Thursday, April 17, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... DAYS OF THUNDER

Only now does it occur to me...  that following in the footsteps of incredibly "whacky" credit pairings like George A. Romero & Menahem Golan and Jesse Ventura & Andre Gregory that the mind-blowing, onscreen juxtaposition of Robert Towne and Tom Cruise is truly one for the record books.

You will note:  one of these men is the screenwriter of CHINATOWN and THE LAST DETAIL.  The other one is Tom Cruise.  Extra bonus:  the "76" car up there says "Die Hard" on the side of it.  Fine by me.

DAYS OF THUNDER subscribes to the genre of movie (TOP GUN, COCKTAIL, RISKY BUSINESS, THE COLOR OF MONEY) where Tom Cruise engages in a flashy and specialized activity (jet-flyin', cocktail-makin', pimpin', pool-hustlin'), works with a mentor (Tom Skerrit, Bryan Brown, Joe Pantoliano?-admittedly a stretch, Paul Newman) gets the girl (Kelly McGillis, Kelly Lynch, Rebecca De Mornay, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), loses the girl, gets the girl back again, and triumphs over all. To fill in the ingredients of DAYS OF THUNDER, we have:  Nascar-racin', Robert Duvall, and Nicole Kidman.

It's designed as a high-octane Tony Scott thrill ride where we cheer on our bad-boy hero who dips his hat low over his eyes, cause he's cool like that and quite the bad boy:

but upon watching it today, you can't help but root for Michael Rooker the whole time.  Michael Rooker (character-actor extraordinaire and veteran of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, THE WALKING DEAD, SLITHER, JFK, CLIFFHANGER, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, RENT-A-COP, and THE DARK HALF)

plays a rival driver who eventually becomes a sidekick to Cruise, but his natural pathos and inspired acting choices contrast so severely with Cruise's tiny-whiny-bad-boy demeanor that you have no choice but to think of him as the true protagonist of the film.  Also, Rooker's character name is "Rowdy Burns" and for the record, I have never disliked anyone named Rowdy.

At one point, after they're both  injured in a wreck, Rooker and Cruise have an epic wheelchair race (to their orderlies' dismay) that just might be the highlight of the film.

Furthermore, Rooker's wife is played by Junta Juleil favorite Caroline Williams (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, ALAMO BAY, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, STEPFATHER II: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, LEPRECHAUN 3) who still remains one of Texas' best exports.

Seen here a little more morose than usual.

In closing, I will rattle off three disjointed observations:

#1.  I love it when Randy Quaid says that we look like monkeys fucking a football.

#2.  "Superflo" is only one letter away from "Superflu."

Also, there is so much "1990" happening in that picture, that I feel as if staring at it and meditating (á la SOMEWHERE IN TIME) could in fact transport you back to 1990.

#3.  Nicole Kidman plays an Australian medical doctor whom Tom Cruise mistakes for a stripper.  Later, Tom tries to buy Nicole's love (as in real life) by sending her a shitload of balloons, and– most importantly– a stuffed kangaroo dressed in a doctor costume, you know, because she's a doctor from Australia.

And the best part is that...  it works!  Score one for 'Merica.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Michael Ironside, Welcome to the Criterion Collection

Oh, how I've long waited for this moment.  What would be the first Michael Ironside film in the Criterion Collection?  Would it be STARSHIP TROOPERS, FORCED TO KILL, HIGHLANDER 2, or FREE WILLY?  A special edition of CHAINDANCE?  TOTAL RECALL?  Or maybe THUNDERGROUND?  A box set of his WALKER, TEXAS RANGER episodes? 

Well, the wait is over, and it's SCANNERS– the head-s'plodin' Cronenbergy classick.  And what's this??

