Abar: The First Black Superman (Frank Packard, 1977, USA)
When a black family moves to a lily white neighborhood all hell breaks loose. First mistaken by their overtly racist neighbor as the servants for the new family, the Kinkades consist of the doctor father (J. Walter Smith), his wife (Roxie Young) and their two kids. The family quickly finds their house surrounded by picketers, protesting their presence. When John Abar (Tobar Mayo), crusader, and the rest of B.F.U. (Black Front of Unity) hear the announcement of a black family moving into a white neighborhood on the radio news (!) they jump on their hogs to check out the situation.
Though his logic may be a bit shaky, Doctor Kinkade has moved his family in order to have privacy for his unorthodox experiments. He’s creating a formula to turn man into a super being. If you guess that Abar is going to quaff that potion, you’re right on. But, don’t get ahead of yourself. It takes a lot of racist incidents, a few playbacks of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, and about an hour before Abar finally downs the serum.
Originally set to wear a lime green jumpsuit with "SB" on the front (for "Super Black," of course), Abar gets to keep his chic suit when he gains his superpowers. You’d never know that a super being walks among us as his powers manifest with a close-up on his eyes and a high-pitched noise on the soundtrack; turning spaghetti into worms, giving a prostitute the wherewithal to bust up her pimp, inspiring street thugs to enroll in college, showing up a preacher for riding a flashy car, and seemingly sending the Kindkades’ racist neighbors into the Phantom Zone.
Shot in 1974, it took three years until Abar got a release. The low rent production suffers from a jaw-dropping earnestness and some terrible performances (namely J. Walter Smith, who also rewrote a lot of the script). Fortunately, Abar ultimately succeeds even when Tobar Mayo twists his tongue around the hackneyed dialogue. A very unusual entry in the Blaxploitation pantheon, Abar confronts racism head on while providing hope and a rare black superhero – far better than Meteor Man, Blank Man, or even Steel. Abar’s the real deal and this shockingly sincere movie ultimately serves to provide hope. - MW
The Baron (Phillip Fenty, 1977, USA)
When people think of Blaxploitation films they picture guns, dope dealers, pimps, and big afro hairdos. The films that defy that core of pimps, players, and private eyes provide the most interesting fare. Phillip Fenty’s The Baron may have its share of mobsters, drug pushers, and car crashes but centers around an independent filmmaker struggling to bring his vision to life.
Calvin Lockhart stars as Jason, a hustler trying to make a good life for himself and his wife (Marlene Clark). He’s working on (and starring in) a movie about Baron Wolfgang von Tripps, a formula one race car driver. The closer he comes to completing the film, the more obstacles get in his way. His Hollywood partner (Raymond St. Jaques) has a studio willing to finance it in full... if it’s remade with a white actor and without Jason’s involvement. Meanwhile, Jason’s partner back in New York, Cokeman (Charles McGregor) comes under pressure from Joey (Richard Lynch), a mob boss.
Joey is so evil that one of his henchmen has a hook instead of a hand. The scenes between Joey and Cokeman might initially play as comical as Joey begins denigrating his loud wardrobe ("You look like a clown"). The laughs give way to shocked gasps as Joey’s taunts begin to gain an increasingly racist edge. The scene of Joey torturing Cokeman, while a henchman plays old time tinny piano tunes, succeeds in thoroughly disturbing the audience. Joey’s blatant racist patter contrasts with the subtle cuts made by the high society folks to which Jason panders when looking for more funding.
Cokeman works to keep Jason grounded, taking him to the seedy side of town to remind him of their roots. They watch as a woman is assaulted on the streets, Cokeman reminiscing about the good old days. He wants Jason to "start thinking about making money the way a nigger knows how." And, if Jason won’t listen to reason, maybe a few rounds with Cokeman’s Doberman pinschers might convince him.
A character as driven and self-centered as Jason runs the risk of alienating an audience. He sacrifices everything for his dream, damning anyone who gets in his way. With the twinkle in his eye and a con man’s charm, the handsome Calvin Lockhart pulls off playing Jason perfectly. Even when he’s being a bastard, he’s sympathetic.
