Friday, June 27, 2014

The Dead Inside (2011)

(Unrated, Drexelbox Films, 99 minutes, screened April 3, 2011 at the Phoenix Film Festival)

Meet Harper and Max, married survivors of the zombie apocalypse who wander the desolate, sun-baked earth foraging for food. Alas, it’s not all so peachy keen, as the lovebirds have long turned into the walking dead themselves, and the locked door they approach is where they hope to find fresh meat to feast upon in solace from the rest of the pustulating pack. Their brains may have atrophied but they still have their wits, as they bicker over Harper’s moaning for brains reducing them to a cliché (anyways, she’s “more of a large intestine girl”) and Max futilely suggests they turn the handle. They face a challenge, as does their creator, series novelist Fiona Cella (Sarah Lassez): “How do I open this f***ing door?”

The Dead Inside is not to be confused with another film of the same title released in 2011 nor the 2013 British movie, both of whom have lower IMDb scores. No, this is from Indiana indie filmmaker Travis Betz, and this Dead Inside is not a movie I am wholly unfamiliar with, having first seen it at the 2011 Phoenix Film Festival on  my 27th birthday before its DVD release through Monarch Home Entertainment in 2012. Betz won the year’s Dan Harkins Breakthrough Filmmaker Award, as well as a couple other accolades in Los Angeles, one of which was for Best Score.

That aforementioned query from Fiona is not simply stated but sung, for The Dead Inside is also a musical, with original songs written by Joel Van Vliet (no relation to Captain Beefheart) and Betz. As Fiona, nicknamed Fi, frets over her ever-debilitating struggle with writer’s block, her photographer boyfriend Wesley (Dustin Fasching) returns from another unfulfilling assignment wondering where his heart went. With both of their respective muses having fled, Wes and Fi romanticize a real-life zombie apocalypse that would give Wes more time to be with Fi so they can rule the world themselves.

If only fate was so fortunate. Fi fails to cope with a form of violent anxiety which reveals itself as supernatural and highly possessive. Wes tries both admitting her to psychiatric care and conducting an exorcism after she’s found having sliced her own finger off and levitating over their bed in the middle of the night. It soon becomes clear that Fi’s body has been taken over by the spirit of a deceased woman named Emily, and a battle of wills develops between Wes and the manipulative entity determined to live forever within Fi.

Betz has fashioned a movie from three distinct tones centered strictly around one setting and two actors, although The Dead Inside is aptly named in regards to the themes of dry comedy, romance and drama which he juxtaposes. First, there’s the fictional Harper & Max siege which, in actuality, serves to lighten the load whenever the focus shifts to them. These moments bleed into the main conflict in the real world once Harper falls under a hex which renders her human again, but that doesn’t stop Betz from having Max test Harper’s condition by forcing her to eat a dog’s severed leg. The Dead Inside also refers to both the stunted ambitions of Wes and Fi as well as, ultimately, their own personalities once Emily’s ghost takes residence.

Lassez and Fasching are counted on to act as three separate characters, although the former has the trickier task since one purely exists as the host for another. Fi is drawn with a fair amount of quirks, such as pitching a makeshift fort in the living room whenever she gets depressed, as well as a propensity for profanity in song, but she doesn’t come across as well as her portrayal of Emily, whose depth eclipses that of Fi. Lassez does well enough to differentiate both personas physically, but the clearer arc is demonstrated by Fasching’s Wes, who at least tries to understand Emily’s tragic back story involving an abusive lover and an unborn son but deduces that she hasn’t told him the bitter truth about her death, which plunges him deeper into a mentally-unbalanced fury. Ultimately, the film forgoes black comedy completely to reach at tragedy, although not without considerable strain on its momentum.

There are also the songs to deal with, which include not one but two breakdown-themed vehicles for Fi (“Leave” and “Control”) as well as a tender ballad from Wes concerning his signature on the release papers that will place his girlfriend in the sanitarium. The highlights amongst them are the “Zombie Apocalypse” love song, the contentious tango of “Doomsday” and the self-descriptive “Emily’s Story,” which allows Lassez to demonstrate an impressive lilt in her voice. These are not just the best songs in the batch, finding emotional resonance outside of the pitfalls of novelty value, but also fine showcases for Betz the visual stylist. The songs uniformly work better in the movie rather than as standalone listens, though.

The best hook to be found is how The Dead Inside plays early on with the notion of metaphorical undeath in regards to artistry, with Fi’s schizophrenia and self-mutilating impulses lending a visceral edge that jibes well with the cutaway zombie gags. It doesn’t tie together as well as it should the more it continues, but Travis Betz does show potential to do a lot with limited resources and an undiluted feel for the multi-faceted macabre.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


(PG, Paramount Pictures, 88 minutes, theatrical release date: July 23, 1993)


The moment Prymaat Clorhone implores her "genetomate" Beldar, puffing an entire pack of cigarettes with an exaggeratedly nervous pacing, to "phone home" to their home planet of Remulak, you could easily be forgiven that you stumbled into F.T. the Franco-Terrestrials. It's such a random, slight pop culture nod that only emphasizes how far removed the Coneheads are from their late-1970s popularity on Saturday Night Live in the post-Wayne's World assembly line of Lorne Michaels-produced spin-off movies. In 1983, there were plans for a Rankin-Bass cartoon series based on Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin's pyramid-shaped…I mean, flindar-resembling exiles which ultimately fell by the wayside, leaving Aykroyd to make his bones in blockbusters like Trading Places and Ghostbusters as well as unexpected dramatic turns in Driving Miss Daisy and My Girl, occasionally stumbling into the occasional flop, such as the buddy cop pic Loose Cannons and his fatally grotesque directorial debut Nothing But Trouble.

Coneheads did not do much to reverse Aykroyd's fortunes, being a critical and commercial borp mip despite many commercial tie-ins, namely through Subway, and a soundtrack album which spawned a hit pleasure tone spewer in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Soul to Squeeze," which led to Dan and Jane becoming guest video jockeys on MTV for a programming block (alas, I don't believe they played the 1981 Frank Zappa song "Coneheads"). And since Coneheads was the only feature spawned from the vintage SNL years, the world was spared the sight of Eddie Murphy returning to his Buh-Weet persona to sing "Bwane Eat on da Wane" or the reunion of those pre-Roxbury "wild and crazy guys" themselves, The Brothers Festrunk. The world may never know.

Both the characters and the movie come off in retrospect exactly like the flyover, fish-out-of-water types seen in the opening credits. The McGuire Air Force Base locate an unidentified aircraft, its occupants of course being Beldar and Prymaat, and duly open fire, causing it to plunge into the Hudson River. They gather themselves up by lodging at a nearby motel, with Beldar proposing that they assimilate into their peculiar unfamiliar environment while they await a rescue vessel to arrive in, oh…seven zerls, approximately 16 Earth years. Turns out an entire roll of toilet paper constitutes cerebellum-stimulating congestibles for our hyper-logical Remulakian overlord.

Also not helping the movie's timeliness was the fact that by 1993, we already had both Matt Groening's The Simpsons and Barry Sonnenfeld's adaptation of The Addams Family, with its sequel arriving the same year as Coneheads. Watching these pointy-domed if all-American totems show up the square life of the modern family was not exactly fertile ground for brilliant satire. If Coneheads could be said to bring anything new to the table, it would be a purely analytical subtext equating the Coneheads' gradually upward suburban mobilization to the typical immigrant experience.

It took a whole lot trying just to get up that hill.

Indeed, the antagonists are not your usual black-suited Central Intelligence authorities but the INS branch of governmental affairs, led by the dementedly dogged Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean, joyously deadpan). And even he is just a lackey seeking to climb the bureaucratic ladder to Washington, where he would be promoted Assistant Deputy Commissioner were it not for a nagging loose end involving one Donnie DiCicco, the black-market identity purchased for Beldar by initial employer Otto (Sinbad), owner of an appliance repair shop. Aiding Mr. Seedling in this deportation case is Eli Turnbull, which is most certainly not Steve Martin reprising his taxman role from the 1970s skits but a smarmy brownnose played by David Spade, one of a dozen SNL stars from the past and then-present (Adam Sandler, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz, the original Connie Conehead performer Laraine Newman) given bit parts throughout the film.

Chief among them is Spade's late cinematic foil Chris Farley as Ronnie, the flop-sweating mechanic who courts teenage daughter Connie (Michelle Burke) once the family settles for good in Paramus. Indeed, most of the rare positive raves concerning the film were directed towards Farley, who many saw as the second coming of John Belushi on either the big or small screens. Farley brings a nervous, wiry charm to his stock role which merits his promise despite his unfortunate passing in several years, whereas the beatific Burke gives younger viewers a more accessible adolescent perspective.

The brightest moments remain those between the impeccable team of Aykroyd and Curtin, each bringing warming, warped dimensions to their previously caricatured television personalities even as they dive back deeply into their familiar tics. Their meals consist as ever of mountainous "mass quantities" of bacon ("seared strips of swine flesh"), eggs ("flattened chicken embryos") and Eggo waffles ("gridlike breakfast slabs"), although their palates aren't too rejecting of window cleaner and dust bunnies. Their hyper-defined colloquialisms and mock-Klingon jargon allow for ample one-liners, such as when Beldar admits that his mission failure will surely not appease their Highmaster ("He will surely cut off my plarg and hand it to me") and also to scare off Ronnie after he exhibits the unwelcome behavior of a flandap, or "an uninvited grasper of cone," as Prymaat defines it.

A bizarre sweetness develops in the presence of the new-and-improved Mr. and Mrs. Conehead, which culminates in the familiar act of marriage-spicing shenanigans passed on to Prymaat through multiple women's magazine articles. Both Curtin's feral growl and Aykroyd's goofily lovestruck reaction to the Senso-Ring tossed atop his noggin are funny enough to invoke canker sores.

This sense of comedic goodwill goes into mentalion surge to compensate for the episodic and predictable nature of the plot, which eventually does involve a homecoming when the Coneheads return to Remulak and Beldar is sentenced to "narfle the Garthok" (challenge a carnivorous, tusked beast in a gladiatorial capacity) by the merciless Highmaster (Dave Thomas from SCTV) for his supposed treason. The Garthok itself is a refreshingly primitive stop-motion creation in a sea of computer-animated sub sandwiches and prosthetic buttocks, but for much of the film, director Steve Barron gets a surprising amount of mileage from two simple special-effects showcases: his leading actors.

The Dublin-born Barron, of course, began his directorial career through the early years of music video and is of great renown for directing handfuls of iconic early MTV staples ("Take on Me," "Money for Nothing," "Billie Jean," "She Blinded Me with Science," "Don't You Want Me," etc. etc.). Compared to Penelope Spheeris, who had enough credentials within the rock scene to bring a personality to her work on Wayne's World, Barron is of a more nostalgic science fiction mind, thus the distinctly Harryhausen appearance of the Garthok, the ironic use of a clip from Star Trek at the onset and all manner of playful camera angles and wide shots. The soundtrack itself is also part of this wistful fabric, with A-ha singer Morton Harket turning up to croon Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the giddily-received appearance of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" (see if you can recognize the actresses playing Connie's friends without reading the credits, and know they all went to high school together again) and, in a fun little touch, Paul Simon's 1973 hit "Kodachrome" scored against a montage condensing Super 8-shot home movies of Connie's childhood.

