Native Son, and six more movies

A Sound of Thunder (2005)

The Neverending
Film Festival

A pompous trillionaire (Ben Kingsley, under a very fake, very snowy white toupee) owns a company called Time Safari, which offers vacations way back when in history and prehistory — time travel, for anyone who can afford the hefty price tag.

The #1 safety rule is: 

"No matter what, no matter how small, never change anything in the past. Nothing. You kill a bee, and maybe the flower it was going to pollinate doesn't grow, and the seeds it was going to spread don't get spread, and the animal that was going to eat the vegetation doesn't have the food to eat, and it dies, and it was carrying the genes for a new kind of animal which doesn't get to occur, and it alters the course of evolution — a single bee. And the farther back you go, the more catastrophic any changes could be, so rule number one is, don't change anything."

Seems to me, Rule #1 should be "Don't do it." Clearly, somebody's going to go back in time and accidentally-or-on-purpose change a little tiny something millions of years ago, which will cause ripples and time waves, changing almost everything in the here and now.

The biggest ripples, sadly, are caused by changes the moviemakers made to Ray Bradbury's short story, which the film was (sort of) based on. It's a story I've read several times, a classic really, and it's the source for the now-common concept of the "butterfly effect," but this ain't that story.

It starts as that story, and frustratingly has the feel of it quite right for a while, until the moviemakers chicken out and deliver something else instead. Something ordinary.

Most of the special effects are CGI, and much of it looks laughably artificial. In the first third of the film, though, there are two action sequences that are genuinely thrilling and piqued my hopes. Said hopes were promptly dashed, as the movie keeps making wrong decisions and getting worse and worse.

If you're intrigued by the concept, here's the original story, and it's short (that's why it's called a short story). If you'd rather, here's a radio dramatization that's only half an hour. Neither of these suck, so they're quite unlike the movie.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dark Nemesis (2011)

Bunch of dudes dressed like monks are on a mission to somewhere for something, and along the way there are clunking sword fights over something. Also, there be bad CGI monsters here, and women in white ceramic masks who also wield swords and clunk.

Overwrought music treats the entire movie as if it's the climactic scene. There's not much dialogue, but like Mark Twain said, sometimes it's better to remain silent.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fire in the Sky (1993)

Six lumberjacks are working together, full of smartass insults as they topple trees. James Garner plays a wisecracking cop in a cowboy hat, investigating the whereabouts of one of them, who got zapped and probed by space aliens and didn't come back.

Sounds like junk cinema but it's not, because these characters are well-written, better played, and everybody's reactions seem about what someone's reactions would be if a buddy got body-snatched. It's set in a small town that feels like a small town, and even all the lumberjacks' hair seems just as greasy and needin' a trim as it ought to be.

With solid camerawork, good music, and crisp direction, Fire in the Sky is a good 'first contact with space aliens' movie, until about 3/4 of the way through. Then all its realism is forgotten, and instead we're given low-rent special effects and low-imagination renderings of the aliens, and their probes and insertions and so forth. It becomes just another horror movie, and there's no recovering from that.

Verdict: A disappointed MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

This is a story of booze, drugs, mascara and debauchery and — unexpectedly for the 1960s — gender beyond male and female.

Set in a Japanese gay bar, the central story is about Eddie, a transvestite hooker who's boinking the owner of the bar, and hoping for a promotion in exchange. The owner's primary squeeze, the bar's queen of the drag queens, does not approve.

We flash back to Eddie's troubled upbringing, meet everyone in this crowded scene, and some terribly traumatic experiences are presented with peppy music as if it's a laugh.

That's the only way any of us make it through life, isn't it?

Funeral Parade of Roses is fiction, not a documentary, but it blurs the lines. The characters/actors are interviewed on screen, we see the movie's camera crew, and there's a movie director in the movie who might be making this movie.

"I am the wound and the dagger, both the victim and the executioner!"

Bleak, funny, fascinating, subversive, inspiring, tragic, and wow it's complicated. You will not walk away whistling a happy tune.

It's kinda avant-garde or experimental, which often bores the hell out of me, but the hell was not bored out of me. I'll admit to having a hard time following the story, but had a grand time watching the movie, and then spent lots of time thinking about it.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Native Son (1951)

This is based on the novel by Richard Wright, who wrote the screenplay and also plays the lead role. That's a trifecta I've never seen before, and as an actor, Wright is very good with the complex character he's created, a man who's weak and strong, smart and stupid, perp and victim.

As a writer, Wright is also no slouch. Long ago when I read lots of books, I read Native Son, and it's excellent. I'd never seen this adaptation until today, and it's excellent, too. It's dark (no pun intended), though the book is even darker.

Native Son is about a black man in the 1940s, Mr Bigger Thomas, who doesn't have much in life, but luckily lands a good job as chauffeur for a rich white family. He's driving their snooty blonde daughter around to assorted nightclubs, with her boyfriend tagging along, and both of them spout painfully liberal comments to Bigger about seeing no color, we're all created equal, etc.

This has to ring shallow with Bigger and with the audience. Here's a man who lives his life on the black side of a black and white world, and he's forced to listen to lectures about equality from these entitled white folks.

"All colored people are supposed to sing, aren't they?"

"Reckon they forgot to teach me, ma'am."

