Monday, June 23, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROCK!

Only now does it occur to me...  that I'd ever get to see Mary Woronov try the very concept of Rock N' Roll in a kangaroo courtroom... and win!
Mary just wants to take away your rockin' tunes

And from whom does she want to take those rockin' tunes, you ask?  Try a spazzified-solo dancing Renée Zellweger,
a "too cool for school" Howie Mandel (er, maybe make that "cool enough to actually be at school, if he was still of schooling age" Howie Mandel),
and 90s R&B outfit "For Real" (playing an up-and-coming girl band).

This quasi-prequel to the 70s cult classic ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (steeped heavily in the influence of John Waters' HAIRSPRAY) tells the origin story of Woronov's fuddy-duddy 'Evelyn Togar' and was featured in the "90s does the 50s" series of TV movie sentitled REBEL HIGHWAY (which I more adequately describe here).

Everybody's quite likable, and like a lot of Arkush's output (GET CRAZY, HEARTBEEPS, CADDYSHACK II), it exudes a sense of fun even if it is fairly blockheaded most of the time (it doesn't really matter, though).  

Also of interest, Dick Miller (legendary character actor and Joe Dante/Roger Corman crony) reprises his role from ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL as a gruff but sympathetic cop
I swear, Dick Miller is in everything.

and P.J. Soles (the incomparably cheerful star of ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, CARRIE, and HALLOWEEN ) shows up as a mahjong-cheater and concerned mother from Mary Woronov's friend circle.
P.J. Soles: excited to be here.  Also, missing her hat.

Continuing on with the Rock N' Roll street cred is Gerrit Graham, who notably played "Beef" in Brian de Palma's glam-rock-horror-musical spectacular PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.
Here he plays a nerdy television producer who's all-too-susceptible to the phoned-in complaints of uptight parents.

And I must repeat for those who may not know– the aforementioned Mary Woronov is one of the greatest cult actresses of all time, and a wayward muse for figures as disparate as Andy Warhol and Roger Corman, not to mention the best bud and screen partner of Paul Bartel (together they became the demented 70s and 80s' equivalent of Tracey and Hepburn).
She has a tremendous amount of fun here, banning books in the school library like CATCHER IN THE RYE, INVISIBLE MAN, and THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, and being an all-around stick-in-the-mud– obviously the complete opposite of her natural character.
Speaking of books, I must take a moment to plug hers, because I don't believe I've yet done so:  it's called SWIMMING UNDERGROUND, and it outlines her life experiences upon entering the New York/Warhol scene in the 60s and the many hilarious/terrifying/absurd tales therein.  I highly recommend it, along with her greatest filmic hits, like EATING RAOUL and DEATH RACE 2000.

In closing, this movie's certainly not the best in the world, but if you're at all invested in ROCK N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, the REBEL HIGHWAY series, or simply the abundant use of cult and character actors, you'll find a lot to like here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Film Review: MIDNIGHT RUN (1988, Martin Brest)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 127 minutes.
Tag-line: "Taking the midnight run is a hell of a way to make a living."
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin (BEETHOVEN, ROSEMARY'S BABY), Yaphet Kotto (ALIEN, BLUE COLLAR, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 6: FREDDY'S DEAD), John Ashton (BEVERLY HILLS COP, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL), Dennis Farina (THIEF, MANHUNTER, GET SHORTY), Joe Pantoliano (THE GOONIES, RISKY BUSINESS, BOUND, THE SOPRANOS), Jack Kehoe (THE UNTOUCHABLES, SERPICO), Wendy Phillips (BUGSY, THE WIZARD), Philip Baker Hall (SECRET HONOR, HARD EIGHT), Fran Brill (WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Jim Henson crony and puppeteer and voice of "Prairie Dawn"), Tracey Walter (REPO MAN, BATMAN, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).  Directed by Martin Brest (BEVERLY HILLS COP, SCENT OF A WOMAN).  Written by George Gallo (WISE GUYS, BAD BOYS).   Music by Danny Elfman (BATMAN RETURNS, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS).  Cinematography by Donald E. Thorin (THIEF, TANGO & CASH).
Best One-liner: "Why are you so unpopular with the Chicago police department?"

