Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Used Cars" (1980) Dir- Robert Zemeckis



What I remember:

This was definitely a Skyy tour bus special. We probably watched this one almost as many times as "The Thing".  What I can't recall is whether Kurt Russell had already shed his Disney image or if this was the first film of his very successful reinvention. Regardless, Russell certainly went in a different direction with "Used Cars". His morally bankrupt, smooth talking character was refreshingly nasty; a true '80's anti-hero. What followed for Russell was a series of these types, usually with John Carpenter behind the lens. All of these characters had a touch of comic brilliance, even the most action-hero of them. In this film, however, Russell was pure comedy. 

"Used Cars" had a great supporting cast culled from TV comedy of the '60's and '70's, like David Landers and Michael McKean ( Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne and Shirley"), Al Lewis (Grandpa fom "The Munsters) and Joe Flaherty (Count Floyd/ Guy Caballero from SCTV).

The best moments from this film are indelible: Jack Warden playing good/evil twins, Russell's ripoff sales pitches and, of course, Gerrit Graham's uproarious commercialus interruptus.  Thanks to that scene, whenever any of us in the band got a price from someone on ANYTHING, our immediate response was "That's too FUCKin' high!!!!"

My memory is that this was a top-notch comedy from the same people who a year later brought us the immensely popular "Back to the Future". I liked this movie far more than that universally loved icon of the '80's. Am I wrong? Should "Used Cars" be as forgotten as a rusted out Dodge Aries?

After rewatching:

"Marshall Lucky here for New Deal Used Cars, where we're lowering inflation not only by fighting high prices, not only by murdering high prices, but by blowing the living shit out of high prices!” - Jeff

PLOT SUMMARY:

The Fuchs brothers (Jack Warden) own competing used car lots across a highway in Arizona. Luke Fuchs’ New Deal Used Cars is a scrupulously run lot with some unscrupulous salesmen, headed by Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell). Roy L. Fuchs has a more mainstream lot but is far more scurrilous. He has been informed that a new highway bypass will land right in his lot, making it useless, while making New Deal very visible and without competition. Luke, who has heart trouble, won’t sell his lot, so  Roy L. decides to cause Luke to have a heart attack by hiring a stunt driver to take him out on a wild test drive. Rudy wants to fund his Senate campaign, and will be out of work and unable to raise that money unless he convinces everyone that Luke is still alive. Things get even more problematic when Luke’s estranged daughter Barbara Fuchs arrives, unaware that her father is dead.

STORY/THEME:

Well that does’t sound like much of a comedy, does it? I guess therein lies the rub….there is much in this comedy that really isn’t suitable for comic exploitation. Actually, I know it doesn’t seem like it should be this way, but Luke Fuch’s death scene is one of the funniest moments in the film. After his wild ride with the demolition derby stunt driver, Luke stumbles out of the car clutching his chest. In the office, Rudy and a prospective car buyer (Al Duncan- that guy who was the play-by play guy in “Slap Shot”) are arguing over a price, and the client keeps repeating “50 bucks never killed anybody.” Rudy goes out to the lot and says “My boss will have a stroke when he sees this deal”, and seconds later Luke barrels in, clutching his chest and gasping. The scene is well cut, and while it was common to have a laugh at the death of a bad guy or buffoon, it was and is still rare to chuckle at the demise of a nice guy. You feel a little soiled after the scene is over when you realize Luke is really dead.

Why am I going into such detail about this scene? I think it gets to the heart of the problem with “Used Cars”. In trying to capitalize on the ’70’s raunchy/iconoclastic comedy of films like “Animal House”, “Caddyshack” and “Stripes”, it misses the mark by being just a bit too mean-spirited. The truly funny moments are there, all right, and they are hilarious. There are also a lot of scenes that don’t work, and some other pretty unnecessarily politically incorrect moments. Manuel (Alfonso Arrau), the Mexican car supplier is particularly tasteless, grabbing his crotch and even our heroine’s breast at one point. Later there are some young black kids who argue with each other because they need to drive the only Cadillac on the lot. Frank MacRae plays Jim, the Mechanic, a black man who is constantly sleeping on the job with his blowtorch lit. 

That being said, let’s talk about the comedy that does work. The Marshall Lucky scene is, in my opinion, maybe the single funniest scene in this genre. The combination of Gerrit Graham’s delivery, the cross cutting to people watching the ad, and Rudy trying to prevent Barbara from seeing it is pure editing glory. Graham, as Jeff doing the Marshall Lucky bit, is marvelous in the scene, playing with a combination of bravado and shock that I’ve never seen duplicated. I’ve probably watched this scene 20 times, and to quote Beetlejuice, “It keeps getting’ funnier EVERY. SINGLE. TIME!” 

Of course, he was talking about “The Exorcist”, so maybe that’s not an appropriate quote.
Other than that scene, Luke’s death scene, and the first New Deal TV spot (with gratuitous nudity and some great Landers/McKean interplay), most of the humor is slapstick, with some big time car stunts and a wild brawl between Roy L. and Jeff. All the Used Car spiels by Russell are clever and well-delivered, but just not on the comic level of, say, Belushi’s moments in “Animal House” or Bill Murray’s off hand panache in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”. I did catch some nice tidbits thrown out there for us close watchers. There’s a statue of Elvis on Rudy’s dresser, which is absolutely a nod to Russell’s having just played The King in a movie the year prior. Also the first stripper one sees in the battle of the Car Lots is played by none other than Betty Thomas, a familiar face to all ’80’s pop culture as Lucy Bates from "Hill St. Blues”. Mark McLure, who played Jimmy Olsen in the ’80’s version of “Superman”, and the ubiquitous Miss Wendy Jo Sperber also show up in the Driver’s Ed car chase climax. 

FILMMAKING

Zemeckis and editor Michael Kahn deserve a ton of credit for the pacing of “Used Cars”, which is just about perfect. There are no lagging, slow bits, and just a slew of great cross-cutting and scene juxtaposition. Like “The Blues Brothers”, however, the film gets a little too bogged down in car stunts and sloppy fights. Don’t get me wrong, the action is well handled, so maybe I shouldn’t say “bogged down”. It might be better to say “carried away with”, or “obsessed”. I mean, after a while the movie starts to resemble an actual Demolition Derby. What I mean is, if you are over 6 years old it just stops being funny when cars keep smashing into each other and everything else over and over again. In "Animal House”, when the Delta float rams the grandstands, it’s something that they have been building up to resulting in a huge payoff.  For “Used Cars”, a little restraint might have made a difference in garnering bigger laughs along the way. 

