Sunday, August 13, 2023

Only now does it occur to me... DANIELLE STEEL'S FAMILY ALBUM (1994)

Only now does it occur to me... to say a few words about the 1994 NBC miniseries DANIELLE STEEL'S FAMILY ALBUM. I must admit that I sought this out entirely to explore John Waters' role as "Vincent," an appearance so apparently obscure that I could not find a single image to prove the existence of his involvement on the entire internet. Not a one! He mentioned the project by name in a few interviews, but to me, it became one of the most intriguing omissions in his filmography. (Worry not, in the end, I shall provide you with a video of his entire performance.) But first, what even is this thing?

FAMILY ALBUM is adapted from the 1985 Danielle Steel novel of the same name (one of over 140 novels she has written), and it tells the epic, four-decade saga of a 1950s Hollywood actress who decides to break the mold and become a film director. In the process, it basically tells a fictionalized version of the life of Ida Lupino.

Our Lupino stand-in is CHARLIE'S ANGELS' own Jaclyn Smith as "Faye Price":


and her brow-furrowing husband, "Ward Thayer," is played by TWIN PEAKS' own Michael Ontkean:


Honestly, this is all a little better than it should be, though it's still a pretty long three hours and twenty minutes and very indicative of pre-prestige 1990s soapy network "two evening event"-style television.

Where does John Waters fit in? Well, Faye's daughter (played by Leslie Horan) is trying to break into the movies without using any of her mother's connections. She finds an "in" with a horror filmmaker who is sort of a sleazier William Castle/Tobe Hooper/Wes Craven-type making a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON/SWAMP THING-inflected movie in the 1970s. This filmmaker, "Vincent"––surely named for Vincent Price, given who's playing him––is portrayed by John Waters. He spends his single minute of screentime attempting to pressure his leading lady into doing nudity in the picture ("What's the big deal about showing some skin, it's an art film, it could go to Cannes, it's my best work!").

So there you have it. Mystery solved! John Waters in DANIELLE STEEL'S FAMILY ALBUM, ladies and gentlemen:

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Only now does it occur to me... SNIPER (1993)

Only now does it occur to me...  that SNIPER (1993) might be the live action movie with the most sequels (eight, and counting!) of which I had never before seen a single installment (discounting, perhaps, some Republic serials from the '40s or the deepest cuts from the Full Moon catalogue).
Instead of the dopey, straight-to-video-style shoot-em-up I expected, the tone is much more dignified and even has designs of being a moody and artistic "two in the chamber" piece about a morally grey veteran sniper (Tom Berenger––excellent, as usual) who has seen too much death, and his new, underprepared civilian partner.
It's about stolen valor, PTSD, indiscriminate killing, civilian blowback, Herzogian madness, and disastrous foreign policy. In essence, it's trying to be more APOCALYPSE NOW than RAMBO III––a point driven home by Berenger looking with disdain at a bus with a RAMBO III mural on it.
Does it live up to these lofty goals? Well, not exactly. But it's a hell of a lot better than you'd expect. The first five minutes alone are of higher quality than any scene in Clint Eastwood's laughable, fake-baby-wielding Oscar bait, AMERICAN SNIPER (2014).
The film's Peruvian director, Luis Llosa, makes a few off-handed critiques about covert CIA military obtrusions in Central and South America,
mostly by using J.T. Walsh as a glib politico-military operator named "Chester Van Damme" (!), but in the end, the film flattens a bit and sides fully with the snipers who are facing off against nuance-lacking, mustache-twirling Noriega and Escobar-style heavies. 
Slick and stylish cinematography by Bill Butler (JAWS, GREASE, ROCKY IV) and rousing music by Gary Chang (UNDER SIEGE, MIAMI BLUES) & Hans Zimmer (credited as "additional music by") make this seem much more like a prestige project than its budget and theatrical poster ("One shot... one kill... no exceptions") would imply.
To put it in context, it was semi-buried among January 1993 junk like BODY OF EVIDENCE and NOWHERE TO RUN, in a year whose box office headliners would be JURASSIC PARK, CLIFFHANGER, SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, FREE WILLY, and THE FIRM.