With any film about filmmaking it’s tempting to assume that the work is wholly self-reflexive. When considering that writer/director Phillip Fenty wrote the screenplay for Superfly, the temptation becomes overwhelming. Perhaps Jason is a stand-in for Fenty, perhaps not. Regardless, The Baron remains an unusual and entertaining entry in the pantheon of Blaxploitation. - MW
The Boxer’s Omen / Mo (Chih-Hung Kuei, 1983, Hong Kong)
The Shaw Brothers are known for their chop-sockey films but if you’re looking for bare-fisted kung fu in Boxer’s Omen, you’re going to be sorely disappointed as there are only two bouts in the entire film. However, if you’re seeking one of the most insane tales of sorcery, multi-colored gore, and puppetry then Boxer’s Omen is the movie for you.
Chan Hung (Phillip Ko) is a gangster who gets saved from a back alley deal by an apparition of a Buddhist monk with a sprinkler behind him. "Follow me," the vision intones but Chan Hung is having none of it. He’s got to get home and have some sex with his girlfriend, pressing her ridiculously big boobs up against a rain-soaked window. The next day he visits his brother in the hospital. He’s messed up pretty bad, a victim of bad sport fellow boxer Ba Bo (Bolo Yeung). Chan Hung swears revenge, going to Thailand to challenge Ba Bo. There he finds an image out of one of his visions at a Buddhist temple where he’s welcomed by name. "We knew you were coming," says the HMIC (head monk in charge).
What follows is an incredibly long flashback of Abbot Quing Zhao (Elvis Tsui) taking on a couple of black magicians, turning one into an old woman who expels a bat puppet from her dying mouth and pissing off the other when Quing Zhao successfully destroys the bat puppet in an ornate ceremony. No matter how much the black wizard spits rat blood at a representative bat skeleton, he can’t bring it back when Quing Zhao pounds it to dust with a golden hammer. Not to be outdone, the black wizard feeds green poison to three spider puppets and makes his way into Quing Zhao’s temple, crawling up the ceiling to kill Quing Zhao. Don’t worry, he’s only mostly dead. And, since he was the twin brother of Chan Hung in another life, Hung can talk to his desiccated corpse and even avenge this spiritual brother, too.
Rather than the typical training scene of Chan Hung learning some new style of kung fu with which he’ll defeat his enemies, there’s a montage of him sitting in an urn while his fellow monks channel their power to his hands via some animation. He’s quickly ready for his first wizard battle. The black wizard wastes no time unleashing a herd of crocodile skulls with more bat puppets inside of them in another epic, silly, and gross battle.
Boxer’s Omen boasts more than its fair share of intestines, goo, maggots, and regurgitation. The plot has Chan Hung bopping from Hong Kong to Thailand to Nepal on his quest to avenge his boxing and Buddhist brothers. The settings are incredibly impressive, especially the temple with the giant Buddha face and ornate wall carvings. There’s never a dull moment and the plot turns on its own internal wizarding logic. Even in comparison with other Shaw Brothers films from the same era (Black Magic, Seeding of a Ghost) Boxer’s Omen is a unique cinema experience. - MW
Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970, USA)
Long before Skynet became self-aware and the Matrix was in place; Colossus learned the wealth of human history and decided to become the world’s dictator. Colossus: The Forbin Project pits man against machine at the height of the Cold War. Modeled after the defense computer at NORAD, Colossus and its Soviet counterpart, Guardian, hold the world hostage under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Written by D. F. Jones in 1966, Colossus is one of a series of wild computers along with HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey), WOPR (War Games), VGER (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), Proteus (Demon Seed) and Edgar (Electric Dreams).
Like those other haywire machines, Colossus shares a fascination with human beings. How can something so inferior have created something so majestic? It’s for that reason that Colossus studies his creator, Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden). The bulk of the film happens in a rather sterile computer room but the use of flashing lights and choice of angles keeps it interesting. Colossus treats people like ants. Forbin has it a little better as he’s treated like a pet; a mouse which Colossus can bat around.
Perhaps Colossus: The Forbin Project isn’t as well-known as other crazy computer films due to its bleak ending. A sequel to the film never came. However, D.F. Jones penned two more Colossus novels; The Fall of Colossus and Colossus and the Crab. Unfortunately, these take the frightening and possible scenario of a self-protective and overbearing computer system to improbable places. - MW
The Chase (Arthur Ripley, 1946, USA)
Scott Chuck (Robert Cummings) looks longingly at the flapjacks being flipped at the local greasy spoon. His hands go to his pockets though he knows he’ll not find any money there, just a bottle of pills. They do nothing to fill his empty belly – though perhaps they ease his troubled mind. As he turns to go, his foot finds something; a wallet on the sidewalk. It’s stuffed with dough and an identification card belonging to Eddie Roman. After a full meal and a good cigar, Scott takes the remaining cash and the wallet to its rightful owner – hunger beats out honesty at least a little bit.
