Monday, November 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Rock 'n' Roll High School" (1979)

Like the band it features/fellates, The Ramones, "Rock 'n' Roll High School" managed to achieve cultural iconography without ever enjoying the mainstream success that usually accompanies it.

The Ramones, now generally regarded as one of the most influential punk banks of the 1970s, only had one gold record: a compilation of hits. The 1979 movie, a product of the house of low-budget schlockmeister Roger Corman, never made any big waves at the box office, but like many of his cinematic progeny found popularity at midnight movie showings and on video.

It had a budget of $200,000, which is still only about $650,000 in today's dollars, and has since made that back many times over.

It's a fun, frothy, dim-witted teenage romp assembled along the usual lines of the familiar vibrant youth vs. stodgy grownups theme: kids just want to dance and party, and teachers/administrators/authority figures are joyless drones enforcing the arbitrary dull routine of The Man.

Corman favorite Mary Woronov as Miss Evelyn Togar, the iron maiden of a new principal looking to impose order at Vince Lombardi High, has film counterparts in Dean Wormer from "Animal House," Rev. Moore from "Footloose" and countless others. As is often the case with females in charge, there's also a heavy accent of sexual domination. Because women in power are scary, y'know.

In the grand tradition of high school movies, most of the cast were deep into their 20s and, in the case of star P.J. Soles, bumping up hard against 30. I feel compelled to point out that Woronov was only a few years older than the supposed teens her character supervised. Clint Howard as Eaglebauer, resident student head of black market activities, was barely turned 20 but looked older than everybody else.

Soles plays Riff Randell -- one of the all-time great movie character names -- who is the head of the school's rock 'n' rollers and the Ramones' #1 fan. The story thread, such as it is, is that Riff has written a new song that she wants the band to play, which is the Ramones' real song and the title of this film. Togar takes away her tickets, but Riff conspires to get into the concert anyway and meet her heroes. Soles even gets to perform her own version of the song in a gym class routine.

Like untold starlets before her, Soles' career arc is a sad if all too common tale. She had her first role in "Carrie," was Michael Myers' topless victim in the original "Halloween," enjoyed a starring role in "Rock 'n' Roll High School," had small but memorable parts in "Breaking Away," "Private Benjamin" and "Stripes," and seemed to be on her way to stardom until ... she more or less disappeared. In 2004 a band even titled their album, "Whatever Happened to P.J. Soles?"

That's not really fair, as if you look at her profile Soles has actually stayed pretty consistently busy on TV and film for the past 35 years. But she was a vibrant, puckish presence in her early films, especially so in "Rock 'n' Roll High School." Her Riff is brimming with insouciance and defiance, a headstrong party girl who fought the power because the power sucked, and, well, because it was fun.

With her neon-colored Chuck Taylors bopping and hips swiveling admirably in the best sort of white girl proto-twerk, Soles rocked with flair and confidence.

The secondary story involves Riff's best friend, Kate Rambeau (Dey Young), the school genius/nerd who yearns to be rid of her virginity. She's a classic high school movie ugly duckling, in that she's an obviously beautiful girl who wears pulled-back hair, frumpy clothes and oversized, face-swallowing glasses.

Kate secretly adores Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten, son of Dick), captain of the football team and a total dreamboat, but who can't find anything to talk to girls about except the weather. He in turn pines for Riff, but is steered by Eaglebauer's hook-up service -- guaranteed or your money back! -- to Kate.

The Ramones show up about one-third of the way through, and probably close to 50% of the total movie is devoted to the playing of their songs. As a Ramones fan, I enjoyed these scenes even as I realized they existed mostly to pump up the movie's run time into the acceptable 90-ish minute range.

Joey Ramone and his erstwhile brothers can't act their way out of a paper bag, gumming their lines as if reading them for the very first time. Finally, Snoop Dogg has a challenger for the title of worst musician-to-movie-star transition.

