The Stuff is all the rage and people can’t seem to get enough lol, in a dusty, hazy old Larry Cohen flick that Shudder has salvaged for a VHS quality transfer. This is a great little schlock flick as long as you ignore the sheer, hilarious lack of a proper beginning or ending, seriously this thing just… starts without any sort of introduction and then when it’s had it’s fun it just… ends, quite unceremoniously as if there were multiple reels missing from the original print. What’s in between is top shelf schlock with bizarrely earnest performances from a terrific cast and some gloriously gooey, visually stimulating practical effects. Hollywood character actor royalty and Cohen regular Michael Moriarty plays some kind of corporate investigator who is mighty suspicious of The Stuff.. what is ‘The Stuff’, exactly? It’s a sentient, gelatinous white goo that literally bubbles up from crevices beneath the earth and has now been patented by a food processing conglomerate and marketed as a tasty ice cream style dessert, to massive popularity and demand from the public. Only problem is, this stuff has a malicious agenda and not only inspires dangerous cravings and maniacal addiction in its indulgers, it takes over their minds and even physically attacks them. As in all Cohen flicks there is deft social satire woven in amongst the slime and there’s something in here about mad consumerism and the unchecked corporate greed that fuels it, brought to deadpan life by some truly great actors having a blast of hammy fun. Moriarty is always on his A game and rocks it here, with a crisp suit and cowboy boots as oiled up as his attitude, while we are treated to great supporting work from Paul Sorvino as an impossibly patriotic army colonel and the late great Danny Aiello as a smarmy company man who gets his just desserts. There’s a genuinely creepy sequence where a young boy’s entire family, now mentally enslaved by The Stuff, cajoles and coerces him into eating it, it’s a terrifically suspenseful midsection interlude that’s most effective in raising tension. My favourite aspect of the film are the effects used for The Stuff, which are brilliantly tactile, wonderfully animate and really do feel like a disgusting 7-11 dessert full of horrible ingredients that has somehow come to life, like they melted down the Stay Puft marshmallow man from Ghostbusters and the remaining ectoplasmic goo started running about the place Terminator 2 style. I don’t know if a Blu Ray or even DVD transfer exists for this but the version Shudder has gotten it’s hands on is so shockingly low quality it’s tough to understand everything that’s happening onscreen but on the other hand it adds atmosphere and ‘lo-fi VHS’ vibes that are appropriate considering the tone of the film. Good Stuff.
It always amazes me when a first time writer/director scores an all out, diamond encrusted A-list cast that would make the top dog filmmakers in Hollywood jealous, but it often results in a scantly marketed film that no one really ends up seeing but just happens to have a huge star studded ensemble in a quiet, curious independent piece that few are aware of. Such is the case in Joshua Michael Stern’s NeverWas, a beautiful modern fairytale that slipped under the radar back in the mid 2000’s but is ripe for rediscovery. Aaron Eckhart plays a rookie psychiatrist who expresses interest in working at a troubled mental health facility in rural BC, Canada, an institution where his mentally ill father (Nick Nolte) lived at years before. He was once a great children’s author who wrote about a magical kingdom called NeverWas and built a considerable legacy around his books, before becoming sadly unstable and being committed. Eckhart’s character wishes to find out wheat happened years before and treat some of these people now attending the facility, while the somewhat skeptical director (a sly William Hurt) doesn’t have high hopes for the program overall. Things get interesting when delusional patient Gabriel (Ian McKellen) starts mentioning NeverWas in his group sessions and believes it to be real, and Eckhart to be somehow connected to the legacy. What is he on about, why does he express a desire to break out and return to a place he calls his ‘kingdom’, and what’s his connection to the long gone father? McKellen is wonderful in the role, fiercely passionate and charismatic while showing heartbreaking undertones of some past trauma he can’t articulate yet needs to work through with this fantastical delusions. Nolte gives a mini powerhouse performance in just flashbacks alone and is incredibly affecting, while the late great Brittany Murphy is cast refreshingly against type as a local naturalist who expresses interest in this unusual situation. The cast is so blinged out that even the smallest roles have been given to someone super recognizable and so we get to see people like Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Michael Moriarty, Bill Bellamy and Vera Farmiga show up and not necessarily have much to do character wise other than simply bless the production with their attendance. The lush Canadian setting provides a gorgeous atmosphere for this strange, quaint and very personal story to unfold, anchored by McKellen in a superb, emotionally rich portrayal that he sticks with and lands with a final beat to the arc that cuts right to the essential. The film also managed to score Philip Glass for its original score (Candyman, Tales From The Loop, The Hours) a man whose unmistakable compositions always provide an auditory heart and propellant momentum, his work adding a lot to the overall experience here. The very definition of a hidden gem and well worth seeking out for the unbelievable cast and unique, touching story.
The darker side of the military is a touchy subject for Hollywood, as it’s supposed to be an outfit that sets a glowing standard of honour and nobility for everyone. But, like any other business or organization, it has a flip side too, and in Edward Zwick’s Courage Under Fire we see just what can go wrong in the ranks when no one is looking. Denzel Washington plays a traumatized gulf war vet who is tasked with assessing whether a heroic, deceased helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) is worthy of the medal of honour, which would be awarded to the first female officer in history. Only problem is, testimonies from her fellow comrades in arms simply don’t add up. Two in particular, played by a gaunt Matt Damon and an excellent Lou Diamond Phillips, certainly know more than they let on and appear to harbour some deep guilt riddled scandal. With some help from a stern superior general (Michael Moriarty) and a journalist source (Scott Glenn) Washington must navigate this minefield of misdeeds and deception, and the story takes him to some fairly visceral, intense places. It’s just shy of melodrama when the secrets do come out, the third act a horrifying exposé, everyone’s expectations and image of the platoon unravelling. The rest of the soldiers are played by a hectic bunch including Bronson Pinchot, Zelijko Ivanek, Sean Astin, Sean Patrick Thomas and Bruce McGill. Ryan fares well in a role that’s essentially just a plot device, as we already know the eventual outcome of her arc, but she adds mystery and resilience to the scenes she does get. It’s like a political horror story, this one, showing the absolute worst outcome of a situation like this, and the lengths some scared individuals will go to smother any mention of it. Zwick handles the broad strokes well, and we end up with quite a stalwart, fiercely made war piece.
Who’ll Stop The Rain is a sadly forgotten Nam era film that deftly blends genre better than most movies can ever hope to. The level of quality ratio to the amount of people who remember it is criminally unbalanced, but that’s commonplace in cinema. The title comes from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, serving as both a metaphor in itself and a theme for the film, an anti war outcry that warbles forth beautifully at least five different times during the movie, becoming the script’s national anthem. Plus,who can say no to CCR on loop. It’s actually one of the best and most fervent anti war films out there, showing you an extended look at just how many ways the Vietnam War followed soldiers home and infected many customs, institutions and individuals. That kind of important sentiment wrapped up in a thriller is the kind of package I strive to find in film, and this is a glowing example. Nick Nolte plays Ray Hicks, an american GI getting ready to head back stateside after a tour. His best buddy John Converse (Michael Moriarty) convinces him to smuggle a brick of hash back with him and deliver it to his wife (Tuesday Weld). Only problem is, that ain’t where it ends. The people John was in contact with turn out to be a dodgy bunch, and before Ray knows it he’s o the run from some very dangerous dudes with his best buddy’s wife in tow, headed straight for a violent confrontation via a slow burn of a plot that sits on a low boil before you realized it’s reached a fever pitch. Nolte and Weld are a corrosive romantic couple, making the downbeat best of their situation, evading two nasty drug runners (Anthony Zerbe and Richard Masur being scary and classy as fuck) and getting a feel for each other along the way. Thriller. Drama. War. Moral dilemma. This one’s got it all, in a very specific concoction that never forces anything and treats you to more than it ever promised, before you have the chance to realize it. All timer stuff.