Music Video of the Day: Take A Look At Me Now (Against All Odds) by Phil Collins (1984, dir by Taylor Hackford)


On the one hand, I know that the critics have never exactly embraced the songs of Phil Collins.  I mean, there’s a reason why it’s such a brilliant joke that, in American Psycho, the vacuous wannabe serial killer Patrick Bateman is a rabid Phil Collins fan.  On the one hand, Collins’s music is representative of an era.  On the other hand, it’s often used to illustrate everything that was supposedly wrong with that era.

But you know what?

Screw it.  I like this song.  It’s effective.  It works.  It’s fun to listen to and I’ll probably find myself singing it sometime tonight.  Earlier, I watched a 1984 film called Against All Odds and, when this song played over the final freeze frame, it was a perfect moment.

The video for Take A Look At Me Now was directed by the same guy who directed Against All Odds, Taylor Hackford.  Of course, the video itself is mostly made up of clips from the film.  In between Phil doing his thing, we get scenes of Jeff Bridges looking young and sexy, Rachel Ward looking sultry, and James Woods looking dangerous.

The song itself was nominated for an Oscar, though it lost to I Just Called To Say I Love You from The Woman In Red.

Enjoy!

Embracing The Melodrama Part III #8: The Boost (dir by Harold Becker)


Seven days ago, we started embracing the melodrama with my review of No Down Payment, a look at lies and betrayal in suburbia.  Today, we conclude things with 1988’s The Boost, a look at lies, betrayal, and cocaine in California, with the emphasis on cocaine.

From the first minute we meet Lenny Brown (James Woods, at his nerviest best), we assume that he has to be high on something.  He’s a real estate broker and he’s one of those guys who always looks a little bit sleazy no matter how hard he tries otherwise.  His smile is just a little too quick.  He laughs a little bit too eagerly at his own jokes.  He talks constantly, an endless patter of self-serving compliments, nervous jokes, and self-affirming platitudes.  He’s a bundle of nerves but he’s also a brilliant salesman.  We may assume that he’s on coke when we first see him but actually, he doesn’t touch the stuff.  He barely drinks.

Of course, that changes when he’s hired by Max Sherman (Steven Hill).  Max is a philosophical businessman, the type who makes sure that everyone who works for him gets a nice house, a nice car, and several lectures about what’s important in life.  When Max first shows up, it’s tempting to dismiss him as just a self-important businessman but he actually turns out to be a nice guy.  He gives Lenny a ton of good advice.  Unfortunately, Lenny ignores almost all of it.

At first, life is good for Lenny and his wife, Linda (Sean Young).  Lenny is making tons of money, selling houses that can used as a tax shelter or something like that.  (I never understand how any of that stuff works.)  Lenny is making all sorts of new friends, like Joel Miller (John Kapelos) and his wife, Rochelle (Kelle Kerr).  Joel owns four car washes and he’s made a fortune off of them.  All of that money means that he can throw extravagant parties and take nice trips.  It also means that Joel has a never-ending supply of cocaine.  At first, Lenny turns down Joel’s offer of cocaine but eventually he gives in.  At the time, he says that he just needs a little boost.  Soon both Lenny and Linda are addicts.

Of course, nothing goes on forever.  The tax laws change and Max suddenly finds himself out-of-business.  Lenny and Linda lose their house.  They lose their expensive car.  They even lose their private plane.  They end up staying in a tiny apartment.  Lenny says that he can still sell anything and that they’ll be back on top in just a few months.  Of course, even while Lenny is saying this, his main concern is getting more cocaine…

Though dated, The Boost is an effective anti-drug film.  The scene where Lenny overdoses is absolutely harrowing.  Wisely, the film doesn’t deny the fact that cocaine is a lot of fun before you end up losing all of your money and having to move into a cheap apartment with shag carpeting.  It’s a bit like a coke-fueled Days of Wine and Roses, right down to an ending that finds one partner clean and one partner still in the throes of addiction.  James Woods gives a great performance as the self-destructive Lenny, as does Sean Young as his wife and partner in addiction.  And then there’s Steven Hill, providing the voice of gruff wisdom as Max Sherman.  When Max says that he feels that he’s been betrayed, Hill makes you feel as if the entire world has ended.

Speaking of endings, that’s it for this latest installment of Embracing the Melodrama.  I hope you enjoyed this mini-series of reviews and that you will always be willing to embrace the … well, you know.

 

A Movie A Day #338: Raid on Entebbe (1977, directed by Irvin Kershner)


On June 27th, 1976, four terrorists hijacked an Air France flight and diverted it to Entebbe Airport in Uganda.  With the blessing of dictator Idi Amin and with the help of a deployment of Ugandan soldiers, the terrorists held all of the Israeli passengers hostage while allowing the non-Jewish passengers to leave.  The terrorists issued the usual set of demands.  The Israelis responded with Operation Thunderbolt, a daring July 4th raid on the airport that led to death of all the terrorists and the rescue of the hostages.  Three hostages were killed in the firefight and a fourth — Dora Bloch — was subsequently murdered in a Ugandan hospital by Idi Amin’s secret police.  Only one commando — Yonatan Netanyahu — was lost during the raid.  His younger brother, Benjamin, would later become Prime Minister of Israel.

Raid on Entebbe, a docudrama about the operation, was originally produced for NBC though it subsequently received an overseas theatrical release as well.  It’s an exciting tribute to the bravery of both the hostages and the commandos who rescued them.  Director Irvin Kershner directs in a documentary fashion and gets good performances from a cast full of familiar faces.  Charles Bronson, James Woods, Peter Finch, Martin Balsam, Stephen Macht, Horst Buchholz, Sylvia Sidney, Allan Arbus, Jack Warden, John Saxon, and Robert Loggia show up as politicians, commandos, terrorists, and hostages and all of them bring a sense of reality and humanity to their roles.

The film’s best performance comes from Yaphet Kotto, who plays Idi Amin as a strutting buffoon, quick to smile but always watching out for himself.  In the film, Amin often pays unannounced visits to the airport, where he lies and tells the hostages that he is doing his best to broker an agreement between the terrorists and Israel.  The hostages are forced to applaud Amin’s empty promises and Amin soaks it all up with a huge grin on his face.  Forest Whitaker may have won the Oscar for Last King of Scotland but, for me, Yaphet Kotto will always be the definitive Idi Amin.

The Films of Dario Argento: Inferno


I’ve been using this October’s horrorthon as an excuse to rewatch and review the films of Dario Argento!  Today we take a look at one of Argento’s best and most underrated films, 1980’s Inferno!

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“There are mysterious parts in that book, but the only true mystery is that our very lives are governed by dead people.”

— Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) in Inferno

When 20th Century Fox released Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1977, they weren’t expecting this Italian horror film to be a huge box office success.  That it was caught them totally off guard.  Though the studio executives may not have understood Italian horror, they did know that Suspiria made them a lot of money and they definitely wanted to make more of it.

As for Dario Argento, he followed up Suspiria by producing George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.  He also supervised the film’s European cut.  (In Europe, Dawn of the Dead was known as Zombi, which explains why Lucio Fulci’s fake sequel was called Zombi 2.)  When Dawn of the Dead, like Suspiria before it, proved to be an unexpected box office hit, it probably seemed as if the Argento name was guaranteed money in the bank.

Hence, when Argento started production on a semi-sequel to Suspiria, 20th Century Fox agreed to co-finance.  Though the majority of the film was shot on a sound stage in Rome, Argento was able to come to New York to do some location work, hence making this Argento’s first “American” film.  The name of the movie was Inferno.

Sadly, Inferno proved to be a troubled production.  Shortly after production began, Argento became seriously ill with hepatitis and reportedly, he had to direct some scenes while lying on his back while other sequences were done by the second unit.

As well, Argento had a strained relationship with 20th Century Fox.  Argento wanted James Woods to star in Inferno but, when it turned out that Woods was tied up with David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, the studio insisted that Argento cast an actor named Leigh McCloskey instead.  As a performer, James Woods is nervy, unpredictable, and compulsively watchable.  Leigh McCloskey was none of those things.

Worst of all, as a result of a sudden management change at 20th Century Fox, Inferno was abandoned by its own distributor.  The new studio executives didn’t know what to make of Inferno and, in America, the film only received an extremely limited release.  The few reviews that the film received were largely negative.  (Like most works of horror, Argento’s films are rarely critically appreciated when first released.)  It’s only been over the past decade that Inferno has started to receive the exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

Argento has said that he dislikes Inferno, largely because watching it remind him of a very difficult time in his life.  That’s unfortunate, because Inferno is one of his best films.

The Mother of Tears (Ania Pieroni) in Inferno

The Mother of Tears (Ania Pieroni) in Inferno

“Have you ever heard of the Three Sisters?”

“You mean those black singers?”

— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia) discuss mythology in Inferno

As I stated previously, Inferno is a semi-sequel to Suspiria.  Whereas Suspiria dealt with an ancient witch known as the Mother of Sighs, Inferno deals with her younger sister, the Mother of Darkness.  The Mother of Sighs lives underneath a German dance academy.  The Mother of Darkness lives underneath a New York apartment building.  The Mother of Sighs was a witch.  The Mother of Darkness is an alchemist.

Beyond that and the fact that Alida Valli is in both films (though apparently playing different characters), there aren’t many references to Suspiria in Inferno.  The tone of Inferno is very different from the tone of Suspiria.  If Suspiria was perhaps Argento’s most straight-forward films, Inferno is one of his most twisted.  It makes sense, of course.  Suspiria is about magic but Inferno is about science.  Suspiria casts a very Earthy spell while Inferno often feels like a scientific equation that cannot quite be solved.

The film deals with Mark Elliott (Leigh McCloskey), an American music student in Rome.  After he gets a disturbing letter from his sister, Rose (Irene Miracle), a poet who lives alone in New York City, Mark heads back to the U.S. to check in on her.  (That’s right — Mark and Rose are two more of Argento’s artistic protagonists.)  However, when Mark arrives, he discovers that his sister is missing and it’s obvious that strange inhabitants of the building are trying to cover something up.

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“May I ask a strange question?”

“How strange?”

— Sara (Eleonora Giorgi) and Mark Elliot (Leigh McCloskey) in Inferno

Even more than with some of Argento’s other films, the plot of Inferno isn’t particularly important.  One reason why it’s easy to get annoyed with Mark is because he spends the entire film demanding to know where his sister is, despite the fact that those of us in the audience already know that she’s dead.  Argento showed us her being murdered shortly before Mark’s arrival.  Argento makes sure that we know but he never bothers to reveal the truth to Mark and one of the more curious aspects of the film is that Mark never discovers that his sister is dead.  (By the end of the film, one assumes that he’s finally figured it out but even then, we don’t know for sure.)  The fact of the matter is that Mark and his search for his sister are never really that important.  Argento doesn’t particularly seem to care about Mark and he never really gives the viewer any reason to care either.  (Of course, it doesn’t help that Mark is rather stiffly played by Leigh McCloskey.)

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Instead, Argento approaches Inferno as a collection of increasingly surreal set pieces.  Much as in Lucio Fuci’s Beyond trilogy, narrative logic is less important than creating a dream-like atmosphere.  Often time, it’s left to the viewer to decide how everything fits together.

