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Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Heaven’s Gate fails so completely, you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter, and the devil has just come around to collect.—Vincent Canby, The New York Times

…the fact is the picture does not have one good scene, or one good character, and it goes on for several hours. I think it’s very interesting visually, but there is nothing that can carry it with an audience.—Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (in a 1982 interview with Jean-Luc Godard)

A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.
 But Cimino’s in deeper trouble still.—Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Has a more notorious film than Heaven’s Gate ever been made? Michael Cimino’s follow-up to a masterpiece, 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was plagued by budget overruns and negative press from day one. A disastrous early screening at an unwieldy 330 minutes was so reviled by those who screened it, Cimino himself begged for more time to edit it to a manageable length. The 150-minute cut released into theatres several weeks later received some of the worst reviews any movie has ever received in the history of the medium.

In fact, this movie—and, to a lesser extent, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, Allen’s Stardust Memories, Landis’s The Blues Brothers, and Spielberg’s 1941—effectively killed the 1970s auteur movement. Hollywood studios started to realize giving artists free reign with tens of millions of dollars yielded major flops. Even though some of the movies made money (like Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers), the whole idea of letting the inmates run the asylum seemed to frighten executives.

Virtually every story about the production of a great film starts with studios fighting tooth and nail with every decision filmmakers want to make. For a long time, I asked myself why the studios didn’t just step out of the way. I’ve come to realize it’s effectively a system of checks and balances. Great art requires constraints to overcome. When filmmakers no longer need to worry about budgets or meddling studio executives, they end up making movies like the ones mentioned above. It’s not an airtight rule—after all, Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers are legitimately great movies; then again, both films had bigger problems to overcome than studio pressures—but it holds true more often than not. Given carte blanche, most filmmakers will turn out shitty movies. A filmmaker doing everything the studio says unquestioningly will also lead to shitty movies. A balance needs to exist, and that balance was lost briefly in Hollywood in the late ’70s, with almost comically disastrous results.

All of this and more is covered in Steven Bach’s great book Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists (which you should all read if you have any interest in the clusterfuck known as the movie business), so I feel no reason to rehash it here. If you don’t know the story, read Bach’s book and find out. I’m here not to retell the struggles to make and market the film. I’m here to determine whether or not all the negative publicity had anything to do with Heaven’s Gate being a bad film.

Even after watching the four-hour “director’s cut” (as opposed to the gutted theatrical cut that garnered so much hostility), I can understand why people might hate Heaven’s Gate. It has one very big problem that a film this long has an impossible time overcoming: it’s disjointed. Not quite as disjointed as Jonah Hex, another revisionist western that flopped big-time, but it nevertheless feels like Heaven’s Gate has numerous connective scenes missing. But, you know, it does have roughly 90 minutes still missing. The director’s cut restores what footage remained years after its release, but that original 330-minute cut—maybe it could have used some trimming, but I fear Cimino cut material necessary for this story to flow. Maybe he didn’t, though. That’d be a kick in the balls.

Whatever the case, the Heaven’s Gate available doesn’t cohere quite as effectively as more traditional films. This sometimes makes Heaven’s Gate a difficult film to watch, but it also lends a lived-in quality to the story and characters. Rather than moving from beat to beat like a more straightforward movie, it unfolds more like a novel, with long scenes that don’t seem to have anything to do with anything and don’t appear to lead anywhere. Often, these seemingly disconnected scenes pay off much later in the film, rewarding the viewer’s patience. Sometimes, they don’t. Maybe they serve as isolated moments of character development. It’s hard to say how the movie would fare without them.

Before I go on, maybe I should talk a little about the plot. It’s loosely based on the Johnson County War, a land war in 1890s Wyoming in which wealthy American land barons allegedly convinced the federal government to allow soldiers to slaughter land-owning immigrants, so that the barons could take over the newly available spreads. Many conflicting stories of this war and its circumstances exist. Cimino’s interpretation of the story has what I believe (with no evidence to back me up) are indelible roots in Vietnam and the hippie movement of the ’60s. It opens with Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt) as clean-cut, hilariously middle-aged-looking Harvard graduates, portraying them as footloose and fancy-free even as the Reverend Doctor (Joseph Cotten) gives a prophetic but somewhat condescending speech underscoring the need for people to live together harmoniously.

