Sunday, July 31, 2016

At Flashbak: Mattel's Mad Scientist Toys (1987)

This week at Flashbak, I remembered an unusual toy line from the 1980s: Mattel’s “Mad Scientist” items.

“In 1987, Mattel introduced the world to a great, though messy toy line that encouraged children to take up science, or at least mad science. 

First in the line was my favorite of the line: The Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit.  Here, burgeoning men and women of (mad) science would "yank out alien organs dripping in glowing ALIEN BLOOD!"  

The Mad Scientist Dissect-An-Alien Kit box also notes that inside the alien body there are "12 body organs" and "only one way they'll fit together."

So "it's the slimiest puzzle on Earth."

The bug-eyed scientist featured on the box also opines "Yeech! What an oozy operation! Can you make all the organs fit inside the alien?" 

The Mad Scientist Dissect-an-Alien Kit includes: "alien, 12 alien organs, Glow-in-the-dark Alien Blood compound, plastic scalpel, Operating Mat, Alien body bag, and a Journal of Mad Experiments with Instructions."

The interesting thing about the Operating Mat is that the colorful background names all twelve of the alien's unusual organs.  

There’s the "veinausea," "heartipus," "liverot," "spleenius," "mad bladder," "stumuckus," "blooblob," "fleshonius," "branium," "gutball" and "lungross." 

The toy also comes replete with a short comic-book describing the scientist's discovery of the alien creature…”

Please continue reading at Flashbak.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: Terminator 2: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Although Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) from director Jonathan Mostow is not widely considered as successful a film as either of its Cameron-helmed Terminator predecessors, its reputation has improved somewhat in the last few years, perhaps owing to the lousy quality of the follow-up, Terminator Salvation (2009), or perhaps because its own virtues have become more evident with the passage of time.

And the movie does possesses virtues.

Mostow -- a talent who directed one of my favorite action/horror films of the 1990s, Breakdown (1997) -- stages several delirious action scenes in T3, particularly one incredible demolition-derby involving a truck and several police cars.

But more importantly, perhaps, Terminator 3 plays cannily against our ingrained belief as experienced movie viewers that big-budget Hollywood movie franchises tend towards -- if not entropy -- then status quo.

In other words, we go into this third movie with the (cynical?) belief that no meaningful change will occur in the chronology.

Terminators will come. Terminators will fall. Humanity will survive. Judgment Day will be prevented.

Of course, such an assumption proves absolutely wrong here, but in a sense, viewers are “tricked” into believing it, along with lead characters John Connor (Nick Stahl) and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), right up until the very last minutes of the film. 

Thus, the movie’s ending comes up as a genuine surprise, even though, in a sense, it should be perfectly predictable. Accordingly, T3 boasts the courage of its convictions, and functions not as merely as another “terminators stalking in the past” story, but as a turning point for the entire franchise.  I have always felt that this approach grants the film a level of artistic integrity that you don’t always find in a second sequel, and which deserves some praise.

And what an ending the movie depicts! Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines ends in a blaze of glory as Judgment Day arrives and nothing can be done to stop it. The twilight of human dominance over the Earth is, paradoxically, beautiful, and lyrically visualized. You get a lump in your throat watching it, and can’t quite believe your eyes.

Uniquely, this denouement also offers the movie series a new thematic approach to understanding “fate,” which has proven one of the key elements of the franchise.  If previous entries lived by the motto “no fate what you make,” Terminator 3 makes one consider the not entirely pleasant idea that some destinies are simply meant to be and cannot be changed. You may be able to delay or forestall those destinies, but what was meant to be…will be.

Also on the positive side of the ledger, Kristanna Loken is highly-effective as the T-X, an upgraded Terminator model who can over-power and co-opt other machines, transforming them into allies.  This Terminatrix can also sample DNA through “taste” and even inflate her cleavage so as to distract leering male police officers.

Never in the film does one feel that Loken is outmatched by Schwarzenegger’s intimidating physical presence, or that he is destined to emerge triumphant from their physical confrontations.  Contrarily, Loken -- like the lithe, youthful Patrick before her -- proves that physical size isn’t a necessity when crafting a sense of menace.

If T3 disappoints in any specific regard, it involves the second act, which doesn’t live up to the promise of the first or the surprises of the third.

Although it is nice to see Dr. Silberman (Earl Boen) again, the interlude at a cemetery -- with police and a shoot-out -- feels like a bit of a time-waster given everything else happening in the story, including the activation of Skynet, the discovery of Kate Brewster’s importance in the scheme of things, and the countdown to Judgment Day.

Also, the absence of Sarah Connor in this story doesn’t quite feel right, though it is clear that Brewster -- who reminds John of his mother -- is being groomed as the next tough female role model in the series.

So Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is not another Cameron-level entry. Yet for what it is, a solid action film with a brilliant ending, it is pretty damned good.  T3’s final moments are haunting, beautiful, and surprising, and carry the film over the finish line with a degree of shock and awe.  The apocalypse at the end of the film juices the climax, and the franchise itself, and should have provided a grand opening for the most courageous, most inventive Terminator yet made.

Of course, that didn’t happen…

“The life you knew -- all the stuff you take for granted – it’s not going to last.”

It has been years since John Connor, his Terminator protecto, and Sarah Connor prevented the 1997 onset of Judgment Day. 

Since then, Sarah has died of cancer, and John (Nick Stahl) has lived off the grid as a nomad. He lurks in the shadows, and fears that the future is, as yet, “unwritten.”

And then, one day in 2003, the war against the machines unexpectedly resumes.

Skynet sends back in time a T-X or Terminatrix (Lokken) to kill Connor’s top lieutenants, including his future-wife, Kate Brewster (Danes).

Fortunately, a T-850 Terminator (Schwarzenegger) has also traveled back in time to stop her. But his mission this time is not to obey Connor’s orders, but Kate’s.

A confused Kate plays catch-up, even as Connor tellers her about the birth of Skynet and the future war with Terminators. Unfortunately, the T-850 has more bad news. The military – and Kate’s father – will activate Skynet today, in response to a virus scuttling the Internet and online communications. Judgment Day comes at 6:00 pm.

Connor, Kate and the T-850 attempt to stop Judgment Day, seeking to destroy the Skynet mainframe.  But it won’t be easy…

“I feel the weight of the world bearing down on me.”

In every end, there is the seed of a new beginning.

And in the end of human life that comes with Judgment Day, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines courageously closes the book on storytelling in the pre-apocalypse world, making room for a new beginning.

Pre-apocalypse storytelling has dominated the three films in the franchise and formed the very basis of the storytelling. A cyborg from the future toils in our present to end all our futures. 

Yet Rise of the Machines ends in a way that precludes further stories in this paradigm, and in the process veritably demands that the Terminator films not stagnate, but move forward, both chronologically and creatively.  It deserves some credit for this twist in the formula, even if the follow-up film, Salvation, squandered the opportunity it provided.

Terminator 3 reaches its dramatic apex in its final moments. Connor and Brewster learn that there is no Skynet mainframe to blow-up, and therefore no way to avert nuclear Armageddon. They must then stand-by as the ICBMs launch, and a new world order is forged out of fire.

This shocking conclusion is visualized in gorgeous terms. We see wide-open, mid-western American skies, farm silos…and then the contrails of ICBMs as they launch, and criss-cross the blue sky. Then we move higher, into orbit, as the contrails blossom into terrifying nuclear mushrooms.  It is weird and counter-intuitive to suggest that our destruction could be beautiful, but Terminator 3’s final moments are shocking and weirdly elegiac. 

In the last moment before the end, we pause to see how beautiful, how fragile, our world really is. Before all is lost, we see why the world, in John Connor’s words, is such a “gift,” every single day.

But also in this ending, in this turning point, one must note something else: the fulfillment of destiny. Since before John Connor was born, he was destined to be the great leader who frees the human race from the yoke of the oppressive machines, from Skynet. 

Together, he Sarah, and the T-800 believe they have averted that destiny, but the John Connor we meet at T-3’s beginning is not exactly thriving. He lives off the grid with “no phone, no address,” having “erased” all connections to society and other people.

It’s not that John wants the world to end, he doesn’t. But when it does happen, in the film’s denouement, he -- like the mushroom clouds -- can at long last blossom; can become what he was meant to be all along.  A hero.

No one wants war, no one wants destruction, but there is a difference between trying to escape destiny and facing it with courage, and that seems to be the line the film walks vis-à-vis John. He is finally put into a position where he cannot deny what is coming, and must accept it.  “There was never any stopping it,” he recognizes, at long last.

And as I wrote before, John’s journey is on a parallel track with the Terminator franchise.  It can no longer keep telling the same stories of traveling back in time and fighting the war with the machines in the past (our present).

Like John, the franchise accepts its destiny in this film, and that is, finally, to tell the rest of John’s story, to show him as the great leader we have heard so much about in the first three films. The franchise must move into the future, post-apocalyptic world now.

One may notice that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is book-ended by nuclear mushroom clouds, one at the beginning of the film (in John’s imagination) and one at the end, in real life.

