Tag Archives: 1989

CAPSULE: PARENTS (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Bob Balaban

FEATURING: , Mary Beth Hurt, Bryan Madorsky

PLOT: Moving to a new town and going to a new school can be tough on a young boy, but Michael’s problems may be even worse—his parents might be cannibals.

Still from Parents (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTParents is a wonderful little black comedy directed by Bob Balaban, better known for his many appearances in off-beat comedies over the past few decades (including Moonrise KingdomGosford Park, and as a recurring character on “Seinfeld”). With three-million bucks and an eccentric performance from Randy Quaid, Balaban put together a fun little romp of the macabre combining “nifty-’50s” schmaltz with nightmarish overtones. If really pressed, I’d say it could make the “Certified Weird” cut; but frankly, we’re running out of space.

COMMENTS: Some years bring us big movies—-movies a generation remembers as iconic. The year 1988 brought us classics like Die HardComing to AmericaRain Man, and Big. It also brought us Parents—a movie that, like “the Little Engine that Could”, eschews fame but provides a solid performance. Tucked away among dozens of big-name pictures that year, Parents succeeds at everything it sets out to: it is dark, it is funny, and it is a helluva sinister showcase for Randy Quaid. It fared poorly in theaters—not surprising considering the genre (horror comedy), competition (already mentioned), and stars (great actors, but not Hollywood gods). But who cares? Though not quite a qualifier for Certified Weird status, Parents is exactly the kind of movie for our readers.

A jaunty mamba plays through the credits: a pleasant montage of 1950’s hyper-Lynchian suburbia: helicopter shots of indentikit houses; a beautiful mint-green Oldsmobile filled with wholesome groceries and a nuclear family; a friendly crossing guard. But alas, young Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky) lacks his parents’ enthusiasm about moving from Massachusetts. Michael sullenly mopes about the house in near silence, refusing to eat any of the left-overs brought from their old home. His mother Lily (Mary Beth Hurt) is a chirpy kind of perfect housewife, maintaining a spotless home while cooking elaborate, meaty meals. Michael’s father Nick is enthusiastic about his job (developing aerosol defoliants) and is keen to fit in with the new neighbors. What’s eating at the boy, then?

The greatest charm of Parents is its narrative ambiguity. Balaban crafts a tone that matches its hyper-kitschy nostalgia with equal parts menace. Colors pop off the screen while a lack of immediate context and chilling musical cues do a lot of heavy lifting. Nick Laemle is prone to telling didactic “stories” to his son, typically to a discordant, darkened score. And the big question—are the parents cannibals?—is difficult to answer. Early on we see Michael witness his parents being romantic, with mom’s lipstick smeared on her and her husband. What develops is a conflation of his parents’ physicality with his paranoia about the nightly meat dishes. Since everything is through the eyes of the morosely imaginative Michael, the fiery ending could be construed as tragicomic, or just straight up tragic.

Unexpectedly, Parents excels in its characterization. Lily’s emotional distress about her boy is palpable; Nick’s inability to bond with his son is moving. And, time and again, the big question of the film pops up. Others may disagree, but I’m of the feeling that all the “trouble” in the story is in the mind of young Michael. Though he’s the central observer, scenes exist in the film that he cannot possibly have witnessed. But I digress. At 81 minutes, Parents is commendably brief. Balaban created a masterpiece in miniature in 1988, one that has aged substantially better than many of its more famous contemporaries.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a deeply ambiguous fusion of the family’s reality and Michael’s psychotic fantasy, where cracks in the surface sheen of 1950s home life expose something deeply poisonous and combustible beneath. Initially signalled by their monochrome presentation, soon Michael’s deranged visions start coming in full colour (and daylight), with only the canted angles and deliriously spinning mobility of Ernest Day and Robin Vidgeon’s camerawork – and the odd animated salami – to mark how off-kilter a view of bourgeois Americana this is.”–Anton Bitel, FilmLand Empire

 

LIST CANDIDATE: TWILIGHT OF THE COCKROACHES (1989)

Gokiburi-tachi no Tasogare

DIRECTED BY: Hiroaki Yoshida

FEATURING:  Kaoru Kobayashi, Setsuko Karasuma, Kanako Fujiwara

PLOT: A colony of cockroaches lives in happy comfort in the apartment of a lonely slob, but that all changes the day a girlfriend moves in and takes over cleaning the place and eradicating the pests.