Paul Bartel has a fun, tidy role as Mr. McGree, the snooty classical music teacher who disdains the Ramones until he stumbles into the concert and becomes a tweed-wearing punk rock devotee. Don Steele, a real-life successful DJ, moonlighted as an actor in Corman films and shows up here as Screamin' Steve Stevens, a local radio personality who sort of acts as the film's emcee and Greek chorus.

The movie's a hoot in a dumb sort of way, with everything played very cheesy and goofy. Jokes hit and miss, but come at such a furious pace the duds sink fast and are forgotten. Miss Togar's chief toadies are a pair of hall monitors who are fat and unattractive and, for some reason, wear Boy Scout-ish outfits complete with kerchiefs. Their favorite duty is performing body searches on female students.

As a cultural artifact, perhaps the most notable thing about "Rock 'n' Roll High School" is its tameness. It was rated PG, and aside from a few scenes of characters toking up doobies and one guy snorting coke, there really isn't much sex and drugs. Soles briefly appears topless, but only from behind, getting into her shower during a dream sequence, where she discovers the Ramones guitarist flailing away. There's also a super-short snippet of a co-ed shower taking place during the big final party sequence, but everyone's covered in bubbles up to their shoulders.

I think Corman and his stand-in filmmakers -- director Allan Arkush, screenwriters Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride -- were just looking for a quickie pop music comedy to lure in the kiddies who bought tickets to "Grease" and snuck into "Animal House." And that's what they got. (Joe Dante, one of many graduates of Corman's unofficial film school, assisted with the story and direction.)

Supposedly the original title for the project was "Disco High," but polyester suits and synthesized beats were already waning by '79, so they wisely went with the hipper, harsher new sound of the day.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Video review: "The November Man"

When he was a younger man, Pierce Brosnan played James Bond and was quite good at, to my mind. Now he’s around 60 and too old to play a run-of-the-mill spy, but of just the right vintage to segue into the burgeoning Geezer Spy genre --  now dominated by Liam Neeson (“Taken”) but also populated by the likes of Kevin Costner (“3 Days to Kill”) and Denzel Washington (“The Equalizer.”)

These movies all tend to resemble each other, to wit: our hero is an efficient, ruthless killer who has now retired from the game/faked his death, but is recruited/forced to take on One Last Job which, of course, goes horribly awry and thus he must wade through a veritable army of bad guys who mock him for his decrepitude, until he shows them what a supreme badass he still is.

The whole thing is an exercise in aging Baby Boomer fantasy, which doesn't necessarily mean the movie won't be very good, though that is in fact the case with "The November Man."

The plot is a nigh-incomprehensible mish-mash of gunfights, car chases and distressed damsels, with Brosnan as an ex-CIA man who finds himself facing off with some of his old crew, plus some new whippersnappers.

He's brought in to sneak out a high-level source, who is then assassinated in the middle of the operation. Soon he's laying waste to Russian mafia, various assorted goons and his own CIA handlers/turncoats.

The action scenes are crisp and engaging, but any time people start talking the movie slows to a crawl.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the ideas of geriatrics pulverizing their younger competition. Until they can come up with some fresher stories, though, best to leave the oldsters in retirement.

Extra features are pretty good, though you'll have to spring for the Blu-ray edition to get them -- the DVD version comes with zilch.

There's a making-of documentary, featurettes on shooting in Belgrade and Brosnan's comeback, plus a feature-length commentary with Brosnan, director Roger Donaldson and producer Beau ST. Clair.



Thursday, November 20, 2014

Review: "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1"

I haven't been a big fan of "The Hunger Games" series in general, and now it's fallen into the trap of so many fantasy/supernatural franchises based on books -- splitting up a novel into two movies. It's been done by Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight and I'm sure the Divergent folks are gearing up to follow suit.

Nearly always, this is done for business rather than artistic reasons -- why sell one ticket to the series' slavering YA fans when you can sell two?

What usually ends up happening is that the penultimate movie is a bunch of boring exposition and build-up, and you have to wait for the follow-up for the real catharsis.

