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Friday
May272011

Bronson (2009) Home Video Review

A Cliff's Notes Clockwork

There's a great movie about a British kid who's so unhinged, so violent and deranged that the authorities have no choice but to lock him up, alter his brain chemistry, and hope for the best.  Once re-introduced to polite society, he finds himself unable to cope with normalcy and winds up back in the system.  That movie is Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

Unfortunately, I'm here to talk about Bronson, a film so right in terms of casting, production design and cinematography that it's a shame director Nicolas Winding Refn wasted his talents on a half-baked, unofficial remake.  Here's the deal: I have no problem with someone remaking A Clockwork Orange. Though it's an amazing film--a bona fide classic--I'd never slight someone for giving it another go.  I'd be the first in line to mock the hell out of their failed efforts, sure, but I would also scream my praises from the virtual mountaintops if that were called for.

Refn's movie isn't a futuristic fable about totalitarianism and bent youth culture.  It's another "Based on a True Story" picture that details the life of legendary criminal Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy).  In the mid-70s, he went to prison for assault and discovered that he could make a name for himself by beating up the most people and causing more damage than any inmate in history.  We're meant to believe that Peterson had always wanted to be famous, despite never having cultivated actual talents like acting or singing. Refn and co-writer Brock Norman Brock play up this angle a bit too much in an effort to shoehorn in the popular "Famous for Being Famous" meme.

The film has three main problems.  The first is its timeline.  We're never quite sure what year the story takes place in.  I found out that Peterson went up the river in in 1974 (at age 19) through a Wikipedia search.  He spent several years in the system, transferring from prison to prison because no one could handle his tendency to pummel inmates and staff to a bloody pulp.  At one point, he's sent to a mental institution, where he's pumped full of drugs.  He somehow gets himself off the drugs and strangles a pedophile, which leads to a 26-year sentence in a new, high-security prison.  According to his narration, Peterson did the whole stint and was eventually released.

Let's consider that Peterson would have been in his 50s at the time of parole.  Would he still look like a 31-year-old Tom Hardy?  It's possible, but I seriously doubt it.  The filmmakers make no pains to show the passage of time in his actors or even to their environment.  They're so wrapped up in their wacky Kubrick aesthetic that Bronson feels more like a fantasy than something that was ripped from the headlines.

Maybe that's what they were going for; but it makes our second problem, the "Based on a True Story" angle, much stickier.  Peterson is a cartoon character, a raging brawl-junky who fancies himself a charismatic entertainer.  He will literally do anything to get attention--from holding his art therapy teacher and the prison librarian hostage to leading an inmate revolt and scaling the roof of the building they've set on fire.  If you watch Bronson the same way you watch porn, then the plot mechanics don't matter at all: the whole experience is just a series of exciting bits bridged by filler.  But for those of us expecting "True Story" movies to resemble real events--or at least attempt to explain the bizarre things we're asked to accept--Bronson is a frustrating exercise in tedium.

Why, for example, were a librarian and an art teacher allowed to be alone in a room with a guy who'd built a decades-long reputation as a cross between Hannibal Lecter and The Incredible Hulk?  How was Peterson able to stage the fire and lead a gang of criminals out of the prison?  And, lastly, how am I supposed to believe that the government's solution to dealing with their most unstable convict was to simply set him free?

That's right, late in the film, Peterson is released because the people in charge had run out of ideas.  He made it 69 days on the outside before knocking over a jewelry store and getting hauled back in.  Which begs yet another question: Why was he let go if the plan was to simply arrest him after his (inevitable) next offense?

These logical lapses are stunning; frankly, I expected better from an indie movie that's garnered so much praise over the years.  It's sad to say, but the best way to fully enjoy Bronson is to turn off your brain.

Ah, but what about the alluring, dangerous charms of Tom Hardy?  I give the actor a lot of credit.  He's attractive, energetic, and built like a brick shithouse.  But my problem (number three for those keeping count) with his take on Peterson goes back to the screenplay.  Hardy isn't called upon to do anything interesting, outside of the nicely choreographed but way-too-numerous fight scenes.  His character's M.O. is to narrate his story blankly to the camera, and, at very predictable junctures, punctuate disturbing passages with a wide, Joker-esque grin.  Peterson is mostly cunning, with very little intelligence; and he doesn't have a character arc.  He begins the film as an unsympathetic psychopath and ends it the same way.

