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*Does not include the short films collected in:
#184 - By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One #468 - Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé #517 - By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two #607 - A Hollis Frampton Odyssey
Also included in this list are movie musicals adapted from Broadway musicals which were based on non-musical films or common source material. (It can get pretty complicated.)
Fred Astaire was a genius dancer and Ginger Rogers was his most celebrated onscreen partner. Their films together are great fun, mixing screwball comedy with charming romance and some of the best music ever written.
The Astaire/Rogers films introduced many songs that would become pop standards from well-known composers like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Dorothy Fields.
Although the storylines sometimes seem recycled (if freshened up), each film is a delight thanks to the stars and the music.
An unsung player in cinema history
I love learning about film history and this documentary sheds light on a fascinating chapter from the early days of the motion picture business.
Coming from the legitimate stage, Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser sought to create films of higher quality than the nickelodeon offerings of the time. The independent Thanhouser Company, based in New Rochelle, New York (in the days before the movie industry moved out West to Hollywood), flourished for eight years in the 1910s, releasing adaptations of Shakespeare and Dickens as well as original dramas and situation comedies, and boasting a stable of popular stars.
THE THANHOUSER STUDIO AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN_CINEMA (2014) documents the highs and lows in the studio's short history and is chock full of film clips and vintage poster art from dozens of little-remembered silent shorts.
I caught the documentary on Turner Classic Movies, whose programming over the past few years has exposed me to early films by Georges Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison's company, and Mack Sennett. This film has piqued my interest in the Thanhouser movies and their stars (like the beautiful, but tragic, Florence La Badie). It was a real treat to see clips from early adaptations of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Cinderella", and "David Copperfield" that I never knew existed. I look forward to viewing these and other films mentioned in the doc (many of which can be found online).
As Ben Mankiewicz pointed out on TCM, this documentary was a labor of love. Ned Thanhouser has spent three decades trying to keep alive the legacy of a grandfather he never knew. To date he has found over 220 surviving films of the more than one thousand Thanhouser Company productions. (The New Rochelle studio suffered a devastating fire in 1913 and it's said that Edwin Thanhouser destroyed the company's remaining nitrate negatives after the enterprise folded in 1918.)
Ned Thanhouser hosts the documentary himself, surrounded by stacks of old film canisters, while film historians offer further insight and analysis of the Thanhouser Company and its place in the story of American cinema. Funded, at least in part, by an Indiegogo campaign, the film brings years of research to life for a general audience and should spark renewed interest in the century-old productions of Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser and the studio they built.
Vice Versa (1948)
A delightful British body-swap comedy
VICE VERSA (1948), a sort of proto-FREAKY_FRIDAY story about a father and son switching places, is a delightful British comedy in the vein of, perhaps, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), brought to you by theatrical Renaissance man Peter Ustinov, who wrote, produced, and directed the film (but does not appear on-screen).
The action is set around the turn of the century and involves a magic wish-granting stone, stolen from a temple in India. When young Dick Bultitude protests being sent back to his boarding school, his blustery father (holding the stone) makes an off-hand remark about wishing to be young again. Soon the elder Bultitude finds himself in the body of a schoolboy, the spitting image of his own son. And Dick grabs the stone and wishes to be grown-up, filling out the body of his middle-aged father. Understandably, everyone mistakes Dick for his father and vice versa, sending the father off to school in the boy's place and leaving the son to manage the father's affairs at home.
The dual performances by the two main actors are superb, with an adolescent Anthony Newley (later to star in DOCTOR DOLITTLE and write songs for WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY in a varied entertainment career) doing a spot-on imitation of Roger Livesey's Bultitude Sr. and Livesey in turn acting believably childish as a boy in a man's body. Each actor gives such a distinctly different performance after the body swap that it's no trouble believing that Newley IS a fifty-year-old man or that Livesey IS a boy of fourteen, despite the absurdity of it all. And from there the hijinks are a lot of fun.
