Rockin’ in the Film World #20: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (Embassy 1983)


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You couldn’t go anywhere in 1984 without hearing “On the Dark Side” blaring from a car radio or your neighborhood bar’s jukebox. That’s thanks in large part to audiences rediscovering 1983’s EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS via repeated showings on HBO, turning the film into an instant cult classic and veteran Providence-based rockers John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band into FM-radio favorites. The film hadn’t done well when first released to theaters, but exposure on the fairly-new medium of Cable TV garnered new fans of both it and Cafferty’s soundtrack album.

Investigative reporter Ellen Barkin looks into the mysterious death of Eddie Wilson (played by Michael Pare’), lead singer of The Cruisers, whose death in a car accident is shrouded in secret, as the body was never found. Was it suicide? murder? or is Eddie still alive? She digs deep to uncover the facts about what happened that fateful night…

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When Machine Gun Met Al: Gangster Land (2017, directed by Timothy Woodward, Jr.)


Chicago in the 1920s.  Booze may be illegal but that’s not keeping people from drinking and gangsters from making a killing.  When an amateur boxer named Jack McGurn (Sean Faris) joins the mob, he befriend an up-and-coming criminal named Al Capone (Milo Gibson).  While Capone rises through the ranks, McGurn is always by his side, usually firing a tommy gun.  When Capone finally becomes the boss of Chicago, McGurn becomes his second-in-command and a leading strategist in the war against Capone’s rival, George “Bugs” Moran (Peter Facinelli).

If you’re looking for a historically accurate film about 1920s Chicago, look elsewhere.  Today, “Machine Gun” McGurn is best known for being the mastermind behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (which, of course, is recreated in Gangster Land) but it’s doubtful that he was ever Capone’s second-in-command.  Famed Capone associates like Frank Nitti, Gus Alex, and Murray Humphreys are nowhere to be found in Gangster Land, nor is Eliot Ness.  Instead Jason Patric plays the righteous and fictional Detective Reed.

What the film lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in gangster action.  There’s enough tommy gun action, car chases, and showgirls to keep most gangster film aficionados happy.  All of the usual Capone stuff is recreated: Johnny Torrio is assassinated, Dion O’Bannon is killed in his flower shop, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre scandalizes the nation.  Though the film never displays anything more than a Wikipedia-level understanding of the prohibition era and there’s not a single gangster cliché that isn’t used, Gangster Land is briskly paced and makes good use of its low-budget.  Sean Faris is stiff as McGurn but Milo Gibson (son of Mel) is better than you might expect as Al Capone and the underrated Jason Patric makes the most of his limited screen time.  Fans of The Sopranos may want to watch for the chance to see Meadow herself, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, as McGurn’s showgirl wife.

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.

Horror Film Review: Village of the Damned (dir by John Carpenter)


At the risk of getting in trouble with at least a few people around the TSL offices, I am going to say something right now.  It may be controversial.  It may be shocking.  It may even make you question your belief in whatever it is that you believe in.

Ready?

Here we go:

I do not think that the 1995 version of Village of the Damned is that bad.

Now, please notice that I didn’t say that I thought it was that great, either.  However, when you listen to some people talk about this movie (which, admittedly, doesn’t seem to happen a lot), they make it sound as if Village of the Damned is one of the worst films ever made.  It is usually cited as being a waste of director John Carpenter’s abilities and Carpenter himself has said that he’s indifferent to the film.  Carpenter has gone as far as to call the film a “contractual assignment.”

Of course, one reason why people dislike the 1995 Village of the Damned is because it’s a remake of an acknowledged classic.  Even worse, it’s an unnecessary remake.  I would not disagree with that opinion.  The 1960 Village of the Damned holds up remarkably well, featuring George Sanders at his best and a lot of creepy little children.  (If anything, the fact that the original is in black-and-white makes the children look even creepier in the original.)  Having recently watched both versions of Village of the Damned, I can say that the remake doesn’t really improve on the original.

And yet, I would still argue that John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is an underrated and crudely effective little movie.

The film tells the story of the town of Midwich, California.  (The original film took place in the UK and Midwich doesn’t really sound like the name of a town you’d find in California.  Incidentally, my favorite town in California is a place named Drytown, specifically because the town bar advertises itself as being “the only wet place in Drytown.”)  Midwich is a nice, little town.  Everyone is friendly.  Everyone knows everyone else.  Carpenter spends a while establishing Midwich as being the idealized coastal town.  But then, one day, the skies turn dark and everyone in Midwich loses consciousness.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out well for some people.  Frank McGowan (Michael Pare), for instance, is driving when the blackout occurs and he ends up dying when his truck goes off the road.  Another unfortunate fellow was manning the grill at the church picnic and, when he passed out, he ended up burning to death.