Bigger ends up in his employer's daughter's arms, and in a moment of panic he murders her. After that it's a thriller, with Bigger trying to cover up evidence while cops and reporters chase him and slur him all over Chicago. There comes another painfully unexpected twist I won't describe, leading to a climax that's inevitable but weirdly optimistic.

It's all frequently uncomfortable, and you could argue that Bigger's crimes play into racist stereotypes. He's clearly a guilty man, no whitewashing that, but just as clearly he's a victim of the world's prejudice that took him to this point.

Some of the movie's conversation about race seems naïve to my white ears, so maybe we've made some progress toward getting along since the '40s. Not as much progress as some people pretend, that's for certain.

IMDB says Native Son has been remade, not once but twice, and I haven't seen those movies but I gotta ask, why? Seems doubtful someone else could film the novel better than it was with the author on camera, and on the set every day. 

This article suggests that the original moviemakers had few options other than having Wright star. "No serious Black American actor at the time was going to risk getting blackballed by associating with Wright, a political exile in Argentina."

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Sweet Movie (1984)

This is not a porno, but it has plenty of dicks and boobs, and it's always at least a little perverted. The title, Sweet Movie, probably refers to the leading lady's nude bath in chocolate syrup.

It's an arthouse drama, overstuffed with such absurdities. Take a deep breath, and let me tell you about it:

The Chastity Belt Foundation has sponsored a worldwide beauty pageant. It's open to virgins only, so each contestant's unbroken hymen is inspected and verified by a doctor, live on television. The winner ⟪gets to/is forced to⟫ marry a billionaire.

Miss Canada wins the pageant and husband, but soon decides she doesn't want to be Mrs Billionaire. The Chastity Belt Foundation doesn't want her to get away, so she's held captive by a black bodybuilder who stuffs her into a suitcase. She's checked as luggage at the airport and flown to an unnamed but crazy country, where she escapes from the suitcase. During the flight she seems to have lost her marbles and scruples, so she unwraps herself for kids in a candy shop, which lands her in a mental institution, just in time for a long lunch with plenty of vomiting.

The above might make it seem as if there's a story here, but really there's not. Things happen, and they tend to happen to three characters — Miss Canada, a boat lady, and a Russian sailor — but they're just wandering through the movie in search of a plot.

Memorable moments include John Vernon's gold-plated penis, adult breastfeeding, several men pissing in unusual ways or places, love and tea in a bed of powdered sugar, an earnest discussion of sexual proletarianism, and special guest appearances by numerous actual corpses from World War II.

So it's wacky, but is it any good? Not really. For the first twenty minutes it's bizarre but interesting, and after that it's simple bizarre, growing kinda repulsive toward the end. The film's artistic statement is nowhere to be found. It feels like an attempt to see how many people would walk out of the theater.

That said, with all the nudity and nuttiness, I only briefly considered turning it off. I enjoy nudity, and also enjoy nuttiness. If it isn't obvious already, you have never seen a movie like this.

Verdict: YES for me, but maybe MAYBE for anyone with mental health.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Tower Heist (2011)

Ben Stiller is the manager of a gilded high-rise condo where only the richest, whitest people can afford to live. Alan Alda is the wealthiest man in the building, and he's a Bernie Madoff-style swindler. So far, so plausible.

What's not plausible is that Stiller is the best dang boss in the world. He knows all the building's employees by name, visits sick workers in the hospital, and he's just an absolute mensch.

That's not merely unlikely, isn't a fantasy. The building is owned by a giant corporation, so the second-assistant might be a decent guy, but the building manager will be a douche, absolutely a corporate man. That is how capitalism works, with no exceptions, so the premise is bullshitty and the movie's central character is impossible.

Oh, and Matthew Broderick is one of the building's residents, but he's bankrupt. He owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to the condominium. But Stiller lets him stay.

Anyway, Saint Stiller predictably does the right thing in the wrong way and gets fired, and then decides to put together a team and steal some millions from the swindler, Alda. It's Tower Heist, so it's a heist movie, and it's fun for a while, especially when Eddie Murphy comes along to teach the thieves how to steal.

There's a detectable heartbeat under all this, but seven people get writing credit and it feels very 'created by committee'. Someone decided that every plot element must be either heartwarming or exaggeratedly huge, preferably both, so by the time it's over it feels like you've sat through a whopper told by a 10-year-old.

Ample product placement — ads, in other words — from beginning to end. 

Verdict: MAYBE. Meh.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. The alien probing scene in "Fire in the Sky" gave me major heebie jeebies. I mean, I wasn't driving home constantly looking in my rear view mirror the way I did when I saw the original "Alien" on opening night, nor did I arrive home and turn on all the lights (including in the closets) after screening "Poltergeist" on its opening night...but it was close.

  2. Funeral Parade and Sweet Movie, I will be seeing both thank you, as I love a truly strange movie. I don't remember Tower Heist at all but I know I saw it, so it must have been very bad. I'm a fan of old science fiction so I've of course read A Sound of Thunder and if I've never heard of the movie it must be as bad as you say.

  3. I was going to ask where do you even find movies as fucked up as Sweet Movie sounds, but I checked and its $23 for a DVD on Criterion. I'll wait until a clearance sale.

    1. $23? Yeah, I'd wait a long time.

      Email me if you'd watch a streaming link.


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