Hell on Wheels

2004 Tour de France documentary

Rating: 13/20

Plot: This documentary is an intimate look at a German racing team during the 2003 Tour de France. Focused mostly on Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldrag, teammates and roommates who bicker over who gets to hold the remote control, the film takes a look at the trials and tribulations of cyclists during the three weeks this race goes on. Peppered throughout is historical black and white footage of earlier tours.

This was recommended by my brother, a cyclist. I wonder how much enjoyment I'm missing because I don't know diddly-squat about the sport or have any interest in any of these people. It's beautifully filmed with lots of great landscape shots of France, and a movie can never have too many scenes with old man massaging the legs of cyclists. It all looks very dangerous (lots of road burns, bruises, nicks) and is frequently exciting, but the documentary itself could have used some editing and less music. Gruelling work for the cyclists, I'm sure, but watching the thing also made me pretty tired. I was amazed at some of the badassery--one guy rode with a broken collarbone and another with a broken coccyx. One guy, I know, only rode with one testicle, but they didn't talk about that. It should be noted that both cyclists at the center of this documentary later confessed to doping in the nineties.

The Beast of Yucca Flats

1961 horror movie

Rating: 2/20

Plot: A housewife enters the sitting room where Father is reading his morning newspaper.

"Honey, have you seen our video camera?" she asks.
"Yeah," he replies while sucking his pipe. "The boys said they needed it for some sort of project. Some sort of monster movie. They took it down to Yucca Flats." He shrugs a boys-will-be-boys shrug.
"Are you sure they will be careful with it? They've only got the combined chronological age of 13 and the combined mental age of 4."
"Ah, sure," Father says confidently. "Besides, they talked our neighbor into going along for the ride. You know, former-wrestler and now professional actor Tor Johnson?"
"Oh, that's good." She ponders the situation. "Honey, did you tell them that the camera can no longer record sound?"
"Sound schmound! They can always just add that in later, right?"
"Oh, I guess so." She begins to dust a bookshelf and notices and empty rabbit cage. "Hey, where'd our pet rabbit go?"

Lots to love in this excellent terrible movie. It's Tor Johnson's (of Plan Nine "fame") last role, and he's brilliant in it as a Russian scientist who is exposed to atomic radiation and spends the movie being really big and lurking around. I'm sure that was a character stretch. This is just gloriously inept filmmaking, and I find it nearly impossible to believe that there was a budget at all. There was, I noted, a guy credited with "visual effects," but I have no idea what the hell that guy could have done. There's a parachuting scene that shows extreme close-ups to cover up the fact that nobody is ever in a plane or more than two feet off the ground. I guess that's an effect. I know it's pretty special! And Tor Johnson's got some warts or something. The very best part is the narration, this oddly noirish narrator who either states the obvious ("They climb the mountain carefully, trying to get to the top.") or just throws out some off-the-wall comment. "Boys from the city, not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to thirsty pigs." What? "Flag on the moon. How did it get there?" Huh? Flag on the moon? Was there a flag on the moon in 1961? "110 degrees in the shade. And no shade." So noirish! "Nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers." What's that have to do with anything? There's very little actual dialogue in the movie, and when it's there, it sounds like it was recorded in the largest room ever constructed. It's like watching a silent movie with narration most of the time. Actually, you can find the narrative text here if interested:


So, I can't decide. This is either one of the worst movies ever made or one of the greatest. Regardless, I think it could possibly be what I buy everybody I know for Christmas.


2007 heist thriller

Rating: 11/20 (Dylan: 8/20; Abbey: 20/20)

Plot: Laura is a frustrated hard-working executive at the London Diamond Corporation. She's a little fed up after watching man after man after man after man get promoted before her. A janitor comes to her with a plan to steal a ton of diamonds.

Calling a movie Flawless is just setting critics up, especially when the movie has Demi Moore with an English accent that makes Madonna's English accent sound real. Michael Caine is as enjoyable to watch as he ordinarily is, but this movie drags, never really getting off the ground. I did sort of like the story, but there was nothing special about the filmmaking. The UK sure makes stuffy, dull movies.

This was a plane movie. It's not the ideal way to watch a movie.

The Giant Gila Monster

1959 horror movie

Rating: 5/20

Plot: A giant Gila monster that is apparently driven mad at the sound of the theremin stomps about and needs to be stopped before it knocks over more hot rods and completely ruins the 1950's. A ubiquitous teenage mechanic with dreams of becoming a rock 'n' roll superstar works with the town sheriff to rid the town of the beast.