Nope, not "The 'Scanners' Way."  Not "The Ephemerol Diaries."  Yep, this one:
 Now that he has newfound legitimacy with the cultural elite, I say bring on the box set of his Labatt Maximum Ice Commercials!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... WISE GUYS

Only now does it occur to me...  four quick things.  WISE GUYS is a sorta mediocre mobster comedy from Brian De Palma starring Danny DeVito and Joe Piscapo.  Laugh-worthy and groan-worthy moments appear in equal measure; approach at your own risk, depending on your tolerance level for zany Italian-American hijinks.  But here are four quick things that I appreciated:

#1.  "The De Palma Shot."  One of De Palma's trademark shots is the composite of two different shots so that characters in the foreground and the distance both appear in focus without sacrificing the depth of field he likes.  Danny DeVito at this point in time was most famous for playing a character on TV's TAXI named "Louie De Palma."  So here, in all of it's glory is Louie De Palma in a De Palma movie in a De Palma shot:
That's a lotta De Palma, but that's the way I like it.

#2.  DeVito's De Niro impersonation.  Because no comedy would be complete without a groundbreaking send-up of the "You Talkin' To Me?" sequence from TAXI DRIVER.  Ordinarily I'd roll my eyes at this– but DeVito's De Niro is actually pretty good!

#3.  The many loves of Rhea Perlman.  WISE GUYS features real-life Perlman husband DeVito, as well as fictional husband Dan Hedaya (who played "Nick Tortelli" on CHEERS).  How 'bout that?

#4.  WISE GUYS features a scene which I shall describe without comment:
A mob Fixer (wrestling's "Captain" Lou Albano) throws a profanity-laced hissy fit in the presence of casino owner Harvey Keitel.
 Keitel shuts him down by saying this isn't Newark and he should watch his language,
which leads to the exquisite mortification of Captain Lou
 and the shit-eating brilliance of Harvey Keitel.
Carry on.  WISE GUYS, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... TITANIC

Only now does it occur to me...  that the true enduring star of TITANIC is not Celine Dion, Kate Winslet's boobs
or Bill Paxton's wicked, pirate-y earring.
No, the true stars are the expressive, Svengali-ish, and immaculately waxed eyebrows of one William G. Zane, Esquire:

Now I hadn't seen TITANIC since in theaters way back in '97, and because my interest in The Zane Factor had been so amply reawakened by TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT, I decided to give it another go.  As "Caledon Hockley," the moneyed gadabout in pursuit of villainy and a loveless marriage to Kate Winslet, Billy Zane gives one of the bitchiest, most cattily malevolent performances ever to grace a mainstream film that didn't star Joan Crawford or Faye Dunaway.  

Here he is using the whites of Kate's eyes to admire his own reflection:
 I dare you to prove me wrong.  That's totally what he's doing:

He dismisses Monet and Picasso as "fingerpainters":

Tries to buy off the man (DiCaprio) who saved his wife-to-be with a crisp twenty-dollar bill:

He judges you with judgey eyebrows:
Offers smarm-infused false comfort as the ship goes down:

 Goes full "Tim Curry" for a segment where he's a gun-toting madman:

Steals babies to get on lifeboats:

He steals scenes he's not even really in:

[And somewhere amongst all this Zanery (hey, "zaniness" was already taken) apparently there's an epic romance and a sinking ship, but that's really more of a subplot.]

He's even got one of the all-time great villains and fellow TWIN PEAKS alum David Warner (TIME BANDITS, TRON, STRAW DOGS, TIME AFTER TIME, MY BEST FRIEND IS A VAMPIRE) as his henchman.  When David Warner is playing second fiddle to you– goddamn, you're doing something right!  One of my favorite moments is this wonderful bit where Warner catches Leo and Kate doing some unauthorized folk-dancing hanky-pankery:
His disapproving look is worth at least three AVATARS.  

BONUS!:  Also of note to Cameron aficionados– there's two great ALIENS references.

1.   Legendary badass Space Marine Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) shows up as an immigrant mother from the lower decks
comforting small and adorable children (instead of using a swivel-mounted minigun to rain death and destruction on those blocking her access to the lifeboats).

