Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2017 in the 80s

American Gigolo - Paul Schrader - What the fuck were we always talking about and why wasn't it American Gigolo? How the hell did I manage to grow this old without one of my supposed friends sitting me down and making me watch this one? Consider yourself on notice. All of you. This is a stone cold masterpiece. And I do mean cold. It's chilly and chilling - works as a cool counterpoint to Schrader's sex work scorcher Hardcore as well as the ice to Richard Gere's fiery sexpot remake of Breathless. In fact I think this is really the first chapter in a Schrader vice trilogy with Light Sleeper and The Walker.

Angel Heart - Alan Parker - Mickey Rourke turns in a great performance that begins blithe and amused good looking and descends into angry and confused and scared shitless before the bottom really drops out. I'm a huge fucking fan of this movie, but regardless how you feel about the way this one goes I don't think there's any arguing with the emotional honesty in Rourke's climactic scenes. Dude was a serious powerhouse talent and pissed a lot of potential away. Thankfully some good ones squeaked through (and hopefully we get a couple more surprises). Based on William Hjortsberg's novel Fallen Angel.

Black Widow - Bob Rafelson - Rafelson has made a handful of really terrific films and I dig Theresa Russell and Debra Winger is not hard to watch, but damned if I can remember a single detail of the plot, an intriguing note in the tone, or a scene from this one. I'm guessing that's not a good sign.

Blade Runner - Ridley Scott - Revisited this one after catching the sequel at the movie house this fall. I don't blame anybody who doesn't dig this flick - it's slow, it's not entirely consistent with its own logic and its reputation is so large it's understandably off-putting for folks who would maybe think it was just okay. For me it was so formative it's hard to imagine what my sensibilities may have become without it. It hasn't dimmed a bit and for the record the sequel is super good too.

Blow Out - Brian DePalma - Prime De Palma and a good example of treatments of all of his obsessions including um, obsession, beauty in artifice and its construction, conspiracy and voyeurism made with all his favorite tools in his impressive bag of tricks - split screens, tracking shots, intricate sound design and gorgeous composition.

Body Heat - Lawrence Kasdan - Married people doing dirt to their spouses is just a rich vein to mine for keeping-Jed's-attention fare. That and... doing dirt to your siblings, parents or neighbors too, but yeah, gimme a plot about a husband or wife wanting to knock off their (usually) better half and you've bought my attention and goodwill. This riff on Double Indemnity about a horndog insurance man sniffing around a rich wanna-be widow is so so great. If you've never seen it, remedy that condition.

Breathless - Jim McBride - Yes, I've subsequently seen Jean-Luc Godard's original more times than this remake, but before I knew anything about a new wave in France I knew what tits were and I had some ideas (they turned out to mostly be wrong) about what sex was and holy crap whenever this thing was on broadcast TV (which seemed to be all the time during my formative years in Denver) I made an effort to tune in because hoo-ee baby was it sexy. Pleased as hell to say that this first time in twenty-five years revisit holds up splendidly thanks to the high-pulp energy and the go-for-broke performance from Richard Gere. Valérie Kaprisky may not be a great English language actor, but between this and Robert Fuest's Aphrodite she sure spent a lot of time talking to me.

Brubaker - Stuart Rosenberg - Those undercover boss shows where some rich person gets hired on as an anonymous entry-level employee to get a feel for what the commoners experience of their creation are gonna seem even more toothless after you watch this film based on a true-crime book about the new warden at an Arkansas prison who goes undercover in gen-pop to root out the source of his new corruption-rotted charge. Super cast includes Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Yaphet Kotto, M. Emmett Walsh, Joe Spinell, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Jane Alexander, Everett McGill, Roy Poole and Wilford Brimley.

Le Choc - Robin Davis, Alain Delon - The combination of Delon, Deneuve and  Jean-Patrick Manchette source material is too rich to pass up and while it's not nearly as memorable or singular an experience as a movie as the novel The Prone Gunman is to read (zero-percent interior character - all action) it's still a fun international man of mystery pulp entertainment (one of three Manchette projects Delon was part of along with For a Cop's Hide and Three Men to Destroy and one of two for Deneuve who also appeared in L’agression). Very much looking forward to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Let the Corpses Tan in 2018.

Cop - James B. Harris - Was there ever an actor better suited to portray a James Ellroy cop than James Woods? I dunno. I was awfully disappointed we didn't get the chance to see Nick Nolte give it a go in an adaptation of White Jazz, (though we did get to see him riff on Ellroy fare in Mulholland Falls - supposedly getting so close to ripping the Demon Dog off that he had to call him up and ask for permission) but I'd say Woods is the most natural selection we've actually seen to date. Believable asshole? Check. Believable tough guy? Check. Capably Charming? Yup. Believable and even sympathetic right-wing nut-job? Who else but Woods could do that so well? The source novel Blood on the Moon was the first in Ellroy's Lloyd Hopkins series and while they contained many of what would become classic Ellroy tropes - gruesome slayings of women, fathers of daughters, corrupt-chemically-altered-pussy-hound-oedipally-obsessed-fascists-with-badges we hate to love - in retrospect, they were kid-gloves takes on themes more satisfactorily explored in The L.A. Quartet and Undworld U.S.A. Trilogy. And perhaps that's why Cop still holds up as one of the better Ellroy-inspired films (it's comparably slight origin material). In the end it's just another slasher vs. cop flick, but it's got that sharper edge of the truly questionable and possibly psychotic cop protagonist as opposed to the simply maverick type that tend to populate this kind of populist fare going for it, plus the terrific Woods who elevates all material he touches.

Crusing - William Friedkin - Al Pacino plays a young cop going undercover in NYC's gay S&M underground to find a killer stalking men from the community. I come back to this one every few years and it's always an intense experience. It's not a major plot point, but the assignment presents a certain challenge to Pacino's heterosexual character and it's exactly the type of dilemma I keep looking for in spy and undercover escapist stuff - I keep looking for James Bond to have to seduce a dude - see how that sits with audiences. If you're paying close attention you'll notice little touches like different actors playing 'the killer' in different scenes that add to the dilemma and hesitation of pulling the trigger in that kind of police work. Under-appreciated Friedkin picture.

Disorganized Crime - Jim Kouf - For some dumb reason this story of ineptitude on either side of the law tickled the hell out of my teenaged funny bone and I spent decades wondering why it wasn't better received. Caught up with it this year and it became clear - not particularly grievous, but nothing to make it stick in your memory. Cast includes Lou Diamond Phillips,  Hoyt Axton, Corbin Bernsen, Rubén Blades, Ed O'Neill, Fred Gwynne, Dean Norris and Daniel Roebuck.

The Empty Beach - Chris Thomson - Pretty terrific private-eye flick with Bryan Brown holding center frame. Based on a novel by Peter Corris - nothing revolutionary about it, but as good PI fare will do, represents its time and place (mid 80s Sydney, Australia). Bummed that there isn't a bottomless pit of Bryan Brown vehicles to re-discover.

Eyewitness - Peter Yates - William Hurt plays a man making a play for the attention of the attractive TV reporter (Sigourney Weaver) he's got a crush on when he claims to have witnessed a murder. As much as I enjoy Weaver and even Hurt here it's not enough to keep the majority of the run time from being a slog.

Fear City - Abel Ferrara - Tom Berenger and Jack Scalia are talent managers for NYC strippers and when a killer begins preying on sex workers they take it upon themselves to stop him before he costs them too much money or crusader cop Billy Dee Williams busts their balls completely. This is sleazy grindhouse material, but glitzy and star-studded enough to keep it visible. If you're in the mood for it there's probably little better to scratch that itch - lurid location shooting, neon-drenched grime and soooo much exposed flesh it gives anything on Cinemax a run for its reputation. Melanie Griffith, bless her, stars as does Rae Dawn Chong as performers and potential prey.

48 Hours - Walter Hill - Has anybody ever called Hill the bromantic action comedy genre's Nora Ephron? Between the 48 Hours flicks, Red Heat, Hickey & Boggs and Bullet to the Head (okay those last two aren't comedies, but have humor and similar relational dynamics - you know what I mean) he may deserve that kind of moniker.

