Return of the Killer Tomatoes

There are some films where it’s impossible to go in with a completely open mind. Whether it’s because it’s a sequel to a film you’ve seen a hundred times, it’s the work of a director or actor you’re very familiar with or you’ve been bombarded with a relentless marketing campaign, there are many factors that can influence your opinion of a film before you go and see it. And, of course, there’s the title. The one inescapable truth about this film is that it’s called Return of the Killer Tomatoes, and is therefore not going to be anything even close to highbrow or arthouse, and might just about scrape the underbelly of being entertaining.


Now, unlike the last no-budget comedy-horror flick featuring George Clooney and starting with the word ‘Return,’ this one is actually a sequel, to 1978’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, which I’m fairly sure doesn’t star anyone of note, so I’ve no intention of ever watching it. The 4.4/10 rating on IMDb doesn’t help either. Without doing any extra research (I’m on a deadline here, I need to go to sleep in an hour) I can tell from Return, in which they recap most of the plot and actually make a point of a viewer complaining about them recaping the original plot, that there was some kind of mysterious science plot in which monster tomatoes were created and vanquished using music. Something similar takes place in Return, but here the scientist (John Astin, I knew I recognised him, only just realised it’s from The Addams Family), Dr. Putrid T. Gangreen, is creating tomatoes that take on human form, any form, and he plans to take over the world by creating a tomato version of the president.

Since the first film’s plot, a whole new generation has grown up without knowing the glories of tomatoes, as they were outlawed by the government. There is a fairly healthy tomato racket on the black (or red) market, but the pizzeria in which our hero Chad Finletter (Anthony Starke) works makes pizzas by substituting the tomato sauce with raspberry jam or boysenberry, and accompany it with toppings ranging from gummy bears and peanut butter to something called the famous deep fried fish pizza, which sounds disgusting. Chad works as the delivery boy, and has the hots for Tara, the beautiful assistant/lover of Dr. Gangreen, but has never really been able to strike up the courage to talk to her. Also, she’s a tomato. That’s pretty clear from the start, seeing as she’s been created as the ‘perfect woman’ in every respect, apart from she hates music and bathes in fertiliser. Chad’s uncle Wilbur (J. Stephen Peace) owns the pizzeria (he’s the hero of the first film), and Chad’s room mate Matt (George Clooney) works there too, inbetween scams to have sex with every woman he comes across. 

In case you haven’t guessed, this film is pretty ridiculous. The plot is insane, the production value is non-existent and the acting equally scarce. There’s a creature called F. T. (which stands for either Furry Tomato or Freak Tomato) who is quite clearly a cuddly toy being wiggled by a stick or strings. But this all adds to the home-made feel, and in fact attention is brought to how terrible the film is by more meta than I can really handle. The film even begins by being shown in someone’s lounge (they initially start showing a film called Big Breasted Girls Go To The Beach And Take Their Tops Off, but thankfully this is stopped early on), and there are phone calls from viewers peppered through the film, and halfway through the camera pans out to find the director telling everyone they have to stop filming because they’ve run out of money. Ridiculously, there’s two more films in the Killer Tomatoes franchise; Killer Tomatoes Strike Back and Killer Tomatoes Eat France, both also directed by John de Bello and who appears as himself in at least Return, but I can safely say I won’t be seeing either of those films ever.

There were quite a few moments in the film that I can recommend though. Gangreen assistant, Igor (Steve Lundquist) is an aspiring news anchor who keeps on turning to the screen and saying things like “We’ll be right back, after this…” which I found to be consistently ridiculous enough to be entertaining, and the script contains such straight-faced gems as “I thought you were ketchup!” and “The girl of my dreams is a vegetable!” (at no point is the tomato correctly identified as a fruit). Some bits go a bit far into the stupid though – when Wilbur comes to the rescue, it’s dressed as a paratrooper with a deployed parachute that drags along the ground, along with a man permanently dressed in scuba gear who communicates with title cards even over the phone, and a severely overweight man in a Lone Ranger costume. 

It’s a very immature film that I would have doubtlessly enjoyed 10-15 years ago, but I’m proud to say I’m now too mature for it (when sober, at least). On a drunken Friday night with a group of mates it might be worth a punt, but seeing as I watched it at 7:00 am on Saturday morning it didn’t really hit the spot.

Choose life 4/10

Clueless

Is this the most 90s movie ever? If not, it must certainly crack the top 10, for though it is based on a novel written 180 years earlier, everything about Clueless, from the slang, the opinions and most vehemently the fashions positively scream 1990s. Upon release, this may have been topical and timely, but now it severely dates the film, and is mostly comical. Although saying that, there is a chance that it may have been funny at the time (I can’t remember, I was 8 in 1995), as I can’t imagine any time period in which a two-piece yellow plaid suit jacket and skirt were ever in fashion, even amongst teenage girls.

Clueless sees Cher (Alicia Silverstone) as one of the most popular girls in her high school, who seems to have no problems of her own so sets about fixing those of everyone around her, focusing primarily on matchmaking her friends. When new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy) arrives, Cher sees the uncoordinated outcast as a project, and decides to transform Tai into a clone of herself. Meanwhile, Cher’ philosophical environmentalist step-brother Josh (Paul Rudd, effortlessly likable) is helping out Cher’s widowed father (Dan Hedaya) at his law firm.

It’s becoming almost a tradition for me to be reviewing films based on famous literature without ever really knowing much about the source material, and this is no exception, for I’m still yet to read any of Jane Austen’s work, including Emma. That being said, apparently it is only a loose adaptation (I can’t imagine Austen pre-empting Cher’s computerised wardrobe selector), so not having read Emma shouldn’t have affected my viewing anyway, especially seeing as it took so long for people to realise the connection when the film came out anyway.

Silverstone is a delight in this film, playing someone who could so easily be almost detestable, living a life of luxury she’s done nothing to deserve but still feeling the need to whine incessantly in a piercing, nasally tone, yet in Silverstone’s hands you can not only empathise, but occasionally pity her poor-little-rish-girl ways. The film is led by her narration, and contains some of the least self-aware yet funniest lines of the film: “Getting off the freeway makes you realise how important love is.” For Cher is just that kind of person, oblivious. As an 18-year old she assumes she knows everything about everything, there is no problem she cannot solve and no situation that cannot be argued out of, but her journey through this film causes her to re-evaluate her opinions of not only herself, but her friends and family too.

The slang and colloquialisms are brilliant too. Good looking guys are ‘Baldwins’, women are ‘Bettys’ and Cher’s house, built in 1972, is somehow deemed ‘classic.’ Every offhand comment or snide remark is so topical that I found the film to be educational by googling what they said – apparently there was a guy called Paulie Shore who made terrible films, and Mark Wahlberg used to be in a band. Who knew?

I can’t help thinking there’s something missing from Clueless. Although it has the morals and meanings of traditional rom-coms, and has enough rom and com to keep most people entertained, including me, I’m left empty and wanting more. It’s a perfectly serviceable slice of light entertainment, but there are better examples, both prior and since, so I’m not entirely sure why it’s on the 1001 List. It’s one of the few films that I genuinely challenge it’s presence – as far as I can tell it’s of no significant cultural importance, isn’t phenomenally good and didn’t win any awards, generally the three criteria for a List position. As mentioned, the acting is good, the story and characters are engaging and the soundtrack is phenomenal, but there’s an endless number of films you could say that about that aren’t present.

As modern day high school set classic adaptations go, I still prefer 10 Things I Hate About You, If only for the one-two combo of Joseph ‘Joggle’ Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger, along with the adults featuring Alison Janney, Daryl Mitchell and Larry Miller (although Clueless does have Wallace Shawn, which goes a long way too). Clueless isn’t bad, and at times it’s funny, poignant and captivating, but afterwards I didn’t feel like my life had been improved in any way, so make of that what you will.

Choose film 6/10

Top 5… Movies That Should Be In 1001 (2012 Edition)

Monday sees the release of the next edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book, which sees my recently reviewed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on the cover. This release got me thinking, what films would I most like to be added in this edition? As usual, my first instinct regarded efficiency and time-saving, so of course the films I’d post want to be added would be ones that I’d already reviewed, so I wouldn’t have to review them again. But then I thought no, that’s not really what I want. I want to watch new films, experience new things and write about them, that’s why I’m writing a blog in the first place; to discuss movies. Why would I want an excuse to do that less? So as well as my already-reviewed list there’s another for films that not only have I not reviewed, but that I haven’t even seen, and I think should probably be on the List. Thirdly, because it’s a super-bumper-bonus day, there’s a final top 5 for the films that haven’t appeared on either list, but will most likely be on the actual list, for which I haven’t been consulted. What films do you all think will be on there?

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Never So Few

A Steve McQueen film set during World War 2 where at one point he talks about brewing his own alcohol? No, sadly I’ve not yet reached The Great Escape (one of my consistently top 5 films of all time), I’m onto Never So Few, the Frank Sinatra-starring final obstacle before I get to watch The Magnificent Seven again, when I’ll actually start to enjoy going through all of Steve McQueen’s films.

Never So Few sees Sinatra as Captain Tom Reynolds in North Burma during the Second World War. He and his band of highly trained men, including Peter Lawford’s be-monocled Captain Grey Travis and Charles Bronson’s Seargeant Danforth, are training the native Kachins to defend their land against their attackers, but the hardships of jungle warfare and the difficulties posed by his commanding officers – particularly the lack of an assigned doctor in his troop – begin to weigh on Reynolds.

Whilst on a short trip back to headquarters, followed by a two week adjourn for the two captains, Reynolds falls in love with Carla (Gina Lollobrigida), a voluptuously alluring partner to a foreign dignitary, and he also uncovers the beginnings of a plot that may or may not involve his superiors being in cahoots with their Chinese enemies. They also meet Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen), the resourceful driver for their Colonel, and soon recruit him to join their squad.

This film has some serious tone issues. Director John Sturges, yes of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven, cannot seem to decide whether he is making a war film – as I initially expected – a romance or a political thriller, as all three elements share roughly equal screen time, and the transition from one to another is often jarring. Styles change when Reynolds walks into a room, leaving the government corruption plot as the music swells to a bad daytime soap opera sweeping score as Carla rushes into his arms for a longing embrace. The three different elements seem only loosely tied together too – it could be justified as to having the war and conspiracy themes, as the subjects are at least related, but the romance could quite easily be lifted without affecting the other two, so tacked on is the feel. This was clearly added just to try and entice female viewers – or possibly more men with Lollobrigida’s Jessica Rabbit-like curves – but it always feels awkward and out of place with the rest of the film, just like Carla’s Spock-like eyebrows.

Speaking of tagged on, McQueen’s character is fairly superfluous too, other than adding someone engaging to watch and a mildly interesting character – plus a somewhat inventive fighting technique early on. I got the feeling that Sturges wanted to include McQueen in the film somewhere, and who can blame him? By this point McQueen had perfected the art of ‘doing something in the background’ when he wasn’t overly important in a scene, hence why he always managed to retain your focus by swatting a mosquito on his neck or playing with his gun, regardless of whether you should be looking at him or not. Sinatra’s Reynolds also has an amusing if distracting penchant for pithy one-liners that don’t necessarily make much sense (“He speaks English like he hates it.” “Inside my mouth tastes like the outside of a crocodile.”) or bizarrely successful seduction techniques in which he discusses the correct use of the word ‘hanker’. Some of the lines are great (“I’ll miss you; where I’m going nobody smells of soap”) whereas others raised a chuckle but would be worthy of a slap in real life (“I’ll be back; learn to cook.”). He also wears a cowboy hat whilst parachuting, which is only something Slim Pickens is allowed to do.

I loved Charles Bronson in the film, though his role is far too short. When his gun runs out of bullets during a Chinese attack on the camp, without hesitating he picks up a table and takes out three men with that instead. Genius. Look out for a young George Takei as a head-bandaged hospital patient complaining about the food and James Hong as a diplomat fairly late on. You may be as astounded as me to learn that Hong currently has 371 acting credits to his name, as diverse as Blade Runner to Kung Fu Panda, Airplane! to Chinatown. The guy’s been in everything.

The plot involves far too many talky scenes for a war film, with not enough actual fighting, despite a not-bad mid-film set piece involving the attack of a Chinese air base using hundreds on cans of gasoline, and a third act counterattack over the Chinese border. In spite of these, the film comes off as boring and overlong – 125 minutes – and the actual backbone of the conspiracy plot is almost impossible to fully comprehend. I’m still not entirely sure what was going on for most of it.

Choose life 5/10

Battle Royale

There are some films where you hear about the concept and think “Yes, this will be a truly amazing film.” Battle Royale is such a film, with the premise being a class of 42 schoolkids are kidnapped, dropped onto an island and given weaponry and basic provisions. They are told that they have three days to kill all of their fellow classmates until only one survives, and if they fail, they’ll all be killed. Sounds pretty awesome, right? Well that’s what I thought the first time I watched it too, about 5 years ago, and since then I’d kind of forgotten a lot of it, and thought to myself that surely that film but have been amazing, because how can you go wrong with a concept like that? There’s endless possibility for inventive deaths and character drama, what with these kids now having to kill their best friends or even their boyfriends and girlfriends, but unfortunately there were perhaps some reasons as to why I’d forgotten it.

For you see, Battle Royale is nowhere near as much fun as it should be. No, wait, that’s an unfair statement. The premise is excellent, far better than most other films, and it is handled well, but it fails to deliver on the promise of a gruesome kill-fest that I’d not necessarily been hoping for, but had at least thought I’d be delivered. So basically my problem is that though I didn’t want an incredibly gory film, I thought I was going to get one, but didn’t. I think the problem here may well lie within me, and not the film. Oh, and don’t expect many comparisons to The Hunger Games – a film with a similar yet far from identical conceit – as I’ve neither seen the film nor read the book.
The film’s scope is very ambitious, especially when you consider there are essentially 44 ‘main’ characters – the 42 school children (including two ‘exchange students’ – we’ll get to them later), their teacher and the man in charge of running the program. Obviously, quite a few of these people don’t make it very far into the film, and even fewer are left at the end, but even so I felt there was possibly too much going on than could be comfortably contained within a 2-hour film. I understand that the book goes into far more detail – as books tend to do – so I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist, and if someone were to get it for me for Christmas, that would be fine. I felt that an adaptation may have been better suited to a television series, or by cutting down the cast considerably – as I understand it, The Hunger Games only has 24 participants – as that would have allowed far greater depth for most of the characters. As it stands, only a handful are given much in the way of any history, and only perhaps three or four could have something generously described as a character.The film is peppered with flashbacks to the kids’ lives before being selected for the battle, but rarely did this add very much, especially when said flashback consists almost entirely of a slow motion basketball game, presumably the only time when all of the characters were ever in the same room, considering the amount of truancy apparently on display. The only person who benefits from a little history is Mitsuko (Ko Shibasaki), a ruthless, determined killer whose hatred for people – and a certain area of men in particular – pays off in a particularly brutal and wince-inducing scene late on.Too many subplots with great potential fizzled out without really going anywhere, in particular those regarding the tech-nerds attempting to bring the system down, the inclusion of never-used death zones and the motivation behind one of the ‘exchange students’, the deranged, suit-wearing Kazuo (Masanobu Ando). Kazuo appears to be something of an interesting character – I don’t think he utters a word throughout the film – yet no reasons are provided for even why he volunteered to take part. I can understand this though, as he is one of the three predominant ‘bad guys’ (along with Mitsuko and Kitano (Takeshi Kitano), the former teacher running the game), and sometimes not providing an antagonist’s back story can make them a more powerful presence in a film. For example, Hannibal Lecter was far more imposing when his past was only hinted at in The Silence of the Lambs etc, but less so after everything was more or less explained in Hannibal Rising.

The ending felt in parts rushed and glossed over – some areas aren’t really explained – and drawn out in others. There’s also a moment of farce and ridiculousness when a character just gets up and walks around after being shot which is never even partially explained, and as to the reasoning behind the inclusion of several flashback sequences after the film has ended, most of which had already been seen anyway, is beyond me. The two main leads, Shuya and Noriko (Tatsuya Fujiwara and Aki Maeda) felt bland and underdeveloped, especially in the case of Noriko, who doesn’t really get to do anything in the film other than be protected by those around her.

There were some great moments, especially the lighthouse scene, showing the real consequences of friends turning on one another in an environment of complete guilt and paranoia, and the initial briefing scene, in which the over enthusiastic instructional video offers some brilliant comedy, but overall this felt far too rushed, which is a real shame, as this could have been truly amazing.

Choose life 6/10

Jude

I had a discussion with my girlfriend recently about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, instigated by my viewing of the unimpressive trailer for the new remake (in 3D, of course). When I explained the basic premise – a group of kids run into a family of skin-wearing cannibals – she was appalled at A) why someone would watch such a film, B) why someone would make it, and C) what kind of depraved soul would own such a monstrosity. I then answered questions A and C (she wouldn’t have cared that Tobe Hooper made it) by pointing to the copy of the film on my DVD shelf. Why do I bring this up? Well, though I’m not a massive fan of horror (I haven’t seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre since I bought it), I will occasionally watch a film for the same reasons I go on rollercoasters; they add a certain element of thrill and excitement – and terror – otherwise missing from my humdrum existence on this Earth. My question is, who would watch, make or own a film like Jude?
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Man on Wire

Another film I reviewed for the So You Think You Can Review tournament at the Lamb, this also sees the start of my attempting to review at least one documentary a month for this site.I’ve had the debate many times with various people as to whether a documentary can really be considered as a film. This usually happens when I use the phrase “I watched a great film last night; it was a documentary about…” The conversation’s other participant invariably glazes over at the ‘D’ word, as how could anything compiled entirely from archive footage and talking-head interviews be seen as entertaining? After all, there’s the danger they might actually learn something. I feel that if there was ever going to be a documentary that could sway the naysayers, then that film is Man on Wire. Even though it is very much a true story, told by those involved with the aid of photographs, footage and re-enactments, this tale of a man attempting to infiltrate the World Trade Centre and walk a tightrope between the towers is compelling, nail-biting stuff, and for the most part feels like a work of fiction.
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