Monday, September 29, 2008

Film #80: Skaterdater

Skaterdater is, to my knowledge, the first skateboarding movie ever, and still the best I've seen (Gleaming the Cube and Dogtown and Z-Boys are pretty good, though). Look at how deftly director Noel Black catches the innocent, all-barefoot hot-dogging of this Cali street gang (his steady cameraman Michael Murphy deserves props, too). And that this is a love story, ultimately, captures my sentimental side. It's a simple movie, really. for kids: skateboarder has to choose between his pals and the girl he's starting to like. But this skillfully wordless movie won the Golden Palm for Best Short at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 1965's Oscar for Best Live-Action Short--however it lost out to Le Polet (The Chicken) by France's master filmmaker Claude Berri (Germinal, Jean De Florette/Manon of the Spring).

Noel Black went on to direct the shocking yet somehow laconic 1968 cult movie Pretty Poison starring a shy, shaky Anthony Perkins (what other kind of Perkins is there?) who finds himself under the utter erotic spell of a cute psychopathic cheerleader played by Tuesday Weld (in a career performance). Then the director went on to struggle with two more theatrical films, 1970's troubled Cover Me Babe with Robert Forster (who's role was to be played by Al Pacino, whom the studios hated) about a desperate student filmmaker, and Jennifer on My Mind, about a doomed romance between two New Yorkers who first meet in Venice. Then he largely settled for TV movie work and episodic fare for show like Quincy, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, and One Life to Live. But he's produced three more theatrical releases: 1979's enjoyable A Man, A Woman and A Bank with Donald Sutherland and the incredibly lovely Brooke Adams; the obscure horror movie Marianne starring Kitty Winn (the nanny in The Exorcist and Al Pacino's girlfriend in Panic in Needle Park); and Private School, the 80s teen sex comedy with Phoebe Cates, Matthew Modine and Emmanuelle herself Sylvia Kristel.

Skaterdater is a sweet movie. It won't shake your world, unless you have a taste for Big Daddy Roth drawings and Hang Ten shirts. But it will give you insight into the beginnings of the skateboarder subculture. I love the jangly guitars by Nick Venet and later Republican political figure Mike Curb (who did the score for biker films like The Wild Angels, The Glory Stompers, and Born Losers). One last trivia note: its Assistant Director was Carroll Ballard, a contemporary of George Lucas and Francis Coppola and the later director of such similarly dailogue-deprived filmic studies as The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, and Fly Away Home.

I wish there was a more colorful print available but thanks to SkateNUniverse for posting this 16-minute short on YouTube, in two parts! It rocks.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

SIDE ORDERS #6

We start off with this edition of SIDE ORDERS with a fascinating, mysterious, graphically boisterous trailer for one of the world's perfect drive-in movies: Monte Hellman's 1971 masterpiece Two-Lane Blacktop.


Despite his steady inprovement (there's not a movie I'm looking forward to more than his Lincoln bio-pic in 2009), Steven Spielberg has never helmed a better scene than this transportative one from 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though there are no stars present here, no effects utilized (except for the Oscar-winning sound and cinematography), and none of John Williams' landmark score as background, this harried segment set inside an air traffic control station is THE scene that captured every CE3K viewer's strict attention. Following The Godfather and Jaws, Close Encounters instantly became a pair with that year's other monster hit Star Wars as the two 1977 movies that truly ushered in the blockbuster era of moviemaking.


John Cameron Mitchell followed his 2001 on- and off-screen debut with 2006's controversial Shortbus (which graphically follows the sex lives of a variety of NYC denizens). But his performance and direction of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is still his to best. No wonder, since he performed the role off-Broadway hundreds of times. Still, given that, his envisioning of the piece's premiere song, "The Origin of Love," written by immanently talented Stephen Trask, is nothing less than a revelation. He uses the animation of Emily Hubley (the daughter of renowned animators John and Faith Hubley) to add punch to the company's already electric performance of this unforgettable song. Watch and learn...


Here we have Psycho and the greatest trailer ever filmed. Unintentional star (yeah, right...) Alfred Hitchcock was still producing the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series when he had the idea to adapt Robert Bloch's stunning Ed Gein-inspired novel into a big-screen event (Hitch's TV photographer John L. Russell and art director Robert Clatworthy were both justifyably nominated for Oscars, along with Hitchcock as director and Janet Leigh as supporting actress). So funny, creative, with such a ham at its center, the Psycho trailer is a great little film unto itself. Imagine a contemporary filmmaker doing a trailer like this these days! It's an impossibility, though I'd love to see it happen.


