Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Television Review: WHO AM I THIS TIME? (1982, Jonathan Demme)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 53 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Christopher Walken, Susan Sarandon, Robert Ridgely (BOOGIE NIGHTS, EYES OF LAURA MARS), Dorothy Patterson (FRANKENSTEIN GENERAL HOSPITAL, SOAPDISH), Les Podewell (CODE OF SILENCE, GROUNDHOG DAY), Aaron Freeman (TEACHERS, IN THE SHADOW OF A KILLER). Music by John Cale (of the Velvet Underground). Based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and adapted by Neal Miller (THE ROOMMATE, RAISING FLAGG).
Best one-liner: "Uh, excuse me, have you, uh, have you ever... acted?"

Originally presented as an episode of the AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE series on PBS, WHO AM I THIS TIME? is based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut and directed by Jonathan Demme, whose work was beginning to diverge from his Corman-sploitation roots and was moving toward rustic, Americana-style character studies (MELVIN AND HOWARD, HANDLE WITH CARE). Focusing on the actors in a community theater troupe, the film fleshes out the creepy dynamics of these small-town milquetoasts and their insane on-stage alter egos- in particular, the insane on-stage alter egos of one Mr. Christopher Walken.

Demme presents the community theater realm with the mockery (and empathy) of someone who's lived it- from the alternatingly bored and tear-soaked audiences:

to overuse of the word "thespian" to the director- vastly impressed with him or herself- who mouths lines along with the actors from offstage:

to that one spear-carrier who's supposed to remain firmly in the background, but he JUST... WANTS... TO EMOTE!!! Yeah...I've been there, too.

Note the acting of the background priest as Walken's Cyrano tears up the stage.

Walken plays a socially inept dormouse...

...who happens to deliver fearless, unhinged, Keitel-style performances for the local stage. Susan Sarandon is a similarly timid traveling employee for the phone company. Haphazardly flung into the thick of 'acting,' Sarandon's "Stella" has a tremendous connection with Walken's "Stanley" (Yup...they do STREETCAR), but what will be become of their "relationship" after the play ends? Well, the answer to that question will likely bring a smile to your lips and possibly come across as a bit corny, but trust me, if you really start to think about it, it carries an undertone of almost existential terror.

Regardless, my favorite scene in this involves an extremely vigorous STREETCAR audition in the elementary school library. Walken and Sarandon feed off of each other's commitment, and the audition becomes progressively deranged as scripts are flung, the crazy gets turned up to 11, and Walken heaves one of those ubiquitous 60's-style children's chairs into a bookcase.

It's great. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Film Review: TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "Every year young people disappear..."
Notable Cast or Crew: Chuck Connors (FLIPPER, Lucas McCain on 5 seasons of THE RIFLEMAN), Tanya Roberts (FINGERS, THE BEASTMASTER, the title character in SHEENA, QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE), Jocelyn Jones (THE ENFORCER, THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE), Jon Van Ness (THE HITCHER, THE NATURAL), Robin Sherwood (DEATH WISH II, BLOW OUT), Dawn Jeffory (MOMMIE DEAREST, WHITE LINE FEVER). One of the producers is the one and only Charles Band (Full Moon Pictures).
Best one-liner: "Mr. Slausen, can I use your phone?" –"Oh sure, help yourself... but it doesn't work. I got nobody to call."

When you hear the name 'Charles Band,' you might smirk, scoff, roll your eyes– you might even groan. Then again, you might pump your fist and holler about how 'SUBSPECIES rules' or 'TRANCERS is the bomb' or something to that effect. Well regardless of where you fall on the Charles Band spectrum, or even on that of Compass International Pictures, TOURIST TRAP will surprise you. I still don't know quite what to make of it. I know that I loved it, and I know that it was goddamned terrifying. And you should know that Band's involvement here by no means defines this peculiar, shadowy, trancelike film- for better or worse.

