Interstellar

At the heart of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a dilemma, one that is not so easily resolved.  Earth is on the verge of a mass famine.  Corn is the only remaining crop that can be successfully cultivated by farmers, a profession in dire need of new recruits.  Everything else has died out.  Soon, conditions will be unsuitable for anything else to be planted.

Dust is everywhere, an ominous sign.  Dust storms are common.  You have to flip over bowls, cups and glasses when not in use so it doesn’t accumulate on the inside.  Once it gets in your lungs, the coughing starts.  And it never stops.  People are getting desperate.  But no one has any concrete solutions, not even NASA.

Matthew McConaughey plays one of those farmers but he hates the job.  A widow with a teenage son who will be forced to take over the family farm some day and a curious daughter who loves science as much as he does, he remains haunted by a mistake.  Despite that, he would much rather be flying.

Then his daughter tells him about her “ghost”.  In her bedroom, some mysterious thing has been shoving books off the shelves and leaving coded messages in the dust.  She translates one but it seemingly makes no sense.  Another message unknowingly leads them on a ride to a secret NASA facility.

It is here where we learn about a secret plan (well, two, to be exact), a scientific hail mary that relies on a lot of good fortune and more faith than absolute certainty.  Unbeknownst to the general public, professor Michael Caine and his team of NASA scientists have been trying to find a replacement Earth at great expense.  They’ve sent 12 astronauts on doomed solitary suicide missions to remote worlds hoping for a miracle.  They’re down to three options, none of which are sure things.

And that leads to McConaughey’s aching dilemma.  Do I go on this risky mission with a team of astronauts knowing I will sacrifice decades for no guarantee of success or do I stay, build lasting memories with my family and go down with the sinking ship?

That’s an intriguingly heartbreaking premise, and because we like McConaughey and his family (especially father-in-law John Lithgow who provides much-needed levity when warranted), we understand why he’s reluctant to leave at first.  We don’t envy his situation.

There’s a good scene where he tells his daughter the bad news.  She doesn’t understand.  She’s angry.  He tries to reassure her:  I’ll be back.  I love you forever.  She doesn’t believe him.  She’s still mad.  It’s a scene he will revisit in a most surprising way despite its rather obvious contrivance.

Even after he’s launched into space, she refuses to send video messages to his ship.  When the crew lands on their first planet and discover there’s nothing but tidal waves of water, making it absolutely useless for colonization, 23 years pass in the single hour they’ve wasted there.  When McConaughey returns to the ship, he weeps uncontrollably for all the important family milestones he’s missed reflected in a series of clips featuring Lithgow, his son (who becomes a stubborn, emotionally distant Casey Affleck) and his grandchild who doesn’t survive.  He never meets the second one who does.

During the Earth time foolishly squandered on that ocean planet, his daughter grows up to be Jessica Chastain who lands a job at NASA working alongside a now wheelchair-bound Michael Caine.  On his death bed, he makes a rather startling admission which makes her reassess her conflicted feelings about her father.  Caine’s daughter, Anne Hathaway, is part of McConaughey’s crew and in a rare video message announcing his demise, Chastain wonders if she was in on the secret.

Down to two possible substitute planets to inhabit, McConaughey overrules Hathaway’s emotional attachment to a scientist in one world in favour of another presided over by an unbilled Matt Damon.  This turns out to be a very big mistake.

I first screened Interstellar when it hit theatres back in November 2014.  Very early on, I was mixed (I didn’t catch all the dialogue in real time which greatly affected my confidence going forward) and as the movie progressed, I zoned out as I found myself intellectually adrift from all the science jargon.  In the end, I couldn’t decide where I stood because so much went over my pea-brained, perfectionistic head.

How grateful I am for captions and the rewind button.  Watching the film again recently on Blu-ray (complete with stops for quick contemplation and pee breaks), I realized I missed all the funny jokes, most of which come courtesy of robots.  Once the space mission is under way, we meet TARS and CASE.  Humourously programmed to the specifications of their human masters, they’re basically obedient, life size, metallic, four-legged Kit Kat bars.  TARS’ attempts at humour in two scenes make you wish there was more of it.

Having a better handle on the early scenes which are crucial to establishing our connection to the characters and with full concentration regarding all the scientific matters pertaining to the plot, I now have a mostly clear understanding and true appreciation, even though, let’s face it, the big twist in the final act requires a huge suspension of disbelief.  I went with it, though, because of Interstellar’s strongest quality, its incredible special effects.  Even back in 2014, I couldn’t deny how spectacular the visuals are in this film.

Like M. Night Shyamalan’s best work, silence becomes its own character, most especially during the space travel scenes.  As that spinning space station rolls on beyond the Earth up close or past Saturn at a distance, the use of no sound is stunning.  When a major character meets a grisly demise, you hear the interior explosion for a second.  And then, as we quickly witness the damage done from the outside, absolute quiet.  Really effective.  I’ve been trying to think of another production that has used this technique but I’m drawing a blank.

When the space crew lands on these treacherous, distant globes, even though these sequences were shot in Iceland and Ireland, they feel otherworldly, especially the cold, white-rocked planet where you can’t breathe freely because there’s only ammonia in the air, not oxygen.

I liked all the performances.  For a while there, Matthew McConaughey seemed resigned to slumming it in bad romantic comedies, so it’s a relief to see him in a more satisfying dramatic role.  His breezy, familial charm neatly belies a tough survival instinct that serves him well over the course of the movie.  We like him, we care about him and we feel for his impossible undertaking and what he has abandoned to pursue it.

Anne Hathaway holds her own as one of his crew members.  It’s not exactly a surprise that these characters find themselves drawn to each other despite some occasional strategic tension although the movie wisely pushes that idea far into the background for the most part.  Wes Bentley and David Gyasi could’ve been relegated to nothing roles as the rest of the team but they deliver convincing performances and make the most of their limited screen time.  They’re smart characters in over their heads.

Chastain and Affleck do good work, as well, playing the adult versions of McConaughey’s children and I must acknowledge Topher Grace, a NASA doc, who continues to prove there’s more to him than sitcom parts.

Matt Damon’s sudden appearance in the final stretch jolts the movie at just the right time and temporarily turns it into an action film.  I love a good heel turn and God knows it’s necessary here.  Running close to three hours, Interstellar is definitely too long and could’ve easily been trimmed by a good 15-20 minutes.  About midway through, after the tidal wave planet fiasco, the film drags a bit, wallowing in failure and frustration, before thankfully regrouping and regaining its momentum.

Having seen the film a second time now, I understand why it didn’t receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, despite some critics like Richard Roeper arguing for its excellence.  Interstellar just doesn’t compare to Christopher Nolan’s best work, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy.  Hell, I don’t even think it’s as compelling as the Insomnia remake.  All of these superior efforts build tension in a much more forceful way where you become acutely aware of the clock.  Because we don’t know exactly how much time human beings on Earth have left before they’re wiped out completely because of the coming famine, you don’t feel the urgency of this seemingly doomed mission.  It doesn’t help that the movie’s pacing can be uneven at times.

As for the somewhat questionable scientific theories put forth, they are intriguing nonetheless and do lead to that memorable final act where all is revealed.  There are some nice, emotional pay-offs.

In the end, Interstellar is a good movie that acts and thinks like a great one without really earning it.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 24, 2017
3:21 a.m.

Published in: on July 24, 2017 at 3:21 am  Leave a Comment  

The Transformers: The Movie

Let’s see if I have this right.  The Decepticons, the villainous robots that can also pass for weapons, planes, audio equipment and insects, are settler-colonists who conquer their sworn enemies, the Autobots, the good robots who can also pass for cars, trucks, audio equipment and dinosaurs.

While the Decepticons occupy the Autobots on their home planet, secret plans for an eventual uprising take place on one of their two moons.  Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons who can also pass for a gun, sends a loyal surveillance spy (really a smaller, robotic bird that can transform into a tape recorder) to record their resistance plans.  This allows the Decepticons to sneak attack an Autobots shuttle in mid-flight in space and overtake it as it heads towards a secret base on a different planet as they hope to kill more Autobots.

