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"There's no way a shark-octopus fishy thing really exists"
Allow me to introduce 'Sharktopus (2010).' This ultra-low-budget creature feature lumbers through a clunky narrative just like its titular monster, a CGI monstrosity fabricated by FX nerds sufficiently disliked by the producers to warrant an on screen credit. The deal is simple: a narcissistic scientist (played by Eric Roberts) has engineered a shark/octopus hybrid for the navy to use as a weapon. However, this "Sharktopus" breaks free from the military's control, and proceeds to wreak havoc on the fun-loving residents of Mexico. (No doubt Mexico was chosen for its lack of minimum-wage laws).
Director Declan O'Brien takes great pleasure in introducing vain, bikini-clad characters whose only purpose is to be devoured or impaled only seconds later. Meanwhile, Eric Roberts sits around on a yacht, looking concerned and occasionally angry, while the story goes on around him. This is a privilege afforded to the only recognisable name in the cast. Fortunately for us, the narcissistic scientist has an attractive daughter (Sara Malakul Lane) who's also the country's leading genetic engineer. She makes very clear her detestation of the handsome playboy/genetic engineer Andy (Kerem Bursin), who likes to stand around with his shirt unbuttoned, and occasionally say something histrionic like "eat this, you bastard!"
By the looks of it, 'Sharktopus' was shot on my Sony TRV-19E handycam. But for all its shoddiness, I can't hate this movie. It knows it's terrible. Producer Roger Corman (once the director of several very impressive low-budget films, such as his 1960s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations) knows how to make a quick buck, and this is the sort of high-concept schtick that can draw a profit from a $3.75 budget. The film plumbs every cliché in the book: there's an obligatory speech about science "going too far," and a free apple to anybody who can guess what Eric Roberts set as his computer access code! For all its unchecked ridiculousness, you can't deny that Declan O'Brien has his tongue firmly in cheek. I just wish it had lolled back into his throat, so I wouldn't have had to spend the last 89 minutes watching 'Sharktopus.'
Naked Lunch (1991)
"Exterminate all rational thought"
First of all, I can think of at least two things wrong with that title. Rest assured that there are no nude luncheons to be enjoyed in this movie; author William S. Burroughs described the title as referring to "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork." Which doesn't really make it any clearer. The IMDb plot description gives some clue of the plot: "After developing an addiction to the substance he uses to kill bugs, an exterminator accidentally murders his wife and becomes involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in an Islamic port town in Africa." David Cronenberg's adaptation weaves in autobiographical details of Burroughs' life, including his copious drug use, and the accidental shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer (reportedly during a botched game of "William Tell" with a loaded pistol).
The film thus combines the narrative of the novel "Naked Lunch" with a fictional story of its conception kind of like 'Adaptation (2002),' only with crazy bug alien things which morph from one's typewriter. The main character is played by Peter Weller, an underrated stalwart of the 1980s whose credits include 'Robocop (1988)' and the cheesy action classic 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).' I didn't make much sense of 'Naked Lunch,' but it did make me want to find out more about Burroughs and his work. The film is handsomely photographed and edited, not as dizzyingly manic as Terry Gilliam's similarly drug-soaked 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)' and less trashy than Cronenberg's 'Videodrome (1983).' I might have to track down the novel to read.
War and Peace (1956)
"By the time a man's over thirty, life should be sad, meaningless and hopeless"
I'm a little biased in my judgement of this film not only because I've read the novel, but also because I've seen Sergei Bondarchuk's 1960s Soviet adaptation, which is undoubtedly one of cinema's most spectacular epics. Any comparison leaves Vidor's Hollywood adaptation, for all its merits, beaten and conquered. Despite clocking in at a respectable 200 minutes, 'War and Peace (1956)' is simply too short to do justice to Tolstoy's vision. The episodic nature of the novel means that it can't be readily condensed into a regular feature-length time frame, and the film's narrative is often choppily composed to fit everything in.
