is a pretty solid and unique filmmaker. Are his films smug? Maybe. But maybe some people just do smug better than others. Sir Ian Richardson is like the beast of smugness in House of Cards and it’s awesome.

The setting is a northeastern forest island notorious for occasional rough rain squalls. The year: 1965.

When young, outcast orphan, Sam (Jared Gilman), runs away from the Khaki Scouts the troops assemble under the distraught supervision of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton, Fight Club). Their mission: bring Sam back alive. The island police officer (Bruce Willis, Die Hard) is informed and the manhunt is on. What the characters do not know is that Sam is headed for a pre-planned secret rendezvous with his beloved pen-pal, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Sam had fallen in love with Suzy a year ago at a Noah’s Ark play and they have been corresponding via secret love letters right underneath the noses of the meddling adults in their life. Sam has no family and Suzy hates her painfully distant family. Both are classified as emotionally disturbed. When Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters, and Frances McDormand, Fargo) realize she is gone they call the police and the intimate letters are discovered, but the hunt is now more complicated—the runaways do not want to be found.

Before we reach a rousing conclusion the film takes a borderline Blue Lagoon turn, but handles it far more delicately and with the added human touch of comedy. We also watch as the Khaki Scouts reconsider their role in this adventure; Social Services (Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton) threatens to send Sam to a Dickensian orphanage; the Khaki Scout Commander (Harvey Keitel, Bad Lieutenant) forgets his medicine; Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman, I Heart Huckabees) gets paid in nickels; and our omniscient and typically dry narrator (Bob Balaban, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) keeps reminding us of a rapidly approaching violent weather system. The abstract inclusion of an all-knowing narrator who has no interest or stake in the protagonists and instead is totally preoccupied with the trivialities of the elements is a particularly humorous touch.

The lovers prove their unflappable resilience through many a harrowing obstacle. In spite of all the grownup forces coming down on them, they maintain and fight to stay together through thick and thin. The irony is that their simple and immature relationship proves more hardy and meaningful than any of the snuffed romances of the adults in this universe. It’s pretty adorable.

The film is full of softness. Perhaps that is the best way to describe Anderson’s movies. They have a gentle, calculated current flowing through them. There’s also a charming innocence, best manifested in the story of Sam and Suzy running away to live off the land. It’s cute, quirky, and always a pleasure to look at. I’d say the filmmaker that reminds me most of Wes Anderson might actually be the legendary Jacques Tati. Tati had a brilliant knack for clever shot setups, stillness, suspended moments of comedy trapped in time, and softness. Anderson has a similar style (but quite different as well) and he seems to love showing us something that we will never confuse with real life. It’s a movie, so let us delight in what we can do that we cannot have in real life. His worlds are sort of like living cartoon panels. Perhaps why Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a seamless transition into the world of animation.

Moonrise Kingdom might be more of the same, but it also might be something a little different. It’s got the typical dollhouse cross-section layouts and quirky, unnatural mise-en-scène. Then there’s the pleasingly otherworldly color schemes and ornate clothing and details. There’s also deadpan emotional stand-offishness and quiet, amusing line delivery. All the standard Wes Anderson flair is there. It seems to be his first real romantic comedy (the other films have romantic elements and kooky love triangles but it’s rarely the central focus) and it’s also his first movie about camping. I have to mention this because the camp thing (not campy, but actual camp) it sort of is its own genre. There’s stuff like Bushwhacked (1995), Heavyweights (1995), Camp Nowhere (1994), Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Meatballs (1979), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989) to name a few (notice not the horror flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp). I daresay, though this list may be on the weak side, some folks still have nostalgic reactions to them. Do we count Space Camp (1986)? All this to say that Moonrise Kingdom is probably the best camp movie. Ever. The romance bit is of note because it is one of the more inventive love plots to come around in a long time. Ignoring that it’s a Wes Anderson movie, it’s a standout camp movie and a standout romantic comedy.

All in all I really enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom. If you like Wes Anderson already then there won’t be a problem. It feels totally refreshingly un-Hollywood (despite the impressive cast) yet unmistakably American. It’s richly textured and wonderfully shot and the music and song choices are great. If you don’t like Wes Anderson, I don’t know that this will convert you, but maybe it will. It might be his sweetest film yet. Possibly his best since The Royal Tenenbaums.

The Movies You Didn’t See…because they’re too short

From Ivan Maximov to Kenneth Anger, some filmmakers excel at the short subject movie. The short film is a tricky beast and not everyone can be so succinct. I like short films and I admire the ingenuity behind the best and most clever ones. Here are a few.

