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.

Film Review: Streets of Fire (dir by Walter Hill)


File this one under your mileage may vary…

Okay, so here’s the deal.  I know that this 1984 film has a strong cult following.  A few months ago, I was at the Alamo Drafthouse when they played the trailer and announced a one-night showing and the people sitting in front of me got so excited that it was kind of creepy.  I mean, I understand that there are people who absolutely love Streets of Fire but I just watched it and it didn’t really do much for me.

Now, that may not sound like a big deal because, obviously, not everyone is going to love the same movies as everyone else.  I love Black Swan but I have friends who absolutely hate it.  Arleigh and I still argue about Avatar.  Leonard and I still yell at each other about Aaron Sorkin.  Erin makes fun of me for watching The Bachelorette.  Jedadiah Leland doesn’t share my appreciation for Big Brother and the Trashfilm Guru and I may agree about Twin Peaks but we don’t necessarily agree about whether or not socialism is a good idea.  And that’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with healthy and respectful disagreement!

But the thing is — Streets of Fire seems like the sort of film that I should love.

It’s a musical.  I love musicals!

It’s highly stylized!  I love stylish movies!

It’s from the 80s!  I love the 80s films!  (Well, most 80s films… if the opening credits are in pink neon, chances are I’ll end up liking the film…)

It takes place in a city where it never seems to stop raining.  Even though the neon-decorated sets give the location a futuristic feel, everyone in the city seems to have escaped from the 50s.  It’s the type of city where people drive vintage cars and you can tell that one guy is supposed to be a badass because he owns a convertible.  All of the bad guys ride motorcycles, wear leather jackets, and look like they should be appearing in a community theater production of Grease.

Singer Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) has been kidnapped by the Bombers, a biker gang led by Raven (Willem DaFoe).  Ellen’s manager and lover, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis), hires Tom Cody (Michael Pare) to rescue Ellen.  Little does Billy know that Cody and Ellen used to be lovers.  Cody is apparently a legendary figure in the city.  As soon as he drives into town, people starting talking about how “he’s back.”  The police see Cody and automatically tell him not to start any trouble.  Raven says that he’s not scared of Cody and everyone rolls their eyes!

It’s up to Cody to track Ellen down and rescue her from Raven and … well, that’s pretty much what he does.  I think that was part of the problem.  After all of the build-up, it’s all a bit anti-climatic.  It doesn’t take much effort for Cody to find Ellen.  After Cody escapes with Ellen, it doesn’t take Raven much effort to track down Cody.  It all leads to a fist fight but who cares?  As a viewer, you spend the entire film waiting for some sort of big scene or exciting action sequence and it never arrives.  The film was so busy being stylish that it forgot to actually come up with a compelling story.

I think it also would have helped if Tom Cody had been played by an actor who had a bit more charisma than Michael Pare.  Pare is too young and too stiff for the role.  It doesn’t help to have everyone talking about what a badass Tom Cody is when the actor playing him doesn’t seem to be quite sure what the movie’s about.  Also miscast is Diane Lane, who tries to be headstrong but just comes across as being petulant.  When Cody and Ellen get together, they all the chemistry of laundry drying on a clothesline.

On the positive side, Willem DaFoe is believably dangerous as Raven and Amy Madigan gets to play an ass-kicking mercenary named McCoy.  In fact, if McCoy had been the main character, Streets of Fire probably would have been a lot more interesting.

I guess Streets of Fire is just going to have to be one of those cult films that I just don’t get.

A Movie A Day #26: The Taking of Beverly Hills (1991, directed by Sidney J. Furie)


After a toxic chemical spill, Beverly Hills is evacuated.  While its citizens wait in a hotel, their mansions and valuables are guarded by the police and agents of the EPA.  Or so they think.  It turns out that the chemical spill was faked and that both the police and the government agents are in on it.  While the town’s deserted, they’re going to rob everyone blind.  The scheme’s mastermind is Bat Masterson (Robert Davi), the owner of L.A. Rams.  What Masterson doesn’t realize is that one citizen of Beverly Hills stayed behind, his own quarterback, Boomer Hayes (Ken Wahl).  Teaming up with Ed Kelvin (Matt Frewer), the last honest cop in town, Boomer sets out to protect Beverly Hills.

It’s just a dumb as it sounds.  In fact, of the many Die Hard ripoffs that came out in the late 80s and the early 90s, The Taking of Beverly Hills is probably the dumbest, which also makes it one of the most entertaining.  Boomer, who has an impressive mullet, can only speak in football analogies, constantly assuring Ed that it’s only the first down and that they can turn things around after halftime.  When Boomer gets serious, he says, “It’s time to play offense.”  One of the stranger things about The Taking of Beverly Hills is that, unlike working class hero John McClane, Boomer is not an outsider.  He’s in Beverly Hills because he’s rich.  The Taking of Beverly Hills is basically about one rich guy trying to keep another rich guy from robbing a bunch of other rich people.  It’s Die Hard if Hart Bochner had been the hero instead of Bruce Willis.

