While you were out 

Movies that missed the wake-up call

Shoichi Yokoi was a tailor’s apprentice before getting drafted into the Japanese army in 1941. His vocational training came in handy for making his own clothes out of pounded hibiscus fiber in the jungles of Guam, where he hid out for nearly 27 years after WWII ended, surviving on a diet of breadfruit, papayas, coconuts, snails, eels and rats.

Hailed as a national hero upon his 1972 return to Japan (his first words to the press—“It is with much embarrassment that I return”—became a popular expression), Yokoi was initially overwhelmed by the enormity of change in his native country but eventually adapted, becoming a popular TV commentator, best-selling author and (unsuccessful) parliamentary candidate.

It’s amazing that no one has made a movie about this, but at this point it might be gilding the lily. Hollywood has long since figured out that people who suddenly rejoin the present after taking an extended leave of it in one fashion or another (a la Good bye, Lenin!, reviewed in this issue) can be drafted into service for promising high-concept movies.

The Dead Zone (1983)
Christopher Walken stars, in one of the better film adaptations of a Stephen King novel, as John Smith, whose car gets creamed by a milk tanker on his way home from his fiancée’s house. She invited him to sleep over, but Johnny’s an old-fashioned, true-love-waits kind of guy.

When he emerges from his coma, his fiancée is married to another man, and heartbroken Johnny goes into hiding. He can’t stay in obscurity for long, though, because word of his new clairvoyant powers gets round to the police, who pressure him into helping solve a serial-killer case. Later, he devotes his psychic energies to derailing a populist presidential candidate played by Martin Sheen.

Walken is a force of nature in this unrelentingly bleak movie. “Bless me?!” he rails at a sheriff played by Tom Skerritt. “Let me tell you what God did for me. He threw an 18-wheel truck at me! Bounced me into nowhere for five years! Bless me! Yeah, God’s been a real sport to me.”

Return of the Jedi (1983)
I can’t recall, and I positively do not care, what was left hanging at the end of Attack of the Clones. I do vividly recall, however, what an eternity three years felt like after The Empire Strikes Back. If only the rest of us could have waited it out in carbon-frozen suspended animation, too!

A lot has happened in the interval between the freezing and the thawing. The gang has come back to Tatooine to rescue Solo from the slimy clutches of slug-like intergalactic crime boss Jabba the Hutt. He emerges from hibernation weak, blind and with the deathlike pallor of grass growing under a rock. On the bright side, Chewie’s overjoyed to see him and Leia still loves him, although the temporary blindness prevents him from seeing her in the harem outfit Jabba makes her wear. For adolescent male viewers like me (at the time, I mean), still in grammar school when the first Star Wars came out six years earlier, seeing Leia in a brass bikini was an awakening in itself.

Blast from the Past (1999)
Brendan Fraser is a veteran of at least two movies in which his character makes a dramatic return to the present. In 1992’s Encino Man, he starred as a caveman thawed out and squired around by a pair of stoners (Sean Astin and Pauly Shore).

In the much better Blast from the Past, he plays a sheltered child in the most literal sense, born and raised in a plush fallout shelter where genius dad Christopher Walken moves the family at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Walken is the first to emerge when the locks automatically open after 35 years; the winos, gangsters and transvestite prostitutes he encounters seem to confirm his worst suspicions. The intensively home-schooled Fraser is next to leave the reinforced-concrete nest in search of supplies—and a healthy non-mutant girl (Alicia Silverstone) to mate with—and he wows the jaded swing-dancing retro throwbacks with his authentic period skills and wardrobe. A surprisingly sweet movie—in its own way, a lot like ET.

While You Were Sleeping (1995)
This trite, cloying Sandra Bullock movie about a female ticket-taker with a crush on one of her regular passengers (Peter Gallagher) wants to be loved so badly, the only sensible choice is to hate it just on principle. Bullock’s character doesn’t have much going for her, here: The viewer is simply told to believe, no questions asked and no evidence submitted for review, that it’s, like, totally romantic and not at all weird or scary that Bullock would infiltrate Gallagher’s family by pretending to be his fiancée when he falls into a coma. More proof that it’s hard to go broke by doing an end-run around all credibility and going straight for hokey chick-flick sentimentality. More proof that the romantic comedy must be destroyed.

Awakenings (1990)
This movie about the experimental treatment of terminal encephalitis patients—starring Robin Williams in one of his earliest “serious” roles—barely beats the odds director Penny Marshall lays on it. It pulls itself back from the brink of cheesiness at least a dozen times and always gets away with it.

Still, you’d have to be a real ogre not to let it get to you on some level. Robert De Niro is an actor who can rub his stomach, pat his head, chew gum and juggle 10 plates while riding a unicycle across a tightrope—and make it look as natural as falling off a log. If his strenuous performance here as a catatonic patient in a Bronx mental hospital—or Ruth Nelson’s, playing his devoted mother—doesn’t bring you to the verge of tears at least once, you must have ice water running in your veins.

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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