Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies

Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Ray Greene
viewed: 07/30/06

This film was a Netflix find, but not a good one.  The subject matter is very interesting to me, the exploitation films of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The film has some good interviewees including Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff, and Doris Wishman among them, but the narration by writer/director Ray Greene is extremely annoying, trying to interperate all the social significance and ramifications of these films, but in sprawling and poorly organized fashion.  It was really disappointing, actually because there is interesting stuff here.  But the film is poorly made and tedious.

It Came from Outer Space

It Came from Outer Space (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Jack Arnold
viewed: 07/29/06 at the Red Vic Movie House, SF, CA

The Red Vic Movie House is one of the great theaters in San Francisco, with its repertory schedule, its cooperative-run and scheduled selections, the fact that popcorn and soda come in actual bowls to be returned rather than more disposable garbage, and it’s homey seating.  It’s a great place that I always think that I should come to with more regularity than I do every time I walk in the door.

The reason to be there this time was quite compelling, a showing of It Came From Outer Space, one of my favorite horror/sci-fi films as a kid, in its original 3-D.   When I was growing up, I loved and lived for “monster movies”, which is what I referred to them back then, with a heavy emphasis on Universal, Hammer, and all black and white horror films, dating back to Lon Chaney and encompassing in particular 1950’s horror and science fiction.  Basically, Famous Monsters of Filmland would have been more and more my bible if I had been able to get my hands on more than a couple of issues of it.  This film was indeed a personal favorite from that time and from seeing it again, I have to give myself some credit for taste.

Directed by Jack Arnold, who has several notable horror/sci-fi films from the period to his credit, including Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and  Monster on the Campus (1958), It Came from Outer Space is a top quality 1950’s B-Movie.  Full of Cold War paranoia and xenophobia, the script also seems to criticize pack mentality and conformity to the conservative small town culture that epitomizes its period.  When the spaceship lands, the moderately radical amateur astronomer/writer proves himself the outsider in the small Arizona town by thinking against the grain, quickly tabbed as a nut for his ideas about aliens and so forth, he is the free thinker in the town.  How much of this comes from the Ray Bradbury story that this was adapted from, I have no idea.

From a visual standpoint, the film has great style.  Set in a small desert town, the Joshua trees and landscape play significantly into the design and aura of the film, even offering itself up significantly as one of the great red herring shocks of the film.  My favorite thing, the thing I always remembered about the film was the “alien vision”, the perspective shots from the aliens’ point of view with this watery gel overlay backed with some serious theramin music.  I’d still say it’s great.

The performances throughout the film are solid from all of the character actors to the leads and the script has several surprises and excellent moments, most notably the “92 degrees” speech given by the town’s sheriff, which was used in the Siouxsie and the Banshees song of the same name from their Tinderbox album.  It’s full of qualities and fun.  It’s a great film, not maybe the utmost pillar of the period, but a very rock solid and cool film.

And yeah, it was in traditional 3-D with those glasses that have one red lens and one blue one.  This is pretty much a top experience all the way around.

Cursed

Cursed (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Wes Craven
viewed: 07/28/06

Wes Craven isn’t all that interesting of a director, despite having a rather mixed catalog of career highs and lows.  His more notable work I haven’t re-seen in years and am now only more familiar with some of his more recent films.  I think that he made his name with some reasonable horror titles, probably most prominently with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which, like so many horror films, would probably seem even better if it hadn’t spawned a franchise of worse and worse versions.  His later hits with his Scream series, in which he seemed to solidify his poppy, shallow understanding of a more post-modern horror film, degraded significantly as well.  I don’t know if I would place him up there with John Carpenter or George A. Romero, who I do think actually made some excellent films.

Cursed is his latest venture in working with Kevin Williamson, with whom he worked on Scream (1996) and it’s sequels, and it’s a werewolf film with Christina Ricci, who I still have a soft spot for even though it seems that her best work is behind her.  Based on what I’ve read, this film had a pretty rough time getting made and like a lot of bad films, had a hard time getting released as well.

