January 25, 2014

The Last American Virgin

The Last American Virgin (1982) is about 30 minutes of charm and an hour of filler. When the movie began, with an attractive wide shot of Los Angeles, I thought maybe it would be a totally enjoyable experience. And the prologue, in which three horned-up high school boys lure three girls to one of the boys' houses for a little make-out session, was well-staged and amusing. But when the story gets going, you find there isn't much to it. Gary (Lawrence Monoson) is in love from a far (with Diane Franklin), but before he can make a move, his best friend Rick (Steve Antin) snags her. For a while, the hijinks of the adolescent boys are funny, but then the movie gets serious, and sinks like a stone. Diane Franklin's character is pregnant, Rick is the father and unwilling to do the right thing, and Gary steps in to save the day: he'll pay for an abortion and maybe Diane Franklin will fall in love with him, you know, as a thank you. In fact, the movie completely shifts it tone in the last half-hour into a self-serious teen pregnancy drama. You don't see that coming. I guess it's good that movies made for a young audience are trying to address serious topics, but I kept wanting something fluffy, like Valley Girl. And there's a hugely distracting barrage of songs (no actual music score was provided) that is fun at first (Blondie, Devo, The Cars? Amazing bands!) But eventually it becomes a device, as though the movie can only express its feelings via music, because the songs sync up with how we're supposed to feel about each given situation. If a movie relies on music for feeling, you have to wonder if there's nothing authentic or interesting to feel in the first place. With Joe Rubbo, Louisa Moritz, Brian Peck, and Kimmy Robertson. Written and directed by Boaz Davidson.

January 19, 2014

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (2005) is a problematic zombie outing, the fourth go-round for writer-director George Romero, whose obvious attempts at social commentary have never been clumsier. The setting is a walled city full of zombie apocalypse survivors. A swanky high-rise called Fiddler's Green separates the rich from the poor (who are confined to the streets and the slummier residences), and in the scene where Romero shows us "The Green" he can't resist the urge to cut to a shot of a big birdcage. Because the birds are like a metaphor, man! Romero lays on lots of "social satire," but none of it amounts to anything revelatory. People want to go back to normal. Normal is bad. Zombies are bad but not as bad as people, who are worse. It's all so damned obvious, like a lofty essay written by a student who thinks he's spinning rhetorical gold. (There's some really bad expository narration over the main credits, too.)

I don't mean to hate on George Romero. I grew up on Night of the Living Dead and its sequels. He's done good work before, and Land isn't a terrible movie. For all their flaws, the first three Dead films worked, and much of Land works too, despite its crummy dialogue and squishy, almost underwhelming plotting. And occasionally there are good bits of dialogue, like when John Leguizamo, as one of the grunts working for the "emperor" of Fiddler's Green, says "Looks like God left the phone off the hook." But the good lines always feel improvised, while I'm convinced the really bad ones were worked out on paper by Romero, gleaming with self-satisfaction.

There's an off-kilter pace to Land that results in a lack of suspense. The movie cuts back and forth between two parallel stories that are perhaps not as compelling as the director would like to believe. I think the problem is that we all know exactly what's going to happen, and this foreknowledge takes some of the air out of Romero's story, because he seems so convinced that he's surprising us. Nevertheless, the movie is an entertaining mess, full of enjoyable visuals. (It is pretty disgusting, though, especially if you watch the unrated version, which is, unfortunately, the only version available in widescreen at this time.)

Dennis Hopper makes an amusing appearance as Kaufman, the guy who runs the city with his briefcase full of money. But it's hard to understand his devotion to capital in a post-apocalyptic world, and even harder to understand why anybody would follow him. (Romero seems too in love with his own ideas to fashion them so that they'll fit within the confines of his movie.) Simon Baker plays the hero, a guy named Reilly who used to go outside the city to procure supplies, but is tired of working for the Man and wants to find his own way. (He's like, a loner.) I really enjoyed Leguizamo's performance. He's a foil, the greedy upstart who wants to steal Kaufman's money. (Again with the money, though. Who freaking cares?)

There is one nifty idea amidst all this: when Kaufman's grunts go out of the city to make supply runs, they shoot fireworks off to keep the zombies distracted. It's a cool effect, and the one little piece of invention that seems clever without being forced or "impressive". The zombies, it should be mentioned, aren't as memorable as they were in the first three films. They look too generic, and Romero's attempts to humanize them often come off as unintentionally funny. There's one zombie, poorly nicknamed Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who seems to be getting smarter, and he tries to rub off on the other ghouls, with mixed results. (It worked better with "Bub" in Day of the Dead.)

