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 #271: Spellbinder (1988, directed by Janet Greek)

Jeff Mills (Tim Daly) is an attorney who might be unlucky in love but who still owns a copy of every movie that Frank Capra has ever directed. (There is even a scene where two of his friends are seen looking at his movie collection and saying, “He’s got every movie Capra ever made!”)  Miranda (Kelly Preston) is the beautiful and mysterious woman who Jeff saves from an abusive boyfriend.  Within minutes of meeting her, Jeff invites Miranda to say with him in his apartment.  For Jeff, it is love at first sight but his friends (Rick Rossovich and Diana Bellamy) worry that Jeff is getting in over his head with a woman about whom he knows nothing.  Weird things start to happen in Jeff’s apartment and a woman (Audra Lindley) shows up in his office, taunting him about how she dug up his mother’s bones and used them in a black magic ceremony.  Eventually, Miranda confesses that she is on the run from a Satanic coven that was planning on sacrificing her but is she telling the whole truth?

Spellbinder is an enjoyably daft movie, especially if you are a fan of Kelly Preston.  It’s not that the rest of the cast isn’t good but this really is Preston’s show and her mix of All-American beauty and otherworldly sexiness is put to good use as the enigmatic Miranda.  It is easy to believe that Jeff would fall in love with her despite not knowing much about her.  The movie also has a few good scare scenes, like one in which the faces of all the members of the coven suddenly appear crowded around a window, staring in.  A slickly made example of how Hollywood made money off of the Satanic panic of the 1980s, Spellbinder is essentially The Wicker Man set in Los Angeles and is more entertaining than Neil LaBute’s actual remake.  (Even if it doesn’t have any bees.)

A Movie A Day #261: Tropical Heat (1993, directed by Jag Mundhra)

In India, a maharaja is killed when an elephant steps on him.  His widow, an American named Beverly (Maryam d’Abo) stands to receive five million dollars but the life insurance company wants to make sure that the maharajah is actually dead before paying.  Luckily, insurance exec Carolyn (Lee Anne Beaman) knows the world’s stupidest private investigator, a man named Gravis (Rick Rossovich).  Gravis is busy house sitting a friend’s mansion and says he does not want to go to India but, after having sex with Carolyn in the pool, he changes his mind.  Once he arrives, he casually investigates the maharaja’s death whenever he is not busy having sex with Beverly.  During the course of his “investigation,” Gravis meets a young Indian woman (Asha Siewkumar), who thinks that there is more to the maharjah’s death than just a rogue elephant.  Gravis has sex with her, too.  Eventually, the movie runs out of people for Gravis to have sex with and it ends.

Though it often seems like it should be, Tropical Heat is not a comedy.  An American-Indian co-production, Tropical Heat is a softcore neo-noir, the type that used to dominate late night Cinemax.  By the standards of Skinemax, Tropical Heat is still pretty bad, with both Rossovich and d’Abo looking like they would have rather been anywhere other than this movie.  Filmed on location, Tropical Heat highlights all of the ugliest, most crowded urban areas of India and then, for some reason, has Gravis telling everyone that he meets that he cannot believe how beautiful the country is.  All of the hilariously bad dialogue sounds as if it was written by someone who learned how to speak English from watching someone else play Leisure Suit Larry.

If you want to see a good show about self-centered Americans in India, stick with that episode of Seinfeld where everyone goes to India for Sue Ellen Mischke’s wedding.

A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)

The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

A Movie A Day #118: Navy SEALs (1990, directed by Lewis Teague)

While rescuing hostages in the Middle East, a team of Navy SEALs discover that terrorist leader Ben Shaheed (Nicholas Kadi) has a warehouse full of stinger missiles.  Hawkins (Charlie Sheen) wants to destroy the missiles but his superior, Curran (Michael Biehn), orders him to concentrate on saving the hostages.  As a result, Shaheed has time to move the missiles to another location.  With the help of a Lebanese-American journalist (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) and the CIA, the SEALs must now track down the new location and destroy the missiles before they are used by Shaheed’s organization.

Navy SEALs is mostly memorable for the amount of James Cameron alumni who appear in its cast.  The cast not only features The Terminator‘s Michael Biehn and Rick Rossovich but Bill Paxton as well.  Of course, the main star is Charlie Sheen, still technically a serious actor at the time, who gives a wide-eyed and histrionic performance that suggests Hawkins may have snorted a little marching powder before reporting for duty.  24‘s Dennis Haysbert plays a SEAL who is engaged to marry Law & Order‘s S. Epatha Merkerson.  Haysbert spends so much time planning his wedding and talking about both the importance of both duty and love that the only shocking thing about his role is that he manages to survive half the movie before getting killed.  Neither Val Kilmer nor Cary Elwes is in the cast, though it seems like they both should be.

Navy SEALs was a box office bust in 1990 but, after the death of Osama Bin Laden, it experienced a sudden upswing in popularity and even appeared on primetime television a few times.  The scene where the SEALs blow off some steam by playing golf is a classic but, otherwise, this is a largely forgettable Top Gun rip off.

