ReelReviews #107: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

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MARCH 15, 2017 SCREENING: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987)

The good news: Unlike many other “third movies” in a trilogy, this movie isn’t a complete joke that ruins everything you liked about the first two movies. The bad news? It’s still a disappointment compared to the first two. It’s watchable, yes, but unsatisfying.

Ironically, the third film provided a great setup for building on the universe from the first two movies and giving the audience something much bigger and bolder. The most obvious question from the first two films is what would the killer mutant babies actually be like IF they grew up? Additionally, there is the question of how the evil mutant babies would interact with their own kind, what they would do if left their own devices, and there was very little in the way of actually SEEING the babies in full detail from the first films because of the makeup limitations of those movies. It’s Alive III addresses all those points – and in many cases, it provides a perfectly valid answer to those questions. But alas, something is still missing.

Compared to Basket Case 3 (which shifted the tone so much from the first movie, it was like they were intentionally trying to make a bad joke), Island of the Alive sticks to the style of the first two movies very well. The film opens in a courtroom where they argue over the fate of one of the mutant babies (finally seen in full detail thanks to stop-motion animation). Without going into too much detail, the killer mutant babies are eventually quarantined on an island that is restricted to the public, hence the title. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they just stayed there forever and no one ever saw them again, so a few years later, they decide to send an expedition out to track down if the killer mutant babies are still alive on the island.
None of this (aside from perhaps the tense courtroom scene where the father has to “touch” the baby in the cage to “prove” it’s safe) plays out as horrifically and dark as it could from the way it sounds on paper. I think part of the problem is that that Island of the Alive was made a decade after the first two movies, and the late 80s setting simply gives the movie a different feel than its mid-1970s counterparts. (I have no idea why there was such a large gap in time between the filming of the second and third movies). Strangely, 70s cult horror star Karen Black shows up in this one as a disgruntled girlfriend of one of the characters, and I found her role unintentionally funny. Even Rob Zombie couldn’t seem to use Karen Black in a serious role. It’s Alive III just seems to lack the same quiet, creepy, dark vibe of the original movie, despite having the same writer/director.

The film does deserve kudos for an interesting script that eventually reveals that the mutant babies mature at age four and are able to reproduce, and communicate with each other through some type of sign language and/or telepathy. This results in some type of “Captain Phillips” type scenario where one of the characters is held hostage on a boat commanded by the mutant babies. The scene itself, however, was neither funny & campy nor terrifying and creepy, it was just sort of there, and make me shrug, “eh?”

The film provides a satisfying conclusion to its own events, but as part of a trilogy, it’s the weakest of the trio. Whether it’s worth watching is really up to you.

** out of ****

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ReelReviews #106: It Lives Again (1978)

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MARCH 14, 2017 SCREENING: IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)

The film poster summarizes this entire two hour movie very easily: The killer mutant baby from “Its Alive” is back: only this time there are three of them.

Following the rule of sequels, the second film in the trilogy gives the audience what was best about the first movie, but ups the ante and delivers more action, thrills, and violence than its predecessor. In many cases, this type of lazy filmmaking (“give ‘em what they got before, multiplied 3X!) results in an inferior follow-up movie. Here, it actually works…although the film is still a step down from its immediate predecessor. Part of the reason “It Lives Again” works so well is that filmmaker Larry Cohen wisely got John P. Ryan back to reprise his role from the first film, but gave him something entirely different to do in the sequel. In “It Lives Again”, he’s there to warn the parents of other mutant babies what they are encountering in their life, and he’s changed course 180 degrees from the film movie, since now he is trying to PROTECT the mutant babies rather than destroy them.

The entire “hook” of the sequel having THREE killer mutant babies instead of just one little nasty monster is actually the most disappointing aspect of the film. This concept could have made for some very interesting scenarios, but it is not merely as fun as its sounds. For starters, evil mutant baby killer #1 and #2 get killed off about halfway through the movie, so the climax ends with a race-against-the-clock to stop just one killer baby, just like the first film. Secondly, the three evil mutant babies don’t even interact with each other or appear on screen in the same scenes, so what was the point of including them in the first place?

Aside from John P. Ryan (who – SPOILER ALERT—gets killed off in this movie, disappointing me since he was the best thing about the first two films) the only other character to return from the first film is the local police inspector, who looks strangely like a 1970s version of 1980s Donald Trump in both movies. The film eventually runs low on steam, but it has a solid “several months later” ending where the poor father in this film assumes John P. Ryan’s role from the start of the movie of visiting future parents pregnant with evil mutant babies, thus hinting that the cycle will continue…endlessly.

Overall, I liked the movie, but it falls slightly short of the first film. Still, given the fact that it’s a sequel to the type of movie that mainstream audiences and critics would immediately turn their noses up at, It Lives Again has something going for it. It’s worth checking out, especially if you liked the first one.

