Gabby: The Indefinsibles share a wacky dream after watching and discussing Jeremy’s pick…
Jeremy: House II: The Second Story. The second best movie to prominently feature a crystal skull.
We should start with me saying why I picked this movie. I didn’t have a burning desire to cover House II, but I thought it’d be fun to revisit a movie I watched a bunch as a kid, which I haven’t seen since the ’80s. Also, when we were planning this “Summer of Sequels” series, I wanted one of our choices to be outside of the mainstream. This definitely fits the bill: a modest budget, late August release in the summer of ’87 – aimed squarely at pre-teens who probably didn’t see the first House because it was rated “R.”
Also, to my surprise, this turned out to be a big favorite of yours, Brett. How did this play for you now?
Brett: This is one of those movies that was on during a Saturday afternoon during my youth. I had no idea what it was, but we watched it and it was amazing. I thought I had maybe missed the earlier adventures of our heroes (Jesse and Charlie, two of the most ’80s best friends ever) but as it turned out I could follow it without seeing the first movie. As it turned out, this was the greatest achievement of Western Culture, possibly of all human endeavor. Okay, hubris aside, there are some issues with this movie. The role of women is non-existent, and the body builder (playing a pre-historic man) might as well be called Cotton Eye Joe.
Because where does he come from and where does he go? Also, if not for Charlie, Jesse would have been married a long time ago. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Jesse is the Natural Mask Protagonist and Jesse is the Han Solo screwball. They are friends, and they have adventures.
This almost feels like it was supposed to be a six-part BBC series that got cut down into a 90-minute movie. Threads appear and then leave without bearing fruit. The joke I used with Jeremy during the livetweet was that I couldn’t remember something that had happened two minutes earlier because you can’t go back, you can only move forward in House II.
On the other hand, I sort of like that the threads aren’t neatly tied up at the end. Jesse and Charlie don’t win the girls back. Gramps never becomes young again. Rochelle… I have a whole idea about Rochelle sneaking into one of the alternate worlds and becoming a goddess of the prehistoric world.
Jeremy: Who was Rochelle, again? The ex that shows up about halfway through the movie?
Brett: I think she was an ex… she was clearly someone Jesse had dealings with in the past. Her role here is to be a refugee from a French Farce and to make you feel kind of icky about how the movie treats women. A very messy script.
Jeremy: Yeah, the script’s a friggin’ mess. The main bad guy – Gramps’ old partner from the Old West – appears in the prologue to kill Jesse’s parents, then doesn’t appear again until the movie remembers him in the last 10-15 minutes. Jesse and Charlie just have a few adventures in the past and manage to alienate their girlfriends in the present. I wonder if they were filming without a script… or improvising because they didn’t have the resources to film what was on the page.
Looking up the cast on IMDB, I was surprised to see that the actor playing Charlie, Jonathan Stark, has been a regular sitcom writer since the early ’80s. He’s worked on some great shows (Cheers) and some not-so-great shows (According to Jim). It feels like he punched up his own material. His jokes are broad and sitcom-y, but they work well enough.
I want to go back to the female characters for a moment, which are… disappointing. Jesse’s ex pops up out of nowhere, and she’s just there to write off all the female roles except the Mesoamerican virgin who can’t speak English. Ick, indeed.
All the relationships go nowhere. It’s a shame. There’s probably a better version of this movie where Jessie shares the adventure with his girlfriend and best friend, who don’t get along. Having to choose between a serious relationship and your best friend is a well-worn trope, but it’s relatable. Certainly better than a lot of narrative dead ends.
And I’m not sure what the filmmakers wanted out of Jesse and Gramps’ relationship. Obviously, they have a connection – they’re family. It feels like they intended Jesse to be this path of least resistance guy who’s not really happy. And Gramps is there to make him man up and have an adventure.
There are some fun scenes with Gramps. Like you said when we were watching the movie, Brett, there’s something sweet about Jesse and Charlie being in such awe of Gramps. The film’s biggest problem for me is that Jesse is a complete blank. And it’s not Arye Gross’s fault. He was the right guy for the part… at least the way I imagine it in my head.
But I’m trying, God knows why, to turn this movie into a story where everything fits together and has meaning – when I should just enjoy how nutty it is. I mean, where else are you going to get a zombie cowboy feeding beer in a baby bottle to a cuddly two-foot-long worm with the face of Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog?
Brett: About the relationships, there is something in here I really like. There are a handful of times where the movie surprises you. Take one example: they lose the skull (one of the 27 times THAT happens) and Jesse goes and wakes up a hungover Charlie. Now, we know Charlie is the screwball and should take the news that the skull is missing to be humorous and explain he’ll find the skull after nine or ten more hours of sleep. Instead, upon hearing the skull is missing he leaps up and the two of them rush off. Every time I thought, “Oh, we’re about to have a tedious scene play out like it does in every other movie” they don’t do that. A little subverting of my expectations, that’s all I ask.
Jeremy: Gabby, how did this play for you?
Gabby: I thought it was entertaining. I agree there are touching moments with Gramps and the women should have had more to do. I did really enjoy the handyman’s random appearance and participation in the movie as well.
Jeremy: John Ratzenberger’s scene is the highlight of the movie. It’s the closest the film gets to being on the level of something like Ghostbusters or Gremlins. Ratzenberger’s basically doing Cliff Clavin… if Cliff’s day job involved home repair and adventures in alternate dimensions.
Let’s wrap things up. What does everyone think about the ending, where Jesse and Charlie are exiled to the past?
Gabby: Because now he is a manly man and can face the old west?
Jeremy: Something like that. Is that the vibe you guys got?
Brett: I don’t know if I thought about it that deeply. By the time the movie ends, that was the only magical door left to go through. He’s trapped at that point.
Jeremy: Yeah – and I totally get I’m over-analyzing this movie. Probably just so we have something to talk about. Plus, I’m trying to figure out why I loved this as a kid. The answer’s actually simple: it’s a haunted house movie pitched at kids, with lots of jokes and monsters. It’s fun in places, but a Joe Dante joint this is not. With that in mind, closing thoughts? If any?
Gabby: I think it has some suprisngly sweet moments with the three main characters. It is not great but fun and silly. You really don’t know what’s coming next and it shows an adventure I wouldn’t mind going on myself.
Brett: This is the junk food of my entertainment diet. Empty calories, no fiber, just a bag of candy. This is filed under “I just don’t care” for me. I wouldn’t want to watch it every day, or even every year, but when I do watch it, I have a boatload of fun. And that’s what these dumb movies should be about. Every once in a while, just let a stupid, silly movie in that avoids cliche and logic just wash over you. That’s House II.
Jeremy: Thanks for reading, everyone. This wraps up our block of films on summer sequels, just in time for Labor Day. We’ll be back soon and dedicating a month to Tim Curry movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.
Gabby: Welcome to the extended reign of The Indefinsibles. We traveled to the darkest depths of ancient history, and then came back to discuss…
Jeremy: Night at the Museum 2: Something Something Smithsonian. A film as educational as a Texas public education textbook and half as funny.
This is our second installment in our “Summer of Sequels” series. Why did you pick this movie, Gabby?
Gabby:Mainly I think it was a good film to demonstrate a type of box office yard stick. It might not be great, but there are some fun things about it. At least you didn’t totally waste the money you spent on the cinema ticket. There is also a discussion to be had as to the potential of the movie and how the final product fell short.
Brett: This isn’t the worst – the performances are fine and the movie is in focus. The script follows the three-act structure because professional screenwriters worked on it. The effects and lighting are fine. It’s just, as a whole, not that good. It is less than the sum of its parts. We could sell Stiller for what the whole movie is worth. It’s kind of dull, the story is kind of stupid. Coming in without seeing the first one, it took me nearly 15 minutes to learn the rules. And it just didn’t make much of an impact either way. And that’s actually the main problem.
It’s not a good-bad movie, because I couldn’t make fun of the bad performances or cheesy production values. It wasn’t a movie I liked despite its flaws. And that makes it a worse movie than say… Omaha: The Movie or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Those are fascinating and amazing messes. One is a first time director that didn’t know quite what he was doing and the other is just such a train wreck.
My point is that what makes a bad-bad movie is that it’s boring. That’s the one big sin a piece of entertainment can commit. The worst thing about this movie is that I barely noticed it. If we didn’t plan on discussing it afterwards, I probably would have never thought about it again an hour after it was done.
Jeremy: For the most part, we’re on the same page. Since I’ve never seen the first Night at the Museum, I tried to imagine it’s 2009 and I’m only watching this at the theater because I’m a good friend/boyfriend/older brother. Would I be confused and miserable throughout? The answer’s “no.” With this many talented, funny people sharing the screen, some good material is invariably going to seep through. This is a weird middle ground you rarely get in movies: nobody’s phoning it in, but no one’s working that hard, either.
Like you said, Brett, this is a total product. The writers, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, are two funny guys who’ve made a second career out of writing big studio comedies designed to be studio note and test screening proof. They have no illusions about what they’re writing. And if that puts food on their table so they can create material they care about, I’m OK with that.
So, yeah, no strong feelings about this movie – except I wish it was funnier and cared about history or science or anything besides pacifying the masses. It actually does make me want to see the original. I can imagine a sweeter – if no less mercenary – version of this story about an average Joe with big dreams getting a kick in the pants after spending a night with these historical figures.
So let’s start with this: how weird is Ben Stiller’s arc in this movie? I’m assuming his dream of becoming a successful inventor came true at the end of the first movie. The sequel bends over backwards to get him back in a security guard outfit, so he can realize he was happier as a night watchman.
Brett: And that was such an odd plot point, because it really wasn’t earned or defined in any way. They just mention he’s not happy, but there isn’t a sign of it. He doesn’t seem unhappy. He doesn’t seem unfulfilled. And you know, fuck this movie for trotting out the “if you’re successful you must really be miserable” trope. I really hate that one.
Jeremy: Yeah, he’s consumed in work and obliviously being kind of a dick. Not a full dick, mind you. Just a bit of a dick. Not even a half-shaft. It’s probably not worth digging too deeply into this film’s messages, but I also dislike movies that say you can either be successful or you can be happy.
It’s like Hollywood’s afraid we won’t root for a character who is both. I‘m OK with the setup that he’s too focused on his job, but can’t he end up running his business and supporting the museum? He doesn’t need to sell his business to be a patron. If he needs an excuse to visit his magic friends there, he should start selling his glow in the dark flashlights in the gift shop.
Gabby: The Ben Stiller character arc is a big flaw in this film. I rewatched the first one before I rewatched this to prepare a bit. And the first one ends with him as a night guard. He is a man with ideas for an invention or two, but never really followed anything through. This arc works in that film. The first film also tells him the importance of learning his history. In the second one, he doesn’t even seem to care about meeting Amelia Earhart or learning about the things she is famous for.
The other problem I have with this film is it brings back characters from the first movie and leaves some of them in a big crate for the majority of the film. A new character, Colonel Custer, joins them, who is the one given the majority of the material inside the crate. This makes it almost nonsensical to have those characters back at all.
The talent in this movie maybe should have been let free a bit more. As the plot is total nonsense anyway. I did love that Robin Williams bit about ‘New York Teddy.’
Jeremy: Yeah, it amazed me that most of the supporting cast wasn’t written out entirely, based on how little they have to do here. I do like Bill Hader’s Custer. I’m not sure how much Hader improvised, because his bits are among the strongest in the movie. They had a funny idea and fully committed to the bit. That’s rare in this film.
Brett: I thought Amy Adams also committed to the part, I just thought that part was terrible. Hank Azaria got the broad outlines of the script and then just riffed on it. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn his part was mostly made up on set.
Robin Williams did a pretty good job, with what he was given to do. Ben Stiller was… well… he was there. I have never loved him, but I have never felt he wasn’t doing the best he can. This is what makes the movie so bad in my mind, because we are just so “Meh” about it.
There aren’t a lot of “What the fuck?” moments. There’s only a few complaints about how their history is badly off, or how they picked most of Amy’s lines by grabbing a slang dictionary and picking terms at random.
Gabby: I love Amy Adams in this. She is kind of why I liked this. I want to see the movie she was going for, with her part being better written. It is Amelia Earhart for goodness sake, the people writing this had history books, documentaries and the internet after all.
I reimagined this movie at some point because I feel something is there, but a better framework was needed in order to support that character and give her the movie she deserves. Amy Adams is so earnest, adorable and enthusiastic I just can’t help love her playing a fantastic and iconic historical figure. Ben Stiller is fine. Hank Azaria is such a life raft for the messy structure by just having fun. He delivers his lines with flair; ‘You’re evil, you’re asthmatic…’
Jeremy: I’m glad you brought up the bit with the bust of Teddy Roosevelt, Gabby. It’s the quintessential scene of this movie for me. It’s a great idea with a lot of potential, and nowhere near as funny as it should be. They’re coasting on the premise. It’s one of many scenes where I was thinking, “You had the premise, you had the structure. Why didn’t you keep working on the jokes?
Brett: I wonder if they thought the movie was working when they were on set. This was probably one of those movies where everyone had a lot of fun filming. Everyone is a pro, everyone did their job, and there was likely a lot of laughs during every take.
I am reminded of a story Terry Gilliam told on the commentary for Monty Python and Holy Grail. He said that during the editing, Terry Jones would pick takes that weren’t quite as funny as the ones Gilliam picked. He said Jones was always wrapped up in the moment where they were on set and that one take made them laugh the hardest while filming. But Gilliam always said that those weren’t the best takes and that Jones was remembering the fun they had on set, rather then looking at what’s in the frame on the screen.
Since I heard that story, I have often found times where I have been watching a subpar movie and thought, “You went for the take that made you laugh harder while filming, rather than the one that works in the movie.”
This movie is an example. I would bet that Hank Azaria was making everyone on set piss themselves with laughter. I would bet that they had to stuff socks in their mouths not to ruin the bits with Custer. I would even bet they applauded every time Amy Adams rattled off one of those chains of slang-filled dialogue. You can sort of see the places where this production was a hell of a lot of fun.
The problem is, very little of that fun translates to the screen.
Jeremy: I’d never heard that story about Holy Grail before. A good piece of wisdom for all of us endeavoring to be funny. Comedy’s a discipline that requires objectivity, like any other art form.
Back to Amy Adams for a moment: I always enjoy seeing her in movies, but her Amelia Earhart didn’t do a lot for me. She’s doing what she can – no one working today does plucky better than her. I get where they were going with her character: live in the moment, have an adventure. The problem is Ben Stiller’s already doing that. He just needs to put down his phone and have dinner with his kid now and again.
I don’t think it would fit the rules, but I first thought Amy Adams would keep flying at the end so she could keep outracing the dawn, instead of flying back to the Smithsonian. And how lame is the ending, with Ben Stiller bumping into her playing another character?
Brett: They literally stole the ending of the remake of Bedazzled.
Gabby: Or One Touch of Venus. Which has a similar but much better executed version of that ending. I love One Touch of Venus. These movies should have more of what it had.
Jeremy: Never seen either of those movies, but it’s a well-used trope. I wouldn’t mind it in the slightest if it made sense within the narrative.
And I didn’t have the same problems with Ben Stiller that you did, Brett. When it comes to finding the right role that suits his talents, he reminds me of Steve Martin. They both often play overly straight-laced schmoes or wild, crazy guys. Their best roles are in a narrow middle ground where they get to be a little of both. This part’s almost in that middle ground, but he rarely gets a good line. On the other hand, he’s a good sport and shares the screen well with everyone who gets to cut loose, such as Hank Azaria, who’s my favorite part of the movie.
