Thursday, July 24, 2014

10 Flicks for Insomniacs

The winter of 2013/14 was so dreadful in these parts that I do not expend my summer days on movies. Summer nights are another matter. I’m not one to party frequently – or generally to use “party” as a verb. While not altogether a stranger to night life, on most evenings I’m happy within my own walls. On those nights at home when midnight looms, sleep is not at hand, and I’ve read enough for a while, the DVD player beckons. Five recent films have spun in there in the past couple of weeks; I’ve continued my lately acquired practice of double-featuring each with an older film the first one brought to mind. Reviews follow.

Carrie (2013)
The first Stephen King novel I ever read was the first one he ever published: Carrie, the MS for which reportedly was fished out of the trash can by Stephen’s wife Tabitha. Carrie is an awkward teenage girl and a social outcast in high school. She has psychokinetic powers and a mother who is just plain psycho. Carrie’s mother considers her daughter’s abilities to be satanic, and both keep the powers a secret. Carrie controls her powers fairly well until prom night when a prank – which would have been bad enough had it gone right – goes horribly wrong. After that, she’s not the only one to have a bad prom night.

The book prompted me to see the 1976 movie with Sissy Spacek in the title role. The film deservedly is a cult favorite. Spacek and Piper Laurie (as Carrie’s mom) won Academy Awards for their roles. Carrie since has been a Broadway musical, an off-Broadway farce, and a TV movie intended as a pilot. (The planned series wasn’t picked up.) In 2013 a remake was released starring Chloe Grace Moretz. Chloe frequently plays characters who aren’t quite normal, including a werewolf (Dark Shadows), a vampire (Let Me In), and a superhero (Kick-Ass).

When a movie is done right the first time, the only excuse to make it again, beyond the obvious commercial one, is to introduce the tale to a new generation. The main risk is making a version substantially worse than the first one. The 2013 version survives this risk. It isn’t so much as a smidgeon better than the 1976 Carrie at any point, but it isn’t substantially worse. Essentially, it is the same movie with a few updates to technology such as cell phones. Of the two I’d still pick 1976, but if you are with one of those people apt to complain “I don’t like old movies,” you won’t go seriously wrong watching this one instead.

Firestarter (1984)
There are lots of movies about characters with psychic abilities. Scanners is an obvious pick, but I went with Firestarter since it also is based on a Stephen King novel. This film has a marvelous cast including Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, and Drew Barrymore while still in her cute kid phase. Otherwise, though, it is weaker in every way than either Carrie. A young couple volunteer for medical experiments intended to enhance psychic abilities. They work. They have a daughter Charlie (Drew) who is able to start fires with her mind; she can do it intentionally, but it also happens when she is upset. Managers of the secret government facility called The Shop want her for study and future use. The mother is murdered by unknown assailants, though the dad (who also has some abilities) blames the government and flees to keep Charlie out of its hands. Easier said than done. But then, so is holding onto them once The Shop catches them. The movie is not terrible; it’s just nothing special. This is the fate of most Stephen King adaptations.


Kaboom (2010)
As I’ve mentioned on other occasions (see last year’s review: Plus Six by Juno ), Juno Temple has been fortunate in the scripts that have come her way. Films in which she has a major role always are at least interesting. In this highly sexual flick by Gregg Araki, Smith (Thomas Dekker) is a bisexual college student with a thing for his straight roommate Thor and for a young woman named London (Juno Temple). A lot of the characters are sexually flexible, which seems to be a point important to Araki. London specifically discusses Kinsey’s sliding scale in such matters. (Though the film is not rated, it isn’t really graphic – my unofficial rating is just an R.) Strange things start to happen around Smith. An enigmatic note identifies him as the “chosen son.” He has disturbing encounters with men in animal masks. Then a murder mystery leads Smith to question the story told to him by his mother about his father’s death. He grows to believe his father is alive, is a leader of some bizarre secret cult, and is planning a global catastrophe. Araki is more than a little self-indulgent in this film, but that’s allowed: it’s his film. Don’t expect this ever to be a cult classic, but it has its pleasures for the type of viewer likely to choose it in the first place.

A Boy and His Dog (1975)
The intro to the movie tells us “World War IV lasted five days. Politicians had finally solved the problem of urban blight.” In this post-apocalyptic world a young Don Johnson travels the wasteland with his trusty companion, a sentient dog who communicates with him telepathically. They encounter a woman who informs them of an advanced underground cultish society that needs healthy genetic input from the surface. It sounds too good to be true, and it is. Based on a Harlan Ellison novella, this cult film is sardonically funny from the beginning to the end when Don’s character must make a choice regarding his dog.