We first see Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) before Scott does. Roman’s relaxing while getting his nails done. When the manicurist accidentally cuts a finger he gives her a mouth full of backhand, sending her crying out of the room. It’s this display that Scott gets to see but he still takes the position of chauffer when it’s offered a few minutes later. Roman likes to control things; his business, his car, and most-assuredly, his wife Lorna (Michele Morgan). Just as Scott stared into the diner, Lorna wistfully looks out to sea. She wants to get away from Roman’s control and sees Scott as a way to escape. Scotty purchases two tickets to Havana... and that’s when things get really weird.
The film’s screenplay by Philip Yordan (The Big Combo, Johnny Guitar) is about 60% faithful to Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Path of Fear. The characters and names remain similar as do the events that occur once Scott and Lorna reach Cuba. The order of events gets flip-flopped but Scott still ends up framed for murder and on the run from la policia. Things turn darker and all hope is lost... until Scott wakes up wearing his chauffeur uniform, not sure who he is or what’s happened.
The Chase offers its protagonist the first film noir Mulligan. The audience becomes as muddled as Scott as he tries to learn who he is, what’s real and what was in Scott’s head. He’s fortunate enough to get help from Commander Davidson (Jack Holt), a Navy psychiatrist that may have prescribed those pills Scott wolfed down in the opening scene.
It’s unfortunate that so much of Woolrich’s novel was scrapped for Ripley’s film. The most interesting character, Midnight (Yolanda Lacca) gets nary two minutes screen time when she’s a major and fascinating character in the source material. Avoiding the bleak and wonderful hardboiled ending of Woolrich’s book, the film appears to offer one a happy ending or maybe it doesn’t... We leave Scott and Lorna as they in each other’s arms but they’re still in Havana and in the back of the carriage that took them to their original fate. - MW
Daybreakers (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2009, Australia)
Vampires have taken over earth and have sucked the world nearly out of blood. Humans are an endangered species, being hunted and pumped dry. Vampires are feeding on one another, figuratively and literally. Hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawkes) works tirelessly night after night to find a blood substitute. Despite the pressure from his cold-blooded boss, Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), Edward has little luck in the lab, succeeding only in discovering a serum to make volunteers explode.
Edward is not as enamored with his vampire existence as his human-hunting brother, Frankie (Michael Dormian). Opting for pig blood rather than human, Edward has gone without for so long that his ears have started getting pointy; an early symptom of blood deficiency. As the blood crisis grows worse, the divide between vampire and human increases. Edward throws in with a band of humans after he meets Lionel "Elvis" Corman (Willem Dafoe), a former vampire that got his heartbeat back in a freak accident. Edward sees Corman as just the thing to end the blood crisis.
As Edward, Hawke plays things with a wry determinism. He gets some good dialogue but it’s Dafoe who steals the show with lines like, "Living in a world where vampires are the dominant species is about as safe as bare backing a five dollar whore."
The cinematography in Daybreakers plays well with the dichotomy between human and vampire by emphasizing the cold, fluorescent night and the warm, golden light of day. As daylight endangers Edward and his vampire ilk its beams cut through the dark of a shade tree and his blackout windows like lasers. The Spierig Brothers do a wonderful job giving life to a world of the undead. The advertising and product enhancements aimed at making the world a better place for vampires are ingenious.
I caught Daybreakers on a "bad movie night" with a friend of mine. We went in expecting the worst (Another vampire movie and Ethan Hawke to boot?) but were more than pleasantly surprised. The movie got dumped in the January doldrums where no respectable horror movie, even one with an environmental metaphor, should be. - MW
Ghosthouse (Umberto Lenzi, 1988, Italy)
Umberto Lenzi, of Cannibal Ferrox fame, steps into the haunted house genre with this ridiculous yet fascinating film.
