My Week in Movies: Apr. 22-28

The Green Slime (1969) From what I’d heard, I expected The Green Slime to be little more than a schlockfest worth watching for its righteous theme song and maybe some laughable monster design. What I got, however, was a groovy chunk of sci-fi entertainment. Between the space station-under-siege plot and the tentacled, cycloptic mutant aliens, the whole thing has a 1970s Doctor Who feel to it – I can imagine Jon Pertwee running around those same corridors. The direction from Kinji Fukasaku (!) keeps things moving briskly, with terrific action sequences and keen visuals, while a love triangle/power struggle subplot, which sounds iffy on paper, actually clicks, giving the story an extra kick of tension in places I wasn’t expecting. We’re left with a space adventure that embraces its lunacy but also takes itself seriously, understanding you can craft a fun yarn even with wobbly sets and a pulpy script. Far out!

Too Hot to Handle (1938) This Clark Gable/Mynra Loy pairing (their seventh and last) promises both screwball comedy and jungle adventure but comes up short on both. It starts with a promising Front Page-esque poke at shady newsreel cameramen, who in this case are willing to fake footage as they work to one-up each other. But as the script takes us from Shanghai action to New York silliness, it keeps losing steam, eventually becoming rather tiresome with a third act that dumps us the leads into a South America filled with witch doctors and booga-booga extras, played for both stale thrills and staler laughs. A few interesting action sequences (including a bit of stunt work on the wing of a biplane) and the collective charms of Gable and Loy just aren’t enough to make the film work.

Mr. Baseball (1992) Did it really take me twenty years to finally watch Mr. Baseball? Huh. Anyway: Funny thing about this particular brand of early 90s light comedy is, you can see the story beats coming a mile away, but you don’t mind a bit. (Or, at least, I don’t.) There’s a sweetness at play here, a genuine concern the film shows for its characters, so when we plow through the usual “spoiled guy learns his lesson” formula, we remain engaged. The comedy has a warmth to it, the performances an earnestness. Plus, it’s Tom Selleck as a baseball star, and how did nobody manage to come up with that no-brainer bit of casting before this?

Detour (1945) One of the kings of poverty row noir. It’s grimy, it’s cheap, it’s soaked in sweaty desperation and cold-blooded nihilism – the entire film can be summed up in Tom Neal’s hangdog expression, a face that understands how the lousiest of life’s troubles are inescapable. Even before he winds up over his head in murder and blackmail, his character seems drained of life, interested only in making his way west to reunite with his sweetheart (although one wonders if his heart’s even in that, no matter how many times his voice-over narration tries to convince us). His blindness toward hope – or even interest – in life is mirrored in the film’s smothering tone; Detour may be claustrophobic by necessity, with Edgar Ulmer keeping the framing tight and with Martin Goldsmith’s screenplay limiting the action to confined spaces in order to hide the meager budget, but the cramped tone enhances the eeriness of the piece. As noir goes, this one’s pitch black.

Boomerang! (1947) Complaining about heavy-handedness in an Elia Kazan movie is like complaining about nudity in a late-night Cinemax offering, but still. This early Kazan work (released the same year as Gentleman’s Agreement) lays it on thick; not content to let the story of a prosecutor coming to the defense of a wrongly accused man connect with the audience at its own pace, the film underlines every theme, every obvious truth, every Important Message with cheap-sounding narration detailing just how the police got this one wrong, and how the prosecutor got it so right. Like most Kazan works, the cast is top notch (most notably Arthur Kennedy as the man broken by condemnation) and the direction is airtight, but the movie’s nagging moralizing, especially in a ridiculous third act loaded with courtroom showboating, is repetitive and pushy, as if screenwriter Richard Murphy (later to get better results teaming with Kazan in Panic in the Streets) feared some in the audience might not get the point.

The Petrified Forest (1936) It had been years since I last watched The Petrified Forest, and I had forgotten just how long it takes to get to the Duke Mantee stuff. There’s a long, long build-up here, with Leslie Howard fawning over Bette Davis, laying groundwork for a tragic romance that holds up only if you forget the two have only known each other for a few hours. We’re willing to give that a pass, however, since the character work is so solid (and by refusing to open up the film beyond its stage roots, there’s nothing else for the story to do but study its characters), as is the tension, mainly fueled by Humphrey Bogart’s star-making turn as the villain. As Bogey-takes-hostages movies go, I prefer The Desperate Hours, but this is a plenty fine runner-up.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) I’m certainly not alone in thinking Sony’s decision to replace the glorious title The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists with the generic Band of Misfits is the dopiest “Americans are stupid” move since the Philosopher’s Stone got a new name. (MaryAnn Johanson sums it up best in her review: “Brainwashed into thinking science is awesome! Who shall protect [children] from such horrors?”) As for the movie itself, I suppose I have to stifle my frustration that so much from the original book was dropped or changed in favor of something far less interesting, considering Gideon Defoe, who penned the source material, also wrote the screenplay. Still, I grumble, because the difference between what this movie could have been and this movie wound up being is a wide gap. Much of the cleverness of the book gets muted in favor of broader sight gags, colorless characters, and well-worn plot points (including the standard bits about the value of friendship) that, sadly, keep the more gloriously oddball corners of the story from getting too weird. Sure, the film displays a good eye for silliness, but there’s simply not enough of it. We’re left with a movie that’s good but only just; it’s cute and often funny but mostly forgettable, on par with Aardman’s previous weakest effort, Flushed Away. For a movie where Charles Darwin has a monkey butler and a sword-wielding, panda-eating Queen Victoria is the baddie, The Pirates! comes off as strangely average.

Key Largo (1948) I’m not sure what to make of Key Largo‘s final ten minutes or so, which drops us a little too closely to action movie territory, an odd left turn for a film that until then is a spare thriller that’s closer to drama than suspense. But even in its finale, John Huston’s classic remains character driven above all else, and what characters: when Bogey and Bacall (they had it all) are the least interesting people in your movie, you know you’ve hit pay dirt. Which isn’t to say our leads are dull here; indeed, Bogey’s conflicted war hero would be plenty in any other movie. But surrounded by such a supporting cast, even he manages to get overshadowed. The real fascination comes from watching Edward G. Robinson as a washed-up gangster, Lionel Barrymore as Bacall’s cantankerous father (a subplot in which he helps Indians hide from the law is unnecessary plot-wise but completely necessary character-wise, adding a great level of complexity and ambiguity), and, best of all, Claire Trevor as Robinson’s alcoholic dame, whose Oscar-winning performance totally gutted me.

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