Frantic - Roman Polanski - Harrison Ford and Betty Buckley are the kind of rich, educated, sophisticated American couple for whom a trip to Paris where he'll be speaking at a conference and they'll be staying in fancy digs seems more like a drag of an obligation than anything to particularly look forward to. We spend a convincing few minutes getting settled into their jet lag before Ford falls asleep and wakes to find his wife's gone to deal with a luggage mix up and never returned. As the hours pass hotel security and the police don't seem nearly as alarmed as the the good doctor, suggesting that she's probably having an affair and he should take it in stride, and he begins to realize it's down to him to find her. For a classic mistaken identity in exotic locale Hitchcokian set up this one eschews glamour in favor of dogged desperation and there's never a moment of sexual intrigue even after Emmuanuel Seigner's sexpot character becomes and integral part of the plot... I'm not sure how that works either because it doesn't feel like a send-up of genre tropes, but instead a decision to ground a fantasy scenario in a coat of realism that undercuts a lot of the pleasures of its type of fare. A competent suspense picture without much flare and one hilariously, intentionally (but is it that intentionally?) awkward square-middle-aged-dude-trying-to-fit-in-at-a-disco scene to recommend it.

Heaven's Gate - Michael Cimino - It's easy to see why audiences didn't flock to spend their moneys on this legendary colossal flop - it's a long, un-glamourous, never really heroic, depressing drama about big money trumping poor people's lives inspired by Wyoming's Johnson County War, but goodness gracious is it a sweeping and moving epic. Maybe lose ten or fifteen minutes off the beginning and just start with Christopher Walken murdering people to make it a little more audience friendly, but me, I have no complaints. Great cast includes Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterson, John Hurt, Brad Dourif, Geoffrey Lewis, Terry O'Quinn, Tom Noonan and Mickey Rourke - plus squint to spot T-Bone Burnett playing in the band.
An Innocent Man - Peter Yates - Tom Selleck plays a good dude everyman who happens to land on the badder side of a couple of crooked cops who set him up for a long stretch in prison. Inside he's mentored by F. Murray Abraham and learns to survive with some kind of stubborn streak of middle class morality and lives to go about squaring accounts with everybody after serving his time. It's the kind of far-fetched, self-serious, self-righteous excuse for the average joe to get violent flick set to a smooth-jazz saxophone soundtrack that is best immediately forgotten and disappearing into history because time will not be kind to it. Unfortunately it's from the same director as Robbery, Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, so some nerd is always going to be digging it up and letting it stink up the joint for a couple of disappointing hours.

The January Man - Pat O'Connor - In some alternate dimension Kevin Kline got to be a leading man of a legit hardboiled crime flick or two, and I, for one, would like to spend some time there 'cause I bet those are dope. Instead we have to make do with this uneven romantic, comedic, serial killer thriller whose competing elements consistently undercut the effectiveness of the others. A lot of near misses around this period in Kline's immediately post A Fish Called Wanda career. Really wish he'd found some better projects to capitalize on his significant appeal and talent.

Kansas - David Stevens - Andrew McCarthy makes the mistake of inviting Matt Dillon's drifter thief home for a meal when their paths cross hitchhiking America's backroads. The two become friends briefly as Dillon's lifestyle seems romantic to McCarthy's stifled rural middle class existence, but soon he's happy to go back to the safe and familiar as danger and darkness escalate quickly in Dillon's wake. Could've been decent, but something lacking in the conception or execution keep it from ever really igniting. An early indication though of Dillon's taste for projects being in a good vein. He's made a lot of quality small-budget crime flicks.

Killing Time - Rich King - The small town psycho cop is a sub-genre near and dear to my heart. This one is not one of the forgotten classic I was hoping for though. Unless you're keen to learn what a Beau Bridges erotic thriller may have looked like there's nothing particular to recommend digging it up.

Johnny Handsome - Walter Hill - High pulp robbery, revenge and plastic surgery makeover tastiness from Hill and company. It's not going to be anybody's favorite among his pictures, but the cast - especially Lance Henriksen and Ellen Barkin make the most of their screen time. I never hate myself for revisiting.

Manhunter - Michael Mann - The FBI serial killer profiler has become such a constant super-hero presence in popular culture it's hard to get excited about them any more. Every once in a while a fresh angle on the material comes along or a revisit of one of the early best examples of the genre's potential reminds me why it ever became such a mainstay. This adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon is one such early, strong example of the best the genre has to offer and I go back to it every few years.

Midnight Run - Martin Brest - After uniting with Martin Scorsese for a run of pictures that catapulted both their names to the top of the list in their respective talent categories Robert De Niro's name was synonymous with prestige film making - a fact that an entire generation (or two?) of movie watchers today may not understand given his output in the last twenty years or so. This buddy comedy action road movie is one of the very first non-prestige, light entertainments he made after acquiring acting god status and were it to be blamed for turning De Niro's career into the schlock-fest its become I'd say it was well worth it because Midnight Run remains one of the purest movie watching pleasures of my life and only seems to get better with age. This one is some Raising Arizona/The Big Lebowski level of re-watchability work from everyone involved (consider that writer George Gallo is also responsible for the similar, yet awful, Brian De Palma's Wise Guys and director Brest had the infamous stinker Gigli inside him waiting to be born). The cast's chemistry is magic - go ahead and pick your favorite duo from: De Niro and Charles Grodin's odd couple bickering to Dennis Farina and Philip Baker Hall's old married couple dynamic, Joe Pantoliano and Jack Kehoe's schlubby, sleazy charm or Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda's knockaround idiots - plus Yaphet Kotto and John Ashton's appearances are frequent and not often enough. Even Danny Elfman's original score has personality and is nearly unrecognizable from the autopilot setting he's been locked into for the last twenty five years. Part Butch and Sundance, part Nolte and Murphy, it's a million miles from originality, but it's the best of what it is.

The Mighty Quinn - Carl Shenkel - Denzel Washington and Robert Townsend are the island's chief of police and its most prominent scoff-law who may finally be responsible for an actually terrible crime in this breezy not quite thriller adapted from the novel Finding Maubee by A.Z. Carr. Pleasures include the Caribbean locale, easy going chemistry between the leads and any time M. Emmett Walsh is on screen, but for all its superficial flavor the end product is not particularly spicy.

Ms. .45 - Abel Ferrara - Art house/grind house vigilante revenge exploitation romp(?) from Ferrara and nineteen year old star Zoë Lund who would go on to work with Ferrara again as a writer on Bad Lieutenant before dying young from her heroin habit. And speaking of habits that's what her mute character dons to prowl the mean streets of NYC after dark and shoot bad guys (or maybe just guys in general) who really have it coming after she's raped twice in one day. It remains more fun than icky thanks largely to her striking screen presence - even when vulnerable she seems in complete control.

Outland - Peter Hyams - Hardboiled outer space sci-fi without aliens or laser guns, just good old fashioned blue collar labor issues and a High Noon-esque premise of bad men coming and a lone hero standing against them and the odds. Sean Connery looks great in space cop with a trucker hat and a shotgun drag while Peter Boyle is fun as the company man bad guy, plus, hey look, there's a young Clarke Peters as 'Ballard'. The winky character names don't ruin anything.

Prince of the City - Sidney Lumet - Not an edge of the seat thriller or even a hard-hitting social drama so much as a slow motion tragedy as Treat Williams' super cop with a heavy conscience comes clean in layers and seems to be the only one who can't see the end coming until it's right on top of him. More or less saves his soul, but has to burn his life to the ground to do so. Stately and sad second chapter in Lumet's NYC corruption cycle after Serpico and followed by Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan.

Red Heat - Walter Hill - Nice to be surprised by how well this one holds up. Arnold Schwarzeneggar is a passable actor when he's an ESL character and James Belushi is believable as a Chicago cop - kinda dumpy, but bulky enough to throw a little weight around. The quips and zingers bounce around unnoticed instead of relied upon and the crime thriller set up is treated seriously instead of as a mere framework for buddy action hi-jinks. Nice collection of faces in this one too with Ed O'Ross, Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne, Brion James, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Brent Jennings, Richard Bright and Gina Gershon.

River's Edge - Tim Hunter - Unique within the kids-who-kill subgenre in that the murder takes place before the film starts and we never get to know the victim. We do meet the killer Daniel Roebuck, but we never really understand his motives any better than he does. We meet a few people who knew the victim, but we spend the most time with the killer's closest friends Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves. The way the crime is handled by the killer and victim's peer group is really the focus as some seem to experience it as right of passage into adulthood and others as an abstract spectacle whose greatest significance is the way it makes them feel. Notably absent are parents, teachers, police or other adult authority figures save Dennis Hopper's creepy old burnout who hangs out getting wasted with high school kids. His sole adult viewpoint is one of the most sympathetic too - he sees in Roebuck an echo of himself and the action he eventually takes provokes a complex emotional response. Adult fare as much for kids as it is about them.

Road House - Rowdy Herrington - I see this one mistakenly included frequently on bad movies that are enjoyable despite themselves lists by condescending film lovers who always end up sounding like latent homosexuals not yet comfortable being honest with themselves about their desires. This is not a bad movie. This is a movie that you may or may not like, but it knows exactly what it is and doesn't entertain accidentally. It earns each and every rapt audience and won't apologize for itself. It's coming after you and ready to strip away the protective layers covering up your inner bro and you'd look a lot more dignified just owning how expertly and thoroughly it turns you on. This movie turns me on. It's fantasy, but it is my fantasy and I will continue to return to it for comfort on dark days.

Robocop - Paul Verhoeven - Still sharp, still compelling, still fun and maybe more human than ever. Can't over-praise Peter Weller's performance - he sold the shit out of that tinfoil and cardboard suit before the post-production sound effects and strategic lighting completed the magic. Blockbuster action films rarely work as well on as many levels as this one does.

Runaway - Michael Crichton - Crichton returned to the well of technology run amok frequently with mixed results. This one's a solid meh.

Ruthless People - Jim Abrams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker - The final act of this take on O. Henry's kidnapping conundrum (what happens when the abductee is not wanted?) is too neat and sweetly schmaltzy, but does not erase the powerful pleasure of the first two thirds watching Danny DeVito enjoying being evil. DeVito enjoying being evil is one of my favorite genres ever and I'll happily watch many bad movies for a handful of scenes that scratch my itch, but this is one of the best and most overall satisfying pictures to play to his strongest strengths.

Scarface - Brian De Palma - Plays like an assemblage of familiar scenes from gangster movies more than as an original and complete work, but damn, it goes for broke and succeeds by its word and its balls and wont break 'em for nobody. It's also a damned good-looking picture, which I've somehow never really appreciated before - maybe because the cocain disco scene of the eighties in Miami looked so chintzy anyway. I don't care about Al Pacino's or Steven Bauer's or Robert Loggia's or F. Murray Abraham's or Harris Yulin's performances being over the top - they might bother me if it was only one bigger than life line reader among them, but they all kind of hold each other together and I go along with them just fine.

Stronghold - Bobby Eerhart - Adapted from a novel by Felix Thijssen, I found this thriller about wounded bank robbers holding a family hostage while laying low from a manhunt surprisingly effective. Many of the elements are over the top - the child endangerment, the sexual threat, lonely farmhouse bordering woods used by the army for war games - but the claustrophobia is effective and the ruthlessness of the desperadoes believable. I put it on expecting to tune out, but ended up engaged for the run time.

Tequila Sunrise - Robert Towne -  Law enforcement agent Kurt Russell isn't buying his good pal Mel Gibson's ex-drug dealer going straight act, but both of them seem to be enjoying the excuse to hang out and hairy eyeball each other across various L.A. locations and putting Michelle Pfeiffer in awkward positions while definitely not retired drug kingpin 'Carlos' is expected to be making contact with Gibson any day. Supporting cast includes Raúl Juliá, J. T. Walsh, Arliss Howard, Ann Magnuson and Budd Boetticher. I kinda love everything about this silly movie.

The Untouchables - Brian De Palma - Top shelf popular entertainments furthering popular mythology surrounding law man Elliot Ness and populist gangster Al Capone. Facts go right out the window where they belong and suddenly we have a pulpy good vs. evil showdown between clean-cut conviction-driven Kevin Costner and the rabid evil of Robert De Niro while Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith play the back up band of salty oldtimers and eager young do-gooders while Billy Drago's Frank Nitti is a wonderful nemesis we enjoy hating. David Mamet's script is sharp - I think he has fun with the black and whiteness of it all - every single character is good or bad - and there are some damn good lines, the score by Ennio Morricone is fun and De Palma splashes great, geysers of bright red blood about. It's a blast.

Wise Guys - Brian De Palma - Oh man, what a disaster. The premise about two low-level goodfellas who blow the boss's horse racing money could work, should work, but nothing about this broad, dopey comedy does. No real De Palma-ey pleasures hidden within either - a couple nice dual-focus shots inside a casino, but nothing that serves the comedy.