I Can’t Sleep (1994)

I Can't Sleep (1994) movie poster

director Claire Denis
viewed: 07/28/2014

Claire Denis’s 1994 film I Can’t Sleep is loosely based on the notorious crime spree in France by Thierry Paulin and Jean-Thierry Mathurin, known collectively as “The Beast of Montmartre” or “The Old Lady Killer(s)”.  Their crime spree ran from 1984-1987, and Thierry Paulin died of AIDS before he was even tried for the crimes.

Part of this dark tale is that Paulin was gay and performed in drag in Paris, part of a gay scene of the time.  He was born in Martinique, and both Paulin and Mathurin were of African descent or mixed race.  It’s hard to know entirely the significance of their crimes or the impact of their race or sexual orientation had when they were captured.  Being the 1980’s, one can easily imagine that these were excellent fodder for shock and tabloid reporting.

It also is probably a key to Denis’s interest in the story.  A white French woman, she was born in France by raised in different parts of colonial French Africa and her films are often interested in both French Africans and gay culture, both with a lens of understanding and investigation, not via exploitation.  I have only seen a handful of her films, so I’m really not able to speak more broadly than this generality.

I Can’t Sleep is not literally or isolated to the story of the true crimes, but also on the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, a young beautiful woman, trying to make it in Paris with the help of distant relatives and old acquaintances.  She is almost a cipher of sorts, until she finally begins to open and exhibit certain emotions.   Another focus of the film is the brother of the main killer, a hard-working man with a beautiful mixed race son, with whom he wants to return to Martinique, against the wishes of his ex.

It’s a complex film.  Quite interesting.  One thing that struck me is that the film itself now is 20 years old, of how much has changed in those 20 years in some ways.  I felt like I would like to know more about the real life events that inspired the film and what the cultural impact had been.  And I also wish to see more of the films of Claire Denis to have better context for everything.

Such is life, I suppose.

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider (1969) movie poster

director Dennis Hopper
viewed: 07/27/2014

When I first saw Easy Rider at 18, I was not all that into it.  Its cultural relevance, I understood, its cult status, I understood.  But I was probably just at an age when this movie couldn’t really speak to me.  And a lot of that could have been the soundtrack, which for an 18 year old, looking at and listening to a movie that was also 18 years old, it seemed more an emblem of a time that I was not all that interested in.

Years have passed since then.  More than another 18 years at that.  Far more.

And now, finally getting back to one of American cinema’s cultural zeitgeist touchstones, I can say, finally, that not only do I get it, but I like it.

I even like the music more now too.

The film really does capture a sense of a counterculture dream of America brought down in a hail of violence and reality.  As much as the film never references the Vietnam War, it reflects the disenchantment with the real America, as well as with an alternative America.  And the film is freaky genius.

I was born the year Easy Rider came out.  And now watching it, I see glimpses of America from a time that I was too young to have understood.  Almost all older films that I watch nowadays have aspects of visions of a past.  I look to them for all the details and elements that are relics of a world changed and gone.  Much of that is the more naturally occurring background of setting, clothing, people who were young or have since died.  And some because they offer aspects of commentary on those realities, which can resonate, or not.

I don’t know that I could have had this perspective at 18.

Forbidden World (1982)

Forbidden World (1982) movie poster

director Allan Holzman
viewed: 07/26/2014

I know Wikipedia is written by the masses, changeable, imperfect and all, but I love it.  I do most of my research by starting there and moving on if need be. In the case of Forbidden World, though, I feel it necessary to cite the Wikipedia introduction to the film because it says a lot pretty concisely:

It was generally panned by critics as a cheap, exploitive(sic) imitation of the movie Alien, with sex, nudity, uneven editing, cheap special effects, and an audio track that some found unpleasant. It has, however, attained a certain cult status among fans of grungy, cheap, sleazy science fiction. It is frequently paired with and compared to the previous year’s Corman-produced Alien rip-off Galaxy of Terror, with which Forbidden World shares some of the same sets (designed by James Cameron). The movie also makes use of footage recycled from the 1980 movie Battle Beyond the Stars, which was also produced by Corman. It is notable for its gruesome violence, oddball electronica music score…odd, choppy editing and a scene in which the two female leads take a shower together.

What’s not to love? Really, it is very much an Alien (1979) rip-off, sure.  Part of the reason it interested me was because it was an Alien rip-off.  It’s cheap-looking, certainly, by comparison.  For some reason, the Netflix streaming version of it was not eve letterboxed, which only added to its crappy look and feel.

The thing is, it’s not really that bad.  It’s actually kind of good.

It’s set on a research facility on an isolated planet in which scientists are trying to find a solution to sustainable food production.  When splicing their product with human DNA (for whatever reason), they develop a metamorph creature that likes to turn humans into its own sustainable puree.  It’s only when an idiosyncratic scientist who is suffering from cancer realizes that he can poison the thing with his own disease that the humans come out on top.

For all its cheese, and it is cheesy (the gratuitous nudity is truly gratuitous), there are some good gross-out effects and there is more integrity to this science fiction than your average cheap-o knock-off.

I’d rather have seen it in letterbox than pan-and-scan, but Netflix is taking it down in a day or two anyway.  Part of the reason I happened to watch it just now.

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) movie poster

director William Sachs
viewed: 07/26/2014

Ah, The Incredible Melting Man.  Another film that has flitted in my consciousness for untold years.

Reading up on it, the fact that it was in my consciousness makes some sense.  It was featured in the movie It Came from Hollywood (1982), which I am positive that I saw, though I don’t remember a lot very specific.  But I am almost entirely certain that I saw It Came from Hollywood in the theater, Oaks Mall, Gainesville, FL.

Other aspects of the film, who knows?  I’m sure it’s lingered here and there in various books and magazines.  How much did I really know about it before I sat down to watch it?  Not really a lot.

Turns out, it’s a vague re-make of The First Man in Space (1959), which I have not seen but have had on queue for some time, as it got the Criterion treatment.  It’s the story of an astronaut who gets exposed to some nasty radiation in space and then comes back to Earth just a melting all over the place and deranged so’s that he kills people.

The only real reason that this film should have much note is the amazing special effects designed by wizard Rick Baker.  The melting man himself is better than anything else in the movie by a long, long shot.  He’s gruesome and gooey and wonderfully designed.  He’s almost worth the price of admission, which at this point is just those 84 minutes of your life that you might dedicate to watching this flick.

My exploration of “bad movies” of late has made some bad movies only bad in levels of relativity.  This film does broach the worst crime that a film can broach in my mind, good or bad, which is that it gets a bit boring and tedious despite its short run-time.  And some of the so-bad-that-it’s-good moments and aspects do make up for it.  Really, though, it’s the creature design and oozy, dripping, putrescence that you come for, not the drama.

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 an 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, think 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.