Monday, September 28, 2009

The Wrong Stuff

by Jason Pyles

Maybe the mysterious cream filling inside Twinkies is The Stuff.

Actually, according to the Internet Movie Database’s trivia page for this movie, The Stuff was portrayed with various products, depending on the scene, such as Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream, yogurt, and fire-extinguishing foam. Other scenes used superimposed images and animation. (My guesses were Cool-Whip and sour cream.)

Among the innumerable unwise decisions made in planning this movie, it was wise to vary the look of The Stuff’s consistency by using different products. This variation helps to enhance the intrigue of our guessing game, where we, the viewers, try to figure out what the filmmakers used.

I guess that’s part of the fun of this movie — trying to figure out what The Stuff is — both within the context of the film and in terms of the prop itself.

Above all, this film is a mystery, more than a horror movie or a comedy. It follows an investigation into defining the bizarre product, and regardless of how ridiculous the movie becomes, we are committed to sit through it until the end, in hopes of finding out the big revelation. Unfortunately, the revelation isn’t that big. We find out it comes from the center of the Earth, and maybe a few other details, but The Stuff remains largely unidentified.

I appreciate the absence of a tidy resolution in this way, because it allows the mystery to linger. For example, one masterstroke of “Cloverfield” (minor spoiler ahead) is that the monster is never explained — not what it was or where it came from. I love that. It makes it a little more real; we probably wouldn’t have very many answers about such a monster attack, if it happened in reality.

Movie properties (ideas) are recycled just about every decade. Clearly, “The Stuff” is a variation of “The Blob” (1958), which was remade outright three years after “The Stuff,” in 1988, and is slated to revisit us again in 2011. Similarly, “The Blob” is about an inexplicable substance that “eats” anything and everything and grows bigger the more it consumes.

(By the way, even the “G.I. Joe” cartoon put a spin on “The Blob.” It was fairly ingenious how the Joes killed it: They led it to eat an apple orchard, because apple seeds contain a tiny bit of poison.)

But “The Stuff” doesn’t stop with one borrowed concept; it’s a “Blob” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” hybrid.
Even though it’s built from scraps of semi-successful 1950s B-movies, “The Stuff” just doesn’t sound like a good idea on paper. I mean, a horror movie about an attacking food item surely must have been a difficult sell. We can plainly see how challenging it was for the filmmakers to make the white, creamy substance seem scary.

Obviously, “The Stuff” was intended to be satirical, made with a wink and a smile, something like the recent “Drag Me to Hell.”

I don’t believe all movies are designed to have some kind of “message,” but I believe that just about all movies can be assimilated to parallel prevalent social concerns. Filmmaking usually at least subconsciously reflects the moods from its era of creation.

Andy noted in a previous post that The Stuff may have been a commentary on an ice cream boom of the ’80s, which may explain the plot and the use of Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream. But I’m not so sure.
I wondered if it was intended to be a metaphor for drugs, in general; pop (soda); or fast food. I say pop specifically because Coca-Cola is often described by its lovers as addictive. Indeed, I’ve heard that many soft drinks contain some degree of addictive additives (but don’t quote me, I’m no chemist). For just a moment, abide my baseless speculation: The pop idea rings true when considering the ending of the movie, where The Taste would contain only 12 percent of The Stuff.

Alas, after some research, it seems that maybe Andy and I need not pinpoint one particular product but consumerism at large: Scott Tobias of The Onion A.V. Club thought “The Stuff” was writer-director Larry Cohen’s “answer to the noxious excess and conformity of the Reagan ’80s: a product that consumes the consumer.”

And Scott Weinberg from the Apollo Movie Guide interpreted this movie similarly, calling “The Stuff” a “none-too-subtle statement about the state of consumerism in America.” He also called it a “tongue-in-cheek social parody that pokes fun at a society that simply must devour the latest craze on the market.”

“The Stuff” has some genuinely fun moments: I particularly enjoyed seeing the cameo of the old lady from the “Where’s the Beef?” commercial. Remember that?

And I also thought it was humorous how Stuff fans are called “Stuffies.” And I appreciated the set where the room turns in order to produce the effect of The Stuff pouring “up” the wall. It turns out, according to said trivia page noted above, the turnable room was recycled from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Along with Andy, I wonder about this movie’s R-rating. It was released in June of 1985 (a summer blockbuster!), which means it was rated after the MPAA added the PG-13 designation that began in 1984. Obviously, the MPAA, infamous for its inconsistent and arbitrary rating system, must have found “The Stuff’s” violence/gore enough to merit an R-rating, though I’d think that considering its silliness, the PG-13 rating should have been considered.

