Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movies for a Snow Day

The much ballyhooed “Blizzard of 2015,” which was supposed to dump 2 feet of snow on northern NJ beginning last evening, arrived as a modest snowfall that barely came up to the ankles of local deer.
View out the window this morning
Areas to the east and north of NYC actually did get hit hard, but nearby my domicile we got the benefits of a snow day – closed schools and businesses – without the detriments of power outages, closed roads, and heavy shoveling. It was a good day for movies at home including a few of those reviewed below. The rest flickered on my screen at some point during the last two weeks.

I’ve persisted with my habit of making a double feature by pairing a new movie with an older one with which it has at least something tangentially in common.  

Hercules (2014)
The latest Hercules is based on the Radical Comics Hercules rather than directly on classical sources or on earlier screen treatments. In this version, Hercules is not a demigod. He is a very capable mercenary who travels with an equally capable band of followers. He also is a con artist who uses the widespread public belief that he is a son of Zeus to his advantage. There are down-to-earth explanations for supposed centaurs and for his vision of Cerberus. There also is, importantly, an earthly explanation for the bout of madness during which his wife and children were killed – by his own hands in the original myth.

Dwayne Johnson is surprisingly good in the title role of a rogue who is easily tempted to virtue. Yet, while the film is better than the grumpier critics have admitted, it is not a good movie. I should qualify that statement: if all you want is an action movie with excellent CGI and well-shot live-action violence, this movie might work for you. Hercules isn’t meant to be taken seriously, so perhaps it’s unfair to complain that in every respect but action it is lightweight. The grumps are right, though, that it is lightweight. I wanted something more. Not a lot more, but something. Upshot: It’s not my preferred type of movie, but within its genre it’s up to par. Thumbs pointed firmly sideways.

How to Make a Monster (1958)
This movie also involves mythic characters who are not what they seem to be. The flick is self-referentially set at the American-International movie studio. Pete, a creepy make-up artist who has specialized in horror films for 25 years, learns he and his assistant will be fired. The new management thinks that horror films have run their course. The studio will make comedies and musicals instead. Pete’s job will last only until a monster movie still in production is finished.

By accident, Pete earlier had discovered that a particular chemical added to his home-made foundation creams temporarily robs people of their will. So, he uses it on two young actors. He makes them up as monsters and sends them out to kill the new management. He then orders them to forget what they did. Aficionados of ‘50s horror/scifi will recognize the monster disguises as being from I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I was a Teenage Frankenstein. Pete is abetted in his crimes by his long-time assistant Rivero. The adoring looks from Rivero suggest (but only suggest) that the hold Pete has on him involves a different sort of chemistry.

Don’t expect much of it, but as ‘50s B movies go, this one is enjoyable enough. Thumbs slightly up.

**** **** **** ****

Pompeii (2014)
Pompeii is another sword and sandal film that underperformed at the box office in 2014. There is nothing new in this movie. Milo is a Celt in Britannia who, as a child, sees his village destroyed and parents killed by Romans. The image of the Roman commander is burned in his mind: we saw this in Conan the Barbarian (1982). He is sold into slavery and grows into a beefy gladiator of extraordinary skill. His skill gets him sent to the more upscale arena at Pompeii where he catches the eye of a noblewoman to the annoyance of a Senator who wants her: Spartacus (1960). He eventually faces in the arena the Roman commander who had killed his parents: Gladiator (2000). Vesuvius then erupts and we see every cliché from every disaster movie ever made: Earthquake (1974), Volcano (1997), 2012 (2009), etc. There are all the impossible near misses by collapsing columns and flaming volcanic ejecta. There are the leaps over opening chasms. I kid you not, Milo actually pursues the villain (who has abducted the girl) on a white horse.

OK, it’s derivative. If that alone were enough to sink a movie, many otherwise fine films would drown. Unfortunately, this is not an otherwise fine film. Nonetheless, I can see how some viewers might enjoy it. Come to think of it, they probably are the same folks who liked Hercules. It’s the best CGI representation of Pompeii ever done, and the best on-screen destruction of it too. The action and combat scenes are everything that modern audiences expect them to be. (What the ancient Romans expected to see in the arena is another matter altogether.) So, it is possible to enjoy this film as a guilty pleasure. That is perfectly legitimate. But, like Hercules, it just isn’t my brand of guilty pleasure. Thumbs slightly down on this one.

