Saturday, October 13, 2018

Halloween Month: "They Live"

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie. So...SPOILERS.

As I was rewatching The Thing, I started thinking about other John Carpenter movies I love, and I knew I had to revisit They Live. Carpenter movies are like Pringles to me, I can’t stop after just one. The other thing about my favorite Carpenter movies (The Thing, They Live, Escape from New York) is that when I’m watching them, I start to think that particular movie might be my favorite of all time. And since I recently crowned The Thing as my favorite, my top pick was vulnerable. I got past it, though. I still consider The Thing Carpenter’s best work, but man, They Live is a very close second.

A movie starring Roddy Piper made me question the very essence of existence.

They Live is possibly the least subtle anti-capitalist film of all time. In the film, it turns out that we’re all being controlled by aliens through subliminal messaging that intends to keep us docile and, more importantly, shopping. Once Piper puts on the glasses, he sees that money has “This is your God” written on it. It doesn’t take much thought to figure out what this movie has to say about our obsession with greed in the 1980s (and ever since, really).

I don’t have a problem with anti-capitalist messages in film or anything else. Our obsession with money leads to suffering for the many while the few benefit. But I do get a little dubious when I see that message in a movie that I have purchased twice (and the second time it even had a sticker that said “BUY” on it. Isn’t it all a bit hypocritical? Yeah, but what are you going to do? I don’t think it takes away from the message of the film, but it does give me pause. I can’t help but think, Yes, I agree that all this greed is bad, and here’s my money to prove it!

Beyond the hypocrisy of a Hollywood movie preaching against greed, there’s a bigger question that looms behind any kind of story that contains this type of message: if the way we’re living is wrong, then what’s the right way? I ask this question all the time because so much of modern life is critiqued as a waste of life. We all work too much. We watch too much TV/movies/online videos. We play too many videogames. We spend too much time on our phones. We drink too much. We take too many drugs. We eat too much. We read the wrong news. We just have kids because society tells us to. We only have monogamous relationships because society tells us to. We support the wrong politicians.

Basically, we’re all zombies doing exactly what the powerful want us to do so they can take advantage of us. So what should we be doing? Armed rebellion? Against who, precisely? So we should live more simply, then? Just hang out in the woods until we die? No one ever really gives an answer. Or worse, one person’s answer is another person’s example of a wasted life. For example, many would say that focusing on raising children and having a family is most important, but others would argue that our idea of family is a form of control. Or maybe someone says we’re just supposed to enjoy life instead of worry so much about money and possessions. Okay, but what if my idea of enjoying life enjoys eating and partying as much as I want? Doesn’t that put me right back where I started: under the control of society? Or maybe I’m supposed to devote my life to cause for the betterment of a specific group of people. But what’s the right cause? And by picking one, am I saying that another cause isn’t worthy? And let’s go one step further in this existential clusterfuck I’ve created: if we’re all going to end up dead anyway and the sun is eventually going to blow up and destroy the earth, then why do anything ever? In the long run, nothing matters, right? This is why I don’t like thinking too deeply about stuff like this, because my answer always ends up in this dark place where all life has ended and nothing ever mattered anyway. I think we all know this deep down, and we allow life’s distractions to take hold, and we just try our best to have our own version of a full life. For my part, my family is the most important goal of my life. Now that I have a child, I have a pretty clear purpose from here on out. On top of that, I want to read, watch, and play as much stuff as I can, and I want to leave behind as many articles about it as possible. Will all of this disappear someday? Probably. But who cares?

I’m probably overthinking it. Buy maybe not. Perhaps not having an answer is an answer in itself. There’s nothing that can be truly done about it, so fuck it. Just do whatever you think is best. In that way, They Live is more about the fantasy of a having a very specific villain to fight. It’s kind of saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had some alien overlords to fight and kill?” Of course, the allegorical nature of the film suggests that we do have some overlords in the real world: the rich. And the fight is to expose their control over us. I feel like we do that now, and we do fight the good fight. But there are still plenty of people either unaware of the truth or unwilling to believe it. And now we’re embroiled in this constant battle over what the “truth” is. I don’t see this ending anytime soon, either. So I guess what I’m saying is, “Bring on the mind-controlling alien overlords so we have a common enemy!” You know, the Watchmen (comic, not movie) plan.