Overall, it’s crap, but not terrible, terrible crap.  It’s bad but enjoyable if you like these kind of things.  There seems to be a little weird attempts at post-modernist commentary again, though Craven and Williamson don’t really approach it in a significant way, more like tips of the hat in a wax museum to more classic fare, and also this weird usage of Craig Kilborn and Scott Baio.  Yes, Scott Baio.  It’s like “Wow, is this the first movie that Scott Baio has made since Zapped! (1982) ?” Kilborn and Baio play themselves for some reason.  It seems utterly superfluous to the film, kind of like some weird cameo guest spot you might see on a TV show or something.

I don’t want to give it all away, but I was thinking of the title of Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985) and was thinking how sweet would it be to have Cursed II: Scott Baio is a Werewolf.  So, you can imagine my disappointment when he just disappeared from the narrative and didn’t turn out to be the granddaddy of the werewolves.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Judd Apatow
viewed: 07/27/06

I could never be a mainstream film critic, not simply because I don’t write well nor try to emulate that fashion, but also because I am not 100% in step with typical opinions of things.  For instance when it comes to comedies, I often feel like I don’t have a sense of humor.  I think most comedies are strictly unfunny.  I’m some sort of curmudgeon or something, sadly.

That said, even with that caveat, I actually kind of enjoyed this movie.  I did find aspects of it funny and even charming in ways.  Comedies like this one aren’t particularly sophisticated from a narrative standpoint, and when they try to channel any emotion besides laughter, it’s usually pretty pap-like and simplistic.  But this film carries heavily on Steve Carell’s performance, not just being funny, but developing the character enough that he’s not just a composite of the quirks and characteristics that make him the pathetic fellow who beyond being inexperienced in sex is also pretty much a huge geek.

I mentioned that I was watching this film to a friend and she said, “That should be cute.”  And though I first thought that it would probably be a little more crude and gauche than cute, I have to say that she was pretty right.  I wouldn’t, however, want to be stuck watching this film with my in-laws or anyone with whom the humor might offer a significant pain of embarrassment.  But, it’s not bad.

Five Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Bob Rafelson
viewed: 07/26/06

A few years ago I read Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood his paean to the 1970’s as a great period in American cinema, which seemed due at the time as the Hollywood machine, even under the influence of the 1990’s “indie film”, was more and more a soulless factory of templated blockbusters.  According to Biskind’s vision, the 1970’s was a time when the studio system broke apart and individual film authors really changed and challenged what mainstream film could produce until it was essentially killed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and all their generations that followed.

It was not a great book.  Kind of like a decent Rolling Stone article blown into a full-length book.  But it did underscore for me how many major films of that era I had never seen.  I wasn’t even particularly familiar with Bob Rafelson or had any real context for Peter Bogdonavich or some of the lesser-championed names of the era.  And though this was influential on my thinking back when I read it, I didn’t ever actually get around to seeing any of the films really mentioned in that book.

So what made me rent Five Easy Pieces?  I recalled it being hailed significantly there and have had a curiosity about it.  I think, if I recall, Rafelson was one of the directors with whom I had the least familiarity that Biskind really seemed to love.  Anyways, a Netflix rental queue is a weird thing.  You can rearrange it ad nauseum and you may never actually see 99% of what’s in there.

So what did I think?  I don’t really know.  It’s an earnest film and Jack Nicholson is very good in it.  It feels very different from other films, in tone, in character, in setting.  I was thinking how the location shooting really felt to capture a real sense of place, either in the suburban homes in Texas or the isolated dreariness of the Northwest.  I don’t know that I had any expectations, but it wouldn’t have been good to have any because the film really is its own thing.  Very naturalistic, sad, and individual.  I don’t have a lot else to say about it.  I think it’s taking time to process.

BloodRayne

Bloodrayne (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Uwe Boll
viewed: 07/25/06

Well, the last of my little sci-fi trilogy turned out to be more or a horror/fantasy set in the “1800’s” apparently.  Still, it’s a modern chicks kick-ass movie, with vampires, which turned out to be the real theme here in the long run.  But truly, when looking to save the “best” for last, saving any Uwe Boll picture for last does in essence guarantee saving the “worst” for last, but in the case of a series of bad films, the worst is also the best.

