Thursday, July 21, 2016

Film Review: BOB ROBERTS (1992, Tim Robbins)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Tag-line: "Vote first. Ask questions later."
Notable Cast or Crew:  Tim Robbins (THE PLAYER, TAPEHEADS), Giancarlo Esposito (DO THE RIGHT THING, THE USUAL SUSPECTS), Alan Rickman (DIE HARD, MICHAEL COLLINS),  Ray Wise (TWIN PEAKS, SWAMP THING), Gore Vidal (GATTACA, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE), Harry Lennix (TITUS, DOLLHOUSE), Tom Atkins (THE FOG, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH), David Strathairn (THE RIVER WILD, SNEAKERS), James Spader (TUFF TURF, Pamela Reed (TANNER '88, THE RIGHT STUFF), Helen Hunt (TRANCERS, PROJECT X, TWISTER), Peter Gallagher (THE UNDERNEATH, MALICE, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE), Lynne Thigpen (WHERE IN THE WORLD IS CARMEN SANDIEGO, SHAFT '00), Jack Black (THE NEVERENDING STORY III, DEMOLITION MAN), Susan Sarandon (THE HUNGER, THELMA & LOUISE), Fred Ward (REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES, THE PLAYER), Fisher Stevens (SHORT CIRCUIT, MY SCIENCE PROJECT), Bob Balaban (CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, MOONRISE KINGDOM), John Cusack (TAPEHEADS, THE GRIFTERS), Jeremy Piven (DR. JEKYLL & MS. HYDE, THE PLAYER).  Cinematography by Jean Lépine (THE PLAYER, TANNER '88).
Best One-liner: "The times they are a-changin' back!"

I'll begin this review with a quote from IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE, a 1935 novel novel by Sinclair Lewis, which imagines America's first Fascist president. He's a fellow by the name of "Buzz Windrip," and his coronation takes place at a convention in Cleveland. I'll let Lewis describe him for you:
"[Buzz] was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his 'ideas' almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill. 
...Aside from his dramatic glory, Buzz Windrip was a Professional Common Man. Oh, he was common enough.  He had every prejudice and aspiration of every American Common Man. ...But he was the Common Man twenty-times-magnified by his oratory, so that while the other Commoners could understand his every purpose, which was exactly the same as their own, they saw him towering above them, and they raised hands to him in worship."
BOB ROBERTS––Tim Robbins' equally prescient 1992 political mockumentary––essentially picks up where Sinclair Lewis left off. It tells the story of a populist Pennsylvanian singer, Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins),

who is running for the U.S. Senate against a stereotypically intellectual incumbent (Gore Vidal).

Apparently Gore Vidal improvised much of his dialogue by reciting his own political positions.

Equally inspired by the panoramic satire of Robert Altman (with whom Robbins collaborated three times) and the comedic sensibilities of THIS IS SPINAL TAP, Robbins creates one of the more perceptive, mean-spirited, and amusing political films of our time. ...And, at the risk of quoting Richard Nixon, we need it "now more than ever."
 
This movie had been on my to-see list for some time, and when I read J.D. at Radiator Heaven's wonderful take on it this March, I knew I had to track it down.

A breezy corporate "folk" singer with the trappings of Bob Dylan and the lyrics of Jordan Belfort,

Bob Roberts traffics in yuppie syllogisms, evangelical pandering, white pride dog-whistling, and priggish sanctimony. The Sixties' pendulum has swung back; Bob (semi-sincerely?) considers himself a rebel patriot, and his campaign possesses all the civil apparatus of a social revolution, but he's fighting against ideals like tolerance, enlightenment, and general civility. This brash refutation of Sixties' youth movements feels like the natural outgrowth of the contemporary corporate "nonconformists" who brought us the profundity of a Nike ad using The Beatles' "Revolution" in 1988.

The lyrics of Bob's songs are brilliant in the way the lyrics in THIS IS SPINAL TAP are brilliant––what they're mocking (hair metal and nativist movements, respectively) already exists on such a plane of absurdity that it's nearly indistinguishable from the genuine article. Whether he's firing broadsides at the "nation of complainers" addicted to entitlement culture:

"Like this: / It's society's fault I don't have a job / It's society's fault I'm a slob / I'm a drunk, I don't have a brain / Give me a pamplet while I complain / Hey pal you're living in the land of the free / no one's gonna hand you opportunity..."

engaging in colonial cosplay:


or singing the dangers of letting "Godless men" in past our walls, who'll "take the jobs of the decent ones":




we've sort of moved beyond satire, and into "reenactment," a mirror reflection of the worst angels of our nature (with the fringe fantasies of 1992 existing in the limelight of 2016).

Tim Robbins perfectly inhabits the role of the neighborly fanatic, the apple-pie extremist; excellent at glad-handing, even as he lines you up against the wall. Certainly every politician carries a bit of the "poseur" about them, but the cold-blooded strain that flows through Bob Roberts is chilling, and all too real. The rest of the cast is wonderful, and fully in tune with the grotesque tendencies of the American political system––it's a veritable playground for character actors and glorified cameos, like:

Alan Rickman, as Bob's campaign chairman (and Oliver North stand-in), whose performance is filled with serpentine acting choices that hint at hidden menace:



Ray Wise as Bob's campaign manager, who's able to play off of Rickman's terrifying energy with one of the best glossy, soulless smiles in film history:

It's a veritable 'soulless smile' showdown.

Tom Atkins as Bob's jovial/oddly intimidating personal physician:


Giancarlo Esposito as an obsessive progressive journalist, who could very well be a character from an Oliver Stone film:


Jack Black as an unbalanced teen (you know the kind, the kid who carves swastikas into desks and burns you with paper clips) who finds in Bob Roberts what TAXI DRIVER's Travis Bickle could only dream he'd get out of the Palatine campaign:


Bob Balaban as a thinly-veiled version of Lorne Michaels (during a controversial Bob Roberts television appearance, with SNL transformed into "CUTTING EDGE LIVE") and John Cusack as a politically outspoken actor:


Peter Gallagher, Helen Hunt,  Lynne Thigpen, James Spader,

Fisher Stevens,

Susan Sarandon & Fred Ward,

and Pamela Reed as newscasters.

Pamela Reed, star of Robert Altman's political mockumentary HBO miniseries TANNER '88. Clearly, the Gary Trudeau-penned series was a major influence on BOB ROBERTS (though it is considerably less mean-spirited), and Robbins even hired the same cinematographer, Jean Lépine.

Essentially, Bob Roberts' candidacy begins as a joke, builds momentum,

balloons to a size that the responsibly rational can no longer ignore,



Roberts' goons rough up the protesters...

and ends in a dark, dark place––far darker than most satirical comedy dares to go. As usual, the true horror is in the way these Fascist tendencies mushroom and flourish among the mob, like a night-flowering vine, or at least like an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE:


Five stars.

––Sean Gill

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Music Review: JOHN CARPENTER––LIVE RETROSPECTIVE, IN CONCERT (2016, Manhattan, NY)

Last Friday, it was my pleasure to see John Carpenter––horror master, composer of electronic music, and one of my cinematic heroes––live in concert at the PlayStation Theater in Times Square.

Carpenter (affectionately and frequently referred to as "Carpy" by this site) has deliberately kept a low profile for much of the last decade, having directed only one feature film and two episodes of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR since 2001. However, the past year has seen a sort of New Carpenter Renaissance: he's released two new albums (the brilliant LOST THEMES and LOST THEMES II, both of which are the atmospheric equivalent of new Carpenter films), issued three music videos, announced his intention to produce a HALLOWEEN movie for the first time since 1982, and has been touring with the "John Carpenter Live Retrospective," a concert series of film music, new and old, accompanied by projected scenes from his classic films. It was this Live Retrospective that I was able to see on Friday along with a packed house of fellow Carpy enthusiasts (a crowd of around 2,000). Let me tell you about it!

The lineup consisted of John Carpenter himself on one synthesizer, his son Cody Carpenter handling multiple synths, Daniel Davies [Carpy's godson and son of The Kinks' Dave Davies (who collaborated on IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED '95) ] on lead guitar, John Konesky on guitar, John Spiker on bass, and Scott Seiver on drums: the same lineup seen in Carpenter's recent music videos. Carpenter himself looked rather formidable, dressed all in black with his trademark mustache and long white hair pulled back into a ponytail. At 68, he's still got a real spring in his step, and often visibly grooved to the beat, gave the sign of the horns, or encouraged the audience to clap along. This was not the "lovably irascible" Carpenter who makes the headlines on nerdy websites every few months when he opines on the shortcomings of contemporary horror, etc. This was a laid back, funky Carpenter––this was Carpenter having fun! (As usual, he was a man of few words, but I'll recount the most memorable ones as I describe his set list.)

