#68 An American in Paris

#68 An American in Paris (1951)

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An American in Paris is the first musical I’ve encountered for the purposes of this cinematic experiment, and is one of only seven that feature in the AFI 100 (1998). As musicals tend to be, it’s full of a lot of lovely singing and dancing and smiling. And that’s about it.

I’ll come out and say it: I just don’t get dance. I’ve watched enough So You Think You Can Dance with my wife to understand that lots of people can be moved to tears by a dance routine. And of course I can respect the technical skill, physical prowess, and artistry that it requires. I understand that it’s entertaining to watch. I understand that it’s fun. But I just don’t really get it. Not in the way that the judges on that show do, when they start blubbering and sobbing when some teenager dances to Mad World or My Immortal. So understand that’s where I’m coming from.

(Also, I’ve seen tons of musicals in my day and I’d say that I tend to enjoy most of them. Because most musicals have more than their fair share of campy, corny moments, I usually find plenty to be entertained by.)

Gene Kelly is a former GI that stays on in Paris after the war because he is an aspiring artist. The film seems to suggest that Paris immediately returned to its baguettes and costume parties after its occupation. Kelly is a painter, although we don’t see him do much painting. He mainly dances on top of pianos and hands out bubble gum to Parisian school children. He has an American buddy (Oscar Levant) who is a down on his luck pianist. Levant is meant to be the funny one, I think, but instead comes across as an awkward, unappealing amalgamation of Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra. Then there’s Georges Guetary who plays an up and coming French singer, who is romantically involved with Leslie Caron, who works in a perfume shop. Kelly begins to pursue Caron, who is caught between the two men. Will Kelly find true love? Will Caron choose the one guy or the other guy? I think you know who she’ll choose. But really: who cares?

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The fact is the story sucks. What matters is that Vincente Minnelli directed it, so it looks great. Gene Kelly choreographed the dancing, so if you like dancing you’ll like what you see here. And the songs are all by George and Ira Gershwin, so the songs are superb American classics.

One thing I’ve noticed with Gene Kelly musicals (On The Town comes to mind) is that he often seems to lose the girl with about half and hour left in the film’s run-time, then slips into a waking dream in which a massive dance number breaks out (usually including the entire cast, or at least the key characters) and it goes on and on and on and on and on. When it finally ends, he snaps out of it and lo! the girl is jumping out of a taxi cab and rushing to his arms. Happens all the time, I guess.

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#30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

#30 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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I’m sure I’ll say this a few more times before I finish all 100 films but here goes: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is the best film I’ve watched so far.

After enduring the agonizing three-hour course on boredom that is The Birth of a Nation, Madre felt like the cinematic equivalent of a trip to Disney World. That’s a lame compliment, because I’d say the same thing about three hours of VCR snow. Seriously, though: Madre is the pants.

Bogart is Fred Dobbs, a down on his luck American looking for work in Mexico. We meet him asking fellow Americans for handouts to fund his next meal. He’s greasy and a bit dim. We watch him and nice guy Curtin (Tim Holt) get swindled by a fast talking foreman that offers them a job but then stiffs them come pay-day. Dobbs and Holt have to offer the mug a beating in a bar to get their pay which they take from his wallet. But they only take what was coming to them, though they could have robbed the guy blind. They’re honest men, at the beginning.

They meet up with an old coot of a prospector called Howard (Walter Huston), and the three decide to give it their best shot at gold prospecting. Howard warns them of gold’s “devilish tricks”, how it plays on a man’s mind, making him hungrier and hungrier for more until he can never be satisfied. Gold, Howard says, can rob a man’s soul. Dobbs disagrees. He believes gold isn’t necessarily a negative force; it’s conditional on the man who has it. It won’t be my master, he says.

What plays out is a brilliant character dram examining what happens when desperate men are pushed to their limits, when the corrosive nature of greed erodes the soul until a man is left a shell, a paranoid and empty version of his former self. It’s surprisingly philosophical, asking a lot of questions about morality, human nature, and avarice. It’s a modern American fable, really. One with a tragic and darkly humorous ending. God I love this movie.

