Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Snow Sport for Couch Potatoes

The heavy snow this past Saturday provided a guilt-free excuse for lounging in front of the TV for the next few days. Whenever that irksome old work ethic crept back, I shoveled the walks and the snow piles in front of garage doors and basement windows until it went away. Soon I was back on the couch. Pocket reviews of seven titles to flicker across my screen while planted there are below.

Mother (1996) – John Henderson (Albert Brooks) is a scifi writer who has flawed relationships with women, primarily because he is always attracted to women who hold him in disregard. After his most recent divorce he decides, in good Freudian fashion, that his problems might stem from his relationship with his mother (Debbie Reynolds). So, he moves back into to his old room in his mom’s house to try to gain some insight. The premise might sound cerebral but the result is very funny in a low-key Albert Brooks sort of way. Sometimes we have to forgive our parents for being human – ourselves too. Thumbs Up.

The Mark of the Vampire (1935) – Bela Lugosi is back in cape and cuspids in this odd addition to ‘30s horror.

The luscious Irena plans to marry the marriageable Fedor “within a fortnight” but her plans are put on hold when her father dies from loss of blood; he has two puncture wounds on his neck but there is no blood at the scene. Friends of the family naturally suspect vampires are to blame. They worry that Irena will be the next victim, and they suspect Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Caroll Borland). But is there less to this than meets the eyetooth? The Prague police inspector thinks so. There is a twist to the ending that perhaps was less jarring in the original cut of the movie: 14 minutes were excised just before its release. If you like your vampire movies creepy from start to finish, you might want to skip this one, but if you don’t mind some self-referential playfulness, give it a try. Thumbs slightly Up.

I am Number Four (2011) – John Smith, aka Number Four, is one of nine teenage aliens hiding on earth: Paradise, Ohio, to be precise. He is just beginning to acquire his “legacies,” aka paranormal abilities. The nine are being hunted by alien baddies. In high school John meets the winsome human Sarah. The baddies show up.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. On screen, Earth has been visited by teenagers from outer space at least since Teenagers from Outer Space (1959). In the teen soap opera Roswell (1999-2002), eight teen aliens (two sets of four) are hunted by alien (and human) baddies; in West Roswell High School the alien Max falls for the winsome human Liz. The baddies show up. Um…yeah.

If you can sit through the first half of I am Number Four with all its teen angst and wearily unconvincing relationship issues, you’ll eventually reach some well-orchestrated whiz-bang action in the second half. Yet, this movie fails to make us care very much who, if anyone, walks away from the fireworks. If outer space teens are your thing, my advice: get the box set of Roswell instead. Despite a three-season budget that probably was lower than this one movie, it is a hundred times better and is ideal for binge-watching. I am Number Four: Thumbs Down. (I resisted a couple of obvious number-based puns.)

Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – In the Irish town of Tyreelin at the height of the 1970s disturbances, teen Patrick (Cillian Murphy) changes identity to Patricia “Kitten” Braden. She discovers that her father is the local priest (Liam Neeson) and that her mother lives somewhere in London. Her trans lifestyle is not exactly well understood in Tyreelin, so she moves to London to find her mother. There she is buffeted by both the kindness and brutality of strangers, and she is arrested for an IRA bomb that she didn’t plant. Released, she goes to work in a peep show where her father shows up to tell her where to find her mother. Posing as a survey-taker, Kitten meets her mother but chooses not to disrupt her mother’s new family by revealing her identity. There is more, but the plot, like life, meanders rather than proceeds to a goal.

This movie was recommended to me by a friend, perhaps because I once gave a semi-positive review to Myra Breckinridge. The two films have little in common however. Myra is a broad farce laced with philosophy on movies, sex, and society. Breakfast on Pluto is a very personal story, and any social observations in it arise out of the personal. Breakfast is the better movie, though be advised that at 2 hours and 9 minutes its pace is unhurried. Thumbs up.

Supergirl (1984) Supergirl was rebooted by CBS in 2015 for a weekly TV series that isn’t altogether terrible, so I was tempted to revisit the 1984 movie starring Helen Slater. (Slater plays the adoptive mother of Kara [Supergirl] in the 2015/16 TV series.) Aiming for camp, the 1984 version deliberately affects the innocent style of the first decade of comics in which the character appeared (1959-69).

Kara lives in Argo City – yes, I know it’s Kandor in the comics, but here for some reason it is Argo City – which had escaped the destruction of Krypton through some fancy dimensional shifting. Kara is the cousin of Kal-El (Superman). One day she is careless with the Omegahedron, a crucial power source for the city; about the size of a softball, it gets away from her and skips dimensions to earth. Kara follows in order to retrieve it. Like her cousin, on earth she has super powers. The power source, which landed in Midvale, Illinois, has been picked up by an occult practitioner named Selena (Faye Dunaway). Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Omegahedron gives the occultist power that is effectively magical. In Midvale, Kara takes on the secret identity Linda Lee and enrolls in a private girls school while she searches for the power source. She has teen troubles including an overenthusiastic suitor. She intervenes as Supergirl in a local disaster, so the public becomes aware of her. Eventually, of course, she must face Selena who is armed with a power source as Kryptonian as she.

Supergirl was nominated for two Razzie Awards and has a dismal 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, yet it really isn’t as bad as all that. Helen Slater makes a charming Supergirl: enough so to make this film a legitimate guilty pleasure. Nonetheless, it is not a good movie. It is slapdash in innumerable ways and the script needed at least one more rewrite. Thumbs Down.

American Ultra (2015) – There is a type of action movie that doesn’t usually appeal to me. In it, there is some bare excuse for the hero(es) or anti-hero to engage antagonists in combat. Everyone has astounding martial arts skills and is an acrobat who makes all Cirque du Soleil performers look like amateur pikers. The protagonist is also an amazing marksman who can make six kill shots at half a mile with a 9mm in midair during a double back flip. A couple hundred casualties later the movie ends; the supposed point of all the carnage is long since forgotten. I rarely make it to the end of this movie. The exceptions are films which display a darkly comic sense of their own absurdity (e.g. Kill Bill!, Kick-Ass, and Kingsman) without turning into out-and-out spoofs. It’s a difficult bullseye for a filmmaker to hit, and not many do.

So, I did not have high hopes for American Ultra. Yet, it isn’t a complete miss: not a bullseye for certain, but at least one of the outer rings of the target. Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) doesn’t remember that he once volunteered for a secret Ultra project in order to avoid prison under a three-strike law. The project was shelved and Mark’s memory of it has been suppressed. Mark knows only that he is an underachieving stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in Liman, West Virginia, and that he has deep-seated phobias about leaving town. When Ultra’s founder discovers that her rival in the agency plans to assassinate Mark as a way of cleaning up old files, she goes to Liman and activates him. Mark still doesn’t remember his time in the project, but his skills kick in anyway whenever he is threatened. As the effort to kill Mark grows ever more extreme, so does his knack for surviving.  The dark humor works well enough for a mild Thumbs Up.

X-Files (2016) – 23 years after their first TV appearance, Agents Scully and Mulder are back with new episodes. In the two-part season-opener, they find reasons to suspect their earlier conspiracy theories weren’t nearly twisted enough. What if extraterrestrials aren’t the real secret? What if they are a smokescreen for the nefarious schemes of humans? Mulder refers to a theory long proffered by some fringe historians (usually without – but in a few cases with – the extraterrestrial components) that an elite conspiracy has run the world at least since World War One. (See: It Isn’t Paranoia If They’re Really Out To Get You.) Without buying the theory, I nonetheless enjoyed the show as a “what if” scenario. The old team still has life. Thumbs Up.

Trailer American Ultra


  1. Albert Brooks is a funny guy, and "Mother" is a good one. But I really enjoyed his take on the afterlife in "Defending Your Life". Some really fun performances in that one and it manages to be very funny and kind of heartwarming at the same time.

    "Supergirl" is just plain silly fun. I don't like using the term Guilty Pleasure too often, because why should be guilty about something that is fun. But yeah, I feel a bit of guilt watching this one. But Helen Slater does so much to make this watchable. She's really giving it a solid try, even if the rest of the production doesn't quite meet her. The one guy who does meet her halfway is Jerry Goldsmith who provides a vibrant and over the top score. I'm not sure if he was winking the audience with his electronic zipping sound effects in the music, but the main theme is heroic and optimistic. It is could be a sibling to John Williams score to "Superman" which was probably the intent.

    I'm on the fence with watching these new "X-files" shows. The original series was so so 90s, I'm not sure how well that will translate to the new millennium. But I do like Gillian Anderson. She's done some fine work since the X-files days. I really liked her in the show "The Fall" that Netflix had a couple years ago. Even when the show was sinking under the weight of its drama, she brought the goods. I should check this out... or at least watch some old X-files episodes. there are some great ones.

    1. I suppose it is natural enough to harbor reservations about the revival of favorite series – just as it is hard to like the remake of a favorite movie. It somehow seems a rudeness to an old friend. Besides, the visible aging of Anderson and Duchovny is an unwelcome reminder that the passage of time might have affected us slightly too. So far, so good though.

      I see your point: I don’t per se feel guilty either about enjoying… well, let’s call it the critically unacclaimed. However, if I feel I need to explain what I like about it to any company that that may be present, I suppose “guilty pleasure” is still a fair enough term. In the case of Supergirl, Slater in that film is indeed a lovely lass.

  2. I've enjoyed the new X-Files series so far. It took me a bit through the first episode to get used to it. As you mentioned the aging of the actors themselves surprised me a bit, and I'm not sure why as we all age. I think more than anything though, it might have been the lighting of the episodes, and rather than the dark and gloomy that I was used to, they brighten the sets, so perhaps the harsher light emphasized that more? I've been meaning to rewatch a few episodes of the old series as a comparison. But yeah, there's some jokes in it that refer back to their earlier series, which made me laugh, that's one of the more unusual things about the X-Files. I don't know if any other series has done that.

    I have probably seen Mark of the Vampire, though the specifics gets jumbled in my head as there's a horror hosted (Svengoolie) show that comes on here that shows that type fare. I usually tune in.

    I like Albert Brooks too. Most of his movies are worth a watch. I rewatched some of Lost in America not too long ago. In Drive he played against his usual likable character.

    1. Svengoolie airs here too on a Me-TV affiliate in Middlesex NJ. The show originates in Chicago if I'm not mistaken. I'm glad someone still airs the old scifi/horror films, most of which I saw on local NYC channels when a kid. Those channels don't play them anymore.

      I liked Lost in America too, and also Drive, though the latter was an odd film: I think Ryan Gosling's character spoke less to his girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) than he did to Albert Brooks.