She’s evil . . . and not just high school evil.
I often like to play a mental game with movie history that I call “What If ___________ Were Star Wars,” where I try to imagine what that history would be like if a certain movie had the same level of popularity and creative or financial influence as Star Wars. With Peter Yates’s 1976 masterpiece about private ambulance drivers in Los Angeles, Mother, Jugs & Speed, we get a sense of what movies would be like if Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H had been the most popular and influential movie of all time.
In fact, Mother, Jugs & Speed wears the influence of M*A*S*H on its sleeve. Both films alternate between high drama and bawdy comedy in rather episodic plots about people who stressfully deal with life and death on a daily basis. Both parody the ineffective authority figures and the labyrinthine, contradictory bureaucracies that the characters must work around. And like M*A*S*H, Mother, Jugs & Speed would have made a great TV series. In fact, at least a pilot was shot for such a series in 1978, though an extra “g” was added to the middle name.
The film follows the employees of the the F + B Ambulance Company, led by owner Harry Fishbine (Allen Garfield). The episodic plot addresses the bureaucratic problems of a system that allows for privatized ambulance services. Ambulance drivers have to collect their fees from patients or their families before the patients can be taken away, to bribe police in order to get dibs on emergency calls, and to deal with other legal limitations on the job. One particular ambulance driver, “Mother” Tucker (Bill Cosby), thrives in the chaos of the system, manipulating it to his advantage, while his antagonist in the company, Murdoch (Larry Hagman), exploits the system in a more insidious way.
Meanwhile, after Murdoch’s partner is injured in an accident involving an overweight patient and a rickety staircase, Fishbine hires Tony Malateste (Harvey Keitel), a cop suspended for drug dealing who is looking for a temporary job while his case is being investigated. Tony gets the nickname “Speed” once his checkered past is revealed to the other drivers. He’s also the only driver who manages to get anywhere with the office receptionist and dispatcher, Jennifer (Raquel Welch), who most refer to as “Jugs.” Jugs later gets her EMT license, which opens the door for some jokes about women drivers, and she’s teamed with Mother and Speed. In her first outing, Mother has her help a patient who got his junk stuck in his zipper, but later she has to deal with the tragic consequence of a pregnant mother who isn’t allowed into the nearest hospital.
In retrospect, some of Mother, Jugs & Speed‘s apparent rebelliousness seems quaint. Arguments about women drivers, frequent depictions of drug use, and much of the film’s racial politics might have been edgy in 1976. However, in many other ways, the film has an edge that remains sharp. Much of that edge lies in Larry Hagman’s repulsive yet hilarious c Murdoch. Murdoch hits on every woman he sees (including an injured lady wrestler who doesn’t respond kindly to his advances), takes bets on the number of corpses they’ll pick up in a shift, and, in one of the film’s more unsettling scenes, attempts to molest an O.D.ed and unconscious co-ed. It’s Murdoch’s meltdown that provides the movie’s sudden climax.
The movie also features a strange collision of acting styles that almost doesn’t work. Cosby, Hagman, and Allen Garfield all give exaggerated, cartoonish performances that meld with the heightened energy these ambulance drivers must maintain. Keitel, however, seems like he’s in a different movie, utilizing a more subdued, brooding style appropriate for his early roles in Scorcese films. Meanwhile, Raquel Welch gives a spirited performance that doesn’t get lost in the extremes she has to navigate.
Despite some dated elements, this movie merges tragedy with dark comedy in a way that’s recklessly entertaining. Cosby is having fun in a way that he often seemed to do in the 70s, but Larry Hagman provides the biggest surprise. Though he became known for playing the egotistical jerk J. R. Ewing, Murdoch is a different kind of jerk. Going back to that movie history mental game, if movies like M*A*S*H and Mother, Jugs & Speed had a greater influence on today’s filmmakers, we could get this style of satire applied to the current state of health care, which we could probably use right now.
At first blush, Repo Men appears to be from the Equilibrium school of sci-fi allegory. For those of you not familiar with that film (and why would you be?), Equilibrium was essentially a bare-bones reworking of 1984 with justice achieved via gunplay. There’s a little more than that working under the hood in Repo Men, even if the end experience is curiously empty. It’s not unlike eating a flavored rice cake: tasty enough at the time, but moments later you can scarcely believe you ate anything at all.
Briefly: In the near future, anyone with decent credit–be they dying or merely envious–can sign up for pristine synthetic organs from a corporation called the Union. Prices are astonishingly high and interest rates are angled against the consumer, so repo men like Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are always busy. They do what you think they do: track down past-due organ-bearers, stun them into unconsciousness, and remove the organ by force.
