Born American/Bullies

February 17, 2011

The ads for Born American have played to the fear of terrorist kidnappings. “Their only crime,” growls the announcer, “was being born American!”

As it turns out, that wasn’t quite their only crime. Their actual crime was getting soused on brewskis near the Finnish-Soviet border and stupidly crossing over into the Evil Empire “just to take a look around.”

Over here, such behavior represents an average night out for a college kid. Over there, it’s a one-way ticket to a Midnight Express-franchised gulag, complete with rats, crude torture, and friendly cellmates.

This premise—that a trio of innocent Yanks might bumble their way into an international incident—might actually have been worked into a trashy, jingoistic, enjoyable little thriller. But Born American is ineptly done, even with its own dumb material, and doesn’t succeed as an exploitation movie.

It does provide a few interesting social observations: The Soviets favor greasy hair and a tubercular look, and they drink a lot of Pepsi. Too much Pepsi, in fact. Maybe that explains their jumpiness.

Mostly, director Renny Harlin is content to borrow plot twists from other movies, especially Midnight Express, Deliverance, and The Deer Hunter. And, of course, from the Rambo films and Chuck Norris flicks.

And Norris is present in a spiritual way, too, as his son Mike essays the leading role here. Mike makes a good case for paternity with his presence, with the occasional karate chop and a general impassivity; a chip off the old block, and quite a block in his own right.

Bullies wrings a few new drops of sweat out of the time-tested vengeance plot, and does it with a certain brutal efficiency. It’s about city folk moving to a small town, a town effectively controlled by the inbred cretins who have the most money there.

These creeps are familiar movie types who have spent too much time in the mountains alone. They make life miserable for the family—mom, son, and weak-willed stepdad—until, finally, someone must strike back.

Which someone does, with expected results. Bullies is a cross between Straw Dogs and Walking Tall, with hefty borrowings from both films. Oh, and a little Karate Kid thrown in, with the wise old Indian (Dehl Berti) showing the city boy (Jonathan Crombie, son of Canadian cabinet minister David Crombie) the “old ways.”

All it has is formula, but director Paul Lynch does drive the formula along with quite a bit of gusto. He also gets pretty pictures of the British Columbia locations, which figure prominently as backdrop, and of actress Olivia D’Abo, who pretends to enjoy swimming in her skivvies in what must have been a freezing Canadian river. Now that’s acting.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

You know, it has often been said that it sometimes takes a foreign artist to gaze upon the American soul and reveal to us something new about ourselves. That’s probably true, but in the case of Born American, Finland’s irrepressible Renny Harlin was probably just looking for a way to launch his Hollywood career. Which he did—four years later he was helming the first Die Hard sequel. This movie certainly caught the wave of nationalist bellicosity so popular at the time. As for Bullies, you could say of it that “their only crime…was being born Canadian!” This is a Canadian B-movie that does not linger strongly in the mind.

The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character actors.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.

2020 re-watch: It certainly is a better film than I gave it credit for in this piece, and I understand why it is considered a classic. I criticized the lack of character development, but Carpenter believes that action is character, and the cast is so great they fill in the gaps. I’m convinced the film looks better on DVD than it did in the theater, but in any case it’s a gorgeous movie to gaze at. There might be just a little too much Alien-influenced monster-movie gore for what I think the film ought to have, but the humor and the rhythm are spot-on. Plus, the ending: just right.

Hot Pursuit

February 15, 2011

A few years ago a film called Tron got a lot of attention because of its elaborate computer-generated sequences, which wove in and out of a live-action story. The computer-animated stuff was pretty interesting, but the live-action material was lame and predictable enough to make the movie a flop.

The director of Tron, Steven Lisberger, has now made another film (he worked in animation before Tron). Hot Pursuit lacks high-tech experiments; it’s all just flesh-and-blood characters. Unfortunately, this is still Lisberger’s weak point, which makes Hot Pursuit as tepid as Tron without the welcome distraction of wild computer work.

It’s not awful in conception: A college kid (John Cusack) struggles to catch up with his girlfriend (Wendy Gazelle)) and her family while they’re on a Caribbean trip (filmed around Ixtapa, Mexico). But he has a run of bad luck. He keeps getting shanghaied, thrown in jail, that sort of thing, and his struggles provide the situation comedy.