There are so many odd scenes that it’s hard to pick a favorite or to know where to even begin.  Daria Nicolodi shows up as Elise Stallone Van Adler, a neurotic, pill-popping aristocrat who briefly helps Mark look for his sister.  Eventually, she’s attacked by thousands of cats before being stabbed to death by one of Argento’s trademark black-gloved killers.  After Elise’s death, her greedy butler makes plans to steal her money.  Did the butler kill Elise?   We’re never quite sure.  Does the butler work for The Mother of Darkness or is he just being influenced by her evil aura?  Again, we’re never sure.  (By that same token, when the butler eventually turns up with eyes literally hanging out of their sockets, we’re never quite sure how he ended up in that condition.  And yet, somehow, it makes a strange sort of sense that he would.)

inferno-cats

Cats also feature into perhaps the film’s most famous scene.  When the crippled and bitter book seller Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) attempts to drown a bag of feral cars in a Central Park pond, he is suddenly attacked by a pack of a carnivorous rats.  A hot dog vendor hears Kazanian’s cries for help and rushes over.  At first, the vendor appears to be a good Samaritan but suddenly, he’s holding a knife and stabbing Kazanian to death.  Why did the rats attack in the first place?  Is the hot dog vendor (who only appears in that one scene) a servant of the Mother of Darkness or is he just some random crazy person?  And, in the end, does it matter?  At times, Inferno seems to suggest that the real world is so insane that the Mother of Darkness is almost unnecessary.

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Meanwhile, in Rome, Mark sits in class and reads a letter from his sister.  When he looks up, he immediately sees that a beautiful young woman is looking straight at him.  She’s petting a cat and staring at him with a piercing stare.  (She is played Ania Pieroni, who later achieved a certain cult immortality by appearing as the enigmatic housekeeper in Lucio Fulci’s The House By The Cemetery.)  The film later suggests that the woman is the third mother, the Mother of Tears, but why would she be in the classroom?  Why would she be staring at Mark?

When Mark’s girlfriend, Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), does some research in a library, she finds a copy of a book about The Three Mothers and is promptly attacked by a mysterious figure.  When she flees back to her apartment, she meets Carlo (Gabriele Lavia, who was also in Deep Red) who agrees to stay with her until Mark arrives.  Is Carlo sincere or is he evil?  Argento does eventually answer that question but he certainly keeps you guessing until he does.

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Finally, I have to mention the best  and most haunting scene in the film.  When Rose searches a cellar for a clue that she believes will lead her to the Mother of Darkness, she discovers a hole that leads to a flooded ballroom.  When Rose drops her keys into the hole, she plunges into water and swims through the room.  (The first time I saw this scene, I immediately said, “Don’t do that!  You’re going to ruin your clothes!”)  As Rose discovers, not only keys get lost in that flooded ballroom.  There’s a dead body as well, one which floats into the scene from out of nowhere and then seems to be intent on following Rose through the entire room.  It’s a sequence that is both beautiful and nightmarish.  (It certainly does nothing to help me with my fear of drowning.)

In the end, Inferno is a dream of dark and disturbing things.  Does the plot always make sense?  Not necessarily.  But that plot’s not important.  The film’s surreal imagery and atmosphere of doom and paranoia casts a hypnotic spell over the viewer.  Inferno is perhaps as close to a filmed nightmare as you’ll ever see.

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“She writes poetry.”

“A pastime especially suited for women.”

— Mark and the Nurse (Veronica Lazar) in Inferno 

Finally, no review of Inferno would be complete without discussing some of the people who worked behind-the-scenes.

Along with acting in the film, Daria Nicolodi also worked on the script.  As is so often the case with Daria and Dario’s collaborations, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Nicolodi was with the final script.  Daria has said that she would have demanded co-writing credit, if not for the fact that it had previously been such an ordeal to get credited for Suspiria.  Others have claimed that, while Nicolodi offered up some ideas, the final script was almost all Argento’s creation.

(Comparing the films that Argento made with Nicolodi to the ones that he made without her leads me to side with Nicolodi.)

Working on the film as a production assistant was William Lustig, the famed exploitation film producer and director who would later become the CEO of Blue Underground.  Reportedly, during filming, Lustig attempted to convince Nicolodi to star in a film that he was going to direct.  Nicolodi’s co-star would have been legendary character actor Joe Spinell.  Disgusted by the film’s script, Nicolodi refused the role and, as a result, Caroline Munro ended up playing the stalked fashion photographer in Lustig’s controversial Maniac.

Future director Michele Soavi worked on several of Argento’s films.  I’ve always been under the impression that Soavi was a production assistant on Inferno but, when I rewatched the film, he wasn’t listed in the credits.  Inferno is also not among his credits on the imdb.  I guess the idea that one of my favorite Italian horror directors worked on one of my favorite Italian horror films was just wishful thinking on my part.

However, you know who is listed in the credits?  Lamberto Bava!  Bava, who would later direct the Argento-produced Demons, worked as an assistant director on Inferno.  That leads us to perhaps the most famous member of Inferno’s crew…

Mario Bava!

Inferno was the final film for the father of Italian horror.  As so often happens, there are conflicting reports of just how involved Bava was with the production.  It is know that he worked on the special effects and that he directed some second unit work while Argento was bed ridden with hepatitis.  Irene Miracle has said that almost all of her scenes were directed by Mario Bava and that she rarely saw Argento on set.

Mario Bava is often erroneously described as being Dario Argento’s mentor.  That’s certainly what I tended to assume until I read Tim Lucas’s All The Colors of the Dark, the definitive biography on Mario Bava.  Bava was certainly an influence and it’s certainly true that Argento appears to have had a better relationship with him than he did with Lucio Fulci.  But the idea that a lot of Italian horror fans have — that Mario Bava was hanging out around the set of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and offering Argento fatherly advice — does not appear to be at all true.  (It’s a nice image, though.)  With all that in mind, it’s still feels somewhat appropriate that Bava’s final work was done on one of the best (if most underappreciated) Italian horror films of all time.

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“I do not know what price I shall have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium, the life experiences of our colleagues should warn us not to upset laymen by imposing our knowledge upon them.”

— The Three Mothers by E. Varelli, as quoted in Dario Argento’s Inferno

Insomnia File No. 14: Promise (dir by Glenn Jordan)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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If you were awake at midnight last night and if you were watching TCM, you would have seen a 1986 film called Promise.

Promise stars James Garner as Bob Beuhler, who is one of those deceptively confident men who seems to have his entire life together.  He’s made a nice little life for himself, buying and selling houses and he lives in a small town where everyone appears to know and respect him.  If Promise were made today, Bob is the type of person who could probably have his own A&E reality show.

But then Bob’s mother dies and we learn of a promise that Bob made forty years ago.  It turns out that Bob has a younger brother, named D.J. (James Woods).  D.J. suffers from schizophrenia and he’s spent all of his life living with his mother.  It quickly becomes apparent that the main driving force behind Bob’s success has been the need to prove that he’s nothing like D.J.  When he doesn’t take his medication, D.J. is unpredictable and suffers from violent mood swings.  Bob loves his brother but he’s also scared of him.

However, Bob made a promise and he’s going to try to honor it.

It turns out to be even more difficult than he expected.  Sometimes, D.J. is calm and sweetly shy.  Other times, he becomes violent.  The rest of the town starts to gossip about Bob’s “crazy” brother.  After one fight, Bob discovers that D.J. has become catatonic.  When Bob calls an ambulance, everyone in the neighborhood lines up on Bob’s lawn to watch as D.J. is taken away.

Even though D.J. is eventually released from the hospital and returns home, Bob still is unsure of whether or not he can properly care for his brother.  When they go on a trip to a cabin that they often visited as children, Bob is surprised to see how “normal” D.J. is acting.  But how long will it last?

When I looked up Promise on the imdb, I was not surprised to discover that it was originally made for television.  The fact that nobody in the film ever curses was a dead giveaway and the script occasionally threatens to turn into a PSA.  But, with all that in mind, Promise is still a wonderfully effective and rather heartbreaking little movie.  James Woods has the more showy role and does a great job with it’s the far more low-key James Garner who keeps the film grounded.  Watching a film like Promise, you see that Garner was really a great actor.