I think I'm forever destined to imagine the main characters as they appear in the 1960s film, but the main actors here are nevertheless passable. Henry Fonda, sporting a misplaced American twang, brings an accurate passivity of the role of Pierre Bezukhov. Audrey Hepburn half works: early on, her Natasha Rostova lacks the vibrant, bright-eyed naiveté of Lyudmila Savelyeva, but the actress portrays beautifully the compassion and weariness of the "grown-up" Natasha. The battle scenes are large in scale, but curiously narrow in scope, with the Battle of Borodino in the 1960s film, an astonishing hour of unfettered pandemonium viewed through a God-like lens seen mostly through the eyes of Pierre.
Lucrèce Borgia (1935)
Incredibly, 'Lucrèce Borgia (1935)' is my first film from Abel Gance, one of the titans of early French cinema, though this is far from his best-known work. The film is a chronicle of the House of Borgia, a reigning family that remains notorious for their corruption and sexual debasement. I've had to do some reading up, so apologies to any history buffs if I get my details wrong. There are four main characters in this sordid tale. Pope Alexander VI (Roger Karl) is incompetent and blind to the misdeeds of his family though historians generally portray him as being far more depraved than he is depicted here. Giovanni (Maurice Escande) is the pope's elder son, and a bit of an extravagant fop. César (Gabriel Gabrio) is a lusty, bloodthirsty monster under the advisement of Niccolò Machiavelli. Sister Lucrezia (Edwige Feuillère) is a promiscuous woman whose lovers have the unfortunate habit of being quickly murdered by the jealous, scheming César. All in all, probably not the sort of people you'd invite to a friendly game of neighbourhood charades. There are some confronting scenes in here, especially compared to the 1930s films to which one is accustomed. Confrontations are seen to draw blood, and exploited women are stripped of their clothes. There is a rather graphic recreation of the Banquet of Chestnuts, which took place on October 30, 1501, at which César (and possibly Pope Alexander VI) treated his guests to the services of 50 prostitutes.
Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932)
"Even so, we have a piano because we are respectable people"
Everybody seems to be sleeping around in a Renoir film. 'Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932)' features Charles Granval as Monsieur Lestingois, an upright middle-class gentleman who generously devotes himself to helping others... but who is also sleeping with the maid. Lestingois saves the life of Boudu (Michel Simon), a wandering tramp who jumps into the Seine, and offers the man shelter in his home. Boudu is vulgar and messy, but his benefactor selflessly persists, even though his ungrateful guest spends most of his time making sleazy advances towards the maid and forcibly seducing Mrs Lestingois. Renoir's comedic cynicism is in full swing here. The previous year had seen Chaplin release 'City Lights (1931),' his penultimate outing as the Little Tramp, and Boudu is certainly intended to be the polar opposite of Chaplin's kindly, lovelorn vagrant. A late twist of fortune (reminiscent of the tacked-on studio ending to Murnau's 'The Last Laugh (1923)') is amusingly abandoned in the final moments, as Boudu shuns the opulence of middle-class life for the unpretentious simplicity of the road. Renoir's camera, accompanied by the merry strains of the Blue Danube waltz, contemplatively regards Boudu's discarded top hat as it drifts downstream just like its former owner, happy to drift towards an unknown fate.
Super 8 (2011)
'Super 8' was my first film from 2011, and it was a fantastic place to start the year. The film's teaser trailer enigmatically promised something along the lines of 'Cloverfield (2008)' (which I still haven't seen), but the second trailer was pure Spielbergian nostalgia not surprising, given the "Amblin Entertainment" logo that opens the film. But what really distinguishes 'Super 8' is its love of filmmaking. The story is set in 1979, when director J.J. Abrams was just a kid, and probably running around with his own Super 8 camera. The film's characters are a group of children who spend their free time making a hokey amateur zombie detective thriller, though their equipment still looks more professional than that in my latest filmmaking project. A massive train derailment, a huge military presence in the town, and an ominous entity on the loose, cannot dampen their enthusiasm for completing the film. To each new turn-of-events, the boy directing the film (played by first-timer Riley Griffiths) keeps getting excited and exclaiming "production value!", which was funny until I remembered I did the same thing when the annual Festival blocked off my town's main street in 2009. All of the child actors (including Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning) are impressive, given that they're carrying the entire film on their little shoulders. And, of course, be sure to stick around for the final credits.