Helmed by C-grade horror director David Schmoeller (PUPPET MASTER, CRAWLSPACE, THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU) and co-written by Schmoeller and J. Larry Carroll (who went on to write for SHE-RA, DENNIS THE MENACE, THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW, and other such celebrated examples of American Saturday morning television), your expectations might (rightfully) be pretty low. What is it that elevates this flick from 'boondocks slasher' rip-off to a quiet masterpiece of 70's horror? How about a crew defined by a dedication to genuine- and sometimes avant-garde- artistry? Check it out: TOURIST TRAP possesses ethereal, soft-focus visuals courtesy of Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (DISCO 9000, GAS PUMP GIRLS), son of- yup, Josef von Sternberg; an eerie, unsettling Italian soundtrack full of echoey wailing and offbeat woodblock/slide whistle/ominous harpsicord curiosities courtesy of Pino Donaggio (DON'T LOOK NOW, TRAUMA, PIRANHA, countless Brian de Palma flicks); and mesmerizing, mood-fitting editing by future director Ted Nicolaou (TERRORVISION, LEAPIN' LEPRECHAUNS). All of this might sound silly on the page, but, trust me, when it all comes together, it's truly special. Oh, and did I mention that this movie is all about–




A Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, has a theory about this. His "uncanny valley" hypothesis puts forth the idea that humans inherently 'like' inanimate objects which imitate human behavior... to a point. The "uncanny valley" in question is the statistical drop-off which occurs as soon as they become a bit too human. We don't like our inanimate objects getting too faithful in their representations. A stuffed animal is fine. Robby the Robot is fine. A stuffed animal with eyes that follow you around the room is NOT fine. A Robot with clammy, lifelike flesh is similarly NOT fine. MANNEQUINS ARE NOT FINE. Sure, they're fine in a shop-window. They're fine in MANNEQUIN 2: ON THE MOVE. They are NOT fine A. in your home, B. in a creepy motel, C. giggling like banshees, D. ambulatory, E. applying plaster to your face until the fear of suffocation makes your heart explode inside your body; et al.

Acceptable portrayal of a mannequin.

Unacceptable portrayals of mannequins.

Let's move on to something else. Let's talk about Chuck Connors. 'All-American Chas.' 'Down-home Chucky.' THE RIFLEMAN.

He's just tryin' to eke out a living in his little neck of the woods. Sure, it might involve a macabre museum of animatronics that'd make Dr. Phibes' hair curl and a possible telekinetic brother named Davey, but, hey!

It's the Rifleman! You remember the Rifleman, right? Sure you do. The Rifleman is a stand-up guy with a square jaw and a modified Winchester carbine that he used to serve up heaping spoonfuls of justice to battalions of degenerates and he voted for Nixon and he played baseball and basketball and defended the innocent, and, in a strange turn of events even befriended Leonid Brezhnev.

But is he your garden-variety backwoods psycho or is he just a sweet old dude caught up in some sinister shit? Well, I'm not going to say any more about that, but Chuck reaches deep down and reveals that he's not just a one-trick (rugged father-figure) pony. He gets a chance to do a little bit of everything in TOURIST TRAP, and I've got to say that every bit of it is terrific.

Our stranded twenty-somethings are not nearly as boring as they would become just a few FRIDAY THE 13THs later, and the parts are likable, compelling, and, for the most part, well-acted.

Jocelyn Jones- she's the PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK happening there on the right- bears the brunt of the duties, and she accepts it, willingly, and with bug-eyed, ear-splitting élan.

In fact, now that I've unwittingly mentioned PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, I've got to say that it fits, and somehow now leads me to a figure skating analogy, too, so look the hell out:

TOURIST TRAP attempts a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE/PSYCHO double axel, but, once in the air, loops and transmogrifies like a great, fearsome bird and lands a perfect PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK/DON'T LOOK NOW/TWILIGHT ZONE triple lutz which elicits unexpected head-nods, hearty applause, and a standing ovation from the largely terrified crowd, who must now attend counseling for posttraumatic stress disorder- for the rest of their lives. Four and a half stars.


-Sean Gill

6. BLIND FURY (1989, Philip Noyce)
7. HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951, John Farrow)
8. HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (1983, Rod Amateau)
9. DR. JEKYLL AND MS. HYDE (1995, David Price)
11. 1990: BRONX WARRIORS (1982, Enzo G. Castellari)
12. FALLING DOWN (1993, Joel Schumacher)
13. TOURIST TRAP (1979, David Schmoeller)
14. ...