2.  When Kate Winslet gives Billy Zane the ole' spit-in-the-eye treatment, instead of saliva, they used K-Y Jelly:
Incidentally, they also used K-Y in ALIENS to make the Alien Queen look like the world's most terrifying, lacquered sex toy.  To hear Zane talk about it (and the 27 traumatic takes therein) on OPRAH, go here, to the eleven minute mark.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME

Only now does it occur to me...  that in STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (you know, the one with the time travel and saving the whales), when the crew of the Enterprise lands in 1980s San Francisco, they totally look like a multi-culti, ludicrously garbed street gang out of a Cannon Film!

They could absolutely be strolling down a street in DEATH WISH 3 or REVENGE OF THE NINJA, for sure.
Anyway, this soon leads to the most Cannon Film-ish moment in STAR TREK history when on a public bus, Captain Kirk tells a boom-box-blasting punk (who's listening to some generic rip-off Sex Pistols) to turn down his radio.

The punk retorts with a middle finger:

before Spock intercedes with a Vulcan nerve pinch rendering the rude young fellow unconscious:

Naturally, this leads the bus to its intended destination:  Slow Clap City.

I love this movie.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Television Review: THE 10TH KINGDOM (2000, Herbert Wise & David Carson)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 417 minutes.
Tag-line: "The most magical event of the millennium!"
Best One-liner:  "Suck an elf!"

I've often said that the 80s represented a kind of renaissance for genres like action movies (from DEATH WISH 3 to COMMANDO to DIE HARD), teen movies (from THE BREAKFAST CLUB to HEATHERS to FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH), and dance movies (from FLASHDANCE to SALSA to BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO)– I must now also say that the late 90s and early 00s brought us a renaissance to an oddly specific genre:  "the fantasy miniseries."

This is the result of the two Robert Halmis– a Hungarian father/son, senior/junior producer team.  These guys were like the Golan and Globus of 90s TV, and their company, RHI, has a long and complex history that has, at times, seen them intertwined with entities as diverse as Hallmark, New Line, and the Hal Roach Library.  Between 1996 and 2002, they churned out an outrageous number of miniseries and TV movies with the common thread of fantasy and/or legend:  GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, THE ODYSSEY (directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, an old Cannon resident director)  20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, HARVEY, MERLIN, MOBY DICK, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, NOAH'S ARK, CLEOPATRA, ANIMAL FARM, THE MAGICAL LEGEND OF THE LEPRECHAUNS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, DON QUIXOTE, ARABIAN NIGHTS, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, VOYAGE OF THE UNICORN, THE LAND OF OZ, THE LOST EMPIRE, THE INFINITE WORLDS OF H.G. WELLS, PRINCE CHARMING, SNOW WHITE: THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL, DINOTOPIA, and SNOW QUEEN.  Holy shit!

Most of these were much-hyped, featured hilarious 90s CGI, and brought together a motley contingent of sitcom stars, Shakespearean masters, TV has-beens, well-known character actors, and comedians– an incredible range of leads have included Ted Danson, John Lithgow, Sam Neill, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Short, Eric Roberts, Vanessa Williams, Mary Steenburgen, George Wendt, John Gielgud, John Leguizamo, Jason London, Natasha Henstridge, Dennis Hopper, Peter O'Toole, Christina Applegate, Bridget Fonda, Billy Zane, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Harry Anderson, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Lee, and Leslie Nielsen, with a few (Martin Short, Rutger Hauer, Miranda Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Mary Steenburgen, Warwick Davis, John Gielgud, Peter Ustinov, Pete Postlethwaite, among others) who appeared in several of these productions  I must also add, at times that list kind of reads like a who's who of "friends and lovers of Ted Danson."

Anyway- to the matter at hand:  THE TENTH KINGDOM, the crown jewel of "the fantasy miniseries" subgenre, and one of the funniest, most quotable, bizarre, and adventurous small screen triumphs of the era. 

