Yes, I’m back with brief thoughts about “recent” movies, which to my addled old brain means anything post-1980. Y’all can just live with that definition!
Eyes of a Stranger (1981). This is the feature film debut of Jennifer Jason Leigh (she had done some television work), and that’s literally the only reason to watch it, as it’s pretty terrible. Lauren Tewes (whom you may know as Julie the Cruise Director) is the main character, trying to find a rapist/murderer who eventually zeroes in on her sister (Leigh), who’s blind, deaf, and mute thanks to a traumatic experience in her youth for which Julie the Cruise Director blames herself (because it was kind of her fault). There’s nothing wrong with her eyes and ears, mind you, it’s a psychological problem, which is important to note. Anyway, this is a lousy movie. In the first 10-15 minutes, we see three women topless – a dead murder victim, a stripper, and a soon-to-be-dead victim. Later, a different stripper becomes a murder victim, and finally Jennifer Jason Leigh herself is topless (she was 18 while the movie was being made, but in her first few roles, she always seemed to play characters who were younger – and she looked it – so it’s a bit creepy when directors wanted her topless, which she was quite often early in her career). Everyone is stupid in this movie, which makes it frustrating to watch. The murderer, played by “that guy” John DiSanti, is perhaps the dumbest serial killer in history, leaving clues everywhere, changing out of his bloody shirt in a parking garage where anyone can see him, and generally doing lots of dumb things. Luckily, the cops in Key Biscayne are even dumber than he is, as they simply let him wander around killing people – there are no police of any note in the movie, despite DiSanti killing seven people during the course of the movie and apparently a few before it begins. Tewes is stupid, too – she’s a reporter who suspects DiSanti and goes about exposing him in the dumbest way possible. First, she sees him changing his shirt in the parking garage and watches him throw it away, but she doesn’t retrieve it from the trash. She knows there’s a killer about, and while he might have spilled red Kool-Aid on his shirt, shouldn’t her reporter’s instincts kick in? Later, she sees that his car is covered with mud after she hears that the latest victim was found in a muddy/sandy area, yet she doesn’t take photographs, and of course he washes his car. She breaks into his apartment and finds his mud-covered shoes (because, as I noted, he’s that stupid), so she decides to … call him and taunt him. Which she does. Then, she doesn’t follow him, and he goes out and kills again! (Of course, this is stupid on his part, as he knows someone is onto him.) He figures out that she was the one who called him, so he finds her apartment and breaks in (somehow – DiSanti is an idiot until the script needs him to be really smart, and Tewes’s apartment has one locked door and is on the twelfth floor, so it’s unclear how he gets in), which is where he menaces Leigh. But everyone is dumb in the movie. The first victim we see alive gets four (4) phone calls from DiSanti yet doesn’t think to take the phone off the hook. She does call the cops, who tell her that a lot of crackpots are calling people and they’ll be by in the morning to take her statement. Way to go, cops! The second victim is working late in an office that she can presumably lock, but does she lock herself in and call the police? Of course not! Does she at least call a friend to pick her up? Of course not – she calls a friend and asks if she can stay there, but first she has to walk through a dark parking garage, and of course she doesn’t make it. All of these women know there’s a serial rapist/murderer out there, but none of them are armed even with pepper spray. Come on, ladies!
I know I’m getting angry about a stupid, largely forgotten movie, but it really is breath-takingly dumb. It’s quick (less than 90 minutes), so we know nothing about DiSanti – does he have a job? – and not much more about Tewes and Leigh, and it’s basically an excuse to show some gory violence (it’s surprisingly gory) and some topless women. I hope when she does win an Oscar, an interviewer asks Leigh about this movie – I’d like to hear what she thinks of it!
