This Week in Rixflix #12: May 26–June 1, 2017
Yet another week, and we find ourselves with a generous slate of actual capsule reviews of several films that caught my eye in various ways in that span. The end of May meant that several television series that the wife and I follow were summing up with season (and sometimes series) finales, but we also found time to crack into new seasons of old favorites like the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. We also spent several hours finally catching up on the last go-around for Grimm, though we still had three episodes left heading into the next week. But who could really concentrate when the looming presence of Wonder Woman premiering on June 2 overrode everything? Really, I just watched everything else to take my mind off that...
This week's feature-length film count: 20; 9 first-time viewings and 11 repeats.
Highest rated feature-length film: Rolling Thunder (1977) and Mister Roberts (1955) – 8/9
Lowest rated feature films: Ensign Pulver (1986), Caged Heat (1974) and Blue Crush 2 (2011) – 5/9
Average films per day in May: 2.87
Average films per day in 2017 so far: 3.02
Consecutive days with at least 1 feature-length film seen per day: 170
Swamp Thing (1982) Dir.: Wes Craven – Having been a big fan of DC's Swamp Thing character for a number of years, especially when drawn by Berni Wrightson, I remember being very excited ( if not highly surprised) when the Craven-directed film version hit theatres way back in 1982, during my final year of high school. I also remember being pretty disappointed, especially by clunkiness of the battle scenes between Swampy and the Arcane monster. Despite my dislike for the film on first going to it, I have seen the film several times since, and think it is merely fine. While the Arcane monster suit is still completely ridiculous-looking, and the scenes with the villain's rampaging forces maintain my annoyance as well, I now believe that good ol' Wes did alright by dear Swampy after all. There is a heart to be discovered beneath all that foliage, and it is that heart that drives any story about the creature to believability. I feel for the most part that Craven gets that mood absolutely correct in the film's more dramatic scenes, but also balances the film with some darkly humorous lines. A younger Ray Wise might be a tad miscast as Dr. Alec Holland, who will become the Swamp Thing, but vet Louis Jourdan delivers an appropriately smarmy and eye-rolling turn as Arcane. (As long as he too doesn't turn into a monster, the movie is safe.) – TC4P Rating: 6/9
Moonlight (2016) Dir.: Barry Jenkins – I mentioned a couple of weeks back in my short dismissal of La La Land that I was never really allowed to enter the film emotionally, and could therefore make no connection at all with either the main characters of the film nor the musical trappings of the film. I appreciated its technical achievement and some of the acting, but felt it was lacking anything remotely near actual human emotion. Taking a look finally at Moonlight, the film that won the Best Picture Oscar from out of La La Whatever's clutches (that's my name for that film from now on), I had the exact opposite reaction. Even though I live worlds apart from the film's characters – a drug-dealer, his wife, the young, put upon gay child the dealer and his wife take under their wing out of compassion, and the child's drug-addicted prostitute mother – there was nothing but connection on an emotional level for me. This is one of the richest cinematic journeys to which I have seen Oscar commit in eons, but if you think that it is one of those films that starts in darkness and slowly builds to a glorious cascading of heavenly light, you have another thing coming. This film is layered in such a way that it really tells three different stories about the same character at different points in his life, and how his life turns from his reactions to his circumstances. Each slice of his life offers up new surprises, new complications, and old questions waiting to be answered. It is not an easy ride, nor does it ever let you believe it is. But it is refreshing to see what might otherwise become an undiscovered cult classic actually get recognized by the Academy. Some see pandering to the current national discussion regarding race; I just see a highly excellent film getting its due. Next time, Oscar, how about passing some of that love over to Barry Jenkins, the man behind the film? – TC4P Rating: 8/9
No Time for Sergeants (1958) Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy – Time has not been kind to my opinion of this film, which I saw at a fairly youthful age (Andy Griffith was always appreciated in our house). TCM played it on The Essentials recently, and it was clearly a fave of host Alec Baldwin. His co-host, a fully bearded David Letterman, was less enthralled with the film, but still respected it. I do as well, but Letterman is right about the bathroom scene, where he invoked his own rule that "if it wouldn't happen in real life," then he couldn't really accept the premise of the joke. Well, I won't fully agree with that rule, because the films of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges are loaded with things that couldn't happen in real life, and I have not stopped laughing at them yet. Back to this film, I really like the opening half, where we meet Griffith's seemingly simple and overtly strong hillbilly character who is drummed into basic training with the Air Force. His character, Pvt. Will Stockdale, has a lot of the hick appeal that Griffith would use on his famous What It Was, Was Football monologue, that I used to hear all the time on Dr. Demento. Griffith had played this role first on a television production and then on the Broadway stage, where he earned a Tony nomination. In the film, I start to lose interest when the story reaches the base and turns into a basic service comedy for an hour of its running time; it never totally lost me, however, and the final portion (involving a flight through a nuclear test region) still came off as wacky fun for me. I just had higher expectations overall after having waited so long to see it again. That makes me more of a Letterman than a Baldwin ultimately in this battle, and I think that I am fine with that. – TC4P Rating: 6/9
