Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
I’m not really a fan of horror movies. They’re just too creepy, and generally there’s too much focus on gross-out rather than spook factor for my taste. The ones that are genuinely scary usually just give me screaming nightmares, and why would I want to pay good money for that? There’s a fine balance between those, though, a razor’s edge where horror meets humor known as the macabre, or a finely tuned understanding of suspense that relies on shadows and darkness to send a chill up your spine and give you a twist ending that goes beyond simple surprise and into the realm of revelation. That’s where I like to spend my time, and there are a few movies that rarely seem to get mentioned that exemplify the tone for me.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) – Despite my protests about not liking horror flicks, for reasons I can never fully explain I was a HUGE fan of Tales from the Crypt as a kid. The episode I remember most to this day is “Chop Poker”, and I don’t think I’ve even seen it in twenty years or more. It was just that good. The show as a whole was just my brand of scary – not so long that I couldn’t sit all the way through it, and with that wonderfully gruesome Crypt Keeper giving it all a sick black humor to take the edge off (or twist the knife at the end) to make it all the better. When I found out they were making an entire movie out of it, I was onboard immediately, even before I knew what it was about. And wow, what a movie.
The story is of a man who carries the last of seven mystical keys that hold the blood of Christ and is being chased by demons, who ends up being cornered in a boarding house in the middle of nowhere. This could easily devolve into a B-grade slasher flick except for two things. First, the cast is amazing. Billy Zane alone could carry this movie. He is the most charismatic, compelling, likably vicious and evil villain I have ever seen, and he manages to pull off lines that would fall flat coming from almost anyone else. Jada Pinkett Smith makes a strong and likable (though unusual) heroine, not playing to the usual tropes, and William Sadler brings a surprising depth and humanity to the character Brayker. The rest of the cast delivers solid performances for what are for the most part stock characters, although each has their standout moments.
The other thing that elevates this movie from trash to triumph is the script. It combines a surprisingly deep story with some fantastic writing. With great lines such as “Do me a favor? Don’t scream. Just hear what I’ve gotta say… and then scream” and “You know this ‘Hell on Earth’ business? Big fucking deal – I’ve got hemorrhoids”, the script manages to range all over the emotional terrain from terrifying to tragic to comedic without breaking the moment or the momentum. The Crypt Keeper himself is an added bonus.
Death Becomes Her (1992) – Not a horror movie per se, but definitely a dark comedy that shades more to the dark than the comedy. With an amazing cast that includes Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn, you know you’re in for some solid comedy, but I have to admit I had no idea they could go so dark. The basic plot line revolves around the two women who are old rivals and constantly out to “one up” one another, and they both (unbeknownst to each other) discover a potion of youth and immortality. Of course, immortality isn’t always what you think it is, and things get very weird very fast.
The special effects in this film haven’t aged particularly well, but they’re not bad for what they are, and the performance from both leading ladies more than makes up for it. Bruce Willis manages to turn in a surprisingly subdued performance for people who are used to seeing him as the take-charge action star, and the twist ending is decidedly macabre. There’s more humor than horror, but there’s enough darkness to it to definitely put it in the category of spooky films.
Dark City (1998) – A neo-noir sci-fi flick in the vein of Twelve Monkeys, with the same sort of WTF ending that makes you want to watch the whole thing over again, Dark City is another film that doesn’t really fall into the genre of horror, but the dark and brooding atmosphere of noir definitely puts it in the same general ballpark of suspense and thriller films. A bizarre film that revolves around the unfolding story of John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell) and the ominously named Strangers, Dark City has plenty of action but also more than a little pop philosophy for those who are inclined to mix some thinking into their entertainment. There’s also a strong performance from the always entertaining Kiefer Sutherland. I could go into more detail, but frankly that would take away most of the joy of watching this unique film. Better to try it for yourself and enjoy the bittersweet ending.
There you have it, my picks for a dark and stormy night, when the wind is howling and the ghouls are knocking at the door. Halloween is fast approaching, so if you’re looking for something different for your filmfest than the usual slasher fare or zombierama, give ‘em a try. Just don’t blame me if you have to sleep with the light on.
Everyone loves a good episode of “Before They Were Stars”, but all they ever show you in those are things that (when you get right down to it) are pretty boring. I mean really, how many times can you look at someone’s high school yearbook photos and think “wow, [insert famous person] was a regular Joe just like me!” Or even worse, watch one of those insipid “child star” commercials where someone’s parents got them to say “Mommy, I want Endorsed Product for lunch!”
But you know what is fun? Digging up those lesser known films they did early in their careers and seeing who was really a star even back then, especially when the movie was… how can I phrase this delicately… not up to the caliber of the cast. Here are some of my favorites.
Legend (1985) – Coming off of Risky Business but before his major role in Top Gun cemented him as THE leading man for all time, Tom Cruise needed a big role, something that would really showcase his talent. And who better to star with than the inestimable Tim Curry? What could possibly go wrong? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Legend. This fantasy film is so over the top, so invested with its own self-importance, it’s impossible to describe. The amazing thing about it is, despite everything that should be wrong with it, from the script to the storyline to the sheer “glitter” of it all, it somehow works. Tom Cruise manages to bring his trademark charisma to the role of Jack, and Tim Curry is brilliantly malevolent and at the same time somehow empathetic as the Darkness (but then, he’s Tim Curry).
Hackers (1995) – Some movies just can’t help churning out stars. Long before 1999’s Girl, Interrupted put her on most people’s radar, Angelina Jolie was burning up the screen in this delightful film that IMDB calls an “action/crime/drama” and every real-life hacker I’ve ever known has called a comedy. Either way, Jolie brought amazing presence and style to the role of Kate, helping to boost this slick, stylish film above its otherwise ridiculous premise. T.V. fans may also be surprised to see Johnny Lee Miller, who plays Sherlock Holmes on CBS’s Elementary as protagonist Dade Murphy. Matthew Lillard from FX’s The Bridge plays a major supporting role as Cereal Killer, as well as establishing one of the best jokes, intentional or not, I have ever seen in film history (to get the rest of the joke, go watch Scream).
Stand By Me (1986) – What would you say if I offered you a movie starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Cusack? How about I include that it was based on a novella by Stephen King? Want more? OK, just for you I’ll throw in Wil Wheaton, Lord of the Internet and God of Nerds. And all of them (ok, maybe not Richard Dreyfuss) look so young. This is early in their careers, the first big role for almost all of them, but you could never prove it by me. The power and intensity of this coming of age story is enormous, and the emotional gravity of it will leave you drained by the end. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale (did I mention it was based on a Stephen King story?), but it is surprisingly reassuring. You won’t want to watch it again right away, but you’ll find yourself coming back to look at it again.
As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:
WARNING! WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! I WILL BE DISCUSSING TELEVISION SHOWS AND MOVIES THAT HAVE BEEN OUT FOR AT LEAST A YEAR OR LONGER. PLEASE AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM AND STILL CARE.
Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?
Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.
So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?
Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?
A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?
I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.
I’ve been taking some time off this week, and as always that means I’ve been exposing myself to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entertainment world so that you, my loyal readers, won’t have to. I’ve got a trio of movies for you this time, ranging from family friendly fare to art house Shakespeare, and theaters-only to cable-exclusives.
First up is the Joss Whedon re-imagining of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve got a huge man-crush on Whedon, but I also have an undying love for Shakespeare that is as intense as My Not So Humble Wife’s passionate hatred for him (which she can even express in iambic pentameter). Considering my strong and mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado (I loved most of it, but there were some serious casting problems, especially Keanu Reeves as Don John), I approached this film with some joy and much trepidation. The fact that it was shot in twelve days during what amounted to a vacation in the middle of making The Avengers added a certain amount of uncertainty as well.