For Your Eyes Only (1981). The best Roger Moore Bond movie (sorry, Spy Who Loved Me fans, you know it’s true!) is fun to watch every once in a while. No, Moore has no chemistry with Carole Bouquet, but Moore, weirdly enough, had no chemistry with most of his female co-stars during his tenure as Bond. Yes, it’s funny that he won’t bang Lynn-Holly Johnson because we’re meant to think she’s too young for him, even though she turned 22 during filming while Bouquet turned … 23 (she’s about 16 months older than Johnson; Moore was 30 years older than both of them). Yes, the beginning is a bit weird, with Blofeld (unnamed because of legal issues) trying to kill Moore and getting dumped down a chimney in the most humorous way possible (hey, at least the cat lived!). But it’s still a terrific film, trading the bloat of Moonraker and even the ridiculous ending of The Spy Who Loved Me for a much more down-to-earth problem, a clever solution, and about as gritty as action gets in the Bond franchise (at least before they decided to beat Daniel Craig in the testicles). The locations are great, the skiing section is exciting (a bit ridiculous, sure, but still exciting), the monastery on top of the mountain is an excellent place to have a final showdown, and this is the only Bond movie with Topol, so it’s naturally going to rise toward the top! Even Sheena Easton isn’t quite as annoying as she usually is! I’m in the bag for Moore and for Bond movies in general, but this one is near the top. I dare you to disagree!
The Big Chill (1983). I had never seen The Big Chill for some reason, even though I’m a big fan of Lawrence Kasdan – he’s fallen off the map a bit, but his early career is on point: his directorial debut is Body Heat, followed by this movie, then Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, I Love You to Death, Grand Canyon, and Wyatt Earp, all of which are superb films. But I was too young to see this in the theater, and it just kind of fell off the radar, so when it showed up on television recently, I figured I’d check it out. It’s pretty good, although the soundtrack really gets grating after a while – I like 1960s Motown as much as the next guy, but Jeebus, people! What I like about the movie is that Kasdan (who also wrote it) resists having anyone give a big speech about their feelings. Most of the drama comes organically from their conversations, and whenever someone is about to make a big speech about their feelings, one of the other characters tends to deflate them a bit, which keeps the message (basically, they’re all whiny because they got rich instead of living up to the ideals of the Sixties – this is a very First World Problem movie) but allows them to frame it as slightly goofy. Ultimately, it’s because the message is just window-dressing, as the characters, in a pre-internet age, have lost touch with each other and are trying to figure out if they’re still friends. They are, but not without some caveats, and that’s what makes the movie interesting. Everyone does a good job – the cast was relatively unknown, even though they all had been working steadily for years, and they were all about the same age – Close was the oldest (35 at the time of filming) and Goldblum the youngest (31 at the time of filming) – if we discount Meg Tilly, of course. Kasdan had them rehearse together for weeks in character and often simply filmed them doing things, which made the relationships work quite well on screen (and was probably hell on the editor). It’s a good movie, although its influence, perhaps, has far outshone its quality. Everyone’s hair is spectacular, too (well, except for William Hurt – that poor dude is one of those people whose hair has probably never looked good!).
Manhunter (1986). I love that The Silence of the Lambs is technically a sequel, because it’s such a weird bit of movie trivia. Of course Hannibal Lecter is in this (his name, strangely, is spelled Lecktor), but so is Jack Crawford and Dr. Chilton, who’s a lot less of a complete douchebag in this movie than in the second one (with a lot less film time, however). Frankie Faison and Dan Butler are in both movies, too, playing completely different characters! So that’s fun. This movie itself was remade as Red Dragon, which is not nearly as good as this one despite having what would probably be called a better cast. That’s because Michael Mann, not Brett Ratner, directed this, and Mann is infinitely better than Ratner. Plus, William Petersen might not be as good an actor as Edward Norton, but he plays “haunted FBI guy” far better than Norton does, and that performance has to anchor the movie (it’s not even that Petersen was older and had more life experience; he was around 33 while making this movie, while Norton was around … 32). Mann, as you might expect, makes this very moody, and even the presence of synthed-up 1980s music doesn’t hinder that (whenever I see a movie or show with synthed-up 1980s music, I imagine Vangelis going nuts, even though it’s usually not Vangelis). Tom Noonan is terrific as the “Tooth Fairy,” mainly because Noonan is so weird-looking that he doesn’t have far to go to be good as a strange killer; Joan Allen does nice work as the blind woman who falls for Noonan; Stephen Lang is almost unrecognizable as the slimy reporter (Lang has aged into a good-looking dude, but he certainly lived in the Eighties for all it was worth); and Kim Griest doesn’t have much to do as Petersen’s wife. Brian Cox gets a lot of love as Lecktor, to the point that some people have retconned him as a better version than Anthony Hopkins, but he’s really not. He’s quite good, but he doesn’t get much screen time at all, and he simply isn’t as magnetic as Hopkins is. You can believe Hopkins is a killer more than Cox (which is why some people like Cox’s version better, because Hopkins is more obviously insane), but Hopkins is more mesmerizing, so even if you know he’s evil, you can’t help like him a bit. Cox is just kind of a jerk (and I love Brian Cox in general, and he’s very good here, just not as good as Hopkins). This is essentially Petersen’s movie, and he’s very much up to the task.
New Jack City (1991). I saw New Jack City in the theater in 1991. I say this because I remember riots occurring around showings of the movie, which struck me as strange. Apparently one was because the theater had oversold tickets and hundreds couldn’t get in, another was because gangs showed up to see it and got in a fight – pretty standard stuff, honestly. Of course people blamed the movie, and of course there was an undercurrent of racism in the condemnation, because New Jack City was directed by a black man and the entire cast except for – hilariously – Judd Nelson (and a few random dudes) is black, but in an age before social media, the voices pointing out the stupidity of that line of reasoning weren’t as loud as they would be today. Anyway, I saw it with two white friends of mine in State College, Pennsylvania, where once you leave the campus of Penn State (which we did), it’s one of the whitest towns around, and at the showing, we might have been the only white dudes there, and … nothing happened. Everyone had a good time, but nobody rioted. Imagine that.
Anyway, I love New Jack City, even though it’s not that great a movie. Director Mario van Peebles (who has a small role) and screenwriter Thomas Lee Wright can’t escape the clichés of gangster movies even as Wesley Snipes and his crew watch Scarface (is this when Scarface became an important part of rap culture, or was it before this?) and say what happened to poor misunderstood Al Pacino won’t happen to them. Of course a woman gets in between Snipes and his second-in-command, Allen Payne! Of course Snipes is too busy living an indolent life to pay attention to the cracks in his empire! I mean, duh! However, Snipes is magnetic in this movie – this is really his first big role, after he proved that he had charisma in things like Wildcats and Major League – and Ice-T (off his break-out role in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo) is quite good, even if he’s a bit preachy. His mentorship of Chris Rock, getting him off crack and then sending him back into the lion’s den to spy on Snipes’s operation (with the expected results) is done quite well (this wasn’t Rock’s first movie – who can forget his brief role in Beverly Hills Cop II?) but it was his first major role, and he’s pretty good. Nelson is hilarious because he’s so earnest about #NotAllWhitePeople, and van Peebles does try to make the point that it’s not necessarily black vs. white but rich vs. poor in this country, even if he’s ham-fisted about it. Overall, an interesting time capsule of a movie, and a lot more interesting than it gets credit for, even though it’s not all that great.
