Happiness and Passengers, and five more movies

Now playing: A baboon out for blood, a movie designed to offend you, a smart sci-fi on a sleeper ship, a stupid action movie with hairy stars, an unwatchable zombie pic and its sequel, and the much better sequel to a lousy movie.

• 28 Days Later (2002)
• 28 Weeks Later (2007)
• Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
• Happiness (1998)
• Hologram Man (1995)
• Passengers (2016)
• Shakma (1990)

I enjoyed four out of seven, and it's hard choosing the best.

It can't be Shakma, because it's only barely good. It can't be Gremlins 2, because all the annoying furballs weren't dead at the end.


I'm declaring a tie between Happiness and Passengers. Happiness takes big chances, and delivers. Passengers takes few chances, but does what it's supposed to do, and does it well.

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28 Days Later (2002)

Animal rights radicals break into a lab to free the monkeys, but the animals have been infected with an experimental 'rage' virus. It's extremely contagious and deadly, of course. Movies like this, the disease can't just give you the sniffles and a stuffy nose for a few days.

After that, we skip to 28 days later, and almost all humans are dead, except for a handsome man and very pretty woman.

28 Days Later is a masterpiece of some new film technique where everything is quiet and then suddenly there's terror and screaming, drums on the soundtrack, and the film changes to a different frames-per-second rate. and then it does it again in a few minutes. There's probably a cinematic term for this, but I don't know it so I call it the sudden shakes. It's all this movie knows.

Let's have a very calm scene, perhaps a long shot, with people talking so softly you can hardly hear them, and then we'll do the sudden shakes — terror and screaming and crazymaking music while the camera's rocking seasick.

It's like having a madman jump out at you every 5-10 minutes, screaming Arghanarghanargh! After the third or fourth arghanarghanargh, it loses its effectiveness. I sat through ten sets of sudden shakes and arghanarghanarghs and it wasn't even half over. Nothing about the movie made me give a damn, so I finally turned it off during a quiet scene that was going to be very loud, very soon. 

Also, I'm weary of "animal rights radicals break into a lab," the set-up for so many sci-fi movie epidemics. Animal rights radicals are sometimes kinda nuts, yes, but they're not the kind of nuts who'd open the cages while a whitecoat is screaming that the animals are infected and dangerous and deadly. Come up with a new trope, please.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

28 Weeks Later (2007)

This is a sequel to that, and I'd already gotten both films, so I waited until the next day, recited the serenity prayer, and tried to give it a fair chance.

It opens with a man and a woman whispering to each other, and then comes the first onset of sudden shakes. Screaming, quick camera quivers, cacophony of sound. I clicked it off just like the first movie, only much sooner.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

I picture this pitch to Joe Dante, director of the original Gremlins: "We'll pay you a lot of money if you come back and direct Gremlins 2. It's gotta have those stupid gremlins in it, but other than that you can go crazy. You want to fire the original movie's writer (Chris Columbus) and replace him with someone else (Charlie Haas)? You want to mock the original movie? You want Bugs Bunny and built-in problems in the projection booth? Go for it."

The shaggy big-eared gremlins are still insufferable, and every moment they're on screen would be improved by sledgehammering them to sludge, but everything else in Gremlins 2 is clever, funny, and occasionally a touch subversive.

It opens audaciously with a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck short — "What's up, Duck?" — from Chuck Jones, which morphs into the opening credits. I laughed out loud at the first live-action scene, and frequently thereafter. It knocks new holes in the fourth wall every ten or fifteen minutes, makes fun of movie tropes, and kills Leonard Maltin.

Phoebe Cates gets to do more than in the first movie, and the insufferable Zach Galligan does less. It makes Christopher Lee (!) funny, and has Robert Prosky doing Al Lewis from The Munsters so well, for a moment I was fooled. John Glover somehow makes a moneygrubbing billionaire funny and kinda lovable. Tony Randall makes a gremlin erudite and intellectual.

Music by Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown, L A Confidential, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and yes, Gremlins), who also pops in for a cameo.

Reliable sources told me this sequel was an improvement over the rather tepid Gremlins, and yup, it's twice as good as the original. It's a movie that knows it's ridiculous, and runs with it. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Happiness (1998)

This is a perpetually awkward film with scene after scene of people being uncomfortable with themselves and their lives, like all of us, except that it delves into topics and events people don't usually talk about. 

It's focused on three adult sisters and their miserable lives, and the miserable lives of people they know. Jon Lovitz dumps one of the sisters while she's in the process of dumping him. Another doesn't know that her husband is a pedophile. The third sister gets an obscene phone call, ★69's it, and asks him to call again.

Despite the title, there's not half a hint of happiness here, until the punchline at the end.

This entire film is perverted, unsettling, offensive, and disgusting. 

Verdict: YES, I loved it.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Hologram Man (1995)

This starts with an utterly ordinary action scene, then switches to a thrusting fuck scene that shows everything but penetration.

After that, there's a chase concept that's cool — a stolen city bus driven at freeway speeds, trying to smash and wreck the governor's limo. I've never seen that before, but I still haven't, because it's filmed with so many rapid cuts and see-nothing angles, it seems fake even if it wasn't.

Then there's a too-talky shootout, and the madman shoots and kills the governor. Flash forward to the bad guy's trial, where he's found guilty of 13 felonies and sentenced to "holographic stasis until your biopersonal rectification programing is complete."

That's just the setup, and we're barely underway. The bad guy is "Slash," a white man with long dreadlocks. The good guy is "Dakota," a white guy with hair to his nipples. Fortunately, one has a beard and the other doesn't or I wouldn't have been able to tell them apart. 

"Don't ever call me sick, do you understand? I may be a little misunderstood, but I am not sick!"

That's the only clever line in the film.

It's all big, loud, and ordinary, only an hour and forty-one minutes but feels much longer.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Passengers (2016)

It's 1:30 in the morning and I need to get to sleep. Maybe a boring movie would do it. Passengers? Yeah, I saw the preview for this years ago, some stupid sci-fi movie with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It didn't look good, and the movie must've bombed. Never heard any buzz about it when it came out, and nobody's ever told me it's good or it's bad. Never heard a word about it. I've liked Pratt since Parks and Recreation, J-Law is hot, and sci-fi can be fun. Yeah, Passengers. It'll be stupid and shitty, and bore me to sleep.

That's why I watched this, but it wasn't stupid or shitty and it didn't bore me to sleep. That's the only sense in which this film was a disappointment.

I'll avoid revealing too much about the movie, but the best way to see it is the way I did, with minimal advance knowledge. If anything below makes it sound interesting, stop reading immediately, go watch the movie, and come back to this page later.

We're on a huge luxury liner in space, with 5,000 passengers on a 120-year journey, so everyone's in hibernation. A sleep-pod malfunction wakes Jim (Pratt) 90 years early, but he lacks the tech know-how to put himself back to long-term sleep. This means he'll be spending the rest of his life alone on a ship in space, and be dead before it arrives. Querying the ship's 'help' devices is like dealing with a corporate voice mail system; no help at all.

Over the course of a year alone on the ship, Jim gets lonely, and develops a crush on a pretty woman (guess who) through the plastic of her sleep-pod. In the movie's favor, what happens next is at least presented as a difficult decision: He disables her nest, awakening her. This is tantamount to stealing her life; now they'll both be dead by the time the ship gets where it's going.

After that, the movie plays with its premise, and goes a few places I hadn't expected. It's a well-made last-couple-on-earth scenario, without the earth, and with an emphasis on well-made. It's a Hollywood big budget flick, so it looks great. Michael Sheen plays the android bartender.

Always in movies, especially sci-fi, there's a "yeahbut," usually several. Yeah, but they'd never design it that way. Yeah, but an automated bartender wouldn't do that. Yeah, but she'd never forgive him. Passengers has its yeahbuts, but they're all well addressed, explained, and resolved.

It's also rare that a film about space travels deals with the complexity that would be required. A ship and a journey of such size would require so many gazillion layers of technology, that if even the tiniest thing went wrong — a chip is badly soldered, a single bolt comes loose — it would have cascading repercussions through all the on-board systems. To me, that's the enormous yeahbut that makes space travel impossible. Star Trek never really delved into that; Passengers does.

The characters are smart but believable, and the actors are good. The script is excellent, and the ending wasn't what I'd expected, but the more I think about it, the more I like it. No complaints about the direction or much of anything else, until the closing credits, which are inexplicably drowned in bland present-day la-la-la-la-la music ("Levitate," by Imagine Dragons).

