Seven more movies

Today's BIG YES is Only Angels Have Wings (1939), but there are also a couple of lesser yesses. Cue the 20th Century Fox fanfare...

♦ ♦ ♦

Dark City (1998)

Someone’s been messing with Jack Murdoch’s mind. His memory has been snatched, and everything about his reality is in question. Rufus Sewell stars, looking a little nutty all the way through, which seems appropriate for a man whose mind is malfunctioning. Also stars Jennifer Connolly, who might have been going for ‘sultry’ but comes across as sleepy or bored. Kiefer Sutherland affects a limp and an unconvincing speech impediment. Richard O’Brien (Rocky Horror) steals the show as the wicked alien Mr Hand.

The movie is designed to look like noir, set in perpetual nighttime in a city where the streets are always wet and everyone seems to exist in the 1950s.

It’s not Bogart's turf, though. This is 1990s big-budget science fiction, with cool space monsters lurking in the noiry shadows. It’s enjoyable mid-level sci-fi, not as smart as the original Matrix, but it touches on similar themes, and it’s certainly far superior to the Matrix sequels.

♦ ♦ ♦

Empire Records (1995)

In the 1990s, when albums existed only on vinyl or cassette, Tower Records was a leading chain of music stores. It had a reputation as a cool place to work or shop, and the rep was earned and legit. It was a chain, yeah, but something was different about how the stores were run.

I remember Tower fondly, because they actively supported zines, buying and selling them and actually paying the publishers, while some distributors didn't. It had a cool counterculture vibe that seemed sincere, and I often shopped at Tower, and worked there for a sadly short time. It was the chillest job ever.

Empire Records is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes drama set at ‘Empire Records’, but obviously about Tower. The movie flopped so badly on its first release that I never even heard of it until years later. As sometimes happens with Hollywood failures, it’s developed a popular after-cinema life, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. I’d like to see a good movie about Tower Records, and everyone says this is it, so I took a look. 

I’m writing this while the movie unfolds, because it's not holding my attention. It revolves around a teenager who works at the store, and we’re supposed to love him because he took the entire $9,000 in daily sales to a casino, gambled it, and lost. For this he's neither fired nor prosecuted.

Tower was a cool place, but it wasn’t that cool.

Rory Cochrane portrays this kid as an insufferably cocky brat, too. When someone finally punches him, I felt cheated that it happened off-camera, and wanted to take a few swings at him myself. And this is the movie's main protagonist?

There are three girls and an endless fleet of boys, and any one of the girls has more going on than all the boys put together, but the movie, of course, is mostly about the boys. I'll admit, though, that I perked up when 26-year-old Renée Zellweger came on screen as a teenager in “revealing clothing.” 

All the kids are white and movie-star pretty and pretending to be James Dean, even the girls. There’s ample camera-mugging and dancing around to 1990s music, and one particularly annoying boy seems to spend all his camera time either dancing or mugging. Most of them remind me of boys I hated in high school, and they all get everything they want, including a ridiculously impossible happy ending.

Everyone says Empire Records is a “cult classic,” and who am I to argue? Doesn’t mean it’s any good, though. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Gammera the Invincible (1966)
NO — 

This is a Japanese ripoff of the Godzilla movies, and it might be enjoyable as camp, or if you have an hour and a half supply of marijuana. Gammera is a gigantic walking turtle, and it's actually frightful, in the few scenes we see it. It’s destroying Tokyo, of course — that's required — but there’s a little boy with a turtle fixation who thinks he can talk Gammera into peaceful coexistence.

Some scenes involving American actors were grafted on for the movie’s US release. These added segments have an amusingly light touch, with overacting that's pleasantly at odds with the rest of the movie. Trivia: Gammera’s theme song was written by Wes Farrell, who later wrote the theme for The Partridge Family. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Nuts in May (1976)
YES — 

This is an old favorite of mine, and I’ve seen it perhaps half a dozen times. It's a TV movie made by Mike Leigh, who later made Topsy-Turvy and Naked. This one's a very droll British character comedy about a painfully uptight city couple, Roger Sloman and Alison Steadman, who go camping. At their trip progresses, they encounter a few small difficulties, as anyone would, but they respond reliably wrong to everything. The movie's softspoken message is, a lot of our problems, we make for ourselves. 

It’s a comedy without jokes, but not without laughs. It starts slow, and never picks up momentum, but like Madge and Palmolive, it's effective when you're soaking in it.