In this scenario, the Decepticons are like Zionists, robot supremacists with a false sense of entitlement towards land that doesn’t belong to them, and the Autobots are like Palestinians, victims of an illegal occupation who resist being conquered and eliminated.

That’s a pretty provocative set-up for an animated kids movie.

But The Transformers: The Movie isn’t interested in politics.  All it cares about is action.  Lots of it.  Oh, and, because it’s an 80s movie, it has an unhealthy love for glam metal.  As two sets of transforming robots (I will always love that sound effect) attempt to obliterate each other on numerous planets, moons and in outer space for almost 90 minutes, there’s rarely a moment when some overwrought metal singer isn’t trying to hog the spotlight with “inspirational” lyrics.

Only one song really stands out.  The Touch, the cheesetastic anthem later improved upon by a surprisingly game Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights. (How fitting that he ended up replacing Shia LaBeouf in the live-action Transformers series.)  It’s ridiculous but the original is also undeniably catchy, a true guilty pleasure.

Actually, there’s two, now that I think about it.  Because the Scotti Brothers were responsible for releasing the soundtrack, there’s “Weird” Al Yankovic, their most successful signing, paying homage to Devo in Dare To Be Stupid during a sequence set on a planet made entirely of spare robot parts.  Like some of the instrumental rock tracks here, it seems oddly out of place (it’s not exactly an ideal fight song), that is until an impromptu robot dance party breaks out.  Are the filmmakers admiting defeat?  Are they acknowledging they made a bad film?

Wait, I’m forgetting the title track, a revved-up metal pop version of the theme song from the original TV series (which began two years before this movie).  Performed by Lion (was Whitesnake unavailable?), we get a short version with minimum lyrics during the start of the opening titles and then a more fleshed out take during the end credits.  It’s so over the top (the singer is trying so hard to sell this shit) but the arrangement is unfortunately far from exciting.  The opening drum break is a little too similar to We’re Not Gonna Take It so it never gets off to a strong start.

Far from exciting is how I would also describe the animated action sequences that make up the bulk of The Transformers: The Movie (yes, that is its official title).  We just don’t care.  Although we can tell the difference between the two groups, there are too many characters to keep track of.  And because the film is dedicated to showcasing constant war at almost every turn, there’s very little time to develop their personalities in distinctly interesting ways, though admittedly there are modest, mostly unamusing efforts in that regard.  (Curiously, the live action Michael Bay films have the same problem even though the running times average a punishing two and a half hours.)

The Transformers: The Movie features some surprisingly famous voices.  A sometimes stiff Judd Nelson is Hot Rod, the Autobot who is close to a young boy, the son of a scientist who works with the occupied robots on one of their home planet moons.  (They’re the only human characters in the film.)  Robert Stack is fine as Ultra Magnus, another Autobot given an important responsibility.  Casey Kasem has a small, thankless role as an Autobot named Cliffjumper.  Ditto Scatman Crothers who voices Jazz, a robot Uhura.  Eric Idle is annoying as the awkwardly named Wreck-Gar, a Mexican-looking transformer that lives on that planet of junk and does nothing but quote TV, mostly commercial and newscast clichés.

In the film’s first scene, we meet Unicron.  (Nope, that’s not a typo.)  Believe it or not, this planet-sized transformer with an insatiable appetite (he’s a robot Death Star) is voiced by none other than Orson Welles which seems like a cruel joke.  (This was his last movie role.  He died before the film’s theatrical release.)  When Megatron loses a battle against the Autobots, the badly damaged Decepticon leader is summoned by Unicron who forces him to go on an inevitably doomed mission.  He wants him to retrieve this glowing ball of light known as the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, a very misleading name as it turns out, and destroy it.

Too weak to continue on as Megatron (gotta love that name), Unicron transforms him into Galvatron who is suddenly voiced by…Leonard Nimoy?  (Not logical, Captain.)  When one of the Decepticons attempts to take over leadership duties in his absence, Galvatron swoops in during his swearing-in ceremony and, well, that’s the end of that attempted coup.

The Transformers: The Movie is probably best known for killing off a number of major characters including the most famous one from the original TV series.  It takes guts to knock off someone that important to your bottom line (remember, these were Hasbro toys originally) and it’s no wonder the decision was deeply unloved by fans.  (He was eventually resurrected Spock-like in the third and final season of the original TV show.)  Considering how he’s the best-voiced character in the film, it was clearly a mistake.  He’s irreplaceable.

Also surprising are the two curse words that pop up out of nowhere.  I never expected to hear “shit” from an Autobot.  And when Ultra Magnus tries to open the Autobot Matrix of Leadership, “damn” seems more than appropriate.  Funny how the Decepticons keep it clean.

Much has changed in the world of animation since the 1986 release of The Transformers: The Movie.  With the notable exception of anime, feature-length cartoons are now mostly three-dimensional computer-oriented ventures.  American studios, including Disney, have mostly abandoned 2D projects.

I have mixed feelings about this dramatic change.  Yes, the quality of the animation has greatly improved (more intricate details, more colourful), but the quality of the storytelling has greatly diminished.  The visuals of The Transformers: The Movie is by no means spectacular (it’s mostly average and unsuited for big screens) but the plot, while also not particularly good, at least has some ambition unlike recent dreck like The Secret Life Of Pets and Home.  There might not be much suspense (the film was meant as a bridge between the 2nd & 3rd seasons of the first TV series) but, gratuitous cartoon violence aside, at least it doesn’t pander.  The film isn’t stupid (well, except for that kangaroo robot court that bizarrely confuses “innocent” for “guilty”), just not interesting or deep.

If it had even more courage, better jokes and actual excitement, The Transformers: The Movie could’ve performed the ultimate transformation.  It could’ve been more than just an ad for Hasbro.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, July 16, 2017
3:33 p.m.

Published in: on July 16, 2017 at 3:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Cat In Paris

During the day, he comforts a young girl in mourning.  But by night, he’s an accomplice in a series of daring cat burglaries. 

The twist?  He’s not human.

A Cat In Paris is an animated feature from France that became a surprise Oscar nominee in 2012.  It hadn’t even been released in North America at the time (it was first seen in Europe in late 2010).  Whether or not its unexpected recognition from the Motion Picture Academy played a major role, it did eventually have a limited cinematic run here that same year.

Reviews were exuberant.  Critics were, for the most part, enthralled.  Now that I’ve had a chance to screen it myself, I have to say this mass enthusiasm is greatly misplaced.

A Cat In Paris looks and feels like something rejected out of the National Film Board of Canada.  The animation, while colourfully pastel, does not wow you or overwhelm you.  It is deliberately crude and artsy.  Some shots do look great, but you’re certainly not going to mistake this for a Disney feature. 

For its North American release, French voice actors from the original are replaced with Americans, some of whom employ various European accents.  (I can recall only one French-sounding supporting character.)

Marcia Gay Harden is a widowed cop whose husband, a fellow officer, was murdered by a gangster with a curious Cockney accent named Victor Costa.  (Harden doesn’t have any accent at all.)  He’s obsessed with an African artifact called The Colossus of Nairobi which he’s planning once again to steal.  (It has some strange connection to his childhood.)  During a police briefing, Harden informs her law enforcement colleagues that they need to keep an eye out during its secret relocation.  Knowing he’s going to make a play for it, this is Harden’s chance to finally nab the man who destroyed her family.

Meanwhile, her young daughter hasn’t spoken a word since her dad’s death.  (Gee, I wonder if she’ll ever talk again.)  The only thing keeping her going is that mysterious black tomcat that routinely kills and retrieves tiny lizards for her from nearby rooftops.  (Charming.)  She keeps them in a tiny box and when her overworked mother comes home from the precinct early on still talking to someone at work, she tries to show her her growing collection.  Harden’s indifference then her disgust (apparently it’s bad form for little girls to like creepy crawlies) pisses her off so much (leaving her bedroom, her mom takes yet another call on her cell phone in the middle of their own conversation) she throws the box against the wall.

Because she can’t be in two places at once, a guilt-ridden Harden hires a Scottish sounding Anjelica Huston to look after her kid.  She hates the cat.  He keeps sneezing at the smell of her rather potent perfume.  But Huston has a secret.  It’s no coincidence she sought out this broken family.