Let's talk MIDNIGHT RUN– undoubtedly, it's one of the funniest, most artistic, best-written, and best-acted buddy movies of the 1980s, or perhaps ever.  It was recommended to me for years (and most successfully so by J.D.'s terrific writeup over at Radiator Heaven), and I must say it was well worth the "Very Long Wait" it endured in my Netflix queue.  It's a road trip-buddy movie without clichéd characterizations, and each and every role and setpiece feels lived in.  In a year (1988) where one of the most acclaimed films (RAIN MAN) was a cloying and much less successful riff (in my opinion) on the convention, MIDNIGHT RUN has become a kind of sleeper classic, and one that I believe truly stands the test of time.

The plot is simple, but there's a lot of moving parts– consequently, even before we get to the characterizations it's a little more complex than the usual potboiler:  a sleazy bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) unwittingly posts bail for an accountant (Charles Grodin) who has embezzled $15 million from a ferocious mob boss (Dennis Farina).  With mafia assassins after him, Grodin has jumped bail and escaped cross-country, therefore Pantoliano employs a bounty hunter (Robert De Niro) to track him down in the five days he has left before he defaults on the massive bond.  Finding Grodin is only half the battle, however– De Niro must bring him back, alone, and he faces stiff competition from a dirty bounty huntin' rival (John Ashton), a single-minded FBI agent (Yaphet Kotto), the aforementioned mafia assassins,  double-crossin' informants, and even a helicopter.
 In what is possibly the best De Niro vs. Helicopter scene in all of filmdom. 

Whew.  And there's so many shifting allegiances and players, it's practically Shakespearean.  (Or at least GAME OF THRONES-ian.)  And I must say that it roughly does for bail bonds and bounty hunters what REPO MAN did for that occupation; a seedy and offbeat journey across the American underbelly.  I wish they made more films like this.

At the center of all this scheming and law-bending is the relationship between De Niro and Grodin (which, as J.D. astutely points out in his review, builds an atypical comedic relationship with two 'straight' men, eschewing the funny/zany guy), and boy, is it a doozy. 

We watch them (successfully) get on each other's nerves for nearly two hours, usually by petty and/or absurd means,

but something spectacular happens along the way:  it turns into one of the better character studies of the decade.

You expect De Niro, pre-"phoning-it-in era," to be excellent, and he is.  And the way he naturally takes to the comedic role, particularly in his improvisations, is admirable.  At one point, Grodin's character accuses him of having "only two forms of expression: silence and rage."  While this may be true, De Niro gives us each and every color of those respective rainbows– it's like how they say that Eskimos have two hundred different words for snow: De Niro has at least that many ways to express silence and rage!

I must say that this movie transformed my understanding of Charles Grodin.  I suppose I'd become used to thinking of him as "the dad from BEETHOVEN who was in ROSEMARY'S BABY when he was really young," but holy Toledo– the man can ACT!

The choices he makes are spectacular– you know him, and you believe he's real, but you can't fully read him- he's wise, yet high-strung; paranoid, yet zen.  You get the idea that he just might be the smartest guy in the room, but you're unaware of his actual plan; like Michael Emerson's character on LOST but with an air of benevolence instead of menace.  He's always working an angle, and you can see it playing across his face, especially when nobody's looking.

His general demeanor is "disappointed" and nearly uninvolved, but make no mistake, he's heavily invested.  In who or what, I shall not say.

Then there are all these beautiful, understated moments of pathos and verisimilitude that pepper their journey.  De Niro has fleeting reunion with his ex-wife and daughter, and as it happens, we're really witnessing two scenes:  the foreground with De Niro and his daughter, and the background with Grodin and the ex-wife (Wendy Phillips). 

A lot of actors would have stood around while the main action played out, but not in this movie!  The word of the day is "subtlety."  Enrichment without pulling focus.

Shortly thereafter, there's a peculiar, tender moment as De Niro leads Grodin back to the car.  You could say it is a prisoner being led by his captor; you could say it's two opposing forces about to be confined in a single space; you could say it's two human beings compelled into an uncomfortable position because of pressures beyond their control.  No matter what you say, there's a sad dignity in the following, oddly paternal gesture whereupon De Niro repositions Grodin's overcoat so it doesn't get caught in the car door.

And that is the film in a nutshell.  Many movies are simply a collection of scenes, and the makers are interested in getting from point A to B to C.  If a journey by car is required to get from A to B, they'll put on their workgloves and hammer out a segue.  It risks becoming a chore, a time-filler, a necessary evil.  Here, that's not so.  MIDNIGHT RUN breathes life from every pore, it's teeming with an authenticity that cannot be contained.  Slamming a car door becomes an opportunity for character development, enlightenment, truth– not simply an audiovisual cue that we're about to move from one location to another.  This is just one example out of dozens: I can already tell you that this film will reward multiple viewings.

Now, I don't want to give too much away– especially because, as the film progressed, I found myself legitimately not knowing how it was going to end.  Do you realize how rare that is in an 80's buddy/action/crime/comedy?  Such a thing must be savored!

In closing, here are ten bits of my beloved minutiae that I must mention in order to properly sing MIDNIGHT RUN's praises:

#1. Yaphet Kotto.  Hell yes, Yaphet Kotto.  Master of the slow burn.

I've never not loved a scene that starred Yaphet Kotto, from LIVE AND LET DIE to ALIEN to THE RUNNING MAN to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 6: FREDDY'S DEAD.  His big, watery eyes are slow-cookin' with gentlemanly rage. 

He plays it so deadpan, I suppose you could make the argument that he's the true straight man of the piece.  Carry on, Yaphet.

#2.  Danny Elfman's score.  It is the least-Danny Elfmanish Danny Elfman score ever.  It's like honkytonk Ry Cooder meets a Huey Lewis and the News karaoke track.  It's beautiful and terrible both, and it's still stuck in my head.

#3.  Joey Pants.  Mr. Pantoliano himself.

His stash of money in his pink socks, his terrible late 80s patterned shirts, his shit-eating grins, his sweaty combovers, his ratlike countenance– has anyone ever been better suited to play a bailbondsman?  Perhaps not.

#4.  Apparently the studio wanted George Gallo to rewrite the screenplay to accommodate Cher in the Charles Grodin role.  When that didn't work, they were pulling for Robin Williams.  Obviously, given the perfection of Grodin's performance, in either case it would have been a real movie killer.  I just physically shivered.  I don't even want to think about this.

#5.  Philip Baker Hall (SECRET HONOR, BOOGIE NIGHTS, DOGVILLE) as a Las Vegas mob associate named "Sydney."

Fans of P.T. Anderson's HARD EIGHT (aka SYDNEY) will note that he plays a washed-up Las Vegas gambler also named Sydney in that particular film.  I realize that the continuity isn't perfect by any means, but seems like a little more than a coincidence.  I'm just going to pretend it's an official sequel, and don't try to stop me.

#6.  Cult maniac Tracey Walter (REPO MAN, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, CONAN THE DESTROYER, BATMAN '90, RUMBLE FISH, THE HAND) as the proprietor of a greasy spoon diner.

That is his natural habitat, and all is right in the world.

#7.  The "litmus configuration" scene (I will say no more of the specifics) is a mini-masterpiece of actors playing characters who in turn are "acting."  Every element of the scene: the improv, the near crack-ups, the locale, the bystanders– it's perfection. 

I think it even quietly transcends the classic "I hate rednecks" bar scene from 48 HRS., another classic buddy movie moment similarly founded on some harmless flim-flammin'.

#8.  John Ashton.  As an endearingly diabolical rival bounty hunter, John Ashton officially won me over with this movie.  I'd probably seen him in half a dozen other roles (including BEVERLY HILLS COP, BREAKING AWAY, BORDERLINE, and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL)

but only here did I see his acting chops on full display.  You love to hate him, and he never lets up– though he's imbued with a few streaks of pathos that wouldn't usually be afforded to such a character.