Between these two flowers of destruction, John learns to accept his destiny, and no longer tries to change it, or wriggle his way out of it. Again, this is a significant change for the saga, a repudiation of the long-standing franchise aesthetic that fate is elastic and our actions can change it.  I’m not saying that I feel one philosophy is better than the other, only that Terminator 3 provides us a shift in thinking that, again, pushes the franchise forward.  It suggests that the saga will not be one in which we can keep setting up back or destroying Judgment Day.  The inevitable shall happen, and here it does.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines also has some other notable ideas and themes that render it worth a second or third watch.  Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is one of the greatest of all female action-heroes in film history (second only, perhaps to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley). Although Connor is not present in the film, Rise of the Machines at the very least seems mindful of its legacy and responsibility to depict female characters in that kind of light. Though Sarah is (sadly) absent, T3 introduces viewers to the other woman behind this great man, John’s wife, Kate. And it also creates a female menace in the T-X that can rival Arnold in terms of raw power and screen presence. So those viewers who complain about a Sarah-less entry have a point in one sense, but are missing, in another sense, the film’s achievements in a similar regard. Female characters are not given short shrift here.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines moves at a fast, violent clip, and Arnold Schwarzenegger instantly conveys his remarkable magnetism and humor in the role that, more than any other, made him a global star. Arnold may not be a great actor, but he is a great screen presence, and he invites viewers into the world with his trademark humor and self-awareness. By playing an (emotionally-dumb) machine, Schwarzenneger is able to unexpectedly plum scenes for laughs, pathos, and even humanity.  You will want to stand-up and cheer, for instance, when the T-850 overcomes the Terminatrix’s programming and re-asserts his prime directive, to save John. 

Basically, Schwarzenegger can do no wrong in this familiar role, and he brings his best game to the film. When you couple the presence of Schwarzenegger with the third film’s new, well-expressed philosophy about fate, and the unforgettable ending, there are more than enough ingredients to declare the film an artistic success.

It would have been wonderful if those to whom Mostow passed the Terminator baton for the fourth film, had demonstrated the same level of ingenuity and creative integrity as he did in Rise of the Machines.

To misquote John Connor in T3, the first three Terminator films are a “gift” we should enjoy everyday, especially considering what comes after them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: True Lies (1994)

An elaborate and expensively-mounted remake of the French farce, La Totale! (1991), James Cameron's blockbuster True Lies reveals once more the director's absolute panache in staging and directing spectacular action sequences. 

Here, a climactic sequence involving a Harrier jet, a secret agent, a teenage girl, and a Middle-Eastern terrorist is so perfectly played, so vertiginous, that you may find yourself crawling out of your skin for the duration of its running time.   I've seen the scene at least three times but watching it last week, I again felt myself growing anxious in my seat...subconsciously wishing to seek safer ground.

Much of this beautifully-shot action film is similarly rousing, particularly the motorcycle vs. horse chase sequence that ends atop a Marriott Hotel roof, and a "war" scene set on the long, narrow bridges connecting Florida Keys.  Cameron knows how to expertly layer on unconventional elements in traditional shoot-outs or pursuits -- such as horses, bathroom urinals, elevators, etc. -- and makes the scenes play as both intense and funny.

Visually then, True Lies is unimpeachable. In fact, the imagery remains astounding some seventeen years later, an example of true cinematic "shock and awe."   More than anything, the film makes one wish that James Cameron would helm a James Bond film one of these days.  This is doubly so, actually, because True Lies knowingly opens with an homage to Goldfinger (1962).  There, in the pre-title sequence, Sean Connery rose from the water in a wetsuit.  When he took it off, 007 was wearing a pristine dinner jacket.  Schwarzenegger pulls the same stunt here after a dive through icy water, and it's a nice way of paying tribute to an action-hero legend and predecessor.

Yet beyond the astounding visual effects and breathtaking action, True Lies is a weird, quirky film with some very dramatic ups and downs. 

For instance, the 1994 film spends an inordinate amount of time on humorous scenes that actually play as mean-spirited, and the screenplay doesn't really delve into the film's main characters in very meaningful or deep fashion.   

Also some sequences -- while visually powerful -- have no contextual follow-up.  A nuclear bomb is detonated in the Florida Keys, and it hardly seems to move the nation -- or the main characters -- at all.  The horrifying moment almost seems to play as a (misplaced) romantic background during a passionate kiss.  

These concerns established, True Lies does feel very contemporary in the sense that it accurately forecasts the twenty-first century ascent of Middle-Eastern terrorism against the United States.   And it certainly predicts a powerful, unaccountable bureaucracy in the U.S. Government as the response to such terrorist attacks.  Here, that organization is "Omega Sector," the "last line of defense."   Leading Omega Sector is none other than Charlton Heston as "Spencer Trilby," and once more, his right-wing reputation carries a brand of symbolic power and weight.

Indeed, True Lies works primarily as a kind of time capsule of 1994's cultural concerns, echoing the conservative tide that swept Newt Gingrich into power as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Therefore, the next time a newspaper columnist or reviewer informs you how unduly liberal and seemingly slanted left filmmaker James Cameron is (see: Avatar), just bring up True Lies as counter-evidence. 