Ensign Pulver (1964) Dir.: Joshua Logan – On the same day that I watched Ensign Pulver, I also watched the film that preceded it, the 1955 version of Mister Roberts. In that film, Pulver is played by Jack Lemmon, and what more can I say except that Lemmon won the first of his two Oscars for his supporting role in that part? The part is a showstopper in many ways, and Lemmon used it to really break through the big time in high fashion. Nearly ten years later, there came this sequel, written and directed by Joshua Logan, who not only directed and co-wrote the original stage version of Mister Roberts but also served as the uncredited co-director of a few scenes on the film version after John Ford got ill and Mervyn LeRoy left the production. The task of filling the role of Pulver is left to Robert Walker, Jr., and while he doesn't do too badly in the role, he could never get near Lemmon in comedic timing and charisma. In the role played so gruffly but well by James Cagney originally, we instead get Burl Ives, who has a couple of nice moments, but is really miscast in the part. (Strangely, the film no longer has Lemmon, but his future partner and pal Walter Matthau shows up in the role of the ship's doctor.) The chief failing of the second film is that there is no reliable replacement for the vacated position that Roberts left on the ship at the first film's close. In the original, Pulver's antics shine because he is secondary to the plot for much of the way; here, with his resourceful but still fairly wacky character taking over for Roberts, Pulver seems to retreat in a childish way, and you realize just how much Mister Roberts relied on Henry Fonda as the title character to provide a strong moral center. Enjoyable in parts, but overall, a misfire. – TC4P Rating: 5/9
Action in Arabia (1944) Dir.: Léonide Moguy – About fifteen minutes into Action in Arabia, I became completely convinced that the film was meant to be RKO's answer to Warner Bros.' Casablanca. After all, you have the World War II period, a mysterious foreign setting dripping with possibilities (Damascus, not actually a part of the Arabian Peninsula, but really in Western Asia), a calm, cool lead who might turn out to be something more than he seems (George Sanders), a cool blonde (Virginia Bruce, playing a super spy) who is bound to get romantically involved with the hero, Nazis running amok and trying to control the area, and the film even opens with a map of North Africa which comes accompanied by narration by Lou Marcelle (who performed the same function for Casablanca). Of course, the results are not nearly as dramatically satisfying or well-filmed as the Michael Curtiz classic, but that is not to say that Action in Arabia is not a ball of fun all its own. A marvelous supporting role by Robert (King Kong) Armstrong is my favorite in the film besides the always reliable Sanders, but there are also stellar turns by Batman '66's Alan Napier as the cruel, conniving villain and Gene Lockhart as a sniveling, constantly shifting smuggler. Some of the action takes the film nearly into serial territory, and the tone of the film shifts from murder mystery to spy thriller to action film with the slightest nudge. It's all completely escapist, and has nowhere near the soul of the film it emulates at first, but man is it entertaining. Can't wait for a second go at it in the future. – TC4P Rating: 6/9
Blue Crush 2 (2011) Dir.: Mike Elliott – I will fully admit that while I watched this film under the guise of doing research for my blog, The Shark Film Office, there was also a part of me that said "I don't mind spending a couple of hours this afternoon watching attractive girls going surfing... nope, not one bit." While the original 2002 Blue Crush starring Kate Bosworth had nothing in the way of even a mention about sharks, I still had hopes that there might at least be some dialogue about the creatures in the followup, and it was completely because the second film relocates to South Africa. (It's an easy thing to pull off since the newer film has completely new characters and has no other relation to the first film except the two words in its title.) The plot is so old hat as to be nauseating: pampered, blond L.A. teenager whose surfer girl mommy died of cancer years earlier gets tired of her dad being a non-presence in her life and runs away to South Africa on her own to get his attention. She meets a local girl, has all her swag stolen by thugs, and joins her new friend in her communal living shack with a bunch of dirty surf hippies beside the ocean. They run afoul of the law and the gangs, but everything rides on the blond girl getting a chance to recreate her mom's S.A. surf trip from before she was born. There is some quick talk of the girls getting thrown to the sharks by the thugs, but that is it for toothy menace. Lots of pretty but fairly tepid surf scenes, a zillion cute girls in bikinis (hottest of all being Sharni Vinson a couple of years before she played the tough girl lead in Adam Wingard's You're Next), and a wholly unbelievable but completely predictable storyline. – TC4P Rating: 5/9
Rolling Thunder (1977) Dir.: John Flynn – There is a very good reason why Quentin Tarantino is not only very high on this film as one of the cornerstones of his movie philosophy, but that he also named a production company after it. There are plenty of examples of revenge action flicks from the 1970s, and I will not fault your opinion if you prefer Death Wish or another film in its place, but Rolling Thunder is arguably one of the better crafted examples of the genre in that period. It certainly has plenty within it that sticks in your mind far beyond a single showing, including the hard-edged, unwavering conviction in the lead role of star William Devane. I grew up with a lingering impression of Devane as John F. Kennedy in The Missiles of October, but my mind would have reeled had I seen this film when it was released and I was only 12/13 years of age. A vet returns home from Vietnam after being a prison camp for seven years, his wife and child are murdered and his hand is cut off, he enlists the aid of his best friend from the service (a young Tommy Lee Jones) and his new girlfriend to track down the gang of killers with a hook on his hand, a loaded shotgun, and one seriously bad attitude. I saw the film on cable ages ago, and then promptly set it aside. Seeing it again recently awakened a flood of memories of what a riveting performance Devane gives and his resulting path of ultra-violence that leaves the viewer both cheering and rattled at the same time. A must for action fans. – TC4P Rating: 8/9