Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reel Time

Yes, it’s review time again. Below are mini-reviews of four flicks I’ve recently encountered. Once again, I paired each as a double feature with an older film of which the first reminded me.

** **

St Trinian’s (2007)
St. Trinian’s School is the fictional English girls’ boarding school created by Ronald Searle (1920-2011) in his marvelously dark cartoons published beginning in the 1940s. I feel the need to mention that only because time passes. I’ve met younger people who were unaware that The Addams Family is based on the work of cartoonist Charles Addams, whose humor is so like Searle’s; so, it is possible they don’t know Searle either. I have collections of both cartoonists on my shelves, and recommend them. The Belles of St. Trinian’s appeared on the big screen in 1954 with Alastair Sim in a dual role as the headmistress and her brother; the movie was and is very well-regarded, and it spawned sequels.

Accordingly, the 2007 reboot faced a high bar. Did it clear the bar? Not really, despite a pretty decent cast including Talulah Riley, Russell Brand, Rupert Everett, and a young Juno Temple. Not only is the script dull, it is, weirdly, fundamentally tamer than the 1954 version. One assumes the 1950s girls would have handled the spoils of the art heist differently, for example. (I’ll forgo the spoiler of explaining that.) In fairness, this film seems aimed at a young audience – younger than the upper form students in the film. But without their lethal edge, the girls are merely naughty, and not in a good way. If you’re 14 or over, stick with the original.

Finishing School (1934)
Set in an expensive girls school, this enjoyable pre-code features bad girl Ginger Rogers (“Pony”) explaining to new naive arrival Francis Dee (Virginia) that the key to happiness at the school and in life is to appear good rather than to be good:

Virginia: “But if they have those rules, and we're on our honor, I...”
Pony: “Honor? You're supposed to do exactly as you please in this old ladies home for nice young gals. Just don't get caught, that's all.”

The headmistress seems to agree: when Virginia gets caught on a tryst, the headmistress reprimands her specifically for having been seen, especially since the fellow, an intern, is (horrors) middle class. She continues to see the not-so-young man (Ralph, aka "Mac"), however. Despite a camera cutaway, Virginia and Ralph obviously have sex in the boathouse. Once again she fails to cover her tracks. In Virginia’s mind she is doing nothing wrong, but she is subjected to a humiliating examination by the school nurse. This is the final straw, so she runs off with Ralph; the two abandon the school and the older generation to their hypocrisy.

** **

Side Effects (2013)
There are some movies in which it is fun to follow the twists and turns even if you already know what is coming; there are others that are spoiled by knowing what is around the bend. This is one of the latter, so it makes a useful review difficult to write. The mostly unspoiled gist: Emily’s husband is fresh out of prison where he did time for insider trading. Yet, Emily continues to have depression and other mental health issues because of financial woes and stress. The usual pharmaceuticals don’t help, so her shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones) prescribes Emily a new drug. The drug works, but a side effect is sleepwalking. Emily performs quite elaborate tasks while sleepwalking. One morning she wakes up and discovers she has stabbed her husband to death in her sleep. Or did she? There is a trial and intrigue involving her shrink and her lawyer that I really shouldn’t explain further. If you like suspenseful mysteries, this is a pretty good one.

The Wasp Woman (1959)
This film doesn’t score well on Rotten Tomatoes, but there is a type of viewer who will enjoy it. I’m one of them. In this silly, cheesy, but campy 1950s scifi Roger Corman romp, aging cosmetics company CEO Janice Starlin is counting on a new anti-aging cream developed by an eccentric but brilliant scientist. She insists on experimenting on herself. Derived from the royal jelly of wasps, the stuff works fabulously. Uh-oh, there are side effects. Janice transforms into a giant wasp from time to time and kills people. Oh well, so long as she looks good. If you enjoy ‘50s scifi, you’ll like this. If you demand 21st century production values, you won’t.

** **

Blended (2014)
I don’t know at whom this romantic comedy is aimed, but it isn’t at me. It is a kind of Brady Bunch with more bathroom humor. Adam Sandler is the single father of girls and Drew Barrymore is the single mother of boys. They have a horrible first date. They don’t plan to see each other again. If only they had kept their resolve and spared us the rest of this movie. Instead, due to an absurdly contrived circumstance, both find themselves vacationing in Sun City, South Africa. You know the rest. The exotic location doesn’t help – it doesn’t help the movie, that is. We know it will make Adam and Drew a couple. If the managers and workers at the Sun City resort are not insulted by this movie, they ought to be. I like Drew Barrymore as an actress and as a director (e.g. Whip It), but she can’t rescue this tripe.