Granted, anyone doing a Boris Karloff impression that good is going to get my full attention. (And ’90s Simpsons is practically a religion for me.) Azaria’s live-action roles are often underappreciated because he is so great at doing those voices. I’m glad there’s something more to the character besides the voice. I dig the idea that he wants to conquer the world… but wants someone else to do the conquering while he sits in his throne room. Again, I’m thinking, “Oh! It’s so close. You’re almost there, gang. Just keeping working the material and stick the landing.”
And Jesus, how unnecessary are Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon, and Al Capone? Christopher Guest gets a moment or two to do his thing as Ivan the Terrible, which is always welcome. The Napoleon gags are cheap and obvious. And did they even bother writing a joke for Al Capone?
It doesn’t matter. They’re taking time away from Azaria and the returning cast. I guess it could’ve worked if Azaria recruited them one at a time, and they each had their own setpiece where they attempted to capture Stiller and Adams. That would make the Darth Vader/Oscar the Grouch scene funnier – like Azaria’s running out of bad guys and desperately exploring his remaining options. Despite being obvious fan service, that scene is funny – thanks to Azaria’s delivery. And I’m not just saying that as a huge Star Wars fan.
One last thought about the performances from me. This was, I think, the first time I’ve watched a Robin Williams performance since his death. That hit me a lot harder than expected.
Brett: His opening performance particularly, when he first gives Ben Stiller the fatherly advice and is cut off before he finishes was just sort of… I’m really glad nothing important happened for a minute or two after that because I needed a moment to myself.
Jeremy: My feelings about Robin Williams grew more complicated over the last decade, but he’ll always be one of my comedy heroes.
Gabby: I had a similiar reaction to that fatherly advice bit also Brett. When talking about my emotions around Robin Williams’ death, I can’t say it better than I did here with my friend, and sometimes co writer, Josh Pearlman. He was a brilliant talent and I was very overcome with emotion when he died. The first movie too was a bit hard for me, but it gave him much more to do. The first movie was much better, from this point of view, as he was given more room to just be an entertaining version of Teddy Roosevelt. It doesn’t ring true to me when Teddy in the second movie tells Ben Stiller what he really was going to say. It definitley felt like it was leading to a sincere touching moment. Maybe that was a studio note to make the ending more peppy.
When it comes to studio entertainment, this one really hits middle of the road for me.
Jeremy: This is the kind of calculated studio product I typically hate. To my surprise, I didn’t hate this. It’s factory built for a family movie night or to have on in the background during Christmas Day – something everyone can’t really complain about and can enjoy to some degree. And that’s how I’d describe my experience with it: I enjoyed it to a small degree.
Gabby: That is it Jeremy. That is what I feel. I wanted to choose this film as I felt there was hate for something that is kind of harmless and a bit of fun. I have had a bit of trouble talking about it because of having no strong feelings about it. That might be my biggest problem with it. The fact I see a better movie to be made here. But what came out was fine. A background movie.
Brett: I disagree to an extent. I found it irritating, and after a while the stereotypes starting blasting away my ability to enjoy it. We didn’t get into the stereotypes much. But I did make the tweet that was basically “This movie is a cavalcade of outdated stereotypes. “
Gabby: I think it is more paint by numbers filmmaking. Where stereotypes are used instead of characters merely to support the flimsy plot. They are reliant on star power, charisma and delivery to develop the film further. When a blockbuster doesn’t have those charms, you can get something like The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, where everything is flat and dull, and you really want the movie to end. However, as long as you get people involved with some good will and sense of fun then the film can end up with something dynamic at least, that offers a performance as enjoyable as Hank Azaria’s for instance.
Jeremy: Yeah, there’s no agenda here. Third grade school plays cover more historical ground than this movie. But, yeah, there’s a better version of this story that delves into history, which uses how messy, horrible, and wonderful it is to fuel the conflict, instead of chasing after a magical tablet.
Brett: I… just don’t care about this movie. I can’t work up the enthusiasm to hate it or hurl vitriol at it. I didn’t pay a lot to see it though – and I will have the moment where Steve Coogan rode in on a squirrel emblazoned on my soul for all time. That’s something I had never seen before, so it’s like Mad Max: Fury Road in that respect. HA! Didn’t see me linking those two movies, did you?
Jeremy: And with that, thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll finish our “Summer of Sequels” series soon with my pick, House II: The Second Story. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We livetweet every movie we cover in advance of discussing them. Also, we’d love to chat about these movies – or movies and pop culture, in general – in our comments section or on social media.
Gabby: The Indefinsibles chose to accept Brett’s mission and go undercover for this not so secret operation…
Brett: Mission: Impossible II. I would like to preemptively disavow!
Jeremy: Welcome back, everyone. This is the first movie in our latest block of films, which we’re calling “Summer of Sequels.” We’re each picking a little-loved summer sequel we can’t help but enjoy.
And this might end up as the shortest conversation we’ve ever had. I assume we’re all in agreement about this one: the first hour and a half of M:I II existssolely to get us to that last half-hour of John Woo mayhem, which is still astonishing and ridiculous to this day.
Brett: Yeah, likely. There are cool things before that, but it’s mostly loaded on the back end. You have 3/4 of the runtime to wait until the moment when John Woo remembers he’s John Fucking Woo.
Gabby: Have either of you seen all the Mission movies and John Woo’s movies? It wouldn’t surprise me, Brett, if you have.
Jeremy: Me neither. I’m guessing you were, like me, obsessed with Hong Kong action movies from somewhere around the American release of Rumble in the Bronx to the Matrix sequels.
Brett: It took me a little longer. I got into them about a year before Rush Hour came out. Between ’96 and ’97. I first got into Jackie Chan via a super cheap copy of Fearless Hyena. From there I got into some of his other movies.
I will point out for those not in the know, I am the resident guy who spent the early 2000s buying DVDs from Asian sources and owned a region free player for that reason. I have seen things… glorious things. I should really catch you guys up on some of these movies.
I didn’t even give John Woo much of a look for a long time. I remember seeing some of Face/Off and thinking it was so absurd. I switched it off that first time, actually. And then one day A Better Tomorrow II was on cable and I was simply entranced by the madness of it all. The end shootout switched something on for me. And then I saw Hard Boiled and was all, “Oh… so that’s what all the fuss was about.” Needless to say, we saw M:I II on opening night.
And I’ve seen all the Mission: Impossible movies.
Jeremy: Same here for the latter. MI: II is the last one I saw in theaters. I always enjoy these movies, but I can wait and watch them at home, since they’re mostly technical exercises. Granted, they’re really enjoyable technical exercises…
Gabby: I haven’t seen the first one in absolutely ages. I saw it on video once or twice perhaps in 1999. I have seen Ghost Protocol a few times since it came out and I really love that one. Very, very fun!
Jeremy: And back to your question, Gabby. I’ve watched most of Woo’s ’80s and ’90s output. His name alone wasn’t enough to get me to watch Windtalkers, and I haven’t seen a movie of his since. I still think a lot of his films are great, but Hong Kong action movies – old or new – don’t thrill me like they used to.
Brett: This movie and Windtalkers both have boring, action-less first and second acts. It takes even longer to get to the action in Windtalkers. So I kind of wonder if, when making MI: II, he sighed, slumped his shoulders, and said, “Well, they want the two guns and the crazy action. Better give it to them.”
Jeremy: I wouldn’t say he’s going through the motions here. There’s too much energy and care in the action scenes for that. He was trying to stretch himself with a love story. From everything I’ve read about John Woo, he loves movies from the ’30s and ’40s. He seemed enthused by the notion of making a classic romantic thriller with his sensibility. He wanted Thandie Newton’s character to be something more than a Bond girl for Ethan Hunt.
Despite all the fancy camera moves and awful Hans Zimmer score, he’s striving for this story to have weight, meaning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Not at all. It’s impossible to care for these characters. Most people who bought this on DVD did so to fast-forward to the good parts, which is Tom Cruise doing ridiculously amazing stunts.
Brett: The DVD had a lot of features about the stunts. Cruise did a lot of them himself.
Gabby: Is it Dr. Nekhorvich who called him Dmitri?
Brett: Dimitri was also the name used at the beginning of the first Mission: Impossible movie. Not 100% sure what the connection is, if there is one.
Gabby: There are several versions of this name but they all originate from the Goddess Demeter, of Ancient Greek mythology. She was the goddess of harvest and high rank in watching over the cycle of life and death. That is interesting when put together with the name of the disease, Chimera, which was said to be immortal in mythology.
Bellerophon was the one that killed the Chimera, with the help of Pegasus. He flew over the Chimera and pointed a spear in its neck. When it breathed fire, it melted the lead and it was suffocated.
They call the cure Bellerophon. I always enjoy a few Greek mythology references in movies. He was the son of Medusa and Poseidon (born when she died, with Pegasus also being created at the same time). Which is interesting when paired with how many face masks are in this movie. Maybe this one is going to be insulting Brett, but it isn’t meant to be: was this a new technique or something? This came out in the same year as Charlie’s Angels, which also used face masks in the same way.
Brett: The masks are just a thing for M:I. They were a staple on the TV show.
Jeremy: This is a nitpicky screenwriting criticism, but there were times they used “Bellerophon” where I was like, ” ‘Cure.’ You would’ve just said ‘the cure’ there.”
IMDB trivia alleges that the rough cut of this film was three-and-a-half hours, and a lot of post-production trickery was employed to get the movie down to a sensible running time and still be coherent-ish. That’s probably why Chimera, Bellerophon, and other character names and incidentals keep getting repeated to an unusual degree.
Word has it that legendary editor Stuart Baird did uncredited work on this and the first Tomb Raider to help save those movies. His deal with Paramount for doing so was a chance to direct another film, which ended up being Star Trek: Nemesis. So, you know, goddamn these two films and their production problems.
Gabby: Going back to what you said Brett about John Woo having to be John Woo, I feel this happens with so many directors. It’s hard for them to escape certain expectations. This was also a similar problem with a film we discussed recently, The Black Cauldron.Some audiences saw the Disney label above it and were frustrated they didn’t get the fairy tale they had come to expect. The audiences came to expect Woo to go nuts, because it is friggin’ fun. But it also puts him in a box, constraining what he does with his films.
Judging how the films I see of his go, I much prefer the guns ablazing nuts Woo. But I do enjoy the character development and exchanges in The Killer. It’s not as well developed here. He certainly had enough time to do that here. He tried to develop the two leads as well as the villains. But it all comes out a bit flat and dull. At least there was an effort there though.
Am I wrong in thinking that it is out of character, in this specific movie, for Ethan Hunt to go batshit, two gun, crazy? He seems much more the long game guy than the shootout guy in this one.
Jeremy: Yeah, the main bad guy, played by Dougray Scott, says that Ethan Hunt favors misdirection over confrontation. But that doesn’t mean Hunt can’t do confrontation and look freakin’ sweet while doing it in slow-motion.
Speaking of Dougray Scott, what is up with all the misogynistic lines he has to spew in this movie? Someone mentioned on Twitter that the misogyny was probably coming from the writer, Robert Towne (most famous for writing Chinatown). I don’t know enough about him to make an educated guess. True, only the bad guys and Anthony Hopkins – who plays Tom Cruise’s boss as someone being a bastard in order to do his job – say such nonsense. But Jesus, it’s unnecessary.
Gabby: I wanted to comment briefly on two quotes in the film. ‘You know women, mate. Like monkeys, they are – won’t let go of one branch until they’ve got hold of the next.’ And then this one: ‘You’re not going to shoot me Sean, not this bitch’ I am not exactly sure what to say to this. I just wanted to air the fact I found these two quotes problematic.
Talking of shooting bitches, do either of you know what the practical to green screen shots were like, and how many Tom Cruise did himself in this one?
Jeremy: Very little green screen – but a fair amount of wire removal for the safety rig Cruise wore during the climbing stunts. Is this the first Tom Cruise movie with him getting away with crazy stunts because he was also the producer?
Brett: Was there an action scene/style that worked better for you guys than others?
Gabby: The hand-to-hand combat seems to suit him much better, along with the rock climbing and flips through the air. Much more Cruise’s style.
Jeremy: The gunplay and hand-to-hand stuff works for me, but it’s the stunts that really make this movie special. From everything I can gather, the knife to Tom Cruise’s eye stunt was completely real. They blocked the scene, measured the distance between the knife and his eye to a quarter-inch, and tethered Dougray Scott to a cable that would stop him from making contact with Cruise by said distance. Un-fucking-believable. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he is Jackie Chan-levels of committed to wowing you.
Brett: I found the shootout in the lab really, really didn’t work. But him shooting the gun at the motorcycle behind him, aiming in the mirror, that worked for me. It’s part of the big end setpiece, where it’s just stunts and stunts and stunts and then that happens and I’m like “Sure, that, too. Why not?” The car bit at the beginning doesn’t work, but the hand-to-hand fight on the beach kind of does.
Gabby: Moving away from the action scenes, what do you both think of the performances?
Brett: Tom Cruise is dragging this film towards success. What’s his name, the blonde side kick to Dougray Scott, he seems to have an idea what he’s doing. Thandie Newton seems to be in an entirely different movie. Dougray Scott seems to be under directed. Like he was told to look sad or confused or angry, but wasn’t given a lot of direction beyond that. There are so many shots of him just staring into camera.
Gabby: Can you elaborate on what movie Thandie Newton is in? I think I might agree with that.
Brett: I think she thought she was in a lighthearted heist movie. Like this was sold to her as a mid-’60s throwback.
Gabby: Yeah, that is it.
Brett: There is a playfulness to her performance that is at odds with much of the rest of the movie. Right up until the lab, she’s being the Nora to Tom Cruise’s Nick. Had this movie had a light and fun tone, it would have been accepted, stupid as it it. But John Woo wanted tragic sadness in Sean and Ethan’s relationship. If you listen to the commentary, Woo mentions the sadness in Scott’s eyes so many times. There’s supposed to be this tragic, operatic sadness to everything.
Gabby: Do you think the sadness works at all?
Brett: No. Categorically, no.
Gabby: I agree.
Jeremy: I’m on the same page about the performances. Only thing to add is that, if the rough cut was indeed an hour and a half longer, everyone’s acting choices probably made more sense before the puzzle was put together with only about half the pieces.
And these films kept going back to the same well with the rogue IMF agent being the bad guy. None of the movies really commit to the idea. You’re supposed to look at Jon Voight, Dougray Scott, or Billy Crudup and think about how easy it would be for Ethan Hunt to go over to the dark side. The problem is it’s Tom Cruise – he’s going to be damn near perfect and save the day.
That’s why everyone loves Ghost Protocol so much. It loses a lot of the melodrama and focuses on giving trickier and trickier situations for Ethan Hunt and his team to get out of.
Do you think John Woo is capable of a light touch, Brett? I always got the impression that Hard Target’s nuttiness came from Sam Raimi. Do a double feature of Hard Target and Army of Darkness. They’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.
Gabby: I love Hard Target!
Jeremy: I’ve only seen it a handful of times, which is odd. Every time I watch it, I think, “This is amazing. Why don’t I own this?”
Brett: Once a Thief, the movie Woo made just before Hard Boiled, actually has a light touch. Not a perfect movie in any regard, but it has a sense of fun about it. It’s got sort of a love story, it’s got some high wire tricks, it’s got some action. It’s pretty good, just not great. It’s kind of silly, but silly in a way it means, rather than, say, Hard Target.
Jeremy: A Better Tomorrow II is also a comedy, right?
Brett: A Better Tomorrow II is hilarious, but not for the reasons intended. It’s the most sequel-y sequel ever made.