In the film’s first scene, the cat teams up with a nimble, nervy cat burglar who infiltrates a diamond company building (cleverly named Diacom) and easily outsmarts the two distracted security guards.  It’s played for laughs that never come.

The acrobatic thief apparently has no family or friends, just the cat who, for some reason, has no moral objections to helping him steal valuable items.  (In another scene, they rob a couple while they sleep.)  At first, it’s not clear why he even needs the cat.  He seems to be doing just fine on his own.  (Maybe he’s just lonely.)  But when he gets into a legal jam late in the film, you start to understand.

Like a typical episode of Seinfeld, all these storylines come together when Harden’s daughter, curious about where the cat goes at night, overhears Costa and his gang of loyal goons plotting to steal the Colossus.  (They’re not exactly discreet, which one of them openly acknowledges.)  When she gets caught, they go after her and she ends up temporarily hiding in the cat burglar’s place.  (The mobsters end up finding all his stolen loot in a secret room in the basement.)  When he comes home, he becomes surprisingly paternal and protective of her.

But then, while trying to lead the mob guys away from his new friend and the cat (who are headed towards the local zoo), Harden and her partner Matthew Modine arrest him and despite his many attempts to tell them the truth, they don’t believe a word he says.  By the time they realize he’s right, Harden’s daughter is missing.

A Cat In Paris has the curious distinction of feeling both overstuffed and incomplete.  (It runs a mere 65 minutes.)  Why does the cat burglar need all that valuable stuff?  Is he a collector?  Is he planning to sell it all?

Why is the cat burglar enamoured with Harden’s daughter when she exposed his secret?  Did Harden not do a thorough background check on Huston?  And why is she slow to realize the cat’s role in all the burglaries?

The film makes the mistake of trying to be too many things at once.  It’s a heist picture, a gangster movie, an action adventure, a revenge film, a drama, a thriller and a comedy.  It has no laughs, sadly, and the other elements, which aren’t as bad, aren’t strong enough to overcome its weak comic tone.  (I did admire the second musical cue, the string-heavy classical one, a thankfully recurring theme.  The slow, piano-driven motif is too derivative and dreary.) There’s a tired running gag involving the cat and a yappy dog that keeps annoying his owner.  And Costa, in an apparent tribute to Reservoir Dogs, gives his accomplices lame nicknames (Mr. Frog, Mr. Baby, Mr. Potato) in order to protect their identities.

A Cat In Paris is also fairly predictable and by the time we reach the finale at the gothic Notre Dame Cathedral (which I have to admit is well animated), it’s not exactly suspenseful or gripping.  Things get a little weird and then in the end, the final result is a bit too neat and tidy.  Are they really trying to push two characters together romantically?  And how exactly does one character avoid serious prison time?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
4:19 a.m.

Published in: on July 11, 2017 at 4:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Booty Call

Roger Ebert actually liked this movie.  So did Gene Siskel.

I didn’t.

First, the title.  It’s deeply misleading.  It should’ve been called Double Date.

Tommy Davidson has been dating Tamala Jones for 7 weeks.  They haven’t had sex.  Why?  Because Jones wants to make sure he’s “the right one”.  Talk about antiquated thinking.  Wouldn’t you want to know immediately if you’re sexually compatible with this guy?  Why delay your disappointment if he’s not?

Davidson’s best friend is Jamie Foxx who constantly gives him a hard time about this.  They make a bet about whether Davidson will finally consummate his relationship on this particular night.  Jones’ best friend is Vivica A. Fox who lives directly across from her in their apartment building.  She correctly notes on multiple occasions that Jones is a big prude.

All four meet in a Chinese restaurant (the women live in Chinatown) where their server turns out to be an unfunny gay stereotype who hits on Foxx.  When Fox lays eyes on her date for the first time, she’s not impressed.  She doesn’t like his hair which leads to two obvious jokes.  But after Jones complains about a gangster’s lit cigar (she’s very anti-smoking), Foxx mosies on over there to politely ask him to put it out.  In Mandarin.  (He learned the language from kung-fu movies.)

When he returns triumphant to the table, Fox insults him in Mandarin.  They argue in Mandarin.  In English, she brags about being rich (yet she lives in the same building as Jones) while all he can boast about is his gold gas card (he’s doesn’t drive).  You know exactly where this is going.

After dinner, Fox cleans up at the pool table.  Then, it’s back to Jones’ place for a game of cards and a mutually unsexy game of footsie.  Jones has a little dog named Killa who plays a major role in putting the bickering Foxx and Fox together.  The joke is they don’t realize it.  Let’s just say it’s quite gross.

Fox has a weird fetish.  She gets turned on when her partners do impressions.  So, Foxx indulges her by citing famous quotes from Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King, curious choices considering their well-known philandering.  His impressions aren’t particularly good.

Then he does Cosby, which takes on a whole new meaning today.  I’ll admit it.  One of his lines made me laugh.  He also throws in a little Captain Kirk, as well.

With Foxx and Fox out of the apartment, Jones finally decides to get it on with Davidson.  There’s a peculiar moment where she thinks she’ll die having sex if he doesn’t wear a condom.  (Does she not trust him?)  Unfortunately, when he pulls one out of its wrapping, it falls to the floor and that goddamn dog snatches it.  Why even bother trying to get it back?

When Davidson learns that Foxx doesn’t have any spares (he didn’t bring any), it’s off to the store to buy some more.  38 dollars later, Jones grumbles they’re lambskin, not latex.  So, Foxx and Davidson go to a different store where they encounter two more tired stereotypes, a couple of Indian immigrants, and a hypocritical churchgoing judge (a pre-stardom Bernie Mac) who lectures them on the sins of fornication.  (Cosby should’ve played this part.)  Back in Jones’ apartment, with everything seemingly back on track, Davidson proceeds to go downtown when the clearly germophobic Jones insists he use some Saran Wrap.

Say what?

With none in her kitchen, an increasingly irritated Foxx is dragged out of Fox’s apartment by Davidson one last time to go back to that same variety store run by the same two Indian guys to buy some.  But then a gunman shows up.  Foxx actually suggests they steal some food and booze because of the distraction but thankfully doesn’t go through with it.  When they attempt to sneak up on him, that allows one of the clerks to pull out an uzi and proceed to needlessly destroy his profits.  It should be noted that he completely misses the gunman.

Finally back in his girlfriend’s building and not knowing what the fuck he’s doing, Davidson makes a very dumb decision.  So does Foxx.  When you find out that Jones wanted Davidson to use the Saran Wrap on her not him, you start questioning his loyalty and his intelligence.

Thoroughly fed up, Foxx and Davidson decide to bolt.  The women plead with them to return.  Then, Foxx slips up, Davidson gets accidentally shot in the leg, and we’re suddenly in the ER where the cheap jokes and well-worn clichés continue to pile up rather quickly.

The misnamed, critically jackhammered Booty Call became a surprise, modest hit during its theatrical run 20 years ago.  Would I have laughed more if I saw it back then?  I’ll never know.  What I do know is that two laughs in 80 minutes is woefully inadequate for a sex comedy.  (The name of the gangster in the restaurant, a blatant groaner, is the only other funny moment.)

The film is so shallow, so strange and so obvious, it never gets on that comic roll it desperately needs to work.  What it thinks is truly outrageous is just plain annoying and icky.

Booty Call should’ve been a sexy, laugh riot.  Instead, it’s depressingly deflating.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, June 25, 2017
3:40 p.m.

Published in: on June 25, 2017 at 3:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Wolf Man (1941)

Besides its lack of genuine scares, The Wolf Man has a major credibility problem.  Larry Talbot is an idiotic, opportunistic sleaze and not at all sympathetic.

The son of Sir John Talbot, a wealthy scientist, Larry left Talbot Castle 18 years ago only to return because his older brother was killed in a hunting accident.  No longer playing second fiddle, he stands to inherit the entire estate as the sole heir.  (Is he really that sorry to not have to share all that dough?)

After fixing his father’s telescope in the family attic, Larry turns creepy as he spots a beautiful woman in an open, upstairs window.  If this were an 80s horror film, she’d be practically naked.  But because this is 1941 we’re talking about, she’s fully dressed and ready to go to work in her father’s antique shop downstairs.

