The Hunter (1980, directed by Buzz Kulick)


 

In The Hunter, legendary car nut, Steven McQueen, plays Papa Thorson, a bounty hunter who is a very bad driver.

That’s it.

That’s the joke.

Papa Thorson was a real-life bounty hunter, the Dog the Bounty Hunter of his day, and The Hunter was based on his own autobiography.  Maybe that explains why the film itself is so extremely episodic.  Thorson goes from one assignment to another, capturing criminals with relative ease and occasionally having to deal with an unappreciative sheriff (Ben Johnson).  Along the way, one of those criminals (Levar Burton) goes to work with Papa and becomes his protege.  Papa’s girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold) is pregnant and a crazed criminal (Tracey Walter) is targeting her because he wants revenge on Papa for putting him away.  It’s all Magnum P.I.-level stuff, without the backdrop of Hawaii to distract you from how predictable it all is.  It’s not terrible because there are a few good action scenes but it still feels more like a pilot for a weekly Papa Thorson television series than a feature film.

The Hunter was also Steve McQueen’s final film.  After The Towering Inferno, McQueen was inactive for most of the 70s.  He still received scripts and turned down good parts (including the roles of both Willard and Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) but the only film in which he appeared in a barely released version of An Enemy of the People.  It wasn’t until 1980 that McQueen finally started appearing in movies again, starring in both Tom Horn and The Hunter.  Tom Horn is an underrated western but The Hunter is largely forgettable.  Sadly, The Hunter would be McQueen’s last film as he died of lung cancer shortly after it was released.

McQueen was obviously ill during the filming of The Hunter, though he still had the laconic coolness that made him a star in the first place and he still looks credible, even at the age of 50, handling a gun and chasing criminals.  He doesn’t give a bad performance as Thorson and he even shows a talent for comedy.  Both Tom Horn and The Hunter show that McQueen wasn’t afraid to play his age.  Neither Tom Horn nor Thorson were young men and, in The Hunter, McQueen gets a lot of mileage out of being a cranky, middle-aged malcontent who has never figured out how to parallel park.  The film might be forgettable but Steve McQueen shows that, to the end, he was an actor who was often better than his material.

Goin’ South (1978, directed by Jack Nicholson)


Jack Nicholson was not an overnight success.

Nicholson was 17 years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1954.  Looking to become an actor, Nicholson toiled as an office worker at the MGM cartoon studio, took acting classes, and went to auditions.  It would be four years before he even landed his first role, the lead in the Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer.  When that film failed to become a hit, Nicholson spent the next ten years doing minor roles and occasionally starring in a B-picture.  He auditioned for some big parts, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, but his big break continued to allude him.  By 1969, Nicholson was so disillusioned with acting that he was planning to instead pursue a career as a director.  However, before Nicholson officially retired from the acting game, he received a call from the set of Easy Rider.  Depending on who you ask, Rip Torn, who had previously been cast in the role of alcoholic George Hanson, had either quit or been fired.  Bruce Dern, the first choice to replace Torn, was busy filming They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Nicholson agreed to step into the role and the rest is history.

Easy Rider may have made Jack Nicholson one of the world’s biggest film stars but he never lost his ambition to direct.  In 1971, he made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said, a film about campus unrest.  At the time, the film flopped at both the box office and with critics and quickly sunk into obscurity.  (It has subsequently been rediscovered and, in some cases, positively reevaluated.)  After the failure of Drive, He Said, it would be another seven years before Nicholson again got a chance to direct.

Nicholson’s second film as a director, Goin’ South, is a comedic western.  Nicholson plays Henry Lloyd Moon, an unsuccessful outlaw who used to ride with Quantrill’s Raiders.  When Moon is captured in Longhorn, Texas, he is sentenced to be hanged.  Fortunately, for Moon, Longhorn has a special ordinance.  Any man condemned for any crime other than murder can be saved from the gallows if a local woman agrees to marry him and take responsibility for his good behavior.  As a result of this ordinance, Longhorn is populated almost exclusively by single women and reformed outlaws.

