The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode VI – Stop Me!

Kill yourself:

We should quit while we're ahead.

We should quit while we’re ahead.

I already wrote at length about The Lone Ranger (2013). Read why it sucks HERE and save ten bucks.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

Like the ladykillers themselves masquerading as musicians so too the Coens seem to have been masquerading as the Farrellys.

It’s weird to see a film by the Coen Bros. (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) so far down on a list like this, but their version of The Ladykillers (2004) is just terrible. A decent cast, colorful setting, and great cinematography can’t make this garbage barge float. It looks pretty and some fun, goofy faces but the comedy and tone is so off. Sorry, Coens, but you don’t get to take one of my favorite British comedies and remake it dumber and with fart jokes. You are better than that. Stars Tom Hanks, Marlon Wayans, J.K. Simmons, and Irma P. Hall.

Meh:

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Still. Better than a Bert I. Gordon movie.

Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) is almost a lot of fun. I watched it because Stanley Tucci was in it and Ewan McGregor’s mustache and hair looked cool. I really did appreciate this film’s levity and that it managed to have scary monster fights in sunny daylight (unlike Pacific Rim) It’s light and weightless and anodyne. The special effects aren’t great and the story is fairly simple, but you could do worse.

Remember "Badlands"?

Remember “Badlands”?

Terrence Malick is responsible for several interesting and visually stunning movies (Tree of Life) and while his latest, To the Wonder (2012), is indeed beautifully shot, but its murky, elliptical plot comes off as a little pretentious. Looks good, but don’t really connect with the aimless story, which is a shame, because I feel like he was touching upon some important issues about love, faith, and feeling culturally isolated. Stars Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem, and Rachel McAdams.

That might make you a vegetarian.

This might make you a vegetarian.

I wish John Dies at the End (2012) was a better movie. It has so much wonderfully sick, inspired lunacy going for it and many of the zany twists are pulled off nicely. Dropouts have to save the world from a metaphysical alien drug that could destroy everything. The stuff Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-tep) tries to pull off here is crazy. Only he could pull it off. Or maybe Sam Raimi. Alas, much of the finished product feels disjointed and half-baked. It has made me want to read the book though. Paul Giamatti has a supporting role.

You can fly? That's weirdly charming.

You can fly? That’s weirdly charming.

Woody Allen only makes two kinds of movies: masterpieces and mediocres. I might be the only person in the world who was not smitten by the musical comedy, Everyone Says I Love You (1996). Some of the songs are cute and fun and it does have a couple funny moments, but ultimately it feels like a Hallmark card. It’s corny and harmless, but maybe Woody Allen doesn’t do ‘sweet’ as well as other things. Features Woody, Goldie Hawn, Alan Alda, Eward Norton, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Drew Barrymore, and more.

Getting More Interesting:

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

I kid you not, the worst review I saw of this film was a long, angry rant about how the Sicilian accents were not accurate enough.

It Was the Son (2012) is an Italian movie about paying debts to the mob following the unfortunate death of a young girl. The film looks great and has some interesting characters and a killer final two minutes. It’s not higher up because my brain wasn’t sure whether it was watching a comedy or a drama. I think it’s a bit of both, but I don’t know if it all congeals the way it should. I also probably shoould watch it when I’m not on a plane.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? ---Yeah, pretty much.

Is the lighting gonna be like this the whole movie? —Yeah, pretty much.

There was nothing but praise for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) so my lukewarm feelings were met with some hostility. It’s a fine film with some fine performances and shows one of the most important acts of legislation in American history. It looks normal and has a few of those scenes where a side character says something important at just the right time and a few scenes wrought with sudden emotional weight or a perfectly timed monologue. I guess it all felt a little safe and simple. Maybe that’s what was needed, but I be curious to see what a different director might have done with it.

Godzilla could still kick it's ass.

Godzilla could still kick it’s ass.

Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) was the perfect guy to direct the kaiju-homage flick, Pacific Rim (2013). I wish I liked this one more. The first few monster fights were fun, but they become repetitive. The robot suits are great, but they kill off the Russian and Chinese guys too soon. I thought it was going to be a fun all-the-countries-band-together-to-fight-the-monsters type thing. Most of the main characters are boring and tool-ish and the “drifting” thing is weird and ill-explained. I like the old kaiju movies for their cheesiness, and it was fun to see awesome special effects realize them with affection and detail, if only the story and characters had gotten a similar upgrade.

Here we go:

Choke me.

Choke me.

If you like sado-masochism, Japanese nudity, and genitalia-severence then this is the movie for you. Nagisa Ôshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses (1976) is based on the true story of a steamy romance that requires increasing amounts of pain incorporated into the act of sex until their mounting obsession results in tragedy. It’s got a lot of sex, but it ain’t always sexy and that’s part of the point, I think.

