Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small Soldiers (1998)

The Movie: Globotech Industries, the archetypal all-devouring mega corporation; formerly a military contractor but now branching out, has just acquired the Heartland Toy Company. CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) meets with Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross, who you may recognize from the show Arrested development, or his role as the villain in the Alvin and the Chipmunks live-action movie), the last remaining employees of the former company, to come up with a new big-selling toy line. Mars expresses the desire for a fully interactive action figure, one that will literally play with its owner. Also, he gives the men an extremely short deadline to roll them out.

The results are the Commando Elite, soldiers whose only purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites. The Gorgonites, created by Irwin, are these monsters whose purpose is to learn and find their home world, Gorgon. Mars doesn’t like the idea of a toy about learning, so he has them incorporated into the Commando line as the Commandos’ victims. Larry finds a powerful computer chip to program the figures with, and they are packaged.

Meanwhile, teenaged Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) has just moved to a new town with his parents. Alan has something of a delinquent past, which is still haunting him. His parents won’t trust him now, and he already has a reputation among his peers. This causes him to think that his crush on his next door neighbor, Christy Fimple (the lovely and talented Kirsten Dunst), is hopeless.

Then there are his parents’ (Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson) problems; main one being his father’s toy store, which doesn’t make money because his father refuses the stock the high tech war toys that are so popular. There’s also Christy’s insufferable father (the late Phil Hartman, best known for the voices of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on the Simpsons); a jerk obsessed with owning as much techno junk as he can and an obnoxious neighbor.

But Alan’s real problems begin when his father goes on a business trip and puts him in charge of the store. Joe the delivery guy (the ubiquitous Dick Miller) has some of the new toys on his truck. Alan talks him into loaning him a set, which he intends to sell while his father is away. Unfortunately, in doing this Alan has bitten off a lot more than he can chew.

It turns out that the chips Larry found for the toys are an extremely high-tech munitions chip that enhances the programming of whatever it is placed in, to the point of actual intelligence. Befriended by Archer (voice of Frank Langella), the leader of the Gorgonites, Alan finds himself in the middle of a war. Led by Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones); the Commando Elite are clever, and ruthless, and determined to destroy the Gorgonites along with anyone who gets in their way…

The Review:

“Everything else, is just a toy.”

Small Soldiers came out during my late high school years, so I remember the advertising blitz. The studio tried to milk as much money out of it as they could; toys, a video game, a soundtrack, even a promotional sandwich at Burger King. Every time I watch my VHS copy I get a reminder, a short blitz before the movie on all the wonderful products that came with it. What I find both funny and sad about this arrangement is how out of step it is with the movie. Small Soldiers itself is very much against this kind of crass commercialism.

Probably one of the most striking things about Small Soldiers is just how un-commercial it is. For example, the target audience; most adults are going to think ‘toys coming to life, it’s a kids’ movie’ and not bother watching it. The studio certainly played up on the image of it as a movie for kids. However, Small Soldiers is very much not a kids’ movie. It’s very mature and, while the general spirit of the movie is young at heart, it is also filled with themes and references that will go right over younger viewers’ heads.

Small Soldiers is a tongue-in-cheek satire on the military-industrial complex that has infested our country in the past century or so, as well as the prevalence of mindless consumerism that fuels it. The very pointed opening scene, a commercial about Globotech and its switch to the private sector, lets you know immediately what you’re getting into. Also, there is the cynical design behind the toys themselves. The Commandos’ sole purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites; so if you happen to just buy one toy, or if they succeed at their goal, there’s really nothing left for them to do.

The Commandos are definitely avatars of a military-industrial complex gone amuck. They only exist to win, and are too single-minded to think about what that might mean. They are always reciting platitudes, ones you’ll recognize from various war movies, which sound tough and impressive; but are ultimately meaningless. Also, at the beginning, the Commandos decide that the plastic weapons they come with are useless, and they seek suitable replacements. The end result is that throughout the movie, the Commandos collect all of the consumer goodies the humans have been hording and turn them into deadly weapons to use on their owners. Tennis-ball launchers, lawnmowers, toasters, power tools; all these and more are used against the heroes.