But there's one element in particular which really takes this movie over the top. This element is an actor, the one playing Berenger's aforementioned and underprepared partner on this mission––an Olympic sharpshooter who has never been involved in a military operation. Someone whom the Toledo Blade might describe as a... "psycho hunk."

That's right––to my ama-Zane-ment, this movie features meaty roles for both Billy Zane and his  withering gaze. Before THE PHANTOM let us know there was no smoking in the Skull Cave, and before his expressive, Svengali-ish, and immaculately waxed eyebrows let us know who was really the "king of the world" in TITANIC, Billy Zane served bitch from the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

"If looks could kill..."

to the jungles of Panama.

"...You'd be lyin' on the floor"

If you think we don't get an extended scene of Billy Zane carefully applying Max Factor camo makeup to the true stars of this movie, you've got another thing coming.

They must've blown their lace-front wig budget in the opening D.C. scenes, because for the rest of the movie it's all hats and Little Edie headscarves.

"Completely covert?"... except for that eyebrow action, maybe

"I'm scared to death of doors, locks, people roaming around in the background, under the trees, in the bushes, I'm absolutely terrified."  ––"Little Edie" Bouvier Beale in GREY GARDENS

Yep, Billy Zane gonna smolder all over this thing. There's an incredible scene when Tom Berenger calls him out for having designer camouflage called... wait for it...

..."Gucciflage." (What is this, the Berlusconi-produced, Zane-starring, spaghetti soap opera, MILLIONS?)

Anyway. Come for the sniper scope... stay for the Psycho Hunk™lookin' through it?

Thursday, June 15, 2023

R.I.P, Glenda Jackson

One of the greats is gone. A two-time Oscar winner, the fire that fueled several of Ken Russell's greatest films (THE MUSIC LOVERS, WOMEN IN LOVE), host of THE MUPPET SHOW, a member of parliament. I'm so glad I got to see her live as KING LEAR in 2019. It's no exaggeration to say she was one of the most fearless and talented performers of all time.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Only now does it occur to me... SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (1997)

Only now does it occur to me... that they should've named this picture after a phrase which appears on screen about an hour and twenty minutes in:


Yes, despite Jan de Bont's workmanlike direction (you likely know him best as Paul Verhoeven's and John McTiernan's cinematographer), a denouement involving a $25 million setpiece with a cruise ship crashing into Saint Martin ("the most expensive stunt ever filmed"),


 and Willem Dafoe's finest crazyface (throughout),

this thing is the mess that everyone says it is. Witness my disdain by enjoying these screen captures taken from a VHS, which I photographed off of my television set. 

Anyway, SPEED 2 follows two of my ironclad 1990s rules: one of which is It Takes Place on a Boat, and the other being "if it's a SPEED movie, it must star a David Lynch villain as the Big Bad." In this instance, obviously, it's WILD AT HEART's Willem Dafoe gobbling the scenery. He plays a computer hacking leech enthusiast

with a caddy bag full of golf club bombs

and a nefarious plan to throw Bo Svenson overboard, steal some jewels (?), and ram a cruise ship into an oil tanker. When you first lay eyes on the shopping mall aboard this cruise ship, you find yourself rooting for Dafoe.

Anyway, Keanu Reeves has been replaced by Jason Patric (THE LOST BOYS, SOLARBABIES), 

and if Sandra Bullock wasn't in it (seen here wielding a chainsaw in her only moment of agency), you would have no reason to believe this was a SPEED film. The supporting cast is of a shockingly high pedigree: Temuera Morrison (ONCE WERE WARRIORS, THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT)

Please, sir, I beg you, watch ONCE WERE WARRIORS instead

the aforementioned Bo Svenson (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, KILL BILL VOL. 2),  Colleen Camp (CLUE, WAYNE'S WORLD, POLICE ACADEMY 2), Joe Morton (THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, "Miles Dyson" in TERMINATOR 2), Glenn Plummer (SHOWGIRLS, MENACE II SOCIETY), and Kimmy Robertson (Lucy from TWIN PEAKS, LEPRECHAUN 2) as "Liza the Cruise Director."

Which is probably a bizarre enough note to end this on. Anyway. SPEED 2.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Only now does it occur to me... NEXT OF KIN (1989)

Only now does it occur to me... that NEXT OF KIN ('89)––which is not to be confused with Atom Egoyan's debut feature, NEXT OF KIN ('84), an excellent arthouse tract about found family––should just be a run-of-the-mill, direct-to-video hillbilly-sploitation flick starring, at best, a Chuck Norris or a Michael Dudikoff. However, in a spot of brilliant work by a trio of casting directors with an eye for ensemble [Shelley Andreas (MIDNIGHT RUN, CHILD'S PLAY, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF), Jane Alderman (CANDYMAN, THE COLOR OF MONEY), and Mindy Marin (CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, MYSTERY MEN, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE–FALLOUT)], they've assembled a well-rounded troupe who are somehow capable of elevating a film which was surely pitched as a "redneck revenge" thriller.

For starters, the lead is Patrick Swayze, who lends genuine sincerity and sensitivity to a part that's about as well-written as the Chuck Norris role in INVASION USA. As a tuff Chicago cop from a Kentucky holler who dresses like a Wild West lawman and has a mullet which sometimes masquerades as a ponytail, you could say that Swayze must animate a character with "not enough" and "perhaps too much" to work with.

He displays both the pathos of GHOST and the hot-blooded fervency of RED DAWN, as well as a large helping of "dignity-in-the-face-of-kitsch" which he demonstrated so well in ROAD HOUSE (which had come out earlier that year).

This is one of those films which acts as if "hillbillies" are the most persecuted minority in the United States, a quality which certainly elevates its paracinematic value, at the very least.

The "hillbilly wacko" in question is the excellent Ted Levine––"Buffalo Bill" in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS––who decides to turn his single scene into a craft workshop/an audition for the next Sam Shepard play.

Next, we have Helen Hunt playing one of only four named female characters, and the only one to deliver more than three lines. She plays Swayze's refined, concert violinist girlfriend, a sitcom-style development which is never properly mined for its inherent highbrow vs. lowbrow comedy value.

Her character only really exists to be threatened by mobsters and therefore unleash Swayze's ire, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Nonetheless, she does an excellent job with the material, considering, and gets to work alongside her eventual TWISTER costar...

Bill Paxton!

Paxton plays Swayze's little brother, another Kentucky transplant living in the big city. He's not in the movie for very long, since his murder (at the hands of mobsters) is the inciting incident of the movie. He does that likably nutty "Paxton thing" and the bulk of his performance is contained in a scene wherein he discusses rap music with a black co-worker. 

Truly a moment for the annals of film history. The mobsters in question are also well cast––

On the left is baby Ben Stiller as the Don's nerdy son who is dragged along for the murderous ride. In the center is Andreas Katsulas (THE FUGITIVE, EXECUTIVE DECISION) who plays the Don. On the right is Adam Baldwin (FIREFLY, "Animal Mother" in FULL METAL JACKET), who plays a gleefully murderous psychopath and the principal villain of the picture. Sorta strange to see Stiller in the 1980s, and in a serious role,

but he gives it the proper "rich kid twerpitude" as well as some degree of childish vulnerability.

Paxton's murder brings the third brother, "Briar," to town, the eldest, who never forsook his Kentucky identity and is only coming to Chicago for revenge purposes. It's Liam Neeson!

He brings the proper gravity and badassery, but boy, he can't seem to lose that Irish accent.

Being as this predates even DARKMAN, this feels like the ur-Badass role which has defined the latter-half of Neeson's career. There's a great scene where, in order to intimidate some mobsters, he shoots up a bunch of pinball machines.


Check out Gorgar, over there 


BONNIE AND CLYDE's Michael J. Pollard shows up in a weirdly delicate performance as a "flophouse owner sympathetic to Neeson's cause."

This is the sort of thing you really don't expect in a movie like this. He pounds a lot of Old Styles, too, which reminds us again that this film is set in Chicago, like every other '80s movie.

Anyway, the whole thing ends with a Swayze vs. Mobsters showdown in a graveyard where Swayze wields a bow and arrow like he's John Rambo.

In all, this is way more watchable than it has any right to be, and due to the nature of its success, I can't think of anyone to thank beyond the casting directors. So... thanks!