Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Last Picture Shows

In my DVD revisit project (see older post Of Dust and Disks), I’ve finally reached the end of the last shelf, though I excluded one whole shelf of movies I expect to revisit anyway without prompting. Among the last re-watches (I don’t pocket-review them all) in the project were the following:

The Snow Beast (1977) from the Chiller Classics 50 pack. In a generally atrocious pack of movies, this flick proved surprisingly watchable. It would be wrong to call it good, but for a low-budget made-for-TV monster movie, it’s passable. A murderous yeti/sasquatch is haunting the slopes around a Colorado ski resort. As always in this type of tale, the authorities and resort-operators refuse to believe that there is a monster, even while the body count mounts. At least the hero, when at last confronting the beast, does not say, “We’re going to need a bigger snowmobile.”

Wild Bill (1995). This Western starring Jeff Bridges as Wild Bill Hickok and Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane didn’t click with audiences when it came out, though critics liked it. All films take liberties with historical characters, but this is about as accurate as it is reasonable to expect a Hollywood movie about Hickok to be. The man, his times, and the strange events leading to his death, emerge all too credibly. Perhaps that was why audiences balked: the movie was not sufficiently escapist. Nevertheless, I recommend giving it a chance.

Alien Trespass (2009). This is not so much a spoof of 1950s sci-fi movies as an homage to them. Had it been released in 1958 it would have fit right in. I think this accounts for the movie’s poor rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nowadays, few young viewers are familiar enough with 50s sci-fi to have the affection for it that these filmmakers obviously do. I recommend the movie, but only to those who have seen and enjoyed films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953) or I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).

Hands Across the Table (1935) from the Carole Lombard multipack. Regi (Carole), a manicurist, and Ted (Fred MacMurray), a slacker whose family lost its fortune in the Crash, both openly want to marry for money. Both have a chance to do precisely that, though they chide each other for being so cynical. Regi says, “You must have a lot of friends that could give you a job.” Ted responds, “That'd be a fine friend who'd give you a job. No friend of mine had better try anything like that on me.” Every film in this pack is worth seeing, but this one more than most. Besides the comedy aspects, the subplot of the wealthy man in a wheelchair (Ralph Bellamy) who loves Regi is poignant.

Bitch Slap (2009). What can you possibly expect from a movie called Bitch Slap? A shameless exploitation flick with beautiful busty women in miniskirts and high heels fighting each other with fists, swords, and guns? Well, that is exactly what it is. Think Kill Bill but with less plot, more girl-on-girl violence, and 1/1000 of the budget. Though very few clothes are in evidence, there is no actual nudity. Three gorgeous women, at least one of whom is a mercenary, drive out into the desert with an obnoxious kidnapped man in the trunk in order to find $200,000,000 in buried diamonds and some sort of weapon. In many ways this film is reminiscent of Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965), but with more brutality, mayhem, and scabrous dialogue. Oddly, there are small parts for Lucy Lawless (Xena) and Kevin Sorbo (Hercules), presumably because both were amused by this campy script. I can’t recommend in conscience this film to anybody, yet I can’t deny having enjoyed every awful minute of it.

Red Rock West (1993). This is one of those small noir-ish films that gratify beyond expectation. A down and out roughneck (Nicolas Cage) doesn’t get the oil-field job he desperately needs in Wyoming, but he is mistaken in a local bar for a tardy hit man. The bar owner offers him a large sum of cash to kill his wife. Cage then discovers that she, in turn, has plans to off her husband. The plot twists and turns as Cage’s efforts to leave town are thwarted time and again. This film should be on the to-see list of any noir fan

The Big Town (1987). This is another neo-noir that deserves to be better known than it is. Set in 1957, this is a well-written and well-acted drama. The sound track, with Ivory Joe Hunter, Lincoln Chase, and Big Joe Turner, among others, is perfect. J.C. Cullen (Matt Dillon), is a small town gambler trying to make it big in Chicago. Tommy Lee Jones and Bruce Dern are in fine form as villains, Lee Grant is convincingly hard-nosed, and Diane Lane as the stripper Lorry Dane was never more stunning in a role.

Across the Pacific (1942) from the Humphrey Bogart pack. Set just prior to Pearl Harbor aboard a Japanese passenger ship bound for Asia via Panama, Bogart uncovers a Japanese plan to strike at the Panama Canal locks with an assembled aircraft. Actually, this would have been a pretty good idea. Amid the predictable wartime stereotypes, there are some surprises in the film, including Bogie’s acknowledgment that peace eventually will have to return on a basis of mutual respect. This film is not up there with Casablanca or To Have and Have Not, but it’s still good.