And then imagine Hitch doing it again ten years later!!!! Here's his darker, mostly on-location trailer for his first British movie in 50 years, 1971's Frenzy (which I consider one of the most personal and perverse films of the great director's career).

Hitch was and is definitely the most identifiable film director ever. Only Charlie Chaplin comes close.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Film #79: Power of Ten

First off, lemme show you some chairs. See if you can recall your ass resting in one of these...






Now you see two people.



They are husband-and-wife artisans Charles and Ray Eames. First off, may I opine that this must be the coolest couple of all time. They seem so happy working and playing together. Here's another photo:



Now, I could pretend I know everything about the design of this industrious team. But I don't. So I leave it to you go visit the Library of Congress's website and Craig D'ooge's magnificent overview of their times and works. My favorite quote from the piece: "The Eameses' influence on American style and taste is so profound as to be almost indiscernible. But every time we pick up a Pottery Barn catalog, snap together a shelf from IKEA, or spread out a rug from Pier 1, Charles and Ray Eames are not far away. In part, this is because of their design philosophy, which was founded on finding lasting solutions to fundamental needs, but also because they worked closely with large corporate and government entities to expose their design solutions to as many people as possible."

Nothing illustrates the couple's influence on the IKEA way-of-life more vividly than a film from the Eames Office that illustrates the building of one of their chairs:



Have a gander, at this point, at this 3D animated tour of the Eames-designed Stahl House, towering above Bel Air, California. Movie buffs will recognize it immediately; it's been used as a location most notably in David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.




And here's Kaleidascope Jazz Chair, an Eames-directed industrial film featuring a Charles and Ray cameo:



Okay, so we've read about their design achievements. But why is the Eames-directed Power of Ten so great? Made in 1977, Power of Ten stringently follows the letter of numerical law, and graphically maps our outer and inner worlds based on a strict measure of time and distance. It takes us from an idyllic picnic to the outer reaches of space, and then back to a visit with the tiniest of the world's building blocks. It is narrated by Philip Morrison, one-time Professor Emeritus at MIT and cohort of J. Robert Oppenheimer, developer of the nuclear bomb (after surveying the damage of Hiroshima, Morrison became a staunch supporter of nuclear nonproliferation). To boot, Power of Ten is completely a product of Charles and Ray Eames' visionary school of design (I feel its graphic design looks years ahead of its time). This film has been spoofed and paid tribute to for decades: it's been needled The Simpsons and aped by scads of filmmakers, including Robert Zemeckis, who had his crack FX and sound teams concoct this amazing opening zoom-out for 1997's Contact).



Power of Ten is the sort of staggeringly basic-knowledge movie that has begged to be crafted ever since the medium of film was invented. It's astounding that it took the quixotic, joyous Eames couple to do it, despite their obvious overuling passion for practical designs benefiting the everyman. Then again, now that I consider it, I suppose Power of Ten was very much a part of this same shared devotion. It's scored by Elmer Bernstein, the late musical master who provided backing for over 200 movies and TV shows, including To Kill A Mockingbird, The Man With The Golden Arm, The Age of Innocence, Throughly Moderm Millie (for which he won his only Oscar, in 1967), Hud, Animal House, Meatballs, Trading Places, The Grifters, and Far From Heaven.

Watch Power of Ten below!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Film #78: Coogan's Bluff

1968's Coogan's Bluff, whether you've heard of it or not, is a deceptively historic movie. It brought Clint Eastwood out of the western milieu he'd been so well-known for through his TV series Rawhide and his Spaghetti Western cycle with Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad & The Ugly), and into the streets of U.S. cities like New York (Coogan's Bluff), San Francisco (the Dirty Harry cycle), Phoenix (The Gauntlet), and New Orleans (Tightrope).
And it brought director Don Siegel back to the forefront of American directors (that is, after the French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema had already vetted him in the 1960s). TV director Alex Segal (Playhouse 90) was first at the helm of Coogan's Bluff, but later producer Jennings Lang (who went on to help out with Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Play Misty For Me, as well as with disaster epics like Airport '75, Earthquake, and Rollercoaster) felt a quicker, more no-nonsense director was needed for the project. Fortunately, the great director Don Siegel was under contract to Lang's company, Universal, and thus a lucrative collaboration between Eastwood and Siegel was afoot--a collaboration that would lead Eastwood to dedicate his 1992 Oscar winner Unforgiven to both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