What makes A Clockwork Orange so superior is that its protagonist, Alex DeLarge, was a witty, psychopathic genius who came to several crossroads on his journey to enlightenment.  By the end of that film, the audience is left with several questions about who he's become and what key moments changed him from the wily punk who began the story (the novel's original ending left even more room for debate).  As the lead, Malcom McDowell made the viewer understand him and kind of like him, even though many people found his actions to be unconscionable.

Despite the cute interstitial segments that take place in Peterson's mind (in which he performs in front of a theatre audience, dressed as a suited clown), we never get to know him.  He's as interesting as a reality TV star but, as his actions bear out, is exponentially more desperate and unlikeable.

Bronson might have had a chance if the creators had given Peterson someone to connect with, or even a formidable foil, but he simply bounces off the other characters like the world's most obnoxious pinball. Only Jonny Phillips as the Prison Governor at Peterson's final residence offers any true resistance, calling the man ridiculous at their first meeting ("pathetic" at their second).  Still, this is Peterson's show; by definition, no one is allowed to steal the spotlight from his lovable, terrorist escapades.

I'll never be able to prove this hunch, but I'd wager Refn filtered his "true story" through the Clockwork Orange motif as a way of disguising the fact that he really didn't have a story to begin with.  A documentary on Peterson would have, I'm sure, been fascinating, but you can't make ninety-minutes with a dead-eyed scrapper compelling, outside of a Mixed Martial Arts tournament.  Refn tries his best, aping Kubrick's story beats and use of classical music.  But the most interesting thing about Peterson is that he adopted the moniker "Charles Bronson" while serving time. Even that was someone else's idea, though; so, yeah, there's nothing here to see, folks.

Wednesday
May252011

Real Life (1979) Home Video Review

Do You Follow Me?

Albert Brooks's Real Life is creepy.  It tells the story of a filmmaker, also named Albert Brooks, whose crew takes over Phoenix, Arizona, for several months in order to document every waking moment of the average, suburban Yeager family.  Working with a prestigious research institute, he and his production team scoured America to find the perfect subjects--people so typical and unaffected that they wouldn't mind being followed by cameras or giving up their most intimate moments for an audience of millions to see. You might think nothing of this idea, given the wild popularity of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and 19 Kids and Counting (for the uninitiated, these are actual television shows).  But what if I told you that Real Life came out over thirty years ago?

The conceit is slightly different from what we know of today's "reality" craze: the Brooks character plans to release his film theatrically instead of turning it into a TV series.  But when the Yeager family agrees to take part in the project, they fall victim to the same nutty lack of authenticity that mars the genre today. Brooks rambles incessantly about the need for people to "just be [them]selves", but that's hard to do with four cameramen tracking every movement and the director stepping in to ask Mrs. Yeager (Frances Lee McCain) to switch to a smaller car as she attempts to leave her husband during a fight.

Worse yet are the "state of the art" head-gear cameras, which look like top-heavy replicas of 2001's space pods.  We frequently see weird pseudo-spacemen ducking out of frame or inching their way around doors in order to get the best coverage.  These miming Oompa-Loompas are a constant reminder of Real Life's silly un-reality.

Brooks's belief that nothing the cameras capture is unusable pours over into his own meta-commentary on how his movie is coming along.  We pull away from the Yeagers occasionally to watch him consult with Doctors Hill and Cleary (Matthew Tobin and J.A. Preston, respectively) on the effect the movie might have on his subjects as well as bounce story ideas and character arcs off of them.  The director's background as a comedian clashes with his sensibilities as a cinéma vérité observer; his advisors warn him (unsuccessfully) of the dangers of manipulating reality and presenting it as truth.

Unfazed, the auteur continues to tweak his project to the point where it's no longer about the family, but about his relationship with the family and their relationship with the world that will soon be their audience.  When the camera crew distracts Dr. Yeager (Charles Grodin) during a veterinary procedure--leading to the death of a prize racehorse--Brooks takes a sidebar and convinces his distraught performer that showing the botched operation won't necessarily harm his professional reputation.

Eventually, the Yeagers rebel against Brooks by being as boring and drama-free as possible.  This leads to trouble with the studio, who consider scrapping the project in favor of safer fare.  Brooks melts down, and so does Real Life.  The film transitions from consistent, sharp satire to a series of whining arguments and soliloquies; this dramatic tonal shift sort of works from a thematic perspective but not so much as entertainment.