Jeremy: Been so long since I’ve seen it. I remember the first one being one of those movies that shouldn’t have a sequel but the money was too good to resist. They had to give Chow Yun-Fat’s character a twin brother, since he died in the first movie.
Brett: Yup! And it includes a rant where Chow Yun Fat demands a mafioso apologize to a bowl of rice. It’s that sort of transcendent movie we look for when we talk about good-bad movies. And it is the ultimate sequel.
Jeremy: And did Chow Yun-Fat’s long lost twin brother and company ever find Curly’s Gold?
Brett: They blew it up. They blew up a lot of stuff. So many explosions. Such action. Wow!
Jeremy: Speaking of classic movies like City Slickers 2, one thing I’m surprised hasn’t come up yet – especially from you, Gabby – is that MI: II is an unapologetic homage of Hitchcock’s Notorious.
Gabby: I knew I had something I wanted to bring up! I like the fact that an action movie sequel finds inspiration in a classic black & white Hitchcock movie.
Jeremy: It works well enough. The problem is MI: II doesn’t have time to be just that story. Notorious has enough breathing room for Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman to fall in love before she has to go seduce the bad guy. I do like the twist that Thandie Newton poisons herself in this version.
Gabby: I enjoyed that too. The main problem when comparing the two is that Woo really misses the tone of the original film. The sadness of Ingrid Bergman is just beautifully played and worked into the film. Whereas in this it seems just a bit of a mesh. Notorious is such a tightly woven plot, even the character building all feels like it is going somewhere. So not only do we feel for her, and Cary, but we get the emotional story of their past and what her reputation is versus what is really happening, combined with an incredibly suspenseful, beautifully filmed movie. The emotional drama in MI: II is a miss. It doesn’t get why it works so well in Notorious.
But MI: II is its own thing and I appreciate that. This is definitely an entertaining film in the last section. The rest drifts too much. And like I say, it certainly tries and I like a lot of the action seems grounded. Even the beginning rock climbing is fun and adds a great backdrop to the opening of the film. And it prepares you on some level to the batshit awesome of the last section. I think it has more to offer than that, for reasons that we have pointed out earlier, but if you are still not convinced, watch it if only for that I would say.
I think that is about all I have to say about that – other than Cary Grant and Tom Cruise are very different actors and I don’t understand how to compare them. Cary Grant was one of the most charming people ever to walk the Earth. I think Tom Cruise is more of a fun version of John Wayne perhaps, than anything.
Brett: I think Tom wanted to be Cary. And there are shots of Chow Yun Fat where I have seen him from the corner of my eye and thought Cary Grant was suddenly there. So I think Tom Cruise thought John Woo could turn him into a guy like that. The problem is, that wasn’t in the director, it was in the actor.
Brett: One last question before we get to our final thoughts, why can’t the IMF keep executives? Tom Cruise has a different boss in every movie. Granted, they kill the Secretary in Ghost Protocol, but still…
Gabby: The series should have a consistent M or Moneypenny.
Jeremy: I like the revolving door of talent, both in front of and behind the camera. I’m of two minds about where the series has gone since MI: III, when it fell under Bad Robot’s stewardship.
The Bad Robot movies are more consistent, but the flipside is they have a more predictable formula. MI: III is the last movie which keeps to the original mission statement for the franchise: give the reins to a different idiosyncratic filmmaker each time, provide them will all the talent and resources they could ever ask for, and tell them to turn their brand up to 11.
Don’t get me wrong, you can clearly hear Brad Bird and Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial voices in Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, but I don’t think you get their passions and idiosyncrasies like you do with the directors of the first three movies.
And here’s my final thoughts, which I’ll keep brief, since this did not turn out to be our shortest conversation. I haven’t seen MI: II in over a decade. Watching this again was like discovering an old mix-tape from high school and giving it a listen – fun, nostalgic, and a little embarrassing. This was never my favorite John Woo movie, but I used to watch this and think a genius was at work. I still think Woo is a genius, but no one’s on the same page here. It’s still worth a watch if you’re a John Woo or Mission: Impossible completest, but that’s about it. Otherwise, catch the 45 minutes on cable and you’re good.
We’ll be back soon with Gabby’s pick, Night of the Museum 2. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, everyone.
Gabby: We switch on our brain boxes and open a doorway between worlds to find Jeremy’s pick…
Jeremy: The Whisperer in Darkness. H.P. Lovecraft’s working title: My Ovaltine with Akelely.
I’m glad we were able to watch this, Gabby. Our one rule for the movies we pick is that they have to be accessible to UK and US readers. Since this was a super low-budget film, I wasn’t sure if it made its way to the UK.
Gabby: I managed to rent it off iTunes!
Jeremy: Wait – it’s available digitally in the UK? That’s some bullshit, right there. I would kill to have a legit digital copy.
Gabby: That is weird, you should be able to get it! Give this to Jeremy digitally, powers that be.
Jeremy: Before we go further, let me say why I picked this movie to defend. This is the second independent film made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS) based on Lovecraft’s stories. Their first film, The Call of Cthulhu, was released in 2005. From everything I can gather, it was a minor cult hit on DVD. I know horror fans really embraced it.
And it’s how I discovered Lovecraft. I was a Lovecraft virgin when I bought a copy of Call of Cthulhu on a whim from a used video shop. I was immediately taken by the cover, to say nothing of the hook the HPLHS devised for filming this supposedly unfilmable story: make it a black & white silent movie, as if it was produced in the year the story was published, 1926. Thanks to that movie, I became a huge Lovecraft nerd. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough geeky obsessions already…
Adapting Lovecraft stories to match the films of the era they were written in – which the HPLHS coined as Mythoscope – was such an inspired idea. First off, Cthulhu was a micro-budget production made by fans, so it hid a lot visual shortcuts they had to make. It also allowed them to make a movie that ran under 60 minutes, as was the style of the time. Most importantly, a silent movie provided an opportunity to adapt Lovecraft faithfully while circumventing his purple prose and the near absence of dialogue in his stories.
Working on and off over the next six years, the HPLHS were finally able to make a follow-up with The Whisperer in Darkness. The production was certainly more ambitious. Since this story was published in 1931, they were now making a “talkie”, heavily influenced by the Universal Horror movies of the period.
I wish I could say Whisperer was met with as much enthusiasm as their first film. It didn’t get bad reviews – but the initial reception was fairly lukewarm. All the reviews I read hit upon the same thing: it feels less and less like a classic horror movie as it goes on, which was their aim with the Mythoscope hook. During the last half-hour of new material devised to give the story a third act, it feels more like an ’80s James Cameron movie than ’30s horror.
I, too, was put off by the final act during my first viewing. The more times I revisit the movie, the less issues I have with it. If Lovecraft fans were disappointed the first time, I recommend they go back and give it another chance. It’s not entirely the movie I would’ve made – but guess what? It’s not my movie. I love what the HPLHS does and want more people to see their films. So that’s why we’re talking about one of ‘em today.
Brett: So the third act was okay until the airplane came along. We didn’t need the airplane chase or the close-ups on the Mi-go, showing off just how computer animated these monsters were. The very last shot made up for it, though. Odd how I could basically tell where Lovecraft’s story ended without Jeremy telling me, though that helped. Lovecraft always wrote as if he were saying, “Yeah, but their imagination won’t have the budget for that.” Lovercraft never showed things as much as I wanted. You never seem to get a full sense of exactly what the hell was going on with him.
We should make it clear where the story ends and where the movie ends. In the story, our hero, Alfred Wilmarth, is shown that the Mi-go can put brains in metal containers so humans can journey, in spirit, across the cosmos with them. He speaks with a human brain who tries to sell him on all the wonders the Mi-go can show us. Wilmarth discovers soon after that the man, Henry Akeley, who discovered the Mi-go and their followers wasn’t a man at all. It was a Mi-go in a face mask and human prosthetics. Wilmarth runs away back to Arkham to never do anything interesting ever again.
And in the movie, Wilmarth tries to stop the Mi-go from opening a portal between their world and ours. He’s hurt in a plane crash while doing so and his brain is removed. We then see him as the new sales pitch man, using the exact same words as the last guy, explaining why it would be so cool if we let the Mi-go put our brains into jars.
The tone shifted once the original story ended. I liked the movie overall. There were only a few things that jumped out, but none of them ever spoiled the scene. I found the guy who was just a brain in a jar – who was giving the sales pitch to Wilmarth – pretty goofy, but then it turned out he was supposed to be.
Jeremy: I get where they were going with the third act. Lovecraft was all about the horror of discovery, of digging too deep and learning too much. You can’t end a movie with your protagonist running off into the night after realizing he had a not-so-pleasant chat with a monster in a human suit.
Whisperer is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, though I’m curious why they chose it for a second film. While the source material reveals a lot about the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s actually a story told on a much smaller scale than his other stories from the period. The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, At Mountains of Madness – they all feature something resembling a third act, with some sort of action or chase scene.
My guess is they were realistic enough to acknowledge that Whisperer was the best story to adapt with the resources available. (They’ve made audio dramas for most of the big stories by this point. If you’ve been following us at all, you know how much I dig that.) I wish someone would hand these guys a few million dollars and leave them alone to do their thing. If you’ve seen either one of their movies, you know they can stretch a budget like you would not believe.
Gabby: I am impressed by the movie’s use of its budget. They managed to create a terrific looking movie. I say that as a big old horror movie fan (as well as old movies in general). They’re playing right into my wheelhouse with their shot framing, lighting and edits. I too hope they get a really good budget to do another Lovecraft story.
Brett: It’s fine, the story is there in its complete form, they just added a bit. I actually read an interview where the director gave a good justification for the third act. He said that Lovecraft’s stories basically end at what a movie would call act two, that he never knew how to resolve a story, but we’re making a movie here and we have to close it with a third act.
Basically, the same thing you were saying about the horror of his work being in the discovery.
Jeremy: I’m glad we’re starting with the third act, so I can get my quibbles out of the way and move on.
My big problem is the additions made to give Wilmarth some emotional complexity. In theory, I should love that. I care more about character than plot. It’s just these changes don’t add up to much. To start with, they make him more incredulous of the creatures’ existence. Dramatically, that makes sense for a movie, but they seem to be setting up this idea that his faith in science – at least so far as he understands it – is a weakness. If that’s supposed to set up something, it’s a setup with no payoff.
Then there’s giving Wilmarth a dead family to mourn and the introduction of Hannah, a character created for the film. The filmmakers are going for a Ripley/Newt dynamic between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong – the Ripley/Newt bit is a great bit. One of my favorites. The characters don’t have time to form a connection. They don’t meet until the third act and only share a few minutes of screen time.
It occurred to me on this viewing that they set up this relationship as a bit of narrative sleight of hand. Of course they’re going to be fine! They’re gonna become a family!
Brett:I kind of liked the ending. I would have been okay with the plane just crashing, though.
Gabby: I really enjoyed the first ending with the plane crash too. I have no idea why they felt the need to add another ending. I thought when it faded to blackout, ‘That ending was neat! I like being unsure what happens ne… oh.. wait… what the fuck is happening? What… what just happened?’
Brett: I kind of thought that would be the end too. However they did need to clear up the fact that he’s narrating the movie. By the way, add this to the short list of movies where the voice over doesn’t detract from the movie. I don’t say it helps, but it doesn’t hurt.
Jeremy: It’s a good example of how to do narration. It’s creating a mood, not covering for gaps in the story.
Gabby: And I agree about painting him as a skeptic. It seemed designed for him to use that book of folklore from the first act to save them, which he became so obsessed with and yet believed as pure fiction. So making a complete turn around in terms of beliefs might be a predictable character arc, but one that seem to be hinted at. But instead, that idea literally gets shot to pieces.
Jeremy: In both versions of the story, the Mi-go and their human cultists steal back all the evidence of their existence from Wilmarth. To me, a “We don’t have to kill you. No one’s gonna believe you…” ending is way more terrifying. Even if the HPLHS had stayed closer to the original ending, they still had to come up with a way for Wilmarth to have a dramatic escape. In a movie, he has to accomplish something, even if it’s a minor victory, like the way he now discovers the Mi-go’s lair and disrupts their ceremony.
And while Wilmarth’s dramatic arc doesn’t entirely work for me, I was surprised on this viewing by how unnerving the real Akeley’s final moments are. He’s summoned back into existence only to discover he’s a brain in a jar and his son’s most likely dead. That’s rough, man. I also appreciate the addition of seeing Akeley’s body hanging in the monsters’ lair like a piece of meat. Getting to see the bullshit the Mi-go are shoveling actually enhances the story for me.
So much of the movie works because of the actors playing Wilmarth and Akeley, I’m impressed by both of them. Matt Foyer is, like, the perfect Lovecraft protagonist. Barry Lynch gets to be both creepy and sympathetic in dual roles, and he’s great in both of them. The rest of the cast ranges from solid to a little amateurish. But a lot of the cast are amateurs, as I understand it – so it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. This is a movie made out of love, so I’m on board with everyone’s enthusiasm.
Brett: I had no complaints about the actors. Even when they come off as a bit hammy or amateurish, that’s got a lot to do with the style of the time they’re recreating. The sales pitch brain guy is a bit hammy, but his part should be hammy. He should be one of those old stage actors who never really got the idea of acting on film and does everything broad and over expressive.
Jeremy: The first head in the jar is the director, Sean Branney. And the actor playing Charles Fort, the character Wilmarth debates at the beginning of the film, is Andrew Leman, who co-wrote and produced the film with Branney.
Brett: The effects for the guy’s head when he talks to Wilmarth kind of jumped out as being way too modern. It was too clean. Kind of jarring.
Jeremy: I know they wanted to use practical effects whenever possible, like monster suits and puppetry for the Mi-go. Based on their time and resources, it wasn’t feasible. CGI had to do for the most part.
I really like the design of the Mi-go, especially their mechanical wings and various do-dads. The brain’s sales pitch being such a sales pitch didn’t bother me, though I see where you’re coming from. I know it bugged you during the live-tweet. It reminds me of Wilmarth’s increased skepticism at the beginning: they’re getting it to play dramatically, even if it’s playing to the cheap seats.
And to go back a minute, I can’t imagine ending on just the plane crash. I love that Wilmarth delivers the same exact sales pitch as the previous brain. It leaves you wondering if the brains are reprogrammed somehow or if their experiences traveling to other worlds are too wondrous to deny. Personally, I lean to the former idea.
Brett: It’s not the sales pitch that bothered me. It’s that it looks so much like it was done on a laptop with After Effects and doesn’t match everything we’ve seen until then.
Jeremy: Ah, I get it, yeah. I’m trying to imagine what a ’30s version of that would look like. In the story, it’s a voice coming out of a speaker. That wouldn’t work on film.
Brett: Less clean, more matte lines probably. A little more like Universal’s The Invisible Man. And the head works way better on screen. The fact that the movie was in black and white helped mask that they’re using some cheap computer effects.
Jeremy: Speaking of The Invisible Man, there are some great moments where they capture that classic Universal Horror magic. It’s never scary, but it’s atmospheric as hell all the way through, which is exactly what I want out of classic horror.
Gabby: It is very effective at that at times. One example, for me, was the lead up to the presentation of the first brain in a jar and it transforming into a man’s head.
Jeremy: My favorite scene is the group of learned men assembling in an office and pouring over the evidence Akeley’s son brought to the university. It gets the closest to evoking Universal Horror. For an exposition scene, it really moves and holds your attention. The actors do a great job of vacillating back and forth between reason and fear – especially Matt Foyer.
Brett: Yeah, the office scene is nearly perfect.
Jeremy: My favorite part of horror movies is the setup, of the possibility of things that go bump in the night. So I eat exposition scenes like this up. Take Stephen King’s short story, 1408: half of it is just one man telling another man about the terrible history of a haunted hotel room. Delicious.
