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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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Arts + CultureCultureScreen Grabs: Two movies so bad they're (almost) good

Screen Grabs: Two movies so bad they’re (almost) good

Plus: Religious quandaries and LGBTQ issues, the vanishing of the bees, more films to check out

This last Sunday marked our POTUS’ birthday—he’s now 74, never mind that he frequently plays the “too old” card on people just a couple years older and less dithering than he. It’s an occasion that should be cause for national mourning on more grounds than one can enumerate in one sitting at this point. In the spirit of laughing in the face of disaster, we’ll highlight a couple “so bad it’s good” films recently unleashed on the public, both revived from archival deep-freeze.

Though it struck many as being somewhat old-fashioned even upon release in 1965, The Sound of Music was such an unprecedented global phenomenon (unseating Gone With the Wind from its quarter-century status as all-time box office champion) that it sparked a mad rush of imitations. For the next few years Hollywood tried to duplicate that success with other musical-theater adaptations (and occasional original screen musicals) that for the most part proved ruinously expensive and indifferently received.

Near the end of that cycle, and dredging the bottom of the Broadway barrel, came 1970’s Song of Norway, based on a 1944 operetta that had been a surprise (though seldom-revived) stage hit. It pasted lyrics onto the music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, purporting to tell the tale of his struggle to get native music taken seriously by his nation’s snobby classical taste-makers. It was hokum, but somehow not as hokey as what Oakland-born writer/director Andrew L. Stone (hitherto best known as a maker of lean, taut thrillers) managed to make of it years later.

Designed to look as much like The Sound of Music as possible, with much leaping about fjords and mountaintops in Super-Panavision, plus The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson as Mrs. Grieg, it was indeed scenic—but also so cornball it made TSOM look like Blow-Up. Despite scathing reviews, it actually turned a profit (due mostly to the extremely thrifty director’s low production budget), which prompted Stone to do the same damage to Johann Strauss in 1972’s The Great Waltz, an equally bad film no one went to see.

Song of Norway has been hard to find for years, so Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray/DVD release offers the first chance in aeons to see it uncut, in its proper widescreen aspect ratio. Those who have fond and/or appalled memories of its uber-kitschiness will not be disappointed; it is still camp heaven, full of almost hysterical high spirits, outbreaks of simple choreography like fever, and random cutaways to livestock. The early “Freddy and His Fiddle” number may be the most inspirationally ludicrous production number ever devised. Admittedly, even the unintentional laughs begin to pall as the running time plods towards 138 minutes. But fans of truly bad cinema will find some jaw-dropping moments to treasure here.

Another chunk of fool’s gold dug up from the celluloid cellar is 1960’s Horrors of Spider Island, a moderately notorious stinker of West German origin in which a planeload of showgirls headed to a gig in Singapore crash-land on an uninhabited tropical island. Unfortunately, their lone male minder is bitten by a spider, and of course begins turning into a murderous spider-man (not the heroic comic book kind) because why not.

The horror angle is not just ridiculous but more than a little desultory, because director Fritz Bottger’s main emphasis is on getting the cast of statuesque bombshells undressed as much and as often as possible. Yes, it’s humid, but you’d think they were lingerie models, when they’re not simply tearing the clothes off one another in impromptu catfights. It’s the kind of movie in which characters terrified to discover evidence of a bloodthirsty predator one minute exclaim “Who’s up for a swim? I’m gonna walk to the beach by myself as if nothing happened!” the next.

Horrors was originally released to “adult only” theaters with more skin bared as It’s Hot in Paradise, and endured no end of retitlings and editorial meddling in subsequent editions. The collapse of movie censorship a decade later would render such “nudie cutie”-type enterprises antique, but this curio endures as a particularly, enjoyably silly example of the type. Severin Films/CAV’s new Blu-ray/DVD release includes both major versions (“sexy” German and “scary” American releases), as well as extras including “Alternate Clothed Scenes” and an interview with he-man hero Alexander D’Arcy, whose career stretched from “Golden Age” Hollywood to the schlock epics of Al Adamson and Russ Meyer. His comely co-star Barbara Valentin also had an interesting professional arc, going from “the German Jayne Mansfield” in movies like this, Der Partyphotograph and The Amorous Adventures of a Young Postman to several roles for Fassbinder.