Still from Twilight of the Cockroaches (1989)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: As noted elsewhere on this site, the bar for weirdness in Japanese anime is set pretty high, because the genre itself is such a wild frontier. Twilight of the Cockroaches sets itself apart by being half-animated and half-live-action, and by being about the politics of cockroach tribes. If that in itself isn’t compelling enough, any film whose IMDB page’s plot keywords list includes the phrase “talking turd” pretty much demands our consideration.

COMMENTS: The present author is aware of exactly two commercial films in which cockroaches make up the majority of the cast. One of them is Joe’s Apartment, and I’m reveiwing other one now. Of the two, Twilight of the Cockroaches wins easily for “weirdest cockroach movie.” The comparison has to stop there, because the two movies are entirely opposite in tone. A critter’s eye view of a society of anthropomorphic non-humans, Cockroaches has more in common with Watership Down or The Secret of Nimh than an MTV-sponsored slacker comedy. It pounds in a heavy political message, possibly related to Hiroshima or Auschwitz, though the director declared it to be about Japan; fan bases debate it to this day. Fill in your own country and political philosophy here.

But for those of you without too much book-learnin’, this is a movie about cockroaches. Naomi is a cockroach waif—“19 in cockroach years”—who serves as our narrator and has “never experienced terror.” She and the rest of her vermin society reside in the apartment of Saito, a human bachelor whose deadly sins include sloth and gluttony, allowing the cockroaches to live in fat contentment. The roaches worship Saito as a god, giving thanks for his sloppy leftovers as they mistake his neglect for benevolence. Sage, the “great leader” of this society, is a reassuring father to his people, ringing with praise for their benevolent human. Naomi is engaged to the stable suitor Ichiro, but she pines for Hans, a warrior cockroach from another tribe. Hans brings grim stories of other apartments where cockroaches fight for survival against humans determined to annihilate them, which is shocking news to Naomi in her peaceful utopia.

Hans returns to his side of the apartment complex, while Naomi contracts wanderlust, exploring the outside world in her quest for the truth. She sets across the vacant lot next to the apartment to find Hans, braving all kinds of hazards—and meeting a helpful turd—along the way. The elders of Naomi’s tribe lament how entitled and shiftless the modern generation is, as the young ones scoff at the warnings that the good times could abruptly end. That foreshadowing comes to pass when Saito, somehow, gets a girlfriend, who moves in with him and brings with her a holocaust of housecleaning and bug-killing. This forces the roaches to confront the error of their complacency. It will be up to Hans’ militarized comrades to show the way forward for roachkind.

The slow, lethargic pace of this film, scored to soulful, lonely piano solos, makes it a chore to sit through. And yet, just when you’re ready to take the film on the serious terms it so obviously desires, it throws talking poop at you. Scenes like a pie-eating party that turns into a pie-throwing party are slapstick; while when Naomi is trapped in a roach motel with other bugs, themselves dying, working together to lift her out, are creepy. The tone is all over the place, and on top of that the visuals flash from blaring daylight reality to shadowy animation. Moments of drama are punctuated by the realization that you’re being compelled to sympathize with a bunch of cockroaches. At the very least, it’s a unique effort in all kinds of ways, with some imaginative technical shots, but it’s also a shoestring budget with blockbuster ambitions. Furthermore, the lack of a DVD release means you’re stuck watching VHS tapes with very phoned-in English dubbing. The choppy result is a hard film to know how to take, but one thing is certain: a bug’s life ain’t always easy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Somebody please get that rolled-up newspaper and smack Japanese writer-director Hiroaki Yoshida in the head with it. COCKROACHES doesn’t even qualify as a camp classic. Besides being thoroughly deranged, it’s also slow, dull, and numbingly mediocre.”–TV Guide

CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll

FEATURING: Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Michael Boston,

PLOT: A small-town band of desert criminals steals a car with a baby in the backseat; the evil patriarch orders him to be raised as one of them.

Still from Sonny Boy (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It misses by a hair. Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is a unique, and weird, cult classic horror/comedy/genre-defying oddball. It is beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer. But its story is straightforward and linear, and it stays grounded mostly in reality. As hillbilly exploitation, it lies on a spectrum between Deliverance and Gummo. But at least 50% of its weirdness comes from David-Carradine-In-Drag, and we’ve seen much worse in any film.