The Son of Kong (1933)
The least seen of the three classic ape movies (King Kong, Son of Kong and the 1949 Mighty Joe Young) isn’t quite sure what it means to be. Is it an adventure film? A monster movie? A comedy? It’s all of them, but tongue-in-cheek in each case. The jumbled approach doesn’t work as well as intended, but the film still has some appeal.

Carl Denham, the show-biz producer who had brought King Kong to New York, faces countless lawsuits because of Kong’s rampage. Captain Englehorn is in danger of having his ship seized for his part in the affair. They illegally leave port and sail the ship to the East Indies where they earn a modest living carrying cargo. In Dakang, Denham attends a small tent show with performing monkeys and a singer named Hilda. He also encounters the villainous Nils Helstrom, the sailor who had sold him the map to Skull Island in the first place. Nils kills Hilda’s father in a brawl. Needing to leave Dutch jurisdiction, he convinces Denham that there is a lost treasure on Skull Island. The ship departs for Skull Island, but it turns out Hilda – broke and stranded after the death of her father – is a stowaway.

Offshore of Skull Island, Helstrom convinces the crew to mutiny, citing the deaths on the previous expedition as a reason. The crew, however, don’t want Helstrom as captain. They send him overboard in a lifeboat along with Denham, Hilda, Charlie the cook, and Englehorn. On shore, the natives, in light of what happened last time, are unhappy to see them and make them leave. They row until finding landfall somewhere beyond the village wall. There they encounter dinosaurs, various other monsters, and a young Kong. The little Kong is much smaller than dad but still huge. The castaways discover ancient treasure. No one is more surprised than Helstrom to learn that there really is a treasure. In the movies, natural disasters always put an end to exotic places like this, so you know what happens next: earthquakes, volcano, and a sinking island.

While far inferior to King Kong, this sequel is amusing enough to merit a thumbs up.

**** **** **** ****

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)
Woody Allen once again tells us that virtue and success are not related. They are not inversely related as some cynics would have it, but rather not related at all. Neither are intelligence and foolishness, or wisdom and happiness.

Septuagenarian Alfie (Anthony Hopkins) divorces his wife of 40 years and marries a young prostitute who spends all his money. Helena, Alfie’s divorced wife, finds hope from a fortune teller who gives her the hackneyed prediction about a tall dark stranger. Helena also likes her liquor, which makes her happy but loosens her tongue in a way that annoys her daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and son-in-law Roy. Roy had written a promising first novel but has been unable to interest publishers in anything he has written since. However, Roy gets a chance to steal the impressive manuscript of a friend who was in an auto accident. Roy also is fascinated by a young woman who lives across the way. Sally, meantime, flirts with her boss at the art gallery. Secondary characters also try to fill perceived voids in their lives in their own ways – and those ways often involve betrayal.

For all their flaws, Woody Allen treats the characters in the movie kindly; none is entirely unsympathetic. People so often feel that something is missing or that life is passing them by, and accordingly they make ill-advised choices. It isn’t admirable, but it is human. Woody deliberately leaves the plot ends unresolved. Doom seems to loom in a few cases, but, just as in our own lives, we don’t know for sure.

Thumbs up, but not for viewers who like tidy endings or who want to be told their lives have a deeper meaning than they seem to have.

Blood of Dracula (1957)
Troubled teen Nancy, whose widower father has just married a floozy, is sent to girls’ boarding school. On the staff is a chemistry teacher whose influence is less benign than the average fortune teller. Miss Branding has plans to end the international arms race by unleashing the occult deadly powers hiding within individual humans. Her idea is that weapons will be rendered obsolete if you can prove that people themselves are the deadliest weapon. She sees something in Nancy that will make her a good subject. Using chemistry, hypnosis, and an old amulet from the Carpathians, she successfully turns Nancy into a hairy toothy vampire with great strength. As the vampire, Nancy commits a number of murders; this is OK by Miss Branding, who considers the murders a modest price to pay to achieve the end result. The experiment will prove her thesis and will change the world. Meantime, the overdeveloped school girls (we see only seniors) at the academy act up and sneak boys into the dorm.

Did the writers of this script ever meet any teenagers? Or remember what it was like to be one? No teens ever have spoken or acted like the ones in this movie – not in the 1950s and not today. Anyway, as you might imagine, Miss Branding overestimates her control over Nancy as vampire, and things go badly for her and her thesis.

I enjoy bad movies like this, but it must be said that this still is a bad movie. So, while I personally had fun with it, thumbs down as a recommendation for most other viewers.

