How To Beat the High Cost of Living (1980). I remember seeing this flawed but fun heist comedy on network TV shortly after it came out — Jane Curtin was my second favorite Saturday Night Live cast member, after all. Never issued on DVD, I was delighted to find it on the local ThisTV outlet’s schedule. Does it hold up? Well… In her film debut, Ms. Curtin is perfectly cast as a prickly housewife whose architect husband suddenly deserts her, leaving her broke. Teaming up with similarly strapped pals Susan St. James and Jessica Lange, the three decide to stage an elaborate scheme to siphon off cash from a giant plastic globe, plopped in the center court at the local mall. This is actually a pretty fun movie, reminiscent of Disney comedies of the time like The North Avenue Irregulars. Most of its appeal today comes from the very dated but oddly prescient humor about economizing, being treated like a tool by large corporations, etc. The film is also neat to watch for the many scenes filmed in and around ’70s Eugene, Oregon which now have a nostalgic, suburbia-gone-by quality. The mall they used (Valley River Center, which apparently still stands) reminds this viewer of Tri-City Mall in Mesa, where I spent many hours in J.C. Penney shopping for school clothes. There are a lot of in-store scenes in this movie, too, both retail and grocery (gotta love spying all those old products on the shelves!). As for the movie itself, Curtin makes for a great harried housewife, climaxing with a daring strip tease near film’s end (the only segment I remembered from childhood). Lange and St. James, who later teamed with Curtin in Kate & Allie, do the best they can with their flat, underwritten roles. There are also some fun turns by Fred Willard, Richard Benjamin and Dabney Coleman (not playing a smarmy exec for once) as the men in these daffy ladies’ lives.
The Shape of Things to Come (1979). Was compelled to watch this streaming offering on Netflix after a few Facebook friends talked about how dated/awful it was. An in-name-only adaptation of the H. G. Wells book, TSoTtC follows a diplomat (Barry Morse), a pair of blow-dried space cadets (Nicholas Campbell and Anna-Marie Martin), and a funky robot as they attempt to retrieve the anti-radiation drug mankind needs to survive. Problem is, the precious drug can only be found on a far-flung planet ruled by an eccentric dictator — played at maximum ham by Jack Palance. This film is one of many that attempted to cash in on Star Wars, but its aesthetic is closer to that of a threadbare, non-sweeps episode of TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The astronauts sport satiny jumpsuits perfect for the roller derby, and the requisite funny robot has quips aplenty, but this shoddy Canadian talkfest is disappointingly low on camp value. It’s actually downright boring, in fact, which leaves me shocked as to how the older actors in the cast (Palance, Morse, John Ireland, Carol Lynley) got attached. File under Space Junk. 1980′s UFO outing Hangar 18 is also on my Netflix Instant queue — watch, or pass?
Skyline (2010). Given the awful reviews this alien invasion flick got — and the multiple comparisons it got to the jingoistic Battle: Los Angeles — I was somewhat leery about Skyline. It’s no classic, but this sprightly popcorn flick kicks Battle: L.A.‘s butt in terms of sheer, action packed fun. The movie follows a young couple, played by the strangely Basil Rathbone-looking Eric Balfour and Scottie Thompson, as they travel to visit the L.A. penthouse of Balfour’s old pal turned successful rapper Donald Faison. The friends have a party on the first night, but the celebration is short-lived as overnight Earth is invaded by aggressive, tentacled aliens whose blue glow gives off a vaguely seductive power. A dwindling group becomes ensconced in the penthouse as the aliens wreak havoc on the city. Yes, the acting is about what you’d expect and the script follows a predictable path (until the head-scratching ending, that is). The CGI effects are excellent, however, and for once they are used not obnoxiously but in service of some crackerjack action sequences. That’s the best I can hope for on this seriously dumb, but enjoyable, flick.
Underworld Beauty (1958). Fast-paced Japanese crime flick has several of the quirky hallmarks of director Seijun Suzuki (Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter). The main thrust of the plot deals with a cache of diamonds belonging to a yazuka criminal gang. When a departing member swallows the diamonds before killing himself, the victim’s sister and her boyfriend become embroiled in the criminals’ greed. Slick, gorgeous b&w cinematography is the star here. The story is somewhat routine, but it does allow the filmmaker to employ interesting set pieces such as the studio of a mannequin sculptor. I would actually think of Underworld Beauty as a good entry point for vintage film noir who want to dip into the Japanese side of that genre. Fun movie.
Waste Land (2010). Independent Lens showing. This Oscar-nominated documentary focuses on New York-based artist Vik Muniz, who took on a project to address the cost of globalization and consumer culture on the poor in his native Brazil. The film documents Muniz’s efforts to construct huge, awe-inspiring portraits of garbage pickers made out of the very refuse the people deal with every day, selecting recyclable plastic from a giant landfill for a meager salary. The artist becomes friendly with several of the pickers, involving them in the entire process leading up to a gala opening at an art museum in Rio de Janero. The pickers themselves are a fascinating, eclectic bunch, even more so than the artist himself. Watching this I experienced shock (that a country as large as Brazil lacks a real recycling program), heartbreak (at the pickers’ stories) and finally admiration. The film is very PBS-y and somewhat overlong, but worthwhile all the same for a sobering look at how our “buy” culture affects everyone.
Xin Nü Xing (1935). Typical “women’s picture” of the ’30s, only Chinese and serving as a vehicle for the luminous, tragically fated actress Ruan Lingyu (whose life was later given biopic treatment in the 1990 Maggie Cheung vehicle Centre Stage). Xin Nü Xing (English title: New Woman) was Lingu’s final film before the actress took her own life. In it, she plays a young aspiring writer who is working as a music teacher. She meets an old friend and becomes involved with the friend’s husband, a lecherous doctor who had a past history with her. Eventually we find that the woman’s daughter from a previous failed marriage is very sick, and the doctor’s actions force her to get fired from the teaching job and take up prostitution. This silent drama was never released on DVD in the U.S.; we actually watched a later issue of the film (overdubbed with music and weirdly synchronized Chinese dialogue) on CD which we found at the local Goodwill. Even without the benefit of subtitles, it was still an interesting experience mostly due to the intriguing Ruan Lingyu. She is tender in the scenes with her child, then emotional (and overwrought) in the climactic scenes. Even within a single scene, the subtle changes in expression on her face are cool to watch.