Film Review: Flashdance (dir by Adrian Lyne)


Instead of getting any sleep last night, I decided to stay up and watch the 1983 dance film, Flashdance.  As a result, I’m not only very tired but everyone I see today, I’m just like, “You’re not really a welder, are you?”

In the film, that question is asked by bitchy Katie Hurley (Belinda Bauer) to 18 year-old Alex (Jennifer Beals) and the answer, by the way, is yes.  Alex is a welder.  Judging by the way the film handles the topic, it appears that audiences in 1983 were really stunned that a woman could be a welder.  (I kept expecting to hear someone say, “She’s one of those lady welders, like you read about in the Reader’s Digest.”)  Myself, I’m more amazed that an 18 year-old in Pittsburgh could get a high-paying union job.  Then again, we never really see any evidence that Alex is really doing much as a welder.  We do see her at a construction site holding one of those torch things but that’s pretty much it.  Last night, I started Flashdance with no idea what a welder does and I ended the movie with even less of an idea but then again, the movie really isn’t about welding.

Instead, it’s about dancing!  And love!  And holding onto your dreams!  And living in a big warehouse with a dog and a handsome boyfriend!  As one character puts it, when you give up your dreams, you die.  Of course, most people have multiple dreams so what happens if you only give up one but hold onto the others?  I guess you just lose a toe or something.  But anyway….

Actually,  before we move on, how much money did welders make back in 1983?  Because seriously, Alex lives in a gigantic and very nicely decorated building and her only roommate is a dog.  As Alex explains to her boss and boyfriend, Nick (Michael Nouri), the building was an abandoned warehouse before Alex moved in.  So, does Alex own the building?  Does she just rent it?  It’s a great place and I love what Alex does with it but seriously, it’s hard to believe that any 18 year-old — even one who is working two jobs — could afford it.

Yes, Alex has two jobs.  Such is the price of independence.  When she’s not welding, she’s dancing at a dive bar.  Her routines are amazingly filmed and a lot of fun to watch but they’re also so elaborate it’s hard to believe that they could be performed in such a run-down establishment or that the bar’s blue collar clientele would have much patience for them.  She’s an exotic dancer, which means she doesn’t take off her clothes.  The sleazy owner of local strip club (Lee Ving) keeps trying to encourage Alex and her friend, Jeanie (Sunny Johnson), to come dance at his place but Alex has no interest in that.  Jeanie, on the other hand, accepts the offer.  Fortunately, Alex is there to run into the club and yank her off stage and then yell at her.  Alex spends a lot of time yelling at people.  She also throws a rock through one of Nick’s windows when she sees him talking to his ex-wife.  One could argue that Alex has rage issues but no one in the film seems to take them personally.  How could they?  Alex is pursuing her dreams and the good thing about pursuing a dream is that you can do whatever you want while doing so.

(Interestingly, you can tell that the filmmakers were a little bit concerned that audiences in the early 80s might view Alex as being a bit too independent and confrontational.  In between the scenes of Alex yelling at people and casually reaching underneath her sweatshirt to remove her bra while Nick watches, there are also scenes of Alex going to confession.  It’s as if the film’s saying, “Yes, she welds!  Yes, she has a temper!  Yes, she’s flirty!  But fear not, she’s a good girl!  So, it’s okay for you to be on her side….”)

For a film that was shot on the streets of Pittsburgh, there’s not a gritty moment to be found in Flashdance.  This is the type of film where Alex rides her bicycle across the city and it never once gets stolen, despite the fact that she never actually locks it up.  In the world of Flashdance, all conflicts are easily resolved, all insecurities are ultimately conquered, and all dreams come true.  It’s a world where Alex can become a great dancer despite having never had any formal training just because, as she puts it, she’s “watched TV and read books.”  (My old dance teachers probably hated this movie.)  It’s a fairy tale and, like most fairy tales, it’s deeply silly and yet oddly compelling at the same time.  Never once do you buy that Alex is a welder and it’s pretty obvious, from all the quick cuts and the skewed camera angles, that Jennifer Beals did not do her own dancing.  But it doesn’t matter because it’s hard not to get pulled into the film’s glitzy fantasy.  Flashdance may technically be a bad movie but I dare you not to cry a little when Alex leaves her audition and finds Nick waiting for her.  Not only does Alex achieve her dreams, but she also get a rich, older boyfriend, the type who gives her flowers and puts a bow on her dog.

It’s interesting to note that the two films that practically define the early 80s cinematic aesthetic, Flashdance and Scarface, were both released in 1983.  (Not only was Flashdance initially offered to Scarface director Brian DePalma but Al Pacino was also offered the role of Nick.  Pacino, of course, turned it down and played Tony Montana instead.)  To be honest, I think you can argue that Flashdance and Scarface are essentially the same film.  They’ve both got neon opening credits.  They’ve both got a score from Giorgio Moroder.  They’re both elaborate fantasies about someone who won’t surrender their dream.  Just replace all the cocaine that Tony Montana snorted with Alex’s love of dancing.

Finally, I have to mention Flashdance‘s music.  The score and the song may be totally 80s but it still sounds good in 2019.  The theme song won an Oscar and let me tell you, if you can listen to this song without dancing around your house in your underwear, then you obviously have a lot more self-control than I do.

44 Days of Paranoia #3: Winter Kills (dir by William Richert)


MPW-39279Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.

As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia.  Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin.  The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics.  Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer).  This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick.  Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan.  Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.

Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy.  Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women.  With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.

The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family.  Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes.  The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.

As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history.  The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges.  The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.

When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast.  Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM.  And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.

Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work.  The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking.  The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.

That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire.  Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable.  Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.

Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule.  If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.

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