Deja vu!

Déjà vu!

Peter Lorre and Syndey Greenstreet star in this film noir based on an Eric Ambler novel. Jean Negulesco’s The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) is a bit of a poor man’s The Third Man, but it’s not bad. A pulp novelist becomes mixed up in a real-life European double-cross. It’s got a few decent twists and is a lot of fun if you like your noir.

It wasn't the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

It wasn’t the planes. It was naïveté killed the beast.

Jack Black gives a strangely nuanced performance in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011). Based on a true story, this little pseudo-mockumentary chronicles the events leading up to the murder of a nasty spinster (Shirley MacLaine) by the ineffably good-natured Bernie (Black). Justice isn’t all black & white and behind every small town tragedy is a hundred smaller stories.

Animals!

There's a predatory animal behind me. It's symbolism.

There’s a predatory animal behind me. It’s symbolism.

I’ll admit there’s not a whole lot terribly special about Murders in the Zoo (1933), but the finale really got me. Lionel Atwill stars as another nefarious ne’er-do-well in another crime melodrama. The lecherous zoo keeper isn’t exactly the most menacing of screen villains and maybe he doesn’t use his animals as much as we might like, but it’s a light romp through the pulpy shadows. It’s a typical genre piece from the period, but the ending is worth it.

Our movie's tiger than your movie's tiger and it's not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Our movie’s tiger is better than your movie’s tiger and it’s not even real. Pity about the bankruptcy.

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) paints a sumptuous adventure-survival tale with sweeping CG strokes in Life of Pi (2012). The colors and effects and music are great. The story is engaging and exciting. The guy who plays the Canadian author is terrible. It also suffers (or perhaps gains) from an ambiguous ending—that I say was handled slightly better in the book. All in all, it’s a worthy screen adaptation of the fun story of a young boy adrift at sea with a tiger.

Stop taking things so seriously and enjoy life:

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? "Man of Iron." Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn't in it.

You see that Andrzej Wajda movie? “Man of Iron.” Yeah, it was terrible. I wasn’t in it.

I was somewhat dismissive of the first two Iron Man movies, but Iron Man 3 (2013) was a lot of fun. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang director, Shane Black, gives us more laughs and more exciting action. Robert Downey, Jr. is as snarky as ever and Sir Ben Kingsley provides one of the more interesting twist-foils in any superhero movie. Iron Man might be kind of fun, but wandering Mechanic of Tennessee is more interesting.

beauty is embarrassing

Throw down that strongbox and answer the question.

Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) is a pleasing documentary about kooky, renegade media artist Wayne White. After working on several TV shows (including Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, and Shining Time Station) he turned his attentions to painting offensive and humorous slogans on top of thrift-shop landscape paintings. Puppet-maker, painter, sculptor, whatever, he’s eccentric and he can’t stop.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie---minus Salma and Harvey. It's so close.

Seriously. Recast this whole movie—minus Salma and Harvey. It’s so close.

Here’s the thing: I might actually hate 30-40% of this movie, but I love the rest. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) is a wild, genre-bending grindhouse splatterfest from director Robert Rodriguez and writer Quentin Tarantino. Some bad guys kidnap a family to escape across the border and hide out at a rowdy desert bar that is run by…demon vampires! It’s ridiculous fun and the final matte painting composite shot is awesome. It’s a lot of over-the-top, ridiculous fun but it seriously needs to be almost entirely recast (with the exceptions of Harvey Keitel and Salma Hayek).  Also features George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, John Saxon, Cheech Marin (he can stay), Danny Trejo (he needs to do more cool stuff), Tom Savini (he can stay too), and Fred Williamson (he needs to do more cool stuff too).

Three parts greatness:

Tune in again in 9 years for "Before Brunch."

Tune in again in 9 years for “Before Brunch.”

The third installment of Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke’s romantic series, Before Midnight (2013) sees the characters aging more and more. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset comes to a close…maybe? Taking place on one day at the end of a family vacation in Greece, we witness how they deal with their relationships, careers, divorce, children, and each other. While it might be sad that they seem more at each other’s throats than ever, perhaps it is the only logical place these two headstrong characters can go. Perhaps not quite as sublime as the first two films, this latest chapter is rewarding for those of us who love these characters already and want to see what will happen next.

These aren't the state secrets you're looking for.

These aren’t the state secrets you’re looking for.

Carol Reed (The Third Man) directs Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) in an adaptation of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (1959). A milquetoast expat vacuum salesman living in Cuba with his daughter gets commissioned by the British government to be a spy. A slight embellishment gets blown out of proportion in this Cold War comedy and tensions and fears run high as the impromptu spy desperately tries to hide his fib and keep people from getting killed. Also stars Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, Sir Ralph Richardson, and Noel Coward.

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1...

Buscemi freak-out in 3-2-1…

Living in Oblivion (1995) is a must-watch for any aspiring filmmaker. Yes, even moreso than Ed Wood. It’s a dark comedy about the struggles and trials of making a low budget independent movie. The mounting tensions, increasingly short fuses, and unraveling strings of sanity are catalogued in three parts, each taking a different perspective. Anyone who has ever worked on a set will recognize every single crisis showcased here and anyone who has not might wonder why anyone would ever want to make a movie if it takes so many headaches. Steve Buschemi, Katherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney, James LeGros, and Peter Dinklage star.

Ever stalwart:

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

The classic riches to rags to riches story.

French comedian and filmmaker, Pierre Étaix, keeps pantomime alive (like Jacques Tati) in Yo Yo (1965). It’s a quaint, cute, and visually inventive comedy about a billionaire who loses everything and joins the circus to find love. The sets and sight gags are wonderful and the story is sweet and complete.

It's been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

It’s been a few scenes since I saran-wrapped a cat.

The perverse Australian cult hit Bad Boy Bubby (1993) is sick and twisted and abrasive and strangely pensive, cutting, and eloquent. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) is locked in his sadistic and abusive mother’s basement for 30 years before he escapes only to be confronted by a harsh, terrible, beautiful, tragic, funny, demented world he could never be prepared for. Like Being There and The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, we learn much about society by watching these obtuse yet perceptive innocents interact with a world we have just learned to accept. Bubby has to learn everything all over again. It’s a deranged and graphic satire full of horrors and heart.

Apex twins:

Love is hard sometimes.

Love is hard sometimes.

In the Mood for Love (2000) is a sad romance about isolation, longing, and missed opportunities. Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express) directs Tony Leung (Lust, Caution) and Maggie Cheung (2046) as two lonely souls in 1960s Hong Kong. Both feel disconnected from their never-present spouses and seek to enjoy the company of each other, but gradually develop deeper feelings. Through simple interactions and quiet conversations their love grows, but their situation, their culture, and the disaffected sands of time continue to erect barriers. It’s a beautiful film full of regret.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would've weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

At the time of his death, if he were on Jupiter, Elvis would’ve weighed six-hundred and forty-eight pounds.

Mystery Train (1989) is easily my favorite Jim Jarmusch (Coffee and Cigarettes) film. There are three mostly unrelated stories set in Memphis on the same day. There is a yuppie Japanese couple straining to see their romanticized image of a fabulous musical metropolis rich in blues history. There is a stranded Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) who must share a hotel room with a vacuous American chatterbox. And then there is the story of the chatterbox’s unemployed and irascible English boyfriend and his friends (including Steve Buschemi) who try to keep him from hurting himself and others until the sober dawn. All the characters must spend the night at a dilapidated city hotel run by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee.

What did you see? Anything good?

Woody Allen, Alec Guinness, and Segei Prokofiev

So these two movies I want to mention today have almost nothing in common except that they are both wonderful comedies, star some of my favorite people, and feature Sergei Prokofiev’s effervescent Lieutenant Kijé – Troika (fourth movement) as their theme music. It just goes to show you how filmmakers can take great classical pieces and change their meaning. Consider Stanley Kubrick’s use of classical music in many of his films. It’s hard for many people to hear Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 by Strauss without seeing weird lunar eclipses and apes bashing tapir’s brains in. It’s hard for many people to hear Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 without imagining a humble and unprejudiced pig quietly herding sheep around a green. Do you first think Paul Dukas or Mickey Mouse when you hear the uppity bassoons from The Sorceror’s Apprentice? Sometimes movies take great music and make it their own by redefining it and giving it new context.

Me? I can’t hear “Journey of the Sorceror” by the Eagles without thinking the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio show is about to come on.

Sir Alec Guinness must have seen the comedic potential in this bouncy Russian tune for his film about a hard-headed artist named Gulley Jimson in the film The Horse’s Mouth (1958). Woody Allen’s use of the same piece might seem more logical as Love and Death (1975) is a satire on great Russian literature. In any event, such good movies, no matter how unrelated, deserve another mention.

The Horse’s Mouth is one of the movies I am sad more people haven’t heard of. Directed by Ronald Neame (The Poseidon Advneture, Hopscotch), The Horse’s Mouth is a splendidly buoyant and enjoyable little British comedy that stars the great Alec Guinness. Guinness is one of the British legends who most people probably only know as Obiwan Kenobi from the original Star Wars movies. In addition to jedi master he was also in many of the equally great David Lean films (Great ExpectationsOliver Twist, Lawrence of Arabia, and Dr. Zhivago) and Ealing studios comedies (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and my personal favorite, The Ladykillers). He was also George Smiley from the miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979). The Horse’s Mouth was the film Guinness did right after he won the Academy Award for his performance in Lean’s (best film, so says I) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and it’s also the only film for which he wrote the screenplay. Like another legendary British performer, Charles Laughton who only directed one movie, the amazing Night of the Hunter (1955), Guinness proved he was more than a talented actor with this singular outing as writer.

Prokofiev’s piece gives The Horse’s Mouth an extra does of comic energy at just the right times and fits the film perfectly.

Gulley Jimson is a lovable rogue. He’s eccentric. He’s a drunk. He’s lazy. He lies. He’s pinches women’s behinds. He’s in and out of jail. He lives on a dilapidated boat next to a crazy person. He ignores social parameters. He’s a struggling artist who wants to do things his own way. The Horse’s Mouth was based on a book by Joyce Cary, but Guinness makes it his own. He crafts a very fun character, with gravelly voice and tattered clothes. Despite it being a comedy, there is in fact a lot of pathos. Jimson is old and depends upon his long-suffering barmaid friend, Coker (Kay Walsh). The sparks and animosity shared between these two old souls could only have been founded in feelings of affection from somewhere down deep. Jimson may be eccentric, but he’s a three-dimensional character and we understand his plight. He wants to leave his mark. He sees wondrous artistic potential everywhere, but can’t find money and rarely feels too proud of his work once it’s completed. Life is a neverending wave of brilliant horizons and disappointing sunsets for Jimson. But why go on about the minutiae of the plot? Just watch the movie. It’s wonderful and funny and reveals much about Guinness’s talents as an actor and a writer. Michael Gough (perhaps most famous as Alfred from the Burton and Schumacher Batmans) and Ernst Thesiger (the incomparable Dr. Septimus Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein) also have supporting roles.

So Woody Allen is still making movies. After making at least one movie every year since 1965, the 76 year old New York intellectual nebbish director, actor, writer is still going. For my money Allen’s best work comes out of the 70s. Titles like Bananas, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper,  Annie Hall, and Manhattan are just a few reasons why he’s an important filmmaker. His skewering of Russian authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and even, curiously, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, is Love and Death. As usual, Allen wrote, directed, and starred in this fun classic comedy. This film was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall and that whole paradigm shift into the realm of mixing realism alongside his oddball style of humor. It followed Sleeper which was a hilarious mixture of Rip van Winkle, science fiction dystopias, and silent comedy. What all of this means is that Love and Death is still just a zany comedy for comedy’s sake (which is totally fine). What makes it work is that it mixes philosophy, theology, and history together so well and the anachronistic Jewish New Yorker with glasses and incessant existential crises just fits in with the philosophies but so humorously against the historical backdrop.

Once again, Prokofiev’s enchanting melody gives us an upbeat tempo and sets the tone. It feels unmistakably Russian but it’s joy and snappy pace are like Allen in that their levity offsets the heavy philosophical and theological quagmires suffered by the characters. It’s comedy.

Allen is Boris, the third son of a proud family or oblivious weirdos. In love with his promiscuous cousin (Diane Keaton, of course), but sent to fight the French in battle, the anemic hero must survive wars, duals, dullards, and cold Russian winters to be with his beloved cousin again. In the end they decide to attempt to assassinate Napoleon (played by James Tolkan from Back to the Future). There are some great lines and wonderful sight gags and clever riffs on classical literature in this movie and it is very funny from start to finish. My one complaint is that it does sort of run out of steam by the third act but the finale is enjoyably underwhelming. It’s about Woody Allen’s two favorite subjects; love and death, and his comedy is always best when it’s subject matter is a little depressing. Interestingly enough, the final lines from Sleeper are a response to if he believes in anything. His answer in Sleeper was, “sex and death.” Coincidental lead in to this movie?

For people who only know Sir Alec Guinness from his dramatic roles and Star Wars I would strongly suggest you check out his comedies. The Horse’s Mouth showcases Guinness’s comedic prowess as well as considerable writing talents. And for those of you who only know Woody Allen from Antz and Midnight in Paris, you should really acquaint yourself with his 70’s work and Love and Death is a pretty good place to start. I liked Prokofiev’s music before, but it’s fun to see it being used in different contexts. Whether it be a rambunctious renegade painter scarpering off into the horizon or Woody Allen dancing with the grim reaper we can all tap our toes along to this familiar, lively piece.