Thursday, July 3, 2014

5 by 5

DVDs of new-ish films find their way into my player from time to time, usually on the sleepless nights that occur once a week or so. Late evening caffeine is usually responsible. Often they bring to mind older films collecting dust on my shelves. Lately, I’ve taken to plucking them off the shelves to make ad hoc double features. Some mini-reviews of recent spins and their B-features follow.

Grabbers (2012)
I’m usually willing to give a monster movie a chance. (See May 21 blog.) Good fx are always appreciated in such films: Jurassic Park was the game-changer in this regard. However, with a good script, or at least an enjoyable one, they are not essential, while with a poor script they are not enough (e.g. Jurassic Park III). So, I’m as apt to like a cheap indie film as a would-be blockbuster, since the quality of writing is remarkably unrelated to the available budget. Grabbers is a great example of a movie with a very limited budget that nonetheless is marvelously full of humor, rampaging beasts, and fun.

The “grabbers” are tentacled sea creatures with a taste for blood, and they’re willing to crawl up onto land to get some. I’m sure this sounds familiar. Very few of the premises for scifi flicks are truly original. The premise for this one can be traced to The Sea Raiders, a short story published by H.G. Wells in 1896, but don’t pass it by on that account. The treatment is playful and the characters have real definition. The critters have a weakness, as they must in order for the contest with humans to be sporting: they find alcohol-tainted blood to be poisonous. Bad luck, then, that they show up in Ireland.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)
Grabbers couldn’t help but bring to mind this movie which I much enjoyed as a kid. It is in my Ray Harryhausen set, so into the DVD player it went.

A giant octopus living in the deep ocean trenches has been irradiated by atomic bomb tests. This makes it unable to catch its normal prey which are able to sense the radiation, so it rises to the surface where the pickings are easier. It works its way along the Pacific coast of North America and eventually lays its suckers on San Francisco.

Usually the movies I liked as a kid I still like as an adult, but truthfully this one doesn’t hold up as well. The stop action fx are good, and, thanks to more credible lead characters, the movie is still better than this year’s Godzilla which also tears up SF, but that isn’t a big endorsement. Despite being only 79 minutes long, It Came from Beneath the Sea moves too slowly. It’s not downright bad, and it has some nostalgia value for me, but I’m reluctant to recommend it to anyone but an aficionado of ‘50s scifi.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The sequel to The Hunger Games doesn’t stand alone in the way that, for example, The Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy can stand alone. There is no good reason for anyone who didn’t see the first Hunger Games to see this one. But that said, returning viewers shouldn’t be disappointed. Catching Fire moves the story along nicely. In this film, the “tributes” who are tasked with hunting each other in the Games turn on the oppressive government instead. The metaphor for youth rebellion against adult authority tickles one’s inner teenager, and the more literal nod to anarchy pleases the inner rebel. However, this is an intermediate movie so the viewer necessarily is left hanging in the end. The third of the series will be in theaters this fall, and the fourth in 2015. 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
This is the granddaddy of movies about hunting humans for sport. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray (the year before she was King Kong’s squeeze) are shipwrecked on the private island of erudite big game hunter Count Zaroff. Like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Zaroff makes an interesting villain because his actions are informed by a distinct world-view, which in Zaroff’s case is a might-is-right amoral philosophy. He sets Joel and Fay loose in the jungle in order to hunt them as trophies. This movie has been mimicked and parodied many times. The original is still the one to see.

Walk of Shame (2014)
The people who should walk in shame are those who had anything to do with this movie. A newscaster (Elizabeth Banks) on a local Los Angeles station is passed over for promotion to a network, so she goes out drinking with the girls. She wakes up hung over and tarted-up in a strange apartment with the bartender from the club. A message on her cell phone informs her that she is being reconsidered after all, but she needs to be at her best for a final interview. The bulk of the movie then consists of a series of misadventures with police, perverts, and drug dealers as she tries to get to her interview. This sounds contrived, but not necessarily terrible, right? Trust me, it’s terrible.

After Hours (1985)
In this early little gem from Martin Scorsese, Griffin Dunne is a mild word processor in Manhattan. He meets a pretty but flaky Rosanna Arquette in an uptown cafĂ©. She lives in Soho with an artist named Kiki. He agrees to meet up with her late at night at her apartment in order to buy some of Kiki’s art. He has just enough money left, he thinks, to return by subway, but unknown to him the subway had upped its fare that day, leaving him stranded downtown in the middle of the night. (ATMs still were uncommon in 1985, and Soho was not upscale then.) As he struggles to get home, multiple misadventures hold him back. They include the suicide of Arquette’s character along with flirtations with various women and one man, but Houston Street might as well be a wall as the hours tick by. Griffin is harassed, harried, mistaken for a thief, and abducted when all he wants to do is go home. This is a dark comedy with a great ensemble cast; it proves that a struggle to get from one part of town to another can be a winning plot device with the right script.

Thirteen (2003)
Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed (one of the teens who stars in the movie), Thirteen is a parent’s nightmare. It’s an effective film, but it makes me glad I’m childless. 13-year-old Tracy lives with her single mom Monica who has alcohol issues, struggles financially, and indulges in cocaine with a boyfriend whom it is much too kind to call a loser.  Clearly, Monica is not in a good position to lecture her daughter when Tracy acquires a troubled friend Evie who introduces her to shoplifting, substance abuse, self-harm, and underage sex. Not that she tries much. Monica seems willfully to avoid noticing the obvious warning signs, such as Tracy wearing clothes she can’t possibly afford. It’s a tale of a teen trying to grow up too fast but only succeeding in growing desperate.

The Major and the Minor (1942)
If you think that in 1942 Ginger Rogers would be unconvincing as a 12-year-old, you agree with the train conductor in the movie. Susan (Ginger) gives up trying to make it in New York, but doesn’t have the train fare to get back to Iowa. So, she tries to pass for age 12 to get the half-fare. She evades the suspicious conductor by ducking into the cabin of Major Kirby (Ray Milland), an instructor at a military school. Kirby buys her 12-year-old act and treats her avuncularly. When Kirby’s fiancĂ© (the daughter of his commanding officer) meets him at the train early and sees Susan, she storms out. So, Major Kirby takes Susan, still pretending to be 12, to the military school to prove that he wasn’t cheating but just helping out a kid. The explanation works, but on campus Susan has to fend off the attentions of the young teen cadets who are intent on practicing maneuvers. Mixing sophistication with innocence in a very 1940s way, this classic comedy reveals the difference in expectations of tweens/teens between then and now. It also shows our change in expectations regarding adults. Today, you would not get out of trouble by explaining that the girl in your cabin was 12.

Sightseers (2012)
In this enjoyable dark comedy, seemingly ordinary Chris takes his seemingly ordinary girlfriend Tina on a caravan holiday to the north of England. It’s an opportunity to show her his hobby, which is murder. She tries to share his interest by committing murders of her own, but trouble ensues when he doesn’t think she does it right. Can the two resolve their issues and find happiness? Can one of them?
Psychos in Love (1987)
Filmed for $75,000 – effectively 0 even in 1987 – this cult movie sports two psychotic killers who find each other. Not only do both like to kill but they discover that they both detest grapes! True love ensues, along with copious gore and self-referential humor. This is definitely not for everyone, but if your silly streak extends to other horror parody comedies (e.g. Student Bodies), you might chuckle at this, too.

What’s Next
I don’t know, but I rather like the double-feature experience. Perhaps I’ll make a habit of it.

Psychos in Love find love

Another 5 by 5


  1. Once again thanks for the movie reviews. I love finding new flicks to watch. Your double feature experiment was a good one. Provided some interesting contrasts.

    I watched "The Most Dangerous Game" last year and it held up pretty well. I think the movie was film in some of the same sets used for "Kong" as well. I remember reading the short story of the same name back in high school and it really blowing my mind. I'd never into that type of story before and found the concept fascinating.

    I need to give "After Hours" another try. I saw it many many years ago and was expecting something way sillier than I got. But I was also in love Rosanna Arquette and was annoyed by how small her part was. It sounds like a real fun flick and Scorsese is always worth checking out.

    1. Good eye on "The Most Dangerous Game" scenery. You are right: Cooper and Schoedsack filmed this at the same time they were working on "King Kong," and dual-purposed the sets (and Fay). They reused some of the same sets once more for "She." Cooper and Schoedsack gave themselves brief roles in "King Kong": they are the pilot and gunner who take out the ape.

      "After Hours" is weird rather than silly, but definitely worth a revisit. Strangely enough, I know people every bit as "off" as the characters, and dated a couple of them. Regrettably, one wasn't Rosanna Arquette, who is an unexceptionable pick for a crush.

  2. I've not seen Grabbers or most of these films, I'll have to check them out. I believe I saw It Came From Beneath the Sea as a boy, as I remember the octopus scene, and mentioned that to my sister not long back, which she seemed to remember it too and said, maybe that's where you get your SF interest. I told her it was an odd choice that mom took us to see that, which in reality, was the only thing showing, and my mom mostly wanted to get someplace cool and out of the heat for the summer. I've rewatched the film, and it's not as great as I remember it, but it's still ok.

    Lately I've been watching the series The Game of Thrones and True Detective both are pretty interesting to me. I'd also recommend the movie, Philomena, and watched Captain Phillips on vacation with some family members and enjoyed that pretty well too.

    1. Anything Ray Harryhausen did was at least watchable. What he achieved with stop-motion was just remarkable, whether that octopus, the skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, or the Seleneans in First Men in the Moon. The allosaurus in The Valley of Gwangi may be a high point. Most of the scripts for the films on which he worked were at least OK, my favorite being the (unintentionally?) campy Earth vs the Flying Saucers.

      Thanks for the recommendations.