Seriously, it's funny how so many right-wingers wanted to beat-up and tar Cameron over Avatar even though he had already directed a huge, successful film that looks like it came straight from GOP talking points both in terms of foreign policy approach and culture warrior concerns.

"I Married Rambo..."

"Nuclear terrorists take on the nuclear family and live just long enough to rue the day in "True Lies," wrote Rita Kempley in The Washington Post. Her rhetorical flourish is an excellent way of introducing the film's storyline.

Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent working for Omega Sector, but he leads a double life. His bored but beautiful wife, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) believes Harry is a mild-mannered computer salesman, when in fact Harry is responsible for having saved the world on more than one occasion...with some much-needed help from his acerbic partner, Gib (Tom Arnold).

Because of his secret life, Harry has little time to spend at home with his family, and even forgets his daughter Dana's (Eliza Dushku’s) exact age. But Harry’s absence from home carries a heavy price. When Helen becomes entangled with a con man named Simon (Bill Paxton) pretending to be a secret agent, her boredom and feelings of emptiness are revealed to Harry.

Seeking to provide his wife a little taste of the adventure she seeks, Harry arranges to send Helen on a manufactured "mission."  Unfortunately, a nuclear terrorist named Aziz (Art Malik) and known as the "Sand Spider" abducts Helen and Harry and transports them to the Florida Keys, where the terrorist plots to detonate a nuclear weapon.  He wants Harry to confirm for the world, and on videotape, that he boasts the capacity to use the weapons of mass destruction.

Now aware of her husband’s real vocation, Helen teams up with Harry to stop the terrorists before they can detonate several other nukes in the United States.

Unfortunately, Aziz escapes and captures Dana.

Now -- atop a skyscraper in downtime Miami -- the terrorist threatens to destroy the metropolis unless his demands for American withdrawal from the Middle East are met. 

After rescuing Helen, Harry races to Miami flying a Harrier jet...

"You aren't her parents anymore. Her parents are Axl Rose and Madonna.  You can't compete with that kind of bombardment."

In terms of context, True Lies largely reflects the political and national zeitgeist of 1994.  First and foremost, this was the year of the reactionary white, male voter. 

So what was the white man angry about back then? 

Many things, actually.  There was widespread displeasure with the Democratic-led Congress, particularly over corruption and waste, as evidenced by the Dan Rostenkowski House of Representatives post office scandal. 

Similarly, First Lady Hilary Rodham Clinton attempted to reform America's health care system with a plan for increased government involvement.  She met with fierce resistance, and the plan failed. 

More generally-speaking, many on America's right had grown increasingly angry about an increasingly toxic popular culture, and about what they viewed as "political correctness" and the "PC police" in the national discourse. 

Much of this anger and hostility was ginned up by a relatively new name in talk radio and on the national landscape -- Rush Limbaugh -- but it was also in evidence as early as 1992, when Pat Buchanan spoke at the Republic Convention about a newly engaged "culture war" (one to replace the ended Cold War.)  The year 1994 culminated with the historic overturning of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and the dawn of Speaker Newt Gingrich and his "Contract with America." 

The reactionary white voter was heard.   After the staggering loss of both Houses of Congress, President Clinton modulated his approach to governing.  He announced his relevancy, declared the end of Big Government, and then proved once more the adage that only Nixon could go to China by reforming Welfare.

In some very obvious and very subtle ways, True Lies mirrors the conservative mind-set of the mid-1990s. 

In broad terms, the film is about a family man, Harry, re-asserting his dominant role as head of the nuclear family. 

To re-establish this role, he must eliminate sleazy competitors for his wife's affection such as Simon, re-capture the affection of his estranged daughter following her indoctrination by pop cultural influences (named above as "Madonna and Axl Rose...") and finally, outwit a "nuclear" competitor who has kidnapped his child.  It's not an easy assignment, but Harry proves up to it...especially with the full weight and might of U.S. secret ops behind him. 

In clever fashion, Cameron approaches "nuclear family life" in True Lies as a concern as grave and serious as nuclear terrorism.  When the smooth, suave Harry returns home from a mission at Lake Chapeau, Switzerland, for instance, Cameron opens the scene with a high-angle view of Tasker and Gib huddled in the car. 

The camera peers down through the open sun roof of Gib's ride, and the film grammar interpretation of this shot selection suggests Harry's doom and entrapment.  He looks small, and in jeopardy as he prepares to return home, to "normal life."  We get both a high angle shot and a box or frame (the sun roof window) surrounding the character.  It's a double-doozy, so-to-speak. 

Later in the film, the Tasker family house is shot from a menacing low angle during a heavy thunderstorm, no less  It looks like an imposing haunted house in a horror movie.  The choice of shot informs the audience that there's trouble brewing here, both in terms of the wife and the daughter.  It's trouble that Harry will need to correct.  And boy will he correct it!