As for the cinematography, it's shot fairly well by veteran Donald Morgan, in that ’80’s soft focus style I have discussed when referring to other films of the era like “Long Gone” and “The Stunt Man”. The location shots were on a real car lot on a real highway, which I am sure made many of the scenes problematic to pull off. The stunts are pretty spectacular, particularly the car jumping scene during the climactic chase, and the jumping freight train stunt. 

PERFORMANCES

What works: Russell's sleazy but good-hearted salesman. Graham’s womanizing, superstitious nut job. Anything Jack Warden does in any movie, but he is truly fantastic in this one. MacRae’s big foul-mouthed mechanic. Landers and McKean as the tech-happy geeks. 

What is a standout performance: Toby the dog. Yes, he steals this picture almost as much as Uggie the dog from “The Artist”. Toby comes across as smarter than anyone else in the film, and the dog is so well trained that it’s almost like having another actor.

What doesn’t work: Deborah Harmon as Barbara Fuchs. She is attractive, but pretty bland, and her reaction to finding out that she has been lied to about her father’s death is well under the radar. She plays it straight, but this film calls for a bit more. Her being prompted to perjure herself by Rudy doesn’t really work, she can’t pull off the subtlety of the humor. 
Also, Al Lewis as “Hangin’ Judge Harrison” is way too deliberate and over the top. His Texas accent is awful and his delivery reminded me of Crispin Glover in “River’s Edge”. Alfonso Arrau’s performance is just plain offensive, and Joe Flaherty is nearly invisible as the lawyer. 

ON SECOND LOOK

I’m going to say that “Back to The Future” is the superior film of the two Zemeckis/Gale comedies. I don’t know about you, but I am no longer 8 years old. I have seen enough damage and lives ruined by car accidents that I just don’t find it fun to watch them careening all over the place and smashing into each other every 2 seconds. If you take the great performances by Russell, Warden and Graham and the 3 or 4 uproarious scenes out of here, “Used Cars” is a mess. Fortunately, you can watch those scenes on youtube and get exactly what you need. Will those scenes work out of context? Probably not as well, so I say, watch “Used Cars” the 1st time, then when you need a fix, “Marshall Lucky” will give you a needed belly laugh, but there’s no need to watch the whole damn thing again.

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭ 1/2









Monday, May 5, 2014

"Tunes Of Glory" (1960) Dir: Ronald Neame



What I remember:

Not a lot, for sure. It's got to be 40 years at least since I watched this on WNET with my Step-Father. We typically didn't do a ton of male bonding; he was often at work in one of his restaurants when I was home from school. Football was huge in our family, and he would often chuck the pigskin around in the apartment, much to my Mom's chagrin. Once in a while, though, he'd be home, and we would catch a game or a movie together. I definitely remember "Tunes of Glory" playing pretty regularly on WNET's classic film showcase, and I know we watched it together, and then butchered Scottish accents for a good while after. 

This, along with "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and, of course, "Bridge on the River Kwai" were my reference points for Sir Alec Guiness. He had yet to debut his most famous character, Obe-won Kenobi. This was an entirely different role for the great actor; not comic, and not stiff-upper lip British. Jock Sinclair was a tough, heroic military man, who's wild behavior suited the battlefield far better than it suited the halls of Commissioned Officers, halls that were populated by the upper crust of British society. 

What's a warrior to do during peacetime? How does he deal with petty bureaucracy and backstabbing colleagues? How does he cope with upper class attitudes and prejudices?

If he's a Scot, then he drinks and causes trouble. And if he's played by Sir Alec, then he's damn entertaining doing it!

After re-watching:

"Did ye hear what he said about whiskey, Charlie? Doesn't drink it, says he!"

"We're on a first name basis in this regiment. Your first name is Eric; my first name is Major."


- Jock Sinclair


PLOT SUMMARY:
The night before a Scottish Regiment is to receive a new Commanding Officer, a Colonel Barrows (John Mills), their acting C.O., Major Sinclair (Alec Guiness) throws a party for the Officers with drinking and dancing. The new Colonel surprises them by arriving early, and puts a damper on things. The next day Barrows implements a lot of changes that affect the regiment's decorum. The time is shortly after the end of WWII, and in the war Sinclair was a desert war hero, while Barrows was a tortured P.O.W. Sinclair is popular with the men, and unhappy about being replaced. He puts Barrows in a tough situation by publicly striking a Corporal in uniform, a offense that is worthy of a court martial.

STORY/THEME

Back in the day, I had an idea for a restaurant called "Dinner & A Movie". This is way before that TBS show of the same name that ran in the '90's. 

The idea was that a place would run a classic and/or foreign movie, and serve a menu that related to the time and place of said film. For example- you could show "Amarcord" and serve a rustic Italian menu, or "Smiles of a Summer Night" and serve Smorgasbord. Having been brought up in the restaurant biz, I realized how difficult it would be to develop a new menu every week, retooling the kitchen and buying from different purveyors. Plus it usually takes a week or two to hone a new menu to acceptability. Of course, nowadays we have pop-up restaurants as a craze, so maybe the idea was just before its time. 

I think if my restaurant had shown "Tunes of Glory", you'd have had a problem with attendance,  with our menu of Haggis and Blood Pudding.
Rather than do that, I decided to watch this film with a tumbler of Laphroaig Single Malt in my hand (and eventually me belly). This accomplished 2 things:


  1. I got drunk.
  2. I identified stronger with those who drank. "Whiskey all around!", I shouted from my basement couch. It was the cheapest round I'd ever bought. My Bichon did not even finish her glass.

Now you are probably thinking that my inebriation might make me somewhat of an inauthentic voice; that my critique might be a bit one-sided or simply skewed. Not so, says I, not so! I believe it attuned me all the better to the goings on in the film. 

Scotsman James Kennaway, who had fought with this regiment in WWII, wrote the original novel and the screenplay adaptation. The story seems very real and the PTSD issues that Barrows exhibits are obviously based on some personal experiences or observations. I guess in those days they called it "shell-shocked". He also seems quite well informed on the everyday activities of the regiment during peacetime. Sadly, Kennaway died young from a heart attack at just 40 years old. 