** 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #105: It’s Alive (1974)

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MARCH 13, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE! (1974)

In a strange twist of irony, I spent the month of March going from the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies (namely, looking at past “Best Picture” Oscar winners) to the films LEAST likely to win prizes and critical acclaim: nasty B-grade horror films. The 1974 cult classic “It’s Alive” is actually much better than its reputation would suggestion. For an obscure low-budget Hollywood film, it has some A-list credentials. For example, famous Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann did the score for this film – and the music is every bit as memorable as his more famous compositions. The makeup designer is Rick Baker, who would go on to do the makeup for An American Werewolf in London (1981), which launched him to fame as Hollywood’s go-to guy for top-notch special effects makeup. The lead male actor in the film, John P. Ryan (apparently “best known” for the 1985 movie Runaway Train, which I’ve never seen) puts in a terrific performance that requires an entire range of emotions and actions for his character, and writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’ story of a deformed mutant baby going a killing spree was unique and “creative” for the time, to say the least. But with all that, is the film actually good? Surprisingly, yes it is.

A few months earlier, I screened the similarly “ugly cult classic” horror film series Basket Case, which I haven’t yet reviewed on my blog. To put it simply, the first one was really compelling, the second was watchable but stupid, and the third was a pile of dung that I shut off halfway through. I wondered if the It’s Alive trilogy (and its 2009 remake) would suffer a similar fate. They did not. It’s Alive, though certainly shunned by “mainstream” film critics and considered some cheap horror film, is a compelling and dark melodrama. Larry Cohen wisely stuck with the “leave much of the horror to the audience’s imagination” rule, and while this may be partly inspired by the difficulty of showing the killer mutant baby on a rampage using low budget 1974 special effects, it works.

The film has a high level of graphic violence, but between the grisly things that occur on screen, the real heart of the story is the mutant baby’s perfectly normal, middle-America parents, who already have a perfectly normal first child who is sixth grade during the film’s chain of events. The film manages the incredibly difficult task of A) Getting the audience to suspend disbelief that such an awful thing could actually happen to this couple, and B) Making it plausible how society at large would deal with the problem. In the movie, the problem with the “Davis baby” eventually becomes a nationwide panic. As the baby’s father struggles to come to grips with what’s happening, he has a moving segment where he compares his family’s nightmarish life to the story Frankenstein because the audience associates Frankenstein as the name of the monster — rather than the scientist who created him. By the end of the film, the father finally has to confront the fact the baby is still his biological child and identifies him as its father, no matter how inhuman and monsterious s the baby acts and looks. The film has a lot of subtle social commentary on the changing role of the American family in the 1970s, even though its first and foremost a violent “things that go bump in the night” kind of movie. The final line the movie was also an excellent punch-in-the-gut for audiences after the horrific events were seemingly over.

The film was very compelling and exciting, regardless of its low budget and amateur filmmaking origins. Highly recommended.

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #107: 1960s Best Picture winner: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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MARCH 6, 2017 SCREENING: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

 

Ah, the motion picture epic.  Lawrence of Arabia has it in spades and is one of the finest examples of “larger than life” movies from that era:  it’s running time is nearly four hours, and includes an overture, an intermission (I watched the movie over two nights and turned it off at the half way mark the first night, unaware that the movie would have done it by itself in ten minutes and announced the Intermission), lush gorgeous color film, huge action sequences,  and a cast of now critically acclaimed A-list actors (most notably was Peter O’Toole, who was an “up and coming” actor at the time). Lawrence of Arabia had everything going for it.

 

Why it is then, that I didn’t care for this movie?

 

Simply put, I found this movie unengaging. For me, it was a classic example of “lots of sound and fury, signifying nothing” To be fair, certain scenes were memorable for me, and I liked some of the dialogue exchanges (for example, in response to T.E. Lawrence noting that Arabs are associated with the dessert, Prince Feisal quips: “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”) The problem for me, however, is that these enjoyable portions of the movie didn’t add up to anything particularly interesting.  The film has a lot of plot twists and interesting characters, but in order to pay attention to what’s happening, you have to be drawn by the story (and to be fair, the story of a impeccable British officer being assimilated into Arab culture and basically becoming one of them IS by nature a very cinematic premise for a movie), and I felt Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t able to accomplish that. It dragged on and on and on, and I just found myself waiting for the movie to finally end.

 

One issue I had with Lawrence of Arabia is that in spite of its timeless look and beautiful big budget filmmaking, it’s very much a product of its time. Apparently much of the controversy about T.E. Lawrence is that the real life figure was possibly gay and attracted to Arab men, but the film has nothing to do with that rumor and its difficult to find the movie version of him interesting in spite of Peter O’Toole’s excellent performance. The Arab characters in the movie are almost exclusively played by non-Arabs, and sometimes very obviously British actors, using eyeliner and mascara to look the part in spite of having blue eyes and other unlikely Arabian features (Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn even apparently wore a false nose for this movie) . For what it’s worth, most of their acting was excellent, but I felt more realistic actors could have been cast in those roles.