If you’d rather not spend your viewing time picking through gourmet trash, however, there are some actual good movies new to streaming:

For They Know Not What They Do
Last week the White House announced abolishment of Obama-era protections against healthcare discrimination for transgender people on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre—just the kind of maximally offensive “coincidence” they’ve served up in bulk lately, no doubt thanks to the fertile mind of resident white supremacist Stephen Miller. Meanwhile, recent polls have suggested only 40% even among evangelicals (his supposed support stronghold) believe Trump is actually “religious,” despite all his posturing in that direction.

Shedding a little constructive light in this charged political environment of using “religious freedom” to institutionalize bigotry is the new documentary by Daniel G. Karslake, whose 2007 For the Bible Tells Me So provided an overview of the long-running conflict between the US religious right and LGBTQ populations. This followup focuses on four diverse families all nearly torn apart by related issues. One told their son “We love you but this is a deal-breaker for God” when he came out as gay; dutifully trudging back into the closet of denial, his guilt and self-loathing led to very sad consequences. Two other families with transgender kids dealt with it considerably better, while a Puerto Rican clan whose son later survived the Pulse shooting in Orlando proved far more accepting than he’d expected.

As these stories unfold, we also get insights into debunked, often harmful “conversion therapies,” the high incidences of suicide and self-harm amongst youths in these protagonists’ situations, escalating hate crimes in the current political climate, the vicious rhetoric issuing from many pulpits, and how Biblical passages typically cited to justify anti-gay stances are misinterpreted. For They Know… will probably reach few among those who really should see it—evangelical Christians—but it’s worthwhile even for gay and other “previously converted” viewers. It’s available on various streaming platforms including Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.

The Surrogate
Also dealing with LGBTQ issues, among many others, is this very good new indie drama by New York playwright turned writer-director Jeremy Hersh, whose cast also draws on considerable NYC stage talent. Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) is a single young Black woman in Brooklyn who’s made the decision to carry a child for her best friends, an interracial gay couple (Chris Perfetti, former Bay Arean Sullivan Jones). But early in the pregnancy, they get the news that the fetus tests positive for Down’s Syndrome. This unleashes a slew of ethical and logistical problems that ultimately places Jess at odds with nearly everyone in her life.

Driven by pin-sharp, argumentative dialogue and complexly drawn characters, The Surrogate does have virtues more common to a stage play, but manages not to be “stagy.” It also escapes preachiness, raising a host of thorny moral conundrums, identity-politics conflicts, and so forth that are sympathetically presented from all sides. With excellent performances to punch that content across, this is a provocative as well as entertaining drama whose hot-button narrative agenda never feels overly schematic. At present it’s available for streaming through various “virtual theaters” in different communities, see details here.

The Pollinators
If you know that the global bee population’s shrinkage is a huge element in our escalating ecological crises, but aren’t really clear on the specifics of why, this latest documentary on the subject is a good educational one-stop. Peter Nelson’s film focuses largely on the undersung phenomenon of “migratory beekeepers,” who transport bee colonies around the country to pollinate fields. That’s a necessity today—not just because so many fruit, nut and vegetable crops require pollination, but because farming practices have eradicated local pollinators in so many areas. Yet even these mobile “managed honeybees” are imperiled, largely because it’s almost impossible to keep them from being poisoned by the pesticides used to ensure “perfect”-looking, year-round produce.

Director Peter Nelson’s handsome film (which includes some amazing super-slow-motion shots of bees in flight) interviews  beekeepers, growers, scientists and others about the extent of this problem. Artificially “migrating” bee colonies are not a sustainable long-term solution; nor indeed is our whole modern agricultural model promoting soil-depletive productivity at the cost of self-sustaining biodiversity. The good news is that regenerative farming techniques are gaining traction. The bad news is that the current Environmental Protection Agency (which some now dub the CPA, for “Chemical Protection Agency”) has become so corrupted by lobbyist influence that “the regulated control the regulators.” The Pollinators is available On Demand as of June 16 (more info here).

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