For that reason, the entire first act works for me and works in a big bad way. My only real quibble with the second act is the same one I had with the story: there’s no room to question Noyes (the cult leader) and faux-Akeley’s intentions. Wilmarth seems particularly dense about the whole thing… though maybe that’s what Lovecraft was aiming for.
On the other hand, I like that we never hear the story faux-Akeley tells Wilmarth. That tale is basically Cthulhu Mythos porn in the novella – interesting only to die-hard fans. The notion of creatures and horrors too terrible to explain is a big part of Lovecraft – and I like how they preserve that sense of mystery while simultaneously dealing with the proverbial Tom Bombadil in the room.
Gabby: I noticed the vibe they were going for from the opening logo. I admire that choice and think it adds a lot to the movie. I agree that the office scene is really well delivered, especially in capturing that ’30s Universal Horror vibe.I do love classic Universal Horror, so this made me grin a lot.
Jeremy: It’s cool to hear you guys enjoyed this movie, because I was curious if it would work for anyone who wasn’t a Lovecraft fan. Keep in mind where I’m coming from with this. It’s hard to be objective about something that feels made just for you.
Gabby: Have any of you seen Son of Frankenstein?
Jeremy: I have. I’m nuts for Universal Horror and have all those DVD collections with the films for each monster made in the ’30s and ’40s.
Gabby: When the head was raving about how great it is to be chosen, it reminded me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All the propaganda that could easily connect to communist propaganda and the Red Scare. But then again the first World War was advertised as a chance to fight for your country and gain glory…
Anyway, I ask as Son of Frankenstein has some really beautiful looking shots. At times, the way they lit this was similar. I really love that old-fashioned craft of cinematography, seen with the use of shadow across the characters’ faces. The encounter with the monsters really went for the King Kong vibe.
Jeremy: That’s a great observation, Gabby. I’ve always thought the plane chase was a little out of time, but you’re right: it’s right there in King Kong.
Gabby: Anyone else get a ’50s sci-fi vibe with the brains in jars? I can tell Lovecraft was ahead of his time. What did people think when this story was first published? I found that an odd transition though.
Also, I was getting more of The Village of the Damned vibe off that young girl…
Brett: Frequently, at that time anyway, books were 10-20 years ahead of the movies. Most the film noir from the ’40s and ’50s was based on stories and books published in the ’20s and ’30s. Same with sci-fi. Interestingly, Lovecraft was one of the best kept secrets for a long, long time. He influenced lots of writers, but his work didn’t really get much popular exposure until the last 20 years or so.
Jeremy: Speaking of which, Gabby, you mentioned not having any experience with Lovecraft before this. Does this pique your interest at all for reading his stories?
Gabby: It does for sure. As we were speaking about this movie I have wanted to read the original story. So I have been reading it on and off throughout today. I think I will be delving into his works more this year.
Jeremy: I’m happy to hear that. Just keep in mind that he’s kind of a racist monster who created incredible monsters.
Brett: There are shockingly few movies based on his works. So many other writers were influenced by him though. He’s like the Mötorhead of horror.
Jeremy: I would amend that to there are very few faithful adaptions, that keep the spirit of the stories and set them in their proper time period. Even the more notable movies baring his name – The Dunwich Horror, Re-Animator – are loosely based on his stories at best. I’m not a purist by any means – but you lose a lot by taking these stories out of a time where technology was on the cusp of making our world feel smaller and less unknown.
Gabby: In a similar way that War of the Worlds was published in the age of the Industrial Revolution and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Where people started questioning and reshaping their religious beliefs.
Jeremy: And to your question about how the story was initially received. Lovecraft’s imagination was ahead of its time, his values were not. From what I’ve read, this story and At the Mountains of Madness were difficult sells for the pulps, since they explicitly say the monsters aren’t monsters and are, in fact, aliens. These stories were supposedly too sci-fi for the weird fiction magazines and too weird fiction for the sci-fi rags.
Wow, I just realized that this is our longest discussion yet. We better wrap this up. Final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: My last thoughts: this film is definitely worth a look. They put a lot of effort in and it shows. Though not a big fan of the last few minutes of the film, the rest of it has an atmosphere and visual design that adds a lot. On top of that, I enjoyed the performances and the fun way they approached the story. It’s bonkers. In a good way.
Brett: I don’t dislike the movie. I think it’s pretty good, but, yeah, it would have been that much better if they kept the tone consistent.
Jeremy: What more can I say? The mixture of old and new sensibilities doesn’t entirely mesh, but goddamn, do I love this movie. There’s more passion and enthusiasm on display here than in most of the movies we covered. May the Dark Gods of Old bless the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.
And this ends our round of movies based on pulp/weird fiction. It’s been a blast. We’ll back soon, talking about three sequels to blockbuster summer movies. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter or leave us a comment below.
Jeremy: John Carter. Note to self: make sure safe search is on when looking for images of Dejah Thoris for the article you’re writing.
Gabby: So what was your first viewing of this? Any previous relationship with the property?
Brett: This was the first time I watched it.
Jeremy: This was my second viewing. Like most everybody else, I didn’t see John Carter in theaters. I wanted to – but never got around to it. I rented it as soon as it came out on video. Before this retrospective on pulp/weird fiction adaptations, I tried reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and could never get into it. During my daily commute recently, I listened to a free audiobook reading so I’d have an understanding of what it took to adapt the source material.
I was – and still am – pleasantly surprised by this movie, even if they didn’t completely crack the story. Everyone involved in this production – from director Andrew Stanton to a desperately floundering marketing department – wasted too much energy on convincing us that there was something here for everyone, instead of just telling the damn story.
Gabby: I wish I could have supported this when it came out. But I only saw one poster for it and I live in London and that was when it stopped showing in cinemas. Now, either I may have been living under a rock at the time, or that says a lot at how terrible that marketing was. Though I knew I wanted to see it. I had seen a special on it on TV. Like a brief kind of promotion almost and I wanted to support it.
Jeremy: I wish I’d supported it in theaters, as well. This movie reminds me of a lot of first installments in comic book franchises – not great, but potentially on the way to greatness. The big problem for me is that I always felt an arm’s length away from the character of John Carter. I never cared for any of these characters or the world they were fighting for, and that’s what I want more than anything from a movie like this.
Brett: I was super bored. In fact, I have to be the Jeremy for this movie. I really didn’t enjoy myself here. I can try to think of some positive things, but I spent most the movie wishing it was shorter and had less storylines and characters. I was just bored really.
Jeremy: It could be leaner and meaner, yeah. Let me start at the end of the movie and work my way back: I wasn’t fully engaged on this viewing, then found myself grinning like an idiot during the last scene. I was suddenly – finally – charmed by Taylor Kitsch as he told his nephew, a fictionalized Edgar Rice Burroughs, to take chances and live his life. I was overjoyed that Carter was going back to Mars, despite feeling little joy before that moment. The movie suddenly came alive.
One of the reasons Andrew Stanton jumped from animation to live-action was because he was “spontaneity-starved.” I find precious little spontaneity in John Carter. The budget got too big and Disney panicked about having another flop with Mars in the title. And it shows in almost every scene. It’s calculated to death.
Gabby: I also really like the segment with John and his nephew getting him back to Mars. I got invested in his quest to get back there and felt very happy when he succeeded.
Brett: Okay, so here’s my problem: the book A Princess of Mars is thinner than a DVD box. That’s not a joke, I checked. We happen to have all the books hanging around the house, even though I have never read them. This should have been a fast-paced, peppy, pulpy, action-packed thrill ride. Instead, they try to build a franchise and ended up smothering the adventure and excitement under the weight of all the extra story.
Mark Strong’s villain and storyline should not have been in this movie. It turned an Indiana Jones-style romp into a Lord of the Rings snorefest. It wasn’t a badly made movie, although the CGI became visual noise after a while. It became ponderous and dull.
I liked the way the movie started. I thought the exploration of Mars and John’s discovery of his super-strength on Mars was fun. But every time they cut away from him, the movie just died. I didn’t care about the extended storyline they were building for Dejah Thoris, or much of anything that wasn’t John doing Mars stuff. I just wanted to see him doing his thing, that’s when the movie worked for me.
Gabby: ‘John doing Mars stuff’ should have been the tag line for this movie.
Brett: Since I got bored, I lost track of the 200 plot lines they were throwing at the wall hoping something would stick. I was just sitting there saying, “Have the adventurer do adventure stuff. I don’t care if Dejah Thoris gets the ring to Mount Doom. I don’t care if Mark Strong ever takes over Mars or not. Just tell me the number to the phone in my car and get on with it!” They were in such a hurry to advertise the next movie, they forgot you still have to enjoy this movie. I am going to just say the problem was pacing and not letting the world-building happen naturally.
I was reminded of how I felt watching The Wolverine. I was bored; it wasn’t working for me. I knew it should work for me, and yet there I was bored and not caring. I never really connected with the story and I ended up standing on the outside not being able to understand what all the fuss was about.
Gabby: I enjoy the exploration of his powers when he first gets to Mars. And I like the Lord of the Rings comparisons here! That is very on point. There is too much melodrama going on in the background that takes away from the adventure and fun of discovering Mars.
Jeremy: Oddly enough, like The Black Cauldron, this movie pulls material from the first two Barsoom books and puts them in a blender. Granted, there’s almost thirty years and countless regime changes at Disney separating the two movies, but it’s interesting to see they made the same mistake twice.
Brett: What is it with Disney trying to cram two books worth of story into one movie?
Jeremy: The Therns, led by Mark Strong’s character, don’t show up until the second book. They’re one addition too many for this movie. That being said, I like the idea of the Therns, a clandestine organization profiting off the wars they engineer. But it feels like a safe choice – namely because they tie it together with Carter being a Confederate soldier. Stanton’s trying to say there’s often a moral divide between the people who start wars and those fighting them. In theory, that’s a good message, but it feels a bit half-hearted here. Another calculation.
Gabby: The cynic in me also believes history has proved to us that is false. One example would be the ‘following orders’ example from the Nazis. We know that was not always the case.
Brett: The hundreds of story lines are a big reason why this movie never engaged me. I did kind of connect with John Carter though. I would watch that pretty motherfucker running around, being half naked and heroic all day.
Jeremy: Sometimes a hero being heroic is enough. Granted I’ll take a conflicted Peter Parker over a vanilla Clark Kent any day. But I still like a Clark Kent.
Brett: I like certain Clark Kents. It depends whose playing/writing him. I have this horrible feeling that if John Carter was more Marvel and less Tron: Legacy, it would have gone better.
Jeremy: All three movies we picked this round felt like they needed to give their protagonists tortured backstories so modern audiences would connect with them. In fact, my pick, The Whisperer in Darkness, also gives the main character a dead wife and kid, with the same mixed results.
Brett: Spoilers! Does he not have a family in A Princess of Mars? I haven’t read it. *
*This only makes the second book/story that the movie was based on that Brett hasn’t read – ed.
Jeremy: Yep. Anything that contributes to Carter’s moodiness or ambivalence to the conflicts around him was invented for this movie.
I’m not that familiar with Taylor Kitsch. He’s at his best here in the brief moments where he gets to be a charming rogue. It’s not a bad performance – but I get the impression he wanted to have more fun than he was allowed to have, which doubles down on the moodiness. I’m not against Stanton humanizing the character, but this is a pretty dour start for a movie franchise based on a - and I don’t mean this to sound derogatory – juvenile adventure series. A character that can soar through the air shouldn’t be weighed down by this much emotional baggage.
Brett: Juvenile seems like an appropriate word.
Jeremy: It’s green men and red boobs wankery, yeah. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
Gabby: It is a shame with it being boring to you Brett. I do agree there is too much thrown in here. As Jeremy pointed out, a second film might have got it to a much higher level. Mark Strong’s plotline is definitely the big weakness here. It is sad that the movie was such a bomb and it probably will never get a chance to develop that potential.
The addition of his tortured past and him being a Confederate soldier is unnecessary. I do like his quest trying to get back to Mars and it making him rich. And the fact that he only enjoys those riches so far as it allows him to continue. The charming rogue mode is much better for Kitsch, but also makes for a more likeable character. The moodiness is just unpleasant at times. I like the section where he and the Princess are on Mars’ answer to camels… space camels. There is this playful back and forth between them, much preferable over him grumping in a corner somewhere thinking about a medallion.
To go back on something Jeremy said earlier, I think the part where the boring and calculated studio notes show through is with the villains. Sab Than (Dominic West’s character) could have been the villain on his own, without being connected to faux space philosphers. The Therns felt like they were there to unnecessarily tie the script together.
Brett: In Heavy Metal, there is a story where a geek is taken to another world and decides to stay because in that world he’s a big strong guy with women dripping off him. No tragic backstory, no dead family. The only explanation you get is “On Earth, I was no one, but here, I’m Den!” Hey, you guys wanna watch Heavy Metal?
Jeremy: Ummm… Er…
In the screenwriters’ defense, A Princess of Mars is very episodic. If you take out the Therns entirely from this movie and save the Zodangas for a third-act complication, the major plot beats are faithful to the novel. The book hints that Carter isn’t even human, that he was originally from Mars. He’s seemingly ageless (most of the Martian races live for a 1,000 years), can’t remember his youth, and learns to travel between the two worlds by thought alone.
He’s also a straight-up fuckin’ psychopath in the book.
Without the Therns, the whole story comes down to what Carter’s willing to do to save Dejah Thoris (a strong, well-written damsel in distress – but a damsel in distress, nonetheless) from the Tharks and then the Zodangas. There’s a lot of flowery prose about Carter’s dogged belief in duty, loyalty, and love – but there’s so many moments in the book where he stumbles into a situation, does his best to size up who the bad guys are, and proceeds to murder the shit out of said bad guys. He needlessly murders as many people/aliens as possible. It’s like he’s trying to beat his fuckin’ high score or something.
Don’t get me wrong, Burroughs wrote a hell of a story – but the novel often crossed whatever limits I have for enjoying power fantasies. Even if the final film is too calculated, I get why Stanton looked at the source material and decided a white interloper, a Confederate soldier no less, reshaping a world in his own image wasn’t going to play.
Brett: In the books, the Martians have red skin and nobody wears any clothes. There aren’t even loin cloths, everyone just runs around starkers. They sometimes wear leather belts around their chests and have capes of colored material. Strangely, Disney didn’t go for the nudity part…
Jeremy: I’m surprised there wasn’t a trashy ’70s European adaptation with tons of nudity. I would happily watch that on Hulu and then happily delete my watch history in order to avoid my wife’s frowny face.
Back to this movie: what did everyone think about the performances?
Brett: I found the woman playing Dejah to be sort of boring, but I couldn’t tell if that was the actress or the writing or the directing or what.
Gabby: There is a missing element in the performances. Is there anyone that really stands out to either of you? Thinking about it now, they are all okay, but not really more than that.
Jeremy: I mentioned earlier feeling an arm’s length away from the characters. To me, it seems like the actors felt the same way about their roles. The one exception is Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, who gets to go big and have fun. Oh, here’s one moment that does seem spontaneous: Tars Tarkas slapping Carter in the back of the head for leading their army in the wrong direction. That joke is so unexpected and welcome at that point in the movie.
Like Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins is fine as Dejah Thoris. They did a good job of modernizing the character and giving her things to do that were handled by other male characters in the book. I never doubted for a moment that her character was John Carter’s equal. A lot of that comes from Collin’s performance.
Also, I had a real “Pullman/Paxton” with James Purefoy and Dominic West. Thank God the two were color-coded with their blue and red capes. I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart.
