Monthly Archives: September 2011

Korean Cinema — The Man from Nowhere

By Nathanael Griffis

We all know the story: secret agent loses wife and child, becomes a lonely drifter, grows close to someone, and is dragged back into the action when that person is threatened. It’s a classic tale that normally involves stupid criminals surprised that the neighbor is apparently Jason Bourne. Advice for all criminals out there: if the steel-eyed neighbor takes out five of your guys, fifty more of your guys won’t help. Make a deal and then you can go back to your human trafficking, gambling, cocaine, or exotic animal munching in peace. Normally this storyline is nothing more than an excuse to have an action star beat up on unfortunate stuntmen, a la The Protector (never take Tony Jaa’s elephant). The Man from Nowhere, is a unique entry into this category.

It’ll probably hurt when he lands.

Never ignoring the tropes of the action-revenge genre, The Man from Nowhere starts simply enough. A quiet pawnbroker builds a friendship with a young girl. The young girl’s mother steals some heroin from drug dealers. Drug dealers kill mother, kidnap young girl, and try to make quiet pawnbroker the fall guy, but what they weren’t counting on was that he was a former secret agent. It’s the kind of ridiculous plot that only works in the movies. The pawnbroker is really Cha Tae-sik, played by Bin Won, who if you’ve been following my blogging you’d note was the semi-retarded son from Mother, who’s grown callused in his lonely drifting through the streets of Seoul, as one does. What this movie does so well is build up the relationship between Tae-sik and the little girl So-mi (played by child actor Sae-Ron Kim) he is trying to save.

Tae-sik is clearly a father figure, but only a figure. He never fully steps into the role until So-mi is taken from him. He constantly pushes her away, treating her poorly and ignoring her. He feeds her and provides a cot for her to sleep on when her mother has kicked her out of the apartment, but he never gives her the love a father should. So-mi sees her own life as worthless and accepts the abuse. She’s been so degraded that she’s adopted the nickname of “Garbage” because her mother wanted to throw her out at birth. A little dark, I know. It’s a dark film. Did I mention these drug dealers are also organ harvesters on the side? Oh, and not just adults, but children, whom they kidnap, let mature, and then harvest. It’s frightening stuff.

Thankfully blood can just be hosed right off the marble.

The realism of such an impossible story is what is truly haunting. The occurrences and situations are all but impossible, but the characters are fully composed and rich. The film has a wonderful picture of the psychology of the criminal, the working poor, and the abused child. There is a scene in an alley where So-mi confronts Tae-sik about his callused nature, and I challenge anyone not to cry. Adding to the realism is a surprising band of police that aren’t idiots. Normally in films like this the police either have to consciously back off and let the vengeful killer accomplish what they cannot, or they’re incompetent and constantly screaming lines like “who is this guy?” and “where did he come from?” That’s not the case. Tae-sik is pursuing the drug dealers/organ harvesters, and literally a step behind him are the police. It builds tension and provides for a satisfying and realistic ending, because in the real world if you slaughter some twenty people, drug dealers or not, the police don’t look too kindly on it.

What is truly a revelation here is Bin Won. The actor builds on his past performance in Mother and delivers a nuanced action performance. The entertainment value of film is never forsaken, and Bin Won brings an excellent edge to the action scenes. His cold brutality towards those who’ve threatened So-mi is never one dimensional. There’s guilt brimming with each villain he dispenses, but he seems to take a strange pleasure in it all. The final scene, just as a sidenote, is the best knife fight I have ever scene, bar none. It’s rare to find an action film with this much depth, because they typically end up transcending the genre and aren’t thought of as action films: Indiana Jones, The Matrix, and Inception come to mind. This film really is a must see. I know I say that about a lot of films, but I have no caveat for this one. Just watch it, it’s on Netflix, or here at Hulu if you don’t want to pay and don’t mind the ten commercials.

Even his fingernails are mad!

Korean Cinema — Thirst

By Nathanael Griffis

Interesting fact: this poster was censored. The Korean versions are a little more scandalous.