Finally, I don't know if I've ever seen a better metaphor for the delicate dance between career and family than the nail-biting finale of this film, which finds Harry flying a Harrier over downtown Miami.  His daughter clings precariously to the nose cone of the plane, crying for help.  Meanwhile, on the tail fin of the plane, Aziz is on the attack, armed with a machine gun. 

With absolute precision Harry must "balance" both situations, or risk total disaster.   If he tips one way, his family is destroyed.  If he tips the other way, Aziz gets the jump on him.  This scene is beautifully vetted both for what it represents (the delicate dance of maintaining home life and career), and in the physical, cliffhanging details.  It's also a great, pulse-pounding finale to the film.

By re-engaging with both Helen and Dana, Harry does rescue his family both metaphorically and literally, and that's the movies thematic through-line, a comparison between domestic dangers and foreign ones.   

The family that fights terrorists together, stays together, or something like that.

Where this approach becomes a little dicey, I would submit, is in some of the specifics of Harry's methodology.  He approaches his family problems with the same take-no-prisoners attitude as he confronts foreign terrorists.  On one hand, this approach can be funny.  On the other hand, Harry's actions are wildly inappropriate and actually illegal, and Harry is never called on the carpet or made to account for his behavior.  Instead, he's rewarded for bending the rules to suit his personal cause.

For instance, without a second thought, Harry engages national security apparatus to trail, apprehend, hold and interrogate Helen and Simon.   Forecasting Bush Administration policies, he uses wiretaps -- without warrants -- to do so.

Then -- also forecasting some of the darker imagery of the 2000s, namely in association with Abu Ghraib -- Harry dangerously bullies Simon, his competitor for Helen's affections, throwing him under a black, eyeless hood and threatening to drop him from a precipice overlooking a dam.

But hey, what's a little abuse of power between friends and family?  

Actually, this line of "humor" regarding Harry's manipulation of U.S. government funds and resources doesn't get under my skin nearly so much as some of the other material that's associated with it.  And that's because -- essentially -- it works with the film's central joke: family life vs. secret agent life.  A bit of exaggeration is certainly acceptable here in the name of humor.  And again, the idea is to throw political incorrectness to the wind.  Nothing wrong with that.

What instead feels a little disturbing about True Lies is the mean-spirited or at least questionable nature of several key moments and sequences. 

For example, Gib (Arnold) continually refers to women characters in the film as bitches.   Feeling magnanimous,  I would give the movie the use of that term three or four times.  But the word "bitch" just keeps coming up, and one starts to realize after the umpteenth repetition that it's not just for's some kind of creepy pathology.  

And then Gib actually says "Women: can't live with 'em' can't kill 'em."  Funny?  Well, is it funny to say "Men, can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em?"   I report, you decide.

It's a little bit like watching a comedian who is funny at first, but then keeps repeating the same borderline offensive material until it's not so funny anymore.  You realize you're watching someone with a problem -- nay an obsession -- and not someone who is very funny.

On one hand, the frequent use of the word "bitch" may be Tom Arnold's method of attaining some kind of important personal catharsis or closure after his marriage to Roseanne Barr.  I certainly wouldn't deny him his right to express those feelings of hostility.  But on the other hand, in a movie in which a family man must thoroughly wrestle and wrangle the women in his life (namely his wife and daughter), the last image you want presented is one of rampant misogyny. 

In other words, I don't think the near-constant refrain of "bitch" is an example of misogyny on the part of Cameron or other filmmakers, but I do think that -- when coupled with the incredibly traditional plot line of a man wrangling his women -- it adds to the sneaking suspicion that this movie does not like women very much.  Which is unfortunate, given Cameron's excellent history with strong female characters.

Perhaps the most memorable scene in True Lies involves Helen's strip-tease in a hotel room.  Jamie Lee Curtis looks absolutely phenomenal here, and the scene is certainly amusing on some level.  At the very least, Ms. Curtis proves she is quite adept with physical comedy.  But the scene is also extremely controversial, and many critics have made note of the unsavory quality beneath it.

Again, when coupled with the sort of male-fantasy aspects of the film and the all-too-casual utterances of the word "bitch," the scene also takes on another shade of, well...ickiness. 

It's truly cruel to put Helen into the position of fearing she will have to act as a prostitute for a john, even if Harry's motive is pure; so that she "feels" she has done something adventurous with her life. 

Yes, the moment is perhaps funny for us, because we -- like Harry -- realize that Helen is in no danger.  But she is left to worry about exploitation, rape and even death.  At the very least, Harry's behavior is un-chivalrous.  It's as though he's paying her back for making him worry she was having an affair (which she wasn't...).  I'm sure someone will say I lack a sense of humor for quibbling with this scene, but that's not it.  Maybe I just possess a surfeit of empathy.