Ronin (1998). I mentioned in a previous post that Ronin is the last of the great car chase movies, ending a 30-year Golden Age, because it was the last movie to use actual cars for all the stunts rather than CGI some of the more dangerous stuff in. Practical car chases seem to making a tiny comeback over the past few years, so maybe filmmakers are realizing how cool they are, but even though I love the Fast and the Furious movies (even Tokyo Drift, you ask? to which I answer FUCK YEAHHHHHHH!!!!!), occasionally the digital cars look silly. In Ronin, director John Frankenheimer smashes the shit out of a lot of cars, and it’s glorious. There are three great car chases in the movie, and the fact that they take place in France, with their silly twisty roads that aren’t wide enough to fit your average obese American, because all those cities were built when people just walked around like chumps instead of driving everywhere like we do in ‘Murica, is just awesome. The cars barely make it through streets and around corners, and they are always almost wiping out tens, if not hundreds of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. All of this in pursuit of a classic MacGuffin, which makes it even cooler. DeNiro (or, as my daughter calls him, “Bobby D”) is excellent, Jean Reno gets to play a good guy, yay!, Sean Bean actually survives the movie (even though he goes out like a schmuck, he does manage to survive), Stellan Skarsgård is great as usual (although he will never be as pretty as his son), Michael Lonsdale (Hugo Drax!) is terrific in a small part, Jonathan Pryce is skeezy as always, and Natascha McElhorne is brilliant as the mysterious woman who employs all the mercenaries for her job. It’s a great cast, it has great action, including a shoot-out at the ancient amphitheater in Arles (Arles: home of Caesarius of Arles, one of the founders of monasticism!), and it’s just a thrill ride from start to finish. Frankenheimer wasn’t the greatest director ever, but he knew how to put together an action movie!
Vantage Point (2008). I’ve seen Vantage Point a few times, and it’s an enjoyable thriller with just enough going on that you have to pay attention (and I learned something new about it after I watched it, so I might have to watch it again at some point!). If you haven’t seen it, the premise is this: It takes place over the course of about 30 minutes on a day when the president (played by William Hurt) is addressing a crowd in Salamanca, Spain, at a summit he organized against global terrorism, one which many Arab countries agreed to attend. So it’s a big deal. The filmmakers show the time period from several different points of view (or … vantage points) as the president is shot and bombs go off and bad things happen all over. The movie “rewinds” to the beginning of the time period (noon) and we follow different characters as they see things that create a holistic view of what happened. At the end, all the characters intersect and we learn what really happened. Hey presto! It’s a nice brisk thriller with several good actors – Dennis Quaid, Hurt, Matthew Fox (has Fox retired, because he seems to have dropped off the map), Forest Whitaker, Edgar Ramirez, Said Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana – and a fairly clever premise, but as usual, you really shouldn’t think about it too much. There are two explosions in the movie, and in one segment, they are far closer to each other in time than in the others, simply because the plot needed them to be. We don’t really get much motivation for why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing, which is frustrating. Most frustrating, for me, is that Dennis Quaid figures the whole thing out at the end of his “section,” which ends about 20 minutes into the movie, but because we have other characters to get to, we don’t find out what he knows until much later. Fiction does this all the time – hides stuff characters know from the readers – but it’s rarely as blatant as this is, and it’s kind of annoying. Still, it’s a pretty good movie, and not a bad way to spend 90 minutes or so.
District 9 (2009). I saw District 9 in the theater, which is noteworthy only because in the past 15 years or so, I’ve seen fewer and fewer movies in the theater, a combination of having kids and having so many options for home viewing that it’s almost silly to go see movies in the theaters. But this seemed neat, so I saw it and loved it. I hadn’t seen it since then, but it’s still terrific, and it’s a shame that Neill Blomkamp hasn’t been able to recapture the magic of this movie (Sharlto Copley hasn’t either, but I’m more forgiving of actors making some bad choices than I am of directors making bad movies). If you haven’t seen it, it’s a superb science fiction movie that does what all good sci-fi movies do – illuminate something in our society through an allegorical lens, in this case apartheid. There are some problems with the movie – the Nigerian angle is just weird – but the idea of aliens being sequestered in slums while the mainstream society tries to figure out what to do with them, all while shadowy multinational corporations try to make money off of them remains a good one, especially considering the way the world has gone in the past decade. Plus, the special effects on the budget Blomkamp was working with are very impressive, and the violence and gore in the movie remain incredibly visceral. The movie works largely because of Copley, who’s excellent – he’s a condescending dick at the beginning of the movie, and even after he becomes infected with alien DNA he remains a dick for a long time, not even completely earning his redemption even though he does some selfless things at the end. There’s no brilliant redemptive arc for his character, just some instances where he’s not quite as big a dick as he is in the beginning, which is an interesting way to go with the character. Maybe Blomkamp has another great movie in him, but for now, we can enjoy this one!