If one reads about Eastwood's and Siegel's directorial senses, one would find that they are quite similar: as Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel puts it "[Siegel] was Clint's kind of guy: a decisive filmmaker who didn't waste time, words, or film on the set." Any examination of any actor's experiences with the director Eastwood--Morgan Freeman, Hillary Swank, Charlie Sheen, Kevin Spacey, and the casts of Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, High Plains Drifter, White Hunter Black Heart, Bird, Play Misty For Me, Breezy, or Mystic River (and those are all huge casts)--will turn up commentaries about Eastwood's fair, effective, but no-nonsense, one- or two-take approach to filmmaking (his films are legendary in Hollywood for coming in under- or on-schedule and under- or on-budget).

Even before they met, Eastwood and Siegel needed each other. Eastwood required Siegel's know-how. But Siegel hungered for the power of Eastwood's fame and name. We should remember: in 1956, Siegel completed the classic sci-fi/sociological study Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has, as of 2008, been remade three times: as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 78), Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 93) and The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 07).

This HAS to be a record over the course of 50 years. Name me one movie that has been remade almost every decade since the original has hit the screens. Believe me, you can't. Obviously the original Siegel-directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an influential movie. But after Siegel made that movie, he was offered NOTHING. This is clearly a political response to Siegel's incendiary, left-leaning work about the negatives of unconsidered conformism in the light of the Cold War Communist scare. But, regardless of his ever-so-slight blackballing, Siegel kept going, through B-movies and TV-films (including 1964's originally TV-bound remake of 1946's The Killers, staring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan--in his last role, as a villain).

When it came time for Coogan's Bluff to be made, producer Lang had obviously hit on something perfect. As a result of Lang's suggestion, Eastwood watched some of Siegel's 1950s films and liked them. He'd also heard (from actor/director Mark Rydell, of On Golden Pond and The Cowboys fame) that Siegel was a director who could get things done in a hurry. Siegel, meanwhile, watched and loved Eastwood's Italian films done with Leone. In 1967, the two men met in Carmel, California (the same town that of which Eastwood would eventually become mayor in 1986). According to Siegel, they discussed "dames, golf, dames, the glorious weather" and then, once Siegel was called quickly back to Hollywood, the team quietly decided that they could certainly work together, and all of this happened without the two having discussed very much about their first film together.

When all was said and done, Coogan's Bluff turned out to be an entertaining fish-out-of-water actioner that had Clint playing a horse-ridin', cowboy-hat-wearin' Arizona cop who storms New York City in pursuit of an on-the-lam bad-guy headcase played by Don Stroud (who later reteamed with Eastwood in 1971's Joe Kidd) Co-star Lee J. Cobb (12 Angry Men, The Exorcist and Death of a Salesman's original Willy Loman, on Broadway and on film) was his usual grumpy self as the NYC detective whose work habits clash with Coogan's rough, no-Miranda-rights method of law enforcement.

A suitable precursor to Eastwood's more violent later work with Siegel (including Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, and Escape from Alcatraz), Coogan's Bluff was later shamelessly ripped off by the creators of NBC's Emmy-winning hit TV series McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver in the acclaimed lead role. The TV series failed to even credit Herman Miller, the writer of the original novel and screenplay to Coogan's Bluff. Still, to this day, this is inexplicable and unforgivable, as anyone who see both the movie and the TV series can easily attest.

An appreciator of Coogan's Bluff--mind you, an incredibly engrossing movie--cannot forget the contribution of Don Stroud. As a result of his outstanding performance as Eastwood's nemesis, Stroud later became the star of Roger Corman's Bloody Mama and Von Richthofen and Brown (AKA The Red Baron), and of cult classics Live a Little, Steal a Lot, The Buddy Holly Story, and The Amityville Horror, as well as scads of special appearances on an amazing lineup of TV shows (including McMillan and Wife, Adam-12, Ironside, The FBI, Gunsmoke, Police Woman, Hawaii-Five-O, Charlie's Angels, CHIPs, Knots Landing, Fantasy Island, The A-Team, McGuyver, and Babylon 5). In Coogan's Bluff, he invests his slimy character with a strangely appealing blend of malice and hippy-dippyness (some of which date the movie considerably). I have to note here that my mother, Lynn--an avid drive-in movie buff--has always had a thing for Stroud, who sported blond-haired good looks while also delivering wild-eyed villainous performances (which typecast him throughout his career). I've always thought her love for Stroud was strange, but, hey, there it is!

I conclude my examination of the deceptively low-key Coogan's Bluff by mentioning its jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin (Bullitt, Mission Impossible, Dirty Harry, Cool Hand Luke, and many TV show themes), some of which comes into play during a scene set at a wild-assed 1968 NYC hippy club humorously deemed "The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel." If someone was smart, they'd open a club with that incredible moniker. (Actually, I now think there is one located in Dublin, Ireland, but where is its NYC counterpart?)
Coogan's Bluff may not be a must-see, as must-sees go. But it's a movie you will not, I guarantee you, mind seeing at all, my friend.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Film #77: Catch-22


Joseph Heller's now-classic 1961 novel was rejected by publishers 15 times. It started out as Catch-14, then Catch-11, Catch-17, and finally, upon publication, Catch-22. In the novel, Yossarian is a nervous WWII pilot who's fed up with risking his life and, by feigning insanity, wants to get drummed out of the force. In Buck Henry's college-try adaptation of this impossible-to-film novel (or so it was thought), Yossarian confronts Doc Daneeka about his plan, and discovers the maddening rock-and-a-hard-place bureaucrasy behind the infamous catch:

Yossarian: Can't you ground someone who's crazy?
Doc Daneeka: Oh, sure. I have to. There's a rule saying I have to ground anyone who's crazy.
Yossarian: Then why don't you ground me? I'm crazy. Ask Clevinger.
Doc Daneeka: Clevinger? Where is Clevinger? You find Clevinger and I'll ask him.
Yossarian: Then ask any of the others. They'll tell you how crazy I am.
Doc Daneeka: They're crazy.
Yossarian: Then why don't you ground them?
Doc Daneeka: Why don't they ask me to ground them?
Yossarian: Because they're crazy, that's why.
Doc Daneeka: Of course they're crazy, I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't let crazy people decide if they crazy or not.
Yossarian: Is Orr crazy?
Doc Daneeka: He sure is.
Yossarian: Can you ground him?
Doc Daneeka: I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That's part of the rule.
Yossarian: Then why doesn't he ask you to?
Doc Daneeka: Because he's crazy, He has to be crazy to keep flying combat missions after all the close calls he's had. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.
Yossarian: That's all he has to do to be grounded?
Doc Daneeka: That's all. Let him ask me.
Yossarian: And then you can ground him?
Doc Daneeka: No. Then I can't ground him.
Yossarian: You mean there's a catch?
Doc Daneeka: Sure there's a catch, Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn't really crazy.
Yossarian: That's some catch, that Catch-22.
Doc Daneeka: It's the best there is.

