La Jetée, and six more movies

Thursday, March 30, 2023

La Jetée (1966)

Chris Marker was famous as a photographer, not a filmmaker, when he made this film from photographs and imagination. It's only technically a motion picture, panning across lots of snapshots to hint at movement, and using narration instead of dialogue to tell its story.

The result is a little like swimming in someone else's memories. The film's nameless narrator remembers something he saw as a child, but it's his first memory, and what he saw — a murder at an airport — and what it means has always confused him. His life and world have been ruined by a third world war, but the man telling the story is offered an escape from his bombed-out existence, when scientists ask him to join their experiments with time travel.

If you've seen Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, the plot might sound familiar. Gilliam's film was a Hollywoodized remake of La Jetée, and quite good by the merits of big budgets, big stars, and big action, but seeing this film makes me almost wish I hadn't yet seen that one.

For all its merits and fun, Twelve Monkeys hews close to being conventional science fiction, and La Jetée does not — at all. It's small and smart, handmade, and as personal as what it almost literally is, a man flipping through a photo album, sharing bits and pieces and shrapnel from the pictures. His story gathers momentum, until you marvel at what he's shown you, and what it means.

Cinematically, this is more My Dinner with Andre than Twelve Monkeys

Unexpectedness is a key ingredient, so the less said, the better. Shut up, Doug.

Marker made La Jetée in French and English versions. I've seen both, and they're indistinguishable, both great. Take your pick, but see it. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

A Day at the Races (1937)

A mob-connected racetrack owner wants to buy Maureen O’Sullivan's family-run sanitarium and turn it into a casino. Margaret Dumont plays a wealthy hypochondriac whose medical bills could keep the place in business, so Groucho pretends to be Hugo Z Hackenbush, an internationally-renowned doctor she admires. He brings his brothers along for additional laughs, of which there are many. 

The plot is preposterous, of course, but the Marx Brothers are brilliant. Highlights include Groucho's wacky examination of Dumont, the "tootsie footsie ice cream" routine with Groucho and Chico, and a show-stopping musical number with Harpo on the flute accompanying an otherwise all-black song-and-dance, which ends with the Marx Brothers in blackface, but oh well. 

MGM never believed the Marxes' comedy was enough to sell a film, so as in most of their movies, the laughs are surrounded by mundane non-comedic songs and dull romance. The film runs an hour and 51 minutes, and about half that time is wasted.

The rest of it ranges from darn funny to hilarious, but someone should re-edit this — and all the Marx Brothers movies — removing the extraneous elements and leaving only the Marx Brothers (and Margaret Dumont).

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Evil Bong 777 (2018)

I'm a fan of low-budget moviemaker Charles Band, and this is his sci-fi & reefer spin on reality television, but it isn't his best work. It has lots of special effects monsters, doobies and boobies, and puppets boinking. It's loud and stupid, and might be funny if you're stoned but I wasn't. 

Evil Bong 777 is the eighth film in a franchise that started with Evil Bong (2006), which is the movie I thought I'd downloaded, but oops. Maybe the original is a masterpiece?

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦    

The Giant Spider (2012)

DIY moviemaker Chris Mihm is not capable of making a movie I wouldn't enjoy. This one's about a giant spider, as you might surmise, which eventually makes its way to the local drive-in theater.

To my jaw-dropping amazement it's the Highway 18 Drive-In, 30 miles outside Madison, where my wife Stephanie & I attended double features several times every summer. Ah, but the marquee is all we see, while the drive-in (where the giant spider wreaks havoc in broad daylight) is somewhere else, maybe a miniature.

There's a hilarious scene where three scientists wonder what to do about the giant spider, and each of them comes up with an idea they're hesitant to voice. And another funny scene where the town newspaper's only reporter tries to warn the locals that the spider is coming, the spider is coming. There are some excellent screams, and greenscreens, and the giant spider effect is as good as the giant spiders in any B-movie.

