Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) movie poster

director Roger Corman
viewed: 07/26/2014

Queue up the 2nd monthly Netflix streaming purge.  Apparently Netflix is making just as much marketing push on the titles that they are taking down at the end of a month as they are promoting new titles that they are adding.  I’m assuming that there is some rhyme or reason behind it all.  And despite the fact that I don’t like to have my movie choices dictated to me, I’ve decided to pick some off my list.

The first of which is a true Roger Corman movie, produced AND directed by Corman, one of his earlier films and is notable for the pretty cool cheap monsters.  Given Gojira (1954) and Them! (1954), giant irradiated somethings had been storming the movie houses for a few years already.  Why not giant land crabs?

For its cheapness and brevity, the film really isn’t poorly shot.  Sure, it might be one of those camp classic 1950′s sci-fi images, but it’s really not that badly done compared to the true lower rungs of the quality systems.

The film features some underwater sequences apparently shot at Marineland in San Diego.  It also features Russell Johnson, best known as “The Professor” from Gilligan’s Island, who just passed away earlier this year.  He’s actually pretty good.

Typical of Corman, the movie poster is pretty sweet too.

Sharknado (2013)

Sharknado (2013) movie poster

director Anthony C. Ferrante
viewed: 07/25/2014

The phenomenon of Sharknado was very 2013.  I say that because we are on the cusp of Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014).

I do want to give credit where it is due.  The Asylum, which produced Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009) and a cyclone of variations on that theme ever since (Mega Piranha (2010), Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus (2010), Mega Python vs. Gatoroid (2011), 2-Headed Shark Attack (2012)…just to name a few in the same general genre).  I’m sure they are making Roger Corman proud…or envious.

One other big coup on the part of The Asylum is their casting.  Getting Ian Ziering, who I hadn’t seen since Domino (2005) and Tara Reid, one of the truly worst actresses in the world, who I also hadn’t seen since Alone in the Dark (2005), you’ve got exactly the kind of cast you need to add cheese to an already massively cheesy pie.

In all this, Sharknado is just plain ludicrously ridiculous yet insane enough to really truly appreciate.  It’s spectacular nonsense.  Spectacular.  Nonsense.

And then there is the movie.

I’m vaguely reminded of the Troma films with The Asylum stuff.  Tongue is in cheek throughout yet in these Asylum films they are also trying to make the thing as straight-forward and serious so that the camp value can be more genuine.  They ride this weird line between irony and right on action genre fun.

Of course in Sharknado it’s pretty balls-out nonsense.  The CGi is both its success and letdown.  In some ways, the film would do well to look to the 1970′s and 1980′s of action thrillers because in those films gore is its own reward.  Since these films were made for the Syfy network, I don’t know what kinds of limitations they had (if any) on blood and gore.  To my mind, you don’t just ratchet up the concept, you ratchet up the viscera.  And the film comes through on a few of those points.

It’s funny but Ian Ziering really pulls it off.  He’s actually pretty good in the movie, game as anyone to make this nonsense work.  And he’s a way better actor than Reid or anybody that showed up in Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus.  Actually, it’s amazing how bad Tara Reid is in any of her line readings.

The upshot: it’s not all that it could be, but just the concept alone is so hilariously bananas that I have to give credit since credit is due.


Lucy (2014)

Lucy (2014) movie poster

director Luc Besson
viewed: 07/25/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The Scarlett Johansson sci-fi movie of the year that you should see is Under the Skin (2013).  The Scarlett Johansson sci-fi movie of the year that you will probably see is Luc Besson’s Lucy.  Not a bad double feature, but there you go.

These are words of advice that I would just have easily given to myself.

On the plus side for Lucy, it’s a concise 90 minute genre film that gets rolling from the word “go.”  Johansson’s Lucy gets tricked into taking a mysterious case to a Taiwanese gangster.  Things rapidly and bloodily go from bad to worse where in she has a packet of some new kind of street drug sewn into her abdomen.  Only when this drug starts leaking into her system, she begins to be able to tap into more and more of her brain’s capacity, developing toward and ultimate consciousness and lots of superpowers to boot.

