Saturday, February 23, 2013

The View from the Couch

Since the earlier post More Dust, More Disks more DVDs have spun their tales in my den in an ongoing home project to play the contents of my DVD shelves that I otherwise would be unlikely to watch without prompting. The decisions to keep (shelve) or toss (unshelve) follow.

Compelling Evidence (1995) – I don't know how this DVD got on my shelf in the first place, because I certainly didn't buy it. I must assume a guest once brought it (why?) and left it behind (I know why). The movie has a 1.3 rating on IMDB. Robot Monster (1953) has a 2.9. The famously awful The Room has a 3.6. Compelling Evidence stars Brigitte Nielson, best known for the Conan spin-off Red Sonja: a so-so pic, but she looked good in warrior garb and probably inspired Xena. Maybe warrior garb would have helped this movie, but I doubt it. Compelling Evidence co-stars Dana Plato, of all people, who at 13 had been in the cast of the family sitcom Diff'rent Strokes. This flick was made between Dana’s arrest for holding up a video store and her fatal drug overdose. I’m struggling to find something positive to say about this movie, but all I can muster is that the felonious Dana looks surprisingly good naked.

The plot: just before the release of his most recent movie, a successful action movie star announces he is quitting the business; he also says he is leaving his wife. He has a girlfriend but cheats on her, too. His wife is murdered (we see the crime but not the perpetrator) and then other people connected to the actor are killed. He has motive and no alibi in each case, but the police have no proof of his guilt. The publicity is great for the studio and the new movie however. Yes, I know: it’s not a bad idea for a script – but not this script and not this production. The writing, acting and direction are dreadful.

This DVD is Unshelved with a vengeance, though I might give it as a present to someone I really dislike.

Decoys (2004) and Decoys 2: Alien Seduction (2007) – Both of these are bad movies by any reasonable standard, but unlike Compelling Evidence, they achieve the coveted so-bad-it’s-good redemption. At St. John College in New Brunswick Canada, gorgeous coeds arrive on campus, and the guys find them astonishingly…um…friendly. Uh-oh, they’re aliens, and they don’t look so pretty when they’re just being themselves. Their race is facing some kind of genetic crisis and they need to blend their DNA with humans if they hope to reproduce. Unfortunately, this involves shoving tentacles down guys’ throats. Since they come from an icy planet, they have trouble getting the temperature just right while they are doing this; time after time they accidently freeze their lovers to death, but they keep trying. In Decoys 2 they are back, this time just across the US border, but a former St. John student is on campus and recognizes them. (The concept is a gender-reversal of a common sci-fi B-movie plot, as in I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Mars Needs Women.) The films are goofy and sophomoric, but in their own way fun. Shelved

Cherry 2000 (1987) – This is one of the many postapocalyptic movies popular in the 1980s. Following some unspecified catastrophe, much of the world has survived and rebuilt, but large swaths of US territory are still outside the rule of law. Also, industry has suffered a major technological setback, so “trackers” can make good money scavenging tech goods from the lawless zones for recycling. Robotic technology had reached a high level before the disaster; lots of humaniform robots survive, but they cannot be replaced. They seem to be used almost exclusively for sex, which is unsurprising considering how badly the human sexes get along in this version of the future. Sam’s love-bot, a stunning high-end model Cherry 2000, shorts out beyond any hope of repair. He hires a tracker to take him into the lawless Zone 7 (the environs of Las Vegas) where Cherry models are believed to be stored in abandoned sand-covered casinos. Melanie Griffith is the tracker, a sort of Mad Maxine, and, as you might imagine, she makes Sam wonder if he really wants a robot. They are up against Lester, a crazy wellness guru whose well-armed cult runs the Zone. He hates trackers. Parts of the movie barely make sense – such as the way they cross the Colorado River – but it is somehow likable for all that. It turns out pretty much the way you would expect, but that’s OK. A little unabashed sentimentality is agreeable sometimes. Shelved.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – This might seem to be a classic movie that I would rewatch without prompting, and therefore would exclude from the project. However, I’ve never been a fan of gangster movies as a genre. Oh, there are exceptions such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) or Scarface (1932) which rise above the usual standards, but generally speaking I pass on them. Bullets or Ballots needed a prompt. Any movie with Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Blondell in it can’t be all bad, and this isn’t. Edward G. pretends to be a cop gone bad and infiltrates “the rackets.” There is tough guy talk and much punching of noses for no good reason. Eventually (a political message suited to the 1930s) he uncovers who truly is secretly running the rackets: a cabal of Wall Street bankers. It is not a bad movie, but it never delivers more than one expects and never gets past what by 1936 already was cliché. Shelved, but I won’t be upset if someone borrows it and forgets to return it.