Get Out (2017). I’m not terribly impressed with the racism part of this movie, because it’s so ridiculously over-the-top that it doesn’t really illuminate our current society all that much. No one says the things Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener say to Daniel Kaluuya, not because they know better than to say such weird things, but because no one talks like they do. I get that it’s part of the point, but it’s very ham-fisted and kind of unworthy of the movie. The brief scene with the police officer as Kaluuya and Allison Williams are driving upstate is so much better, because it’s very understated, so the terror is more real, plus there’s both a textual meaning and a subtextual meaning, so it just hits harder. What works much better is the horror aspect, because in those, writer/director Jordan Peele can use the horror parts to make his points, which he does much better. The reason Kaluuya is in the suburbs, for instance, is a good one because it’s not just a purely evil one. The fact that we don’t know exactly whom we can trust is a trope in horror movies that goes back at least to Rosemary’s Baby, but there’s a reason it’s a trope, and it’s because it’s great at creating tension. Peele falls into the worst horror movie clichés a few times – Kaluuya is remarkably naïve at one point, and the evildoers get overconfident, two things that are almost axiomatic about horror movies, but other than that, this is a pretty terrific movie, and the presence of Lil Rel Howery as comic relief who’s also ridiculously smart is welcome, because he keeps the movie from being too bleak. Plus, the ending is really good, because everyone thinks it’s going one way, and Peele apparently wanted you to believe it was going that way before he pulls the rug out from under you. I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t, but this is a really good movie that shows Peele is a very confident director with a bright future. Unless he turns out to be Neill Blomkamp, that is!
The Mummy (2017). I’m not entirely sure why everyone bashed this movie, because it’s a perfectly fine B-movie – maybe it’s because nobody makes B-movies anymore, so if it’s not an A-movie, it sucks? Beats me. It’s pretty much a present-day version of the 1999 movie, with Tom Cruise playing Brendan Fraser. He’s a treasure hunter/grave robber who seems to be in the U.S. Army, although he faces no consequences for his actions and the Army doesn’t come looking for him after the plane carrying the mummy crash-lands in England, so who knows. It’s funnier than I thought it would be, which is nice, but Cruise can’t quite pull off the insouciant adventurer as well as Fraser can, although he tries. Yes, I just compared Tom Cruise unfavorably to Brendan Fraser – live with it! Annabelle Willis is apparently a good actor, but you wouldn’t know it from this movie, as she is truly a do-nothing damsel in distress – Rachel Weisz was a much better damsel in the 1999 version. Sofia Boutella is always good to see, but the movie doesn’t make her quite as terrifying as she could be, which is disappointing because when she’s turned loose, she’s quite good. Jake Johnson is fine in the “John Hannah” comic relief role, although he’s not as good as Hannah is (which isn’t a criticism; Hannah is terrific). Unfortunately, Courtney B. Vance is pretty much wasted. The problem with the movie is the whole “Monster Universe” that Universal wanted to create – the actual mummy parts of the movie are quite good, but then the filmmakers shove a Jekyll/Hyde subplot into it, which is really annoying (despite Russell Crowe reminding us that he can act pretty well, as he bores as Jekyll but is quite fun as Hyde), and they end the movie with a big speech about Cruise and what’s happened to him while hiding exactly what that is, presumably because they were going to show it in a sequel which will probably never come. It’s frustrating, because just because Marvel has done it doesn’t mean everyone should do it, and remember how long it took Marvel to get it right. Yes, they mentioned the Avengers in Iron Man, but that was as a teaser, while the movie itself stands perfectly fine on its own. Maybe make sure people want to see your damned movies before turning them into chapters of a longer story? If Universal had just made a mummy movie and kept Jekyll/Hyde and the weird ending out of it, this would probably have done much better. But still and all, it’s a breezy, cheesy horror flick. B-movies can be awesome, if only people recognized that they’re making them!
So there you have it! More unsolicited opinions about pop culture! That’s all we’re here for anyway, right?