The Magnet (1950)
After a characteristically stressful Physiology exam, decided to settle down with a movie, and what better than an offering from that beloved British institution, Ealing Studios? 'The Magnet (1950)' is one of the studio's lesser-known comedies, but ranks among their most charming efforts. The film is directed by Charles Frend, who also commandeered the excellent 'A Run for Your Money (1949)' which succeeded despite being a veiled reworking of Capra's 'Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936).' In 'The Magnet,' resourceful youth Johnny Brent (William Fox) cheats another boy out of an expensive magnet, before realising that this sin might eventually catch up to him. His attempts to dispose of the magnet are humorously futile, until he unloads the stolen object onto a kindly engineer, who interprets the gift as a noble gesture of Dickensian kindness. While little Johnny worries that his crime will be the death of him, his anxious parents (Stephen Murray and Kay Walsh) become concerned about his odd behaviour. The father, a trained psychiatrist, attempts to apply Jungian psychoanalysis to his son, and smugly reaches an entirely erroneous conclusion. This pleasant, easy-going film has all the hallmarks of an Ealing classic, with a particularly excellent and likable performance from its young star.
Shoot to Kill (1947)
"So there's just you now; you'll have to tell"
This 1947 B-grade noir blasts straight out of Poverty Row, throwing everything it's got in a frantic hour of double-crossings and betrayals. One thing I love about low-budget noir is that nobody feels the obligation to create a hero: the District Attorney (Edmond MacDonald) is as crooked as a rake; his loving wife (Susan Walters) only married him to screw him over; George Mitchell (Russell Wade), a reporter for the "Tribune", is the closest we get to a hero, but he's such a smug bastard that you don't know what he's hiding. The film even features a rather lengthy and totally awesome piano solo by Gene Rodgers, because, hell, it's already got everything else you could want. There is a rather hokey stairway fight sequence that takes place in fast-forward, but otherwise I was impressed with director William Berke, and his ability to contrive an exciting film with a total budget of $3.59. 'Shoot to Kill' is a home-run for low-budget thrillers, and an entertaining way to obliterate 64 minutes of your spare time.
The Trap (1959)
"This is a hearse, and I'm driving"
'The Trap (1959)' is a rather obscure crime thriller, but nevertheless has some star-power behind it. Richard Widmark is Ralph Anderson, a prodigal son returning to his hometown in the middle of the California desert. Lee J. Cobb is Victor Massonetti, a fugitive mob-boss intent on boarding a private plane to Mexico. When Ralph and his alcoholic brother Tippy (who is unhappily married to Ralph's ex-flame, Linda) capture Massonetti, the gangster's Mafia affiliates go into overdrive. With just a single dirt road leading out of town to civilisation, getting Massonetti into the hands of the authorities isn't going to be pleasant or easy. Just like John Sturges' wonderful 'Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)', this film has all the trademarks of a Western, but is set in modern times. As the escort winds its way across the lonely, parched landscape, you can cut the tension with a knife. Cobb is a formidable villain, his silent glowers and snide threats from the backseat proving both entertaining and unsettling. Tina Louise is certainly alluring as the love interest torn between two brothers, and Carl Benton Reid is impressive as Ralph and Tippy's overbearing sheriff father. And just to prove that Bruce Willis has nothing on his forebears, Widmark takes out a plane with a car!
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)
"But if we're lucky, you might get the chair"
'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956),' another taut thriller from Fritz Lang, takes an intriguing concept and runs with it. Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews), a writer looking for an idea, and Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), an editorialist against capital punishment, contrive a bizarre scheme to expose the flaws in the American legal system. Garrett agrees to set himself up as the prime suspect in a murder, using only circumstantial evidence. Spencer agrees to withhold the evidence of his innocence until after Garrett is convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. Joan Fontaine plays Susan Spencer, Garret's fiancée, who isn't let in on the ruse. The moment when Austin Spencer is killed in a car accident, leaving our hero seemingly without any hope of reprieve, is still shocking despite its inevitability, leaving a powerful feeling of hopelessness. The film's final twist, however, I did not see coming. Regrettably, 'Beyond a Reasonable Doubt' pulls yet another twist in its final seconds; it would've been better had the film been made a decade later, free from the restraints of the Production Code, which demanded (and received) an ending that "does not lower the moral standards" of audiences.