Repo Men is strangely coy about the fact that this is legalized murder–no post-op corpses are shown in their full glory and no one actually uses the words “murder” or “kill” in reference to the work they do. Even the repo guns are stun guns. You expect corporate doublespeak from the Union and its oily manager Frank (Liev Schreiber), but why is the all-seeing camera so shy? For a black satire that’s liberal with the blood n’ guts elsewhere, you’d not expect it to get squeamish in depicting the true horror of its premise. But there you are.
Things change for Remy when his own heart is replaced with a Union synthetic, and he now finds himself unable to carry on with his job. Soon he’s on the run with old buddy Jake in pursuit and–well, it goes about like you’d expect. More or less.
Yes, this is a downright ostentatious metaphor, but a certain class of brassy sci-fi benefits from unsubtle allegory. Repo Men at least makes the time to hint at predatory lending practices and the worsening rich/poor divide that would support such a system. But not much more than that is said; “this sucks” is as far as Repo Men will go.
It does go a little further than your average bear. Consider the ending, whose details I will not reveal but which seasoned movie-goers will be able to divine quickly. At first the “twist” (if I must call it that) felt arbitrary, as if it existed for its own sake, or, worse, as a last stab at sticking with the audience.
Upon further reflection the ending casts Repo Men as a far more cynical movie than I gave it credit for. Will the meta-textual knife-twist register on most people? Probably not, if only because the movie decided to cut both ways with only a few minutes of screen time left.
I bear no animosity to Repo Men; it more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do and conjures a few dark laughs and a handful of inventive twists along the way. The three leads are sufficiently charismatic, though the two lead female roles–Alice Braga as an organ defaulter on the run and Carice Van Houten as Remy’s nagging wife (the one that explicitly states she is his nagging wife)–are entirely superfluous. And in indulging in the typical and the expected–witness the action orgy of the last half hour–Repo Men sells itself out a little too thoroughly to linger afterwards. This is a movie searching for the courage of its convictions.
Last week’s film, The Oscar, represents a common type of cult film: the bad movie that reaches such a sublime level of awfulness that it transcends its quality and achieves a level of entertainment on its own. (I hesitate to use the common phrase “so bad it’s good” because I don’t think these movies ever become “good” by any measure of quality–they are still bad movies, but they do become entertaining in their own special way). These are the types of movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they especially lend themselves to the kind of communal viewing experience popularized by that show. In fact, the first time I saw The Oscar, I was with a small group of friends, and the movie was definitely more entertaining than it has been in my subsequent viewings.
Another subset of the cult movie, however, is the movie that transcends audience expectations and its own limitations–a genuinely good movie where the viewer wasn’t expecting to find one. The movie may transcend limitations based on genre, budget, or means of distribution. Such movies were prevalent in the B-movie era–Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour being the primary example–and in the grindhouse/drive-in distribution system where Roger Corman’s movies thrived. When a viewer stumbles across such a film by accident, it can be an exciting moment of discovery.
One such movie–and you’ll have to trust me on this–is the 1976 teen sex comedy The Pom Pom Girls (also known as Joyride and Palisades High), a Crown International Pictures release directed by Joseph Ruben and co-written by Ruben and Robert J. Rosenthal, who would later write and direct Malibu Beach (1978), which shares some striking similarities with the earlier film, including recycled sets and soundtrack. On the surface, The Pom Pom Girls looks like a typical ’70s teen sex comedy: it has fast cars, copious amounts of nudity, ridiculously inept adult authority figures combined with abusive ones, and lots of teenage shenanigans. What it doesn’t have, though, is a lot of comedy–it’s not a very funny movie.
The Pom Pom Girls also doesn’t have much of a plot. It takes place during the first few weeks of senior year for a handful of main characters: Johnnie (Robert Carradine), Jesse (Michael Mullins), Laurie (Jennifer Ashley), and Sally (Lisa Reeves). Romantic relationships amongst the four leads develop, and a football rivalry between their school, Rosedale, and Hardin High escalates from typical pranks to criminal vandalism and climaxes with a fistfight between teams at the big game. But these developments only mark the passage of time in the film; they don’t drive the movie forward in any real way. Instead, the movie focuses on how Johnnie and Jesse deal with their adolescent existential angst. Johnnie picks fights, performs increasingly dangerous stunts, and steals hot rod enthusiast Duane’s (Bill Adler) girlfriend. Jesse has casual and meaningless sex with random girls in the back of his van (complete with 8-track player) and throws temper tantrums when the world does not conform to his capricious needs.
And, in a form of bait-and-switch typical of Crown’s output, the movie has almost nothing to do with pom pom girls. The titular cheerleaders only appear a few times in the movie: once, at the very beginning, where we see the bikini-clad girls engage in a rather ineffective practice on the beach; later, during the obligatory try-out montage; and finally, at the big game where the fight breaks out. In the latter scene, we get the classic cheer, “Our team is on the ball! / Your team needs Geritol! / Drink it up!”–a cheer I distinctly remember from high school, which makes me feel old.
Jesse and Johnnie constantly test the limits of moral authority in their world, only to find that their actions have no consequences. In one prank, they steal a firetruck from the local fire station, drive it onto the Hardin High football field during practice, and spray the team and coaches with the water hoses. When done, they simply abandon the stolen truck and return to their lives.
The principal tries to enact some kind of punishment, but his weak attempts to elicit a confession only leads to the entire senior class admitting guilt, Spartacus-style. While pursuing virginal Laurie, Jesse continues to have sex with other girls in the back of his boss van (including one scene where he does it with a carhop at the local drive-in while she’s on the job, causing mass chaos among the customers who are demanding service), and he still ends up with her without expressing any willingness to change. Later, Jesse punches out his coach, and both the coach and the principal decide that no punishment is necessary.
It should also be noted that parents are virtually absent from this movie. Laurie’s parents only appear in one scene, and they are good-natured, trusting, and oblivious to the fact that Jesse spent the night in their daughter’s room. Thus, Jesse and Johnnie confront a corrupt and ineffective system and push against it to reveal an absence of true authority. This leads to a rather nihilistic conclusion more in line with the punk movement of the day than the surfer ethos one would expect from the film’s Southern California mileau.
The Pom Pom Girls is, in effect, to ’70s teen sex comedies what Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point are to the ’70s hot rod movies–all three movies embrace a kind of devastating nihilism in their climaxes that belies the lightheartedness of their respective genres.
At the end of The Pom Pom Girls, Duane decides to end his rivalry with Johnnie once and for all by challenging him to “suicide chicken,” where they are to switch cars and race toward a cliff, the first to swerve losing. Johnnie “beats” Duane by driving the car off the cliff, and the film ends with the remaining characters literally gazing into the abyss as they look over the cliff to view the fiery explosion. This is a brilliant shot choice by director Ruben: the camera is positioned over the edge of the cliff, looking up on the teenagers as they look down. Thus, the abyss they gaze on is the audience. Then, Johnnie shows up, covered in dust and laughing about how he ditched Duane’s car at the last second. The four main characters walk away laughing, the frame freezes, and the credits roll. After confronting the abyss, they celebrate what Milan Kundera refers to as “the unbearable lightness of being”: the unlimited freedom that comes with the awareness that there is no moral authority controlling their actions.
Or, on second thought, I may be reading too much into a plotless and relatively unfunny ’70s teen sex comedy. But I don’t think I am.
Since Oscar season is in full bloom, I thought it would be a good idea to examine one of Hollywood’s attempts to dramatize the dog-eat-dog world that exists behind the scenes of the Academy Awards.
That film, The Oscar (1966), defines irony: a film about the highest achievement in American cinema also happens to be one of the worst movies that Hollywood has ever produced. But it is also truly glorious in its overwritten, overacted awfulness. Starring Steven Boyd, Tony Bennett (in his one and only film role), and Elke Sommer, along with a host of cameos, and written by director (and Academy Award winner for Pillow Talk) Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene, and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, The Oscar tells the story of Frankie Fane (Boyd), a young burlesque show spieler who ruthlessly claws his way to the top of the Hollywood food chain on the backs of his friends and lovers.
The movie is a mess, but it achieves a sublime level of badness that never ceases to be thoroughly entertaining. It is the perfect storm of an over-the-top, self-important script and some really terrible acting. Clearly, everybody involved in the movie thought they were making a great, important film, and that may be the most essential part of the joy The Oscar brings.
Ellison, Rouse, and Greene swing for the fences with every single speech, and the great/bad dialogue flies fast from the get-go, as if the actors are in a rush to get it all out before the audience can really pause to think about it.
For example, there are about 20 metaphors for success used throughout the film: it’s “a glass mountain” as well as “the wildest narcotic known to mortal man.” The dialogue is barely recognizable as real human speech. At one point in the movie, a character says to another, “Explain to me the ethical structure of the universe,” and I challenge anyone to find a way to work that sentence into a real conversation.
Perhaps the biggest victim of the script is Elke Sommer, who plays Frankie’s neglected wife, Kay. Sommer, whose success was never built upon her ability to speak English, is forced to utter lines that no human being has ever said in his or her life. When she first meets Frankie at a swinging party in the Village, Frankie asks, “Are you a tourist or a native?” she responds, “Take one from column A, 2 from column B–you get an eggroll either way.”
What the hell does that even mean?
Maybe we’re supposed to guess that she didn’t understand the question. As the conversation continues, she explains to Frankie her life philosophy that, I think, has something to do with saving herself for marriage, to which Frankie replies, “You make my head hurt with all that poetry.” And to that, the audience can only nod in sympathy.