Ustinov's film has a wonderful flair for comedy, from the charmingly old-timey title slides to the bookending narrative device that breaks the fourth wall, inviting the audience into the Bultitude home. The literate script uses stuffy British propriety to humorous effect, particularly through the characters of Paul Bultitude (the father) and James Robertson Justice's strict headmaster Dr. Grimstone. There's also a madcap farce of a duel and a subsequent courtroom scene that's a riot.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
An epic animated adventure, left unfinished
If it weren't for Peter Jackson's ambitious live action "Lord of the Rings" trilogy in the early 2000s, Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated epic would be the definitive screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy saga.
Having never read Tolkein's books, my understanding of "The Lord of the Rings" came from Peter Jackson's films, and it's surprising how similar this earlier animated version is. Besides following the same storyline, some visual designs and many of the shots are very similar. It's almost as if Jackson used Bakshi's film as a guide for his storyboards, unless the images come from Tolkein's descriptions or the books' illustrations.
Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS is an ambitious undertaking, condensing the first two books of the series into a single epic animated feature. And while many directors considered Tolkein's story impossible to film in live action (until Jackson pulled it off), Bakshi's film is actually largely live action itself. The animation makes heavy use of rotoscoping, i.e., drawing over live action reference footage to capture lifelike movement. In fact, most of the film tries to blend animation with live action footage, with some characters completely animated and others (usually the gruesome orcs) barely filtered live action. And there are times (usually the action scenes) when characters are clearly colorized live action footage, or they sort of phase between animation and live action.
It seems like rotoscoping was used as a shortcut, to save the animators the pain and agony of hand-drawing an army of beastly orcs frame-by-frame. And perhaps as a way to capture realistic motion (with flowing capes and lots of running hither and thither). The blending of animation and rotoscoping/live action yields mixed results, but it doesn't get in the way of telling the story.
Bakshi's film is not dumbed down for the kiddies. It's dark and violent and, I imagine, faithful to the spirit of Tolkein's work. Of course that's not to say that kids can't enjoy the movie. The tone seems just right and the adventure tale is as captivating as ever.
I was very interested to see this animated LORD OF THE RINGS and as I watched it I was impressed by how the film manages to cover most of the important scenes and include most of the important characters I remember from the Peter Jackson trilogy. At the time I was expecting Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS to fit all three books into a single film, clocking in at just a little over two hours. I was curious to see how he'd done it. But to my surprise, the movie leaves things up in the air with a sense of "to be continued". Apparently the third book, "The Return of the King", was going to be filmed as "Part Two", but such a film never materialized. So the movie we're left with only covers two-thirds of the saga, ending after the battle at Helm's Deep with Frodo and Sam still on their way to Mount Doom. The story of the One Ring is never concluded and Gollum's devious plot is never realized.
The film is quite enjoyable, bringing Tolkein's fantasy tale to life, but it ends rather abruptly with empty promises of more adventure to come.
Flushed Away (2006)
An animated adventure that dances to its own beat
FLUSHED AWAY (2006) is an adventure tale about a pet rat from a posh London neighborhood who is flushed out of his home and into the sewers, where he discovers a thriving rat city.
Hugh Jackman voices Roddy, the rat from "up top" who doesn't realize how lonely he is until he gets a taste of life in the outside world. Kate Winslet voices Rita the sewer rat, a street-smart woman-of-action who captains a ship and hunts for treasure to support her poor family. Roddy hopes Rita can help him get home, but his bumbling gets her into trouble with the sinister Toad (voiced deliciously by Sir Ian McKellen).
FLUSHED AWAY is a film from the British-based Aardman Studios (of Wallace & Gromit fame). Released through Dreamworks Animation, it is a rare foray for Aardman into the realm of feature-length computer animation, which is stylized to approximate the studio's signature stop-motion aesthetic (particularly with the staccato mouth movements).
The animation in the opening scene at Roddy's house seems well below the industry standard, surprisingly poor for a major studio release in 2006, but the film looks better once the action moves to the sewers.
Any shortcomings in the animation are easily overlooked because the film is so creative and so much fun. The movie is packed with visual gags and a wonderful sense of comedy. It's a rather unique story, full of delightful quirks. The Toad is a riot and his French cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of scuba suit-wearing henchfrogs are hilarious. (The mime gag is comedic genius.) The singing slugs provide well-timed comic relief, and are much funnier (in an oddball way) than the popular comic relief minions of DESPICABLE ME (2010).
Very much a British film, the action is set in London around the hoopla of the soccer World Cup. The Toad has a collection of Royal Family memorabilia and even has a tragic personal history with Prince Charles. The filmmakers also have fun with cultural stereotypes, spoofing American tourists as well as Frenchmen, Italians, etc. (as seen through British eyes).
And for a movie about toilets and sewers, the script tries to go easy on the really gross stuff. The full implications of the premise are glossed over to make for a more stomachable film, though there are a couple gross-out gags that the filmmakers couldn't pass up.
With so many wonderful characters (in addition to those mentioned, Andy Serkis and an almost unrecognizable Bill Nighy voice the Toad's odd couple rat henchmen to hilarious effect), some truly great character animation (the Toad and the bouncy frogs in particular), such a brilliant sense of humor, and an adventure story that is both exciting and full of heart, FLUSHED AWAY is an entertaining flick. Its creativity, especially in the creation of the rat city (built out of miniature odds and ends from the human world above) and the sewer civilization of anthropomorphic critters, is impressive. It's nice to see a film that's not derivative, and one that's so much fun.
The Squaw Man (1931)
DeMille perfects his noble tale
I really enjoy films from around 1931. I like the "early talkie" aesthetic, with gritty black & white photography, sparse (if any) musical scoring, and slightly edgy pre-Code content. In those days of the studio system, Hollywood studios would churn out lots of inconsequential 72-minute quickies. But Cecil B. DeMille's THE SQUAW MAN (1931) is clearly not one of them. DeMille was an auteur and THE SQUAW MAN is something special. A cut above the usual Hollywood fare of the time.
This 1931 film is actually DeMille's third adaptation of the story, following his 1914 and 1918 silents. The third time's the charm for DeMille, who crafts an involving tale with a fine cast and the added dimension of sound.
Jim Wyngate nobly leaves England to live in self-exile in America for the sake of his cousin's marriage to the beautiful Lady Diana. At the same time, he nobly volunteers himself to take the blame for his cousin's embarrassing mishandling of charitable funds. He settles out West and takes up ranching under an assumed name. He makes friends and enemies amongst the cowboys and becomes attached to a young Indian woman. (Native American, that is.) After years of living as a cowboy in Arizona, will Wyngate return to England and resume his past aristocratic lifestyle? Can he?
The cast is great across the board. Warner Baxter, three years removed from his Oscar-winning turn as the Cisco Kid (IN OLD ARIZONA - 1928), stars as Jim Wyngate, the selfless hero. The lovely Eleanor Boardman (THE CROWD - 1928) plays Lady Diana, who loves Wyngate but is married to his cousin (Paul Cavanagh). Charles Bickford is great as the heavy and DeWitt Jennings does a good job as the villainous sheriff. Roland Young (TOPPER - 1937), a personal favorite of mine, has a nice supporting role.
Sexy Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez is Naturich, the "primitive-minded" Indian girl who is chivalrously defended by Wyngate and repays him by saving his life a couple times. There's a connection between the two that transcends cultural barriers and, half a world away from Diana and his past life, the white man takes Naturich as his wife. Velez is heartbreaking in a scene where she fashions a crude toy horse as a birthday gift for her half-breed son (Dickie Moore), who is more interested in his model train.
This film is a vast improvement over C.B. DeMille's own landmark 1914 version. Although the basic plot line is the same, there are several differences in the stories. I don't know which film is closer to the original "Squaw Man" play, but I found this talkie version more effective. (In fact, the 1914 film might not have made as much sense if I wasn't already familiar with the story from this later version.)
The key to this version is the emotional ties between the characters. Jim loves Diana, but nothing can come of it. So he moves thousands of miles away, but we see his face when he sees her picture in the society section. He learns to move on while living with Naturich, but Diana makes a surprise visit and expects things to be just as they were. Jim is excited at the prospect of returning to England, but there's no place for Naturich in English society. And noble Jim wouldn't walk out on poor sweet Naturich. But what of their son? Half white man, half Indian. Should he be taught to rope cattle and beat tom-toms, or should he receive the fine education to which the Wyngate family is accustomed? Jim struggles to decide his son's future at a crucial point. There are no simple solutions for anyone. It may sound melodramatic, but viewers are invested in the characters and must know how things turn out.