Uwe Boll – how many of you people have heard of him?  He’s got a growing reputation as modern day Ed Wood, Jr. which really just means that he’s an auteur of “bad”.  But it has to be said, of the three Uwe Boll films that I’ve seen, BloodRayne may well be the worst/best yet.  He specializes in films adapted from video games, a pretty inauspicious subgenre at best as far as source material goes, but increasingly a more common one.

This movie has a hilarious cast including Meat Loaf, Michelle Rodriguez, Michael Madsen, Ben Kingsley, and Udo Kier (which one of these things is not like the other?) and starring as the resident ass-kicking dhampir (half-human, half-vampire) is Kritanna Loken who also has a sci-fi pedigree being “T-X” in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003).

The film has an interesting reliance on more traditional FX, with lots of stumbling, blood-spurting heads and bodies and gore.  There is even a recap of the goriest moments at the end in some utterly ambiguous flashback of just that.  The acting is at its worst when you have these people in their “period” costumes speaking the cheap dialogue with faux-English accents.  Even Michelle Rodriguez gets into the act, which makes it pretty camp.  The whole thing reeks of badness, but the good kind of badness, the kind that can be enjoyed.

Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Kurt Wimmer
viewed: 07/23/06

Number two in my mini-marathon of bad modern science fiction featuring hot, kick-ass babes.  It would actually be interesting to trace this back historically.  I am sure that Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986) is the real progenitor, but this is a much evolved form, one in which it matters less and less how “real” or emotional the character is.  In fact, the character in some ways probably channels more of the Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in a sense or maybe even his Dirty Harry character.  They are tough as shit and will kill the entire populace of vampire/zombie/mutant/werewolf/bad guys if they have to.

But ultimately, they are good guys.  They don’t usually suffer from moral ambiguity, though their worlds may make it hard to understand what is right and what is wrong.

This film is pretty dang bad.  Let’s face it, Milla Jovovich is not a top caliber star for several reasons, but she does have the sci-fi pedigree of The Fifth Element (1998), which I think is one of the great pleasures of modern sci-fi much to the chagrin of any of my friends who find the genre uniquely intellectual, and the Resident Evil series in which she seems to be soon starring in a third incarnation.  She’s pretty awful.  But she fits the part, tall and lean and acrobatic enough.  She looks alright.

The visuals don’t even pretend to try and render reality.  It’s all just some guy’s (or a whole team of guys’) computers at work, making some highly stylized green-screen set against which highly stylized shooting and slashing and explosions are happening.  If the budget were higher, who knows what it would have looked like.  But I am willing to think that this film could be the future’s version of bad 1950’s science fiction.  There is so much pretence and design that it muffles the fact that this has a seriously over-wrought and hackneyed plot line that it’s not even worth trying to figure out.

For bad science fiction, this is a pretty good sampling.  It doesn’t really make you think or anything.  It just kicks up a lot of computer graphics at you.

One big difference from these films and those of the 1980’s is that the heroine would have at one time had a obligitory nude scene.  From a perspective of non-exploitation and the bullshit about such a requirement in the past versus now, that is a good improvement.  From a cheap thrill, low-brow evaluation, it certainly couldn’t have hurt this film though.

Underworld: Evolution

Underworld: Evolution (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Len Wiseman
viewed: 07/22/06

I do these things from time to time, create a mini-festival of like films and watch them in order, if not all at once.  Today’s theme, and the theme for the next couple of days, is modern science fiction/horror films in which chicks kick ass.  Now I know that doesn’t sound particularly film studious, but let’s face it, it’s a modern sub-genre proved by the fact that all three films that I currently have home from Netflix meet the criteria.  Hot, sexy protagonist, who is female, kicks a lot of digitally animated ass and vampires and zombies and who knows what.

This time it’s Kate Beckinsale, who has a minor in this area with the prior Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004).  Let’s face it.  She’s very pretty and meets all “goth” needs, but she has the personality of cold steel, which is maybe the point, I don’t know.  And though I saw the first film, all I could remember is vampires versus werewolves in some convoluted plot that seemed ripped off in Night Watch (2004).  A bit fight between supernatural good guys and bad guys that has been going on since the dawn of history.

I won’t get into some analysis of good vs. evil and it’s pure ridiculousness.  Where this film is the first of three that I will watch with kick-ass heroines and lots of CG, I think I’ll just say that this is probably the best of them, though it’s no great shakes.  It’s a decent film of the genre, passable, typical, but utterly uninteresting in any meaningful way.