He opened, appropriately, with ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK's "Main Title," a classic selection which really got the crowd going. Across the board, I must say that Carpenter's band has a nice, thick sound, and the live arrangements generally differ from the album/soundtrack versions in that there's a greater prevalence of drum orchestration and guitar solos, which ultimately makes for a more satisfying live experience.

Carpy and his crew rock out to ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. Photo courtesy of John Carpenter's official Facebook page.

Next was ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13's iconic "Main Title," Carpy's first big hit and one so popular that it was even remixed for French discotheques!  (Carpenter declined to play the disco version.)

He followed with two tracks from LOST THEMES, the nostalgic "Vortex" and the thoughtful "Mystery," both pumped up by new arrangements which allowed for an impressive drum foundation and an extended guitar solo from Davies.

After taking a moment to describe his love for ghost movies, Carpy & Co. turned their attention to THE FOG's "Main Title," as blue lights shone bright and the fog machines were turned to full blast. It was a moment of true magic to see Carpenter pounding out that baroque melody while enveloped by his iconic blue fog.

Carpenter and his band proceeded to don sunglasses, and bassist John Spiker plucked out the first five notes from THEY LIVE. The crowd erupted in recognition as "OBEY," "CONSUME," "CONFORM," and "SLEEP" were projected on the screen behind the band. They continued with the rest of "Coming to L.A." (the main theme of THEY LIVE), and when the projection featured Keith David and Roddy Piper's famous fistfight, there was a rather enthusiastic response from the crowd, to say the least.

Next was the only non-Carpenter-composed song of the evening (sorry, STARMAN die-hards––no Jack Nitzsche for you!): the Ennio Morricone-scored "Main Title" from THE THING. Carpenter gave a special shout-out to Morricone as the ominous bass line began to rattle the room.  Stark white light set the proper Antarctic mood, one which was later accompanied by projections of some of the more gruesome (and crowd-pleasing) scenes from THE THING. He followed this up with "Distant Dream" (the opening track from LOST THEMES II), which served as a sort of palate cleanser after that relentless, bassy doom and gloom.

Carpenter dedicated the following song to "a friend I made five movies with, but the most fun we ever had was when we went looking for a girl with green eyes."

There's Biiiiiig Trouble....in Little China! Photo courtesy of John Carpenter's official Facebook page.

Obviously, the friend was Kurt Russell, and the song was "Pork Chop Express," the rootin'-tootin' opening theme to BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA.  (Unfortunately, this was a "John Carpenter Live Retrospective" and not a "Coupe de Villes Reunion Tour," and therefore we were denied the rockin' closing credits music, "Big Trouble in Little China." But I can live with that!)

Carpenter invited the audience to "ride the synth wave" with him, and followed with "Wraith," a melancholy track from LOST THEMES. Then he insisted "these songs so far have been uncharacteristically positive––let's go a little darker... into the 'Night.'" (The "Night" in question being the closing track from LOST THEMES, a gloomy cyberpunk meditation.)

Afterward, insisting that he had "a confession to make," Carpenter humorously admitted to being a horror director before proclaiming "horror movies will live forever!" The crowd roared as Cody began plunking out the HALLOWEEN "Main Theme" (in its distinctive 5/4 time signature). The orchestration that followed was more layered and complex than what originally appeared in 1978, and it was newly arranged for this lineup (though it bore a resemblance to the arrangement from HALLOWEEN II).