Back to the actual movie, though. Isn’t it great that such a campy, entertaining movie can lead me down this existential rabbit hole? To be honest, I usually enjoy They Live for it’s surface qualities: the crazy fight scene, Piper’s performance, the funny dialogue, etc. But much like The Thing, it’s nice that there’s the option to take a deep dive when you watch this movie. If you love this movie as much as I do and want to take a deep dive, I recommend this book.

The late, great Roddy Piper

I was always more of an Ultimate Warrior fan growing up, but “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was one of my favorites, as well. Pro wrestling has always been just as much about acting as it has physicality, and Piper was perfectly suited for it. You might not expect much of him as only an actor, though (which is why I poke fun at the idea of a Piper movie making me think about existence in the topic header above). With They Live, he proved he is more than just a wrestler who also acts. Sure, he never became a star along the lines of Dwayne Johnson or anything, but his performance in They Live is special.

It might just be that the character is perfect for Piper. He’s meant to be a hardworking everyman (hence his character name of Nada, which we only learn from the end credits) who is shown what’s really going on and takes action. It also helps that Nada transforms into an action hero after he sees what’s going on, because Piper is a natural for one-liners and shit-talking, in general: the famous bubblegum line (which was written by Piper himself), telling Keith David (who’s great in this, too) to put on the glasses or start eating that trash can, telling an old lady she looks like her face fell in the cheese dip back in 1957, etc. Some of the lines aren’t necessarily that great, but his delivery sells them.

I like Piper in this for the same reason he was so popular as a wrestler: he’s fun to watch. They Live could be a very dark, depressing movie, but with the humor added to the script and Piper’s performance, it ends up being a surprisingly fun look at how our obsession with capitalism is destroying humanity.

The fight.

I’ve seen They Live at least a dozen times, but I’ve watched the fight scene from They Live at least thirty times. It is so ridiculous and awesome that it would make They Live a movie worth watching even if the rest of it was garbage. Thankfully, the fight is just the icing on the cake of awesomeness that is They Live. Let me break down all the reasons why I love this fight.

The fighters - I never knew I wanted to see Roddy Piper fight Keith David until I saw this movie. Not only are they both convincing fighters, they are also hilarious throughout: Keith David saying, “You dirty motherfucker!” after Piper tries to hit him in the balls, only to end up kneeing Piper in the balls multiple times later in the fight; Piper breaking David’s back window and immediately dropping the board, like it was okay if he had connected with David’s skull with the board, but breaking a car window is crossing a line (you don’t fuck with a man’s car, I guess), David then trying to break a bottle into a makeshift knife but breaking it too much, Piper constantly telling David to put on the glasses, etc. It all still makes me laugh after all this time.

The sheer length of it (that’s what she said) - I know this is why the fight is so famous, but it’s so fucking crazy. This is not a movie about fighting. But Carpenter is the type of director to just go with something. So when Piper and David and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada came up with this lengthy fight sequence, he just kept it in rather than doing the normal thing and cutting it down to two minutes or so. What’s crazier is that there are multiple times where this fight could have ended, but it just keeps going. Those are my favorite moments. You keep thinking, “Okay, wow, that was a long-ass fight sc-oh, wait, they’re still fighting!” It’s so perfectly over-the-top.

The way it’s shot - I think I like Carpenter’s movies partly because the guy uses plenty of long takes. He isn’t flashy about it or anything, but in his movies, the lack of cuts makes it easier to follow the action. If this scene had twenty more cuts in it, it wouldn’t be as impressive. By letting it all happen in long takes, we can see how much work the actors and stunt coordinators put into this awesome fight.

There is no real aftermath to it - Yes, David puts on the glasses and teams up with Piper, but aside from a little limping and whatnot, they both seem fine pretty soon after the fight. These guys would be laid up for days after this fight in real life. Instead, we get a nearly six minute, brutal fight, then these guys run off and start killing aliens. I love it.

The sound effects - I love horribly fake punching sound effects, and the sound used here is akin to the crazy loud punches Indiana Jones throws.

