My Week in Movies: July 14-20

Once a Thief (1965) It’s a shame director Ralph Nelson doesn’t bother keeping up the hepcat stylings of Once a Thief’s early scenes; the mix of mid-60s mod and sourpuss noir is an interesting combo. But after a wild jazz-fueled opening credits sequence and a few offbeat character bits, the film settles instead into a dreary drip of a crime melodrama. The film’s too-brief heist elements are handled well but get swallowed by melodrama that borders on parody and a dull, go-nowhere mood that imitates noir’s dreariness but never quite gets a handle on it. (Not even Lalo Schifrin’s manic score can inject energy into the proceedings.) Instead, it gives us a hot-head ex-thief (Alain Delon) whose temper makes him too unlikeable, sapping our interest. Jack Palance is one of many supporting players woefully underused. This movie could’ve been bursting with a slick strangeness, but all we get is a slog.

Cedar Rapids (2011) Why, why, why did it take me so long to finally get around to Cedar Rapids? This is a brilliant little film, with far more heart and cleverness than I had expected, its comedy coming from fully realized characters in a fully realized world. Phil Johnston’s screenplay is a wonder (and that’s including a too-pat third act wrap-up that feels more traditional than the rest of the film), each character with his/her own voice, most notably Ed Helms’ Tim Lippe. His is a coming-of-middle-age story, and for all the lunacy tossed his way, it’s a joy to see him find himself. It’s a great combination of actor and script. The supporting cast is equally superb, most notably John C. Reilly, who gives his crass shlub shades and textures we’d never get from a lesser actor in a lesser comedy. This is one of 2011’s best movies, and it’s my own damn fault for not being able to say that in 2011.

Sex Kittens Go to College (1960) There are movies that exist beyond the realm of bad – beyond, even, the land of the fascinatingly awful. This is the world where the combination of incompetence and WTFery becomes downright hypnotic. And here we find Albert Zugsmith’s Sex Kittens Go to College, a lunatic Z-level sitcom about a robot named Thinko, a bombshell genius played by Mamie Van Doren, and a university called College College. Zugsmith’s sloppy direction and the miserable cast make a shambles of the sub-burlesque jokes, which alone invites cinematic rubbernecking, but then you add a supporting cast featuring the likes of Tuesday Weld, Conway Twitty, Jackie Coogan, John Carradine, Vampira, Bridgette Bardot’s sister, a W.C. Fields impersonator, and a chimpanzee in ball cap and glasses (because of course), and suddenly the whole thing becomes some sort of schlock screen fever dream. Watching it, you find it impossible to believe people actually got together and spent time and money making it. (Someone got paid actual money to write “Thinko’s not meant to be a bookie, and I’m not meant to be a professor of science” – actual American money.) Surely such madness was conjured not by worldy means, but perhaps by something out of Lovecraft.

Sharknado (2013) How can a movie with a title like Sharknado be so joyless? I don’t mean it should be a laugh riot, but the audience should be able to sense the enthusiasm that goes into a low budget production like this, especially when dealing with the sort of tongue-in-cheek horror that’s popular with the irony crowd these days. But these Asylum/SyFy efforts are so cynical in their production, slapping together assembly line schlock with a sense of “well, the audience expects crap, so let’s not try too hard, guys,” that it’s impossible to thrill to their sillinesses. We’re left with a dour, limp, sloppily-made creature feature and a half-assed wink from the filmmakers who assume the audience is so in on the joke they don’t even have to bother telling it right. To quote Joel and the bots, they just didn’t care.

California Split (1974) And then there’s Robert Altman. One could get whiplash shifting from Asylum to Altman (I’m a professional – don’t try this at home), but it’s just what I needed to wash the stink away. The performances from Elliot Gould and George Segal are impeccable, filled with delicate detail, existing beyond mere comedy or drama (although the film allows them both, in spades – if you’ll pardon the pun) in that level of beautiful realism only Altman can accomplish.

The Man from Planet X (1951) An odd bridge between the gothic horror of the 1940s and the atomic sci-fi of the 50s. The film’s limitations are obvious but mostly forgiveable thanks to a decent story and some visual flair from director Edgar G. Ulmer. The sparcity of plot and setting work in the movie’s favor, creating an eerie mood even when the suspense isn’t very strong. More than just a genre curiosity (it’s often cited as the first “alien invader” movie), The Man from Planet X is an enjoyable matinee effort that still holds up quite nicely.

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