So there is the concise genre action film and then this more head-trippy perspective on human development and uber-consciousness that includes a creation of the universe and human potentiality that has drawn comparisons from things like Stanley Kubrick 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and even Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011).  Maybe other comparisons to more recent sci-fi films about expanded consciousness are more apt, like Limitless (2011) or Transcendence (2014), but I haven’t seen those.

I did, on the other hand, this of Gaspar Noé’s super head-trippy Enter the Void (2010), which I think could have been a good influence on this film if it had been more considered.

Lucy is entertaining.  Some are suggesting it’s Besson’s best since The Fifth Element (1997) which is doubtlessly true.  He’s made a lot of serious garbage for the past two decades or so.  It fits well within Besson’s oeuvre, this strong female kicker of asses, heroine to save humanity, female empowerment via a truly male perspective.  From Nikita (1990), The Fifth Element, his atrocious The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), and even as recent as Angel-A (2005), this has been a consistent theme for him.

For Johansson, it’s another feather in her cap.  She’s very good in the film, ranging from mouthy young party thing to superhuman megabrain.  She keeps the whole thing moving along and compelling.  She’s having a really good run of good performances in a myriad of movies.  All I can say is, “Keep up the good work!”

Tentacles (1977)

Tentacles (1977) movie poster

director Oliver Hellman (Ovidio G. Assonitis)
viewed: 07/22/2014

After watching the magnificently bizarre The Visitor (1979), which was also produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis and starred John Huston, and Shelley Winters, I was inclined to check out the Jaws (1975) knock-off, Tentacles, which might otherwise have slipped by me.  Tentacles also features Henry Fonda, Claude Akins, and Bo Hopkins.   It’s a pretty well-cast and not badly photographed B movie.

Tentacles isn’t about a killer shark, obviously.  It’s a giant killer octopus, enraged by radio signals from a big corporate entity, and anybody’s else’s too.

In any monster movie of any kind, even one with just an enraged “giant” version of a particular animal, it always comes down to the monster.  In the case of Tentacles, the monster is in almost every shot just images of a regular live octopus intercut to try to make it look like it’s doing stuff.  There are a few shots of the octopus’s head speeding through open water like a shark fin, something probably incredibly unlikely in a real creature.

The other real point of interest is how the octopus gets dispatched.  In this case, it’s killed by two released killer whales, friendly to Hopkins’ character.  The whales of course were not released themselves but intercut in shots in their tanks in San Diego with some open water orcas.

The whole thing isn’t really such great shakes.  Nor is it tragically terrible either.  Which means the schadenfreude of enjoying a bad movie isn’t there to completely make up for not really enjoying a good movie.

It does underscore how weird and unique The Visitor turned out.  Even lightning in a bottle doesn’t always strike twice in the same place.

The Visitor (1979)

The Visitor (1979) movie poster

director Giulio Paradisi
viewed: 07/22/2014

1979′s The Visitor is truly bananamas.  The poster, above, certainly offers some wonder and awe, as if The Residents have gone on a murder spree.  But apropos of nothing the poster truly is.

What The Visitor really is, essentially, is a weird sort of knock-off of The Omen (1976), a little Rosemary’s Baby (1968), but instead of “the devil”, we’ve got malignant alien children so sprinkle in a little Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and very little of that.  Well, that gives you the film’s “scenario”, roughly.

The thing is filmed in and around Atlanta, GA, offering no doubt an interesting time capsule of the place.  The evil child is played by Paige Conner, who has a genuine Southern accent.  But it’s the litany of pretty famous people that populate this very weird movie that give this Italian/American production an even more unusual gravitas.  It’s got two major auteurs in it.  It stars John Huston and features a cameo by Sam Peckinpah of all people.  It also has Shelley Winters, Glen Ford, Lance Hendrikson, Mel Ferrer, and Franco Nero.

Frankly, any description that I can conjure is going to fail to do it justice.  The film was recently rescued from obscurity by Drafthouse Films, given a restoration treatment and a theatrical run.  I found it myself on TMC on demand.  I can’t recommend it enough to those who appreciate weird cinema.