Considering this is the work of Ray Kellogg (the man who infamously has characters watching a sunset in the east at the end of The Green Berets), one can't expect anything intelligent. And intelligent it ain't. You've got terrible special effects (a normal-sized Gila Monster filmed among miniatures), treacly subplot involving the main character's crippled little sister and his aspirations to record hit music featuring the ukulele, some really bad and possibly inappropriate songs, numerous implausibilities, bad lighting that casts characters' shadows really high on the wall behind them, and times where characters are literally shown on screen trying to remember their lines. This is more typically bad than hilariously bad, but it's still entertaining enough to make children laugh regardless of whether or not they've eaten the mushrooms the ubiquitous teenager is apparently singing about in his song. Definitely a product of its time, this is highly recommended to anybody who likes hot rods, cuffed pants, sock hops, or giant reptiles.

Note: Abbey couldn't finish watching this. Seven year olds have better things to do apparently.

The House on Haunted Hill

1959 horror movie

Rating: 13/20 (Abbey: 20/20)

Plot: Vincent Price and his wife invite five people they sort of know to a slumber party in a haunted house. The hosts offer one thousand dollars to the guests who can survive the night in the house.

I like Vincent Price best when he plays deranged oddballs. This loopy mystery doesn't completely work, but it's at least entertaining. The rapport between Price and his wife (they want each other dead) is fun. The other characters could have been a little rounder though. Aside from some campy set pieces (why is there an acid pit in the house?), there are some genuine creepy moments as well as some scenes that are so goofy (the party favors, the skeleton) that they are impossible not to like. Unfortunately, there's also an oppressive soundtrack. I'm starting to think that Abbey's strategy for rating movies is flawed. She did compare this to Scooby Doo which, I believe, was a positive in her eyes.

The Bat

1959 horror mystery

Rating: 9/20

Plot: A serial killer, "The Bat," is on the loose during a time when self-respecting criminals had style and didn't even bother going out causing mischief unless they had a really cool nickname and costume. A banker, a doctor, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, an investigator, a woman, the woman's fiance, a female mystery writer, her assistant, a cook, a thief, a wife, her lover, an embezzler, and about sixty-seven other characters somehow get involved. A mystery is solved!

Vincent Price, since he is the greatest actor who ever live, is good as usual, but the rest of this is devoid of entertainment value. At first, I just thought the plot was really clunky and confusing. Then, I realized that whoever made this was actually trying to make a mystery and that I was supposed to be confused. Attempts to trick the audience wind up making the storytelling illogical and nonsensical. They don't work anyway. You can see the finale coming from 9/10 of a mile away.

White Zombie

1932 horror film

Rating: 13/20

Plot: Honeymooners in Haiti have their trip ruined by a jealous third wheel, some corpses, and Bela Lugosi's ridiculous facial hair. Zombies roam about. To help out that jealous third wheel, Bela Lugosi does some trick involving staring intently and interlocking his hands to turn the bride into a (pause for effect) white zombie.

Madge Bellamy doesn't roam with arms extended and breasts exposed as the poster might suggest. And since this is 1932, the performance of "his every desire" is not shown on screen. Blame 1932 for the abysmal acting, especially from the honeymooners. It's hard to tell when Madge Bellamy is playing a zombie and when she's not. Her bad performance, however, is topped by the soap opera melodramatic sing-song delivery of the male lead, a guy who obviously still felt the need to emote just like they did in the silent era in which he no doubt worked quite a bit. Bela Lugosi is a fantastic exception, and his facial hair actually does steal the show. There are also some clever camera shots, and there are a couple scenes (zombies working in a mill, a graveyard scene) that stir up enough mystery to give White Zombie some atmosphere.

The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe

1972 martial arts spaghetti western

Rating: 12/20

Plot: It's the 1880's, and Joe decides to immigrate from China to San Francisco to look for a fresh start in America. He encounters racism immediately, and the prejudice and hatred continue as he travels by stagecoach to Texas and looks for work as a cowboy on a ranch. He finally lands a job, but aiding in the transport of Mexican slaves isn't exactly up his alley. He decides to help the Mexicans instead, so the owner puts a price on Shanghai Joe's head. The promise of 5,000 dollars sends bounty hunters named Pedro the Cannibal, Tricky the Gambler, and Scalper Jack after our hero and his fighting fists.

It's a martial arts spaghetti western with Klaus Kinski playing a guy named Scalper Jack. I don't see how anything else needs to be said. Joe's high-flying antics and groan (it's a groan that rivals Bruce's bird tweets) are fun to watch, more fun perhaps in the western setting. There's some incredibly violent scenes (impaling, eyes torn out, scalps) and a nice mix of the Asian philosophy with the rugged ideals of the American West. Pretty cool characters, too! This movie has an abundance of funk! I highly recommend this to anybody who likes this kind of crap.

Believe it or not, this was a gift from one of my students.


1995 uplifting children's movie

Rating: 16/20 (Dylan: 15/20, Emma: 18/20, Abbey: 20/20)

Plot: After Robert "Bobbi" "Babe" Morgenson, a transvestite prostitute living in Ogden, Utah, watches her pimp (a less-than-gallant character played by Donny Osmond) massacred with a meat slicer, he/she decides to leave his/her past behind him/her and try to achieve his/her childhood aspiration of becoming a butcher. He/She rinses off the meat slicer and heads for Salt Lake City where, confused about how life as a butcher actually works, he/she hires thugs to procure livestock from Salt Lake City farms and chops them to pieces. Hilarity ensues.

