I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, and six more movies



Nov. 23, 2022

What shall we watch today? Post-apocalyptic excellence, pre-apocalyptic excellence, the secret life of an ordinary woman, William S Burroughs being all artsy fartsy, a cheap but effective thriller, stupid science fiction, and "Smart People on Ice." 

• The Cut-Ups (1966)
• I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
• The Quiet Earth (1985)
• Real Genius (1985)
• Starship Invasions (1977)
• The Stepfather (1987)
• WarGames (1983)

I'm recommending five out of seven, including two BIG YESes — I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, and The Quiet Earth.

— — — 

The Cut-Ups (1966)

This is an 18-minute short in which writer/wife-killer William S Burroughs repeatedly says, "Yes? Hello." After a while he begins also saying "Thank you" and "Look at that picture." Later, he asks many times, "Does it seem to be persisting?"

The imagery repeats itself almost as often as the words, with very short black-and-white clips of white people sitting at a table, unrolling a rug, smoking a cigar, standing near some kind of machinery, walking behind a building, studying diagrams, painting bad modern art, and wearing hats. It's all so very avant-garde!

If you have patience for kooky stuff, you might enjoy it. I enjoyed it, even laughed out loud twice at the absurdity, but it seems to persist longer than necessary.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦   

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

Polly (Sheila McCarthy; marvelous) is an amateur photographer, a self-described spinster and "unsuccessful career woman," prone to daydreams and talking to herself. She's 31, good-natured but insecure, loves classical music (the movie has lots), and she hasn't decided what she wants from life.

She's working as a temp, but doesn't get many assignments because she's "organizationally impaired." The agency sends her to work at a small art gallery, where the curator finds Polly's bumbling amusing.

At home, she narrates her VHS diary, recounting awkward and embarrassing events, and allowing us to not merely glimpse inside Polly's head but make ourselves at home, and it's a cozy space. It reminds me of the space inside my own head.

"Isn't life the strangest thing you've ever seen?"

Polly admires the gallery's curator, and soon develops a crush on her, but probably nothing could come of it — the curator is a nice lady and all, but she's 'arty', cultured and educated, somewhat embittered, all the things Polly isn't and never will be.

The movie seems to be Polly's story, but you might notice that you're also getting to know and care about the curator, too.All along the way, it's funny and very heartfelt, a film about art and friendship, and aspirations and rejections.

A plot element involves a piece of art at the gallery, which Polly finds almost too beautiful for words. In a clever stroke by the moviemakers, the artwork is represented by a simple sheet of light in a picture frame. It illuminates the room, and when it's boxed up, glows right through the gift wrap. Polly says she didn't even have to pretend to like it, and that's what art is, I think.

If you're stubborn and refuse to let the movie in, I suppose it could seem completely simpleminded. I loved it, though, let it in, and I've let it in many times. I've Heard the Mermaids Singing has been one of my favorite indy comedies since the night I first saw it, 35 years ago, and it's still a reliable re-watch any time my spirits need some heavy lifting. 

And it has the best post-credits 'extra scene' at the end, ever.

"Come here, I'll show you some more."

Verdict: BIG YES.

For several years off and on in the 1990s, I dated a woman — Maggie; I've mentioned her here a few times — who sometimes and in some ways reminded me of Polly, from I've Heard the Mermaids Singing. One evening I showed Maggie this film, and she thought it was boring and confusing. That's when I started to know that Mags & I didn't have a future together. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Quiet Earth (1985)

Zac Hobson wakes up alone — very alone. He drives to a gas station, and the door is open but there's no-one there. He goes into his workplace, and finds only a corpse. 

If you can't tell from the recurrence of this and similar scenarios in my reviews week after week, I like post-apocalyptic movies. Why? Because most people are rubbish, so it's always intriguing to see what a writer or moviemaker imagines the world would be like with a lot fewer people.

In that sub-genre, this is an absolute masterpiece — solid script, fine direction, terrific music, flawless performances.

