October 31, 2012


John Carpenter's films between Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Christine (1983) were supreme examples of how atmosphere can make a movie, and how it can compensate for other less successful attributes. Halloween (1978) is the apex of Carpenter's early career (and ultimately, of all time), full of cinematographer Dean Cundey's ominous tracking shots, and lots of creepy blue lighting, plus Carpenter's chilling--if redundant--score, reminiscent of Mike Oldfield's eerie Exorcist tune.

The story of Halloween is about as simplistic as it gets: a maniac escapes from a mental institute and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, which was the scene of his first crime 15 years earlier when he stabbed his teenage sister to death. For reasons unknown, he goes after three teenage girls: Jamie Lee Curtis, making her film debut, is the most resourceful among them, and P.J. Soles and Nancy Loomis play her friends, who are too busy with their boyfriends to be aware of the masked killer lurking around the corner.

A lot of Halloween is delayed gratification: Carpenter keeps you waiting for the bogeyman to strike, but often times he doesn't. His patience is almost miraculous, except for his horrible intentions. But why is he so patient? And why does he continually let Laurie (Curtis) out of his grasp? Perhaps he's playing a game with her, but because he's supposed to represent evil incarnate, the script--by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill--doesn't try to explain him, or his motivations.

Donald Pleasence classes things up as the obsessive psychiatrist Dr. Loomis, who tried to rehabilitate the child murderer for 15 years, obviously unsuccessfully. He follows the killer--named Michael Myers--to Haddonfield, convinced something bad is going to happen. Pleasence was well-known for playing villains and heels (such as Blofeld in the Bond picture You Only Live Twice). Halloween revived and redirected his career, inaugurating him as the prototype for all the old farts who permeated slasher films in the 1980s. (He's just the slasher era's Van Helsing, really. Wiser than the stupid teenagers, and cunning enough to rival the killer.)

While Halloween isn't a perfect picture, it still ranks as the best of its ilk (with the original Black Christmas just behind it). I can't think of a better "slasher" film, although it's hard to really put it in the same category as the movies it inspired (such as Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream). It's not all that violent, and there's almost no blood. Carpenter tries to rely on suspense to make you jump. And while he's not as sophisticated as he's been credited, Carpenter achieves the quality of a Hollywood nightmare: something controlled and very deliberate, but enjoyable when you're able to watch it at work, hitting all the right marks. It's the ultimate popcorn horror flick.

With Charles Cyphers, Nick Castle as The Shape (although it's not his face you see when Laurie briefly unmasks him, but Tony Moran's), Kyle Richards, and Brian Andrews. Followed by seven (!) sequels. Avoid the wretched remake.

October 27, 2012


William Castle's answer to Psycho is this 1961 shocker, about a disturbed young woman named Emily, who takes care of an invalid lady in a secluded mansion. The entire cast is convincingly banal and obtuse, except for Jean Arless, as the homicidal maniac. She turns camp into art. Homicidal is a deliciously bad piece of movie-making, from a man who made all his money on gimmicks. With Homicidal, Castle devised a "fright break": Just before the finale, a clock appears on the screen, giving scared viewers a minute to leave the theater if they're too afraid to see the end. (Those spineless patrons were offered a full refund provided they stood in the 'Coward's Corner,' which was designated in the lobby, right where all the more courageous movie-goers could see you as they exited the theater.)

Homicidal isn't a very smart thriller, but its dumb storyline lends a certain charm, and you enjoy it for its quirky idiosyncrasies and its badness. The script is by Robb White. The supporting cast includes Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Richard Rust, Eugenie Leontovich, and James Westerfield. 87 mins.

October 24, 2012


Slither (2006) is writer-director James Gunn's pastiche of every horror and science fiction film you can imagine (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Night of the Living Dead, Alien, etc). It's a slick, sick movie that brings new meaning to the word "icky," as a parasitic alien creature generates thousands of slimy slug-creatures that implant themselves into people's brains and turn their hosts into mindless zombies, subservient to their other-worldly master. Watching Slither is like playing connect the dots. It's kind of fun to see just how much bad-movie pop culture, which is deeply embedded into James Gunn's artistic sensibilities, manifests itself in this movie, which is alternately funny and revolting.

Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks head the cast. He's the newly appointed police chief of the small town of Wheelsy, South Carolina, and she's a local schoolteacher whose husband (Michael Rooker) becomes the host of the alien creature when it descends upon the town like a shooting star from a 1950's alien invasion flick. Gregg Henry plays the foul-mouthed mayor, who tries to snatch every scene he's in by playing a terrible human being (and succeeds much of the time). Tania Saulnier plays a teenage girl whose family falls prey to the fast-moving slug-creatures. She's sprightly enough to escape them, and winds up with the police chief and his group as they attempt to ward off their zombified neighbors.

I was surprised by how horrified I was by this movie, especially since I'd seen it a couple times before. It's funny but disturbing. The slug-things look like condoms full of purply jelly, and, like the slugs in Night of the Creeps, they enter through your mouth, which suggests all kinds of horrifying things. Gunn is having a good time being suggestive here, but his movie, while amusing and suspenseful, doesn't do enough to distinguish itself. It's expected these days for horror films to be transparently parasitic, but with Slither you feel almost exhausted by the film's lack of originality. And yet it's a fun popcorn kind of movie, although it paradoxically relieves you of any appetite you might have had.

Gunn's warped sense of humor courses through the movie like a kind of anti-body to the appropriately off-putting visuals. Still, Slither is the nastier (albeit funnier) version of everything it spoofs/mimics/pays homage to. But Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks add some panache to the proceedings, even if their natural charms are subordinate to the movie's slimy weirdness. Fillion goes through the entire movie with a sort of comic disbelief, and Banks is at her most engaging when she's smart and resourceful. With Jennifer Copping, Don Thompson, and Jenna Fischer, in a small role as a dispatcher.

October 22, 2012

Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead (1979) is a garish, exuberant horror movie, one which still leaves me feeling giddy. It's such a half-serious kind of a scare picture that you forget how dark it is under the surface, and that dark nastiness can come up from behind and take a big bite out of you. Of course some will scoff that the special effects in Dawn of the Dead are outdated now, but for me, the comic book-red blood and the pasty-faced flesh-eating ghouls are still enchanting, almost more so because they're
so obviously unreal. Who on earth could enjoy a "serious" zombie movie anyway?

(George Romero, the director of Dawn, had made something more serious in his directorial debut, the cult classic Night of the Living Dead, but that film had the effect of a surreal nightmare and it worked for it. But I can't praise Romero's first three zombie pictures enough. They're woven into the tapestry of my movie-going history. I've seen them too many times to count, which has lessened their impact somewhat, and yet I continue to find new and intriguing things in them.)

In Dawn, the zombie crisis established in Night has escalated, and the film opens at a Pittsburgh television news station, where the commentators, technicians, and program managers are all in a tizzy. The world is ending but dammit if they aren't going to continue competing for ratings. Soon, two of the TV station employees flee the city in a company helicopter, along with two members of the National Guard. They eventually land on the roof of a shopping mall, which is overrun with the walking dead, and barricade themselves inside the materialist mecca, securing it from the ghoul invasion for a while.

Critics have beaten the consumerism theme into the ground, so I won't go into detail about that here. Instead I'd like to point out how Romero's visual sense of storytelling makes this movie work. He's admitted that his screenplays generally contain twice as many shots as most feature films, and one can imagine how difficult this becomes logistically for the director of photography, the lighting director, and anyone else involved in the mapping out of a given scene and its particular actions. But Romero's ability to imagine what he wants, which is tempered by the loosening powers of spontaneous input from his cast and crew, is what makes Dawn of the Dead such a visually arresting movie experience.

You don't really need dialogue to get this movie. You don't need deep characters. Indeed, these characters don't have much more of a backstory than those of Romero's first zombie installment. We're lucky if we even get last names. While I'm no opponent of richly detailed characters, I see the value in utilizing a more shallow representation of people in horror movies. They're functional to the plot, like just about everything else in these kinds of films. This has been used as a slur on the genre, and while it tends to work against your enjoyment of movies like Friday the 13th, it sometimes works out well. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to movies, and so there are no hard and fast rules about genre. What unites the film is a sense of menace and a sense of struggle against that menace. You root for these--sometimes idiotic--characters, even when they make silly mistakes. You jeer at the stupidity of the helicopter pilot who can't kill a zombie to save his life, and you look with derision at the token woman, who's only a cut above the catatonic leading lady of Night, who was so positively useless. (Romero later tried to atone for this by making the lead in Day of the Dead a strong female character a la Sigourney Weaver in Alien.)

