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.
It’s Christmastime once again, which means it’s time to bring out those beloved holiday movies and TV specials that we’ve seen a hundred times before. But what about those beloved holiday movies and specials that we haven’t seen a hundred times — or at least, haven’t seen in years and years? Sure, we all know and love specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Chuck Jones version, not that abysmal Ron Howard movie), and we’ve seen timeless classics like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard 2 over and over again.
But what about The Christmas Toy? What about The Small One? When was the last time you watched The Snowman? These are Christmas specials that I look back on with fondness but have not seen since I was just a boy. These just don’t get the attention, or the airplay, that Rudolph and Frosty and The Grinch get, so they get lost over the years in the shuffle. But that is why God invented the Internet.
So, I curled up with a cup of eggnog and scoured Netflix and YouTube for old holiday favorites, some of which I haven’t even thought of in years, and settled on The Christmas Toy for my special holiday installment of “The Old Toy Chest.”
(Warning: Here be spoilers!)
The Christmas Toyis a pre-Toy Story toy story from Jim Henson and his Muppeteers that involves similar themes of an old favorite toy’s fears of being replaced by a shiny new toy. The shiny new toy is even a space-themed action figure who believes she really is a space warrior-queen — but “Meteora,” as she is called, is a far cry from a Buzz Lightyear action figure. She actually seems like a really lame Christmas present — like a cheap rip-off version of a Masters of the Universe action figure that your parents might have gotten you because the real thing cost more. Her place in this story becomes more perplexing when it’s revealed that the other child in this story received an old-timey toy British soldier as his Christmas present. Also, mom walks around the house in the evening wearing business casual. What era are these people living in?
The Christmas Toy also posits a much, much scarier consequence for being seen alive by a human. If a toy is seen out of place, it is “frozen” forever; i.e, it “dies.” There is a scene early on that shows this happen, and I remember being profoundly affected by it as a child — to this day, that image of the little clown doll sticking his head out the door, being seen by the kids’ mom, and slumping to the floor has stuck in my mind. What I did not remember was the other toys trying to waken his lifeless body, then conducting a funeral procession and laying him out in a corner with other “dead” toys of the past.
Normally I'd be okay with the death of a clown. But this made me sad.
It makes the danger feel very real to the viewer when Rugby the tiger, last year’s favorite Christmas toy, tries to get back to the living room so he can climb into the box marked for his little girl, Jamie, and be opened again. He thinks Christmas is about him, and does not understand that Jamie will be getting a new favorite toy. After a rescue mission led by a red-haired doll named Apple, who was Jamie’s favorite toy before Rugby came along, there is an even more affecting “death” scene when Mew the mouse, who is constantly discriminated against by the other toys for being a cat toy, doesn’t make it back to the toy room in time. He is the most selfless character, the only one who stuck by Rugby despite his egomania and his constant slurs against cat toys. Rugby goes back to try to save him but is too late, and finds him “dead” in the cat’s bed.
What follows surprised me. It is one of the best dramatic presentations of a friend mourning the loss of a friend I have ever seen. It’s a cat puppet saying goodbye to a mouse puppet, and it hits closer to the truth about death and loss than I’ve seen in most human performances. I can easily imagine Rugby’s song in this scene being sung at a funeral. And I, a nearly 30-year-old man, cried.
The end result of this scene may be a bit controversial. Rugby’s expression of pure love for his friend brings Mew back to life. Dramatically, this is perfectly satisfying for me. Christmas is not just a bunch of traditions to me. See, I truly believe in the things we are celebrating this season — that God enacted humanity’s redemption through the birth of Jesus, his Son in human flesh. I also believe in the rest of that story — the life, the death, the resurrection. To see a Christmas special that focuses on the traditions of trees and toys turn into a story of redemption and a bringing-to-life through an outpouring of pure love is incredibly profound to me. A Christmas story about resurrection — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.
This is heavy stuff for a children’s Christmas program. The controversial part, at least to me, is that young minds are impressionable; and what does Mew coming back to life teach them about the realities of death? However, I applaud Henson and company for addressing these themes of life and death and new life without pandering. The Christmas Toy is one Christmas tradition I would like to pass on to my own children someday, but not passively. They will need an understanding adult to guide them through these heavy themes and to answer questions that will undoubtedly arise in their fragile little minds (especially if they are anything like I was at so young an age).
I suppose, in the spirit of fairness, though, that I should point out that I found some of this show just the slightest bit creepy. Some of that creepiness is inherent in the idea that when you leave a room, dolls come to life. Dolls are creepy to begin with, especially clown dolls and those cherub-faced porcelain dolls that some people collect for some demented reason. I don’t like the idea of them watching me. But without being cynical, I am fine with the idea of toys coming to life in the dramatic sense. I absolutely love the Toy Story trilogy and the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.
The extra creepiness comes through no fault of The Christmas Toy itself. It’s just that any clown doll character is going to remind me, firstly, of actual clowns, who are inherently creepy, and secondly, of the clown doll that came to life in Poltergeist. Add to that equation the character of Apple, who looks a lot like Chucky from Child’s Play, and Meteora, who reminded me quite a bit of the Leech Woman from Puppet Master (both films came out a couple of years after The Christmas Toy), and the creepiness factor gets amped up considerably. Then there’s Mew’s weird crush on Meteora, which… I just don’t know what to do with that.
Right? Even the outfit!
Putting aside its bizarre aesthetic connections to various horror films, The Christmas Toy is one of my favorite Christmas specials, and I am very glad I finally was able to watch it again. I definitely got a lot more out of it now than I did when I was a kid, and that is what the best children’s stories should do.
The Christmas Toy is currently available for instant streaming on Netflix, but you can watch a free (albeit much lesser quality) version on YouTube.