Promise is a sad film but it’s definitely one worth watching.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke

Scenes That I Love: The Classroom Scene From Dario Argento’s Inferno


So, as I mentioned earlier, I was in the mood for some late night horror and I decided to rewatch Dario Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy.  I started watching Suspiria at midnight and, after that, I moved on to Argento’s 1980 follow-up, Inferno.

Having just finished watching Inferno, I now realize that it’s almost time for me to start getting ready for my day, which means that I may have to hold off on watching the third film in the trilogy, The Mother of Tears.  That’s really quite frustrating because I think I may be the only person in the world who thinks that Mother of Tears is actually a good film.

Oh well!  Such is life, right?

But before I hop in the shower and get dressed and all that good stuff, I did want to share a scene that I love from Inferno.

Of course, the most famous scene from Inferno is the scene that opens the film, Irene Miracle’s underwater swim.  In fact, it’s such a famous scene that I have already shared it.

So, instead, I’ll share a scene that comes shortly after Irene’s famous swim.  In the scene below, Irene’s brother, a music student who is played by a somewhat forgettable actor named Leigh McCloskey (reportedly, Argento wanted to cast a young James Woods in the role and he would have been awesome, too), is sitting in class and attempting to read a letter from his troubled sister.

And that’s when he finds himself being subtly menaced by the Mother of Tears.

The Mother of Tears is played by the beautiful Ania Pieroni, who lovers of Italian horror will immediately recognize as both the mysterious housekeeper in Lucio Fulci’s House By The Cemetery and the doomed shoplifter from Argento’s Tenebrae.

To me, this scene is Argento at his best.  Not much happens in the scene.  McCloskey attempts to read a letter and finds himself unnerved by Pieroni’s intense stare.  And yet, it’s a scene that’s full of menace and atmosphere.  It’s a scene that leaves the viewer with no doubt about the power of the Three Mothers.

Watch the scene below.  And then, if you haven’t, be sure to watch Inferno because it’s a wonderful and underrated horror film, one that I would argue is even better than Suspiria.  And, while you’re watching the scene and considering the wonders of Italian horror cinema, I’ll be busy getting ready for my Friday!

(Unless, of course, you’re reading this on a day other than today and at a time other than 4:35 am.)

Enjoy!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #67: Split Image (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


Split_Image_VHS_coverUnlike Desperate Lives, the 1982 melodrama Split Image is available to be viewed on YouTube.  In fact, you can watch it below and I suggest that you do so.  It’s a pretty good film and, apparently, it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray and it’ll probably never be available on Netflix either. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Peter Fonda play a cult leader, your best bet is to watch the video below.

But before you watch the video, here’s a little information on Split Image, one of the best films that you’ve never heard of.

Essentially, the film follows the same plot as the Canadian film Ticket To Heaven.  A college athlete (played by Michael O’Keefe) starts dating a girl (Karen Allen) who is a member of a sinister religious cult.  Soon, O’Keefe is a brainwashed member of the cult and only answering to the name of Joshua.  (The head of the cult is played, in an appropriately spaced-out manner, by Peter Fonda.)  His parents (Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Ashley) hire a cult deprogrammer (James Woods) to kidnap their son and break Fonda’s hold on him.  However, it turns out that Woods’ methods are almost as psychologically destructive as Fonda’s manipulation.

Even if it’s not quite as memorably creepy as Ticket To Heaven, Split Image is still a well-made film, featuring excellent performances from Dennehy, Woods, O’Keefe, and Fonda.  However, for me, the most interesting thing about Split Image is that it was largely filmed and set down here in Dallas.  Just watch the scene where Woods and his men attempt to kidnap Michael O’Keefe.  It was shot on the campus of Richland Community College, which is one of the places where I regularly go to run.

(Interestingly enough, 33 years after the release of Split Image, Richland still looks exactly the same!)

You can watch Split Image below!