Twenty years later, Jim has eschewed his education and life of privilege to maintain law and order as sheriff of Johnson County. Frank Canton (Sam Waterston), the wealthy head of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, has what is always referred to in the film as a “death list”—a list of local immigrants the ranchers want taken out. They allege these ranchers have stolen cattle from more successful ranchers to pay for prostitutes. Unsettled by the idea of the death list, Jim doesn’t take any immediate action, even when a team of hired killers led by Nate Champion (Christopher Walken) ride into the county. He talks it over with his friend, John (Jeff Bridges), and lover, Ella (Isabelle Huppert, a successful bordello madam). He even discusses it with Billy Irvine, who is now a drunken member of the WSGA. Billy knows everything about the list, but he’s not going to even pretend to do a thing about it.

When Jim finally gets a copy of the list, he gathers all the townspeople and reads its names. From there, the immigrants are left to figure out what to do to save themselves. Although John’s ready to fight on behalf of the immigrants, Jim takes a very low-key, hands-off approach. He disapproves of the list and the corruption of the WSGA, but he’s a passive observer. He urges the immigrants to take matters into their own hands instead of leading them to fight back. Things get complicated from here, so I won’t talk much more about the story in the hope that I actually convince some of you to check this movie out.

You might be wondering at this point what a western about a land dispute has to do with hippies and Vietnam. Maybe nothing, but consider the archetypes: Jim and Billy are introduced as men of great privilege and education. They give up their privilege because neither feels he deserves all that he has. When the going gets tough, Jim responds by making urgent pleas and protestations against the vicious acts of the WSGA, but he doesn’t really do anything about it for much of the movie. When he finally does take action, it’s both too late and largely ineffective. Billy’s an even worse case, crawling into the bottle to numb that big brain of his. I took some symbolic cues from these characters. Jim represents the well-meaning but ultimately ineffective political activist—a smart person who is only powerless because he denied his birthright. Had he used the advantages of his upbringing, perhaps he could have effected real change, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. Billy is a more obvious symbol of the many, many, many hippies who turned to drugs and failed to accomplish anything greater than making their own LSD. This, then, makes the WSGA a symbol of the war profiteers, and the immigrants and assassins all become the hapless pawns of an unnecessary war.

Maybe I’m reading too much into the metaphoric nature of the story, but let’s face it: Cimino made The Deer Hunter, so it’s not like he’s an apathetic or apolitical bystander, and honestly, I can’t figure out any other reason why John Hurt’s character needs to be in this movie. Only when I started to ponder what purpose his character served did I start to realize the undercurrent running through the film. I may have gotten it all wrong, but the fact that the film is so sprawling and poetic leaves it open to interpretation, the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot. This is my take on it, and while I suspect it may have also been Cimino’s, who knows? He refuses to speak about the film. Still, I think a lot of evidence exists in the bleak-as-hell epilogue to support my take on the deeper meaning of Heaven’s Gate.

Despite the disjointed nature of the film, I have to disagree with Ms. Kael’s assertion that Heaven’s Gate contains no good scenes or characters. It’s a challenging film, to be sure, but there’s a whole lot to love here, especially if you can make it through the first hour. Once Cimino sets up the dominoes and starts knocking them down, the film has a number of spectacular moments—epic battle scenes, vivid and well-acted characters, ever-deepening relationships (including an extremely well-executed “love” triangle between Jim, Ella, and Nate), and a tricky-gray-area portrayal of a complex situation. Cimino took the idea of a “revisionist western”—the sort from the ultra-violent Peckinpah and ultra-mythologized Leone—and stripped it to the bone. This film does not have white hats or black hats. It just has dusty brown hats and a lot of unpleasant but memorable people. Cimino makes nothing in this film easy for anyone, and that partially includes the viewer, but in the end, the film rewards those watching. It just makes them endure a little bit of punishment for foolishly thinking the Old West contained nothing but altruistic heroes and mustache-twirling villains.

Virtually every frame of this film looks like a dingy oil painting. In his review, Roger Ebert calls the aesthetic of the film “so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen.” He’s not entirely wrong, but there’s a hard-edged beauty to this unromantic portrayal of the Old West. In fact, the beloved HBO series Deadwood owes a whole hell of a lot to Cimino, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, and production designer Tambri Larsen. Ironically, the aesthetic of Heaven’s Gate underscores the messy narrative and thematic elements at play by making each image simultaneously ugly and beautiful. Maybe critics and audiences will never appreciate this, but it made me like the film even more.

