Favorite Cult Classics (Part The First)

It might be that I’m feeling nostalgic, or it might be that since my wife and I sprung for Netflix, I’ve been finding my way back to several of my favorite old movies. Hard to say exactly. All I know for sure is, I want to talk about the cult classic movies that I like best. You know what I’m talking about! Those rare gems, those diamonds in the rough, the movies that few seem to know about, but those who do always seem to love.

Yes, THOSE movies! Sure, we’ve all seen plenty of big hits, but these movies are the ones that occupy a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because they are not so widely known, like the Star Wars’ and and Indiana Jones‘ of our time. Perhaps it’s because they didn’t get the recognition or the money they deserved, at least in their own time. Or it could be that they were simply the kind of things that got better with time.

In any case, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 favorite cult classics, movies which I saw during my childhood, teen years and even in my twenties, and keep coming back too. Some were adventurous, some were funny, some were downright cheesy. But all have two things in common: One, none of them are known beyond a select group of appreciators, at least in this country. And two, those who like them, like them a lot! Check out the list below and see if you agree, and feel free to tell me your own favorites as well. I know we all got em!

Akira:
One of the greatest animes I have ever seen, and with a very poignant and intriguing story to boot, Akira starts this list off right! The movie adapted several volumes of manga to screen, and did so in such a way that didn’t skimp on either story or detail. Even shortened, the plot still manages to convey the sense of awe and dread of atomic war, revolution, and evolutionary cataclysm. And the fact that the bulk of it is told from the point of view of disillusioned orphans who are all part of a bier gang only heightens the sense on confusion and angst of little people being thrown into situations far greater than they can handle.

And then there was the quality of the movie itself. Having seen this movie several times now and different versions thereof, I can tell you that no matter what the format, every single frame was animated in such a way as to be saturated. And not with digital effects, mind you, but with hand-drawn animations that really manage to capture the post apocalyptic and cyberpunk feel of Katsuhiro Otomo’s original graphic novel.

All in all, I consider this movie to be compatible in many respects to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that they both deal with grandiose of questions of existence, biological evolution, and both managed to blow my mind! And having first been exposed to both of them in my teen years, they are partly responsible for kindling my love of science fiction.

Army of Darkness:
Here’s a movie I kept being told to see, but did not get around to seeing until I was in university. And truth be told, it took me two viewings to really get the appeal of it. After that, it grew on me until I finally found myself thinking it hilarious, and quoting from it whenever I could. “Come get some!” “Groovy!” “This be my BOOMSTICK!” and “Good? Bad? I’m the one with the gun!” All classic lines!

Yeah, this movie is definitely filed in the guilty pleasure section, the space reserved for movies that are deliberately cheesy, over the top, and have a robust sense of humor about themselves. It’s also one of the many that gave Sam Raimi (director of the Spiderman trilogy) his start, and established Bruce Campbell (who appeared in all three) as a gifted ham actor.

Taking the position that decapitations and flesh-eating demons can be funny, this movie tells the story of a blue-collar, rough and tumble, one-liner spouting man named Ash who’s been sent back in time to fight an army of the undead. Automatically, hijinks ensue as he tries to convince people he’s not a demon himself, but instead chooses to establish who’s boss by demonstrating the power of his chainsaw and “boomstick” (aka. his sawed-off double-barrel shotgun).

But predictably, this anti-hero rises to the challenge and becomes a real hero, and does so with as little grace as possible! And of course, there’s a love story as well, which is similarly graceless thanks to Ash’s lowbrow romantic sensibilities. Nothing is left untouched by the ham and cheese! And all throughout, the gun fights, duels, and confrontations with creepy, evil forces are hilarious, made possible by Campbell’s hammy acting, facial expressions, one-liners and some wonderfully bad cinematography. Think Xena: Warrior Princess, but with guns and foul language!

Blade Runner:
Another personal favorite, and one which I wish I had come to know sooner. But lucky for me I was still a teen when I saw this movie, hence I can say that I saw it while still in my formative years. And today, years later, I still find myself appreciating it and loving it as one can only love a cult hit. It’s just that kind of movie which you can enjoy over and over again, finding new things to notice and appreciate each time.

And once again, my appreciation for this movie is due to two undeniable aspects. On the one hand, Ridley Scott created a very rich and detailed setting, a Los Angeles of the 21st century dominated by megastructures, urban sprawl, pollution and polarized wealth. It was the picture perfect setting of cyberpunk, combining high-tech and low-life.

On the other hand, there was the story. Loosely adapted from PKD’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, this version of a future differed greatly in that the artificial humans, the antagonists of the original story, were about the only sympathetic characters in the story. The result was not a cautionary tale on the dangers of creating life in our own image as much as a commentary about the line between the artificial and the real.

The question it asked was: if you overcome all boundaries, if machines possess memory, feelings and a fear of death, is there anything at all to separate them from the rest of us? Will their lives be worth any less than ours, and what will it even mean to be alive?

Conan The Barbarian:
Here’s a movie which has appeared in some friends “guilty pleasure” list, usually next to Predator, Commando and other Anrie classics. But I am here today to tell you it really doesn’t belong. Unlike many 80’s Arnie movies that were so bad, they were good, this movie had some genuine quality and depth to it.

Examples? Well, for starters, this movie was a faithful adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s original concept, Conan the Cimmerian, which was first published in 1932. This franchise, which went through countless adaptations over the ensuing decades, wove real history and myth together with fantasy to create a tale of a bronze age adventurer who traveled across the ancient world, seeking fortune and glory.

One can see this in the movie as well. To create the setting and the various people that make up the universe, imagery, mythology and even names were borrowed from various real sources. For example, the Cimmerians (Conan’s people) were inspired by Celtic and Norse sources. The followers of Thulsa Doom, black-clad warriors from the East, were meant to resemble the Huns, the Goths, and other Eastern invaders. There are also several scenes showing a warlike people meant to resemble the Mongol Hoards, and much of the setting was made to resemble ancient cities of lore – Babylon, Jerusalem, Antioch, et al.

Add to all this some pretty damn good writing and good storytelling, and you can see why this movie has remained enduringly popular with many people over the years. Arnie excelled as the stone-faced barbarian of few words, but who made them count when he chose to spoke. James Earl Jones was exceptional as the amoral, Nietzschean warlord Thulsa Doom, and the production value was surprisingly good for a low-budget flick.

Serenity:
Yeah, I get the feeling everybody knows what I’m talking about with this one! After losing the wonderful show in the midst of its first season, every fan of Firefly was pleased to know that Joss Whedon would be making a full length movie. And personally, I th0ught he did a pretty good job with it too!

Picking up where the show left off, we are reunited with our favorite characters as they continue to work freelance jobs and try to stay one step ahead of the law and the expanding Alliance. From the outset, it is clear that things are getting desperate, as the jobs are proving more risky, and the Reavers are moving in from the Outer Rim. At the same time, a new threat has been thrown in in the form of an Alliance agent known only as the “Operative”, who has made it his business to bring River in at any cost.

And I personally loved how all these threads came together in a singular way, showing how the Reavers, River’s condition, and the Alliance’s ultimate agenda were all connected. Not only was it a tight and entertaining plot that captured the same sense of loss and desperation as the show, it also gave a sense of closure to the series, which ended before its time.

Yes, for myself and many fans, this movie is a way of commemorating a truly great show and idea that faltered because of insensitive boobs couldn’t see the value in it. But that seemed thematically consistent with the series itself, which was all about rebels in a hopeless fight against an evil empire. Take a lesson from this Fox Network, sooner or late,r the bad guys lose!

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For brevity’s sake and the fact that I’m a busy man, I’ve decided to divide this list in half. Stay tuned for entries six through ten, coming up tomorrow! Happy Thanksgiving y’all!