I couldn’t keep myself away, so I watched another Korean film. Once again it has Kang-ho Song, and I liked it. I know you get it by now. I want to watch any film he’s ever been in, but nonetheless I’m still inclined to convince you that you must watch Thirst. Now, for those of you young kids who don’t remember and have been infected by Twilight, vampires are scary, bloodthirsty monsters. In recent years I’ve been frustrated to see vampire movies go one of two ways: either the teen-infused soap opera fable where some monsters are good and the original legend is desecrated, or poorly made horror films where vampires are thoughtless monsters (see Daybreakers, or don’t). Thirst stands so far above both these genres that it ranks up there with Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire, and Nosferatu.

What makes a good vampire movie is an examination of the basest of human desires amplified into some evil formative monster. What’s so fascinating about Thirst is the small twist of a religious priest becoming a vampire. Through an unfortunate blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes cursed/blessed as he turns into a vampire. His carnal lusts increase, but they start out small and slowly become out of control. At first he’s content with sucking the blood from a comatose man, but that doesn’t compare with freshly bitten blood. At first it’s enough only to gaze at his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), but eventually he must have her. At first it was enough to live his life alone, but his hermitage isn’t as gratifying as having Tae-ju as his vampire bride.

This Vampire bite brought to you by Toshiba and Ethan Allen.

Thirst is another excellent film from writer/director Chan-wook Park. The camera is used wonderfully, and it has a strong sense of reality that adds to the horror. This idea of a realistic monster is hard to achieve and is so frequently missed, especially in vampire films. Twilight, True Blood, and the later Vampire Chronicles movies like Queen of the Damned all butcher this idea. It might look cool to make a vampire run real fast and seem to be a blur, but it takes away from the frightening aspect. It renders the monster too fantastic and therefore more distant. The vampires in Thirst start as humans, and struggle with their humanity throughout, and grow into monsters with only slightly altered powers (light also kills them, which is key, but it shouldn’t have to be). They can jump farther and heal quicker, but none of these things seem unrealistic, because Chan-wook Park doesn’t use CGI but wire effects, and it flows much better. It allows him a cleaner shot as well.

The shots are beautiful as always. Especially the stark contrast of the vampire’s white-washed lair that becomes blood-stained. Lit with halogen lights, it places vampires in the most unlikely of settings, a blisteringly bright room, and turns it into a horrific scene. The scenes in these white-lit rooms and houses signify the greater themes of the film. There’s a real sense of combating moralities and instincts–opposites collide and seemingly coalesce but are always in constant struggle. Park shows us that there is a darker side inside of us that can be unlocked, in this case by the monstrous vampire’s blood, that we’ll always have to contend with, but he never suggests we don’t have choice. Hope in this film is found when the priest decides to take control and finish the vampire problem.

This film is an amazing example of horror and how to make a monster movie. The performances are nuanced across the board. The images are disturbing, the gore is horrific, and sexuality serves the film rather than being abused by it; overall it’s an amazing look at monsters and the terrifying repressed nature of humanity. It’s scary to think that one could desire to become a vampire, but Thirst returns substance to the argument by making vampires truly frightening and morally complex. I highly recommend this movie, but with this caveat: it is full of gore and sex (to be expected in horror and vampire films), so it’s not for the faint of heart. So what do you guys think. What makes a good vampire film? What are good vampire films?

Okay, how do I explain this scene? They're sleeping, and the guy in the middle has a rock. Look, you had to be there.

The Old Toy Chest — Captain EO

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.

As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.

That's not a special effect on Michael's shoulder. That's the idea fairy that would whisper into his ear and drive him to do things.

Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.

I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80’s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.

The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)

These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”

Clearly inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien design. Later inspired the design of the Borg Queen. And so we are all connected in the great circle of sci-fi.

Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…

Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”

There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.

EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.

Michael's "gift" to the Supreme Leader -- and, as we are meant to believe, to the world.

And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.

I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.

My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.

Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.

Still hard to believe these three ever sat in a room together.

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Buried Cinema – Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

By Nathanael Griffis

Not your typical samurai garb.

I was first introduced to Jim Jarmusch films while taking a class on Westerns during my undergraduate. The last film we watched was Dead Man, which was introduced as post-modern Western. It was a strange experience, and certainly post-modern. It had a clear sense of being within the Western genre, but was willing to break out of it at times and ends without resolution. A friend in the class was a big Jarmusch fan, and we watched Coffee and Cigarettes later, which was honestly one of the first vignette films I’d seen. I loved it, especially the “Strange to Meet You” segment with Stephen Wright and Roberto Benigni. So, for some time now I’ve been interested in watching Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. I’ve heard so many conflicting opinions on the film that it sounded great to me. This is because Jarmusch, from my experience, either leaves you scratching you head or reveling in his brilliance.