Fortunately there was nothing to be concerned about and everything to cheer for (even the wife liked it). The entire movie played smoothly, with a cool hipster-jazz influenced feel. Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice revive the on screen chemistry that long-time Whedon fans will remember from later seasons of Angel. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and well played, and the staging is perfect. Fran Kranz turns in a solid performance as Claudio, bringing a believable yet charismatic youth and impetuousness to the character without being emo, and Jillian Morgese is charming and reserved as Hero.
My personal favorite surprise was Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. I have never really understood nor appreciated the humor of this character before, particularly since every time I have seen the show Dogberry is overplayed and chewing the scenery (Michael Keaton, I’m looking squarely at you). Fillion brings a surprisingly subdued turn to the role, and by underplaying it actually makes it much funnier, as well as giving his fellow ensemble members a chance to shine.
While I’m on the subject of ensembles, I may as well talk about Pitch Perfect. Yes, I watched this film, mostly because My Not So Humble Sister said it was funny. I hate admitting she’s right about anything (see the part about her being my sister), but I have to admit it was pretty good. It’s about what you would expect, but there are some ways that it manages to rise above itself. In addition to having some really stellar a cappella performances, the film makes a few inside jokes subverting the very form of film it is (my favorite being when Beca (Anna Kendrick) mocks movies that have the exact plotline of the movie she’s in). Another great bit of comedic subversion in the film is Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Rather than being the typical shy fat girl who needs to develop self-confidence, “discover herself” and open up, Amy is played as a strong, confident woman from the start. She also has plenty of well-sculpted young men keeping her company in her palatial estate over Spring Break, another nice change from expected norms.
The film does unfortunately have some downsides. They play to the lesbian stereotype more than a little, and there is more than a little bit of gross-out humor (some of which is so far over the top I couldn’t even watch). The plot is also so derivative that, as previously mentioned, they felt the need to mock it in the movie. That only gets you so far.
All that having been said, if you’re looking for something relatively light, relatively fun, and not in any way taxing, Pitch Perfect definitely hits the mark.
I also finally got to see Puss in Boots. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, because Puss has become about the only character from Shrek that I can watch for more than five minutes without feeling the need to punch something. It’s not that I don’t like the Shrek franchise, it’s just that I get tired of the same joke after hearing it enough times, and apparently that number of times is two (hence why I can’t stand Shrek the Third, and the less said about the abysmal Shrek the Halls the better). Lucky for me, ditching Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy seems to be exactly what this franchise needed.
Puss in Boots is a sweet, fun, lighthearted romp. It’s family-friendly, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. It’s got a lot of laughs for pretty much everybody, and they cut back the cast to something a bit more manageable to they can really enjoy and play with the idea of the characters again rather than every character just being a one trick pony (or a one note donkey, as the case may be). If the plot was a little predictable, that’s only because (a) they actually laid everything out in such a way that nobody can cry foul later in the film, and (b) the target market for this film probably doesn’t have two digits in their age. If you can accept that, you’ll have a lot of laughs, maybe even enjoy a heartwarming moment (it’s DreamWorks, how can you not?), and then go to bed like good little boys and girls.
About a week ago I was going through my Dad’s old movie collection, packaging it up and selling what I could, disposing of the rest. It made me realize something: my Dad and I had very different tastes in movies. Not that he had bad taste, mind you, just very different. James Bond, for instance. I like Bond films well enough, and I’ve seen all of them since Octopussy, but Dad had seen and loved all of them, and he had them all on DVD (and more than a few on VHS). As for John Wayne, he had more than a few collections, and he had most every John Wayne film ever made on DVD… all 169 of them. I never really understood his appreciation for John Wayne, but then I’m not sure he ever understood my appreciation for Tim Curry, so fair’s fair.
I had planned to talk about all the obscure movies that I found in Dad’s collection that I loved, but the truth is most of the ones we had in common were either well known (like Rocky II) or I’ve already mentioned (like Excalibur). So I’ll take this opportunity to cover a couple I did find as well as a couple I think Dad would have liked.