COMMENTS: The opening prepares you in no way for what you’re about to see. David Carradine sings a folksy country number (written by him—we later see him perform it on the piano) that sounds like a homage to John Denver. This plays over helicopter shots of placid New Mexico heartland. Soon we’ll be seeing David in the cast, and are we in for a surprise. A minute after the credits, the infant child of two parents shot over a car-jacking gone wrong narrates, with a clown doll leering at us as the thief speeds away in their 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and we find ourselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas territory. Welcome to Sonny Boy, enjoy your ride.

The carjacked baby ends up the adoptee of “Slue,” (Paul L. Smith,  who played “Bluto” in ‘s Popeye), the small town crime baron of Harmony, New Mexico, and his wife, David-Carradine-In-Drag (“Pearl”). Carradine dominates every scene he’s in–because that’s the Kill Bill guy in a dress, acting downright maternal. He gets more hilarious as the film wears on, turning gray and grandmotherly as Sonny’s life story unfolds. Slue’s flunkie apologizes—“I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no baby”—but Sonny’s fate is sealed when David-Carradine-In-Drag cradles him to his breast (?) and declares “This is MY baby!” Slue is a destructive man who blows up cars with a canon for fun, and his paternal instincts turn out to be equally warped. Slue and his merry band of henchmen live a post-apocalyptic existence, with TV sets stacked like Legos and junk cars dotting the landscape like grazing buffalo, amongst herds of roaming hogs.

We’re given glimpses of Sonny’s childhood in installments, including a birthday party with, yes, the infamous tongue-cutting scene. The festive balloons and animal masks lend the scene the eeriness of a cult ritual, which is about the right mindset for fans of this movie at this point. Sonny is raised as a psychopath-in-training, alternately dragged behind cars and staked out in a ring of fire. Eventually he is Continue reading CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

GUEST REVIEW: MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS (1989)

Guest review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich

AKA Life on the Edge

DIRECTED BY: Thomas R. Burman

FEATURING: , John Glover, Richard Portnow

PLOT: Henry Hollowhead works as the top meter reader for United Umbilical, and today’s his lucky break: his boss wants to come over for dinner, which Henry hopes will lead to a promotion. His wife Miriam fusses over making dinner for the special occasion, while the three Hollowhead children scamper about getting up to antics.

Meet the Hollowheads

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: We’ll let this quote from Keith Bailey’s Unknown Movies speak to it’s qualifications: “Even for a world of insanity that the Hollowheads lives in needs to be depicted with some kind of logic to it, to have some kind of (twisted) explanation for every unconventional gadget, location, and action. Otherwise, such a world is simply ‘How about I wear this suit to court, Mr. Soprano?’ weird for weird’s sake, with no point and no purpose except seemingly to put up as many bizarre things all chained together in a stream that could be best described as non-sequitur.” When a person whose whole gig is reviewing the most obscure movies possible levels the “weirdness for weirdness’ sake” accusation, you know it’s not your average cup of tea. On its own, the movie is an onslaught of colorful, even cheerful, but disturbing images. The highly cliched plot just lets its style take over the stage.

SUGGESTED INDELIBLE IMAGE: You could throw a dart at most any frame of this movie, but one scene defines it early on: eldest Hollowhead son Bud practices music in his room, playing an instrument that looks part trombone, part accordion, and part rubber chicken. Daughter Cindy enters to “tell Bud to choke it” but ends up singing along in accompaniment. As she sings “I feel good about myself; would not be anyone else,” the movie has by this time firmly established its stride and at the same time is bluntly telling us that it doesn’t care beans for our rulebook.

SUGGESTED THREE WEIRD THINGS: Tentacle for dinner; pulling the bugs off Spike; feeding grandpa

COMMENTS: Unlike many of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, Meet the Hollowheads is very easy to describe: it is a 1950’s sitcom from an alternate dimension. There, we’re actually done! If you take any TV saccharine slice of suburbia, from “Leave It To Beaver” to “The Brady Bunch” to “The Honeymooners,” then run it through the filter of (pick one) , Terry Gilliam, or David Cronenberg, everything you’re imagining in that description is 90% of what you’re going to see. This movie starts with that premise and stays fearlessly committed to it to the last scene.