A Movie A Day #89: Paint It Black (1989, directed by Tim Hunter)

This month, since the site is currently reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, each entry in Move A Day is going to have a Twin Peaks connection.  Paint In Black was directed by Tim Hunter, who directed three episodes of Twin Peaks, including the one that I reviewed earlier today.

Jonathan Dunbar (Rick Rossovich) should have it all.  He is an acclaimed sculptor but he’s being cheated financially by his dealer and sometimes girlfriend, Marion Easton (Sally Kirkland).  Things start to look up for Jonathan after he has a minor traffic accident with Gina (Julie Carmen).  Not only are he and Gina immediately attracted to each other but it turns out that Gina is the daughter of Daniel Lambert (Martin Landau), who owns the most prestigious art gallery in Santa Barbara.  It appears that Jonathan is finally going to get the big show that he has always dreamed of, but only if he can escape from Marion’s management.

One night, Jonathan helps out a man who was apparently mugged outside of an art gallery.  The man, Eric (Doug Savant), says that he’s an art collector and that he is a big fan of Jonathan’s work.  When Jonathan opens up about his problems with Marion, Eric decides to return Jonathan’s favor by killing Marion and anyone else who he feels is standing in the way of Jonathan’s success.  Because of the way that Eric artistically stages the murders, the police suspect that Jonathan is the murderer.

Depending on the source, Paint It Black’s original director was either fired or walked off the project and Tim Hunter was brought in to hastily take his place.  According to Hunter, he spent the production “shooting all day and rewriting all night.”  Paint it Black is a standard late 80s, direct to video thriller but it is interesting as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock.  Hunter taught a class on Hitchcock at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Paint it Black is full of shout outs to the master of suspense.  Marion’s murder is staged similarly to a murder in Frenzy.  There are frequent close-ups of scissors, a reference to Dial M For Murder.  Probably the most obvious homage is the character of Eric, who appears to be based on Robert Walker, Jr’s character from Strangers on a Train.

Rick Rossovich was best known for playing cops, firemen, and soldiers in movies like Top Gun, Navy SEALS, and Roxanne.  He’s not bad in Paint it Black but he is still not the most convincing artistic genius.  Doug Savant and Sally Kirkland were better cast and more enjoyable to watch.  In fact, Kirkland is killed off too early.  The movie loses a lot of its spark once she is gone.

Paint It Black may not live up to being named after one of the best songs that the Rolling Stones ever recorded but Tim Hunter took unpromising material and shaped it into something that is far more watchable than anyone might expect.


Horror On TV: Tales From the Crypt 2.2 “The Switch”

Tonight’s excursion in televised horror comes the second season of HBO’s Tale From The Crypt.  Originally broadcast on April 21st, 1990, The Switch tells the story of an elderly millionaire (William Hickey) who is desperately in love with a younger woman (Kelly Preston).  When she tells him that she’s looking for a younger man, he goes to extreme lengths to become that younger man.

The episode was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and features good work from both William Hickey and Kelly Preston.  And, of course, the whole story ends with a sardonic twist that, once again, reminds the viewers that the universe is just as random and meaningless as Werner Herzog says it is.


Pure 80s Hokum: Let’s Get Harry (1986, directed by Alan Smithee)

Lets-get-harry-movie-poster-1986-1020362350Let’s Get Harry opens deep in the jungles of Columbia.  The newly appointed American Ambassador (Bruce Gray) is touring a newly constructed water pipeline when suddenly, terrorist drug smugglers attack!  The Ambassador, along with chief engineer Harry Burck (Mark Harmon, long before NCIS), is taken hostage.  Drug Lord Carlos Ochobar announces that both the Ambassador and Harry will be executed unless the U.S. government immediately releases Ochobar’s men.  However, the policy of the U.S. government is to not negotiate with terrorists.  As grizzled mercenary Norman Shrike (Robert Duvall) explains it, nobody gives a damn about a minor ambassador.

Nobody in a small blue-collar town in Illinois gives a damn about the ambassador either.  But they do give a damn about their friend Harry!  When its obvious that the bureaucrats up in Washington are not going to do anything, Harry’s younger brother, Corey (Michael Shoeffling, Sixteen Candles), decides that he and his friends are going to go to Columbia themselves and get Harry!  Helping him out are Bob (Thomas F. Wilson, Back to the Future), Kurt (Rick Rossovich, Top Gun), Spence (Glenn Frey!), and Jack (Gary Busey).  If Jake Ryan, Biff Tannen, Slider, Buddy Holly, and the guy from the Eagles who wasn’t Don Henley can’t get Harry, then who can!?

There were a lot of these “American rescue mission” movies made in the 80s, everything from Uncommon Valor to The Delta Force to the Rambo films.  Plotwise, Let’s Get Harry adds little to the genre.  It’s about as simplistic and implausible as a Donald Trump campaign speech.  A bunch of terrorists are holding American hostages and making us all look bad while the establishment refuses to do anything about it?  Don’t worry!  Here come a bunch of heavily armed, no-nonsense American citizens to save the day and make America great again!