Love before Breakfast (1936)
It is possible for romantic comedies to be witty and enjoyable without being especially highbrow. Scriptwriters had a better handle on this in the ‘30s, though the less cynical cultural presuppositions of the time certainly helped. Carole Lombard is pursued both by Cesar Romero and Preston Foster. Carole’s mother prefers Preston because he is much richer, but Carole favors Cesar while trying to deflect Preston. Preston buys the oil company for which Cesar works just so he can transfer him to Japan with a big pay raise. Carole’s mother (and we) can see that Carole’s arguments with Preston really stem from a greater interest, and that a big motive for dating Cesar is to annoy Preston. Yes, she and Preston end up together, arguing happily at the end. Cesar seems to get the worst of it, but at least he got a pay raise out of it – Preston wasn’t such a jerk as to fire him, as he probably would in a 2014 film. Lightweight, but fun.

** **

Cheap Thrills (2013)
In this dark comedy, two buddies, Craig and Vince, are struggling financially. In a bar they encounter a rich twosome who get their kicks by offering Craig and Vince money to do things they wouldn’t do ordinarily. They start with minor challenges and escalate them so each new transgression doesn’t seem that much worse than what they did already. Before long, the dares get truly nasty and criminal. Overlying the theme of class is the individual moral question: how far would you go for money? How much money? Maybe further than we’d like to admit, and for less, especially if nudged little by little. Not a pleasant film, but pretty good.

Cat’s Eye (1985)
A roaming cat ties together three separate stories of mild suspense. In Quitters, Inc. James Woods enters a clinic to quit smoking and discovers it is run using the methods of organized crime. Failure to quit thereby will bring retaliation not just on himself but on his wife and daughter. In The Ledge a gambler and crime boss discovers his estranged wife has been having an affair with a tennis pro (Robert Hays). Still jealous, he threatens revenge, but offers to let Hays (and his own wife) go if Hays can walk all the way around the tall building on a narrow ledge. Hays takes the challenge. In General, General the cat takes on a small troll that lives in the walls and comes out to harm a girl (a 9-y.o. Drew Barrymore) while she sleeps. It’s a pleasant enough film, and not too intense for kids. Just don’t expect too much of it.

** **

If I had to choose two, they would be Cheap Thrills from the new views and Finishing School from the old ones.

Ronald Searle


  1. I think I read a bit about Cheap Thrills somewhere, but haven't given it a look. I saw Mysterious Skin this past week, and it was pretty good. I guess it's considered an independent film, but for the budget they did a great job on it.

    I've seen Side Effects too, and probably like you was expecting a little more, particularly when compared to Limitless, which I saw first. It was also about medications going wrong. Thought it's probably not fair to compare the two, as Side Effect was more a thriller and Limitless was closer to SF. Limitless was way better though, for me anyway.

    I've seen the Wasp Woman, back when I was with friends who would watch SF movies on a Saturday night. It is a bit cheesy, it's Corman after all, but fun too.

    I've heard of Searles but never read his strips gags, and haven't seen the movies. Back when I was a kid I enjoyed both The Addams Family and The Munsters, but I think my tolerance for them has diminished greatly now. Sometimes you can't see things through teenaged eyes anymore. It's funny how age has that effect on you. Sometimes now I can sit and watch some of the things I grew up with, and other times, I don't know how I sat through them back then.

    1. “Limitless” is a really good film. Eddie Morra is the perfect 21st century hero: please give me everything I want effortlessly with a magic pill. Moreover, in modern fashion, on the surface Morra shows all the PC niceties, but his personal objectives are all of the shallowest and most self-serving kind, even though he can quote to you the works of every moral philosopher he ever has read. That’s not a flattering description of Morra, but, once again, the movie is marvelous. I like “Side Effects,” but, yes, the payback isn’t entirely satisfying – not because it’s undeserved. Something about it just grates a little.

      I wasn’t a big “Munsters” fan. I watched it, but it didn’t have the subversive edge of “The Addams Family” in which characters casually contemplated murder and suicide while the kids literally played with dynamite. I wouldn’t have phrased it that way at the time, but that was the basis of my preference – that, and Carolyn Jones. I still can watch the old TV show with pleasure, but, yeah, I probably couldn’t get through “The Munsters” any more, so I know what you mean. I remember thinking as a kid that “The Mysterians” was a great movie…it’s hard to get more embarrassing than that. “The Belles of St. Trinian’s” is cute though. A clip: