The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode Three – Revenge of the List

Sometimes this is just easier and more fun than writing long reviews.

What follows are some of the last several films I have watched. Perhaps, just to show that I do take in a fairly wide range of cinema. Perhaps something more sinister. Perhaps you’ll never know and me and your cat are in cahoots. They are listed in ascending order of what I thought of them. Kindly interact with this post if you feel I have misordered the movies.

Run Away:

“Are you wearing sunglasses?”

It is a three way tie between three truly wonderfully awful movies. Dinosaur Island (1994), L.A. Streetfighters (1985), and Ultra Warrior (1990). They are all B-movies so perhaps should not be judged so harshly, but they all have unique problems. It’s okay that Dinosaur Island has cheesy special effects but it wants to be sexy and funny but fails miserably at both. It’s like a team of horny 14 year old boys wrote it. L.A. Streetfighters is your typical bad kung fu movie, but the allegedly high school age characters look like they’re in their 4os and the lighting is so appallingly abysmal that most of the time you can’t tell what’s going on. It resembles a black void that periodically emits dubbed punching sound effects. The plus side is that the DVD menu for L.A. Streetfighters has a ridiculous three question multiple choice quiz about events in the movie (and the quiz does not even have the right answers consistently). Lastly is Ultra Warrior which is a jumbled mess of cheese and sci-fi schlock and robbed footage and exposition from other movies (Turkish Star Wars much?). It must be seen to be believed.

Meh and/or Misguided:

“Quick! Quick! Say something current or vulgar!”

I’ll say it. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted (2012) just didn’t work for me. Near every single joke felt ripped directly from an episode of Family Guy, which I suppose is great for some folks. More than anything else I took offense to the piles of clichés that made up the script. Everything from the movie-proposal-fakeout to the well-meaning-guy-keeps-lying-to-the-girl to the celebrity-of-niche-nostalgia-pops-up-and-parties-way-too-hard to the no-really-I’m-raunchy-but-look-suddenly-I-have-a-semblance-of-awkward-sentimentailty-so-I-actually-have-a-heart-in-addition-to-old-dick-jokes. Apart from a few funny lines and some solid comic timing from Marky Mark (although he was funnier in The Other Guys) this movie doesn’t bring much new to the whole cute-characters-who-say-adult-things-and-smoke-pot genre. I will say this though, it is better than Paul and Mila Kunis is sexy. Ultimately I liked the foul-mouthed chain-smoking teddy bear from Wisit Sasanatieng’s Citizen Dog (2004) better.

“What do you mean? Of course Chinese people roll their R’s.”

I like Anna May Wong so naturally I had to search out and watch Chu Chin Chow (1932), an old British operetta loosely retelling the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. It’s not a wholly bad movie and it does have its points, but bits of it are so odd. Mostly English actors playing Arabs and Chinese (typical of the era), and a few very forgettable songs, strange attempts at humor punctuated by disturbing violence (for the time) and torture give it a weird energy. Anna May Wong is good and the sets are lavish and the one dude with the super low voice is cool, albeit bizarrely placed at times, but then there’s Fritz Kortner. Kortner plays the king of the 40 thieves, but he is so hammy and weird that single-handedly I think he damages the film more than any other element while simultaneously making it a uniquely strange spectacle. Watch this if only to finish off Wong’s film cannon. I did like the slave girl song.

Guilty Pleasures:

“Be careful, honey. You’re having eyebrows for two now.”

Fortress (1992) is your typical shot-in-Australia post-apocalyptic prison-break action movie starring everyone’s favorite lug and Highlander, Christopher Lambert (Highlander). It’s so bad and stereotypical of the times I actually loved it. Granted, I was laughing the whole ride through, which was obviously not the film’s intention, but who cares. The year is 2017 and you’re only allowed to have one child and abortions are illegal so the government murders your family and puts you in super-jail if you try to have a second kid. It’s got all the classic moves. There’s the stereotypical lineup of prison inmates like the tough guy; the evil man-rapist; the Mexican guy who likens human guts exploding to a burrito; the nerdy computer-whiz guy with the huge glasses (Jeffrey Combs!); the omniscient black guy; and a wormy bad guy (Red from That 70s Show) with terrible hair who tries to steal the protagonist’s lady . Lasers and cyborgs and ‘splosions. It’s all pretty hilarious. It’s no Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky(1991), but you will “lol” most heartily.