Red Riding Hood (2011). Despite reviews clustered somewhere between "eh" and "so-so," I enjoyed this tale of a young woman and a big bad wolf. We’ve been getting a lot of re-imaginings of classic folk tales lately. Red Riding Hood is not the best of them, but it is filmed beautifully and the handling of the story is OK – no more than OK, but OK. Amanda Seyfried is a suitable and attractive heroine. As for the central mystery, I've heard the complaint, "I saw it coming." Well, I didn't the first time. To be sure, the werewolf is a logical suspect, but only one of several. After all, it's supposed to be a logical suspect. Mystery fans consider it cheating when there are no proper clues amid the red herrings; they hate it when the culprit in the final reel is revealed to be some obscure character with no previously disclosed motive. The film works fine on this level.

Elvis – the 1968 Comeback Special. This is classic Elvis at the top of his form before he became a caricature of himself. In the 70s, the first Elvis impersonator was Elvis, but this 1968 TV special is the real thing. The show features a mix of performances including elaborately choreographed stage numbers that presage his later Las Vegas shows. The bulk of the special, however, and by far the best part of it, is straight-up un-enhanced Elvis, playing, singing, and chatting casually and with humor to a small studio audience.

Love Stinks (1999). Uniformly bad reviews of this movie by professional critics contrast sharply with favorable reviews by ordinary movie-goers, who like it by a margin of 64 to 19 on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m with the movie-goers on this one. The film is rude, abrasive, un-PC, and very funny. Love does indeed stink for this couple whose relationship is (as the trailer says) worse than yours. If Nietzsche is right that cruelty is the meat of humor, Love Stinks provides plenty of protein.

SpiderBabe (2003): OK, this movie is sophomoric rubbish aimed at 14-year-old boys who cannot watch it legally, but there are times to suspend taste and just enjoy a guilty pleasure. Besides, Misty Mundae deserves some credit for having run around Times Square amid perplexed pedestrians in her SpiderBabe costume (black underwear and a mask) without looking embarrassed. The script, parodying Spider-Man with the roles gender-reversed, is genuinely funny in parts. If you feel like switching off your brain for an evening and letting your inner adolescent out for a stretch, this is the right movie. Otherwise, steer clear. Way clear. Incidentally, the R-rated version in the two disc set is by far the superior one. The unrated version cuts scenes and dialogue important to the plot in order to make time for lengthy and dull soft-core sex.

Parisian Love (1925). Like so many silent dramas of the 1920s, this is a weird mix of startling sophistication and breathtaking innocence. The plot, though easy to follow, is complex. Marie (Clara Bow) is an “Apache” (street criminal) in love with fellow-crook Armand. Armand and another gang-member enter the house of a wealthy scientist named Pierre while Marie stays outside as lookout. Things go wrong when Pierre confronts the robbers. Armand prevents his fellow Apache from killing Pierre, but is himself wounded. The second burglar is killed by police, but Marie gets away. Recognizing Armand as a former student and grateful for his protection during the robbery, Pierre shields him from the police and nurses him back to health; during the convalescence, Pierre lavishes money, gifts, and attention on Armand in a way that is downright erotic – though he also sets him up with a nice girl. Armand accepts the help but tries to find Marie. Marie, however, has left the apartment of her drunken family after an argument about Armand, so they spitefully tell Armand she is dead. Armand is sad but takes up with the nice girl and goes traveling. When Marie finds out, she is furious with Pierre for alienating Armand’s affections from her. To get back at Pierre, she pretends to be an upper-class young lady so she can meet Pierre, seduce him, and then marry him so she can take his money. She succeeds at marrying him. Then Armand comes home from his travels and drama ensues. In the end, the ever-generous Pierre recognizes true love, and gives up his bride to Armand whom he seems to like better than Marie anyway.