Monday, June 28, 2010

Film Review: MR. NORTH (1988, Danny Huston)

Stars: 2.8 of 5.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Tag-line: "Some say he's a miracle man. Some say he's a fraud. You are about to meet a most unusual young man."
Notable Cast or Crew: Anthony Edwards, Robert Mitchum, Harry Dean Stanton, Lauren Bacall, Virginia Madsen, Mary Stuart Masterson, Anjelica Huston, David Warner, Tammy Grimes, Christopher Durang. Based on the novel by Thorton Wilder. Screenplay by John Huston, Janet Roach (PRIZZI'S HONOR), and James Costigan (THE HUNGER).
Best one-liner: "Madam, I suggest that you encourage your children to play with matches!"

Those looking for some lost, latter-day John Huston masterpiece in MR. NORTH will likely be disappointed. Co-written and co-produced by Huston, essentially from his (characteristically active) deathbed, it is based on the 1973 novel THEOPHILUS NORTH by Thorton Wilder and directed by John's then-twenty-six year old son, Danny (who had cut his teeth already directing a few projects for television, a 'making-of' piece on SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE, and the main title sequence for UNDER THE VOLCANO). Equal parts Gatsby, Walter Mitty, and classic picaresque, the film is pleasant, evocative, atmospheric, and has a jaw-droppingly impressive ensemble cast, but ultimately, it's a hollow lark, good for a few gentle thrills on a summer's day, but little else.

As our young Ivy-League grad, odd-job seeking wayfarer with a propensity toward a heightened electrical charge, Anthony Edwards is very likable as Mr. North, and he imbues the role with genuine innocence (and the occasional mischievous flair). He is currently seeking employment as a 'reader,' having just "shockingly" extricated himself from a position as a reciter of ALICE IN WONDERLAND for some positively demonic blue-blooded kiddies.

Anthony Edwards zaps the shit out of this little shrew-in-training.

Soon afterward, he finds himself in Newport, Rhode Island (of 1926), a community of such starchy affluence, that phrases like "This does not concern you, Persis Bosworth Tennyson!" are being bandied about with little context and no restraint. A crooked doctor (the omnipresent David Warner) has deals with slippery little heirs and heiresses to keep loved ones near death, so that the inheritances reach their sweaty palms with greater expedience. The women have problems with love, chronic headaches, and other such vexations. What do you suppose the odds are that Mr. North is about to turn this down upside-down? And what are the odds that said turning of said town upside-down will result in a whacky but not altogether unpleasant courtroom scene, replete with the murmur of shocked onlookers who whisper "rhubarb rhubarb, rhubarb?" Well the odds are very high, because it does happen.

David Warner makes some outrageous, villainous accusations which draw the ire of the crowd because they're directed at that lovable wanderer, Mr. North, the man who dared to turn this town upside-down.

Despite any directorial or cliché-based shortcomings, however, MR. NORTH remains infinitely watchable because of the insane, legendary, eclectic ensemble cast. As a terminally ill pillar of the community whose life is turned upside-down by Mr. North, we have BOB MITCHUM. Originally, John Huston himself was set to play the role, but his declining health prohibited him from seeing it through. Bob Mitchum, a friend and colleague (HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON) of whom Huston always spoke quite highly, stepped in. Now of all the things that could make Mitchum give a shit, I'd say that filling in for a moribund John Huston would certainly be one of them. Look at him:

It's not a flashy role, or a badass one. It's an old man receiving a new lease on life. It requires sincerity. And Mitchum delivers. Although at one point, I think I caught him peering up at a chandelier, imagining that the swaying crystal adornments were, in fact, tiny bottles of gin calling his name.

"Robbbbbbert. Robbbbbbbertttttt. Drinnnnnnk us."

We've also got Anjelica Huston in a brief, nearly wordless role as Mitchum's daughter. She hovers around the edges of the frame- on horseback or from a balcony, silently signaling her approval of Mr. North's upside-down-turning ways. Could a romance be in the works? I don't want to give anything away.