The acting is great. Bogart is excellent in this unfamiliar role. I think of Bogart as Sam Spade, a no-nonsense straight-shooter. But here he’s this tragic character, brimming with flaws and vanity, and very little smarts. Another standout is Walter Huston as Howard, father of the film’s director John Huston. His fast talking performance is a lot of fun to watch and pretty much sets the standard for every other “grizzly old prospector” type character.

One of my favorite moments is when the trio finally find the mountain’s gold. Walter Huston insults his buddies with such silken grace, and then does the greatest dance ever filmed. An absolute joy.

For some reason I thought about Duck Tales while watching this. Probably because Bogart gets the gold fever. But I often ending up thinking about Duck Tales. Does there really need to be a reason?

#44 The Birth of a Nation

#44 The Birth of a Nation (1915)

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This one was hard to watch. A three-hour run time for a silent, 100-year-old film is never going to be easy on the ass and lower back. But what makes watching The Birth of a Nation such a painful experience  is that it’s just so racist. It’s so racist that I defy you to watch it and not feel uncomfortable.

It’s a movie in which white actors wear poorly applied blackface makeup and attack and threaten defenseless white women in their homes. It’s a movie that suggests the former slaves freed following the Civil War turned the state legislatures into zoos, taking off their shoes and behaving like animals in the political buildings. A movie that suggests that congressional leaders and abolitionists sought to crush the white South under the heel of the black South. A movie that shows a struggling former confederate South being driven into anarchy by the recently freed slaves, and being rescued by the KKK. The KKK literally rides in to save the day, defeating a militia consisting solely of (as far as I can recall) African-Americans, as Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries swells in the background.

It was made in 1915. It is being completely frank, completely honest. It is presented with no subtext. There is nothing to decipher. It is unadulterated racist propaganda. And for decades, until Gone With the Wind, it was Hollywood’s highest-grossing film.

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I was surprised by the film’s attitude toward Abraham Lincoln. I somehow thought that the President would be portrayed in an entirely disparaging light, as a great villain for crushing the rebellion. But instead the film proclaims that Lincoln’s “fostering hand” aided the South as it rebuilt itself. And when the Cameron family learns of Lincoln’s assassination they are shattered, and wonder “What is to become of us now?”

The assassination itself, which the film claims to portray with perfect historical accuracy, does smack of hero-worship. Mr. Booth looks the consummate action hero, shooting Lincoln before vaulting from the balcony onto the stage, triumphantly declaring “Sic semper tyrannis!”, and as far as the film is concerned with, getting away scott free.

And yet for all its vile offenses, The Birth of a Nation is surprisingly watchable. Although ugly and worn, if you can keep your attention span and don’t turn it off out of disgust or boredom, it holds up.  Credit for this is down to D.W. Griffith’s directorial pedigree. In 1915 he created Hollywood’s first epic and utilized groundbreaking techniques that set the stage for the directors that followed. But these achievements are swallowed up in disgrace. His film set the stage for the racists that followed him as well. Evidently when the film premiered, the KKK was an all but disbanded institution. The Birth of a Nation helped apply the defibrillator and brought it back.

#90 The Jazz Singer

#90 The Jazz Singer (1927)

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So The Jazz Singer is the first feature-length “talkie”, popularizing the threadbare cinematic technique of making it so that the characters that appear to be moving on the screen now also appear to be saying words at the same time. It’s really not that impressive. That’s why I was so pleased that The Artist won best picture last year. It’s about time that Hollywood realized how redundant and insulting synchronized dialogue is. It’s about damn time that Hollywood stopped dumbing down their movies with all that talking! Why do I need to hear them say the words? I can get the gist of what the actors are saying by watching them act. I’m not an idiot. Show. Don’t tell. If absolutely necessary, just flash a sentence on the screen and get back to the action. I’m sick of movies filled with actors sitting around on their backsides, just talking to each other. I don’t go to the movies to hear people talk. Before the movie starts they usually run a warning asking people to silence their phones and not talk during the film. I wish someone would show that clip to the actors. It’s just plain rude.

