Sunday, June 30, 2013

Oddball Film Report: THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS (2013)

   Josh Kennedy strikes again!

   Very recently, the town of Edinburg, Texas was treated to the premier of the newest Gooey film, THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS. J.K.'s earlier works tended toward whimsy. ATTACK OF THE OCTOPUS PEOPLE is a send-up of 50's monster movies, VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF TEENAGE CAVEWOMEN a play on 60's Italian space operas, and MIRANDA GRACIA MEETS FRANKENSTEIN a fun poke at low budget film production itself. Each film gets slicker and slicker, so why not experiment a bit? Breaking from the previous number, THE MENACE WITH FIVE ARMS is a gritty drama built upon the 70's Nature Strikes Back genre.

   The film is more a character piece, and works incredibly well as such. For one thing, Josh did what I thought would be impossible! He took the threadbare and tiresome Battle of the Sexes ploy and actually made it work. The film is a great watch, and the scenes of our leads butting heads are just as pleasant to watch as those of our heroes working together.

   The Plot: Newly minted Sheriff Joe Kerwin is faced with a mystery in the usually quiet desert town of Santa Mira. The town's major water supply has been cut off with the sudden and mysterious collapse of the water tower. Joe finds the fallen tower void of moisture but littered with tiny bits of 'skin' he has sent to the city for analysis. Near the wreckage, he also happens onto a school girl who has been almost fatally drained of fluid. Exposure is ruled out as the girl has only been missing for an few hours. She is, however, in shock.

   In a later scene, the girl's doctor shows her a series of photos of animals. A sketch of a starfish sends the girl into panic and she snaps out of her shock. The shock broken, the characters go back to business as usual, which is a very real bit of scripting. Unfortunately, the girl doesn't tell anybody about the monster....

   As the townsfolk start to panic over their lack of fresh water, the 'skin' samples have gotten the attention of marine biologist Carla Joyce. Although discredited in the scientific community, Joyce figures the tissue to come from a prehistoric starfish and heads to Santa Mira to investigate further. Eventually, it becomes quite clear there is a monstrous starfish crawling around the desert looking for moisture, and human beings are the most handy source!

   Our heroes manage to track the creature into a local cave, but a drain pipe gives the creature direct access to New York city.....

Afterthoughts - 

   All the Kennedy touches are there: characters and places named after friends (even yours truly, in the mention of near-by Baker's Rock!), dialog borrowed from earlier films ("now the ocean knew the middle of a desert was a pretty silly place for it to be.."), in-gag references to previous Gooey films, a reference to THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, a shower scene, bikinis, and so forth. Filmed in super wide screen (Gooeyscope, according to the film's preview) and moody black and white, the film is a wonderful new wing on the ever expanding Kennedy library!

   This one is definitely an actor's film, and the roles reflect that. The characters are given considerable depth, and the acting itself is a treat. 

   Josh himself plays Sheriff Kerwin, a man trying to do his job despite no help from the townsfolk who feel he's at best a faint echo of the much-loved former Sheriff Dewey (who's sudden death has thrust Kerwin into a position of much greater authority and responsibility). I like that Kerwin must deal not only with mysterious disappearances and inexplicable events, but also such mundane matters as civil affairs like tourism. His spendthrift girlfriend of six months adds to his troubles when she takes up with an old flame and then uses it as leverage to get a commitment from Kerwin. This confrontation is a very effective scene.

   Dr. Joyce (Ayssette Munoz), meanwhile, is the sort of character that in lesser hands could have been quite annoying. A young female scientist in a male-dominated field, her previous printed theories have made her the subject of much mockery and shunning from the larger scientific community. This actually lends some weight to her quick-to-judge nature concerning men who she feels are condescending to her. As Kerwin discovers, that's just about any man in a position of authority! Her past has also made her very weary about confirming her conclusions regarding the starfish, something Kerwin reacts rather hotly to when he discovers she has known all along what's going on and hasn't told him.

   This particular scene may be my favorite. Kerwin is fully justified in his anger with Joyce, who's inaction has resulted in several needless deaths. Joyce tries to hold herself together by going back to the fire-brand righteousness that has always been her SOP, but Kerwin is having none of it and lays everything on the line in a way that Joyce can't ignore. Knowing she's lost but too proud to admit it even to herself, she storms out. This may be one of the best written and acted scenes I've seen in any film of recent vintage!

   Kat Kennedy, happily, makes an appearance as Kerwin's assistant Peggy. I love watching Josh and Kat play off of each other, and this is a fine part for Kat. For the most part, she's the loyal and affable sidekick to the boss, doing what she can to make his job a little easier. She has her weaknesses too, however. In a big scene, the starfish attacks a local get-together which is being held against Kerwin's direct orders. When he arrives on scene, he is surprised to find Peggy. She tries to bluff her way out of it by making up a story about why she's there, but then comes to grips with what she has done and breaks into tears. This razor fine turn from comedy to tragedy within a second is one of the film's real highlights.

   That's not to say the film is flawless, by any means. There are a few scenes that can be a tad confusing because of the back-drops chosen. Many of the characters look to be standing in front of a big black barn wall, but there are moments when it's obvious this is supposed to be the night sky (actually, this is probably Josh's nod to MISSILE TO THE MOON). In one scene, two characters are seated in a car. This is done in split-screen because the two actors were filmed in different locations! The effect actually works pretty good, and the delivery of the lines is very natural so you'd think the were on the same set. The only problem is that the background lighting is higher for one of the actors so the shot calls attention to itself. (These issues are not evident on all screens it seems, as the theatrical showing saw not a hint of this effect!)

   Most of the film is given a vague Outer Limits feel, with it's focus on strong performances and mystery. The final reel, however, set in New York, is almost surreal. Needless to say, I can't really go into detail because it's the climax of the picture!

   The dialog and mood are spot-on 70's drive-in much of the time, although some modern vernacular and automobile-action keeps it from being a period piece. The script is given to occasional fits of profanity, as is fitting the 70's films it seems to be duplicating, although with an eye for 50's CinemaScope. Josh himself (wearing a beard he'll be needing to play Captain Nemo in an upcoming stage production) resembles a young James Brolin, hightening the 70's vibe.

   Josh also manages that most difficult of things, an effective shock-jump scene! 

   This should act as a bit of a primer for a picture one hopes will be in official DVD release sooner than later. Running a full 90 minutes, Josh has reached the big features, and his presence is more than welcome. I can't wait to see what he does next!

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