Thankfully, Ghost Dog is amazing. It follows the trials of Ghost Dog, played by Forest Whitaker, as he tries to maintain the life of a samurai in an urban crime environment. Think of it as what would happen if Spike Lee had directed Rashomon from a Martin Scorsese script. Ghost Dog is a solitary warrior whose master, Louie (John Tormey) doesn’t fully understand the life Ghost Dog is committed to. When the crime bosses over Louie decide Ghost Dog has to be eliminated, Ghost Dog struggles with keeping the way of the samurai while still honoring his master, who is trying to kill him.

I knew going into the film that it would be slow moving, because most of the viewer complaints are that there’s not enough action. (There are actually several action scenes, so all you Netflix reviewers are liars.) I imagine people are just disappointed that Forest Whitaker never chops down a hundred ninjas with a katana. (Hey, I was too, but what I got instead was still good). I am a critic though, so naturally I do still have a complaint about the action. Jarmusch does some strange slow-motion with cross dissolves of the same image slightly offset that I couldn’t quite understand. This was the main thing that bothered me about the film. I couldn’t decided if Jarmusch was trying to be cool, or comment on slow motion as cool, or display some meditative meaning in Ghost Dog’s violence.

Ghost Dog using the samurai technique of gun to temple.

The film is wonderfully reflective upon its place in samurai films. Ghost Dog sees himself as part of a dying philosophy, but stays true to his code. Throughout the film, selections of the Hagakure, the samurai code book, help transition throughout the story and build Ghost Dog’s character. This direct approach is used well, because the selections inform the whole film and not just the next scene. They aren’t prophetic. They don’t give anything away, and they don’t seem repetitive or unnecessary. Plus Forest Whitaker’s calm steady voice lends a gravitas to them that’s wonderful. They also provide the audience with a perfect sense of just what the samurai code is. It might feel like a gimmick to some viewers, but if that’s the case, it’s a well used gimmick.

Whitaker’s performance overall is wonderful, as is the whole cast. Each gangster has a personality all their own. Jarmusch did a great job of rounding up aging Italian-American actors and getting them to stretch their acting ability. It’s something to watch Richard Portnow, Henry Silva, and Gene Ruffini playing roles they’ve been typecast into completely differently than they’ve ever played them. This movie pushes against both the crime and samurai genres just enough to claim a unique spot in both, which is something Jarmusch is great it. He modernizes within a genre without forgetting the roots of the genre. He seems to be concluding that the samurai code of honor may be ancient and extinct, but so are the codes of organized crime, and there is room for some code or philosophy to be revived or something new to be created.

Ghost Dog ordering some books at the local Haitian ice cream stand. No joke, that's what's going on.

As I’ve mentioned already, a frequent criticism of this film is that it’s boring and you’re basically waiting for the action sequences. I couldn’t disagree more. In between each action scene are wonderfully quirky scenes of comedy. Ghost Dog’s best friend is a Haitian ice cream salesman, Raymond, who only speaks French. Their interactions speak to the bond of friendship being more than speech and communication. They’re also hilarious together as Raymond, the highly underrated Isaach De Bankolé, worries about health reports on ice cream on the radio and only manages to confuse Ghost Dog with his rants. The three Mafia bosses are either strangely aware of rap culture, stoic to the point of comedic, or apparently suffering from Tourrette’s. Watching them stare down a nervous John Tormey as they order Ghost Dog’s death is both frightening, because you realize this group is run by psychopaths, and hilarious, because you realize they’re psychopaths. It’s a fascinating duality that fits into samurai philosophy brilliantly.

The soundtrack is also wonderful. RZA has shown a strange attachment to samurai films and a wonderful ability to compose excellent scores (he also composed the original music for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Unleashed). RZA uses traditional Asian string instruments, but combines them with drums and puts them into loops, so they sound like modern hip-hop derivations. What’s amazing is it flows perfectly and sounds natural, which is a credit to his composing. The music expresses emotions and drives scenes perfectly without overpowering anything. He clearly has a love for samurai films, and a talent to mesh conflicting genres together, which makes me excited for his directorial debut The Man with the Iron Fists, a samurai film with Russell Crowe. Sure, why not, sign me up.

I wish I could recommend this film to everyone, but my film lover’s heart has been broken too many times. If you have a healthy knowledge of samurai films, this should be an interesting watch for you. If you like crime dramas, perhaps you’ll like it. If you’re the kind of person who sits at home watching Lynch, Cronenberg, Aronofsky, or Gilliam, but also likes Scorsese and Kurosawa, then you’ll love it. If all those names just went over your head, stay away. It’ll just make me cry if you watch this film and hate it.

Adaptations of songs and such: Singin’ in the Rain vs. everything else

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Singin’ in the Rain and little else needs to be said, about anything. This masterpiece of film, not just musicals, revolutionized how dance, music, and film coalesce, but it was adapted from a single song. Now, that makes sense with a musical, but if you hear the story, it simply shouldn’t be so successful. Gene Kelly thought the song, written by Arthur Freed and composed by Nacio Herb Brown in 1929 (the original rights of the song are actually unclear, but these two men have the clearest claim), would make for a good dance routine. He got in touch with MGM and started writing songs. With no plot to speak of, but a whole slew of songs, they started production. Somehow, sheer talent and enjoyment with the craft of filmmaking and dancing gave us the best musical ever, a beautiful romance, and a striking critique of the changing landscape of film. This is, of course, my opinion, but it’s right and the American Film Institute agrees as it’s number five on their top 100 movies of all time, so I win.

Gene Kelly was actually really thirsty. This had nothing to do with love.

The thing is that this will probably never happen again, and no one should try to make a film that way, but they have, as Staying Alive (the sequel to the decent Saturday Night Fever) proves, and it is awful. Let’s forget it ever happened. We can’t really count Sweet Home Alabama since it doesn’t fully utilize the song or use it at all really except in the trailer. Songs might make good material for adaptations for musicals, but Hollywood is willing to go stranger. They’ll adapt, toys, theme park rides, video games, and restaurants.

The main issue is that frequently, and let’s use toys as an example, the studio is only concerned with money. So, in the case of toys, it’s mostly just a chance to reinvigorate merchandising, hence why they have no problem hiring Michael Bay. Now, let me say this–he’s made the best toy adaptation yet in the first Transformers, although that his competition is G.I Joe at this point isn’t saying much. Does Hasbro care? Nope, they made money, because I was stupid and wanted to see things explode, and now kids think it’s cool and will buy toys. Maybe the toys are cool, so that’s a good thing, right? No, because it encourages films like the upcoming Battleship, and the Stretch Armstrong project which keeps trying to get off the ground. Thankfully the Ouija board movie was scrapped, but Monopoly still looms out there. If you want a really strange trip into this category, go check out the 1987 film The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which was based on a satirical set of trading cards that played off the popularity of the Cabbage Patch Kids. The concept of the Garbage Pail Kids is as a funny collectors item–they’re worth a lot now actually–but as a film, it’s basically meant to generate press for the cards and the disturbing toys.

Um... yeah, that was weird movie.

Now, sometimes a film like Clue comes along and uses the toy concept to good effect, and honestly I haven’t lost all hope for Monopoly, because a story about money-grubbing companies snatching everything up could work, but doubtful. Still, who’d have ever thought that Hollywood would try to adapt animatronic rides into film? Of course our mind thinks of Pirates of the Caribbean, but you have to go back further to a project that was initially in Gore Verbinski’s hands, ironically. Mission: Space at EPCOT, which might as well be called Mission to Mars, is about, you guessed it, a mission to mars. Gore Verbinski thought this ride made a simple premise for a sci-fi thriller. He rounded up Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle, the budget inflated, and Brian De Palma out of nowhere became interested, and poor Gore Verbinski was ousted (then proceeded in an act of transference to inflict The Mexican upon the viewing public).

Of course Verbinski would later go onto direct the highly successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which is a wonderful pirate adventure, that adapts the ride by basically using the song and a dog with a key. And that should have been the blueprint for how to adapt rides, make a fun adventure or comedy that uses the title. We were given hope. Disney responded by gifting us with The Country Bears and digging the knife deeper with the Pirates sequels and The Haunted Mansion.

If it seems like they don’t care about the quality of the film they make, it’s because they don’t. It is all about merchandising. Thankfully, ride adaptations have all but been abandoned, because only Pirates was successful. The studio thought to themselves that people will see it because it has an audience, which is something they’ve been doing with video games for awhile now. Tron is almost the first video game adaptation, and in some ways it might be the best, but it’s not based on an actual game. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in my opinion, is the best, but it’s also not based on any particular video game. If you go by Rotten Tomatoes, the best is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Why are video game movies so atrocious? Because they don’t give a crap about story. It is about money, and it’s our fault.

Still hard to believe this inspired an Oscar-nominated performance.

I’m playing Resident Evil and think, hey, this could make a good movie. Somehow I forget the ridiculous plot, awful dialogue, and repetitive nature of gaming. Gaming is an interactive experience. Stories are getting better (see Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, BioShock, and Mass Effect, and these games may have films upcoming) but if we have to pander to fans of the game the film will fall flat. Fans want these movies done right, or so we claim, but I still saw Max Payne. Why? Because I’m stupid and I wanted to see what they would do with it. I had no expectations it would be good, but I still fed them my money, and they responded with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. As proof that it’s all about money, instead of finding a Persian actor, Disney went with Jake Gyllenhaal, because he’s a more recognizable face, plain and simple. He can be marketed. Saïd Taghmaoui, Amr Waked, and Alexander Siddig cannot (and also Omar Sharif is too old).

Hollywood will do anything if they think they can make money on it, even to the point of ripping off E.T. because McDonald’s wants to sell more hamburgers. There’s a simple way to solve this problem: don’t give them your money. Films that are built around merchandizing are going to be bad, because they’re adapting nothing into nothing. There is a rare gem here and there, but overall it’s a dangerous, sad, pathetic road that we as viewers keep getting suckered into.

And so with all my venom exhausted, I have finished my series on adaptations. Maybe not on a positive note, and truthfully, it’s more of a rant than anything else, but this is the Rant Pad, so it makes sense. Over these eight articles I’ve found myself wondering if I can somehow define what is the perfect way to adapt something. The answer is there is no perfect way and there are no rules. It seems to have more to do with the intentions and the talent surrounding an adaptation. If the film is made simply because there is a rabid fan base that wants it, quality will probably falter. It takes, like with any film, an entire group around it developing and creating a work of excellence. If I can leave you with one piece of advice, don’t see a film simply because you liked the original production (lest The Last Airbender be repeated). Demand something more of your adaptations. Money drives the buisness, so don’t give them your money unless they earn it.

The Old Toy Chest — Harry and the Hendersons

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

I was born in January 1982, five months before the release of E.T., a film that has a solid place in my Top 20 films of all time.  As a child, I loved E.T. and watched it many times, despite how much it scared me. It wasn’t E.T. himself that provided the nightmare fuel, but specifically his slow death from being separated from the healing powers of his home planet, turning a sickly white and eventually wheezing his dying breath, as well as the human response to his presence (government men invading Elliott’s house wearing faceless hazmat suits and quarantining both the alien and the boy — who is also slowly dying, by the way — in a claustrophobic, sterile field laboratory).

How could you not love this face?

My love for E.T. only deepened when I finally watched it again as an adult (or at least, as a college student). I understood for the first time the profound psychic connection that develops between the boy Elliott and E.T., who I realized for the first time is also only a child. I understood that it is this psychic bond that causes Elliott’s near-death experience when E.T. begins to die. Perhaps most importantly, I understood at long last that these initially faceless suits who terrified me as a child (and still carry an aura of fear about them even now) are, in a fresh departure from the conventions and clichés of the genre, not true villains but rather humans concerned about the possible negative effects of this alien’s presence, both on the planet and on the alien himself, and that they are thankfully led by a man who views E.T. with compassion, even if not understanding. (Of course, these people still try to stop the kids from helping E.T. escape and make it back to a rendezvous with his home spaceship.)

I also realized that those departures from the conventions and clichés of the genre are not really departures at all, because before E.T., the genre did not exist. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison’s wonderful film created the genre — a fantasy genre defined by a fish-out-of-water plot in which some strange benevolent creature, by some accident, is separated from its home and becomes emotionally attached with a human (or human family) who must then fight to protect it after its presence is discovered by the rest of humanity — and humanity’s response is overwhelmingly one either of fear (because I do not understand it, I fear it, and therefore I must destroy it) or of exploitative greed (usually by government agents).