But the joke of the original SNL series remains refreshingly free from revision, that the Coneheads are all-consuming, all-American and, in spite of their eccentricities, all-too-human. They know heartbreak as the busting of their blood valve chambers, and come to grips with their endless "chromobonding" for each other with inhumanly verbal and emotional precision. They get along well with their blunt-skulled neighbors (played to perfection by Jason Alexander and Lisa Jane Persky), face temptation (one of Beldar's driving instruction students is a desperate debutante played by Jan Hooks) and socialize at both pep rallies and Halloween costume balls with bemused glee. They aren't as severely self-contained as either the Addams or the Simpsons, which gives Coneheads the advantage of a very, very strange nobility.

Greetings, Earth citizens. I will enjoy you.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 minutes, theatrical release date: March 5, 1982)


In what became the year of the teenage sex comedy, Barry Levinson's 1982 slice-of-life film Diner looked like an underdog then and still does even now. It was made for $5 million by a studio which had little faith in a dialogue-driven variant on the classic American Graffiti formula. The central sextet of actors could not develop into a cohesive until they all shared one camped, fetid trailer, saving their group moments until the end of the shoot. It was practically shelved until positive critical reception, spearheaded by influential New Yorker scribe Pauline Kael, brought Levinson's film reluctantly into the light. And a phenomenal Vanity Fair article not only acknowledges its influence on the likes of English novelist Nick Hornby and the prolific American filmmaker Judd Apatow, but also tells you straight up the reservations experienced by the likes of Kevin Bacon, Ellen Barkin and Mickey Rourke, the three cast members with the brightest, most prolific careers of the ensemble troupe.

Diner, however, remains a surprising, effortlessly bittersweet treat after nearly 30 years since its uncertain distribution. Better not to lump Barry Levinson in with the glorified puerility of the Bob Clarks and Boaz Davidsons of the world and instead see Levinson as the American heir apparent to Federico Fellini, particularly citing his 1953 story of encroaching adulthood, I Vitelloni. Here is a movie rich in character and conversation, and even when it's not, has the power of perception and passage. But where the Academy Award-nominated Levinson (here for Best Original Screenplay) really shines is in the presentation of community; the autobiographical Baltimore of Christmastime 1959 feels genuinely like a living thing of its own, a joint triumph of setting, production design, song selection, and minute details. There's always something on the margins which adds to the period precision; the swarming crowd of a movie theater, the hubbub of a dance hall social, the patrons of the titular all-night eatery. At one point, the camera holds on a serviceman asleep on a train station bench, a layabout whose presence is paralleled by the image of one of the principals emerging from his lazy indulgence.

That individual is Eddie Simmons (Steve Guttenberg), about to plunge nervously into the married life but whose irritability is felt in the contentious banter amongst his friends as well as his own mother (Jessica James). Riled from his late sleeping by his best friend Billy Howard (Timothy Daly), a surprise visitor bussed in from New York for the New Year's Eve nuptials, he proceeds to pester and threaten his knife-toting mom to the point where he coerces her to make a baloney sandwich for breakfast. His attitude towards women is sorely underdeveloped, even towards his own bride-to-be, Elyse, who needs to pass a rigorous football trivia exam to keep Eddie from calling the whole thing off. As he puts it, "If you want to talk, you always have the guys at the diner. You don't need a girl if you want to talk."

One of Eddie's confidantes is Larry "Shrevie" Schreiber (Daniel Stern), already a husband and just as stunted in communicating with his own wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin). "I can come down here, and we can bullshit the entire night away, but I cannot hold a five-minute conversation with Beth," Shrevie admits, pining for the days when sex was extensively planned out of wedlock. Instead of Eddie's preoccupation with the Colts, Shrevie is hung up on his library of 45s to the point where he lashes out at Beth for fudging up the filing system and even having the gall to not know who Charlie Parker is.
Billy earnestly proposes to his platonic friend of six years, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), after an impromptu night of passion a month ago leaves her pregnant, but they fail to see eye-to-eye, just as well. "You're confusing a friendship with a woman and love," she reasons, but Billy's error is merely one of telling and not showing. The only exception to the romantic rule is Bobby "Boogie" Sheftell (Mickey Rourke), a smooth-talking salon employee compulsively addicted to sex and gambling.

And then there's Timothy Fenwick, Jr. (Kevin Bacon), a reckless college dropout and drunkard who is introduced freaking out his underage date and punching out windows in the basement of the dancehall "for a smile." Billy, Shrevie, Eddie, Boogie, and Fenwick commiserate regularly at the Fells Point Diner, a greasy spoon café which the boys retreat to as if it was their own treehouse to banter about love, loss and whether Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis makes the better make-out music.

Flanked by the fast-talking, wise-cracking Modell (Paul Reiser), Levinson's boys' club is unflappable to the point of often stepping over each other's words and stammering in the face of verbal curveballs. The heated Sinatra vs. Mathis argument is taken to its logical end when Eddie inquires Boogie about his preference, and the rakish Romeo simply states "Presley." Both Steve Guttenberg and Daniel Stern's reactions are spontaneous and side-splitting.

Movies like St. Elmo's Fire, Fandango and Queens Logic (also with Kevin Bacon) rose up in the aftermath of the micro-success of Diner, all chronicling the bonds and burdens of tight-knit young adult friends in the process of accounting for real-life responsibilities. Diner, however, remains a singular achievement, a film which goes against Modell's ad-libbed gripe about "nuance" not being a real word by continually offering finely-sketched and wonderfully performed examples of actual nuance, so much so that the film takes on a literary transcendence.

The character of Fenwick, for instance, is a gem of lost innocence and misplaced rebellion. Frittering away his grandfather's trust fund despite being smart enough to compete on College Bowl, Fenwick has a knack for keeping his friends off-guard for laughs but is also bitterly distanced from his family. He's the one least likely to cope or compromise, which is something his friends each realize is imminent. A stunt in which Fenwick, choked up that someone has stolen the Baby Jesus statue from the church's Nativity display, strips down to his boxers and takes his place in the manger is farce and tragedy in equal measure. Bacon was betwixt Friday the 13th and Footloose at this point in his younger career, and makes a marvelous breakthrough.

Equally affecting are Mickey Rourke, who had a minor but memorable part in Lawrence Kasdan's Body Heat prior, and the sumptuous Ellen Barkin in her screen debut (as were Daly and Reiser, going the full mensch). Boogie is preoccupied with hot tips and hotter girls, boastfully wagering his friends on the extents of his conquests, leading to the archetypical scene where he pulls the old "hole in the popcorn bag" trick to get ahead. Not only that, but he's in debt $2000 to the local sharks, who are violently losing their patience. And yet Rourke invests enough to keep Boogie from being wholly boorish, especially in his moments with Barkin's Beth, a former steady of his who desperately needs emotional instead of physical validation after Shrevie's self-righteous record collection tantrum. An awkward sense of integrity develops when he can't use Beth to fool his friends into believing he made it with his girlfriend.

Maybe the appearance of a classy horseback rider who calls herself Jane Chisholm (Claudia Cron), after the Chisholm Trail linking Texas to Kansas, could signal real love, but he is too confused after her first appearance to follow through. As Fenwick puts it, "Do you ever get the feeling that there's something going on that we don't know about?"

Even characters who on the outside embody the most gratingly childish attitudes towards their lot are performed and written with great finesse. Steve Guttenberg as Eddie, for instance, reveals a latent uncertainty behind his clingy Colts cultism and alpha male assertions, a sympathetic hesitation to commit fueled by the lack of wild oats sown and inability to fulfill his position as loving husband. The fact that we never really see Elyse may have the marginalizing feeling of a looming specter, but that doesn't take away from the humanization that occurs in regards to his character.

The undervalued Daniel Stern character of Shrevie could've been also reduced to sour petulance were it not for his casual ease with a one-liner and a lack of spite which makes his argument with Beth play a lot more poignantly. The fact that he concludes his tirade by recalling the song which played when they first met at a graduation party for Modell's sister, Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," proves his musical romanticism is not completely pitiable, as he genuinely has love for Beth. As it is for much of the gender negotiations in Diner, the theme is communication breakdown and the raw expressions of stubbornly misplaced male ego. Not only in his encyclopedic memory of his record collection does Shrevie recall the type of maniacal impediments Nick Hornby laid bare in High Fidelity.

Levinson and his incredible cast of burgeoning big names treat the material with such genuine skill, that Diner manages to achieve that brilliant feat which makes the best self-reflexive passion projects work. It makes the personal universal. Even if you never watched a friend unzip his pants with a popcorn box seated above it or gazed in shock as a diner customer had a marathon meal consisting of an entire left side's worth of entrées, there are laughs and smiles in abundance. I never once felt the movie struck a false note, even when Billy commanders the piano at a dull strip bar for a boogie woogie infusion, and the dialogue both original and on loan (from Sweet Smell of Success, natch) display the kind of warmth and backwards authenticity that Shrevie would be proud of,  just so long as he doesn't blame any jumps or skips on his wife. Some things are better left silently forgiven.

We'll always have Diner, though, which proudly warrants a great big standing O. I'll gladly take a doggy bag.

Monday, June 9, 2014


(R, Columbia Pictures, 115 mins., theatrical release date: August 10, 1990)

"It's a good day to die," broods the aspiring Norse God of Medicine, Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland). A cocky gunner eager to know the true nature of the Afterlife, Nelson recruits four of his fellow undergrads for a radical, risky experiment in which he will temporarily shake off his mortal coil through hypodermics and heat blankets. The EKG screen will not detect a heartbeat for thirty seconds, leaving only the vertical line of death. If his accomplices can resuscitate him back into consciousness, Nelson will have conclusive knowledge about the out-of-body experience. If not, then consider him the freshest cadaver on campus.

Somewhere between life and death, between heaven and hell, between St. Elmo's Fire and Final Destination, that is where you'll find Flatliners. The early 1990s was a glorious period for morbid mainstream movies about the Great Beyond. In particular, Bruce Joel Rubin busted this theme wide open with his scripts for both Ghost and Jacob's Ladder, but it was first time writer Peter Filardi who devised the premise for this one. The director is Joel Schumacher, fresh off of St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys, working with a new batch of rising stars but otherwise up to his tawdry old tricks. Although the setting is Chicago, this may as well be "the murder capital of the world" all over again, and the pompous main characters do like to spend their nights at the bar after a hard night of cheating death. Give ‘em a little drop more.

Nelson's lab partners include Rachel Mannus (Julia Roberts), the obligatory love interest with maternal bedside manner; resident atheist David Labraccio (Kevin Bacon), who gets a four-month suspension for performing noble if unauthorized gynecological surgery on a dying woman; sleazy womanizer Joe Hurley (William Baldwin), who is tasked with filming the experiments using the same camcorder he uses to covertly record his many conquests; and portly philosopher Randy Steckle (Oliver Platt), the requisite voice of deadpan, comical reason. They converge in what appears to be an abandoned, spherical chapel flown over from the Renaissance, less the University of Illinois or even the Art Institute of Chicago and more of a Dan Brown fever dream of higher education.

Once Nelson is successfully revived after thirty seconds in the Void, his skeptical colleagues prove overzealously eager to not just recreate the experience, but to bid on who can last the longest in limbo. Rachel and Joe are the first to argue, but it is he who wins the next slot on the slab, and once again the results prove successful. Unfortunately, Nelson and Joe start to have recurring, guilt-addled hallucinations related to the lives which flashed before them in death, and withhold their anxieties until after David and Rachel subsequently take their turns.