Lisberger knows enough to lay the structure out well enough, but nothing about the film comes alive. It’s supposed to be an adventure comedy, but the laughs fall in dead spots and the lurch into violent action near the end—something about hijackers or terrorists, I’m not really sure—is awkward.

And Lisberger locks the movie into a tired and silly groove by having Cusack hook up with an old salt (an apparently unembarrassed Robert Loggia) who takes Cusack out on his sloop in pursuit of the girlfriend. This modern-day buccaneer swigs whiskey, rubs his pirate stubble, opens a can of Spaghetti-Os with an axe, and says things like, “Some of us drink from the fountain of knowledge; other gargle.” If the movie is giving us those choices, I think I’ll spit.

First published in the Herald, May 13, 1987

Such an odd grouping coming together here: the Tron guy, Cusack right after Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer (which made this movie seem like another in that chain), Ben Stiller in one of his first pictures (and dad Jerry), and of course Wendy Gazelle. You will find people who like it, because there are people who like everything.

Dangerously Close

February 14, 2011

Cannon Films is the upstart low-budget studio that cranks out Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson movies, as well as the occasional “A” film, such as Fool for Love and Runaway Train. It’s just the kind of company where innovative talent can sometimes rise through the ranks of exploitation filmmaking and attract attention—as with Roger Corman’s company during the 1960s, which gave breaks to Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, et al.

For its opening 20 minutes, Cannon’s Dangerously Close looks as though it’s going to be just such an attention-grabbing film. We’re introduced to a weird high school club called the Sentinels, who take their vigilante function quite seriously—seriously enough to engage in “an intense survival game” called Hunt-Down, in which they terrorize kids who have irked them in some way.

At school, the Sentinels are peace-keepers, and they look and speak like a bunch of buttoned-down, clean-cut creeps. Their leader (John Stockwell, who also had a hand in the script) approaches the editor (J. Eddie Peck) of the school paper, in an attempt to gain some healthy P.R.

He introduces Peck to his parents’ lavish mansion, to his gorgeous girlfriend, and to a local nightclub. Most of these opening scenes are shot in a grabby, non-realistic style, and there are some shots—the girl emerging from a pool at sunset, the camera traveling the length of a dinner table, the nightmarish lighting of the mad club—that’ll make you sit up straight in your seat.

All that jazz is thrown at you by director Albert Pyun, who is a person to watch. This isn’t just grandstanding; it defines the insane world of the Sentinels, and suggests how a kid could get seduced into that world.

Sad to say, the momentum from this impressive opening dribbles away surprisingly quickly. It soon turns conventional, with Peck uncovering evidence to finger the Sentinels in their illegal activities. Aside from a disturbing, Deliverance-like sequence involving the mock hanging of Peck’s punk friend in a forest, there’s little else to make the film distinctive.

It’s still more interesting than the average teen movie, but the power of those early scenes makes the film’s ultimate normality quite frustrating.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

All right, maybe it was grandstanding. I have not followed the career of Albert Pyun through the Z-movie underworld he has inhabited, so I can’t really be definitive on this. I only know that at the time, the first 20 minutes of Dangerously Close looked like something, and one always hopes a new auteur might be just around the corner, and you never know where the next Scorsese might pop up. This was also Carey Lowell’s first movie, for those of you who care about that.

Stop Making Sense

February 11, 2011

“I’m an ordinary guy,” sings David Byrne in the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.” Audiences being exposed to Byrne’s vulture-eyed, bone-rattling, and utterly mesmerizing presence may be forgiven for questioning the truth of his lyric; he’s truly one of the most bizarre and dynamic rock figures ever captured on film. He’s the lead singer, songwriter, and guiding force of the Talking Heads, and he also directed their 1983 stage shows, of which Stop Making Sense is the cinematic record. The film has another director, Jonathan Demme (of Melvin and Howard), whose cinematic conception of this concert—and it’s all music, no interviews or backstage hijinks—harmonizes exactly with Byrne’s vision.

I can’t tell you how good it is to see a concert done justice by film; as a rule, this is the deadliest of film genres. It’s been widely noted that Demme has gone in for lengthier camera takes, rather than the usual cut-cut-cut of most concert movies. True enough, but how does this make Stop Making Sense a superior concert film? For one thing, it lays the burden of interest squarely on the performers; they have to sink or swim without fancy editorial tricks to distract the viewers. The band must build its performance from within; there’s a strong sense of the music growing internally (rather than being a series of songs laid end to end). That’s especially important here, because the music is designed in complicated, circular rhythms that irresistibly draw you in. (This style also fits the shape of the concert: Byrne starts out alone onstage with a guitar and a ghetto-blaster, and is gradually joined by other band members as the group grows into a nine-person band—even mutating into the Tom Tom Club for a delightful “Genius of Love”—and the music gets increasingly hotter.)

Demme’s camera seems to work its way into the flow of the concert; it’s as though we understand it from inside. During the song “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” Demme’s camera watches drummer Chris Frantz, who has just come onstage, and Byrne, playing guitar in front of him. Demme lets the shot run for a while as the two pound through the song. Then the camera drifts straight back, just a bit, and we see the other person on stage: bassist Tina Weymouth, happily frugging away to Byrne’s left. You know she’s been there the whole time, and somehow the camera’s adjustment to include her is gratifying—it’s an acknowledgment that the concert has a life of its own, outside of the film frame.

Demme’s objective is not to adapt the concert into a film, but to integrate film into the concert. I’m not sure that’s been done successfully before. The ecstatic high point of this fusion between the movement of the concert and the style of the film comes during “Girlfriend is Better,” as the band shouts the words “Stop Making Sense.” Byrne waves the microphone at the light man who has come onstage, and the man leans in for a chorus. On the next beat, Byrne pivots and finds…us. He’s looking into the camera, and—what the hey—he waves the mike our way for a moment. Movie and concert really have become one. I don’t see a lot of concert films, because they’re usually a sorry bunch. So, although I can’t claim to be an expert on the disreputable subject, Stop Making Sense is certainly the best concert movie I’ve ever seen.

First published in The Informer, November 1984

A very good moment in music-movie history. The movie played a nice long run at the Market Theatre in Seattle, and its arrival seemed to suggest an interesting life slithering into existence in the same world inhabited by Stranger Than Paradise and Repo Man and other such titles. I’m not sure anything ever quite developed from that (maybe it came to fruition in the 1990s), but it was nice while it lasted.

Fast Forward

February 10, 2011

Straight outta Sandusky.

It is difficult to synopsize Fast Forward without blushing, but I’ll try: This movie is about eight perky and vivacious youths from Sandusky, Ohio, who travel to New York to find their fame as singers and dancers by winning an annual open call talent show.

Now that we’re all thoroughly embarrassed, let me point out the obvious and say that what we have here is the latest entry in the FameFlashdanceFootloose marketplace (and just in time for the holiday weekend). Which is to say, a film that cleverly mixes loud music, choreography, and a bunch of pearly-toothed dancers to cook up a big barrelful of cornpone.

As for any kind of veracity when it comes to painting a recognizable picture of human beings or modern success or even New York City, forget it. Frankly, although some conventional plot complications get thrown at them, the gang has a pretty easy time of it. These kids show up at the offices of a major promoter. He’d personally guaranteed them an audition for the big talent contest the last time he passed through Sandusky.

Wouldn’t you know it—the old boy dies before they get there, and the sleazy new managers won’t give them a chance. Does that discourage our apple-cheeked heroes? Well, yeah, a little. But they quickly take to dancing on the streets to earn money until they can slide their way into an audition.

Then the leader (John Scott Clough) catches the eye of a girl from a wealthy family, who invites the group to perform at her mother’s lavish lawn party. She also gets into some heavy breathing with Clough. But he’s already involved with one of the members of the troupe (a honey named Tamara Mark); the latter gets understandably miffed and threatens to tear apart the close-knit company.