Merry Christmas, Rant Pad readers. May the joy of Christ be yours this holiday season. And may you enjoy many a special Christmas movie.
I’m not supposed to bash Christian-themed movies. I’m supposed to champion them. Declare them inspirational, categorize them “must-see,” form church groups to go see them at the theater to show moral support and help boost ticket sales and organize youth events when the DVD comes out. Growing up in the Bible-believing Christian church culture, that’s just what you did.
I’m still a Bible-believing Christian living in the church culture, and I love a good Christian-themed film. But The Nativity Story is just so… not good. I hate saying that, because the story of the birth of Jesus is endlessly fascinating, though you might not think so if this was your introduction.
The movie in a nutshell – Well, the plot is fairlywell-known: The long-awaited Messiah is incarnated as a human when God immaculately conceives a child within the womb of a Jewish virgin named Mary (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was something of a “flavor of the year” at the time), who is betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. He does the noble thing by not publicly humiliating her, then does the faithful thing by trusting and obeying God and marrying her anyway. They travel to Bethlehem during the Roman census, where overcrowding forces Mary to give birth in a stable. They name the baby Jesus, because that is what God told them to do, because this baby would be the savior of mankind. Lowly shepherds, wise men from the East, donkeys and angels and all the Scriptural trimmings. It’s the story of Christmas.
The main problem is a strange one: every scene taken directly from Scripture is played out and filmed in the most cliché manner possible, and every line of dialogue spoken verbatim is delivered in such a stilted manner that you’d think you were watching a Christmas Eve skit at church; yet the film is at its strongest when it is taking dramatic license and filling in the narrative gaps. The movie just gets worse and worse as it goes along, until the uninspired ending (which is just pathetic considering this is supposed to be one of the defining events in history), which includes the traditional but historically inaccurate arrival of three wise men at the side of the manger. There is even a UFO light shining down from heaven when Jesus is born. The whole thing ends up feeling like a Hallmark Channel original production, which is a cryin’ shame when you think of all the historical, cultural, and geographical detail that went into it. Failure, writer Mike Rich and director Catherine Hardwicke.
I wouldn't have been surprised at this point in the film if a choir chimed in singing Friedrich Schiller and Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
The performance – This is not to say that The Nativity Story does not have a few things going for it. It has some acting pedigree in its favor including performances by Iranian thespians Shohreh Aghdashloo and Shaun Toub, as well as an affecting performance by Oscar Isaac as the noble but unsure Joseph. But the performance that sticks with me to this day, five years later, is that of Ciarán Hinds as King Herod.
Ciarán Hinds (pronounced keeran) is one of those actors most filmgoers would recognize by face but not know by name. He’s not what you’d call a movie star, but has had an impressive career on stage and in film and television, mostly as a character actor. He’s played Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth in a well-done BBC production of Persuasion, and Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome. He appeared in some of the best films of the past decade, including Road to Perdition, Munich, Amazing Grace, There Will Be Blood, and In Bruges. Just this past year he had short but memorable roles as a former Mossad agent in the brilliant thriller The Debt and as the reluctant hero Aberforth Dumbledore in the two-film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
But the performance that stands out the most for me is Herod. Hinds is so brooding and intense and downright scary as the paranoid and ruthless King Herod “the Great” that you have no problem believing he would have his own wife and sons murdered in order to keep his place on the throne, not to mention order the slaying of every infant boy in the Bethlehem area. The Christmas story in the Bible isn’t all joy to the world and silent night. It includes the bloody government-sanctioned massacre of babies. Herod “the Great” was a vicious ruler, and Hinds’ performance in The Nativity Story is appropriately, and memorably, menacing–and he does it almost entirely with his eyes and a handful of lines.
"I brought you into this world, and I can take you out. Don't make no difference to me, I'll make another one look just like you!"
That this same man could endear himself both to lovers of Georgian prose as the romantic lead in a Jane Austen story and to legions of Harry Potter fans as a benevolent wizard is a testament to a truly great actor.
(Warning: Here be spoilers… and a bit of strong language.)
Die Hard 2is a fitting introduction to a series of reviews about bad films from the 1990s. It was released in July of 1990 (despite its Christmas theme). We weren’t even a full year into the new decade. But it’s clear the filmmakers wanted this film to be hilariously dated. Very early in the film, John McClane’s beeper goes off (a beeper!). He doesn’t recognize the number, so he finds a pay phone (a pay phone too!) and makes a phone call. Here’s the masterfully written dialogue that ensues:
John McClane: “Yeah this is Lieutenant McClane. Somebody there just beep me?”
Holly McClane: “I’d like to think I’m somebody.”
John: “Honey! What are you doing? Where are you? Did you land yet?”
Holly: “Honey, it’s the 90s, remember? Microchips, microwaves, faxes, airphones.”
John: [laughs] “Yeah, well, as far as I’m concerned, progress peaked with frozen pizza.”
Oh boy! They’ve got airphones in this movie? What about microwaves? Will we get to see microwaves too???
Airphones! (actual footage)
Immediately after hanging up her AIRPHONE!!!!, Holly McClane has a conversation with the little old lady sitting next to her on the plane.
Lady: “Isn’t technology wonderful?”
Look everybody. An old person who’s excited about technology. The film’s believability rating just dropped eighty points.
Holly: “My husband doesn’t think so.”
Lady: “Well I do. I used to carry around those awful mace things. Now…”
The old lady reaches into her handbag and pulls out a TASER (!!!).
Lady: “…I zap any bastard that screws with me!”
The movie’s blatant focus on early 90s technology simply begs us to raise some rather awkward questions. Did the filmmakers think that tasers were going to be as popular as microwaves? Isn’t it telling that my edition of Microsoft Word doesn’t even recognize “taser” as a real word? Maybe they assumed that tasers were soon to become a typical feature of any old lady’s purse. Merry Christmas, Grandma! I got you a taser! You hold it like this, see? No Grandma, you’re only supposed to use it on- GAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!
Occupy this, hippie!
Whatever the filmmakers were thinking when they put this scene together is anyone’s guess. But there is some obvious foreshadowing here. Not only is 90s technology going to be playing a key role in this film, but something bad is going to happen to some bad guy with that taser. You can just feel it! Maybe that’s how McClane will get the upper hand over the main villain, as opposed to say, I don’t know, biting off his finger!
Let’s see how the technology theme plays out. John McClane wants to get information on a set of fingerprints, against the advice of Airport Security Man Carmine (played by Dennis Franz, whose naked butt does not appear at any point in this film, thank God). So McClane sends a fax to his pal from the first film, Al (played by Carl Winslow from Family Matters). Here’s the very first thing that McClane says to Al on the phone:
John McClane: “Take that Twinkie out of your mouth and grab a pencil, will ya?”
Wow. John McClane is a jerk – oh wait, Al actually was eating Twinkies. Plus he’s fat! Get it??? Fat people love Twinkies!!! The 90s are off to a terrific start. Poor Carl.
(Also, my edition of MS Word suggested “twinkles.”)
A substantial portion of the conversation between McClane and Al is about how to use fax machines properly. I’m very grateful for how the film takes the time to educate its audience. Later on in the film, a fight takes place in a section of the airport that is under construction, and John McClane uses it as an opportunity to talk to us about the importance of wearing face masks when dealing with asbestos. Then he makes fun of fat people some more.
No, no, no, Al -- you can't fax a Twinkie!
On the airplane, in an astonishing coincidence, a cartoonishly annoying news reporter by the name of Richard Thornburg (played by William Atherton) is seated near Holly. Thornburg, as you may recall, had put both McClanes’ lives in jeopardy in the first film when he exploited their little children in order to win journalism awards (that probably sounds worse than it should). At the end of that movie, Holly punched him in the face. It was a wonderful moment. In the second film, we learn that Thornburg actually lost a couple of teeth because of this, and subsequently filed a restraining order against Holly.
Now before going any further, here’s something that needs to be pointed out. When Thornburg is introduced in this movie, he is being forced by two flight attendants out of the first class section, and into the coach section (where Holly is). They tell him that he already knew first class was overbooked, so obviously he shouldn’t have been expecting to sit up there. But wait a second. A few scenes earlier, on this very flight, Holly told her husband that they’d all be landing shortly. Why did it take so long for them to remove him from first class? If there were no available seats, what was he doing up there??? Perhaps he was crouching in a corner somewhere, hoping that nobody would see him. Perhaps he was showing off his beeper to one of the flight attendants (again, that probably sounds worse than it should). Whatever the answer may be, rest assured that this is the least of the film’s plot holes.
But let’s get back to the taser. As luck (i.e., the lazy screenwriter) would have it, Thornburg gets seated near Holly McClane. Now I understand as well as anybody that this man is a jerk. But Holly is viciously merciless toward him in this film. Yet the film really hasn’t set him up to be the kind of character who should just have all of this profound verbal abuse heaped upon him. Instead, it shows him whining about not being able to ride first class. That’s Steve Martin from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. If you haven’t seen the first film, Holly’s invectives seem way out of line.
That is, of course, until Thornburg inevitably puts the lives of the passengers in jeopardy in order to win journalism awards. Holly’s response is to grab the old lady’s taser and electro-shock Thornburg right in the freaking heart. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the woman whose lack of affection sends John McClane into a terrible spiral of alcoholism by the time of the third Die Hard film – this woman, the one who almost certainly just killed a man for acting the way people in coach always act. Now the movie is raising profound psychological questions about its main characters that I am not equipped to answer.
Not moving. Not breathing. Dead eyes. Yeah, he'll be fine.
Thornburg’s idiocy centers around his use of the airphone. This leads me to my absolute favorite plot hole in the film: The airphone on the plane can be used at any time during the story, even while terrorists are causing a major crisis at the airport. Since this is the case, then why, when the communications tower is prevented from contacting their airplanes by the terrorists, doesn’t anybody think to use the magnificent, wonderful, state-of-the-art airphones? Why was there so much buildup about them?
The main plot of the movie is not much more coherent than that. Here are some of the film’s highlights:
John McClane talks out loud to himself.
John McClane uses spray paint to subdue an enemy.
John McClane kills Charlie McCarthy with scaffolding.
John McClane bites off a bad guy’s finger.
John McClane sends a fax!!!
Most importantly, John McClane befriends Marvin, the world’s weirdest and most irritating action hero ally in all of cinematic history.
What about the bad guys? Well, the first thing we see of the main villain is…um, rather awkward to explain. It’s him, in the nude, practicing martial arts. Again, this raises some difficult questions about what the director was trying to accomplish. Is this what he thinks the audience was paying to see? Who was the target demographic here? When I picture a stereotypical Die Hard fan, I don’t think of anyone who wants to see this man naked. To make things worse, the film seems like it’s trying to make a joke out of how much of this man’s nudity it shows us. If you’re going to watch this movie, then here’s a very important piece of advice, learned from a mistake I wish I’d never made: Do not – I repeat, DO NOT – look in the mirror.
Tai chi hard.
Fred Thompson plays the man in charge of air traffic control. I don’t know how airports work, or what the chain of command is, or even what Thompson’s character’s position is supposed to be. From what I can tell, his job title must be something like “Supreme Chancellor of the Airport.”