Yeah, plural performances. Has there ever been a "last person on earth" book or movie where the protagonist really is the last person on earth? Nah, a second person always comes along, so it's not much of a spoiler to say that when Zac finally finds a second survivor, it might be the best such scene I've seen in any post-apocalyptic flick:

They stare at each other across an empty room, then approach slowly, then embrace with closed eyes, almost crying. "God," he says, "it's good to see someone."

Even in the bleakest moments, there's a sense of humor evident. In a few scenes, for no stated reason, Zac walks around in ladies' lingerie, but I know why — it's a slinky, sexy feeling.

When they sing "Auld Lang Syne," in a world where they might be the entire living population, it's heartbreaking.

And it's a sci-fi movie, so how's the science? Good enough for me. This is simply a splendid film, an intimate, revealing, sometimes harrowing look into the survivors' psyche. 

A tiny boo-boo: At least five days after everyone's vanished, Zac goes into a bakery, where very fresh-looking cakes are on display, and he nibbles a strawberry from atop an un-refrigerated pastry. That is not a strawberry that's been left out for five days.

Verdict: BIG YES.

This is barely related to the film, and it's a different kind of sadness: It wasn't paid product placement, because the camera never lingers, but even 40 years ago and on a different continent, we see the same horrid capitalist entities as here and now — Shell, Mobil, Dunlop Tires, Bic, BMW, Freedent chewing gum, Eveready batteries, Visa, Diners Club, American Express (even in Australia), and a Presbyterian Church. Companies that big and everlasting shouldn't be allowed to exist.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Real Genius (1985)

"Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain."

Mitch (Gabe Jarrett) is a 15-year-old physics whiz admitted to the prestigious Pacific Tech, and Chris (Val Kilmer) is his roommate, another physics superstar just a few years older. William Atherton plays their professor, who obnoxiously pushes his students toward new breakthroughs in physics and lasers. 

For the first two-thirds of the movie, it's about kids dealing with the pressures of going to genius school. In the last third, everything changes when one of the smart kids finally figures out that warfare is the only feasible application for the new improved super-laser they've just invented.

Martha Coolidge directs, sublimely. She captures the pressure these braniacs are under, and treats it respectfully even while mocking it, because hey, it's only college. Even dealing with serious stuff, the film never loses its light touch, and manages to sneak a sliver of subversiveness into a popcorn movie.

Written by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, who also collaborated on the original Police Academy, but their script for Real Genius was reportedly a very typical college comedy about geeks chasing girls. There's some of that here, yeah, but Coolidge brought in PJ Torokvei from WKRP in Cincinnati to replace the plot and add some intelligence. 

Lots of research went into the science, and most of the hi-jinks at the fictional Pacific Tech is based on actual hi-jinks from Cal Tech. Such stuff is over my head, but it's been reported that the film has plenty of inside jokes for actual nerds. There's a bit where another professor (not Atherton) delivers a boring lecture; that's Prof Martin Gundersen, a physicist from USC, winging it. 

There's a mysterious wash-out ex-student who lives in the steam tunnels under the college. I don't know if that's a common legend at other institutes of higher education, but when I lived in Madison, there really was (maybe still is) an eccentric hermit living in the tunnels and utility rooms under the university.

Some great '80s pop is on the soundtrack, and the climactic scene, done for real and without CGI, is amazing. All the elements come together, and make this one of my favorite modern-era big-budget Hollywood comedies.

I don't think I've ever seen Jarrett in anything else, but he's perfect as the awkward prodigy. This is the movie that made Kilmer a star, and he was never more likable than he is here, deftly dealing out one-liners and getting laughs from even the corniest jokes. Atherton is a master at this kind of slithery character.

Michelle Meyrink

Michelle Meyrink plays the only girl among the geeks. She adopts the kind of a baby-voice that usually annoys me, but just this once it fits the character, who's believably brilliant but also troubled and insecure.

Meyrink retired from movies shortly after this, a tragedy from which Hollywood has never recovered and never will. She did, however, become a major star of my masturbation fantasies until I met my wife in the late 1990s, with occasional guest appearances to this day. Yesterday, actually.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Starship Invasions (1977)

Christopher Lee and Robert Vaughn star, and if you're a fan of either, stay away. You don't want to see this.

Two alien species are fighting for possession of Earth. One wears black, the other wears white. One species built the Great Pyramids, but I don't remember which or why. I'm still trying to figure out how the little girl squishing a tomato in the grocery store caused a woman to collapse three aisles away. Best not to ponder such things, though — that way lies boredom. 

This is garbage in every measure and in all departments, but the movie's music deserves special mention. It is so random, so at odds with whatever's on-screen, I twice checked to see if audio was also playing in some other tab on my laptop.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Stepfather (1987)

I didn't know this was a horror movie when I clicked 'play', but within two seconds the completely "generic horror movie" music gave it away. No exaggeration — "ITC Productions presents," the music begins, and with the title The Stepfather, I was able to instantly predict most of the plot points.

Except I was wrong. I'm an idiot, the king of stupid snap judgments, and this is a butt-load better than I'd expected.

It's a B movie, and there's no mistaking that, but it's a tidy thriller. I was never actually frightened, which ought to be a problem for a horror movie, but it's competently scripted, decently directed, held my attention all the way, and when it occasionally slips into schlock it's still amusing.

I was right about the music, though.

Terry O'Quinn (later to lose his hair and star on Lost) plays Shelley Hack's new husband, which makes him stepfather to her teenage daughter. The girl is skeeved out by him instantly, but he seems like a fine family man, and even whistles wholesome tunes after every murder. 

O'Quinn is effective, both playing good and playing bad. The rest of the principal cast is weak but passable. The actor who plays the good guy — he's trying to pester the cops into investigating the case — plays the role as if he's the madman, screaming at people until he comes off as more worrisome than the movie's bad guy. The actress playing 'teenage stepdaughter' is obviously in her mid-20s, and her high school boyfriend looks 30. 

But it's still pretty good.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

WarGames (1983)

Matthew Broderick plays David, a high school hacker who breaks into the school computer to change his grades, and then unknowing breaks into WOPR (War Operations Plan Response).

That's a Pentagon supercomputer that calculates every strategic response to every conceivable geopolitical situation, plotting victory for the USA in a nuclear war. Given a list of games to play during his illicit connection to WOPR, David doesn't choose blackjack or poker, he chooses global thermonuclear war, thinking it's a video game.

When his father yells at him about a mess he's made, the kid hangs up the phone, disconnecting the game… but WOPR is still playing. Nobody at NORAD knows it's a simulation, so there's the increasing chance that our fine military might respond as if it's real, by launching missiles toward the USSR.

Despite entrusting the fate of the world to teenagers, WarGames is an enjoyable, effective thriller, and it's occasionally profound. 

"I always thought there was going to be plenty of time. I wish I didn't know about any of this. I wish I was like everybody else in the world, and tomorrow it would just be over. There wouldn't be any time to be sorry, about anything."

All aspects of the tech are dated, of course. The movie is 40 years old, so the kid does research using a card catalog and microfiche at a library, dials up via modem, and the WOPR looks like outdated even for the 1980s — it's the size of a Pontiac, with a thousand flashing lights.

That's kinda laughable, but tech is never what really matters in a movie. The story is what matters, and this is a good one. WarGames has more message and brains than you'd expect from a summertime blockbuster.

John Wood, known to me from a pretty good episode of The Avengers, plays the reclusive inventor of the WOPR, and he's a cynical man who's given up on the world. There's a scene at his house, where he describes his bleak and complete lack of hope for humanity, and it seemed right to me. It's intended to show us that he's a sad, misanthropic old man, but I think he's simply a realist. That's on me, though, not the movie's fault.

Some of this is set in Seattle but I don't think any of it was filmed there, except some distant shots of the Space Needle. They did hire a local TV anchor to play himself, though — the late Jim Harriott, from the late Channel 4 — and I recognized that guy and his big glasses.

Not yet a star, baby-faced Michael Madsen plays a military officer in the first scene, eager to follow orders and launch World War III. 

Just one complaint, really: Jeez, these kids are entitled. David's bedroom is full of state-of-the-1980s tech. When the movie's plot puts him in a bind he calls his girlfriend, another high school kid, and asks her to buy him an airplane ticket from Colorado to Oregon. She not only buys the ticket easily, she drives her car from Seattle to Goose Island, Oregon to meet him.