So why did I watch it and why will I watch other films after this that I already presume will be worse emblems of the genre?  Simply because they made them and I am curious and I like to watch bad films sometimes as much as I like to watch brilliant films sometimes.  Let’s face it, you’ve got to have something to complain about, right?

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

We Jam Econo (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Tim Irwin
viewed: 07/17/06

I remember when I read that D. Boon had died in 1985…actually I am pretty sure I didn’t hear about it until 1986, though because I think I read it in Maximum Rock’n’Roll, and I mention this because this is one of the things that strikes me about the film and its subject matter is how much culture has changed in the 20 years since D. Boon died.

The Minutemen were part of an original and real L.A. punk scene and the film is largely a huge point of reverence for the D. Boon and somewhat of an overall story of his friendship with Mike Watt and George Hurley.  The film is populated with quite a plethora of figures from 1980’s American punk and hardcore: Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, John Doe, etc. etc. and they all have great admiration for the uniqueness, creativity, and musicianship of the band.  They were unlike anything and really still are.  This is not your 1970’s early punk or nor is it typical of anyone I can think now or then.  This weird funk/punk/jazz hybrid, heavy on the poetics and politics was something else.

But the thing is that media has changed so much since then.  The world of making music has changed so much.  And it continues to rapidly evolve.  When The Minutemen started and put their records out on SST, it was a pretty new thing for punk and indie labels.  The whole D.I.Y. thing was just getting off the ground and all the infrastructure that makes it so easy to do now had yet to be built.

When D. Boon died there wasn’t a huge media interested in that level of music.  It certainly didn’t make the local newspaper in Gainesville, Florida.  Today, someone like D. Boon would be broadly disseminated about on the internet and music would have been available to the entire world so completely.

But that is in many ways what is different and interesting about the band.  Because they came from a time and perspective that was different and germinated in their own ways, learning their instruments from scratch, they developed into the strange and enegetic band that they were.  And really exemplify the quality of punk that is so often forgotten: that it wasn’t about emulating existing things, it was about being unique.  And it was more punk in some ways for D. Boon to wear his cheap weird clothes than a leather jacket.

Really, this film isn’t utterly remarkable.  It’s fun to watch the footage of the band and see the man in action, the whole band.  But the film really doesn’t go into a lot of stories and even when it comes to D. Boon’s death, it’s not detailed as how it unfolded.  And they don’t talk about what the band did in the aftermath.  It’s one of those “oral histories” that has a lot of people saying how brilliant they thought the music was, but not telling enough details to make a story.

It’s interesting to reflect on that period, though, because it was 20 years ago now and it’s a period that hasn’t gotten the reflection that the original punk movement of New York and England have.  It’s not as sexy, true.  But there were some good things that came out of it.

The Unholy Three

The Unholy Three (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 07/16/06 at the Castro Theatre

I saw this film as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival which just played at the Castro Theatre over the weekend.  Despite the fact that an acquaintance of mine is the chair of the festival and I have been attracted to it in years past, this was my first visit to the festival.

It’s a great thing, really.  The silents were an era of invention and change in the world and the industry that developed (so quickly in America) was quickly laying out rules and adapting narratives from popular books and inventing cinema, literally.  I had an avant-garde film class when I was an undergrad and one of the first films that was shown in that class was a Chaplin film.  The teacher posited because of the newness of the cinema that in a sense all early film was potentially avant-garde in a sense.  It is such a different experience to watch a fully visual story, not being screamed at by the surround sound atmosphere of the cinema (which I think is really cool itself).  It’s just plain different.  A different experience and one that I enjoyed completely.

This film had interested me for years.  I was a Lon Chaney fan from childhood.  I had seen stills from it in books and magazines and I had seen the sound remake of it, which was Chaney’s last film.

It’s full of sideshow fun, midgets, strongman, and a killer gorilla (who is really a chimpanzee).  Chaney is a ventriloquist who leads the “Unholy Three” and disguises himself as an old woman with the midget pretending to be a baby.  It’s greatly amusing and a little bit shocking.  It’s wacky stuff.