There are two things that distinguish Let’s Get Harry.  First, Let’s Get Harry is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee.  From 1968 to 2000, Alan Smithee was the official pseudonym used by directors who wanted to disown a project.  Smithee has been credited as directing everything from Solar Crisis to Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home to The O.J. Simpson Story.  In the case of Let’s Get Harry, Smithee was standing in for veteran director Stuart Rosenberg (probably best known for Cool Hand Luke).  Rosenberg originally only planned for Mark Harmon to be seen only at the end of the film, much like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.  When TriStar Pictures demanded extra scenes featuring Harmon being taken and held hostage, Rosenberg took his name off the film.

(Before Rosenberg signed on to direct, Let’s Get Harry started out as a Sam Fuller project and he received a story credit on the film.  With the exception of some of the scenes with Harmon, which may have been shot by a different director, Rosenberg’s direction was adequate but Let’s Get Harry really does cry out for a director like Sam Fuller.)

Secondly, there is the cast, which is a lot more interesting than would be typically found in a low-budget, 80s action film.  Not surprisingly, by respectively underplaying and overplaying, Duvall and Busy give the two best performances.  Meanwhile, lightweight Mark Harmon gives the worst.  Perhaps because of the conflict between Rosenberg and the studio over his character, Harmon spends the entire movie looking lost.


As an exercise in patriotic wish fulfillment, Let’s Get Harry is pure 80s hokum.  It may be dumb but it is also entertaining.  After all, any film that features not only Robert Duvall, Gary Busey, and Ben Johnson, but also Glenn Frey is going to be worth watching.  Let’s Get Harry has never been released on DVD and is currently only available on VHS.  Somebody needs to do something about this.

Let’s get Harry on DVD!


Back to School #32: Losin’ It (dir by Curtis Hanson)


Originally, my 32nd entry in my Back To School series was going to be Made In Britain, a film about a 16 year-old Neo-Nazi played by Tim Roth.  And, while I still suggest that you track down and watch Made In Britain (mostly for Roth’s amazing performance in the lead), I have to admit that, as I rewatched it, I found myself really struggling to find a way to fit it into the Back to School theme.  Made in Britain is a good film about a juvenile delinquent but it just didn’t seem like it was right for this series.  Maybe I’ll revisit it when I do my long-threatened series of “Europe Is As Messed Up As America” series of film reviews.

Instead, I decided to close out the 1983 portion of this series by taking a look at Losin’ It.  Along with Risky Business and All The Right Moves, Losin’ It is one of the three films released in 1983 that starred Tom Cruise as a high school senior who is obsessed with losing his virginity.  Much as in Risky Business, Cruise’s initial plan is to hire a prostitute.  And much like in All The Right Moves …. well, actually Losin’ It doesn’t have much in common with All The Right Moves beyond the presence of Cruise.  For that matter, it doesn’t really have much in common with Risky Business either.  Whereas All The Right Moves was a coming-of-age drama and Risky Business was a satire on capitalism, Losin’ It is pretty much a straight comedy.

And an amazingly generic one at that!

Set in 1965 and featuring a soundtrack that appears to exist solely to remind you that the film is set in 1965, Losin’ It tells the story of four teenage boys who go down to Tijuana, hoping to get laid.  There’s Woody (Tom Cruise), who is the nice guy who smiles all the time.  There’s Spider (played by future director John Stockwell), who we’re told doesn’t have to pay for it but wants to go down to Tijuana so he can see a “donkey show.”  (If you don’t know what a donkey show is, I’m sure it can be looked up on Wikipedia.)  And then there’s Dave (Jackie Earle Haley), who is short, loud-mouthed, and idolizes Frank Sinatra to the extent that he even wears a Sinatra-style fedora.  Tagging along is Dave’s younger brother Wendell (John P. Navin, Jr.), who is too young to get into any Mexican brothels but is hoping to buy some fireworks that he can then sell at school.

Anyway, they may think that they’re just going to Mexico but it soon turns out that they’re on a collision course with wackiness!  Dave and Wendell end up being held hostage in an auto junkyard.  Spider gets in a fight with a bunch of Marines and ends up in a Mexican jail.  And Woody — well, listen, we all know that there’s no way fresh-faced, All-American Tom Cruise is going to lose his virginity in a dirty old brothel!  Instead, he ends up pursuing a tentative romance with Kathy (Shelley Long), a newlywed who has come down to Tijuana to get a quickie divorce.

(Do they still give out quickie divorces in Tijuana or is that just something that happens in the movies?  I’m just asking for future reference…)

Anyway, of the Tom Cruise Must Get Laid Trilogy, Losin’ It is easily the most generic and forgettable but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a terrible movie.  Curtis Hanson keeps the action moving at a steady pace (and, if that sounds like faint praise, just try sitting through a film with an unsteady pace) and the cast is likable.  Tom Cruise is the one who gets all of the attention on the back of the DVD and he’s likable enough but really, if I had been alive and a film critic in 1983, I probably would have picked the handsome and charismatic John Stockwell as the one most likely to become a star.

Instead, 31 years later, Tom Cruise is the star (albeit a fading one) and John Stockwell is the one directing movies about life on the beach.

It’s a strange world.

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise