THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XIII – Avengers 2 is in there somewhere, I wager.

I am unstoppable. As always, organized by my increasing enjoyment of them.

Meh/Misguided:

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

Shine on, you crazy monkey.

I imagine the helper monkey industry suffered a blow after this flick hit VCR’s across America. George Romero (yeah, THAT George Romero) directs this horror thriller about a quadriplegic law student whose monkey-nurse, Ella, links minds with him to exact a series of revenge killings in Monkey Shines (1988). It’s ridiculous, silly, and full of laughable monologues, but that’s kinda why I watched it. Stupid, but enjoyable because it is so nonsensical  and stupid. John Pankow and Stanley Tucci co-star.

"Ridiculous."

“Ridiculous.”

I was truly disappointed. Dirty Work (1998) may star comic geniuses, Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange (and feature Don Rickles, Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Jack Warden, and be directed by Bob Saget), but it has that lazy, squeaky clean Happy Madison stamp all over it. The movie wastes Norm and Artie’s talents with the obvious, by-the-numbers plot and yawn-inducing script. It has one or two entertaining scenes and some great line deliveries speckled throughout, but for a big Norm MacDonald fan this was a letdown. It does, however, boast the funniest prison rape scene.

Better, but still kinda meh:

"Henchman" doesn't sound as cute, I guess.

“Henchman” doesn’t sound as cute, I guess.

Gru is an evil genius who wants to prove his thievery prowess is not outdated by stealing the moon. He adopts three orphan girls who show him the value of family. He has an army of eraser-like minions for comic relief and added cuteness factor. Despicable Me (2010) is a likable enough little film with some nice design and cool gadgets, but it never quite wows.

Wokka. Wokka.

Wokka. Wokka.

For completion’s sake I watched Muppets Most Wanted (2014). It’s not exactly a bad movie, just maybe not a great Muppet movie. The stuff that works best is the stuff that’s a little more daring, unusual, and un-Muppety, while the Muppets themselves feel somewhat stale and lost in the wrong movie. I chuckled at a few gags, I enjoyed the gulag stuff, and I liked a few of the songs quite a bit, but I think these Muppets need to retire or be taken in a more interesting direction.

Okay…:

Get it?

Get it?

Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) directs this pitch black comedy about mental illness starring Ryan Reynolds. The Voices (2014) is not funny. Comedic mainly in premise and presentation, its content is downright disturbing. Jerry (Reynolds) talks to his dog and cat and they talk right back. Representing opposing sides of his chemically imbalanced brain, they confuse him to the point of serial murder. The voices themselves (also played by Reynolds) are well defined and interesting, the cinematography and effects are handled beautifully, and the supporting cast (Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, and Jacki Weaver) are fine, but for some reason I could never shake the uncomfortable meshing of horror with this strange sense of comedy. In Monsieur Verdoux it works because he’s not mentally ill, he’s just a greedy, murdering jerk. Maybe it’s brilliant and I’m just missing it, but for me this was a tragedy in comedy clothing.

Jane

Hiya, big boys. Ya miss me?

Bob Hope spews one-liners and Jane Russell is tough as nails in the cowboy comedy, The Paleface (1948). It’s not Bob Hope’s best and it bears a lot of the cringe-worthy Native American stereotypes common of this era of Hollywood. The whole time I kept wishing it was My Little Chickadee with W.C. Fields and Mae West (the married relationships in both movies are similar). It’s whatever. All in all, an inoffensive comedy romp…except for Native Americans.

1

Spoiler alert: we’re all full of alien ghosts.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) is a documentary about the Church of Scientology. We see all the seedy inner workings, the lies, the scandals, the power struggles, the ruined lives. It’s something that would be truly interesting to someone who had no idea what the Church of Scientology was prior to viewing. The movie is a great primer and lesson in cult practices with genuinely fascinating central figures. My problem was that I was familiar with most of this stuff before I watched it so it never struck me as anything groundbreaking. Having visited their free museum in Hollywood and gotten a free street stress test (for laughs) already, I gotta say: they do a crap job of covering up being a pack of deranged wackos. Someone who needs this documentary to tell them that has clearly never discussed Scientology with a Scientologist before. It’s an important expose on stuff that should already be common knowledge.

Now with more tableaux vivants.

Now with more tableaux vivants!

A Field in England (2013) is a black-and-white minimalist psychedelic period drama set in an empty field near a 17th century battle. If that doesn’t get you, you probably won’t like this. A cruel alchemist enlists some deserters to dig up treasure for him. There is eating of magic mushrooms and violence. It’s slow and weird and has a lot of dick. It had some individual scenes I really enjoyed, but I never “got” what it was about. Maybe I need to watch it again.

Fun:

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yep. Hulk smashes again.