 

Lawrence of Arabia is not a “bad” film, it’s just not a film that appealed to me in spite of everything it had going for it. To me, it was a wasted four hours of my life that I’ll never get back, and made me wish I had chosen to watch The Sound of Music (another 1960s Best Picture winner I have never seen) instead.  Apparently, such filmmaking giants as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Brian De Palma, Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg have all cited this movie as some type of masterpiece that inspired them to become filmmakers. All I can is that truly shows that movie reviews are subjective, as I can’t think of a single thing I felt the movie contributed to cinema, no matter how polished and expertly made it was.

 

In one word: Bland.

 

**   out of ****

 

ReelReviews #106: 1920s Best Picture winner: Sunrise (1927)

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MARCH 5, 2017 SCREENING: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

 

Here’s a little trivia that most people probably aren’t aware of: there were actually TWO “Best Picture” winners at the first annual Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—and it wasn’t because of a tie-vote.  “Wings” and “Sunrise” won for different reasons, in two SEPARATE “Best Picture” categories (one was for “Outstanding” Picture that got the most favorable response from audiences, and the other was for “Unique and Artistic Picture” that was deemed would have the most impact on history). The “Best Picture” winner that everyone remembers that year is the “popular” one:  Wings.   “Sunrise”, though remembered as a classic silent film, is not often remembered as the Oscar winner for Best Picture.  As the forgotten winner of the two “Best Picture” winners that year, I decided to give it its due and check out the movie.

 

“Sunrise” had the more difficult task at winning me over, since it is basically a romantic melodrama, whereas Wings was an action-adventure historical epic with some romance thrown in a subplot.  “Sunrise” also was complicated in that its plot contains material that is very unbelievable and requires the audience to suspend disbelief. Most notably, we have to buy that the husband in the movie would be driven by a sudden impulse to try and murder his wife, and he’d come to his senses, and eventually she’d forgive him and they’d live happily ever after. In spite of all that, Sunrise started off with a slow build and sucked me into its world so well that by the time of the ending shot (naturally, it was a sunrise coming up over the mountains) and ‘THE END’ roll credits scene, I felt compelling to give this 90 year old silent movie a standing ovation at 2 o’clock in the morning.

 

Sunrise has some great direction, cinematography, art direction, and acting from its silent screen actors (Janet Gaynor and the lesser known George O’Brien put in some excellent performances as a sort of “everyman” and “everywoman” average couple). However, where it really shined and rightfully deserved to win “Unique and Artistic Picture” was its use of sound – yes, sound in a “silent” movie.  The Blu-Ray noted that the film was acclaimed for its new “Fox Movietone sound-on-film system”, which I had never heard of and which became obsolete only a year or two later when actual sound movies began to be released. What it meant is that although the movie was indeed filmed without sound and has no dialogue scenes, there was a system used in post-production to synchronize sound effects and music with the entire movie. Since NONE of this sound was recorded live as the movie was being made, they did a truly amazing job and brought the movie to life: cars honk, crowds jeer, and people at an amusement park cheer, thunder roars, and key moments of the movie are underscored with sweeping music cues.

 

Likewise, for a drama, the film is sure to include some fun moments of humor to break up a lot of the tension and provide a more diverse range for the movie.  This becomes more common in the third act of the movie, especially a very funny sequence with a runaway piglet that still holds up 90 years later.

 

“Wings” most likely deserved its Best Picture win as well (disclaimer: I haven’t seen “Wings”), but since Sunrise was not competing with it, I can safely say that Sunrise, more than any other past “Best Picture” I evaluated during the 2017 Oscar season, certainly deserved its win for “Unique and Artistic picture”. It is excellent on all levels, and has stood the test of time.

 

*** ½ out of ****

 

ReelReviews #105: 1990s Best Picture winner: Unforgiven (1992)

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MARCH 4, 2017 SCREENING: UNFORGIVEN (1992)

 

At last, I arranged a screening of Unforgiven. This iconic early 90’s movie is a rare example of a “Best Picture” winner that was actually pretty mainstream and popular with the general public, at least as far as Westerns go (the previous year’s winner, Silence of the Lambs, was likewise an unusual Best Picture winner because it was popular and a horror film).

 

Unforgiven has been described as a “revisionist western” and a “eulogy to the western genre”, apparently because of its treatment of its source material.  Well, it certainly did not end the western genre, as anyone who’s seen The Hateful Eight (2015) can tell you.  Those who described Unforgiven that way may have been referring to the way the film takes the “anti-hero” treatment established by Clint Eastwood’s earlier westerns to the extreme here.  There are no “good” characters in this movie, and a lot of the scenes with Eastwood’s character referencing the “old days” seem to work on another level and are self-referential to his own career in westerns.  While Unforgiven did not kill off Westerns, it was indeed Eastwood’s final Western movie to date, and he’s unlikely to break that streak now that the actor is in his mid 80s.