It should be noted that "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1" is 20-25 minutes shorter than the previous two films, and the lack of a substantive narrative is glaring. It essentially plays out as Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), having escaped the tortures of the gladiator-like televised games organized by the oppressive nation of Panem, spending most of the movie wandering around looking haunted and google-eyed.

The thing we liked about Katniss is that she's tough, resourceful and fiercely independent. She made things happen and shook things up. Here, relegated to a more passive, reactionary role, she comes across as a whiny teen thrust onto a stage she hasn't earned.

The action scenes are still engaging, what few of them there are, and Donald Sutherland still has a twinkly, loathsome presence as President Snow, the thoroughly evil dictator brutally putting down a rebellion inspired by Katniss, aka the Mockingjay.

Long stretches, though, are just plain dull.

If you'll recall from the last movie: Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), having jointly won their Hunger Games by faking a romance for the benefit of the audience, were recalled by Snow to participate in another games featuring past champions. It turns out the rebellion, aided by Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), had rigged the games to break out Katniss and several other of the champions as a way to stoke the rebellion in the various Districts.

Katniss, brilliant scientist Betee (Jeffrey Wright) and pretty boy Finnick (Sam Claflin) were rescued, but Peeta and the others were captured by the forces of the Capital. Katniss finds herself in the hands of District 13, the stark underground home base of the rebellion, which is led by enigmatic president Coin (Julianne Moore).

She finds some familiar faces who survived the bombing of her own district, including her mother, sister and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her childhood friend and would-be lover. Katniss is tasked with appearing in a bunch of propaganda videos, or propos, decked out in a cool black Mockingjay uniform. But she turns out to be a terrible actress, so they decide to put her into actual combat, which yields some better footage. The war plays out mostly offscreen, with reports of various insurrections and retaliations filtering in.

The big surprise is when Peeta starts showing up in Capital broadcasts as the counterpoint to Katniss, urging peace and responsibility. He's denounced as a traitor by the rebels, and Katniss has to deal with her complicated feelings for him. She doesn't fully return the romantic ardor Peeta had for her, but there is love on some level. The pair, formerly faux lovers, are pushed by their respective backers into positions of antagonism.

Director Francis Lawrence, a holdover from the last movie, is joined by two new screenwriters, Danny Strong and Peter Craig, in adapting Suzanne Collins' novel. I've actually read all three of the Hunger Games books -- don't judge; it was research! -- and have been surprised by how faithfully the films have followed them.

Fans may appreciate this ultimate fidelity, but it can actually be a problem when adapting a book to the movies. The rhythms of the page and the screen are completely different, and I think that's why so many sections of this movie feel like we're treading water, story-wise.

I mean, at this point what purpose do Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) serve in the movie, other than recalling some friendly faces? Their tiny bit of expositional dialogue could easily be passed off to other characters. Kill 'em off, I say.

They key challenge in adapting a book to film is finding ways to condense and distill the tale down to its essence. There's no such attempt at cinematic alchemy here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Review: "The Theory of Everything"

“The Theory of Everything” seemingly falls into the category of what I call “Great Man” movies, which are biopics of historically notable people that attempt to take you behind the public persona and get at the living person behind the façade. “Ray,” “Capote,” “The Iron Lady” are recent examples.

I generally relish these movies, though it seems like there’s a built-in ceiling on how good they can be. They’re usually anchored by an amazing, Oscar-caliber performance that dominates so much it tends to suck all the air out of the film. It becomes a showcase rather than a story.

“The Theory of Everything” has many aspects of the Great Man genre, including a turn by Eddie Redmayne as physicist Stephen Hawking that is sure to generate a lot of talk come Oscar balloting. It’s full of a lot of “behavior,” but also plenty of soulfulness.

But the film is also about Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Hawking, and how they navigated their romantic lives around his crippling ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which left him confined to a wheelchair at a young age and eventually unable to speak. That’s not surprising, considering this movie is based on Jane’s book about their relationship, adapted for the screen by Anthony McCarten.