Watching the movie today, I can appreciate what Brooks and co-writers Harry Shearer and Monica Mcgowan Johnson were trying to say about show-business, but that's largely because I'm a reality-TV junky and see this kind of thing every weeknight.  I have no idea how audiences reacted to Real Life in 1979, or how people today will find the movie if they aren't steeped in the minutiae of media culture.  I imagine a lot of confusion in both cases; to be honest, I was confused, too, by the Brooks character's climactic break from reality and his ultimate solution to making his film a blockbuster.  Perhaps that's the genius capper to the whole production: Turning everyday events into salacious train wrecks--but it doesn't quite play.

Unlike This is Spinal Tap (a film also co-written by and starring Shearer), which would invent the "mockumentary" genre a few years later, Real Life is a scripted movie about making a movie-like documentary.  Adding this layer of narrative structure was a mistake--at least in the way Brooks and company chose to execute it.  The over-the-top-media message gets muddled towards the end, and the movie becomes about a crazy director rather than a crazy new way of looking at the world.

Had Brooks stuck it out with the Yeagers, whose squabbling nastiness belies the all-American image they'd presented in the talent search, Real Life might have reached the creators' destination on its own. One of the reasons Spinal Tap was such a success, I think, is that director/co-writer Rob Reiner knew to get out of his subjects' way; I get that one of Brooks's aims was to play up the intrusiveness of a production crew at the breakfast table, but he could have done that within the confines of a straight documentary--without the added layer of bullshit.

Sorry, that was harsh.  In truth, it's the bullshit that makes the front end of Real Life extremely funny. But I was let down by the way the movie ate itself.  In the last twenty minutes, I lost a comedy classic right before my eyes, and was left with a mostly funny, imperfect curiosity.  Perhaps this is the area in which Brooks was most ahead of his time: Most reality shows start out strong, or at least amusing; but by mid-season they're reduced to sad, lost opportunities and wasted hours.

Tuesday
May242011

Dolls (1987) Home Video Review

 

Explosive Plastic

As some of you know, I have a strict policy of never walking out on movies.  No matter how awful a film is--no matter how tempted I might be to turn it off or storm out of the theatre--I owe it to myself to finish anything I start.  This stubbornness can lead to panic attacks and bursts of angry writing; but sometimes, rarely, I'm rewarded for sticking around.  Such is the case with Stuart Gordon's Dolls.

Dolls doesn't have the name recognition of Child's Play or even Puppet Master, both of which followed it in the late-80s "killer doll" boom; but it's the strongest of the three and, aside from the "Living Doll" episode of The Twilight Zone, it's the best example of the Killer Toy horror niche I've seen.  Gordon and writer Ed Naha have put together a funny, creepy, and surprising movie that's not nearly as formulaic as its poster suggests.

But it didn't start out that way.  The opening ten minutes of Dolls is so poorly executed that I couldn't believe I was watching a movie from the same guy who directed Re-Animator and From Beyond.  We meet the Bower family, a trio of miserable Americans road-tripping through the English countryside. Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) is the rich, wicked stepmother to her new husband David's (Ian Patrick Williams) daughter, Judy (Carrie Lorraine).  A sudden storm traps the Bowers in a mud patch, forcing them out of the car and up a hill to a big, creepy house.

I had to infer most of the events leading up to their knocking on the door, as Gordon's visual storytelling didn't do anything to help me understand what was actually going on.  The rain doesn't just start suddenly--the film appears to be missing a few minutes of transition between grey afternoon skies and a dead-of-night downpour.  Also, the car getting stuck was all shown from inside the vehicle, with the actors throwing themselves forward with a bit of the old Star Trek "Red Alert" acting.  The capper, though, is little Judy's hallucination of her teddy bear growing to enormous proportions, stomping through the woods and mutilating her parents.

It's a lousy introduction.  Judging by the huge leap in quality and competence a few minutes later, it's clear that Gordon was just rushing to get his characters inside the house.  They break in through a back door and encounter Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason, respectively), the kindly, old owners who invite them up to the kitchen for tea.  Gabriel tells Judy about his life as a toymaker, and informs her that he hand-crafted the hundreds of dolls that adorn every room of their home.  In the middle of their conversation, another door bursts open, ushering in three more travelers seeking shelter from the rain.

Ralph (Stephen Lee) is also a vacationing American who picked up Brit-punk hitchhikers Enid (Cassie Stuart) and Isabel (Bunty Bailey).  The Hartwickes put everyone up for the night; Judy and Ralph get separate rooms while the other couples pair up.  Since the hosts' quarters are on the other side of the house, the rocker chicks decide to boost whatever antiques they might be able to sell after they leave in the morning.

This doesn't sit well with the house's other residents, the baby-faced plastic-and-porcelain freaks that come to life when no one's looking.  Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Hartwicke are black magicians who've imbued the dolls with the spirits of the damned, and their toy children love getting into mischief.  When Judy sees one of the girls get dragged away by an army of unseen hands, she runs to warn her parents.  They dismiss her immediately, forcing her to confide in Ralph.

That's as far as I'll take this plot summary.  Based on what I've written so far, you can probably guess a lot of what happens next.  But you may be surprised by some of the twists that Gordon and Naha pepper throughout their wicked little film.  They play with the conventions of 80s slasher movies, taking one character in particular completely out of the realm they'd typically be relegated to--even then, they tweak audience expectations until the very end.  I wasn't expecting to be invested in the main characters to such a high degree.  Sure, the villains are pretty one-dimensional, but the idea of which people are the film's antagonists changes a couple of times during the movie.  Sorry for being so vague, but it's difficult to discuss how great Dolls is without giving everything away.

As with many Stuart Gordon movies, Dolls perfectly infuses horror with light comedy.  I'm hard-pressed to think of another director who consistently gets this difficult balance just right.  Occasionally, characters and situations teeter into cheesy territory, but this movie is brilliantly weird enough that there's rarely a chance to groan.  The parents' parts are the only over-the-top distractions, performance-wise, but they reminded me of something I might have seen in HBO's Tales from the Crypt series--another example of tongue-in-cheek entertainment that can also scare the hell out of someone.

The film's only shortcoming is in the dolls' stop-motion animation.  That may sound like a bigger deal than it is, but Gordon wisely spends his creature-effects bullets on key scenes, so that the dodgy execution isn't distracting throughout the movie.  Until about the halfway mark, we don't even see a doll attack; the director does very well with eerie whispers, scampering feet, and camera tricks--similar to (but arguably better than) the way Child's Play kept the evil Chucky doll hidden until just the right moment. Gordon teases us with cutaways and cutbacks of the dolls' expressions changing right in front of unsuspecting people, which is much more effective than seeing them clumsily stalk across the floor.

When we finally see full-on doll mayhem, the effect is alternately laughable and terrifying.  Dave Allen and John Carl Buechler's visual effects and puppet mechanics only work in small doses, and this is one case where I could justify a CG-assisted remake of a film.  There are too many inserts, too many blatant cuts to screaming actors' faces, and not enough extended, full-body shots of the murders to sell these effects.  Though I must give everyone involved credit for inventiveness: I've never seen a woman stumble down a hallway while miniature people saw her foot off.

These are minor complaints.  There's so much more going on here, so many great mysteries surrounding the dolls and the Hartwickes and the survivors of this terrible night, that a few iffy effects didn't diminish my overall enjoyment.  Movies like Dolls shine a harsh light on the crap that passes for modern horror movies, and makes me wonder why Stuart Gordon isn't the genre's most popular and successful mainstream director.

Sunday
May222011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Captain Jack Will Make You Sigh Tonight

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a refreshing movie--if you need a catnap before driving home from the theatre.  Yep, I fell asleep four times watching this the other night, and am not ashamed to admit it.  I think the longest I was out was two minutes, but not once did I kick myself for having missed anything.

"But, Ian, how can you review a movie that you didn't fully see?"

Like so...

At the end of the third (and supposedly final) Pirates film, I was glad to see the franchise sail off into the sunset.  It had become a nest of bloated-to-bursting barnacles whose stories were so convoluted that I doubt even the actors could have told you what their characters' motivations were.  But because the franchise is pure Disney product, we were teased with the prospect of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his former-enemy-turned-frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) setting out to find the fountain of youth.

I didn't hate that idea.  In fact, I thought scaling back on the epic plots and superfluous characters of the previous films could allow Sparrow and Barbossa to have a fun, original adventure.  When I heard that the sub-title for the fourth installment was On Stranger Tides, I got excited.

Silly me.  The only thing strange about this film is the fact that the screenwriters of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade haven't sued the hell out of Disney and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio for plagiarism.  Granted, the Tim Powers novel on which Pirates 4 is allegedly based came out in 1987--two years before Last Crusade; but I'd bet my house that more people saw the third Indy film than read that book--meaning someone took a huge gamble on both the audience's apathy and non-existent attention span.