 

I enjoyed Unforgiven, which was a very difficult feat for the film to achieve, given that I generally avoid Westerns and Unforgiven was deliberately made to be as bleak and depressing as possible.  The cast contains a slew of earlier Oscar winners:  Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, etc., and they create some very memorable characters here. The basic story is about Eastwood and his two companions seeking out two men to assassinate as revenge for those characters beating and mutilating a young prostitute.  Without giving away too much of the plot, the film’s message is basically that killing will not bring peace of mind and will just result in more killing. This simple concept is done in a very compelling and grounded manner, so much so that the execution of the two scumbags (which occurs in different scenes) is done in a sloppy manner (for example, one is killed while reliving himself in an outhouse).

 

Gene Hackman, who plays the local sheriff and symbol of law enforcement, ends up ironically being the most “evil” character in the film, after he arrests and tortures Morgan Freeman’s character to get information about Clint Eastwood.  Freeman’s first appearance in the film to me seemed to be a token attempt to add forced “diversity” to a Western movie, but his role in the story turned out to be well written and pivotal to the film.

 

With its soft opening and ending coda appearing on screen, Unforgiven has a strange “storybook” type of quality for such an ugly and dark movie. While it’s not the kind of film I would want to watch a second time, and some parts seemed to drag or go off in a random direction, most of Unforgiven is very compelling and cinematic.  I’m not sure if it’s the “Best Picture” of 1992 only because its fellow nominees like A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman were also solid movies in my mind. But what it is, Unforgiven can be forgiven for the aspects of I didn’t like. It’s a first-rate movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #104: 2010’s Best Picture winner: The King’s Speech (2010)

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MARCH 3, 2017 SCREENING: THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

I choose this film to screen for the “Best Picture” winner of the present decade by default:  2016’s winner hadn’t been announced yet, I didn’t want to see Spotlight from 2015, and I had already seen Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, Argo, and The Artist, so that left the first year of the decade as the only film left.  Was it worth it?  In some ways, yes, but following up Driving Miss Daisy with The King’s Speech is not recommended, as these films both come out the biggest contenders for  the “Quietest and Most Boring Best Picture winner” category.

The King’s Speech is an overall good film and solidly made picture, so I will actually start with the biggest problem I had with the film: Colin Firth simply is nothing like King George VI, and the film revolves around him.  His acting performance in the film is adequate (though not deserving of the Best Actor award he received, IMO), but the filmmakers should have gone with another actor that could truly capture the essence of how George VI looked, sounded, and behaved.  Oddly enough, Helena Bonham Carter seems like an odd choice to cast as George VI’s wife (the future Queen Mum during Elizabeth II’s reign), but she looks and sounds remarkably like the Queen Mum during the 1930s, and the child actresses playing the queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret also bear an uncanny resemblance to their 1930s counterparts. Only Firth as George VI sticks out like a sore thumb in this period drama.

The story of a man thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight as King when his brother abdicates is compelling in its own right, and makes for good drama. When the fact he has to speak for the entire nation during World War II is part of the real life narrative, and the film centers around the fact that (unbeknownst to his subjects) he’s a chronic stutterer and is not capable of delivering a public speech, the film has the potential to be quite riveting. However, The King’s Speech is not about high drama or incredible stakes, just about being down to earth and true to history, so much of this conflict is shown in the most mundane and low-key way it can be. This is NOT a flaw of the movie – as the I appreciated the movie’s grounded and approach and attempt to be true to history – but it does make it difficult for a viewer to be engaged by the movie. Oddly enough, it also might make for the example of the mildest “R rated” movie ever, as the film’s “R rating” is almost entirely due to the King uttering a series of F-bombs during his speech training, but this was done more for mild comic relief as he does it to naturally control his speech patterns, rather than start screaming obscenities during a heated emotional argument.

Geoffrey Rush is the real star of the movie, in the thankless “supporting role” as George VI’s speech trainer (who appears to have failed at his duties during numerous points of the film, but ultimately becomes a close friend of the King and an invaluable source of moral support) The very Australian Rush is an underrated actor who is better at playing the quintessential British person than many of the actual British people on screen with him.  The King’s Speech is a very British drama at heart (as an American, it’s hard to empathize with the idea that the useless figurehead monarch of the U.K is the “symbol” of its people) and it is Geoffrey Rush, not Colin Firth, who ultimately gives it that British flavor.

The King’s Speech is a very good, well made film, and certainly deserved some kind of recognition at the Academy Awards. But it’s definitely not my kind of movie.

 

*** out of ****