The characterizations in the 1914 silent film lack heart.
The Younger Generation (1929)
Silent/Talkie Hybrid from Frank Capra
THE YOUNGER GENERATION (1929) starts as a silent film, complete with synchronized audio track (for music and sound effects), but eventually lapses into an early talkie with spoken dialogue. The scenes alternate between silent and sound throughout the duration of the film. It's an interesting curiosity for film history buffs, as the movie was released at seemingly the exact moment when Hollywood transitioned from silent cinema to talking pictures.
The story is nothing groundbreaking. The Goldfish family rises from the cultural melting pot of the Lower East Side to Fifth Avenue high society, thanks to son Morris (Ricardo Cortez), a shrewd businessman who grows the family furniture store into a successful antiques emporium.
Morris rules his family with an iron fist, forbidding his sister Birdie (Lina Basquette) from seeing her childhood sweetheart from the old neighborhood. The ritzy Fifth Avenue lifestyle stifles Papa Goldfish (Jean Hersholt), who misses his friends from Delancey Street. Morris even legally changes his surname from Goldfish to the less-Jewish "Fish" in order to distance himself from his family's ethnic heritage.
As an early talkie, many of the line readings are a bit awkward, though Basquette handles the dialogue better than the rest of the cast (even Cortez). But even with her naturalistic delivery, the lines are often written awkwardly.
Still, the human drama pulls at your heart. Financial success brings misery to the Goldfish family. Morris is a real jerk, and everyone else in his house suffers as he climbs the social ladder. Cut off from her family, Birdie stitches together a happy little life with her songwriter husband, while Morris obsesses over his social position and leads an ultimately empty existence. Lina Basquette is pretty cute as Birdie and Jean Hersholt's performance is heartbreaking.
The Fantastic Four (1994)
The Marvel B-movie that never got a chance
Today, movies based on comic book superheroes are all the rage. They are routinely some of the biggest blockbusters of the year and several recent superhero flicks are among the highest grossing films of all time. But this was not always so. For a while, comic book heroes were relegated to cheap serials and B pictures, along with made-for-TV movies.
SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978) was a "real" movie: an A picture with a Hollywood-sized budget and a cast of name actors. Tim Burton's BATMAN (1989) was another "real" movie based on a comic book superhero. Both films spawned successful franchises, bringing the fantasy world of DC Comics to life on the big screen. But in the early '90s, it seemed that comic book properties (outside of Batman, that is) were still largely considered niche fare, worthy only of low-budget productions aimed at children (the perceived comic book-reading community). Marvel Comics did not have the kind of success enjoyed by rival DC. While Superman and Batman had been brought to the screen courtesy of Warner Bros., Marvel's characters were licensed out to small-time studios. A planned Spider-Man film fell through in the late '80s and a low-budget Captain America film was released direct-to-video in 1990.
Which brings us to THE FANTASTIC FOUR (1994). If comic book movies were thought to be too goofy or weird for mainstream, big-budget productions, then I guess THE FANTASTIC FOUR is the perfect low-budget, cheesy superhero movie. The film remains true to the comics with regard to the colorful costumes and the characters. (Evidently there was little concern in these movies to "adapt" the source material for mainstream consumption.) The special effects aren't too fancy, but it's interesting to see how the filmmakers make do with what they've got in order to tell their story.
The movie tells the origin of Marvel Comics' First Family. An outer space mishap leaves four individuals with extraordinary abilities. Dr. Reed Richards ("Mr. Fantastic") can stretch his body like a rubber band. Sue Storm ("The Invisible Girl") can become invisible. Johnny Storm ("Human Torch") can conjure flames. Ben Grimm ("The Thing") has a rocklike exterior and super-strength. They must battle Dr. Doom, a hooded megalomaniac who wants to harness the secret to their powers.