Where are these kids' parents? After some comedic establishing moments early in the film, the grownups are never seen again.

Verdict: YES, on the cusp of BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Collision Course (1989)
Last Action Hero (1993)
Little Murders (1971)
The Parallax View (1974)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Strange New World (1975)


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. Re : The Stepfather - the only thing I remember about this is a scene of the daughter nude in the shower. Am I remembering this wrong, or did it happen?

    1. I don't remember any nudity at all in The Stepfather, and usually I'd notice boobs or buns or bush or anything.

  2. May I suggest COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT if you have not already seen it. And also PERSONAL SERVICES (which I may have already suggested, sorry if I’m repeating myself repeating myself repeating…😝

    1. I'm unfamiliar with Personal Services, will check it out. Seen Colossus several times, reckon I'm due to see it again — thanks.

  3. I've always thought most people are good people, not rubbish...The only famous person I ever actively fantasized about was Hllary Clinton, once...Okay, carry on, Jeeves...Paul M...
    Lots of good movies here, every week more, if I ever start watching movies, I know where to come...

    1. Most people are rubbish, famous or not, certainly including me.

      I never imagined a scenario with me and the actress, only with someone similar to the character.

    2. Well, if you say you're rubbish then that makes me double rubbish, case in point: I throw triangle dollars at bums, you respectively hand them 5 dollar bills. You are way more compassionate than me, but I hope that doesn't make me rubbish. PM

    3. Being rubbish is never a competition, P. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

  4. The name of that film jumps out at me like a drunk man in a skeleton suit from a dark alley of dusty memory.

    The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
    BY T. S. ELIOT

    S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
    A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
    Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
    Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
    Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
    Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

    Let us go then, you and I,
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table;
    Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
    The muttering retreats
    Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
    And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
    Streets that follow like a tedious argument
    Of insidious intent
    To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
    Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
    Let us go and make our visit.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
    The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
    Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
    Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
    Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
    Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
    And seeing that it was a soft October night,
    Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

    And indeed there will be time
    For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
    Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
    There will be time, there will be time
    To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
    There will be time to murder and create,
    And time for all the works and days of hands
    That lift and drop a question on your plate;
    Time for you and time for me,
    And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
    And for a hundred visions and revisions,
    Before the taking of a toast and tea.

    In the room the women come and go
    Talking of Michelangelo.

    And indeed there will be time
    To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
    Time to turn back and descend the stair,
    With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
    (They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
    (They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, known them all:
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

    And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
    The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
    And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
    When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
    Then how should I begin
    To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
    And how should I presume?

    1. And I have known the arms already, known them all—
      Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
      (But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
      Is it perfume from a dress
      That makes me so digress?
      Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
      And should I then presume?
      And how should I begin?

      Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
      And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
      Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

      I should have been a pair of ragged claws
      Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

      And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
      Smoothed by long fingers,
      Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
      Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
      Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
      Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
      But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
      Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
      I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
      I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
      And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
      And in short, I was afraid.

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
      After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
      Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
      Would it have been worth while,
      To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
      To have squeezed the universe into a ball
      To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
      To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
      Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
      If one, settling a pillow by her head
      Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
      That is not it, at all.”

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
      Would it have been worth while,
      After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
      After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
      And this, and so much more?—
      It is impossible to say just what I mean!
      But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
      Would it have been worth while
      If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
      And turning toward the window, should say:
      “That is not it at all,
      That is not what I meant, at all.”

      No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
      Am an attendant lord, one that will do
      To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
      Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
      Deferential, glad to be of use,
      Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
      Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
      At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
      Almost, at times, the Fool.

      I grow old ... I grow old ...
      I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

      Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
      I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
      I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

      I do not think that they will sing to me.

      I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
      Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
      When the wind blows the water white and black.
      We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
      By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
      Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

    2. Shorter version of a longish comment eaten by this blog's famously buggy commenting system:

      That's pretty good poeming, which is high praise from me. I read and liked the whole thing, understood about a third of it, and it's definintely apropotpourri to the movie. Always knew the title I've Heard the Mermaids Singing was a poem, and the poem seems to have been an inspiration for the movie, exceptin' that the poem is maleish and the flick is almost all chicks.


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