There are so many strange things going on in the film, I can’t fully glom onto any one key image.  The film is actually kind of beautifully shot.  It’s no hack job despite its rather nonsensical approach to this crazy concept of interdimensional alien beings of good and evil, battling for Earth via this evil child from ???

Dude, if you even have an inkling, see it.  Don’t read more.  Just see it.  You’ll be very pleased you did.

Under the Skin (2013)


Under the Skin (2013) movie poster

director Jonathan Glazer
viewed: 07/20/2014

Jonathan Glazer has only made three films in the past 15 years, but all three have been very good (Birth (2004)), excellent (Sexy Beast (2000)) or now with Under the Skin, amazing.

The film can be summarized rather summarily: Scarlett Johansson (you had me as Scarlett) plays a woman who goes around Scotland, picking up men seductively, taking them to isolated places where her seduction leads them into a black pool of death (literally).  They are submerged and abandoned, then sucked out, and turned into some grisly red puree.

The film strives for a perspective of the alien, as it turns out that Johansson is not of this Earth.  Glazer doesn’t spell out the narrative for the audience;  it’s intentionally open and meant to be intuited.

Scarlett Johansson.  She is great as this strange being who seems to begin to develop a sense of humanity living in the skin of a human, particularly after she meets a man with “facial neurofibromatosis disfigurement” (played by a man with the real disorder, not in make-up).  I’m not the first to note this, but Johansson is developing as an actress, more and more, not necessarily in the showy performances that win Oscars, but in these subtler roles.

She is also fully naked through parts of the film.  A different element of notability.

Really, the film emanates on varying ideas throughout.  She is sort of vampire-like in her seduction and charms, a female serial killer, luring men with her looks and friendliness.  She is a killer who doesn’t actively kill.  She lures them to their deaths in some liquid machinery.  There is something sort of feminist in some of this action perhaps.

But the film evolves as she develops to a point of actually trying to have sex with a man rather than luring him with promises unfulfilled.  The sex freaks her out.  Not what she was expecting.  And ultimately, as she is dealing with some realizations about humans and humanity, perhaps trying to come to terms with what she is and what she is doing, she is attacked by a man who attempts to rape her.  She is unmasked in this moment, the alien under the skin exposed.  The man then douses her with petrol ad sets her ablaze, which takes the potential feminist reading and makes that stranger, somehow.

I don’t know.  There is a lot to this film.  It’s strange, moody, thoughtful, contemplative, and “arty”.  I can’t give it a singular commentary.  But I’d say it’s certainly one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  I’m sorry I didn’t get to the theater to see it when it was out.  I’ve got the feeling that I’ll be recommending it to people a lot in the coming months.

Safety Last! (1923)

Safety Last! (1923) movie poster

directors Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
viewed: 07/19/2014

Safety Last! is Harold Llloyd’s most famous film, which features one of cinema’s most iconic images, Lloyd dangling from the clock face of the International Savings & Exchange Bank Building (in the film, the 12-story Bolton Building).

Safety Last clock


If you hadn’t seen the image, well, now you have.

My guess is that the average person even seeing the image may not even know that it’s Harold Lloyd hanging there.  But this iconic image has been oft referenced in film and other media.

My relationship with the film is as idiosyncratic as any of my lifelong relationship with cinema.  For whatever reason, the local Gainesville, FL PBS channel would run Safety Last! from time to time.  And my parents both really liked the movie so I wound up seeing it of all of silent film more often and regularly than any other.

Frankly, as a kid, I found the whole beginning of the film prior to his climb a bit more boring.  It’s not.  In fact there are some really funny bits in particular in the store that Lloyd works, particularly during a feeding frenzy sale that goes on.  But the film is known for his acrobatic climb up the building and the gags therein.  And as it was presented on TV way back when, really touted the fact that he not only did his own stunts but did so without a net (not sure if that is true now).

I shared the film with the kids.  It was actually one that I’d wanted to see with them for a long time.  For a long time, though, Netflix didn’t have it, of all of Lloyd’s , films, available on DVD.  Now that we’re in the streaming age, Hulu Plus offered it up.  The kids were duly impressed, and even liking the gag in which he tricks the whole crowd in the store to look for a missing $50 bill so that he can hand an old woman her purchase, perhaps, than the most classic of classic scenes.

We’d only watched two other Lloyd films in our screenings over the years, The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927) and the kids don’t remember those two all that well.  I’m guessing that they’ll know who Harold Lloyd is now.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) movie poster

director Matt Reeves
viewed: 07/19/2014 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, SF, CA

2011′s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly strong resurgence of a pop culture franchise that seemed quite unlikely.  Three years later, and following turnover in every most every major area a film can have: stars, director, writers (the sort of thing that never bodes well for a film franchise), out leaps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And like its predecessor, it may well prove out to be one of the best films of this year’s summer.

The one guy who is back isn’t onscreen himself, but plays out in motion-captured avatar as Caesar, the lead chimpanzee, tragic hero of the last film, essentially star of the sequel.  Andy Serkis is the man behind the motion capture acting.  He’s been Gollum and King Kong and he’s joined by a whole team of other ape actors in this film.

What’s interesting to me is how this film is really in many ways very dedicated to its whole narrative.   The story picks up some unclear number of years after Rise, the human race has been decimated by the “simian flu” that the research in the first film gave rise to.  The apes who escaped to Marin County have proliferated, developed their own society, buildings, teachings.  They’ve had no contact with humans.

San Francisco has become one last bastion for humans, those who are immune to the virus, but still struggle to survive due to a lack of electricity and technology.  It is after a hydroelectric dam that they look for in Marin that brings ape and man together again.

Like men, the apes have their good guys and bad guys, though Caesar has touted that no ape should kill another ape.  At odds as they are, each extends a hand to try for a peaceful coexistence, only to have the bad ape, Koba (who remembers man’s brutality all too well) attempt to assassinate Caesar and make it look like the humans who did it.  In the end, all the good will gets washed down in violence and leads to an inevitable war.

A war, which we all know, the apes have to win, since this is leading up to Planet of the Apes (1968) somewhere along the line.  I swear we watched Planet of the Apes at some point but I didn’t write about it for some reason — maybe I didn’t get to watch the whole thing.

The apes are the good guys here.  They’ve been victimized by humans and now have nobility and “humanity”.  It’s hard not to see them a bit like Native Americans in the way that they are portrayed in the film, living off the land with no technology.  Not sure this metaphor works perfectly, intentional or not.

What is interesting is how much the story moves forward throughout.  There is a longer narrative begun in the first film that is pushed along through this sequel.  And the emotional connection that Caesar continues to have to his adoptive father from before manages to strike home more significantly than a lot of other films with all human actors, not animated avatars.  And it makes an inevitability of a following sequel not just seem likely but necessary.

The cynicism of Hollywood in sequels tends to be when a film needs to come about because the first one made money and people want more.  Then a story has to be concocted with action and upping the drama, usually dependent as well on a movie star or two, who are the hook.  The story is often just a latticework of scenes and action, building for some eventual dramatic showdown of action.  This film, at least, felt like a much more cohesive narrative.  Not necessarily a truly great film, but something quite different from the average.

Now, I saw this with the kids, and the film, while rated PG-13 is quite full of action and violence, and the chimps are fairly intimidating.  It’s pretty intense on that front, certainly.  But they both liked the film, though Felix said that he thought that the earlier film was better.  It’s hard for me to say.  It’s been three years and I couldn’t really draw the comparison as well.

I don’t know if they filmed even one scene in San Francisco, but they do a very keen job of making the post-disaster city seem very realistic.  I assume that some folks very familiar with the city did a lot of design work on the film.

It’s been a pretty sorry year for movies so far, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earns its points from me.  One of the few I looked forward to and one of the few that felt worthwhile.  And one of the even fewer that I will look forward to seeing a sequel to when it comes about.

