Embracing the Melodrama Part II #82: Promised Land (dir by Michael Hoffman)

Promised_land_poster_(1987)When I made out my schedule of reviews for Embracing the Melodrama, I did not realize that I was setting myself up for a mini-marathon of Kiefer Sutherland movies but somehow, that’s exactly what happened!  No sooner had I watched and jotted down my impressions of Bright Lights, Big City and 1969, then I started watching a 1988 film called Promised Land (which should not be confused with the recent Matt Damon/Jon Krasinski fracking film).

And guess who stars in this particular film?

That’s right — Kiefer Sutherland!

Now, if Bright Lights, Big City featured Kiefer as a sociopath and 1969 featured Kiefer as a blonde-haired golden boy, Promised Land features Kiefer as a prototypical outsider.

Promised Land opens at a high school basketball game.  Hancock (Jason Gedrick) is the handsome and popular jock who is a star on the court and who is dating a cheerleader named Mary (Tracy Pollan).  Danny (Kiefer Sutherland) is the nerdy kid who gets good grades and who is nicknamed Senator because he wants to enter politics.  He has an obvious crush on Mary but also appears to have one on Hancock as well.  As Hancock runs up and down the court, nobody cheers louder than Danny.  Meanwhile, Hancock barely knows who Danny is.

Three years later and things have changed.  Hancock, having gone to college on an athletic scholarship just to drop out and return home, is now a vaguely fascistic police officer.  Mary has remained in college.  When she returns home for Christmas break, Hancock tries to rekindle their relationship but Mary has moved on.

Meanwhile, Danny has dropped out of school as well.  After spending a few years drifting around, he meets the lively, vivacious, and totally insane Bev (Meg Ryan).  He and Bev get married in Las Vegas and decide to head back to Danny’s hometown for Christmas…

Drama, violence, and tragedy follow!

But you already guessed that, didn’t you?  That’s one of the problems with Promised Land.  From the minute that Bev says that she wants to meet Danny’s family, you can tell exactly how this story is going to end.  And while a predictable plot can sometimes be redeemed by memorable performances, that’s not the case with Promised Land.  Kiefer Sutherland and Meg Ryan both give good and dangerous performances but Jason Gedrick and Tracy Pollan make for a boring couple.

(Interestingly enough, Tracy Pollan was also in Bright Lights, Big City.)

Promised Land does have some historical significance, in that it was the first film to ever be partially funded by the Sundance Institute.  Robert Redford is listed as an executive producer.  But, historical significance aside, there’s really not much about Promised Land to really recommend going to the effort to try to track it down.  It’s not so much bad as just very forgettable.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #81: 1969 (dir by Ernest Thompson)

NineteensixtyninefilmIn 1988, the same year that he was forcing Michael J. Fox to snort cocaine in Bright Lights, Big City, Kiefer Sutherland played a far different role in the film 1969.

As you might guess from the film’s title, 1969 takes place in 1969.  Scott (Kiefer Sutherland) and Ralph (Robert Downey, Jr.) have just graduated from high school and are facing a future that involves either going to college or going to Vietnam.  Scott’s older brother, Alden (Christopher Wynne), has already enlisted in the army and has made their father, Cliff (Bruce Dern), proud in a way that Scott knows he will never be able to match.

So, Scott and Ralph make plans to go to college together and basically stay there until the war ends.  But, needless to say, things don’t work out as perfectly as Scott assumed that they would.  Scott and Ralph spend the summer on a road trip, during which time they meet the usual collection of hippies and fascists who always populate films like this.  They also discover that they have less in common than they thought.  Scott is an idealist who is convinced that he can change the world.  Ralph is far more fatalistic, a cynic who hides his pain behind a constant stream of sarcasm.

When Ralph is kicked out of school (and loses his draft deferment as a result), Alden is killed in Vietnam and Scott sees his father in a potentially compromising position with Ralph’s mother (Joanne Cassidy) (on the night of the moon landing no less!), the disillusioned Scott feels that he has to take action.  With the help of Ralph and Ralph’s sister, Beth (Winona Ryder), Scott breaks into the local draft office and tries to destroy all the records.

Now, if you guessed that the police arrive and that Scott and Beth eventually find themselves in a van, driving for the Canadian border, then you’ve probably seen countless other films that were set in the same year as 1969

1969 is a rather predictable film but, at the same time, it’s likable in much the same way that a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond is likable.  It’s not something you really need to watch but, if you do watch it, you won’t necessarily be filled with regret.  I imagine that one reason why 1969 tends to show up on networks like Antenna and This TV so much is precisely because it is such a thoroughly inoffensive little movie.

The film also features some above average performances.  It’s not surprising that Robert Downey, Jr. and Winona Ryder both give good performances because, to a large extent, their characters mirror their own public personas.  But, considering that he’s best known for playing Jack Bauer in 24, it’s still somewhat surprising to see a much younger Kiefer Sutherland playing such an essentially gentle character and being totally convincing in the role.  (He already had that sexy growl of a voice, however.)  And finally, the film’s best performance comes from Bruce Dern.  Eternally befuddled and confused by the changes around him, Cliff is ultimately the film’s most sympathetic character, even if he wasn’t originally meant to be.

And needless to say, considering that the film is called 1969, it’s got a great soundtrack!


Embracing the Melodrama Part II #80: Bright Lights, Big City (dir by James Bridges)

Bright_Lights_Big_CityThe 1988 film Bright Lights, Big City is one of the many films from the late 80s in which Kiefer Sutherland plays a demonic character.  In this case, his character is so demonic that his name is — seriously, check this shit out — Tad Allagash.  Nobody named Tad Allagash has ever been a good guy!

Tad is the best friend of Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox), an aspiring writer who has moved to New York City from some middle-America farm state and who now has a job as a fact checker at the New Yorker.  Jamie is still struggling to deal with both the death of his mother (played in flashbacks by Dianne Wiest) and the collapse of his marriage to Amanda (Phoebe Cates).  Tad helps out his depressed little friend by taking him out to the clubs and supplying him with so much cocaine that Jamie literally spends the entire film on the verge of having a geyser of blood shoot out from his powder-coated nostrils.

And the thing is, Tad knows that he’s not a good influence on Jamie’s life but he doesn’t care.  Whenever Jamie starts to get a little bit too wrapped up in his self-pity, Tad is there to make a tasteless joke.  Whenever Jamie tries to argue that he and Amanda aren’t really broken up, Tad is there to remind him that Amanda wants nothing to do with him.  Whenever Jamie starts to think that doing all of this cocaine is potentially ruining his life, Tad is there to cheerfully cut another line.  Tad makes no apologies for being Tad Allagash.  He’s too busy having a good time and it’s obvious that Sutherland’s having an even better time playing Tad.  As a result, Tad Allagash becomes the perfect antihero, the bad guy that you like despite yourself.

Unfortunately, Bright Lights, Big City isn’t about Tad Allagash.  You’re happy whenever Kiefer shows up but he doesn’t show up enough to actually save the film.  No, Bright Lights, Big City is the story of Jamie Conway and that’s why the film is a bit of a pain to sit through.  Despite having a great Irish name, Jamie Conway is one of the whiniest characters that I have ever seen in a film.  From the minute he first appears on screen and starts complaining about the failure of his marriage, you want someone to just tell him to shut up.  When he tells an alcoholic editor (Jason Robards) that his latest short story was autobiographical, you nod and think, “So, that’s why it hasn’t been published.”

Of course, since Jamie is the main character, everyone in the film feels sorry for him but he really is just insufferable.  There’s a lengthy scene where Jamie delivers a drunken monologue to a sympathetic coworker, Megan (played by Swoosie Kurtz).  And while Jamie goes on and on about how he first met Amanda and how their marriage fell apart (and how it was all her fault), poor Megan has to sit there and try to look sympathetic.  Personally, I would have kicked Jamie out of my apartment after the first minute of that whiny diatribe.  Megan has the patience of a saint.

There is some curiosity value to watching Michael J. Fox snort cocaine.  (I wonder if contemporary audiences shouted, “McFly!” as they watched Fox sniffing up the devil’s dandruff.)  But otherwise, Bright Lights, Big City is a relic of 80s cinema that can be safely forgotten.

Neon Dream #6: 식료품groceries – 슈퍼마켓Yes! We’re Open

식료품groceries definitely takes one of the more unique approaches to vaporwave that I have heard so far. The name and imagery place you in a location I rather doubt any other album has ever centered around: a fresh produce market. The new age, jazz, and softened traditional Asian (Korean?) folk melodies are a lot more naturally pleasing than what most of vaporwave samples from. I might have enjoyed some of this music in its original form. 식료품groceries colors it with 80s beats and a low-volume haze that take you to a supermarket from another world. It is futuristic, in a sense, but the 80s vibe places it firmly in the past. It is, perhaps, a nostalgic reminder of how the future used to be perceived. On 슈퍼마켓Yes! We’re Open, you relive the experience of visiting a supermarket when they were still new and novel. What other genre of music can give you that?

Listening to this, it strikes me just how different 20th century trash music is compared to what we hear in retail stores and restaurants today. Much of it was certainly contrived, copying sounds once believed to place consumers in a purchasing state of mind. Easy listening with a bit of pep, always subliminal, it was meant to make you feel empowered to buy anything that caught your eye without care for the cost. Whether that approach actually worked, eh, it’s hard to say. The Muzak corporation certainly made a lot of money pitching it. But beyond serving a capitalist agenda, the music did have inborn qualities. If it really was pure trash, it would not have been very effective. What it might lead you to buy–that was the garbage.

If you walk into pretty much any business but Panera Bread in America today, you won’t hear anything like it. You will instead catch the same 20-track rotation regardless of the store, all songs conceptualized in corporate offices and performed by talentless beauty queens. The music has become itself a product. The idea is to craft music so mind-numbing that the melody will stick in your head all the way to the check-out, where the albums are conveniently on display for you to purchase if you haven’t found them on your smart phone yet. Since most people can’t differentiate infestation from fascination and buy on impulse, it’s not a bad scheme. When the practice becomes so universal that I can’t even choose my retailers based on their lack of painfully bad audio, it’s a great scheme. (By the way, I eat at Panera Bread a lot, and not so much for their average food.) Modern society’s further descent renders classic “shopping music” an art, and vaporwave artists are reviving it as such. In a round-about way, 식료품groceries might be one of the bleaker artists I feature here. By taking what was once considered trite and revealing its relative quality compared to retail music today, it reminds us just how much more vapid and commercial our world has become.