And with that, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: To me there are joys in the film. I think the movie looks its best, funnily, when Carter is on Earth and the plot involves his nephew. There is something involving and lived in about it. And when not swarmed by CGI battling aliens, I find Mars quite fun. The landscape, when Carter is trying out his jumping skills for instance, are impressive.
The movie could do with a bit more of the adventurous and good humored spirit of that and the space camel scene. There is a touch of dark humour when Carter reappears, as his nephew is trying to open the crypt. More of that and it would have made it a bit more peppy. That and a bit of a tighter script. As it stands, I still really enjoy this movie. I wish it hadn’t been given such a hard time as there is a lot to like. It was brave to do this movie – despite the last minute, misguided cowardice from the studio. It has a spirit of adventure that shows through in certain scenes with an imaginative take on life on another planet.
Brett: Honestly, what annoys me most is that I REALLY wanted to like this, and I… just… didn’t. This gets added to an annoyingly long list of things I feel like I should like and just don’t. I feel like I’m on the outside looking in at a party, but they’re playing music I don’t like and eating food that makes me sick. But everyone else is having fun and I feel bad just mentioning if I eat the shrimp stuffed mushrooms I will basically explode and die. Don’t worry John Carter, you’re in good company on that shelf, with a lot of other fan favorites.
Jeremy: If you take away all the stigma surrounding this movie, you’ll find an occasionally bland but enjoyable adventure story. You could do so much worse. For Andrew Stanton, an animation director switching over to live-action for the first time, it’s a surprisingly assured debut. The problem is that this went through the Disney sausage factory. And no matter how good the ingredients, anything that goes through a sausage factory is gonna taste like sausage.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with one more movie in this pulp/weird fiction block, A Whisperer in Darkness. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter for more ramblings on movies and other nerdy pursuits. And leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
Gabby: We channel our otherworldly powers whilst discussing…
Jeremy: The Shadow. Who knows what need for cultural sensitivity training lurks in the hearts of men?
Gabby: So that was fun!
Brett: Yeah, this movie is always fun. It’s just not perfect. It might even be objectively bad. I can’t be objective about it though.
Jeremy: Neither can I.
Gabby: I would watch it again.
Jeremy: Before we go further, let’s introduce this latest round of movies. We’re each picking a film we want to defend that’s inspired by classic works of pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, The Shadow. This movie’s been on our radar since we first started talking about doing these retrospectives. Not that it matters who picks a movie, but I assumed the two of us (both huge Shadow fans) were going to have to rock-paper-scissors for this one. Surprisingly, there was another movie I wanted to do more.
So let’s start at the beggining: when did everyone first see The Shadow?
Gabby: This was my first experience.
Brett: I started with the radio show, and then read some of the stories, the comics and movies came last for me. The Shadow was my favorite radio show as a kid. So of course I was there on opening night to see this movie, and I mostly enjoyed it.
Jeremy: My history with The Shadow is surprisingly personal. This movie came out in July 1994, which was the last month before me and my family moved to a different state. I was fifteen and had come out of my shell over the last school year – so I was taking the whole thing about as well as you would expect. Everything was already in boxes and we spent that July in a furnished apartment. My only sibling was off at college. So with nothing much to do, my parents were cool and let me practically live with my friends until we left town.
I bounced from house to house. While staying with my best friend at the time, the two of us decided to see The Shadow on a whim (neither of us had heard of the character before). The poster looked cool and we were fifteen. Of course we were down for a superhero movie.
We both loved it (me in particular). Part of the merchandising push for this movie was re-releasing episodes of the radio show. I picked up one of those sets a few days later. Pretty sure it was around 20 episodes. I remember listening to Orson Welles as The Shadow on my Walkman during the drive to a new home in a new state. I kept tracking down episodes and listening to them alone in my bedroom that autumn while coming out of my new shell.
I still enjoy the movie, but part of that fondness no doubt comes from it taking me back to a bittersweet time.
Brett: My history goes back further. When I was a little, little kid, like 3, there was a station that played old radio shows.
So I listened to a bunch of stuff, The Shadow was one of the only things they played that wasn’t a comedy. So The Shadow was the one badass I listened to late at night when I wasn’t sleeping. We got some tapes of episodes when I was about 12 or so. 8 tapes, 16 episodes, very cool stuff. There was a podcast that put, like, 50 episodes out as a podcast.
I got some reprints of the stories in little collected books that were probably printed in the ’70s at my middle school library. It should go without saying that I was A PIMP in school. Had to beat the babes off with a stick.
What I liked about The Shadow, what I have always liked, is that mysticism is allowed to be the answer. You don’t get that Hardy Boys nonsense where the solution is so goofy and convoluted that ghosts would be more sensible.
This movie is a little more comic book and a little less pulp story, but the baddie is still allowed to be an Eastern mystic, and they allow for the power of the atomic bomb. It straddles both worlds that The Shadow existed in.
Gabby: Although, I have had little in the way of comparison as to interpretation, I did pick up upon the interesting mix of magic and superpowers.
Jeremy: Yeah, that’s where the character from the pulps and the radio show diverge, to my knowledge. We’ll talk about the history of The Shadow in a moment.
Gabby: I think a good thing would actually be to discuss some of those things it aims to be and how successful those are.
Jeremy: It has the same basic flaw as most ’90s popcorn movies: it can’t decide what it wants to be. It tries to please everyone.
Brett: It’s tone is too mushy. It wants to be a comic book and a pulp story and a mystery and an adventure and it wants to be the pure version of all of those instead of a mixture. However, that does mean the individual scenes taken on their own are generally fine. It’s a little clunky, but it gets to where you want to go.
Jeremy: Agreed. I like each element of this story – except the goddamned shrieking face knife – but the pieces don’t always fit together. The problem is this: every time screenwriter David Koepp commits to an earnest idea, he hesitates and instead goes for a joke. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of trying to convince your boss about something at work, but you keep saying things like, “I don’t know – I could be wrong, but…”
I like Koepp’s writing, though. The guy knows banter, and I live for banter. And he does an admirable job of taking the different versions of The Shadow I different mediums and combining them together.
Very briefly, the origin of The Shadow began on the radio in 1930 – though the character was only the narrator of a crime anthology show. (Think the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt.)
The character became so popular that he got his own pulp series the next year, which ran until 1949. The look of the character matches what we see in the movie, and he’s a bit like Batman – a master detective who’s trained to peak mental and physical condition. He’s also a master of stealth and disguises. He can make himself look anyone. In fact, Lamont Cranston is just one of his aliases in the pulps. The Shadow got an origin story a couple of years in, but it was never that important. These are stories about a superhero fighting bad guys for fighting bad guys’ sake.
In 1937, the character goes back to radio with his own half-hour show. The way they get him to work over the airwaves is actually pretty brilliant. This version of the character has the ability to “cloud men’s mind” so no one can see him. Obviously, an invisible character plays beautifully on radio. It’s here that Margo Lane is introduced. And this character actually is Lamont Cranston, a young playboy who fights crime around living the high life with a beautiful companion. For a lot of fans of the pulps, this was a safe, water-downed version of the character for mass consumption.
I’m not sure there’s another superhero this relatively well-known that doesn’t have a clear character bible. Whether it’s Adam West or Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, Batman is always Batman. It’s the tone – the intent – that changes. Based on the medium, The Shadow is barely the same character. For my money, this hybrid version of The Shadow is the best interpretation so far. We get some of the street-level grittiness and the supernatural powers. And despite the goddamned shrieking face knife, the origin story works for me.
Brett: So how many of us have read the stories, listened to the radio show or read the comics? Or saw the two movies made in the ’30s?
I haven’t read all the pulp stories, or read many of the comics, but I have read enough to know what we’re dealing with. The stories were a little more “mystery around every corner” while the radio show was just a detective show that allowed supernatural explanations. The two movies I have from the ’30s are basically short serials. They’re on that level of quality and storytelling style.
Gabby: I watched one of the ’30s movies of The Shadow, after seeing this version, and I was not really a fan. What is your favourite story of The Shadow?
Brett: It’s honestly been so long since I read any. There is a radio episode that sticks with me, though. The Thing in the Cage has a creepy as all fuck ending.
Gabby: So racism… Is that reoccurring in this thing? The Asain stereotyping here is quite extreme in the first section of the movie. Where they use China as a dark and mysterious land full of evil magics and men with a lust for power.
Brett: There was a TON of Yellow Peril stuff in pulp before Nazis took over at the baddie du jour. It’s not just The Shadow, the mysterious East was both a place where all the really cool stuff came from and all the clever villains. Racism is always going to be part of the deal, because these were disreputable populist stories and could do disreputable populist stuff.
Jeremy: These stories are of their time. Nothing I’ve read in any of the pulps is a direct attack on any race or culture. That’s not an excuse for the horribly outdated things found in these stories, by any means. If you’ve read or listened to a Shadow story that contradicts that statement, let us know. We’re all mature enough here to appreciate a story from the past while acknowledging the problems of the past.
With that in mind, let’s get this out of the way: how does Shiwan Khan play for everyone? Going only by this movie, do you find him or his henchmen offensive?
Brett: I probably should find it more offensive than I do. I think because it’s set in a historical place, and that John Lone really doesn’t play up to Yellow Peril stereotypes, I tend to forgive it. He’s not trying to get Margo hooked on opium so he can sell her to white slavers while bringing down the decadent West, I sort of look past a lot of it. His henchmen don’t play a large enough part either. We rarely really see them.
I am a white guy, though. I try, but, you know… white American.
Jeremy: I get that. You and I are living life on the easiest difficulty setting. That’s right where I am with these characters, as well. For both Khan and Dr. Tam, who The Shadow recruits at the beginning of the movie, that’s where they’re from, not who they are. Does that make sense?
Brett: Yes. Khan’s reasons are very much universal. He wants power and wealth. He might as wells stroke a white cat and be all “You have interfered for the last time, Yin Ko.”
Gabby: I found some of it offensive and some of it not so much. I think Khan is, as you both say, played in a way that makes him more than a typical villain with wishes of grand power.
I think it was more the way they introduced ‘the Orient’ in the film, that struck me as offensive, but then I think they manage to get away with that and use the Eastern magic as an influence on the character and the villains. Like you said Jeremy, it is the place they are from and not why they are evil.
Jeremy: Koepp giving Cranston a darker backstory helps. Both men committed the same atrocities and were given the same opportunity to redeem themselves. This is one of the few times I enjoy the “We’re not so different, you and I…” cliché.
And I dig the Redemption Work Study program that Cranston and Khan go through. Cranston is not chosen as a white savior or anything. He’s chosen by this secret society because he’s a monster with an ounce of good left in him. It’s never explicitly said, but I assume there are “Shadows” all over the world doing what Cranston does.
Obviously, having a Nazi bad guy or something would’ve gone down easier. But this movie weighed the source material, considered these concerns, and tried do something about them. It’s a step – probably too a small step – in the right direction.
Gabby: I like the trope of mirroring the villain and the hero, that is always interesting. I suppose linking the villain to Genghis Khan helped. Having a real historical figure, one that became one of the most feared conquerors, makes it seem not a racist fear it is tapping into, but a fear of dead legends coming back to haunt us. Vlad the Impaler is another figure like this, for instance.
Brett: That’s back to the pulp stories. Shiwan Khan was featured in at least two stories. I don’t remember Shiwan Khan having psychic powers.
Jeremy: Vlad the Impaler would’ve been wicked awesome, though.
Brett: I also don’t think the romantic dynamic worked, mostly because Baldwin and Miller kind of had no romantic chemistry. Oddly though, as friends who fight crime, it worked. When they didn’t try to have them flirting, they worked better. They make good co-workers, though.
Jeremy: Their kiss at the end really stuck out for me on this viewing. Alec Baldwin was the perfect Lamont Cranston in 1994. The same for Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane. (And holy shit, the supporting cast in this movie…) They’re not perfect together. They have some chemistry. It still works – and would’ve worked better if they kept their relationship platonic.
It ties into something else I found off on this viewing: Cranston is enjoying himself a little too much. That’s not Baldwin’s fault. He’s going off the script. I like that the movie is fun. I don’t want a “dark and gritty” Shadow. Cranston’s just a little too redeemed for the first movie. It’s like we’re getting where this character would be one or two sequels down the road.
Brett: If they were making the movie today, they would have things more franchise-minded. They probably would have a better idea what tone they want to strike and get closer to it. Or they’d try to get “clever” and ruin the whole thing with in-jokes and terrible ertaz radio shows.
Jeremy: Khan would be the First Horseman or some shit like that, yeah. Doc Savage would show up for one scene.
Brett: Now speaking of a character that needs a new movie!
Jeremy: Shane Black and The Rock, baby. I hope it gets made. I’m assuming the ’70s Doc Savage movie is something readers can expect in the future.
Brett: OK, there is one scene that I think should have been super chilling, but it’s played for laughs. When Shiwan Khan gets the guy to throw himself off the Empire State Building. Think about it and that’s a very dark and wicked. He makes someone commit suicide over a bit of mockery. I feel like John Lone thought that scene should be played darker. But then they cut away and make a joke as we see the body bouncing on the way down.
And killing the guard at the beginning is pretty dark -
Jeremy: Even if it’s Neelix from Voyager…
Brett: …and it’s given some weight. Again, the jumbled tone thing.
Jeremy: I lost my shit over the “It’s all falling into place…” gag in theaters, to the point where people were turning around and looking at me. It’s a very Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi joke. I still get a little nostalgic kick out of it, but thirtysomething Jeremy knows better.
It’s an honest swing and a miss. At least it’s not “Next time, you get to be on top.” What the hell is that doing in this movie?
What does everyone make of Russell Mulcahy? Through the ’80s and early ’90s, he made several movies like The Shadow that found their audience on home video.
Brett: I’m generally okay with him. He seems to know the movie he’s making. Commentaries and interviews with him have led me to believe there has been a lot of interference in the movies he’s made. He tries to please everyone, and as a result, a lot of his movies are all over the place.The light-hearted adventure thing can work, he made it work in Highlander. The story as presented here needed to be one thing or the other.
It should have gone more for light-hearted adventure and left the attempts at darkness to one side.
Jeremy: “He was a music video director” is a classic cheap shot, but it holds water here. It’s not that he’s too focused on visuals. There’s a stitched-together feeling here I get from a lot of movies made by ex-music video directors.
It’s odd that I want Mulcahy to go darker with the material. That’s not usually my thing. I like that this is a redemption story. I’m all for stories that say, yes, we can change – but change is hard. It goes back to the fact that Lamont is already at Step 12 of Megalomaniac’s Anonymous, when I want him at about Step 8 or 9.
Brett: I could have done without the atomic bomb. I would have preferred some murder mystery story full of characters and suspects and not taking over the world or using atom bombs.
Jeremy: I’m indifferent about the A-bomb. And it should be said that the final showdown between The Shadow and Khan feels so weak because an earthquake destroyed the original set and they ran out of time and money.
Back to something positive: whoever came up with the notion that Lamont can never hide his shadow, the last vestige of the darkness within, is brilliant. To my knowledge, that was invented for this movie, and I can’t imagine the character without it now.
Brett: Oh, and I just checked. In the radio show, Lamont learned the invisibility trick from Yogi priests in India. And he used modern science to improve his mental skills. I’m not sure of the shadow on the wall was part of the comics. It’s an excellent addition.
Jeremy: In all the pulps I’ve read, he’s a master of stealth and disguises. When he’s sneaking around, bad guys sometimes see an odd shadow where one shouldn’t be, but that’s about it. To my knowledge, it’s not there as a weakness, nor does it symbolize anything. As the pulps go on, I think more vague hints of the supernatural pop up. The main writer of the pulps, Walter Gibson, wanted The Shadow to be horribly disfigured, prompting the need for all the disguises. Gibson’s editors nixed it.