Flatliners takes the notion of how your life flashes before your eyes in the throes of death and places it in the actual being of non-existence. Furthermore, it finds a pop psychological spin on the theme of being tormented by your sins. The first two times look innocent enough for Nelson and Joe, as the former experiences a reverie of childhood straight out of a marketing firm brainstorming session and the latter is surrounded by buxom models in what could pass a Herb Ritts-directed interlude (you could easily imagine Chris Isaak or Madonna singing in your head). Eventually, both Filardi the scripter and Schumacher the stylist grow more and more inspired by the Nightmare on Elm Street series, as waking life segues into ghastly fantasy. Nelson is haunted by a figure in a red-hooded sweatshirt attacking him with a hockey stick, an image straight out of 1970s bad kid cinema. David is also confronted by his childhood cruelty in the form of an ostracized black girl, whilst Rachel encounters the ghost of her daddy, a junkie Vietnam vet who committed post-traumatic suicide.

The combination of the graven and garish manifests a kind of navel-gazing pretentiousness that makes Flatliners a chore to sit through. If Schumacher was aiming for camp, he's much less assured here than he was in The Lost Boys. Recall how Kiefer Sutherland relished the head vampire role in that film with a demonic zest that made his performance less like a deliberate pose, creepy and charismatic in equally-calibrated measure. In Flatliners, Sutherland is unable to balance the scales, sinking into a one-note solemnity which is good for conveying nervousness but not investment. His vulnerability seems like a put-on, a bratty defense mechanism rather than something natural to the character. Compared to the subtle touches of humanism found in his co-stars Bacon and Roberts, Sutherland's velvet-throated authority is wasted.

William Baldwin and Oliver Platt are equally misused, essaying the two characters who don't seem to pull their weight amongst the drama. It's all too easy to peg Baldwin's Joe Hurley as a fictitious cheap shot at St. Elmo's Fire star Rob Lowe, and whilst his sexist ego is dutifully detonated, there's no satisfactory pay-off to Hurley other than his debasement. Platt is pithy and witty as Steckle, but underplays to a deadly degree that he becomes nothing more than a mere lackey.

The best performances in the film belong to Kevin Bacon and Julia Roberts in a role that preceded her Pretty Woman fame in production if not exposure. Bacon tempers his madness with vulnerability and rational cool, whilst Roberts knows how to play a potential moment of empty schmaltz close to the bone and frequently comes up aces. Their romantic liaison doesn't exactly cause for a lot of sparks, and is as superficial as most of the screenplay's attitude, but these two stars give the movie whatever soul is buried under the artifice.

Alas, Schumacher's forte in lurid overkill makes drags the film down into inconsequence. A film concerned with Big Questions and Life-or-Death Stakes needs someone less concerned with making every frame as grossly literal as possible. Compare Flatliners to Adrian Lyne's work on Jacob's Ladder for an example of how you temper rock-video flashiness with honest-to-goodness tension and the thrill of the mystery. Schumacher surrounds himself with technical craftsmen who bring out the symbolism and style with reckless abandon, including cinematographer Jan De Bont and production designer Eugenio Zanetti among others, but these prove to be eyesores once you realize they are the norm. There are a few moments of simplistically surreal unease, particularly when Nelson walks alone through the town (watch out for those cyclists) and chases a dog down into a sewer, which hint at the kind of restraint Schumacher would've done better to harness. It's also Sutherland's finest moment in the entire film.

If Flatliners had demonstrated as much care and detail in the characters as it does in the settings, which doesn't so much parallel the students' brash decision to play God as much as it points the finger and laughs, this movie could've been on to something brilliant and affecting. Imagine this as a hired gun project for someone like David Cronenberg, and Flatliners becomes even more of a tragedy in hindsight.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Wizard (1989)

(PG, Universal Pictures, 96 mins., theatrical release date: December 15, 1989)


Ladies and gentlemen...

The year is 1988, and one movie proved the most influential in the history of cinema. It was an act of revolutionary proportions which changed the way Hollywood executives and all-American moviegoers perceived the idea of entertainment. It revived an art form diagnosed with rigor mortis with the defibrillator of imagination. Nowadays, it's still spoken about in hushed, revelatory tones by people who duly recognize a sacred totem when they see it, putting it on their must-see lists with the same awe reserved for the likes of Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Psycho, The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, or any number of beloved cultural benchmarks. The movie I refer to isn't Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Beetlejuice, no, for they are all but charlatans by comparison to the true figurehead of film in 1988.

Yes, the definitive cinematic event of that year was the one...

...the only...

...MAC AND ME!!!

What, you think I'm fooling? This isn't April 1, and my name ain't Marty motherf***ers!

Paste Magazine recently unveiled their list of the 100 Best "B" Movies of All Time, and what movie holds the #52 spot on their countdown. Mac and Me! Forget Dolemite, Sharknado, Basket Case, or either the 1958 or 1988 version of The Blob. Hell, their list doesn't even think to include the likes of Pieces, Rock & Roll High School or anything associated with the name "Herschell Gordon Lewis." Who needs Mondo Macabro when you've got Sci-Fi Channel-era Mystery Science Theater 3000 as your encyclopedia of schlock! Yeah, I consider it a pretty lame list overall when you consider Mac and Me the middle man in the entire spectrum of "So Bad, It's Good."

But give that movie credit where it's due, for Mac and Me did do something audacious enough to deem it memorable: It made corporate sponsorship the bedrock of feature-film production. All of the Paul Rudd/Conan O'Brien hipster jokes in the world can not drown out the sadistic laughter of Ronald McDonald as he openly mocks your gullibility in assuming this was just another harmless E.T. clone. We all laugh at it now only to counter the repellent cynicism of the world's first feature-length commercial, and one designed mostly to shill for junk food and artificially-sweetened beverages. This is the in-flight entertainment for the those morbidly obese spaceship passengers from Wall-E.

