It Follows (2014)

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe

It entertains! As the closing credits rolled on “It Follows,” I concluded that I had not merely witnessed an outstanding American horror movie. With arms outstretched, my fists pumping high up in the air, I knew that I had just seen the best horror movie yet produced in the current decade. How the creative geniuses behind this instant classic managed to pull this off is quite simple. I’ve been saying for a long time now that if I were ever to make a horror movie myself, I would want to do it in the style of a late 1970’s/early 1980’s horror flick. This is the era of horror that, for me, has no equal. The greatest of these movies also knew how to creep their audiences out by choosing atmosphere over buckets of blood, and by making the killer a seldom seen but ever-present force of nature. The creators of this movie appear to have as much respect for that period in horror history as I do, as the aptly titled “It Follows” marches in lockstep with the likes of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a Michigan college student, is on a movie date with Hugh (Jake Weary) playing an innocent game of “If you could trade places with anyone in this room…” The object of the game is to guess who the other person has selected. When it’s Hugh’s turn to guess, he points out a woman whom Jay cannot see. This has Hugh visibly disturbed, and he insists that they leave the theater together right away. Some time later, the two have sex in the back of Hugh’s car, after which Hugh renders Jay unconscious with chloroform and ties her to a wheelchair. Jay’s situation is already bad enough but, as Hugh explains, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. He swears he has no intention of harming her. That’s fine except for the fact that, through their consensual sex, he effectively already has.

Hugh’s explanation is this: The same entity that has been silently, slowly chasing after Hugh will now turn its attention towards Jay. That is, of course, unless she can find someone else to have sex with, in which case the entity will shift its focus onto them. The catch is that, if it should kill that person, it would then come back to haunt Jay. This is why Hugh is so keen on Jay getting busy, because her death would mean that he would once again be the main target. No one knows where this thing came from or who its first victim was, only that there is just the one of it. It makes up for its shortcomings by being very clever. It can appear to its victims as anyone, either as someone they know or just a random face in the crowd. Either way, it absolutely never will stop stalking you until it has killed you.

Jay has a hard time convincing her friends of what’s going on, choosing instead to have them stick close by to keep an eye on her. After she flees from the entity a couple of times, together they all track down Hugh, whose real name is Jeff Redmond. Jeff’s only new piece of information is that he believes he originally caught the curse from a one-night stand, after which he says that his and Jay’s close proximity to one another is putting his life at risk, and so he demands that they leave at once. Thinking him crazy, Jay’s friends remain skeptical until it catches up to her at Greg (Daniel Zovatto)’s lakehouse. After that, they begin to formulate a plan as to how to be rid of it once and for all. Not without casualties along the way, this plan climaxes at an abandoned pool.

“It Follows” is definitely not perfect. It makes little sense for Jay and her friends to have a calm sit-down with Hugh/Jeff after his earlier behavior. The rules for how the curse is passed on aren’t quite as clear as maybe they should be, leading to a host of unanswered questions. You’d be better served to just go along with it, which I did. Also, it’s hard to believe these characters could ever think that a gun could be effective against the entity after it’s established that bullets only slow it down. Then again, so many characters from the “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” films made similar lapses in judgment, and we forgave it then.

Far outweighing the movie’s mistakes are its strengths. The jump scares are kept to a minimum (I think I counted two), of which I am in total favor. The cinematography is perfecto. I’ve not been as contented by a movie’s cinematography since the first time I saw Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” So much is going on in certain shots that it’ll take several more viewings (which I am gleefully prepared for) to soak it all in. My favorites are the shots from the point of view of the neighbors looking in on Jay’s manic behavior and, in particular, the shot looking in through the windows of various hospital rooms before finally ending up in the one where Jay is resting. No matter the chaotic situation she is facing, these shots demonstrate how life around her continues to go on blissfully unaware, a perspective that’s rarely shown in horror movies. One of the best assets of “It Follows” is its retro synthesizer score by Disasterpeace, resulting in the most memorable main theme of any horror film in the last thirty years.

The ambiguity of the film’s ending is another thing I love about “It Follows.” With the final shot, it is left up to the viewer to decide what happens next. Do our survivors continue to live on, always looking over their shoulder from here on out, or are they as doomed as anyone else who has encountered the entity? If the very 1980’s-style theme of Sex=Death carries on from this point, their chances probably aren’t very good. Personally, I’d like to see things left right where they are. I know how tempting it is to turn even the most moderately well-received horror film into a franchise, and I hope that “It Follows” can be one of the few allowed to stand alone. In this way, I think its legacy would be better served, especially if it paves the way for other retro horror titles in the near future.

Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Growing up during the classic era of Nintendo, I have a lot of fond memories of some really terrific video games, most of which hold up really well to this day. Nothing being released today can ever be as exciting as playing Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES, or my all-time favorite: The Legend of Zelda – A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo (or SNES). I also have regrets over not catching on to certain popular titles when they were fresh and new, such as the Mega Man series. All these long years later, I still have never played Mega Man 2, largely considered to be one of the very best NES games.  But still another memory lingers, that of game-based movies… a lot of really bad game-based movies. Like most any kid in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, video games ate up a large part of my time, as did movies. So, it is my nostalgia for both which begs the question: Why is it so hard for the combined strengths of these two forms of entertainment to produce something beautiful?

When you’re talking about inventing a whole new subgenre of film, the natural instinct is to go right for a title which would be near and dear to the hearts of millions. It only made sense that the title which kickstarted the Nintendo Entertainment System and gave video games in general a second life would be the first choice. After all, the objective is to put as many butts into theater seats as possible, and what better way to do it than with something everyone loves? Something good, something pure… And so it was that the “Super Mario Bros.” movie was unleashed in 1993.
super-mario-bros-movie

I was like pretty much every other kid my age at the time in that I was psyched about this movie. Then I saw some still photos in Nintendo Power magazine and my heart sank. This was beginning to look nothing like what I’d come to expect from the games. The completed film, as it stands, is even worse. There’s a reason why theaters have never shown a “Super Mario Bros. 2″ movie. No one would have gone to see it, having been fooled the first time. So, the video game subgenre of film stumbled out of the gate, and has been struggling ever since. Most of the time, the movies are like “Super Mario Bros.” in that they don’t come particularly close to resembling what gamers would recognize and what is presented isn’t very entertaining to anyone else, either.

About the closest anyone’s come to succeeding in this subgenre are with “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Resident Evil.” Yet even these movies are one-man… or, more accurately, one-woman shows. The two “Tomb Raider” movies are both largely carried on the back of Angelina Jolie, who herself does a great job as the title character. The “Resident Evil” series, standing currently at five movies with a sixth and (allegedly) final one in pre-production, is by far the most sustained, but that doesn’t automatically make it good. Honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard to make a series of zombie films interesting, but it’s almost like the “Resident Evil” films try TOO hard. Once again, it’s up to the series’ lead, in this case Milla Jovovich, to carry all the weight, but as a character invented by the movies, with supporting actors portraying characters who have names and some characteristics in common with their more recognizable (and more beloved) video game counterparts. A case could also be made for the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, as it got a lot of the look and feel of the games down pretty well. The story and the acting may have left a little to be desired, but at least the fight scenes were well choreographed. The less said about the 1997 sequel, the better.

With this genre of film having entered into its third decade of existence, it’s incredible that some of the most popular video game franchises of all-time still have yet to be mined. Based on the popularity of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” there had been some talk about making a live-action “Legend of Zelda” TV series for Netflix, although it seems that idea has been cast aside for now. “Castlevania” could still be a thing. Dracula’s always going to be ‘in,’ no matter how many terrible movies are made with him as the villain. Same with action films with heavy gunplay, which is why “Contra,” one of the very best video games of its kind, could and probably should one day have its day in the sun as a major motion picture. Popularity of “Guardians of the Galaxy” could show that a “Star Fox” movie could be possible, and don’t tell me no one’s thought about bringing “Mega Man” to the big screen. (There have already been a few fan-made films.) He could work in almost any form, anime included. Still, the consequences for screwing up any of the aforementioned titles could well be disastrous, especially in the case of “The Legend of Zelda.” People are still talking more than twenty years later about how terrible the “Super Mario Bros.” movie was. Can you imagine if a “Legend of Zelda” movie got everything totally wrong and then bombed at the box office as a result? Hollywood would never hear the end of it!