But the shopping mall setting, the gaudy gore effects of Tom Savini, the histrionic synthesized score by the Italian band Goblin, and Romero's own sick view of America as the seat of self-consumerism, all conspire to make Dawn of the Dead the classic American horror movie experience. I'll even disagree with my movie critic icon Pauline on this one. Flaws and all, with every new development in movies technically that might threaten to render it less effective, it still works bloody well.

With David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross, and Savini in a small role as a biker. 126 mins. (Extended edition, featuring mostly unimportant footage that was rightly excised from the theatrical cut, runs 140 mins, and the European cut, overseen by Italian horror master Dario Argento, runs about 118 mins.)

October 16, 2012

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941) is a straightforward horror fable, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. in the titular role. As a human, he plays Larry Talbot, returning home to Wales after nearly twenty years away so he can eventually take over the family estate, currently presided over by his subtly domineering father (Claude Rains). Larry meets a girl named Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and while the two of them are out walking one night, he's bitten by a werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi) and then finds himself turning into one as well. The real charm here is the spooky atmosphere: there's more fog here than in John Carpenter's 1980 film called The Fog. And the sets have an old-movie charm to them: it's obviously unreal, but also very enchanting as a result. This isn't likely to scare many people nowadays, but it's an enjoyably compact horror classic, and of course it spawned a long list of sequels, remakes, and spin-offs. Directed by George Waggner. Written by Curt Siodmak. With Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, and Maria Ouspenskaya. 69 mins. b & w

October 15, 2012

The Mummy

Eighty years later, The Mummy (1932) feels clunky, about as frightening as an episode of Scooby-Doo, but it's not as embarrassing as some of the relics of the Universal horror era that began with 1931's Dracula. Karl Freund, the cinematographer for Dracula, directed The Mummy, and it's thanks to his eye for detail and mood that The Mummy holds up visually. The script--by John L. Balderston--is pedestrian, but, as in many a good horror movie, the creepiness transcends the material. Balderston's is a hodgepodge of the Western world's Egyptomania. It's about an ill-fated archaeological dig near Cairo that unleashes a cursed Egyptian priest (Boris Karloff, who's appropriately lacking in charisma). This mummy-priest wants to track down his long lost love, who he believes has been reincarnated into the body of half-Egyptian Helen, a woman (Zita Johann) visiting Cairo from England. Read Ziska (1897) by Marie Corelli and The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) by Bram Stoker and see if Balderston didn't find inspiration in both those novels. With David Manners and Edward van Sloan. Clocking in at 73 minutes, it's at least a quick viewing if you find it boring and dated. b & w

October 13, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths is equal parts clever and insipid, from writer-director Martin McDonagh, whose 2008 film In Bruges turned death into something poetically transcendent and darkly funny. Lightning doesn't exactly strike twice. This is one of those movies that wants desperately to be more clever than it is. It's not as blatantly philosophical as Cronenberg's recent disappointment, Cosmopolis. But it reaches for things outside of its grasp. Deep, cosmic ironies perhaps. This overreaching tends to derail the movie, which is actually quite good when it isn't being hopelessly opaque. Thankfully, McDonagh can't resist pushing our buttons. So there are a lot of wonderfully funny moments involving a handful of truly astonishingly bad people and a few others who aren't all that bad, just mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Colin Farrell plays an alcoholic writer who's struggling to start a script. His buddy, played by Sam Rockwell, works with an aging crook (played by Christopher Walken) who snatches rich people's dogs and then returns them for the reward money. Meanwhile, a serial killer is picking off mafiosos with shrewd efficiency. The dognappers steal the poodle of one of the mob bosses (Woody Harrelson), thus turning themselves into targets of his rage.

This is really Sam Rockwell's movie. He's Farrell's unassuming chum, good-naturedly picking on him for being a drunk and busting his chops for not finishing the screenplay (he's trying to motivate him to make something of himself). But he's hiding a dark secret. We soon realize that Rockwell's character is manipulating events so that they will unwind in a cinematic fashion, with the aim of giving his buddy some poetic inspiration. I haven't seen Rockwell play this kind of a part before, and he does it marvelously. He exists in some kind cinematic limbo: part real, part fictional. Rockwell looks like he's having fun with his part. He exudes a certain casual perverseness, and as an actor, Rockwell continually reconstructs what we think is fixed about his character. He's not exactly a blank slate, but he's certainly a layered one, and he continues to surprise.

All the same, Psychopaths is considerably uneven. McDonagh was apparently trying to fashion a sort of living-nightmare vision of Hollywood, in which the all-too-typical weirdness of the golden-tinged Los Angeles neighborhoods constructs the psychotic within: the result is either lived or imagined violence. The flippancy with which McDonagh approaches his subject matter saves it from being heavy-handed. But when he shoots for ironic profundity he misses (unlike In Bruges). Happily, about two-thirds of the movie (intermittently) is still quite good.

The performances certainly bolster the movie's weakness. Farrell, who utilizes the things which made his performance stand out in In Bruges, plays a whining pacifist who's content with his ineptitude. Rockwell's high-functioning psychotic personality makes him a sort of madman-therapist to Farrell's law abiding screw-up. Walken is his usual mock-charismatic self, always providing substance to his scenes. But nothing gels as cohesively as you'd like it to. Beware: It has some incredibly violent scenes, so take that into consideration if you're horrified by horrible things. With Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, Gabourney Sidibe, Kevin Corrigan, Harry Dean Stanton, and Linda Bright Clay as Walken's hospitalized wife. 110 mins.

October 12, 2012


Eventually, we are going to have to forgive Ben Affleck for Gigli, Bounce, Paycheck, Jersey Girl and Reindeer Games.

His The Town (2010) was an impressive, enjoyable piece of entertainment, and once again at the helm he's done good work (mostly) with Argo, which is just about as exciting a movie as you'll get this year, although the last half hour is agonizingly suspenseful. Argo recounts (loosely) the 1980 rescue mission of the Canadian and U.S. governments on behalf of six Americans trapped in Tehran, Iran: Amidst the collapse of the Iranian government and increasing tensions between Iran and the U.S., the American embassy is besieged and most of the people inside taken hostage. Six escape, however, and they eventually make their way into the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operations officer who hatches a hair-brained sceme: He will go to Tehran posing as a movie producer, and pass the six hostages off as a Canadian film crew doing a location scout for a bad B-movie, called Argo. Ben Affleck has never looked better than with his black, charcoaly hair and the accompanying beard--something about it feels totally late-70s/early 80s, and it's the hair, I think, that sells his performance. You take him seriously as the man entrusted with the lives of six others.  

Argo is, overall, a very successful political comic-thriller that pushes all the right buttons, sometimes with more demented glee than is enjoyable. As mentioned before, it's a stressful movie to watch, especially in the last fourth of the film--to the point that you stop feeling pleasurably excited. The finale functions as a clever form of audience manipulation, and as you feel your body move further and further from the back of your seat, your hands clasping your hair in sheer suspense, you realize you're being played like an electric fiddle. It's the movies at work, up to their old tricks again. They have this kinetic ability to hypnotize us, and yet we're somehow always aware that they're "only" movies. But the good ones defy our perception of reality. We know it's a movie, but, dammit, we have to know how it's going to be worked out.

The resulting emotion is a mixture of irritation and awe, possibly even gratitude, especially during a particularly impotent movie year. Perhaps we're victims of the crappy material to which we're subjected over the course of the movie year from January to October. By the time the handful of good movies comes out, Stockholm Syndrome has set in, and we become eager and willing participants in the manipulation of ourselves at the hands of our perverse captors.

There's a wonderful cast of grumpy old men: There's Bryan Cranston as Mendez's boss, a grizzled government veteran who stands up for his colleague's half-cocked plan of rescue; John Goodman as Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (who won an Academy Award for his work on Planet of the Apes); and Alan Arkin as the seasoned movie director enlisted to help give Argo credibility. John Goodman is the kind of actor who makes you laugh the moment he appears on the screen. He's a jovial smartass teddy bear. And is there any actor of his generation who's as fun to watch playing a curmudgeonly hack as Alan Arkin?

With Kyle Chandler, Victor Garber (as the Canadian ambassador), and, as the six Americans trapped in Tehran: Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall (who looks stunning, by the way, in long black hair and glasses--she's never looked so geekily gorgeous), Michael Parks, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, and Christopher Denham. Also starring Chris Messina, Richard Kind, Titus Welliver, Rory Cochrane, Tom Lenk, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Gunton, and in a cameo, Adrienne Barbeau. 120 mins.

October 07, 2012

The Imposter

The Imposter (2012) chronicles the case of a missing 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Barclay of San Antonio, who allegedly turned up four years later in Spain. After he's identified and returned to his family, questions start to surface about the truth of his identity. Why does he have brown eyes all the sudden, instead of blue? He claims that he was kidnapped and tortured by a secret international group of military officers, but there's no evidence to support these wild and horrifying claims. Still, the family insists he's their son, despite all the glaring differences.

Director Bart Layton treats the material like an episode of Dateline. So there are interviews with real-life people and reenactments with actors. It's passably interesting, even compelling at times, but you're likely to feel swindled if you pay to see this in a theater. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about it. The case itself is disturbing, and fascinating for its sensational qualities, but Layton stretches the material to fit a feature length, and you feel the contrivances creeping up on you. Some of the interviews are unintentionally funny, and the stupidity that's captured on camera often makes you wonder if a great big joke isn't being played on the audience.

October 06, 2012

The Third Man

Over the years, The Third Man (1949) has acquired quite a reputation as a great film. I think it's a fairly obvious thriller, not a horrible movie by any means, but overrated. It's a post-WW2 film noir about an American novelist (Joseph Cotten) who travels to Vienna to visit his longtime pal Harry Lime. But when he arrives, he finds that Harry has just recently died--under mysterious circumstances--and undertakes his own investigation of Harry's death when the authorities fail to offer a satisfying explanation. As cinematically impressive as this movie is, it's also very dated. It feels like a lesser hybrid of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Joseph Cotten lacks the stylized, cocksure arrogance that worked so well for Humphrey Bogart in Falcon and The Big Sleep, and Orson Welles, who shows up in a supporting role, does his usual Orson Wellesy acting: talking over other people's lines, dropping his voice in and out. It feels more obvious here than in some of his other performances. I can't deny that the film is visually interesting and creative: director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker do good work turning this mystery into a sort of valentine to an era of loss and shapelessness: Europe's writhing period of recovery after the War. But the lightweight, annoyingly pleasant music score by Anton Karas kills the mood of the film. Perhaps this movie would have been too melodramatic with a more intense score, but the lilting zither, which plays intermittently throughout the picture, wears out its welcome early on. The images are stark and interesting, though. With Allida Valli, who might be a B-movie Ingrid Bergman, and Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee, and Wilfrid Hyde-White in an amusing turn as a British literary enthusiast who unwittingly talks Cotten into speaking at his club, not realizing he's a hack. Also with Erich Ponto, Ernst Deutsch, and Siegfried Breuer. Adapted by Graham Greene from his short novel. 104 mins. b & w

October 05, 2012

The Conformist

(Il conformista). Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970) is about a man who swallows the Fascist pill with everything in him because he desperately wants to be part of the group. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Marcello Clerici, a man whose primary motivation is to "construct" his own normalcy (heterosexual, Christian, Fascist). The story takes place in Italy and France in the 1930s, during which time Marcello becomes a member of Mussolini's secret police. When his next assignment is to assassinate one of his former professors, who's anti-Fascist, Marcello must face the tension threatening to destroy him: can he sacrifice his loyalty to his ideals for his loyalty to the State?

Bertolucci captures the essence of how the pursuit of acceptance drives people, even brainwashes them. It's a hierarchical tool that becomes internalized: Marcello remakes himself--he tries to embody the qualities, the values, and the emotions required of him--in the hope that he will be accepted. It's the same form of control utilized in every school over the last centuries: a sort of institutionalized self-rehabilitation.

This was my first Bertolucci film, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, despite its general weirdness. It's one of those rare movies that visually thrills you, even when you're scratching your head at some of the logic--or lack thereof--of the plot. The characters do things that often make little sense at the time, and Bertolucci plays with chronology a bit. His movie works like a Modernist novel: it's impressionistic, and it zooms in on the details of a given scene. The entirety of the plot doesn't hinge on one major, climactic event the way many American films do. (This is not to say that either method is superior to the other, but it may be one of the reasons Americans have a hard time with European films and vice versa. We want everything laid out in clearly chronological order, and dammit, it had better all make sense.) The major "event" of the film, which would probably have come sooner in an American movie, and probably would have been one of several like it, is delayed into perpetuity, to the point that you wonder if you'll have the pleasure of the payoff at all. And even when it comes it's stretched out, but with a surprising level of facility. Bertolucci manages to create a really thrilling suspense sequence that takes place in the woodsy mountains on a lonely stretch of road). He's built it up so much that you're tense from the excitement.

The mood of The Conformist is what lingers with you after the movie's over. It's ominous and stark but also fluid. The camera continually finds innovative ways into each scene. At times it has a naive playfulness to it, usually when Marcello's wife, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) is onscreen. She's silly, playful, and superficial, relatively oblivious to her husband's dark vocation. And Trintignant handles his character's emotional deadness well--he's not boring but he's appropriately subdued, always aware of the gravity of his ambitions and the tasks at hand.

With Gastone Moschin, Enzo Tarascio (as the professor), Dominique Sanda (as the professor's sexually ambiguous wife), Fosco Giachetti, Jose Quaglio, Yvonne Sanson, and Pierre Clementi. The screenplay was adapted by the director from Alberto Moravia's novel of the same name. The lovely, lilting score was composed by Georges Delerue. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro. 111 minutes.

October 04, 2012


Headhunters (2012) (known as Hodejegerne in its native Norway) is about a corporate executive named Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) who moonlights as an art thief. He feels compelled to provide a certain lifestyle for his beautiful wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), and swapping out priceless art pieces with forgeries provides him the right amount of thrill and stimulation. But then he picks the wrong flat to burgle: that of a cunning ex-military tracker (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who once specialized in locating human beings. Thus begins a cat and mouse game that smacks of Hitchcock and operates like a ghastly horror thriller. You recall the unbearable intensity felt during something like No Country For Old Men. Headhunters grips you by the stomach and refuses to let go. It's a mixture of immense fun and dread: a nasty little movie that twists you into knots with a kind of calculating, twisted reverie.

And while it may seem like one long chase sequence, but this is a surprisingly clever and sophisticated thriller that plays you like a fiddle, which you discover just when you've started to cultivate a smattering of superiority toward it. There are rumors of a coming American remake, but watch this one instead. It's a devious little delight, and Netflix subscribers can currently access it for instant viewing.

The script by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg is an adaptation of Jo Nesbo's novel of the same name. Directed by Morten Tyldum. With Julie Olgaard, Eivind Sander, and Reidar Sorensen.

October 02, 2012

The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come (1972) is the film that really put Reggae music on the map. It was made in Jamaica, and it may be the film that really captures the soul of its people and their poverty, the injustices they face, but also their resilience and their expressiveness. The film is set to the soulful and imbibed rhythms of Reggae. The story, which suffers more than a bit from continuity problems, involves a young hood named Ivan (played by singer Jimmy Cliff, who wrote and performed the title song), who's keen on making a hit record, but after too many failed attempts at making an honest living, turns to a life of crime: particularly selling marijuana. Soon he becomes a fugitive from justice--for killing several police officers--and his song becomes a hit as a result. It taps into the popular consciousness: a prescient moment in which the film paralleled its impact on the music world.

There were a handful of thoughtful, subtle (but imperfect) films about the African American experience made in the 1970s. Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess (1973) was one, The Harder They Come is another. These two films aren't particularly concerned with narrative structure. Rather, they have a rhythm to them that feels more like music, like Reggae in fact. That's not to say they're more artistic than all the blaxploitation movies that were being churned out in the 1970s, although they do tackle issues like race, poverty, freedom, and culture with more finesse and more genuine curiosity than their exploitationist counterparts. In many ways, The Harder They Come feels like the precursor for City of God. This movie wants to dismantle the image we might have had about Jamaica as a tourist paradise. Instead, we're introduced to the real Jamaica, a land where the people are struggling to get by, just like many in the rest of the world. But the beauty of Jamaica also comes through, and not the cheap beauty of resort hotels but the natural beauty that is somehow missed by the tourist's agenda.

But the film lacks the power it needs to really strike its target. It meanders, and gives in to an aimless repetitiveness at times. You start to squirm with boredom, and somehow, there's no real empathy for the struggles of the people. (Or maybe that's what was intended: it may be that we're not supposed to watch this movie and feel the appropriately phony self-congratulatory outrage that prosperous people often do feel when they "experience" poverty in developing countries via the movies.

Still, it's not a total washout, and The Harder They Come found an audience eventually. It's a fairly impressive "first feature" to come out of Jamaica. The director, Perry Henzell, and the technicians (the cinematography is by Peter Jessop, David McDonald, and Franklyn St. Juste), are competent generally, and they capture some beautiful images of the island. And Johnny Cliff has an undeniable cult appeal as the self-interested Ivan, who's tired of working to find work. He seems destined to become the tragic "hero" of the people, although what he stands for isn't anything that will cure the country's stultifying poverty. But more than anything, Ivan--and the movie for that matter--is about Reggae. The music comes through loud and clear, even if the story doesn't.

With Janet Bartley, Carl Bradshaw, Ras Daniel Hartman, Basil Keane, Bob Charlton, and Winston Stona. 120 minutes. (Some prints run about 108 mins.)