The biggest threat, though, is posed by a rival group of dancers, who demonstrate (though a lively “dance war”) that our heroes are way behind in the hipness department. This is one of the film’s few honest admissions: The fact is, these routines are so squeaky-clean, the gang wouldn’t stand a chance of getting anywhere in showbiz. Unless, that is, TV variety shows come back, and there is a renewed need for the June Taylor dancers.

When Sidney Poitier’s last outing as a director was released (Hanky Panky), he seemed to be bucking for the mantle of Worst Director in Hollywood. Well, he’s cleaned up his act a bit and this is a smoother show.

In fact, for all its ineptitude, and perhaps because of it, Fast Forward cruises in an almost infectiously ridiculous atmosphere of badness—the out-and-out stupidity of it all becomes hard to resist.

I realize most people don’t go to movies for exactly those reasons; however, I am bound to report even my guiltiest of pleasures. And one more errant observation:

Fame. Flashdance. Footloose. Fast Forward. Notice anything funny there, in an alliterative way? Is there something subliminal going on here? Are the filmmakers sending out coded messages to the dance-hungry teenage audience? There may be a graduate thesis in this. But, then again, let us not waste our time trying to discover why this is happening. Is there any way we can stop it?

First published in the Herald, February 16, 1985

They’re still making this movie, even if they stopped doing the “F” thing. Whatever this review is, I guess it’s what happens when you see too many of these. Also, how could a guy with a name like John Scott Clough miss? I seem to recall him as the poor man’s Tom Everett Scott.

Purple Rain

February 9, 2011

“Dig if you will, the picture….” Well, I did dig the picture, but a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. I don’t read reviews of movies before I see them, but a guy can hardly help reading the critical quotes in movie ads. I didn’t catch up with Purple Rain until its third week or so, and that’s three weeks of seeing “not since the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night” (Kurt Loder said that in Rolling Stone) prominently featured in the ads. As it turns out—I just checked it again—Loder seemed to be suggesting that, not since AHDN had a young generation been represented on the screen with such force. He wasn’t saying that Purple Rain was artistically equivalent to the Beatles-Richard Lester movies. But I didn’t know that, and I walked into the theater thinking I was in for some pretty hot spit.

Well…don’t get me wrong, I did not dislike Purple Rain, but Lester and the surviving members of the Fab Four certainly have nothing to worry about. Rock star Prince seems to have guided most aspects of this production, which—although he takes no screenwriting credit—is loosely based on his own life. From the evidence, we can conclude that Prince has led a life, uh, off the beaten path. His preoccupations have been poured into a creaky, corny story that is structured rather shrewdly (a bunch of elements are built up throughout and then resolved during the big finale). Unfortunately, the film seems to have been jotted down rather than directed by first-timer Albert Magnoli.

Luckily, lapses in directorial texturing are nicely made up for by the people onscreen. Patty Apollonia Kotero, who has wonderful laughing eyes that will probably be ignored in favor of her other attributes, has a lot of good instincts. And Morris Day, lead singer of the Time, is a precious comic find, with the timing and presence of a movie natural. Prince himself is not quite as comfortable with the camera in his dialogue scenes, and he has a tendency—but this is Magnoli’s fault, too—for resorting to an easy smirk as a way out (which is pretty funny the first few times he uses it).

Purple Rain often threatens to fall apart, but there’s always a live Prince number to be performed, and when it comes to the stage playing, Prince really does own the movie. The last couple of rave-up numbers are sensational, and it’s very easy to forget about the film’s faults on the way out of the theater. This movie has Prince’s band, playing themselves, and they exist in an amusing deadpan mode; it’s also got Clarence Williams III, who was Linc Hayes on “Mod Squad,” as Prince’s abusive father. And it’s all shot in Minneapolis, which makes it even funnier.

First published in The Informer, August 1984

Was this the last time anybody referred to Apollonia by her full name? Further research is indicated. The movie was notable (or should be) for being something of a career re-start for Clarence Williams III, as least on screen, and a welcome one, too. Not much to say except that it was a complete pop-culture pheenom moment, one played one’s copy of the soundtrack album out (but 1999 even more), and the whole thing led to Under the Cherry Moon, which put a wrench in Prince’s career as a filmmaker. It was fun while it lasted, though.