With the cast Cimino has assembled (which includes small but key supporting roles from actors who would go on to better things: Terry O’Quinn, Mickey Rourke, Richard Masur, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, and Willem Dafoe), it probably won’t shock anyone to hear that the performances don’t contain a single false note. More than anyone, Kristofferson impressed me. He has never struck me as a great actor—never bad, but more suited to the villain in Fire Down Below (no, he really is the villain in that movie, and he’s awesome) than the lead character in a sprawling, artsy-fartsy western. However, he does a wonderful job as Jim Averill. He brings to the role an air of palpable defeat that reinforces my interpretation of what Heaven’s Gate Really Means. Although the film doesn’t spell it (or anything else) out, it’s made plain just from the things Jim does and the way Kristofferson carries himself that the twenty years between graduation and the Johnson County War beat him down.

It’s time to get down to brass tacks: Heaven’s Gate is a good film. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s also not even close to one of the worst movies ever made. In a world where such detritus as Jonah Hex and Howard the Duck exist, Heaven’s Gate doesn’t even fall into the bottom 500. My biggest problem with it is that, when it ended, I wished I’d been able to see more of these characters and this story. Knowing another 90 minutes once existed is just salt in the wound. Anyone who considers themselves a cinephile should check this film out. You may not love it, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time.

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The Postman (1997)

What willful streak of perversity inspired Kevin Costner to take on this wacky tale of a letter carrier-turned-postapocalyptic hero, brother to such he-men as Seinfeld‘s Newman and that sad, skinny guy in Il Postino?—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly

Every truly awful movie epic has a point of no return, a moment when the accumulated bad lines and bogus sentimentality become so cloying that the best defense against a mounting queasiness is an awed amusement. If you have a low tolerance for mawkish jingoism, Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic Western, The Postman, offers a new opportunity for levity every few minutes after its first hour.—Stephen Holden, The New York Times

Goofy and gee-whiz when it isn’t being post-apocalyptic glum, it is such an earnest hodgepodge that only by imagining Mad Max directed by Frank Capra can you get even an inkling of what it’s like.—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Ah, The Postman: The butt of so many late-’90s topical jokes, it makes Ishtar look like Citizen Kane. Ironically, Kenneth Turan’s dyspeptic description of the film as “Mad Max directed by Frank Capra” is dead-on—but I consider that a positive. The Postman boasts a winning combination of ambition, sentiment, idealism, and insanity. Some three-hour films are a chore to sit through, but The Postman breezes through its runtime, brimming with a unique cinematic voice and offbeat charm usually lacking in big-budget studio fare.

Right now is the perfect time to revisit the film, being that we’ve hit an onslaught of post-apocalyptic films (The Book of Eli, The Road, Zombieland, and more to come) that feature grim, frequently harrowing depictions of society at its absolute worst. Kevin Costner has a bit more faith in humanity than this recent crop of films. He has an awareness that, even if a cataclysmic event occurs, people will not immediately start rubbing themselves with old oil filters and eating each other. When challenged, we huddle together and muddle through. If we didn’t have that primitive ability, humanity would have died out centuries ago. As noble doctor Jack Shephard once said, “We can either live together, or we can die alone.” Costner chooses the former, and his film doesn’t even have a smoke monster!

The Postman opens in 2013, several years after a frequently referenced civil war that left the U.S. fragmented and isolated. We don’t get many details, but we’re left with the impression that most of the major cities fell, and what remains are isolated small towns, pooling skills and resources in order to survive. (This much, at least, should terrify the anti-communist crowd.) With the lack of a unified government, these towns operate as little independent states, run by local mayors and sheriffs, and people generally treat each other well despite the undercurrent of despair.

And then there’s General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an intelligent man who has amassed an army formed partly of those who fought in the war but mainly able-bodied men he plucks from towns his army periodically pillages. As Bethlehem himself describes his position, they’re a feudal society, and he’s their lord. The great thing here is that Costner and Patton don’t let Bethlehem become a sneering, simpering villain on a stupid, single-minded quest. Unlike Gary Oldman in The Book of Eli, Patton’s Bethlehem firmly believes he’s the hero of the story. In a different kind of story, he could be. He’s restored order to his small slice of a chaotic country, and his goals have less to do with horrendous abuse of his “vassals” than protecting them from the outsiders he believes are a threat. Part of this has to do with his desire to maintain an empire without interference, but there’s a certain misguided nobility in his desire to amass an army of slaves to ensure the safety of those who remain relatively free.

In early scenes, Costner’s never-named character (I’ll just call him The Postman to make life easier) roams from town to town, butchering the works of Shakespeare in exchange for food and shelter. When Bethlehem’s army descends on a town, The Postman attempts to sneak away with his mule, but Bethlehem spots him and recruits him for his army, which dwells in something resembling a desert canyon. Caged with other prisoners, all The Postman can think about is escape, but none of the other prisoners want to risk their lives to help him.