Supreme Chancellor Thompson delivers the most annoying lines in this movie, including his awful inspirational speech to the rest of air traffic control, which concludes with, “Stack ‘em, pack ‘em, and rack ‘em. Move,” after which the airport employees do indeed get moving right away on stacking, packing, and racking, um, “them,” whomever “they” may be.
"Stack 'em, pack 'em, and... oh, I'll never get to be President!"
Bruce Willis has a lot of stupid lines in this movie. My favorite is when he and Airport Security Man Carmine finish having an argument, and Willis says, “Hey Carmine, let me ask you something. What sets off the metal detectors first: the lead in your ass or the shit in your brains?” I’m probably a nerd for even saying this, but it’s not a very smart comeback. Feces doesn’t set off metal detectors — or at least, mine doesn’t. But who knows? Maybe, if you’re an action hero like John McClane, you eat lead for breakfast.
So, how do you make a top-notch action movie sequel that’s cool enough to inaugurate the 90s? I can make three crucial suggestions.
First, have your characters make a lot of pointless references to the first movie, with a strong emphasis on how awesome it was (thus inviting the audience to compare the two).
Second, make sure the main characters talk about how strange it is that they just so happen to be going through a series of unusual, improbable circumstances that are remarkably similar to what they experienced in the first film (thus inviting the audience to think about the realism of the film).
Finally, and let me make myself very clear on this, make your main character so important, so ridiculously, face-meltingly awesome, that grenades fail – nay, refuse - to blow up in his presence until he has managed to escape.
"aaaaaAAAAHHH!!! this movie blooooooooows!!!!"
If you’re anything like me, you’ll understand why this movie is ridiculous. On the other hand, if you’re a highly esteemed film critic who gets paid to say critical things about movies – like say, I don’t know, Roger Ebert – then you’ll be convinced that this is the best Die Hard movie ever made, hands down, no questions asked, especially compared to the awful first movie!!!
A cover for the book. See, it's all medieval and stuff.
In my research through easily available anthology films I came across Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, which is an adaption of nine shorts from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Quick literature lesson, students: The Decameron is a 14th Century text with 100 thematically tied-together stories. There’s a frame story involving the black plague and a group of people fleeing to live in the country and tell stories to each other. As far as the book goes there’s a lot of interesting analysis to be done. It’s a great way to find out about 14th century Italian values, but we’re talking movies. Listen, what you need to know is it’s a bunch of medieval tales taking place in Italy.
It’s a natural book to adapt into an anthology film and, I am told, an important anthology film. Pier Paolo Pasolini is a name that had passed between my ears before, I’m sure. I knew he was Italian. I knew he made movies before my time. I knew that film people watched his films. I knew he liked nudity for some reason too. I knew all these things, so I was clearly prepared to watch The Decameron. Then I started reading up on it, and as the words “lewd,” “provocative,” and “shocking” came up, I became intrigued. It seems to have made quite a stir in its time.
What I was rewarded with was an accurate adaptation of The Decameron that is not nearly as interesting as the rumors about it are. Yes, there are a lot of full-frontal nudity shots, and perhaps this is Pasolini’s point, but they’re shot so naturally and become so ubiquitous that they become boring. It’s an interesting effect to be bored by a completely nude man or women, but when a nude woman is played up for laughs and I’m bored, it’s a failure on some level. There are nine stories, most being humorous and revolving around sex and poop jokes, which is an accurate adaptation of The Decameron. Turns out people have always had dirty minds.
I suppose I should give you a rundown of the nine segments, huh? That’s the critical thing to do, and of course that’s why you read a review of The Decameron. So here’s what I’ve got: a summary and moral for each segment follows.
Here's exactly what it looked like when ten people got together and talked in the 14th century.
#1 – A rich young horse merchant, sporting an afro, by the way, gets robbed of his money by falling into a toilet and is then tricked into falling into a coffin, which is full of jewels.
-Moral: As long as you have a period-inappropriate hairdo, it doesn’t matter how much shit you get into, it’ll all be okay. (P.S. This segment’s not that bad–it’s probably the funniest.)
#2 – A handsome young gardener pretends to be a deaf-mute so he can carouse with a bunch of sex-deprived nuns.
-Moral: I’ve got 99 problems, but a nun ain’t one.
#3 – An adulterous wife hides her lover in a big jar, tricks husband into thinking she’s selling the lover the jar. Husband cleans jar, which is very big, and wife and lover get it on while he’s cleaning it.
-Moral: Jars are big and dirty, and brushing one’s teeth is a good thing.
#4 – The world’s most despicable man, who dies during an Italian drinking song, lies during his last rites and is giving a sainthood.
-Moral: You can murder, cheat, steal, lie, rape, and anything else, but if you so much as miss a note, well then… it doesn’t matter ’cause you can just lie some more.
#5 – Allievo di Giotto tries to find inspiration for a mural. Oh yeah, and there’s a couple of gay priests holding hands. (This segment is interspersed throughout the remaining four segments.) In the end, though, everyone’s happy, but Giotto prefers dreaming about his painting to its completion.
-Moral: Artists are lazy.
#6 – A boy sneaks onto the roof to make love with a girl. Parents see them and “trick” the boy into marrying beneath his stature.
-Moral: Don’t have sex or you might wind up with a pretty wife.
#7 – Three brothers protect their sister from the shame of intercourse with a servant by killing the servant. Sister then chops off dead lover’s head and puts it in a flower pot.
-Moral: Family is complicated.
#8 – Priest tells a man who has a beautiful wife that he can turn a woman into a horse. Man asks priest to show him. Priest shows man how to do this. You do this by playing a precursor to pin the tail on the donkey.
