As a huge fan of "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" (and, for that matter, the TV show "Spaced" and the movie "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"), the one must-see movie on this summer's list was the latest from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and I'm pleased to say I was not disappointed. The story of a drunken loser (Pegg) who coaxes his straitlaced mates to join him in a pub crawl combined just the right elements of wistful nostalgia, mournful regret and, as the story turns in the second act, an alien invasion. I had a genuine moment of idiocy watching "The World's End," thinking "Gee, Martin Freeman's character seems oddly upbeat all of a sudden" at the exact same time I was wondering "Gee, I wonder if any of the main characters will be replaced by robots" without once putting two and two together. And I have to applaud the ending of the movie -- I honestly didn't expect it to go as far as it did. Great use of Bill Nighy, too (or at least his voice.)
Just as the documentary "Hearts of Darkness" is at times more fascinating than the movie it's describing, "Apocalypse Now," so is this documentary about Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo" more interesting than the fictional film. Or at least that's my assumption. I haven't actually seen more than a few clips of "Fitzcarraldo," but I can't imagine it being more compelling that this real-life tale of an obsessed/obsessive director trying to drag a steamship over a mountain in South America for the sake of a movie. The movie begins with a glimpse of original leads Jason Robards and Mick Jagger before they had to leave the movie due to Robard's illness, then proceeds to Herzog losing one remote location, hiring his usual crazed collaborator Klaus Kinski, then trying again and again (and again) to get that damn boat up the hill. My favorite part? When the locals demonstrate how they make a potent drink by chewing up mashed-up root and spitting it back into the bowl. Even Klaus Kinski, no stranger to bizarre behavior, was unwilling to drink that potion.
Why does a talented director like Steven Soderbergh announce his retirement while countless hacks continue to pollute our movie and TV screens? Grrrr. Well, if this is indeed Soderbergh's last cinematic effort (personally, I have my doubts), he went out in fine style. It's not a piece of art or a groundbreaking work in film, but "Side Effects" is the sort of smart, suspenseful drama that barely seems to exist these days. I don't want to give away the plot because the twists and turns are more than half the fun, but the movie begins with a troubled young wife (Mara Rooney, very good) struggling with mental health issues who begins a new drug regimen. What looks to be a torn-from-today's-headlines serious look at modern medication becomes something else, then becomes something else again. Suffice to say it's well-acted by everyone and, with Soderbergh behind the camera (he handled the cinematography too, billed as "Peter Andrews"), it looks spectacular and zips right along.
Hadn't seen this animated movie since its 1998 release, but it's not bad, especially as an example of what cel animation could be before the current style of computer visuals took over. (There are plenty of computer effects in "Prince of Egypt," of course, but they're more subtly integrated into the overall look.) The story of Moses is really made for animation, with the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (complete with whales floating in the walls of water) looking especially impressive. The most memorable scene, though, is the first Passover, when the spirit of God swirls down from the skies and kills the first-born sons in each household. It's filmed like a horror movie, with no music and only the eerie echo of the wind on the soundtrack ... until, that is, the wailing of the parents begins. Pretty chilling stuff, especially for a big-budget musical cartoon.
Ever since his epic "Boogie Nights," P.T. Anderson has always talked about making his next movie a simpler, more stripped-down affair. He rarely even really tries -- just look at "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood" or "The Master" -- but his first feature-length film was indeed a lean, clean look at the underbelly of the gambling world. With only four characters of any note and scenes that take place in a handful of casinos, coffee shops and hotel rooms, it's obviously a first film -- but also obviously something special from a director destined for big things. The performances carry most of the weight, with Anderson regulars Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly as mentor and protege, supported by Gwyneth Paltrow as the love interest and Samuel L. Jackson as the, forgive the pun, wild card.
If you think Turner Classic Movies only shows quaint old films for the whole family, you need to tune in during the middle of the night sometime. This 1929 surrealist classic by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali showed up recently in the wee hours, presented as part of TCM's programming inspired by the excellent "Story of Film: An Odyssey" series the channel is showing this fall. So why did it air in the middle of the night? Well, "Un Chien Andalou" might be 84 years old, but it's still pretty strong stuff. This, as the above poster hints, is the notorious film that begins with a razor slicing an eyeball (don't worry -- it's just an egg yolk) and gets more bizarre as it goes. Brief nudity, perverse relations, dead cows and ants emerging from a hole in a guy's hand. The fact that it's an old, black-and-white movie makes the strangeness even stranger.
Another short film broadcast by the fine folks at TCM. Chris Marker's 1962 science fiction mini-epic takes place in a grim future where cruel scientists send a man back into the past to try and discover a way to prevent the world's sad fate. Sound familiar? It should. Terry Gilliam was inspired by "La Jetee" when he made "12 Monkeys" a few decades later. Marker's movie lacks the scope and star-power (and color) of Gilliam's film, but it's pretty amazing in its own right. Told through a series of still images, it's spellbinding in the way it depicts the future, the past and the longing for a connection between the two. Watch carefully, because there's one magic moment when one of the still images actually moves. It's barely there, but it has a tremendous impact.
Another great one from British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Wendy Hiller plays a determined woman with her whole life planned (the title is her personal philosophy), including a financially beneficial marriage to a rich industrialist. But when she arrives in Scotland, the weather -- and, of course, fate -- prevent her from journeying to his island, and she spend a few days with a Navy officer (Powell/Pressburger favorite Roger Livesay) that make her, for the first time, question her grand scheme. I'm sure you can guess where the plot is leading, but what makes "I Know Where I'm Going" special is the same thing that makes all the Powell/Pressburger films special -- a sense of magic realism that lends every frame, every moment and every word (spoken or unspoken) a sense of almost cosmic significance.
I don't think I've watched this post-apocalyptic oddity since my long-ago college days, but TCM (them again!) ran it a few nights ago. I'd forgotten just how well it works -- it's simple, unsubtle and definitely low-budget, but damn, it really delivers the good. Don Johnson, impossibly young, plays Vic, a wanderer of the post-World War IV wasteland, looking for canned food to eat and women (willing or unwilling) to "use." His loyal companion is Blood, a hyper-intelligent dog who communicates with Vic via telepathy. (Blood is played by Tiger from "The Brady Bunch" and voiced by the late, great Tim McIntire, who played Alan Freed in the 1978 obscurity "American Hot Wax.") I remembered what everyone remembers: the twisted joke of an ending (and it's a good joke), but I'd completely forgotten about the outdoor theater Vic and Blood visit late one night. The films, scratchy and run through an ailing projector, are creepy combinations of violence and sexploitation, obviously made on the cheap. I don't know if director L.Q. Jones filmed them, fobbed them off on a second unit or cobbled them together from actual black-and-white roughies, but they really seem like the last movies ever made, cranked out for pennies to appeal to a civilization that didn't have much time left. It's that imagination -- and attention to detail -- that makes "A Boy and His Dog" worth watching, even if you know how it's going to end.