Bethlehem sees an intellectual equal in The Postman. He’s older than most of Bethlehem’s recruits, so they both remember the way things were before the war. However, the war itself has left them both with diametrically opposed perspectives on humanity. Bethlehem believes they need order and control; The Postman, not surprisingly, lobbies for freedom and civil rights, mainly because he’s a cynic who wants to be left alone.

Because of his intelligence and survival skills, Bethlehem chooses The Postman to lead a hunting party for a lion that escaped from what used to be a zoo. The Postman sees his opportunity for escape. He jumps off a rickety rope bridge and swims to freedom. He hides in an old mail truck that crashed in the woods, which contains all the accoutrements of the old U.S. Postal Service: a bag full of letters, a uniform, and the skeleton of the deceased letter carrier.

The Postman sees this as an easy con—if he can find letters addressed to survivors in various towns, he can fool them into giving him the good things in life without having to perform for them. He tries this out on a town called Pineview, and although the sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) eyes him distrustfully, the fact that The Postman arrives bearing legitimate, 15-year-old letters fills the town with hope. He’s an instant celebrity, to the extent that an infertile couple (Olivia Williams, Charles Esten) begs him to be the “body father” of their child.

It’s right around this time that The Postman realizes he may have overstepped a bit. He just wants something to eat; he has no desire to lead a revolution based on a fantasy. Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), a teenager who named himself after a rusty old car dealership sign, represents the idealistic youth. He’s been searching for a purpose, and until he meets The Postman he thinks that purpose is attempting to repair and drive old cars. The Postman begins to fear the level of attention and the desperate optimism of the townspeople. Quietly, the sheriff orders him to leave before he causes too much trouble, and The Postman eagerly obliges—but not before reluctantly swearing in Ford as a junior postman.

When Bethlehem and his troops arrive for their usual tribute (and to search for The Postman), he’s shocked by Pineview’s misguided hope and subtle rebellion. He’s horrified to see an American flag raised over the post office and orders Pineview’s citizens to burn it and the post office. The Postman travels to another town, working the same con, and this time things are even worse—the townspeople close the gates on Bethlehem, announcing themselves as citizens of the Restored United States. They send The Postman—their “government rep”—to negotiate. It takes Bethlehem awhile to realize the clean-shaven, well-dressed man is their missing “Shakespeare.” He attacks the town, but The Postman and Abby (Williams) fight back. The Postman is shot in the melee, so Abby takes him to an isolated cabin, subsisting on grass and “water soup” (and, eventually, the meat of the horse they rode in on). They spend the winter holed up together, and guess what? She’s pregnant with his child.

Months later, they return to Pineview to discover Ford has turned the postal service into a thriving hope machine. He’s recruited dozens of other letter carriers, turned an abandoned factory into a sorting facility, and created 30 routes throughout Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. He continues to perpetuate The Postman’s lies (which he believes are true) about a restored government in Minneapolis, led by President Richard Starkey.

The Postman is stunned at what he finds, and what follows over the ensuing 90 minutes is the conflict between the noble peacenik postmen and the increasingly fearful, clearly unhinged Bethlehem, who sees the optimism represented by mail as the biggest threat to his leadership.

Maybe some of you read that lengthy summary of half (half!) the movie with your jaws on the floor, stunned at the oddness of this story. Maybe you should, but half the reason The Postman works so well is because it’s sort of cheerfully nuts. Like Capra’s work, Costner’s overall earnestness and positivity is tempered by a biting wit that leads to legitimately funny lines like, “Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the assholes who started them?”

Upon its original release, The Postman got a lot of flack for its length, but I challenge any of its critics to find a single poorly paced moment or unnecessary scene. Considering the length, the story is surprisingly tight—there’s just a lot of it, and Costner (working with Oscar-winning screenwriters Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, no strangers to big-budget adaptations) has the good sense to take time developing the characters and post-apocalyptic world. By the end of it, even the smallest supporting character seems as familiar as George Bailey’s friends in Bedford Falls—and, like It’s a Wonderful Life, this film would have suffered enormously if we didn’t know or care about those people as much as The Postman himself.

I spent a lot of time describing the plot to illustrate that this film has more going on—in terms of character, narrative, theme, and its presentation of sci-fi and sociological concepts—in half its runtime than a lot of films possess altogether. As director, Costner manages the stunning feat of making an eventful, fast-paced film feel both deliberate and expansive. It’s a constantly inventive, genre-bending work that refuses to be pigeonholed. Costner takes numerous creative gambles that, in my view, pay off in spades. The lack of any overt “futuristic” special effects prevents cheesy gimmicks from getting in the way of the story, and the commitment to characters gives The Postman an effortlessly epic feel that fits well with the story of a man who single-handedly changes the world.

Beyond the characters and story, Costner subtly builds a universe unlike anything seen in cinematic sci-fi at that time. Pioneer towns have sprung up around the bombed-out remnants of modern structures. People haven’t reverted back to primitive ways so much as 19th century ways. The literal mash-up of the sci-fi and western genres would be done again in Fox’s short-lived Firefly (and its spinoff film, Serenity), but on that show it’s sort of a goofy conceit made plausible through sheer force of will. In The Postman, the reversion sort of makes sense. It’s only 2013, after all, and once machinery goes down and there’s no infrastructure to restore such things, we have to revert to an agrarian society built largely on self-reliance (or, at best, reliance on a small group of locals rather than a thousand Chinese factories to make clothes and junk food for us).

The Postman‘s portrayal of futuristic people oppressed by a fascist leader is nothing new. The difference is that these people aren’t terribly downtrodden. Obviously, things aren’t great, but they make the best of a bad situation, instead of complaining about things and mourning the way life used to be. For the most part, Bethlehem is little more than a weekly nuisance. When he leaves, they go back to feeling free to say and do whatever they want. Costner’s depiction of this world is subtly terrifying, much more so than a generic megalomaniac savagely beating down a group of mangy, starving cowards in rags. The fact that these people have freedom of thought but choose not to fight is scarier to me than people who have been brainwashed into doing another’s bidding. Handling the social attitude in this way also makes it easier to believe their change once The Postman gives them hope. They aren’t doing a straight 180—it’s more like a 30-degree twist from “mostly hopeless” to “somewhat hopeful.”

Ultimately, though, the movie’s just a lot of fun. It does everything well, but it has a sense of humor about its characters and story. To read the reviews, you’d have to believe Costner approached the film with a leaden gravity reserved for Jane Campion films. This is not the case. Consider the bizarre yet hilarious moment where Bethlehem—who fancies himself a skilled painter—attempts a self-portrait using a mirror. When his hand shakes, Bethlehem screams at the mirror, “Hold still!” After somebody insults The Postman’s Shakespeare performance, he asks, “How much did you pay to get in?” The man answers with a guilty look that lets us know he paid nothing. “So bite me,” The Postman continues. I’ve seen that quoted in numerous reviews to suggest Costner knew he was making a bad film and was both defensive and apologetic with that exchange. I think that’s reading a bit too much into what’s merely a legitimately funny moment in a generally fun, raucously entertaining cinematic experience.

Mark my words: The Postman will endure as an underrated classic, willfully misunderstood in its own time by an indifferent holiday audience (who decided they’d rather turn out for the worst James Bond movie ever made) and critics still looking to punish Costner for future Movie Defender subject Waterworld (not nearly as good as The Postman, but it didn’t deserve a tenth of the scorn heaped on it). In a year that saw the release of The Devil’s Advocate, Dante’s Peak, and Alien: Resurrection, it’s astounding to think anyone would consider The Postman among the worst of 1997. It wasn’t even the worst movie to open in its weekend (that distinction goes to Mr. Magoo). I’m not being at all hyperbolic when I say The Postman ranks among the best films of the ’90s—maybe not in the top 10, but certainly in the top 50.

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Meet Dave (2008)

Meet Dave, the latest in a long line of disposable Eddie Murphy vehicles, plays like a half-hour sitcom episode that has been stretched to feature-length running time.—Manohla Dargis, New York Times

This sci-fi romp seriously skimps on the sort of wacky comedy that should have flown liberally from such an inspired premise.—Michael Rechtschaffen, The Hollywood Reporter

Better material and more adept direction might’ve made this a perfectly solid commercial enterprise.—Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

I don’t know what caused Eddie Murphy’s gradual decline from the most fearless, energetic standup comic of his generation to the star of family films ranging in quality from mediocre to bad. I do, however, know that schadenfreude has infested the public consciousness. If Murphy refuses to utilize the offbeat, foul-mouthed qualities that made him the biggest comedy star of the 1980s, critics and adult moviegoers will pile on top of him like a pyramid of naked prisoners. Unless you’re under the age of 10, nothing he does is good enough. When he steps out of the family film realm for something like Dreamgirls, it’s hailed as a daring return to something resembling his glory days. Then he does Norbit, and everyone blames that film for his losing an Oscar for Dreamgirls.