Speaking of Sam Raimi, he pitched his version of The Shadow in the late ’80s using that premise. Once the studio passed, he ended up using some of those elements in Darkman.
Brett: How do we feel this fares as a historical piece? Is it a good historical piece? Bad? Do they set up the world well? Compare with Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Captain America: First Avenger – or something like Poirot and other UK period shows that subsequently played on A&E like crazy.
Jeremy: It’s a handsome production. Not sure how accurate it is. It works, though. Does this little niche of superhero movies have a name? I usually call them Art Deco superhero movies. I hope we cover more movies in this quirky little sub genre. So far, we’ve talked about this and The Phantom. Depending on how long we do this, I imagine we’ll get to most of them. We definitely need to do Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow one day.
Brett: I always called these Hat movies, because of people wearing hats. I also put Indiana Jones in here, since I don’t think any of the other hat movies exist without Indy. I have a love/hate with Dick Tracy, because it was almost good and then Madonna shows up.
Jeremy: And The Rocketeer and The Phantom are more trying to capture the spirit of Indiana Jones than actual movies from the ’30s. If Batman: Mask of the Phantasm counts, that’s my clear favorite of the ’30s/’40s superhero homages.
And with that, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: This is another mess, but a fun one. Though it tries for way too many things that it doesn’t pull off, it works in serial form. Meaning that sequences and scenes work separately. But the movie as a whole, despite its flaws, has a lot of things to admire. The fact it aims for so much is quite charming really. And there are some sequences that make me want to watch it again relatively soon.
Brett: I will always have a soft spot for The Shadow and any movie directed by Russell Mulcahy. You can say a lot about the guy, but he tried to be interesting and exciting. You can feel him making an effort to just entertain you if he can. I’ve never seen one of his movies and thought he was being lazy. I appreciate him.
Jeremy: It’s still a lot of fun. I wish it was more than just fun, but here we are. I’m always going to have a soft spot for it. And not just for the movie it is and where it appeared in my life: this was my gateway into classic radio dramas and pulp fiction. It’s like your first kiss. It doesn’t matter if it was good. It was the beginning of something new.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Summertime and real life have interrupted our regular schedule of late, but we’re already a fair way into talking about Gabby and I’s picks. We’ll be back soon with John Carter.
In the meantime, follow us on Twitter where we live tweet each movie we cover every other Thursday at 8:30 CST. Oh, and say it with us one last time: stupid goddamned shrieking face knife…
♪ Bargaining switches/With big boobed witches/Swords that seem freaky/And mist that’s creepy/Undead skeletons ruled by Demon Kings/These are a few of my favorite things?/Why does this movie make me feel so bad? ♪
Gabby: You guessed it, my pick for our Dark Disney series is, The Black Cauldron.
Jeremy: At the time I’m writing this, my local movie theater has a screen dedicated to playing old Disney movies. The Black Cauldron’s playing this weekend. Should I take my toddler and videotape him being traumatized?
Brett: Sweet Monkey Jesus! Obviously we want that!
Jeremy: I doubt I’ll take him. Even if you factor in my desire to irreparably traumatize him, I don’t want to see this again anytime soon.
Gabby: So have we all seen this before? I saw this on video when I was younger. I must have watched a few times but it didn’t get played nearly as often as the others. I hadn’t seen the film since the late ’90s most likely.
Jeremy: Before this retrospective, only once in theaters back in ’85. I would’ve been six. As you can imagine, it wasn’t a good experience. I had already seen films like Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters in theaters, but this experience was different. And not in a good way.
I’m sure the movie scared me, but even back then, I liked being scared by melting Nazis and killer robots and the like. I remember The Black Cauldron feeling so… oppressive. Before watching it again, the one clear memory I had was Gurgi jumping into the cauldron during the climax and his resurrection a few minutes later. Of course, I didn’t mind Gurgi as a kid. But the movie wore me down so much that, by the time he came back, I was not having any of it. Too little, too late.
I’m trying to find the right word to describe The Black Cauldron. What keeps coming to mind is abrasive. Not because it’s dark and scary, but because it’s so relentless and manic. It’s like The Fellowship of the Ring if you removed anything endearing about the fellowship and just kept torturing them with orcs and dark riders for 80 minutes straight.
Brett: I saw this in the theater too. This is really sort of frustrating because there was clearly a good movie that could have been made here. The Prydain books are well regarded. There is a lot of talent on display here.
Gabby: One problem with this movie is that the lead is a tosser. I remember not really liking him when I watched this as a child.
‘What do girls know about swords?’ Giant arsehole…
Brett: He’s a kid. Like genuinely 14 or something. He hasn’t discovered feminism yet. Princess Welsh Name will help with that.
Gabby: Uhhh… he shouldn’t have been taught sexism. Not, he should wait for feminism. The person who brought him up does not seem to be a sexist arse so he should have been brought up with the ideals.
My brother was more mature at four than this guy.
Brett: It’s the 10th Century and he was raised on a pig farm with one old man. Congratulate him when he does well. He should be congratulated for not claiming all her property and having her family killed when she displeases him! He’s raised in a society that doesn’t even consider women to be people in the strictest sense of the word, so… I’m just sayin’… Game of Thrones… something something….
Gabby: Exactly. Where would he pick sexism up? In fact, 14 in the 10th is like 44 to us probably. Especially to a farmer.
Brett: Frankly, while I agree the hero is a little sexist, the witches are what stick in my craw. The depiction of the witches comes off as truly misogynistic. That bit goes on forever and it’s hateful the whole time. This is basically a prequel to Game of Thrones. With less rape and more Gurgi.
Jeremy: Ah, Jesus… Gurgi. I meet in the middle on this one. I’m OK with the youth being callow if he grows. In this case, though, the kid doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The magic sword literally does all the work for him. All he has to do is hang on to the damn thing. What an odd story choice that is.
Gabby: That is exactly her argument too. He is a bit full of himself I guess.
Jeremy: The problem is he’s a character who grows over a series of novels. We’re only getting one piece of a larger story, crammed into an 80-minute movie that’s a tonal mess.
Gabby: Yeah that is a big problem!
Brett: And why were they adapting the second book in the series? That just feels odd.
Jeremy: So it’s loosely the character journey from the first book and the MacGuffin from the second?
I get the impression that part of the tonal dissonance came from two different generations of Disney talent. It feels like the old guard intended to make a traditional animated film, but the young upstarts kept adding more skeletons and boob shots with the witches. There are SO MANY boob shots in this movie, you guys.
Brett: I feel like I’ve already run out of things to say. There’s not much to it. This was a movie that just didn’t work too well. It’s got a feel similar to The Sword in the Stone, but then Team B came in and made things dark.
Jeremy: There is one thing we haven’t talked about, and I can’t believe it took us almost a thousand words to get here. This movie features an oracular pig. A fuckin’ oracular pig. You can’t make stuff like that up. That beats wasp royal jelly for the biggest “The fuck…?” moment in any movie we’ve covered.
Brett: I have a blind spot for the pig. I keep forgetting about how crazy that is because in the end it really doesn’t matter.
Jeremy: It’s weird. It’s like the appetizer MacGuffin before the entree MacGuffin. The pig’s just there to get everyone interested in the Black Cauldron.
Gabby: The fact “oracular pig” is said in any movie is amazing really! Wasp royal jelly was pretty fabulous though.
I have a few more things to mention. What do you think of the Horned King design?
Jeremy: I have mixed feeling about his design. The silhouette is terrific, but I’m already blanking on what he looked like – especially the face.
Gabby: I am with you on the silhouette of the horned king being powerful and the face not living up to it. It just doesn’t have the punch needed. I also agree that it is strange to adapt the second book. I tried to find the first book in some libraries near me and it wasn’t on record. I am not sure if this film has something to do with that.
The witches truly are awful. It is beyond offensive. They felt very abrasive, to quote Jeremy’s word.
I remember being scared by the Horned King as a child. That segment where he puts the skeleton in the cauldron is an example of where the score is really effective. The green stuff that came out of the cauldron following the orange blast gave me nightmares for several months. There was something about the colour and the accompanying high pitched noise. The same, scored, sound that is present when you see all the green as the skeletons march. Those balls the Princess has in combination were that colour in my dream. Those things put me on edge too, but that was more the context. That of a horrible castle with a possessed horned skeleton wanting to reign his army of the undead over the land. Rather than the glowing balls themselves.
Jeremy: And the crazy thing is a lot of the scarier footage was removed before release. Apparently, at a test screening of this longer cut, kids ran out of the theater in terror. Part of me is like, “That’s wrong, man.” The other part of me – the parent currently trapped in toddler hell – read that, laughed maniacally, and screamed, “YESSSSSS!!!”
Here’s an interesting coincidence, thanks to our age gap: Brett and I were quite young when we saw this in theaters, and you were about the same age when this finally got a home video release in the ’90s. We should mention that Disney buried this movie for a long time after its release.
Brett: I quote directly from Wikipedia here – Jeffrey Katzenberg, then-Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios, was dismayed by the product and the animators felt that it lacked “the humor, pathos, and the fantasy which had been so strong in Lloyd Alexander’s work. The story had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was heartbreaking to see such wonderful material wasted.”
I mean… ouch.
Jeremy: He’s right, though.
Gabby: He is right about humour and pathos. The film needs it. That is what I was kind of getting at when I said he is a bit of a sexist protagonist. It is more that he is a self-absorbed one, and thinks of others as less important. He also lacks a sense of humour. Brett mentioned The Sword and the Stone. When rewatching Black Cauldron, there is a part where the witches are in the clouds for the first time, telling them about the cauldron. That really reminded me of the part where Merlin and Madam Mim have a Duel. The way it is drawn, the grey colouring of the sky and ground, as well as the shape of the trees, is incredibly similar. But it lacks the wonderful sense of humour and character present in Sword and the Stone. I love Madam Mim. She is such a fire of energy. They needed something like that here to add some energy to the fantasy.
Jeremy: We should also mention Elmer Bernstein’s score I don’t hear Bernstein mentioned that often. He knew how to write an eerie film score. Some of the cues feel quite similar to his work on Ghostbusters, though. That’s not entirely a bad thing. You can’t overstate how important his score is to Ghostbusters.
Brett: This score was cut to pieces. So it doesn’t come off as his best work.
Gabby: I have seen there is a bit of an internet campaign to get that uncut version re-released. I would definitely see that.
Elmer Bernstein is brilliant and the fact they cut his score up to pieces really does show the makers of this film did not know what they were doing. The score is so powerful in the sections with the Horned King.
Jeremy: I need to track down more details about what scenes were cut. I’m curious if a director’s cut would restore some connective tissue or just be more skulls & boobs wankery.
Brett: Skull and boobs wankery. I have just found the subtitle for this group: The Indefensibles – Skull and boob wankery.
Jeremy: And, er, on that note, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: I stand by being scared of that scene where the Horned King awakens his army of the dead. That still packs a punch, thanks to the imagery actually being effective here and Bernstein’s score. The scene where Eilonwy saves Taran with her glowy balls I think is very atmospheric as well. It is a pity there is so much of the film that is actiuvely hateful alongside moments like that.
Brett: We barely talked about Gurgi, but he bugs me. He should be lovable, but he ain’t. His sorta-self-sacrifice really annoyed me. I think because it was so passive aggressive. “Oh, you have lots of friends I have none.” *JUMPS* It’s not noble, he doesn’t do it because he loves the guy and wants him to be safe, he just doesn’t have any friends. Smeagol didn’t have any friends, and he did fine. (He did fine, right? I never finished the books, it just got to being too many songs. He got away, right? Smeagol was okay, right?)
Jeremy: I’m ambivalent. I get why this is a favorite for some people – especially fans of Lloyd Alexander’s novels. There’s a spark – a joy – that’s missing for me. Except for a few subversive moments here and there, there’s no passion here. It feels like something Disney started and had to finish. I could go another thirty years without seeing it again and be fine with it. Maybe it would grow on me if I gave it another chance. You never know.
Thanks for reading, everyone. This was the last film in our Dark Disney retrospective series, which we had a lot of fun doing. We’ll be back soon with three films inspired by classic pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, 1994’s The Shadow. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. We’ll most likely be a little more active on social media during F This Movie’s Junesploitation event. You can also leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
Gabby: ‘Time and space as we know it no longer exists. We will be the first to see it, to explore it, to experience it!’ So is the mantra of The Indefensibles, as we go forth into Jeremy’s Dark Disney pick…
Jeremy: The Black Hole. A reclusive astrophysicist promises to pay five astronauts and their wacky robot sidekick $10,000 apiece if they spend the night in his haunted spaceship.
I should start by saying that The Black Hole was one of my favorite movies as a kid. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times – no exaggeration. I can be objective about it, but I love the hell out of it to this day.
Brett: So I kind of had the same problem as I did last time I watched this.
Jeremy: It’s, like, three or four different genres awkwardly crammed into one movie? The tone is all over the map?
Brett: No, that’s fine, if a little clunky in parts. It’s not as “exciting” as I wanted. I wanted Rollicking Space Adventure, but it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a Disney film and all that entails. It’s my own fault for thinking “Disney’s Star Wars” rather than just a Disney Movie set in space. It feels like a Disney movie, it’s even shot exactly like Treasure Island of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Nobody does that “Comedy Lighting in a Dramatic Movie” thing quite like Disney Live Action.
Jeremy: Yeah, there was probably some corporate synergy going on here. Some of the set pieces seem tailored for subsequent attractions at their theme parks – the tram, the shooting range, the meteor storm. (The rolling ball of death is one of my favorite shots in any film, by the way.)
Brett: It also feels like this is like a 2 1/2 movie crammed into a 90-minute bag.
Jeremy: I get that. Dr. Reinhardt’s mad scientist plan is revealed about halfway through. And it’s only in the last half-hour that the movie really gets going. The action scenes are pedestrian, even by ’79’s standards. And like Something Wicked, there’s a great, startling scene – the reveal of the robots actually being the crew, followed by Anthony Perkin’s death – right before the climax that the climax can’t top.
Despite some problems with the script (ESP with a robot?), I still enjoy the first half and how it gets all the pieces on the board. My favorite part of movies like Alien and The Thing are the early scenes before everything goes to hell – the setup, the mystery. Granted, the mystery is obvious here in a way it’s not in those movies.
I’m not the first to say this: The Black Hole is a haunted house movie in space. I love the long, lingering shots of characters exploring this gothic spaceship, accompanied by that moody John Barry score. The part of me that turns this on when I can’t sleep – that wants it to wash over me as I’m drifting off – eats this up.
Gabby: I find the vibe unique, which I like. At times, I was not entirely sure what I was watching. For instance, there is a section with a big red blob coming towards them and they escape through the ecosystem.
Jeremy: Those are meteors that the black hole is pulling in. The timing’s certainly convenient.
Gabby: Have you ever seen the Planet of the Apes film series? Other than the first one, I mean. Beneath the Planet of the Apes is my least favourite. That is one of those films where I didn’t know what I was watching. In a bad way. Whereas I kind of enjoyed this Black Hole flavour bag of nuts. Another film similar to Beneath, for me, in terms of the way I reacted to it, was The Mole People. The Black Hole is definitely not The Mole People. The Mole People, Dinosaurous and Jack and Jill are some of my least favourite movies of… all time.
Jeremy: I actually revisited Beneath the Planet of the Apes a few weeks ago. It was rough. I’ll leave it at that.
Brett: There is no single item that I can point to and say “That just doesn’t work” but it doesn’t all fit together. It doesn’t gel for me.
Jeremy: What really sticks out to you as not working?
Brett: B.O.B. didn’t work for me. They could have cut the robots and just made the movie half an hour longer. The mystery of the crew felt rushed, and having B.O.B. just take V.I.N.C.E.N.T. to the factory where everyone is transformed felt cheap. V.I.N.C.E.N.T. should have discovered the crew on his own. The shooting gallery bit didn’t seem to fit in the movie either, but at least it wasn’t very long.
Gabby: The shooting gallery was a part I did not enjoy, also. It was like watching trash bins made from tin have a game of bullet tag. On a different note, why does one of the robots sound like a hillbilly? I didn’t exactly get why some of the robots were without emotions, but V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and the cute southern robot had them.
One small issue I had is the overuse of sound effects for the space devices. It got on my nerves at one point. The reveal of what is behind the masks I found very effective, very good makeup design.
‘You mean we’re going into the black hole?’ ‘Yep.’ Yep! Sorry, I found that funny. The segment where they go through the black hole is disorientating with the use of sounds, thoughts and dizziness inducing circling close-ups – a good way to play with the unknown fear of what lies in store for them. Anyone else think that image of the robot on the mountain surrounded by red is inspired by Fantasia? That segment in Fantasia is one of the most terrifying things I ever saw as a child. If we talked about that and the Mickey segments on its own, that would be the film I would have picked. But the rest of that film comes with a whole bunch of things I really dislike.
Jeremy: The one thing I still enjoy about the shooting gallery scene is seeing Maximilian’s predecessor and the weird social structure the robots have. Here’s this older robot who’s now irrelevant and whiles away the hours being a bully at the local robot bar. It’s bonkers – but it adds to the house of horrors. If left alone, these robots would probably go on doing this forever. That’s chilling.
Back to V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and B.O.B. I can barely stand them as an adult. Roddy McDowall tries to make V.I.N.C.E.N.T. work. There was no way to make V.I.N.C.E.N.T. anything but insufferable with this script. They crammed R2-D2 and C-3PO into one character without understanding what makes those characters or their dynamic work.
Slim Pickens was a Disney regular, I believe. This movie has weird little nods now and again to westerns that really stick out. B.O.B. is the most glaring example of that.
Brett: Also, did anyone notice that the black bot was supposed to be twirling the guns, but was actually just twisting his wrists around?
Jeremy: You know, I’m not sure. You think I would be able to recall that, given how many times I’ve seen this.
Brett: Check that scene again, he’s just flipping his hands around. Each set piece works pretty well, the end is actually pretty exciting, but it feels old-fashioned. Had I not known this was 1979, I would have never pegged it as a Post-Star Wars movie. Granted, that’s a problem Disney movies had and would continue to have for some time. I think the old-fashioned feel is actually part of the charm now. Although the bit where Capt. Holland explains to Kate that he’s thinking of quitting because of a recent event where he was sitting in a guy’s house with a stun gun was a little weird.
Jeremy: Wait. What?
Brett: That was probably a bit from Jackie Brown, now that I think about it.
Jeremy: Doh! I get it. I’ve only seen Jackie Brown once at a press screening way back in the day.
Brett: Of all QT’s movies, that one is probably the most underrated. Which is a shame because it’s pretty good.
Gabby: Hold up. Jeremy, go watch that film again. Brett, pretty good? I have a poster of Jackie Brown on my wall. Jackie Brown is fucking great. I might be biased as it is in my top 10 favourite films. But honestly, that movie is so brilliant. On rewatches, you can see how well choreographed everything is; Sally Menke was an editing goddess. And I love you, Pam Grier. Pam Grier is the bomb. Pam Grier forever.
Brett: Anyway… I liked The Black Hole but I didn’t love it. And I kind of wanted to love it. All in all, though, this is one of those “everything works on paper” sort of things. It just flopped a little on the screen. Each piece works (save the shooting gallery) but it doesn’t come together into a complete package. I know I keep saying this, but I just wish this movie was a little longer. Give it a little more room and I think it does work. And the special effects were kind of stellar. One of the benefits of having money and existing in the late ’70s.
Jeremy: The effects hold up. If you’re a fan of optical effects, listen to Saturday Night Movie Sleepover’s podcast about this movie. They go into detail about all the technical innovations that came out of making this movie. The effects have a different look from what ILM was doing at the time. They’re quite distinctive. The production design is equally singular. Even if you haven’t seen this movie in years, you would never mistake it for another sci-fi movie made during the post-Star Wars boom.
Like Something Wicked, this probably isn’t scary for adults, but what did you think about how violent it is? And how much it leaned into the hellscape at the end, where we’re led to believe that hell itself lies within the black hole? It’s hard to believe this movie and Alien came out in the same year, because they’re both going for the haunted house vibe. Dr. Reinhardt could’ve been played by Vincent Price.
Gabby: I would have loved a bit of Vincent Price in this film!I thought the film could definitely be scary for kids. The hellscape leaning for one thing. But another is the way in which it twists and turns. Not knowing what you are watching as an adult might be confusing and maybe entertaining, but as a child that kind of thing could put you on edge and even frighten you.
Jeremy: Yeah, I grew up in a relaxed Christian household. Reinhardt’s descent into hell and the good guys possibly going to heaven blew my mind as a child (in the best way possible). This sequence and the mishmash of genres throughout the film expanded my ideas about what a story could be.
I loved how this movie scared me as a kid. As an agnostic adult, I’m kinda like, “Heaven and hell. That’s all you got, Disney?” 2001: A Space Odyssey this is not.
Brett: But at least their time warp sequence doesn’t carry on for 10 damn minutes.
Jeremy: True. And Reinhardt in hell is still a powerful image that works at a gut level. It’s all about the procession of souls marching below him. It’s somehow haunting and kinda dumb at the same time. And John Barry’s music…
Since this is my pick. I’d like to talk about the cast some more. Annoying robots aside, there are some strong casting choices here. Robert Forster is, like, extra laconic here, but I dig The Right Stuff vibe you get from him. He’s the guy who’s going to stay cool under pressure no matter what. You want this guy as your leader. Unfortunately, the character has nothing to do but stay level-headed.
Kate has her father, but that doesn’t go as far as it should because it’s obvious he’s dead. It’s interesting that Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins end up having the most to do, dramatically speaking. What other kids movie is going to have a character do a 180 like Borgnine’s character, who suddenly panics and ditches everyone? Or have a likable, if misguided, character get an immersion blender through the chest?
Gabby: Robert Forster having nothing to do was a waste. I also kept thinking something would happen with Kate’s father. Like he would be one of the zombie masked people.
Jeremy: Exactly. She should’ve met what was left of her father.
Gabby: I am not sure about the blender, but we all have seen The Lion King right?
Simba, a baby lion, has a wise, kind father, Mufasa, who loves and cares for him. Mufasa is then plunged to his death on top of a cliff by his own brother who pretends to pull him up first, to really add to that horror, he is not only killed by being murdered and thrown from a cliff, but also totally trampled by a flock of wildebeest intended to kill him and his son. If that isn’t enough, we see the little lion go up to his father’s corpse crying for him to wake up. I mean I still cry like a baby at that scene.
Jeremy: For my money, Woody and the gang going into the inferno holding hands in Toy Story 3 trumps them all.
One last thought about Reinhardt. I like Maximillian Schell, but you know he’s cuckoo-crazy-bananas from the start. We needed to see more of the visionary and less of the madman before the third act. You’re left wondering, what does Anthony Perkins see in this guy? Also, here’s another shout-out to Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers, who turned me on to the idea that Perkins’ character is turned on by Reinhardt. I can’t unsee it now.
And, er, on that note, final thoughts?
Brett: For the most part the movie is fine. It’s a good movie, and I wouldn’t turn it off if I happened upon it.
Jeremy: One of my earliest memories is watching The Black Hole. Being scared, awed, and overjoyed by it. Sure, it’s a mess – but it’s my mess. I can’t overstate how much of an impression it left on me, how it shaped the stories I consume and create. Despite all the Disney touches, I miss the populist sci-fi films from this era like it (and, of course, The Empire Strike Back and The Wrath of Khan) which had a little more teeth.
As Brett said in our live-tweet, I live for giant spaceships lumbering through space, heading towards both wonders and nightmares. As silly as this movie gets, it still delivers on that front for me.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ve got one more movie to go in our Dark Disney retrospective series, The Black Cauldron. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter and leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.
Gabby: The crew jump on a carousel as we whirl over Brett’s pick…
Jeremy: Something Wicked This Way Comes. A movie that besmirched the good name of carnies everywhere.
We should say what we’re up to with this latest block of movies, which we’re calling “Dark Disney.” We’re covering three films from the late ’70s through the mid-’80s when Disney was making dark, scary movies aimed at young viewers. These movies may not seem scary now, but if you grew up with them, they were the stuff of nightmares.
As Gabby said, we’re starting with Brett’s pick this time. What’s your history with it?
Brett: I have only ever seen this on TV. It was one of the movies that showed up on one of the cable channels. I don’t remember which one. Maybe the Disney Channel, maybe Showtime, whatever.
It’s one of those Saturday afternoon movies. One of those movies that I often walked into 10 minutes in and just kept watching. Life is full of those. It was a while before I worked out it was a book. I read it and kind of forgot about it. What I mostly remember now is that I was reminded of it when reading Needful Things.
Jeremy: Needful Things is sooo this story. A mysterious stranger comes to town, pretends to ply his trade, and bargains for the locals’ souls by tempting them with their innermost desires.
Ray Bradbury is a geek blind spot for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when watching this movie for the first time and realizing that. I mean, all tales are built upon existing stories, but jeez…
Speaking of Needful Things, we’ve talked about doing a Stephen King round of movies before. Would that be anyone’s pick?
Brett: I don’t hate Needful Things as a movie, but it would totally work for us. Creepshow 2 might work, but I feel less solid about that choice. The Dark Half is probably the best choice. Someone remind me of that later.
Jeremy: If a miniseries counts, I’d go for The Shining. There are way too many choices. Needful Things would be a good one, though. I’m curious to revisit it after seeing this. It now feels like a paler imitation of this story. Something Wicked has a clearer point of view – and definitely something on its mind. I love that it’s about the passage of time and how time takes everything away from us. It’s not dour, just bittersweet – an “enjoy yourself – it’s later than you think” story. I’m a sucker for those.
Also, I enjoyed the hell out of this. It isn’t my favorite movie that we’ve covered, but it’s probably the best.
Brett: This is one of the few movies where a story involves what could be called “daddy issues” that I don’t mind. I think it’s because the father and son have honest feelings and both of them are well represented.
The father’s regrets are given a lot of weight. As Jeremy said, it does the “later than you think” thing very well. That kind of goes into the book scene, which I wanted to talk about anyway.
It’s an old standby, but I will always love a movie that shows me something new. The way the pages glow when they’re torn from the book and fade as they fall to the floor was one of those amazing things that stuck with me for years. Now that I’m actually old enough to understand what that scene is really about, it means a lot more. I had never seen anything like that book scene before, it really had an effect on me. And then Pryce and Robards sell the hell out of the scene.
Jeremy: That scene is amazing. Why it doesn’t get talked about more is beyond me. As we get older, we perceive time as if it’s moving faster, and this scene brilliantly captures the feeling of life passing by too quickly, of realizing close you are to the finishing line. It’s the highlight of a comparatively weak third act – one of my few problems with the movie. The third act probably worked on the page, but the production fails to keep tightening the screws as we build to the climax.
Gabby: That book scene is great. The visuals, as Brett said, are unique.
Jeremy: Back to what you said a moment before, Brett, I wouldn’t even call this “daddy issues.” The moral of the story is that even if you’re blessed with great parents, they’re still just people doing the best they can. I know that’s something I figured out a long time ago with my parents. And Jesus, I hope my kid gets there in the end.
Brett: Okay, here is my deep dark secret. I don’t actually think Mr. Dark is a stupid name. It’s a kid’s book, it’s a kid’s story, he’s a kid’s villain. I’m into it.
Jeremy: No problems here, either. You understand, though, why I had to make this joke on Twitter.
Brett: Oh yeah. Actually, a lot about this movie feels like it shouldn’t work.
Gabby: Mr Dark does sound like a Mr Men character, which, could almost be toying with a child’s imagination. The villain has a name that sounds like a cartoon but is damn scary. So, even if that sounds like a silly name when you go past a certain age, I agree with Brett that it could play well with a younger viewer.
Jeremy: Almost everyone had a clever name, which got to me. But, yeah, it’s right for the story. And Mr. Dark would choose that name and wear it proudly.
Brett: Almost every word that comes out of Jonathan Pryce’s mouth are things that would just die on the lips of lesser actors. And yet, he makes it work. He’s usually good, but I think this is one of his best roles.
Jeremy: Yeah. When I think of him, I usually think of his later roles, where he’s hamming it up. Something like Tomorrow Never Dies. His performance is pitched perfectly here. It was kinda like revisiting a Pacino performance from the ’70s and remembering what he was capable of.
Jason Robards goes in the other direction, underplaying a lot of moments, which was the right choice. This movie is another reminder of how good he was.
Gabby: I like Pryce a lot in this movie. He does carry these lines. I cannot imagine, either, it working with many actors. He totally gets what movie he is in – which is weird a common mistake with actors. When they don’t get what movie they are in, I mean.
Jeremy: And how great are the child actors in this movie? We’re talking ’80s Spielberg/Amblin good.
Gabby: It is also rare to have such enjoyable child actors in films! I second what Brett said about so many things seeming like it wouldn’t work.
This could have easily ended up a hot mess. But the casting is one of the reasons it doesn’t. The casting director should get a good reward for that. It really works for the whole tone and set up of the film.
Brett: So, did any of us actually find this scary? I was more feeling that it was a dark adventure. But it didn’t strike me as a scary story.
Jeremy: Not really. I don’t think it’s meant to play that way unless you’re a kid. I could see anyone who’s got a thing about spiders being unnerved. (Gabby Ferro, I’m looking in your general direction.) We’re only covering three Disney movies from this period. I wish I had time to revisit Watcher in the Woods and Return to Oz to see how this stacks up against them in the scares department. I remember them being scarier than this.
I think my pick, The Black Hole, would be more upsetting to a kid. Something Wicked has a great sense of atmosphere. It creates the right mood. Horror movies don’t scare me often, so the right mood is all I ask for. As I said before, it needed stronger, scarier third act.
Dark adventure is a good way of putting it. It feels like a Twilight Zone episode, in the way it’s more about the human condition. I love what this movie says about getting older and realizing that not all of your dreams are going to come true… and how tempting it would be to have the life you expected or used to have.
Brett: Yeah, I kind of feel like this movie is really about the father. It’s told by the son, but it’s about the dad.
Gabby: I think I might have found the carousel parts scary. I always found some dolls quite creepy and some other inanimate ‘cute’ things made of plastic. So I can see that playing on my overactive imagination.
Jeremy: I was surprised by how little the carnival creeped me out. That’s usually a recipe for instant creepy. We all agree that there’s some inherently wrong about carnivals and circuses, right?
Gabby: But yeah. The carousel. That would have got me. But the carnival itself wasn’t. I agree, carnivals and circuses ate inherently creepy. Fun House is a horror film I really like that uses its setting to great effect. I mentioned in the live tweet that I had just finished reading The Night Circus before watching Something Wicked.
Brett: Oddly, I don’t remember the carousel killing Mr. Dark in the book. Coolest effect in the movie, and it’s not in the book. In the book, the dad hugs Mr. Dark and the power of love causes him to melt or some shit. (Spoilers for a 60-year-old book.) Unless I’m remembering wrong
Jeremy: One thing I was confused about: the traveling lightning rod salesmen was coming to town to stop Mr. Dark, right? I can’t remember it ever being overtly said.