Writer Simon Moore crafts an off-kilter, essentially post-modern fairy-tale universe so thorough and detailed that he not only gets away with combining Snow White/Cinderella/Rapunzel/Little Red Riding Hood/Rumplestiltskin/Little Bo Peep et al., but he does so in a way that feels kookily natural.  He reconstructs the fairy-tale dimension as a genuine one ("The Nine Kingdoms," accessible via a looking-glass portal in NYC's Central Park) where not everything ended happily ever after.

He posits that classic storytellers such as the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen were not writing fiction, but instead were inter-dimensional travelers who survived to tell their tales.  The writing is wry and self-aware enough to get away with some of the more outlandish gags, but never smug or "meta" to the point of annoyance, as is often the case with works of this genre.  It's decidedly sincere, too, and invests much energy and intelligence into emotional and character arcs that actually pay off.  I'd say it's nearly Bryan Fuller-ish (DEAD LIKE ME, WONDERFALLS, PUSHING DAISIES) in sensibility and in its use of disaffected working class heroes in a twisted fantasy setting.  Though ostensibly comedic, it tackles family abuse, coming of age, bondage, drugs (the allure of "magic" here has a pull like heroin), and emotional abandonment– just like the original fairy tales!

Rather than give a strict run-down of the plot, I'd like to touch on a few of the key players and moments that make THE TENTH KINGDOM so special:

#1.  Kimberly Williams as Virginia, a New York waitress who's pulled unwittingly into this imbroglio of multi-dimensional fairy-tale drama.  I only knew her from the 90s FATHER OF THE BRIDE remake, but she has the chops and likability to convincingly play a fantasy heroine across a wide breadth of scenarios that sometimes call for a "Princess Leia," a "Laurie Strode," or an "Alice in Wonderland."  Who knew?

She's even got the comedy moxie to pull off the nuttier bits, like when she has to perform a sheep-centric version of Queen's "We Will Rock You" entitled "We Will Shear You" in order to win a shepherdess pageant.  It's part of a remarkably convoluted scenario that wins the Junta Juleil seal of approval.

#2.  John Larroquette.  (I told you I'd finish John Larroquette week!)  As Virginia's father Tony, he's a humble maintenance man who's also swept up in the drama of the Nine Kingdoms; the sort of character who's essentially good-hearted, but who exists in order to make blockheaded decisions and complicate matters for the rest of the characters.
There's the classic magic bean/magic lamp "three wishes" scenario, whereupon our everyman Larroquette uses up the wishes we've always dreamed of, like making your boss and their extended family your slaves

or possessing a refrigerator with a neverending supply of beer! 

This is the role that first won me over to Larroquette (though he'd had a creepy multi-episode arc on THE PRACTICE that I remember enjoying)– and I must admit that his oafish likability is infectious!

#3.  Scott Cohen.

Holy shit– where has the universe been hiding this guy?  As a half-man half wolf named, aptly, "Wolf," he gives one of the most ridiculously fun and committed performances I've ever seen.
Every fantasy quest/fellowship story needs a wild card, and here the occasional wolfman appearance and shifting of loyalty ensures that the essentially heroic "Wolf" keeps the proceedings interesting.
The bravado and specificity of his acting choices are incredibly inspired– it's baffling to me why Cohen didn't become a bigger star.  Though he remains active in theater and New York-based television, his relative obscurity is unforgivable.   Hell, even within the context of this one role, he plays raging monster, wounded animal, rubber-faced jokester, seductive loverboy, action hero, and even delivers a monologue in praise of bacon– all with staggering aplomb.

Scott Cohen waxes poetic on the attributes of bacon... the dismay and loss of appetite of his companions.

Cohen's charisma is undeniable– apparently in the weeks after THE 10TH KINGDOM first aired, over one hundred internet fan club sites spontaneously appeared in his honor; a slightly more impressive feat in the year 2000, though I think it does speak to his striking a chord with the TV-viewer zeitgeist.