Rebecca Staab is too cute as Sue Storm (and in that blue spandex... wowsers). Joseph Culp hams it up to a high degree as Dr. Doom. His face hidden behind a metal mask, Doom takes to wild gesticulations and his booming dialogue is amusingly over-the-top. Jay Underwood, looking like Armie Hammer's long-lost older brother, plays the fiery-tempered Johnny Storm, who mainly shoots fire out of his hand. He doesn't realize his full "Human Torch" potential until the climax, when the producers shell out for some early CGI. The animatronic Thing mask is rather impressive, despite some lip-sync limitations. Of all the superpowers portrayed in the film, Reed Richards's stretchy effects are the most awkward.
It's nice to see Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) portrayed as maybe a half-generation older than Sue and Johnny. Reed knew Sue when she was a kid and he was a college student. A decade later, Reed is a big-time scientist, complete with (somewhat ridiculous) gray temples and Sue and Johnny are grown-up enough to go with him on a space mission. Ben (Michael Bailey Smith), Reed's jock buddy from college, is the pilot.
In this story, Reed Richards and Doom were college eggheads together before the accident that led Doom down his sinister path. Reed blames himself for his friend's apparent death, while Doom seeks revenge by sabotaging Reed's later expedition. In the ten-year gap Doom has somehow become the iron-fisted ruler of some foreign domain, living in a mountaintop castle and everything.
A secondary villain, the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), leads an underground society of social outcasts. He has a poetic soul and serves as an interesting contrast to Doom.
I'm only casually familiar with "Fantastic Four" comic book continuity, but this 1994 movie hits some right notes. The romance between Reed and Sue, starting as a schoolgirl crush on a mentor figure. The love story between the monstrously disfigured Ben Grimm and the blind Alicia Masters. The blue and white costumes (sewn apparently out of thin air by Sue Storm on a lazy afternoon at the Baxter Building). There's even an appearance by the Fantasticar.
The film never mentions the heroes' well-known comic book nicknames, but in one particularly corny scene the team is given its "Fantastic Four" moniker. The movie also posits the theory that the cosmic rays that transformed them delved into their psyches and turned their personal weaknesses into their greatest strengths (shy violet Sue Storm has the ability to disappear, etc.). I don't know if this comes from the comic book origins, but the pseudoscientific explanation allows the film to move on to more important things.
As a low-budget superhero romp, THE FANTASTIC FOUR goes down easy. It's not the polished studio blockbuster that we've come to expect from comic book movies, but it's a faithful adaptation on a small scale. A quaint little movie with a lot of heart. Somewhat tragically, the film was never intended to be released, unbeknownst to the cast and crew. All their hard work for nothing. Luckily the movie has found its way out into the world and can be tracked down by those interested in giving it a shot.
Captain America (1990)
Can't live up to the promise of its first 25 minutes
I was a superhero fan growing up, but I somehow never knew this film existed. I heard about it in recent years, probably around the time Marvel Studios was producing CAPTAIN_AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) for its shared cinematic universe. From what I heard, this 1990 version was a joke. But as I watched it, I was surprised to find that this is a legitimate Marvel Comics movie. Or at least it starts that way. In fact, the story of Captain America's origin (breezed through in a matter of minutes) is rather similar to the version that plays out in the 2011 film. This 1990 film keeps the retro WWII origin for Cap and the star-spangled costume is right out of the comics. The plot moves along rather briskly, and admittedly there are some cheesy scenes, but the first twenty-five minutes of the movie feel like a pulpy comic book brought to life. And in 1990, that's probably what they were going for.
Matt Salinger plays Steve Rogers, who volunteers for a top-secret government experiment to create super soldiers from the physically weak. He's not a scrawny kid like in THE FIRST AVENGER, but rather a strapping young man who suffers from polio and walks with a limp. The experiment turns Rogers into Captain America, the Allied secret weapon against Hitler and his own super soldier, the gruesome Red Skull (an Italian this time around, not a German). On his first mission, Captain America heroically foils the Nazis' plot to bomb the White House, but is consequently lost in the frozen North. Thawed out several decades later, Cap is called upon to ferret out the still-living Red Skull and rescue the President.
Cap's 1940s sweetheart is not Agent Peggy Carter, but Bernie, a girl from his hometown. He returns to find she has married and grown old, but she has a pretty blonde daughter named Sharon (a nod to Sharon Carter of the comics, no doubt). Sharon tags along with Steve as he tracks the Red Skull back to his native Italy.