The yelling - Both of these guys yelling at each other throughout is pretty funny, but my favorite moment is near the end of the fight. David is resting against a wall, thinking the fight is over for the tenth time, and Piper comes lumbering over. Before he even gets hit, David just starts yelling. These dudes are screaming cavemen at this point.

The reason - This is a fight that happens primarily because Keith David won’t put on a pair of sunglasses. He is truly a principled man. He’ll get into the most epic fight every committed to film instead of simply putting on some sunglasses. I respect that.

Okay, that’s enough about the fight scene. I’m going to watch it on YouTube a couple more times then call it a day.

Do I regret buying this?

My only regret from buying this film twice is that it contributes to the control our hideous alien overlords hold over us. And by watching this film multiple times every year, I am staying asleep instead of taking action. Oh well.

Random Thoughts

The “cripple fight” scene from South Park that recreates this fight is great, but think about it: it was pretty ridiculous for that fight to be in a cartoon; these guys did it live action!

Easily the most political, satirical of Carpenter’s films. But I like it just as much for its surface qualities.

The messages of this movie:
TV turns us into zombies.
The rich and powerful are our alien overlords.
This is all still true.

“I believe in America.”

I love all the real messages: obey, conform, stay asleep, no ideas, no independent thought, marry and reproduce, etc.
My favorite is on money: this is your god.
I couldn't make out what was on the cigarette packs, but I'm sure it was good.

“It figures it would be something like this.”

The film gets so quiet when he gets to Holly's house, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, Piper gets thrown through the window. It's so abrupt it makes me laugh every time.

Keith David tosses that money in the box pretty easily. I wonder how many takes that took.

“Put the glasses on!”

Siskel and Ebert are aliens. That's why they don't like Carpenter’s movies! Seriously, though, it's a bold move to refer to yourself in your own movie.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Halloween Month: "The Thing"

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

After rewatching Slither, which is partly an homage to The Thing, I decided to watch that film next. I’ve always been a little afraid to write about The Thing because it’s so good I feel like I wouldn’t do it any kind of justice. I still feel that way, but I don’t care anymore. I’m not trying to write anything definitive about any of the movies I revisit for this site. I’m just writing what occurs to me as I rewatch them. Still, I find it easier to write about movies like Dracula 2000 than The Thing. I don’t hold Dracula 2000 in very high regard. The Thing, however, I consider one of my favorite movies of all time (perhaps the favorite, but more on that later). John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors, so it’s high time I write about one of his masterpieces.

By the way, I know: "Halloween Month" and I'm not writing about Halloween. I get it, but I don't own that Carpenter movie. I like it, but I prefer his sci-fi work over his straight up horror films.

The Thing is a moody masterpiece

The amazing, gross, shocking, still impressive to this day, practical special effects of The Thing usually take center stage when the movie is brought up. I completely agree with that, but there’s not much I can add to that subject. Instead, I wanted to focus on what keeps bringing me back to this movie: the mood.

Mood, or atmosphere, in film is very important to me. I want the world of the film to feel real. I don’t think I’m alone in that since people tend to prefer practical sets and effects in movies these days. If you some CG creation, it takes you out of it. Since movies are meant for escapism, we don’t want to be reminded that they’re movies while we’re watching. I cannot think of a movie that keeps you in its world better than The Thing. The special effects play a big part in that. The defibrillator sequence comes to mind. I’ve seen that scene (and the movie in general) at least a dozen times, and I still get drawn in every time I see it. When the Norris-thing’s head separates itself and sprouts legs and crawls off, I watch in awe. I don’t think, “How did they do that?” I just think, “What the fuck is that thing?” I feel like I’m in that room with the characters.

Effects alone don’t accomplish that feeling, though. The setting is a big part of it for me. For whatever reason, I’m a sucker for sci-fi films that take place in secluded settings. Antarctica, a space ship, an island, whatever. As long as it’s a place apart from the rest of society I’m in. It’s not because I hate society or anything (I’m not a big fan, but I take part in it), it’s that secluded settings allow for a no rules scenario. Anything can happen. There’s no calling 911 or anything like that.