The Gorgonites provide an interesting counterpoint to the Commandos. On the one hand, they are initially programmed to do two things; hide, and lose to the Commandoes. However, Irwin also programmed them to learn, his original concept for them. As a result, they can reason and reflect on their choices. Unlike the Commandos, the Gorgonites are eventually able to override their programming, and therefore win in the end.

Probably the most amazing thing about the two sets of toys is that each individual is unique, with his own personality. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that the movie shortchanges the human characters. All of them, while for the most part very lightly sketched out, are convincing. Alan, our hero, comes across as a typical teenage boy, with everything that entails.

The character of Christy is also well acted by Dunst. However, what I find interesting is how she is employed. In most movies of this type, the love interest serves as the damsel in distress who has to be rescued by the hero. That’s how it starts out, but it turns out that Christy is pretty tough and competent once she is untied. In fact, Christy and Alan alternate between saving each other from the Commandos throughout the movie. At one point Christy even asks him “is this going to be the basis of our relationship?”

Equally laudable, in my opinion, is how the other main human characters are used in the climactic final battle against the Commandos. In most movies of this type, it is the juvenile heroes who save the day while the adults are useless. However, nearly everyone in the big siege, which includes Alan and Christy’s families, as well as Larry and Irwin, contributes. Even Larry and Mr. Fimple, who would normally just be odious comedy relief, make valuable contributions to the defeat of the Commandos. Alan strikes the final blow, of course, but the adults are needed for him to be able to do it. The only exception is Christy’s mother, who’s still woozy from the sleeping pills the Commandos drugged her with earlier.

The final and most important element of Small Soldiers is its general tone and atmosphere. It is obvious that somebody had a lot of fun making this movie, and that really shows in the finished product. There are all sorts of warped little touches, such as the Commandos opening up the climactic siege by blaring the Spice Girls (“Psychological warfare,” Alan’s mother tells him when he asks. “It’s how the marines got Noriega,” Christy adds.), to the various movie references. Or, what I find to be the best and most nightmarish part of the movie, when the Commandos use a chip from a fallen comrade to animate Christy’s Gwendy (aka Barbie) dolls as reinforcements.

Overall, Small Soldiers is a very warped, pointed, and fun little movie. It is a truly twisted satire and black comedy, one that is even more relevant in the decade-plus since it was made. Yeah, it’s about toys coming to life, but it definitely is not a kids’ movie. Try to forget about the image the studio tried to build about the movie, and just sit down and watch it. I promise, if you’re of a particular frame of mind you won’t regret it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

The Movie: We open up in an insane asylum where John Trent (Sam Neil, who you’ll probably recognize from Jurassic Park) is brought in kicking and screaming. Quite literally, unfortunately for one guard. A short time afterward he is visited by Dr. Wrenn (prolific actor David Warner, of the Omen and Cast a Deadly Spell), an agent of an unidentified organization. At Dr. Wrenn’s questioning, Trent tells his story.

John Trent was a freelance insurance investigator whose last case was given to him by the publishing company Arcane. Director Jackson Harlow (the infamous Charlton Heston) has lost his best author, the extremely popular horror author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared, along with half of his soon to be released novel In the Mouth of Madness. As this represents an unimaginable amount of money for Arcane, Harlow wants Jackson to find either the book or the author and bring it back.

Unfortunately, there’s something not right about Cane and his work. His novels have this tendency to affect some people and cause them to become irrational, paranoid or even violent. Just before Trent heads over to Arcane to take the case, he is attacked by a man with an ax (Conrad Bergschneider), who he later finds out was Cane’s agent! Then Trent finds a potential lead to where Cane might have gone, and is teamed up with Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen, of Fright Night 2), the editor who handles Cane’s work, to go out and find him.

The town they wind up at, Hobbes End, only exists in Cane’s books. Not long after they arrive, all sorts of other things start to happen, things that also should only happen in Cane’s books. Gradually Trent is forced to realize that what he has long believed to be Reality has changed. Cane has become God, Trent is a character in his latest novel, and he and said novel are going to bring about the end of humanity.

The Review:

“Reality is not what it used to be.”