Cityspeak (Blade Runner)

bladerunner“That gibberish he talked was Cityspeak, gutter talk, a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you. I didn’t really need a translator. I knew the lingo, every good cop did. But I wasn’t going to make it easier for him.” – Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), Voiceover

That’s how Ridley Scott explained it in his adaptation of Blade Runner. Well, technically Ford did the explaining through the character of Deckard, but that’s neither here nor there. Point is, Cityspeak was something that did not appear in the novel version of Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It was instead an original creation, designed to give the future-noire city of LA some subtext and a more gritty, realistic feel.

I mean, let’s face it. Overcrowded cities have a way of spawning their own lingo, and in a mega-city that is congested with millions of people, hundreds of cultures and dozens of languages, something like this would be sure to emerge. It was simply a matter of predicting which major languages would be involved, and writing the script in the 80’s, it was only natural that the languages of the most populous and wealthiest nations would do.

English was and still is the trade language of the world, Japanese was quickly becoming another one, Spanish was already spoken by millions in California and all over the South-Western US, Germany was next to Japan as being the world’s strongest economies, and Chinese… well, there were over a billion speakers of Chinese even back then. So really, Cityspeak was a legitimate sci-fi concept.

But here’s an interesting fact: turns out Edward James Olmos – who played the character of Gaff, the only one who spoke Cityspeak – was the man chiefly responsible for its creation. Relying on his diverse ethnic background and some in-depth research, he managed to come up with all the lines his character spoke in the course of that opening scene where it makes it debut.

Not only did he rely on his own Hungarian background, he took some night courses and studied inner-city youth lingo, relying even on his own experiences of living in the Philippines. As he recalled, Filipino cab drivers had their own lingo, a combination Spanish, Tagalog and the occasional English words which they would insert into their speech. One can see this in the lines of dialogue he composed, which were diverse and had several words in English for which no translation would be found.

Here’s the conversation as it appeared in the movie in full:

Gaff: Monsieur, azonnal kövessen engem, bitte!
Sushi Master: He say you under arrest, Mister Deckard.
Deckard: Got the wrong guy, pal.
Gaff: Lófaszt! Nehogy már! Te vagy a Blade, Blade Runner!
Sushi Master: He say you blade runner.
Deckard: Tell him I’m eating.
Gaff: Captain Bryant toka. Meni-o mae-yo.
Deckard: Bryant, huh?

The first section breaks down as follows:
Monsieur (French): Sir
azonnal kövessen engem (Hungarian): follow me immediately
bitte (German): please

The second, however, was entirely in Hungarian:
Lòfàszt!: Bullshit! (Or horse dick, depending on how literal you want to get!)
Nehogy már!: Do it!
Te vagy a Blade, Blade Runner!: You are the Blade, Blade Runner!

The last sentence… Well, it stumped me! Yep, not even a few full-on Google searches or several rounds with Google Translate and Babel Fish could crack this code! And I tried everything they listed, Japanese, Chinese, German, even Hungarian. But luckily, the Blade Runner crew had already provided a translation, it’s just that there was no mention of which languages were used. It reads as follows:
“Captain Bryant toka. Meni-o mae-yo” (Captain Bryant ordered me to escort you to him).

And that’s Cityspeak for you, something Ridley Scott and his Blade Runner adaptation was famous for, but which was mainly the creation of Edward James Olmos. I guess he’s not just a pretty face, or the man that played Adama and won the love of countless Battlestar Galactic nerds…

Blade Runner!