The Hollowheads’s world is a claustrophobic—perhaps even underground—domain defined by their household, other households whom we never visit, a corporation called “United Umbilical” which seems to provide every necessity of life, and two policemen who may even work for United Umbilical. There they dwell, in a colorful “Peewee’s Playhouse” set apparently taken over by Cthulhu: their lives revolve around tubes, pipes, ducts, tentacles, squishy life forms, valves, spigots, sludge, slime, industry, and “The Edge,” an apparent hazard spoken of in whispers by two of the younger cast and sternly invoked by mother Miriam, who warns them not to fall off as she sends them out for an errand. Dialogue is festooned with references to plumbing, sewage, and other mucky slang. A tentacle with an eyeball on the end lies untidily piled in a glass jar in the Hollowheads’s home, silently watching the events; we know not whether it’s a pet or an appliance.

When the boss shows up for dinner and begins the second half of the film, the evening degenerates into everything that can possibly go wrong going wrong. There’s a few laughs to be had, but nothing enough to point to this as a comedy. It’s more of an exercise in the avant-garde. Because our familiar frame of reference has been yanked out from under us in this alien environment, we have no clue as to how outrageous any character’s behavior is in this universe. Boss Mr. Crabneck is nasty and vile almost beyond description, and Station Master Mrs. Battleaxe at United Umbilical barely fills the kids’ order while threatening them with all kinds of slimy fates, but everybody seems to take these behaviors in stride.

The tilted world also affords a heap of innuendo. When Mrs. Battleaxe sneers “I suppose your mother thinks it’s our fault that her tubes are blocked?,” or when police advise the Hollowheads to have their drugged-out daughter “pumped,” or when Mrs. Hollowhead has to conquer a phallic section of waggling tentacle coming out of her kitchen dispenser before castrating—oops, we mean slicing—it to chop up for an ingredient, we can’t escape the feeling that this movie wants us to snicker at it. We haven’t even mentioned “softening jelly,” a substance treated as scandalous here, but we have no idea what it is.

But it’s too strange to be fully funny. If anything, this is a very punk style applied to a sitcom world. Like Repo Man or Tank Girl, it mixes the familiar with the bizarre, getting us to accept the perverse because all of the characters accept the perversity. Like the best of weird movies, it makes no attempt to explain or justify itself. We have intercepted a sitcom from another reality, and we’re not being given a peak into the rest of that universe. You’re free to come up with your own point or even dismiss it as having no point. But this movie does assure us that the people in its universe would no doubt find our own world equally baffling, were the interception reversed.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A weird and wonderful cinematic misfire, alternately repulsive and ridiculous…”–Steven Puchalski, Shock Cinema (VHS)

 

 

WOODY ALLEN’S CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) AND MATCH POINT (2005)

In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly). is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a   Dostoyevsky diving board  for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).

Judah Rosenthal () is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital  affair with flight attendant Dolores (). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).

Still from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)Landau earned an Academy Award nomination for his role. He had been nominated for the previous year’s Tucker: A Man and His Dreams and would be nominated again (and finally win) in 1995 for playing in ‘s Ed Wood. Landau shines in his nail-biting, pacing-the-floor moments, but it’s Alda as the vulgar, bouncing-off-the-walls, dumbed-down producer who steals the film.

Both Lester and Cliff are competing for Halley (Mia Farrow). Will she choose the romantic outsider artist, or status through money? As Ed Wood () tells Georgie Wiess (Mike Stall) in Ed Wood, “Georgie, this is drama.” Actually, here it’s bleak comedy, and the film peaks with this love triangle.

Crimes And Misdemeanors repeats familiar Allen themes. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) there is love unrewarded. As in Dostoyevsky, there is murder unpunished. Despite those familiar themes, Crimes and Misdemeanors excels in lucid, innovative storytelling. There is symbolism aplenty (the blind rabbi, the ophthalmologist’s father warning him that God can see everything). It is the type of film that literary minded students are prone to dissect, but Crimes’ self-assured humor is what wins us over.

In Match Point (2005), Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” serves as Allen’s literary reference (in addition to Dostoyevsky). Some critics found it a weaker sibling to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but also noted it was Allen’s best film in a decade. Putting aside sophomoric better than or weaker than gauges, Match Point again finds Woody in superior narrative form. He has listed it as being his best work, undoubtedly aided considerably by Remi Adefarasin’s icy, noirish lens work. At 124 minutes, it is also his longest film to date.  Refreshingly, Allen is forthright about influences when Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is depicted reading “Crime And Punishment.”

