Friday, June 7, 2019

Worth Mentioning - Are You Ready for the Summer?

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Summer camp, an oceanside resort, fun and games. Plus the apocalypse.


Director Ivan Reitman's 1979 film Meatballs is a comedy classic that you really wouldn't expect to hold up very well if you know its "making of" story. It was rushed into production with a script (credited to Len Blum, Dan Goldberg, Janis Allen, and Harold Ramis) that was quickly cobbled together because Reitman wanted to make a summer camp movie and he wanted to make it during the summer of the year the idea occurred to him. It stars an actor who didn't really want to be in the movie, and the filmmakers didn't even realize what the emotional core of the story was until they were in post-production. It sounds like this should be a mess... and sure, Meatballs is a bit scattered... but somehow it's still a charming, entertaining, and thoroughly watchable film.

Bill Murray is the star Reitman wasn't sure would be in the movie, so clearly he has always been the same Bill Murray we know and love - the same guy who wouldn't agree to star in a Ghostbusters 3 also kept Reitman hanging forty years ago. It wasn't certain Murray would be in Meatballs at all until he showed up on set. He brought the laughs with him, though. Through his improv skills he made a movie that was supposed to be an ensemble about the young counselors-in-training and the campers at Camp North Star become a movie that is really about head counselor Tripper Harrison (Murray's character), and sometimes we check in on the counselors-in-training.

The emotional core that was discovered late in the process is the buddy story that plays out between Tripper and camper Rudy (Chris Makepeace), a kid who feels like he doesn't fit in at the camp and is in low spirits from the moment he gets there. Tripper bonds with him, makes him feel welcome, and builds him up so he can prove himself to be an important part of the Camp North Star group by the end of the film.

Before Rudy finds his place, he has a scene that I can very much relate to. One where he tries to play soccer for the first time and messes things up by accidentally scoring in the wrong goal. The exact same thing happened to me when I was in grade school.

When the movie isn't focusing on Tripper and Rudy, we get scenes of campers gossiping, romance blossoming between counselors-in-training, and random comedic shenanigans. Of course there is the standard "guys creeping around being pervs" scene, in which a couple counselors-in-training crawl under a cabin to eavesdrop on some girls while they read what my paternal grandma would call a "smut book", but this doesn't go as far as the teen sex comedies of the era. Meatballs was rated PG and would probably be a PG-13 if it went in front of the MPAA today, but it doesn't do much to push itself out of PG territory.

Everything builds up to a sports tournament between Camp North Star and their greatest rival Camp Mohawk, a prestigious camp that charges $1000 per camper. North Star hasn't had much luck in their competitions with Mohawk over the years, and before the big day Tripper gives what I consider to be the greatest motivational speech of all time: a speech in which he says "it just doesn't matter" if North Star wins or loses.

Meatballs was hindered by the fact that it wasn't very well thought out before filming began, but it turned out to be a good movie, largely thanks to its reluctant star.


There was a steady stream of aquatic thrillers released in the wake of the success Jaws had in 1975, and one of the goofier examples of this is director Charles B. Griffith's 1979 film Up from the Depths, which was executive produced by an uncredited Roger Corman but definitely isn't on the same level of quality as another Corman Jaws knock-off, 1978's Piranha.

Unlike Jaws and Piranha, Up from the Depths doesn't have a real species of fish as its human-devouring threat. Set in Hawaii, the story deals with a shift in currents that starts bringing creatures from the deep sea up along the coastline, including some species that have never been seen before. Among these previously undiscovered species is a large, silly-looking shark-like thing that starts chomping down on the people it crosses paths with in the ocean. Divers, swimmers, people just standing in the shallows, they're all potential snacks.

Up from the Depths is an amusing movie that apparently wasn't originally intended to have comedic elements, but Griffith felt he had to make the movie funny after he got a look at the sea creature he had to work with. While you may laugh at some shots of it, the creature actually isn't the butt of the joke and is kept obscured as much as possible. The humor comes from the human characters, who have oddball reactions to situations and deliver some ridiculous lines.

There's an oceanside hotel at the center of the story scripted by Alfred M. Sweeney, and hotel manager Oscar Forbes (Kedric Wolfe) is the most entertaining part of the movie for me. Forbes is a total idiot who ignores the evidence of a voracious fish being in the area of his hotel because he doesn't want these deadly attacks messing up his business. And if the attacks don't happen on hotel property, it's not his responsibility anyway. There are several other humorous characters in the film - our hero is Sam Bottoms as a beach bum who makes a living swindling tourists with his uncle, there are hotel guests who sound like fools when they're in vacation mode, and there are some flat-out idiots - but Forbes is the one I find to be the most fun.

Eventually, of course, all hell breaks loose at the hotel and Forbes is forced to acknowledge that there is a sea creature eating people in these waters. But he puts a silver lining on the issue by hosting a "Kill the Monster Fish" contest, offering up prizes to any guest who can eliminate this problem. This contest sends a whole lot of amateur monster hunters out to sea - including an Asian man who takes nothing with him but a samurai sword, and R. Lee Ermey in an early role. Unfortunately, Ermey's voice was dubbed over by someone else.

I wouldn't say Up from the Depths is a good movie, but it does provide a good time.


I probably don't pay enough attention to major comedy releases. I get around to watching most of them eventually, but it's rare that I feel the need to go to the theatre to see a comedy. So I skipped John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's Game Night when it was released last year, as it appeared to be a comedic take on the 1997 David Fincher movie The Game and that wasn't something I was drawn to. But then I kept seeing people singing its praises, and that positive word of mouth gave me a push to check it out.

I'm glad I did watch it, because it turned to be much more amusing and fun than I had expected. Written by Mark Perez (with a substantial uncredited rewrite from the directors), the film centers on Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams), an extremely competitive couple that loves having game nights with their friends Kevin (Lamorne Morris), Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen) - and whatever girl Ryan happens to bring over that night. When the group is invited over to the home of Max's cooler and more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) for a very special game night, Ryan is accompanied by Sarah (Sharon Horgan), a woman who is slightly older and definitely smarter than his usual companions. Ryan isn't too bright, and he has invited Sarah just so he'll have an extra edge in this competition.

Brooks notifies the gamers that he hired a company to drop the group into a mystery game where they'll have to interact with actors and figure out clues. So when a couple criminals come busting in and have a fight with Brooks that ends with them abducting him, his brother and pals just think this is all part of the game. As they dig into this mystery, though, it eventually becomes clear that Brooks has gotten mixed up with some dangerous criminals and this game they're playing in a real, potentially deadly situation.

The cast, which also includes Jesse Plemons as a next door neighbor who used to be invited to game nights but is now excluded for being too creepy, did a great job of delivering the laughs, tossing around funny lines and playing characters who are in way over their heads and often don't even realize it. I wasn't familiar with about half of the cast members I listed above, and I was impressed by the comedy skills of each one of them.

I was also impressed by the way Daley and Goldstein directed the film. They didn't shy away from the thriller elements (it's rare that you get a comedy that draws laughs from a bleeding bullet wound), and did well handling the moments that leaned into action territory. There were some nice technical tricks in here as well, including a moment when the camera tilts with a lock that someone is trying to hit open and a one-take (or it's meant to look like it was one-take) game of "keep away" with the characters tossing a Fabergé egg to each other throughout a mansion.

Game Night deserved the hype it has been getting.

I AM LEGEND (2007)

In the 1990s, word started to spread about that Warner Bros. was planning a new adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend, which had previously been turned into the films The Last Man on Earth (starring Vincent Price) in 1964 and The Omega Man (starring Charlton Heston) in 1971. It took over a decade for the new adaptation to make its way through development hell, and rarely during that time did it sound like a good idea to me. At one point Arnold Schwarzenegger was signed on to star in the film, which would not have been fitting at all, even if then-attached-director Ridley Scott had brought some Alien flavor to the project. There was an action-oriented version that Nicolas Cage might have starred in the works at another time. Michael Bay was up for the directing job. None of this would have been right.

I wasn't too enthusiastic about the creative team when the film finally went into production. Director Francis Lawrence's 2005 feature debut Constantine didn't blow me away, Independence Day star Will Smith didn't fit my idea of the lead character Matheson had written, and I certainly didn't trust Batman & Robin's Akiva Goldsman to turn in a good script. I disagreed with the choice to make this more of an Omega Man style film rather than doing something more faithful to the source like The Last Man on Earth, but more polished than that had been.

Despite all of my misgivings, I Am Legend actually turned out to be a decent movie. Smith turned in a great, emotional performance as Army virologist Robert Neville, who finds himself the last man alive in New York City after a plague has wiped out most of the world's population. Neville was one of the rare people who turned out to be immune to the virus in both its airborne and contact varieties. Three years into the apocalypse, he is still trying to find a cure to the virus. His only companion is his dog Sam... and the mannequins that he has set up around town and addresses by name. He is even getting the point where one of those mannequins is starting to appear attractive to him.

For more than an hour, except for the occasional brief flashback to the tragic night when Neville tried to get his wife and child out of the city three years earlier, Smith is alone in this movie. It's shocking to me that Warner Bros. allowed a major release with a $150 million budget to be a one-man show for so long, and that the film was allowed to take its time during this stretch. There are bursts of action every now and then, but a huge amount of the running time is just a study of Neville's daily routines. I Am Legend is commendable for that alone.

As in The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man, the virus has turned the infected into dangerous creatures... And those creatures are this film's downfall. These things are completely ridiculous; screeching and roaring CG creations that look terrible. The movie could have been great if the infected weren't presented in such a laughable, cringe-inducing way.

So I Am Legend falls short of great, but it's still impressive and an enjoyable watch. That's more than I ever expected when it was in development.

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