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“Stop throwing heads at me!” – Lake Placid and B-Movie Glory

That wonderful line, so full of the modern wisdom we’ve come to expect from contemporary cinema, is from Lake Placid (1999)—a glorious sort-of B-movie, a hopped-up mutant hybrid of all those giant fill-in-the-blank (ants, squid, shark, whatever) movies and a romantic comedy, with frequently outstanding writing, sharp zingers in particular, and typically excellent performances from two of my favorite character actors of recent years, Brendan Gleeson and Oliver Platt.

It also features, somewhat less typically, enjoyable performances from Bridget Fonda and Bill Pullman. Pullman is basically the guy he always is, but it works much better here than usually and he and Bridget Fonda are a great match—both kind of B-level actors, rather than A-list stars, who in this movie get to cut loose, have some fun and do some of  their best work, or so it seems to me. I certainly think Pullman is much more engaging and should feel much happier with his work here than in, say, Sleepless in Seattle, where the dullness of his character ended up sort of making the actor look bad. The old Hollywood studio system would have known what to do with decent, pleasant, competent actors like Pullman and Fonda, and they would have done well there, I think, but in the new opening weekend-driven star system they have had more trouble finding a place.

I liked it less after I found out the great script was written by David E. Kelly—he of the incredibly skinny TV dramedy heroines, like Felicity and… I’m blanking—repressed memory syndrome. But maybe the mature response would have been to like Kelly more rather than the movie less.

Inexplicably, Roger Ebert, who we all agree is pretty smart about film, and also fairly generous, somehow didn’t get this movie, describing it as “completely wrong-headed from beginning to end.” It’s possible you have to be a fan of giant creature movies to really enjoy this one, but I don’t think so.

I’d like to teach a class JUST looking at these too rare moments of recent Hollywood excellence in what seem like B-movies, which make for such a refreshing change when they blow through. Ready to Rumble (2000)—starring David Arquette and Scott Caan (currently in the reboot of Hawaii Five-O) and also the aforementioned Oliver Platt—is another obvious candidate for inclusion. And David Arquette was in another movie that might count in this category: Eight Legged Freaks (2002), another attack of the giant thing movie.

As well as their B-movie qualities and pedigrees, these films are all united by humor and by a knowingness about films and film genres.  But where in other movies that knowingness can produce a kind of paralysis or a smugness, here it is played, for the most part, for laughs. It produces a lightness, rather than the heaviness that awareness and knowledge can sometimes generate.

Since I’ve been discussing the issue of remakes and sequels sucking, I should mention that there have been two sequels to Lake Placid, the first a made-for-TV movie and the second straight to video. This is the sort of sequel treatment we often see with Disney movies, like Aladdin, with perhaps a TV cartoon series thrown in, but it seems entirely appropriate to Lake Placid‘s cheesy glory. Giant animal monster movies have been for a number of years now more the province of that down-market area—made-for-TV and straight to video—than of regular theatrical releases.  The science fiction cable channel now known as Syfy, for instance, seems to do a fairly brisk trade in such things, and Lake Placid 2 was initially screened—and partly produced—by them.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows

zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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