THIS face, however....

E.T. also, for better or worse, intensified the cross-promotional market saturation begun by George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In stores, in fast food restaurants, on billboards, all over television and radio (and eventually in pop-up ads), you would from now on see and hear a film being sold as stuffed animals, as Happy Meal toys, as action figures, as board games, as video games, in sweepstakes, yada yada yada, ad infinitum. Then of course, there were the genre films themselves. They were never as good as E.T., but some were decent and memorable in their own way, such as Harry and the Hendersons (benevolent Bigfoot finds himself in the city and bonds with a human family) and Short Circuit (benevolent sapient robot escapes government program and bonds with Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and one very strange Fisher Stevens). Some were egregious rip-offs, such as Los nuevos extraterrestres (or as it is known to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, Pod People). Most were forgettable, such as… well, there you go. And then there was one, at the very bottom of the barrel, called Mac and Me, which I have to confess to owning on VHS and watching almost as many times as I watched E.T. (Perhaps I’ll eventually review that turd of a film as well. For now, you can watch this sample lunacy on YouTube. You can also watch this great film criticism video, which eerily has a lot in common with everything I’ve just written.)

Harry and the Hendersons was one of my favorites when I was a child in the late 80s. My whole family seemed to enjoy it. We loved the humor, the heart, and of course, the happy ending. As a fanatical animal lover, I particularly connected with how gentle Bigfoot Harry was with critters (the way he tames the family dog was especially endearing). I watched Harry and the Hendersons so many times as a kid that, when I watched it recently after not having seen it for the better part of two decades, I remembered most of the beats, like hearing an old favorite song for the first time in years and still being able to sing along.

A little of that old E.T.-style loveability.

It is difficult, as an adult, to be objective about a film you loved so much as a child. As I watched Harry and the Hendersons this last time, I knew I was not watching a very good film. It’s cliché (sort of a given considering that whole genre thing); its humor tends to be noisy and in-your-face (and noisy, in-your-face humor, for me, is the cinematic equivalent of scratching my fingernails across a chalkboard or rubbing my hands on a carpet–I can literally feel my sanity slipping away); and its script is absolutely awful much of the time. As I think back, however, I cannot help but remember it in fondness. But that doesn’t excuse its issues.

There are three major weaknesses in this film, if I’m not being nitpicky. One is that the plotting, at least for the second half of the film, is some of the most contrived and arbitrary storytelling you’ll ever see. The way in which Harry ends up at the Hendersons’ house is believable enough — the family is out camping in the Northwest woods and in a moment of distraction hits the Bigfoot with the car, then dad decides to strap the “dead” creature to the roof because it’s a major discovery and might be worth a lot of money. Makes sense, perfectly fine. (What is such an elusive creature doing on a well-traveled road in the middle of the day? Like I said, if I’m not being nitpicky…)

The real problems begin when the family decides the best thing to do is to take Harry back to the forest, maybe halfway through the film. In one single scene, the Bigfoot acquires the name Harry in the most contrived way possible and then runs off into the wilderness of Seattle, presumably out of sorrow from the impending separation (which happens after all of, like, a day and a half). After that, it takes a long, long time for dad to take it upon himself to track Harry down. Yes, the growing interest in the creature’s presence in the city reaches a boiling point (as most of that interest involves gun-nuts out to shoot the creature for profit), which is decent motivation for dad to want to rescue Harry, but if he believes Harry being loose in the city is his fault (which it is), why doesn’t he go looking for him the night Harry disappears?

Another major problem is one of physics (without going all Star Trek on it). Much of the humor of the film derives from Harry being a large humanoid creature who doesn’t always know his own strength living in a house too small for him. A lot of these are easy jokes, but I can live with easy jokes as long as a film has other things going for it. What drives me nuts is the inconsistency — Harry breaking things when the script calls for it but not breaking much more fragile things when the joke is over. The scene that best exemplifies this is when Harry sits in the dining room (by throwing himself backward, which is already humor gone overboard) and crashes through the wood floor and into the basement. (I know from experience that even dropping a huge piece of furniture on the floor doesn’t cause nearly as much damage to the floor. Unless the Hendersons’ real problem is not a Bigfoot but termites.) Harry then pulls himself out of the hole by reaching up and slamming his arm down on the dining room table, and using it to pull himself back up. No damage to the table. He sits on a sofa, it cracks in half; he puts his full weight on the edge of a table — nothing.

The third major problem seems to be one of scripting and/or directing not aligning with actual performance, and this falls squarely on the villain, Jacques Lafleur. Actor David Suchet is actually a fairly intense actor, and he brings some of that intensity to his role as the hunter whose life goal is to bring down a sasquatch. But while he seems to be playing Lafleur with absolute seriousness, the folks behind the camera seem to be playing him for laughs. Occasionally this mismatch works, but for most of the film, it leaves me wondering if I’m supposed to be afraid of this guy or if he’s supposed to be more like comic relief. The nature of the character would suggest that fear is the appropriate response, but it’s difficult to maintain that when his competency shifts from one scene to the next, depending on whether the scene is supposed to call for a laugh or not — or, of course, to conveniently let Harry escape unscathed.

Other lesser gripes involve the family’s reaction to finding the Bigfoot very much alive and holding dad up against the wall by the neck (more bemusement than fear); how quickly the family becomes attached to Harry; and how trusting they are of this creature, even after I as a viewer am on board with the familial attachment — what I mean is, the filmmakers have thrown in our faces how Harry doesn’t know his own strength at the expense of the furniture and structural integrity of the house, yet it’s okay for the little boy to sleep on the floor right next to him. I’m not a Bigfoot, but I know how easily I could roll over and crush a living thing that’s a third my size. (In the same scene, the little boy is also sleeping next to the old man they just met, so…)

And then there is that great late 80s/early 90s family-film tradition of having the main character experience a groin-meets-solid-object collision. Nothing is quite so funny, nor quite so reflective of the “family comedy” genre, as watching a Sasquatch getting kicked in the nads.

Oh gosh, I forgot the scene where Harry is splayed for the camera.

Having said all that, I still like this movie. The talented cast includes the aforementioned David Suchet, John Lithgow as the dad, M. Emmett Walsh as his dad, and Don Ameche as the aforementioned old man. Ameche’s Dr. Wrightwood, a longtime Bigfoot believer who has grown jaded after years of disappointment, is actually a likable character, scoring one of the film’s best moments in the scene where he meets Harry (fulfilling his lifelong dream of seeing an actual Bigfoot) and, unable to contain his youthful enthusiasm, bellows, “Yaaa-hooooooo!” I know it sounds corny, but Ameche totally sells it. Boy, I miss Don Ameche. The film’s best casting decision, however, was Melinda Dillon. She’s played other, more memorable moms in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story, but she brings that same natural acting ability, which is full of wonderful surprises, to her role here and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. (On the other hand, there’s Lainie Kazan…)

The character of Harry is himself pretty wonderful in many ways (scripting inconsistencies aside). He is played, in a believable Sasquatch-suit, by Kevin Peter Hall, whose biggest claim to fame is in another film that came out the same year as Harry and the Hendersons — he played the title role in Predator, as well as in Predator 2 three years later. The pure physicality of his performances as both the Predator and as Harry is great — the way he walks, the way he stands, and, particularly in Harry’s case, the things he does with his arms and hands. The Harry performance would be incomplete, however, without the genius of Rick Baker and his crew of makeup and effects artists. Harry is one of of the best animatronic creations in the history of cinema, so at least Harry and the Hendersons has that superlative to be remembered by. Although occasionally creepy (and for this I put the blame more on the way the camera is used), the range of emotion in Harry’s face is pure movie magic.

Aside from these things, and amid all the cheesiness and pedestrian film techniques, the film has a big heart and a handful of truly inspired moments, and altogether it is still one that is worth going back to from time to time. It might even be fun to make a more in-depth analysis of the film’s merits and shortcomings at some point. It’s a film I’ll probably want to introduce to my own children, when I have some, especially before they stumble upon one of the many, much-lesser Bigfoot-themed films that followed in Harry’s wake. (See? Harry and the Hendersons launched its own spate of terrible rip-offs!) I’ll probably even sit them down and explain how this film is the result of an era of family-film-making that tried and failed to replicate the quality of a film that can never be replicated. Maybe I’ll even make them read this article. Then, when I feel they’ve grasped the seriousness of the situation, I’ll let them loose to watch this and whatever other middling-to-poor family fantasy fare they set their little sights upon.

Go, children, and enjoy…

... but always remember the best.

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