I should warn you that I'm about to spoil the entire movie.  Though you need only turn away if you're one of the five people in the audience who couldn't figure out exactly what would happen before the opening title sequence.  Jack Sparrow sets out to find the fountain of youth.  He finds it.  Barbossa joins up with the Royal Navy to procure the fountain's secrets for the king and settle a score with the fierce pirate lord Blackbeard (Ian McShane).  Barbossa betrays the Brits and briefly teams up with Jack to fulfill a prophecy in which he kills Blackbeard.  He kills Blackbeard.

Actually, he mortally wounds Blackbeard--setting the stage for a dramatic climax where Sparrow performs a ritual involving two chalices that have been filled with the water of eternal life.  Blackbeard must choose the correct one in order to live forever; if he chooses correctly, his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz)--who's also been mortally wounded--will die.  He drinks from the cup and feels fine, until Jack reveals that he actually chose the wrong one; at which point Blackbeard is skinned alive by the winds of fate or something and his skeleton gets blown apart.

A lot more happens in the movie, but none of it means anything.  That sounds like an exaggeration, but I'm serious: None of the side stories or main plot points change the characters from where they were at the end of the last film.  We meet a handsome, young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) who helps Jack and Blackbeard transport a supermodel/mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to the fountain (the fountain's rejuvenating properties only kick in when mixed with mermaid tears).  These attractive but utterly blank and useless kids are meant to fill in for Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, but reminded me more of Anakin and Padme from the Star Wars prequels.

As for the villain, McShane isn't given anything to do with Blackbeard except look sad when he's not yelling.  He turns a mythical butcher into a recluse who sometimes comes out of his cabin to weave some magic and pine for a relationship with his long, lost daughter.  It's fitting, though, as the quality of this series' antagonists has declined exponentially; this incarnation of Blackbeard doesn't barely registers compared to the wicked Barbossa of the first picture or Bill Nighy's boring-as-a-character-but-interesting-to-look-at Davy Jones from parts two and three.

McShane's visible lack of enthusiasm underscores a huge problem with On Stranger Tides: There are so many modern icons on the screen servicing a barely-written script that I have to wonder if the actors simply have no taste, or are just that easily bought off.  Dame Judy Dench pops up for thirty seconds at the beginning of the film to, I suppose, keep from defaulting on one of her homes between Bond films.

Keith Richards again surfaces as Jack Sparrow's dad.  When Depp revealed a few years ago that his Sparrow character was partially inspired by the Rolling Stones guitarist, everyone thought it would be awesome to see ol' Keith actually play the part.  When he popped up in the third movie, many people enjoyed a solid laugh of recognition, but that was it.  In this film, we don't even get that.  Richards' cameo is as distracting and unnecessary as the amusement-park-robot performance Depp gives for the entire film.

It may be hard to recall, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an actor, and not just a movie star.  He used to take interesting roles and make bold choices with them--including, I'd argue, the original incarnation of Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski's first Pirates film.  Sparrow was a drunk and a rogue, but he was also a serious pirate, a legend.

On Stranger Tides sees Sparrow (and Depp) coasting on that reputation; now he's just a menace-free clown who gets swept along into grand adventure, rather than charting his own course. He's a slurring Bugs Bunny; a boozy, buccaneer Borat--minus the charm or ability to surprise an audience.  So little is required of Depp at this point that I'm sure Disney is looking to trim his $35 million salary (!!!) for the next installment by simply inserting footage from the previous films into whatever tropical locations they've scouted as backdrops.

Sorry if I've rained on anyone's parade. But, seriously, is it too much to ask that I be presented with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour adventure that's actually exciting?  Am I the only one who considers it a bad sign that my enjoyment and understanding of the film was in no way undercut by my having slept through part of it?  All the wacky stunts, finely detailed period costumes and protracted dialogue scenes give the film the illusion of epic heft, but they can't disguise the lack of wit, imagination and soul that some of us still look for in the movies.

Note: I didn't mention director Rob Marshall because there's nothing noteworthy in his direction here. He apparently blew all his pizzazz on Chicago ten years ago, and is now content to match the blandness of the previous two Pirates movies precisely.  I can no more assess his skills as a filmmaker based on this movie than I could judge a fry-making contest at McDonald's.

Friday
May202011

They Live (1988)

He Can't See without His Glasses!

Yesterday, a guy in line at the cafeteria overheard me talking about They Live with my friend, Bill.  He cut in with an enthusiastic, "Yeah! I love that movie!  It's so campy!"