The movie is framed by the Academy Awards ceremony where Frankie Fane has received a Best Actor nomination for his role in the film Breakthrough, a title that hints at the subtlety we are to expect from the rest of the movie. Bob Hope hosts the ceremony, in scenes that were actually shot at the Academy Awards. The Academy gave the filmmakers special permission to shoot these scenes and use the actual statuettes in the film, a decision the Academy no doubt regrets to this day. As the nominees are about to be announced, the camera focuses in on Tony Bennett, who plays Hymie Kelly, Frankie’s best friend and ostensible manager throughout most of his career.
Hymie narrates the rest of the film in flashback, taking us back to the early days, when the duo fronted a burlesque road show starring “Miss Laurel” (Jill St. John). One performance somewhere in the rural south goes bad, and they run afoul of a racist sheriff played by Broderick Crawford (of course). The sheriff picks up Frankie, Laurel, and Hymie and charges them with prostitution after they beat up a bar owner who renegs on payment for their show.
While he’s throwing the trio in the clink, Crawford asks Bennett, “How’d you get a name like ‘Kelly,’ HYMIE?” Bennett answers, “My father was Michael Kelly … and my mother’s name was Sadie Rabinowitz–any other questions?” The writers obviously settled on the name “Hymie Kelly” after rejecting their first choices, “Jewy McPotatoeater” and “Shamlock Leprecohn.”
The three end up jumping bail and hitching their way to New York, where they are supported by Laurel’s stripping career while Frankie and Hymie look for work. The Village is a wild and hopping place, perfectly suited for an untamable swinger like Frankie Fane, and he soon ditches Hymie and Laurel for the theater crowd.
Here, he hooks up with costume designer Kay, who takes him to a play rehearsal. The actors are practicing a knife fight, and Frankie vocally criticizes the lack of verisimilitude in their performance. So, he jumps onstage to show them what a knife fight really looks like. Obviously in violation of union rules as well as basic concerns for safety, the actors are actually using a real knife, and Frankie comes dangerously close to hurting several people. A talent scout, Sophie Cantero (Eleanor Parker), recognizes something in the young rebel that no one else, including the audience, sees: talent!
Soon, Frankie goes to Hollywood, where he invites Hymie to live with him in a pad that had “hot and cold running everything.” Sophie also sets Frankie up with an agent, Kappy Kapstetter (Milton Fucking Berle), and as part of a big publicity push, Frankie is set up on a date with a young blonde starlet. No one puts Frankie Fane in a box, however, and pretty soon, he’s making a name for himself with some publicity stunts at the starlet’s expense.
Meanwhile, Kay shows up in Hollywood, now working for famed costume designer Edith Head, who appears as herself. Kay and Frankie hook back up again and take a trip down to Tijuana, where they impulsively get married, as witnessed by vacationing private investigator Barney Yale and his wife (Ernest Borgnine and Edie Adams). After their wedding night, though, Frankie suddenly turns cold toward Kay, and we see the beginning of what will be a quick slide in this relationship.
Back in Hollywood, Frankie gives Hymie a new job: pimp. Or, as Hymie calls it, “The Hymie Kelly Broad Procuring Agency.” As Frankie is whoring around, Kay is becoming increasingly depressed, indicated in the film by the amount of time she spends lounging around in slinky lingerie. But Frankie’s career goes into a sharp decline with his increase in bad behavior, and the studio is ready to dump him. Theater owners say they would rather have botulism than more Frankie Fane movies, something the audience understands completely.
Frankie has several crisis meetings with Kappy in order to try to salvage his career. At one, Frankie asks, “What about that spy thing at Warners?” to which Kappy replies, “They signed Dean Martin.” It’s a nice metatextual reference to the Matt Helm series, which was just starting up at Warners when this movie came out, but it also gives me horrors to think that someone other than Dean Martin could have played Matt Helm (It’s also a subtle nod to the fact that Stephen Boyd was lined up to play James Bond before Sean Connery took the role–another bullet dodged by film history.)
In another meeting, Kappy tries to get Frankie a TV pilot, and as the actor is just about to sign up for it, he gets a phone call–he’s received a Best Actor nomination for Breakthrough! When Frankie returns to the meeting, he announces that he’s not interested in television anymore: “Game called on account of Oscar!”
At this point, the movie floors the crazy pedal. In order to win the Oscar, Frankie hatches the most ridiculous plan. He hires PI Barney Yale to leak the story that Fane and his friends got picked up for prostitution and jumped bail. He leaks the story in order to make everyone think that one of the other nominees is responsible, and as a result he will get the sympathy vote. He even holds a press conference to reveal the whole truth about his past–he was an underdog who lived hand-to-mouth on the burlesque circuit.
