Through the eyes of movies in the 1970s, New York City looked like one rough place. I don't mean the Woody Allen romantic side of New York (Annie Hall, Manhattan). I'm talking about almost every other film made in the decade, the dark Taxi Driver side. From The Out Of Towners to Death Wish (and most cops and crime flicks), culminating in the apocalyptic Escape From New York, the place appeared to be a dangerous dump. Bottom line: Central Park is not somewhere you want to be caught in after dark. The Warriors is maybe the perfect vision of this comic book wasteland.
The gangs in New York outnumber the cops two to one, so says Cyrus, leader of the baddest (and apparently the biggest) gang in town, The Riffs. This gangsta’ visionary gets all the gangs together in Central Park for a sort of pep rally. But like so many important revolutionaries before him, he is assassinated by a creepy guy named Luther (played by the creepy actor David Patrick Kelly). Luther is able to blame the Warriors, a small-time gang in for the convention from Coney Island, Brooklyn. The Riffs kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon, and put out an APB on the rest of the gang. Suddenly every gang in town is after the remaining eight Warriors. Narrated by a hot-lips radio DJ, the Warriors are forced to fight off gangs, the cops, and negotiate New York's unreliable transportation system.Continue Reading
I readily admit that among my favorite films some are more naturally enjoyable than others. I’ve enjoyed the films of Guy Maddin and Godard and Bergman I’ve seen, but their films are generally not those I’m going to put on after a few drinks on a Saturday night. That sacred time slot is reserved for The Girl Can’t Help It or All about Eve or True Romance. A really brilliantly made film designed to be popular with lots of people is my favorite kind of film, truth be told. Ed Wood is a superb film that should have been a hit with audiences but was inexplicably not. I’d lump similarly marvelous entertainments, Quiz Show and L.A. Confidential, into this category as well. The fact that they were celebrated by critics and not particularly popular with the public is just another piece of evidence that I don’t understand the American public very much at all.
Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s lost classic. He was sent into movie director purgatory because of its dismal box office performance and it took several films (mostly remakes) to regain his stature as an auteur with box office clout. Ed Wood is Burton’s ode to the auteur, in this case a hopeless kind of auteur. It’s a celebration of the kind of director who stays defiantly, naively, but always sincerely true to his own cinematic vision. Ed Wood the man is notorious as one of the worst directors who ever made movies in Hollywood. Burton uses Wood's life and career as a means to examine the pressures on an artist as he tries to turn his vision into reality. The film is also a touching story of friendship between a Hollywood monster movie has-been (Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi) and the ultimate Hollywood outsider working on the fringe of the poverty row film industry. It’s also a love letter of sorts to a Hollywood that no longer exists—Hollywood the small town with its crazy hat-shaped restaurants and eccentric, seedy show people. Not since Edward Scissorhands had Burton made such a personal film about the life of an artist.Continue Reading
The evolution of the road-rebel is brought to the screen in this directorial debut from Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, The Hurt Locker). Technically, this is the film that also introduces Willem Dafoe and has him as the star amongst an unusual '80s cast. I say unusual because you have a blend of actors who've made a decent name for themselves by '82 and ones who definitely show promise in the film, and yet this was their only role. Some were from Georgia, where the film is set, so I guess it makes sense that, for the film's simplicity, actors who normally would have been extras were used for key roles. What satisfied me the most about this film was (a) being aware that a woman directed/wrote it, and (b) it has a slow plot that forces you to stop looking for action and absorb all the messages and scarce dialogue within it.
Willem Dafoe plays Vance—a young biker with dirty fingernails and sensational tomcat essence who is adored by several passing ladies. We see him solo at first, marveling at the blacktop and defined only by it and his Harley. He and his buddies are on their way to Daytona and have stopped in a small Georgian town to repair one of their member's bikes. Without the harsh juxtaposition between this group and the locals, I don't think the film's message would be as clear. Both the townspeople and the bikers have a uniform—one pastels and the other leather. Seeing the differences between the two made me expect a war - which eventually does come in the film's climax, but not as I expected it. Many people found the film quite boring, but I'm sure they missed the subtleties that really make it a wonderful debut. For instance, Vance's status as the ringleader is evident in his manner and dress. He doesn’t exactly respect the locals, nor does he expect it from them. On the shoulder of his leather jacket are silver stars, like a general. The men he rides with are not exactly his friends, but rather people he met while in prison. The only thing they share is the love of a beautiful automobile. Without their quest to cause havoc on the way to the largest roadster gathering, all sense of brotherhood would be lost.Continue Reading
Sid and Nancy
Like most bios of contemporary controversial figures, Sid and Nancy has its naysayers. Some music historians and punk aficionados have claimed that the film misrepresents some of its real life characters and their time line. Those complaints may be true. But no one has a qualm with the two stunning lead performances by Chloe Webb as the beyond annoying groupie, Nancy, and Gary Oldman as the drugged out Sex Pistols bassist, Sid Vicious (actually just window dressing for the group, he had the look, but never played on the records). The two make for an insane couple; it's a deranged Romeo & Juliet, two lost souls in a sea of heroin and self-destruction. This is a love story, with some dark humor mixed in, like a gutter version of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?.