Keep an eye out for Lee Ving, lead singer of Fear, playing one of the corrupt cops and an uncredited Pamela Anderson cast as a cheerleader.  And keep your ears open for songs like Epic by Faith No More because their presence on the soundtrack (and the associated rights issue) is the reason was this stupidly entertaining movie will probably never get a DVD/Blu-ray release in the United States.

It has been released in Germany, where it was retitled Boomer after the lead character.

It has been released in Germany, where it was retitled Boomer after the lead character.

 

Film Review: American Pop (1981, directed by Ralph Bakshi)


American PopLong before South Park, The Simpsons, and Pixar, there was Ralph Bakshi.  At a time when animation was considered to only be good for children, Bakshi shocked audiences and critics with animated films that dealt with mature themes and were definitely meant for adults.  His first two films, Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973), was the also the first two animated films to receive an X-rating.  Bakshi satirized racism in the controversial Coonskin (1975) and Bakshi’s adaptation of The Lord Of Rings (1978) beat Peter Jackson’s by 23 years.  It was after the critical and commercial disappointment of the heavily flawed but interesting Lord of the Rings that Bakshi decided it was time to make a film that would be more personal to him.  The end result was American Pop.

American Pop tells the story of four generations of a family of Jewish immigrants and how music affects their lives.  In typical Bakshi fasion, this animated film deals with issues of violence, sexuality, drug abuse, and poverty.  American Pop may be animated but it is definitely a film meant for adults.

In the 1890s, Zalmie (Jeffrey Lippa) and his mother escape from Russia after Zalmie’s father, a rabbi, is killed by the Cossacks.  Zalmie grows up in New York and after his mother is killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he is raised by a vaudeville comedian named Louie (Jerry Holland).  Zalmie wants to be a singer but is shot in the throat during World War I.  His voice ruined, Zalmie marries a stripper named Bella (Lisa Jane Persky) and manages her career.  His partnership with the mobster Nicky Palumbo (Ben Frommer) leads to Bella dying and Zalmie going to prison.

Zalmie’s son, Benny (Richard Singer), is a jazz pianist who, as a favor to his father, marries Nicky’s daughter.  Benny has a son named Tony and tries to pursue his career without using his father’s influence.  Then World War II breaks out.

Benny enlists in the army, seeking redemption from the crimes of his father and father-in-law.  Serving in Europe, he misses his piano and, when he finds one in a bombed-out house in Nazi Germany, he plays a few bars of As Time Goes By.  When a Nazi walks in on Benny, Benny plays Lili Marleen.  For a few seconds, Benny and the Nazi share the common bond of music.  “Danke,” the Nazi says before shooting Benny dead.

Growing up without his father, Tony (Ron Thompson) becomes a beatnik and eventually runs away from home.  He ends up in Kansas, where he has a one-night stand with a waitress and becomes a songwriter for Frankie Hart (Marya Small), a stand in for Janis Joplin.  Both Tony and Frankie start using heroin and Frankie dies of an overdose right before she is supposed to open for Jimi Hendrix.  Abandoned by Frankie’s band, Tony ends up as an addict and dealer in New York.  Accompanying him is his son, Pete, the result of his hookup with the waitress.

After being abandoned by his father, Pete (also played by Ron Thompson), follows in his footsteps and becomes a successful drug dealer.  He is dealing cocaine to all of the big rock bands but, after discovering punk rock, he realizes that he wants something more out of his life.

After announcing that he will no longer sell anyone cocaine unless he is given a chance to record a demo, Pete is given a band and a recording studio.  With the drug-craving record company execs watching, this tough and cocky punk grabs the microphone and sings…

…BOB SEGER’S NIGHT MOVES!?

The use of Night Moves, which is one of the least punk songs ever written, is one of the few false notes in American Pop.  Otherwise, this is one of Ralph Bakshi’s best films.  The majority of the film’s animation was done through rotoscoping, a technique in which animation is traced over live action footage.  (For the gang war scenes, scenes from The Public Enemy were rotoscoped, as was footage of the Nicholas Brothers used in the Sing Sing Sing With A Swing montage.)  Seen today, the technique is crude but effective at showing the contrast between the fantasy of music and the grim reality of life.  Though it has its flaws (*cough* Night Moves *cough*), American Pop is an engaging look at the history and development of American music.

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