It should be noted that the guy who wrote Babe's screenplay (George Miller) first made a name for himself writing the three Mad Max movies. I'm not sure that adds up. This is quality children's fare. The best one-word description I can think of for this movie would be cozy. The colors, the music, the sparse narration, the gentleness of the main human character (wonderfully played by James Cromwell), the almost fairy-tale "Once Upon a Time" in Anywhere (heck, it could have been Ogden, Utah) setting, the use of chapter titles, and the quiet way the film delivers messages about love and loss and dreams all contribute to deliver something timeless and rich. It's as comfortable as a favorite shoe; it's something you're used to seeing while simultaneously being unique and original. It's still hard to believe that a movie with talking animals manages to stay charming for an hour and a half, especially since talking animals movies (Homeward Bound, Cats and Dogs, Racing Stripes) generally belong on my least-favorite-movies-ever lists. The special effects are good, and although I don't like all of the characters (some, in fact, are completely useless), most of the animals add color to the farm setting and enrich the story. Babe crosses the line into Sillyland (I hate those singing mice) a few times, but it is, after all, a movie for kids. And the climax is handled so delicately and masterfully, it makes up for all the times this reminds me of those other talking animal movies. Its sins, therefore, can be partially forgiven.

My nephew Caden picked this movie but didn't end up watching much of it.

Mrs. Miniver

1942 propaganda film

Rating: 16/20 (Dylan: 9/20)

Plot: It's the late 1930's in England, and apparently there's some kind of war going on. I don't know much about history. The Minivers are an upper-middle-class loving family. Phin/Sven/Fin/Vin, the oldest son, joins the air force and falls in love and marries his sweetheart. The rest of the family--the title character, her husband, and two funny-looking young children--sit around doing nothing at all most of the time, but the war, as all wars do, reaches them in ways they could never have imagined.

I teared up a little but made up for it by laughing inappropriately during a scene at the end that was supposed to be heartbreaking. My only complaint about this movie is terrible child acting unless I'm missing that Mrs. Miniver's children were supposed to be mentally challenged (it was never addressed). There's some historical accuracies, touches (see: upside-down pipe) probably not difficult to achieve since this was made in the middle of things. Director Wyler reportedly made this to tweak the average Americans' ideas about the war in Europe. Surprisingly, it's not all that dated and isn't nearly as sentimentally drippy as I expected.

My father not only recommended this movie, he bought it for me last Christmas. It's his favorite movie, one of about two dozen movies he's told me is his favorite including, most bizarrely, Somewhere in Time.

Still vacationing. I don't even have enough time to show up on film!

Benjamin Smoke

2000 musical documentary

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Sometimes touching and intimate documentary about Southern white trash drag queen Richard Dickerson as he fronts his band Smoke and battles AIDS.

This portrait of the artist as a dying man is somewhat difficult to watch. Watching people die, I guess, isn't supposed to be fun. The music's good, and the directors do a good job of allowing "Benjamin" to come to life in his own way by letting the camera just watch him live. Or try his best to live. Loosey-goosey and wandering, it winds up being an intimate portrayal of an eccentric able to put a few check marks next to items on his "must do" list before death. Pretty cool.

I'm vacationing. No picture.

Far Side of the Moon

2003 drama

Rating: 11/20

Plot: Estranged brothers cope with the loss of their mother, a woman who had really nice legs. Subsequently, I'm bored nearly to tears.

Symbolically bulbous. I can't really pinpoint what my problem was with this, but I didn't like it. Fine acting (the writer/director plays dual roles) and some nifty directorial touches (especially with transitions between scenes and flashbacks), but the metaphors were heavy-handed, almost like grade school symbolism, and several scenes just refused to end. Far Side of the Moon also lacks a moment, a scene that nails you in the back of the head and makes you feel anything at all. Interesting ending, but it's just interesting. It's not a moment.

Speaking of the back of my head:


2007 animated memoir

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Free-thinking future prophet and kung-fu expert Marjane grows up in Iran during a revolution and a war. She watches family and friends suffer for beliefs, imprisoned and in some cases even killed. She's sent to Austria as a teenager, eventually transitioning from a detached outsider to a depressed homeless girl. Breasts arrive. She returns to her homeland and family but finds Iran has not become any easier, especially for a female, even though the war is over.

