Seven maybe movies

The Fifth Element (1997)

Amazonstreaming free 

This movie kinda broke my heart when it first came out, but I wanted to give it a second chance 25 years later. Maybe it’ll be better if I come in with lower expectations?

You’ve got your basic B-movie sci-fi setup, with mystical babble and archaeologists reading ancient runes. Everything’s ominous, and some big-armored but tiny-headed space aliens look like trouble. Then there’s blonde Bruce Willis as an anti-grav taxi driver, some uglier space aliens, and Milla Jovovich with Trump hair — a look that’s launched a million memes.

The visuals are cartoonishly beautiful, the story bubbles on medium-high, and it’s an engrossing lowbrow adventure — think Blade Runner without the brains. Willis with a smirk is always fun, Ian Holm plays a kooky priest or something, Gary Oldman is a psychotic weapons dealer, and Jovovich doesn’t speak English but never stops speaking, which is amusing. When the movie is about 2/3 finished, Chris Tucker pops in to sink the ship.

Yeah, Tucker is the problem here. The movie is a bit comedic before he shows up, but he's channeling Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey, making faces and talking in his super-spazziest voice — it’s a distraction and a subtraction. I will say, Tucker’s role is smaller and slightly less annoying than I’d remembered, but it’s still dang annoying, and it reduces the movie from YES to MAYBE at best.

♦ ♦ ♦

Greaser’s Palace (1973)

Amazonstreaming free

This is the story of Jesus, if Jesus wore a zoot suit and roamed the old west with transgender disciples. It’s avant-garde, baby, and plays with the conventions of moviemaking right from the start, by rolling the end credits in reverse and before instead of after the movie.

Visually it looks like a John Ford flick — widescreen photography, crisp technicolor, sagebrush scenery — but it’s from Robert Downey Sr, who was famous for always trying something new. New is necessary, of course, in any art form. Things get stale if someone’s not trying something new, and Greaser’s Palace is certainly not stale.

It’s difficult, though, and not much concerned with telling a story. This is a movie where you couldn’t say what's going on or what it means, or how the pieces of it are intended to fit together, and I’m not sure fitting any of it together was on Downey’s agenda.

For example, I don't know what’s the deal with the guy in a silly ghost costume, or how many times that other guy's going to go swimming in a rainbow with millions of naked babies and then all of the sudden turn into a perfect smile, but if you've always wanted to see young Hervé Villechaize in wedded bliss with a bearded man named Petunia, this is the movie you’re looking for.

♦ ♦ ♦

One on Top of the Other (1969) (a/k/a Perversion Story)

Alamofree streaming

I am mystified by the movie's alternate title, Perversion Story, as there's nothing here that could be called a perversion, even in the '60s. A perversion would be much more interesting than this. Then again, the movie's more widely known title — One on Top of the Other — doesn't make much sense either. Nothing is stacked here except the movie's several strippers.

It's an Italian-French-Spanish co-production, but the dialogue is in English and it’s set in California — very ‘global economy’, I guess. If you watch it, you'll see plenty of San Francisco post card scenery, like driving curvaceous Lombard Street as if it’s a normal road you can just casually motor down in your Corvette. And is that the Golden Gate Bridge… again?

Before we’ve figured out which characters are which, two of them have a three-minute very softcore sex and cigarette scene that’s perhaps intended to titillate but only bores.

Oh, the story? Doctor Big-Ego’s wife mysteriously dies while he’s in Vegas with his mistress, but there’s another woman who looks (Vertigo rip-off) just like her. For no reason, several conversations take place during (Blow-Up rip-off) artsy photoshoots. A corpse is laid out in black… on black sheets… with a black pillow. A cop makes murderous accusations in front of a bubbling beaker, and we watch his lips move through the fluid, which is kinda cool.

The script is clumsy, and the very clichéd story resolves itself through a series of voiceovers and meandering wordy explanations over the last half hour.

There’s a snazzy jazzy score that made me want to dance and smoke, but the music tends to overpower the movie. And sometimes the jazz disappears, replaced by tedious Mantovani strings.

There's not much nutritional value, but I enjoyed it, mostly for its 1960s San Francisco views, and the wall-to-wall wackadoodle stylistic flourishes — leopard-skin striptease on a motorcycle, anyone?

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Poor Devil (1973)

DVD •  YouTube (free)

Sammy Davis Jr is shoveling coal in Hell, when the telephone rings. “Furnace room, Sammy speaking,” he says as he picks up the piping hot phone. He’s been condemned to Hell forever, but there’s a troubled soul on Earth and Sammy is sent to sign him to a contract for eternal damnation.

This is a long-forgotten made-for-TV movie, and the video quality is poor — videotape, degraded by decades — but it’s watchable once you’re accustomed to it. Christopher Lee is having fun as Lucifer, Jack Klugman thespians his heart out as a schlep accountant, and Adam West is his boorish boss.

I expected Poor Devil to be schlock or awful, and indeed it has the depth of a sit-com — Klugman is billed as “special guest star,” and Wikipedia says it was the pilot for a series that was never produced. Someone in the crowded script room had a sense of humor, though — there are half a dozen genuine chuckles here, and I laughed when Klugman tried to commit suicide by lying down in front of a cable car.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie was filmed, or videotaped, in San Francisco, and includes a heist and un-heist sequence staged inside the legendary but long-gone City of Paris department store, just off Union Square. I won’t recommend Poor Devil, but I don’t regret watching it.

♦ ♦ ♦

Right of Way (1983)

VHSstreaming free

Has there ever been a better cast in a cheap made-for-TV movie? Bette Davis and James Stewart play an old married couple with a house full of cats, but she's fatally ill and he doesn't want to go on without her, so they’re planning their double-suicide. “Your mother and I have lived as one, and we’ll die as one.”

Davis and Stewart make a nicely matched set, and it’s a pity they only worked together this once, long past their primes. Davis (unsurprisingly) owns every scene they share — she was always the lead, never played a quiet housewife, and certainly doesn’t here. Stewart is great too, of course, and despite the dead-serious topic, it’s hilarious when these two squabble midway through the story.

Melinda Dillon plays their daughter, trying to talk them out of suiciding. When she calls the authorities to overrule Mom & Dad and save their lives, well, after that the bureaucracy is involved, which is rarely if ever a good thing.

Something else you know, or I at least strongly suspect, is that the movie won’t let them go through with killing themselves. I’m banging out this paragraph before the story fully unfolds, hoping I’m mistaken but I won’t change the text either way. My prediction? It’s TV, and it’s the 1980s, so it’s almost certainly going to cop out at the end.

As for the touchy topic here, my opinion is that freedom is usually a good thing, and everyone should decide for themselves whether and when to lower their own curtains. Call me an anarchist, but I don’t understand anyone who'd try to overrule someone else’s choice in such a matter. Prevent a suicide, maybe, but not one with a valid, sensible reason.

In the movie, there’s a scene where the city’s old-people inspectors break into the house, and one of them says, “How can people live like this?” And you know, I’d have to labor all morning to get my apartment looking as neat and tidy as the alleged mess they're showing on the screen.

Do me a favor, anyone reading this — please don’t call the authorities on me for being messy, or for any other reason. I will dial 9-1-1 if or when I need help, but I'd never want anyone second-guessing whatever decision I might make.

♦ ♦ ♦

Shooting Stars (1928)

DVDstreaming free

This is an ancient silent movie, but it's been restored to such crispness it looks brand new, and a new score has been written that’s undoubtedly better, more complex and evocative, than whatever a pianist might have tinkled during the movie’s first run in nickelodeons.

It starts as a lightly comedic drama about two married and famous actors, with a memorable and very funny first laugh, but there aren’t many laughs after that. Actually, after the opening, I guess it becomes more of a romantic drama than a comedy.

No complaints, really — the performances are as effective as possible without sound, and the cinematography looks more modern-day than most movies of its era. The story is trite, but not as trite as anything Fast and Furious, and the ending is a bit of a bang-up, in a good way.

I never quite got into it, though, and I’ve enjoyed plenty of silent movies, so that's not the problem. I'm not sure what the problem is. It simply… felt like I was watching a movie. Usually when it’s a good movie, I sorta forget it’s a movie, but at no moment during this could I forget. 

♦ ♦ ♦

The Tall Stranger (1957)

Hulustreaming free

Some dude’s minding his own business, riding along on his horse, when he hears a noise in the distance and gets bushwhacked. He has no notion who done him in or why; all he knows is that the bad guy had a fancy rifle and silver spurs.

Based on a story by Louis L’Amour, this is an effective popcorn muncher, only slightly marred by white actors in greasepaint playing Mexicans and Natives. It’s entertaining and looks nice, and if that’s all you need then that’s enough. If you’re hoping for something that elevates it, a spark of creativity or flair, something semi-memorable, or anything that adds up to more than than just some actors saying their lines, then — nah.


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  1. I saw Fifth Element years ago and still remember the headache it gave me. Was it Chris Tucker's fault, I'm not sure.

    I won't see these other movies but your reviews are fun.


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