But then again, watching this film in 2009, with 24 years of special effects advancement informing us, it’s difficult to imagine how troubling these scenes might have looked back then. Nevertheless, the heart extraction in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (which is credited as one of the sources that brought about the PG-13 rating) looks much more convincing than anything in “The Stuff.” So, yeah, PG-13 would probably be most appropriate.

I enjoyed “The Stuff,” despite its dumbness. What’s best about watching a movie like this is the way glimpses of it will someday flicker again as fleeting memories in your mind, and you’ll remember watching it, with some degree of fondness, but you won’t know when, why, where or what is was.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Thoughts on "Mysterious Skin"

by Jason Pyles

Some films simply defy the imposition of a critical voice. I believe “Mysterious Skin” is one such rare film. And yet I brazenly proceed, because it’s my unholy duty (albeit self-appointed, on this site) as a film critic.

Unless one is careful, critiquing a film that tries to communicate such sober themes can trivialize the weighty matters at hand in order to nitpick — or praise — its execution. For example, after being utterly blown away by the emotional power and devastating nature of “Mysterious Skin,” I opted to watch the theatrical trailer on the DVD. (It can also easily be seen at

As is common with critically celebrated films, the preview boasted favorable comments from prominent film critics, including this phrase from the New York Times’ A.O. Scott: “...a remarkably poised performance by Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.” I agree with Scott’s description of Gordon-Leavitt’s acting, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt that any cleverly written observation I or any other critic could devise would only make noise where there should be silence. A pensive, reflective silence.

“Mysterious Skin” is so unsettling and upsetting, it almost seems like one should observe some sort of quiet moment of respect for the countless abused victims this film bleeds for, before tearing in to an assessment of it. And now, having taken such precautions, I will proceed:

Though it never explicitly or graphically depicts the actual child abuse scenarios, “Mysterious Skin” is disturbing because it places us on the inside of the crimes, and to some degree, in the mind of the abuser. The film’s concluding revelations — which are primarily verbal descriptions — are nearly unbearable. It’s no wonder some children “go away,” mentally, to escape the experience when such things occur. I felt myself wanting to “escape the film.”

Actually, this sense of spectator resistance reminds me of bell hooks’ concept, “the oppositional gaze.” She wrote an essay called “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” It focuses on black women’s tendency, generally speaking — according to hooks — to eschew terrible portrayals of black women, or an altogether lack of portrayal of black women, in film. And though I had a film professor once scold me for suggesting that I, a white male, had ever experienced spectator’s resistance or something akin to the oppositional gaze, I still believe that even a white male like me can want to escape unthinkable themes and depictions in movies, even if they don’t coincide with the plight of African-American women in the cinema.

Another unforgettable scene in “Mysterious Skin,” unlike any I’ve ever experienced in the cinema, is a situation where the young Neil preys upon some poor kid on Halloween, sending off fireworks from his face, then proceeds to “appease” him afterward, as a sort of sick consolation. I was utterly horrified and repulsed by this scene, which was no doubt the intention.

Also, it is clear that either Scott Heim, the author of the novel this movie is adapted from, or director Gregg Araki — or both — went to great lengths not to suggest that Neil’s molestation led to his homosexuality. Indeed, before the abuse ever begins, the film lets us know (though it seems unlikely, according to my memory) that Neil has a significant sexual appetite as a biologically young boy. On this point, I think the film was too heavy-handed in establishing Neil’s intense desire for other males.

And finally, many films have addressed prostitution, and many of them have done it irresponsibly. But the responsible portrayals, such as the one in “Mysterious Skin,” reinforce the perils of such a profession. From what I understand (though I admit I have never worked in such a field), films that show brutal encounters when the working gal (or guy) is ravished are conveying an accurate, fairly common occupational hazard. “Monster” is another example, with a twist.