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Shakma (1990)

A few medical students are invited, or invite themselves, to participate in a game concocted and overseen by their weird professor (Roddy McDowall in a bow tie). The game never much makes sense, and it's almost irrelevant to the plot, but it's played in a college building where a baboon, enraged by medical experiments and code named Shakma for no explained reason, is loose and on the rampage.

Shakma the baboon is smart enough to push an elevator's buttons, knows how to hide and leap out at exactly the right moment, and makes an effective (but fake) screaming sound as it chases, pounces, kills, and eats people alive. Being a baboon, it has a big red hairless butt that's, come on, kinda funny-looking.

The leading man is Christopher Atkins from The Blue Lagoon, now with a demonic smile. The movie plays his smile as if it's charming, but you tell me — is this charming? I think it's scarier than the baboon.

Fortunately, once the baboon begins its slaughter, Atkins stops smiling. "I've gotta talk to you," he says in a panic to one of the pretty girls, and then pushes her aside and walks away.

The dames keep getting cornered by the monkey, screaming for the smiley hero's help, and he keeps running to the rescue. I was rooting for the monkey.

This is basically a slasher flick, Slumber Party Massacre or Switchblade Romance, but with a baboon instead of a knife. And you know what? A baboon is better.

Also, I appreciate the restraint here — when one by one everyone gets mauled to raw meat by the baboon, the camera goes dark, or it happens behind a closed toilet door. For that reason alone, Shakma gets elevated from high-level MAYBE to barely YES.

Verdict: YES.


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. Gremlins 2:

    Charlie Haas also wrote Joe Dante's Matinee, and Jonathan Kaplan's Over The Edge, both of which are fantastic. And he wrote one of my favorite modern novels (that's not a long list) The Enthusiast, which is so good it almost seems like a different person (but there are similarities to his film work).


    28 Days/28Weeks:

    The first is better, but compared to earlier zombie films, no way. The whole zombie obsession of the last 25 years (!) is pathetic anyway. Give me Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Lewton/Tourneur's I Walk With a Zombie, Clark's Death Dream, O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, and I'm good.

    Honorable mentions for The Beyond, Zombi 2, and City of the Living Dead, Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Tombs of the Blind Dead, etc. etc.

    Points to the French film They Came Back which manages to reduce a zombie holocaust to a bureaucratic snafu, like visiting the DMV on a busy day.


    Happiness is excellent, Solondz's best film. After that, I really like Storytelling. It's sort of like Full Metal Jacket how it's split into to distinct parts and you have to wonder a little how they relate. Mike "American Movie" Schank is in that as well.


    Boy I hated Passengers, all I could think about was PK Dick's I Hope That I Shall Arrive Soon.



    Never seen it, but there was kind of a mini-genre of smart/sexy primates films for a while... Monkey Shines (Romero), Max, Mon Amour (Oshima), Project X, Gorillas in the Mist, etc. etc.

    Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes films (2011 on...)? Not zombie films, obviously, but the same sort of modern remakes that are made to look "badass" (snicker) and easy to hang whatever convenient metaphor on. Not saying they're good, but they are glossy entertainment if you're in the mood for that sort of genre thing.


    Jesus, I do go on, sorry

    1. I don't remember "I Hope That I Shall Arrive Soon," but I'm sure I've read it. Pretty sure I've read all of Dick's short stories, though I did shy away from some of his novels. Doubtless it's better than Passengers. Dick's dirty socks were better than Passengers, but I'm easy and obviously enjoyed it.

      Matinee is on the list, and I'd forgotten all about Over the Edge. Only thing I remember is finding Matt Dillon obnoxious, but generally I have a soft spot for suburban rebellion movies.

      I saw the Tim Burton/Mark Wahlberg Planet of the Apes, which felt like more than enough. Missed everything that inexplicably came after.

  2. >Reliable sources told me this sequel was an improvement over the rather tepid Gremlins,

    Hey, I'm reliable, who'da thunk it?


    Happiness was fucking amazing, fantastic, and it was my favorite movie, whatever year it was. I was working at Video Wave, and got in trouble for putting a "highly recommended" sticker on it. The store owner left my sticker on it, but added his own LARGE sticker that said "WARNING! SICK AND TWISTED!"

    1. Yeah, it's sick and twisted, and also yeah, you're reliable. One of very few people I trust in this life.


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