California Literary Review

The Weekly Listicle: Some Movies Are About Things

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October 14th, 2011 at 3:31 pm

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At last, the long-rumored prequel/remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece The Thing infects theaters across the country. And I mean that in a good way, because I still hope it will be entertaining, despite persistent pangs of common sense. The trailer, at least, sold it as a pretty faithful re-shooting of the original, though no doubt director Matthijs van Heijningen has some cute surprises in store.

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By now, most of us going to the theaters this weekend know what “The Thing” is. Carpenter’s film – adapted from John W. Campbell’s story “Who Goes There?” – is legendary among the sci-fi horror set. Basically, scientists stranded in the Antarctic discover a malicious alien life force that can infiltrate and consume them by clever use of mimicry. The title of an earlier adaptation of Campbell’s story, Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World, foreshadows the plot in slightly more detail, but Carpenter (and van Heijningen) chose to keep the title as mysterious as possible, perhaps in case some viewers would rather have no idea what they are about to encounter.

This week’s list is a sort of sequel to last year’s article on “Misleading Movie Titles.” Rather than giving out the wrong idea altogether, the titles which follow give out no particular idea at all. Unless you go in having read the book or seen the trailer, you have the option of watching such a movie completely blind. This may have strong positive or negative effects on your experience, as you might get nothing like what you expected.

This week, Brett Harrison Davinger and I (Dan Fields) discuss some of the least descriptive film titles in history, along with the amazing range of subjects and content hiding among all the ambiguity.

DAN’S PICKS:

The Stuff (dir. Larry Cohen, 1985)

Eat The Stuff

Let’s start with an easy one. If you know Larry Cohen’s name at all, you probably know him as the force behind the baby-horror cult classic It’s Alive and its sequels. Or perhaps you recall that he wrote the horrifyingly awesome Maniac Cop films. Both of these titles are helpfully evocative of what goes on in the films themselves. So what about The Stuff? Well heck, that could be about anything! Science, pollution, food, or maybe just a big pile of unidentified stuff. As a matter of fact, it is about all these things, though not in the combination you might expect. This deliciously bad horror comedy offers some pretty ruthless commentary on mass consumerism.

Consider the basic rule that you should never taste a pile of nondescript glop you find flowing out of a hole in the ground. That rule goes out the window in the movie’s first minute, and before long the addictive substance is the hot new item that everybody’s eating! Or vice versa, it turns out. Like the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus in ants or Sacculina barnacles in crabs, “The Stuff” is a parasite that takes over the bodies and minds of those who eat it, in order to propagate and become a dominant species. Nasty, no? That’s not just any stuff!

Garrett Morris mutates in The Stuff

Good thing the corporate lowlife element is on the job. Michael Moriarty – the lurchiest, most hilariously awkward action hero you ever saw – plays an industrial saboteur sent by Big Ice Cream to figure out the secret of the Stuff. Garrett Morris plays a cookie magnate also interested in bringing the junk food market back to the classics. I’m not making any of this up. And as for what happens next… well, I couldn’t possibly.

The Stuff is not merely a clever and well evolved quasi-organism. It intends to fight back! If you refuse your parents’ kind offer of Stuff for dessert, be ready to run. If the endless commercials and universal cultural obsession with Stuff fails to capture your interest, prepare for a severe blobbing. The Stuff does not take kindly to being ignored, resisted, or otherwise foiled.

Michael Moriarty stars in The Stuff

Since this setup is nowhere near ludicrous enough, Moriarty soon finds it necessary to team up with a survivalist militia force, happily untainted by such an obvious Commie plot, and led by Paul Sorvino. Ultimately it must come to blows between the suits and the fringe lunatics, for the future survival of America. Larry Cohen, in his way one of the greatest satirists of our time, wastes no time on subtlety. For gross drive-in mayhem, you can scarcely do better than a dose of The Stuff.

Them (Ils) (dir. David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006)

Olivia Bonamy stars in Ils

Warning: Keyhole peepers may be severely gouged.

To get briefly semantic on you, a better translation of the French word Ils would be “they”, not “them.” But for purposes of comparison with the Hollywood monster flick Them! (see below), I am happy they translated it the way they did.

I have mentioned Ils before, as a movie that absolutely scares the living hell out of me. Alone in a foreign city, I went to see it two nights in a row, despite the fact that it kept me up til dawn both times. It did not do a tremendous amount of business in the USA, where we seem to be flooded with New French Extremism. Ils is definitely a few notches down on the horror scale from such gut-wrenchers as Sheitan or Haute Tension, and it is also a much, much better film.

Olivia Bonamy and Michaël Cohen play Clementine and Lucas, a French couple living a rather isolated life in a Romanian country house. She teaches, he writes, but mostly they keep to themselves. The implication is that they have only a slight grasp of the language and culture in their chosen home, and that they are very much foreigners in this place. Little do they know that sinister activity of a mysterious nature has been taking place in the forest near their home.

French home invasion thriller Ils

This is when people start asking, “Why don’t they just get OUT of Romania?”

One night, some person or persons unknown begins to play a twisted game with Clementine and Lucas. Strange phone calls start coming in. Someone messes with their car, effectively stranding them. and eventually breaks into the house. Whether the motive is robbery, murder, or simply to terrorize the innocent couple is unclear. The identity of the invaders, as well as their number, is a closely kept secret through most of the film. Qui sont-ils? Who are they? Or if you prefer, who is THEM?

The big twist may shock or disappoint you, depending on your patience for suspense thrillers. It is, however, profoundly disturbing. I am happy to reveal that, at very least, the drama is not all in one character’s mind. To this I add no more, because if you want a good turn-out-the-lights thriller, I am hard pressed to recommend a better one in the last ten years or so.

Them! (dir. Gordon Douglas, 1954)

Joan Weldon stars in Them!

“There’s ants in them thar hills!”

Shift gears with me now, to a more (in)famous film called Them! Whereas the title of the French film speaks to the mystery of “who is after us,” this pioneer of the nuclear mutation film posits that giant radioactive ants are simply too horrible to be described in detail. It may look silly nowadays, but this is one heck of a monster movie. The Cold War nuclear scare inspired filmmakers to caution the world along many different lines, from alien invasions to zombie hordes to on-the-nose mushroom cloud apocalypse pictures. However, the giant mutated animal genre may be the most beloved of all.

Imagine, if you will, a string of brutal murders in the New Mexico desert. Police are baffled by the destructive power of what they suspect is a lone maniac, coupled with the fact that he seems to be after no material gain, except copious amounts of sugar! Oh, and did I mention the lethal doses of formic acid with which the killer poisons his victims? Wouldn’t you immediately suspect giant marauding ants?

Giant ants attack in Them!

“This is for the firecrackers, human race!”

James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, and Joan Weldon co-star as the motley team of experts who uncover the horrible truth. Also appearing is James Arness (who coincidentally played the original Thing From Another World), representing the FBI. This is one of those “call out the army” movies, where all the forces we can muster stand off in a climactic battle against the monsters our scientific progress created.

With enough sugar and firepower, it is safe to guess that the rule of giant ants will come to a satisfactory end. However, it is natural that the movie should include many a heavy-handed warning about the dangers of the atomic age. It turns out that merely blowing ourselves up ought to be the least of our worries. Chilling indeed, no?

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Ordinary People (dir. Robert Redford, 1980)

Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, and Donald Sutherland star in Ordinary People

Hmmm… well, they certainly look ordinary…

By far the least weird film on my own list, Ordinary People is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and a fantastic drama to boot. It won four Academy Awards, five Golden Globes, and nominations for several more of each. Timothy Hutton stars as Conrad, a troubled teen wrestling with the fallout caused by his older brother’s untimely death. His own guilt drove him to a recent suicide attempt, while his parents (Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland) are at constant odds over airing their grief properly, and expressing their feelings toward their surviving son.

If you thought you were pretty well schooled on the acting work of both Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People has some big surprises for you. A long way from her perky television persona, Moore plays stone-cold depression to an almost frightening degree. Completely unable (for most of the film) to come to terms with her feelings, she makes many a failed attempt to mask them with a veneer of cold propriety. Without the comfort of her firstborn, she alienates her younger child and eventually her husband, until she seems destined to drown in her own sea of grief, or move on to a new life altogether.

Sutherland, meanwhile, ditches the edgy, sardonic attitude of Hawkeye Pierce to play one of his most poignant roles. As the dad caught in the middle of the conflict between Conrad and his mother, he wears himself out trying to act as peacemaker. He does not want to lose any part of his family, but the present state of things suggests that he will have to choose one side or the other before the conflict is over. Imagine that James Dean’s dad (Jim Backus) from Rebel Without A Cause found some inner strength and stood up for himself (dammit!) well before the end of the film, and you will have an idea. Of all Sutherland’s many excellent roles, this will probably make you just plain like the guy.

Judd Hirsch offers thoughtful counseling in Ordinary People

“Buck up, kid. At least you don’t have to face Andy Kaufman on Monday morning.”

Rounding out this magnificently sad ensemble is Judd Hirsch, appearing as Conrad’s psychiatrist to inject some welcome insight, catharsis and bone-dry wit into the proceedings. His role as confessor and mentor allows the struggling youth to regain some confidence and face his crumbling life with courage. Their therapy sessions also serve as helpful tools of exposition, so that we gradually learn the full extent of the tragedy of which Conrad’s family dare not speak out loud.

This is all pretty heavy, but well worth your time. Dramas of both substance and weight are fairly rare, if you stop to think about it. Like Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall, Ordinary People explores grief as an opportunity to find the best in ourselves. As it turns out, there is much more to supposedly “ordinary people” (if such a person exists) than such an unassuming label might suggest.

BRETT’S PICKS:

Life (dir. Ted Demme, 1999)

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While the idea of a movie about two black men in the 1930s South being imprisoned for life for a murder they didn’t commit after being framed by a racist corrupt cop sounds like prime comedy fodder, Life wasn’t a particularly funny movie. It was actually kind of a downer.

Though the trailer made it seem like a slapstick comedy where two idiots in prison continuously bungle escape attempts, and the poster implies that the plot involves two tiny black guys getting continuously raped by two larger ones, that wasn’t the film. Rather, Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence failing at being Steve McQueen took up a relatively small portion of the movie. The attempts at escape aren’t even goofy in context, but presented as the last ditch efforts of men realizing that the legal system had failed them and that their lives, for all intents and purposes, are over. We also deal with suicide by cop, the loss of all their friends, and a last chance for a pardon ending when the prison superintendent dies of a heart attack.

The Poster for Life Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

At least there were no fat suits…

To give the movie a bit more of a depressing spectre, in “real time,” the two former friends stop talking to each other for decades before successfully completing an escape attempt in 1997 by faking their own deaths. I suppose the final scene of them at a baseball game arguing as they used to, before their lives were forever destroyed, was supposed to be silly and/or heartwarming. But you can’t shake the feeling that we’re watching two men, close to a century old, whose entire lives were wasted through no fault of their own. They might have freedom now, but how much longer do they really have to live and what will be the quality of that life? They lost everything, spent at least 2/3 of their lives in jail, and will be forever on the run. Sure, their friendship might have returned, but decades without speaking to the only other person who understands your plight does not make for a good comedy.

Somewhere (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2010)

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Despite having a career extending back to the mid-1980s, it’s hard to pinpoint a great Stephen Dorff “moment.” Blade? S.F.W.? But in Sofia Coppola 2010’s movie about existential ennui, Stephen Dorff turns in a terrific and understated performance as Hollywood star Johnny Marco. Forced to care for his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) for a summer, he takes her with him on a press tour that he couldn’t care less about. The two share an easy father/daughter chemistry, and some of the best moments involve Dorff wordlessly letting her know that he realizes the ridiculousness of fame.

Coppola understands that the key to the film is the father/daughter relationship, and, like in Lost in Translation, she suitably keeps the satirical Hollywood celebrity aspect of the film in the background. Also interesting is the casting of Jackass’ Chris Pontius as Johnny’s friend, thus marking the first time a Jackass member gave a performance in a legitimate film.

It (dir. Tommy Lee Wallace, 1990)

Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King's It

When taking into account every movie with the “Stephen King” name attached to it, it’s overall not a bad list. Sure we have Dreamcatcher, The Dark Half, and Needful Things, but there’s also The Shining (the best of the King movies), The Dead Zone, The Running Man, The Shawshank Redemption (which I think is overrated, but I appreciate that other people adore it), Carrie, etc. With TV movies/mini-series …his luck has not been quite as good. When it comes to the good ones, there’s The Stand (which suffers from several problems of its own, e.g. giant hand of God) and It.

Whether the ABC two-parter It is as good as one’s memory would like to recall, the double VHS stood out among other offerings at the video store. Like many of Stephen King’s works, it dealt with childhood and adulthood. The first half featured a group of loser kids who band together and first encounter Pennywise, the evil clown. Pennywise even convinces another child to murder the gang, but he fails, and Pennywise is sent back to the sewers. Thirty years later, the crew must return home to Derry, Maine, because Pennywise has returned.

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See kids, it doesn’t get better.

The cast consisted of known names such as John Ritter, Annette O’Toole, Seth Green, and Harry Anderson, but Tim Curry as Pennywise easily struck the greatest impression. When a big screen remake of It was announced awhile back, it wasn’t the performance of that guy from Night Court that people wanted replicated. Even after not seeing the movie for years, the above clip shows the intensity, creepiness, and fun that Curry brought to the role. More than that, Pennywise was probably the greatest “monster” in a Stephen King production. (Monster, of course, refers to monster-monster and not human-monsters, even human-monsters with supernatural powers.)

The Nines (dir. John August, 2007)

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Nine. Two years ago, there was the animated 9 and the musical Nine. Right now there’s the 99% and Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. And in 2007, John August’s non-short directorial debut bore the name The Nines.

The Nines is a thriller/drama divided into three interconnected stories, all starring Ryan Reynolds, Hope Davis, and Melissa McCarthy. The first involved Reynolds as a Hollywood star under house arrest in a giant, possibly haunted, home owned by a television writer. The second features Reynolds as a TV writer trying to get his show produced, and who turns out to be the owner of the house where The First Reynolds is staying. And in the third, he’s a video game designer also connected to the previous two Reynoldses.

The term “nine” refers to different entities that inhabit the universe. Gods are 10s (not 7s are previously theorized), people are 7s, and Reynolds is a 9s. Niners can take many forms in some kind of simultaneous reincarnation, but all of them are fraudulent. Throughout the film, fellow Niners Davis and McCarthy attempt to bring Reynolds back to wherever it is Niners come from as the Reyni ponder the meaning of existence.

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