A twentysomething couple, Martha and Paul, begin receiving strange cries for help via their HAM radio. They decide to use their clunky ’80s computer set-up to calculate the location of the broadcast, which leads them to a creepy old abandoned house in a small town. Once there, the couple encounters a group of campers crashing at the house, a practical joking hitch-hiker, and the ghost of Henrietta whose family died in the house twenty years earlier. Along with the group of campers, Paul and Martha venture into the house and start investigating. As quickly as the group discovers just how dangerous the situation is, they begin getting picked off one by one.
The group go on to encounter a crazed groundskeeper, a ghost dog, entire rooms gone haywire, multiple apparitions of Henrietta, and a strange clown doll. After much haunting and many deaths (including one character being cut right in half), and a scene in which Martha is besieged by a poltergeist wielding Easter decorations, we finally get to the haphazard conclusion (or should I say convolu-sion) of this story. It seems that Henrietta and her family ran the local funeral home and that the creepy clown doll was supposed to be buried with another young girl but Henrietta’s father brought it home for her instead, hence the haunting. In a completely ridiculous ending, instead of following the conventions of ghost stories and returning the doll to its rightful owner to appease the angry spirit, Paul and Martha instead find Henrietta’s body with the doll in her crypt and burn them together! But don’t worry because all this happens after Death himself makes an appearance at the house!
I know this review may come off as quite critical, but I assure you I am recommending you find and watch this film. This film’s absurd mix of haunting and slasher film trappings are far more entertaining than I can convey.
If all the above info hasn’t been enough to interest you in this unsung and nonsensical Umberto Lenzi masterpiece let me leave you with three more points.
- In Spain and Italy the film was marketed as a sequel to the Evil Dead series, though it clearly has nothing to do with the Sam Raimi series.
- Whenever the ghost appears it is accompanied by horrendous theme music which the other characters can hear.
- It gives you the opportunity to ask such insightful questions such as, "Why do abandoned housed always seem to have running water and electricity?", "How come when they find Henrietta’s crypt she looks as though she were buried yesterday and not twenty years ago?", and "Why is the ghost of Henrietta haunting them and not the ghost of the girl the clown doll was stolen from?".
I already mentioned Death and the Easter decorations right? - JG
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (Bruce Robinson, 1989, UK)
Is it any wonder that I went into marketing after seeing this movie? Made in the fine tradition of advertising films (Lover Come Back, Putney Swope, Crazy People), How to Get Ahead in Advertising undermines the artifice of ads in an attempt to show that truth is far from beauty.
Saddled with a pitch for a boil cream, the bombastic Dennis Dimbleby Bagley (Richard E. Grant) can’t wrap his head around the right approach to selling the acne remedy. Wound far too tightly, Bagley begins exhibiting strange behavior at work and at home; purifying his place of residence of anything with a brand name and throwing frozen chickens in the loo. Though patient to a point, his wife Julia (Rachel Ward) comes to wits’ end when Bagley gets a boil on his neck that he claims to have a voice of its own.
The head Bagley gets in advertising is a petulant carbuncle that embraces everything Bagley tries to reject. It speaks like a pithy voiceover announcer when it’s not arguing with him. This second head clings to the values of advertising Bagley once held dear and it’s not going to go quietly. It has other plans for Bagley.
Richard E. Grant gives the performance of a lifetime in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. He goes from pompous ass to paranoia and back again, chewing up and spitting out writer/director Bruce Robinson’s dialogue with aplomb. The film, Grant’s third, paired him again with Withnail and I creator Robinson. Unfortunately, How to Get Ahead wasn’t well-received upon release (at least in the U.S.) due, no doubt, to the wild mood swings of Bagley coupled with an ending that could be considered a downer by the small-minded.
Intacto (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2001, Spain)
What if luck was a commodity? Something bought, sold, and – more often – won or lost in a wager? That’s the question at the heart of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto. The film stars Leonardo Sbaraglia as Tomás Sanz, the lone survivor of a plane crash. As the luck of his fellow passengers ran out, it transferred to him. Tomás quickly comes to the attention of Federico (Eusebio Poncela), a man who’s truly down on his luck and wants to get it back. Years earlier he fell victim to the real star of the film, Samuel Berg (Max Von Sydow).
Clad all in white, Samuel acts as something of a fortune vampire; sustaining himself on the luck of others. He robs them with a simple touch of his hand, accumulating luck like spare change. Through the years since he survived a concentration camp, he’s amassed a great fortune. He leaves behind those who had been free from jinxes to run afoul of fate. Luck can turn on a dime.