Still from Match Point (2005)The object of Chris’ obsession is Nola (), and the two lead actors give sizzling performances. Myers’ mechanically cold blue eyes contrast with Johansson’s earthy anxiousness (Allen worked with her again in 2006’s Scoop and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Like the antagonist/protagonist in Dreiser’s epic work, Chris comes from poverty. He is on a tennis tour when meets affluent pro Tom (Matthew Goode). Tom’s girlfriend is the wannabe actress Nola. At the opera, Tom plays cupid, introducing Chris to his single sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The seeds of marrying right are planted. However, after Tom dumps Nola (she doesn’t live up to familial expectations), Chris throws the proverbial monkey wrench into his own machinery when he begins a torrid affair and impregnates Nola.

Allen takes a smarter route than George Stevens did in A Place In The Sun (1951), his update of “An American Tragedy.” In the earlier film, Stevens cast as an unattractive, pathetically nagging girlfriend to Montgomery Clift. When Clift contemplates murdering Winters to further his romance with the wealthy Elizabeth Taylor (in one of her most sensuous roles), we can only feel relief. Although none of the characters in Match Point rise above being reprehensible, Johansson, at her most complex, inspires more sympathy than Winters did. As in the source material, there is a pointed condemnation of unfettered capitalism, but Allen also makes a comment about existence without meaning: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” By removing himself from the film’s ensemble cast, Allen’s commitment to the unfolding narrative is complete. Upon its release, many critics cast it as Allen’s most atypical film. There is a degree of truth in that, but Allen also manages to make avarice and homicide pay, when we almost expect a Dickens-like Scrooge to heed the ghost’ warning. In Allen’s world, the response is quite different.

215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

BAGLEY: Everything I do is rational.

JULIA: Why have you put chickens down the lavatory?

BAGLEY: To thaw them before dismemberment.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Rachel Ward, Richard Wilson, Bruce Robinson (voice)

PLOT: Dennis Dimbleby Bagley is an unscrupulous advertising executive, but he finds himself blocked while trying to come up with a campaign to sell pimple cream. The stress leads him to combination epiphany and mental breakdown, and he decides to renounce hypocrisy and manipulation and retire from marketing. The internal strife, however, has caused a boil to form on his neck; and that pustule then forms a face, and a voice, and a personality that’s even nastier than the old Bagley…

Still from How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director Bruce Robinson began his career as a struggling actor, but found greater success when he turned to screenwriting and directing. His first script, The Killing Fields, was nominated for an Oscar in 1984. His first film as director, 1987’s Withnail & I, was a semi-autobiographical story of two poor, hard-drinking actors, also starring Richard E. Grant; it became a cult hit. How to Get Ahead in Advertising was his second feature film, but did not replicate the success of Withnail.
  • Robinson (uncredited) provides the voice of the boil.
  • Advertising was produced by George Harrison’s Handmade Films, who also produced Monty Python films and the Certified Weird Time Bandits.
  • The London Sunday-Times gave away free copies of the DVD as a promotion in 2006.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, the fetuslike boil-with-a-face peering out from Bagley’s executive neck.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Disney birds; chatty chancre; notice his cardboard box?

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: How to Get Ahead in Advertising grows organically from that greatest fertilizer of weird films: obsession. Writer/director Bruce Robinson has Something to Say, and he is not going to let taste, subtlety, or realism get in the way of him saying it. The movie is completely committed to its bizarre two-headed premise, and star Grant gladly goes over the top for his director, literally baring his buttocks while wearing an apron and stuffing frozen chickens in his toilet.


Original trailer for How to Get Ahead in Advertising

COMMENTS: Ad exec Dennis Bagley develops the mother of all zits Continue reading 215. HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING (1989)

211. SOCIETY (1989)

“It was so weird… it was probably one of the weirdest movies ever made!”–Devin DeVasquez reflecting on Society

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Charles Lucia, Patrice Jennings, Ben Meyerson, Tim Bartell, Ben Slack, David Wiley, Connie Danese

PLOT: Despite being a star basketball player and candidate for president of Beverly Hills High, Billy feels like an outcast in his own high society family. He misses his sister’s coming out party due to a basketball game, but her creepy ex-boyfriend plays him a very disturbing recording from the event that causes him to investigate his own family secrets more closely. It seems that there is a secret society of upper-crust residents in Beverly Hills which even privileged Billy is not (yet) a part of; his investigations lead him to a secret party where the elites engage in a practice they call “shunting”…