The acting is worse than in other Mihm installments I've seen, but it hardly matters and actually adds to the campy fun. Also, there's a terrifically silly theme song.

"Dangerous? Honey, I was a correspondent during the war. I've been shot at I don't know how many times. I stormed the beach at Normandy. I ain't afraid of no giant spider."

Verdict: YES.

By the way, if you're ever at Wisconsin's Highway 18 Drive-In, you must order the funnel cake.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Henri (2012)

This is a spiffy 20-minute sci-fi piece, funded by Kickstarter, about a ship stranded in space. The star is the cool-looking effects that might be CGI, but it's better than most big-budget optical illusions.

Not many humans appear on screen, but the two that matter, Kier Dullea and Margot Kidder, are remarkable. 

The weakness is the score. In a film, especially a brief film with so little dialogue, the music becomes more important, and here it's dull and repetitive.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Mechanic (1972)

Charles Bronson plays a hit man, the kind of guy who wants every job he does to be a masterpiece. He plans everything meticulously, usually setting things up to look like an accident. When a long-time friend of his is the target, you get the impression Bronson wishes things were different, but it doesn't slow his efficiency.

After that killing, Jan Michael Vincent shows up as the dead man's son, but he's certainly not in mourning and barely seems to give a damn about his dead pop.

Instead he wants to learn the business, and Bronson, being middle-aged and lonely, takes him on as an apprentice. The movie makes no effort to soften what they do, nor does it try to make them sympathetic. That's a wise choice for me, as I generally don't like hit-man movies, and this movie doesn't really like its hit-men.

We briefly meet their girlfriends — Bronson's is a hooker paid to nag and tell him how lonely she is, and when Vincent's ladyfriend wants to commit suicide in front of him, he barely tries talking her out of it. These guys are as stoic as Zeno himself, with not much to say to anyone but each other, and they don't really like women. If there's any romance in the film it's between Bronson and Vincent, and sadly only implied.

The script by Lewis John Carlino (The Great Santini, Seconds) hints at existential riddles, but mostly this is a long-simmering action movie, with some great set-pieces and enough IQ that you won't feel stupid watching it.

"See Naples and die."

IMBD tells me this was remade a few years ago, but there's no reason to see it. If you need a mechanic, go with these guys, not those guys.

Verdict: YES.  

♦ ♦ ♦  

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) 

An astronaut is stranded alone on Mars, but "based on a story by Daniel Defoe" seems like a stretch. 

This is a big on the cool-looking props and effects, with a script that's fairly intelligent emotionally but bonkers on the science. Playing astronaut Chris Draper, someone named Paul Mantee stars, and seems wrong in the role, or perhaps I'm disappointed because pre-Batman Adam West plays Draper's commanding officer, but dies in the movie's opening moments. After Batman, West was usually cast for camp, but here he's acting, and he's better than the film's lead.

After the crash landing, Draper is lost and alone, using his wits to survive, and he seems to have plenty. Survival is easier than you'd expect. He breathes and drinks Martian air and water with only slight difficulties, and keeps away from the fires roaring everywhere — again, bonkers on the science.

Draper meets an escaped alien space-slave, and no expense is wasted on the slave's alien appearance, meaning, he looks like an ordinary human.

Instead of befriending him, the first thing Draper says is, "Me — I'm the boss and remember that. You get out of line just one iota, and I'll bring your enemies right back into this cave." Pretty soon, though, Draper starts calling the slave his Man Friday, they become buddies, and Draper teaches him "The Lord's Prayer," introducing him to a different kind of slavery. 

What's most memorable about Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the visuals — almost nothing looks like reality, even reality on Mars, but it's all technicolorful and has grand eyeball-appeal. 

The flick is kiddie fare, but it's an enjoyable romp, undeniably fun to watch. There's also a woolly monkey, so this is quality schlock.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions: 

Aftershock (1990)
The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963)
Easy Virtue (1927)
Food Coop (2016)
Key Exchange (1985)
Paper Man (1971)
Warning Sign (1985)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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