Twice Baked Potatoes: The Lawnmower Man (1992)

1992.  The home computer is becoming commonplace.  The innovators all envision a better world through technology.  They predict that a computer will be in every home by the year 2001.  We would warm ourselves around the fire of progress, living in the harmony that was supposed to be facilitated by the merging of human beings and technology.  The arena in which all this was supposed to happen was called Virtual Reality.  It was supposed to remove the buffer between our brains and the electronic “brains” in our computers.  Instead of keyboards spelling out commands, we would grab programs with our own hands, and manipulate raw data like clay.  Our minds could be stronger than any physical muscle, which meant we would only be limited by the size of our imaginations.  Virtual Reality was supposed to be our future, but with new ideas came new paranoias, and that is where history leaves off, and Brett Leonard’s film The Lawnmower Man picks up.

lawnmower man poster

Brilliant yet ambitious Dr. Angelo (played by Pierce Brosnan, in a post-Remington Steele, pre-James Bond role) recruits mentally challenged gardener Jobe (played by Body Parts‘ Jeff Fahey) for brain research that, if successful, could make Jobe smarter.  Of course, the research is a success and Jobe’s intelligence grows exponentially.  He gives himself a cowboy makeover, becomes a ladies man, and has big plans for his new future.  Unfortunately, as with all cautionary tales, the bliss is short lived.  Jobe experiences massive side effects, and then the story really begins…

brosnan fahey

The honest truth is that this film is a B-Movie at best.  Any decent film student could have shot this film.  The lighting, costumes, editing, and most of the acting could all be considered just a few notches higher than an episode of Red Shoe Diaries.  The two exceptions are the two lead actors:  Pierce Brosnan embraces the Frankenstein themes of the script, and conceives Dr. Angelo as a wide-eyed explorer of sorts who is constantly running from failure and needs a success before his work consumes him.  As Jobe, journeyman actor Jeff Fahey delivers a complicated character.  He constantly walks the line between dynamic and comical as his character slowly changes from simple-minded gardener into psychotic genius.  Even as the film gets more and more unbelievable, Fahey never lets Jobe slip into a single dimension.  There are always two minds at work.  Fahey’s performance is a textbook example of “better than the material.”  The allure of this film is in the concept, which is best realized during the Virtual Reality sequences.  Though they look extremely dated now, it is still easy to get lost in the visuals.  Even though the technology never actually came to pass, it is still fun to imagine what it would be like to travel to theoretical worlds and be free to express yourself in any way you see fit.  This film is about the dark side of our potential.  This film asks the question: “If we were allowed to remake ourselves in our own image, what would it be?”  I would recommend this film for sci-fi fans, fans of monster movies, and fans of those old Virtuality arcade games.

jobe

PS: Near the end of the film, Jobe prophesizes that he will be able to download himself into the virtual world completely, and then he would pass into the global telecommunications network.  When that was supposed to happen, every phone in the world would ring.  I won’t give the ending away, but it’s an interesting idea.  Virtual Reality may not have come true, but the computer has spread to nearly every aspect of modern life.  Cellphones, PDAs, Blackberries, and even the cars we drive have computer chips in them.  We are plugged in constantly.  Our virtual and physical realities have now merged.  Whether or not Jobe was able to make the phones ring back in 1992, they will not stop ringing now.

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Twice Baked Potatoes: Howard The Duck

Twice Baked Potatoes are films that were considered critical flops in their day, but deserve a second look.  This is the first article in the series, and I chose to watch a film that had a bad reputation when it was released, but may just be secretly awesome.

Imagine you’re coming home after a long day at work.  You sit down in your favorite easy chair to enjoy a cold beer and a cigar.  You get one gulp and three puffs in when some mysterious force rips you away from not only your easy chair, but from your entire planet!  The force drags you across the universe only to crash land in some strange back alley on some strange planet with no idea where you are or how to get back home.  Then picture the strange new planet as Earth, and picture yourself as a three-foot talking duck from outer space.  Finally, picture a demonic creature hell bent on taking over the world, and he needs your woman to do it.  Your name is Howard T. Duck, and you’re really pissed off.  And so begins the weird odyssey through time, space, and greater Ohio in 1987’s Howard The Duck.

When Howard steps on screen, be prepared to suspend some disbelief.  In the era of Pixar, it can be difficult to accept the sight of a little person clearly wearing an animatronic Halloween costume.  The feathers look glued on, the eyes only move in two directions, and the beak is frozen in a cocky smile.  I was so taken by the absurdity of it all that I had to keep watching.  About twenty minutes into the film, I realized that I loved the fact that it was a suit.  I loved the fact that it was a mask, because I also realized that I missed films that used practical special effects.  I missed the feeling of watching a special effects film and being able to see an actual object on screen rather than a computer generated one. The film’s not as polished as The Incredibles or Kung-Fu Panda, but once the momentum starts going, this film is just as entertaining.

Hes just not that into Earth.

He's just not that into Earth.

The acting is all delightfully offbeat, especially from the four leads: Broadway actor Chip Zien as the voice of Howard T. Duck, Lea Thompson (Back To The Future) as Howard’s first friend (and possibly more) Beverly, Tim Robbins as lab assistant Phil Blumburtt, and Jeffrey Jones (Beetlejuice) as the Jekyll and Hyde-inspired Dr. Jenning.  Through his vocal talent, Chip Zien manages to bring out Howard’s dynamic personality despite the limited amount of physical expressions that Howard can make.  It is a truly funny performance that is best described as an oversexed Bruce Willis mixed with a manic Paul Rudd.  Lea Thompson follows suit with a quirky performance that embraces the goofiness of the premise rather than trying to take it too seriously.  Same goes for Tim Robbins’s Blumburtt character, and he is the funniest part of the film.  There is a scene involving Howard and Blumburtt escaping from the police in an ultralight airplane (think a giant toy airplane), and I was laughing as much as I was rooting for them to get away.

Enough said.

Enough said.

Jeffrey Jones may have been on a completely different planet during filming because Dr. Jenning may be one of the most memorable comic book villains ever.  From the Frankenstein makeup to the post-apocalyptic rags that make up his clothing ensemble, Jeffrey Jones is the true hero of the film.  His character is both pure comic book and genuinely scary.  He also gives his character a raspy, whining gargle of a voice that gets under your skin and stays there.  Howard may be the title character, but you may end up talking more about Dr. Jenning after the film.

Director Willard Huyck pulls no punches with the visual style.  The sets are all very angular and colorful, fully embracing the comic book roots from which this film was inspired.  Huyck and writing/life partner Gloria Katz adapted the script from Steve Gerber’s Marvel comic, and it is a romp in every sense of the word.  From beginning to end, the film takes weird twists and turns through unexpected places such as bathhouses and seedy punk rock nightclubs.  Huyck and Katz also wrote the script for Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Temple Of Doom, and the same mix of humor and action shows through in Howard The Duck.  The costumes are all over the top as well, especially Lea Thompson’s Beverly character.  With her multicolored leg warmers, Flashdance-worthy spandex pants, and hair that has been crimped and styled into oblivion, Beverly is a true 80’s time capsule.  The same could be said for the film itself, but it also has a unique view of the 80’s.  There are times when the film looks like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, while other parts look like Batman, and other parts look like a TV sitcom.

This film is secretly awesome, and though it’s an oddball film, you may have a better time than you want to admit.  If we can buy the idea of robots from outer space that can transform into Camaros and Hummers, then a wise-cracking duck from outer space saving Earth from mad scientists is just what the doctor ordered.