Mesa of Lost Women,
and six better movies

Aniara (1960)

Oh my golly. Sometimes art can really surprise you.

A while back I watched and liked a Swedish science-fiction movie called Aniara, and from Googling around learned that it's actually a remake. I put the original on my watchlist, and I'm watching it now, and... it's an opera.

Sure as heck didn't expect that when I hit 'play', but there's really no mistaking it — people are singing at me in Swedish, and not pop tunes. Subtitles in English are telling the story of a sci-fi journey to the stars where something goes awry on the way, same as in the remake, but in the remake people talked about things. Nobody talks here. They sing about things. And they don't just sing, they SING!

It's based on a poem by Nobel Prizewinner Harry Martinson, which is his most famous work, according to the Nobel Prize website. So this is a sci-fi opera, based on a prizewinning book-length poem, available in paperback, 157 pages, which I haven't read and probably won't.

I wouldn't know the difference between astounding opera and awful, but the sound is very clear, everyone sings on key, and I liked the leading actor's rich and deep voice. There's some genuine acting amidst his arias.

The imagery is sharp, though it has that two-dimensional 'filmed on video/made for TV' look. The sets are minimalist, more 'suggesting' a spaceship than showing one. The subtitles are legible and don't mangle the English.

Opera means there's no dialogue. Nary a spoken word. Goes without saying (or in this case, without singing) that the non-opera remake is more in tune with my sci-fi sensibilities, but I watched, enjoyed, and dang it, yes, I'll recommend this operatic original.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Neverending
Film Festival

Beautiful Beast (1995)

This is a Japanese action movie with some slightly porny elements, where a mysterious woman in red is on an unexplained vendetta against the Yakuza. She's a good shot, with a talent for nailing 'em right through an eyeball. Thematically, it's a cousin to the classic Ms 45, though artistically it's far less accomplished.

Toward the end there's a short but ghastly semi-nude genital mutilation, (did I mention, Beautiful Beast is Japanese?), and I fast-forwarded through that. The rest of this is harmless superhero nonsense with guns, and has a human touch to it. It's not bad. Also, not good.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Man from Planet X (1951)

1950s sci-fi movies were largely powered by the Red Scare, with space aliens invading Earth as stand-ins for Russians attacking America. The Man from Planet X deserves some credit for being the first in this genre/era where the space alien was not coming to conquer America or the world. This long-headed and kinda primitive/cool-looking space alien just wants to befriend humanity, until a bad guy (Richard Schallert, in a rare not-nice role) tortures and terrifies him, convincing him humans are the enemy.

Despite such liberal-for-its-time plotting, though, and despite being directed by noir-master Edward G Ulmer, the movie adds up to nothing much.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Margaret (2008)

A New York bus driver gets distracted by a pretty woman, runs a red light, and the bus flattens and kills someone in the crosswalk. That someone is the titular Margaret, though the movie isn't really about her.

It's much more about Lisa (Anna Paquin), the high school girl who distracted the bus driver, then runs to the scene of the accident, where Margaret dies in her arms. It's an unpleasant moment for both of them.

Paquin was 29 when this was made, and can't plausibly pass for a high school kid. We're supposed to be grossed out when she's sexually active, so the mistaken casting is the movie's biggest mistake, but it gets most other things right.

First, an ethical question — should Lisa tell the police that the bus driver ran a red light because he was looking at her, or should she lie and say the light was green? In the moment, she chooses to lie. Later on, she wants to tell the truth, but it might be too late.

Perhaps to help handle her grief, perhaps because she's reeling, or perhaps because — as her mom says — Lisa is just a heartless little fucking bitch, she makes it her mission to get the bus driver fired.

Margaret (the movie) explores Lisa's pain, and the pain of everyone involved, so if you don't have enough pain in your life, hey, drop by and stock up. It spends ample, un-rushed time with supporting characters , and with classroom lectures and heated academic conversations that aren't germane to the plot, and it takes us not once but twice to the opera — that's why this movie is three hours long, but they're three gloriously uncomfortable hours.

Too many movies try to make the audience comfortable. Margaret doesn't give a damn about that. I enjoyed being uncomfortable all evening, and only a few minutes of this were boring.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Mesa of Lost Women (1953)

A man and woman stumble on foot across a Mexican desert, weakened, dehydrated, probably doomed, but by luck they're spotted by a dude with binoculars driving a Jeep. Weirdly, that opening scene is narrated by a melodramatic off-screen voice reciting tremendously overwrought prose about the desert heat and insects and hexapods — a word I had to look up, so I'll save you the trouble.

Once they've been rescued, the couple from the desert babble about giant insects, and the authorities suspect that they're loco, their brains have been baked. Turns out, though, there really is a mad scientist (Jackie Coogan, from TV's Addams Family) manufacturing half-woman/half-spiders that (fortunately for the special effects budget) appear indistinguishable from ordinary but beautiful women. Then a smiling birdbrain with a gun hijacks a plane, and so forth.

It's as bad as it sounds, with a script written by roulette, dull direction, puzzling editing, awful acting, annoying music, and not quite enough of that preposterous narration. It's such a display of cheeky incompetence at everything involved in making movies, it almost becomes the often-promised but rarely-seen flick that's so bad it's good.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sugarfoot (1951)

"Them that don't ask questions don't hear no lies."

This is a Randolph Scott western, as mentioned in Blazing Saddles. It's kinda lame, though.

Scott plays Rodan, a handsome, smiling former Confederate officer, with always-erect posture due to the enormous stick up his ass. His opposite is Jacob Stint (Raymond Massey) who daydreams of doing nothing, and wears a perpetual sneer, so you won't forget he's the bad guy. They're newcomers in the brawling casino and tavern town of Prescott, Arizona, where they're both immediately smitten with the same barroom singer.

There's a great scene where a local character gives Rodan a lecture he sorely needs but soon forgets, that maybe he's an aristocrat where he came from, but "in Arizona, we do not judge a man by the accomplishments and the standing of his grandfather, or by the name of his family."

Before and after that one-minute speech, Sugarfoot is mostly a yawn. A Confederate officer who's full of himself and questions people under threat of rattlesnakes, is the character you're supposed to be rooting for.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

World's Greatest Dad (2009) 

This is a Robin Williams movie I never saw, because the title sounds like Disney pap, and I'm simply never in the mood for such rot.

Again, my closed-mindedness and snap judgments cost me — this is definitely not Disney pap.

Williams plays a wanna-be writer who teaches at the same high school where his son attends, and Junior is a relentlessly obnoxious teenager every moment he's on-screen.

When the boy accidentally strangles himself while masturbating with a rope around his neck, his father tidies up the death scene to make it look like he'd hung himself in the closet. And while he's at it, he types a suicide note for his son. And when the suicide note is judged profound, what the heck, Dad writes his son's diary, too.

"Is it more important for me to be a good person, or to be thought of as a good person? I'm so sick of living a life in fear of being found out for the phony I am, a life where I don't trust anyone's intentions, including my own."

Before the kid dies, he's hilarious and easy to hate. After the kid dies, everything gets increasingly awkward and uncomfortable. Both before and after the kid croaks, I wasn't certain my laughter was what the moviemakers intended, until the closing credits announced that the movie was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait.

Perhaps as a condition for the funding to make this marvelous movie, Goldthwait was forced to tack on its implausibly happy ending, but it's a damned excellent film until then.

Verdict: 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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