How can you cheat fate unless you test its mettle? That happens throughout Intacto with stirring scenes of a luck-fueled underworld where participants trade Polaroids of people whose fortunes they own. They play with dice, traffic, loaded guns or blindfold themselves and run headlong into a forest. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
Intacto seems to have inspired Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler about a man whose mere presence ends anyone’s winning streak. The film definitely fueled the Prodigy music video for "Voodoo People" which features members of the band betting on a dozen blindfolded people who run through the city streets. - MW
The Lookout (Scott Frank, 2007, USA)
Chris Pratt wakes up. He takes a shower with soap. He tries to function in a world that’s gotten a lot more confusing since the prom night car crash. He wants his old life back – girlfriend, friends, status as the high school hockey player.
He lives his life. He tries to cook dinner for him and his blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels). He wants to be a teller at the bank where he works instead of mopping the floors at night. He meets the lovely Luvlee (Isla Fisher). He doesn’t know she’s too good to be true. He meets Gary (Matthew Goode), who treats him nicely and has a collection of pictures of banks.
He’s a wonderful character; haunted by visions of his old girlfriend, Chris is trying to get his life together. He’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with great aplomb. He’s supported by a terrific cast and a taut script by Scott Frank. The film plays with noir conventions, ringing with echoes of amnesia themes, holiday settings, and Midwestern crime. It shares a good deal with two 2005 films; Harold Ramis’s The Ice Harvest and Rian Johnson’s Brick. However, it manages to stand on its own as a fine crime film filled with interesting characters. - MW
Interplanetary (Chance Shirley, 2008, USA)
This impressive indie outing is a low budget sci-fi horror film about the employees of Mars Base 2 having a really bad day on the red planet and is an entertaining mix of Carpenter’s The Thing and Scott’s Alien with some of its own unique aspects thrown in. We start with two characters finding a cave with previously excavated Martian fossils, and then finding out that they are not the only group of humans on Mars. It seems that Mars Base 1, which the workers of Mars Base 2 were told didn’t actually exist, had previously found the Martian remains and were themselves conducting experiments with cloning Martians and cultivating alien eggs. Everything soon goes haywire as word leaks out about the fossils, the crew of Mars Base 2 find Mars Base 1 and its crew, and the progeny of the aforementioned alien eggs meet everyone.
Interplanetary comes highly recommended as a striking work of independent cinema with great attention to detail. Credit must be given to the costuming and props as the spacesuits and Mars rover alone must have cost a bundle, and to top it all off we are treated to some terrific creature designs. Over all Interplanetary is a well written and well-acted film which I hope is a sign of good things to come from director Chance Shirley and company. Also special notice should go to the fact that Interplanetary was shot on 16mm film and not digital video as many of its contemporaries. - JG
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer, 2006, Germany)
"Like most babies smell like butter, this one smelled like no other," sang Kurdt Cobain in "Scentless Apprentice," a song based on the Patrick Süskind novel Das Perfume. The reclusive author held that only perhaps Milos Forman or Stanley Kubrick could do his novel justice on screen. Indeed, several directors were attached to the project (Kubrick deemed it "unfilmable" according to a 2006 article in The Independent) including the director who seems to have had his name bandied about for every project of the last thirty-odd years, Ridley Scott. It was Run Lola Run wunderkind Tom Tykwer who finally helmed the project with a screenplay by Tykwer, Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) and Andrew Birkin (The Name of the Rose).
Perfume tells the tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born without an odor and with the most remarkable sense of smell in the world. Grenouille is a misanthropic monster whose greedy nose goes after every scent it can capture. When he learns of the odiferous essences some humans produce he turns to perfumery to learn how to extract scents, beginning a magical realist quest that places him as an eighteenth century serial killer.
The soul of beings is their scent. Ben Whishaw plays Grenouille as a soulless creature, barely uttering a word throughout the film but allowing the insatiable appetite for scents and hatred of the world around him to come through via his face and stooped body. Despite his expressive performance and John Hurt’s omniscient narration, there are nuances to Perfume that get lost in translation from page to screen, such as the power of Grenouille’s scents which allow him to fit in with the world, to walk amongst the people unnoticed, or to be treated as a god.
