A Movie A Day #282: Jack’s Back (1988, directed by Rowdy Herrington)


When med student Rick Westford (James Spader) is found hung at the free clinic where he worked, the police say that he committed suicide.  Rick’s estranged twin brother, John (James Spader), does not agree and launches an investigation of his own.  With the help of Rick’s co-worker, Chris (Cynthia Gibb), John discovers that Rick may have learned the identity of a serial killer who has been copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper and murdering prostitutes in Los Angeles.  However, the killer knows that John is getting close to discovering his identity so the killer sets out to frame John not only for the prostitute murders but for the murder of his brother as well.

Jack’s Back is a movie that deserves to be better known than it is.  James Spader gives two great performances, as both Rick and John.  He and Cynthia Gibb make a good team and Jack’s Back actually does some unexpected things with their relationship.  Jack’s Back was directed by Rowdy Herrington, who is best known for Roadhouse and Gladiator.  Jack’s Back is part murder mystery, part action thriller, and part horror movie and Herrington does a good job of switching back and forth through Jack’s Back constantly shifting tone.  Because this is a low-budget movie with a small cast, there really are not enough suspects to make the murderer’s identity a surprise but Spader, Herrington, and Gibb always keep things interesting.

This is a film that really does deserve to be better known.

A Movie A Day #150: Back to School (1986, directed by Alan Metter)


Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) started with nothing but through a combination of hard work and chutzpah, he started a chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores and made a fortune.  Everyone has seen his commercials, the one where he asks his potential customers, “Do you look at the menu and say, ‘Okay?'”  He has a new trophy wife named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) and a chauffeur named Lou (Burt Young).  Thornton never even graduated from high school but he gets respect.

However, his son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t get no respect.  No respect at all.  Jason is a student at a pricey university, where he is bullied by Chas Osborne (William Zabka) and can’t get a date to save his life.  Jason’s only friend is campus weirdo Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Thornton sees that his son isn’t having any fun, he decides to go back to school!

Back to School is a predictable but good-natured comedy.  It is like almost every other 80s college comedy except, this time, it’s a 65 year-old man throwing raging parties and making the frat boys look stupid instead of Robert Carradine or Curtis Armstrong.  On the stand-up stage, Dangerfield always played the (sometimes) lovable loser but in the movies, Dangerfield was always a winner.  In both Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield played a self-made man who forced his way into high society and showed up all of the snobs.  While Back to School is no Caddyshack, it does feature Rodney at his best.

Rodney may be the funniest thing about Back to School but a close second is Sam Kinison, who owed much of his early success to Rodney Dangerfield’s support.  Kinison plays a history professor, who has some very strongly held views about the Vietnam War and who punctuates his points with a primal screen.

Also, keep an eye out Kurt Vonnegut, playing himself.  Rodney hires him to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut for one of his classes.  The paper gets an F because Rodney’s literature professor (Sally Kellerman) can tell that not only did Rodney not write it but whoever did knows absolutely nothing about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: 976-Evil (dir by Robert Englund)


976-evil_cover

Ewwwwww!  The movie reeks of stale cigarettes and Axe body spray!

976-Evil tells the story of two teenagers named Spike (Patrick O’Bryan) and Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys).  You know what?  Whether your parents decide to name you Spike or to name your Hoax, your life is pretty much fucked up from the minute either name is entered on your birth certificate.  Anyway, Spike and Hoax are cousins.  Spike is the dangerous bad boy who rides a motorcycle and wears a leather jacket.  Hoax is the really nerdy kid who worships Spike and who lives with his ultra-religious mother (Sandy Dennis).  Hoax can’t wait until the day he and Spike ride across the country on their motorcycles.  Spike is just busy trying to get laid and looking forward to heading out on his own.

Anyway, Hoax eventually gets tired of being picked on all the time so he decides to call the phone number mentioned in the film’s title.  Hoax discovers that he has a direct line to Hell and the voice on the other end has some definite ideas for what Hoax could do to even the score.  For instance, Hoax could cause spiders to attack a Spike’s girlfriend.  And, after that, Hoax could transform into a monster and attack the local bullies at their poker game.

“That’s a dead man’s hand!” Hoax announces, while literally holding up a dead man’s hand.

(That’s right!  Turning evil means becoming a master of puns!)

Uh-oh!  It looks like Hoax has been possessed by evil!  Even worse, the phone bill is HUGE!  Those calls to the Devil aren’t cheap, you know!  Can Spike defeat his cousin or will evil rule the day?

Now, I will say this for 976-Evil: as annoying as Stephen Geoffreys is when he’s playing nerdy Hoax, he actually is a bit frightening as evil Hoax.  For that matter, Patrick O’Bryan is probably does about as good a job as you can do while playing a character named Spike.