The first part of Persepolis manages to balance the innocence of childhood with the evils of the world in a way that nearly rivals Grave of the Fireflies. And like that movie, this one brought some tears. The story's at times a little loose and sketchy, but I guess that's how childhood memories work. Sketches of conversations, symbols and snippets. The heaviness of the narrative, both the personal and political, is made a little easier to swallow with some humorous moments. Even the stark black and white old school animation, mostly pretty bleak, has moments that'll bring smiles. And that animation is striking. I just love when an artist can take established forms and create something completely fresh and personal. A great creative use of the medium to paint some unforgettable imagery. Swallowing blacks, shifting shapes, violent tableaus. Graceful and moving. I did like that cute little Parisian mouse a lot, but it'd be hard for me to pick the best animated feature of 2007.

There's an animated mouse living in my hair:

Pierrot Goes Wild

1965 cinematic anarchy

Rating: 17/20

Plot: Completely bored with his own life and appalled by the superficialities of modern society, literature-lover and failed poet Ferninand (not Pierrot) flees town with his children's babysitter Marienne. Marienne, it turns out, is mixed up with a motley crew of gun-runners, and following a murder, the lovers find themselves on the lam. Then, succumbing to peer pressure and the teasing cameras, "Pierrot" repeatedly exposes his wild wild nipples.

This equivalent of cinematic pop art is more than likely the inspiration for all those "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Hockney-esque, Warholish, and Lichtensteinian, Godard borrows from comic books, American film genres (humorously, the crime movie, the road movie, musicals, romantic drama), advertising (dialogue at a party early in the morning is plundered from ads), poetry, and painting and slaps it all together into a freeform stew of cinematic anarchy. The result is wildly chaotic, original and fun, funny and poignant, and frequently beautiful. My favorite scenes: the midget gangster and his eventual demise, the gun-runners' dance scene on a beach, an extended long-shot in Marienne's apartment before they leave town, the numerous non-sequiturs peppering the script (the best being Pierrot's final conversation he has with a stranger about a song), the surreal car accident, the explosive denouement. What at times seems like a guy just dicking around, Godard actually has a lot to say about romantic relationships, language futility, emotions, and the role and possibilities of cinema. I gave this movie a bonus point just because of how good Anna Karina looks. Samuel Fuller, who isn't nearly as cute, has a cameo in this one. At times very similar to Godard's Week-end, but it also reminded me a lot of Jeunet's Amelie. Maybe it's the Frenchness.

Get this head a beret!

The Bride with White Hair

1993 martial artsy romantic drama

Rating: 9/20

Plot: Cho Yi-Hang is a gentle swordsman and the future head of the Wu-Tang Clan. Lien is a trained assassin for a wicked cult led by evil siamese twins. They should want to kill each other, but they instead fall in love and screw repeatedly by a waterfall.

A girl raised by wolves and later trained to fly around and use a whip to chop people in half? Psychotic, shape-shifting siamese twins? Men spontaneously growing breasts? Heads rolling around? Fire? A kung-fu Romeo and Juliet? Who can ask for anything more? Unfortunately, the characters are really uninteresting types, and the production looks really cheap. So much in-studio work here with creepy lighting, one-color backgrounds, and smoke machines, and although there's initially a moody and haunting novelty, it ultimately comes across as a one-note, toneless affair. Pretty dull stuff. The kung-fu wasn't any good either. I liked that whip though. It is difficult to understand how a person can be ripped in half at the torso and not bleed at all but when (spoiler!) siamese twins are ripped apart, they bleed like geysers.

I'm eagerly anticipating a martial arts Merchant of Venice!

Legend of the Black Scorpion

2006 Elizabethan martial arts

Rating: 13/20

Plot: Just like Hamlet if was set in 10th Century China and the main character was the mother instead of Hamlet.

Whatever-this-movie-is-called looks pretty good (and really expensive), but the style--lofty and pompous--left me flaccid. Grand and operatic, it felt like the equivalent of reading something that people say is great literature and thinking, "Yeah, this sort of resembles great literature" but not really digging it. The story's fine (it is Hamlet after all), but the story-telling is clunky and strangely dispassionate. It's probably silly to complain about the dialogue since that could be entirely due to translation, but a lot of this stuff was difficult to wade through. The fight choreography is cool as expected from the always-reliable Yuen Woo Ping. Even though the blood looks cheesy and there's too much reliance on the fantasy fighting rather than anything remotely realistic, the movements and costumes (the armor, masks, flowing robes) make the action sequences look almost like ballet instead of violence. It's a fine enough example of wuxia but definitely nothing earth-shattering enough to get excited about.

Here's what the back of my head looks like when it's not really excited:

The Human Tornado

1976 blaxploitative kung-fu sequel

Rating: 5/20

Plot: Dolemite is back! After narrowly escaping the bullets of redneck law enforcement, he flees to L.A. only to find that his friend Queen Bee is in trouble with a rival night club owner. What's a human tornado to do when a friend needs help? Take care of business using the only four weapons he's got--sex, his flying fists, rapping, and a funky wardrobe.