All of Hollywood, including those who just a few days before were ready to dump him, begins to celebrate Frankie, and his former boss, studio executive Regan (Joseph Cotton) even throws a party for him. It should be noted that Cotton was an actor who should have been walking around with a fistful of Oscars for his roles in Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Shadow of a Doubt, but instead never received a single nomination in his career.
In this film, he gets the ironic job of delivering a long speech defending the sanctity of the Academy Awards in the face of Frankie’s scandal. Soon after, Kappy dumps Frankie as a client, explaining that Frankie is just too immoral and ruthless for Hollywood.
The plan quickly backfires on Frankie when Barney Yale tries blackmailing him to keep the secret. Frankie can’t afford Yale’s demands, and instead he seeks out Hymie’s help to put a hit on the renegade PI. This ends up being the last straw for Hymie, and he leaves Frankie to fend for himself.
The film’s climax puts the icing on this deliciously overcooked cake. At the Academy Awards ceremony, Merle Oberon comes on-stage to give out the Best Actor award. She announces the nomineees: Richard Burton, Burt Lancaster, Frank Fane, and the voiceover obscures the rest. Then, “The winner is…Frank…” Fane stands up, ready to accept the award, but Oberon finishes her sentence: “…Sinatra!” Fane lamely tries to recover by leading a standing ovation as the Chairman accepts his award, and then Fane huddles fetally in his seat, realizing everything he’s sacrificed only to come up a loser.
I’d love to see this in an Oscar ceremony: after an award is announced, the camera cuts to the reaction shots of all the losing nominees, and one of them is just huddled in the seat, crying.
I love the hell out of The Oscar, even though it’s easily one of the most overwritten and overacted movies ever made. It’s so excessively self-important, yet one can also sense the writers bending over backwards to insist that Frankie Fane’s ruthless ambition is the exception in Hollywood. Still, all of these flaws come together to form a movie that is completely and utterly engrossing from beginning to end.
By Eugene and Anna
The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream is the Cutting Edge franchise’s attempt to duplicate the success of the Bring it On movies by adding mild racial tension to a figure skating pair that swaps the genders in the figure skater/hockey player formula of the first (classic!) Cutting Edge movie. Zack is a poor little rich boy figure skater with a dangerous reputation. When he causes his skating partner and ex-girlfriend to break her ankle in an ill-timed lift, he’s left without a partner before nationals! What can he do?! After challenging a team of Mexican hockey players at his grandfather’s ice rink, Zack meets Alex, aka Alejandra.
She’s a fiery Latina who gave up her dreams of figure skating but still manages to display some smooth moves when beating Zack at hockey. Zack asks her to try out to be his partner. The movie’s forgettable subplot centers around Zack’s former partner Celeste and her ill-fated romance with her coach. Of course, the best possible coach for turning a hockey player into a figure skater is Jackie Dorsey, the daughter of the couple in The Cutting Edge. Will Zack and Alejandra find love and figure-skating success? With a movie as predictable as this one, do you even need to wonder?
I have a fairly high tolerance for stilted acting and wooden dialogue, but the first few scenes of this movie made me wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Zack wakes up after a night of debauchery and spends his time eating Cheerios while shirtless and replaying videotapes of his most recent second-place performance. The opening displays a profound lack of chemistry between Zack and Celeste, although I enjoyed seeing the fan in the background who stalks Zack as he watches his partner being loaded into a ambulance. There’s a little bit of humor as Zack tries to beat a hockey team using figure skating spins and jumps, and the introduction of Alejandra was so cliched I found myself amused by the slow motion hair toss as she took off her helmet and revealed herself as a woman before punching Zack in the face. The moment this movie won me over was the introduction of Jackie Dorsey as the new coach. Of course she’s the only one who can coach a figure skater/hockey player team! And when she slapped down the yellowing sheets of paper detailing the deadly Pamchenko move I decided to just give in to the cheesiness of it all, despite the fact that the movie is incredibly bad. I enjoyed the way the rival skaters signaled their evilness by dressing in progressively shinier costumes and the use of fog machines and back lighting to disguise the stunt skaters for each routine.
It is too bad that there’s so little character development, with the filmmakers just content to vaguely evoke rom-com story lines without following them up. Zack has a strained relationship with his distant and wealthy grandfather. Alex keeps making vague comments about Zack’s lack of masculinity. Because the actors never react with any amount of depth to the dialog it is hard to feel much for the movie other than amused recognition of elements from The Cutting Edge. I have to admit that this movie did inspire me to seek out the trailer for The Cutting Edge 2: Going for the Gold and I am afraid I may have to watch Jackie Dorsey’s adventures with an extreme sports rollerblader. Likewise, I may find myself in front of the TV in a couple weeks watching The Cutting Edge 4: Fire and Ice. I can’t help it. I may have an addiction to bad ice skating movies.