Yeah, yeah. I saw Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s Avenger’s: Age of Ultron (2015). I’ll come clean, I still don’t entirely get the appeal of most of the Marvel superhero movies. I don’t think they’re all bad movies. They just all look like the same candy-colored cartoon violence buildings-exploding movies. I never feel the weight of the threat and I never really feel tension or suspense in any of them. Call Nolan’s Batmans overly dour and brooding, but at least I felt the tension and stakes. That said, the best bits for me were the smaller character moments (Thor’s face when Captain Planet almost moves the hammer) and some of the dialogue was punchy and fun. Most of the action blurs together, but I did enjoy Iron Man fighting the Hulk. Not having read the comics, I have no idea what the magic stone things are or what they do or what the flying robot guy with the cape was or what his powers are and a bunch of other stuff was lost on me, but I can’t say it was a poorly done movie. It was exactly what I thought it would be and exactly what the audience is looking for, I’m sure.

Argh, it's a  bug's life for me.

Argh, it’s a bug’s life for me.

If you thought A Bug’s Life was too talkie, check out Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2013). Based on a series of French short animations, this quirky comedy features adorable cartoon bugs against real life backgrounds. Wordless, and relying entirely upon humorously juxtaposed sound effects (flying beetles sound like car traffic), wide-eyed expressiveness, and cuteness factor, the film tells the story of a lost baby ladybug who helps a colony of ants protect its bounty of sugar cubes. It’s slight and simple, but cute and clever enough to sustain your attention. The chases and battles are pretty fun.

A Trip:

"No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived."---James Randi

“No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”—James Randi

I’m a fan of magician, skeptic, and chicanery-exposing James Randi. An Honest Liar (2014) is a documentary that covers portions of his fascinating life (mirroring much of the life-trajectory of Houdini) and his mission to reveal spiritualist con-artists for the charlatans they are. It’s a loving tribute to the old codger. Like Going Clear, it may not cover anything new for people already familiar with the man’s life work, but it was nice to see it all in one place.

Most reckless family project ever!

Most reckless family project ever!

In all honesty, Roar (1981) is not a good movie. Yet, I love it. Meant to be squirrelly family comedy with animal hijinks, the film actually plays like a taut, nail-biting thriller. Let’s back up. Tippi Hedren (The Birds) wanted to make a movie with lions. In order to realize her dream, she and her family raised hundreds of lions and big cats for several years. The story shows a family trapped in a house with these aforementioned hundreds of lions (and a few tigers, cheetahs, panthers, and a couple bull African elephants). Wacky, right? Except there’s no special effects or stunts. It’s just an actual family in constant peril and threat of being mauled by mobs of wild carnivores. It is one of the most insane movies I’ve ever seen. Much of the cast and crew (including Tippi’s children) sustained multiple injuries from animal attacks throughout the filming. This film is madness manifest.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can't be all bad.

Any movie that blows up a Coke machine can’t be all bad.

The Monkees’ surreal musical Head (1968), may not quite live up to the same high-spirited whimsical anarchy of The Beatles’ films (although, it might be better than Help!), but it’s got enough zany meta quirk powering its engines that it’s still a fun romp. The film is basically a series of mostly unrelated vignettes and episodes mocking television, war, advertising, and whatever else set to some great tunes from The Monkees. Bonus points for having the most bizarre use of Victor Mature ever.

Here at the institute, we're all about science.

Here at the institute, we’re all about science.

Panos Cosmatos concocts a truly weird and deliberately paced sci-fi horror about telepathy in Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Trapped for the purposes of study, a young woman is observed by a cold and mercurial scientist at the Arboria Institute. There isn’t much dialogue and not much is explained, yet the film is so visually striking and surreal that it has a weird appeal. The textures and atmosphere and colors and cinematography are so hypnotic that I could recommend it on aesthetics alone. The brokenness of the doctors is fascinating and the imagery sticks in the mind. Not for everybody, but certainly for some.

The Curious Sandwich:

Yeah...

Yeah…

I re-watched Mike Judge’s cult classic Office Space (1999). I loved it when I first saw it, but strangely it might have been even funnier on this second viewing. Maybe because I now have had experience working in an office and I too have become increasingly critical of the inanity of professional formalities. The movie is still hilarious and still a biting indictment of what adulthood is expected to be. Still Judge’s best film and still a breath of fresh air. The great cast includes Ron Livngston, Gary Cole, Diedrich Bader, Jennifer Aniston, John C. McGinley, and Stephen Root.

Already over "Gangs of New York."

Already over “Gangs of New York.”

Sergio Leone’s films seemed to get longer the older he got. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) feels like the 4 plus hours it is, but its atmosphere is so rich and its scenery so sumptuous that you don’t mind soaking in the beautifully realized details of an old New York City long gone. Robert De Niro and James Woods are Jewish gangsters growing up during the Prohibition. Told in flashback, we witness the friendships, betrayals, murders, and regrets of a lost era. While the movie is slow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful cinematography or New York City look more detailed and gorgeous.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

No animals were harmed or drugged in the making of this motion picture.

Dave Chappelle stars as a weed loving janitor who must raise money with his stoner roommates to get their buddy out of the slammer (he’s jailed for accidentally murdering a diabetic police horse via Funions and pizza). Their plan is to sell weed, but when Chappelle falls in love with a substance teetotaler he has to choose between the kush or the bush. Yes, Half Baked (1998) truly is a stoner classic that I had somehow never watched in its entirety. Thing is, it’s legitimately funny and Chappelle proves to be the perfect leading man for this story. Cast highlights include Steven Wright, Clarence Williams III, Jim Breur, Harland Williams, and a bevy of fun cameos (Tommy Chong, Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo, etc.). Rachel True is hot, but playing a thankless role as the hot girl.

Yeah, I sandwiched Leone’s crime epic between two infantile comedies from our childhood.

Ever Stalwart:

Oh, I'm sure he makes it.

Oh, I’m sure he makes it.

William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933) is a pre-Code Depression-era road drama about kids of laid off fathers who decide to become train-hopping hobos rather than be a financial burden on their families. It’s a simple, if somewhat optimistically unbelievable, premise but the journey they go on is fascinating, mired by troubles, and despite amputations, thuggery, and possible rape somehow still resiliently optimistic. It’s a very American film. It’s a side of humanity that is both harsh and rarely depicted in old Hollywood flicks (sans Charlie Chaplin movies). Gritty yet sweet, Wild Boys of the Road is a curious time capsule that any cinephile should investigate.

"What kind of clown are you?" "The crying on the inside, I guess."

“What kind of clown are you?”
“The crying on the inside, I guess.”

How had I never seen Bill Murray’s only directed movie? [Co-directed with Howard Franklin] Quick Change (1990) is a great comedy about the post bank heist anxieties of trying to navigate New York City to get to the airport on time. Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Randy Quaid are bank robbers who have had enough of the daily grind and so decide to retire early. Jason Robards is the cop hot on their trail. It’s great suspense and great comedy. I was especially pleased to see Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci in supporting roles. Despite Quaid’s overly hammy performance, the movie manages to be a sweetly cynical crime caper.

CONSUME

CONSUME

Much like Half Baked, I had never sat down and watched John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) all the way through. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as a drifter who stumbles upon a secret. When he dons the weird sunglasses he sees the world for what it is: an elaborate advertisement to force humans to blindly consume. Naturally, the conspiracy is all orchestrated by gross, lipless aliens. It’s got some great lines, ridiculous fights, wonderful social satire, and a grim dose of truth. It also has one of the best movie endings ever. EVER! Keith David co-stars.

The Wave Finally Peaks:

This car is ready for the rave.

This car is ready for the rave.

Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton star in Alex Cox’s darkly weird cult sci-fi comedy, Repo Man (1984). Otto (Estevez) is a punk who winds up repossessing cars with a bunch of lunatics who like to pop uppers and wax philosophic about the art of being a repo-man.  It’s a truly unique movie that is neither obvious nor exactly easy, but it is an unforgettable and quirky viewing experience.

Also you'll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Also you’ll want to murder Richard Basehart too while watching this movie.

Federico Fellini directs the great Anthony Quinn in La Strada (1954), but the real star is Giulietta Masina. It’s the story of a poor, naive country girl who is sold to a nomadic strongman. Though she is optimistic and full of wide-eyed wonder and good humor, her sweet character and odd appearance earn her no respect in the eyes of her abusive master. It is a compelling drama set against the landscape of rural Italy.

Life is but a dream.

Life is but a dream.

Robert Altman made some pretty enigmatic movies in his time. As loopy as Brewster McCloud was, 3 Women (1977) might even be more odd…if less obviously so. Sissy Spacek is an awkward country waif who gets a job nursing the elderly. She immediately attaches herself to the awkward and vapid Shelley Duvall character. They develop a strange, uncomfortable bond and bizarre connection with a silent painter played by Janice Rule. After an accident their roles are turned upside down and the mystery of who these characters are only gets weirder. This movie is a quiet type of insanity and I really had no idea where it was going scene to scene. As baffling as much of it is, I kind of loved it. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about it.

"Keep driving."

“Keep driving.”

My favorite of the bunch is The Hitch-Hiker (1953) directed by Ida Lupino. It’s a simple set up. Two fishing buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on their way through Mexico pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be sociopath and serial killer (William Talman). The rest of the film is a series of tense situations as the killer plays sick mind games with the two helpless men as they try to figure a way to communicate and outsmart their captor before he kills them both. It’s a fabulous vintage suspense thriller.

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