The film’s lavish look works hand in glove with its epic tone. Tykwer translates Grenouille’s ephemeral ability to the screen with flashes of images and a roaming camera that follows the flow of the wind. It turns out that Tykwer is the natural choice to direct Perfume; Süskind breaks narrative whenever Grenouille takes leave of a character to show their fate, exactly as Tykwer did with the people passed on the street in his breakout art house hit Run Lola, Run (1998).
An interesting and powerful film, Perfume fell victim to poor marketing (a movie about a murderous perfumer?) and unwillingness of audiences to identify with an enigmatic killer. - MW
Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974, USA)
In the years shortly after WWII the world suffered from giant bugs (Them!), lizards (Godzilla), and even teenagers (Village of the Giants). By the 1970s, the ecology continued going wild with swarms of creatures of Biblical proportions. In 1971 Walon Green and Ed Spiegel directed The Hellstrom Chronicle, a groundbreaking pseudo-documentary about the delicate balance between man and insect. This would inspire schlocky goodness like Bert I. Gordon’s Empire of the Ants and superlative science fiction such as Saul Bass’s Phase IV.
The sole feature directing effort from graphic artist Saul Bass (creator of the credits for Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, Goodfellas, etc.), Phase IV reflects Bass’s unadorned, effective style. The film begins with a montage and a rather ponderous voice over from James Lesco (Michael Murphy), a numerologist with a fast aptitude for decoding the audio signals between insects. He joins etymologist Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) in his desert lair as they investigate the strange goings on of the ant kingdom. Rather than freaking out, they’re nonplussed when they find a circle of pillars the ants created. They don’t even seem too shocked when they poison the ants only to find that they’ve adapted to the insecticide within a few hours.
Along with exterminating some ants, they manage to wipe out all but one member of a local farming family, Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick). She adds the id to their ego (Lesco) and superego (Hubbs), really serving as the audience’s foil. More than any human, however, it’s tough not to root for the ants as they find ingenious ways to torment the humans, even turning the old magnifying glass trick against them by building a shiny new structure to beam the sun’s rays against the humans’ building.
Ken Middleham of The Hellstrom Chronicle and Damnation Alley shot the gorgeous, albeit creepy, insect sequences. These, combined with the pacing of the plot and the sparse use of music, makes Phase IV a captivating flick. Alas, the film suffers from an abrupt ending thanks to a nervous studio who removed much of the bookending montage, rendering the impact of the film much softer than it should have been. - MW
Tapeheads (Bill Fishman, 1988, USA)
Ivan (John Cusack) and Josh (Tim Robbins) have been friends since they were kids, brought together by their love of soul band The Swanky Modes (Sam Moore and Junior Walker). They’ve grown up to be a couple of losers, talking about big dreams while leading little lives. When they’re forced out of their minimum wage gigs, they’re finally able to pursue dreams of something better. This being the late ’80s – the golden age of video production – the duo form Video Aces and begin shooting commercials, funerals, pet séances, video wills, political fundraisers and, inevitably, music videos.
Tapeheads perfectly captures the time when ambitious guys with video gear were out in droves, trying to pay the rent, make a name for themselves, or possibly both. Ivan and Josh scramble for gigs and hope they get paid. They get a bit of a break when they meet Mo Fuzz (Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame) and make a series of music videos for him... on spec, of course. Add a corrupt, kinky politician (Clu Gulager) and Mexican singing sensations Menudo to the mix and Tapeheads becomes a wild ride.
Director Bill Fishman came from a background of music videos (including Suicidal Tendencies’ "Institutionalized"). Meanwhile Fishman’s co-writer, Peter McCarthy, had been part of the team behind Repo Man and Sid & Nancy. Between the two they had cool points to spare, making it a little easier to stock Tapeheads with a bevy of cameo appearances from Ted Nugent to Jello Biafra to Bobcat Goldthwait (billed as Jack Cheese) to Michael Nesmith (who also executive produced).
The film also benefitted from Cusack and Robbins’s ability to improvise. Before the camera rolled, a videotaped run-through with the stars had them in their roles and coming up with a lot that ended up in the final film. The film initially ran over three hours long! The final (93-minute) movie became a victim of the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group implosion of the late ’80s. Tapeheads played a few film festivals, including a triumphant performance at the Toronto International Film Festival. The nascent Avenue Pictures Production to double the theatrical booking... to all of about 140 theaters with none in Boston or New York.