Disappointingly, the movie as a whole doesn't live up to its first twenty-five minutes. There's a long section in the second half where Steve Rogers does his sleuthing without the costume, and there's nothing really Captain America-y going on. If they were gonna make one Captain America movie and have it stand alone in representing the character on the big screen, they should've had the guy wear the costume more. Otherwise the film becomes a generic action flick.
And while Red Skull is a brand-name comic book villain, his present-day incarnation in this film is a big letdown. Decades removed from his red-skulled WWII treachery, the evil mastermind has undergone plastic surgery to cover up his deformity as he lives quietly in his Italian fortress. With his slicked-back hair and tailored suits, the Red Skull looks like any generic mob boss.
It becomes obvious that CAPTAIN_AMERICA (1990) is a low-budget affair, not the Hollywood blockbuster that we've come to expect from superhero movies these days. The photography of the climactic action scenes in Italy looks almost amateurish. The cast seems fairly obscure today, although real-deal character actors Ned Beatty and Darren McGavin lend support, and Melinda Dillon has a scene as Steve Rogers's mother.
There are several points where the movie seems to be on the right track (there's a touching scene between Steve and Bernie, reunited after fifty years), but it somehow loses its way. (Reading up on the film, it seems some character development from the original script was cut from the final edit.) And the film oddly tries to carry a half-hearted environmentalist message, even urging the audience to support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 in the end credits.
CAPTAIN_AMERICA (1990) is a strange movie.
Romance in Manhattan (1935)
Facing the Depression with a smile: A hidden gem!
ROMANCE IN MANHATTAN (1935) is an immigrant story. Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) comes to America -- "The Land of Opportunity" -- with dreams of becoming a millionaire. He intends to work hard and has already learned to speak English. Right off the boat, he seems an ideal candidate for entry into the country. But the money he's saved is no longer enough to satisfy the immigration fee, which has risen from fifty to two hundred dollars. And so Karel must be sent back to Czechoslovakia, where he may never save enough money for a return trip to the States. Desperate, Karel escapes his deportation and tries to live the American Dream as an illegal alien in New York City.
Francis Lederer is supremely likable as Karel Novak, charming and optimistic, though naïve. Karel sees America as the land of his dreams, a place that could well be Heaven. He gets giddy with excitement just seeing the Manhattan skyline lit up at night. Unfortunately Karel enters an America that is mired in a Depression, and millionaires -- and jobs, for that matter -- are hard to come by.
Ginger Rogers plays Sylvia, a chorus girl who lives with her little brother, a paper boy when he's not in school (or vice versa). The two earn what they can and take care of each other in these tough times. Sylvia comes to Karel's aid when he's penniless and homeless and soon he's like a member of the family. Sylvia's brother gets Karel a job selling newspapers and Sylvia lets him sleep on the roof of their apartment building. After a while Karel gets a job driving a taxi and starts saving up money to square things with the immigration office. But when Sylvia loses her job, Karel dips into his savings to help out and soon he's back where he started.
In the meantime Karel and Sylvia fall in love. And really who can blame them? But Karel's status as an illegal immigrant is going to come back to haunt him and he knows it. And while Karel's struggling with that, Sylvia's trying to keep her brother from being taken away from her and placed in an orphan asylum.
ROMANCE IN MANHATTAN is a winner and I don't know how it's slipped under the radar. Francis Lederer and Ginger Rogers are a lovable pair and the film's got Depression-era drama around every corner. Our poor heroes are handed tough break after tough break, just trying to make a go of the "American Dream", but they take each blow on the chin, determined to get by somehow. Karel, the eternal optimist, faces adversity with a smile. It's a cute love story wrapped inside a social drama, and a pleasant watch the whole way through.
The question posed at the climax of the film is whether Karel Novak, being a hard-working and respectable young man, deserves any breaks from the immigration office. Sure, he's in the country illegally, but can something be worked out for the poor guy? It's an ethical problem that can be seen as black and white or as shades of gray. The film makes its decision on the matter and I won't spoil it.