While standing on the gallows, the cocky Moon is stunned to discover that none of the women want to marry him.  Finally, an old woman emerges from the crowd and announces that she’ll become Moon’s wife.  When Moon hops off the gallows and thanks her, the woman drops dead.  Fortunately, another, younger woman, Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen, making her film debut), steps forward.

Once they’re married, the lecherous Moon discovers that Julia is a virgin and that the only reason she married him was so she could force him to work in the secret gold mine that’s hidden underneath her property.  The railroad will soon be taking over the land and Julia wants to get all of the gold before she leaves town for Philadelphia.  Though Julia, at first, wants nothing to do with Moon, he eventually wears her down through sheer persistence and the two fall in love.

Complicating matters is Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who is upset because he feels that Julia was meant to be his wife.  Also, the members of Moon’s former gang (including Danny DeVito and Veronica Cartwright) show up at Julia’s house and discover the truth about the mine.

Goin’ South gets off to a good start.  The scene on the gallows, where Moon waits for someone to marry him and save his life, is genuinely funny and Nicholson and Steenburgen have a playful chemistry for the first hour of the movie.  Nicholson leers even more than usual in this film but the script is written so that the joke is always on Moon.  Much of the film’s humor comes from Moon always overestimating both his charm and his cleverness.  However, once Moon and Julia finally consummate their marriage, the movie loses whatever narrative momentum it may have had and gets bogged down with the subplots about Towfield and Moon’s gang.  There are funny moments throughout but the story gets away from Nicholson and the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, none of which build up to much.

Not surprisingly, Nicholson gets good performances from his cast, which is largely made up by the members of his 1970s entourage.  Along with Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, longtime Nicholson associates like Tracey Walter, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Bradford, Jeff Morris, and Luana Anders all appear in small roles.  John Belushi plays the tiny role of Deputy Hector.  (Goin’ South was actually the first film in which Belushi was cast, though production didn’t actually begin until after Belushi had finished working on National Lampoon’s Animal House.)  Unfortunately, despite all of the good performances, the script doesn’t do much to develop any of the characters.  Belushi especially feels underused.  (Because Belushi had moved on to Animal House by the time the film went into post-production, Nicholson ended up dubbing several of Belushi’s lines himself.)

Drive, He Said was largely considered to have failed at the box office because Nicholson remained behind the camera so he took the opposite approach with Goin’ South.  Nicholson is in nearly every scene and he gives one of his broadest performances.  It works for the first half of the film, when Moon is constantly trying to get laid and failing every time.  But, during the second half of the movie, Nicholson’s failure to reign in his performance works to the film’s detriment.  When the movie needs Nicholson to be romantic, he’s still behaving like a horny cartoon. Whenever he looks at Mary Steenburgen, it seems as if his eyes should be popping out of his head, Tex Avery-style.  He’s an entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless.  As a result, Goin’ South is often funny but it still feels very inconsequential.

Like Drive, He Said, Goin’ South was both a critical and a box office flop and it temporarily turned Nicholson off of directing.  It would be another 12 years before he would once again step behind the camera.  In 1990, Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, the sequel to one of his best films, Chinatown That would be Nicholson’s last film as a director.  Nicholson acted for another 20 years, following the release of The Two Jakes.  To date, he made his final screen appearance in 2010, with a supporting role in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know.  Nicholson has disputed claims that he’s officially retired, saying that he’s instead just being more selective about his roles.  Even though it’s been ten years since we last saw him on screen, Jack Nicholson remains an American icon and a living legend.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Silence of the Lambs (dir by Jonathan Demme)


Oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I have such mixed feelings about you.

On the one hand, I’m a horror fan and Silence of the Lambs is a very important film in the history of horror.  Back in 1992, it was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture!  It even made history by winning all of the big “five” awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay!  It was the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night to pull that off!

Beyond that, it’s one of the most influential films ever made.  Every erudite serial killer owes a debt to Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter.  Every competent but untested and unappreciated female FBI agent owes a debt to Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling.  Even though the whole criminal profiler craze probably owes more to Manhunter (a film to which Silence of the Lambs is a sequel, though that often seems to go unacknowledged) than to anything else, this Oscar winner still definitely played a part.  I mean, how many people watched Manhunter for the first time, specifically because Lecter mentioned the events in that earlier film in Silence of the Lambs?

Plus, this won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors!  And while I’m sure Jodie Foster would have gone on to have a strong career regardless of whether she had played Clarice Starling or not, it’s generally acknowledged that Silence of the Lambs revitalized the career of Anthony Hopkins.  So for that, we should all be thankful.

And yet, it can be strange to watch Silence of the Lambs today.  All of the imitations (not to mention some ill-thought sequels and prequels) have lessened its bite.  I can only imagine how it must have freaked out audiences when it was first released but I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed the first time that I watched the film.  Looking back, I can see that disappointment was due to having been told that it were one of the scariest movies of all time but, because, I had seen a countless number of imitations, parodies, and homages, I felt as if I had already watched the film.  So, I wasn’t shocked when Lecter turned out to be ruthlessly manipulative and dangerously charismatic.  Nor was I shocked when he managed to escape and poor Charles Napier ended up strung up in that cage.  I’m sure that audiences in 1991 were freaked out, though.

Actually, as good as Foster and Hopkins and Scott Glenn are, I think the best performance in the film comes from Ted Levine, playing Buffalo Bill.  Seriously, Levine’s performance still freaks me out.  It’s the voice and the way he says, “Precious.”  Levine’s performance, I found to be a hundred times more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’s and I think it’s due to the fact that Hannibal Lecter was clearly an author’s invention while Levin’s Buffalo Bill came across like he might very will be hiding in an alley somewhere, waiting for one of your friends to walk by. (Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction when I first saw Manhunter.  Brian Cox did a good job as Lecter but he still came across as a bit cartoonish.  Meanwhile, Tom Noonan was absolutely terrifying.)  Levine has subsequently gone on to play a lot of nice guy roles.  He was a detective on Monk, for instance.  Good for him.  I’m glad to see he was able to escape being typecast.  Admittedly, I do kinda wonder how many serial killer roles he had to turn down immediately after the release of The Silence Of The Lambs.

Still, it’s a good film.  Time may have lessened it’s power but The Silence of the Lambs is still an effective and well-directed thriller.  It’s impossible not to cheer for Clarice.  It’s impossible not to smile at the fun that Anthony Hopkins seems to be having in the role of Lecter.  Jonathan Demme creates a world of shadows and darkness and still adds enough little quirks to keep things interesting.  (I especially liked Lecter watching a stand-up special in his cell.)  It’s the little details that makes the world of The Silence of the Lambs feel lived in, like Clarice’s nervous laugh as she gives a civilian instructions on what to do in case she accidentally gets trapped in a storage locker.  Even the film’s final one liner will make you smile, even though it’s the type of thing that every film seemed to feel the need to do nowadays.  It’s still a good movie, even if it no longer feels as fresh as it once may have.

A Movie A Day #169: Malone (1987, directed by Harley Cokeliss)


It’s Burt Reynolds vs. Cliff Robertson.  Cliff has got the money but Burt’s got the mustache and the toupee.

Robertson plays Charles Delaney, a wealthy businessman who, with the help of a mercenary army, has bought nearly all the land in a small Oregon town.  Only the owner of a local gas station, Paul Barlow (Scott Wilson), has refused to sell.  Delaney and his men think that they can intimidate Paul into selling but what they do not realize is that Paul has a houseguest.  Richard Malone (Burt Reynolds) was driving through town when his car broke down.  While waiting for it to get fixed, he has been staying with Paul and his teenage daughter, Jo (Cynthia Gibb).  What no one knows is that Malone used to be an assassin for the CIA.

If ever there was a film that demanded the talents of Charles Bronson, it is Malone.  The tough and ruthless title character would have been a perfect Bronson role, especially if Malone had been made twenty years earlier.  Instead, the role went to Burt Reynolds, who was on the downside of his career as an action hero.  Sometimes, Burt tries to play the role as serious and emotionally guarded.  Then, in other scenes, Burt will suddenly smile and wink at the camera as he briefly turns back into the Bandit.  This is not one of Burt’s better performances.  He gets good support from the entire cast, including Lauren Hutton as his CIA handler, but, in most of his scenes, Burt comes across as being tired and his toupee makes him look like The Brady Bunch‘s Robert Reed.  Burt was 51 when he made Malone and he looked like he was at least ten years older, making the scenes where Jo comes onto him even more improbable.

Where Malone succeeds is in the action scenes.  Along with Burt’s final assault on Delaney’s compound, there is also a classic showdown in a barbershop.  Malone had a budget of ten million dollars.  How many blood squibs did that buy?  Pay close attention to the scene where two hitmen attempt to surprise Malone in his room and find out.

Malone is may not feature Burt at his best but it is still a damn sight better than some of the other films that awaited Burt once his starpower started to diminish.  Mad Dog Time, anyone?

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: 31 (dir by Rob Zombie)


31_film_poster

Are you scared of clowns?  Sure, you are.  All good people fear clowns.  However, if you somehow do not find clowns to be frightening, you may change your mind after seeing Rob Zombie’s latest film, 31.

Of course, that’s assuming that you actually see 31.  31 is not a film for everyone.  In fact, if you’re not a fan of Rob Zombie or his style of horror, you should probably stay miles away from 31.  Bloody, intense, violent, and occasionally rather nihilistic, 31 is perhaps the Rob Zombiest of all the films that Rob Zombie has ever made.

However, if you’re a fan of extreme horror, you’ll appreciate 31.  It may not always be easy to take but then again, that’s kind of the point.

The film takes place in the 70s, which means that it has a really kickass soundtrack.  A group of carnival workers are driving across the desert in a van when they are attacked and kidnapped.  They find themselves in a dark building, being lectured by three people who are dressed like 18th century French aristocrats.  The leader of the aristocrats (played by Malcolm McDowell) informs them that they are going to playing a game called 31.  For the next twelve hours, they will be locked away in a maze.  They will be hunted by five murderous clowns.

Yes, you read that right.  Not just one murderous clowns — FIVE!  (Even worse, a sixth bonus clown eventually joins the game.)

If they can survive for 12 hours, they win.  What do they win?  Other than freedom, the film is never particular clear on this point.  The motives of the aristocrats remain a mystery for the majority of the film.  Are they just sadists, are they perhaps devote fans of The Purge who were so disappointed with Election Year that they decided to recreate the second film on their own, or is there some bigger reason behind this game of 31?  The film leaves the question for us to answer.

The rest of the film is a collection of progressively more violent fights between the carnival workers and the clowns.  For the most part, the carnival workers are all likable and you don’t want to see any of them harmed.  The clowns, meanwhile, are just about the freakiest collection of killers that you’ve ever seen.  When one of them is cornered, he pathetically begs, “We’re all pawns!  We don’t want to do this!” but you never quite believe him.  The deadliest of the clowns is Doom-Head (Richard Brake) and his evil smirk will give you nightmares.

31 is an incredibly intense film and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart.  Everything from the acting to the set design to the costumes to David Daniel’s stark cinematography comes together to make 31 into a harrowing horror film.  If you can’t stand Zombie’s trademark mayhem, I would suggest avoiding 31.  However, if you’re a fan of Zombie’s films, you’ll find 31 to be perhaps the purest distillation of his artistic vision.