The Human Tornado contains the greatest scene in the history of cinema. Rudy Ray Moore, as Dolemite, is fleeing from the redneck sheriff after being caught in bed with his wife. He escapes (nude, of course) and takes a swan dive off a fence at the top of a hill. The action pauses, and the words "instant replay" appear on the screen in white before the stunt is replayed. I take that back! The best scene in the history of cinema is the sex scene following Dolemite's seduction of the main bad guy's wife, a sex scene that includes the dismantling of a room and explosions. Wait a minute! The greatest scene in the history of cinema has to be when Dolemite rescues the two women being tortured. Everybody was kung-fu fighting in the 70's, but nobody did it like Dolemite! His grunting (sort of like a cross between Captain Caveman and Busta Rhymes) rival Bruce Lee's chirps, and his fists move much faster than the action film icon's. Of course, that's because the fight scenes are sped up. But the suspense doesn't end when all the bad guy's have been (apparently) thwacked to death. No no no. As one of the poor tortured damsels in distress points out--"Dolemite, be careful. I have a live grenade between my legs!" That's right. Edge-of-the-seat drama, ladies and gentlemen! So The Human Tornado is simple to recommend because it's got the three greatest scenes in the history of cinema. Everything about the movie is gratuitous, and it not only delivers the same brand of funk that Dolemite had but is one of those cases where a sequel is even better than the original. And that's difficult considering I gave the first one a 4 our of 20!

The back of my head can dig it:

Our Hospitality

1923 romantic comedy
Rating: 17/20 (Dylan: 11/20, Emma 18/20, Abbey 20/20)

Plot: After twenty years in New York, Willie McKay returns south to claim daddy's estate. Prior to his trip, his aunt warns him of a long-standing feud between his family and the Canfields. A Canfield, after all, was responsible for putting bullet in Willie Sr. On the way south, Willie Jr. hits it off with a woman sitting beside him on the train. He's disappointed when he arrives at his birthplace, not only because his father's "mansion" turns out to be nothing more than a shack but because he finds out the woman he's smitten with is in fact a Canfield and that every member of her family wants to kill him. A thing like that could ruin a first date.

Cute little story with lots of visual gags along with some more subdued and modern humor. There's some nice period detail (his bicycle, the minutia within his hometown, the giant hats, a glimpse at Times Square, and especially the rickety funky-looking train) that give this a bizarre, otherworldly atmosphere. It's a funny movie, and it's an exciting movie with some impressive stunt work, especially during a climactic chase scene that involves a horse, a dress, the train again, a boat, a mountainside, and a waterfall. If nothing else, it lends credence to the idea that Buster Keaton is the first Jackie Chan. Except he didn't kick people. And he wasn't Asian. There's nothing completely outrageous about the story. Like most 1920's comedies, you'll know exactly where this is heading, but there's enough charm and fun to make the journey worth it. This and The General are, along with The Gold Rush, good silent romantic comedies to start with for somebody wanting to try out a silent comedy for the first time. And let's just be honest--everybody needs to do that!

Note: A charming Keaton featurette called Sherlock Jr. was also included on this dvd. My children watched it last night while I was out. Abbey rated it a 20/2o, Emma gave it an 18, and Dylan went with a 15. That little movie is stuffed with some absolutely brilliant moments. Our preparation for Wall-E is now complete (the nearly-silent title character was apparently based on Chaplin and Keaton), so we'll see us some Pixar in the next few days.
The back of my head derives no pleasure from these silent movies:

The Storm Riders

1998 martial arts fantasy

Rating: 3/20

Plot: Lord Conquer, just like everybody else according to Tears for Fears, wants to rule the world. Standing in his way is Sword Saint. A prophet named Mud Buddha informs him that the battle will take place in ten years and that integral to his success is making two children (Whispering Wind and Stinky Cloud) his disciples. They're sent out to find a fire monkey and remove somebody's head, and then, I think, somebody gets a brand new computer and wants to show off some of its screensavers. There's a love interest in there somewhere.

I gave this movie a bonus point for Sonny Chiba's line "Good. . .Now let's see how much blood you have." Other than that, this was an awful, ugly movie. Too bad for the legendary Sonny Chiba, I guess. Most surprising to me is that this movie outsold Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Hong Kong. I couldn't find a time on the dvd box (it seemed endless), but I've read that the international release of this film was cut from a little over two hours to eighty-some minutes. I think I would have preferred a version cut by two hours. CGI effects have been vomited all over this, and the action sequences make almost no sense at all. Wind and Storm have these unexplained powers and can apparently tear off their own arms and throw blood on their enemies or spin around really fast. One of the characters can make a giant bubble to float around in. Lots of "What the hell?" moments scattered all over The Storm Riders. It's all as vacuous as a Power Rangers television episode except it doesn't look as realistic. And it's almost entirely void of entertainment value. This may go down in shane-movies.blogspot.com history as the movie that singlehandedly destroyed Kung-Fu-Ridays.