Third on the queue, the sci-fi and cult classic Blade Runner! Thank God too, since my first two reviews were both about movies I really didn’t like. While it’s fun to bash bad movies, it can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Good movies are like Listerine that way, they cleanse the critical palette, renew your faith in the visual medium. And as promised when I first decided to do reviews, movies based on books would receive special mention, especially movies that differed greatly from the books that inspired them. Truth be told, I had Blade Runner in mind when I made that statement, and a number of other Philip K Dick stories that went on to become films. In fact, the movies Minority Report, Paycheck, Impostor, The Adjustment Bureau, and Screamers were all movies based on Dick’s stories (which I plan to review soon enough!). And in every case, the films were quite different from the original works. You might even say it’s the Philip K Dick curse: to see your novels and short stories inspire film adaptations, but only after you’ve died and always with big changes! And without a doubt, Blade Runner was the most extreme case of this curse at work. In terms of plot, story, and especially tone and setting, the movie was vastly different from the novel. I’d say shame on the people who made this movie, but the truth is, it kind of worked in their favor…

(Background—>)
A few years back, I finally got around to reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the original title of the novel that would be the basis for the Blade Runner movie. Having already seen the movie, I found the novel quite surprising, and at times, downright odd. But it’s message and style eventually won me over, as did the comical and satirical aspects that Dick made use of. Whereas the movie was set in a Los Angeles of the future – a noire, dystopian crowded cityscape marked by flying cars and massive video advertisements on the sides of skyscrapers – the novel takes place in a relatively depopulated post-apocalyptic LA where the only people who remain are those who are either too poor or don’t have the requisite IQ levels to get a pass off-world. These colonies get a passing mention in the movie in the form of ads being broadcast from flying zeppelins, but the focus is overwhelmingly on life in the city. Another major difference is the lack of satirical consumer goods that were in the original novel: emotional dialers that people use to set their moods and empathy boxes that are basically TV’s that provide an interactive emotional experience. Both were touches of genius, hilarious but also very interesting in how they help to advance the story.

But by far, the greatest difference between the novel and the movie was in terms of theme. Whereas the novel was very much concerned with the fine line between artifice and authenticity (the robots representing the former), the movie depicted the Replicants (the AI’s) as tragic figures who are given the gift of life, only to have it taken away in the form of slavery, four-year lifespans, and “retirement” (i.e. execution) if they break the rules. So really, the book was a touch more simple in how it perceived machines: as cold and heartless, characterized by false animals, false humans, and nuclear arms. The movie depicted this in more complicated terms, blurring the lines between artificial and authentic, human and machine. Whereas in the book we don’t much care about the Replicants, in the movie, they are about the only characters we sympathize with.

(Content—>)
The movie opens on the city of Los Angeles in the future, circa 2019, where a Blade Runner detective has gone to the Tyrell Corp (the maker of Replicants for off-world use) to issue a Voight-Kampff test to one of the employees. This test, we soon learn, measures emotional responses and is the only way to tell the difference between a Replicant and a human. This is because the latest models (known as Nexus 6’s) have surpassed humans in all aspects, but still have a hard time mimicking human emotions. The Tyrell Corporations motto is “more human than human” for a reason, you see. And for reasons of legality that are mentioned in the movie’s preamble, no Replicants are allowed on Earth, so anyone suspected of being one is required to take the test and then “retired” if they fail. Upon realizing why he’s being tested, the employee shoots the Blade Runner and escapes. Guess he failed!

We then move to the character of Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), who is enjoying a bowl of noodles at a street vendor when a bunch of LA police men approach him and demand he come with them. In this scene, we are given a ground level view of the noire city, as well as a taste of cityspeak. This lingo is the language of the street in the Blade Runner universe, a mishmash of various tongues which is illustrated beautifully by the character of Gaff (played by Edward James Olmos). Deckard goes with them and is told by his old chief that he’s needed again, and despite his reluctance, he takes the job. As his boss says, “you’re not cop, you’re little people!”, meaning he really has no choice in the matter. What follows is an admittedly expository scene, but a totally justified one, where we learn who the “bad guys” are as well as some other pertinent facts. For example, we learn that in addition to their difficulty approximating human emotions, Nexus 6’s also have a four year lifespan that ensures that they will never be able to overcome this flaw. Too much time, too many memories, and they might become totally indistinguishable from the rest of us. Spine tingly!

Afterward, Deckard goes to the Tyrell corp to meet the CEO and learn what he can from them. Sidenote: I could be wrong but I think the set designers got an award for the design of this one building. Part sky scraper, part Ziggurat, totally awesome! Here, we meet not only Tyrell himself, but a Replicant named Rachael (played by Sean Young). She represents a new breed of machine specially created by Tyrell to test out a new idea: giving Replicants memories so they’ll have an easier time dealing with emotions. After running the Voight-Kampff test on her, Deckard is both intrigued and frightened by her, a feeling that haunts him for the rest of the movie, and that I believe is meant to represent the love-hate relationship humanity has with technology. What is also interesting is that she doesn’t yet know that she’s a machine, but once the test is done, she overhears Deckard talking to Tyrell and is shattered by the news.

The movie then splits between the Replicant party, led by a unit named Batty (Rutger Hauer) who is trying to find the men most directly responsible for their creation, and Deckard who is trying to find the Replicants and determine why they came to Earth in the first place. In between, there are the scenes that catalog the budding romance between Deckard and Rachael, who herself seems to be torn between her attraction to Deckard on the one hand, and disgust over what he does. This part of the story, more than anything, helps to illustrate the blurred line that exists between artificial and real. While a relationship between the two of them would certainly be considered taboo, neither of them can resist the allure of the other. Over time, Rachael appears to make peace with the fact that she is a machine, and Deckard seems to get over it as well (wink wink!)

Ultimately, Batty and what is left of his companions (because Deckard keeps killing them), make their way to Tyrell himself. Their whole purpose, we learn, was to find a way to extend their lives. What follows is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes in cinematic history. In the course of a very civilized conversation, Batty is told that there is no way to extend his life, and never was. His hopes, and everything they did in order to get to Earth and find Tyrell, were therefore in vain. Tyrell tries to comfort him by telling him that “the candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright.” He further tells him to let go of whatever guilt he harbors for all the things he did to get to Earth and see him, that he should “revel in his time”. But, overcome by anger and grief, Batty kills Tyrell and escapes from the building. One of the things that makes this scene so good is the fact that you genuinely get the feeling that a sort of father-son dynamic (or that of a man meeting his God) is taking place between them. In addition, you can feel the pain being exuded by Hauer as he kills Tyrell. Obviously it pains him to murder his “father”, but he’s got nothing to lose and just needs someone to blame for the fact that he’s going to die and is helpless to do anything about it.

Shortly thereafter, a confrontation ensues between Deckard and Batty at the Replicant’s hideout. And in spite of the fact that Deckard has now killed all his companions and he is poised to deliver the death blow, Batty chooses instead to save his life. His final scene, as he sits half-naked in the rain holding a dove, are yet another example of cinematic genius. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…” he says, the rain dripping from his face. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain… Time to die.” So sad, even Harris Ford shed tears, and he’s fricking Han Solo and Indiana Jones! The police then show up, Gaff let’s him know that his girlfriend’s secret is out, but that he left her alone. As he says, “It’s a shame she won’t live. But then again, who does?” Whether or not he’s referring to the fact that she will eventually be hunted down, or to her four year lifespan, is still a bit of a mystery to me. But in either case, by the end, Deckard is finished with being a Blade Runner and runs off with Rachael, finding a measure of redemption through his relationship with her.

(Synopsis—>)
Blade Runner was panned by some critics who didn’t like the pacing of it, and my own wife remarked the first time she saw it that she felt a little let down. But of course she, and I imagine many of those critics, were expected an action movie and not the cinematic tour de force that it was. With a name like Blade Runner, you kinda sorta think it’s going to be an action flick. But upon seeing it for a second time, her feelings changed and she saw the depth it undeniably has. And despite doing poorly at the box office, time has been very good to this movie, elevating it to the status of a cult classic and an example of cinematic gold. In fact, over the years it has appeared on numerous top 100 lists, not only as one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, but also one of the best movies period. Who am to argue? And hell, why would I even want to? I love this movie!

Blade Runner:
Entertainment value: 7/10 (admittedly, bit slow in places)
Plot: 8/10
Direction: 10/10 baby!
Overall: 8.5/10