#9 – Two friends, one a sex fiend and the other a virtuous religious man, make a pact to come back from the afterlife, whichever of them dies first, of course, and tell the other what the afterlife is like. The sex fiend dies and tells the virtuous man they don’t care about sex. Virtuous guy runs in elation to the woman he’s been pining for, on the way punting a cat, to engage in relations.
-Moral: Sex is fun, but you’d better hope they don’t care about animal cruelty, too.
There, for all you undergrads writing papers and looking for a quick summary, you’re welcome. I understand if you skip the rest. Now, back to my honest review.
I don't know, really -- um, this guy on the horse was mad he wasn't invited, I suppose, so he loosed a naked woman on the party, then charged in and killed them all?
I knew the acting was going to be crappy, so that wasn’t a detractor. It’s just the jokes fell flat for the most part, and because each story leads up to a punchline, or a supposed dramatic climax, flat jokes ruin too many of the segments. It could also be a sign of a different time. We just have different tastes today. We like our jokes rapid fire, but Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks had that style for years, so what’s the deal, Pasolini? His film relies on slow scenery shots to build some semblance of symbolism that isn’t obvious to me at least. They also were probably funnier in the 14th century, because a man pretending to be perfect on his death bed and earning sainthood probably slayed at The Globe, but falls flat on Netflix.
Pasolini was clearly trying to push boundaries with how much male and female nudity he could show, but that in and of itself isn’t a film. It’s also not porn. I want to be clear, what he’s doing is artful in some ways, that’s not the issue. The issue for me is, it’s boring. We can see the lecherous priest seducing the farmer’s wife a mile away and the punchline falls flat, because there’s a long awkward strip scene that Pasolini seems more concerned with. He himself seems to be conflicted with the end product as he quotes the painter Allievo di Giotto (whom Pasolini also plays), “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Kind of a challenging question, right? One that could keep you up at night if you think about it. It also challenges the entire film, because it falls short of any ideal it’s trying to achieve.
The work of art placed before us is not nearly as good as an idea. It would be an amazing thing to make an accurate depiction of The Decameron, to really challenge convention, to show male and female nudity in such a way that they became a natural thing–yeah, that would be amazing. I guess the genius of it is that he acknowledges this in his final statement, but just because you know you burnt the food doesn’t mean I have to eat it.
I was going to watch the other two anthology films Pasolini made in his pretentiously titled Trilogy of Life, but The Decameron simply wasn’t good enough to warrant it. So, how about an anthology film were each short is based on an aria?Alright, yeah, that sounds… bizarre. Next up, Aria.
It’s my fault. I’m the one who told my brother Tom that he couldn’t use my movie reviews for his website unless he pried them from my cold, dead hands. Of course, my reaction was completely uncalled for. My brother had taken me out for a nice brunch at a classy diner to discuss an opportunity for me to submit some movie reviews, and he was being perfectly reasonable. He had just asked me how my wife was doing when I responded with the comment about my cold, dead hands. I spoke in a loud, commanding voice to make sure that my point was clear. For dramatic effect, I had risen to my feet and thrown my fists into the air. I was just trying to employ a business negotiating tactic that I had learned from one of my old college roommates. But I was nervous, and my timing was probably a bit off.
Things got tense after that. All the other conversations in the diner came to a halt. A baby started crying, and several families with young children promptly left. I saw the hostess pick up the phone and speak nervously to whomever was on the other end, keeping her eyes on me the whole time. After the initial shock wore off, Tom relaxed a bit, and stared down at his half-eaten sandwich for what felt like an eternity. Eventually I lowered my fists and sat back in my seat, but he just kept staring. Finally, I broke the silence. “M-maybe that could be, like, a joke in one of the articles,” I stammered, “right?” I tried to follow up with a laugh to ease the tension, but I was so nervous that it came out sounding like some kind of weird cough. Tom looked back up at me, cleared his throat in his usual fashion, and said, “Maybe we should just go.”
He paid the bill and we walked outside and I made a terrible joke about how unbelievably snobbish some of these suburban diners were. He just nodded in an ambiguous fashion before getting in his car and driving away, leaving me standing alone in the parking lot.
That was the last time I saw him.
Ever since then I’ve been hiding out in a cabin in the woods, since I’ve become paranoid that he might actually take me up on my offer. I broke off all contact with my wife and friends, because I knew that if I made so much as a single phone call, he would find me.
All of the waiting in endless solitude has given me a lot of time to organize my thoughts. Or rather, my thoughts seemed to have organized themselves. They recently started to manifest themselves in the form of three other people who live in the cabin with me. One of them represents my stomach, and always tells me how hungry he is. Another one represents my face, and always complains about how ugly he is. The last one is a talking bear. The bear is always trying to convince me to kill Stomach-Man. Things are starting to get a little weird around here. And I’m pretty sure Face-Man watches me while I sleep, which seems kind of impossible.
In any case, I’d like to say a few things about movies. I assume that you are some kind of film buff (or maybe just a friend of Tom’s who is reading this because Tom is looking over your shoulder, waiting to “see what you think.” Ewww). You’ve probably devoted time, money, and… time… and money to your passion, and in all that time (and money) you’ve learned to appreciate film as an art form, and as a medium of storytelling that trumps all other mediums.
Mediums. Media. Medias? Medias, I found it in a dictionary. Shut your face, this is about movies, not grammar.
I’ve decided to make a serious effort of my own to explore the wonderful world of motion pictures–even motion pictures with SOUND in them! (Around the cabin, we refer to these kinds of movies as “talkies,” except the bear thinks it’s funny to call them “speakies.” I don’t know why. But I try not to give him a hard time.)