Robert Joy also makes an impression, as Simon Baker's sidekick. He's ostensibly dim-witted but loyal (not to mention a crackshot), and gives the best and least appreciated performance in the film. Also starring Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario), Alan Van Sprang, and Shawn Roberts. ½

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Maybe it's too pretentious or clich├ęd to describe Elvira as a force of nature, but as I was watching her feature debut, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (1988), I was struck by how joyously she schleps through this high-cheese vehicle. The artist also known as Cassandra Peterson manages to perk up a movie that has more gratuitous butt and boob shots than I could count. All those cheap zooms into Elvira's formidable cleavage left me feeling very conflicted, because it's so insulting to exhibit her body for this strange mixture of comic relief and titillation (no pun intended); but in some ways Elvira is a really fun example of an empowered woman. Elvira is confident and independent. Granted, she dresses in an outlandishly sexualized way, but she makes fun of herself, and despite all the dumb jokes about being a loose woman, never comes off as a bimbo. The Elvira schtick is just that: schtick. She's constantly winking at the audience. It's nice to feel in on the joke, especially when the movie itself often seems at odds with this more clever brand of humor.

The plot has Elvira quitting her job as late-night horror movie hostess for a local L.A. station (because the scummy new owner propositions her). Elvira has her heart set on a live show in Vegas, but she's expected to come up with 50,000 dollars to help back the show.
Conveniently, Elvira's great aunt from Massachusetts drops dead, so our plucky heroine journeys to New England to claim her inheritance, only to be accosted by the local Pharisees. They're headed by Edie McClurg, (she played the secretary in Ferris Bueller) whose character in this is named Chastity Pariah, and who is a pure pleasure to watch as she works herself into a moralistic frenzy at the sight of the bosomy Elvira.

There's a less desirable storyline about Elvira's greedy uncle (W. Morgan Sheppard), who's some kind of warlock looking to get his hands on Elvira's spell book, which gives the film its supernatural angles (and allows the production to show off its mostly laughable effects). Meanwhile, Elvira makes quite an impression on the local youths, who've been kept under tight reigns by the repressed, ultra-conservative town council.

Yes, Elvira makes a lot of cheap boob jokes, and yes the movie doesn't always score points for imagination, but somehow Cassandra Peterson carries the thing with her corny jokes and her faux-camp persona. It's a dumb but enjoyable comedy. There is also a sequel, with even worse production values and much flatter (sorry) humor, called Elvira's Haunted Hills (2001). With Daniel Greene, Jeff Conaway, Pat Crawford Brown, and Susan Kellerman. ½


January 18, 2014

From Beyond

From Beyond (1986) is director Stuart Gordon's follow-up to Re-Animator, and it's a misfired attempt to see if lightning can in fact strike twice. You know you're in trouble when the source of the conflict and the horror is a device that, when turned on, unleashes a monstrous power from another dimension. I mean, all you have to do is not turn it on, right? Problem solved. So how to get the characters in the movie to keep turning that sucker on...

The characters are not that far removed from Re-Animator. There's a nerdy researcher played by Jeffrey Combs, and a self-important psychiatrist played by Barbara Crampton (who is once again molested on camera by a terrifying creature), and an overly good-natured cop played by Ken Foree who's hired to accompany the other two to an isolated house where they can observe a strange contraption known as the Resonator. The Resonator is a big metal, phallic-looking machine that, when switched on, reveals slimy, snake-like, floating creatures that can attack if they detect humans. The machine's creator, the eccentric, kinky Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), is ostensibly beheaded by some creature accessed via the Resonator, but then we discover that he's actually been pulled into another world and is now an extremely powerful, shape-shifting creature with mind-controlling abilities.

I'm sure you're as riveted reading about this as I was watching it. The whole thing feels absolutely ridiculous, but not in a good way. There's not enough humor in From Beyond, and the movie relies on the stupid decisions of its characters to tell its story. The only character I liked--Ken Foree's--is poorly conceived, but at least has the good sense to utter the line that dogs so many possessed house movies: "Let's get the hell out of here." (Or some variation of that.) But Barbara Crampton can't leave, because she's doing important work. And Combs's character comes off as a weakling who has little if any influence in this story. He's absolutely forgettable.

As with Re-Animator, there's an attempt to shape an H.P. Lovecraft short story into a compelling horror film that mixes icky gore with clever humor. Unfortunately, From Beyond retains little of that film's novelty. It's structurally a bit of a remake of Re-Animator (and fans of the 2006 horror-scifi film Slither may find in From Beyond some intriguing parallels), but being like Re-Animator isn't enough. It's nice to see a director who can turn more than one trick. If that's asking too much, then the same trick has to be fresh enough for a second go-round. This one turns out a dud. Written by the director, Dennis Paoli, and producer Brian Yuzna. ½