“Yeah. Whatever happened to Keanu?”

For folks who wondered what happened to the other guy from Bill & Ted movies, just watch Freaked(1993). Alex Winter plays a snotty celebrity who tells his life story to Brooke Shields. Randy Quaid (Christmas Vacation) is apparently mutating people for his sick and demented South American freak show. It’s a twisted yarn of corporate greed and toxic waste that unfolds like what would happen if David Cronenberg were adapting MAD Magazine. Freaked quickly maneuvers from the merely subversive to become a gross-out surrealist comic head-trip that continues to aspire for greater anarchy and greater heights of scatological humor until its ultimate conclusion. Maybe it doesn’t always work, but enough of the jokes are solid and the special effects are top notch (Thomas C. Rainone, Steve Johnson, Screaming Mad George, and teams of others make some truly grotesque and innovative creatures). The Butthole Surfers also provide some tunes and Bobcat Goldthwaite plays a sockhead. It’s more of an abstract novelty than anything else, but I admit I did find much of it bizarrely amusing. Also Mr. T is a woman in it.

“New drinking game: you take a shot at every anachronism.”

This next sucker is unique. Ed Harris (Gone Baby Gone) is William Walker in Alex Cox’s Walker (1987). Perhaps the whole film doesn’t exactly work, but it’s so weird you can’t look away. The truth is mixed with much delirium in this crazed account of the 19th century American dude whose reckless devotion to Manifest Destiny made him a Nicaraguan president. The tone is dreamlike and the movie is yucky and unpleasant and is full of purposeful anachronisms (Zippo lighters, Time magazine, computers, helicopters, etc.) to draw parallels to contemporary events. As the story unfolds more and more anachronisms creep into frame and the atmosphere becomes increasingly anarchic and ethereal. I don’t think it all congeals together for a pleasing whole, but I found Walker so fascinating and offbeat that I actually liked it despite some unwieldiness. The music is also pretty interesting.

Getting Warmer:

“They’re hugging right behind me, aren’t they.”

Frank Capra is one of the most recognizable names from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He’s the man responsible for such classics as It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and It Happened One Night to name a few. Perhaps that is why You Can’t Take it With You(1938) does not rank higher on my list. I thought it was great, but at this point I find it gets predictably Capra-esque. It’s the same reason a lot of Ingmar Bergman films blend together in my memory. Jimmy Stewart (Harvey), Lionel Barrymore (Key Largo), Edward Arnold (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) star and it’s got a lot of great moments, but it’s a little uneven and there are quite a few storylines all at once. Barrymore in particular gets a lot of time to shine in this film. It’s the classic story of two people who love each other but come from different worlds. One comes from an uptight, legalistic, and aristocratic family, the other from a simple, warm, and freewheeling family. It’s class warfare! Seeing how Capra always manages a happy ending perhaps this is the perfect movie for the Occupy Wall Street generation.

“Pass the grapefruit, doll. Ever seen ‘The Public Enemy’?”

I like director Norman Jewison. He can do anything: The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler On the Roof, Rollerball, you name it. The Thomas Crowne Affair (1968) is a snazzy romantic crime flick in which a wealthy Steve McQueen (Bullitt) steals and then woos insurance investigator Faye Dunaway (Network). Though the energy may lag at times in the middle it does sport some super 60s collage camera tricks, some great twists, and one of the sexiest chess games ever filmed. Perhaps the biggest reason why I liked this one so much was the theme song. It’s like what “The Self Preservation Society” song added to the original Italian Job. “The Windmills of Your Mind” is such a deliriously near-nonsensical 60s song. It was written by Michel Legrand with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and sung by Rex Harrison’s song, Noel.

“No. Your voice is stupid.”