Anna acts like eating Cheerios shirtless is such a bad thing. I would like to say for the record, had the roles been reversed and Alejandra was introduced with a scene of her shirtless eating Cap’n Crunch, that I may very well have declared this to be the greatest movie ever made. Also, she clearly forgets the infamous Fog Machine Death March in Albertville 1988, where 300 figure skaters died. Never forget.
The Cutting Edge succeeded because it gave us (i.e. men) the opportunity to shamelessly enjoy figure skating, while also feeding into our masculinity issues by presenting us with Doug Dorsey, tough-guy hockey player and all around dude’s dude, to relate to. The key to getting guys on board with the movie was giving us a guy we would like, then showing his struggles for greatness in both his personal and professional arenas. By the end of the movie, you couldn’t care less if Doug was trying to win gold in shuffleboard, you wanted him to succeed, and you wanted them to fall in love. You were invested.
It’s no surprise that the straight-to-TV The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing The Dream is severely lacking in that very important aspect, instead presenting us with Zack Conroy, the handsome, rich and talented figure skater with a killer self-destructive streak. To compensate for the fact that he is not only extremely unlikable, but also competes in an extremely emasculating sport, they have turned the male protagonist into a Lothario, a millionaire playboy that might as well have a flashing sign above him at all times saying “THIS IS HOW DUDES ARE!” On the other side, the female lead is Alejandra Delgado, a woman hockey player (sorta) who has always had a dream of being a great figure skater!
Furthering the whole movie’s construct of gender swapped roles, she is emotionally closed up, goes by a guy’s name (“Alex”), and is ethnic and urban in the sense that being ethnic and urban makes you automatically “tougher” and perhaps less “feminine.” The movie is a disaster of gender and race stereotypes (they regularly eat tacos in this movie), to the point where you wonder if the whole movie was based on the single sentence synopsis, “What if SHE was the hockey player,” and a roomful of a writers lazily filled in the rest of the details without any consideration for nuance.
The only times the movie works is when it invokes the spirit of the original movie. Yes, they do the Pamchenko. Of course their coach is the daughter of the couple from the first movie. Obviously, they make a toepick joke. And as unintentionally offensive as it may be, I won’t deny the fact that echoes of The Cutting Edge and the structure of an underdog story were enough to elicit some form of emotional reaction when you finally hear Alex’s answer to Zack’s original question, “Will you skate with me?” It wasn’t much of a reaction, but it was enough to make someone out there think that the The Cutting Edge 4 is a good idea (release date: March 14, 2010).
It must be so tough, Eugene. Here you have this tremendous man-crush on D.B. Sweeney who “feeds into your masculinity issues,” yet it nurtures your affection for him because The Cutting Edge was one of the high points of his career. He’s mainly starred in forgettable TV shows like Harsh Realm, Jericho, and Life as We Knew It. We can only hope that one day he will strap on his (metaphorical) skates again to provide a relatable everyman focus to yet another romantic comedy.
Ah, movie trailers. What was once a mere promotional tool for getting the word out about hot new movies has become something of a phenomenon itself. Just ask those of us who saw Wing Commander to see the Phantom Menace trailer back in the day. We’re still looking into reparations for that whole thing.
Like the movies they sell, trailers have fallen into their own predictable tropes, so it becomes that much harder to discern a movie’s true worth behind the trailer editor’s bag o’ tricks. Here, Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery separate the wheat from the chaff in upcoming movies.
Predictably, they find mostly chaff. Ah, Spring!
The Ghost Writer
Wide release February 26
DW: It was fashionable for a long time to defend Roman Polanski, because the works of a great artist are more important than his deeds. And then it became fashionable to not defend Polanski, because holy shit, no matter what else the guy has done, he totally had sex, probably non-consensual, with an underage girl, and that’s creepy and gross by any reasonable person’s standards. It’s a shame that, as a film-maker, he is really good at thrillers and horror films and is capable of attracting strong casts and getting great performances out of them. Because what that means is that, in the end, I’ll almost certainly end up seeing this, and feeling extremely dirty because of that.
KL: On the plus side, we have a new go-to director for film school 101 ruminations on separating art from artist. Take a bow, Leni Riefenstahl! You’ve had a good run!
As Dorian says, this really does look to have a top notch cast and a dynamite premise, offering a glimpse into the intriguing but unknown (to me) world of ghost writing before twisting the knife and turning it all cock-eyed. Pierce Brosnan as the heavy is an inspired bit of casting. I figure, after a few minutes of moral struggle (and strenuous avoidance of the Great Moral Outcry from people who won’t give a damn the other 51 weeks of the year), I will be there.
