The Man with Two Brains (1982)

The Man with Two Brains (1982) movie poster

director  Carl Reiner
viewed: 11/10/2017

“Into the mud, scum queen!”

While these days Steve Martin prefers his banjo to comedy, it’s worth recalling that at one point in time (mid-1970’s-early 1980’s), he was one of the funniest people in the world. Some of his best stuff was for TV specials and his own comedy records, but when he first started venturing into movies, he made a series of really interesting features.

Arguably, The Man with Two Brains may be his funniest. It’s co-written by Martin and director Carl Reiner (and George Gipe), and it’s a madcap romp through 1950’s science fiction with a dash of film noir thrown in.

Not only is Martin at the top of his game, the outrageously gorgeous Kathleen Turner is at the peak of hers, with her low sexy voice turned up to 11 and set for comedy.

Frankly, the direction and editing are kind of a hack, but when you’ve got gag after gag flying at you at such incessant speed that you hardly have time for an extra “Hfuhruhurr” much less an “Uumellmahaye”.

It’s not perfect by any means, but it is thoroughly hilarious.

Swamp Thing (1982)

Swamp Thing (1982) movie poster

director Wes Craven
viewed: 11/05/2017

His ass is grass. Or moss. Or slime. Or something. But he’s pretty cool. He’s the Swamp Thing, straight outta 1982 from horror great Wes Craven, no less.

For 1982, Swamp Thing is solid comic book entertainment. Keep in mind, this is before the modern superhero era, even before Swamp Thing got Alan Moore-ed. He always had some legitimate cool from the pencil and ink of legend Bernie Wrightson (RIP).

But it’s also got its limitations, also very 1982 and budget-related. If they could have afforded Rick Baker, they might have gotten a less rubbery-looking Swamp Thing and with a bit more of a budget maybe a little more interesting action throughout.

But it does have Adrienne Barbeau and that final monster showdown with more practical effects and designs that raise it out of the muck and makes for good times.

Would be a good double feature with 1982’s Creepshow.

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green (1973) movie poster

director Richard Fleischer
viewed: 10/30/2017

I don’t know how I got to live this long without having ever seen Soylent Green, but of course, I know the punchline.

Soylent Green seems the last of Charlton Heston’s run of science fiction movies that started with Planet of the Apes (1968). He’s 50 years old here but presumably supposed to be younger than that, the classic middle-aged Hollywood action hero.

As speculative futurism, aspects of Soylent Green are resonant, while other aspects are nigh hilarious. It’s 2022 and the “greenhouse effect” has burned down most of what we consider “nature”, trees, food crops, animal life. And the city is overrun with homeless while the super-rich live lives in gilded cages, still enjoying the rare treats that were once daily norms, like celery.

It’s a future deprived of technology, which makes sense if society and environment crashed when it did (probably the early 1970’s). When people riot, they get scooped up in earth-moving equipment and piled into garbage trucks. Yet, there is still a beleaguered police force investigating homicides, though the cops barely make enough to eat.

Oh, and women are furniture. At least they hit futuristic endemic sexism on the head.

And the reveal that isn’t a reveal at the end of the film. I have to really think if everyone is so starved and society so bankrupt, would cannibalism even be remotely outre? I mean if you can’t get your protein anywhere else… What is it they eat instead? What is the social infrastructure that they’re trying to hold together?

Heston is such a brutish ham but Edward G Robinson is great.

The Innocents (1961)

The Innocents (1961) movie poster

director  Jack Clayton
viewed: 10/28/2017

Are two young Victorian children possessed by evil spirits and driven to acts of incest? Or is their governess a pent-up Christian woman so full on repressed that she’s projecting psychosis and death everywhere?

On this particular viewing of Jack Clayton’s classic The Innocents, the latter reading struck home more so than the former. Though always part of the film’s (as well as the Henry James The Turn of the Screw) power is the uncanny variance between the supernatural and the psychological.

Another thing that struck me this time through The Innocents was how the horror imagery earns its eerie value. So many things that are “designed” to be scary (look scary at a glance) are imbued with nothing but surface horror. When the image of the woman standing in the far reaches of the pond recurs in the film, it’s still just a figure in the distance, but it is what has been impressed upon the children and upon us the audience, that gives the figure its essence and evil.

One of the great Gothic ghost story films of all time, The Innocents stands up time and again as truly classic horror. And Freddie Francis’s amazing cinematography – amazing stuff.

Rattlers (1976)

Rattlers (1976) movie poster

director John McCauley
viewed: 09/26/2017

You’d think a rattlesnakes on crack kind of movie ought to kinda interesting at least, right?  The 1976 horror chiller Rattlers might have you reconsider that position.

I don’t abandon many movies I start. In for a minute, in for an hour whatever. In something this unimpressive, you look for anything of interest.

  • Picturesque Southern California locations
  • A seemingly actual dead dog
  • Amusing Rattly soundtrack
  • Lush doctor who offers a martini when he first meets the heores
  • One of the least impressive deaths by snake to a lady in a bubble bath.

It truly is remarkably dull if generally decently produced. When you think it can’t get less compelling, they go to Las Vegas for a romantic interlude which includes a montage of silly “date night” activities.

 

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) movie poster

director Clarence Brown
viewed: 07/17/2017

The break-out film for then 21-year old Greta Garbo, a cinematic presence beyond age and time. Garbo would go on to several other films with director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels would become known as her “personal cinematographer”.

And much to Daniels’s credit, Flesh and the Devil is a gorgeous film, with some stunning shots and some impressive, beautiful set design. The film made Garbo a star and ignited a real-life romance between her and co-star and lead John Gilbert.

Garbo is Felicitas von Rhaden, a femme fatale who comes into the lives of Gilbert and his friend Ulrich (Lars Hanson), whose bromance is deeply affectionate and really quite touching.