The Girl Next Door (2007). Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door was made into this deeply disturbing movie that Stephen King called a dark-side Stand by Me. In the 1950s, Ruth is a single parent to her sons. She takes in two distantly related girls when their parents are killed in a car accident. Ruth has deep psychosexual problems and is angered by the attractiveness of the older girl. Ruth orchestrates ever more vicious abuse of her at the hands of her sons and other neighborhood boys and girls. A neighbor boy, the protagonist, is basically a good kid but is drawn by the dark fascination of it all. By the time the abuse gets so extreme that he wants to intervene, his own guilt is an issue because of his tacit participation up until then. The book and movie were inspired by the very real Sylvia Likens case. Thumbs up, but not for the squeamish.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Stanley Kubrick’s last movie explores marriage and the nature of betrayal. When does cheating begin? Is the thought enough? Tom Cruise is disturbed when Nicole Kidman tells him that once she would have run off with a naval officer had he only asked. Is that betrayal even though he didn’t ask and she didn’t go? Tom later picks up a hooker and only an emergency phone call (he portrays a doctor) prevents him from having sex with her. Is his intent betrayal even though he didn’t go through with it? Tom’s night gets stranger as he crashes a costume party at a private sex club. He is expelled before participating, but afterward Nicole discovers his costume. They get past their insecurities, at least for the moment, and their marriage remains intact. The same cannot be said for Tom and Nicole in real life. They broke up immediately after making this movie. Neither has been forthcoming over whether the film had anything to do it. A subtext of the movie is class: though Tom's character is well-to-do, he is not a member of the 1% elite (ruling?) class; the true elite play by their own rules, and Tom gets just a glimpse of their world without fully understanding it.

Baby Face (1933), from the Forbidden Hollywood pack, is the quintessential pre-code film. (The Hays decency code, a form of industry self-censorship, began to be enforced by the studios in 1934.) Armed only with Nietzsche’s The Will to Power as a textbook, flat-broke Barbara Stanwyck hops a freight train to NYC, picks out a building housing a major bank, and methodically sleeps her way to the top, finally seducing and marrying the heir to the bank. My only complaint with the film (**spoiler**) is that Barbara breaks character in the final scene. The scriptwriters (or, more likely, the producers) balked at having her take the money and run, but that would have been the more artistically satisfying and internally consistent ending.

Today we have endless choices in products and entertainment. When I was a kid, the number of TV channels numbered in the single digits. If we wanted to watch a movie, there probably was only one airing at any given time. Whatever it was, we watched it. Now we are accustomed to 200 or more channels. Choice is a good thing, but we don’t always handle a surfeit of it well. We channel-surf because we feel something in all those other channels must be better than what is on the current channel. Yet, there is something to be said for hiding the remote and just making the best of what is in front of us. (I do not suggest that we limit channels, but only that we sometimes limit ourselves.)  There was much enjoyment to be had and a few things to be learned when forcing myself to watch a movie I probably would have surfed past had it been on Showtime or HBO. I’m sure the lesson isn’t limited to movies.

Baby Face (1933) Original Trailer



  1. As usual, I really enjoyed your mini reviews. I've only seen a couple of these films this time. We've got the "Snow Beast" in one of our multipack collections too. I've picked it up a couple times, but never watched it. I think I may have to do that this weekend.

    "Red Rock West" is a really good movie, completely agree with you. I compared it to "Wild At Heart" but less David Lynch and more noir, but still with that slightly off feel to the whole thing. Nearly everyone I recommended it to at the video store loved it. Really entertaining and twisty.

    My wife wanted to check out "Red Riding Hood", and I always like Gary Oldman. I'll put it on our list, I had forgotten about it.

    My dad caught "Alien Trespass" and recommended I check it out. He described it just like you did, and it sounds like a great time. Thanks for reminding me about it.

    "Eyes Wide Shut"... wow. That movie provoked a lot of discussions in my neck of the woods. My wife really disliked it, because she didn't like or connect with any of the characters. That's always an issue with her enjoyment of movies. I was left feeling a bit cold about the whole thing, but Kubrick is a very cold director. I find I have to be in the mood for his type of film. I don't think I was when I saw it. But as usual the images really stuck with me. I've wanted to revisit it for years, but have to find a time to watch it when my wife isn't around (we only have one TV) and be in the mood for it at the same time - no mean feat. And then I think this movie is pretty much responsible for breaking my sister up with her boyfriend at the time. They got into a huge argument over the questions raised in the film, and elements of that conversation cropped up in their relationship for the next two years. I think Kubrick might have enjoyed that his film had that kind of affect on viewers.

    Oh and any movie called "Bitchslap" goes to the top of my must see trashy movie list. :)

  2. Eyes Wide Shut baffled many viewers who expected a more traditional mystery-oriented or action-filled story arc. A friend of mine complained at the time, "It didn't go anywhere." I know what he meant. There is no mystery to be solved or villain to be defeated. It does go somewhere, but more cerebrally than physically. Yes, I'm sure Kubrick would have smiled at having affected a relationship that way.

    And yes, if you have a trashy movie list, Bitchslap should be on it.