"Meshes of the Afternoon" directed by Maya Deren

“Meshes of the Afternoon” directed by Maya Deren

I Met the Walrus (2007) was directed by Josh Raskin and was animated by James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina. So what is the film? It’s an animated interview with John Lennon. The film opens with a text informing the viewer that what they are about to hear is 14 year old Jerry Levitan (the film’s producer) talking to a candid John Lennon back in 1969. Basically the recorded voices are used as a backdrop for the visual tapestries that will follow. The artists behind I Met the Walrus work very hard to animate Lennon’s words as a sort of illustrated stream-of-consciousness that mirrors both Lennon’s train of thought and Levitan’s impression of the words being spoken. What starts out as a fairly novel idea by itself is stretched to the limits. Every thought, sentence, and syllable moves the vibrant canvas forward. Pictures are upside-down, right-side up, sideways, dancing, still, and all at once converging into the next idea as they are prompted to expand by Levitan’s questions. You get a real sense of the real John Lennon and see his logic unfold and build. Braithwaite handles all of the pen art while Karina manipulates all of the computerized illustrations and together they make the decades old interview feel as alive and trippy as if it were happening today. I Met the Walrus is a magical expedition into the mind of one of the most celebrated 20th century musicians and the filmmakers do a smashing job transporting us there. (approximately 5 minutes).

"I Met the Walrus"

“I Met the Walrus”

The next film hails from Russia and combines the brilliant animation of Aleksandr Petrov and the American story by Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea. This film was released in 1999 and features an animation technique that few do and one that Petrov does wonders with. Using a form of stop-motion that is achieved by carefully altering slow-drying paints on different layers of glass Petrov is able to conjure Hemingway’s simple tale to life with all the beauty and complexity of a rich oil painting. Every frame is a rich oil painting and the layers of glass allow for incredible depth, beauty, and nuance. Every time I see it I feel as though I am being transported into a dream. Petrov’s style is sumptuous and gorgeous and one can’t help but marvel at its stunning fluidity and life. The old man, Santiago, goes off into the sea by himself to fish and there wrestles with a giant marlin and the elements. The movie stays true to its source material. All of Petrov’s films are incredible to look at and this one is no exception. There is an atmosphere and tempo all its own in this world and I strongly encourage you to visit it yourself. (approximately 20 minutes).

The Old Man and the Sea

“The Old Man and the Sea”

The last film on my list today is a black and white live-action retelling of the story of the famous L. Frank Baum character, and it is titled Death to the Tinman (2007). I found this film online after watching director Ray Tintori’s earlier work, Jettison Your Loved Ones (2006). Tintori has also directed music videos including the memorably psychedelic “Time to Pretend” performed by MGMT. I was very impressed by what I saw in both Jettison and Tinman. The style is reminiscent of Guy Maddin and maybe Wes Anderson (if he directed Tetsuo), but something about it is all its own. The story follows the life of a lumberjack named Bill who lives in the town of Verton (the miracle capital of the America) in the early 1900s. Bill is in love with Jane, the pastor’s daughter, as the narrator explains. The narrator also tells us that the town did not like Bill for many possible reasons, one being that his valor makes the other firefighters look like cowards. The pastor has God put a curse on Bill’s axe and so his arms are severed and his old friend Paul Mermlestein fashions arms of tin for him. Other accidents cause him to lose his legs and the rest of his body, leading Paul to make him a man of tin. Meanwhile Bill’s body parts have been stolen and put back together into a “meat puppet,” but they lack the heart that Bill still possesses. Jane, however loves the meat puppet. Things go from bad to worse as Bill does anything he can to win Jane back. The finale is wonderfully sublime, tragic, and heartbreaking, but clever and extremely rewarding. The humor, creative style, and fantastic score by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin make Death to the Tinman something you won’t want to miss. (approximately 12 minutes).

"Death to the Tinman"

“Death to the Tinman”

Bonus: Ivan Ivanov-Vano and the amazing Yuriy Norshteyn staged one of the most incredible battles I have ever seen on film with Secha pri Kerzhentse (1971), and they did it all with stop motion religious icons. Check it out. (approximately 10 minutes).

"The Battle of Kerzhenets"

“The Battle of Kerzhenets”

Short films have a certain freedom that many feature films do not. The best ones say more with less. They can be more streamlined and sometimes they can be a lot more weird. Be sure to check out I Met the Walrus, The Old Man and the Sea, and Death to the Tinman, but don’t stop there. Keep looking. One more bonus short film to check out is Coleman Miller’s Uso Justo (2005) which uses found footage from an old black and white Mexican melodrama, but completely rewrites the subtitles into a very clever existential meta comedy in the spirit of Nietzsche and What’s Up Tiger Lily. Most of these films can be found online.

I might have write about more short films in the future.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” June 15, 2010