Coming off his cult hit Repo Man director Alex Cox beautifully captures the ugliness of the late '70s/early '80s punk and drug culture in London and New York. The film opens with Sid being arrested for murdering Nancy at The Chelsea Hotel (in real life many believed that he was genuinely innocent, done in by lazy New York cops who didn't want to search out the real killer). The film goes back and traces the two meeting as the Sex Pistols were taking off in London, the cover boys for the fledgling punk music scene. Nancy was an American, a stripper and a hooker who chased rock stars and drugs. After being rejected by the other Pistols, she found a willing victim in the rather naive and dim Sid. In the film she gets him hooked on the needle and becomes the voice in his head (a kinda less charming and less intelligent Yoko Ono).Continue Reading
Ever since Marlon Brando’s Johnny in The Wild One was asked, "What are you rebelling against?" and he answered, "What have you got?" youth rebellion has been a mainstay in movies, making for some good, bad, and often subversive films. From Rebel Without A Cause to Wild In The Streets to Rock & Roll High School and Over The Edge -- all films that have elements of screwing the man. Altamont Now, directed by Joshua Brown, is more of a spoof of the genre but still keeps the spirit alive.
Like the late '60s films of Peter Watkins (Privilege, Punishment Park) or Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Altamont Now has faux-documentary elements and mixes in a lot of old B-roll using numerous film sources. Unlike the acid pace of those films, this has a more modern, hyper visual and editing style that helps contribute to the movie's anarchy. The film opens a la Blair Witch Project, reporting to be lost footage; luckily that angle is never really pushed (unlike the recent fake doc Catfish where the directors are still doing press claiming the obviously staged film is real). The "this is lost footage" claim is actually making fun of an already stale storytelling element. We never for a second believe that it works as a documentary; when only two people are in a room, there always seems to be a third person in the room working the camera.Continue Reading
Meet the Feebles
One summer night in 1996 I was out with a group of friends who ended up at Chicago’s Brew & View movie theater/bar in the Lakeview neighborhood to see something called Meet the Feebles. All I knew about it was from my friend Joe who said that it was supposed to be crazy and involved puppets. I’m not big into degenerate spectacles involving puppets, in theory, but what I saw that night changed my life. It was so incredibly disgusting, yet so powerful, that it took my breath away. A backstage melodrama like nothing I had ever witnessed, I finally had to lie down on the sticky floor of the theater because passions writ so large and impossible on the screen were overwhelming me to the point of exhaustion and I had never been subjected to something so simultaneously powerful and gross in my life.
Meet the Feebles is a film with so many illustrious qualities I’m not sure I’ve even discovered them all. It’s a movie about the corruption of show biz life as embodied by the Feebles, a British Muppets-esque variety show troupe with some really horrific and yet remarkably relatable problems. The film manages to address drug abuse, sexually transmitted disease, the parasitic nature of the entertainment press, the naiveté of young performers just aching to be given a chance, and a lot of incredibly depraved stuff that should probably never have been filmed. And all with a cast of puppets!Continue Reading
Before director David Lynch got too carried away with his so-called genius, before his television show Twin Peaks brought him into the home and consciousness of the casually pretentious, before he would slap any old weird images together and have people call it art, back in ’86 he made his best film...Blue Velvet. It had much of the surreal oddball touches we’ve come to expect from a "David Lynch film," but instead of relying on hammy artifices, it’s just simply a haunting, funny, and beautifully crafted film. Though it’s challenging and can be considered an "art film," it’s still one of Lynch’s most accessible films and works just as well as a straight suspense movie.
Before Blue Velvet helped push David Lynch further into the "auteur" big leagues, he had already had some major artistic success. His first feature film, the horror, sci-fi, surreal Eraserhead became an instant cult film for both its disturbing imagery as well as the humor in its strange pacing. He got an Oscar nomination for his next film, the beautiful and disturbing studio picture, The Elephant Man. He was miscast as blockbuster director for Dune; the adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel was a massive bomb, both financially and creatively. Though Blue Velvet was produced by the big-time producing Dino De Laurentiis Company and was even originally sold as a mainstream thriller, it was Lynch’s return to his roots with an original screenplay, not developed for him, but by him and his own weird mind. Lynch and the film were obviously embraced by Hollywood. With Blue Velvet he would score another Oscar nomination for directing, but it meant he would never go back to being a "director for hire."Continue Reading
The ability to suspend disbelief is easiest to do when you're watching films about global conspiracies, justice systems, and especially politics. Having movies like this be shot in a documentary style only aids this experience. After seeing this movie, I can honestly say that I haven't been this motivated to discuss politics and justice in a long time, and I'm glad that a film could have the power to stir the pot. Punishment Park is set in 1970, a year before the film's release. Nixon is president and we are currently occupying Vietnam. Due to the war, America is going through a brutish and frightening phase where even a handful of politicians are resigning from office over their disgust with the nation's actions towards its outspoken citizens and the overall progress of mankind. With new laws and the proposed threat of Russia, there has been a complete re-working of the justice system in which American citizens have lost basic freedoms that were once seen as the staple of American life. These new laws include the "cancellation of immunity," stop and frisk laws, activation of detention camps, the ability to overrule basic amendments of the Constitution during trial, and the McCarran Act—a real law developed in the '50s that called for the ability to investigate Americans who posed a threat to national security, and was later dismissed and "revised."
Individuals seen as a threat to national security include those who start riots or do any sort of activism that carries a violent message; those evading or refusing the draft; those charged with Communism; and even a privileged 19-year old whose pop music is accused of having harmful messages and promoting violence. As a particular group of people are being given a ludicrous trial by a bonkers committee of trustees, a batch of people who have already received their own trials are being transported to Punishment Park—the alternative option to a prison sentence after being found guilty.Continue Reading
Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps one of the more neurotic and bizarre philosophers that I’ve read thus far. Seeing any kind of interpretation of his life and measures of reason would be an oddly enjoyable migraine. Thankfully, our good friend Derek Jarman made a sort of homoerotic comedy that attempts to interpret his life and philosophical debates. I took the risk and gave it a try simply because Jarman himself seems to be a bit of a philosopher (perhaps if he had a favorite, it might be Wittgenstein). In what films I have seen of his, all of them tend to be laden with personal unease from his psyche. In that sense, his films are very exclusive and cater to his beliefs and sexuality. Watching Wittgenstein was sort of like sitting in a room with the director debating various issues and it just so happens that his side of the argument is better served through tangible images, rather than words.
To make a long story short, you might not enjoy Wittgenstein if you don’t care for his philosophy (or philosophy in general), much less a farce of it. Aside from the content, the film’s style might also be off-putting. It’s sort of like a stageless play where everything is set against black, similar to Lars von Trier’s Dogville, but even more minimal in terms of props and stage design.Continue Reading
To be considered the "second coming" of anything is a huge weight to carry upon one’s shoulders. Caravaggio is the story of Michelangelo Caravaggio (Nigel Terry), a painter who is seen as the new Michelangelo amongst his supporters, and a priest who discovered him while he was a teenage prostitute. The film shifts between three stages of Caravaggio’s life: his adolescence, his middle-aged years, and finally, his last few days on his deathbed where he dies slowly, in agony and in exile. The entire film is set in a timeless Vienna, part regal and part modern, which seems to be the norm in Jarman’s films.
In his adolescence, Caravaggio (Dexter Fletcher) is a hustler, using his paintings to make extra money on the streets or taking direction from his "guardian" to return home with the male buyers when their interest is not in his paintings. His work is mainly mimetic and consists of still-lifes of fruit or people, and eventually falls into the hands of a priest whose church looks after Caravaggio once he becomes gravely ill for the first time. He then begins a sort of commission for the church in exchange for money and support, ironically or purposefully similar to the late Michelangelo in reality. This sponsorship continues into his adulthood, but his work changes from the simply mimicry of objects and people into the bold representations of them. With each painting, he uses live models to recreate sorrowful, if not gruesome details of the human condition.Continue Reading