KL: As a fan of George Romero’s work, it pains me to admit I have not seen the original The Crazies. From what I can tell, the premise—government-made virus gets into the water of a small Pennsylvania town, military quarantines the place, small band of survivors tries to evade their crazed neighbors and soldiers of fortune alike—sounds like a pure distillation of the general themes Romero’s been tackling his entire life. So, pretty cool.
This, on the other hand, is a remake directed and written by people who haven’t done much worth taking seriously. Do they care about things like theme, or are they just going to go for the easy scare? And while I do like Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, they’re not two actors who are exactly busy, if you follow me. The eternal optimist in me—the one that’s just waiting to be surprised—will have me catching this in the theater. But we all know better, don’t we?
DW: I have vague memories of watching this, or at least parts of this, as a VHS rental twenty-plus years ago. I’m usually not in favor of horror remakes, but my impression is that you could almost make a case for this one. Films in the seventies frequently feel, now, to have a padded length, and the themes of the film feel relevant enough to contemporary concerns that an updated, briskly paced redo might actually find an audience.
I’m still not in favor of it, though, because the only thing I find more tiresome than a zombie movie is an attempt to make a “they’re not really zombies” movie that plays exactly like a zombie movie. And I do like Olyphant too, but there are limits.
KL: Bong Joon-ho wrote and directed The Host, the best monster movie in who knows how long, so he gets a free pass from me.
But aside from the fantastic “monster” part of The Host, the greatest strength of that film was the family dynamic. And here we have a mother trying to find the real culprit behind the murder her adult (but dependant) son has been found guilty of. One absolute guarantee? This one’s going to break your heart after wringing you up like a wet towel.
DW: Yeah, The Host is one of those films that, while I thought it was fantastically well done and I enjoyed it immensely, I just can’t bring myself to watch it a second time because I don’t want to go through that level of emotional intensity again. Which is quite a feat for what is essentially just a Godzilla pastiche. So I suspect that I’ll really want to see this, once. Which is a shame, because the best mysteries are the ones that reward multiple viewings.
KL: For the record, this is NOT Alex Cox’s sequel to Repo Man. (That would be a comic book called Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday, which is legitimately insane.) So settle down, fellow children of the ‘80s.
Instead, this looks like something from the Equilibrium school of sci-fi movie allegory: Jude Law and Forrest Whitaker are guys who reclaim advanced synthetic organs from people who can’t pay up for them, which neatly ties in pretty much every economic anxiety of the day. But in a twist that could only have been predicted by someone who’s ever seen a movie before, Law ends up needing a heart himself, and then finds out he can’t do his job anymore… and guess what? Gunplay ensues.
OK, I’m being catty. I might actually watch this, as I find Law and Whitaker to be two pretty watchable guys and there’s an off-chance this movie doesn’t become as dumb as it looks.
DW: I’d like to be charitable, but I’ve seen too many recent vintage science-fiction films with pretensions of political allegory either fall flat on their face or fall back on the easy morality of action movies, where egotistical assholes with guns are the final arbiters of moral authority (I’m looking at you, The Surrogates). And given the money that it looks like went into this, I’m pretty confident in stating that there’s no way the ending to this is going to be prone to any manufactured outrage. Which means a safe, uncontroversial, unambiguous ending, lacking even the subtlety of what we got with Equilibrium, which still went for the “biggest asshole with a gun makes the rules” conclusion.
Season of the Witch
DW: This is like an endurance exercise in counting contemporary horror visual cliches. All that was missing was the blurry face effects you get from slowing down high-speed film, and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked to discover that the final film features at least one shot like that. And is that a nu-metal song playing that’s completely inappropriate for the setting? Why, I do believe it is! I want to like a horror film that at least branches out beyond the usual vampire and zombie territory, and I do like the idea of a horror film set in the Middle Ages, though the casual references to the Crusades and Iraq suggest we’re also in for some heavy-handed political allegory as well. But right now, the scariest thing on display here is Nicholas Cage in yet another terrible hair-piece.
KL: Look, I don’t mind Nicolas Cage so much… most of the time. And I still hold a glimmer of hope for Dominic Sena, who directed the superior thriller Kalifornia before moving on to dumber fare like Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish. And like Dorian, I’m glad to see a mainstream horror film that isn’t a Saw sequel or something to do with vampires.
But holy hell, that Marilyn Manson song isn’t doing anyone any favors. The premise is a solid enough foundation for some fun, phantasmagoric good vs. evil shenanigans, but I have a feeling we’re not going to see much of that. In fact, I think we’re going to be bored as hell.