When everyone does wake up, it’s discovered that ten women are now pregnant.  One of them, Kate (Linda Kozlowski), is the widow of Frank.  Another, a teenage girl named Melanie (Meredith Salenger), is a virgin.  Nine months later, all of the babies are born on the same night, though Melanie’s is stillborn.  The 9 babies eventually become 9 very creepy children.  They have pale skin, white hair, glowing eyes, and no emotions.  Soon the government, led by Dr. Verner (Kristie Alley), invades the town so that they can investigate and experiment on the children.  You know that once the government shows up and takes over, everyone’s screwed.

And, while all of this is going on, the once friendly and vibrant town of Midwich becomes a far different place.  We watch as the citizens of the town die, one after another.  Melanie finds herself ostracized and abandoned.  The local reverend (Mark Hamill) goes insane and ends up perched on a hill with a rifle.  The town doctor (Christopher Reeve) loses his wife when she walks into the ocean.

And the children continue to coldly and unemotionally kill anyone who displeases them.  One man is forced to shoot himself.  In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, a scientist is forced to dissect herself.

Admittedly, some of the actors do a better than others.  Meredith Salenger gives the best performance while Mark Hamill definitely gives the worst.  At first, Kirstie Alley seems miscast but she actually gives one of the better performances in the film.  As the nominal hero, Christopher Reeve is boring but then again, many small town doctors are.  Of course, nearly everyone in the movie is dead by the time the end credits roll.

It’s a seriously dark movie and, when taken on its own terms, it’s definitely effective.  Carpenter does such a good job of establishing Midwich as a place where anyone would want to live that it does carry an impact to see the town suddenly isolate from the world and the once happy citizens resorting to suicide just to escape the town’s children.  In the end, John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned does capture the anguish of feeling as if there’s no escape from the present nor hope for the future.

Village of the Damned is crudely effective but effective nonetheless.

 

Back to School #59: The Virgin Suicides (dir by Sofia Coppola)


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For the past three and a half weeks, I’ve been taking a chronological look at some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teen and high school films ever made.  We started with two films from 1946, I Accuse My Parents and Delinquent Daughters.  Therefore, it seems somewhat appropriate that we close out both the 90s and the 20th Century by taking a look at a film about both delinquent daughters and accusatory parents.  That film is Sofia Coppola’s 1999 directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides.

Much like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola seems to divide viewers and, in many ways, for the exact same reasons.  You either get her films about upper class ennui or you don’t.  Everyone seems to love Lost in Translation but viewers and critics seem to be far more polarized when it comes to rest of her films.  It seems the people either love them or hate them.  Well, you can count me among those who love her films.  (Yes, even Somewhere.)  To me, Sofia Coppola is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today and the dismissive reaction that many (mostly male) critics have towards her films has little do with her talent and much more to do with her gender and her last name.

So there.

In The Virgin Suicides, Coppola tells the story of the five Lisbon sisters.  They live in an upper middle class suburbs in the 1970s.  Their parents — math teacher Ronald (James Woods) and his wife (Kathleen Turner) — are devoutly Catholic and very protective.  The Lisbon sisters are rarely allowed to leave the house and, as a result, the neighborhood boys are obsessed with them.  (Though the film centers on four unnamed boys, there’s only one narrator, voiced by Giovanni Ribisi,  who continually refers to himself as being “we,” as if all four boys are telling the story in the same voice.)  When the youngest Lisbon daughter commits suicide, Ronald and his wife become even more protective.

At the start of the school year, the oldest daughter, Lux (Kirsten Dunst), meets and starts to secretly date the wonderfully named Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett).  Lux is even allowed to attend the homecoming dance with Trip but, after she breaks curfew, Mrs. Lisbon reacts by pulling Lux and her sisters out of school and basically making them prisoners in their own home.

(In one of the film’s best moments, we flash forward to see present day Trip talking about his date with Lux. Needless to say, Trip did not age well.)

With the Lisbon sisters even more isolated, the neighborhood boys become even more obsessed with them.  One day, the boys get a note from the girls, asking for their help in escaping.  The boys go to meet the girls, leading the film to its haunting conclusion…

Full of themes of sin, sexuality, repression guilt, redemption, and martyrdom, The Virgin Suicides is one of those films that you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate but it probably helps.  James Woods, Josh Hartnett, and Kirsten Dunst all give good performances while Sofia Coppola fills the movie with dream-like and sensual images, all designed to challenge the viewer’s perception of whether or not we’re watching reality or just the idealized memories of someone still struggling to comprehend a mystery from the past.

The Virgin Suicides is the perfect movie to end with the 90s on.

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