A Movie A Day #343: Looker (1981, directed by Michael Crichton)

Someone is murdering models and trying to frame Larry Roberts (Albert Finney), a plastic surgeon.  Larry suspects that the actual murderer is somehow involved with the Digital Matrix research firm, a shadowy organization that is headed by James Coburn and Leigh Taylor Young.  Digital Matrix has developed a new technique where they digitally scan a model’s body and then generate a 3-D duplicate that can be used in commercials and on film.  The real-life models stand to make a fortune from the royalties, assuming that they are physically perfect and they do not end up getting murdered immediately after being scanned.  Larry’s girlfriend, Cindy (Susan Dey), is just the latest model to have been scanned and now Larry suspects that she might be targeted for death as well.

When I was growing up, Looker was one of those movies that always seemed to be on HBO.  I don’t know why this box office bomb was so popular on cable but I do remember seeing it several times.  I guarantee you that anyone who has ever came across this movie on HBO in the 80s and 90s will remember it.  They might not remember the title but they will remember that the bad guys used light guns that would cause people to briefly go into a catatonic state.  Everyone who has ever seen this movie remembers the model standing frozen in the doorway of her apartment.

As for the movie itself, the guns are cool and so is the scene where Susan Dey gets scanned but otherwise, Looker is not very good.  Michael Crichton later said that he had conflicts with Warner Bros during the editing of Looker and, as a result, there were some important scenes that did not make it into the final cut.  For instance, it is never really explained why the models are being killed.  Albert Finney was in one of his periodic career slumps when he starred as Larry and he looks uncomfortable going through the motions of being an action star.  Two years after Looker came out, Finney’s career would be reinvigorated when he received an Oscar nomination for The Dresser and three years later, he would give his career best performance in Under the Volcano.

As it typical of Michael Crichton’s work, Looker was ahead of its time in predicting the use of CGI in media but otherwise, it’s nothing special.  If you want to see a good Crichton-directed film, stick with Westworld and The Great Train Robbery.

A Movie A Day #71: Side Out (1990, directed by Peter Israelson)

Monroe (C. Thomas Howell) is a young lawyer who moves to California and gets a job working for his Uncle Max (Terry Kiser).  Max wants Monroe to concentrate on evicting beach bums.  Monroe wants to play beach volleyball.  Together, they solve crimes.  No, actually, Max orders Monroe to evict Zack (Peter Horton), a former volleyball champion who was once “king of the beach.”  Zack agrees to coach Monroe and his goofball friend, Wiley (Christopher Rydell) in a volleyball tournament.  But when Zack misses a match because he is having underlit, PG-13 sex with his ex-wife (Harley Jane Kozak), uncoached Monroe accidentally breaks Wiley’s arm.  Now, Zack has to step in as Monroe’s partner and reclaim his status as king of the beach!

When I was a kid, Side Out was a HBO perennial, which is not the same thing as being a good movie.  There have not been many movies made about beach volleyball and Side Out shows us why.  Beach volley ball is just not that exciting to watch, especially when the main competitors are two out of shape actors.  All the jump cuts and close-ups in the world can’t disguise the fact that neither actor looks like he could get the ball over the net, never mind playing for over ten minutes without getting out of breath.  In Side Out, beach volleyball teamwork comes down to a lot of yelling and whenever Monroe yells at either Wiley or Zack, he sounds just like the “Put him in a body bag, Johnny!” guy from The Karate Kid.

At least Kathy Ireland has a small role.  Also, in the role of Zack’s friend, keep an eye out for Duke himself, the great Tony Burton!

What are you doing here, Duke!?

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #31: Rachel, Rachel (dir by Paul Newman)

Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Rachel,_RachelI recently saw the 1968 best picture nominee Rachel, Rachel on TCM and I have to say that, at first, I was rather underwhelmed by it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I thought it was well-acted.  I thought it managed to capture a lot of details of small town life.  I thought that, for a film made in 1968, it was surprisingly mature and nonjudgmental when it came to exploring feminine sexuality.  I was even more surprised to see a nearly 50 year-old movie that actually featured a sympathetic portrayal of a lesbian.  Just consider that the homophobic The Sweet Ride was released at the same time and you can see just how unusually progressive Rachel, Rachel was as far as this was concerned.

And yet, when I first watched Rachel, Rachel, it was difficult for me to connect with it.  And I really wasn’t sure why.  I mean, it is true that Rachel, Rachel is one of those films that moves at a very deliberate post but, trust me, I’ve seen and enjoyed many films that were a helluva lot slower than Rachel, Rachel.  But, for whatever reason, it took me two viewings to really appreciate Rachel, Rachel as a surprisingly sensitive character study.

The film is about Rachel (Joanne Woodward), a 35 year-old virgin who lives with her mother in a small Connecticut town.  Since the death of her stern and overbearing father, Rachel has lived with her mother.  She’s a withdrawn and meek woman who has frequent fantasies that veer between unrealistic happiness and nightmarish morbidity.  Her best friend, another unmarried teacher named Calla (Estelle Parsons), invites Rachel to a revival meeting and, for the first time in her life, Rachel actually allows herself to be openly passionate.  After the meeting, Calla suddenly kisses her.  Shocked, Rachel temporarily ends their friendship.

Even before the revival meeting, Rachel has run into Nick (James Olsen), a friend from high school who is in town to visit his family.  After getting kissed by Calla, Rachel ends up turning to Nick and losing her virginity to him.  Rachel believes that she’s in love with Nick and is soon fantasizing about their future children.  However, it’s obvious to everyone (except for Rachel) that Nick doesn’t quite feel the same way…

When I first saw Rachel, Rachel, I had a hard time relating to the character of Rachel.  I watched and, as much as I tried to be sympathetic, I still found myself wondering how anyone could possibly still be a virgin at the age of 35.  I mean, I understand that times were different and all but seriously!  I guess back then, people actually were serious about the whole “no sex before marriage” thing.  (That probably explains why people used to get married when they were 17.)  The film is full of largely silent flashbacks to Rachel’s youth and we see that she was raised in an emotionally repressed environment.  She was raised to wait for the right man to come along and, when he didn’t, Rachel eventually found herself as a 35 year-old virgin.

And, without getting too TMI here, let’s just say that I couldn’t relate to Rachel’s situation.

But, when I watched the film for a second time, I discovered that even if I don’t know what it’s like to be a 35 year-old virgin, a lot of Rachel’s experiences were, in their way, universal.  Consider the scene at the start of the film where Rachel fantasizes that everyone in town is staring at her as she walks down the sidewalk, all because her slip is showing.  Who hasn’t, at some point in their life, felt like everyone was staring at her and judging?  And, for that matter, who hasn’t had a Nick in their life?

Interestingly enough, Rachel, Rachel was the directorial debut of the iconic actor Paul Newman.  One thing that I’ve noticed about films directed by actors (especially first films) is that the actor-turned-director often seems to feel that he has to prove himself by indulging in as much showy cinematic technique as possible.  (And if you don’t understand what I mean, check out George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.)  And, as much as I hate to admit it because I’ve never read one negative word about Paul Newman, I have to admit that Newman’s direction was one of the reasons why, at first, I found myself feeling detached from the film.

While Newman tells most of Rachel’s story in an admirably straight-forward way, he also included just a few too many arty flashbacks and fantasies.  Some of the fantasies — like the one at the start of the film that I mentioned two paragraphs ago — are handled well but others are distracting and they remind the viewer that they’re watching a film.  And Rachel, Rachel is a film that works best when it’s naturalistic.  Whenever it gets too self-consciously cinematic, it takes the viewer a few minutes to get sucked back into Rachel’s story.

But, and this is the important thing, Paul Newman also gets some great work out of his actors.  Judging from some other films in which I’ve seen him, James Olson was not a particularly good actor but he was great in Rachel, Rachel.  Estelle Parsons has been an overdramatic presence in a few films and a lot of tv shows but she’s great in Rachel, Rachel.  And then there’s Joanne Woodward, who was great in a lot of films, including Rachel, Rachel.  Newman and Woodward were married when they made Rachel, Rachel and were still married when Newman died 40 years later.  Newman reportedly directed Rachel, Rachel because he wanted Woodward to have a great role.  Woodward is on-screen throughout the entire film and Newman’s love for her is obvious in every frame.

Rachel, Rachel is a flawed and imperfect film but it’s still worth catching the next time that it shows up on TCM.


Film Review: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (dir. by John Carl Buechler)

Hi, did everyone out there have a good Easter?  I did!  My entire family got together up at my Uncle’s place.  There was a big Easter egg hunt and me and Erin smuggled in extra Easter eggs which we then “helped” our niece and nephew discover.  Usually, going to my Uncle’s place means a day spent laying out near the pool in a bikini and trying to work on my tan.  (Though, to be honest, I’m a redhead so I don’t so much tan as I just burn.)  However, this Easter, it rained so most of the day was spent inside and watching figure skating with my sisters and cousins.  I hope everyone else had a good Easter as well and I hope you’ll forgive me for being a little late with my latest review in my series looking at the Friday the 13th franchise.  In this post, I review 1988’s Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood.

(Minor Spoilers Follow)

As I mentioned in my review of Jason Lives, The New Blood was the first of what I like to call Friday the 13th’s gimmick films.  In these films, Paramount Pictures (and later New Line Cinema) attempted to revive the franchise’s declining profits by adding a gimmick.  No longer would it be enough for Jason to simply show up and stalk unfortunate campers.  Previous installments had their gimmicks (such as Part 3 being filmed in 3D) but they all stuck with the same basic story and structure.  However, from now on, Jason would no longer just be a silent antagonist in a communal cinematic nightmare.  From now on, he would fight psychics and Freddy Krueger and go to both outer space and New York City.  (And don’t even get me started on the film where he was revealed to actually be some sort of weird space slug.  Not yet, anyway…) 

The problem with the gimmick films is that, along with dealing with the gimmick, they still had to deal with the business of killing summer counselors and other random campers.  Whereas previous film made at least a little effort to provide the viewers with interesting and/or attractive characters, the gimmick films are distinguished by a real laziness when it comes to characterization.  Ironically enough, surrounding the gimmick with such weak material only served to remind the viewer just how gimmicky the gimmick ultimately was.  That is why the gimmick films are my least favorite of the franchise.

That said, The New Blood is probably the best of the gimmick films.  Anyone who doesn’t think that being called the best of the worst is much of a compliment has obviously never been in a community theater production of Little Shop of Horrors

The New Blood of the title is a girl named Tina Shepherd.  When we first meet Tina, she’s ten years old and living in a house that sits on the shores of Crystal Lake.  (Apparently, the residents of Forrest Green decided to change the name of the town back to Crystal Lake sometime after Jason Lives.  If nothing else, these two films convinced me of the importance of zip codes.)  One night, as Tina listens to her father and her mother fight, she runs out to a nearby dock, gets in a canoe, and starts to float away.  Her father runs out onto the dock and shouts at her to return.  Tina yells back and suddenly, the entire dock collapses and her father drowns.  As all of this is going on, we discover that Jason just happens to be in the lake, chained to a rock below the dock.  (You have to wonder what having a zombie serial killer chained up a yard away from your house does to property values.  Nothing good, I imagine but then again, what do I know about real estate?)

Anyway, jump forward ten years.  Tina (now played by Lar Park Lincoln) has just been released from a mental asylum and returns to Crystal Lake with her psychiatrist Dr. “Bad News” Crews (played by a wonderfully evil Terry Kiser).  Dr. Crews claims to be helping her deal with her feelings of guilt but actually, he’s seeking to exploit the fact that Tina has latent psychic abilities.  What all can Tina do?  Well, that’s a good question because the film itself seems to be unsure of just what exactly Tina is capable of.  As a result, Tina often seems to have whatever psychic abilities are most convenient for whatever’s happening on-screen at the moment.  While most of the time Tina seems to be telekinetic, there are other times when she can see the future, set fires, and even raise the dead.

It’s this last power that gets everyone in trouble when, one night after getting annoyed with Dr. Crews, Tina runs out to the lake and attempts to bring her father back to life.  While she fails to bring back her dad, she does manage to free Jason (played here, for the first time, by Kane Hodder) from his chains.  By this action, Tina joins the long line of horror film heroines who are ultimately responsible for every death that occurs over the course of the movie.

That’s pretty bad news for the vapid collection of potential victims who are trying to throw a surprise birthday party in the house next door.  Among those potential victims: nice guy Nick (Kevin Butler) who falls in love with Tina, evil Melissa (Susan Jennifer Sullivan) who wants Nick, Eddie (Jeff Bennett) who spends his time talking about a sci-character called “Space Mummy,” and about a half-dozen other people whose names I didn’t manage to catch.  Seriously, this is the most empty-headed and shallow collection of dumbfug toadsuckers ever!  As opposed to previous installments (in which the actors at least had enough chemistry that you believed that they just might actually spend a weekend at the lake together), the victims in New Blood feel as if they were just randomly dropped in the house just so that Jason could kill them.  They’re such a vacous, spiteful collection of people that, for the first time in the series, you truly find yourself rooting for Jason. 

Anyway, the birthday boy never shows up for his party but that doesn’t really worry anyone at the house.  As one of them puts it. “You know Michael.  Guy probably got arrested for drunk driving and spent the night in jail.”  (Sounds like a great guy, no?)  No, Michael’s not in jail.  Michael’s dead because Tina brought Jason back to life and soon, so is just about everyone else.  It all leads to a final apocalyptic battle between Jason and Tina that manages to be both silly and exciting at the same time.  It also goes a long way towards making up for what we’ve had to sit through in order to reach it.

One of my favorite chapters of Peter M. Bracke’s excellent oral history of the franchise, Crystal Lake Memories, deals with the making of The New Blood.  Say whatever else you will about this film’s cast, they’re some of the most outspoken in the history in the history of the franchise.  Reading their memories about making this film, three things quickly become clear:

1) Everyone was scared of Kane Hodder.

2) Lar Park Lincoln didn’t like the majority of the cast.

3) The majority of the cast didn’t like Lar Park Lincoln.

In fact, quite a few really nasty things are said about Lar Park Lincoln but you know what?  Outside of Kane Hodder and Terry Kiser, Lar Park Lincoln probably comes the closest to giving an actual performance than anyone else in the cast and I think it can be argued that she makes Tina into one of the few truly strong female characters ever to be found in a Friday the 13th film.  Take it from a former community theatre ingenue: it takes as much talent to make a slasher film “final girl” credible as it does to play Margaret Thatcher.  As for the rest of the cast of disposable victims, they’re some of the most forgettable of the series.  In the role of Nick, Kevin Blair (who reportedly did not get along with Lincoln and who has absolutely no chemistry with her on-screen) is stiff but handsome and Susan Jennifer Sullivan has a lot of style as the bitchy Melissa.  Otherwise, they’re a pretty bland group and director Buechler doesn’t seem to have much use for them other than to make sure that they’re in the right position to be killed by Kane Hodder.

The New Blood is best remembered for introducing Kane Hodder in the role of Jason Voorhees.  Though I personally believe that The Final Chapter’s Ted White was the best Jason (he was certainly the most ruthless), it can’t be denied that Kane Hodder was the perfect embodiment of the version of Jason that came to dominate the last few films in the original series.  Whereas Ted White’s Jason was a calculating killer, Hodder’s Jason is a machine that happens to be designed for killing and little else.  He kills not so much out of anger or pain as much as he kills, like any good zombie, just because that’s the only thing he knows how to do.  One reason why this film’s final battle is actually exciting to watch is because it’s set up as a confrontation between the literally cerebral Lar Park Lincoln and the overwhelmingly physical Kane Hodder.  Hodder, famously, is the only actor have played Jason in multiple films and he earned that right with his performance here.

And make no mistake about it: Hodder gives a performance in this film and, as a result, The New Blood is a lot more watchable than it has any right to be.

(I would also suggest that if you do watch this movie on DVD, be sure to listen to Hodder and Buechler’s commentary track.  Both of them seem to be having so much fun watching the film that it actually makes the film more enjoyable.)

While The New Blood did, ultimately, make more money than the previous Jason Lives, it still failed the match the box office success of the first few films in the series.  Though Lar Park Lincoln apparently wrote a script for a sequel that would have featured Tina and Jason once again going to war (interestingly enough, it’s rumored that Lincoln’s script opened with Kevin Blair getting killed off), Paramount decided to try out another gimmick and abandoned the new blood for Manhattan.  The end result was one of the worst films in the series but we’ll deal with that in my next post.