Al Jolson is Jakie Rabinowitz, a young Jewish lad who wants to sing ragtime. His father is the cantor at the synagogue and expects Jackie to follow in his footsteps just as he followed his father’s. When his father finds him singing in a saloon, he drags Jakie home and whips him. Jakie runs away to chase his dream of becoming a singing sensation. Which he achieves, naturally. But Jakie must make a choice. Will he follow the old world traditions of his family or will he identify with the new “religion” of modern jazz culture?

Toward the end of the film Jolson performs in blackface. It’s interesting to note that in his attempt to break ties to the traditions of his family and assimilate into his adopted modern theater culture, he uses a racist performance tradition to create an alternate version of himself. His mother sees him in the makeup in his dressing room and she doesn’t recognize him. Somebody says “It sounds like him – but looks like his shadow.” Is Jolson’s character using racism as a way to mask his Jewish identity, in much the same way he drops his last name for less “offensive” Jakie Robin? Is it impossible for Jakie Rabinowitz to take part in the roaring twenties without continually burying himself under layers and layers of pseudonyms and masks and disguises? Is there no way to hold onto your soul in America? Must we all drink deep from the cup of bigotry?

For a movie that is always praised for being the first talkie, it sure it silent. But when the recorded dialogue and music kick in (which I think is twice, maybe three times?), it really does feel like magic. The scene that best illustrates this is when Jolson sings Blue Skies to his mother on the family piano. It had been a silent film for so long, dramatic music playing over the acting and the text and then BANG. There it is. He’s talking, and his words are corresponding perfectly with his lips and it really feels magical.

I can imagine how fantastic it must have been to watch this movie in a theater in 1927. Really wish they left the racist parts out. Maybe if they remake it, they’ll find a way to do this without the racist crap?

Oh. Oh no.

#82 Giant

#82 Giant (1956)

So it’s been months and months since I last wrote here. What took so long? Well, I decided to watch Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, and it just ended.

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I’m kidding of course. But God was that a chore. Giant clocks in at 3.5 hours. Three. Point. Five. Hours. Think about how long that is. We’re talking extended edition long, here. There are very few movies that need to be this long. Very, very few. For what it does in the course of its narrative, Giant is one of these few films, I suppose. It spans 30 years in the lives of wealthy Texan rancher Jordan Benedict Jr. (Hudson) and his spirited East Coast wife Leslie (Taylor) as they meet, fall in love, have kids, and grow old.

So it’s got a few strikes against it already as far as I’m concerned. First of all, it’s too long. Second of all, it’s a western. Not in the same way that Shane is, to be fair. But they are in Texas, there are cowboys, Hudson is a rancher, James Dean is an oil prospector; it’s a western, all right. So it’s going to have to do a lot to interest me. And unfortunately, it just doesn’t.

I’ll give the screenwriters credit for keeping a tight rein on the story. If your script is going to cover three decades, it’s very easy for things to get confusing. But it was very easy to keep track of the characters and they were all well drawn. (And it’s breathtakingly beautiful in places, with a particularly beautiful Texan sky marking the landscape during a touching burial scene.)

At its core though, Giant is a Texan soap opera. Which could be interesting, but the kind of melodramatic twists and turns that usually spice up (and dumb down) stories like this up just don’t arrive. Or if they do, they come way too late and don’t deliver. I thought for sure that I was about to watch a tortured love triangle featuring Hudson, Taylor and Dean, but that’s not what this movie is about. I thought for sure I was going to watch the very outspoken Taylor challenge the traditional wild west status quo with her progressive east coast views on women’s rights and racial equality. She does, and her husband doesn’t like it at first. He gets a little upset one night because of her behavior, but doesn’t do anything rash like you’d expect from a soap. Instead he sort of rolls with it, and by the end the combined efforts of his wife and son succeed in changing his racist old west views. Which is great, but remember this movie is 3.5 hours long. 

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This will sound terrible, but this movie may have been a little more enjoyable for me if there were a bit more violence in it. Maybe I’m being prejudiced against the west here, but that’s what I want to see when I’m watching a western. I want to see some guns going off and some face punching. God knows I hated Shane, but at least some people got knocked out in that. Rock Hudson gets his ass kicked by a racist in a diner at the end, but his character is like 70 years old by then. Not exactly thrilling. Hudson and Dean exchange a few punches after Dean strikes oil, but it’s nothing to write home about. Let’s see. A drunken elderly Dean punches Dennis Hopper in the face while he’s being held back by a couple of lackeys. Not exciting. Hopper throws a bottle of booze into a mirror at one point. That woke me up. Also Hudson trashes one of Dean’s liquor rooms, knocking over rows and rows of booze with a deafening smash. That was neat. But that’s like one violent scene for every hour of movie. It’s just not good enough.

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James Dean starts off as a surly, bitter farm hand working for Hudson, but ends as a filthy rich oil tycoon and Hudson’s hated rival. Oh who cares. My god this movie was so long. They cast all these really young, famous actors in it, and had to use all this makeup and other movie tricks to make them look like they aged over thirty years. So by the end James Dean is all gray-headed and Liz Taylor has got lines and bags all over her face. In the time it took me to watch this, I grew a beard.

There’s a great Thanksgiving scene in which Taylor takes the kids back to Maryland for the holiday. The kids feed a turkey called Pedro. When the servant brings the bird to the table on a platter, this kids ask “Is that Pedro?” There was some explosive crying on their part, and some explosive laughter on mine.

So to summarize, Giant is a great film because of its subtlety and depth, but I would have actually liked it if it had dumbed it down with a little more violence and yee-haw. Hmm. Maybe that’s what this movie is about? How oil and big business brought about the end of the exciting old west? Hmm…

Final thought: if nothing else, this movie made me hungry. And for breakfast in particular. I mean just look at that spread.

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#87 Frankenstein

#87 Frankenstein (1931)

In my grade school library there was this book of Hollywood monsters. In fourth grade or fifth grade, I don’t remember which, I’d be drawn to the thick, dusty pages with black and white photographs of scenes from the greatest classic horror movies. Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Dracula peered out at me, simultaneously hypnotizing me and scaring me stupid in the sunlit library, surrounded by classmates. I was very easy to scare as a boy, but I liked it that way. I was always drawn to those stories that would keep me awake at night. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, Jaws. I’d want to watch these movies, but would always wimp out when the priest gets blasted by the aliens or when the blood starts to come out of Quint’s mouth. But even if I was only brave enough to watch through my fingers or with my hands over my ears, I was still fascinated with and addicted to that blast of terror and adventure that those films provided me.

In that dusty book there was a picture from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Boris Karloff was  kneeling down at the bank of a river with a little girl, flowers in her hand and a trusting smile on her mouth. I don’t remember if the caption on the page hinted at the impending tragedy of the scene or not, but this image bewildered me. All the other monster movie villains were depicted quite clearly as threatening killers. They were swathed in darkness, all teeth and scales and sneers. But in the Frankenstein still there was a lovely lakeside scene with what could have been a child playing with her father or uncle, if it weren’t a hideous creature with bolts in his neck. I was perplexed by the contrast, and even though I never actually watched the film it somehow stuck with me, haunting me, installing itself in my eleven-year old imagination alongside a bloodthirsty great-white and the prospect of alien invasion.

Sitting down to watch Frankenstein for the first time, I was obviously aware that it had absolute no chance of frightening me. Which is a shame, because Mary Shelley’s book is frightening, perhaps one of the most existentially frightening stories ever told. But what comes out in the film is campy, overwrought nonsense, abandoning the complexity and thematic depth of the novel while embracing crude caricatures and easy horror scares.

Allow me to clarify: Frankenstein is a landmark film and compared to other films of its time there is plenty to be said in its favor. Frankenstein’s creature captured popular imagination and has become a piece of modern myth and folklore, one of those few stories that is retold and reinterpreted by every new generation. But compared to the book it’s an empty, pathetic shell of itself, limp and weak and unsatisfying.

Let me be clear about something else. I’m not one to complain when movies deviate from their source material in their adaptations. But I make an exception in the case of Frankenstein because the changes made in the film transform an interesting story into a boring, lame-ass creature feature.

I knew something was up when the opening credits claim the film is “From the novel by MRS. PERCY B. SHELLEY.” Although some scholars believe that her husband did assist her in the editing of the novel and seems to have provided her with suggestions many of which she utilized, it just seems wrong to not put her name in the credits. Maybe that’s nitpicking but it put me off right away. (Although, now that I think about it, maybe it’s better that her name isn’t on this, since it bears only a passing semblance to her masterpiece.)

Bill Hader?

I’m annoyed by the film suggestion that Frankenstein, through his assistant’s blunder, is forced to build his creature with the “abnormal brain” of a criminal instead of the “normal brain” he intended to use. Of course the creature is going to be dangerous. It has a predisposition to violence and evil. This isn’t science, obviously, though anyone can see why it makes for scary movie stuff. We’re afraid of the creature now because we know he’s basically a revitalized murderer. But this destroys Shelley’s creature, rendering him incapable of earning the audiences support and sympathy. He cannot be the tragic hero that Shelley intended him to be because he is a diseased criminal brought back from the dead by some kind of modern day voodoo. The cards are stacked against him. “Science” decrees that he has no other course but violence, on account of his abnormal brain.

So he shambles around mumbling and growling incoherently, getting into poorly choreographed fights with just about everyone in the film, chucking children into lakes, and strangling screaming women while off camera. He never speaks, and that’s the biggest problem with the movie. Shelley’s creature learns, becomes educated, speaks, thinks clearly, understands, ponders his existence, chooses his course of action rationally. He is a killer, no doubt about it, but his motives are fascinating. He is a brutal symbol of humanity. We may not like it, but this creature is meant to be our hero.

I actually enjoy the film’s sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) much more, simply because it just goes ahead and makes the “monster” the hero, as it always should have been. It includes the tender scene where the creature is befriended by a blind man and learns to communicate. It’s a nod to the scene in the novel in which the creature learns language and history and literature from books borrowed from a reclusive family living in a cottage in the woods. The creature educates himself and contemplates his existence. We don’t get that much in the picture. We’re meant to be impressed that the shambling, grunting oaf even managed to string together a few words coherently.

And that’s the biggest gripe I have with the portrayal of our favorite “monster”; he’s drawn as a simple-minded murderer that the audience can simultaneously hate and be terrified of, all while harboring their misguided sense of intellectual superiority. But Shelley’s creature is well-read, better-read than the audience, and could articulate the finer points of Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives with great detail if Hollywood would only let him. There shouldn’t be as much grunting and groaning in a screening of Frankenstein, unless it’s coming from the audience, the “monster’s” intellectual inferiors, fluent only in celebrity gossip.

The film gets it wrong. Like Dr. Frankenstein, it builds its character with the wrong brain. By stripping the monster of his intelligence they created a beast-like creature that scares us on a more basic level. Sure, we can be scared by a stupid, powerful monster, but we can be truly haunted and horrified by an intelligent, powerful monster, more man than beast, more human than human.

#43 King Kong

#43 King Kong (1933)

With state of the art special effects, a terrible script, and some of the hammiest dialogue ever, King Kong is the original Hollywood blockbuster. It’s the great granddaddy to the colossal summer spectacles that Hollywood loses money on each summer, the kinds of movies that less discerning viewers actually go the theater to see but more criminally-minded and technologically savvy viewers illegally download. You know, like Transformers and everything else Michael Bay puts out. And most of the movies starring Tom Cruise lately. Those ones that are definitely movies in the sense that they’re up there on a screen and there’s stuff happening, kinda. And maybe someone said something but mainly- WHOA! did you see that thing punch that other thing until it exploded against that building?!

So is it fair to blame King Kong for all the terrible movies around today? No, I don’t think that’s fair. However it is fair to blame King Kong for the remakes if you don’t like them (1976, 2005), those Kong B-movie type sequels like King Kong Lives with Linda Hamilton (although they look like a lot of fun) and of course for the Donkey Kong Rap.

