Friday, June 8, 2012

Visit to a Small Pantry

My DVD dust-off project nears a wrap-up. (See three earlier posts starting with Of Dust and Disks for more on this.) Oh, there are more DVDs on the shelves in my small DVD pantry, to be sure, but they are titles which I in fact likely will view from time to time without prompting (e.g. The Thin Man Series, Topper, Casablanca, et al.), so I excluded them from the re-watch project; they’ll have the dust shaken off soon enough anyway.

Two of the DVD re-views were stand-alone flicks:

Drowning Mona (2000) – This pleasantly dark comedy is set in an upstate New York town in which everyone drives a Yugo and no one belongs to Mensa. Mona, played by Bette Midler, is the most hateful, hated, and obnoxious woman in town; she has given half the local population motives to kill her. When Mona drives a car into a lake and drowns, whoever isn’t happy to hear about it doesn’t care. The police chief, Danny DeVito, discovers the car was sabotaged, but even he doesn’t want to arrest the most likely suspect.

Skyscraper Souls (1932) – Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” fellow in the movie Wall Street (1987), was a rank amateur compared to his 1932 predecessor David Dwight. On the verge of losing control of a 100-story New York skyscraper, Dwight suckers his wealthy friends into a massive stock investment and then shorts the market, allowing him to pay off his $30,000,000 debt while destroying his friends – and also destroying average investors who were caught up in the enthusiasm of the stock bubble. Meanwhile, he cheats not only on his wife but on his mistress. Ordinary workers in the building have troubles of their own. (By the way, multiply all dollar values in this movie by 20 for a rough equivalent of today’s prices.) Perhaps it’s best not to examine the reason that this pre-code film is best remembered today not for its intriguing storyline, but simply because young Maureen O’Hara’s character says, “We’re being awfully shitty.”

The multipack question could be delayed no further: How best to handle the hundreds of films (mostly public domain and cheap) and TV shows contained in the multipacks on my shelf? They add up to well over 1000 hours, which is far more time than I want to spend in front of a TV set. The solution: just watch one movie or episode from each pack. Hey, at least this removes the dust.

I, Claudius (1976) – This brilliant BBC miniseries is worth seeing from start to finish at least once. Robert Graves was prompted to write the novels on which the series is based because he sensed something was wrong with the hostile ancient accounts of Claudius – especially those by Tacitus and Suetonius. Though dismissed as a fool by these two and by other contemporaries, Claudius had a very successful reign; furthermore, he was a bookworm who wrote multivolume histories and an analysis of the Etruscan language. Claudius had physical tics and a speech impediment, so he made a poor personal impression, but Graves concluded he was anything but a fool – an intellectual absent-minded professor type, perhaps, but not a fool. His wife gave him trouble, it is true, but many non-fools choose their spouses badly. I chose to watch episode 11 (Fool’s Luck) in which, after the assassination of the dreadful Caligula, the Praetorian Guard proclaims a reluctant Claudius emperor. Claudius at that point is the last surviving member of the royal family, and, without an emperor, the well-paid Guards are out of a job.

The Lost World (1999) – I watched the first episode of this Australian-made TV series based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel. It is pure escapism. It is successful as escapism, though, with amusing characters. Jennifer O’Dell is the obligatory blonde jungle girl in the leather bikini. Would Sir Arthur have minded had he lived long enough to see this? You know, maybe not.

Scifi Invasion 50 Movie Pack – I more or less randomly picked Galaxina, starring Dorothy Stratten as the robot Galaxina who wants to be human. Dorothy, the Playboy model more famous for her 1980 murder than for her photo shoot, couldn’t save this movie. Neither could the spoof on Alien. And why do physically perfect ageless robots keep trying to become human in scifi movies? Why don’t they see what a bad idea that is? Skip this movie.

Scifi Classics 50 Movie Pack – In this pack Bride of the Gorilla (1951) is yet another stinker, but a slightly more interesting stinker than Galaxina. Raymond Burr murders his boss to steal his plantation and his wife, played by Barbara Payton. (The statuesque Payton is better known for a violent love life and for self-destructing through drug abuse than for her movies.) An old witch woman curses Burr for the murder. He starts to see himself as a gorilla and gets all animalistic.

Mystery Classic 50 Movie Pack – This time the pick was good. He Walked by Night (1948) is a solid crime drama about a brilliant psychopathic criminal played by Richard Basehart. The police crime lab scientist is played by Jack Webb. You can see how he could have been inspired by this film to create Dragnet.

Chilling Classics 50 Movie Pack: In this pack A Bucket of Blood (1959) is a fun wry commentary on the artsy Beat scene of the 50s. A previously unsuccessful artist finds success when he starts making statues that are really human bodies covered with plaster.

The Best of Abbott and Costello – The boys are at the top of their game in Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942). Bud and Lou are funny, the sub-story is charming, and the music, including a young Ella Fitzgerald, is great.

The Addams Family (1964) –This marvelously subversive TV show based on Charles Addams’ cartoons stood ordinary conventions of the day on their heads, as in the episode I viewed in which Morticia finds a baseball glove in her son’s closet and holds it up at arm’s length by two fingers, as appalled as another mother might be by drug paraphernalia. These characters are not merely oddballs, they are seriously dangerous. They serve their guests henbane tea. They casually contemplate murder and suicide. Their children literally play with dynamite. Yet they are immensely appealing.

Wonder Woman Season One (1975)Say “warrior princess” and you probably think Xena, but she was not the first of that description on the small screen. (I like Xena, by the way.) The two-hour pilot for the 70s Wonder Woman TV show is surprisingly elaborate. Lynda Carter was a wonderful pick for the main part, and the 1940s setting was very much the way to go. It is an altogether entertaining TV-movie. Watch the fx, which are old school. There is no CGI. When bullets supposedly are deflected by Wonder Woman’s bracelets, for example, those flashes are small explosive charges triggered by a button in her palm, which is why her fists are closed.

The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. (1993) – This high concept high budget (for a TV show) well-written scifi Western starring Bruce Campbell deserved a bigger audience than it got. The testy friendship of Brisco and Lord Bowler (Julius Carry) and the dangerous romance between Brisco and Dixie Cousins (Kelly Rutherford) made for a good show on many levels. I watched episode 1, but I might just watch episode 2 tonight.

Roswell (1999) – The pilot episode. This scifi teen soap opera had a mix of high quality actors, writers, and directors. It is better than a viewer has any right to expect. I wrote about it at greater length last year in the blog Guilty Pleasures:

Third Rock from the Sun – The Nightmare on Dick Street double episode (1997). Third Rock is yet another “aliens on earth try to understand humans” show. This idea has been worked for laughs at least since Gore Vidal’s teleplay Visit to a Small Planet in 1955 (later turned into an over-the-top Jerry Lewis movie). Third Rock may be the best effort so far. Episode plot: the aliens never dreamed before and don’t know what to make of their nocturnal hallucinations.

So, has this extended re-visit to the DVDs been worth it?  Yes, I think so. There was so much creativity on display, even in the bad movies, that I can’t help but be motivated to get back to my own writing. I know I can do better than the worst of those scripts, and the best offer something to which to aspire.

Sally’s Fellini-esque Dream Sequence in Third Rock from the Sun


  1. Being a movie fan, I'm really enjoying these posts!

    Anyway, as you know I recently reviewed "I Claudius" for DVD Verdict and really enjoyed it. It took me a couple episodes to get into the more theatrical stylings of the show, but once I was in, it was a blast. Jacobi is one of those actors who can just melt into a role. He is excellent as King Claudius in Branaugh's version of "Hamlet".

    "Galaxina" is one of those infamously bad movies. But as you say, not bad in a fun way, but bad in a painful way. I should see it just to test my bad movie mettle, but at the same time, I'm very afraid.

    Actually saw "Bride of the Gorilla" and like you I thought it wasn't too bad. Entertaining, but slight. I planning on writing a review of it at one point, but never got around to it.

    "He Walked By Night" was really good. It was one of the more pleasant surprises in that Mystery pack. It was an effective police procedural and as you noted, may have been the inspiration for "Dragnet". And personally I've never seen Basehart so good in a part. He's really chilling in this one.

    Brisco County! I haven't heard that name in a long time. That was one of those shows I kept planning on watching and could never catch it. and then it was gone. Bruce Campbell always brings his A game (even if he knows it's his hammiest A game). And this just sounded like a real good time. Need to find this one and check it out.

  2. I'm glad I'm stirring up some memories.

    Yes, Jacobi is great. Now that he is 36 years older, he looks a lot like the older version of Claudius.

    Brisco County, Jr. lasted only one season, but it is worth owning. The scriptwriting was clever and funny, the mix of genres was interesting, and the production values were excellent. By the way, there were three horses used in the part of Comet since each one had different talents.