The truth is that, until someone with the time and the creativity figures out the right way to blend the two medias together, we as an audience may never see a truly great video game-to-film adaptation. Aside from being faithful to the source material, these movies also need to be the kinds of action films that are like video games you can’t play, but are so mesmerizing that you don’t mind sitting back and watching someone else play them. That in itself could be enough to bring up those old memories of playing these games when you were a kid. If Hollywood can figure out how to do that, then and only then can they have a winning formula on their hands.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Director: McG

Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside, Helena Bonham Carter

These aren’t the droids we’re looking for. One of many series which has had multiple opportunities to hang it up and still leave everyone with a positive feeling, the Terminator franchise had built itself a creative wall not once but twice. First, with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the nuclear fire that would claim billions of human lives had seemingly been prevented. Series ended, right? Wrong. “Terminator 3″ showed that SkyNet can find a way to make Judgment Day happen, no matter what. With the final images of that movie, one couldn’t help thinking that there weren’t an awful lot of options left. About the only story that could still be told would be how John Connor became the leader he has always been told he would be. Naturally, when 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” rolled into theaters, it was expected that we would be shown exactly this. What we got only marginally resembles a “Terminator” movie.

It’s the year 2018, fourteen years after the events of “Terminator 3.” Fourteen years after the end of the world as we had come to know it. At this time, John Connor (Christian Bale) is a polarizing figure. There are those who buy into the predestination paradox of his soon-to-be ascension to the title of Savior of the Human Race. Others who don’t believe in all of that fate crap and who have more years of military experience see him as an unnecessary distraction which they have no choice but to endure. We’re all in this together, after all. So, while not technically a leader, Connor is effectively still the voice of the Resistance, with his words of inspiration being transmitted to any radio signal that is being monitored by surviving humans.

Perhaps this movie’s biggest swerve is that Connor is not THE main character of the story. His time as the central focus of the film is shared with new character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted murderer who, after being executed for his past crimes in 2003, has awakened to a post-apocalyptic Hell. Along the way, Marcus makes a new friend, a young man by the name of Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). When Kyle is later taken as a live prisoner by the Terminators, Marcus makes it a personal mission to rescue him. But, if Marcus thought that his surroundings were like something out of a bad dream, the nightmare for him was only just beginning. A Resistance fighter brings Marcus to John Connor after he accidentally trips a land mine. What should have killed or, at the very least, mutilated Marcus instead reveals him for what he really is: a human/machine hybrid Terminator! This comes as a surprise to everyone (except those who saw the film’s trailer), Marcus most of all.

It seems that SkyNet will never give up trying to kill John Connor. While Marcus is not programmed for assassination missions, SkyNet still uses him as a pawn to further its goal of eliminating its enemy. Having failed to kill John’s mother in 1984 before his birth and again both while he was a child and as a young adult, SkyNet has instead captured Kyle Reese so that Marcus would bring John directly to it. This way, SkyNet has two new opportunities to rid itself of its enemy. It could kill Connor before he is able to direct the final assault in 2029. Failing that, SkyNet could at least kill Kyle Reese as its backup plan. In effect, this would work as the same type of retroactive abortion it had tried in the first “Terminator,” as Kyle’s death would come before fulfilling his destiny of traveling to 1984, protecting and falling in love with Sarah Connor, and fathering John.

This all sounds a lot more exciting than what is actually presented. “Terminator Salvation” unfortunately fails in the execution department. Part of that is because it was written with the intention of making this the first part of a trilogy. As such, the ending is not as fulfilling as others in the series had been. Another excuse could be the rewrites that came after the original script was leaked. The intention of giving John Connor only a limited supporting role to that of Marcus’s main character, perhaps by killing him off at the midway point, did not go over well… hence the changes. Still that doesn’t excuse giving the rest of the cast so very little to do. Poor Kate Brewster (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose character as played by Claire Danes was so integral to the plot of “Terminator 3,” is barely even here… although she is noticeably pregnant, which at least suggests that she and John have been getting busy as of late.

One thing I am grateful for is the toning down of the humor which had gone into overdrive by the time of “Terminator 3.” To give you an example of humor done well in “Terminator Salvation,” the first thing I think of is the running theme of how loud noises, especially music, will instantly alert the Terminators to the presence of humans. This culminates with John Connor using “You Could Be Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, an in-joke reference to “Terminator 2,” to lure a motorcycle drone into a tripwire. Unfortunately even this, at the same time as it brings a smile to my face, only serves to make me wish I were watching either one of the first two films instead.