It’s easy to forget that Murphy’s movies have been a mixed bag for his entire career (remember Harlem Nights or The Golden Child?), but one thing has always remained true: No matter how bad the end result, he always gives it his all. Even miscast as the straight man in the Dr. Doolittle films, he performs with the same verve and vitality he did 30 years ago on Saturday Night Live. I didn’t enjoy The Nutty Professor or Daddy Day Care, but I respect Murphy for trying to inject energy and humor into an awful script more than an actor who’s just in it for the paycheck.

When a friend of mine told me he and his family found Meet Dave hilarious, I didn’t believe him. Critics treat most Murphy movies to scathing, unnecessarily hostile reviews (especially when the film isn’t screened for critics, which apparently makes it open season for hostility), so that didn’t surprise me. Usually, though, his movies find a rather large family audience. Meet Dave didn’t, which made it easier for me to automatically side with the critics who dismissed it and the audience who rejected it. Still, a small part of me wanted to believe my friend. Murphy’s not the bad guy here; he’s not exactly innocent, either. He’s sort of like the wheelman who, deep down, knows his friends just ran into that bank to rob it, but he’d prefer to think they just went in to make a deposit.

I finally sat down to watch the film, with no idea what to expect. It was more ignored than hated, so maybe it really wasn’t that bad. Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Bill Corbett co-wrote the screenplay, which suggested to me that, if nothing else, the sci-fi jokes would pop. Hell, when I watched it, I didn’t even know it featured a ton of gifted, well-known comic actors (Elizabeth Banks, Ed Helms, Kevin Hart, Judah Friedlander, Pat Kilbane, among plenty of others). My expectations went from low to unknown—I had no idea what to expect, which helped me to approach the film with as much objectivity as possible.

Meet Dave is a pleasant surprise: a frequently funny, family-oriented sci-fi comedy boasting two of Murphy’s best performances (as captain and “ship”) since his dual role in 1999’s Bowfinger. First, he plays the stone-faced captain of a Nilian ship. Nilians are tiny creatures who look conveniently like humans but, like Vulcans, aren’t quite tapped into their emotions. They bury everything in a patriotic fervor and dedication to duty above all else. Their starship, as it happens, is shaped exactly like The Captain, in order to blend in with the strange human beings. Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the crew’s search for a mysterious orb that will allow them to drain Earth’s oceans and collect the salt, which on Nil is a highly valuable energy source. That’s merely an excuse for some of the oddest fish-out-of-water comedy ever committed to film.

As the ship, Murphy delivers one of the funniest performances of his career. Only a comedian as gifted as Murphy can make expressions as simple as a big smile or a blank stare into hilarious running gags. The bulk of the comedy comes from the schizophrenic idea that one “man” is run by a crew of dozens, with an encyclopedic knowledge of human culture (thanks to their ability to access an Earth database “called the Google”) but a fundamental confusion about how society actually functions. The ship arrives camouflaged in a white suit with big shoulders and wide lapels. Why? Because Nil has only received one transmission from Earth: a brief clip from Fantasy Island, from which they gather all humans wear such suits because Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize do.

Once it lands in New York, the ship is almost immediately run down by Gina Morrison (Banks), a single mother whose driving skills leave something to be desired. An awkward friendship/romance forms when she drags the unwilling ship up to her apartment, because from her perspective he’s a person acting very strangely after getting hit by a car. The bridge crew struggles to convince her of the ship’s normalcy, but their ineptitude only makes things worse, making Gina think something is seriously wrong. The Captain realizes it’d be smarter to keep her as an ally, so they can learn from her, blend in, and find their missing orb.

The ship itself is stocked with comedians, which initially seemed like a needless waste of talent. Why cast funny people in straight, emotionless roles? As the movie unfolds, the answer becomes clear: Ultimately, the film is about the repressed Nilians tapping into the emotions we inferior humans wear on our sleeves. This runs the gamut from Kilbane’s annoyingly over-the-top security chief (who discovers he really wants to be a flamboyantly gay hairdresser after seeing the Rockettes) to the surprisingly emotional moment in which the ship examines one of Gina’s paintings, and the entire bridge crew feels overwhelmed by the emotions it evokes. Another key scene finds The Captain and Number 3 (Gabrielle Union) watching It’s a Wonderful Life, scoffing at its sentimentality before bawling like babies by the end. It might seem a little cheap and easy, but it’s an effective moment that underscores the changes occurring all over the ship.

Emotions overcome most of the crew, but they fear and try to reject them. Only The Captain is willing to embrace these new, unexpected feelings, which leads to a surprisingly dark coup d’etat in which Number 2 (Helms) leads the others in usurping The Captain’s power, then secretly unleashes his own plan to destroy Earth and its terrifying, emotional giants. It’s right around this time that I started marveling at how effectively the film develops these characters and balances the story of “Dave” and Gina with what’s happening on the ship. I’d actually started to care whether or not The Captain would be able to stop Number 2’s plans. (Also, the film gets some props for having the dignity to not use “Number 2” as a poop joke—apparently, the Austin Powers films used up all the good Number 2 jokes.)

The script has a lot of fun with the way people talk to each other, and the confusion colloquialisms and pop-culture references would have on an alien. It’s a long way from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, another sci-fi film with a lot of fish-out-of-water comedy. Corbett and co-writer Rob Greenberg really put thought into how aliens might react to behavior we take for granted. Take, for example, another scene that probably only Murphy could make funny. Upon arriving at Old Navy (to buy less conspicuous clothes), he misinterprets an employee’s routine “Welcome to Old Navy” as a customary Earth greeting, which he starts saying to everyone he meets.

I would complain about Brian Robbins, who has specialized in kid-friendly feel-goodery almost without exception (the darkest he gets is Varsity Blues, a melodramatic but decent teen drama). Meet Dave has the potential to transform into a pitch-black social satire and sci-fi spoof, but Robbins won’t let that happen. An edgier director might have played up the satirical bent of the script, but the goal here is to make a true family film. “Family film” has, in recent years, become a euphemism for “kiddie crap,” the sort of film that adults grind their teeth through as their children beg to watch it on an endless loop. Like The Wonder Pets or Pixar films, this is real family entertainment, the sort of thing that parents can watch with their kids without wanting to kill themselves. So Robbins could have brought that same edge that made him so memorable as Eric, the leather-jacket-wearing “cool” genius, on Head of the Class, but that would have undermined its ability to reach a wide audience. Then again, nobody saw Meet Dave, so maybe that didn’t matter.

The film’s special effects are uniformly awful, but I can’t really say anything worse about it than that. It has a well-written, deceptively complex story; great characters; great comedy; and a heartwarming (but not too treacly) message about tolerance, learning from others, and the value of not burying feelings. It’s not the greatest comedy or family film ever made, but it’s far better than average. It opened opposite Journey to the Center of the Earth, which made a lot more money and got much better reviews despite being a significantly worse movie than Meet Dave (and I say that as a longtime Brendan Fraser fan who will defend the merits of Blast from the Past until the day I die). If you like to laugh, Meet Dave won’t disappoint. Just don’t go in expecting merciless, mean-spirited satire.

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Postal (2007)

When Matt challenged himself to endure the Uwe Boll film Rampage, his revelation that Boll had made yet another awful film didn’t surprise me in the least. However, I felt compelled to defend his one and only decent film—2007’s Postal, a cheerfully offensive, simple-minded but incredibly funny satire of the culture of stupidity and apathy that has slowly overtaken the American populous. Like a lot of gag-a-second comedies, not every joke works, but there’s always one that hits right after a miss. It also demonstrates that Boll’s problems as a filmmaker stem more from his chosen genre (schlocky, horror-action video game adaptations) than a true lack of talent.

True, Postal itself claims to be adapted from a pair of semi-popular first-person shooter games about a postal worker on a rampage. However, Boll throws away pretty much everything but the title and the third-act rampage, likely to the film’s benefit. He mostly uses the concept of an ordinary man driven to a killing spree as a springboard to mercilessly satirize pretty much everything Americans hold sacred. It’s the sort of film that opens with a bizarre, Abbott & Costello-esque bit of comedy involving two airplane hijackers discussing the approximate number of virgins available to them in paradise, whether or not they’ll have to share, how it’s possible that the virgin to martyr ratio could be so high, and what will happen once they’ve deflowered all the virgins. Just when they realize the steaming load of crap they’ve been handed from their leaders and decide to turn around, the passengers burst into the cockpit, the terrorists lose control of the plane, and it slams into Tower One.

If you don’t find any of that funny, you will absolutely hate this movie.