The separation from the rest of the world is key for this film. Getting help from the outside world is never seriously considered. Sure, they keep trying to get someone on the radio, but it’s never presented as a real possibility. And when the power gets cut off, the situation becomes even more dire. But instead of worrying about surviving, the characters pretty quickly decide they need to stop the Thing, even though they know they will die no matter what. That bleak scenario always appeals to me: in the face of certain death, the characters put their own survival to the side to accomplish their goal.

Simply being separate from humanity isn’t enough on its own to create a truly memorable setting, though. The bleakness of Antarctica is a character in itself in The Thing. Much like movies that take place in deep space, like Alien, the setting says something about the characters. What were their lives like that led them to choose this area for a job? The Thing is fairly light in traditional character development. We know very little about these men, and we only get slight hints at their relationships to one another. But I still don’t consider them underwritten characters, partly because of the setting. To take a job at a research station in Antarctica says something about all of them, especially the non-scientific characters. Who takes a job as a pilot, a mechanic, a radio operator, a doctor, a cook(!) in Antarctica? I don’t need a backstory in that scenario; their very presence there says plenty about them.

The final piece to establishing mood in The Thing is the score. The Thing is unique in that the score was not done by Carpenter himself, though if you didn’t see the credits you might think he was the composer. Ennio Morricone did the score, but it is very Carpenter-like. More importantly, it’s eerily perfect for the film without drawing attention to itself. Morricone’s score (which he re-used a bit and used unused portions of for Tarantino’s version of The Thing: The Hateful Eight) is the icing (no pun intended) on the cake of this film. It completes the overall feel of the film that brings me back to it multiple times a year.

It’s time to rethink my favorite movie of all time.

As a movie guy, a common question I get is, “What’s your favorite movie of all time?” As any movie buff will tell you, it’s very hard to narrow it down to a single film. Hell, I don’t think I could make a top 100 list without feeling like I’m forgetting something I love. Rather than say something annoying like that, I decided years ago that I would go with Apocalypse Now. I do love that film, and I watch it at least once a year. But I’ve never felt entirely comfortable giving it the number one spot. As I started to watch The Thing again, it just hit me: I love everything about this movie. I never get tired of revisiting the world of The Thing. With Apocalypse Now, I need to be in a certain mood to watch it. I think I could watch The Thing no matter what mood I’m in. So I think I’m going to start telling people that The Thing is my favorite movie of all time. But it’s more than just the mood of the film that led me to this.

As I stated above, I’m not trying to write a definitive article about this movie, but I feel like I need to at least nerd out about why I love it so much if I’m going to call it my favorite movie of all time. I’ll start with Carpenter. John Carpenter is one of my favorite directors of all time. His films are unpretentious, and they are just genuinely entertaining. With a Carpenter film, you know you’re going to get a unique world, and something dark and interesting is probably going to happen. He’s had his misfires, but when a Carpenter film is really working (The Thing, Halloween, The Fog, They Live, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13), it’s simply awesome.

The Thing is also helped by its great cast. Kurt Russell is particularly great here, mainly because he’s not a typical hero. Sure, he takes charge in this film, but he’s not like Snake Plissken; he’s not a professional badass or anything, which actually makes him more interesting. And Keith David is always great. Wilford Brimley nearly steals the film, especially when you consider his freak out scene. There’s not a weak link in the cast.

The story is endlessly interesting because of the classic gimmick of trust. Who is the Thing? Or, who isn’t the Thing? Stories about paranoia in which the characters can’t trust each other are great for rewatching. The Thing can be studied intensely, or you can just casually enjoy it. I prefer to casually enjoy it, but if I wanted to I could really dissect it and try to figure out who was the Thing at what point and why did the Thing do this or that. I’d rather just enjoy the overall film, but it’s nice to have the option to give a deep dive into the story, too.

It all comes down to the look and sound of the film, though. This movie looks so fucking good, even by today’s standards. Actually, it looks better than most of today’s movies, and that amazes me. I get absorbed into this movie every time, and it’s because of the look and sound of it. It’s rare that I watch a movie at home and truly pay attention to it. But The Thing demands your attention because it’s so good. How can you look away from this movie, even at its most gruesome moments? Yeah, this is my favorite movie of all time.