How would Harry feel, if he were made to perform sexually like this -- not knowing how far it would go -- for another man, for instance?  Then it wouldn't be quite so funny, would it?

Again, there's this kind of cloying adolescent male fantasy aspect to True Lies.  Harry never discusses with Helen, in any more than cursory terms, his lifetime of lies.  He never has to really deal meaningfully with the fact that he kidnapped, interrogated and manipulated her.  Because there is a crisis -- and because he's a hero -- he gets off pretty much scot free.  In fact, Helen likes the new Harry so much, she even ends up joining him as a secret agent.    Well, if you can't beat 'em...

One might be tempted to argue that Harry couldn't tell Helen the truth because of national security.  But just look at how easily Harry manipulates the tools of national security when he wishes to; when he believes he has been wronged.  Again, study this objectively.  When Helen is unhappy, she seeks adventure, but doesn't betray her principles.  She doesn't cheat on Harry.  When Harry is unhappy, he brings down the full force of the American government to bludgeon his wife!   Seem even-handed and principled to you?

Another mean-streak is evident in the treatment of the essentially comedic Simon character played by Bill Paxton.  He's a cad and a jerk and an exploiter of women, and deserves a comeuppance.  But again,  to be pushed to the edge of a precipice overlooking a huge fall?  To be made to wet his pants...twice? 

First of all, the idea of a frightened man peeing himself simply isn't so funny that it requires an encore in the film's conclusion, and secondly the set-up for the second gag is so ham-handed you want to wince. 

Simon just happens to be on location during a mission involving Helen and Harry, giving Helen the opportunity to make him piss his tuxedo? 

It's dumb, contrived, and again, more pathetic than funny.  Simon has suffered amply already, and it's just sadistic and pandering to bring him back to repeat the lame pants-wetting gag.  Again, I have to laugh when people complain about the Billy Zane character being two-dimensional in Titanic.  They object to that character, but not Simon in True Lies?  Really?

True Lies has also been accused of being anti-Arab, but I don't believe that's a fair attack on the film. One of Harry's associates, Faisil (Grant Hevlov) is also of Middle Eastern ethnicity, and he proves a valuable hero in the film.  On the contrary -- and I don't mean to rile anybody with this statement -- True Lies actually very clearly gets at some of the motivation behind Islamic radicalism against America. And that motivation is, simply, blowback over American policies regarding the Gulf States.  That was Bin Laden's reason for declaring war on America in 1998, and the self-same reason is spoken -- in detail -- by Aziz in this film.  True Lies is cannily accurate on this front, as much as we would prefer it were not.

In terms of the career of Cameron, we get many familiar ingredients in True Lies.  Helen is the fish-out-of-water character who is forced to take on a new role (that of covert agent).  She is also, in the tradition of Ripley or Sarah Connor, a character who -- after some trepidation -- proves herself up to the challenge of defeating a grave threat. Though the scene with Helen dropping an uzi and it falling down the stairs -- all while blasting terrorists -- is cringe-worthy and patronizing,  her confrontation with Juno (Tia Carrere) is pretty impressive.  Like every James Cameron film except Titanic, True Lies also features a nuclear weapon in some capacity.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Day: Last Action Hero (1993)

Last Action Hero -- directed by John McTiernan and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger -- was supposed to be the “big ticket” movie of the summer of 1993, but fate had other plans.

That title eventually went to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) instead, and today Last Action Hero is widely remembered as a misfire; a bomb. The film grossed little more than fifty million dollars at the American box office, and earned many negative reviews. I saw the film in the theater in 1993 (long-time Arnie fan, here…) and felt it was disappointing, if not downright awful.

But the purpose of this blog is (at least sometimes…) to re-examine those works of art that have been dismissed, overlooked, or forgotten.

So I wondered: is Last Action Hero worth a second look in 2015?  Has it aged well?

Or, conversely, have I changed as a viewer since 1993, and come to better see what the film was attempting to achieve?

First, let’s focus on the negative aspects of the film and get that out of the way.

More than twenty years later, one can detect the reasons why Last Action Hero so often fails.  At two-hours and eleven minutes in duration, it is simply too long for a film featuring, essentially, a lark as a premise: a real life boy ending up the sidekick of a movie world action hero. 

There’s just too much baggage -- to much detritus -- weighing down those light bones. 

This movie should be -- like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) -- no more than 105 minutes in running time. 


Any longer than that, and one is bound to start asking questions about the inconsistencies in the premise, and the universe the film creates.

Any longer than that, and the jokes start to repeat, and the performances begin to flat-line from the repetition.  Watching the film becomes a tiresome process by the third act because Last Action Hero doesn’t always seem to know where it is headed.

Secondly, the pace and tone of these two hours and eleven minutes might best be described as leaden. There are plenty of action sequences, certainly, but the plot moves at a snail’s place, and never settles on a consistent tone.

To wit: sometimes the film is a weird and wacky catch-all or satire; an Airplane (1980) type film. But then there are also those moments when viewers are supposed to feel invested in the details of the story, and in following the plot logically from point A to point B. The two approaches collide and the result is an unsatisfying mishmash.  If we are constantly being told that events don’t matter, or that this is all “just a movie,” it becomes ever-more difficult to invest in the plot details.

These facts established, Last Action Hero possesses many good ideas, and even a compelling thematic through-line that I hope to enumerate. That through-line ties into the jokes about Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a movie version of the play starring Schwarzenegger (perhaps the best scene in the film…).  It also ties into the characters of Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) and Jack Slater.  All three heroes contend with the same “to be or not to be” existential dilemma.

In short, Last Action Hero is actually about Danny learning what it means to really live life, and to be the hero of his own lie.  First, he learns that lesson in a world with the training wheels on (the movie world) and then he learns it in the real world, where Jack Slater -- his role model and surrogate father -- must learn it beside him. 

And what does Danny learn in the real world?  That unlike the movie world, real world virtues include not expert gunplay, but compassion, loyalty, and love.

It is rewarding and admirable that Last Action Hero tells this story, but after twenty years, it is obvious that the film doesn’t tell it with anything approaching consistency or coherence. 

So what audiences end up with is a sweet, likable film that, despite those qualities, is also often dull and tiresome. 

It makes me sad too.  I want to like this movie more than I do.

“Here, in this world, the bad guys can win.”

Young Danny Madigan (O’Brien) avoids his real life problems (including an apartment in a bad neighborhood and the death of his father) by cutting school and hanging out at the movies with a kindly old projectionist, Nick (Robert Prosky).

His favorite movies are those involving a larger-than-life action hero named Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger) and his exploits as an L.A. cop.

With Slater IV due in theaters, Nick invites Danny to an advance screening of the sequel late one night. He also gives Danny a golden ticket given to him years earlier by Harry Houdini. 

As Danny discovers, that ticket possesses magic powers, and can open a bridge between the movie universe and the real universe.  Danny is swept across this bridge, and meets his hero, Jack Slater, in a movie-version of Los Angeles.

In the movie world, Jack is tangling with an evil hitman named Benedict (Charles Dance) and his mob boss, Tony Vivaldi (Anthony Quinn). Danny helps Slater defeat the bad guys, and also reckon with the fact that he is actually living inside a movie.

Later Benedict gets ahold of the magic ticket stub, and moves into the real world. There, the villain realizes that bad guys can win, and with the help of the villain of Slater III, The Ripper (Tom Noonan), decides to set off on a reign of terror at the world premiere of Slater IV, where star Arnold Schwarzenegger is schedule to appear…

Now Danny and Jack must stop Benedict and the Ripper, and Jack must come face-to-face with his celebrity alter-ego.

“You can’t die until the grosses go down.”

There’s an amusing moment of allusion in Last Action Hero involving Charles Dance’s character, Benedict.  This assassin has stolen the magical golden ticket, and discovered that it opens the doorway to another dimension; to the real world. 

As Benedict’s hand lightly brushes the portal to that universe, a TV on in the background plays the opening narration and theme to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). This detail is an intriguing point of connection between productions.  Like those visiting The Twilight Zone, Benedict can now travel to another dimension.

Yet, by the same token, The Twilight Zone signifies something else significant: economy of storytelling.

Each episode of the series (except for those airing in the fourth season) are just a half-hour in length. They vet their wild tales, offer a few surprises, and then finish with astonishing rapidity and grace…often before too many questions can be asked. 

Last Action Hero alludes to The Twilight Zone in this scene, but takes a faulty creative approach by comparison.  The film is too long, too big, and too byzantine, and it lingers on details of a whimsical story that, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For instance, if Jack (and all movie heroes) are bullet-proof in the movie world, essentially, then from what source should the movie’s tension arise?  If bad guys literally can’t win in the movie world (as Benedict verbally indicates) then why and how are we supposed to feel anxiety when Jack or Danny is imperiled by them?

This criticism is not meant to indicate that the movie doesn’t have fun with this idea of the movie universe, at least at points.  “You know, tar actually sticks to some people,” Danny tells Slater after he falls into tar pits, unscathed.  His status as indestructible is appropriately funny, but it also eliminates some aspects of immediacy from the story.

Somewhere in Last Action Hero, a really good movie is buried, and it attempts to surface several times. 

For instance, the movie uses Hamlet as a kind of base-line for action heroes and action hero behavior.  A high school teacher describes Denmark’s prince as the first such action hero, actually.  Yet Hamlet is paralyzed and defined by his inability to act, to do something; to defeat his enemies.