#9.  Dennis Farina.  I suppose this movie is ostensibly a comedy, thought I hope I've adequately made the argument that that's not entirely the case.  That fact is never more clear than when we get to sit down and meet Dennis Farina's mobster, up close.  He starts tossing around death threats

and for a moment the movie turns legitimately scary.  I applaud this.

#10.  Another cross-country fugitive road trip movie, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, gets a nice nod when Robert De Niro chases a crop duster– instead of the other way around.

I was speechless when I witnessed that moment, and speechless I shall remain.  
But before I go, let me say:  Five stars... and bravo!

–Sean Gill

Friday, June 13, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... CHILDREN OF THE CORN 7: REVELATION

Only now does it occur to me...  are we really going to talk about CHILDREN OF THE CORN 7: REVELATION?  Yeah, I guess we are.  But not really.  We're really just going to talk about Michael Ironside for a minute, cause it's been a while.

CHILDREN OF THE CORN 7 is kind of like a really bad X-FILES episode that happens to be missing Mulder and Scully.  There are fleeting moments of unintentional humor (usually involving bad dubbing, CGI cornstalks, or stock horror tracks from a music library that was very much overused in the late 90s), but it's not actually worth your time.  So let's get to Ironside.

Ironside plays a weird n' creepy priest who mostly wanders around around, looking mysterious and underpaid as he glowers silently from afar.
 A foggy alleyway makes me wish I was watching HIGHLANDER 2.

He basically fills the nonsensical and vaguely menacing shoes occupied by the "Cult of Thorn" from movies four through six in the HALLOWEEN cycle.  I was beginning to wonder if they'd signed Ironside to a cheaper, "no dialogue" contract until he finally spoke a line an hour and two minutes into the film (twenty minutes from the end). 

What do you suppose that line is?  Something poetic?  Something lyrical?  Something worth the wait?

"They're waiting for Dah-dah."

Nice to see you're using Ironside to his full potential, guys.  However, I do appreciate that they've taken his existing scar (from walking through a plate-glass window, drunk, in the late 70s) and accentuated it.

Anyway, he offers our heroine some communion wine (and, indeed, we sure as hell need a drink)

and is then tasked with sort of explaining the plot of the movie, including some references to the first film and the Big Baddie, the corn god "He Who Walks Behind the Rows."

Then he walks out of the movie after a full six minutes of screentime and about fifteen lines of dialogue.  If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say he was on set for one day; maybe eight to twelve hours.  That's not too bad.  I hope craft services at least offered some decent crudités or something.  (Although based on the content and quality, I wouldn't be surprised if it was... canned creamed corn!)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... PROJECT X

Only now does it occur to me...  that even the presence of two legendary character actors known for playing some of the best assholes of the 80s can't save PROJECT X from the inwardly collapsing force of its own Lite Spielberg schmaltzitude.

The first character actor in question is Jonathan Stark, whose turn as Chris Sarandon's bullying sidekick in FRIGHT NIGHT cemented his status as one of the premiere dicks of the 80s.

Here, he's not all that villainous, per sé, but he's got this high-school bully expression plastered on his face at all times,

one that almost insinuates you're playing right into his hands with every word you say; as if the existence of everyone around him is merely an amusing set-up to a punchline he will eventually deliver.

He also gets bonus points for at one point winking and giving the air gun/'chk-chk' of approval to a chimpanzee.

The second is William Sadler (DIE HARD 2, HARD TO KILL, BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY) who is very disapproving of Matthew Broderick
and generally plays the stereotype of the unfeeling 80s scientist who would rather chase a chimp with a cattle prod than let Helen Hunt snuggle it out and teach it sign language.

William Sadler: over it.

And yeah, that's where the main issue is: this movie is not really about 80s bullies or evil scientists, it's more of a (well-intentioned) pro-animal rights fusion of E.T. and TOP GUN, but with little of the kitsch value that would imply.  I didn't hate it, but even these character actor favorites and an opening song called "Shock the Monkey" by Peter Gabriel couldn't penetrate the self-serious attitude.  Perhaps I'd feel differently if I'd seen this as a kid and not waited till 2014?  Still: nice work, Sadler & Stark!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Film Review: STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991, Nicholas Meyer)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Tag-line: "The battle for peace has begun."
Notable Cast or Crew: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, David Warner (TITANIC, TRON, TIME BANDITS), Kim Cattrall (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, POLICE ACADEMY), Mark Lenard (STAR TREK III, STAR TREK IV), Grace Lee Whitney ("Janice" from the original STAR TREK series), Brock Peters (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, SOYLENT GREEN), Kurtwood Smith (THAT '70S SHOW, ROBOCOP), Christopher Plummer (THE SOUND OF MUSIC, STARCRASH), Christian Slater (KUFFS, TRUE ROMANCE), Iman (David Bowie's wife, HOUSE PARTY 2), Rene Auberjonois (MY BEST FRIEND IS A VAMPIRE, EYES OF LAURA MARS).
Best One-liner:  "To be... OR NOT TO BE!"

STAR TREK VI is the only film in the series that I saw on the big screen, and I hadn't yet seen it again in the intervening twenty-three years... until now.  And it's good!  It's very good.  It's more of a murder mystery/political thriller than a sci-fi film, and timely, too (for 1991), given that its about the ensuing mistrust between two (Cold) warring cultures as they draw back the Iron Curtain and see what happens.

I remember thinking the movie was pretty solid but had no memory as to why, except for a vague remembrance of Captain Kirk being on an ice planet and kicking an alien in the knees, only to discover he'd kicked it in its (alien) nuts.

Now that's the sort of artistic expression worth remembering!

So here are my Fourteen Favorite Things about STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY that I did not fully appreciate as a kid:

#14.  Captain Sulu (George Takei).  He finally got that promotion!

This leads to some great moments where his new ship can team up with the Enterprise and he and Kirk can take turns screaming "Fire!" as they zap the bad guys with space lasers.  Unfortunately, they're on different ships, though, so they can't high-five afterward.

#13.  Janice is back!

Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney)– star of many TREK episodes from the original series, best known for her occasional near-romances with Kirk and her bitchin' beehive hairdo– shows up on Sulu's crew.  It's been a while, Janice, good to see ya!  Who else do they have room for on that zany crew?

#12.  ...Yes, who do they have whose job it is to wake up Sulu in the middle of the night and give him somewhat unnecessary status reports?  Who could it be...?

 Why, Christian Slater, of course!
 Slater, veiled in shadow, in a failed attempt to diminish The Slater Factor.

This, naturally, has nothing to do with the fact that the casting director was his mother, and everything to do with his claim that his Jack Nicholson-style arched eyebrows were the ill-fated result of shaving them to be Spock for Halloween once.

 #11.  Legendary character actor Kurtwood Smith as the "President of the Federation"

complete with wicked Fu Manchu mustache and Wild West sunglasses.  Wait, WHAT?!

#10.  The return of David Warner.  Here, he plays the actual Klingon ambassador, instead of a human associate of the Klingon ambassador, like in Part V.  Weird.
But I can always use some Warner, especially when his acting talents are put to use, lending pathos to a leader of a belligerent race of aliens.  Also, that is an incredible jacket you've got on there, David.  Who got to keep that thing when filming wrapped?  Somewhere, is David Warner at home, lounging in that jacket, listening to– I don't know– an Iron Maiden album?  Inquiring minds want to know.
Anyway, he gives a great toast with Romulan Ale (not to be confused with blue Kool-Aid) where he quotes Shakespeare ("...the undiscover'd country") and then insists that "You haven't experienced Shakespeare until you have read it in the original Klingon," a humorous line that prompted a thousand nerds to pull out their Klingon-English dictionaries and almost causes a Shatner spit-take.
Nobody claims false ownership of the Bard on the Shat's watch!

#9.  Spock's rockin' bachelor pad.

Sure, he doesn't really put it to use, but this is truly a Spock for the 90s, lounging around in a luxurious robe and surrounded by altogether too many candles and silken sheets.  (I'm sure it serves some Vulcan meditative purpose.)  All we need is some sexy saxophone and a 90s babe, like Demi Moore or Madonna or Sharon Stone or Kim Cattrall...

#8. Kim Cattrall?

Well-played, STAR TREK VI.  I like what you've done there, with the Spock-ears and the haircut and the futuristic headband.  And all nerdery aside, she does a pretty good job!

#7.  Poor McCoy (DeForest Kelley).  He gets put through a lot in this movie.  All he ever wanted was a drink.  And not just blue Kool-Aid.

I go back and forth on my favorite STAR TREK characters, but I think the good Doctor might be my favorite, with his curious blend of indefatigable humanism and curmudgeonly fatalism.  Age has only made him more of a badass– and more of a terrific crab. 

#6.  The hilarious globules of purple CGI Klingon blood as the delegation is murdered by the guys from Daft Punk.

This shoulda been in 3-D!

#5.  Sherlock Holmes.

STAR TREK VI being a bit of a murder mystery, the game is soon afoot and Spock takes over, putting on his theoretical deerstalker cap– and even insinuating that the original Holmes is a distant ancestor! 

This is the doing of director/writer Nicholas Meyer, Holmes aficionado and author of three Holmes novels (THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, THE WEST END HORROR, and THE CANARY TRAINER), all of which transcend the trappings of fan-fiction, becoming labyrinthine literary pastiches that are genuinely great novels in their own right.  Good show.

#4.  Shapeshiftin', cigar-chompin' Iman!
High fashion model, David Bowie missus, and cosmetics tycoon Iman shows up on a Klingon Ice Prison-planet as a cell mate of Doctor McCoy and the good Captain Kirk.  It's not long before the latter works his charms on her:

She always did go for those those Major Tom-types.

Although I wish she'd waited to make out with The Shat till she had transformed into him, as depicted in the following, well-acted screen grabs:

I think a Shat-on-Shat makeout 'sesh would have been more to his (ego's) liking, and it might've really pushed this movie over the edge.  A bit of a missed opportunity, there.

#3.  And seriously, when are they going to put seat belts on the Enterprise?


One errant laser and everybody's flying around willy-nilly.  The Bureau of Worker's Comp at Federation Headquarters must have their hands full.

#2.  Shakespeare slummer Christopher Plummer!

Spoilers to follow:

The final space battle is a three-way between George Takei, The Shat, and powermad Klingon-in-pursuit-of-an-acting-paycheck, Christopher Plummer.  What follows is the most insane and spectacular use of Shakespeare quotes as one-liners since Vincent Price in HIS KIND OF WOMAN or THEATER OF BLOOD.

 It's absolutely bananas, and I love it beyond words.  Of course they save the best for last:
 "TO BE...

 "...OR NOT..."

"...TO BE?"


#1.  Because of course it all ends with a slow clap, like in ROCKY IV.  (I feel like I mention ROCKY IV at least once in every review.)  I believe that the slow clap has become the only way to resolve a movie about Cold Wars or diplomatic détante.

 This is truly the 'It's a Small World' of the Star Trek universe.

The Klingons are clearly half-assing their slow clap.

Conversely, those dudes on the far right are kind of overdoing it.

Who the hell are these guys?  Aliens?  Humans with cargo net mesh draped over their hockey masks?

Don't stop clapping.  Don't ever stop. 

In closing, this is a fine send-off for the original cast, and one of the better films in the series.  Four stars.

–Sean Gill

P.S.– I also see that this is the 1,000th post here at Junta Juleil.  I wish I could've done a Carpy or a Bronson or a Van Damme review, but these things just sneak up on you, I guess.  Thanks to all of my readers who have stuck around!