There is a correlation to "Breaking Bad" here. In that superb series, you begin by identifying with Walter White, the cancer stricken chemistry professor who can't afford treatment, and decides to cook crystal meth to raise money. But as the series develops, you begin disliking him and identifying more and more with his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent assigned to his case. 
In "Tunes of Glory", you totally identify with Sinclair to start; he has been passed over for leadership by the higher ups simply because of his lower class roots, and the job has been handed to an officer who is obsessed with decorum and detail.  As the film unfolds, you begin to realize that the ruddy Sinclair is self-serving, and wholly devious, while the stick-up-the-ass Barrows is a man whose entire life has been aimed towards running this regiment, a place wherein he grew up having been a legacy. 

When you realize that Barrows is a former P.O.W. who was tortured, then you see why his veneer is so thin. He becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses, and you start feeling for him. When Sinclair hits the young Corporal whom he has caught at a pub with his daughter, he becomes a despicable drunk, out of control without any limiter. When the Colonel agrees not to pursue a court martial, and Sinclair states that he won't regret it (even though he obviously WILL regret it),  your allegiance has switched completely. 

Both characters are warriors who have been damaged by war, and who need a battle to feel like they are living. There is a great scene, when Sinclair's old flame comes by to rev up his engines in the face of the possibility of a court martial, and she reminds him of what a fierce man he can be. The flames are fanned, and you know he will fight for his status, and try and disarm Barrows. 

FILMMAKING

Ronald Neame, veteran actor's director, shot the film with a static camera, not letting any tricky film style interrupt the proceedings or the performances. The result is very much like watching a play. The castle where the regiment is housed was shot for establishing shots only. Everything else was at Shepperton Studios. There is no cutting on action, only after camera movement has ceased. 
Is this a detriment, or a smart move on the filmmakers' parts? Truly you are seldom distracted from the story and dialogue, and you do get very drawn in.  But there are times when it would be nice to have something interesting to look at besides men in kilts. One great shot early on of Susannah York as Morag Sinclair, has her slip from shadows in to light as she spies from outside the proceedings of Jock's last night as C.O. party. What kind of a name is Morag, anyway? Did they play Scramble with Margo?

More often it is sound, not image that makes it's way into the proceedings as a director's device. When the guilt of what Sinclair has done to Barrows begins to unravel him, he hears a horrible whining hum in his ears. This guilt takes on a MacBethian touch when he begins to wash the blood off of his hands, and states that "it's not the body that worries me, it's the ghost". 

Later, when he is organizing the parade he will commission to honor Barrows, the Pipes he describes are heard hollowly in his head (and ours).
Ahh yes. The pipes. Those nasty, nasty instruments of whining, droning atonality.
My all-time favorite music joke goes like this:
Q: What's the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?
A: Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe.

If there is a drawback to the film, it is those damn pipes. Yes, it helps provide a sense of place and history. But really! Through the whole damn film? Enough!!! 

PERFORMANCES

Guiness was at first offered the role of Colonel Barrows, which is not surprising, since you know he can play the nervous upper crust type so well. His slit-eyed, bellowing version of Sinclair is spot on...he's got the accent and demeanor down. Nobody disappears into a role like Sir Alec, unless it's maybe Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep.  I was wholly correct in thinking that his work in this film is the main reason to watch it. 
The choice to cast John Mills as Barrows was a bit off the beaten path. He usually played lower class types ( see my OSL on "The Rocking Horse Winner"). If not wholly believable as a man with an early version of PTSD, he is certainly true to the image of a high born scion of a military family. 

The supporting cast runs the gamut of brilliant to meh. On the brilliant side is Duncan Macrae as the Pipe Major. I find it difficult to explain what makes "Pipey" such a unique and memorable character. I am certain, that if you see the film, you will be in total agreement. Suffice to say that Macrae gives his role an excess of realism and humanity. Also exemplary, and for the same reasons,  is Gordon Jackson as Captain Cairns, the officer assigned to Colonel Barrows. Jackson later had a major role in Neames' most famous film, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". 

On the meh side, sadly, is Dennis Price as Sinclair's best friend and drinking buddy Charlie Scott. He plays the role without even a hint of Scottish accent, and this could be on purpose. He had always been cast as the privileged person he was, and this seems incongruous with the part. Regardless, he plays what is a pivotal role in the story with about as much emotion as a Buckingham Palace Guardsman. He does say the Brit upper crust familiarity "Old boy" about 200 times.

Susannah York's first feature role is also a bit underwhelming. This may not be her fault...it's not a terrible layered character, and she completely disappears from the proceedings after her father strikes her suitor. 

ON SECOND LOOK

There are obviously critics who revere this film; it is in the Criterion Collection, after all. I don't hear it referred to as a highly respected and imitated Military film, but there are obvious influences on later movies, particularly "A Soldier's Story" and "A Few Good Men". It is wholly worth watching for the phenomenal work of Sir Alec Guiness, and the very real and continuing issues of PTSD and "Old Boy" favoritism. It is a fun watch, but maybe not as great as I remember. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Brother from Another Planet" (1984) Dir- John Sayles



Here's the pitch: Starman meets The Fugitive. Whaddya think? No? 

How about E.T. goes to the ghetto? Tagline: "I'll be right here, muthafucka!"

Sayles is an Auteur with whom I've had a very up and down experience, and some of those ups and downs were in the same film. In case you've forgotten, it was my revisiting "Baby It's You" that inspired this blog. I am a big fan of "Eight Men Out", and of "Lone Star", "Passion Fish", "Sunshine State" and "City of Hope". I'm not so high on "Lianna", "Honeydripper" and "Casa de los Babys". 

I did very much enjoy "Brother from Another Planet" when I saw it during it's first run in the theaters. I felt it was original and powerful, and that its star, Joe Morton in his first lead role, was phenomenal. I was certain that he was on his way to becoming a marquee actor. Well, THAT didn't happen. He has had a long and varied career, but pretty much always in supporting roles.

The film's immigrant allegory appealed greatly to me, and Sayles' wry sense of humor coupled with the emotional and stressful situation that The Brother is in gave the film a lot of depth. The decision to make him mute helped give the character some additional purity and innocence. You do strongly identify with this alien almost as much as you do with E.T. and Klaatu; aliens who turn a sharp mirror on us and our society. We need to be better, dammit!

I'm expecting to not be disappointed when I watch this film again. I think its subject matter is even more appropos of today, with all of the debates in this country and all over the world about immigrants and their rights. 

After re-watching:

"I'd rather be a cockroach on a baseboard up here (Harlem) then the Emperor of Mississippi." -Fly

PLOT SUMMARY

An alien ship crash lands in the New York City harbor, near Ellis Island. The surviving alien (Joe Morton) looks like an African American, with the exception that he has three large toes on each foot. It turns out that he is a fugitive, who is being pursued by two other aliens, caucasians dressed in black (John Sayles, David Straithairn). The alien has powers to heal both organic and electronic entities. This, along with a very strong empathic streak, helps him survive and elude his pursuers.