Horseback riding is a Huston family tradition.

Then, Harry Dean Stanton plays a Cockney pool shark who manages a servants' boarding house for its owner, Lauren Bacall. He quickly becomes buddies with Mr. North and reveals his secret- he's actually from Chicago and the British accent is a carefully chosen affectation. He uses this as a springboard for a universal truth: if you dress something up just right, blockheaded rich people will pay outrageous prices for it and clamour for more. I.e., Sally's chowder goes for 10 cents a bowl at the soup cart, but dress it with a "frog name" (bouillabaisse) and you can peddle it for 5 bucks a cup a the country club.

Stanton's solid, as always, and he's got a great dynamic with his boss (Bacall), who's a sternly likable, good-hearted spitfire who plays cards with the guys– a fact which is of particular note, because John Huston himself (an accomplished gambler) was vocal about his history of forbidding women to play cards with him. His reasoning was that, psychologically, he couldn't be an all-out, cold-blooded contender if he went up against a lady. Something tells me that he wouldn't have had to pull his punches around Bacall...

Bacall doesn't even know what it means to 'pull your punches.' She probably thinks it means PUNCH HARDER.

There's also solid supporting roles by the likes of Virginia Madsen (to whom Danny Huston was married from 1989-1992), Mary Stewart Masterson, Tammy Grimes, and Christopher Durang.

I would like to mention that while MR. NORTH is short on originality, satisfying dramatic payoffs, and narrative momentum, it's very rich in tone. 1926 Newport is well developed, the costumes (Rita Riggs) and production design (Eugene Lee) are spot-on, and the visuals well-conjure, say, the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald. (I'm sure they conjure Thorton Wilder, too, but I've never read THEOPHILUS NORTH.)

In the end, I enjoyed MR. NORTH- with reservations. With a cast this talented, and visuals this pleasingly evocative, one could certainly do worse, but it lacks the actual touch of the master- a touch that was still as sharp in the 80's films which he directed (UNDER THE VOLCANO, PRIZZI'S HONOR, THE DEAD, et al.) as it had ever been. Danny Huston does not duplicate this touch, although, as I said before, he's made a fine enough movie for a lazy summer day. Allllmost three stars.

-Sean Gill

Friday, June 25, 2010

Film Review: TEACHERS (1984, Arthur Hiller)

Stars: 3.9 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
Tag-line: "They fall asleep in class. Throw ink on each other. Never come in Mondays. And they're just the teachers."
Best one-liner: "Is that student bleeding?" –"Yes, we're taking care of it."

In short, TEACHERS is an 80's retread of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE which toes that fine line between contrived schmaltz and sincere grittiness- and somehow it emerges from it practically unscathed. Surprisingly, it never plays the 'over the top' or 'action movie' cards (i.e., favorites like CLASS OF 1984, THE PRINCIPAL, THE SUBSTITUTE), and remains refreshingly realistic for (the majority of) its duration. It's no stranger to the occasional groan-mustering line of dialogue ("There's nothing worse than a female lawyer with a cause." –"Except a male teacher without one."), but the general thrust- which is that of Nick Nolte 'getting through' to his students- is a solid one, and one which Nolte and director Arthur Hiller (THE HOSPITAL, THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH) manage to sell you, nearly 100%.

Filmed in the delightful metropolis of Columbus, Ohio in the dead of one of those spirit-splintering, soul-crushing, perpetually overcast Midwestern winters, TEACHERS certainly sets a tone.

Life is shitty, and then you have a job as a teacher. John F. Kennedy High School exists as thinly organized bedlam of hustle, bustle, and bunkum. Student-on-student violence, teacher-on-teacher incivility, student-teacher affairs, lawsuits, disarray, general impudence, foolishness, and antisocial behavior. The eye of this storm is Nolte, as Alex Jurel, a popular teacher and the exception to the rule. He lately awakens to a sea of Miller High Life cans and an angry call from a school administrator– Mondays are not a thing that Mr. Nolte 'does.'

His hair is well-feathered and his demeanor is not unlike the pads on a lion's paw: gentle, even-tempered, and soothing– but with a roar, clout, and fearsome teeth to back it up should he (or his students) be trodden upon. He's no stranger to showing up to work with a hangover, complete with sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt (which recall a certain mug shot),

and instructing his students not always in traditional subjects, but perhaps the art of radiator repair. And it should be mentioned that said hangover was likely the result of an evening of heavy drinking and tortured self-reflection ("Am I making a difference? Does teaching matter?").

Regardless, the higher-ups don't take very kindly to free-thinkers, especially when there's a lawsuit lurking in the shadows, and it would appear that this diligent teach's days are numbered. But, as usual, I'd prefer not to delve too deeply into the plot when there's a smorgasbord of intriguing characters and eclectic actors to explore:

JoBeth Williams (initially as Nolte's foil, and later as his champion) plays an ex-student of Nolte's now working for the legal team that's suing the school.

She's not quite as well-directed or as relatable as she is in, say, POLTERGEIST, but it's a solid, honest performance. Amongst the other 'adults,' Morgan Freeman has an early, skeezy role as a school defense lawyer;

Royal Dano plays a crusty, hard-of-hearing, old-school educator; Judd Hirsch is a beleaguered administrator who must weigh school policy against personal friendship; and Richard Mulligan nearly steals the show as a mental ward escapee who stumbles into a substitute teaching position. His classroom plays out like some kind of historical theater of the absurd, replete with extravagant costumes and excitable reenactments, and the students are so goddamned appalled, that they have no choice but to love it.

When the men in white suits finally catch up with him (as he's teaching a unit on Custer's last stand) and he makes that final perp walk down the school's hushed hallways, Mulligan is so connected to the role and exuding such unfettered dignity that the scene, which could have easily been played as slapstick, takes on an extraordinary gravity.

It's fantastic.

The student body is represented by an incredible swath of young talent. Ralph Macchio plays a tuff kid with double-popped collars, a frequent fedora, and a real bad attitude. No one could get through to him- or maybe no one ever tried.

And there's something marvelous in the fact that he doesn't quite look old enough to 'play' high school, yet he's fucking twenty-three years old.

As Macchio's buddy, Crispin Glover dives into his role with deranged panache. Banging his head against lockers, biting the hand that teaches,

partaking the ecstasy of stealing a 'Student Driver' car,

"Have we got balls or what! This is fucking great!"

suffering the pain of living- all of these things play across his face, effortlessly. He's nearly on the verge of tears in every scene, and you're right there with him. It's interesting to consider that here (in a hard-hitting drama) and in HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. (a TV movie-comedy from the previous year), he does two riffs on the same 'whacky' style of character, but with profoundly different contexts (and outcomes).

Laura Dern is a lively young lady whose affair with the bear-ish gym teacher leaves her... damaged, and with some difficult choices to make.

Nolte is there to help her make them, and her scenes, however brief, are some of the best in the film. Rounding it out is the enjoyable pompous Anthony Heald in an early bit part as a narc masquerading as a student.

Glover fingers the narc.

The soundtrack's kinda ridiculous, and by that I suppose I mean 'endearing.' The purposefully drab visuals are accompanied by all manner of 80's synth-pop and arena rock, ranging from Ian Hunter to Freddie Mercury to ZZ Top to Bob Seger to .38 Special. And furthermore, there was clearly a conscious effort to make sure that nearly every song had "Teacher" in the title: i.e., "Teacher Teacher," "(I'm the) Teacher," et al. Needless to say, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I don't know if I should be relieved or disappointed that Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" did not make the cut.

In the end, TEACHERS questions whether or not 'the system' works, and whether it's designed expressly to prod and manhandle as many faceless students through its whirling gears as quickly as possible. It asks, 'How do I make a difference?,' a question that, in a 1984 context, doesn't sound as corny as it does today. And why does it sound corny today? Is it the realm of cliché, or the realization that it's a Sisyphean task? That being said, it does end on a freeze frame. Nonetheless, a solid entry into the genre, and almost four stars.

-Sean Gill