**** **** **** ****

Lucy (2014)
In 2011 Bradley Cooper became an instant genius by taking an illegal new drug in the movie Limitless. Effortless brilliance is a common fantasy, it seems. Lucy goes a step further. Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a courier carrying surgically implanted packets of a new wonder drug that supercharges brainpower. She is unintentionally exposed to the drug when she is roughly handled and a packet breaks. Her new and ever expanding brilliance gives her paranormal powers that help her combat the mobsters who want the drug. She ultimately transcends space and time. She tells us at the end, "Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it." Both statements, like nearly all the science in the movie, are wrong, but that’s OK.

This film got very mixed reviews. I’d have to rank it well below Limitless. Nonetheless, we get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking butt and being a superwoman – not a rare role for her. There is a degree of pleasure in that. If you don’t take the film seriously and don’t question the oddities of the plot (e.g. “Why Taipei?” The only possible answer: “Why not?”), you can have fun with Lucy. Thumbs slightly up.

Charly (1968)
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes was published first as a short story in 1958 and later as a full-length novel in 1966. (Trivia: I was assigned the novel in high school in 1969; the English teacher’s nickname was Charlie, which might or might not have influenced the choice.) Charly, the movie version of the book, appeared in 1968 and starred Cliff Robertson. I first saw it in ’68.

An intellectually challenged man, who writes his name “Charly” (and struggles to do that), permits a surgical experiment on himself in hopes of boosting his brain power. Though the effects kick in slowly, the experiment succeeds beyond all expectation. Charly becomes an outright genius. As he gains intellectual ability, he realizes the cruelty of his co-workers – their taunts previously had gone over his head. He steeps himself in academic knowledge and discovers erotic love with the help of Alice, one of the scientists running the experiment. Trouble looms when Algernon, a mouse from successful pre-human experiments, suffers brain degeneration. Could the effects of the experiment be only temporary? Can Charly face returning to his old self now that he knows the difference?

No equivocation on this film. Thumbs up.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger 


  1. I'd say the two winners there are Charly and Lucy. Charly because it's just a good film, and Lucy because I wasn't even going to watch it, but oddly enough someone put up a pirate? version on YT and I decided to watch it. Oddly it sucked me right into the story, and it exceeded my expectations--granted Limitless was a better film. That said though, it was par for a film directed by Luc Besson, and felt like some of SF escapism I used to watch in my youth. I enjoy this more than Inception, although I don't know that that says much.

    Son of Kong, was almost a let down after the original, but it's worth watching once. I'm curious about this new film Kong Island or whatever it's called.

    My patience for some of these sword and sandal films are limited. I tried to watch Troy and it bored me silly, though I enjoyed Gladiator a lot, and the Rome TV series. Funny though that you compared Pompeii to Conan, which I enjoyed as well.

    I haven't seen A Tall Dark Stranger, but I would imagine it has some merit, most Allen films do.

    1. Despite some timebound and deliberately silly dialogue (some of it inside humor between filmmakers Cooper and Shoedsack), "King Kong" (1933) is brilliant on so many levels that it would be tough to equal it in a sequel. Cooper and Shoedsack (who incidentally appear as the pilot and gunner of the plane that kills King Kong) didn't even try. They were having a bit of fun with "The Son of Kong" while they still had the sets -- sets that they used once more in "She" -- and hoped the audience would too. By sinking the island, they also made unlikely a "Kong, part 3," for which they deserve credit.

      Given some of the reviews I'd seen, "Lucy" exceeded my expectations, too.

  2. I usually dig sword and sorcery films, but these recent ones just don't seem to work. They end up being too damn serious and dour - no fun with the adventure moment at all. They usually skip right past moments of wonder and just head into the CGI overloaded action scenes. I keep hoping someone will come along and do one of these things right... but in most cases they just keep cranking out the same stuff.

    Both "Hercules" and "Pompeii" looked like the same old same old. And I'm getting sick of pulling the fantasy out of Greek myths in these modern films. COME ON! These are supposed to be magical adventures with amazing things happening. At least the remake of "Clash of the Titans" got that part right.

    Anyway, rant over. I just need to check out Lucy, because Scarlett can always make me smile. :)

    1. That's pretty much my feeling about recent films of that sort too. When episodes of the low-budget 90s TV show "Hercules" are more fun to watch than a would-be blockbuster film (and they are), the makers of the would-be blockbuster have done something wrong.

      So much is wrong with the science and history in "Lucy" that one can have fun just trying to keep track of the errors. That said, it still works as sf/adventure laced with (dubious) philosophy, and Scarlett is the one who makes it work.