STORY/THEME

"The Brother From Another Planet" works on a lot of different levels. It is primarily an allegory, although maybe not the allegory I recalled. It is more reflective of the story of the escaped slave, the Underground Railway utilizer. In case you missed this analogy, Sayles takes us into a Harlem museum, wherein there is a drawing of a runaway slave being pursued by dogs. The Brother points to the slave, and then to himself; wordlessly explaining to the child he is with (and to us) that this is his plight.

Imagine how difficult it must have been for a person raised in captivity to find themselves a free man in the North, having to make their own way and find employment, a place to live, skills that would help them survive off the plantation. He/she can't read, never handled money, has zero education. All the while, this freeman must deal with the constant fear of being sent back into slavery by Blackbirders. This is terrifying. What's even more profound, is that this situation is far preferable to remaining a slave. 

"The Brother..." is also a story of how an outsider can have the perspective to see the roots of a problem. The Brother's empathy helps him to understand that the drug situation is a major cause for the iniquities of the ghetto. He feels that sharing that empathy with the wealthy drug purveyors will help stem the flow, and takes it upon himself to do so. 

Heavy stuff, right? Especially for a flick named "The Brother From Another Planet". With a name like that, you'd think that the movie would be a soulful version of "Earth Girls are Easy", not an allegorical exposition on the state of racism in the latter part of the 20th Century.

 And yet even with all this gravitas, "The Brother..." is a great comedy. It made me laugh out loud multiple times. And it wasn't  just "fish out of water" humor...in fact, that is the least of it. 

Here's an example:
When the Men in Black, the two white aliens chasing The Brother, track him down to a New York City Social Services office, their attempts to get information is deluged in a sea of red tape. They are inundated by forms and requests, and their response is to run out of the office immediately and dump all of the forms in the trash.

I also adored the scene when the Brother lands in a bar, and the bartender and his patrons try and figure out what and who he is. Smokey, the inveterate drunk, runs a test to see if The Brother is "deaf, a wino, or crazy". The Brother reacts to a loud pop of a paper bag. Next, he spits out a sip of whiskey. Smokey walks back to the bar and says simply, "Definitely crazy."

Sayles and Straithairn doing the Men in Black are reminiscent of the Red Lectroids from "Buckaroo Banzai". which also came out in 1984, so I'm not sure if this was intentional. Maybe it was just the comic ethos of the period to represent aliens as stiff legged, super powerful nerds. AHHHHH...that's right. This is all from The Coneheads! 


FILMMAKING

Nobody is going to mistake Sayles for Terrence Malick, or Stan the Man Kubrick for that matter. He is no visual stylist, yet his films always correctly reflect the story. "Passion Fish" was a bit soft-focused to give that southern air feeling. "City of Hope" had a dingy urban edge to the imagery, as did this film. The film was shot by Ernest Dickerson, who has since become a fine director in his own right, having done many episodes of some of the top series on TV; The Wire, Treme, Dexter and Walking Dead. As Cinematographer, he has been Spike Lee's main camera guy since Lee's debut. 

There are some striking images, and some very haunting ones too. The opening scenes in an empty Ellis Island Museum are beautifully shot. Every time the Brother comes in contact with a column or a bench, he hears the voices of immigrants past speaking in some vague Eastern European language. The camera shows the cavernous hall, and the reverb heavy voices echo through the expanse. 

An inventive visual is utilized by having The Brother pop his eye out, and leave it someplace as a kind of video recorder. When he is attempting to find out the root of the drug supply, he leaves it across the street from where the dealers hang out. When he pops the eye back in, it plays in a filtered and processed manner the events that occurred.  
This leads one to wonder, what other parts of his body can he leave to do stuff for him while he's off working? 

I loved the use of sound in this movie. With our hero being mute, the sounds of other voices and the city and video games take over. As for those video games, we are talking classic '80's. I believe the word used is "vintage". What probably seemed cutting edge at the time, seems so corny and dated now. And those sounds! Wow. What counteracts this archaic theme, is the very cool steel drum centered score by Mason Daring. Sadly, the original songs are not quite of the quality of the incidental music. The Brother's love interest, Malverne (Dee Dee Bridgewater) sings an absolutely TERRIBLE song that sounds like it was written in 5 minutes. It's almost as bad as that piece of garbage by U2 that they sang at this year's Academy Awards. No reflection, by the way, on Ms. Bridgewater, who is a fantastic vocalist, and who made the crappy song sound much better than it deserved.  

PERFORMANCES

As I said before I re-watched, Morton's pantomime job as The Brother is one for the ages. He conveys so much meaning and emotion with just gestures and expressions. His timing is immaculate, and that is true for both comedy and pathos. He conveys an air of innocence at the same time as a great sense of maturity. I see now why I thought he was going to be huge. One of the great comic moments comes when two midwestern white guys get lost in Harlem, they stumble into our bar, and sit next to The Brother. Trying to make small talk, they ask him where he's from, and he gives them the same answer he gives to everyone; he shrugs and points up. Like everyone, they don't get that, so they follow by getting to ask what they really want to know, where the Subway is. He pauses, then points down. Timing!

The supporting roles are all pretty solid, with the exception of the white collar drug lord, who is totally unbelievable. The best of the acting is by the barroom ensemble, especially the two older guys, Smokey (Leonard Jackson) and Walter (Bill Cobbs).  Cobbs you've seen a million times; he is one of the great "that guys". Jackson, too, is someone you know; I remember him as Basquiat's father. Dee Dee Bridgewater does a nice job in her love interest role, playing a Mary Wilson type on the downslope of a once great career. There are also early cameos by Fisher Stevens and Josh Mostel, two Showbiz legacies. Stevens' little turn as the card trick artist on the subway is fantastic. 

ON SECOND LOOK

Sayles' films can become dated, no question. I was really afraid that would be the case with "The Brother From Another Planet". In some ways it was true, particularly all the video game stuff, and also some of the jive talk. But the main theme, the lead performance and the comedy seemed to have enough freshness and clerverness to withstand the decades (30 years!). Let's also not forget how gentrified Harlem is now. It's hard to recall the neighborhood it was in the '70's and '80's. Trust me, I remember it well!

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT” (1945) Dir- Raoul Walsh



A Special New Year’s Edition of On Second Look!