#4.  Dianne Wiest.  Or "two-time Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest," according to the promotional materials.  She's playing the Evil Queen here, trying to carry on the legacy of the one who poisoned Snow White.
Unlike many Oscar winners who occasionally "slum it" for television's quick cash and short production schedules, Wiest is clearly here to have fun with the role.  And by that, I don't mean making a mockery of the part for cheap laughs– her idea of fun is acting the hell out of it.  She gives the role a real weight; she's not simply evil– more of a morally bankrupt woman trying to execute an incredibly complex plan.  And Wiest lets us in on that.  Even when we're actively rooting against her, we feel the depth of emotion in her triumphs and setbacks, her ecstasies and frustrations.

Also, her top henchman is Rutger Hauer.  He gets his own entry later on, don't worry, but I have to mention here that the Hauer/Wiest chemistry is fantastic.  Clearly, the two of them have decided that their characters have a romantic connection that isn't fleshed out by the script.  This leads to moments like the following, when Rutger respectfully kisses her gloved hand, and afterward Wiest holds the glove wistfully to her own cheek, trying to absorb Rutger's affection by osmosis. 

I wholeheartedly approve.  This is exactly the sort of moment that elevates THE TENTH KINGDOM from "TV movie" to "something worth talking about fifteen years later."

#5.  Daniel Lapaine as Prince Wendell, and the dog, "Prince."

Part of the Evil Queen's plan is to replace Prince Wendell (the monarch-to-be and descendant of Snow White) with a domesticated dog who would be her puppet on the throne.  And I mean that quite literally– through magic she forces the Prince's consciousness into a dog, and the dog's into the Prince.  This calls for Daniel Lapaine to spend 90% of the miniseries in dual roles– the first, a dog in a man's body; and the second, the voiceover of the Prince trapped in a dog's body.  Somehow, all of this works. 

Lapaine really sells it in both roles, and he's aided by an expert canine who is possibly the best animal actor since CAT'S EYE.  And there is something spectacular about seeing the dog and Larroquette drown their sorrows in girl drinks at a Vegas-style bar in one of the touristy parts of the Nine Kingdoms:

#6.  The trolls.  Ed O'Neill "Al Bundies" his way through the role of Relish, the Troll King,  presumably in between David Mamet projects.

The Troll King functions mostly as a secondary antagonist and shares a fair number of scenes with Diane Wiest.  O'Neill probably doesn't want to be here, but he does what's required of him, playing a brutish conquerer and abusive father to his bastard children.

Said children become a recurring source of comic relief, with Three Stooges-style blocking, a shoe fetish that is at first ridiculous

but ultimately sublime,
 and an obsession with the Bee Gees, after being introduced to the works of "the Brothers Gibb" during an excursion into Central Park.  On paper it might not appear to be comedy gold, yet the actors (Jeremiah Birkett, Hugh O'Gorman, and Dawnn Lewis) work wonderfully together to make it so.  Also, their catchphrase is "Suck an elf!," a provocative exclamation that's just incomprehensible enough for network television.  Nice work dodging Standards & Practices, guys!

#7.  Rutger Hauer.    Sure, he could've phoned this in (like he did in Hallmark's TV remake of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE), but by gum, he's givin' it his all.  It's like THE HITCHER infiltrated the Disney universe– this is what I'm talkin' about!

Rutger plays "The Huntsman," a modified version of the character from Snow White, though Hauer's version possesses none of the compassion of the man who notably faked Snow White's death.  He wields a magical crossbow whose bolts never stop moving until they strike the heart of a living being.

He's given a monologue to explain how he came into possession of the crossbow, and with lip-quivering, eye-twitching gusto, he makes me yearn for a spin-off movie– a "Huntsman" prequel, if you will.

Also, this screen capture, taken entirely out of context, ought to brighten your day:

#7.  Rutger Hauer appearing furtively behind cutesy things.  I promised I'd follow up on this long ago in my review of THE HITCHER, and now, nearly four years later, here it finally is!

In that review, I wrote about a closeup of an enormous teddy bear, which was slowly lowered to reveal the ominous face of Rutger Hauer.  I also said that it happened again in another film, which is enough to establish it as a recurring motif in Hauer's oeuvre.

Well here it is: in the locale fittingly named "Kissing Town," a heart shaped-balloon is slowly lowered...
to reveal... Rutger Hauer.

Now we know exactly how Rutger reveals himself to his wife on Valentine's Day!  Bonus points to anyone who can find me a clip of Rutger slowly lowering a box of chocolates.

#8.  A rogue's gallery of British character actors.  There's so many, I can't even list them all here, but we've got Peter Vaughn as the nefarious patriarch of the Little Bo Peep-clan,

John Shrapnel as a hardass prison warden (I mean, look at him– his name is John Shrapnel, for Christ's sake!),

and loads of others like William Osborne, Edward Jewesbury, Patrick Marley, Len Collin, Tom Chadbon, Arthur Cox, Robert Hardy, Frank Middlemass, and Mike Edmonds– it's an embarrassment of tea n' crumpety riches.

#9.  Badass Warwick Davis.  Willow beat up on dragon-things and dogs in monster costumes, sure, and Wicket put the hurt on some stormtroopers, but Warwick Davis has never strictly portrayed a badass.   Well, THE TENTH KINGDOM is here to change that.

He plays "Acorn the Dwarf," a convict and fellow traveler who boasts a wicked eye scar and, much to my delight, pops up occasionally throughout the entire series.

#10.  Amazing fairy tale princess revisionism.  Ann-Margret plays the surly and 200-plus-years-old Cinderella,

and is clearly a good sport for doing so, enduring cracks about cosmetic surgery and growling her way through what is probably my favorite cinematic depiction of this iconic figure.

Also, Camryn Manheim shows up as the long-dead Snow White to spiritually guide Virginia,

though essentially she's just Obi-Wan Kenobi and has clearly been renting space in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. This is the sort of thing I can get behind.

#11.  The quotability.  Though lines like "Did you put your finger in that fish?"  "It'll get funnier if we keep doin' it!" "What do you think this is– an elves' underwear party?" and  "Pick any song– just put sheep words to it" may mean nothing to you at this moment, you may soon find yourself amongst the cult of THE TENTH KINGDOM, quoting them from the safety of your own home.  I feel the same way about Noah Baumbach's HIGHBALL.

#12.  It briefly turns into a legal thriller.  This is natural for a miniseries that is at times dallies in subgenres like "prison escape movie," "palace intrigue thriller," "fantasy war movie," "werewolf shocker," "haunted house flick," and "storybook romance," but Kimberly Williams' powdered-wig defense of a wolf before a jury of sheep is the kind of thing that keeps me returning to THE TENTH KINGDOM over the years.

#13.  Recasting the "Rapunzel" tale through the lens of Stephen King's THINNER, whereupon a gypsy curse

creates the ever-growing locks ("I'm going to die of long hair!")

and the resulting depiction of the mangy, matted mop takes a more realistic view of what one's hair would look like if it were twenty feet long and dragged through forest undergrowth.

Also, I forgot to mention that RUTGER HAUER WILL STEP ON YOUR HAIR:

 #14.  Peculiar music choices.  Beating A KNIGHT'S TALE to the punch of anachronistic music in a basically Medieval universe, THE TENTH KINGDOM makes inspired use of the aforementioned "We Will (Shear) You" and the Bee Gee's "Night Fever," as well as even stranger contexts for work like Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (used in a trippy sequence where evil swamp mushroom puppets try to trick our heroes into eating them)

and Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves," performed convincingly and a cappella by John Larroquette.

#15.  All the background details, from the communist propaganda in dwarf mountain, to the Naked Emperor (from "The Emperor's New Clothes") roaming around the ballroom with a regiment of feather-bearing attendants:

to the casual bureaucracy of the fairy-tale universe:

"Questing Permits  Required"

to this, some strange and pointless backdrop bar game, whereupon

a miniature wolf's head pendulum is used to knock down sheep figurines.  It's head-scratching, absurd, and for some reason I love it.  (...Perhaps I could say that about the entire series!)

Four and a half stars.

–Sean Gill