January 11, 2014

Lost in America

Lost in America (1985) is about a successful L.A. ad man (played by Albert Brooks, who also directed the film) who quits his job and then buys a motor-home so he and his wife (Julie Hagerty) can travel the country and find themselves. It left me disappointed because I'd heard such good reviews. Within about thirty minutes my mood for the film had gone from hopeful to sour. (It happened at precisely the moment where Hagerty is gambling in the casino, repeating the number "22" over and over again, and Brooks is asking, repeatedly, how much money she's lost.) Perhaps this movie resonates better with people in the shoes of these two characters: they're frustrated yuppies who love the movie Easy Rider but didn't have the courage to go riding into the sunset when they were younger. Now that they've spent the better part of a decade building up a sense of financial security (the concept of the "nest egg" is bandied about often, but never with as much comic force as Brooks seems to think it contains), they're bored and disappointed with the normal life, and feeling a bit left out of the not-so-real idea of people just leaving society and doing their own thing. Hagerty's unexpected gambling splurge becomes a plot device so that Brooks, who wrote the script, can critique the yuppies, not only for their banal materialistic lives, but also for their condescending attitudes about Americans who aren't like them. And while the performances are good and the ideas interesting and clever, Lost in America feels like flat coke: the comedy doesn't really work much of the time, and the charm of Brooks and Hagerty slowly drains out of them as their characters' actions become increasingly irritating. The final twenty minutes picks up a bit--as they soon realize the gravity of their decisions--but not in time to save the movie from feeling a bit inconsequential. It's a smart comedy, and relatively well-plotted if you can forgive that very obvious device, but its ideas are stronger than its laughs.

January 10, 2014

American Psycho

Have you ever thought about the fact that Norman Bates was actually a pretty likable character? Aside from the grisly truth of what Bates was doing with his nights, Alfred Hitchcock managed to make him endearing for much of the film. (Well, Anthony Perkins, the actor who played him, deserves a lot of the credit, thanks to his boyish face and the way he makes Bates charmingly awkward.) We feel bad that he has to live with that crotchety mother of his, running that depressing motel, wasting away like a hermit. And then, when we find out the truth, we feel bad that Norman Bates was raised under decidedly horrible circumstances. This doesn't mitigate his crimes or his guilt, but it certainly humanizes him.

Now prepare yourself for a movie that is extravagant in its desire to dehumanize its main character (it seems unfitting to call him a protagonist) and alienate its audience in the process. American Psycho (2000) is about a sociopathic yuppie who gets his jollies killing people. It's from a novel by Brad Easton Ellis, and his heavy ideas weigh the movie down with nothing to relieve them from their own stifling self-importance. The script was written by the director, Mary Harron, and Guinevere Turner. So one of these three is to blame for the line, "They don't have a good bathroom to do coke in." It happens early in the film: four Wall Street businessmen are sitting at some fancy schmancy restaurant that serves unappetizing yet pretentious-sounding food that only the rich could afford to eat and pretend to enjoy. Then another member of their pack returns to the table and says it: "They don't have a good bathroom to do coke in."

My problem with the line was this: He reports his findings as though he were doing a commercial, perhaps telling a friend--and the viewer--that "this new cream really rejuvenates your saggy skin." He should have said something more vague, if we're trying to be realistic. You may think I'm splitting hairs, but actually this little bit of detail underscores a much bigger problem in American Psycho. The line is meant for shock value, realism or good writing be damned. It's part of an overarching--and failed-- attempt to satirize the 1980s and all those alpha-male, coke-snorting frat boys-turned executives, who whip out business cards and compare them to see whose is the nicest. I wonder: are the business cards a euphemism for anything? This is one line of dialogue in a script that feels incredibly contrived, as though the writers were saying, "are you getting how cleverly we're satirizing yuppie culture? We're trying to make it as obvious as possible."

Aside from some beautiful shots of New York City, American Psycho lacks any sense of elegance. And yet it's made with skillful good taste: the lavish yet sterile apartment of Christian Bale is lavish and sterile in a calculated way: it's all designed in order to bring out the blood stains that frequently cover his floors and his bed sheets. The overly familiar 80s music that layers the film (Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, Huey Lewis and the News) reminds us--as if we needed it--that this movie very specifically wants to capture the insanity of that decade. But I see no evidence that the movie has anything deeper or more authentic or interesting going on in it than the most banal, expensive yuppie films that actually came out of the 80s. Like The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho may be secretly in love with the things it wants to critique. (Although I'm not sure how secretive this love affair really is.)

The film drifts along with humorless precision, as bad as many a David Cronenberg movie, and the whole time I yearned for some Brian De Palma. The difference between American Psycho and any number of De Palma's ridiculous thrillers is manifold: With De Palma we get some kind of freakish, manic, titillating, tricky joke. All of his movies between Sisters and Blow Out captured this feeling to one degree or another (even if not all of them were entirely good or successful). You see a Brian De Palma thriller and you're blissfully aware that you're at a movie directed by someone who wants to show you a good time. You see American Psycho and you feel the deadening pulse of a bad sermon.

Christian Bale obviously got himself in impeccable shape to play the character of Patrick Bateman. Bale is of course famous for "becoming" his characters. There's no denying that the man has talent. But I'm convinced more than ever that he is an overrated actor. He seems hellbent on playing characters that require basically the same kind of performance: one comprised entirely of alternations between very serious scowls and a sunken-faced deadpan expression. (It's what made the Batman movies such enormous box office hits.) I guess we've stopped expecting anything more from our "serious" leading men. They're certainly not going to be accused of having fun or letting us have fun. Bale aficionados can look forward to seeing his chiseled body, but are you okay with it being covered in blood? Are you okay with Christian Bale running through the halls of his high-rise apartment building naked with a chainsaw? (I know...It's the universal good time.) His performances often feel overly perfected and somehow never alive.

Some will likely argue that the point of American Psycho is to show the heart of not-aliveness. The problem is that a corporate thriller without any life in it starts to feel like a corporate snuff movie, and even if there weren't scenes of Christian Bale's house of horrors (bodies in closets propped up like trophies, and various other horrors) and his bizarre sexual trysts and his deviant inner-thoughts and psychotic dream journal, we'd still have the film's snuff-like devotion to 80s corporate greed. If the makers of American Psycho wanted to make a movie that is believably about a sociopath, they have done it. (Is there anything weirder than the way Patrick Bateman talks about music? As if he were reading the reviews of albums?) But they haven't given us any reason to care one bit.

With Willem Defoe, Josh Lewis, Reese Witherspoon, Chloe Sevigny, Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis, and Matt Ross.

January 05, 2014

Passion

It's a shame that nobody has seen Brian De Palma's latest exercise in mania, Passion (2012), because it's a pretty entertaining piece of trash, in line with all those ultra-stylish thrillers De Palma made in the 70s and 80s. He got sidetracked doing more "important" work in the late 80s and into the 21st century. Passion suggests that maybe we're getting our old De Palma back.

Now don't misunderstand me. Passion isn't a great film, not even a great De Palma film. But I think it's been unfairly panned by critics. Its score on Rotten Tomatoes is a dismal 16% among the top critics. Richard Brody in the New Yorker called it "a collection of mechanisms that decorate mechanisms." And Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald asserts that De Palma has "run out of ideas." And I would have to agree with these and other critics up to a point. There's nothing particularly new about Passion. (And in fact, the film often feels calculating and subdued: it lacks the frenzy of Sisters and the delightful, lascivious twistedness of Dressed to Kill.) But as an exercise in mindless semi-stylish cheap thrills, Passion works pretty well, and De Palma still knows how to create a lush thriller replete with sexy, dangerous weirdness.

The plot involves the catty chicanery of two women working at an ad agency in Berlin. Rachel McAdams plays Christine, the bitchy, controlling go-getter who takes credit for a video that Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) shoots. The one-ups-woman-ship then escalates, and until somebody gets murdered. But first we're asked to believe that perhaps every attractive woman on the planet is willing and able to be a lesbian on command. (Brian De Palma was never able to shy away from his fantasies.) But to De Palma's credit, he doesn't exploit this fantasy as much as he may have wanted to. (The film is nowhere near as steamy as Dressed to Kill, for example.)

Again, I don't mean to suggest that Passion is a work of genius. It's a work of amusement by a director who has in his prime made some pretty ingenious movies. And it's fun to see Rachel McAdams playing a bad girl again. Noomi Rapace is a mildly convincing tragic figure in this, but she already looks so forlorn and nymph-like, that I wish De Palma had cast someone against type.

With Paul Anderson, Karoline Herfurth, and Rainer Bock. Written by De Palma and Natalie Carter, from the 2010 French film Love Crime. ½

January 04, 2014

Mulholland Drive

Can a film be both lucid and confusing? After watching Mulholland Drive (2001), I would say absolutely. It's one trippy movie from the mind of writer-director David Lynch. Mulholland Drive is the kind of film that people will either love or hate, depending on what they want from a movie. I was starting to hate it about three-fourths of the way through, when it became apparent that the seemingly nonsensical plot was not going to be resolved in any clear or definitive way. But then something occurred to me. You know when you're trying to explain a dream you had to someone else? Your dream is always full of contradictions and seemingly bizarre details that--while in the dream--you generally accept as "normal," even if some small part of your rational mind is vaguely aware that what's happening isn't normal or logical at all. That's what Mulholland Drive is. It's a film that wants to show us the illogical, bizarre world of dreams, only played out in reality. It's a hypnotic, weird, thrilling, creepy, sometimes banal, often confusing, but never truly incoherent film.