Pretty sure The Thing is the inspiration for Dana Gould’s “Grady’s Oats” sketches for The Ben Stiller Show

Okay, there’s a lot in the topic header. Let’s start with the “Grady’s Oats” sketches. I’m a big fan of Ben Stiller’s short-lived sketch show from the early ‘90s. One of the funnier recurring sketches in one episode involved comedian Dana Gould (in heavy makeup and prosthetics) portraying Wilford Brimley as the unhinged spokesman for Grady’s Oats in a sendup of Brimley’s actual sponsorship of Quaker Oats. Over the course of three ads, Gould’s Brimley reveals dark family secrets, yells at oats, and eventually brandishes a gun and shoots at neighborhood children, likely hitting at least one.

It’s that final meltdown that reminded me of The Thing. The gun Gould uses is similar to the gun Brimley uses in The Thing when he loses his shit. I love that Brimley freak out scene, and it might be the scene that puts this film over the top to become my favorite of all time. But is that scene truly the inspiration for the sketches? I don’t see how it couldn’t be.

I tweeted at Dana Gould and asked him, but he didn’t respond, either because my question was so damn random or because he was too busy tweeting his outrage with our present political situation or both. I’ll need to check out the show again on DVD and see if there is a behind the scenes thing about it, but I don’t recall anyone mentioning The Thing in regards to the sketch when I watched it before. But look at the evidence.

Do I regret buying this?

Take a guess. Fuck no. That said, I do wish I had held out for the collector’s edition that came out a while back. I’ll probably go ahead and get it, which means I will have bought this movie four times. My only regret is that I’m a sucker for special editions.

Random Thoughts

Russell has never been cooler

They are way too quick putting out the dog thing fire. I would've given it at least another minute. So the fire spreads. So what? Did you see what was happening in that kennel? Let ‘em burn.

Man, I love Wilford Brimley’s freak out scene. “I'll keel YOU!”

Brimley just hanging out, eating Dinty Moore beef to a noose he made.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Halloween Month: "Slither"

*As always, I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie already, so...SPOILERS.

Seeing a pre-famous Nathan Fillion wasted in Dracula 2000 led me to Slither, a much better fit for Fillion. Anyone who had already seen Firefly knew what to expect from Fillion in Slither. I was late to Firefly, so this was my first time seeing Fillion be...well, Fillion. His folksy sarcasm is expected now, but the first time you see it it’s very refreshing, especially in a gross out horror-comedy. But Slither has more than just Fillion going for it. Let me just type “Fillion” one more time here because I’m afraid I didn’t use his name enough in that intro.

If John Carpenter made The Thing a comedy

Before James Gunn got involved with Marvel and became so famous that someone looked up some old, offensive tweets in an effort to destroy him, he made Slither, his love letter to ‘80s classics like The Thing, The Fly, Gremlins, etc.

I remember not liking this movie all that much the first time I saw it. But it was one of those rare movies that I knew I should like, if that makes sense. And when I watched it again, I liked it much more. I chalk that up to two things. 1. I didn’t know what to make of Nathan Fillion’s character at first. I guess it took a little time for his typical schtick to grow on me. 2. I didn’t find it as funny as I expected it to be. This is on me, because there is plenty of humor in Slither, but the best stuff is in the dialogue, not in the gross sight gags. I think I just focused too much on the gore and whatnot the first time around. Also, I’m starting to think that I simply didn’t pay much attention to the film at all the first time I watched it, because there’s a lot of stuff going on in this film that I love.

Once I viewed this film in the same light as a John Carpenter movie, something clicked. I love Carpenter’s films, especially The Thing and They Live (guess what two movies I’m writing about next). But aside from Big Trouble in Little China, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and They Live, his films are rarely funny (and They Live’s humor is more satirical than traditional). But Carpenter’s work, especially The Thing, can be funny in a reactionary way. When you see a dog creature sprout a cabbage-looking thing with teeth, you might laugh in a “what the fuck is going on here?” kind of way. It’s that “what the fuck?” humor that James Gunn latched onto with Slither. Instead of expecting the audience to say things like, “Well, now, that is some fucked up shit,” he has a character say it.

It’s an obvious and brilliant way to add a comedic layer to a horror film. Gunn realized, as many have before, that horror and comedy are very closely related. There is always an element of humor in scary movies, because people tend to laugh after they’ve been scared. When someone like Gunn makes a point to focus on the humor, it makes for a unique experience. But casting has a lot to do with that as well, and Gunn’s film is helped immensely by two of his regulars: Nathan Fillion and Michael Rooker.

I considered this a Nathan Fillion movie, but it’s really a Michael Rooker and Gregg Henry movie.

James Gunn’s writing deserves most of the credit for his films, but casting the right characters for his dialogue is key. With Slither, I first thought that Fillion carried the film, but in hindsight that’s probably because it was the first time I got to see Fillion be Fillion (going for the record of most “Fillions” in one article!). He is still the star of the film, and he provides most of the laughs. But watching it again, I realized how great Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker are in this movie.

Gregg Henry, who I first noticed in Payback, has a blast playing the ridiculously dicky Mayor MacReady (an homage to MacReady in The Thing). Pretty much everything he says is quotable. Most actors could make the character work, but Henry has a talent for taking his crazy lines to another level. It’s not just that he yells a lot of his lines; it’s this unbelieving tone he adopts. It’s as if he truly cannot fucking believe that any person or alien would have the balls to inconvenience him, either by trying to kill him or by forgetting his Mr. Pibb. This dude does not get enough credit for his comedic work.

Fillion and Henry are great, but this is Michael Rooker’s show. Most cinephiles first came across Rooker in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (I’ve seen Henry, but I first came across Rooker in Mallrats), but it seems like he’s only gained the attention he deserves because of The Walking Dead and Guardians of the Galaxy. And that’s a shame, because the dude has been consistently awesome for a while, but this might be the funniest he’s ever been.

At first, Rooker’s character seems a bit typical for him: he’s kind of an asshole. But once he becomes the host body for an alien, he becomes very funny. The alien needs as much meat as possible, which leads to Rooker walking around saying, “Meat” over and over. Meat is funny word, especially when it’s repeated, but Rooker’s delivery makes it even funnier. And that scene with the butcher is great as he keeps upping his ribeye order.

The role then becomes more of a vocal performance as he gets covered in prosthetics (which must be a joke Gunn likes to play on him since he also cast him as the blue-skinned Yondu). He’s still pretty funny buried under that plastic, yelling for his “sugar plum.”

James Gunn has worked with all three of these actors since Slither, and it’s easy to see why. Gunn’s writing is great, but it is especially dependent on the performers, and he’s found three in Fillion, Henry, and Rooker that get it. Perhaps they can all work together again once Gunn is released from director jail.

Do I regret buying this?

No, but I have to admit I think this is the first time I’ve rewatched this since I bought it. I had forgotten the majority of this film, so I’m glad I had it to experience it again. But odds are it’ll be a long time before I watch it again. I like it a lot, but it’s just not something I want to watch over and over again. If I had only just now come across this movie, I doubt I would end up buying it.

Random Thoughts

Michael Rooker plays a sleazy fucker so well.

Why do they have so much meat in their fridge? That was like twenty pounds Rooker grabbed out of there.

Elizabeth Banks drinks Tab. Disgusting.

“Damn, girl. You are chocolate for the eyes.”

Chekhov’s grenade…which is actually another joke of Gunn’s. He introduces that grenade at the police station in such an obvious way, so we know it’s coming back. But then he subverts our expectations in a funny way by having the grenade end up being useless.

“What kind of thing wants you to eat it?”

I love the excuses for how fucked up everyone is: bee sting, poison oak…

Gregg Henry's rant about Mr. Pibb is great: “Where is the Mr. Pibb? I told your secretary to pack Mr. Pibb. It’s the only Coke I like. God damn Brenda exploding like a water balloon, works driving my friends around like they’re god damn skin-cars, people are spitting acid at me, turning you into cottage cheese, and now there’s no fucking god damn Mr. Pibb?!

I disagree. I don't think Martian is a general word for “outer space fucker.”

Gregg Henry, monsterized: “Kill me, Pardy! Please!”
Pardy shoots him without hesitation.