It took years for Tapeheads to make back its money, though Fishman, McCarthy, Robbins and Cusack have yet to see a dime from this cult film favorite.
Toto Les Heroes (Jaco Van Dormael, 1991, Belgium)
Thomas was switched at birth. He’s positive of it. He remembers it as if it were yesterday; an infant crying out in a burning hospital, having his entire life taken from him. Rather than living the privileged existence of his neighbor Alfred, he got stuck with a lackluster family, eking out a meager existence, and cursing fate every day. The only advantage of this faux family is that he gets to live with Alice, his adorable sister. And, since they’re not related, it’s fine to fall in love with her, right?
When confronted with this "truth," Alfred is less than gracious about giving up his mom and dad to Thomas. Thus, Thomas begins to plan his revenge, working out his place in the world. Jaco Van Dormael perfectly captures the child logic through Thomas’s narration. Babies are born because men and women lie in bed smoking cigarettes; his Downs Syndrome brother was born in a washing machine; and fathers can do magic.
Toto Les Heroes is structured as a stream-of-consciousness recollection as old Thomas thinks back to his youth and middle age. Timelines may change from one cut to the next. Characters are played by multiple actors as they move forward and back along Thomas’s memory. We may see good times and bad but everything is projected through a melancholy filter of regret and longing. It’s like the opium dream of Noodles (Robert De Niro) in Once Upon a Time in America, weaving through time with the narrator’s version of events somewhat tenuous.
The film won the Golden Camera and Award of the Youth prizes at Cannes in 1991. It found a lackluster VHS release in the United States. Shamefully, rights-holder Paramount has no plans for a DVD release at the time of this writing. - MW
White Sands (Roger Donaldson, 1992, USA)
Taking the identity of a dead man is a common movie trope, especially in films noir, but not necessarily recommended if you enjoy an uneventful life. When podunk sheriff Ray Dozeal (Willem Dafoe) finds a corpse and a suitcase full of money, he adopts the name of the stiff, Bob Spenser, in order to solve the man’s murder. This leads him into all sorts of trouble with arms dealer and frustrated artist Gorman Lennox (Mickey Rourke), FBI agent Greg Meeker (Samuel L. Jackson) and wealthy socialite Lane Bodine (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). White Sands works as a neo-noir along with other arid works like The Hitch-Hiker, Border Incident, and Desert Fury. With a fairly predictable plot courtesy of screenwriter Daniel Pyne (Where’s Marlowe?, Matt Houston), White Sands relies heavily on the performers to make it work.
Willem Dafoe shines as a sheriff who’s been itching for action but not getting it either at home or on the job. He suffers from being saddled with a hat from his wife ("Did your wife get you that hat?" "Something wrong with it?" "Nothing pissing on it won’t cure"). Some of Dafoe’s best work comes when he’s thrust into the spotlight as a semi-reluctant hero such as John LeTour in Light Sleeper, another 1992 role. Dafoe’s quiet observer is countered brilliantly by Rourke as Lennox. The film also boasts a fair share of favorite character actors including M. Emmet Walsh, Miguel Sandoval, James Rebhorn and not-yet-to-break-out (and not shouting all of his lines), Samuel L. Jackson.
White Sands isn’t a perfect film but it’s a lot of fun and stands as the best of three Neo-noirs directed by Roger Donaldson. Tellingly the two other films – No Way Out and The Getaway – had been made before (and better) and based on classic hardboiled tomes instead of an original screenplay.
Dafoe and Rourke would pair up again in the profound Animal Factory and the dismal Once Upon a Time in Mexico. - MW
Willie Dynamite (Gilbert Moses, 1974, USA)
It isn’t every host of your favorite childhood show that can keep his pimp hand strong and make you believe it but that’s what Roscoe Orman did in Willie Dynamite. Yes, Gordon from Sesame Street walks the walk as Willie D, the baddest pimp in town.
Dressed in some of the most ridiculous outfits this side of the Players’ Ball, Willie is a capitalist who bucks under the proposed socialist system of his fellow pimps. When Willie won’t join the collective, they vow to take him out. If that’s not bad enough, Willie’s got a busybody social worker trying to talk his new ho, Pashen (Joyce Walker) out of the life.
A morality play painted in broad swaths, Willie D plays like a Jack Chick tract (one of those funky ones drawn by Fred Carter). But Chick never had the funked- out score and Technicolor nightmare outfits. - MW