1933 must have been a bad year for film plots. In the same way that Duck Soup‘s plot worked only insomuch as it provided an excuse for the Marx Brothers to assault us with comedy, King Kong’s story is also not a good one, but it does its job well enough to provide a vehicle for a dazzling array of special effects and visual excitement. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone reading this to be unfamiliar with King Kong, but here’s the mandatory synopsis.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) makes movies for a living. He goes into the wild and films animals doing wild animal things in their natural habitat, but he needs something to jazz it up a bit. He hears about this island where there’s this great big ape that’s making a name for himself on the Jungle Circuit, and convinces a down-on-her luck actress/shoplifter Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to be the monster’s new leading lady. So they go there and have a lot of adventures, and Denham approaches Kong about being in his film, but Kong explains to the director that it’s an insult that a seasoned performer such as himself should audition for the role alongside a load of rookie dinosaurs and primitive island natives. Anyway, Kong auditions and literally chews up his competition. He convinces Denham that this project is better suited for the stage than the silver screen, and offers to revise the project for him. Denham reads Kong’s notes and is positively blown away by what he reads. He agrees to take Kong to New York and give him his own show on Broadway.

Kong is loving it at first; he can’t believe his luck. He’s living the dream in New York, his own show is debuting, his name is in lights. It all goes wrong at opening night, however. While Kong is delivering a very emotional third act monologue (which he wrote for himself to perform), former “supporting artist” Ann Darrow misses her cue and cluelessly enters stage right, ruining everything. To make matters worse, the crowd seem to love her and start taking photographs of her, flash bulbs igniting the darkened theater until the entire room appears to be glowing, burning in worship for that stupid blonde flapper. The witless floozy has ruined everything for Kong. The ape goes off book and improvises a thrilling finale that includes climbing buildings, screaming, snatching people from the sidewalks and putting them in his mouth and then just sort of looking around with his big old googly eyes, snorting cocaine off of hookers’ asses, abducting sleeping women from their beds and hurling them from the height of skyscrapers to their certain death, and screeching “Do you know who I am? Do you know WHO I AM?!” to innocent passersby. After a bit of light murder Kong is shot to death and falls from the top of the Empire State Building.

Despite the silly plot King Kong manages to pull off an impressive sleight of hand: the monster scares us while simultaneously causing us to sympathize with it. Of course the film’s special effects wouldn’t frighten even the smallest, bedwetting child of our sophisticated modern era but in its time Kong was the goods. And he’s brought to life with every available visual trick in cinema’s bag. An impressive feat. When Kong falls to his death, we feel for him although he’s been attempting to kill and has killed many of our heros throughout the film. It’s not unlike Frankenstein in that way: the “monster” that is meant to terrify us, that is so unlike us, gradually is revealed to be a creature behaving in the same ways a human would were he in a similar situation. The inhuman is more humane than the human, and is victimized by the human. Kong spells this out for the audience without a trace of subtlety, with its heavy handed message of “beauty killing the beast.”

So there you have it. King Kong supplied me with some very long laughs as well. Every time Kong picked up a native islander or a Manhattan islander and stuffed it in his mouth and then just sort of looked around, I lost it. We’re to assume that he chews these people up, which would make him a bloodthirsty monster, but his jaws never move. The result is Kong standing there wearing what amounts to an ear-to-ear grin and his big stupid eyes darting around, with some poor sucker screaming their heads off while perfectly safe in his teeth there. Good stuff.

But the funniest moment doubles as the dumbest decision I’ve ever seen in a movie. While Denham’s men are wandering about Kong’s island they encounter all manner of beasts and dinosaurs. They eventually come across this rabid brontosaurus lake monster that has a taste for men, I guess. It gets the jump on them in the lake, springing and picking off a few of them after tipping their transport over. The men run for cover in the jungle. One of the men, the brightest man in the entire party, gets a great idea. “Where should I hide from this long-necked 30-foot beast?” he asks himself in this moment of supreme terror. To my everlasting delight he climbs the nearest tree, so the terrible lizard needs not trouble himself in gobbling him up. For my money, this is the worst decision in the history of movies. If you’ve seen worse, please let me know. I value a good laugh over the need to be right.