Humorously, the McTiernan film proposes an alternative to this hesitating, melancholy prince: a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chomping a cigar and blowing enemies away with automatic weapons, this Hamlet has no problems acting with terminal force, or intensity.  There is nothing diffident about him at all. 

The “Trailer” for the Schwarzenegger Hamlet is uproariously funny, and strikes the exact right note of absurdity.  But more to the point, it is used, thematically, to let us know that Danny is -- like Hamlet -- unable to act forcefully, which is the very reason he looks up to substitute father-figure Jack Slater.

When a burglar breaks into Danny’s apartment, he gives Danny every opportunity to take his weapon, a knife, and fight him.  But Danny -- like Hamlet -- does nothing. He can’t will himself to act. And while watching Hamlet on TV in school, Danny becomes invested in the action (or lack of action). He urges Olivier’s Hamlet to “stop talking” and “do something.” Clearly, this is something personal for Danny. Although he aspires to be a Jack Slater, we learn that he sees himself as a Hamlet.  He is paralyzed over his father’s death (a death he shares in common with the prince from Denmark), and does not yet know how to act, or how to survive in this dangerous “real” world.

Danny then travels into the movie world, where Slater -- an action hero -- acts without thinking, without hesitation, and without deadly consequence. Slater can’t lose, and apparently can’t feel fear, so he always wins the day.  But the universe itself is stacked in his favor. Danny takes baby steps towards growth and survival in this universe, attempting a game of chicken against a speeding car, and learning to operate a dangerous crane.  In other words, he begins “acting” the role of hero. He emulates Jack, but does so in a safe environment; one where the good guys always win and he is no physical danger.

Then, in the movie’s final act, Danny and Slater pursue Benedict to the real world, a place with absolutely real danger, and where the bad guys can win. In this world, Slater is the child, playing by a set of rules he doesn’t understand, and therefore Danny learns the necessity of pro-active behaviors or action.  He must save his friend, who is badly wounded after a confrontation with Benedict. When Slater is shot, Danny realizes that the qualities he always had inside -- compassion, loyalty, and love -- are the very things that impel him to act decisively; to be a hero. He overcomes his Hamlet dilemma and becomes the hero of his own life.

All of this material fits together in Last Action Hero, and Slater even comments at one point that “the world is what you make of it, Danny.”  This is simply another way of expressing the idea that we can re-shape the world in a way to our liking if only we act, and act intelligently.  That’s the film’s dedicated leitmotif, and Last Action Hero is sweet because it is about a boy who thinks he needs a father figure but then -- through his interactions with that “idol” -- realizes that he can be the person he wants to be, and needs to be, all under his own steam.

Without being disrespectful, I would assert merely that Last Action Hero could tell this story -- and make this point -- more efficiently, and with greater discipline. The celebrity cameos are fun, the knocks-against movies are funny, and the explorations of tropes (like the wrong-headed, screaming police superior) are on target, but in some sense they are all but noise that ultimately takes away from the through-line I mentioned above.

I’m a huge admirer of McTiernan’s work in film, and his serious, grounded, approach to action but he doesn’t boast a very good “light” or “whimsical” touch on this project. This feels like a film tailor made for Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis, and I feel that McTiernan expends too much time and energy on the bells and whistles -- the fights, the chases, and the pyrotechnics -- when what he really needs to focus on, front and center, is the shifting relationship between Danny and Slater, and the way the Hamlet story illuminates Danny’s story.

Tar doesn’t stick to Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was back in 1994 in the triumphant True Lies, but one can see why he was drawn to this script and this project. Somewhere, deep down, Last Action Hero is all about the way young children build-up “heroes” of the silver screen, but fail to take into account the fact that they thrive in a world unlike our own; one of different rules.

Schwarzenegger is terrific as Slater, a man who starts to realize that all his success may not be due to his own skills, but the nature of reality itself. There’s a great scene here in which Slater questions his life, and he reasons that it has gotten so weird lately.  Danny sympathizes and tells him it’s a matter of the rules.  “These are the sequels. They gotta get hard…”

The fickle Gods of film, right?

They give, and they take away. Even Slater’s boy was taken away from him so that he could have a “tragic past” to overcome.

Watching Last Action Hero again twenty-one years later, I knew what to expect, and so didn’t feel the same disappointment that I did in 1993. 

But, oppositely, I feel that this film has so much of value to say, but is lazy and disjointed in the expression of its valid and intriguing messages.  Last Action Hero demanded a light touch -- a director who would fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee -- but instead the film is played with the seriousness of a project like Predator (1987), Die Hard (1988) or Hunt for Red October (1988).

The result?  “No sequel” for action hero Slater.

And honestly, that makes me a bit sad. The character is great, and deserved a better vehicle for his movie debut. At the very least, Last Action Hero’s heart is in the right spot.

It’s just too bad the rest of the movie is all over the place.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...