But otherwise, 976-Evil is nearly unwatchable.  I mean that literally.  The entire film appears to be covered by a layer of grime.  Between the unappealing visuals, the poor dialogue, and the lack of appealing characters, there’s really not much in 976-Evil to hold our attention.  It might help if we felt bad for Hoax but, even before he calls the phone number, he’s such a weirdo perv that you just kind of want him to go away.  Hoax is basically the type of loser who thinks that an Axe body spray commercial is a documentary.  You can imagine him desperately spraying himself before he goes to school every day and announcing, “I smell like Axe!  I’m losing my virginity next period!  And then me and Spike are going to ride our motor scooters to Toronto!”

Released in 1989, 976-Evil was also the directorial debut of Robert Englund.  I kinda hate to be so negative about the film because Robert Englund is such a good actor and he always comes across as being such a nice guy.  If you haven’t already, be sure to get a copy of Englund’s autobiography, Hollywood Monster.  Englund tells a lot of good stories and is admirably positive about being a horror icon.  But, though Robert Englund’s a great guy, 976-Evil just doesn’t work.

Guilty Pleasure No. 31: Hail, Caesar! (dir by the Coen Brothers)


Sometimes, I wonder if I was the only filmgoer who actually enjoyed Hail, Caesar! when it was released in February.

Oh, don’t met wrong.  I know that I’m being a bit overdramatic when I say that.  It got some good reviews from the critics, though the praise was rather muted when compared to the reviews that traditionally greet the latest film from the Coen Brothers.  I know more than a few people who have agreed with me that Hail, Caesar! was an entertaining lark of a film.

But I know a lot more people who absolutely hated Hail, Caesar!  Of course, no film is going to please everyone and the Coen Brothers have always had a tendency to attempt to deliberately alienate their audience.  But what has always struck me is the fact that the people who disliked Hail, Caesar seem to really, really dislike it.  Talk to them and you get the feeling that they view Hail, Caesar as almost being some sort of a crime against both humanity and cinema.

Taking place in a stylized Hollywood in 1951, Hail, Caesar! tells the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin).  Eddie is a shadowy figure.  As head of production at Capitol Pictures, Eddie’s job is to keep the “bad” behavior of the stars from getting out into the press.  (The press is represented by Tilda Swinton who, in a typical Coen Brothers twist, plays twin sisters who are rival gossip columnists.  If the thought of that makes you smile, you are potentially a part of the right audience for Hail Caesar.  If it makes you roll your eyes, you should probably avoid the film.)  Eddie is the most powerful man in Hollywood and he will do anything to protect the image of the American film industry.  He will lie.  He will cheat.  He will threaten.  He is so ruthless and so good at his job that even Lockheed Martin is trying to hire him away from Capitol.  And yet, at the same time, Eddie is also a family man and a Catholic who is so devout that he goes to confession on a nearly hourly basis.

(For all you non-Catholics out there, Pope Francis only goes to confession twice a month.)

Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie as he deals with a series of potential problems.  Temperamental director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) is upset because he’s been forced to cast Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, giving the film’s best performance), a good-natured but inarticulate cowboy star, in his sophisticated comedy.  Synchronized swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansoon) is not only pregnant but unmarried as well!  (It’s the 50s, remember.)

However, the biggest crisis is that Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has vanished from the set of his latest film. A mysterious group known as The Future has taken credit for kidnapping him.  It’s not really much of a spoiler to reveal that The Future is a cell of communist scriptwriters and they are determined to convert the rather dumb Baird to the struggle.  As opposed to most films about Hollywood in the 50s, the communist screenwriters are portrayed as being a bunch of self-righteous and rather cowardly nags, the majority of whom spend more time debating minutiae than actually trying to the overthrow capitalism.  In many ways, Hail, Caesar is the anti-Trumbo.

As you might guess from the plot description, there’s a lot going on in Hail, Caesar but none of it really adds up too much.  Nor is it supposed to.  We’re encouraged to laugh at these frantic characters, as opposed to sympathize with them.  Eddie Mannix and Hobie Doyle both emerge as heroes because they’re the only characters who remain calm and confident, regardless of what strangeness is happening onscreen.  Eddie may be ruthless, the film tells us, but at least he gets results.  Hobie may not be the smartest or most talented guy in Hollywood, we are told, but at least he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than who he is.

Hail, Caesar! is a bit of a lark, a celebration of style over substance.  As far as Coen Brother films go, Hail, Caesar has more in common with Burn After Reading than No Country For Old Men.  The film is largely an inside joke aimed at people who know the history of Hollywood, which is perhaps why some viewers reacted so negatively.  Inside jokes are fun when you’re in on the joke.  When you’re not in on it, though, they’re just annoying.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Hail, Caesar!  It may not be the Coens at their best but it’s a lot of fun and it appealed me as both a history nerd and a lover of old movies.  The best parts of Hail, Caesar! are the scenes that parody the largely forgotten, big-budget studio productions of the 1950s.  This is the rare film that acknowledges that not every film made before the 1960s was a masterpiece.  The Coens love movies but that doesn’t keep them from getting a little bit snarky.  For example, check out this production number featuring Channing Tatum:

Is Hail, Caesar self-indulgent?

Yes.

Is it largely an inside joke?

Yes.

Did I absolutely adore it?

You better believe I did.

Hail,_Caesar!_Teaser_poster

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen