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The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and six more movies

Today's seven movies include a bad sci-fi, a good sci-fi, a great sci-fi with no real science in it, and a disappointing B-flick, a fine old-style mystery, a minor horror classic, and a documentary about a poet and pop star.

• Across the Moon (1994)
• And Then There Were None (1945)
• Diminuendo (2018)
• Starship Troopers (1997)
• There is an Ocean (1970)
• Voodoo Man (1934)
• The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959)

The Neverending
Film Festival

#95

The best of these, by far, is The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

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Across the Moon (1994)

Christina Applegate and Elizabeth Peña move into a rotted-out trailer home together, to be close to their imprisoned loser boyfriends.

The boyfriends are boring and stupid, and given far too much screen time. Dumping them is the only smart thing to do, but these dames never even consider it.

The other characters could only exist in a bad movie — Michael McKean owns a lion, Jack Nance is a pistol-packing cattleman, and Burgess Meredith is a wandering prospector who's in the movie for perhaps one minute, just long enough to die.

"It's war now, you barbarians! Rattlesnake Jimmy is making his stand!"

The only believable element in this mess is the almost-friendship between Applegate and Peña. Guess the kid's OK, too, but the story is entirely nonsense and dumbass macho stuff, with ginormous plot elements unresolved at the end.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

And Then There Were None (1945)

From Agatha Christie, Walter Huston leads a big cast, and pre-Dame Judith Anderson has a smallish role. This is the classic drawing room mystery, with guests invited to a mansion for reasons unknown, with startling revelations and a few murders after dinner. Eight people gather, each with an embarrassment or scandal in his/her past, and then begin dying. 

It's preposterous, but Christie could make it work. This movie version works pretty well too, which is surprising, because they've made a dark, scary book into a lighthearted, almost tongue-in-cheek affair, and they've also changed the ending. Why buy the rights to one of a great writer's great books if you're not going to tell the story she's written?

Still, the story they tell is enjoyable.

It's been remade half a dozen times, but this was the first, and that's usually the one you want to see.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Diminuendo (2018)

Haskell Edwards is a washed-up and drunken film director, whose late wife was Cello Shea, a big Hollywood star who suicided. That's why he's a drunk, and his career is in flames.

For his next project, though, the studio wants Edwards to direct a biopic about his dead wife — and they've built a high-tech 'doll' that looks exactly like her, to play the lead. His ex-wife will have a supporting role, his current wife is not happy about any of this, and Edwards himself says the concept and the 'doll' make his skin crawl.

This is a movie that was barely released, and I'd never heard of it. It stars Richard Hatch 40 years after Battlestar Gallactica, with Walter Koenig (from the original Star Trek) in a supporting role (and he's good). It's directed by Adrian Stewart, who'd mostly worked as a cameraman before this, and the script is co-written by a newbie and someone whose previous credits are all in porn.

In other words, this film has low expectations.

And yet, it's surprisingly interesting and clever, through the first third of the film. I was enjoying the heck out of it, even paused it to write the first few lines of a favorable review.

By the movie's midway point, though, Diminuendo is adrift in the crapper and flushes itself, with too many subplots, too much interest in who's fucking who, and not enough interest in the idea that started the movie. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Starship Troopers (1997)

I'm going to assume everyone's seen this, and dispense with any pointless piffle about the plot. 

Starship Trppoers is a gung ho sci-fi war movie. It works as an enjoyable parody of gung ho military movies, and also is a gung ho military movie. It mocks the Marines, but I'll bet it's wildly popular among Marines.

It's amazing that director Paul Verhoeven (the original RoboCop, the original Total Recall) was able to pull off such a delicate highwire tap dance, especially since this film is based on a Robert A Heinlein novel that was not a parody. At the movie's most belligerent screaming pro-military moments I was laughing loudest… and also, damn it, respecting what these fictional soldiers fictionally do.

For what it is, Starship Troopers is close to perfect, and it has cool visuals of the outer space "bugs" that must be killed before they can kill us. I do wish they could've found an actor for the lead role, instead of Casper Van Dien, but an actor wouldn't have much to do in this movie anyway.

"We need you all." 

"Service guarantees citizenship." 

"Would you like to know more?"

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

There is an Ocean (1970)

For as long as I've been aware of music, I've been a fan of Donovan's soft lyrics and fragile singing, stylized to be about the lyrics more than the tunes. In a world of screaming guitars and pounding drum solos, Donovan's a ukulele. "Catch the Wind" is simply heartbreaking, I love the spacey ambiance of "Hurdy Gurdy Man," and his hits like "Atlantis" and "Lalena" and "Sunshine Superman" are forever singalongs.

None of those songs are in this documentary about Donovan, and in watching There is an Ocean, what I've learned is that there's a limit to my love for this particular '60s and '70s singer/songwriter. I'd forgotten that even when I owned some Donovan LPs, I rarely listened to them, because for me his dainty songs work best one at a time. Much as I love his music, which is much, hearing one after another after another, Donovan's songs start sounding like something a store plays over the PA in the parking lot to make sure nobody loiters too long.

This film runs only 35 minutes, and it's mostly Donovan singing, but "Riki Tiki Tavi" is the only song I'd heard before, and of the other songs, none cried out to be heard a second time. When he's not singing, he's talking, and every sentence is spoken as if it's a poem. Same as the songs, though, Donovan's speaking voice is a delight best savored in small servings. Smaller even than 35 minutes.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Voodoo Man (1934)

Women who stop at a gas station and ask directions are being kidnapped by Bela Lugosi and John Carradine. It's a creepy movie, more in a grisly pervy way than in a 1934 classic horror movie way. Lugosi is his standard-issue scary self, but Carradine is a walking nightmare, telling his victims, "Oh, you're real pretty" as he carries them away. "Don't be scared. No-one's going to hurt you." The way he says it, it's not reassuring.

I'm not going to google it because I don't even care, but isn't voodoo an African thing, with chanting and such? In the movies it usually is, but there's nothing much in Voodoo Man that seems like voodoo; it's more like kinda campy hypnotism. The baddies wear bizarre stars and crescent moon outfits that look like something a magician might wear to a child's birthday party.

For a story about kidnapping women, this is oddly lighthearted, even as Lugosi says that all he wants from these women is their will to live. Then the movie ends with a bizarre joke about Lugosi — not the character he's played, but Lugosi the actor.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959)

Harry Belafonte plays Ralph Burton, a mining engineer who's deep underground when something horrible happens on the surface. He waits for rescuers who never show up, then makes his own way up, and finds that he's the only survivor. 

Let's pause to address the sci-fi elements of this sorta sci-fi film: Apparently there's been an unprecedented use of "atomic poison" that kills all human life, but leaves buildings intact, and has a very short period of toxicity — emerging from the ground only a few days later, Ralph has no health issues. There is no such atomic poison.

Far more perplexing, the world is littered with litter but lacks billions of rotting human corpses. All the dead have been vaporized, clothes too, leaving nothing behind but empty cars and houses.This isn't explained or even questioned, but that's not the way a nuclear holocaust would unfold.

Having acknowledged these factors, forget them. The story is more important than the set-up, and it's a great story.

Ralph drives to New York City, hoping to find other survivors, but the Big Apple has been cored. Finding no-one, he homesteads in a high-rise apartment, where — alone for weeks or months — he goes mildly crazy from all the solitude.

Then he meets a second survivor, Sarah, a pretty white woman (Inger Stevens). It's the cliché or fantasy of being the last man and woman in the world, with the added twist that Ralph is black.

However, he's been taught his place in the 1950s, which means he can't be allowed to touch this white woman, or have romantic thoughts about her. It's not Sarah saying this, it's Ralph — that's how deeply he's internalized the rules of his mostly-white American society.

His reticence might seem nonsensical to younger viewers, and that would be great. This film, though, is set just a few years after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a time when most white people had never heard of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, so Ralph's attitude seems plausible to me. More plausible than the film's science, certainly.

Things get more complicated when a third survivor is found — another white man. Like the woman, he has no race hatred toward Ralph, but unlike Ralph, this new guy (Mel Ferrer) is open about hopin' to hop into bed with Sarah.

The resolution to this is so... startling... I can only wonder how the film would've been received in its time. Certainly, it couldn't have played in theaters in the American South, and I don't think it would've done much business in Boston, either.

Marvelous music by Miklós Rózsa. Unsettling camerawork, with scenes somehow played out on completely empty streets between New York skyscrapers. Written and directed by Ranald MacDougall (the original Mildred Pierce, the 1968 Jigsaw), based on two (!) novels by different authors. One hell of a performance from Belafonte, and Stevens is pretty good too.

This is a remarkable, completely engrossing drama of survivors making the best of things, when all the rules must be rewritten. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

 10/23/2022  

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

 

2 comments:

  1. I like - but don't love - TWTFATD. I feel the same way about The Quiet Earth, like, not love, too may points of contention, but it's a personal thing I guess. I like Oboler's idiosyncratic Five more. It is very interesting to see TWTFATD's explicit influence on Night of the Living Dead, though - dignified black protagonist paired with a white woman, etc.

    Starship Troopers is a masterpiece, Verhoeven's best after Robocop. His Dutch films are all good, perverse thrills too, especially Fourth Man. As you say, Troopers is the kind of satire that even the people/institutions it is satirizing still like it. To me that's the best kind of satire. Kubrick's work is often like that. I know tons of military guys who LOVE Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove despite the implicit criticisms. That's smart satire, when you can convince your target audience that they're not being made fun of, while also preaching to the converted. Of course, there's no room for this sort of complexity any more... actually, Mike White's White Lotus, which I mentioned to you elsewhere, achieves this kind of dual approach very well.

    If you haven't read it, Joe Haldeman's Forever War is a remarkable update of Heinlein's Troopers. It's a despairing allegory about Viet Nam or any perpetual conflict and how it feels to be removed from "the world" for years at a time only to return to it to find everything changed. But it also has the same sort of hard science gear fetishism Heinlein did in Troopers.

    Heinlein was and is very misunderstood. In many ways he and his work was much more radical - sexually, politically, intellectually - than his critics, who were a generation younger. I still think All You Zombies is the best time travel short ever written, and its fluid gender and identity content is almost literally jaw-dropping considering the date of its writing.

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    Replies
    1. My movie opinions are so damned subjective, sometimes I disagree with myself a week later, or when I rewatch a movie.

      Joe Haldeman's Forever War is a book I've read many times. It used to be on my eternal re-read shelf, and I don't know why it's not there any more. Probably I lent my copy to someone and never got it back. You make me want to read it again…

      Heinlein was a radical, yeah, but a right-winger too, wasn't he? There was a time when I read all the sci0fi I could find, and that's my memory of Mr H.

      "All You Zombies" is great, and the movie Predestination was based on it. That's why I saw it, but I don't know why I never wrote my assessment of it. Other than reading it and seeing it, I don't much remember the short story or the movie. Is it the greatest time travel short story ever? Yikes, that's saying a lot. I shall re-read it and then re-watch the movie, and get back to you.

      The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold is my favorite time travel novel, at least today. Tomorrow it might be Time After Time by Jack Finney. The day after, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.

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