It was probably inevitable that I would be drawn to the horror genre, and to this movie in particular. There are two very important facts about the horror genre I have been able to nail down over the past few years. The first is that all horror stories center around a single theme; lack of control. Whether the horror in question comes from something as mundane as some psycho trying to poke you with something sharp (most giallo, any slasher flick you care to name), or from some or all of what you consider to be the immutable laws of Reality packing their bags and leaving you to your lonesome (Ringu, Messiah of Evil, far-Right politics), the core of the story is always the same; the characters are placed in a situation where they have little or no power, and the plot revolves around how they try to gain it back.

The second fact is that horror is a very personal genre. Just like humor, the purpose of horror is to provoke an emotional reaction in you; and what produces that reaction in one person doesn’t necessarily affect another in the same way. As an example, spiders don’t bother me all that much, like they do some people. However, whenever a movie shows people sticking themselves with or getting stuck by needles, or the amputation of body parts, I shudder no matter what the context or how many times I’ve already seen it.

For these two reasons, the “Reality takes an extended vacation” brand of horror movies are among those that affect me the most. I have been dealing with ausperger’s my entire life, even though I was only diagnosed about halfway through college. For me, ausperger’s largely manifests as a near inability to read people, and therefore a tendency to miss social cues. Most days I find myself in a world of games, rituals, shibboleths (look it up), and other required practices that at worst are destructive and at best really don’t make sense. I identify with this kind of story because it’s what I deal with in everyday life. Quite frankly, I have little, if any, belief in “Reality” because nearly all of what everybody tries to pass off to me as Reality makes no sense whatsoever.

In the Mouth of Madness has gotten very mixed reviews. Roger Ebert and the majority of the other mainstream reviewers agree that the movie starts good, but stops making sense once the heroes head for Hobbes End. I am of the opinion that these reviewers miss the point entirely. Most of the horror in this movie comes from the very fact that John Trent’s situation is absurd and impossible. The quote I begin this review with (as spoken by one of the extras, and one of my all-time favorite quotes) sums up this movie quite nicely. In the Mouth of Madness is about the question of what Reality is, and what happens when your perception of it is suddenly upended.

John Trent serves as our point of view character, and Sam Neil plays it perfectly. In a sense, he actually plays two parts. The first, throughout the main body of the film, is kind of a hard-boiled investigator. He’s good at what he does, and knows it. He’s also incredibly cynical, and convinced that he knows how things work. Most of the movie follows this Trent as he gradually faces the truth, and tries to come to terms with the fact that things are not happening like they’re supposed to. Even though his constant rationalizing in the face of the obvious does grate a little, I cannot help but feel sympathetic toward him as the world he knew comes crashing down about his ears.

The second John Trent character is the asylum inmate in the wraparound. He is still intelligent, but he’s no longer the ultra-rationalist he once was. Instead he’s rather fatalistic; knowing exactly what’s going on, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s also well aware that he comes across as crazy. Among the first things Trent says to Dr. Wrenn are “You here about my ‘Them?’ Every paranoid schizophrenic has a ‘Them,’ a ‘They,’ an ‘It,’ you want to talk about my ‘Them.’”

Equally good in the other major role is Jurgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane. His Cane is a combination evil mastermind and demented deity; overflowing with confidence. His unflappable confidence is even more grating because it’s entirely warranted; he is God now, after all.

The other parts are, overall, good enough. Julie Carmen is a little wooden at times, but is adequate for the most part. I doubt John Carpenter had this consciously in mind when he made the movie, but I just love the idea of Charlton Heston (as the distributor of Cane’s books) being ignorantly responsible for unleashing apocalyptic evil upon the world. And, while I have only seen her in supporting roles, Frances Bay is always one of the best parts of whatever movie she’s in. Her turn as Mrs. Pickman, the psychotic hotel proprietor, is wonderfully creepy.

As for the movie itself, John Carpenter does a great job in building up the atmosphere of impending doom. He starts out small, but builds up, playing upon our uncertainty as Reality frays until the very end, when it breaks entirely. The last scene is a wonderful breaking down of the Fourth Wall between the movie and the audience, and even with the start of the credits it isn’t quite over. Wait to see what’s written after the part about how no animals were harmed to make the film.

In short, I love this movie. In the Mouth of Madness is one of the most effective horror movies I have come across. If you come in with an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

The Movie: Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards), two lifelong best friends, are excited about starting their first year at Adams College. After all the misery of high school, they are determined to shed their image as nerds, start a new life, and be successful with women. Unfortunately, their freshmen year at Adams is going to put them right back where they started.

Adams College is dominated by the Alpha Betas, your typical band of uberjock bullies, and their coach, Harris (John Goodman). Our heroes’ first major problem with the Alphas comes when they burn down their frat house at a party and take over the freshmen dorm. The new male freshmen are forced to live in the gym. Dean Ulich (David Wohl) arranges so that the freshmen are allowed to join fraternities that year, but there are still a sizable number of individuals that the frats find undesirable.

With nobody else to turn to, the “nerds” band together and find a house of their own, which they fix up. Unfortunately, the Alphas consider them easy prey and persecute them mercilessly. What’s worse, the nerds are told that their only recourse to justice is the Greek Council; and its president is Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), one of the Alphas. Because the nerds are not part of the fraternity system, they have no power.

In desperation, the nerds manage to convince a national fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, to sponsor them as their campus’ chapter. They then seek to get the reins of power away from the Alphas. However, the jocks are determined that there is no way they are going to be beaten by a bunch of nerds. They are determined to stomp the nerds down by any means available; and things are about to get really ugly…

The Review: I was not expecting much from this movie. I had heard the title Revenge of the Nerds for years; maybe decades would be more accurate. As the television in the deli section of my college’s cafeteria was usually turned to Comedy Central, I even caught a few brief glimpses of it. But, I just expected it to be another raunchy, juvenile Animal House wannabe. When I got Netflix I started adding titles to various movies that, while well known in popular culture, I had never seen. Eventually, Revenge of the Nerds came up on my queue and arrived in my mailbox.

I found myself doing something I rarely do with my Netflix movies; instead of just watching it once and sending it back, I held on to Revenge of the Nerds until I was able to rewatch it. Seriously, I enjoyed it that much. While there was raunchy and juvenile humor; there was also a very good cast, a good plot, a genuine sweetness that was nothing like the Hallmark kind you usually see, and the sense that everyone involved was enjoying themselves.

One of the things this movie does differently from usual is its presentation of its heroes. In most movies you have one or two identification figures; in Revenge of the Nerds you have a small stable of them. There’s Poindexter (Timothy Busfield), a violin player who has the classical nerd look. Wormser (Andrew Cassese) is a twelve-year old genius whose parents force him to move to college. “Booger” (Curtis Armstrong, who played John Cusack’s druggie friend in Better Off Dead) is both skuzzy and shifty. Takashi Toshiro (Brian Tochi) is your stereotype ignorant and na├»ve Japanese exchange student. Then there’s Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott), who has two strikes against him; he’s black and he’s flamboyantly gay.

That’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but Revenge of the Nerds pulls it off by playing off the group dynamics. Lewis and Gilbert are our official point of view characters, and Gilbert inadvertently winds up the unofficial leader of the group, but for the most part the movie focuses on all of them about equally. What’s more, despite the stereotypes, they all come across as human. In the cast reminiscing feature on the disc, they talk about how the director met with each of them and had them flesh out their characters (Armstrong had a full character bio written up), and it really shows. Even if they didn’t use every detail, you get the impression of fully fleshed out human beings, not caricatures.

One of the things that really struck me about this movie was how human all of the heroes actually looked. Few, if any, of them are truly Hollywood Pretty. Gilbert’s girlfriend Judy (Michelle Meyrink) is, of course, a nerd, but she is also very pretty; although it’s a kind of frizzy, wallflower pretty, not the “take off her glasses and she’s a supermodel” tack that Hollywood so loves. Likewise, when I got my first look at her sorority, the Omega Mus; it was clear that none of these women would be a starlet or supermodel, but I saw several who I would be attracted to if I met them in person. This use of ordinary people helps cement the believability of the characters; they are people we can expect to run into on the street, or even see in the mirror. The truly “Beautiful People” in this movie are almost all the villains.