Twenty minutes in, Steadman collects a few pebbles off the beach to bring home as souvenirs, and Sloman scolds, “You shouldn’t do that, you know. Why, if everybody did that there wouldn’t be any pebbles left.” By the time they’re singing “I Want to See the Zoo,” I can’t stop giggling.

I’ve recommended this movie to a few people over the years, and nobody’s ever liked it but me, so weigh that as part of your consideration. This is not Monty Python. Bear in mind, though, that anyone who doesn’t enjoy Nuts in May is mistaken.

♦ ♦ ♦

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Tough guys in South America fly mail across the jungle, through the fog, and over the mountains. It’s before radar was in widespread use, so flying is dangerous work, and sometimes the planes crash. Cary Grant owns the airfreight company, and he plays hardass about the danger and death, but he’s Cary Grant so you know there’s a heart hidden underneath.

Only Angels Have Wings
was directed by Howard Hawks, a well-known aviation freak, so the flying sequences are quite well done, and still thrilling 80+ years later.

Also gotta say, my old man was an aviation enthusiast all through his life — big barnstorming fan when he was a kid, and the only place he ever wanted to work was Boeing, where he spent his entire adult life. He would’ve been nine or ten years old when this movie came out, and I am simply certain that he saw it and loved it when he was a kid. That isn’t why I saw it and loved it, but it doesn’t hurt, knowing I was enjoying a movie my dad had also enjoyed.

Of course, all the men in this movie are tough and stoic, and the women are spirited but vulnerable and never quite sure of themselves even when they’re sure of themselves. That’s the way most movies were written back then, sorry. Dang it, though, Only Angels Have Wings works, and it left me weepy.

 Memorable moments:

• She pulls a knife on ‘em.
• Cary Grant eats steak and sings.
• “The boat doesn’t stop at Santa Maria this trip.”
• Apologies after the fight.
• “Burned twice in the same place.”
• “Buy him a drink for me, will ya?”

♦ ♦ ♦

Phantom of Chinatown (1940)
NO — 

I might have seen a Charlie Chan movie on TV when I was a little kid, but I don’t remember it. Never seen one on purpose, because I haven’t heard that any Charlie Chan movies are worth watching white actors wearing yellowface. This movie isn’t Charlie Chan, and all the actors playing Asians are Asian, so it gets points for that.

There’s a missing scroll from the Ming Dynasty, and the archaeologist who found it is soon mysteriously dead. One of his students (Keye Luke) proves that the archaeologist was poisoned, and then he’s sort of forced to team up with a dumb white policeman to investigate the matter.

Some of the Chinese-American characters speak in stereotypical pidgin English, but some don’t. The white cops are plainly shown to be racists, and Luke’s character is clearly twice as bright as the thuggish detective he’s working with. This movie is definitely ahead of its time, but unfortunately, it’s also slow, cumbersome, and often uninteresting.

♦ ♦ ♦

Prospect (2018)

This is a recent and independent production, so I’ve linked to a page listing where you can rent it for a few bucks, instead of to a torrent site.

Dust is a website of short, original science fiction films, many of which are quite good. One of their shorts, Prospect, was remade a few years later as this feature-length film. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Dust’s shorts, but the short version of Prospect didn’t do much for me. The longer version is much better, but I wish it was better than it is.

It’s about a young girl in dicey situations on a world (sorry, a moon) that’s all a contaminated rain forest. The contamination means everyone’s wearing protective gear and helmets all through the movie, communicating by radio, which makes the dialogue difficult or sometimes impossible to decipher. The story is slow, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s smart, and the universe the movie creates feels real.

During a tense scene toward the end, staticky music is broadcast over the characters’ helmet-radios, which confused me. When they’re angry these people broadcast snippets of bad rock’n’roll at each other? That’s just a guess, though — the bad music isn’t explained, or if it’s explained I missed it.

A more serious complaint, especially in a movie that’s as imaginative as Prospect, is that the only female character is for sale to the highest bidder, as a plot device. This is handled as tastefully as the concept can be handled, but it’s still disgusting, and it’s such a worn-out cliché of action movies. Science fiction can give us a better future than this, and I frequently watch shorts on Dust — they’re better than this, too. 

Overall, Prospect is well-made and interesting, but I respect it more than I enjoyed it.


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  1. Dark City is one of those movies considered modern classics that I just missed, for whatever reason, along with The Usual Suspects and plenty of others, despite me working at a video store at the time they came out. Going on the watch list.

    I DID see Empire Records while I worked at the store, and it fuckin' sucked. I forget why I hated it, but I did.

    1. You probably hated it cuz it sucked. I don't remember ever seeing another so-called 'cult classic' where absolutely everything people liked about it eluded me.


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