The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners (1996) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 07/18/2014 

When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners came out in 1996, I remembered thinking it was pretty good stuff.  Starring Michael J. Fox as a man who can see ghosts and who uses that ability to employ ghosts to haunt and be exorcised by him fraudulently, it’s a paranormal thriller/comedy cut from a cloth laid out in part by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988).  It seemed an apt project for Jackson (before he started making hobbit movies) and was produced by Robert Zemeckis a la his own Death Becomes Her (1992).

I’d had it in my Netflix streaming queue in part just because it was available, not something that I was in particular looking for to watch with the kids.  But as we kept skimming over the image, I kept thinking it might be something that they would like, though I did recall it had its scary elements too.

Because along with Fox’s friendly ghosts, there is also the murderous baddie of Jake Busey (what the heck happened to that guy?), a serial killer turned ghost serial killer, inspired by Charlie Starkweather to build a body count to top all body counts.

The effects are early digital effects.  1996 seems to be a typical point in the line for the growth and efficacy of digital effects.  The primary effect is the ghost of Busey, either as a grim reaper figure, or more typically, sliding under the wallpaper at a house.  I recalled this effect seeming cool back in the day, but now it looks, if you pardon the expression, hella cheap.

When Wes Craven used an analog effect to have Freddy Kreuger push through a rubber wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), you’ve got a cool effect that transcends time.  When re-created digitally for its re-make in 2010, the even more advanced digital effect still was less powerful and interesting.  Back in 1996, with a much more elaborate and heavily leaned-on digital effect, who can say?  I tell you that today, it looks crappy.  And yes, hella cheap.

The best effect in the film is John Astin as “the judge”, a rotting corpse with digital and analog effects, but more well-designed than the others.

On the whole, the film is affable enough.  The kids were a bit confused by the story, which shifted in time between the teenage rampage of the killer and the present-day ghost rampage.  And then the film also relies on a stairway to heaven, with a one year limit in opportunity that leaves some ghosts on earth.  This is basically a not very well thought out aspect of the film’s universe.

Neither of the kids loved it nor hated it.  Though as the film wore on, they realized that it was more comic than scary.  It’s funny how the things I think will freak them out are the things that don’t bother them a lick.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013) movie poster

director Alex Gibney
viewed: 07/18/2014

Director Alex Gibney is one of the most prolific and successful documentary film makers out today, with movies about Enron (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)), U.S. policy on torture (Taxi to the Dark Side (2007)),  even Eliot Spitzer (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010)).  His topics are often “ripped from the headlines”, if you will, but the real, big stories of our times, the big crises, the big stories, probably, possibly the ones that will resonate for future generations as emblematic of this era.

Wikileaks, certainly, is up there.  And the story of Julian Assange, the primary man behind the internet reveal of so many secret documents, his place in this story is key.  And Gibney is not alone.  Also in 2013, a non-documentary biography of Assange was also released, The Fifth Estate.  Is the story ready to be told?  I guess they think so.

Gibney does seek a truth in his film about the story: that the “real hero” of the tale is Chelsea “Bradley” Manning, the private first class who actually dug up all the files from the U.S. government computers to which he had rather significant access, that and the personal identity crisis that he was undergoing at the time, his gender identity disorder, that he has since been undergoing change.

Clocking in at over 2 hours, this is a longer film that Gibney’s others, ranging from some of Assange’s first strikes on the internet and some of his personal history.  All this to the launch of Wikileaks and the information that was released in coordination with journalists at The Guardian, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, and more.

Personally, I think it’s a tale that is still unfolding.  Manning is still in prison, though I don’t think his trial has still yet been held.  Assange is still living in isolation at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, hasn’t gone to stand for his alleged crimes in Sweden (which the film does give reasonable time and attention to, even interviewing one of the alleged victims).  And the whole of the impact of the Wikileaks revelations, the significance of that specific information, even the true fallout of the digital age of ready information, of surveillance, secrecy, technology, and its ever-available existence.

I wonder how complete Gibney feels this film, this story is.  It breaks into areas of real interest for me, of the state of journalism, the reality of technology, the desire to critically, objectively know what is going on.  I just feel this story has further chapters, maybe significant, maybe not.  Time is the thing that helps hone focus to history, perspective to understanding.  And this one…is still happening.