What I remember:

When I was a kid, this movie used to show on one of the local New York channels every New Year’s Eve. Right after the ball would drop, I remember flipping through the stations, and this movie would come on. Most of the time I would watch the first 15 minutes or so, and then go to bed or watch something else. However, one year I decided to watch the whole thing, and I liked it. I was probably 11 or something.

Back then, my New Year’s Eve routine would be to go over to my cousin’s apartment, blow up water balloons and drop them on the best-dressed people we could find from his window. I am still amazed we never went to jail. OK, maybe that’s not true. But I am amazed that we weren’t made to go to bed without supper, or whatever punishment was in vogue back in the Mesolithic era. By the way, this was never my idea….I didn’t do things like that. I was way too much of a coward. My cousin was a year older than me, much smarter, richer, bigger and stronger. If he said do something, I did it. I admit that this criminal activity was hysterically fun, so I cannot act like I was the little angel in this scenario.
Anyway, after terrorizing and occasionally drenching Manhattan’s well-to-do, I would amble the few blocks back to my place (carefully avoiding the area under my cousin’s window), and watch the last few minutes of the year tick away. When I finally had enough energy to watch the entire movie, it was kind of the perfect brainless comedy for my state of mind. As I got older, the only thing I ever heard about the movie was that its star, Jack Benny, never made another feature film afterwards, and that it was such a huge box-office failure that it became fodder for his self-deprecating routines for years.

I’ve had this on DVR waiting for the right time to watch for over a year. I finally got around to it today, New Year’s 2014. 48 or so years later. What do I remember? He plays the trumpet. He has to blow it at midnight. It’s all a dream.

After re-watching:

“Are you diggin’ this cat? He’s gonna ‘manage’! So your boots are laced, Junior? All reet, all reet, all reet!” Trumpeter in the “Slippy Tompkins and His Twelve Tom-Cats” band.

PLOT SUMMARY

A trumpeter (Jack Benny) in a radio show big band falls asleep during the lengthy ad for Paradise Coffee (“The Coffee That Makes You Sleep”), and has an extended dream. In the dream he is an angel named Athanael who is charged with blowing the special horn that will destroy the Earth. He must blow it exactly at midnight. Upon arriving at Earth he encounters two fallen angels who try and derail the plan, since they are enjoying the material goods available, aka living the high life. Athanael fails in his first attempt, but gets another chance. A different angel, Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) comes down to help, but things get a little mixed up when a jewel thief is hired by the fallen angels to steal the horn.

STORY/THEME

I guess if there’s a moral here, it’s don’t fall asleep on the gig.

A quick personal story:

The weekend after my daughter was born, I had probably had a sum total of 5 hours sleep in 4 days. I had a lunchtime wedding gig, and at one point in the 2nd set we started the song “Sea Of Love”, which is a standard 12/8 moldy oldie. The 1st measure is G, and my part, the keyboard part, has me hitting that G chord 12 times in the measure. Then the next measure changes to B7. I fell asleep about halfway through measure 1. When the band switched chords, I continued to play the 8th notes, but didn’t switch chords. OUT COLD, but still playing. The guitarist subtly smacked me in the head with the neck of his Telecaster.
I did not dream that I was an angel.

Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, but really grew up in suburban Waukegan, Ill. I can only imagine how sleepy Waukegan was in the early 20th Century. He did get his start in Vaudeville, but it was as a violinist. The story goes that Minnie Marx, mother of the greatest comedy team the film world has ever known, discovered him. He began doing comedy when he was playing for the troops in WW1, and they started heckling him. His defensive ad-libs showed a talent for comedy, and this led him to add it into his act. Eventually his comic routines pushed the musical part of his act to the side. I really credit Benny with the popularization of self-deprecating humor. He certainly was a master of it.
His character in “The Horn Blows at Midnight” is pretty bad at trumpeting, that’s made clear. Somehow, he’s gotten the gorgeous harpist to like him. Once in the dream, he continues to be incompetent, and yet even in the dream, the harpist, now an angelic secretary, still likes him.

The dream borrows from “The Wizard of Oz”, in that all the characters from the radio show appear in different roles in the dream. The producer/director is the angel chief, the composer is the jewel thief, the two other trumpeters are the fallen angels, the bassist is the tough guy, etc.
Speaking of borrowing, it’s a good thing Benny and the Marxes stayed good friends, since he outright steals a line from Groucho: “If I held you any closer, I’d be behind you”. The film also borrows longtime Marx player Margaret Dumont, in her typical dowager role.

There’s not a lot of originality in the script. Most of the laugh-out-loud moments are physical. There’s a ton of fish out of water jokes, especially when Athanael does an on-the-job audition with a jump band. He has no idea what’s going on, and when he takes his solo, it’s about as square as you can imagine. While kids are Jitterbugging away, he begins his solo, and they stop dancing and start booing.
This would be in contrast to today, wherein the squarest guys are the most successful. For God’s sake, don’t swing or play an extended harmony. I thought we were supposed to get more and more sophisticated with each generation.
OK, sorry. I’m off my soapbox.

FILMMAKING

I covered Mr. Walsh back when I did the OSL on “The Strawberry Blonde”, so I'll get right to his style in this film.
 He really pulls out the stops in the final sequence, when Athanael is drowning in the cup of the giant Paradise Coffee Billboard. There are also some great matte shots in heaven with the humongous orchestra Athanael is in. It's fun to compare this vision of heaven with the one proffered in "A Matter of Life and Death". Both are major accomplishments for the special effects and set designers of the '40's. 

Walsh is not quite as successful in the many scenes wherein someone is hanging from the edge of the hotel roof. These shots are neither believable or particularly funny. Compared to Harold Lloyd stunts, these scenes are pathetic. Benny is simply not that kind of physical comedian. His strength is from the neck up...and his legendary timing. This set of skills is so much better suited for the small screen. 

The best physical comedy comes in the scene where sexpot Delores Moran and World class tough guy Mike Mazurki are trying to wrest the horn from Athanael. The timing and almost balletic movements of the three combined with the camera are nearly Keatonian. Moran is unsuccessfully seducing Benny, while Mazurki keeps reaching around the couch to try and grab the horn. It's been explained to all that violence against an angel will have the direst consequences, so Mazurki knows he can't just slug Benny. 

Mostly the movie swings and misses, depending on tired old jokes and situations. It's probably a combination of a weak script and a formulaic approach. 

PERFORMANCES

I've already pretty much covered Jack Benny, so let's concentrate on the role players. Beautiful co-star Alexis Smith is strikingly gorgeous, and isn't given a lot to do but be the only character who doesn't think Athanael is a total loser. Moran is given a much meatier part, and from the first time you see her, you can't take your eyes off of her. She is sexy in a way that Smith is not, not just in costume, but in demeanor. Apparently she was well known for her scandalous behavior in Hollywood, much more so than for her acting. It's true that she is no Kate Hepburn, but she does just right by this part.

The fallen angels have a moment or two, especially when they get the "twinges", every half hour. Dumont has a very small part, and is unremarkable. The part of the deli waiter is stand-out funny played by John Brown, and there is also a bit part for child actor Robert Blake as his son. 

The dual role as Hotel detective and radio engineer is given a nice turn by one of my favorites from the period, Franklin Pangborn. Ubiquitous is an understatement when describing Pangborn's supporting career in comedies. Nobody plays "officious prick" better, and he is also great in befuddlement. Mike Mazurki is typical, his range is what it is. Don't cast him as an Indian, like they did in "Comanche". You don't want to hear that Bronx accent deliver the "White man speak with forked tongue" line. It comes out "White man speak wit fawk tung." Moose Malloy ("Murder, My Sweet") is much more his speed, as is this role. 

ON SECOND LOOK

Like I said, I didn't really love or hate this movie when I watched it almost 50 New Years Eve's ago. I just wanted to recapture that time and period, you know, the way a song or a particular smell can. It didn't work. I spent 90 minutes basically wishing I had watched something new instead, or something old that had some originality about it. "The Horn Blows at Midnight" should not be considered a bomb, it's far better than that. But it is pretty unmemorable, and sadly not too funny.

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, December 30, 2013

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) Dir- Philip Kaufman


Let's talk about remakes, shall we? They are rampant. They have taken over modern day cinema in a way that is almost incomprehensible. Doesn't anybody have a fresh idea? Is there any reason to expect anything in any form of art that isn't recycled in one way or another?
What's at the Cinema now? "Delivery Man" is a remake of "Starbuck". "Last Vegas" is a boomer version of "The Hangover". Many of our favorites from the past 30 years are remakes of foreign, or older films. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hitchcock, Dickens, Phillip K. Dick, Heinlein, Kurosawa, Joyce.....these masters are constantly having their original visions rehashed and reshaped.

Obviously I have a problem with this. Recycled, retold stories bore the crap out of me. Unless, of course, you can deconstruct a story and retell it in a way that surpasses the original. Sometimes an artist retells his own tale, surpassing what he has already created. Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" far surpasses the original "The 39 Steps". Sometimes an artist adapts someone else's masterpiece, and fails. Gus Van Sant remaking "Psycho" shot by shot would be the obvious choice. Seldom, does an artist remake a classic and improve upon it. 

Yet this is exactly what happened in 1978, when Philip Kaufman decided to remake the classic sci-fi allegory "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". The original was a creepy, thinly veiled attack on Communism. Of the many films of the '50's that took on this specter, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was the one that took on the issue of individualism, or the lack thereof under a Communist regime. As free capitalists, we could all be who we wanted to be, choosing our own courses, wearing the clothes we wanted, eating where we wanted, loving whom we wanted. Unless we were black, of course. 

The fact that the original film took place in the brand new milieu of suburbia undercut this theme.  All those new, look-alike houses, driveways and cul-de-sacs screamed uniformity. This was a place where everybody could suddenly become devoid of personality, and yet you might not notice it. You know, like a Sofia Coppola movie. 

It's that confusion that the original  "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" assails. Would Communism rob us of our individuality, or would incipient Captalist planning eventually do the exact same thing? Well, my friends, look around, and you tell me! Anyone seen Times Square lately? And how exactly does it differ from your average Midwestern mall? Ok, so maybe there's better pizza.

Back to Kaufman's remake. Why do I think it surpassed the original? Truly, I have no idea why. I just remember the great performances by Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. It wasn't just the updating of the settings that rang more horrifyingly true to me, although Nimoy's EST-type cultish leader was frightening in turtlenecks and bangs. There was something about Kaufman's take on this subject matter that really got to the core of why we Americans love our freedom and individuality so much. Let's see if I still feel that way now that it is no longer contemporary.

AFTER RE-WATCHING
"I just gave her something so she can sleep. Tomorrow she'll be good as new." Dr. David Kibner

PLOT SUMMARY:

Solar Wind-borne spores from outer space find their way to Earth, and form a new kind of hybrid flora which can assimilate the form of any living thing. In this way, these "spore-aliens" colonize new worlds. When humans are replaced, however, the behaviors which make them uniquely human are not replicated. As Department of Health officials Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) and Matthew Bonnell (Donald Surtherland)  recognize their friends, lovers and colleagues to be replacements, they begin to suspect the "invasion". They now must try to find a way to warn the rest of the planet while they avoid being taken over themselves.

STORY/THEME 

Remember this? "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean that they're not out to get me."

That '70's slogan kept popping into my head as I watched this film. I think the flag-waving of individuality and freedom we saw in the original has been replaced in this update by the fear of conspiracy, that feeling that the world is going mad, and is in the hands of madmen or worse, and that no matter how much we point fingers and scream, nobody can do anything about it. Just listen to that late night radio show "Coast to Coast" with Art Bell.  You'll hear any number of nutjobs pontificating about all sorts of drivel. Yet, if you are in the right mood, it hits you nice and hard. We all have that feeling that shit is going on all around us and that we are powerless to stop it.

This was an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" for our generation. We were never really afraid of communism, even though  our parents made such a big deal out of it. We liked the idea of "communes" and sharing.  Most of us grew up in the suburbs, so that wasn't scary at all. Just boring. 

We also grew up with JFK's assassination, Roswell, Watergate, the Cambodian Incursion, and various other lies and cover-ups. Yes, a paranoid outlook and conspiracy theories spoke to us, and depicted in this manner scared the crap out of us. 

But how did we feel about being dehumanized? About becoming a giant ant colony? I mean, this is exactly how the pod-people behave. It's not just that we lose our individuality, it's that we lose the capacity to feel any kind of emotion. No joy without pain, right?  This is interesting, for sure, but not exactly the stuff of nightmares. What is scary is the feeling that if you go to sleep, you will wake up and no longer be the person you have always been. Or worse...those that love you will no longer be themselves. This feeling pervades both films.

FILMMAKING

So is this indeed a scary flick? Damn skippy. Philip Kaufman does his best to give you gross out moments, startle moments, disoriented moments, and good old fashioned Hitchcock tension. It's quite a ride, and you feel that you are in good hands throughout. The incredibly cinematic locale of San Francisco is almost as much a character in the film as it was in "Vertigo". When our heroes are trying to avoid capture, they wander through the SF streets with the camera darting about, focusing on their legs only at times, interspersed with shots of the Tenderloin district and people on the street acting like zombies. There's a lot of convex lens usage to help with the feeling of paranoia, especially when Matthew is trying to get through the bureacratic mess and red tape to reach authorities.  Additionally the soundtrack substitutes a strange melange of sounds for music, one of which must be the sound of a beating fetus heart on sonogram....you know, that "whoosh whoosh" sound. 

Speaking of In Utero, the grossing out reaches its peak when Matthew falls asleep and we see the nearby pod develop his replacement body, in a reenacting birth charade that can only be described as EWWWWW! It's an extended scene that really has no letup until Matthew is woken. Like the dog-thing in "The Thing" (see my OSL on that) and the werewolf transformation in "An American Werewolf in London", it is the height of seat-squirming discomfort. The pods in the original movie aren't half as scary or repellant. 

Then, there's "the scream". The horrible, inhuman sound the pod people make when pointing out someone who has yet to be snatched. You don't hear it until almost 1 1/2 hours into the film, but it is terrifying, and, thanks to the last shot, unforgettable. 

"Alien" had a huge effect on this film and many more horror films that came after. Part of what makes a horror film so believable is how normal and real the characters seem. The writing has a lot to do with that. In "Alien" the way Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton relate to each other and their bosses is very real. This is true for later films like "Poltergeist", "The Thing" and "American Werewolf." In "Body Snatchers", the pay off is even better, since we get to see some of our players act dumb, emotional, goofy....only to be transformed into automatons. 

PERFORMANCES

My first memory of Donald Sutherland was in "The Dirty Dozen", that great scene where his dopey, insane character has to impersonate the inspecting brass, and pulls off one of my favorite moments: 
"Where are you from soldier ?"
"Madison City, Missouri, sir!"
"Nehhhhh-ver heard of it."

And of course the classic: "Very pretty, Colonel, very pretty. But can they fight?"

This set the stage for his breakout role as Hawkeye Pierce, opposite Elliot Gould's Trapper John in "M*A*S*H". Sutherland was now squarely in the center of the cultural revolution, in fact, he became an icon. When he took on the title role in "Klute", he showed us that he was more than just a good comic actor, he had real chops. He solidified this reputation with roles for Fellini (Casanova) and Roeg (Don't Look Now). The latter is a film I consider my favorite horror film, and I think Sutherland might have won this role on the basis of that performance. 
Yet it is a very different character that Sutherland plays in this film. He's kind of a bureaucratic shit, bullying restaurants as an inspector for the Health Department. He has a crush on a co-worker, Elizabeth, who is herself cohabiting with a pod person. We've all been there; you know this person of the opposite sex that you dig is in a toxic relationship, but you also know that you might ruin your friendship by making advances. 
As the situation thrusts them together, his love for her can emerge, but there is only one scene that it is acted upon, while they are in close quarters hiding from the pods. It's awkward and brief, this kiss, but it works because they are acting upon urges that make them human. It's a way of reassuring each other that the ability to feel is still there.
Brooke Adams is not going to make anyone forget about Meryl Streep, but she is just fine in this role. The perpetual frown God gave her is always startling when she turns it into a smile.

But the great, satirical, scary performance comes from Spock. Leonard Nimoy was so thoroughly associated with the Star Trek role, I don't think any of us had ever seen him with rounded ears before this film. This part of David, the self-help guru, cultish and narcissistic, was a perfect chance for him to shed his Spockiness, and man, does it click! Somehow, he is the only pod who can effectively hide his pod nature, but the send up that he does of this kind of person is so effective that you don't care. You spend the entire film wanting to punch his lights out, even when you're not sure that he's a pod. 

The other two supporting roles of note come from Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum. Cartwright is a veteran role player, and this part suited her well. She has subtle comic timing, and did a great job getting freaked out. Goldblum turns in a typical self-loving/self-loathing turn, with his usual frenetic paranoia paying off perfectly to both comic and tragic effect. His exclamation of "Screw you, pods" became a household phrase for me at the time. 

Of note are two cameos from the original film: star Kevin McCarthy revisits his famous last lines from the '50's version by pounding on the windshield of a car and yelling "They're here!" Also, original film director Don Siegel shows up and plays a cabbie who identifies our heroes as human.

ON SECOND LOOK

Philip Kaufman's take on a classic sci-fi drive-in scare fest turned up the scare a notch, and shed a bit of the allegorical claptrap just enough to make a fun thrill ride exactly what it should be. Fun! Thrilling! No, it's not a contender for the AFI top 100 list, but when it comes to MY list of best horror, it's near the top.


On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭1/2







Monday, November 25, 2013

RIVER'S EDGE (1986)- Dir:-Tim Hunter




What I Remember:

I guess if you had to put this film in a genre, you'd call it Neo-Neo Realism. And with Keanu Reeves in a starring role, Neo-Neo-Neo Realism. GROAN.

When I was a kid, Channel 5 in New York City used to run this sounder right before the late night news that went thusly: "It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?" I often wondered what kind of parents didn't know where their kids were that late at night. Well, of course, I grew up and found out that many times, it was MY parents. Don't get me wrong, I was never out doing anything more nefarious than hanging out with my friends and smoking a J or listening to music. I had friends who did much more wild stuff, like scoring heroin, or tripping their balls off, or other "bad kid" activities. This was the early '70's. At this point, I think Channel 5 had given up. If they could have run the sounder, it would have been; "It's 10:00. We know you don't know where your children are." Or, "It's 10:00. Do you know how high your children are?" "It's 10:00. Time to stop giving a fuck where your children are."

I remember very little adult supervision or presence at all in this film. In fact, the main adult presence was a certified pervert, played by the man who seemed to have cornered the market in this type of character portrayal, Dennis Hopper.

"River's Edge" seemed to be about a generation of kids that had no moral compass whatsoever. Don't forget, this was the first "Sesame Street" generation. They were reared with a doctrine of love, tolerance and understanding--only to see it ripped apart by reality. Their fall from innocence was much harder than it was for us Baby Boomers, whose childhood during the turmoils of the '60's prepared us well for life's iniquities. Coming of age in the '80's, they took to heart what American suburban society was showing them....self-interested greedy adults and their hypocrisies. No wonder they rejected the "Pretty World" image so forcibly.

But the kids in "River's Edge" did indeed care about something...each other. They cared so much, that when one of them kills another, they try to protect the killer. But what of the victim?  That was the conflict presented in our movie, personified by the over-the-top Crispin Glover and the under-the-bottom Keanu Reeves. I seem to remember that this was a great antidote to all the "Brat Pack" cutesiness that we were being force-fed at the time. The film was based on a real story, and despite it's indulgences, had the feel of being a real story. The film came out three years before "Drugstore Cowboy", and, I think, was a direct antecedent to that great movie and all those other fantastic Gus Van Sant works about growing up wrong; "To Die For", "Elephant", "Paranoid Park".

 "River's Edge" basically started a genre. No....that was "Rebel Without a Cause". I guess "River's Edge" resuscitated a genre.

After re-watching:

"My leg was right out in the middle of the street. I remember lying in the gutter and bleeding and shit, staring at my leg, right next to a beer can. And I remember thinking, that's my leg... I wonder if there's any beer in that can."- Feck

PLOT SUMMARY

A High School girl is strangled by her boyfriend John (Daniel Roebuck). When John tells members of his clique, Layne (Crispin Glover), their leader, proceeds to try and help him cover up the murder. Even though the victim was also a friend, John's friends all seem ambivalent about whether they should help him, or turn him in. They turn to a reclusive pot dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper) to help out, yet his presence only complicates the situation. It turns out that the murderer himself is also ambivalent about his plight. When Matt (Keanu Reeves) finally alerts the authorities, his delinquent younger brother (Joshua Miller) decides to exact revenge.

STORY/THEME

Disaffection. Distopia. Disillusionment. Disgust. Disdain. Despair. But most of all, dysfunction. Absolute dysfunction.

"River's Edge" is a portrait of dysfunction, from the top down. Parents, kids, schools, country. The kids have almost no supervision, and seem to come and go with total impunity. They buy beer, listen to Death Metal, smoke weed in their homes right in front of their parents ( who are also potheads), they drive around at 12 years old.
The most troubled of all the kids is the youngest, Tim. He always wants to ride with the older kids, score some pot, and generally be as delinquent as possible. His prepubescent, androgynous visage comes in huge contrast to this personality. The film begins with some ridiculously heavy-handed symbolism.Tim throws his little sister's doll from a bridge and into the river. Right afterwards, he hears the howl of John and can see the naked corpse of Jamie right behind him on the riverbank. Leaden as this may be, the idea that the girl's human life means as much to these boys as the doll is central to the film's ethos. This is a generation devoid of emotional connection. 

Screenwriter Neal Jimenez had heard about a murder in Northern California that inspired this story, and based many of the characters on his high school friends from Sacramento. The leader of this group, Layne, is a mixed up, volatile sort, who presents the arguable logic that the victim, Jamie, is dead and nothing can be done about her. But the killer is someone they need to protect. At one point he goes on an anti-communist rant, full of moral platitudes, unaware of how immoral his role is in sheltering a murderer. Other than Layne and Tim, both full of hypocritical righteousness, all the other players are ambivalent or simply detached. This puts the film at a distance from the viewer, on the one hand, but on the other provides a very nice change of pace from the typical teen fare, especially those brat-pack vehicles of the '80's.

FILMMAKING

Who is this Tim Hunter of which you speak? Is he Tab's brother? Should we worry that he shares a name with the fratricidal tween in our movie? A quick (and I mean QUICK) foray into the IMDB cave shows that he directed just a handful of features, but has been a prolific TV director on some of the best shows in the last 20 years, including Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Dexter, and yes.....that most hallowed of hallowed: Breaking Bad
So, does "River's Edge" resemble top-drawer TV, or a nightmare After-School Special? Actually, both. From a visual standpoint, Hunter captures the squalor of small town America, and some of the natural beauty. There are lots of shots of the naked corpse, clouded eyes and all, and some almost lustrous shots of a young and striking Ione Skye as Clarissa. Visually, the tone is right. Sadly, a director's job also entails getting the best from his actors, and that really doesn't happen here. 
The film is devoid of those huge, memorable moments. There is a scene where John and Feck are back at the scene of the crime, discussing the relative merits of their respective killings. You see, Feck also killed a girlfriend, but not out of anger. (In your best Dennis Hopper, people) Because he loved her, man! They are obviously both very disturbed, and the exchange helps you understand why they are connected, and what makes them different. John begins fiddling around with Feck's gun, and worse yet, with Feck's inflatable doll girlfriend, and you think there will be this huge confrontation.  It happens, but off camera. You hear the gunshot from Matt and Clarissa's vantage point, sleeping bags in the park. I think that they probably thought that would be effective when writing the script, but it really takes the most dramatic moment of the film besides the climax and deadens it.

PERFORMANCES

Aye, there's the rub, lads. There's the rub. Daniel Roebuck is fine as the psychopathic John, and Hopper does his best to keep his run of nutjobs and addicts going. Other than that, the acting in this movie is atrocious. I mean really, really bad. Leonard Pinth-Garnell should introduce this baby on SNL.

Let's start with our two main characters, portrayed by Reeves and Glover. In my "Before" section I mentioned that they were respectively under-the-bottom and over-the-top. Good call, Wayne. More like River Deep Mountain High. More like Marianas Trench and Mt. Everest. 
Good Lord, just a touch of subtlety on either end would have done so much good for the film. Even in his fight with Tim, Reeves' Matt stays reserved and quiet. When it's over, he says a few choice words, but it's still pretty dead. Conversely, Glover chews so much scenery they should have scored his scenes with Pac Man noises. His speech and movement affectations are almost like he was dubbed and hanging on marionette strings. There are literally cringeworthy moments. Also pretty terrible is Miller as Tim, who really is way out of his depth. His performance makes a character that is already a bit of a stretch into something so unbelievable as to be satire. 
The girls are a bit less egregious. Although their reactions to the murder are a bit hard to digest, they at least have the remnants of believability. Clarissa flirting with the home room ex-Hippie teacher is unconvincing, and has no relevance to the story. Skye was never really great, but she had some memorable roles, in particular her iconic Diane in "Say Anything". She is quite beautiful, but as we have seen with Keanu, looks can only get you so far.

ON SECOND LOOK

This one has got to go down as one of my biggest letdowns of the series. I found it at times very difficult to watch, and at other times, just laughable. Like "Where's Poppa" the thing that really appealed was the freshness, the edginess of the movie. In both cases, compared to films in their genres from the last 20 years, they seem just plain stale and dull. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2        On Second Look: ✭✭