Still from Society (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • Brian Yuzna began his filmmaking career as a producer, teaming with director Stuart Gordon in 1985 to launch the hit Re-Animator series. Society was his first credit as director. To convince the producers to allow him to direct, Yuzna promised to make two movies, the other being the pre-sold sequel Bride of Re-Animator.
  • Makeup expert Screaming Mad George used paintings (specifically “The Great Masturbator” and “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans“) as inspiration for constructing the “shunting” scenes.
  • Although it saw some mild success overseas, the climax of Society had to be cut by four minutes in the U.S. to secure an R rating, and the film was not released to American screens until 1992, when it disappeared from theaters quickly.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Something—anything—from the last 20 minutes, a non-stop body-morphing orgy that would put off his lunch. If forced to whittle down the choice to a single image we’d have to go with “butthead,” a creation both juvenile and frightening.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Twisted sister; hair eating; “shunting” in general.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Brian Yuzna’s mixture of horror, satire, and teen sex comedy is clumsy and unsure at times, and bizarre in both theory and execution, but the drawn-out finale, a masterpiece of Dali-esque designs rendered in rubbery goo, puts it far over the top.


Original trailer for Society

COMMENTS: As satire and allegory, Society is obvious; but I believe Continue reading 211. SOCIETY (1989)

194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

“Painters hate having to explain what their work is about. They always say, it’s whatever you want it to be — because I think that’s their intention, to connect with each person’s subconscious, and not to try and dictate. For all of his intellectualism, I think Peter Greenaway directs from his real inner gut, and he seems to have a very direct channel in that. The only other director I can think of who’s close is David Lynch.”–Helen Mirren

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Gambon, Richard Bohringer, Alan Howard

PLOT: A brutish but successful criminal with expensive tastes has bought a French restaurant, where he holds court nightly drinking the finest wines and abusing staff and customers equally. A bookseller who dines there catches the eye of Albert’s mistreated Wife, and the two embark on an illicit affair. The Thief’s discovery of their affair sets off a chain of violent reprisals which ultimately draw in the establishment’s Cook.

Still from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
BACKGROUND:

  • The MPAA denied The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover an R-rating (under 17 not admitted without parent) because of its extreme content (including scat, violence, nudity, cannibalism, and some disgusting stuff, too). Rather than have the film released with an X rating (a designation associated with hardcore pornography in the public mind), Miramax released the film unrated in the U.S. This is frequently cited as one of the films that led to the creation of the adults-only NC-17 rating (under 17 not admitted, a rating which fared little better than X). Cook accepted a NC-17 rating for its DVD release.
  • The controversy did not hurt, and probably significantly boosted, Cook at the U.S. box office, where it grossed over $7 million, becoming the closest thing to a hit Greenaway has ever had.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: We are going to skip over the shocking (and spoilerish) final image, and instead focus on the color transitions during the magnificent tracking shots: as Georgina walks from the sparkling white ladies’ room into the royal red of the restaurant’s main dining room, her dress changes color to match the decor.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Although not as thoroughly weird as most of the rest of his oeuvre, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the director’s most beloved (?) movie, and in many ways his poplar masterpiece. While the surrealism here is as subtle as the scatology is explicit, there can be no doubt that Cook is an outrageous, brutish and lovely work of sumptuous unreality from an eccentric avant-gardist that demands a place of honor among the weirdest films ever made.


Original trailer for The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover

COMMENTS: He begins the movie by smearing dog feces on a quivering naked man who owes him money, then urinating on him. This is Continue reading 194. THE COOK THE THIEF HIS WIFE & HER LOVER (1989)

25TH ANNIVERSARY: WILLIAM SHATNER’S STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

William Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) has been called the “Plan 9 of Star Trek.” There is no denying that it is awful, but it is more like the misfit Yukon Cornelius of Trekdom. It is not quite as bad as Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984), and to say that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) is ludicrously overrated is a given, especially when the best performances are by two anonymous trash collectors. William Shatner, perhaps feeling envious of Leonard Nimoy’s directorialsuccesses,” insisted on his turn at bat. Rather than keeping the franchise in the experienced, imaginative hands of director Nichols Meyer ,who had written and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), Paramount and producer Harve Bennett foolishly handed the asylum keys to lunatic stars who had no experience in big budgeted space oaters apart from acting.