Larry immediately visits the place hoping to get a date.  He hits on Gwen, the woman from the window, so relentlessly you know he’s not big on consent.  She repeatedly turns him down.  (“What big eyes you have, Grandma,” is his idea of flirtation.)  That does not stop him from announcing he’ll be outside the shop door at 8 p.m. expecting her to be there.  The fact that she is actually waiting for him when he arrives is particularly strange most especially when we find out not too long afterward that she’s engaged to another man.  That does not stop Larry from pursuing her.

Much to his annoyance, Gwen brings along a friend to have their palms read by travelling fortune tellers. During one fateful session, the one played by Bela Lugosi freaks out, warns Jenny, the friend, to get the hell out of there before transforming himself into a werewolf (actually a dog, for some unexplained reason) and killing her.  Thanks to a nifty cane with a silver, wolf-shaped handle he had just bought in the antique store (purely to impress a seemingly unimpressed Gwen), Larry kills the wolf not realizing it’s Bela.

From this point on, Larry and Gwen become controversial figures in this village.  She gets “slut” shamed for merely walking and talking with him.  And after a gravedigger gets murdered one night, Larry is correctly viewed by some of the gossipy townspeople as the prime suspect.  When he arrives at church for the funeral, everyone stares at him, even his own father.  He doesn’t stick around for the service.

Before he kills Bela, Larry gets bit.  (You never actually see it happen as he wrestles with him in dog form.)  But the wound disappears, soon to be replaced by the mark of the werewolf.  New victims have a pentagram magically show up on the palms of their hands that can only be seen briefly by their future killers.  When it shows up on Gwen’s hand late in the film, Larry realizes he needs to leave before the full moon returns.

But none of this would be happening at all if he had listened to Maleva, Bela’s fortune telling mother, who is not at all upset, for some reason, that he killed her son.  She gives him a special necklace that he is supposed to wear at all times to prevent him from transforming.  But the stupid idiot gives it to Gwen believing it will protect her from him.  He still attacks her in the film’s finale.

Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of the legendary Lon Chaney, Sr., perhaps the first Method actor before such a term existed, does his best to make Larry Talbot a tortured everyman caught in a no-win situation.  But because he’s so domineering towards Gwen, a white man on the verge of inheriting extraordinary wealth from his father (now that he no longer has to compete with his brother) and a dolt about his own well-being, it’s extremely difficult to care about his preventable dilemma.

Even though the film only runs about 70 minutes, it takes about half the running time before we see Chaney in The Wolf Man get-up.  Below the waist, the make-up is terrific.  (The feet look the way they should.)  Above the waist?  Not so much.  He doesn’t really resemble a wolf.  Just a really hairy guy who needs a manicure.

And yet, the film is beautifully photographed in black and white (Blu-ray doesn’t just improve colour films), has a lovely production design for the most part (the castle and antique store interiors are particularly elegant) and features some tremendous camera work.  Note the crane shot in the attic scene when Sir John climbs the ladder to check out his telescope.  Very smooth, very cool.  Or the moment where he catches Larry just before he leaves the castle.  It’s perfectly framed showing the growing distance between father and son, and how the influence of Sir John still towers over his youngest child despite Larry’s considerable height and long absence from his life.  (In the telescope scene, note how Larry kneels down at one point, looking up at his father for approval after he fixes the device.)

Claude Rains is effortlessly good as Talbot Sr. but by God, why do they make him so skeptical of Larry’s werewolfism?  When the movie begins, there’s a graphic that notes that lycanthropy is “a disease of the mind”, according to science, Sir John’s area of expertise.  But according to legend (which is capitalized) and the people who live near Talbot Castle, sufferers do take on the physical characteristics of wolves and embark on killing sprees.  Why doesn’t anyone listen to them?

The local authorities don’t believe Larry when he says he killed a werewolf because they find Bela’s human body.  (When he tries showing his bite mark, it’s already healed.)  And when the gravedigger is offed, they’re convinced an animal did it, not a human, even though Larry’s tracks lead directly back to Talbot Castle.  They’re not smart enough to realize what the audience already knows.  Sir John himself is doubtful that Larry has been cursed by Bela’s bite, although he does agree to tie him to a chair in his bedroom, only to find himself face to face with his transformed son out in the nearby forest in the final act.  It shouldn’t take him this long to become a believer.

Evelyn Ankers has the rather thankless role of being Larry’s love interest which causes her nothing but grief.  First, because the guy won’t leave her alone.  Second, because the townspeople give her a hard time about it.  And third, and most absurdly, because she actually considers running away with him (she doesn’t break off her engagement) when he decides to leave town.  When did she go from being completely uninterested to completely besotted?  This is yet another one of those movies that claims with a straight face that if you wear a woman down long enough, she’ll eventually fall for you.  Nope.

The ending of The Wolf Man made it difficult for Universal to churn out traditional sequels like they did for Frankenstein.  So, instead, they resurrected the character for crossover films like House Of Dracula, House Of Frankenstein (neither of which are scary), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and the terribly unfunny Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein.  Like Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers and countless other franchise horror villains, death was never an obstacle when making shameless follow-ups.

Unlike its predecessor Werewolf Of London, the original Wolf Man has been mostly credited with creating the basic template for all the many imitators that have since followed (although there is some dispute about how much screenwriter Curt Siodmak actually invented rather than borrowed).  But historical importance aside, it’s not much of a scarefest.  Now over 75 years old and greatly hindered by the restrictions of the now thankfully discarded Hays Code, it can’t help but show its deteriorating age.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 24, 2017
4:27 p.m.

Published in: on June 24, 2017 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vampire’s Kiss

I have a theory about Nicolas Cage’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss.  When he looked at the script, he knew it was awful.  No scares, no laughs.  But instead of turning down the lead role he was offered, he decided to be mischievous.  How else to explain his peculiar acting choices?

Let’s start with his voice.  You notice something’s off immediately.  After spending the entirety of Peggy Sue Got Married sounding like Pokey (Gumby’s pal), here he comes across as a snootier valley dude.  He’s an erudite Spicoli but far less charming.

Then, there are his needlessly overbroad physical movements.  Out of nowhere, he bulges his eyes, overdoes facial expressions, jumps on a desk, laughs a little too hard, sings too much, screams and runs around like a maniac.

Oh yes, he also eats a live roach.  In what has become perhaps the most infamous moment in his entire acting career, while feeling peckish in his kitchen, he foregoes retrieving something from his fridge and settles for the doomed creepy crawly roaming the top of his stove.  There’s no trickery here.  That’s a real bug that he puts in his mouth.  How many takes did this scene require, I wonder.  As Survivor and Fear Factor later revealed, he was a decade ahead of his time.

Cage plays Peter Loew, a seriously troubled, deeply obnoxious literary agent.  When we first meet him, he’s seeing a therapist (Elizabeth Ashley), a cougar who thinks he has unrealistic romantic standards.  That’s not his actual problem.

Rather quickly, we discover he’s a misogynist.  (“Cunt” appears to be his favourite word.)  He drunkenly dismisses the profession of Jackie (future Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons), a cute woman he picks up in a club.  (They bond over the Fantastic Four.)  She works for the phone company but is too giggly, horny and drunk herself to feel insulted.  She could do way better.

In the midst of getting it on, a bat suddenly shows up, a very cheap looking bat.  Jackie leaves the apartment while Peter literally tries to “shoo” it away.  They end up taxiing it to her place.  But Peter, already a loathsome character, is forever changed.

On another night, Peter meets Rachel (Jennifer Beals) in a restaurant and takes her home for a nightcap.  Then, she bites him.  Feeling deeply unsatisfied in his love life, he suddenly finds what he’s been missing. (“You chose me,” she whispers after stabbing his neck with her teeth.)  But Rachel is too good to be true.  She’s controlling and demanding.  And, as it turns out, not exactly trustworthy.

When Peter goes on a second date with Jackie, he coldly ditches her at the art gallery.  Despite being thoroughly pissed off with him, he somehow convinces her to meet with him at a bar to make up for it.  But Rachel makes sure he never gets there.