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) – A Seattle magazine sends a reporter and two interns to a small seaside town to see who posted an ad in the newspaper seeking a companion for time travel. It reads:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

They expect to discover some kook for a human-interest story. The fellow who placed the ad is named Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and he does indeed seem delusional though not in a dangerous way. He appears to believe in time travel and he is convinced that secret agents are following him. He refuses to talk to the reporter, but the young female intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) gains his trust by pretending to answer the ad. Darius has a weird darkness to her nature and humor, but this appeals to Kenneth. The clincher for him is her very real reason for wanting to go back in time: the preventable death of her mother. Kenneth has his own personal reasons to timetravel. (Who doesn’t?) Darius learns that Kenneth truly is being followed, and he is building something with lasers. What if he isn’t delusional? There is a sidestory involving the reporter and an old high school flame – another sort of time travel and one that doesn’t need lasers. This is a well-written, well-acted, and clever little movie. It proves yet again that you don’t need a high budget to make an impressive film, just a good script. Shelved and recommended.

Cecil B Demented (2000) – John Waters has said that American culture is trash culture. He doesn’t mean it as an insult. He has produced and directed some extraordinary trash, and I don’t mean that as an insult either. Cecil B. Demented is an underground film director who attacks the mainstream Hollywood industry by kidnapping self-obsessed film star Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) and forcing her to perform in his movie, including scenes of live guerilla strikes on film-industry targets. Originally resistant, Honey turns to the point of view of her captors and actively participates with them. (With irony typical of John Waters, Patty Hearst is in the cast.) This film is definitely not for everyone, but recommended for those whose tastes are slightly…well…demented. And I don’t mean that as an insult. Shelved.

The Last Horror Film (1982) – Caroline Munro, thanks to her brief swimsuit scene in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), went on to a very busy career in cheap sci-fi and horror films. Sometimes, as in Starcrash (1978), her bikini is the only thing of merit in the production. In The Last Horror Film, a Troma production, a creepy taxi driver becomes obsessed by scream queen actress Jana Bates (Caroline Munro) and follows her to Cannes in hopes of directing a movie with her. (There are repeated references in the film to Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, and Taxi Driver.) His efforts to meet with her are blocked, and the people who block him start to die one by one with the usual Troma gory effects. But is he really the killer? This type of tongue-in-cheek horror aims for camp, but camp is a very small bullseye on a very big target. It wasn’t struck here. It’s better than Compelling Evidence, but nonetheless Unshelved

Black Widow (1987) – This film got a lot of air and cable time in the 90s, but since then largely has vanished from the small screen. The actress Theresa Russell is sultry. She can’t help it. (She is also charming – I’ve met her at Chiller Theater conventions.) This has served her well in films such as the police drama Impulse (1990) and the bluntly titled Whore (1991). She was the perfect pick for the seductress in Black Widow who has a knack for marrying wealthy older men who then die from causes that appear natural. Debra Winger is a federal Justice Department researcher who by happenstance notices that the photos of the wives of two deceased men look a lot alike. Further digging convinces her that a serial killer is at work, though the evidence is thin. She becomes obsessed with tracking down the black widow, finally befriending her in Hawaii where she hopes to entrap her. Winger’s obsession with Russell is not just professional; there is also an element of envy and perhaps even attraction. The movie has some flaws, but on the whole it is well-plotted and acted. Shelved.

High School Confidential (1958) – This movie is high camp. The 50s slang, the Jerry Lee Lewis soundtrack, the street races, and Russ Tamblyn’s bombshell aunt (Mamie Van Doren) combine for a truly enjoyable 90 minutes. Let’s not omit the coffee house Beat poetry: “Turn your eyes inside and dig the vacuum.” Santa Bellow High School is plagued by marijuana. Tamblyn is the new kid in school. He wants to take over the pot trade along with the affections of the wealthy and pretty pothead Diane Jergins; he also wants to sell harder drugs. The drug kingpin in town is none other than Jackie Coogan (better known as Uncle Fester in the ‘60s Addams Family sitcom). Marvelous stuff. Shelved.

Husbands and Wives (1992) – This is not the easiest film to watch, and not because of its peculiar style which alternates between traditional filmmaking and a faux documentary with hand-held cameras. It is because of the subject matter. Relationships are hard, and marriage is hardest of all – which may explain why so many folks these days are on what Psychology Today blogger Jen Kim calls a marriage strike. Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) are forced to confront strains in their own marriage when their friends Jack and Judy announce their impending divorce. What follows are series of betrayals, make-ups, harsh feelings, romantic feelings, and infidelities (including a near one with a young Juliette Lewis). If you are in a long-term relationship, there is much in Husbands and Wives to cause unease. Some of the dialogue, in light of real subsequent events, has unintended irony, as when Mia asks Woody if he hides things from her such as “secret yearnings.” Despite that (or because of it) the film also is hard to stop watching through to the end. Painful, but in a good way. Shelved.

Counting the two Decoys as one, that gives us an even 10 which is a nice round number for this week. (Tangential old joke: There are 10 types of people, those who understand binary and those who don’t.) Top recommendations: Husbands and Wives for the squirm, Safety Not Guaranteed for the heart, and High School Confidential for the laughs.


  1. Thanks for another great list to work from. "Safety Not Guaranteed" was on my radar, so thanks for the mini-review. i put it in my "to watch" cue.

    I've never seen "Cherry 2000" but it sounds right up my alley. Crow and Tom from MST3K had Cherry 2000 on their list of favorite robots.

    You've mentioned "High School Confidential" before, and it sounds like a blast. Your review just confirmed it. Put it on my list to find.

    Ah, Theresa Russell. She was a video store queen back in the 90s. Her flicks always rented well. Hadn't heard of "Black Widow" but "Impulse" I remember.

    Caroline Munro. Nuff said really. I actually first saw her in "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" where she was wearing a very form fitting slave girl outfit. I'm always so bummed when she blows up in "The Spy Who Loved Me". They could have done a little more with her femme fatale character.

    1. Re: Munro in The Spy Who Loved Me, I know what you mean. It's a bit like putting a gun on the mantle in the stage set of a live theater performance and then not using it for anything.

  2. My memory recognizes two of these films: Husbands & Wives, and High School Confidential. I'm one of the few that can enjoy a Jerry Lewis movie, along with the 3 Stooges as I grew up with them, and their a certain nostalgia there, but also they make me laugh.

    I'm pretty sure I've seen Black Widow, as Theresa Russell came to my attention in the Bill Murray movie, The Razor's Edge. I've still got that one on VHS so tossing movies isn't something I'm accustomed to. I'll admit, I'm a hoarder when it comes to media. :)

    As campy & goofy as Starcrash is, I still enjoy it.

    Some of the others, I don't think I've seen, but sound pretty interesting. I may have to rent Safety Not Guaranteed.

    1. Yes, I still recommend "Safety Not Guaranteed." It's nicely written and Aubrey Plaza's deadpan acting style works perfectly for her role. Black Widow is worth a revisit, too.