Here's an awfully disappointed back of the head:

For a Few Dollars More

1965 spaghetti western

Rating: 17/20 (Abbey: 20/20)

Plot: The Man with No Name (not that man with no name but a different one) and Lee Van Cleef (not that Lee Van Cleef but a different one) are bounty hunters, wanted- poster chasers out for big paydays. When a very dangerous criminal and probable lunatic named Indio is busted out of prison by his gang, both bounty hunters decide to go after him.

How cool is Lee Van Cleef? And when you add a Clint Eastwood and a hunchbacked Klaus Kinski into the same movie, you've got an overwhelming amount of bad ass. This is arguably a cooler movie than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and just as emotionally charged, but it probably isn't as poetic. Still, exquisitely directed with another Morricone over-the-top-but-still-about-perfect score. Abbey was a little confused about Van Cleef looking nearly the same but playing a different character. I was surprised at how she was able to follow this enough to enjoy it. She just loves seeing bad guys getting shot up, I guess. She claims that her favorite thing about the movies is the way they all talk.

Add these to my Christmas wishlist (with the Lone Wolf and Cub action figures in case you've forgotten):

The back of the head with no name:

The Heroic Trio

1993 Hong Kong phooey

Rating: 10/20 (Jen: 2/20)
Plot: Ummm. An evil magical guy is kidnapping male babies and putting them in birdcages that he keeps in the sewer where he lives. Apparently, he wants to raise one of them to be an emperor or something. Aiding his endeavors is a half-man/half-animal with a decapitating device and a woman who can turn herself invisible. The woman who can turn herself invisible happens to be married to a scientist who is putting the finishing touches on some sort of invisibility cloak which the bad guy wants to get his hands on. Wonder Woman (no, not that one) and Thief Catcher team up to stop him but realize they'll need to seek the help of Invisible Girl or the movie's title won't make any sense. Together, they form a trio of dangerous high-flying females that might be able to save the world.
Extravagantly ludicrous and hysterically funny, this is the perfect example of a terrible movie that you'll love and feel guilty for loving. Abandon everything you know about the laws of physics and suspend your disbelief and just watch attractive superheroines flitter about in spandex in absurdly quick action sequences. This rarely lets up, the exception being a comical chunk of sentimentality that has to do with lotus flowers, and the feature-length martial arts fantasy with an overabundance of special defects moves along so briskly that it feels like it's only ten minutes long. There's definitely not a lack of style, and I'd say it's a case of style-over-substance except for the fact that there isn't any substance at all. The dubbed dialogue is great fun. It also seems like the producers of this one were going for some kind of plot hole record or something. I've rarely had more fun scratching my head than I did while watching The Heroic Trio. I would, by the way, probably watch this movie twice than most American superhero movies once. Insanity!
A not-so-heroic uno (head back):

Seven Men from Now

1956 western

Rating: 15/20

Plot: An ex-sheriff seeks revenge on the seven men who robbed a Wells Fargo and killed his wife in the process. As he journeys, he encounters a struggling half-a-man and his wife pioneering from Kansas City to California. He assists them. He also runs into old nemesis Bill Masters, a man whom he had put in jail on two separate occasions. Bill and his sidekick Clete decide to tag along so they can possibly get their hands on the stolen 200,000 bucks after Ben Stride finishes the robbers off. The party tries to survive the elements and horse-eatin' Injuns as they ride toward their destination.

Good traditional Western with some good characters--a real snake for a bad guy (Lee Marvin) and a stoic toughy for a good guy (Randolph Scott in a role originally intended for John Wayne). Gail Russell is also a mighty fine (lookin') actress. (Died at 37 of a heart attack, for the record.) It's also one of those Westerns where the scenery--in this case some jagged wasteland, some mountains, some rivers, some storms--becomes a character or at least becomes as important as the characters. Some real pretty shots anyway. I would have liked to see more darkness in the story, more darkness than the mid-50's would have allowed. I would have also liked to have more characterization for the seven guys he's chasing. They were just there to be killed, sort of like cardboard targets at a shooting gallery, and giving them individual personalities or quirks would have made the movie longer but also more intriguing. Its succinctness, however, is probably part of the appeal. There's hardly a wasted moment. Good little story with some surprising twists.

Here's the back of my head again:

The Gold Rush

1925 silent comedy

Rating: 19.1/20 (Abbey: 20/20, Emma: 3/20, Dylan 11/20)

Plot: The little tramp ventures to the Klondike in search of riches. After a run-in with a bear, a wanted criminal, and a burly miner, the little guy finds himself fighting against the elements in a dilapidated cabin. He eats a shoe. The weather clears up enough to allow travel to town where he meets and falls in love with a showgirl named Georgia, and what he perceives as a return of affection is more valuable to him than gold. When the burly miner pops into the picture once again, however, there is also a renewed prospect of gold and the chance that the little fellow could once again afford a second shoe.

Confession: I may have bumped this up 1 or 2 rating points because it's a classic and I didn't want to disappoint winter rates.

My second favorite Chaplin movie, and I'm happy that at least one of my kids enjoyed it. I'm always surprised with how funny this is. It's not 1920's-silent-film funny where I can just appreciate the humor. It's actually still funny. But if it was just funny, it wouldn't be great. It's also got heart, and there are some really poignant moments when Chaplin first spots Georgia at the dancehall and later at the cabin he's staying at when the girls don't show up for a New Year's Eve party. The story is also tightly written, allowing the romance and the action-adventure to intermingle with the slapstick and other visual gags smoothly. This, by the way, would probably be the silent comedy that I would recommend to somebody who has never given them a chance.

Jen took this picture:

The Cat and the Canary

1927 comedy thriller

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Twenty years after the death of a millionaire kook, his relatives arrive at his creepy mansion for the reading of his will. Due to a stipulation, the relatives are forced to stay the night at the mansion. An escaped lunatic, a milkman, a murdered lawyer, a pair of envelopes, diamonds, and quite possibly incest find their ways into the story. Mystery!

I guess you have to call this influential since the makers of Scooby Doo used the exact same structure (and even some of the gags) in about 80% of their stories. The humor doesn't work for modern audiences, and the thrills don't really either. Still, there's some nice texture starting with an opening shot of a lunatic hand wiping away cobwebs to reveal the title card and continuing with ominous shadows and a camera creeping over dark details. This doesn't have the experimental playfulness of Paul Leni's Waxworks but there's enough clever directing and camera work to make up for a sub-par story and characters that are nothing more than cliches. It's definitely got more than enough style for its time. I love how they felt the need to throw the movie's title into the dialogue twice. "The escaped lunatic tears apart his victims. . .like a cat claws apart a canary!" Dum dum dum!

Yet another picture of what the back of my head looks like when the front of my head watches a movie:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

1966 spaghetti western

Rating: 18/20 (Abbey: 18/20)

Plot: Three men, the title characters, wander through deserts of historical inaccuracies in search of a bunch of gold. Resilient but ugly Tuco's got the general location and his once-sidekick-turned-enemy Mr. No-Name knows the specifics. The three gold-hungry tough guys match wits and gun-drawing prowess while brushing up against Confederate and Union armies busy fighting all those battles in the American Southwest. There's plenty of back-stabbing, but they also have some laughs along the way. And they make S'mores!

Abbey really liked the music. My one complaint--I would have liked to see more scenes involving characters with missing limbs. The guy with no legs who had to open the door with his head? That guy should get his own prequel. The guy with one arm who wants to join Tuco for a bubblebath? Him too. So many scenes in this are simply perfect. I've heard rumors that somebody wants to remake this? That could be about as wrong as it gets. That project should be abandoned immediately to concentrate on a follow-up--The Good, the Ugly, the Guy with No Legs, and the Guy with Only One Arm.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007 historical western

Rating: 15/20

Plot: The title's sort of a spoiler.

I will say only one thing about this one. Singer Nick Cave (screenwriter of The Proposition) has a very brief role in this as a balladeer singing the traditional folk ballad about Jesse James in a tavern. The guy's been in something like four movies, and two of them have starred Brad Pitt. This, by the way, might be Brad Pitt's best performance since playing the title character in Johnny Suede, the movie that also features Mr. Cave as a character named Freak Storm. Conclusion: Brad Pitt is best in movies that have Nick Cave in them. I was also impressed with Ben Affleck's little brother. This movie would have been far better without the narration. I liked the writing in this one, but I don't watch movies to be told everything. Better direction could have conveyed the same ideas without narration.

Here's the back of the head of a guy who realizes that he lied and said more than one thing:

Curse of the Golden Flower

2006 drama

Rating: 15/20

Plot: After hearing about some things going down, a mean emperor returns home, accompanied by his second-oldest son. The empress, it seems, has hooked up with his oldest son. There's a third son, but he's next to worthless. He can't seem to hook up with anybody! The emperor isn't happy with his wife, despite her buxom bosoms."Not gonna have this ickiness in my kingdom!" he exclaims to one of the guys who stands around announcing things. So he decides to poison her with some fungus that grows somewhere halfway around the world. She, however, has other plans. A plot unfurls during the festival of chrysanthemums, dysfunctional family secrets are unveiled, and blood gets all over the place.

This was less a martial arts movie than a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy or [soap] opera. When action scenes did pop up, they were absolutely stunning--ninja guys floating through the air, swords flashing, arrows sailing, poetic choreography. The acting's great, the story's solid even when it's a bit convoluted, and the climax(es) are powerful and poetic and grand. The stars of the show, however, are the visuals. This thing's an orgy of colors and cleavage. Continuing with the richness and beauty of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, this third Yimou Zhang film almost exhausts the eyes by forcing them to try to slurp in so much color. Jaw-dropping set design here. There is not a single shot in this 2+ hours that the eyeballs won't enjoy. Couldn't stand that music though, especially the happy little song playing over the credits. What the bloody chrysanthemum was that?

One other note: I watched the English-dubbed version of this because I like looking at movies more than I like reading. I also had the subtitles on. They didn't come close to matching. I'm not sure which I'd recommend, but that might have been the source of some of my confusion about what was going on in this one at times.


Zen Noir

2004 murder mystery

Rating: 7/20

Plot: A nameless detective still mourning the loss of his wife gets a phone call about a murder taking place at a temple. He eventually locates a Buddhist temple only to find that those within are really uncooperative. They tease him with tea and keep waving oranges at him. As he struggles to get details about the case, he begins to unravel personal mysteries. He also falls for a bald woman.

Points for effort, I guess. The cross-pollination of noir film elements with Eastern philosophy is something that could have possibly worked well. Unfortunately, I don't think the noir or the Zen was done particularly well. I'm not 100% sure of the intent, but I don't think this was supposed to badly parody both of them. The whole movie, which seemed twice as long as it actually was, had the appearance of one really long joke that doesn't end up having a punchline. There are moments, but the bulk of the film's just little jokey sketches or random philosophical moments that don't add up to anything substantial. Like Zen slapstick mixed with Hallmark philosophy directed by somebody who wants to be the next David Lynch and create the next Full House at the same time. Artificial, unfinished, ugly, nauseating, and pretentious. My one hand was definitely not clapping. Heck, I almost walked out of my living room halfway through this one.



1924 silent film

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A writer is hired by the owner of a wax museum to pen stories inspired his wax figures. The writer immediately gets to work, imagining himself and the owner's daughter (with whom he is quite smitten) in the fantasies he creates for a sultan, Ivan the Terrible, and a Jack the Ripper rip-off.

This is worth seeing if only for the cool expressionist sets that seem right out of Doc Caligari's cabinet. Angular and striking, a lot of the backgrounds look like they could belong in museums on their own. Color is also used well in this black and white movie, and there's some interesting multiple exposure experimentation going on in the dreamy Jack the Snipper sequence. The stories-within-the-stories themselves aren't anything to get overly excited about. Honestly, I wasn't even sure what was going on in the one with Ivan the Terrible. But this is an interesting little film that makes me want to see more of Paul Leni's work.

Me, sporting my new handlebar beard:

The Baron of Arizona

  1. 1950 historical drama

Rating: 11/20

Plot: James Addison Reavis concocts a complexly intricate hoax to swindle the government and the inhabitants of the Arizona territory. After traveling abroad, eating his own horse, and manipulating monks, gypsies, and orphan girls, he's able to at least temporarily convince everybody that he has rightful claim to the entire chunk of property. This understandably makes some people angry.

More Vincent Price, this time in a more subdued role. This is one of those cases where the story is really cool but the movie doesn't work very well. It's Simon Fuller's second movie, and apparently he's still learning the trade. It's pretty blah direction with much awkwardness, a flashback structure which doesn't work and then seems to be forgotten, and that typical 40's/50's-era Hollywood music that makes everything seem more majestic than it actually is. There's clumsy voiceover narration used during the first half of the movie. With the complete lack of style and some cardboard acting, it almost makes everything else look like reenactments for a documentary. Boring reenactments. This almost begs for a remake, probably with Tom Hanks in the lead. Maybe Russell Crowe. That or they could cast Will Smith as the Baron and add a wacky CGI lynch mob and have him quote Bob Marley. That would probably work.

Future Hollywood ideas man:

I Am Legend

2007 remake

Rating: 5/20

Plot: See The Last Man on Earth but take out Vincent Price and put a tough action hero in his place.

This was awful. Will Smith, absolutely terrific in gems like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Wild Wild West, is absolutely terrible in this one. The emotions are transparent and forced, and the only thing I nearly believe about his character is that he is kind of a tough guy. The best thing about this movie would be the static shots of an abandoned New York City. Any time there is any action, however, it looks completely fake. The CGI effects are embarrassing. They look unfinished, and I'm surprised a movie that looks like this was allowed in theaters. The zombie vampire things in this really make you appreciate the geniuses behind Jar Jar Binks. Very cartoonish, video-game stuff here. About an hour of this movie seems extraneous. It's almost like I accidentally watched a version with the cut scenes included, but that's not possible unless the theatrical version of the movie was only 40 minutes long. That might have been nice actually. The producers of this one really Hollywooded it up. It's become an action-adventure movie with a true action-adventure hero. It replaces the psychological thrills of the Vincent Price version with zombies-jumpin'-at-ya horror garbage. It tries to inject humor in ways that just fall flat. It's got big explosions! If Richard Matheson hated The Last Man on Earth (his screenplay adapted from his novel), I bet he'd really hate this piece of crap. If you're reading this, Richard Matheson, let me know!

No picture available. If there was a picture, you'd see a person really hating the movie he's watching.