If it isn’t clear already (it’s right there in the title), Rachel is a vampire.  What’s not clear is whether she actually exists.  For you see, Peter at times appears to be talking to himself.  The morning after his life-changing encounter with Rachel, he makes a cup of coffee for her.  But when he shakily hands over the cup and saucer, no one is in his bed to take it.

While singing in the shower, he opens up the curtain to let in no one who then somehow proceeds to tickle him.  And then, near the film’s conclusion, he literally walks into a building and carries on a conversation with it.  There’s no reply from the building, of course, but then we’re suddenly in another therapy session where his shrink introduces him to his dream woman (Jessica Lundy) who is clearly a figment of his imagination.  (The film awkwardly cuts back and forth between the therapist’s office and the street suggesting that maybe Elizabeth Ashley’s character isn’t real, either.)  No matter, he quickly grows agitated with her and calls her a “cunt”, as well.

In the midst of his very obvious mental breakdown, there’s an extremely annoying subplot involving one of his writer clients.  He wants Peter to find the very first contract he signed for a publishing deal so he can have it framed.  Peter summons his long suffering secretary Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso), who he secretly lusts for, to go through file after file after file until she finds it.  She has to drop her other duties in order to make time for this nonsense.

When he’s not yelling at her and pointing at her like a cartoon dog, he’s constantly harassing her and chasing her into the women’s bathroom.  Growing increasingly alarmed and terrified of his out-of-control antics (he and his fellow employees bizarrely laugh off the bathroom incident), she phones in sick one morning.  But Peter finds her address and ultimately cajoles her to come back.  Once they’re in the taxi, though, he’s back to being an asshole again.  Did I mention this is a comedy?

Her worried brother Emilio (Robert Lujan), a car mechanic, reluctantly agrees to give her blanks for the gun she’s been quietly hiding in her purse.

Even after the writer calls Peter to let him know that finding the contract is not a huge priority, Alva still isn’t let off the hook.  The resulting “pay-off” of this whole storyline might be the most irritating aspect of the entire picture.  Talk about a complete waste of time.

After being bitten by Rachel, Peter doesn’t go through the traditional vampire transition.  The “joke” is he thinks he’s becoming one but is deeply delusional.  When his fangs don’t grow in quick enough, he decides to buy fake ones.  But the best ones are too expensive, so he opts for the $3.50 set which he proceeds to wear to a club where he murders a cokehead and gets a rude awakening from Rachel.  (How I wish it was the Rick Rude finisher.)

He starts wearing sunglasses indoors because now he supposedly is more sensitive to sunlight.  He flips over a couch and sleeps underneath it on the floor, a makeshift coffin.  He collapses at the sight of a neon cross.  And he pretends he can’t see his own reflection in the mirror.

It’s baffling why any woman would want to be with Peter, especially Rachel.  (Is she merely setting him up?  If so, why?)  He’s so detestable, so self-absorbed.  Every woman is beneath him.  He’s like Patrick Bateman, only far more neurotic.  His encounters with Rachel somehow make him an even worse human being.

When he’s not buying into the idea that he’s the newest member of the undead, there are times where he feels trapped by it and suicidal.  After cornering poor Alva (he eventually assaults her), she pulls out her gun and he demands she finish him off.  But she shoots at the floor.  He ends up putting it in his mouth.  Not realizing those bullets are blanks deepens his false self-belief.  His “indestructibility” becomes his ultimate vulnerability.

Only a gifted actor like Nicolas Cage could deliver such an embarrassing performance like this.  You get the feeling he’s trying so hard to avoid being bored.  The result can only be described as manic desperation.  Not once is he funny.  Not once is he scary.

Could this story have worked if it wasn’t played for non-existent laughs or scares?  Possibly.  But certainly not with Cage who refuses to dial it down.  We don’t care about Peter before he gets attacked and we care even less after he completely falls apart.

I used to think Amos & Andrew was his worst movie.  I stand corrected.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, June 23, 2017
5:50 p.m.

Published in: on June 23, 2017 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

The ‘Burbs

Who has moved into 669 Mayfield Place?  For an entire month, nobody knows.  No one in this non-descript neighbourhood has seen anybody coming and going from the residence at all.  And what’s with that weird noise coming from the basement?

The lack of certainty arouses deep curiosity amongst the residents, especially Tom Hanks who is awakened in the middle of the night by that mysterious humming.  He gets as far as his next door neighbour’s lawn before giving up and going back to bed.

So begins Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs, a weird, misguided comedy that also fails as a half-hearted thriller.  It’s been nearly 30 years since I first saw it during its theatrical run.  It has not aged particularly well.

Part of the problem is that the film has exactly one laugh.  The other part of the problem involves its main characters.  They’re unsympathetic busybodies fueled by unwarranted paranoia and overwrought suspicion, that is until the movie cops out in the worst possible way.  Rick Ducommun is especially annoying as the overbearing budinski who frequently imposes his large presence on Hanks.  There’s one scene where he walks in uninvited during a family breakfast and starts eating a lot of their food.  He’s rarely at a loss for words.  He is not funny at all.

Hanks is having a staycation (he refuses to go to the family cottage) and when he’s not lounging around doing nothing important, annoying wife Carrie Fisher in the process, he’s stupidly listening to Ducommun who is absolutely convinced with zero evidence that his new next-door neighbours are up to no good.  Another neighbour, Bruce Dern, an army vet with an American flagpole on his property and a much younger wife (Wendy Schaal), is just as obsessed as they are.

When the neighbourhood crank (Gale Gordon), whose poodle keeps crapping on Dern’s lawn, suddenly disappears, instead of being relieved that the old bastard is gone, the clueless amateur sleuths sense foul play, pointing fingers at the enigmatic neighbours.  At one point, they actually break into the old man’s house where Dern’s wife discovers his discarded toupee.  Hanks looks after his shit-happy dog and leaves a note behind that is bizarrely misinterpreted later on as a threat.

Initially too afraid to actually meet the new neighbours, Hanks and Ducommun only get as far as their rickety front porch.  The wood is falling apart and for some reason they encounter bees, a sure sign of comic mediocrity.  (A similar bit pops up in Daddy Day Care, a far worse disaster.)

It isn’t until Fisher suggests they properly introduce themselves about halfway through the movie that we finally hear from the three men who live there.  Henry Gibson, a doctor who paints to relax, sounds like a Nazi.  Brother Theodore, his brother, mostly glares without blinking.  And Courtney Gains looks like The Wolf Man in mid-transition.  (There’s a scene where Gains drives the family car from the garage to the sidewalk just to stuff a bag of garbage in a can.  Our desperate heroes, quietly observing across the street, think there’s a body inside.  They are not correct.)

The get-together is, as expected, extremely awkward.  (When Gibson offers his hand to Hanks when they first meet, it appears to be covered in blood.  It turns out to be paint.)  The new neighbours are understandably uneasy.  Their overly nosy visitors struggle to make small talk when they’re not asking pointed questions.  In between, there are long stretches of uncomfortable silence.  Just in case you thought the bee gag was too highbrow, Hanks eats a raw sardine on a pretzel as the foley artists needlessly amplify the juiciness.  Moments later, while pretending to sneeze, he spits it out in a newspaper.  Subtle.

While in their bathroom, he makes a startling discovery:  the missing neighbour’s toupee along with his subscription magazines.  One question would clear up that mystery.  It’s never asked.

There’s more.  One night, Hanks looks out his window to see the three men digging in their backyard.  (Makeshift graves?)   One afternoon, his dog, Vince, finds a bone.  (Is it human?)  With Ducommun’s story about a murderous soda jerk still ringing in his ears, Hanks sends his wife and son away so he can be part of something incredibly stupid, an illegal break-and-enter mission to find any evidence of their missing neighbour.  (Shouldn’t the police handle this, fellas?)  As always, Corey Feldman, another local resident, continually watches from his front porch with bemusement.  He claims this is “better than TV”.  He’s not very bright.

Once in the basement, Hanks starts foolishly digging in the dirt.  He should’ve just looked in the furnace.

As the felonies pile up, it all appears to be a big, tragic misunderstanding.  But then, something happens in the back of an ambulance that defies logic.  One character makes an unnecessary confession to another.  Why would you do this?  Why reveal this to an idiot who didn’t actually find anything incriminating on your property and may actually go to prison for a while?  Besides, how do you expect to flee without detection, even if you do succeed in killing him?

Joe Dante has made better films than this.  The Howling is good.  Matinee is great.  The ‘Burbs, on the other hand, is his worst effort to date.  The movie knows that the weird neighbours have to be guilty of something, otherwise Hanks, Ducommun and Dern will look like complete jerks for needlessly harassing them.  Actually, they look like jerks period for profiling their low-key neighbours in the first place.  Almost everything they believe about them comes not from solid evidence but from their own feverish, discredited imaginations.  No, they’re not Satanists.  No, they’re not cannibals.  No, they didn’t kill the cranky neighbour.  No, they didn’t stuff a body in the garbage.

The bogus “twist” at the end, a fortuitous fluke, is somehow supposed to justify all these false accusations and save our “heroes” from serious legal jeopardy.  But it’s an unjust reward for needless, unwarranted privacy violations.  We don’t like it when the police do this in real life, so how can we justify it in a terrible movie?

Because the neighbours aren’t very scary or compelling to begin with, just unusual and socially awkward, the last-minute reveal lands with an unconvincing thud and feels hypocritical, especially after all these contrived, false-alarm coincidences.  (Maybe irony and satirical role reversal would’ve helped the film’s comic tone which is astonishingly weak.)  It also exposes another glaring weakness.  The villains are dumb, too.  If you were expecting to get away with your own felonies, why would you leave all that evidence in the trunk of your car?

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, June 17, 2017
7:32 p.m.

Published in: on June 17, 2017 at 7:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is what I like to call an “Oh, come on!” movie.  Because at various points, you either think to yourself or say out loud, “Oh, come on!”.  Believe it or not, it’s an actual line of dialogue, the only time I laughed.

A sort-of sequel to the overrated 2008 found footage shockumentary Cloverfield, it drops that often contrived gimmick in favour of a more conventional narrative.  The result is the same, though.  Like its predecessor, it isn’t scary.  Put simply, it’s bullshit, which I also thought and said out loud more than once.

The heavenly Mary Elizabeth Winstead has spent her entire life running from scary situations.  In the opening scene, she quietly dumps her fiance (an unbilled Bradley Cooper) after an unseen, unexplained fight, leaves behind her engagement ring, packs up her stuff and moves out.  When he tries to call her from her car, she picks up but says nothing.  Then, because this is a horror movie, she gets into an accident.  You see it coming a mile away.

When she wakes up, she’s pantsless, barefoot (she never wears socks the entire movie, for some puzzling reason), banged up, groggy, handcuffed and locked inside what appears to be a basement.  Then John Goodman enters her room.  It turns out he’s a paranoid conspiracy theorist who claims that there’s been an attack.  They’re not in his house, though.  They’re in his underground bunker.  He’s been preparing for this moment for years.  It’s why he built the place.

The second we meet him, we have an immediate problem.  Goodman isn’t creepy enough.  (Kathy Bates, he isn’t.)  He’s the absolute wrong actor to pull off this role.  With the exception of one scene, I never felt intimidated by him.  This serious miscasting negates the few positives the film has going for it, like the terrific set design.  (We really do feel like we’re in a bunker.)

The movie also suffers from Tarantinoitis:  too much annoying small talk.  That becomes most evident when John Gallagher Jr. enters the story.  Unlike Winstead, he willingly wanted to come here.  His left arm in a sling, he too suffers from extreme fear.  He tells a story about being a great Track star in high school.  But because he was a shitty student, he wasn’t brave enough to go to college with all the smart kids even though he had a full scholarship and a ticket to ride.  Whatever, Nancy.

On more than one occasion, he deeply irritates Goodman with his constant yammering.  After a while, you wonder why he’s been tolerated for so long.  You get the feeling Goodman is looking for any reason to off him.  He’s a little too patient.  Considering Goodman’s intentions towards Winstead, it makes little sense why he keeps him around.

Upon waking up in her room, Winstead immediately plots her escape.  (I like how she sharpens the wooden end of one of her crutches into a shank, even though that plan doesn’t work out too well.)  But Goodman is determined to keep her indoors.  He insists it’s just not safe to go outside.  (I always thought he was lying about these potential threats, maybe even overselling the danger, but sadly, he isn’t.  It’s clear I’d forgotten about this movie’s predecessor.)  There’s a scene where the clever Winstead, easily the smartest character in the film, comes thisclose to leaving when suddenly a woman, Goodman’s neighbour, pounding on the other side of the door, demands to be let in.  She has very noticeable red open sores all over her face.  She’s in a state of panic.

Just moments before she literally pops in the frame (cheap horror gimmicks die hard), Goodman points out his dead hogs with the same condition (he has a farm), screaming at Winstead to reconsider.  Faced with her biggest fear yet again, Winstead realizes she’s stuck.  She doesn’t open the door.

Winstead later reveals to Gallagher that she’s a survivor of child abuse.  This explains why she chooses to stay in the bunker (better the devil you know than the devil you don’t) and her impulsive decision to dump Cooper after their fight.  (It’s not clear whether their argument was ever truly violent.)  She recounts a big regret.  While in a store, she witnessed a father not unlike her own repeatedly yanking on his daughter’s arm.  When the kid accidentally tripped, he punched her.  Winstead wishes she had intervened.

Faced with the very real prospect of never getting out of here, Winstead tries to make the best of it by doing puzzles with Gallagher and reading Goodman’s dead daughter’s old magazines.  (She wears some of her old clothes.)  They watch movies from his own personal VHS/DVD collections.  (He loves Pretty In Pink.)  She tries to decorate her bedroom to make it less gloomy.  And they eat dinner together like one awkward family.  These scenes of faux tranquility drag the movie’s already languid pacing down considerably.

But when the air filtration system gets jammed (she’s the only one who can fix it), her determination to flee returns with a vengeance.  She accidentally steps on a pair of blood-stained earrings, the same earrings Goodman’s daughter is wearing in a photo he has of her.  But when Gallagher sees the picture, he knows it’s not her.  It’s his sister’s former schoolmate who went missing two years ago.  Just before she finds the earrings, she also spots an alarming message scraped into a window.  Goodman hasn’t been fully candid.

Desperate for a solution to her dilemma, she figures out a way to protect herself should she ever manage to get past Goodman.  But once she escapes this nightmare, a more ridiculous one awaits, lest we forget this is a Cloverfield movie and if you’ve seen the first one, you know to a certain extent what that involves.

I don’t know about you but I’m getting tired of women-in-peril movies.  I’m also growing bored with alien invasion flicks.  10 Cloverfield Lane, Goodman’s home address in the movie, is half the former and half the latter, so it’s doubly tedious.  Long before his confession and a bit before she figures it out herself, it’s abundantly clear that Goodman’s motives toward Winstead are not altogether altruistic and her injuries are not at all accidental.  She’s a make-do replacement for a huge hole in his life that someone else once reluctantly filled.  It’s a bit too reminiscent of Don’t Breathe, which is only slightly better than this movie.

I have to admit, though, her makeshift hazmat suit would make MacGyver proud.  And as it turns out, it’s absolutely necessary in one scene.  How convenient, though, that she just happens to have a talent for designing clothes.  And how fortunate that Goodman doesn’t scoop up that bottle of liquor from her back seat.

In the final scene, Winstead has a decision to make.  Will she go to Baton Rouge or head towards Houston?  In other words, will she play it safe as always or take yet another risk?  Considering what she has just been through and in spite of what she tells Gallagher, it’s not believable she would make that left turn.

Dennis Earl
Hamiton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, May 28, 2017
5:33 p.m.

Published in: on May 28, 2017 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

Eddie And The Cruisers/Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!

In 1963, Eddie Wilson and his backing band, The Cruisers, had the number one song in America.  Just a year later, he disappeared without a trace.

In 1983, a TV journalist starts contacting the surviving members for an anniversary report on her show, Media Magazine.  20 years after The Dark Side topped the charts, the absence of Eddie is felt stronger than ever.