He followed this with the rockin' "Main Title" from IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, and Daniel Davies performed the extended guitar solo that his father originally played for the 1994 film. After this, the band left the stage––but you just know Carpy's gonna do an encore:

They returned with "Opening Titles" from PRINCE OF DARKNESS, one of Carpenter's darkest and voxiest tracks. This flowed into "Virtual Survivor," a moody piece from LOST THEMES II, which gave way to "Purgatory," a diptych from the original LOST THEMES that I once imagined was the theme song to the fictitious film, CAPTAIN RON VERSUS THE FOG

When they'd finished, Carpenter grew pensive, leaning toward the microphone. He said, "As you leave tonight, and go out into the darkness, be careful... 'Christine' is out there!" Two floodlights lit up opposite ends of the stage (approximating the headlights of a haunted Plymouth Fury), and the fourth and final encore was the lesser-known "Main Theme" from CHRISTINE (you may recall that the opening scene is actually set to George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone").

In all, it was a wonderful experience––wonderful to see one of my heroes not merely yawning through a Q&A, but actually doing what he loves on a stage for a deeply appreciative audience; presenting fresh new material alongside his past classics. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Carpy rocks!

–Sean Gill

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Only now does it occur to me... INNERSPACE

Only now does it occur to me... that I would ever see character-acting legend and scene-stealing nutball Robert Picardo (TOTAL RECALL, THE WONDER YEARS) busting such savagely hip and creepy dance moves, and all in service of seducing America's Sweetheart, Meg Ryan!





Note: "The Invisible Lasso," an essential move in Picardo's dance arsenal.

I saw INNERSPACE on television as a child, and for whatever reason I did not remember much, beyond it being a comedic 1980s update of FANTASTIC VOYAGE wherein an experimental pilot (Dennis Quaid) is miniaturized and accidentally injected into the bloodstream of a hypochondriac (Martin Short).



Dennis Quaid embarks on his 'fantastic voyage' while eating a JELL-O pudding snack and doing some kind of Jack Nicholson/Harrison Ford pastiche.

Upon revisiting, I cannot emphasize enough how anarchic and bizarre a movie INNERSPACE is. Robert Picardo is just the tip of the iceberg––though I must admit that in his minor role as a silky-smooth international smuggler named "The Cowboy," he does his darnedest to steal the entire movie. Whether "Travis Bickling" with a blow dryer:

putting the moves on Meg Ryan:
 
wearing a Speedo and blasting a champagne cork at Martin Short:
or being kidnapped and impersonated by a rubberized (through science-fictioney means) Martin Short:



I guess I'm trying to tell you that it's a live action Looney Tunes episode, a relentless slice of sci-fi mayhem, and a work of good-natured batshittery. In other words, it's a Joe Dante film!

BEHOLD: A villainous henchman (Vernon Wells, "Bennett" from COMMANDO!) with more cyborg arm-appendage weapons than Chuck Connors in 99 AND 44/100% DEAD and "Doctor Claw" from INSPECTOR GADGET combined!


EXPERIENCE: Fiona Lewis (THE FURY, STRANGE INVADERS) as perhaps the most lascivious corporate scientist of all time!


ENJOY: Kevin McCarthy (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) as a criminal mastermind with impeccable interior (and personal) design!


FIND CATHARSIS IN: Lewis and McCarthy shrunk to the size of children (or we could say "Good Guy Doll"-size) and handling absurdly-proportioned props!



GAZE UPON: 1980s New Wave nuttery and other optical illusions!


SEE: More terrifying rubbery faces than TOTAL RECALL!




WITNESS: A tearful Meg Ryan cab ride, made possible by none other than "That Guy" legend, Dick Miller!


LOOK AT: A Rance Howard cameo! Just look at it!

 
CONTEMPLATE: A world where Henry Gibson is your bitchy-but-well-meaning supermarket boss!


BE FACED WITH UNSETTLING MELANCHOLY: When the scientist who injects Martin Short (John Hora, Dante's cinematographer) is shot and killed at a mall by Vernon Wells' robo-assassin. As the life flows out of him, he is confronted with the startling image of mall mascots coming to his aid.


He fades and dies, scared and confused. This is probably a good example of what I mean when I say this film is anarchic––but it is emotionally grounded, unlike much of the contemporary absurdist comedy, where many jokes rely upon randomness or anti-humor for their effect. There is an order to this film––a cartoon-logic, if you will––but its anarchy supports the story (also see: PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH, WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, et al.), and it's nothing if not well earned.

I feel as if I've barely scratched the surface of this strange beast. Now, go forth, and rent INNERSPACE!

––Sean Gill