It’s a Bikini World (1967) So here’s the trade-off in this Z-grade beach movie: you get some dynamite musical performances from the likes of the Animals and the Castaways, plus some funky visuals and a playful tone, but you also get a junker of a plot and, heaven help us all, Tommy Kirk in the lead role. (Somewhere in the middle: Sid Haig as an aging hepcat.) It’s not a fair deal. No matter how good those brief moments of 1960s garage punk nonsense might be, it’s not enough to make up for all that cheapjackery and all that Tommy Kirk.
Brave (2012) Oh, Pixar. After Cars 2, we were ready for your big comeback, your return to glory, your newest year-end best-of shoo-in… and we get Brave. The film is a technical marvel, featuring arguably the best computer animation I’ve ever seen, complemented by a gorgeous score by Patrick Doyle and some top drawer voice work from the main cast. But the story is strangely lacking in both focus and, despite the filmmakers’ best intentions, heart. While individual story fragments are certainly enjoyable, connections seem missing, motivations seem rushed, conclusions seem undercooked, and what begins promisingly enough with a strong first act quickly dissolves, with the storytellers eventually fumbling through the motions of a fairy tale they don’t seem interested in telling. Perhaps the movie’s troubled production history is to blame; Brave certainly feels like a story gutted and hurriedly patched up. The result is a fair movie from a great studio. (As for the much-applauded focus on mother-daughter relationships and strong female leads in an era sorely lacking in both? I certainly appreciated them. Now I want to see them in a better movie.)
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) Comparisons between this and Last Night are inevitable, but Lorene Scafaria is not out to ape Don McKellar. His film was alternately bleak and quaint, while Scafaria’s falls somewhere more comfortably, if less adventurously, in the middle. Its moments of black comedy are softened by the decision to squeeze the story into a road trip frame – a frame which allows Scafaria to present a string of quirky characters and oddball situations without actually studying them too closely. That’s frustrating, as is Scafaria’s need to overly complicate the script with unnecessary explanations while simultaneously undercooking the plot, relying on too-convenient plot points and too-thin situations. And yet I’ll give all this a pass because the movie truly clicks when focusing on the characters at the center of the story. Here, Seeking a Friend is tonally dead-on. It’s a portrait of regret more than anything else, and Steve Carell and Keira Knightley find the right kind of tenderness as they work their way through their characters’ inner discoveries.
Logan’s Run (1976) Never trust anyone over thirty. The groovy disco shenanigans of Logan’s Run haven’t aged well, although I’d argue they were never too hot in the first place, partly because of the damn cheesiness of the whole thing (Chuck Heston screaming about Soylent Green produces horror; Michael York screaming about Carousel produces giggles), partly because of the general muddiness of the movie’s message, which is something along the lines of “totalitarianism and/or hedonism is bad, and what’s the deal with the kids these days and their drugs and free love and short pants? GET A HAIRCUT, HIPPIE.” It’s a movie with a great premise but no idea how to use it, and so it runs through a checklist of dystopian sci-fi cliché: civilians in jumpsuits living in domed cities that look like shopping malls; a hero on the lam, meeting stern lawmen and wild rebels along the way; modern landmarks done up in post-apocalyptic ruin; Roscoe Lee Brown as a robot, complete with dryer vents for arms. It’s a brainless adventure, the sort where the spectacle of the set design is meant to hide the failures of the screenplay. On the plus side: Jenny Agutter. Rawr.
The Artist (2011) Plays just as well on the small screen as it did the big, just as well on a third viewing as it did the first. It’s such a carefully crafted picture, it invites revisits and closer inspection, without ever losing its value as grand entertainment. Hot damn, this is one great movie.
The Cocoanuts (1929) The Marx Brothers’ first film is a rough one, to be sure, but that’s mainly due to the limitations of the early sound days. Those limitations – purely technical stuff like camerawork and soundtrack – hardly matter, since the film is essentially a direct adaptation of the stage play, which the brothers had already honed to the point of making cinematic embellishment unnecessary. You’ll find most of the Marx elements already in top form and full swing, straight down to the cheeky wordplay, the lightweight romantic subplot, the Chico and Harpo musical solos, and, of course, Margaret Dumont. Zeppo’s here, too, for those keeping score. Why a duck?
Return of the Fly (1959) I spent years of my life accidentally calling this movie Son of the Fly. I mention this because my mistake is far more interesting than the movie, and my mistake isn’t interesting at all. Gone here is anything that made the original Fly work, even though the filmmakers attempt to duplicate their success by tossing an easy paycheck to Vincent Price and recycling the “help me!” routine. That line was chilling the first time around, obnoxious here, stuffed in the middle of a clunky, unfocused plot in which Delambre’s son gets mixed up with not only revisiting his dad’s experiments, but gangsters, too. The whole mess turns into one long slog completely lacking in thrills and energy.
You’ve Got Mail (1998) Seems I had more to say about this picture than a paragraph would allow. Full write-up here. Somehow managed to go the whole article without commenting on the goofy/adorable late-90s-ness of it all.