Eddie And The Cruisers are not a real band but a fine fictional one first conjured up by novelist P.F. Kluge and then adapted for the screen by Martin & Arlene Davidson.  (They co-wrote the screenplay, she executive produced and he directed.)  The charismatically brooding Michael Pare plays Eddie as a likeable, loyal yet ruthlessly ambitious rocker with strong Springsteenian vocals.  (John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band provided the original tunes.)

After the rejection of The Cruisers’ experimental second LP, A Season In Hell (inspired by the famous poet Arthur Rimbaud who heavily influenced Patti Smith), Eddie takes off in his beautiful red convertible and is never seen again.  His car is found dangling perilously over the edge of a bridge.  No body was ever recovered.

It’s that lack of finality that lingers depressingly in the minds and hearts of the remaining Cruisers two decades later.  Despite trying to get on with their lives, they remain married to their happier past.  The lack of true closure cuts deep.  Lingering wounds still won’t heal.

Tom Berenger plays Frank, the affable former keyboardist who turned Eddie onto Rimbaud and fell for his feminist back-up singer/girlfriend Joann (Helen Schneider) which causes temporary tension but not expulsion.  The Wordman’s lyrics are needed too much.

Frank’s now a popular English high school teacher who shares his love of poetry and Joann sings in Vegas.  When they eventually reconnect all these years later, the chemistry is still there.  Buried desire won’t die.

Meanwhile, Sally (Matthew Laurence), the stubborn bassist who we also like, has assembled his own nostalgic version of the Cruisers complete with an Eddie soundalike.  They’re good but it’s not the same without the original frontman.  They play the way he wants, rather than Eddie’s approach, to appreciative boomer crowds in hotel restaurants.  (They can’t let go of the past, either.)  Doc (Joe Pantoliano), the band’s former manager, is an impatient oldies DJ.

After Berenger’s trailer home is ransacked (other former band members subsequently experience the same thing), he gets a call from Doc.  While visiting him at his radio station, he learns that the master tapes of A Season In Hell, the rejected second album that Satin Records wouldn’t release, are missing.  Plus, he heard there might be a movie in the works.  Maybe they’ll get hired as consultants.

At the same time, Maggie (Ellen Barkin), the curious TV journalist from Media Magazine, tracks down the surviving Cruisers one by one for interviews.  Only Frank is initially reluctant.  But inevitably, he opens up, too.

In between the effective modern-day scenes where the conflicted band members reestablish contact and Frank reminisces about their heyday with the sympathetic reporter, we get sharply observed flashback sequences that reveal key moments in The Cruisers’ timeline.  Frank’s introduction to the band before one of their early pre-stardom gigs.  His ill-fated romance with Joann (he also turned her on to Rimbaud).  Eddie teaching a pitchy Frank how to rock out on the keys while working on The Dark Side.  The tragic death of their sax player Wendell (Michael “Tunes” Antunes).  And the fateful moment when a cruel dismissal leads to an impulsive ride.

Critics weren’t too thrilled with Eddie And The Cruisers during its lacklustre theatrical run.  The film didn’t find an audience until 1984 when it hit home video and HBO started airing the film relentlessly.  As a result, The Dark Side, which peaked on the real Billboard Hot 100 in the mid-60s during its first release, ended up in the Top 10 in its second.  (It was the number one Album Rock Track for five consecutive weeks, as noted by Wikipedia.)  Another song, Tender Hearts (also the name of the fictional band’s hit first album but also a John Cafferty original from 1980), eventually hit the Top 40.  The soundtrack has since sold three million copies.

That’s as close to self-actualization as this movie will ever get.

Despite being a work of fiction, Eddie And The Cruisers are a credible band with a number of entertaining songs that pass a key test:  they hold up on repeat listens.  I like the way the film is structured, as well.  We don’t get the full faux-historical details in those flashbacks, just important snippets which preserves the mystique of the band, most especially Eddie Wilson, who is correctly positioned as a supporting player, rather than the lead.  When he talks about his hopes for the band’s music, it’s smart, endearing and believable.  He wants to be one of the greats even if his bandmates don’t believe they can live up to that perhaps impossible ideal.  We only get a taste of the Season In Hell album but the one song we do hear is as good as any of their previous cuts even though nothing quite tops The Dark Side.

I also like watching how the dynamics of the band play out.  Witnessing the members argue over whether to use dramatic pauses in the vocals to add more tension and seeing them pep up Frank’s much slower version of The Dark Side is fun and insightful.  It makes you appreciate how difficult it is to produce something everyone can live with that can somehow attract mass appeal.

I’m not sure the money-conscious weasels at Satin Records, the mostly unseen villains of this story, would keep A Season In Hell under lock and key for 20 years long after Eddie’s disappearance.  Why wouldn’t they have tried to shamelessly cash in right away?  Nevertheless, once we find out who has the tapes and who else has been trying to secure them, we understand both their motives.  It makes sense.  The past can become the present again.

Which brings us to the controversial ending.  As Maggie’s report wraps up on TV, there he is, the mystery man in disguise watching himself in his prime.  No one notices him, especially when he walks away with a knowing smile on his face.  Personally, I like the ending.  It’s jolting.  And let’s be clear about one thing.  It’s not a cheat.

Eddie And The Cruisers is about the difficulty of divorcing yourself from your greatest period because you never wanted it to end.  Notice how all the surviving characters struggle with this, even the enigmatic singer at the heart of this story.  The music they created together in the 60s is so embedded into their DNA they can’t escape it.  The past defines their present more than anything else.  All of their current jobs keep them deeply connected to their firmly planted roots.

All throughout the film, there is considerable doubt about the fate of Eddie Wilson.  The lack of a body, the intuitive sense that he never really left.  So when we suddenly see his reflection on that TV screen, it’s not as though we weren’t warned.

Because he didn’t truly die, six years later, we get the highly deflating Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, which is a bit of a misleading title.  (We’ll get to why later.)  Pare returns as Wilson, now a construction worker named Joe West who somehow resides in Quebec.  (The movie was made by French Canadians.)  During a coffee break with a couple of co-workers in a local pub, he is transfixed by his old image on TV as Martha Quinn talks up his most famous song, then plugs an upcoming lookalike contest featuring contestants who look nothing like the real thing.  (Maybe that was the point.)

The Tender Hearts album has been rereleased and has gone platinum in a month, which is remarkable considering what was actually popular in 1984 (Van Halen, The Police, Michael Jackson), the year this movie is set.  It’s also a wink and a nod to the belated success of the original Eddie And The Cruisers soundtrack.

Wilson drives back across the border to check out the show without anyone noticing his presence, which seems hard to believe considering his less than brilliant disguise.  (Someone on the Internet later wrote that he looks like a longhaired Robert Goulet.)  He starts getting emotional as the crowd repeatedly chants “Eddie!  Eddie!” and we think for a moment he might out himself.  But he doesn’t.  This eventually establishes one of the fundamental problems with the movie.  His constant second guessing about his inevitable return to the spotlight.  (We learn early on that he never stopped writing songs, pages of which he later tries to burn to no success.  He has bad aim.)

Back in Montreal, while attending a Habs playoff game, he encounters aspiring artist Diane (Marina Orsini) who wants to paint him.  He’s not interested.  Their eventual, predictable romance has zero heat and ultimately becomes a major distraction.

While in another bar one night, Wilson checks out an uneven local band led by Colin James doppelganger Rick Diesel (Bernie Coulsen).  He befriends their sax player Hilton (Anthony Sherwood) who he once saw playing with Ike & Tina Turner and is later challenged by a skeptical Diesel to shred with his band.  In the middle of jamming, Wilson suddenly bolts during Hilton’s improvised solo.  Now thoroughly convinced of his skill (but strangely unaware of who he really is), Diesel seeks him out and eventually convinces him to critique his soloing on a lousy song he’s written.  Wilson complains that he isn’t letting the music breathe.  But when he tries his own solo, honestly it doesn’t improve the song at all.  It’s clear Diesel is too Eddie Van Halen for Wilson’s liking.  He’d rather he play more economically like The Edge.  Personally, I’d rather hear The Dark Side again.

Here’s a depressing observation.  Eddie Wilson in Eddie Lives! is just not a likeable character anymore.  He’s irritable, irrational, contradictory, needlessly jealous and out of touch with modern music.  Not only that, he stalls too much and is annoyingly indecisive.  He bluntly tells Diesel to quit his band only to help him form a crappy new one.  (In a thankless role, Platinum Blonde’s Mark Holmes becomes their new bassist.)  The material they generate is not fresh or innovative.  In fact, it sounds more like New Country, especially in the final concert scene when this new group, Rock Solid, opens some Quebec music festival with their grooveless stinkbombs.

Calling this Eddie And The Cruisers II is a bit fraudulent since the film isn’t about a long awaited reunion.  (Sally is the only Cruiser who returns from the original.)  It’s really a reluctant attempt at a second act with a different set of musicians.  (We really don’t care about their struggle to make it.)  The problem is that Wilson has to be dragged kicking and screaming back into the public eye even though this is what he really wants!  There really is no reason for him to act this way other than to draw out some contrived tension and create some kind of artificial suspense.  I mean do we really think he’s going to pull another disappearing act in the finale?  Please.

Satin Records, the label that refused to release A Season In Hell in 1964, finally does so to great success (come on) and also starts playing new unreleased Eddie Wilson singles that don’t feature The Cruisers and are instantly forgettable.  (There is no way any of them would be hits.)  Hearing these songs triggers Wilson’s temper and plays into his insecurities.  The weaselly executives play up the possibility that Eddie didn’t die to increase sales not realizing of course that they’re right.  They keep upping a reward for anyone with proof that he didn’t drown in that river.  No one comes forward.  But a couple of kooky broads go on Larry King to claim he fathered their kids, one of a small number of unfunny references to the discredited “Elvis is alive” conspiracy.

Another big problem with the film is Wilson’s weak explanation for how he managed to survive that crash.  First he says he doesn’t remember much.  But then he says when he hit the water he thought about Wendell, The Cruisers sax player who died of a heroin overdose, and decided to keep swimming.  (All the way to Canada?)  While I can understand walking away because of screwy record label politics, I can’t sympathize with the way he abandoned his bandmates by faking his death.  Let’s face it.  He’s a despicable coward.

There’s a scene where he approaches Sally on the beach (when did he become a father?) looking like he did 20 years ago.  The former bassist (who apparently isn’t doing the nostalgia circuit anymore) is royally pissed.  But after a few “I’m sorrys”, they embrace and all is instantly forgiven.  Sally later sends him a brief supportive telegram before the festival gig.  How convenient.

Like its predecessor, Eddie And The Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! was not loved during its 1989 theatrical run.  Unlike most critics in 1983, I’ll defend the original and its nervy ending.  I can’t defend this.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, May 27, 2017
3:07 p.m.

Published in: on May 27, 2017 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bird On A Wire (1990)

I have this test for a certain kind of actor.  If you can make me forget you’re an asshole in real life for two hours, then I have to admit you’re scary good at your job.

For a long time, Mel Gibson passed this test.  A raging xenophobe & homophobe and a violent misogynist off-screen, he could turn on the charm rather easily on-screen.  It helps explain why he got away with being a terrifying abuser for so long.

Take his role in Bird On A Wire, for instance.  In the film, he plays a paranoid pacifist hiding in plain sight through the FBI’s witness relocation program.  15 years ago, while seeking Acapulco Gold with a pal in Mexicali, he got entangled with a couple of crooked federal drug agents.  They roped them into doing a major drug deal which went horribly wrong.  One of the narcs (David Carradine) killed his friend and a federal agent.  After three months in jail, Gibson testified against him and he’s been moving around the country with different names and accents ever since.  (Apparently, he briefly ran Columbia Pictures, a funny inside joke.)

When we first meet him, he’s a bored, isolated, prank-lovin’, pony-tailed Southern mechanic in a Detroit gas station.  One rainy night, his past begins to catch up with him.  A customer in a BMW pulls up and the minute they lock eyes, he knows his cover’s been blown.

Goldie Hawn, a high-powered corporate attorney, is the driver.  Thinking they were on the verge of marriage 15 years ago, she was led to believe he died in a plane crash.  She even went to his memorial service.  When confronted, Gibson plays dumb, pretending he doesn’t have a tattoo and he’s a Vietnam vet.  Hawn knows better.

In a panic, Gibson tries to re-connect with the FBI agent who has overseen his case.  But he’s retired now and, as it turns out, rather senile.  So, he’s put in touch with Stephen Tobolowsky, the worst possible guy he could talk to.

Shortly thereafter, a now paroled David Carradine (yeah, that’s believable) and an indicted Bill Duke (who escaped during the ill-fated drug deal debacle) pay him an unexpected visit.  (They need to eliminate him so they can get back to smuggling.)  But because Carradine is gabby, Gibson survives with only butt pain, thanks to Hawn’s impeccably timed return.  (Hesitant villains with bad aim are the lamest villains of all.)

For the rest of the movie, the formerly devoted couple alternate between bickering, laughing, running, driving, flying, starving, ogling and, inevitably, screwing, all while continually tipping off their whereabouts and yet implausibly avoiding serious calamity.  (Gibson gets shot three times but never in a dangerous area.)  Hawn is pissed about being kept in the dark all this time but, even though she has a new boyfriend, she never got over Gibson.  Despite having a fling with a gun-totin’ veternarian (Joan Severence in one of her better performances), he feels exactly the same about Hawn.

It’s a delicate balancing act trying to make a funny action film, let alone one with a dickhead leading man, and Bird On A Wire can’t pull it off.  The chase sequences mostly lack genuine excitement and consistent comic ingenuity.  There’s a really funny moment, though, when Gibson makes a cheeky observation about Hawn as they’re climbing up a ladder, but that’s a rarity.  Most of the gags just don’t work.

Gibson and Hawn have such an easy, natural chemistry that when they argue, to a certain extent it feels a bit phony.  Shouldn’t she be more relieved than angry he’s still alive?  And even though he’s an old-school hippie who still sings Dylan at the top of his lungs and she’s now a loaded capitalist stuck in a dead-end relationship with some overworked nerd, their oppositional tension isn’t believable, I don’t care how many times she mumbles.  When they spend the night in a crummy motel (which inspires a couple of laughs), all it takes is a dick joke and one night of intimacy to make Hawn let go of her mostly contrived grievances.

All the while, Carradine, Duke and Tobolowsky continue to stalk them until the expected final confrontation.  After finally reconnecting with the now-retired FBI agent, Gibson and Hawn are advised to make their way to a nearby zoo.  Gibson used to work here during a past identity and he’s expecting to find a cache of weapons in the control room.  Good thing he knows how to unlock cages.

I first watched Bird On A Wire on my 15th birthday during its 1990 theatrical run.  I kinda liked it (I still love The Neville Brothers’ catchy Leonard Cohen cover) and was blissfully unaware of Gibson’s real-life dark side.  Now in my early 40s (and knowing a lot more about his general awfulness), I understand today why critics were not as enamoured.

There aren’t many surprises here except maybe the denseness of the heroes.  As paranoid as Gibson is in the film, he’s not very smart.  After being wrongly accused of murder early on, he doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.  In fact, he doesn’t change his appearance at all.  Plus, he drags Hawn to some of his former stomping grounds.  Tobolowsky and company correctly anticipate his next moves because they know all his former identities, and it takes him forever to finally realize that.  Hawn isn’t much help to his cause.  At one point, she makes it worse.

Even though Gibson is far from truly hateful in the film (he’s more of a reckless, harmless goof than anything else), he does offer an unnecessary impression of a sissy hairdresser, a tired stereotype.  I have to admit that when he gets beaten up and shot at, I wasn’t terribly upset, even though his character is more principled than the actor who plays him.

There’s an unwritten rule in Hollywood that assholes are often cast as heroes and actual gentlemen play the nastiest villains.  There are exceptions, of course, but not in the case of Mel Gibson.  If Bird On A Wire had been a lot funnier and smarter, the charm con that he long specialized in would’ve prevailed once more.

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Sunday, April 30, 2017
6:40 p.m.

Published in: on April 30, 2017 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment