It has been another crazy hot week here in Oklahoma. This week I’ve not been able to just stay inside and watch movie; I’ve had to be out in it. My family has a couple of houses that we just built and are trying to sell. They are right next to each other and sit on about 2.5 acres each. Their lawns just got seeded, which in Oklahoma in July means they have to be watered every day. We have these cool little watering devices that look like mini tractors and spray water a great distance. They also propel themselves along the water hose at a slow pace so that you don’t have to move them yourself every five minutes. However, we don’t have hoses that cover 2.5 acres in one swath so about every hour I have to drive over and move them.
It is hot, annoying, and really muddy work (they soak the lawns real good so when I go to move them, I’m often sinking in the yard). When I’m finally done for the day, I just want to sit back and watch something simple, something I don’t have to think too hard about.
And this is what I watched.
Creature from the Black Lagoon
If you were to casually ask me about the classic Universal monsters, I’d enthusiastically tell you I loved them. Only later would I remember I’ve only seen the Frankenstein and Dracula movies (and maybe a couple of the Abbott and Costello meet... films). For reasons I can’t quite fathom I’ve never seen any of the Mummy or Wolfman or any of the others. In order to start remedying that, I sat down with Creature from the Black Lagoon this week. It helped that The Shape of Water was very much inspired by it.
Made in 1954, the creature, or Gill-man as he’s often called, is the last of the classic Universal monsters to be considered canon. Coming out some two decades after the heyday of the Universal monsters, it is a bit of an anomaly. By the early 1950s, monster movies had turned to camp with all sort of giant bug-monster running amok and Abbott and Costello playing funzies with the monsters.
In terms of production The Creature from the Black Lagoon isn’t much above those silly films. It's obvious the film didn’t have much of a budget, the only real money being spent on the (really rather cool) monster costume and lots of underwater sequences. But both of those things save it. Unlike so many low-budget monster movies, we get lots of long looks at the creature in and out of water. It never looks like anything but a guy in a rubber suit but the rubber suit is really well constructed. The underwater sequences, of which there are plenty, are beautiful, fascinating, and rather sensual.
It's not anywhere near the height of what Universal did back in the '30s, but it's well worth watching.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail
Sergio Martino’s. 1971 film follows the typical giallo plan of action pretty much to a T. It has gruesome, bloody murders; weird camera angles; beautiful women without much clothing on; and a mysterious black-gloved killer. It never quite rises above the Italian horror fray but if you were teaching a class on the genre and wanted to present a standard bearer for it, this is the one to go with. Arrow Video is putting out a really nice new Blu-ray of the film. Look for my review next week.
American Experience: Oklahoma City
I grew up in little town outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma so this film feels very personal to me. I was in Alabama for college when the attack happened. I was just about to leave for class that morning when a friend knocked on my door and told me I needed to come watch his television. Seeing the rubble of the federal building got my mind to racing. Did I know anyone in Oklahoma City? Could a loved one of mine be in that rubble? That’s a very selfish thought, but I suppose it's one that happens to everyone who sees a tragedy unfold. I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who might be there, and a phone call to my mother confirmed it. Still, it was a very devastating moment. One that hit home even harder when I came home a few weeks later. In Alabama, the news had somewhat died down, and my collegiate activities kept me otherwise occupied. But in Oklahoma, it was still very much on everyone’s minds.
The documentary doesn’t deliver any new information about the attack. It is filled with a lot of newsreel footage from that day and a lot of interviews with those who responded to it and those who were immediately affected by it. All these years later, it still packs a emotional wallop. Instead of just detailing the singular OKC attack, the film expands outward and backward to put it in context. It attempts to show that Timothy McVeigh didn’t just come out of nowhere and plant a truck bomb, but was part of a much larger white supremist/anti-government/gun culture. They draw lines from such incidents as Ruby Ridge and Waco directly to McVeigh and his act of terror.
Even here, it isn’t giving a whole lot of new information, but it helped put the Oklahoma City attacks in a broader, much more frightening context that reverberates mightily with what we are seeing here and now.
Taking inspiration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Alex Garland’s second film updates the concept of a section land suddenly transforming itself into something alien where the laws of physics don’t seem to apply. Where Tarkovsky was slow and meditative, Garland ups the action and the computer-generated visual effects.
Natalie Portman plays a former soldier turned biologist whose husband went into this area, known as the Shimmer, alongside many other soldiers but became the only one to come out. He came out changed, psychologically certainly, but also physically as his insides seem to be breaking down completely. Portman, alongside a group of female scientists then goes into the Shimmer to try and find out what it is and if they can save the husband. Inside, they discover a psychedelic kaleidoscope of colors and both plant and animal life that shouldn’t be able to exist.
Annihilation is stunning to look at and it's certainly exciting, but there is something about it that didn’t quite satisfy me. It's not that the film turns away from some of the philosophical questions that Stalker tackled so beautifully, but those questions tend to get downplayed every time a giant alligator with shark teeth or a mutant bear attacks. Still, it's quite worth watching and Garland continues to be a really interesting director.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Season 5
Though I could watch this Marvel series on live TV, I prefer to let the full season show up on Netflix so I can binge watch it over a couple of weeks. For my money, S.H.I.E.L.D. is the best of the superhero shows on TV. It is full of action and very funny, but is able to be dramatic when it needs to be. It has a great cast and has done a great job of fully fleshing them out so that I care about all of them. It can get pretty silly at times - this current season finds them in space, in the future, outside an Earth that has been ripped to shreds - but it recognizes it and often leans into it. Characters regularly comment on how ridiculous their situations are, and yet they and the series make it work.
The perfect summer movie is also a great palette cleanser from all of the heaviness of The Avengers: Infinity War. Taking place three years after Ant-Man, but some time before Thanos reigned down death and destruction. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a light-hearted, low-stakes breath of fresh air in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Our hero Scott has been on house arrest after suiting up and fighting in Germany during the events of Captain America: Civil War. He also put Hank and Hope at risk with that decision and they are now on the run. Of course, they eventually team up, kicking some tail whilst delivering some really wonderful CGI fight sequences that involve turning themselves (and various objects) larger and smaller. They are searching for Hope’s mom, Janet, who got lost at an atomic level many years in the past.
It isn’t a perfect film and you can find quibbles here and there but its so much fun to watch you’ll likely not mind.