Last Action Hero (1993)
A meta thrill ride for movie lovers
LAST ACTION HERO (1993) is a clever satire of blockbuster action films and is loaded with meta references that are sure to delight movie buffs.
At the heart of the story is Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien), a young movie lover, raised by a single mom (Mercedes Ruehl) in New York City, who skips school to watch his favorite action flicks for the umpteenth time at a dilapidated movie palace run by a dotty old man named Nick (Robert Prosky). Danny escapes his troubles in the adrenaline-pumping fantasies of the cinema, especially the JACK SLATER film series.
The JACK SLATER movies spoof the action franchises popular at the time, like DIE HARD or LETHAL WEAPON. Jack Slater is the ultimate badass, working for the LAPD but doing things his own way. Chomping on cigars, kicking down doors. Going where other cops wouldn't dare.
In the film, the star of the JACK SLATER series is real-world action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is LAST ACTION HERO's biggest meta concept as Schwarzenegger stars as a parody of himself (playing both Arnold and Arnold-as-Jack).
With the help of an enchanted ticket given to Nick by the famed escape artist Harry Houdini, Danny is able to enter the world of the newest JACK SLATER movie and help Jack beat the bad guys. It should be a dream come true, but instead of just going along with it, Danny tries to shatter Jack's worldview by proving that he "lives" in a fictional movie universe, full of improbable explosions, predictable one-liners, and physics-defying stunts. Danny calls out Jack for using well-known Arnold catchphrases like "I'll be back" and tries to explain the absurdity of Jack's LAPD colleague being an animated anthropomorphic cat (voiced by Danny DeVito). Jack thinks Danny's crazy (obviously), but Danny's uncanny knowledge of secret information (gleaned from watching prior installments of the JACK SLATER series, as well as the opening scenes from this one) gets him assigned as Jack's partner, in true buddy movie fashion.
Danny is always completely self-aware about being the comic sidekick in an action movie. He knows Jack Slater's world is governed by plot contrivances and movie clichés. He even calls out the villain for monologuing. Austin O'Brien doesn't do a bad job in the film, but he does start to get on my nerves a little.
The fun really starts once the villain (Charles Dance) gets ahold of the magic ticket and enters the real world, a place where heroes can bleed and bad guys can actually win. Jack and Danny track him to the star-studded premiere of JACK SLATER IV, where fictional hero Jack Slater comes face-to-face with Hollywood superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger (among other fun celebrity cameos).
The satire of LAST ACTION HERO is on-point. Besides getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to spoof himself, the movie is directed by John McTiernan, who directed DIE HARD (1988), and the screenplay was co-written by Shane Black, who wrote LETHAL WEAPON (1987). The top-notch pedigree surely helps sell the film's high concept.
The script has a lot of potential for the right actor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger seems like he's having a lot of fun with the material. It wouldn't be the same without a real A-list action star playing Jack Slater. Arnold has a good sense of humor about himself and seems to enjoy playing with his image.
One of the best in-jokes for serious movie buffs comes early in the film when Danny's English teacher, played by Joan Plowright, introduces a clip from Laurence Olivier's HAMLET (1948), suggesting that the students might know the British acting legend from his late-career role of Zeus in CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) or an older TV commercial for Polaroid. Plowright is, of course, Olivier's widow.
In addition to HAMLET, the movie includes nods to Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957), Francis Ford Coppola's DRACULA_(1992), and WITNESS (1985) with Harrison Ford. In the movie world Danny warns Jack not to trust his FBI buddy John Practice because he is played by F. Murray Abraham, the guy who "killed Mozart" (an allusion to AMADEUS (1984)). A Humphrey Bogart-type detective in a trench coat appears in one of the JACK SLATER police station scenes. And since "Arnold Schwarzenegger" can't exist in the fictional world of Jack Slater, his famous role in the TERMINATOR films is played instead by Sylvester Stallone.
The JACK SLATER action is hilariously over-the-top and stylized, satirizing Hollywood action blockbusters and further contrasting the fantasy world of the silver screen with the real world Danny knows. The original story, developed by Zak Penn and Adam Leff, is quite clever and the film, unconventional as it is, succeeds because of its uniqueness. The movie's a lot of fun and there are plenty of Easter eggs for hardcore cinephiles.