The Name of the Rose (1986) – Based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco, this film stars two of my favorite actors, Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater (somehow I only seem to like a young Christian Slater). It’s the story of a Franciscan monk and his apprentice who investigate a series of strange deaths at a monastery. Call it a period mystery, if you will. I can’t really go into much more description without giving away lots of the plot, but the best part of this movie for me is the depth of characterization and world building. Apparently a lot of that derives from the source novel (which My Not So Humble Wife loves, although I’ve never personally read it), but the acting is top notch as well. While Connery drives the majority of the action, I want to give special attention to Ron Perlman as Salvatore; it’s a difficult role to play with empathy and he does it exceptionally well.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) – This was probably the first (and for a long time the only) western I ever really liked, let alone loved. I think this film gets a lot of grief for both deserved and undeserved reasons. There’s a certain amount of unrealistic expectations, in the same way that any iconic pop culture figure will have that any departure from established traditions will only exacerbate. That having been said, there’s also a certain amount of heavy-handedness: in the attempts to make the bad guys truly evil, to make Tonto more than a stereotype (and in the process making every other Native American in the film a bigger stereotype), and in the attempts to make John Reid into a larger-than-life hero. With all that having been said, I still believe this movie largely succeeds at being greater than its flaws, and if approached with an open mind and in the spirit of a western dime novel or “gritty remake” of an old radio show, it can be very appealing.
The Searchers (1956) – I had to watch this movie for a film class I took a few years ago, and I’m glad I did. After I finished, I immediately called my Dad and said, “Hey Dad, I take back everything I ever said about John Wayne. You were right.” He asked me what movie I watched, and when I told him, he wasn’t in the least surprised. “You started with the best.” The conversation went on from there, and we must have talked for an hour just about this movie and how amazing it is, and why. I could lay it all out for you here, but you should really just watch it for yourself. Not only does John Wayne give one of the most fantastic, nuanced performances I have ever seen, but the entire film is full of great performances, amazing visuals, and a stirring and poignant plot. If you only watch one western in your life, this should be it.
Cat Ballou (1965) – Now, if you’re going to watch two westerns in your life, may I make another suggestion? I remember watching this movie as a kid with my Dad and My Not So Humble Sister and it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why were people singing? In a western? (Bear in mind this film preceded Paint Your Wagon by about five years.) Isn’t that Nat King Cole? And I’m pretty sure that’s Jane Fonda. Wait, why is that gunslinger drunk? What in the world is going on here? That was basically my reaction to this movie the first five times I watched it. It took me a long time to realize (a) this was a comedy and (b) there was a plot, I just wasn’t following it. Once I got it all straight, I learned to stop worrying and just go with it, and it actually turned out to be a pretty funny little film. Not the greatest comedy or western ever but enjoyable, and Lee Marvin puts in an Oscar-winning performance, so it has that going for it. And hey, Nat King Cole.
I’m starting to think I have a habit. I blame it on my Dad. From the time I was a little kid, we always had the latest in television technology. Cable? You bet. VCR? Beta AND VHS, at the same time, usually more than one of each. Laserdisc? Okay, let’s not go crazy here. We weren’t rich, the man just liked his TV. But he did get on the DVD bandwagon early, and he got a Blu-Ray player pretty fast too. He even had digital cable AND a satellite dish at the same time at one point.
What I’m trying to say is I had a lot of exposure at an impressionable age to a lot of movies. I don’t know why I never picked up Dad’s fascination with John Wayne films, but I do seem to have picked up his love of cinema somewhere along the line, and I’m going to keep sharing it with you. At least the obscure bits.