It would be easy to believe that such a non-linear movie just got away from the reigns of its director, yet you get the sense that Lynch knows pretty much what he's doing, even if only at an intuitive level. (I suppose if you're trying to make a movie that portrays the illogical nature of dreams, you wouldn't want it to be too worked out in advance. That would defeat the purpose.) Apparently Lynch planned for this to be a television series, but then morphed it into a feature film when that initial project fell through.

The basic plot involves a beautiful brunette (Laura Harring) who loses her memory after a car crash and wanders into the apartment of an older woman who's away. The woman's niece, Betty (Naomi Watts) has arranged to stay in the apartment while she tries to break into the film business. Naturally Betty is surprised when she arrives and finds a complete stranger (the amnesiac) taking a shower in her aunt's apartment. But the mystery of this girl with no memory fascinates Betty, and she takes the girl (who calls herself Rita, after glancing up at a framed poster of the 1940s film noir Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth) under her wing. (You get the feeling that Betty's obsession with finding out this girl's identity is more important to her than to Rita.)

But there are other stories happening in the world of Mulholland Drive, and you're never quite sure of the relationships between them, except that some of the stories do intersect, only in unexpected ways. There's a film director played by Justin Theroux who feels his creative control being usurped by ominous studio heads. (Lynch's blatant cynicism--hard to dismiss because it's so justified--about the Hollywood system shows itself here.) It feels paranoid and conspiratorial and believable. Not only that, but Betty's dream of breaking into the movie business is tinged with a kind of creeping horror. Lynch has created an amalgam of Hollywood stories (the struggling director, the wide-eyed girl fresh off the plane trying to make it in the movies, the sexy, mysterious femme fatale) and turned them into nightmares. Hollywood itself becomes this throbbing demon that perpetrates vague but terrifying horrors on various people. (There's yet another subplot about a screenwriter who's shot by a hitman. And some others too, but I won't go into them for fear of spoiling some of the stranger twists of the movie.)

A few years ago I would have hated Mulholland Drive, because it resists giving us any kind of explanation. It's audacious, to be sure, maybe even full of itself. (And the lesbian sex scene left me feeling disgusted with David Lynch, because it did seem like he just wanted to film to attractive ladies getting it on.) But despite my qualms with the movie, I can't deny that it has an intense, arresting power to it: you feel completely absorbed in its bizarreness, and I've seen very few movies that so successfully captured the oblique qualities of a weird yet vivid nightmare.

With Ann Miller, Scott Coffey, Dan Hedaya, Lee Grant, and Robert Forster. ½

January 03, 2014

In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is about a black Philadelphia detective named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, the wrong place being the Deep South and the wrong time being circa 1967. More specifically, he's sitting in a train station--having just visited his mother--in the wee hours of the night waiting for the 4:05 to Memphis, when a local police officer comes by and decides that Virgil is probably responsible for the murder of a prominent citizen earlier in the evening. After all, Virgil's black, he's well-dressed, and he's apparently not from around here. It's airtight.

Does this cop question Virgil? Not even a little. He sizes Virgil up, he with his polished suit and good grammar, and pure contempt shuts down any reasonable thought from happening inside this cop's brain. Virgil is arrested and brought to the police chief, played by Rod Steiger. Soon enough, they find out Virgil's identity, and he goes from suspect to investigator, assisting the chief in the murder case (at the assistance of Virgil's own police chief back home). Steiger's character has to do a considerable amount of pride-swallowing to ask for help from a man who's apparently the top homicide investigator in Philadelphia and a black man. The rest of the film is about the investigation and the tension between Virgil and this police chief (and Virgil and the whole damn town). Rod Steiger gives us the pleasure of watching moral uncertainty gnawing away at a man who has up until now lived in the sure-footed, ignorant but safe pleasure of White People Are Superior County, occupation 1200. 

In the Heat of the Night (1967) is really a testament to the work of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the sharp edges of the Deep South without condescending in any way to the characters or the culture. Wexler's camera registers this small town of Sparta, Mississippi, in all its sweaty, gross yet believable contradictions, and you feel as though you've been dropped into this world like a fly on the wall. In the opening sequence, a police officer makes his nightly rounds, stopping at a grimy diner where he makes small talk with the lanky creep running the counter. (There's a fly caught inside the cake dish, and something about that image stays with you.) This whole exchanged has a kind of tilted, cracked feel to it that stays with you through the entire movie. The South really becomes a place of hypnotic, mysterious darkness. The cop also has a nightly habit of passing the house of a pretty young girl who walks around naked at night with the lights on. But again, we the audience are always this sort of non-superior fly, watching the events unfold without being asked to feel superior to these characters. We're trapped in that cake dish and watching life unfold in all its messy, contradictory, infuriating truthfulness.

In a later scene, Scott Wilson is pursued through Mississippi swamps and bramble by police dogs. Wilson manages to elude the pack of cops and hounds only to find himself caught by Rod Steiger, who's waiting for him on a bridge in his patrol car, slowly trailing Wilson until he runs out of energy and surrenders. The comic irony at the end of this scene speaks, in a way, for the whole movie. Such a lot of effort wasted. So many characters in In the Heat of the Night seem to be expending all they've got only to have their endeavors fall apart. 

In line with this idea of wasted effort is the murder plot itself: The murder victim is a rich entrepreneur from Chicago, and he's supposed to build a factory in Sparta that will create 1000 jobs for the community. When his wife (played by Lee Grant) learns that he's been murdered, she nearly falls apart, but catches herself and asks to be left alone so she can cry it out in solitude. (I kept waiting for some kind of actressy mourning scene, and the film almost goes there, but right then they cut, and it seems like the right amount of grief and restraint.) The prime suspect is a gentrified Southern aristocrat who riles the indignation of Virgil Tibbs, but then something happens that sort of pulls the grandiosity out of the mystery. And this is really quite brilliant, but I won't go into detail for fear of spoiling the film. Suffice to say, it puts In the Heat of the Night in that category of bleakly brilliant 1960s and 70s noirs. (The anti-noirs. I love the real noirs of the 40s, but there are a handful of anti-noirs that are quite good too.)

Indeed, we're constantly witnessing tense sequences in this movie that don't end up how we expect them to, and the actions of the characters in the film are hard to predict, yet never false. The film is entirely realistic in that regard. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and director Norman Jewison deserve recognition for this too. It's no small feat to try and be a crackling murder mystery and a conscientious movie about race, and to their credit, they manage to balance the two fairly successfully without eschewing credibility. The film holds up nicely as both morality tale and Southern noir, particularly because it doesn't try to ram the message down our throats.

That posturing, prestige picture mentality is partly what I was looking for (and hoping I wouldn't get, and I relieved I didn't get) as I re-watched In the Heat of the Night. We're so pommeled by those kinds of movies--particularly at the end of the year--that are inclined to preach to us some kind of high moral message. But this movie is fun to watch. It's not pre-occupied with being the Big Race Movie of 1967 (that dubious honor goes to Poitier's other film from that year, the overrated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.) Yes there is a clear attempt in this film to show us the stupidity of racism, but that's the point: it shows us so much more than it tells. And thankfully the movie doesn't end with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger high-fiving before Virgil finally boards his train.

There is a deeper understanding between the two men, but the movie doesn't try and over-explain that. What makes In the Heat of the Night stand out among all the racially charged movies of the 1960s is that it makes room for the weird complexity of racism. (I don't mean to suggest that the impulse to be racist requires complexity of thought, but that racism is so embedded in culture and relationships between peoples that trying to identify it and transmute it is a complex thing.) Virgil Tibbs isn't out to change the minds of every person in the South who hates black people. (He was just trying to catch a frigging train.) But if the stubborn police chief can see the humanity in a black man--and respect him for his considerable talent, skill, and achievement as a fellow human being--then maybe there's a little hope. (I kept imagining Virgil's next phone call to his mom: "Listen. From now on you're coming to Philadelphia.") ½

January 02, 2014

Escape From L.A.

At some point during the film, one character says to another, "this is insane!" To which the former replies, "that's the point." That brief exchange is a pretty good summation of John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. (1996), which is far more of an exercise in ridiculosity than its predecessor, the slick, moody urban action thriller Escape From New York. Kurt Russell returns as Carpenter's most memorable anti-hero, the eye-patch wearing, John Wayne-esque Snake Plissken.

Escape From New York was set in 1997. L.A. is set in 2013, and the U.S. is now ruled by the religious right to the point that the president, a fundamentalist Christian, has been allowed to alter the Constitution so that he can be President for life. His daughter, in a quasi-Patty Hearst move, rebels against him by stealing a device that could shut down all power sources across the globe. Then she trots over to L.A., which, after a massive earthquake separates it from the contiguous United States, has become the new dumping ground for America's undesirables (atheists, Muslims, criminals, people who cuss, etc.). There she meets up with the gangster who runs L.A., a former Peruvian terrorist named Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface).

Did I mention that the president's daughter is named Utopia? Did I mention that Snake Plissken rides a tsunami into the streets of L.A. along with an aging surfer who's played by Peter Fonda? (Perhaps being really laid-back is a moral crime bad enough to warrant exile in Los Angeles.) Did I mention that Escape From L.A. is just about the craziest movie in the history of cinema? Or at least of the 90s.

