Shadowlands, and six more movies

Are we agreed that an odd and eccentric movie generally tops anything set in the Marvel Comics Universe? Good. Then let's see A Trip to the Moon, The Peanut Butter Solution, Shadowlands, and Zero Effect.

— — —

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

I love science fiction and old movies, so how come I'd never seen the very first science fiction movie? That's the only thing I knew about A Trip to the Moon. Well, that and the iconic image of the man-in-the-moon with a rocket in its face. 

Black-and-white can be a little less eyeball-grabbing than Technicolor, and a black-and-white and silent movie can sometimes induce yawns, so I wouldn't have been surprised to be bored by this. Instead it's kind of awesome, though.

First and most obviously, it's not black-and-white. Some (not all) of the movie's prints in its original release were hand-painted — color brushed atop the black-and-white image. One of these color-tinted prints was restored in 2011, and watching it is so startling it's hard to look at anything but the screen — red mushrooms, greenish moon people under twinkling stars in the firmament, etc.

Also unexpectedly, there are no intertitles, because there's no dialogue. The story needs neither. It's deliriously uncomplicated. Several astronomers ride to the moon in a capsule that's fired from a cannon. That's your plot.

It's from a novel by H G Welles, and both book and movie precede everything we now know about outer space and the moon, so once they're there, everyone can breathe with no need for spacesuits or oxygen, and there's moon botany and moon gravity and moon people, and other such silliness, but by golly it's gloriously staged. The moon aliens seem to be acrobats as well, and they explode in delightful puffs of purple when bonked on the head.

There are several different versions of this film on-line, some without the necessary color, some with a pop music score, but this is the definitive version, and that's the film I watched. It's short; less than 14 minutes.

Obviously, this is a historical curio not to be mistaken for Contact or Interstellar. It was made before Wilbur and Orville Wright got off the ground, though, which makes it quite a remarkable 'coming attractions' reel.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Bleacher Bums (1979)
NO — 

From Chicago's famed Organic Theater and the city's public TV station, this is a day at the ball park, scripted and staged as a play. It was filmed on sets, not at Wrigley Field, with a cast of then-unknown stage actors acting their asses off.

I wanted to see Bleacher Bums because it was the first film by director Stuart Gordon, founder of the Organic, and later famous for Re-Animator (and director of a personal favorite film, the Christopher Lambert actioner Fortress).

It's all-white, almost all-male, and features very young Joe Mantegna and Dennis Franz, who are quite good and quite awful, respectively. You can't miss Franz — he's the guy shouting every line in a stereotypical Chicago+beer growl, all through the flick. His performance/caricature overpowers everything else that's going on, although really, nothing much else is going on.

The play was written by the actors, so everyone has a 'big moment', but it doesn't add up to a plot, or even much of a play. It's more like a long sketch, but it's an occasionally amusing artifact, if you keep the volume turned down. Way down.

If I was stuck within earshot of Dennis Franz at a ball game — and earshot would be a quarter of a mile — I'd complain to an usher or seat myself in a different section. 

♦ ♦ ♦

No Blade of Grass (1970)

Golden-throated "as seen on TV" crooner Roger Whittaker sings the movie's theme song, with lyrics and tune intended to be depressing, but it's so heavy-handed the song is a laugh before it's over. Same for the movie.

Due to accumulated pesticides merged with a virus, all the world's grassy crops are failing — wheat, rye, rice, barley, etc. This news is delivered via television, while rich people enjoy a feast. We see images of starving children, intercut with white people forking food into their faces. Everything is done with the same subtlety as Whittaker's song, but it's stylized and stark, and not something you see often. The movie's opening scenes are wholeheartedly recommended, but after that the grassy virus is forgotten and the movie becomes a puddle of muddle.

There are no characters, only archetypes — stern father, harried mother, naïve daughter. Rioters descend on our bland protagonists from the moment they get into their cars, and they respond with bloodshed almost immediately. Twenty minutes into this mess, there are already no survivors that you don't want dead.

I almost clicked it off during the gang rape of mother and daughter, but stuck with it because Mom grabbed a rifle and executed one of the perps. After that, though, things start to get ugly.

Soon it's just a war movie, with lots of gunshots but no explanation of where the endless supply of ammunition comes from. During the climactic battle I literally fell asleep, so I don't know who won — the bad guys, or the other bad guys. When I awoke, though, Roger Whittaker was singing his sad song a second time, over the end credits.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Peanut Butter Solution

Odd and imaginative, this is a children's movie (?) where everything is off-kilter. 

Dad is a painter who doesn't want to sell his paintings, Mom is missing, and a little boy goes exploring inside a house that burned down the night before. Inside the house, he gets a mysterious fright we don't see, and the next morning all his hair has fallen out.

Being hairless freaks him out, and it doesn't grow back, which freaks him out worse. Then he's haunted by ghosts of the homeless people who burned to death in the fire, but they're not scary, they're friendly and chatty. Mrs Dead Homeless Lady has a secret recipe that will grow hair on your head, if the ingredients are mixed just right. Don't get it on your hands, though, or it'll make hair grow there. Certainly, don't get it on your nose.

If anyone reading this is bald and doesn't want to be, the recipe is fairly simple: mix together one really ripe banana, five dead flies, one rotten egg, three licorice leaves, a fistful of kitty litter, three Connie Crisps and three Crosby Crackers, nine spoons of soil, a glass of pepper’s fizz, and a spoonful of peanut butter. Pepper's fizz, if you're wondering, is mouth water, but I don't know what Connie Crisps or Crosby Crackers might be. No substitutions, and absolutely no tweaking the recipe.

The kid tweaks the recipe, though. It's too watery, so he adds more peanut butter. What could possibly go wrong?

Soon the kid's hair starts growing, and then it's growing "six inches on my walk home." He looks like a hippie kid, or a shampoo model. His hair grows so long it's attacked by dogs. A creepy art teacher starts harvesting the boy's head hair to sell for paintbrushes, and... well, I'm not certain this movie is really intended for children.

There's mass kidnapping, a dangerous teacher, child labor, lucid paintings, and a pre-adolescent boy applies the secret recipe to his groin to grow pubic hair, which then sprouts out past his ankles. There's also a pop song belted out by 17-year-old Celine Dion, and in a movie this bonkers, believe it or not, the song is kinda catchy.

This... is an unusual film. Hard to say whether it's a good film, but whatever it lacks in goodness it more than makes up for in unusualness, so let's give it a YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Shadowlands (1986)

“Which is thornier — falling in love, or picking a rose?”

Author and educator C S Lewis (friends call him ‘Jack’) answers the world’s questions on romance and marriage and children, despite never having loved, married, or had children. After exchanging letters with American poet Joy Davidman, they meet, and fall in like.

She’s the luminous Claire Bloom, though, and I’d fall in love with Claire Bloom. Who wouldn’t? Well, Jack wouldn’t. He’s such a slave to what’s proper, and he’s 50-something and Christian, and she’s 40-something and Christian, and perhaps it’s improper for folks of their advanced years to fall in love.

Everything here is very white, British, and upper-class. It takes place at Oxford and Cambridge, with tea and crumpets, what what, pipes and neckties and vested suits.

I am an old fuddy-duddy man, so I should enjoy the true story of an old fuddy-duddy man finding love, but I never warmed to Jack (Joss Ackland). He sounds like a kindly old fart, like he’s auditioning to play Santa Claus, but I don’t believe in Santa, and didn’t believe in Jack.

Midway along, it changes from a romance to a fatal-diagnosis movie, and maybe this is 'me' more than the movie, but having lived through the fatal diagnosis and death of my wife a few years ago, I’m very wary of the clichés. I hid behind my brick wall facade and refused to cry, though the movie very much wants me to.

“I came alive when I started loving you,” Santa Jack finally figures out, and that's true for both of us.

♦ ♦ ♦


As you might guess from the title, this is a remake of the preceding proceedings. It's vastly improved by Anthony Hopkins as C S “Jack” Lewis, Debra Winger as a much more brusque and Brooklynesque Joy Davidman, and a script that devotes more time to the delightful philosophical conversations between them.

Both movies were written by William Nicholson, based on his play, but the ’86 version is barely an hour and a half, while this one is much meatier at more than two hours.

Forget Hopkins’ iconic but hammy performance as Hannibal Lecter; he was born and bred to play stick-up-his-ass men like this — soft-spoken and aging, excellent at what he does for a living, but lost when it comes to the living itself. See also The Remains of the Day.

As Joy, Winger offers a perfectly-measured mix of nervous and ferocious, taking no crap but also unsure what she wants. With all due respect to Ms Bloom from the other movie, Winger’s performance is more complicated, more real. (Every time I see Winger in anything, I want to line up all the Hollywood executives who decided — immediately after this film — that her career was finished because she dared sprout a wrinkle, and give each of them a spirited kick in their saggy nuts.)

Other improvements here include some smooching — in the 1986 edition, maybe there was a single liplock between Jack and Joy, but here there are plural. Also, two well-crafted subplots have been added or restored, one about a sleepy, perhaps disinterested student who steals books to read them, and another about Jack & Joy’s hunt for the scenic but never-yet-seen location framed in a painting on the wall.

I was, however, disappointed by the film’s historical inaccuracy. It’s set in the 1950s, and one scene shows Hopkins standing in front of a newsstand, where the choices include the London Telegraph and Daily Mail, and the Financial Times, and Oh my goodness! For more than 125 years, Financial Times has branded itself by printing on pink pages, but on-screen its pages are white. Seriously, tsk tsk about that.

“We read to know we're not alone,” says Hopkins as Lewis, quoting someone else. In the end, though, we’re all alone.