The film Catch-22, released in 1970, looked great on paper, what with its excellent pedigree. Director Mike Nichols and Buck Henry were just coming off of their massive 1967/68 success with The Graduate. Alan Arkin, who was perfectly cast as Captain John Yossarian, was one of the top ten male stars of 1970. And Nichols had cobbled together an enormous cast of then newcomers: Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Art Garfunkel, Jon Voight, Charles Grodin, Martin Sheen, Peter Bonerz, Austin Pendleton, Bob Balaban, Richard Libertini and Buck Henry himself. Scattered among them, too, were seasoned veterans: Bob Newhart, Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, Liam Dunn, Jack Gilford (as Doc Daneeka) and Orson Welles (who wanted to film the novel ever since its release but encountered his usual money problems; when it looked like Nichols, in only his third outing as a film director, was going to get the assignment, Welles grudgingly settled on appearing as the supremely unreasonable General Dreedle).
Getting the story on film was a different matter, though. In adapting it, Henry had to throw out Heller's inventive, time-juggling structure and thereby took away some of the novel's unique appeal. Still, as it stood, Heller eventually approved of the project and of Henry's dialogue as well. The film's budget ballooned to over $20 million (about $100 million by today's standards) when the arial footage of the B-25 bombers became difficult to secure. But UK cinematographer David Watkin (who, in 1985, won an Oscar for photographing Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa) did a yeoman's job of capturing the action through his widescreen lens (I particularly remember dialogue scenes proceeding as airplanes land in the background; what a chore this must have been to coordinate). And regular Nichols collaborators Richard Sylbert (art director) and Sam O'Steen (editor) contributed their usual fine work.
But Catch-22 was overshadowed in 1970 by an equally acerbic anti-war comedy called M.A.S.H. Turns out that Robert Altman's farce pulled in the money and the critical raves the execs at Paramount were counting on Catch-22 to dredge up, and at a fraction of the cost. Still, Catch-22 lives on as a bleak curiosity that, like M.A.S.H., shows little warfare but much madness. Unlike the Altman film, however, there are a few moments of horrifying brutality that will stick with you forever (a still-standing torso-less body, chief among them). Arkin is perfection in the lead, and it's still mindblowing to see all the young faces of so many future lead and character actors all in one place. Bob Newhart, as Major Major, even gets one of his patented phone conversations, and it's a scream (Newhart began his stellar stand-up career doing one-ended phone conversations as part of his act).

And here's a trivia note: In 1969, singer Art Garfunkel left his recording partner Paul Simon in New York to finish the album Bridge Over Troubled Waters while Garfunkel traveled down to Mexico to start filming his acting debut in Catch-22. Long beset by fierce bickering, Simon and Garfunkel broke up soon afterwards, with Simon writing about it in the album's melancholy "The Only Living Boy in New York." In the song, he refers to Art as "Tom," the name Art originally had in the duo's first recording incarnation as "Tom and Jerry." It's a revealing, sad tune that tells a one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes tale.

Film #76: Doctor Zhivago

Julie Christie hit it big in 1965. She won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying a sexually adventurous fashion model in John Schlesinger's Darling, but it was her role in David Lean's pristine Doctor Zhivago that really propelled her to stardom that year. Omar Sharif plays the titular doctor/poet who endures wars, winters and his own marital problems in order to spend some quality time with his one true love, the bewitching Lara (Christie, looking stunning in every frame). Screenwriter Robert Bolt's adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel is often criticize for plodding along slowly (all of Rod Steiger's scenes as the villain of the piece seem to slow the movie down, so much so that it's hard to remember he's in it).

But, while this is no Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago remains an entertaining rumination on the tragic impositions history places on human relationships. And, of course, Lean's gift for capturing the wondrous on film--Zhivago's trek on foot across Russia, the massacre of anti-Czar protesters, the visit to a sad, ice-covered country home--hooks us immediately. Preferably seen in its 30th Anniversary edition, so that the delicious Freddie Young photography, John Box art direction and Phyllis Dalton costume design can best be appreciated. All, plus Bolt's screenplay and Maurice Jarre's legendary score, won Academy Awards. Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Tom Courteney, Rita Tushingham, Ralph Richardson and Klaus Kinski co-star.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Six Double-Feature Challenge

Okay, as an answer to a "meme" challenge put forth by my fellow LAMBs at The Dancing Image (which started it all), Cinexellence, Lazy Eye Theater, and Out 1, here are six double features of films not available through Netflix (most of these aren't even available on DVD yet) that I either have not seen or saw so long ago that I need to see them again.

DOUBLE FEATURE #1: SMART KIDS
1984's Old Enough by Marisa Silver (with Sarah Boyd, Danny Aiello, Rainbow Harvest and Alyssa Milano) and 1979's Rich Kids by Robert M. Young (with Trini Alvarado, John Lithgow, Jeremy Levy, Kathryn Walker and Olympia Dukakis).



DOUBLE FEATURE #2: JERRY LEWIS--ALIEN?!?!
1960's A Visit To A Small Planet by Norman Taurog (based on Gore Vidal's play, with Jerry Lewis, Joan Blackwell, Earl Holliman and John Williams) and 1984's Slapstick of Another Kind by Steve Paul (based on Kurt Vonnegut's novel, with Lewis, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Orson Welles, and Samuel Fuller).