“Terminator Salvation,” intended to revitalize the series and take it in a new direction, ultimately did not live up to its name. Instead, for the third time, a “Terminator” film would become the product of a film company gone bankrupt and the ideas for the remaining two films in the “Salvation” trilogy would have to be scrapped. With the arrival earlier this month of “Terminator Genisys,” a franchise reboot and a second attempt at a new trilogy of “Terminator” films, this leaves “Terminator Salvation” feeling like more of an odd duck than it already did. Time travel being a part of the series’ legacy, this entry will always have its place in the sense that it exists, but for practical purposes has no bearing on the events of the new film. I’ve seen “Terminator Salvation” only twice, and I don’t know when I’ll be seeing it again. It has none of the replay value of James Cameron’s two classics, which I will continue to watch until the end of time.

Terminator 3 (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Stahl, Claire Danes, Kristanna Loken

Something… is missing. When I look back on “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” that’s the first thing that comes to mind. There are many who were in the camp that felt it was best just to leave it alone after “Terminator 2,” and they’ve got a point. Storylines were wrapped up, Judgment Day was seemingly prevented. The bar had also been raised in terms of special effects and menacing villains, so anything that followed would have to be something very, very special. Yet, inevitably, as film series continue past their expiration date, highly significant pieces to the puzzle will start to go missing. Especially if you wait more than a decade in-between sequels. Even “The Godfather” is guilty of this, waiting 16 years in-between movies 2 and 3. “Terminator 3″ was released a dozen years after “Terminator 2,” and by the time 2003 rolled around, the following personnel had either opted out or were not asked back: James Cameron, Linda Hamilton and Brad Fiedel. So the series would have to move on without its creator/director, lead actress, and composer. Their absence is noticeable, but it is not the only reason for the inferiority of “Terminator 3.”

In 2004, John Connor (Nick Stahl) is a man alone, directionless and homeless. Because he’s never been safe a day in his life, the homeless part is his idea. But after having seemingly prevented Judgment Day, along with his mother, Sarah, and the Terminator which his older self had reprogrammed and sent back in time to protect him, John’s future is unclear to him. Sarah raised her son to believe he would one day lead a human resistance to victory against their machine overlords, but how can that still be his fate if the cataclysmic event that precedes it never took place? August 29, 1997 came and went without incident, and yet John still feels uneasy.

Like Windows and Apple, SkyNet always seems to be dreaming up new pieces of technology. Now comes the T-X (Kristanna Loken), which takes on the appearance of a sexy blonde female and is capable of things her predecessors couldn’t do. It has a metal endoskeleton like the T-800 and can shapeshift like the T-1000, but the T-X can also form plasma cannons and flamethrowers with its arm, and can hook into other machines to control them remotely. This means that, in the case of car chases, the T-X doesn’t have to be right up on our heroes’ bumper to potentially run them off the road. Also, because SkyNet figured that the resistance would likely choose another reprogrammed killing machine to send back in time, fellow Terminators are part of the T-X’s hit list. The T-850 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), itself an enhanced version of the T-800, tells John this much during one of the many times they are trying to evade her.

Equally important to the T-850’s mission is Katherine Brewster (Claire Danes). Aside from being the daughter of a General, Kate is destined to become the wife of John Connor, and second-in-command of the Resistance. She’s the one who will reprogram the T-850 and send it back through time. As much as John must survive, so must Kate. Just like John’s mother was a lowly waitress before the Terminator began stalking her, Kate is a veterinarian. But it’s her family’s military background that lets us know that, although Terminators can still toss her around like a rag doll, Kate is strong-willed right from the start. Kate Brewster has been my favorite part of “Terminator 3″ since I saw it theatrically back in 2003. John is the first to point out, and I agree… she is very similar to his mother.

By this point, you may be asking, “If Judgment Day has been prevented, why do Terminators still exist?” Time travel paradoxes and all that. Well, that’s because it wasn’t prevented, this movie tells us, only postponed. In fact, it’s only hours away. Naturally, that’s not the best piece of news which John and Kate could have received, but it does provide a sense of urgency. Can Judgment Day be stopped? Not so, says the T-850, but John refuses to believe that. If he can prevent three billion human deaths, damnit, he’s going to try!

So far so good, but “Terminator 3″ does take a few missteps. The first is a nitpick, one that I don’t usually try to make but had to because we’re talking about a story which involves time travel. Can we please, for goodness sake, pay attention to dates and times established by the previous films? Overlooked/retconned is John’s age at the time of “Terminator 2.” In the opening monologue he mentions having been thirteen, and later references are made by Kate to having gone to school with him in junior high, until that one day (in T2) when he simply vanished. We’re expected to buy this, despite the previous films establishing the time of the first “Terminator” as 1984, and John’s date of birth being revealed in “Terminator 2″ as having been 2/28/85. For that to still jive AND for him to have been thirteen when the T-1000 tried to kill him, the year would have to have been 1998, one year after the original date of Judgment Day, which wasn’t “prevented” until the film’s climax. Long story short, I call bullshit.

My second gripe is the movie’s overall length. At 1 hour and 49 minutes, “Terminator 3″ stands as the shortest film in the series, and it shows. More than a half-hour shorter than its immediate predecessor,  the brisk pacing of “Terminator 3″ does not allow much room for the human story that was so vital to each of the first two “Terminators.” The T-X is also a casualty of the running time. In each of the previous installments, time was taken to carefully build the villain as an ominous threat. Here, the T-X is both powerful and unrelenting as a Terminator should be, but because the focus of the film is on the imminent Judgment Day and not on John and Kate surviving the T-X’s attack, she becomes less memorable as a result.

The other problem I have with this movie is the same one I had with “Terminator 2″: the humor. The difference here is that it’s moved to the foreground, at times turning what should be as much or more of a serious story than the others into an action-comedy. By this time, a pattern has formed in the way that “Terminator” movies play out. Action sequences, if not copied outright, are at least followed so closely as to make them recognizable. Worst of all are the one-liners. I hate when sequels repeat the favorite lines of the original out of context. But the “Terminator” franchise insists on keeping iterations of “I’ll be back,” “Get out” and “Come with me if you want to live” around all for the sake of a chuckle from members of the audience, including in the forthcoming “Terminator Genisys” if the trailers are any indication. *Sigh*

What would otherwise be a mediocre “Terminator” movie and an “okay” action movie is rescued somewhat by its ballsy ending. You have an indication all the way through that it’s headed in this direction, but it is nice to see the writers not getting squeamish, going for broke, and taking us all the way. So, this wasn’t the ultimate train wreck that certain other third entries have been (“Alien 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Spider-Man 3,” etc.), yet it had the potential to be so much more. We would have to wait another six years to see if the franchise would make any upgrades, or if we simply had another Windows Vista on our hands.

Terminator 2 (1991)

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Joe Morton, Edward Furlong

Foreknowledge of the end of the world would, I think, have to be among the more poisonous burdens for anyone to bear. Just look at what it has done to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). In 1995, eleven years after surviving an assassination attempt by a cybernetic killing machine from 2029, Sarah has been locked away in a mental institution, ranting and raving about August 29, 1997 being our forthcoming “Judgment Day.” She’s in the maximum security wing, both because no one believes her outlandish story and because she attempted to blow up the very computer factory she swears has covered up all the evidence. Hardly the innocent, bumbling waif that she was when we first met her in “The Terminator.”

What Sarah doesn’t know but is about to find out is that Cyberdyne Systems has not only done exactly as she has said, but is even making technological leaps and bounds, with the help of genius computer programmer Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), based on the remnants of the Terminator she destroyed. Worse yet, another more advanced Terminator is on its way to kill her ten year old son, John (Edward Furlong), destined one day to be our savior. Fortunately, as before, future John sent a protector for his present day self. This one’s a Terminator of the same model and design (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as the one which tried to kill his mother, and killed a number of other people in its path, including many of those dearest to Sarah. These factors and more led the Mother of the Future to seek out every like-minded Armageddon fetishist she could find to help prepare both herself and her son for the storm just over the horizon. Yet none could take the place of her one, true beloved: John’s father, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn).

Sequels which opt for the “bigger is better” approach either succeed or fail based off of which path they take. The ones which fail generally do so because they forsake storytelling for lots of cool ‘splosions. The ones that succeed take the universe which the original created and expand upon it. If they can do this while also being revolutionary in the special effects department, well, that’s just a bonus. This describes “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” perfectly. Giving Arnold Schwarzenegger the heroic role, we are able to learn from him a lot more about just what it means to be a Terminator. We certainly aren’t going to learn these things from the T-1000 (Robert Patrick), an abominable creation made of liquid metal. Unlike Arnold’s T-800, the T-1000 is more adept at blending in with his environment, both in choosing the default appearance of a mild-mannered cop and in his ability to transform into anyone he comes into contact with, even merging with the floor if need be. It took serious creativity to come up with the techniques used to bring the T-1000 to life. At the time, the special effects in “Terminator 2″ were state of the art, and are still an amazing achievement that holds up well almost 25 years later.

Like its predecessor, what really sells “Terminator 2″ is not the action sequences, the special effects or even the imposing villain, but its human story. You have the fatherless John Connor latching onto his new best friend, the Terminator, and teaching him how to be human. While these parts of the movie tend to get a bit too cutesy and take away from the Terminator’s intimidation factor, it still serves the narrative well, especially in the Extended Edition. Speaking of which, Sarah’s part of the story is better served by the extra scenes. For one thing, her stay at the institution is much longer, and there’s even a dream sequence which sees the brief return of Kyle Reese.

Easily my favorite moment in “Terminator 2″ comes when Sarah has made her decision to drive to the home of Miles Dyson and murder him. She does manage to wound him, but stops short of completing the deed. She sees that her paranoia has led her to behave like the machines she has grown to both hate and fear. Unlike a Terminator, Sarah is not emotionless, and it is this difference which allows her to see the error of her ways. I absolutely love the way Linda Hamilton plays this scene. She’s spent the entire movie as this half-crazed, hardened woman who can think of almost nothing but the end of everything. As she stops herself from pulling the trigger, sparing Dyson’s life, you can see a spark of the woman she was before all of this shit rained down on her back in 1984.

“Terminator 2″ is often cited as one of, if not the best sequel of all-time. I can’t take it quite that far (“Godfather Part II” is still the champion of second entries), in part because of the domestication of Arnold’s Terminator and the lingo he’s taught to use, which is the one thing that dates this movie. Otherwise, it’s one hell of an accomplishment, one which James Cameron could never have topped. That’s probably one of the reasons why he has never returned to the franchise, the other being that “Terminator 2″ offered what at the time appeared to be a pretty definitive ending. Then again, so did Cameron’s “Aliens,” and we know how that turned out.

Animal Crackers (1930)

Director: Victor Heerman

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Lillian Roth

Anyone who says Black & White movies are irrelevant because they’re too old has never seen a Marx Brothers feature. I can still recall a time when my own perceptions of Golden Age comedy were colored by a growing apathy towards the slapstick routines of the Three Stooges and a sense that any topical humor would inevitably come off sounding rather dated. Then I sat down and watched “Animal Crackers,” the second feature film starring Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and, of course, Groucho. Apart from Zeppo’s everyman character (who often fades into the background), each of them brought something to the table that not only distinguished them individually, but would inspire countless comedians in the 80+ years that have passed since. Although many critics and fans favor either 1933’s “Duck Soup” or 1935’s “A Night at the Opera” (both of them outstanding in their own right), I was won over by “Animal Crackers” with four simple words: “Hooray for Captain Spaulding!”

The plot of “Animal Crackers” is a very simple one. During a party held at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont), three groups with their own separate agendas all form plots to steal a painting on display inside the home, intending to replace the more valuable original with a copy. This includes the con artist team of Signor Ravelli (Chico Marx) and his mute partner, The Professor (Harpo Marx). The whole reasoning for said party is the return from the African Jungle of Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), and the entrance he makes is one for the ages. Carried in by human caravan like royalty, Captain Spaulding immediately launches into a sequence of non-sequiturs which lets you know that this guy enjoys being the smartest/wittiest man in the room. He can start off by talking about art and then segue into pointing out how cranberries can be made to taste like prunes if stewed in just the right way, all without ever missing a beat. Also presented in these first ten minutes of the film are its two best songs: “Hello, I Must Be Going” and “Hooray for Captain Spaulding.” Though the former would later become his theme song, it is the latter which instantly made me a Groucho Marx fan. After repeatedly being interrupted by the song’s chorus, Captain Spaulding finally gives in, interrupts himself and then breaks the fourth wall, insisting “Well, somebody’s gotta do it!” Doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen “Animal Crackers.” That scene always makes me laugh until my sides hurt.

This is not to say that Groucho is your only reason for watching “Animal Crackers.” Both Chico and Harpo have their time to shine, as well. As is their usual shtick, the two play bumbling thieves/con artists. There is the card game during which they are caught blatantly cheating with multiple copies of the various suits. Signor Ravelli, the dimwitted Italian, impresses no one while the Professor, silent but sneaky, irritates everyone at the same time as he is picking their pockets clean. Chico and Harpo both also put on display their musical talents. Signor Ravelli sits down at the piano, initially annoying Captain Spaulding with a repetitive number to which he cannot remember the finish, and then with a more beautiful tune. But it’s Harpo. as the Professor, playing the harp (a somewhat dying art nowadays) who really brings the house down.

As with “The Cocoanuts,” the Marx Brothers had first performed “Animal Crackers” as a stage play. Considering the way in which the movie’s narrative is structured, and keeping in mind the way in which Groucho often plays to the audience/camera, this comes as no surprise. Also like their first film, the brothers found themselves at odds with their director. Groucho, in particular, butted heads with Victor Heerman, often over his trademark appearance. Heerman didn’t believe that audiences would buy into Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows and moustache. Well I say, “horse feathers” (No, wait, that’s another Marx Bros. film, entirely!) and apparently so did Groucho.

Based on my thorough enjoyment of this film, I purchased two box sets of Marx Brothers movies on DVD, which includes all of the group’s twelve movies: five with Zeppo, and seven after Zeppo’s departure. Often, the supporting cast would include many of the same players. Margaret Dumont was a regular feature. Most of the time, though, they were mostly relegated to the background in favor of the brothers’ antics. Only once did a co-star ever manage to upstage Groucho, Harpo and Chico: a young Lucille Ball in 1938’s “Room Service,” whose own legacy is cemented by the TV series “I Love Lucy,” which has remained in syndication ever since the end of its original run more than sixty years ago. Though “Animal Crackers” was originally made with a pre-World War II audience in mind, it too never has and probably never will lose any of its potency.

james-horner

Part of growing up is learning how to say “goodbye.” Sometimes, that means having to bid farewell to friends and family alike. Composer James Horner was neither of these things to me. I never had the privilege of meeting the man. Even so, through the music he produced for dozens of movies in a period spanning nearly four decades, I have felt as though I’ve come to know him well. Most of my favorite film scores were his, and it is the knowledge that we’ve heard the last of his brilliant and beautiful creations that hits me the hardest.

Horner’s first major film score was for 1979’s “The Lady in Red,” when he was just 26 years old. His list of credits would grow to include “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” “48 Hrs.,” “Cocoon,” “Commando,” “Aliens,” “An American Tail,” “Willow,” “The Land Before Time,” ” Field of Dreams,” “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Glory,” “Patriot Games,” “Legends of the Fall,” Braveheart,” Apollo 13,” “Titanic,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Avatar” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” among many others. There is even at least one key scene towards the end of “Die Hard” where that film’s composer, Michael Kamen, briefly hands over the reigns to Horner.

Looking over this list,  I see many films which I grew up with, whose soundtracks I know by heart. Whenever I went on an out-of-state field trip in both middle school and high school, I maintained a tradition of bringing along with me the soundtrack to “Apollo 13.” As soon as the bus would pull out of the school parking lot, I would immediately press “PLAY” on the Main Title theme. I’ve been listening to that one a lot since last night’s sad news first broke. Anybody who grew up in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s will doubtless recall the numerous movie trailers which made use of the track “Bishop’s Countdown” from Horner’s “Aliens” score. Epic stuff. But I keep going back to those soundtracks for “Star Trek II” and “Star Trek III.” A Trekker since the age of four, I’ve counted those two soundtracks as my absolute favorite of any movie to this very day. Although I have grown weary of the overuse of “Amazing Grace” at every single funeral I attend or see displayed on television, I count Horner’s rendition from “Star Trek II” as the only version I’ll never tire of hearing. Right now, though, I can’t bear to listen to it. The wound is still too fresh.

For me, it’s unusual for a celebrity’s demise to hit me the way James Horner’s has. Part of it is his young age of 61. Another factor is the manner in which he left us. The sudden, unexpected plane crash that claimed him, a man whose other passion beyond creating beautiful music was in soaring through the skies, only makes it harder to accept. Yet, here we are… living in a world without James Horner in it. 2015 has been an especially hard year to be a “Star Trek” fan. We had already lost “Star Trek: The Next Generation” producer/writer Maurice Hurley, Harve Bennett (executive producer of Star Trek II, III, IV and V), actress Grace Lee Whitney and Mr. Spock, himself: Leonard Nimoy. But even Nimoy has not had the impact on my life which Horner and his music did. The best way I can think of to find solace is the belief that he will never be truly dead as long as his life’s work continues to make similar impressions on others in the years to come.