Reviews of seven films we watched by staying up too late at night.
Here come the dog days of summer. With the second half of the season only beginning to arrive this weekend, there’s been a lot of time to catch up on films that either previously escaped our attention or that we finally managed to track down and watch. A couple of them we were lucky to find. Once we started looking for off the beaten path and little-remembered films on the cable movie channels, we quickly came to appreciate how lucky we are that some of them get aired at all. Staying up all night to see them was just the enabling excuse.
The following seven films are presented, as always, in no particular order of importance. Wherever possible we’ve included trailers or excerpts.
Black Dynamite (2009) – You’re forgiven if this rowdy, knowing homage to and parody of the blaxploitation genre escaped your notice. Given a microscopic two week theatrical release last year, it’s now a can’t-miss on DVD. When the brother of kung fu master Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is killed by the mob, the former CIA operative and Vietnam veteran vows to clean drugs off the streets. Along the way he foils a government plot and confronts his nemesis The Fiendish Mr. Wu on Kung Fu Island, culminating in a White House showdown that’s too crazy to spoil here. Proudly dumb and giddily cheap, it’s the best kind of satire – the kind that loves its source material enough to know how to laugh at it and celebrate it at the same time.
The following trailer is NSFW, and hilarious:
Zombieland (2009) - After a vaguely explained contagion turns most of the world into flesh-eating zombies, a band of survivors including a redneck warrior (Woody Harrelson), a nebbishy college student (Jesse Eisenberg), and a pair of con artist sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) make the most of their post-apocalyptic existence, including taking over Bill Murray’s house, spending a dream day at an amusement park, and trashing a cheesy souvenir shop. It is the gory end of the world as they know it, and they feel… fine, at least.
Eisenberg is the main character but Harrelson is the star, elevating the script’s already manic, cynical edge a step further: it’s a blast to see Mickey Knox kill zombies, and Harrelson knows it, all but cackling through every scene. As for Stone, if she’s not a major star within the next two years we’ll probably never forgive the industry. Except for some minor plot holes the film is nasty, cathartic fun all the way around, and a neat sabotaging of the too-popular zombie trend.
Adventureland (2009) – The biggest problem with Adventureland is trying not to think of it as Zombieland but without the zombies (but with Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart). Like that other film, this one stars Eisenberg as a sensitive soul haltingly falling in love with a girl out of his depth (Stewart) with an amusement park for the backdrop.
Except that’s about where the similarities end. Writer-director Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad is smarter and more melancholy than that exercise in snark, with better performances from the cast and a more considered worldview. In part this is helped by the bittersweet nostalgia for its 1987 setting, even if like Steven Soderbergh’s recent The Informant! that setting isn’t ever completely realized. Eisenberg’s performance is perhaps too similar, but Reynolds and Stewart both stretch themselves somewhat in their weary turns; Bill Heder and Kristen Wiig emit their usual low-key charm as the park’s managers.
Better Off Dead (1985) – A film Gen X’ers probably ought to revisit at least once every couple of years, Savage Steve Holland’s surreal, brazen spoof of teenage angst and self-loathing has actually aged a lot better than some of John Hughes’ work from the same period. That Holland accomplishes this with demented cartoon vignettes, musical numbers featuring claymation hamburgers and copious drug humor only makes the film that much funnier.
If you don’t already know the plot: Morose teenager Lane Meyer (John Cusack) pines for the girl who dumped him (Amanda Wyss) while engaging in a tentative romance with a French foreign exchange student (Diane Franklin) and preparing to ski race their high school’s uber jock bully (Aaron Dozier). But really, that’s only the tip of the iceberg for Meyer and his weird family, as Holland’s script goes ten funny directions at once. Probably required viewing for anyone between the ages of thirty five and forty, it’s a bona fide cult favorite.
Slattery’s Hurricane (1949) – Meant partly as a comeback vehicle for Veronica Lake (that didn’t happen) and based on a story by Herman Wouk (The Winds of War), this undercooked melodrama tells the story of a WWII fighter pilot (Richard Widmark) recounting his life’s mistakes while flying into the eye of a hurricane off the coast of Miami, mistakes that include any number of indiscretions including adultery and drug smuggling. Director Andre De Toth (Crime Wave) handles the potentially confusing structure easily, and Widmark is excellent as always.
Still, the film never really amounts to much, lacking suspense as much as depth of characterization. The drug smuggling elements, which all but sit up and bark for attention, get particularly short shrift. Finally, fans of the period will likely enjoy the balmy cinematography that handsomely shows Florida just before its takeover by the tourism industry.
Call Northside 777 (1948) – Based on actual events, a jaded Chicago newspaper reporter (James Stewart) writes a puff piece about a charwoman’s eleven-year struggle to free her son (Richard Conte) from prison, following his conviction for murdering a police officer. The public goes wild for the story, encouraging the paper’s editor (Lee J. Cobb, who may have been born chewing the end of a cigar) to assign the reporter to dig deeper into the case. The son maintains his innocence, which in time the reporter first comes to believe and then champions to the state pardon board.
Though not entirely a film noir (as its inclusion in Fox’s Film Noir DVD library suggests), under Henry Hathaway’s (Kiss of Death) direction the film makes for completely arresting viewing until its last few minutes, with Stewart in particular but Cobb and Conte (who would face off, one year later, in the sublime Thieves Highway) all giving rock solid performances. The conclusion, however, almost sinks everything, thanks to a fringe worth of dangling plot threads and a voice-over apologia to the Establishment.
Shadow of a Doubt (1948) – Hitchcock’s unique perspective is a taste we’ve never acquired. So this film, sometimes considered his best, nevertheless left us somewhat cold, despite its unmistakable power and depth. A sociopathic killer of rich widows returns, one step ahead of two dogged cops, to the suburban California home of his sister (Patricia Collinge) and niece (Teresa Wright), and their ostensibly perfect family. At first adoring and devoted, in time - and thanks to a very proper wooing by one of the cops (Macdonald Carey) – the niece comes to resist and finally oppose her uncle’s growing malice, risking her life as a consequence.
For as good as Cotten and Wright are – and they’re virtually flawless – the script drags, due in part to an overstuffed cast (the two younger children are largely superfluous) and an at times mawkish depiction of middle class American life. An explanation for the elder Charlie’s profound evil, given as a sweet reminiscence, seems half-hearted and a little unsophisticated. Nevertheless, the menace that lingers around the corners of every scene is never less than palpable, and Cotten’s control of his performance is masterful, as the scene below demonstrates.
With the exception of Slattery’s Hurricane, all of the above films are available on DVD. We’ll be back next week.
- Michael Kabel