Flash Gordon (1980) – I can’t even begin to describe how amazing this film is. It’s astounding, it’s mind-boggling, it’s a tour-de-force of awful. This is one of the worst sci-fi films I have ever seen, and that’s saying a lot. The plot is so far beyond insipid, it actually transcends its origins in the funny pages by making Flash Gordon the quarterback for the New York Jets (I am not making this up). He and reporter Dale Arden are kidnapped by a mad scientist in his homemade rocket during an apocalypse being caused by Ming the Merciless (still not making this up) in an attempt to save Earth. The plot actually manages to go downhill from there, and to top it all off the entire movie has a soundtrack done by Queen (and what is it with me and movies with soundtracks by Queen?). Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, I simply have to watch this movie every chance I get. It’s the kind of thing that is so unintentionally hilarious I just can’t get enough.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) – What do you get when you take the music of the Beatles as sung by the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, add in an all-star cast (for the time) including George Burns, Steve Martin, and Alice Cooper, and add a special cameo appearance of Aerosmith doing possibly the most well-known cover of all time? That’s right, you get the movie that made my wife seriously consider leaving me (no I am not kidding, she has yet to forgive me for this, and it’s been several years since she watched half of it). This is the kind of movie that you will either love or hate, and unless you like your movies served with a very large slice of cheese, chances are you will hate it (particularly if you’re a Beatles fan). I’ve been watching it since I was old enough to operate the VCR, so for me it has nostalgia value going for it if nothing else, and I happen to like the music (and cheesy movies). If you’ve got a strong stomach and are willing to take a risk, you might just find a new favorite too. Or maybe you’ll leave me, but I’m willing to take that chance.
Clue (1985) – Long before the recent trend in creating movies out of board games became the hot thing, this movie set the bar, and it set the bar high. Rather than bothering with anything like a real mystery plot, it’s a screwball comedy of murder and mayhem, with bodies dropping left and right and great, quotable one-liners going off just as fast. Martin Mull puts in a solid performance as Colonel Mustard, Lesley Ann Warren is fantastic as Miss Scarlet, and Madeline Kahn is at the top of her game as Mrs. White. In addition to everything else it has going for it, this movie has the greatest performance ever by Tim Curry. Yes, I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve seen it in the theater… over 1,000 times. I stand by my statement. The multiple endings are handled perfectly, and add just the right feel to the movie for the game tie-in.
Yellowbeard (1983) – A piratical satire starring… well, just about everybody who was in comedy in the early Eighties, Yellowbeard is basically what you might expect. The British Navy gets the vilest pirate in the world to escape from prison in order to follow him to his treasure and hilarity ensues. I won’t bother explaining the rest of the plot because really there’s not much point. The whole thing is basically a vehicle for jokes and gags, which suits me just fine. The cast includes Monty Python alumni Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, and John Cleese, as well as Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, and Madeline Kahn. Once again Madeline Kahn is fantastic in this film, and I’m always a fan of all the Pythons. I’m not always as big a fan of Cheech and Chong, but they do a fantastic job of sending up Spanish Conquistadors. It’s very slapstick, very screwball, and a lot of fun.For more movie suggestions, why not check out these posts:
I don’t know why I keep coming back to this. Maybe it’s because I just spent so much time watching TV as a kid. I hated going outside. Outside is where my sister was. And sunshine. And fresh air. And exercise.
But I digress.
I loved TV, and TV loved me. I especially loved watching really off-beat comedies, movies that made no sense whatsoever, and the weirder they were the more I loved them. I suppose that explains why so few people seem to know some of these films, although it has been gently suggested to me that it may also be because I’m getting old and all of these movies predate DVDs. I would like to point out that Star Wars predates the mass-market success of the VCR, but I still have no tolerance for anyone who hasn’t seen it (you know who you are).
But I digress again.
Here’s some of my favorite off-beat comedies from back when I was a kid. They’re best taken with a grain of salt (or better yet several grains, lime, and tequila), with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986) – Believe it or not, this is a movie version of an off-Broadway musical based on a 1960 comedy with Jack Nicholson (I can’t comment on that version, since I’ve never seen it). What I can say is, this thing is a laugh riot. It’s creepy enough to try to do a comedy about a carnivorous sentient plant from outer space (yes, you read that correctly), but making it into a musical takes it to a whole new level. The brilliant caricatures of the mousy shop attendant Seymour Krelbourne (played by Rick Moranis), his overbearing boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia), and the ditzy blonde love interest Audrey (Ellen Greene). Of course, any fan of the movie will tell you the absolute scene stealer is the inestimable Steve Martin as Orin Scrivello, DDS, the sadistic dentist and Audrey’s “boyfriend”, who’s rousing rendition of “Dentist!” will leave you squirming with laughter. The numerous cameos from other famous comedians (including John Candy and one of the most disturbingly funny performances ever from Bill Murray) round out a fantastic cast in this terrific musical.
Big Trouble in Little China (1985) – I have no idea how to even begin classifying this movie. I’ll go with the Amazon.com description because it seems to cover all the bases: “mystical action-adventure-comedy-kung-fu-monster-ghost-story”. Everybody get that? I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be (very loosely) based on Chinese mythology, but please don’t quote me on that, because I don’t want to offend anybody (the film takes care of that for me, I’m sure). Kurt Russell plays a truck driver named Jack Burton (get used to that name, you’ll hear it a lot), owner of The Pork Chop Express (I’m not making this up), who gets caught up in an attempt by a near-immortal Chinese businessman to kidnap a girl (still not making this up), and he has to help his friend and an interfering busybody played by a young Kim Cattrall, assisted by some Chinese gangsters (how could I possibly make this up?) to rescue her from the aforementioned kidnapper and his three powerful sorcerer sons before he becomes immortal (why would I make this up?). If you like Army of Darkness you’ll probably like this movie; in fact, if you just like wierd, out there stuff you’ll probably like this movie. It’s got some decent FX (especially for its time), and the martial arts action is actually pretty good. The comedy is solid and doesn’t distract from the plot, which is roundabout but gets where it’s going.
Spies Like Us (1985) – My dad once described Chevy Chase as “so funny he can make me laugh standing still.” I have to agree with him. Hell, I even kind of liked Fletch, and that’s saying something. Pair him up with Dan Aykroyd and you have a near-perfect recipe for comedy gold, which is exactly what this movie is: near-perfect. Aykroyd delivers his usual character-driven humor while serving as a perfect straight man for Chase to deliver almost non-stop one-liners. Together they make a terrific comedy team, and the ludicrousness of putting them in a Cold War-driven “spy movie” vehicle is a brilliant recipe for disaster. The only drawbacks are that the middle of the movie drags a little, although that is more a matter of the rest of the film being so spot-on in comedic timing that it becomes nigh-impossible to sustain for almost two hours, and the last few minutes feel a little tacked on. Those are only minor quibbles, however, and overall this is still one of the funniest movies I have ever seen, and I still quote it to this day.
Biloxi Blues (1988) – If you asked me why I love this movie, I couldn’t really give you one good reason. I might have to say “Neil Simon”, because I don’t think I’ve ever read a Neil Simon play I didn’t love. Or maybe it’s Matthew Broderick (this is pre-Godzilla), or even Christopher Walken’s brilliant turn as Sergeant First Class Merwin J. Toomey. Perhaps it’s just because I felt a strong connection, even at an early age, to the character of Eugene, who seemed so horribly out of place in the Army in general and boot camp in particular. The writing is sharp, and the dialogue is top-notch, witty without feeling deliberate. It’s not a simplistic film, taking some serious turns and having more than a few darker moments that spice the humor and remind you that life isn’t always laughter; rather, laughter is there to help us survive the dark times. It’s a surprisingly deep film for a comedy, particularly one that can still be viewed as somewhat of a “coming of age” film (although most of that is covered by the previous film from the Eugene trilogy, Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is also good although I don’t care for it quite as much).
Continuing on a recent theme, I’ve come up with yet another batch of movies that just don’t seem to have the recognition I feel they deserve. Rather than focus on just one genre this time, I thought I’d spread it out a bit with some fantasy, some comedy, and some… well, there’s one that I’m not sure what genre to call it. I’ll let you decide.
Excalibur (1981) – Let’s be clear about one thing: I had a professor in college who was an Arthurian scholar. If she had any idea I was recommending this movie to ANYONE, she would slap me with a copy of the Morte d’Arthur. This film has so many historical and literary inaccuracies it wouldn’t know what accuracy was if you hit it in the face with a tuna carved out of the stuff. But I love it anyway. The acting is sharp, the settings are lush, and the music is perfect. They paid so much attention to detail I have to believe they basically decided going in that there was a certain story they wanted to tell, and they weren’t going to let trivial things like “facts” get in the way. You have to admire that kind of chutzpah. Arthur is kind of a putz, but it works because he’s Arthur, and we’ve been led to believe by modern culture that’s what Arthur is supposed to be (see my point about literary accuracy above). Merlin is far and away the best part of this film and well worth watching for all by himself, and the entire affair (quite literally) between Lancelot and Guinevere is handled marvelously, enhancing without overshadowing the plot, as is the quest for the Grail, and Morgan le Fey and Mordred are incorporated in fascinating if (again) historically inaccurate ways. If nothing else they deserve an award for best use of “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in a film.
Highlander (1986) – Anyone who knows me should see this as no surprise, and frankly the idea that there’s more than three people on Earth who haven’t seen this movie both shocks and offends me. Granted, the movie is older than some full grown adults, but that’s no excuse. I’ve seen Citizen Kane (and it wasn’t as good, in MNSHO). Ah, well. This is a fantastic fantasy/sci-fi adventure of immortals born throughout different times on Earth, destined to fight each other until only one remains.
I actually sat here for five minutes trying to come up with a better plot summary to explain why this cult classic has remained popular for so long and launched a hit TV series as well (please, if you love your own eyes, DO NOT WATCH THE SEQUELS), but I can’t. It’s just one of those things that’s better than it sounds. The location work outside of the city is actually quite beautiful, and the sound work on the film is great. The cinematography is top notch, and they do a great job playing with the idea of what immortality really means, both the good and the bad. The special effects are kind of dated, but the acting is still pretty good, and hey, Sean Connery. The entire soundtrack was done by Queen, so it has that as a bonus as well. Just watch it. Trust me on this one. It has a lot going for it.
The Crow (1994) – There was a time in my life where if you hadn’t seen this movie, I didn’t want to know you. Of course, there was also a time in my life where I dressed all in black, smoked clove cigarettes, and listened to The Cure a lot. These times may or may not have overlapped. This should not in any way reflect on the quality of this movie. It’s not exactly an easy one to place; it’s starts with a brutal murder of a man and his fiancée by a vicious gang of criminals. He then comes back as a revenant to seek revenge against the people responsible. I know this sounds like a horror flick, and I’m not trying to soft-sell the violence, because there’s plenty to be had (Brandon Lee actually died in an accident filming this movie). But there’s a lot more going on here, both in terms of the emotional depth of the relationships between the characters and the acting (Michael Wincott in particular gives a stellar performance as Top Dollar). There’s a lot of ugliness and beauty, violence and pain, and in the end, a small amount of peace in this film. It’s a tall order for such a short running time, and not one I would recommend for a “rom com” kind of night, but if you want something different, check it out.
Better Off Dead (1985) – Who says I don’t love a good romantic comedy? Okay, so this isn’t exactly a typical rom com, but it is possibly the best John Cusack movie ever made (with the possible exception of Grosse Pointe Blank). Stocked with a series of over-the-top characters that are more caricatures than fully realized (or even two-dimensional and trying) representations, the this slightly black (more grey, really) comedy manages to combine the essence of teen romance film and screwball comedy into a breezy, fast-paced romp that doesn’t slow down long enough to take itself seriously. There are a few points where the jokes drag (I’ve watched it at least a hundred times and I still don’t get the bit with the animated burger), but overall the gags manage to carry it through. While there are plenty of snappy one-liners, what keeps me coming back every time are the running jokes, like the psychotic newspaper boy, Lane’s mother’s cooking, and of course his botched (and never serious) suicide attempts. If it sounds weird, well, it is. If it sounds sick, yeah, that too. But man, is it funny.
A couple of weeks ago, I (re-)introduced the world to a few of my favorite movies that seem to have fallen by the wayside in pop culture. After giving it some thought, I realized there are a whole host of movies I’ve loved that aren’t even mentioned anymore, so I thought I’d dip back into the pool of memory and share a couple more gems with all of you. This time I’ll be dredging up some of the best (and worst) comedic fare I’ve ever known, from the most laughable decade I’ve lived through: the 1980s.
Trading Places (1983) – Before he started doing movies that suck like Bowfinger and Daddy Day Care, you could pretty much count on Eddie Murphy to be rock-solid comic gold. Dan Aykroyd already had a pretty solid resume including the amazing The Blues Brothers (the original, not the cash-cow abomination of a “sequel” he insisted on inflicting on us all). Put them both together with Jamie Lee Curtis and some other faces you’d know even if you wouldn’t recognize the names (Denholm Elliott, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche), and you have a guaranteed great movie. But that wasn’t enough. They went and put together one of the best “Prince and the Pauper” style stories ever, with hilarious twists and some of the wittiest dialogue I have ever witnessed. Murphy is at the top of his game in this film, Aykroyd plays his character’s entire ride to the hilt, and Bellamy and Ameche are so wickedly delightful I can’t help loving them. The theme of this movie has managed to hold up surprisingly well, and it is instantly relatable, unlike some other more serious films to come out of the Decade of Greed.
The Last Dragon (1985) – Lest you think I come to praise the 80s and all they have wrought, I bring you this delightfully polished turd. To this day I’m not sure what they were attempting with this film. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it was a satire of both cheap kung-fu and blaxsploitation films that were popular in the 1970s. Unfortunately the risk with any kind of parody is that you dance too close to the fire and fall into self-parody, becoming the thing you were attempting to mock. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe they really thought they had a great script with this one, which just makes it that much funnier. It’s the story of a young man obsessed with Bruce Lee whose name is Bruce Leroy (I’m not making this up), whose brother is obsessed with being “cool” and breakdancing (still not making this up), who has a rival named Sho’ Nuff (how could I make this up?), and is in pursuit of something called “the Glow” (why would I make this up?). This is all in the first fifteen minutes or so. There’s also an evil record producer and a singer-ingénue played by Vanity (don’t remember her? That’s okay, nobody does). The best part is this movie was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song for “Rhythm of the Night” and two Razzies for Worst Original Song for “The Last Dragon” and “7th Heaven”. Like I said, it practically mocks itself.
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) – Not all parody fails, and when it succeeds, it succeeds brilliantly. Before he started doing “serious” and “deep” roles, one of the great masters of parody was Steve Martin, and this movie may be his masterpiece. A perfect send-up of the film noir genre, directed by the legendary Carl Reiner, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid works on several levels. Like any great parody, it actually manages to serve (at least nominally) as a proper noir film, including a beautiful femme fatal and a sinister plot. That having been said, the bad (sometimes tasteless) jokes start early and come rapid-fire, with the unusual convention of weaving mini-scenes from actual film noir movies into the movie for the actors to respond and react to. The result is a study in how to do straight-faced comedy from one of the all-time masters of the art.
Stripes (1981) – What is it about SNL alums from the 80s? They make great comedy, then they get all serious. Bill Murray was great once… Ah, well. Years before anybody ever heard of a Ghostbuster, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis got together and made a scathingly witty send up of military culture and life. Along with a fantastic supporting cast including the legendary (and sadly missed) John Candy and brilliant John Larroquette, this film is somewhat like the Marx Brothers meets Band of Brothers. While the humor tends to be a bit juvenile and raunchy, it’s relatively tame by modern standards, and it’s almost always laugh out loud funny. Murray has already perfected his ability to convey nuance with a glance, but he still manages to bring more passion than many of his later roles. For those who only know Ramis from Ghostbusters, this will be a special treat, as it is a very different and more outgoing character for him. Highly recommended as a “history of comedy” must-see.