DOUBLE FEATURE #3: MAGNETIC MESSIAHS
1960's The World's Greatest Sinner by Timothy Carey (with Timothy Carey, Betty Rowland, Gil Barreto, and James Farley) and 1953's The Twonky by Arch Oboler (with Hans Conried, Janet Warren and Billy Lynn).



TRIPLE FEATURE
#4: LATE-NITE 80s HBO MEMORIES

1981's Nobody's Perfekt by Peter Bonerz (with Gabe Kaplan, Robert Klein, Alex Karras, Susan Clark, James Cromwell, Candy Clark and Alex Rocco) and 1980's Foolin' Around by Richard T. Heffron (with Gary Busey, Annette O'Toole, John Gavin, Eddie Albert, Tony Randall, and Cloris Leachman) and 1984's Weekend Pass by nobody with nobody but a cameo by Phil Hartman.




DOUBLE FEATURE #5: HEADS WILL ROLL
1971's Mary, Queen of Scots by Charles Jarrott (with Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Ian Holm, Nigel Davenport, Trevor Howard, Timothy Dalton and Patrick McGoohan and 1970's Cromwell by Ken Hughes (with Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Charles Gray, Patrick McNee, and Robert Morely).



DOUBLE FEATURE #6: AH, THE FOLLIES OF YOUTH
1965's The Nanny by Seth Holt (writen by Jimmy Sangster, with Bette Davis, Wendy Craig, William Dix, Jill Bennett, James Dilliers and Pamela Franklin) and 1966's Let's Kill Uncle by William Castle (with Nigel Green, Mary Badham and Pat Cardi).



And one more to grow on:

DOUBLE FEATURE #7: HORROR 1973 A.D.

1973's Wicked, Wicked (the only movie ever done entirely in single-frame split-screen, by Richard L. Bare) and 1973's Arnold (the only movie in which the lead character is dead throughout--and Weekend at Bernie's does not count because Bernie's alive at the beginning), by Georg Fendy, with Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowell, Elsa Lanchester, Farley Granger, Shani Wallace, Jamie Farr, and Norman Stuart as Arnold!)

Film #75: Thanksgiving

In 2002, when I was the Programming Director for North Georgia's Dahlonega International Film Festival (now the Rome International Film Festival), I had to watch hundreds of titles in the span of six months. This resulted in weeks upon weeks of movie-watching, most of it predictably disappointing. (Tip to all festival-bound filmmakers: Actually, with that many movies to watch, a programmer HOPES to be disappointed within the first five minutes, just so they can get through more movies. So make sure your first minutes are great ones.)

Anyway, some time during the spring of 2002, I fished through hundreds of anonymous-looking tapes and came across a short movie from New York City called Thanksgiving, by writer/director Alex R. Johnson. Popping it in on VHS, I was immediately convinced of its immense worth, even though I'd had relatively little experience evaluating live action shorts. No matter, I thought: I know a good movie when I see it. As I wrote in my festival program review, "Achingly sad then rumbling with belly laughs, this fantastic movie refuses to paint in broad strokes."

Thanksgiving begins with Rich (Chris Crofton) facing a lonely "eating day" (as I like to call it). His friends aren't picking up the phone, and he has nowhere else to turn except to his Great Aunt Ruby (Regina Dwyer Thomas). Rich and Ruby's tense holiday encounter with each other in her cramped outer-bourough kitchen constitutes the majority of this 17-minute comedy's running time. See Thanksgiving here on Alex R. Johnson's La Chima Films website (if you have the right Apple plugin). Or check out the trailer, recently completed by the director!


Crofton, a Nashville-based musician and comedian, is beyond superb as our nervous hero; his every line delivery is amazingly natural and funny. And Thomas is his near-equal, ratcheting up his character's discomfort with her every attempt at conversation. Her very first words to him, as Rich takes off his wool cap, are "Jesus, you're bald!" This sets off Thanksgiving's deep dive into the essential gulf between young and old.
In an often vicious ping-pong session of dialogue between these two under-socialized loners, we see illustrated generational differences between manner of dress ("At least I'm not wearing some dead man's clothes," Ruby says, noticing the embroidered name on Rich's vintage jacket. "'Bill'? Who's 'Bill'?"); food consumption (Ruby insists on giving Rich a "small" slice of the pie he brought her, and he protests "Ruby, that piece's as big as a slice of pizza!"); health (Ruby: "I've seen you kids with your bottled water, think you're so hot!") racism (Ruby on all the gum on the sidewalk: "I think it's them Arabs" Rich: "I don't think it's 'them Arabs'"). This scorched-earth battleground leads to an ultimate confrontation that is subtly sobering and outwardly angry.