At the halfway point, same as in the earlier version, the mood of the movie darkens, as Joy is (again, jeez!) diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Winger suffers more eloquently than Bloom, and I'll offer no spoilers save to say that truth really sucks, and it's no fun at all.

I’d like to send this memo to the author:

Dear Mr Nicholson,

Can I call you Bill? 

It's a fine script, and I know it's a true story, but couldn't it be rewritten so it ends with something more 'happily-ever-after'? Perhaps have Jack & Joy die together, suddenly flattened by a speeding bus on Main Street — that’s how my wife & I wanted to go.

Or Jack could croak instead of Joy. She’s smarter anyway, more interesting, a better writer and a better person, funnier, more honest and more remarkable. He’s only what he says he is — a foolish, frightened old man who needs her, loves her.

And then she’s gone? Nah, screw that.

Cordially, Doug

♦ ♦ ♦

Zero Effect (1997)

Darryl Zero (Bill Pullman) is the world's greatest private detective, but when he's not working a case he's reclusive and maladjusted, doing drugs and singing bad rock'n'roll.

"He has a deeply nuanced and thoroughly functional understanding of human behavior to rival the great psychoanalytical minds of our time," we're told, but he's awkward with people so he works anonymously — nobody meets him or sees him, or even knows what he looks like.

To hire Zero, you must deal with his assistant (Ben Stiller), so the movie opens with Ryan O'Neil, playing a gazillionaire who's being blackmailed, talking to Stiller and hoping to hire Zero. That's enough set-up, I think — the delight here is seeing where the movie's plot will twist next, so you'll get no road map from me.

Though often funny, it's not a comedy, and though it looks like a crime drama with a touch of noir, it doesn't fit snugly into any genre. The film bombed in theaters, but proved popular as a video rental, which is always a good sign. My guess is that it was co-authored by dope or acid, but then they didn't trim out everything non-essential, so it's gleefully all over the place.

You won't recognize the formulaic plot points — a few, maybe, but not all of them. Zero's status as the world's greatest detective is often mentioned, mostly by Zero himself, and his narration is slightly too much, on purpose, to keep a smile on your face. Most memorable is the interplay between Zero and a woman (Kim Dickens) he meets at the gym, including an Oscar-worthy coffee-shop conversation. 

Zero is supposed to be brilliant at camouflage, and indeed, Pullman's disguises are very effective — maybe too effective. I'm not even sure I caught all the movie's permutations of Pullman, since we don't see him getting into his disguises. He's often a background character, undercover as someone you'd least expect, and he's been there for a minute and a half before you wonder — wait, is that Darryl Zero?

Pullman's performance and the script by Jake Kasdan are excellent, Dickens is subtly marvelous, and Stiller is effective in what might seem an inconsequential role, just following orders and grimacing at his boss's eccentricities. 

As for Kasdan, his writing and direction are flawless, but let's have a moment of silence for the writers and directors who never got a chance, because their last name wasn't Kasdan. His dad is Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, etc), which is why the younger Kasdan gets to launch his career at the age of 23, writing and directing this Hollywood movie with a big-star cast. 

With that caveat, I enjoyed the heck out of Zero Effect, and wanted to see more, so I steeled myself for disappointment and watched the 2002 pilot episode for a Zero Effect TV series that never happened. Alan Cumming stars as Zero, and he's British and very different from Pullman, but fits comfortably into the role. The story, though, is more pedestrian and predictable than the movie, and David Julian Hirsh plays the sidekick as a dull doofus, which only adds an increased appreciation for Stiller's work in the movie.

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  1. Thanks Doug. Here's the song Nick Cave is singing in the background during the coffee shop/soda fountain scene. This recording is a little muddy because it is way back in the mix so you might have to pump up the volume. It will be worth it. jtb


    1. This is the song that's been in my head since I saw the movie, thanks. Pretty damn good music.

    2. The gentleman who sings that, Australian Nick Cave, is the leader of the musical group The Bad Seeds. He has a distinctive, low voice. About 20 years ago a publisher in England was getting the Bible into audiobook format and asked Mr. Cave to read the Old Testament for the project. The man sounds like an Old Testament Prophet or maybe God himself. The BBC played a sample, and I swear I almost got religion back. Then I remembered that Nick wrote that he didn't believe in an interventionist God or the existence of angels, so maybe he just sounded that way because God would have given him that voice had he/she existed. It's all very complicated.


    3. I tend toward short-sighted snap judgments: Somewhen I must've seen some mention of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that painted him as being of some genre I've already dismissed. Thus, never having knowingly heard a note of his music, to me he was lumped in with what little 1990s-or-later music I've heard and didn't appreciate. Never gave the kid a chance, which was a mistake.

      From your note I gather he's been on the scene for at least twenty years, so it's time for me to finally give the gent a genuine listen, which is now playing, and mostly I'm liking his work. Presently adding Red Right Hand to my permanent playlist.

      Thanks again for the further enlightenment. You do that a lot...


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