After the opening sequence, the film settles into its actual story. The main character, known only as “Dude” (played by Zack Ward, a gifted comic actor whose career has unfortunately been hampered by his legendary role as Scut Farkus in A Christmas Story), has grown tired of his rotten life. He starts the day optimistic, greeting the day happily as he heads off to a job interview. So desperate for work and happy for the opportunity, he endures unending humiliation from his potential boss, who eventually ridicules him for having no backbone and tosses him out. Dude returns home to his trailer park, expecting sympathy from his morbidly obese wife. Instead, he finds her having loud, unabashed sex with a fellow unemployed trailer park resident.

Distraught, Dude visits his Uncle Dave (a game Dave Foley), a lowlife con artist who has stumbled into financial and sexual success after starting his own doomsday cult. Dude hatches a scheme with his uncle to steal a shipment of Krotchy dolls, the latest Jingle All the Way-esque toy fad. In one of the many lowbrow jokes Boll revels in, Krotchy happens to be shaped like an enormous scrotum. Uncle Dave’s master plan is to sell the Krotchy dolls on eBay at hugely inflated prices.

Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden (Larry Thomas) has designs on the Krotchy dolls, as well. In Boll’s cracked comic universe, bin Laden runs a thriving chain of convenience stores, speaks impeccable, accentless English, and enjoys all the finer things in life. He has a barren cave soundstage in the stockroom of his flagship store, where he records menacing videos to keep the American citizenry terrified and buying the disgusting, fatty foods his store stocks. Bin Laden wants the Krotchy dolls so he can inject them each with avian flu before reselling them at inflated prices, thus ensuring a plague will wipe out western civilization.

Boll (with cowriter Bryan C. Knight) use this needlessly convoluted plot to string together as many horrendous caricatures of American culture as possible: Michael Paré as an entitled bum; J.K. Simmons as a brazenly corrupt politician; Ralf Moeller and Chris Spencer as racist, ultra-violent cops; Rick Hoffman as the obnoxious boss of Gluttco, a mega-corporation that’s sort of a low-budget riff on Metropolis. The film lacks the sophisticated wit and intelligence of something like In the Loop (for one thing, bin Laden and his fellow terrorists frequently refer to themselves as Taliban members), but Boll’s nonpartisan, take-no-prisoners approach to offensiveness make the absurdity of our numerous sacred cows vividly apparent.

Boll doesn’t even let himself off the hook. He has a cameo as himself, the proprietor of a Nazi-themed amusement park who murders the actual creator of the Postal games in front of a cheering audience, before admitting he finances his films with Nazi gold. This sequence also involves a shootout between Uncle Dave’s heist crew, bin Laden’s terrorists, and U.S. government officials, resulting in the graphically portrayed deaths of dozens of children. Boll leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of absolute tastelessness, from Verne Troyer locked in a suitcase filled with sex toys to Uncle Dave taking a noisy (and nude) dump in front of his psychotic disciple, Richard (Chris Coppola).

What rises from this tastelessness, though, is one hell of an absurd, bleakly funny comedy guided by the firm belief that humanity’s stupidity and selfishness has doomed the planet. After gaining some prominence with the parody film German Fried Movie, Boll somehow found himself mired in lame-brained, gravely serious, incredibly low-budget adaptations of moderately popular video games. The combination of the budget restrictions and Boll’s poor handling of anything resembling drama or suspense ruined those movies and led to rumors he runs a Producers-like scam where he makes more money on a flop than a hit by exploiting German tax law. In reality, I think he was just out of his element. (Though, frankly, the big-budget adaptations of video games like Resident Evil and Doom—even going back as far as 1993’s Super Mario Brothers—are equally bad, so I’m not sure how Boll became a critical punching bag.)

Luckily, in a comedy like this, Boll doesn’t need drama or suspense. The central conflict here is Boll’s hatred of all mankind, and he does a better job of portraying this contempt than other misanthropic filmmakers (though Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man is funnier than Postal, it’s not supposed to be). Even the amateurish production values give the film a ramshackle charm that matches the story, and Boll assembled a cast of fearless, hilarious actors. All he has to do is stand back and let them be funny, so whatever limitations he has as a director are easily swept under the rug.

Because of its touchy subject matter, I can easily understand why this movie had trouble securing distribution in the U.S. (It had a very brief, limited theatrical run before getting swept off to DVD.) It’s a shame that Boll should get punished for making such a ballsy, ludicrous film, but the fact remains that it’s a solid, funny film that ought to be seen by even the most hostile Boll haters. It may not change their minds, but at least it’ll be harder for them to argue that he’s utterly devoid of talent.

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