(To be fair, though, maybe the laughter is designed help to burn off the calories from having eaten a Big Mac value meal. Healthy living!)

Mac and Me flopped on its lardass theatrically, and in an orderly universe, its failure should have become etched in stone and made the law of the land. That clearly didn't happen, because a year later, Nintendo committed the exact same mistake with The Wizard, another case of promo porno disguised as family fun.

Look, I get nostalgic for old-school Nintendo, too. The temptation to play Super Mario Bros. 1-3 or Bomberman or Bubble Bobble is like a pitifully codependent romantic relationship, only with bruised fingers instead of blackened eyes. But for the love of God, I watched The Wizard for the first time in years and I can't believe this has such a forgiving cult following. You'd think that the suits over at Nintendo would choose not to associate themselves with such a dour, dumb and derivative motion picture as The Wizard, a film distressingly preoccupied with irresponsible preteen runaways from broken homes, old men in Speedos (don't say I did not I warn you), and child molestation humor. Blecch!!! It would be like if Hollywood made a Britney Spears vehicle with cheap pretensions of being the female equivalent of a Lemon Popsicle film. 

Oh, wait...they did!

The premise revolves around an adorably autistic little boy named Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) desperate to run away to California, having just been spotted by the police treading lonely across the Utah desert and duly returned to his icy caregivers, Mr. and Mrs. Bateman (Wendy Phillips, Sam McMurray). The former convinces his wife that his stepson should be institutionalized, the only voice of protest being Jimmy's 13-year-old half-brother Corey (Fred Savage). Unable to sway his apathetic single father Sam (Beau Bridges) and older brother Nick (Christian Slater), Corey decides to run away from home and take Jimmy with him on a trip to, where else, but "Cawifornia."

Attempting to go a longer way than their $20 will allow, Corey perks up when Jimmy amasses a 50,000-point count on the Double Dragon arcade game in the bus station. A third party appears in the form of Haley (Jenny Lewis), a ginger-haired tomboy who fails to best Jimmy after making a wager but still tags along after pointing out that there is gold in them thar hills, namely the $50,000 first prize of the big Video Armageddon tournament happening in three days at Universal Studios in Los Angeles.

The three underage hitchers/grifters pursue their destination, but not without a few necessary enemies in their path. The Batemans hire a sleazeball bounty hunter named Putnam (Will Seltzer) to retrieve Jimmy, and there's also the matter of one Lucas Barton (Jackey Vinson), an older teen and ultimate consumer...master of Nintendo who can presumably beat Lucas with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the miracle of gaming known as the Power Glove.

The introductory scene with Lucas is rightfully considered a moment of camp, thanks mostly in part to Vinson's zombie-like approach to playing a role meant to come across like an Old West bandit. The musical score even quotes Ennio Morricone briefly on the synthesizer, right before he utters his deathless recommendation of the junky Power Glove ("It's so bad"). It's futile to repress a chuckle there, just as much as it is hard not to applaud when Haley punches Corey in the face for acting more handicapped than his charge. Because the trouble with The Wizard is that by the 15-minute mark, I was already feeling inconsolably depressed.

Co-producer and sole screenwriter David Chisholm has written a story which brazenly incorporates Nintendo into nearly every intimate character moment. Nick tries to reach out to his absentee father whilst sharing a king bed in a motel only to hook up his NES console in frustration and start therapeutically playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The joke comes the next morning when Sam himself begins showing signs of vidiocy, boasting of "scroll weapons" and "mega-turtles." A heart-to-heart where Haley confesses her mother's gambling addiction and the desire for a better life for her trucker dad prompts Corey to forcibly equate her angst to The Legend of Zelda. And because this is another totem to cynical 1980s commercialism, there are two montages set to anemic dance-pop (Paul Carrack, no!) including an extended plug for the 1-900 Nintendo Power game tip hotline.

This is essentially a deification of an 8-bit cultural phenomenon comprised of two-bit filmmaking tactics. Just as Mac and Me perfunctorily leeched off E.T. for its hand-me-down plot, The Wizard reeks of a preteen plagiarism of the previous year's highest-grossing movie, Rain Man. Aside from the road trip seriocomedy and Jimmy's cloyingly precious mental illness, which is far less expressive than Raymond Babbitt, there's even a pit stop in a Reno casino in which the brothers and their Girl Friday amass a large sum of money at the craps table ($400, and their adult accomplice receives only a tenner...greedy little twits). There are also concessions made to the idiot savant of Tommy, the climactic studio lot chase from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (as well as their dinosaur park) and the truancy-tracking humiliations of Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The dreary sitcom mannerisms of Chisholm and director Todd Holland also eat away at the movie's lifeline. Whatever nuances and natural qualities Fred Savage brought to Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years are wasted on a petulant, dopey wet noodle of a leading role. Corey is too much of a whiny brat even in scenes of high drama, and the superficiality and sketchiness of the brothers' relationship leave Savage stranded. Luke Edwards as Jimmy fares little better, embodying all the worst qualities of Hollywood stereotypes of both cutesy-talk tykes and socially-stunted invalids. Just as unfortunate is the decision to counter the smart-alecky precocity of Corey and Haley, who speak less like contemporary children and more like 1940s screwball constructs, by reducing its adult population into nitwit adolescents. The Batemans may as well be pod people for all the sensitivity they present towards the obviously-traumatized Jimmy, and the less said about the imbecilic, sub-Dukes of Hazard road rivalry between boorish Sam and the weaselly Putnam, the better.

But it's all worth it once Jimmy makes it to Video Armageddon for the much-ballyhooed showdown and big reveal of the never-before-seen Super Mario Bros. 3, right? Wrong again. Holland's incompetence ruins this, too. For one, there's a surreal disconnect between what progress is charted by the tournament's overly-hammy MC and what is clearly happening on the screen. You don't need to have played Mario 3 as a child to see that "world 2" is actually "world 3" even though the info bar still lists it as "world 1." And the opportunity for tension in watching Raccoon Mario robbed of his power, a frustrating development in any Mario game, is completely wasted. It comes off like a half-assed attempt to turn a three-way gaming bout into a boxing match, with Corey and Haley screaming at Jimmy to "Get the star!" and "Find a warp!" to the point where you wish they'd just cut the crap and focus on the appealing novelty of seeing the game in a widescreen theatrical format.

The Wizard smacks of glib, dubious miscalculations from nearly all involved. It's joyless as an adventure, stuck in the mud as a celebration of the joystick and contrived to such unclean lengths that you'd swear the screenplay was written entirely in cheat codes. With the exception of the lively Jenny Lewis, who managed to parlay her kiddie spunk into a brilliant adult career as a singer-songwriter, everyone is stuck on cruise control, although Savage himself may actually the most guilty of that given the Rain Man associations. To be fair, Holland and Savage would actually go on to direct great episodic TV, respectably, with The Larry Sanders Show and Party Down. Such a second wind seems to have blown past Christian Slater and even the mighty Lucas himself, Jackey Vinson, whose real life registration as a sex offender makes Haley's spurious cry of "He touched my breast!" all the more queasy-making now.

At least Jimmy doesn't inspire mass breakdancing at the 7-11 just by beating the high score on Metroid. I'm trying to be more thankful for minor mercies.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Kids Are Alright (1979)

(PG, New World Pictures, 109 minutes, theatrical release date: June 15, 1979)

I was listening to music on magnetic tape for years before the conversion to compact disc, a transition eased over by my subscription to the Columbia House music catalogue. My early music education were repeated listens to whole albums by Peter Gabriel, The Beastie Boys, Michael Jackson, and Green Day on cassette. By the time I was in junior high, I had discovered The Who and coveted a huge chunk of their discography, chiefly the mid-1990s MCA remasters which often doubled their original track listings in rare and unreleased material. I had become intimately familiar with at least 50 Pete Townshend compositions, such was the gifts he gave as a musician and songwriter. And I realized just how unique a collective The Who were, acknowledging the volatile but passionate chemistry which Townshend shared alongside flexing blonde frontman Roger Daltrey, the stoic but striking bassist John Entwistle and, of course, Keith Moon "the Loon" on the skins.

There isn't a documentary which can fully do justice to the combustible, crazed push-and-pull between these four unique geezers who started out as totems of London youth culture before becoming stadium-packing superstars who straddled the line between the conceptual and the cataclysmic. However, a teenaged super fan named Jeff Stein was given a go in the latter half of the 1970s. Stein had already published a photo album compiled with Chris Johnston before he found himself pitching the idea of a visual scrapbook to an indifferent Pete Townshend. Band manager Bill Curbishley convinced Pete to reconsider, and soon Stein had edited together a 17-minute demo reel which inspired gales of psychotic laughter amongst the band and their spouses, thus Stein won their collective approval.

The Kids Are Alright is a preservationist's passion project more than an official band bio, but therein lies the appeal. Stein had to hustle his way into rounding up reams of classic Who footage, even going through the dumpster of the band's former label, and also coaxed the group into filming new material beginning in the summer of 1977 to fill in the blanks. But this wasn't the same band Stein witnessed as an awestruck 11-year-old in front of the Fillmore East stage, especially given Townshend's insular manifestos of middle-age malaise on albums like The Who By Numbers and the forthcoming Who Are You. Also, Keith Moon's wild man tendencies were getting the best of him, resulting in chemical dependency treatment and a paunchier physicality which curbed his ability to hold a drum stick.

The group agreed to perform a handful of one-off concerts in Kilburn and Middlesex, their last shows with Moon, so that Stein could definitively capture early 1970s warhorses "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." Despite Townshend's reluctant cooperation, as he wasn't keen on doing an encore performance having given it his all before, and the post-production assistance of John Entwistle as musical director and overdubbing wizard, Stein and The Who ended the project in acrimony. Entwistle himself, contentious of the project to end of his days, oversaw a re-edit of the film for the European market and was even one step close to filing an injunction out of disgust. This truncated version, which was also egregiously sped up in spots for time constraints, became the norm when The Kids Are Alright made the rounds on home video, with only the rare television airing presenting a quality viewing in its intended cut. The humble, well-intentioned Stein proved wary in discussing his experience until a friend of Townshend contacted him about adding his insights on the 2003 special edition restoration.

Despite the fractured working relationships, frustrating archival forages and the specter of the late Keith Moon, The Kids Are Alright remained a critical and fan favorite in the rockumentary subgenre. Stein panned a goldmine of sorts before MTV and VH1 came along into popular consciousness. The Who would never truly be the same, but their legacy as one of the loudest, proudest rock bands from the British Invasion from 1965 to 1978 was secure. And you can definitely sense the personalities of each individual band member in every sound bite and amplified blast. In short, this is a movie that thrives on the spirit of rock ‘n' roll without the dispiriting need to explain the magic away.

Before Elvis Costello and The Replacements punked Saturday Night Live, for instance, The Who pulled one of the greatest on-air practical jokes when they were asked to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September 1967. Tommy Smothers introduced the band following a "performance" of their biggest U.S. hit, "I Can See for Miles," and you can definitely get a sense of the quartet's individual attributes. There's Pete Townshend, self-effacing, windmill-armed and still in his rambunctious, guitar-abusing prime. There's deadpan John Entwistle, "The Quiet One" with the perpetually-bored demeanor and also the earliest person alive to justify the bass guitar as a melodic lead. There's Roger Daltrey, gritty-voiced but goofy enough to introduce himself as "Roger from Oz."

And then there was Moonie…

From his prickly retorts ("My friends call me Keith, you can call me John") to his mockingly dainty miming of the drum track to his excitable, anything-for-a-lark energy, Keith Moon was uncontainable. His reckless attitude pushed him into one-upping the pyrotechnic conclusion of "My Generation" by enticing a stage hand to add ten times more explosive charge to his bass drum. And poor Pete is clearly in the line of fire, resulting in unscripted, spontaneous reactions from him and Tommy that are practically the funniest moments ever broadcast. This anarchic American appearance remains as disturbingly hilarious now as it did back when The Who were still British Invasion novices.

This wasn't the last time The Who turned talk show appearances into a farce. Scattered throughout the film are clips from their 1973 guest appearance on ITV's Russell Harty Plus, in which Moon damn near drives both Townshend and Harty to nervous breakdowns. All you need to know is that Moon refers to Daltrey as a "rust repairman," tears apart Pete's shirt, strips off his own clothes ("You just carry on, Russell"), and starts to rip into Harty with his own interview questions.

Don't worry, there is still music to be heard, and The Kids Are Alright does a fine enough job spanning The Who's career. The earliest live footage on display comes from their post-High Numbers tenure playing what the band called "Maximum R&B," unveiling their first original tunes such as "I Can't Explain" and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" whilst still performing electrified James Brown funk ("Shout and Shimmy"). But compared to contemporaries The Kinks and Brown's own skin-tight rhythm section, The Who were eager to color in the margins of their harmonic pop tunes with rapid-fire drumming and squealing, feedback-laden guitar heroics.

"My Generation," the stuttering, slinky signature song which defined The Who in and beyond the 1960s, is the very first number heard in the Smothers Brothers excerpt and is reprised throughout various points in their repertoire. Both their Monterey Pop and Woodstock sets are represented by "My Generation" and a 1975 stadium performance in Detroit, played to a record 78,000 attendees, repurposes it as a blues song which fits it snugly into a medley alongside Bo Diddley's "Road Runner." It serves as a place-holder of sorts which charts the evolution of The Who from bratty Brits of cultish fancy to mainstream rock royalty.

The Who's assimilation could best be chalked up to the successes of concurrent albums Tommy, Who's Next and Quadrophenia, only the latter of which is not represented in any of the song selections. Maybe they were afraid of teasing Franc Roddam's impending, impeccable feature-length film adaptation of that classic double-LP. Also, there was a dearth of professionally-shot live footage for much of the early 1970s, which means the two most famous rockers from Who's Next were captured exclusively for this film. "Baba O'Riley" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" sound monstrous in the takes recorded for posterity on The Kids Are Alright, even with Moon's diminished abilities. The first appears early enough and benefits from seeing Townshend's strutting, spastic energy up close, whilst the laser-light spectacle which accompanies the latter ably leads you into the vocal-shredding, power-sliding conclusion of the film.

Sadly, not every glorious note of the band's past can fit into this one film. Their 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight, which has since been well preserved and issued commercially, had tracks such as Entwistle's "Heaven and Hell," "I Don't Even Know Myself" (a prelude to Townshend's bloodier midlife crisis confessionals) and their pulverizing cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" (immortalized on Live at Leeds) which are indispensable. But it's a treat to hear the likes of "A Quick One, While He's Away" (from a ‘68 slot on The Rolling Stones' Rock ‘n' Roll Circus which wasn't officially released until 30 years after; ironically, the widely-available European cut it to a fifth of its full-length until the 2003 special edition DVD of The Kids Are Alright restored it right), "Success Story" (Entwistle's satirical contribution to 1975's The Who by Numbers) and the Moon composition "Cobwebs and Strange" (played over footage shot for a promotional video to accompany the obscure non-LP single "Call Me Lightning" among other such debauched ephemera).

Throughout it all, the band members are presented mostly self-effacing in their off-stage moments. The team-up of Keith Moon with Ringo Starr proves doubly cheeky when the Beatle drummer inquires about Moon's relationship to his band mates, whilst Entwistle is the subject of a mock-fantasy sequence where he skeet-shoots his platinum and gold records. Ever contradictory, Townshend's attitude changes with the weather during his many interviews, from catty (slagging off The Beatles to a teenybopper crowd) to bored (nodding off during a long-winded interview) to mischievous (recalling his childhood adventures in shoplifting to Melvyn Bragg) to deadly honest. Even in his earliest comments, you can clearly sense the discontent which he exercised lyrically throughout the later half of the 1970s. But along comes Roger Daltrey at the end to remind you that "Rock & roll's never ever stood dissecting or inspecting it at close range...It doesn't stand up. So shut up."

That's it, review over!

No, Daltrey and Stein clearly share the same "let the music do the talking" ethos, the thing which makes this such a compulsive watch. Songs like "Substitute," "See Me, Feel Me" and "Happy Jack" don't need me talking about the context and clips in which they are presented, as they are simply three of the most levitating slices of prime sixties rock any band would kill to have written. I don't need to delve into the primal frustration of Pete and/or Keith destroying their instruments onstage, as it's just an awesome way to end a show. And why should I prattle on about how poor Keith sounds out of his element taking the lead vocal on an impromptu cover of The Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," when it's far more rock & roll than the finale of Surf Ninjas?

The Who Are You (who-who, who-who!). If you really wanna know, The Kids Are Alright will be more than happy to show you. You run less of a risk of jumping on the stage and having Pete's foot join together with your balls.