Brett: It wasn’t specifically said. I think Tom just showed up at an opportune moment.
Jeremy: Mmm… If he is a Van Helsing character, we can all agree that pretending to be a traveling lightning rod salesman is, like, the worst cover story ever, right?
Brett: Yes, yes we can. I always thought the lightning rods should play a larger part in the climax. Like it was being built into something that never paid off.
Jeremy: I was surprised to read that this had a really troubled post-production. This character and the hall of mirrors scene are the only places where I can sense any disjointedness. In the cut of the film we have, he’s basically a drunken hobo Van Helsing, who sobers up long enough to impale Pam Grier with one of his lightning rods.
I was also surprised that James Horner was a last-minute replacement as the composer. It’s a very, very James Horner-y score. I’m not going to fault him for dipping into his bag of tricks if this score was composed at the eleventh hour, much like his score for Aliens.
Anything else we want to say before we get to our final thoughts?
Brett: I think this is probably the best movie we’ve seen for this group. It’s rare to see a movie come together this well and yet still kind of miss the mark at the crucial moment (that third act is sadly weak) but the rest of the movie builds up so much good will I don’t even mind.
Gabby: It is a film I really liked. I will be glad to watch it again. I do also enjoy the visuals and the way it explores time..You definitely feel what world you are in with this film. That is a hard job to establish. It makes an impact. I can definitely see why this would freak a child out. Especially, if you flipped this on watching TV late at night…
Jeremy: Good will is the perfect way to describe my feelings about this film. I know I’m asking far too much out of a pre-Marvel Disney film, but it’s too safe and pedestrian in places. The story could be clearer. There’s arguably a better adaptation that could be made, but not one that’s this earnest and melancholy in just the right way. Eight-year-old Jeremy would’ve eaten this up, and it worked almost as well on the cynical bastard I am today. This is a strong recommend from all three of us.
Thanks for reading, everyone. We’ll be back soon with The Black Hole. In the meantime, follow us on Twitter.
Gabby: The gang all breathe a sigh of relief as Jeremy rounds off our comedy run with…
Jeremy: Radioland Murders. A madcap mystery comedy that will leave viewers wishing they had just watched Clue again.
Gabby: I liked the movie. It really went for it, energy wise. Even though it was messy. They were trying for a zany screwball comedy and it didn’t exactly work. That is a hard mode of film to carry. So I admire the fact that their hearts were in the right places. You can see that everyone was putting the effort in.
Brett: For what it’s trying to do, I think it did an admirable job. It’a not perfect, but then what movie is? Besides Godzilla 1985, obviously.
Jeremy: It’s actually not that bad. Most of the jokes and action beats are a hair off. It’s the comedy equivalent of listening to someone sing slightly off-key. Director Mel Smith either took Lucas’ “faster, more intense” mantra to heart or carried off his wishes too dutifully.
Gabby: Yeah I agree. Because if this were to land as a screwball comedy, it would need more skill.
Jeremy: A firm hand who knew less is more, yeah.
Gabby: I think this was inspired by Clue Phantom of the Paradise and a mixture of screwballs. I could be wrong about Paradise, though. But I couldn’t help draw parallels with what it was trying to do at a few points and didn’t really achieve. Take What’s Up Doc? The balcony sequences… they just aren’t as good in Radioland. But I mean I like the fact they are going for it.
Jeremy: Let’s start with the usual: when did everyone first see this?
Gabby: This was actually my first viewing. I missed the live-tweet and I wish I was part of that actually. It seems like an interesting way to engage with this film. But at the same time, I am glad my first viewing was more focused. As it is quite a messy film, I could have easily got a bit lost.
Brett: The night of the live-tweet was my first viewing.
Jeremy: So I’m the only one who saw it back in the day. This movie was always on cable when I was in high school, and it became like comfort food to me. I’ve always enjoyed the time period, and George Lucas was still George Lucas back then… if you know what I mean.
Twenty years ago, I didn’t notice the flaws critics saw. I can see most of them now, but it’s still not as bad as people made it out to be.
Brett: I’m going to get the bad things out of the way right here and now. One, the mystery is bad. It’s got a poor setup and they might as well have pointed at anyone for the killer. As a mystery, it fails.
Two, this like watching one of those movies or TV shows that gets everything wrong about how movies or TV shows are made. Old time radio just wasn’t like this. Bare studios, the actors would just wear whatever they had on that day. The seating for the audience wasn’t that plush either.
I’ve seen some old photos, I’ve read “a couple” of books, I may have a few hundred hours of old radio shows on my computer. I might be one of those nerds who had a hardcore love for that time period between the ages of 10 and 19.
Third, like Jeremy said, it’s just off enough to not hit.
Gabby: To briefly cut in, that kind of touches on what I was hinting at by referencing Phantom of the Paradise earlier. Paradise, as I have said on Obnoxious and Anonymous, knocks it out the park. In the way it handles record producing, music and the era the film is set in. What Paradise gets right about these areas is what Radioland needed to get right about radio and the period this was set in.
Brett: To go back to my first problem, we’re never really given any hints. We don’t know who worked with who in Peoria. We don’t work the answer out and the movie keeps facts from us deliberately. This was more about the comedy than the mystery, which I feel was a mistake.I am looking to see if we ever see the killer with the famous pocket knife that’s supposed to out him as the killer, and I’m not seeing it. So it’s not a fair mystery story.
And yet, I found a whole lot to like here.
Jeremy: There’s technically one hint: Tobolowsky has the know-how to rig the mics for the phantom voice, but he’s not the only character who could’ve done that. The one big hint audiences get isn’t actually in the script, but in its staging: Tobolowsky gets too much screen time, and his performance is so different from everyone else. It’s like he’s in a better movie where the acting isn’t so manic.
I like that the killer is also the killer of old time radio. It’s not subtle – but subtle isn’t what this movie’s going for. I have one problem with him inventing television. Like everything else in this movie, it’s all about the execution.
This film was originally written by Lucas’ co-writers of American Graffiti after that movie was made. The script was updated by someone else before it was filmed in the early ’90s. I’m pretty sure I can pick out the newer material. Occasionally, the movie has more of an ironic detachment about old time radio. The movie goes back and forth between “Gee, wasn’t this period silly but great?” to “Gee, wasn’t this period silly and lame?”
Also, the mystery should’ve been mostly solved by Brian Benben, our protagonist. I can’t believe they whiffed on having Morgana, the African-American janitor who can do everyone else’s jobs better than they can, solve the crime. On this viewing, it seems like they were setting that up. She disappears after the first act, which sucks. It seems like they were going for a dig against the times, but the gag and the social commentary backfired because they forgot about her. That bummed me out on this viewing.
Gabby: The problem is that I thought it was Tobolowsky very soon after I saw him. I don’t know exactly why that is. But I wasn’t invested in solving the crimes at all. In that sense, it doesn’t work as a mystery.
Brett: So how much nostalgia does each of us have for this era? I mean the golden age of radio here? Can you have nostalgia for an era you never lived in? Fascination? Mine is pretty huge, because radio in that form simply did not exist in the ’80s. You could sometimes hear old reruns, but there wasn’t really new audio content in that format being produced. Now, with podcasting, there is a plethora of that sort of thing.
Gabby: I don’t really have a nostalgia for radio. If I want to listen to the radio I still can. The BBC stations have no adverts and there is such a variety of those channels. Personally, I listen to Elaine Paige on Sundays and the News Quiz. But I can see why you would have nostalgia for this time when listening to other modern stations. They often play the same music until it gets insufferable and then mix that up with the most frustrating adds.
I am not sure if I would say I have a nostalgia for a particular era. I am very happy with the way we have advanced as a society in terms of liberal views and medicine and so on. Do we really have a fondness for the ’50s? Really? I get ’30s-’40s but I guess… you both have penises so you have that going for you in that era… oh wait, in terms of media? Yeah, my stance still stands on that. There are some great movies of course, but the way people started treating women in the ’50s just changed so dramatically, for the worst, in that era. Whereas, pre-code female characters were the bomb.
In terms of media, I am definitely in love with the Golden Age of Hollywood. My love of this period of movies is massively nerdy. I would happily spend my time watching the great movies from this era, of which there are an unbelievable amount; and reading books about their stars, who made them, behind the scenes and so on, for a very long, long time. However, as a big reader I do read novels a lot and then my movie reading is often for uni, which is often very interesting and satisfies my need for that content.
I also will happily live in the land of physical media and be very content with pretending there is no other land. It doesn’t exist. Land of physical all the way baby. What about you Jeremy?
Brett: I stopped listening to the News Quiz when Sandi Toksvig left. Just didn’t like Miles Jupp enough to keep up with it.
Gabby: Yeah me too actually. But I go back and listen to the ones she is on sometimes. BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme is another one I tune into. It is a beautiful show with brilliant hosts and guests. As a random side note, Francine Stock has one of the most soothing voices to listen to.
Jeremy: Alright, to everyone’s questions. As someone who has lugged a large library of books, movies, music, and games back and forth across the US over the last few years, I’m appreciating going digital with a lot of my new purchases, despite having some misgivings about its permanence.
Yeah, nostalgia isn’t the right word – but I do have a particular fondness for the period – pulp heroes, weird fiction, film noir, and old time radio.
I have an affection for radio dramas – which I guess should be called audio dramas now. I actually discovered modern audio dramas first, then worked my way back to old time radio.
In the early ’90s, I found an audio drama adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist at the library and was blown away by it. Not just the story itself – possibly my favorite of King’s – but hearing it told so well in a medium that could support his imagination. (Remember, this was the early ’90s, just before the CGI revolution.)
From there, I tracked down a lot of things in the medium – Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Lord of the Rings, the NPR adaptation of Star Wars, and a lot of old time radio. (Especially The Shadow, which we’ll be talking more about in around two months.) I’ve given a fair share of my disposable income to Big Finish over the last few years for their Doctor Who stories.
So, yeah, I have a lot of fondness for the medium, which is still a viable way to tell stories. From everything I can gather, audio drama still occupies a healthy niche in the UK. It’s all but an evolutionary dead end here in the US. And that’s a shame – especially in the digital world with podcasts and Audible and the like.
Brett: There was a period where I was listening to BBC comedies a lot. I’ve got hours and hours of Just a Minute on my computer, a bunch of other shows. All from between 2002 and 2010. At that point, I didn’t have time to record/listen to them anymore.
I got into radio shows as a kid. There was a radio station in Michigan that played old radio shows late at night. I first started listening to The Shadow when I was about 5. So imagine being a parent in 1981 and trying to explain to your kid that we can’t buy Blue Coal for your heating needs because no one has coal-fired furnaces any more.
Jeremy: I love that I’m doing a movie retrospective series with someone who appreciates the safe, reliable heating of Blue Coal.
Gabby: Let’s take a turn of the dial here and talk about the performances.
Brett: The assistant cop never failed to a make me laugh. And that’s where I think this movie should have been. Pitch everything at his level and you’ve got a grand movie. It’s just uneven and feels a little half-baked.
Jeremy: Dylan Baker is an underappreciated character actor, who can be wickedly funny. He and Tobolowsky are the two actors who usually hit the right notes here.
Who else worked for everyone? Who didn’t?
Gabby: Mary Stuart Masterson is adorable.
Jeremy: She’s solid, but doesn’t have enough to do. We don’t have time to go into every actor in this, but this was a jaw-droppingly amazing cast, including legends like George Burns and Rosemary Clooney.
To go back to Gabby’s point on Tobolowsky,I’m trying to think how many times he was the killer/secretly a bad guy in the ’90s. It’s a lot – I know that much.
Gabby: I didn’t enjoy Tobolowsky in this.
Jeremy: He doesn’t have anywhere to go but chew the scenery after the reveal, but I like him as the level-headed, deadpan guy in the booth. It’s a much-needed counterpoint to the zany.
Brett: To learn that this was almost made in the 1970s makes a lot of sense. Had it been made in ’77, or I guess ’74 because it wouldn’t take 3 years to finish, it would have been a better movie.This should have been a mid-70s American Graffiti-like trip down memory lane. You can sort of see the part Dustin Hoffman would have played, the bits he could have talked Duvall and Dreyfus into playing.
Although, as I said at the time, I watched this movie. I was interested in seeing where it went, there were bits where I laughed, so… you know… it was okay.
Put that on the poster, “You know… it was okay.” @GreyWeirdo -The Indefensibles
Jeremy: Lucas wanted Steve Martin and Cindy Williams for the leads. I can see a young Steve Martin in as the lead. Speaking of which, how does Brian Benben work for everyone?
Brett: He’s fine. He didn’t make much of an impact one way or another.I liked his performance, but I couldn’t help but think it should have been someone better… or at least more famous. Hearing that ’70s era Steve Martin was supposed to have that part makes me sad for the movie that could have been.
Benben got lost in the shuffle. It’s nothing he did or didn’t do. It’s just it felt like he was a step below a lot of the other faces and as such he struggled to measure up.
Side note, I missed there was nudity in this movie the first time I watched it. Giving something a second look and all the sudden there was a flash of nudity.
Jeremy: It’s one of the last PG movies I can think of with brief nudity. Further proof that our rating system was – and always will be – a crock of shit.
Gabby: I don’t get the American rating system. It seems weird. Like why can’t you just use numbers like us? Apart from U and PG as that is very obvious what that means. And plus anything goes on TV here pretty much, in terms of sexual things. I think more so that with violence. I cannot be sure about that, but as far as I can tell when watching after 9pmish. The BBC have had enough of my worship but seriously. You guys should have that in American form. Not American BBC you guys. I know that plays Bear Grylls.
Jeremy: I grew up sneaking in episodes of Dream On on HBO, largely for the naughty bits. I already knew who he was back in the ’90s and was glad for him to get a lead role in a movie. For me, he’s the right guy giving the wrong performance. There are no layers, no rhythm to what he’s doing, which I can’t fault him for. He’s not the only one guilty of that here. Benben was probably doing what he was told.
He fits the period and has comedic chops. If he was born a generation or two earlier, I could see him being the leading man in more movies like this. He’s better, though, at being the eye of the storm. His best bits here are when he’s reacting off the chaos, not creating it. The best joke in the movie is Tobolowsky saying he didn’t mean to frame Benben, but he kept making it so damn easy. Benben fits that well-meaning, sarcastic schlub perfectly.
And with that, I think we can close this one out. Final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: It is fun and ambitious. It is also a big mess, but their hearts were in the right place so I give them credit for the ambition. The spirit is enough to sit through the film with a smile. And that is enough for me to warrant it worthy of people’s time.
Brett: I liked it. I had fun. On reflection it was flawed, but I’m glad I saw it. If it’s free, and you don’t mind that it might not click with you, go ahead and watch it.
Jeremy: It’s better than its reputation. I can only recommend Radioland Murders to people who want to marvel at the production design or the cast they assembled. The jokes have a pretty low batting average, but you will laugh. In rare moments, it captures the “one foot in the past, one foot in the future” feeling that defined Lucas’ output through ’70 and ’80s. In the Lucas filmography, it’s better than Howard the Duck and the prequels, not as good as Temple of Doom or Crystal Skull.
And with that, our block of high concept comedies comes to an end. We hate saying it, but all of us have agreed to put a moratorium on retrospective series about comedies. They’re too subjective and don’t fit with what we’re going for here. We’ll be back soon – and on solid ground – with a block of movies we’re calling “Dark Disney.” In the meantime, follow us on Twitter. Thanks for reading!