Felicity Jones plays Jane, and if she’s not exactly Stephen’s co-equal in the film’s narrative focus, she at least holds her own in her scenes with Redmayne. Together they draw a portrait of love and sacrifice, of limitations both physical and emotional.

This is not so much “the Stephen Hawking story” as the story of the Hawkings.

Director James Marsh has toddled back and forth between documentaries (including the Academy Award-winning “Man on Wire”) and narrative features, and brings a sensibility of observation without trying to strong-arm the story into places where he might want it to go.

He focuses most of his attention on the early part of the Hawkings’ lives, starting when Stephen was a gangly British doctoral physics student who fell in love with Jane, a lover of languages. Even then, Stephen’s physical ticks hint at trouble to come, such as his scrabbly chalkboard writing of equations or the pigeon-toed walk that sometimes barely keeps him upright.

Harry Lloyd and David Thewlis are spot-on in smallish, tidy roles’ as Stephen’s gregarious best friend and mentor, respectively. Emily Watson is used poorly in a cameo as his mother; I suspect her part got cut down during editing.

Marsh and McCarten don’t get too deep into the woods of Hawking’s theories about black holes and the beginning of the universe, focusing more on the poetic aspects that work cinematically rather than the nuts-and-bolts of the actual theorems. It’s probably a wise move, but they stay so far away from the specifics of what made Hawking world-famous that it saps the character’s integrity -- we know he’s important because we’re told he is.

There are some bleak and beautiful scenes in “Everything” as we witness Stephen’s descent into disability, even as his mind reaches for the heavens.

I particularly liked the moment where he, having gotten around for years on a pair of canes, agrees to use a wheelchair. “It’s just temporary,” he stammers out in his warped speech, smiling at the lie he and his spouse have shared. There’s also the scene where he first uses the voice synthesizer that became Hawking’s trademark, joking that people will assume he’s American.

With three children and acclaim descending upon Stephen, they would seem to have all the ingredients for happiness. But the film shows how a life of total selflessness wears upon Jane, a burden she has taken on willingly but comes to resent. When a friendly face appears to help out, in the form of her choir director Jonathan (Charlie Cox), she’s relieved.

Soon he’s incorporated into the family unit like a brother/uncle, and it becomes clear Jonathan and Jane share feelings for each other. Stephen, alert and observant, understands the dynamic and, through his passivity, essentially blesses it. What might seem odd or even perverse to some is rendered into unremarkable normalcy.

Most of the attention for “The Theory of Everything” will focus on the particulars of Stephen Hawking’s condition, and his bravery in rising above it. The real story, though, is about how one loves a great person who is not necessarily capable of fulling returning it, which is deeper and more interesting.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Wild Geese" (1978)

"The Wild Geese" is just an aggressively bad piece of crap. It was part of the "war adventure" pictures that seemed to have a heyday during the 1970s and early '80s, often idolizing the mercenaries and spies who had so often played cinematic heavies. In many ways these movies, largely exploitative escapist fantasy, were a reaction to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.

The hook here is that it's four old mercenaries having another go. I'd call it the proverbial "one last job," except that while half the four main characters have to be lured back into the game, the other two see it as just another in a series of missions.

Stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Krüger were, respectively, 53, 48, 51 and 50 when the film came out in 1978 -- though Burton, long beset by ailments self-inflicted and not, looked closer to 70 than 50. I don't know if their chronological ages qualify as "old," though maybe that's a self-defense mechanism on my part, since I'm not much younger than that.

The set-up is that Allen Faulkner (Burton), a former colonel in the British army, is hired by Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger), a powerful banker and nobleman, to rescue a deposed African president named Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Limbani is a true reformer, a force for good in a continent that has often known despotic rulers who only wish to exploit their own people and natural resources.

But Matherson is not in it for altruistic purposes, nor indeed is Faulkner. The bankers want him back in power because they think he'll be better for business that his autocratic usurper. And Faulkner, who has fought on the behalf of clients both noble and not, sees a big paycheck -- as well as a taste of the adventure he craves.