The Star Trek movies justifiably receive much criticism, but pound for pound, they are no worse than the Star Wars franchise. A couple of the Trek entries (the ones directed by Meyer), while hardly great moviemaking, are actually better than almost all of George Lucas’ productions (the exception that proves the rule being The Empire Strikes Back, which was directed not by Lucas, but Irvin Kershner).

Nimoy’s directorial style was as lethargic as a Vulcan, even in the light, humorous Voyage Home. The strengths in that film are the parts written by Meyer, which are not difficult to pick out. Nimoy’s Spock had about as much charisma as John Boy Walton, and the idea of ham-fisted Shanter directing at least presented a potential tonic to all that academic Vulcan piety. In some ways, Shatner’s opus lives up to that potential, but unlike Captain Kirk, the director/actor displayed a lack of confidence and his famous counterpart’s balls.

Shanter’s original story had the geriatric crew actually meeting God, who, it turned out was Old Nick himself, and the lot of them are literally thrown into hell. The sheer outrageousness of the idea is replete with wonderfully pretentious possibilities. However, both Gene Roddenberry and Harve Bennett were outraged, and informed the newbie director that in no way could the interracial spacemen meet the deity or go to hell. Foolishly, Shatner buckled and devised a cop-out solution. Worse, Paramount wanted good old boy humor injected into the proceedings, in hopes to match the box office success of the previous entry. Shanter agreed to hand over script duties and Final Frontier was assigned to hack writer David Loughery, who turned a bad, original idea that might have been worthy of Plan 9 comparisons into a generic plot designed for old, farting men.

Laurence Luckenbill was cast as Spock’s renegade half-brother, Sybok. Shanter had described Sybok as something akin to a televangelist. That was lost in the translation because, as scripted by Loughery, the character is more of a New Age guru. Luckinbill does have charisma, more than most Trek villains, but it’s a misplaced charisma. Even that could have been tapped, but Loughery fails to do anything with it. Apparently, the writer had no actual exposure to either right-wing religious kooks or cartoonish, leftist New Agers. While that is fortunate for Loughery, it turns out to be a bummer for the audience.

Still from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)Shatner’s compromised plot does have more in the way of narrative than those by Nimoy, who essentially molded his two entries around the ensemble. The Final Frontier has a refreshing dusty look and costuming along with a good line from DeForrest Kelley’s Bones. In the middle of an infamously wretched campfire song, the three principals are roasting marshmallows. Spock doesn’t “get” the lyrics of “row, row, row your boat” and the ever-crass Doctor grumbles: “God, I liked him better before he died.”  The under appreciated Kelley, as usual, turns out to be the most entertaining cast member.

Even worse than the gas station humor, mountain climbing, or Spock in jet boots is the sight of Shatner, sticking out his chest for the camera, wearing his “Go Climb A Rock” message tee for all to see. The only thing missing is a wad of gum. This scene alone more than justifies a Commander Taggart. Shatner and Loughery introduce a trio of characters and then inexplicably dump them. A bored Klingon and his buxom babe, Uhura’s moonlit striptease, Scotty’s sudden lust for Uhura while eating potato chips, agnostic theology at its most cornball, a Heaven planet with unforgivably cheap FX, and a fuzzy group hug finale solicit well-earned groans, even more so twenty-five years later. However, despite the PC interracial cast, occasional sexism, barbershop-styled backslapping, a lot of bad acting, and the fanatical following, it is easy to succumb to the charm of the original cast (far more so than the Next Generation, whose feature movies were even worse).

Executive producer Gene Roddenberry dismissed The Final Frontier as an apocryphal Trek entry. His original, commendably simple concept for Star Trek was “Wagon Train To The Stars.” Somewhere along the way, Roddenberry and his Trekkers mantled delusions of grandeur and began treating his starry oater as holy writ. Roddenberry essentially became a kind of Scientologist parody, who predictably reacted like a shrieking vampire to Shatner’s own take on western religious fables. Although one cannot recommend Star Trek V, it  serves its essential purpose as a campy, unintentional diversion from all that sanctimonious sci-fi mythology. That part, Shatner nailed.

25TH ANNIVERSARY: TIM BURTON’S BATMAN (1989)

A quarter century after its debut, ‘s Batman (1989) is still among the brightest of the comic book genre films; an odd thing, given how dark it is. However, Burton’s Batman has a glamorous darkness. Burton was young, energetic, and at the top of his game in 1989. His interpretation of the caped crusader remains groundbreaking and is more astute than ‘s The Dark Knight (2008). Nolan went the mile to distance the avenger from his comic book origins. Burton embraces the source material.

Upon Batman‘s monstrously hyped release, many critics lamented the dominant personality of ‘s Joker as compared to the title character. In hindsight, Nicholson’s killer clown seems less innovative than Heath Ledger’s radically different interpretation. Today, it is easier to recognize ‘s Bruce Wayne as the eye of Tim Burton’s hurricane: he inhabits the quintessential capitalist fantasy. In a case of shrewd casting, Keaton’s Batman has no extraterrestrial powers, nor does he even look like he has spent his life in the gym. Rather, Wayne is fabulously wealthy and it is all those “wonderful toys,” bought by all that wonderful money, that makes him an all-American noir Superman, free to wreck vengeance upon a fascistic Gotham’s lower criminal element. Like Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper before him, Keaton went through the script, pruning his dialogue down to the bare essentials, making this an internalized performance.

Burton’s casting inspired controversy among unimaginative comic book fanatics, who only saw Keaton in his previous comic roles. The actor and director proved them wrong. ‘s Wayne, in the Nolan films, resorts to a dull playboy act. Keaton’s Wayne can’t help revealing that he has as many screws loose as his alter ego. Burton says in less than ten minutes what Nolan takes an entire film to tell: Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) stumble upon a hidden Wayne manor room of armor and weaponry, explaining the inspiration for the costumed alter ego.

From Boss Grissom’s mafioso penthouse to the Axis chemical plant and a quack surgeon’s back alley office, Anton Furst’s set design is among his best (in an impressive career that unfortunately ended with the artist’s suicide in 1991). Also noteworthy are Roger Pratt’s cinematography, Bob Ringwood’s costuming and Danny Elfman’s resonant, Wagnerian score, all done under the guidance of Burton, elevating pulp into anarchic poetry. Like the Burton-helmed sequel, Batman consistently surprises enough to nearly render its flaws secondary. 

Still from Batman (1989)Nicholson’s Jack Napier shines most when he wrecks havoc upon pop culture, sabotaging consumer products and brooding over popular media’s not so subliminal sales tactics. The chief flaw of the film lies in a lack of a substantial female character, which Batman Returns (1992) remedied in spades. Vale is merely there as a decoration for Bruce Wayne’s arm. A second noticeable flaw is in the intrusive music by Prince (otherwise, a very good artist during his youthful prime). However, the related MTV videos were considerably better, and a wonderful example of how big a pop phenomenon Batman was.

Homages to ‘s Metropolis (1927), ‘s Vertigo (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939) are prominent, but, for the most part, Burton keeps cinematic references down to a minimum, something he would not do in Batman Returns (1992). Naturally, Tim Burton’s Batman is not as much guilty pleasure fun as “Scooby Do Meets Batman” or “Superfriends,” and it certainly isn’t the delicious morsel that Adam West gave in his legendary camp take on the character. Yet, Burton manages to make a tale of two sociopaths, spawned from the gutter, into highly stylized entertainment.

Batman was birthed by the then new graphic novel trend, most notable Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight.” The script was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based on Bob Kane’s original characters. The violence in Batman is comic bookish and stately: the Joker fries a mafioso with a hidden hand buzzer, and the murder of boss Grissom is devoid of blood. At times, the film seems to be enveloped in a Tex Avery ‘toon: after mating with his girlfriend, Wayne hangs upside like a bat, the Batplane soars upward to the moon (creating a bat signal), a joker card is flipped over with Carl Stalling-like sound effects foreshadowing Napier’s fate, the Joker’s hand melodramatically emerges from acid, the silhouetted Caped Crusader moves like wet ink atop a roof, and the Joker shoots down the Batplane with a gun that looks like it might have been ordered from Acme supplies. The henchmen are really not too far removed from Cesar Romero’s sycophants. Batman is crepuscular, and, thankfully, it’s never realistic. 

Apart from Heath Ledger, Nolan’s believed-to-be superior Dark Knight is devoid of humorous touch and is so utilitarian, with one plot too many, that it is doubtful the film would have worked without the late actor’s turn as a pathological clown.

Unfortunately, neither Burton nor Keaton went beyond their two entries in the series. Perhaps a man dressed up like a bat might revitalize both artists.