To Rome with Love (2013)
To Rome with Love consists of four stories that cross paths but do not intertwine. One is a meet-the-in-laws tale involving a mortician who has a great singing voice in the shower, but only in the shower; Woody’s character therefore stages an opera with the lead always in a shower. In another, newlyweds from a small Italian town are out of their depth in Rome; while apart, each gives into temptations but the lapses prove beneficial to them. In a third story, an average middle class Roman (Roberto Benigni) finds he is famous for no real reason and despite the lack of any special talent – as so many reality show stars are these days. The oddest tale is that of John (Alec Baldwin) who had lived in Rome 30 years earlier. John meets a young man called Jack (which, of course, is a nickname for John) on a lane near his old residence. It soon becomes apparent that John is really just in reverie; he is imagining meeting his younger self at a bittersweet moment in his life. John magically drifts in and out of scenes, offering advice and warnings to Jack regarding the visiting actress friend (Ellen Page) of his girlfriend Sally. The warnings go unheeded, as they must; we can’t change our pasts.

Woody Allen has directed a number of truly marvelous movies. Accordingly, critics are often unkind to him when he isn’t at the top of his game. But Woody Allen at the middle of his game is still pretty good, and To Rome with Love is pretty good.

We’re Not Married (1952)
Some *spoilers* follow. In this pleasant ensemble flick, a newly accredited Justice of the Peace failed to realize that his authority to marry people didn't start until January 1. So, six ceremonies he officiated prior to then had no legal standing. When the error is discovered by state officials, notices go out to the six couples informing them that they are not legally married. Some cuts of this movie show only five couples, leaving out the Walter Brennan segment.

1) Young golddigger Zsa Zsa Gabor is not content with 50% community property, so she sets up her aging but doting millionaire husband Louis Calhern by sending a woman accomplice to his room. Because of this supposed “adultery,” she and her lawyer demand pretty much everything in a divorce settlement. Then the letter arrives. 2) Marilyn Monroe is a married mom and also a “Mrs. Mississippi” beauty pageant contestant. David Wayne accepts her ambition but doesn’t really like being a stay-at-home dad while she does the pageants. When the letter arrives he realizes she is ineligible for the “Mrs.” contests, so he hopes her pageant days are over. Instead, she realizes she can compete in the contests for single women, which are where the big fame and money are anyway. 3) Paul Douglas and Eve Arden have a dull relationship. They ran out of conversation long ago. Paul dreams of how great it would be to be single. Yet in the end he doesn’t show Eve the letter. 4) In the rural backwoods, Walter Brennan flatters a married woman into regularly feeding him her great cooking. She can’t read, so when the letter arrives, Walter Brennan tells her it is junk mail, lest it precipitate events that disrupt his meals. 5) Eddie Bracken is being shipped off to Korea when he learns that he and his pregnant wife (Mitzi Gaynor) aren’t married. Can they jump through the legal hoops and avoid the MPs to tie the knot in time? 6) Fred Allen and Ginger Rogers have a smash hit radio talk-show. They give advice and hawk home products by pretending to be the perfect couple. In fact, they hate each other. When the letter arrives they have to decide whether to make the good business decision (get married again legally) or the good emotional decision (split).

Like Woody’s movie, this isn’t great but it’s pretty good. Usually, that is all we ask.


Under the Skin (2013)
This sci-fi film takes a minimalist approach to exposition. We simply witness a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) picking up lonely men in Scotland and leading them to a gruesome liquid fate in which they are removed from their skin and otherwise reduced to pulp. We deduce (and eventually see) that she is wearing some young woman’s skin. A man on a motorcycle also apparently is wearing the skin of a victim. We guess they are part (perhaps the vanguard) of some alien invasion. [In the book, human meat is a delicacy for the aliens, but this is not mentioned in the film.] Scarlett begins to empathize with her intended victims, however, which leads to trouble for her. The film is an interesting experiment, but it is not for those who like neat answers.

The Hidden (1987)
The hidden alien has a long history in scifi, turning up in movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). One of the lesser-seen ones is The Hidden. An intelligent alien parasite with a crude taste for human sensual pleasures (sports cars and hardcore rock-n-roll among them) infests one human body after another, including at one point Claudia Christian. The creature uses each for a crime spree, changing bodies when the current one gets too damaged (often by police gunfire). The creature is pursued by another alien who has infested the body of FBI agent Kyle MacLachlan. The second critter seeks out the aid of local police. It’s a surprisingly effective flick with good actors and a solid script.