That's a recurring theme among the 50 or so ex-soldiers Faulkner recruits for the mission: a desire to return to a life that had meaning, even if it was very dangerous. Most of the men are over 40, a few out of shape, but mostly still fellows in their prime who want to hold a gun again and make a difference -- while collecting a huge paycheck, of course.

Like so many movies of this ilk, the first half has to do with recruiting the team and putting the pieces into place, and the second half is the mission itself, which always starts out smooth as whipped butter and soon turns to disaster. In this case, it's because Matherson pulls his support at the last minute, choosing Limbani's successor over the man he's just paid to have rescued. Their plane literally leaves them at the airstrip.

Faulkner's first recruit is Rafer Janders (Harris), a logistical whiz and military tactician. A man of conscience, he regrets having used his skills at the behest of unworthy dictators, and has settled into a contented life as an art dealer, raising a young son, Emile, alone after his much-younger French wife abandoned them. So beneficent is Rafer, he refuses to speak an ill word about his former lover. He's convinced to join because of Limbani's status as "the real thing" who will help his nation.

Moore turns up as Shawn Fynn, a rakish ladies' man who has fallen onto working for the local mob -- or "mah-fia," as they pronounce it in the British lilt. Other than a sequence where he kills a mobster's jerk kid and then briefly has a contract put out on his head, Fynn doesn't really serve much purpose in the story.

There's a ridiculous part where the hitmen, in the midst of trying to take out Fynn, Rafer and Faulkner, learn the contract has been lifted and suddenly flee away from the scene. Because those sorts of guys would hate to kill someone by accident.

Last, and least, is Krüger as Pieter Coetzee, a white South African who wants to use the money from the job to buy a farm in his homeland and settle down. Pieter has worked for a lot of despots to keep the black man down, and delights in calling Africans "kaffir," which is the roughly the American equivalent of the n-word.

After the rescue has been effected -- in a tightly wound action sequence that is probably the movie's best -- Pieter and Limbani start sniping at each other, with the African eventually convincing the Afrikaner that there are some things worth fighting for. Of course, this epiphany arrives just in time for Pieter to sacrifice himself for Limbani.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor) and screenwriter Reginald Rose, who adapted the then-unpublished novel by Daniel Carney, seem intent on creating an old-school "adventure film" with some modern themes. That's all well and fine, but they ended up with a straightforward, downbeat piece that plays out like a geriatric swan song.

The film did well overseas but flopped in the U.S., partly due to some studio troubles and partly because of the lack of an American star in the cast. It did spawn a 1985 sequel, which is even more lightly regarded than this film.

The Simbas, the force of supposedly elite African soldiers whom the Wild Geese fight -- I should mention this term is never used during the movie -- end up as a faceless bogeymen who fall down when the good guys shoot them. This is one of those pictures were the villainous bullets rarely (though eventually) find their mark, but the machine guns of the hero can take out four or five of the enemy in one deluge.

"The Wild Geese" has been criticized as racist, mostly because the film shot in South Africa during Apartheid, but also because of the way the Simbas are portrayed. Normally I resist this sort of politicized critique of movies, though here it's rather hard to avoid. 

I would swear that in several shots they used non-African actors or stunt men done up in blackface. And during one scene where they kill the mercenaries' homosexual medic with knives, I clearly heard the cries of chimpanzees on the soundtrack.

About that gay medic: Witty, played by Kenneth Griffith, somehow manages to be both a progressive and regressive icon in one depiction. On the one hand, he's a fairly stereotypical mincing fag, seemingly attracted to every straight man he comes in contact with. He even makes out his will to a beloved proctologist. But he's completely accepted by the other men of the mercenary unit, and he proves himself a brave and capable soldier.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Video review: "Into the Storm"

After I saw “Into the Storm” this summer I dismissed it as forgettable entertainment, but apparently I was even more spot-on in this assessment than I thought. When I was looking over titles in deciding what new video to write about this week, I literally couldn’t remember if I’d seen it or not.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s a perfectly agreeable special effects-heavy disaster thriller, with a few spectacular scenes as a major tornado event rips through a fictional Midwestern town. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and exist merely as the audience’s stand-ins as they bear witness to the unfolding spectacle.