The villains are more caricatures, but they still work. If nothing else, they’re fun and you truly love to hate them. The two standouts are “Ogre” (Donald Gibb), who could almost be the mythical creature that inspired his nickname, and Stan, their leader. In the special feature, McGinley turns out to be one of the few cast members who initially wanted to be in Revenge of the Nerds. He also makes the observation that if you’re not going to win the girl, you should at least get to be the villain “and I got a little of both.” That mindset truly shows in his character, he was the perfect villain. Ogre, meanwhile, provides both comedy relief and a credible threat to the heroes.

‘Underdog beating the odds’ movies are a dime a dozen (probably because we all love them), but Revenge of the Nerds does a few more things right that separates it from the pack. The initial power system at Adams College, for one is very clever. Dean Ulich, it’s made clear, is a nerd himself and always on the heroes’ side. His problem is that, like them, being beaten down his whole life makes it very hard for him to stand up for himself. As a result, even though he’s officially in charge, Coach Harris is able to dominate him and therefore control the school. However, with each victory our heroes win, the dean is provided with more inspiration and strength until he’s finally able to stand up to the coach.

How the heroes gain their own fraternity is also well done. Initially, their motivation for forming their own fraternity is survival; if the boys are going to have any power on campus they need to be part of the system. Told they need a national fraternity to sponsor them, they only get a favorable response from the one fraternity they didn’t send a group picture to, Triple Lambda.

Lambda Lambda Lambda it turns out, not insignificantly, is an all black fraternity. U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey), the head of Triple Lambda, is ready to disregard our heroes, too, once he sees them; but the by-laws say that all petitioners get a 60 day probationary membership. Reluctantly, Jefferson grants them probationary membership, and agrees to attend a party they throw in his honor.

The party starts out badly, first from a sabotage attempt by the Pi Delta Pis, the sorority the Alphas associate with, and later just general awkwardness. However, through some determination and ingenuity the nerds finally start the right note, and even the Lambda reps are visibly trying hard not to show they’re having a good time. Then the jocks ruin the party. The nerds are convinced that their chances are ruined, but the expression on Jefferson’s face tells a different story. It’s clear that this is what finally convinces him to accept them; seeing first-hand what they are up against and why they need a fraternity of their own. Judging by his race and age, he probably had to go through the same crap himself.

Another intriguing part of the movie comes from this. Along with Jefferson’s official recognition of our heroes as Lambdas, he takes a personnel interest in them. Also, although they never really think about this until it’s sprung on them; the full Tri-Lambda organization considers the boys theirs. The upshot of these two things is that the nerds have inadvertently made themselves some powerful allies with an interest in their welfare.

The final aspect of Revenge of the Nerds that I really like is how the nerds take on the jocks. In most underdog vs. the odds movies it ends with the underdog literally beating his opponents at their own game. However, from the very beginning of the movie, this is shown to be blatantly impossible. The heroes are so overmatched by their enemies that any attempt to play by their rules will get them trounced.

The conclusion to this is that the nerds don’t try to play by the jock’s rules. Instead, when they do go after the jocks, they employ tactics where they have the advantage. Admittedly, in this day and age the nerds’ retaliation on the Pi’s ruining their party, a simultaneous panty-raid and the planting of video cameras in their house, doesn’t go down well with me. I’m not too bothered by their retaliation on the Alphas though, putting liquid heat in their jock straps. I wonder what that says about me.

But that’s how they win, by using their ingenuity. At the Greek Games, which is what determines the presidency of the Greek Council, the nerds win by approaching the events in ways the jocks would never think of. I particularly like how they handle the charity event. And, even when in events where they’re clearly outmatched, such as the tug-of-war, the nerds figure out how to lose in ways that still get the best of their opponents.

So, in short, I really liked this movie. It taps into a theme that appeals to all of us, turning the tables on your persecutors; but does it in a way that’s more believable than what we usually see. What’s more, this movie does clearly identify with its protagonists. While in other movies many of the misfortunes they go through here would be played for laughs; here they are shown for the tragedies they are. Our heroes are played for humor, of course, but it’s the age-old difference of laughing with, not at. Finally, the heroes are very identifiable. If you haven’t seen Revenge of the Nerds, you should remedy that.