Enough has been written about Christopher Nolan and his Batman movies so what else could I say? The Dark Knight Rises(2012) is a bit clunky and sprawling with a lot of seemingly wasted ideas peppered throughout and most of the action is not that satisfying, but you gotta give it a lot of credit for trying to be so epic and being the most un-superhero movie perhaps ever. I liked the beginning a lot where Batman is a retired recluse—even if I’ll never buy Christian Bale in a beard. I still kinda wish Tom Hardy’s Bane was more like Bronson. Now that would have been a movie! Dark Knight Rises is a bit of a mess and, yes it might be overly long and overly serious, but it was good enough for the previous two installments. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are not perfect movies either, but they are entertaining overall. For me Batman was never better than in Batman: The Animated Series from the early 90s, perhaps mainly because they capture the mysteriousness and some of the weird detective atmosphere. Rises is a fitting conclusion if a bit unwieldy. The darkly satirical jab at Occupy Wall Street worked for me too for the most part. We could have done without Matthew Modine and the Robin bit at the end, but maybe the Scarecrow cameo evens it all out somehow.

“Well, hurray for Captain Spalding…”

If you like stuff like My Dinner With Andre (1981) or Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party (2005)—which I did—then maybe you’re ready for Swimming to Cambodia (1987). Spalding Gray’s (True Stories) one man show is essentially a monologue that ties together several events from his life during the filming of The Killing Fields. Directed by Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married), but really I suppose it could have been directed by anyone, this movie takes you into Gray’s life and his unique point of view on the world. Despite being essentially one man sitting on a dark stage narrating several personal accounts I can’t say I was ever bored. Spalding Gray is an entertainer and knows how to weave a good yarn.

Oh What Fun:

“Yessir. Nobody knows the wild west quite like Italians.”

Here’s another who, like Thomas Crowne Affair, I wound up liking even more because of the theme song. Spaghetti westerns really are their own genre. They are not just cowboy movies made in Italy. There are more violent, subversive, and gritty. Director Sergio Corbucci may not be Sergio Leone, but Django (1966) starring Franco Nero (Camelot, Die Hard 2) is definitely worth checking out. A nameless gunslinger wanders through the desert dragging a coffin. Already such wonderful mythic imagery! Folks inquire as to who is in the coffin, but Django always answers cryptically. Since Django claims no allegiances he finds himself at war with two feuding gangs. Fortunately he is a resourceful fellow…also his coffin is actually the case for a Gatling gun. Think part Fistful of Dollars (1964) and part Desperado (1995).

“I’m the Pinball Wizard you heard tell about.”

I have a confession to make. I only recently saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975). It’s the story of a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard (Roger Daltrey) who becomes a cult leader. I like Oliver Reed (The Devils) and I like the Who and I liked a lot of the songs and guest stars (Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, etc.) but I don’t think it’s my favorite. It really has some solid scenes and some great songs, but I admit I began to feel exhausted and tired before the end. Ken Russell’s style can be very abrasive and I think it works for this story overall, but it just ran out of steam for me. I felt I had seen all its tricks too soon. The beans scene kinda grossed me out a little. Jack Nicholson’s cameo was a fun surprise though and the music kept me hooked.

*Bang*

French filmmaker Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires) made hundreds of films between 1906 and 1924 and popularized the series form. I recently stumbled upon the Fantômas series which is comprised of five movies made between 1913 and 1914. They concern a diabolical criminal and master of disguise, Fantômas (René Navarre), and his detective pursuer, Inspector Juve (Edmond Bréon). While the stories themselves may feel slow and dated, they do have their moments of style and fun pulpy flair. The cliffhanger endings were good and some of the seedy Parisian underbelly nods were a lot of fun, but the real reason I liked them so much was simple: these suckers are one hundred years old. When these old timey guys are hopping trains and trolleys on cobblestone streets and dousing gaslights in their bowler hats and ludicrous mustaches you gotta remember; this is their contemporary world. Watching the Fantômas movies is like watching history. I love silent comedies, but most of the ones I watch are American, and I love German Expressionism, but those are all filmed on stylized sets. Fantômas goes outside in what is, to me, a foreign land in a different time.