KL: You’d think that with the bevy of ghost stories coming out every year, more of them would feature actual grown-ups with jobs and kids. Ghost stories are about guilt and regret, and it naturally follows that the older you get, the more of those you carry around with you.
And here we have a widower with children who thinks his house may be haunted, possibly by his wife, who’s assigned as an aide to an author in town for a literary festival. She writes about ghosts, of course, and finds herself trapped by another novelist who appears ready to do anything to be with her. That’s good stuff.
I know little about writer/director Conor McPherson, but the trailer tells us he’s “acclaimed” and a quick glance through his filmography shows he’s worked with some top talent. And no one tells a ghost story like the Irish.
DW: I’m slightly torn here. On the one hand, I really like the idea of a haunted house film that focuses on the emotional aspects of the ghost story. It’s at the core of the genre, and it’s been forgotten in favor of flashy effects in many of the recent examples of the genre. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of dramas that focus on problems that are essentially the fault of the main characters in the first place, and the story of a widower with children who gets between two writers in an adulterous affair is veering awfully close to that territory. I think what’s going to end up making the decision for me is whether or not the supernatural elements of the story are “real” or just a metaphor for the protagonist’s emotional state. If they’re “real” than great, I’m on board. If not, well, I guess I’ll just continue hoping for a good ghost film to come along.
How to Train Your Dragon
DW: I was really into dragons when I was a kid. Vikings as well. You’d think that a movie about vikings and dragons would energize that tasteless little boy inside every grown man. Instead, all I’m reminded of is how I can’t stand 3D films because of the terrible, ill-fitting glasses, and how ugly the computer animated films from DreamWorks tend to be. And while we’re on the subject, at this point I’m not sure that “from the makers of SHREK” is an endorsement for anyone above the age of 12, and if it is, those are the last people I want studios to be making films for.
KL: Three things: One, the thought of having Jay Baruchel’s flat, nasal voice fill 90 minutes of screen time kind of makes me want to die. Two, that is one seriously uninspired design for a dragon, like they just took a gummi dragon and let it melt in the sun for an hour. Three, does this trailer leave any room for surprises? Can we not chart out the movie’s arc now, and reasonably guess the ups, downs, and act breaks within 95% accuracy? Feel free to send me $10 apiece instead and Dorian and I will just write the movie out for you. We’ll even throw in some Whoppers.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)
DW: I’ve not been a fan of the recent trend for remaking horror films for a contemporary audience. Most of the films that have gotten the treatment are still modern enough to be effective and were good enough the first time around to have influenced the genre in some way. The original Nightmare films represent a trend for horror in the 80s that I think was bad for the genre; the quipping killer that becomes the focus and more of a heroic figure than the people actually opposing him. I don’t think I want to see that trend revived. About the only thing that I think could work with a remake is if they go full out gonzo with the surreal nature of dreams and make big CGI sets and environments and characters for the actors to interact with. What the trailer shows, however, is a bunch of practical effects on sound-stages and the usual assortment of pretty actors in their twenties playing one-note teenagers getting slaughtered for the audience that values gore and guts over tension and scares.
KL: What a lot of people seem to forget is the films that launched the horror franchises of the ‘80s—from Nightmare to Friday the 13th to Halloween (which, yes, began in the ‘70s)—is that there was some pretense at mystery. In Nightmare’s case the question was: who is this nightmarish revenant, and why is he stalking the kids of Elm Street?
The makers of this revamp seem to recognize that everyone knows the answer to those questions, which you’d think would give them license to do something really fun with the series. But no, there’s at least two scenes shown here ripped directly from the original: the bath tub scene and the “floating out of bed” scene, both of which gave Little Ken some serious nightmares.
Producers, studios, I appreciate that you’re not so much in the art business as you are in the risk management business, and so you try to stick to as close to a “sure thing” as you can find. But this is just lazy.
Also: cut it out with that “pulsing soundtrack set to quick cuts and fades to black” thing in your trailers. I hate that.
DW: I can’t be bothered to watch post-2000 Saturday Night Live on the off chance that this particular episode will have their one funny sketch this season, so I’m not immediately familiar with this particular bit. What I do know is that padding out a joke that gets tiresome after three minutes to eighty has not ended well in the past. And in this case, the subject of the parody is a tv show that went off the air in 1992, so it’s not even something that the implied target audience of teenage boys probably ever even experienced for themselves. If this is what the producers of SNL think is their most marketable property, I’m less inclined than I was before to check out the show. Add in one of the most spectacular cases of “all the best bits are in the trailer” I’ve seen in years, and this just looks like cinematic torture.
KL: Alternatively, you could just watch every hack comedian’s routine on action movies for 90 minutes and get about the same experience. What’s the matter, guys? Couldn’t think up a feature-length screenplay on how they should make the airplane out of the black box?