That really bothered me, but I couldn't articulate why.  So, this morning, I consulted my indispensable writing companion, dictionary.com, and found the following definition of the word "camp":

"Something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental."

They Live is none of those things, but I can understand why someone might apply that easy, awful word to this film.  First, it was made in the 1980s, which for most people under the age of twenty-five indicates an inherent lack of seriousness.  The era of action stars, big hair and practical special effects offered nothing compared to the timeless, quality art of, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World--which was itself born of 80s and 90s nostalgia (but it had the snarky wherewithal to acknowledge that anything pre-1999 sucked).

The second problem is that the movie stars pro-wrestling superstar "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as a nomadic construction worker fighting aliens.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?  Sounds like the perfect drinking-game movie, right?

Sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but They Live is a serious, paranoid action thriller.  It's fun, but only occasionally in ways that might be considered cornball.  Carpenter turned Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" into a screenplay that posits a world view one might consider either conspiratorial or right on the mark.  Like Starship Troopers, this movie predicted events and cultural memes that have come to pass in recent years--minus the alien invasion stuff (I think).

But I've gotten way ahead of myself.  Piper plays George Nada, a drifter who joins a homeless colony on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  He finds day-labor work at a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David)--a bitter, struggling man who sees that the surrounding world of privilege is squeezing the middle class to create more unfortunate bums like him and his friends.  On his second night in town, George discovers a group of men conspiring inside a local church, which has been rigged with speakers that project pre-recorded choir music to the outside world.  He also finds a makeshift lab full of sunglasses lenses, and a strange graffiti tag on the back wall that reads, "They Live.  We Sleep."

The following night, an army of police raids the church and bulldozes the entire homeless village.  Cops in riot gear beat everyone they come across, and George barely escapes with his life.  He returns to the church in the morning to find it completely cleaned out--save for a box of sunglasses that was stashed in a secret compartment.  He pockets one of the pairs and walks into town, which turns out to be a very different Los Angeles than the one he'd known before.

The glasses cast everything in black-and-white and reveal a hidden world of messages and grotesque aliens living among us.  Every billboard, magazine ad, and storefront sign is actually a front for propagandist slogans like, "Obey", "Watch T.V.", and "Marry and Reproduce."  As seen through the glasses, hundreds of ordinary citizens become bug-eyed, half-peeled skeletons.  George learns that the alien invaders use a massive television signal to dull regular people's senses, preventing them from seeing the messages or their sinister neighbors' true faces.

George freaks out and goes on a shooting rampage.  He steals weapons from a pair of alien cops and targets any non-human he sees.  This is more difficult than it sounds, however, as each invader communicates George's whereabouts via wristwatches that also act as teleportation devices.  Soon, he's a wanted man, and he enlists Frank's reluctant help in locating the signal to destroy it and wake people up.

They Live works on every level.  As action movies go, it doesn't get much better than watching Piper and David go head to head for what seems like a ten-minute alley brawl.  These guys look like they're really beating the crap out of each other: When George pounds Frank's head into the pavement, we see the peeling pink flesh on the back of his head.  The fight goes on and on, but Carpenter--with, I imagine, Piper's experience as a showman--knows when to pull back, to let the audience believe either man has won, before launching into another round of fisticuffs and pipe-hitting.

This is also a nifty little piece of sci-fi.  The aliens' methods of control are revealed to be grander and grander, and we're left with the open-ended question of what they're really after.  Theories are offered, but unlike the similarly themed TV miniseries V, the invaders don't want us for food.  It's unclear if humans are just amusements or worker bees, and I love that there's not a climactic scene involving an alien overlord who explains everything away.  In fact, the end of They Live is pretty dark--hopeful, but dark in the way the Carpenter's best works tend to be.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it's more relevant today than it was in 1988.  There's been talk of a remake, but if a filmmaker really wants to drive the point home, he simply needs to adapt Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs's scot-free manipulation of world markets and CG a fright mask over Lloyd Blankfein's face.  The idea of a culture wasting away at the teat of thought-dulling media signals, hyper-consumerism and entertainment that pushes setting aside one's personal convictions for the promise of protection and wealth were, I'm sure, cute, far-fetched notions at the end of the "Me Decade".  But in 2011 these freakish things are as commonplace as nipple piercings.

Carpenter's messenger, his wake-up call to all of us, is a blank-faced, gun-toting pro-wrestler who spouts lines about kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.  To you, that may sound campy; but is it any less ridiculous than reality television or presidential campaign posters designed by an artist who made "Obey" an innocuous, pop-cultural meme?