The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Part comedy, part love story, part period piece, part murder mystery, and part fantasy, The Grand Budapest Hotel has the quirky tone for which Wes Anderson is known. In a double flashback, Zero Moustafa, who had been a lobby boy between the world wars at the Grand Budapest Hotel, tells the adventurous tale of how he came to own the establishment and win the girl (Saoirse Ronan) despite fascists and scheming would-be heirs. Further explanation won’t really help the reader. It’s best just to see it.

Hotel Imperial (1939)
The First World War had been such a traumatic and pointless slaughter that the public mood in the West was firmly pacifistic right up to September 1, 1939. Films of the era overwhelmingly reflect this. Hotel Imperial is no exception.

Unlike the Western Front in WWI which for years was locked in place in trench lines, the Eastern Front was fluid, drifting back and forth as one side and then the other would launch an offensive that gained ground but ultimately stalled. In this wonderful movie, the Hotel Imperial is located on a patch of ground that trades hands repeatedly between the Austrians and the Russians. The managers of the hotel couldn’t care less who wins; they simply want to avoid seeing the place ransacked, and so greet the officers of whichever army arrives at the door as friends and liberators. In this establishment arrives Anna Warschaska who gets a job as a maid; she hopes to get revenge on the Austrian officer over whom she believes her sister committed suicide. But all is not as it seems. There are Russian spies, Austrian spies, and a flaky artistic Russian officer who wants Anna to pose for him. Through it all, in importance the personal outweighs the political to all of the characters – and to us. (Trivia: Ray Milland nearly died during filming when thrown from a horse; he was unconscious for a full day and hospitalized for weeks.)

This version is a remake of a 1927 silent film that also is well regarded by critics, though as of yet I haven’t seen it.


So there we have the latest batch. Who says insomnia is a bad thing?

Some of the pre-release promotion for the 2013 Carrie was decidedly prankish


  1. Some I've seen, and some are in the queue. I'm not one much for remakes. So I'm not very curious about the Carrie remake. Oddly I still think the first film is contemporary enough, which probably just shows how old I am. I've not sat down and watch Firestarter from start to finish. I always thought the soundtrack was nice however.

    I saw A Boy & His Dog not too long ago. It's aged some, but still fairly watchable. The same can be said for The Hidden. It's okay, but pretty cheesy too. Definitely made towards the teen market as the alien has a penchant for hard rock music...if anything, you'd think that would repel it like Raid if you listen to the hard rock within the film.

    Budapest Hotel is in the Q, and so is the Allen film. I find it odd that some people had such an aversion to Allen as I think he's one of America's better directors. His newest film, about exposing a mystic, Emma Stone, (I forget the title) looks interesting as well.

    1. I agree that a new “Carrie” was unnecessary, but the result nonetheless was OK. In the long run, though, it may suffer the fate of the 1957 “My Man Godfrey”: not really worse than the 1936 version, but no improvement and therefore almost entirely forgotten. Remakes have a mixed success rate. One only can hope that the remake of “Total Recall” will be recalled by no one. On the other hand Bogart’s ’41 “Maltese Falcon” flies high above the ’31 version.

      Woody Allen rarely makes an outright stinker (anyone as prolific as he is entitled to a few) and his personal average is way above-average for the industry – certainly in the indie sector. When he is good he is very very good. At 78 he shows no sign of quitting despite his remark, “I don’t want to live on in my work; I want to live on in my apartment.”

  2. Yeah I've heard that the "Carrie" remake was pretty solid. Tough to compete with De Palma's original take on the film, but it sounds like this didn't try to ape is style and went their own way. probably the best option. I've never seen "Firestarter" but I enjoyed the book when I read it about seven or eight years ago. Solid middle of the road King, reminded me of an "X-files" episode. :) Speaking of De Palma, his film "The Fury" actually shares a lot with "Firestarter" and is a ton of fun to watch.

    I'm really curious about "Under the Skin" it sounds like an interesting flick. And ambiguous endings never bother me. I'm a David Lynch fan after all. :) I really enjoy "The Hidden". It has a great time the premise and the movie clicks along at a great pace. As you mentioned the acting is solid, just an entertaining film all the way around. Now the sequel... well lets not talk about that one.

    1. Chloe was a good choice for Carrie, and she helped carry the film. I didn’t know there was a Hidden 2 – perhaps it’s best I don’t seek it.