“You take that back what you said about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Another confession. I hadn’t seen Guy Ritchie’s rough ‘n’ tumble crime comedy, Snatch (2000). Am I last person in America to see it? Maybe. I won’t say much about it, except that I had a lot of fun watching it, and while it may not measure up to Sexy Beast, this all-star brawl might be my favorite thing Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) has done. Foul-mouthed, fast-talking, violent crooks, macho hooligans, and too-tough mafiosos not your thing? Look elsewhere. Brad Pitt and the whole cast are great in this ensemble of cool. The style is manic and in your face, yet controlled and very sly. Sometimes I like a movie that just loves being a movie. Snatch is one of those.

Tralalala:

“I’m not gay. I’m an entertainer.”

I actually had to watch Casablanca (1942) again before I fully appreciated Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972). Liza Minelli (who has always made me feel uncomfortable for some reason) stars as Sally Bowles, the sexual starlit of the Kit Kat Klub in Weimar Republic Germany. As she romances her way into the lives of two men, one being the uptight stranger Brian Roberts (Michael York), it seems that things are getting harder in Germany as the Nazi Party begins its rise to power. The relationships between the characters are rich and fascinating, but I found the off-the-cuff representation of the setting to be particularly interesting. Here’s a movie set in the years leading up to WWII and it’s not really a political story and it leaves no resolution to the mounting political tensions. It’s the story of people during a specific time. Yes, they all have feelings regarding the encroaching fascist regime and singing Nazi youth, and yes our historical hindsight gives us, the viewer, a more suspenseful narrative than the characters can perceive, and it is here where the film’s power lies. They are all caught up in the march of history. I also enjoyed Joel Gray’s flamboyant performance as the emcee. There are a few really memorable scenes, one being the eerie final moments, that stay with you after the film is over.

“Yeah, I’m still here.”

Before Steve Martin, Spencer Tracy was Father of the Bride (1950). Spencer Tracy (Judgement at Nuremberg, Bad Day at Black Rock) is a great actor, but his subtle and sly wit is rarely at the forefront. He always has that secret twinkle of wisdom, but in Vincente Minelli’s Father of the Bride he is the comic victim of fatherhood. When his daughter, Kay (Elizabeth Taylor), tells him she’s getting married his imagination and fears get the better of him. Soon he’s spending more money than he ever thought and gradually realizing the shifting role of a father as he watches his daughter grow up. Perhaps an interesting double-feature with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

“This is not a cave painting. This is actually a tattoo on the side of my torso.”

The camera pushes in and through the black, mystery-enshrouded shadows we see…rocks. Werner Herzog’s documentary on cave paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), is enigmatic and captivating. These old stones tell stories and present day scientists are learning more and more about the complex artistry committed to the walls thousands of years ago. Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) knows how to be interesting and he manages to give the subject an almost mythic quality as he interviews experts who do not see our long dead ancestors as being that distant. There even seems to be hints to a deeply spiritual nature tucked away within all mankind. It was originally made for 3D, but I saw it on TV and it was fine.

Gotta Love It:

“You boys ain’t from around here, are you?”

Next up it’s an Israeli film directed by Eran Kolirin called The Band’s Visit (2007). For those who enjoy quiet melancholy and gentle cultural humor this is a great story. An Egyptian police band, sent to play at an Arab arts center inauguration, gets on the wrong bus and winds up in a podunk Israeli town. Like Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, this is a comedy that deals with different cultures that do not always get along. The slow, subtle setups are perfect and the sad but sweet relationship between the band leader (Sasson Gabai) and a rather progressive local woman (Ronit Elkabetz) give the movie a solid emotional core, while the peripheral characters are free to provide humorous segues. I chuckled throughout and then felt a small well of sadness…but in a good way. The Band’s Visit is touching, simple, and sublime.

“A hasty jest, you say? I shall make ribbons of them.”

I like swashbuckling and I like a well-placed verse. Cyrano de Bergerac(1950) has both to spare. José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny) gives a spectacularly energetic and sharp performance—one that got him an Oscar—as the legendary tragic poet and swordsman whose vanity and large nose keep him from revealing his true feelings to the woman he loves. He must feed sugary lines to another man to court her, and thus his self-wrought torment goes. While it might lose some steam by the end it’s almost understandable considering how vigorous it is at the outset. Cyrano de Bergerac is a classic tale filled with wonderful swordplay, even sharper wordplay, and a wonderful balance between comedy and tragedy. The film is good enough on its own, but it is Ferrer’s dynamic performance that elevates it to greater heights.

“So French it hurts.”

I liked The Artist (2011), but something made me appreciate director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin even more. OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS117: Lost in Rio (2009) are what did it. Dujardin plays the ridiculously dimwitted, chauvinistic, racist, and closed-minded French secret agent, OSS117, in what might best be described as a sort of European Austin Powers. They might be a little more stylish and classy, but they’re just as funny. Between Dujardin’s hilarious elastic facial expressions and Hazanavicius’s camera tricks that successfully parody the film styles of the 1950s and 1960s, both movies are a hoot. There are some truly fantastically funny sequences in these guys. It was even funnier coming so close after watching The Thomas Crowne Affair. I laughed quite hard and I got an even better appreciation for their more recent send-up of silent Hollywood films with The Artist. Whether you’re a James Bond fan or not, odds are you will enjoy these very pleasing comedies.

The Crescendo Swells:

“Cogsworth? Lumiere?”

I recently re-watched Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) and I only mention it here because I only liked it before. Now I admire it. You know the story—or at least the sanitized versions—so I need not go into detail. I will say this though, it is refreshing to see a fairytale that respects its audience. This is a rich, imaginative film that is written seemingly almost without children in mind. Surely they will enjoy the magic and the special effects, but there is an interesting maturity to the story. Cocteau’s brilliant and innovative style are wonderful to behold and his small touches of gazing statues and candelabras suspended by human arms forming out of the walls are still dazzling and fun.

“Ah. Douglas. I knew your father.”

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) was remade several times, but only once with the incomparable Ronald Colman (Lost Horizon). This one is another swashbuckler and again, it is the leading man that makes it so memorable. It’s a classic tale of mistaken identities, when a vacationing Brit meets his doppelganger, who happens to be royalty (Colman plays both roles). When the monarch is drugged, the tourist must take his place until things can be sorted out and the coup availed. Assisting Ronald Colman is a stellar cast including C. Aubrey Smith (Tarzan the Ape Man), Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon), Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps), Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Gunga Din), Raymond Massey (East of Eden), and a young David Niven (Around the World in 80 Days). The sword fights and intrigue are great, but Ronald Colman is just always so English and understated that I believe everything he says.

“Should I tell him about ‘The Hebrew Hammer?'”

Maybe I give this one too much credit, but I was in the right mood. 2 Days in Paris (2007) is like if Woody Allen were French and he were adapting Meet the Parents. But it’s all Julie Delpy. She wrote, directed, and starred in this playfully painful analysis of a romance turning sour. In many ways it feels like an extension of her character from Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Delpy’s writing is sharp and clever and Adam Goldberg (Saving Private Ryan) is excellent as the exasperated American boyfriend trying to hold it all together. Neither character is wholly likable, which maybe gives it that cynical edge that I find invigorating. I always find it refreshing when comedies can be totally believable. I have not seen her sequel, 2 Days in New York with Chris Rock, but I don’t know how it could be better than this funny and insightful movie.

“Sorry if Batman didn’t make it high enough for you.”

You either like Guy Maddin or you don’t. Odds are, if you’ve heard of him, you probably like him. Maddin has mad a career out of making movies that look like they were made in the 1930s. From Archangel to The Saddest Music in the World, he is always tinkering and playing with what a film can be and how far the language of old cinema can be stretched. My Winnipeg (2007) is particularly interesting because it’s halfway to being a documentary, but with fantastical flourishes that Herzog might even be afraid to pull. It’s the story of Guy Maddin trying to film his way out of the terminally dreary Canadian city of Winnipeg. He tries to re-stage fragments of his childhood with his controlling mother playing herself while he also tries to reassemble lost memories and warped bits of Canadian history to figure out who he is and what Winnipeg has become. It’s a totally surreal and somewhat hypnotic fairytale of nostalgia raped by the passage of time and the longing to escape one’s past and move on. Not really fiction, not entirely fact. My Winnipeg lies on the fringe and obviously relishes every bent minute of it there. I kind of love it.

But enough about me. What did you see last? Anything good?

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See, Here’s the Thing…from Another World

The face of science fiction is an ever-evolving curiosity. Every era brings something new and exciting. Whether it is Jules Verne or Isaac Asimov that tickles your fancy, you like your science fiction clever and full of wonder. If you like space aliens, suspense, and sharp dialogue you will love the Howard Hawks’ film, The Thing from Another World (1951).

When you examine the ambitious roots of the sci-fi flick it’s really quite a wonder. Science fiction, by nature has to be audacious. That’s what I loved about the Victorian era of science fiction: space was still full of immeasurable potential and possibilities. When Georges Melies made his amazing Trip to the Moon in 1902 the world got a taste for what worlds beyond could look like. The bulk of early science fiction movies explored the wonder and awesome possibilities of outer space. By the time the 1950s rolled around space still held a lot of wonder and excitement, but there was also increased fear and the movies became more ominous, foreboding, and frightening. The movies began reflecting fears of communism, wars, etc. Rather than bold scientists traveling to the moon, this next tier of science fiction dealt more with the warning and horrors of spacemen coming to our planet. . . and turning out to be not so friendly. I think this concept was best encapsulated in The Thing From Another World.

The Thing has it all. An alien flying saucer crash-lands in The Arctic Circle near a military research base (or something. . . it really doesn’t matter). An alien (James Arness), encased in a block of ice, is retrieved from the spacecraft. It is brought back to the base to be studied more closely. Before long, an absent-minded soldier (suspecting the creature to be staring at him through the ice) flees his post and leaves an electric blanket on the ice block. Naturally the thaw is accelerated and the creature escapes his frozen prison. It soon becomes very apparent that this is a miraculous yet dangerous discovery so we naturally get the classic tri-corner conflict: the military who wants to destroy it to protect humanity vs. the scientist who is blinded by the possibilities of contact with an alien race and will sacrifice humanity to keep the contact alive vs. the reporter who just wants to get the scoop.

The alien is ubiquitous, but rarely seen—except for a few key scenes—and requires the blood of animals and people to sustain life. The scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), soon discovers that the space creature is more plant than animal. The scientist also discovers (but keeps it to himself) that the alien has shed spores to grow more creatures like it. Carrington, believing the creature to be superior to mankind, wants to communicate with it and allow it to take over the earth. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), will not allow the creature to go on killing innocent people. The reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), can’t get a single clear picture of the monster. And there’s your trifecta.

Did I mention that the monster was also radioactive? Didn’t have to, right? Because it’s a 50s science fiction movie! You already knew. The radioactivity shtick is more than just a gimmick to be topical in this movie, however. They use it in a very clever way. There is a Geiger counter that ticks and crackles louder and louder whenever the creature gets closer. This adds a welcome dose of suspense and it is used to great affect.

As a blizzard limits their mobility, the monster continues to suck the blood of the captain’s men and sled dogs while it also systematically cutting off their power, forcing the people into smaller and smaller confines on the base. If you saw Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) you may spot some similarities: a rarely seen phantom monster bumps off characters in gruesome ways while slowly cutting off the supplies and places to hide and getting closer and closer. Same thing, except instead of being trapped in outer space they’re trapped in a research base in the frozen arctic. The 1982 remake of The Thing put its own twists on things. John Carpenter’s The Thing is more of a reimagining of the Howard Hawks original. The remake has the creature replicating people and infiltrating the base in even more horrific ways. It’s a gross out feature with some great, disturbing special effects from Rob Bottin and Kurt Russell in mascara. Some days I like John Carpenter’s version even better than the original, but not today.

So we’ve covered the basics of this film: a blood-sucking six-foot vegetable man is roaming around the tundra and many people are all locked inside a rapidly shrinking base awaiting their fates. The scientist wants to preserve the monster at all costs and the military wants to stop it from killing again. All the classic moves, but what makes this particular film stand apart from the hundreds of other spaceman movies that came out around this time? Answer: the characters and the writing. While a lot of 50s sci-fi horror is campy and loopy and loves its stoically wooden protagonists, The Thing From Another World is firstly interested in the people. It’s not all about the monster out there in the snow. This movie is more about the human struggle to find reason and understanding amongst each other. There is a lack of trust between many of the main characters (mainly from Dr. Carrington) and this leads to many a great debate about the significance or insignificance of the human race. I’ve painted the characters rather broadly in this article, but I assure you they have much more dimension than the strict ideologies they represent. Then there’s the writing. When I first saw this film at around age 14 I was actually really impressed with the sharp, witty dialogue. I was used to the more hokey aphorism-riddled verbal interplay of the standard old-timey B-movie (a genre I actually really like) and was taken aback that they had gone for more. The story is fascinating and tightly woven and the characters are all fully realized (there may be a bit of melodramatic acting here and there, but that’s all part of the fun).

The Thing from Another World is also genuinely suspenseful and thrilling. It has some very memorable and chilling scenes. Whether it be a group of soldiers and scientists standing around the shadow of the flying saucer buried in the snow, or an ice-covered eye glaring relentlessly at a frightened guard, or a twitching severed vegetable hand on an operating table, or ominously pulsing alien pods growing in a closet, this film has the cards to play and knows exactly when to play them. We don’t see the monster often, but you won’t be bored with the human element (a criminal mistake of many a forgettable B-movie is to make the monster immensely more enjoyable than the people and then never showing it). It’s not by chance that The Thing is regarded as a classic. I think it is one of the best representations from this genre.

So if you loved Alien (1979) or John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) or if you love the older classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) or if you just always wondered what they were watching on the TV set in that one scene from Halloween (1978) then check out The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s a very enjoyable film and I think you’ll like it.

picture references:

ferdyonfilms.com

eons.com

homestead.com

dvdtimes.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 6, 2010

The Toys are Back in Town

It was dark and we were returning from Albany. As the heavy Northeastern rains pummeled the little gold Chevy with the raging gusto of a typhoon we thought back on the evening’s occurrences. We had done something we had joked about doing but perhaps never fully planned on it actually happening. The wipers blinked for the windshield and the events of barely an hour ago finally took root in our stuffed brains.

We had watched Toys (1992) again.

Every so often a filmmaker has a passion project. Something that only he or she understands. Sometimes it’s a masterpiece. Like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes it’s not. Like John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974). Toys is not.

Perhaps director Barry Levinson gets crapped on too much. True he did Envy (2004) and Man of the Year (2006), but he also did stuff like Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), and Wag the Dog (1997). Not so small confession: I actually liked Sphere (1998) and Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). He’s got some solid films under his belt. So why shouldn’t Barry Levinson get to make his huge passion project that only he understands? Because it’s Toys. That’s why.

Most folks probably don’t even remember Toys. It did poorly when it originally came out and never really became popular. I suppose it has a strange cult following in the right circles. Toys is one of those films that haunted me in the video stores of my childhood. Such an appealingly surreal cover…and starring Robin Williams. The portrait of whimsy which was its VHS box was in curious contrast to its PG-13 rating. When I finally saw it years ago I was confused. In many ways it resembles a competent film. It has absolutely fantastic set designs and art direction—courtesy of Fernando Scarfiotti (The Last Emperor) and Linda DeScenna (Blade Runner). In this way it still resembles a sumptuous and imaginative children’s story. The story isn’t even all bad. It’s a simple tale of the clash between silly gentle toys and encroaching war toys and violent video games. It even has a pretty interesting cast that includes Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), Michael Gambon (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover), Robin Wright (The Princess Bride), Joan Cusack (Toy Story 2), LL Cool J (Deep Blue Sea), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons), Arthur Malet (Hook), Jack Warden (Being There), Jamie Foxx (In Living Color), and even Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). Weird lineup? I said interesting cast.

I did appreciate bits of it a little more on this second and more recent viewing. I must admit that there are a few delightfully askew ideas sloshing around in this clunky and embarrassingly slow and unengaging movie, but ultimately things never seems to click. It’s like Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980); it’s bad, but it’s weird-bad and you can’t look away. Robin Williams is a somewhat undefined childlike toy inventor named Leslie Zevo. When Leslie’s kindly father (O’Connor) dies the toy factory is given to Papa Zevo’s warmongering nephew Lt. General Leland Zevo (Gambon) who has an unquenchable desire to please his own stern and dying military father (Warden). Obviously the General takes over and the factory ceases production of cuddly whimsical toys in favor of manipulative violent tools to groom young minds for military service and destruction.

There’s a desperation in the film. Despite some pretty and intriguing images (occasionally inspired by Rene Magritte it would seem) it feels empty, exhausting, and slow. There’s no heart. The dialogue is all hushed whispers, like Mr. Rogers on Valium. Toys is so quiet! A movie this big and zany looking deserves a little energy and life. Robin Williams is bizarrely understated and doesn’t have a strong character and he’s hard to relate to as Leslie Zevo, not to mention the fact that he’s been a lot funnier in other things. The music’s kinda bad too and awkwardly dates the project. Sorry, Hans Zimmer.

Then there’s the pacing which feels off and despite amazing sets and some great subtle visual gags involving the scenery, the film feels joyless and extremely talkie. This is probably why the film was not aimed at kids. While it has an infant sort of logic to it and the colors are tantalizing, the movie would put them to sleep. Then there’s the one real reason the kids shouldn’t see it: Robin Williams’ sex scene with Robin Wright. That’s right. There’s steamy premarital Robin on Robin action in this flick. OK, so you don’t see anything, but you hear them and you see her take her bra off and then it falls on a spying robot. Then you see Jamie Foxx becoming aroused in a spy van as he listens to Williams’ sex grunts. It’s sick.


Towards the end Williams gives a mash-up of about thirty inspirational speeches to an impromptu army of gentle toys just before they get slaughtered in battle. Can you not seize the day hard enough? I sure can’t. Who is he talking to? The audience? Himself? I wonder if the non-sentient toys can sense him just going through the motions. He seems about as disinterested in the project as Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Bill Murray had more energy in Ghostbusters 2 for godsakes.

The best things in Toys are the small cute touches like a Zevo car having to stop in the hallway for toy ducks to pass, but they are not enough. Toys is mind-numbingly slow. And I’m a Tarkovsky fan! The characters are inexcusably shallow and uninteresting (Gambon having the most interesting character but he still feels half-baked). The few jokes there are are forgettable, too understated, and spookily quiet. It’s not really a children’s movie and it’s not really an adult movie. I can’t even defend it as an art movie. What is Toys?

Toys is Barry Levinson’s Zardoz.

Forget what Toys is. What the blazes is a sea swine? There’s an unexplained amorphous cybernetic amphibious creature towards the end whose existence is accepted a little too readily by the characters. Is it a real animal the General has tampered with genetically? Is it a squishy robot that needs to live in murky water? If it resembles more of a snail-like graboid where do they get off calling it a “swine?”

I get what is trying to happen and what the story is trying to do and say and maybe the advent of drone warfare makes the film eerily more prescient, but I don’t think it all congeals into an appealing whole. It’s a sloppy, clunky shipwreck in a sea of nursery and bubble-bathtub softness. So why did I take the time to write about Toys if I hate it so much? Well, I guess I don’t hate it. I admire what was trying to happen and I really do love the art design and a few of the set gags. I guess I don’t know why I wrote about it. Something about Toys, although it is largely a forgettable experience, sticks in the back of my mind, so much that we had to watch it again years later just to see if it was real. Toys really is not a good movie and I don’t know how pleased Levinson was with the final product, but it’s nowhere near as weird-bad as Super Mario Bros. (1993) which might even be weirder in addition to being worse.

Ultimately it’s bad, but it’s uniqueness makes it sort of something special. At the end of the day maybe we can at least say Toys was weirder than Howard the Duck (1986), but maybe just as hard to watch. So go watch it. What do I care.