To say the movie borrows from 1997’s “Twister” is an understatement; this is essentially an unauthorized remake. A team of stormchasers cruises around in a specially modified vehicle that is tornado-proof -- we’ll see about that! -- to capture the storm for posterity, scientific data and social media dap. Soon they’re in over their heads and debris is flying everywhere around.

This is part of the “found footage” style of filmmaking, in which the characters are using video cameras to record what happens to them in real time. It’s a nice gimmick, but sometimes you wonder why people don’t put down their camcorders to help their fellows in need.

Matt Walsh and Sarah Wayne Callies play the clashing leaders of the storm team; Richard Armitage is the vice principal of the local high school given to derring-do; Max Deacon and Nathan Kress) play his video-happy sons; and Alycia Debnam Carey is the obligatory cute girl.

“Into the Storm” is the cinematic equivalent of fast food: quick, cheap, tasty and soon evacuated from mind and body.

DVD extras are limited to a single making-of featurettes, “Fake Storms: Real Conditions.” Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add two more, “Into the Storm: Tornado Files” and “Titus: The Ultimate Chasing Vehicle.”



Friday, November 14, 2014

Review: "Rosewater"

I'm not sure if "Rosewater" would have receive all the intention it's getting if not for the presence of writer/director Jon Stewart, the TV funnyman/self-declared oracle who wanted to take a crack at something more serious. Still, it's a good film, a bit overly earnest, but certainly worthy of our attention.

It's not surprising Stewart chose the plight of journalist Maziar Bahari as his subject. The Canadian-Iranian was arrested by the Iranian regime in 2009 following an appearance on a segment for Stewart's "The Daily Show" in which the interviewer jokingly referred to Bahari as a Western spy. The Muslim fundamentalists who run the government, who aren't big on subtleties, arrested him and kept him in solitary confinement for nearly four months, where he was submitted to emotional and physical torture.

The film, based on a book by Bahari, takes a long time getting to its heart, which is Bahari (played by Gael García Bernal) trapped in a room with his "specialist," aka interrogator. The first 30 minutes or so show him wandering around Tehran covering the Iranian presidential elections, videotaping the sometimes-violent demonstrations, and visiting with his mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo).

This section is supposed to establish Bahari's bona fides as a gentle free thinker who just wants to bear witness to the historical events taking place. But it slows down the proceedings greatly and sap them of emotional strength.

Once captured, though, the movie takes off even as the story stays more or less locked in a single room. Bahari is kept blindfolded almost all the time, facing a wall, while his specialist tries to elicit a confession out of him. Over the weeks and months that follow, he learns little about the man other than he uses rosewater as a cologne.

Trapped the rest of the time in a lonely cell, the man's mind begins to wander -- thinking of his pregnant wife, his father (Haluk Bilginer), who was himself kept a prisoner during the days of the Shah, and his sister (Golshifteh Farahani), who suffered a similar fate for being a Communist in the 1980s.

The conversations with his imagined father were the most interesting to me, as Bahari falls further into despair and considers giving up and signing the confession. In a demonstration of old-school manliness, his father's spirit urges him to "give them nothing" and resist the beatings, and walk out of prison with his head held high -- even if it takes years.

Eventually, Bahari finds a way to overcome his captors using his imagination and willpower. It's the triumph of the beta male.

The performances are generally solid, especially Kim Bodnia as "Rosewater," Bahari's chief interrogator. Bodnia portrays him as a man who knows he has an awful job, but tries to make the best of it as he can. Over time he forms a bond with his prisoner that is surprising to him, especially when his superior orders him to deliver an arbitrary beating.

"Rosewater" isn't a great drama, but it's a pretty good one. Whatever else you want to say, Jon Stewart has a future in movies if ever gets tired of being incredibly rich and successful on television.

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