I’m devoting myself to movies from the 1990s–specifically, to movies that I would describe as terrible, in a breathtaking sort of way. “Awesomely bad,” if you will. These are movies that so blatantly challenge the normal conventions of reason, logic, and sanity, that you can’t help but admire their gusto even while being forced to ask the question, “Who the heck would make a movie like this?”
Before getting into the reviews, I thought I might offer some initial thoughts on what it is, precisely, that sets the films of the 90s apart from those of any other decade. After all, I’m not just an amateur film critic; I’m also an amateur philosopher. I come up with all kinds of crap to think about in my personal quest to avoid manual labor. So the question I want to explore here is, “What is 1990s-ness, and how does 1990s-ness exhibit itself in movies?”
After thinking seriously for a number of seconds, I came up with the following: The 90s was a time when film studios were making a concerted effort to be cooler than cool (without Jason Statham to help them, the poor things). Think of the catchphrases. It seems like every other movie back then was trying to start a new catchphrase. Of course, the “catchphrase craze” started before the 90s. “I’ll be back!” was obviously not from a 90s movie. But the public’s love affair with stupid catchphrases really reached its peak during the 90s. (If you don’t believe me, I have two words for you: Jim. Freaking. Carrey.)
Most of the 90s catchphrases sucked, and somehow, “must go faster” was used, not once, but twice, in two totally unrelated blockbuster megahits, by the same freaking actor. (Are you starting to understand what I mean by 1990s-ness?)
The bear has just reminded me that the quest for “awesome” catchphrases began well before the 90s. Remember Happy Days? People have been experimenting with sound-bitish one-liners even since the days of Jesus, who was known to try his own catchphrases from time to time. (I know what you’re thinking: “You will see the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven” isn’t really box office magic. But imagine how much the literary quality of the Bible would have suffered if, after rising from the dead, Jesus had jumped out of the tomb and shouted, “SSSSSSSSSMOKIN!”)
Growing up during the 1990s, I witnessed firsthand the way so many ridiculously stupid movies were received by the general public with shouts of joyous acclamation. In retrospect, I think the 90s generation feels a bit silly now. Back then, we thought we were so much cooler than the 80s, what with our elastic-band sweat pants, and our tuna sandwiches, and our Christian rock music, and our Wishbone posters… Face-Man and Stomach-Man are now making fun of me for what was apparently not a normal childhood.
Whatever. These movie reviews are my own feeble attempt to continue avoiding manual labor, and to highlight some of the more awesomely bad movies of the 90s. These movies are, in my opinion, the absolute epitome of what that decade was all about.
I’ve just received a letter from my brother. He says he doesn’t want to kill me, and that I don’t have to put my movie reviews up on his website if I don’t want to. But now the bear is saying that he and Face-Man will kill me if I don’t do it. Maybe I should see a therapist.
I don’t feel like writing a whole new introduction, so I’ll just leave it as is. All in all, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with friends and relatives, and revisiting my favorite breathtakingly horrible films of the 90s, and hopefully talking to my wife again for the first time in years.
Stay tuned for the movie reviews, and remember, MUST GO FASTER! ALRIGHTY THEN! WELCOME TA EARTH! IT’S NOT A TOOMAH!!!
Like so many who grew up on the Indiana Jones legend, I looked forward to the long-awaited fourth adventure starring Harrison Ford as the reluctant adventurer with bated breath, only to be disappointed by the final product. (Although, unlike the hordes who dismiss it is pure garbage, my grievances are more localized. I happen to think it also displays some of the most amazing stunt work ever to grace the silver screen, as well some of the best Indiana Jones moments of the series.)
"I'm going after a find of incredible historical significance, you're talking about little green men!"
That said, I still have hope for a fifth installment, but it is cautious hope. (Spielberg and Lucas have hurtmebefore.)
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 have grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.
“Dear bears and chickens and things: Is New York. Is play. Is TIME!”
As a child in the 80s, you had your big four magic-makers of movies and television: you had your Disney, you had your Lucasfilm, you had your Amblin Entertainment… and then you had your Muppets.
The Muppets are unlike anything that ever has been or ever will be. It takes almost no imagination to believe in the wonderful illusion of life begun by Jim Henson over half a century ago. The illusion is certainly easy to believe while watching a movie starring these puppets, but just watch any on-the-spot interview or interaction between a Muppet and a human being, and challenge yourself not to forget you’re watching a puppet. For all we know, these characters exist in our reality. Given the proper circumstances, you could find yourself talking to a Muppet face to face one day, and even then, see if you don’t find yourself believing you’re talking to Kermit the Frog. Not some puppeteer — Kermit THE Frog.
The Muppets were ubiquitous in the 80s and well into the 90s. I loved them. How could you not? Aside from some religious nuts who believe that anthropomorphizing animals in a fantastic setting is of the devil (yes, they exist, and I’ve been subjected to their teachings), who doesn’t love the Muppets?
The Muppet Show happened a little before my time, and I have only in recent years become familiar with some of the original sketches and musical classics through DVDs and YouTube, but I grew up watching Muppet movies, from the original 1979 Muppet Movie to The Great Muppet Caper to the classic holiday special A Muppet Family Christmas to Disney-MGM Studios’ brilliant Muppet*Vision 3D attraction to 1999′s Muppets from Space. I still love Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller both hold special places in my memories. And I was fully on board when Muppets Tonight aired as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup in 1996 — it was one of those shows I would look forward to during school on Fridays.
Since the less-than-stellar (no pun intended) Muppets from Space, though, it really is no big surprise that the Muppets have been relegated over the past decade to mediocre TV specials and straight-to-video fare. That is why, as I believe many Muppet lovers were, I was both thrilled and trepidacious when I heard, shortly after seeing the surprisingly good Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that writer/star Jason Segel was working on a new Muppet movie. My feelings on the project went up and down over the past three years as I awaited this first theatrical Muppet movie in over a decade. I started to get excited about it once Segel, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the others started making the rounds on talk and variety shows. (Yes, it was Kermit and Piggy talking to Jimmy Fallon, not Steve Whitmire or Eric Jacobson.)
When I went into the theater, I had a massive grin and felt giddy as a little boy. When I came out, I had mixed emotions and may need to see it a second time to really know how I feel about the whole thing. I do have one burning question for Segel and company, though, one that kind of sticks in my craw… but I’ll get back to that, because I am not here to talk at length about The Muppets. (If you do long for extended discourse on this highly enjoyable new film, though, it is featured on our Buried Cinema podcast and podcast minisode this week!)
Far and away my favorite Muppet film now is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is not just a brilliant Muppet movie full of amazing practical and digital effects but also a great adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel; but as a little boy in the 1980s, my favorite was The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppets Take Manhattan is the only true Muppet movie directed by Frank Oz (though he also directed The Dark Crystal). Frank Oz may be second only to Jim Henson himself in the Muppet world — not only did he create and perform Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, but he is also the original talent behind Animal and Sam Eagle; Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert; and the Master Jedi himself, Yoda.
I got a DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan out of a cereal box. (I think it was the same cereal that gave me a DVD episode of Inspector Gadget, though I don’t remember which cereal it was.) I’ve had it sitting in my collection for years without sitting down to watch it. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, though having seen it a thousand times as a kid, I remembered a lot. But after watching The Muppets, a film steeped in Muppet history that references the 1984 classic in several wonderful ways, I knew it was time to pull this old favorite out of the toy chest. Here are some of my thoughts while watching The Muppets Take Manhattan for the first time since probably the mid-90s:
“It’s all about a couple of kids who come to New York to get married, and it has a great opening number, it goes like this!”
First of all, the revelation that my DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan doubles as a free trial for America Online tells me that I have, indeed, had this movie in my collection for far too long without watching it. Second, I had no recollection that this film begins with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, Scooter, Gonzo, Camilla, and Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem putting on a senior variety show called Manhattan Melodies upon graduating college. They’re such a big hit with their fellow seniors in the audience that they get the idea in their heads that they could make it on Broadway. So they all pack up and head for the Big Apple.
Something that struck me about the Muppets as they were arriving in New York City is that in this world, nobody looks twice at a bunch of anthropomorphic dogs and bears and chickens and things walking around, wearing ties, talking and singing and dancing. It’s one of the charms of the Muppets that they are always seen as social abnormalities, but not so abnormal as to warrant pointing and staring in an everyday setting. (Also, I was certain that the lady walking through the background at 6:17 was a pre-Blood Simple Frances McDormand, but I can find no proof of this on the web, not even on McDormand’s Muppet Wiki page.)
Kermit and the gang suffer a string of failed pitches, starting with Martin Price (a cameo by Dabney Coleman), who is arrested mid-meeting as a con man when an old woman shows up with — and this is funny — two uniformed police officers, and accuses him of stealing her life savings. (This scene also features a pre-Star Trek Gates “Dr. Beverly Crusher” McFadden. Could this be called a “retro-cameo”?) The rest of the gang decides, in order to stop being such a burden on Kermit all the time, to leave New York and go their separate ways.
This scene takes place in a diner where another most beloved Muppet is working, and this leads me to my big question for Jason Segel and the Walt Disney Company: What happened to Rizzo? The rats get some background screen time in The Muppets, and I’ve read that Rizzo himself is in there somewhere (though I didn’t see him, and I was looking); but at this point, Rizzo is one of those characters who should always have a featured role just like Fozzie or Gonzo or Rowlf — or at the very least, a memorable speaking role, like Pepe the King Prawn gets as Miss Piggy’s temporary dance partner. (Another favorite who doesn’t seem to be getting the love this year is Bean Bunny. I didn’t notice if he was in the movie or not either. What gives, fellas?)
Authorities at the Rant Pad are looking into the disappearance of this rat. If you have any information regarding Rizzo’s whereabouts, please contact the editor by leaving a comment in our aptly named “comments section.” Thank you.
Speaking of rats: Rizzo, Chester, Yolanda, Masterson, and Tatooey get an interesting little scene created by Jim Henson called the “Rat Scat,” in which they do a musical number using things lying around the kitchen. This scene pre-dates the dance troupe Stomp by a few years, but does not pre-date its origins in the U.K. It makes me wonder if Henson had seen a performance by the group in its early years and been inspired. Or, maybe he was just a guy who liked to turn his pots and pans into a percussion section. After all, he did become a worldwide cultural phenomenon with some ping-pong balls and the fabric from an old turquoise coat. Henson was a man of brilliant simplicity.
“Songs AND dances? That might be interesting…”
One of the things I’ve remembered most clearly over the years is the music. This movie has many wonderful, memorable songs, including “Right Where I Belong,” “Saying Goodbye,” “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” “Somebody’s Getting Married,” “He’ll Make Me Happy,” and the song that always make me feel simultaneously upbeat and introspectively nostalgic, “Together Again” (which made a brief welcome appearance in The Muppets). It also has one altogether forgettable song called “You Can’t Take No for an Answer,” sung by Dr. Teeth over the failed-pitch montage. It just has that awful early-80s style (though it sounds vaguely similar to the Peter Björn & John song “Second Chance”). I didn’t remember this song or the accompanying montage at all from the hundreds of childhood viewings. Frankly, I’m a little surprised I’m remembering it right now.
(By the way, I would be derelict in my duties as a Muppet evangelist if I did not bring to your attention that, as I was researching the history of Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, I discovered that this existed.)
Another sequence that is notable for a variety of reasons is when Kermit and his human friend Jenny (Juliana Donald) are jogging through Central Park and being spied on by Miss Piggy, and Piggy has her purse stolen. The last time I saw this film, I must have been just old enough to recognize certain filmmaking techniques, because I remember that the sequence in which Miss Piggy is chasing her purse-snatcher on roller skates creeped me out. The reason is that in the wide shots with Piggy in pursuit the background, it’s obvious that she is a full-size human in full Piggy dress. I guess I find the idea of having an angry adult human dressed as Miss Piggy on roller skates chasing me to be fairly terrifying, though I’m willing to bet money it wouldn’t be the strangest thing Central Park has ever seen.
The Central Park scene features an appearance by two more of my personal favorites in the Muppet world, uppity hecklers Statler and Waldorf. In one of their greatest moments ever, they see “a frog and a pig… in love” and start barking and cat-calling. Finally, the tail end of the Central Park scene introduces, for the first time ever, the concept of the Muppet Babies, as Piggy has a fantasy song sequence featuring herself, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, Scooter, and Rowlf as babies in a nursery together. (Sadly, no Baby Animal yet to say Goooo bye-bye!… but we do get a foreshadowing even of that early on in the film when everyone decides to part ways.)
“Ma-ma, da-da, boop-boop, sha-wah-wah!”
The Muppets Take Manhattan is, as any good Muppet movie will be, full of cameos, including the aforementioned Dabney Coleman; director John Landis; Brooke Shields; Elliott Gould; Joan Rivers in a fun scene with Miss Piggy in which they apply copious amounts of cosmetics; Gregory Hines, who has a great scene trying to mediate an argument between Kermit and Piggy in Central Park; Liza Minnelli in the fantastic “whispering campaign” scene in an upscale restaurant; James Coco as a dog owner who puts Rowlf through the most humiliating moment of his life; Art Carney as the Broadway producer who finally agrees to finance the Muppets’ play; and even Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City for most of the 80s. And I suppose this is not really a cameo, but Pete (Jenny’s father and the owner of Pete’s diner, and a fine mangler of the English language) is played by Louis Zorich, the Constable from the 1971 film classic Fiddler on the Roof.
“Wait a minute! Wait just a second! You mean just say what the product DOES? Why, no one’s ever tried that!”
There’s a lot of weak plotting going on here, most glaringly how characters always seem to know where to find other characters at any given moment except for the one time it’s important that they don’t for the sake of dramatic tension (and because the movie suffers from a little IITS), and that is when Kermit, having just gotten a deal to have his play produced on Broadway, runs into traffic, gets hit by a car, forgets who he his, and disappears into the concrete jungle with only two weeks till curtains up. During this time, nobody at the hospital calls the authorities about an amnesiac John Doe (they just give him clothes — since he was naked when they found him — and release him back into the wilds of Manhattan), nor do any of Kermit’s friends involve the authorities in their search for him.
This, of course, is the 30 years of wisdom in me talking. The kid in me could care less. But I try to always hold every narrative film to the same standard of quality of story and characters. Even though the plot is seriously lacking, however, I still care about the story, and that’s mostly because I care about the characters. The Muppets have always been very rich in character, and that allows me to overlook, or at least forgive, some weak plotting.
“That’s it! That’s what’s been missing from the show! That’s what we need! MORE frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and… and whatever!”
And the characters get fun individual subplots too, after they all go their separate ways:
Scooter gets a job in Cleveland tearing tickets at a B-movie house, where he runs into the Swedish Chef, who has a great bit reveling in the wonders of wearing 3D glasses, and Lew Zealand, who throws his signature boomerang fish during a showing of Attack of the Killer Fish 3D;
Fozzie tries to go into hibernation with a bunch of other bears but suffers from insomnia and is surprised to find that the cave is “co-ed” when a bear named Beth suggests snuggling;
Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem get a gig as an Oompah band at a community hall in a town outside Pittsburgh;
Gonzo becomes a daredevil on the Lake Michigan, and as you’d expect, his death-defying feats don’t go so well — but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Camilla and the chickens do their rendition of Tony Bennett singing the “William Tell Overture”;
and finally, in perhaps my favorite bit, Rowlf ends up in a degrading position managing a dog kennel in Delaware.
Scenes like these and many others are what make the Muppets the classics that they are, and what make The Muppets Take Manhattan a comedy classic despite its ultimately insignificant shortcomings. And all these new dogs and bears and chickens and things not only get to come back to Manhattan and appear in the climactic Broadway show, but they enrich the entire Muppet universe from that point on. Not that the Muppets were lacking up till that point, but these extras are just the ingredient needed for future Muppet productions.
One thing that leaves me perplexed at the end, though, is this: Are we to assume that Kermit and Piggy actually do get married at the end? If so, poor Kermit was bamboozled into it by a characteristically Machiavellian Miss Piggy. It is a great climactic scene though, featuring cameos by all your other favorite Muppets of the Muppet Show era as well as the gang from Sesame Street.
If I can leave you with one final thought, one pearl of wisdom, one timeless idiom that could potentially change your life, it is this (make sure your sound is turned way up though):
Yes, peoples is peoples. Thank you, Pete.
Tom was once a mere temp worker in a shady laboratory until he was kidnapped by mad scientists and imprisoned on a satellite in outer space where he was forced to watch bad movies with a couple of sarcastic sentient robots. He escaped over a decade ago, yet still he sits alone in a darkened room watching bad movies, whispering wisecracks into the dark. His favorite films include City Lights, Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Amélie, Stagecoach, and the Toy Story trilogy. He edits the Rant Pad and the Buried Cinema podcast.