You really can't do anything but cheer for a movie that so proudly pursues insanity as the order of the day. You get the sense that this is not simply John Carpenter cutting loose. This may be the official moment when Carpenter just stopped giving a shit. (Although some of his previous work might suggest otherwise.) But despite that decidedly double-edged compliment, I'm actually trying to laud the man for showing us such a hacky, cheesy, singularly wacked-out good time. Carpenter, who wrote the script with Kurt Russell and Debra Hill (both of whom produced the film), has always had this kind of B-movie sensibility. But his B movies (aside from the 1974 Dark Star) had a sort of polish to them, mostly due to the fact that Dean Cundey was his DP from Halloween to The Thing. L.A. eschews that polished look, whether accidentally or on purpose, and we get something altogether different. (The special effects are laughable, but somehow mesmerizing.)

I did wish that the female characters were more interesting. Utopia is kind of strong, and there's a girl with some pluck who tries to help Snake early in the film, but she's dispatched rather quickly. You long for Adrienne Barbeau to show up and show 'em how it's done. Pam Grier does make a flashy appearance as a transvestite. (Her voice has been altered, but it comes off as a stupid machination. Grier's real voice is commanding, and it's a shame we don't get to hear it as it is.) There's also a pretty colorful role for Steve Buscemi as a weaselly "agent" who still tries to get work in the new, disheveled, post-Hollywood L.A.

With Stacy Keach, Cliff Robertson, Valeria Golimo, Bruce Campbell (in a funny turn as the Surgeon General of Hollywood, who removes attractive features from people and transplants them onto the freakish faces of patients who've already had too much plastic surgery), Michelle Forbes, A.J. Langer, Paul Bartel, and Robert Carradine. ½

Enter the Dragon

I must confess that I've seen only one other proper kung fu movie in my life, Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which I remember liking a lot. But I have to admit that kung fu isn't my genre of choice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Enter the Dragon (1973), which is by many accounts one of the great kung fu movies. It's certainly iconic, thanks to Bruce Lee, whose charismatic presence imbues the picture with a kind of mythic enchantment. Bruce Lee seems to wander through this movie like a man in search of his destiny. The picture in some ways happens around him, and he shows up at important moments to either display his impressive ass-kicking skills, or move the plot along (which usually involves the ass-kicking skills).

The film is mostly set on an island near Hong Kong which is inhabited by a man named Han (Shih Kien), who is some kind of rogue kung fu master. Han has departed from the principles of the masters that trained him, much to their chagrin and embarrassment. Not only is Han something of a megalomaniac, he's also a killer. Many young women have ventured onto his island never to be heard from again. Enter Bruce Lee, who is sent to ostensibly take part in Han's big tournament--which he hosts on the island every three years--but really to uncover one of the missing girls, an agent named Mei Ling (Betty Chung), and any information he can get his hands on.

Lee is joined by two other martial artists who are also being enticed to the island, for different reasons: they're played by John Saxon and Jim Kelly. The three of them never form what you might call an official trio, but they do share some common bonds, and as such, you're rooting for them as a group. Plus, John Saxon and Jim Kelly have their own screen presence. Saxon has a funny scene early in the film where he outsmarts three bodyguards on a golf course, and Kelly more than anyone looks like he's having a really good time.

I must admit there were moments in Enter the Dragon where I grew restless. Director Robert Clouse and his editing team could have cut the movie by ten minutes for a more compact picture. But as it goes, Enter the Dragon is a pretty enjoyable piece of bubblegum, and better-made than most of its kind. What impressed me most were the film's sets and the admittedly astonishing staging of the fight choreography, by Bruce Lee. There is one scene in particular that stands out: it's when Lee sneaks out of his room at Han's giant compound and searches the place, eluding multiple guards and fending off several of them. He's lithe and subtle and incredibly deliberate in every physical action he makes. It's really a fascinating scene to watch. (And what about the scene where he captures the cobra and uses it to scare off some guys in a control room?!)

Enter the Dragon is certainly worth seeing, especially if you're interested in furthering your appreciation for genre films of the 1970s. There's something about them that feels so much more authentic and fun than the films that imitate them today. One of the drawbacks of having all these fanboys making movies today is that they're so busy paying homage to the films they loved that they forget that what made those films special was (at least partly) their originality. Nowadays, it's like every genre piece is making some kind of blustering "meta-commentary." Sometimes I just want my films to be films. So thank you, Enter the Dragon, for falling into that increasingly more endangered category. With Ahna Capri and Robert Wall. Sadly, Lee died shortly before the film's release.

January 01, 2014

Rio Bravo

Rio Bravo (1959) is a likable western. I mean, can you ask for anything better than a movie that features Dean Martin manfully purring a country western song while Ricky Nelson plays guitar and sings harmony? The film has that wonderful Howard Hawks feel to it: Hawks was a master at making movies that felt like movies. This Western has a kind of silky, easy-going quality. It's like a polished, funnier, less sentimental episode of Gunsmoke, and the actors are such fun that you're likely to enjoy Rio Bravo even if --like me-- you don't particularly love Westerns.

Of course, there's John Wayne as the sheriff of Rio Bravo, guarding a prisoner whose brother has hired a whole cadre of bandits to help get him out of jail at any cost. Dean Martin plays the drunk deputy who's becoming a laughingstock in town, but who finally finds his courage. Martin feels perfect for this role. Rick Nelson plays a teenager who's quick on his feet and a good shot; Walter Brennan mugs incessantly, as the old croney who guards the jail while the others are out on the town. And then there's Angie Dickinson, the sexy, sultry, jaded, resourceful new girl, who finds herself falling for the Duke.

It was interesting to see Rio Bravo in light of the fact that John Carpenter used this film as the basis for his Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), which I've seen several times. There's a definite similarity in the two movies, but I was happy to see that Carpenter still managed to make his own movie. Rio Bravo doesn't get as much critical attention as films like The Searchers and The Wild Bunch, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than either of those two films. It isn't reaching for anything: it's just out to entertain us.

With Ward Bond, Claude Akins, John Russell, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez, and Estelita Rodriguez. ½

The Breakfast Club

I can't remember the first time I saw The Breakfast Club (1985), but I know I was younger than the intended audience by more than a bit. And I do remember the blank videocassette tape on which we recorded the movie via TBS, so that all the swear words were edited out. It's the kind of film that seemed emotionally raw to me as a child. Now that I'm an adult, the obvious commercial aspects of The Breakfast Club are apparent. It seems more than a bit calculated to appeal to the egos of bored, spoiled American adolescents who hate their parents, and I think in that respect, The Breakfast Club errs.

I'm not exactly making a novel point here. Many critics before me have noticed that this movie inflates the problems of young people in order to draw them in. And yes, it does do that. It's kind of an odd trick, this idea of luring viewers in via flattery. It may bespeak a lack of confidence in what this movie has to offer that's actually real and true and funny, which is the fresh-faced cast. But despite its flaws, there's something to this movie, a kind of alchemy that exists in spite of its singular movie studio marketing designs on its audience. And I'd be willing to bet that teenagers of 2014 (I almost wrote 2013!) could still relate to the five kids in what may be writer-director John Hughes' most iconic film. (What's more iconic than Judd Nelson raising his fist in the air as the credits role, ticking away to that grand Simple Minds song, "Don't You Forget About Me"?)

Beneath the commercialism, there are five characters who come to life thanks to the performances of Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, and Ally Sheedy, all of whom--as most of us already know--embody various American teenager stereotypes, gathered in the library of their suburban Chicago high school for Saturday detention. There's the jock, the spoiled girl, the bad boy, the nerd, and the consummate weirdo.

The latter is played by Sheedy. I really just have to stop and talk about about her performance for a moment. I've always liked Ally Sheedy--I even had a little crush on her as a kid--and I always feel validated when a critic likes her performance in this movie. It's the most authentic performance in The Breakfast Club, and when everyone else gets involved in big speeches full of emotionally charged dialogue, Ally Sheedy's off in her own little world doing something joyfully weird. She confesses late in the movie--after everyone else has been bearing their decidedly much younger souls--that she came to detention because she didn't have anything better to do. It's a refreshingly unexpected confession from a movie that's chock full of confessions of a lesser, more obvious kind. Sheedy saves this movie from being totally pre-fab.

I think that when it comes to comic/dramatic perceptions of high school culture and adolescent malaise, Sixteen Candles holds up as the better John Hughes film. But The Breakfast Club still works nearly thirty years later as a kind of Hollywood product's idea of what it would be like to be an alienated teenager. It's as much a part of its decade as Rebel Without A Cause is a part of the 1950s, and you really have to have grown up on the movie to appreciate it. That or you have to love the movie's over-the-top drama, which John Hughes still manages to reign in to a degree. (It's the opposite of what happens in the movie St. Elmo's Fire, which got completely away from its director, and which stars three of the actors from this film.)

Paul Gleason plays the dean, a contrived villain whose badness unites the five disparate students: They may not like each other much, but they're in accord with their disdain for him. The dean doesn't see them or care to know them as human beings, and as a teacher I resented him because I don't think every teacher is like this. Granted, there are plenty of them--desk jockeys who teach for the summers off and despise the kids more and more every year--and maybe John Hughes was right to make this guy such a dick. But I also think he's a convenient obstacle for the kids to overcome and be drawn to each other. It's as if John Hughes were trying to say, "See? I get how awful grown-ups are." He prompts what may be the most ridiculous line in the movie, uttered by Sheedy's character: She says that when you grow up, "your heart dies." Is it a youthful exaggeration or some kind of brilliant, cynical truth? Maybe a little bit of both. The Breakfast Club is at least a happy reminder of how movies used to be: unashamedly dramatic and funny at the same time without a shred of that abysmal self-awareness that plagues current cinema. ½