High Life, and six better movies

Celia (1989)

Celia is a little Australian girl who was very close to her recently-deceased grandmother, but Grandma had a shelf full of books by Lenin and Marx, so Celia's father burns them. When it comes out that the neighbors are members of the Communist Party, Celia is forbidden to play with their children. The Red Scare happened down under, too.

And at the same time, there was a rabbit scare. Historical fact: Australian farm territory was overrun with rabbits in the late 1940s and early '50s, millions of hoppers, until eventually the government ordered even pet rabbits to be confiscated. And Celia really, really loved her pet rabbit.

Put enough of these stupid hatreds and dumb adult decisions into the kids' minds and lives, and eventually even a 9-year-old kid could snap.

Yeah, I'm being deliberately cryptic. On the hughly-unlikely chance anyone reads this and decides to see Celia, I'll only say, it's a terrific movie about children but for adults, and smart adults will appreciate it.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dead Ringer (1964) 

Bette Davis makes any movie better, and nobody ever wins an argument with Bette Davis, but this time one of them will lose — she's playing twin sisters.

Bad Bette: "You really hate me, don't you? You've never forgiven me in all these years!"

Good Bette: "Why should I? Tell me why I should."

Bad Bette: "We're sisters."

Good Bette: "So we are, and to hell with you."

This movie was intended to soak up money and enthusiasm after Davis and Joan Crawford's highly popular What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and without the expense of Crawford. There's nothing special here except for Bette Davis, and that's enough. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Hard to be a God (2013)

The setting is a planet very like Earth, which progressed the same as our world but without any Renaissance, so it's still what we'd call the dark ages.

Soviet-era Russian films are notorious for moving slowly, sometimes to their detriment. This moves slow, but it's a plus, not a minus. Twenty seconds watching a sweaty grizzled dude pick a bug out of his beverage and try to take a sip only to cough it up, then a few minutes watching him unhurriedly play a horn while walking past the slaves on his way to breakfast — it adds to the reality of the setting.

Yeah, I'm serious. So this isn't a roller-coaster popcorn-chomping summer blockbuster. It's a mess, literally, of mud and poop and whatever else, but beyond the bleak visuals it's a thoughtful rumination on the brutality of religion and superstition and — people.

Excellent subtitles, by the way. The subtitlers speak fluent English, and they've taken the all-too-rare extra trouble of translating the credits as well as the dialogue. I'm weird this way, but I *like* knowing that this was written by S Karmalita and Aleksei German, based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky — hey, they wrote the fabulous Roadside Picnic, so no wonder this movie is smart and thoughtful.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

High Life (2018)

The Neverending
Film Festival

This opens with a baby babbling, sometimes crying, on a ship in outer space. An adult makes babytalk at the baby, in outer space. This goes on for a long time, and it's really weird of me, I know, but I do not share the universal fascination with babies and infants, so I was quickly quite bored.

Ten minutes into the movie, absolutely nothing had happened except baby stuff — crying and cooing and adults making babytalk. Someone was singing a lullaby to this baby, in outer space, and I was ready to give up on the movie.

Skipping ahead to the twenty minute mark, what did I find? The baby is asleep, in outer space, and an adult is looking at the baby, and talking babytalk to the baby.

At the thirty minute mark, finally, there was no baby. Instead we're in a doctor's office, and there's a woman with a bloody nose yelling about being barren, while the doctor is busy sewing up ugly wounds on a man's arm. The doctor says to the woman, "When I first saw you, you were a filthy little crackhead. Now look at you." This is confusing, though, because the woman she's saying it to looks like a crackhead to me.

And you'll never guess, but as soon as that scene ended, the next shot was of the baby, now in the woods, and a man was babytalking to the baby.

Screw this movie with a Phillip's head. I have no idea what's going on here, and no more patience for finding out. I like science fiction, and I don't hate babies, but I hate the idea of a sci-fi movie starring a baby.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Raging Tide (1951)

"I'll never understand why a guy commits a crime in San Francisco. With only three exits, the guy should know he's a fly in a bottle."

A murderer (Richard Conte) needs to get out of San Francisco before the cops find him, so he stows away on a two-man fishing boat. From that simple beginning, this story sails miles from where you'd expect.

It's an excellent old-fashioned yarn full of colorful characters — the salty fisherman and his malcontent son, the wrinkly sailor with his dog, the man-chasing spinster, the communist rabble-rouser, the devout Catholic pal, and of course, the obnoxious cop who doesn't think twice about bursting into a woman's apartment without a warrant, and doesn't apologize afterwards. "Sit down," he commands her, "and stop trying to be a lawyer."

Some of these characters are schmucks, some are decent, and some are in-between or in the process of switching sides. Several have immigrant accents that sound phony, but it's the '50s so I appreciate the effort. And Shelly Winters packs a mean punch.

The movie's exteriors were filmed in Frisco, and it shows — the waterfront, the docks, the cable cars, bay windows, and Fisherman's Wharf, back when fishermen worked there. Even the rear-projection scenes at sea look fairly convincing.

All the drama and characters fit together well. There are even some laughs along the way, and enough attention to detail that it's clear that the scriptwriter, or more likely the author of the novel on which it's based, had worked as fishermen, or knew someone who had.

The Raging Tide is a stupid and generic title, but it's a fine piece of story-telling. Bonus points for no babies.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two on a Guillotine (1965)

"Duke" Duquesne (Cesar Romero) is a gaudy but popular magician, and Melinda (Connie Stevens) is his wife and on-stage assistant, the woman he 'stabs' and 'kills' at the conclusion of every night's show. Tired of killing her with a sword, he's designed a guillotine to fake chop off her head.

I was a little kid when my family saw Two on a Guillotine at the Admiral Theater in West Seattle. It's one of the first movies I remember seeing, and it terrified me. I cried and whimpered so much, Dad asked Grandma to take me to the car. This movie scarred me for the rest of the week, but was it really all that terrifying?

Let's take another look, almost sixty years later.

In the movie's first few minutes, the magician's wife goes missing, he retires, and then dies, after publicly promising he'll return from the grave. Their baby daughter Cassandra grows up and is also played by Connie Stevens. She comes to the funeral, the magician's will is (bizarrely) read at the Hollywood Bowl, and Cassandra inherits everything, under the condition that she must live in her magician father's mansion for at least a week.

The mansion, of course, is overstuffed with spooky magician-related stuff, so Cassandra screams a lot, and keeps ending up in the arms of a glib, wisecracking reporter played by Dean Jones. Cassandra is very dumb, in the way movies often presented women pre-liberation. Jones is endlessly annoying, Stevens sings a song, very, very slowly. There's a rabbit running free inside the mansion, a rabbit that never needs to be fed and never poops.

Director William Conrad (Cannon) gives himself a Hitchcockian cameo in a funhouse mirror, but this movie is the opposite of Hitchcock. Only reason I didn't click it off is because I wanted to find the scene that frightened me so when I was a little boy. None of it seemed familiar, though, and there's nothing even slightly scary. It's boring, and it sucks, but somehow it scared the bejeebers out of me way back when.

Goes to show ya, kids are idiots, even when the kid was me.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Young Adult (2011)

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, who's 37 years old, a semi-successful writer of 'young adult' fiction, and a mess. She returns to her home town to try seducing her ex-boyfriend from high school days, who's married and the father of a newborn.

I almost gave up during the movie's opening scenes — establishing that Mavis has nothing going on in her life is important to the story, but it's also dull. Young Adult started getting good when Mavis was driving along, looking at the town's endless chain stores and fast-food, and she quietly shook her head 'no'.

Theron is the star here, and she's good, sure — blissfully un-self-aware, always inappropriate, occasionally bitchy — but for me, Patton Oswalt is what made it work. He plays a dweeb who had the locker next to hers at school, and of course she doesn't remember him at all.

The movie alternates between poignant and hilarious, and Mavis is exactly as shallow and conceited as some of the pretty and popular girls who wouldn't remember me from high school. Seeing Theron play her as a miserable, damaged adult is a belated band-aid on my own shitty high school years.

Verdict: BIG YES.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  

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