Moral of this story: Stop pedophilia and prostitution. Sure, but I’m afraid it’s much more complicated than that, which is why “Mysterious Skin” aims to stir and afflict its viewers. It succeeds.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Urban Menace - or how I wasted my Sunday, by Andy

I watched "Urban Menace." It was tougher than I thought it would be. Way more "F" words than were necessary, and I thought "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut" wasn't overboard. Just terrible. I really don't have anything else to say. Just stream of consciousness here, but is Snoop a vampire or supernatural being of some kind? What about the dude with the goatee? Was he a reformed bad guy? Why do thugs shoot their guns sideways with a slight down-tilt?

comments by Andy

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"The Stuff" as reviewed by Andy

I had to look it up. Rookie mistake. Larry Cohen is not one of "the Coen Brothers (Ethan & Joel)." I'm sort of embarrassed to admit it, and as I was watching "The Stuff" I questioned where Mr. Cohen could have written such great films as "No Country For Old Men" and "Fargo" and the ridiculous film that I was watching. Turns out the answer is the obvious "no." He is credited for writing "Cellular" and "Phone Booth," as well as "Body Snatchers (not the "Invasion of...")."

"The Stuff" is a spoof, as far as I can tell, of the 80's ice cream fad, or should I say ice-scream fad. I feel really stupid for just having written that, but it so typifies the silliness of the movie. I, of course, eat a lot of ice cream because I'm LDS, so I don't remember there being a fad in the 8o's for ice cream and more than today...

The proprietors of "The Stuff" as it's known in the movie, discovered the substance at some sort of industrial mine. It happened to taste good (who tastes glowing white crap eeking out of the ground?), so they shut down the mine and start marketing and selling THE STUFF as a replacement for other deserts. It quickly becomes a nationwide fad, replacing almost all other food in many consumers' diets. The tag line for the marketing is something like "the more you eat, the more you want..." And that's what happens, only the addiction people have to THE STUFF is biological. THE STUFF IS ALIVE!!!!!

I'm not sure what the purpose of THE STUFF was, but it apparently got really pissed when the hero started figuring out what THE STUFF was. He, of course, wasn't investigating for any altruistic reason; he was paid by the dairy conglomerates at some sort of secret corporate espionage yacht-meeting. And hilarity ensues.

Enjoyable, but I'm not sure that the movie shouldn't have been in our section of worst movies. It certainly wasn't as bad as several of the movies on our list, but I would probably put it in the same category as the other cult-classics "Blood Diner," and "Plan 9 from Outer Space." Shockingly deep cast for such a silly pseudo-horror film. Also, I'm not sure why it was rated R (don't remember any bad words, scenes, etc., and the horror was no big deal).

thoughts by Andy

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mysterious Skin by Andy

This was a difficult movie to get through. It's interesting to me that I had a difficult time watching this movie because I am public defender and I deal with child sexual abuse cases on a daily basis. None of the information, story, or disturbing behavior is anything new for me to process, and other than the movie, shockingly few related stories (true or not) actually disturb me.

So what is the value, then, for me to watch this kind of a movie? Other than my man-crush on J. Gordon-Leavitt? I think the value it held for me was in the true drama of it. Bad things happen to good/innocent people, and sometimes good/innocent people are ruined by traumatic experiences. In our story, Neil and Brian have totally different reactions to the same traumatic sexual abuse.

Neil is noticeably deeply affected by his coach's abuse, so much so that his whole sexual identity is warped and destroyed (by the way, as a side note, I'm not suggesting that abusing kids make them gay or that gay people were abused or that Neil, as a character, chose to be gay: I personally believe homosexuality is not a "choice"). His life spirals down hill at a pretty decent clip until he finally realizes that it was his reaction (re: failure to deal with) the abuse that has lead him to be a male prositute. It doesn't say at the end, but I'm guessing that Araki intended Neil's rape to be his "rock bottom." Hopefully Neil climbs his way out - real life statistics are against him for sure.

Brian is the outwardly opposite situation. He is shy, reserved, and prudish to Neil's extroverted, showy, whorish personality. Brian has struggled through his whole life with acute traumatic amnesia about his event. He blocks it out with only a nosebleed to remember it by. He was the real story, I think. He lived a fairly normal life (albeit completely absent of any kind of romantic experience). I wonder at the end whether Brian's ultimate recollection of the abuse was cathartic or a huge emotional setback. I wonder if blocking bad memories is so bad. His "rock bottom" was in many ways worse than Neil's (even though Neil's life was seemingly so much more destructive) because how far he fell and how fast he did. I wonder how quickly he came to grips with his abuse and how long before his life returned to a sense of normalcy.

Not a fun film for sure, but the acting was excellent and the drama very compelling.

comments by Andy