If it wasn’t for the religiosity that drives the moral heft of the story, I would have liked it almost wholeheartedly. Gilbert and Garbo may set fire to the screen, but Gilbert and Hanson’s friendship and devastation is what makes the picture so tragic and beautiful. That, and Daniels’s amazing cinematography.

The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade (1925) movie poster

director King Vidor
viewed: 07/16/2017

Often making lists of the best or most important films of the Silent Era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade has been on my list of “films to see” for some while. It’s a War film, made about WWI when it was still “the war to end all wars”, only 6 years after the conflicts had ended and still almost a decade before it started to become clear that another war would take its place.

Interestingly, the three men that the story follows are examples of different classes drawn into the fight. Hero and star Jim (John Gilbert) is a wealthy ne’er-do-well caught up in the patriotic call to arms. He’s joined by the more working class Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, who head to Europe with perhaps little insight into what they have signed-up for.

The bulk of the film’s 2 1/2 hours is a leisurely comedy-romance in which the three, with their fellows, lounge around Champillon while Jim falls for pretty Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French peasant girl.

And to be honest, nothing about this opening hour and a half is of particular interest or stands out from a lot of the era’s films. But when the march to the front, “the big parade”, leads the men into battle, the film becomes vividly visual, intense, and powerful.

The march through the woods (Belleau Wood, based on a real life battle), is the film’s best sequence. Tracking shots follow and lead as the march pushes forward. Shot at by entrenched German soldiers, they move inevitably forward in the film’s best visual sequence.

The latter battle sequence, strafed and bombed in foxholes left by explosions, the trio fight and hide, staying alive as the battle rages. Toward the end of this segment, Jim winds up in another hole with a wounded German soldier and finds a level of humanity with his enemy.

Taken as a whole, it is indeed a noteworthy film, but it’s really the battles that transform the film into something much above the average. It’s visual storytelling of great intensity and vividness, with amazing cinematography and camera movement. The Big Parade is well worth seeing, but in other ways, I’d consider showing just the battle sequences to someone out of the context of the whole.

Also, tragically and interestingly, Adorée, Gilbert, and Dane died young. Adorée at 35 of TB, Gilbert at 36 from alcohol-related heart attack, and Dane at 47 by suicide.

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 06/21/2017

The pessimism of film noir, the dark soul of post-war America already fully formed in 1950. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a noir of the soul, as well as a noir of Hollywood. It’s certainly placed within the world of the machine of movie-making dreams, the dark side, behind the scenes, the drunken, the embittered, the misanthropic.

The film’s very anti-Hollywood ending, maybe the surprise that was unexpected, that love does not conquer all, vindication for a criminal charge doesn’t solve the problems, that the darkness of men’s souls may still overtake it all. Hardly riding off into the sunset after a prolonged kiss.

I’d seen In a Lonely Place before, decades ago, and was duly impressed, as I am with most of Ray’s movies. But more recently, I read the novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is absolutely among the best crime novels I’ve read. What’s amazing is how far departed the film and the book are, so far departed that they are truly absolutely distinct entities, whose qualities are as different as the works themselves.

Hughes’s novel is about a serial killer, a lost man, back from the War, haunting the greater Los Angeles as he kills and kills again. It’s a haunting, frightening portrait, not at all the psychological violence that underscores this film. In Ray’s picture, the violence is under the skin, in the heart and mind, and mostly off-screen, utterly in the soul.

It’s also remarkably funny and snappy as well. Some really great dialogue.

A classic film from a classic book (that more people should read) though barely the twain really meet.

Killer Party (1986)

Killer Party (1986) movie poster

director William Fruet
viewed: 06/21/2017

Killer Party is a mess, a meta-horror-comedy not committed enough to one direction to succeed fully in any, and yet, I found it kind of fun.

It’s not so much the sum of its parts, nor mostly any one part in particular, save one. And that one, for me, anyways, is Sherry Willis-Burch as Vivia. Willis-Burch has only one other screen credit, a 1981 slasher, Final Exam, but she brings a level of wit to Vivia, carrying off some of the better lines. She’s a bit like a far less polished Kate McKinnon, in looks and character.

The plot, a prank-filled hazing April Fool’s party in a haunted derelict mansion, is almost besides the point. While it’s easy to see why others shrug this film off, I found it amusing.

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 06/19/2017

Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starts out with a rape and murder of a pretty shop owner by a vicious outlaw. For 1952, this suggestion is hardly detailed and yet more explicit than implicit. This is the event that spurs Vern (Arthur Kennedy) on a long, lonesome road to revenge, tracking through Indian territory on the trail of an outlaw, and finding himself at a secretive ranch run by a former showgirl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who now harbors criminals for 10% of their loot.

The bandits that meet up there range broadly in the crimes and characters, and Vern comes to hide among them but also to identify with some of them, most significantly Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), Keane’s long-time semi-beau. This is familiar territory for Lang, a criminal underworld, but one with its own ethics, honesty, and sense of fair play.

Really, it’s Vern who is the deceiver, playing a wanted outlaw to get close to the criminals who killed his girl. Though he joins them on a bank robbery, tying himself to the criminals, it’s his betrayal of Keane’s rules that allow him to eke out his revenge.

This is late Lang, a period somewhat disdained by his fans and critics. Produced and re-named by Howard Hughes, this is a cheapie by Hollywood standards. But Rancho Notorious was a film that Lang developed more fully than most, from conception to completion, and it bears the qualities of the work of one of the true auteurs in Hollywood.

It’s also got Dietrich, right at the top, a meta-legend in the story, and an aging movie star still relatively youthful at her age of 51.

I always seem to find Lang’s films sit with me, develop more and more in retrospect, and I sense that Rancho Notorious will as well.