Thanksgiving gets everything right with its minimal photography by Sylvain D'Hautcourt and editing by John Barr (both help Johnson's film approach the drifting quality of a Jim Jarmusch effort, but without the endless meandering). And the emo-rock score from Scott Craggs, Klaus Hubben and Drew O'Doherty--all members of the Boston band The Ivory Coast--is incredibly effective, popping up in the most perfect of places without ever stepping on the dialogue. At the DIFF, the film won Best Narrative Comedy Short (live-action), Best Director (short), Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Score.

Writer/director Alex R. Johnson (pictured above on a location shoot for his new film Pickup and Return) partially financed Thanksgiving by working as a production office assistant on Steve Buscemi's 1996 directorial debut Trees Lounge. He currently works as a commercial cinematographer and as a producer for Showtime and VH-1, and has recently completed his second short, the 22-minute Pickup and Return (see it here). His and his Thanksgiving cast's sharp talents are, to say the very least, worth much closer attention. Finding their work made extremely worthwhile my watching a hundred laughably terrible DIFF entries like The Singing Bass and Hands. (Please--don't ask...)

Film #74: Repo Man

This is the very first major review I ever did, printed on page 9 of Georgia State University's Tuesday Magazine. Date: October 2nd, 1984, very nearly 25 years ago. As I am typing this in, I've made a promise to myself not to add or edit anything unless it's a egregious error. So here's how I wrote when I was one month away from being 18 years old:

How many times have you said to yourself "Gee, I sure would like to see a glowing Chevy Malibu reduce people to ashes as it levitates in a hailstorm of green ice?" Well, if you're imaginitive enough to have already considered this goofy idea, Repo Man will come off as run-of-the-mill stuff. However, if this sounds to you like a new and fascinating image, then this is the movie to see.

"Repo man" is street slang for a guy who reposesses cars and Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) has been a hard-drinking one for two decades. Otto (Emilio Estevez) is an L.A. punker whose existence is approaching new lows of meaninglessness. He's been fired from his stockboy job at a grocery store that sells only generic-brand products; his one friend is a nerdy fellow punk stockboy who shares Otto's love of "Beer" and punk rumbles; his girlfriend has run off with some other guys; and his parents are glassy-eyed relics of the hippie days who smoke pot and give all their money away to TV evangelists.

When Bud stops Otto on the street and tricks him into commandeering a repossessed car, their two worlds finally collide. Thus, Otto (notice the play on words with his name) forsakes his former self, dons a suit, and enlists in a more exciting (if not necessarily better) lifestyle. After his introduction to the other men at the repo yard, like philosophical junkman Miller (Tracey Walter) and Lite (Sy Richardson), the safety-concious big black guy working the repo circuit, Otto teams with Bud to steal back all the cars that're on their to-do list. But they hit a bump when it comes to this '64 Chevy Malibu. It's being driven by a slovenly crazy man with dark sunglasses, and in its trunk are the bodies of four dead aliens. Anyone who opens this secret compartment up is instantly vaporized, a la Kiss Me Deadly. The Chevy Malibu is, natch, being chased by vengeful teens, government agents, and the repo guys, all for wildly different reasons.

Repo Man is a mostly funny and engrossing blend of action movie, 1950s sci-fi, and The Decline of the Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris' 1981 documentary about the L.A. punk scene. 1983's Liquid Sky also comes to mind as an influence, but Repo Man takes a less experimentally manic road to the midnight movie circuit, to which it's destined to become a fixture. You can almost hear the lines being repeated by future Repo Man cultists as you view the film. (Tracy Walter's brilliant "plate o' shrimp" and "John Wayne is a fag" bits come to mind here.)
It's difficult to make true cult movie with cult appeal in mind without becoming cloying or pretentious. Look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien. His attempt to create an equally-loved sequel to Rocky resulted in an ill-fated (though arguably better) picture called Shock Treatment. However, Repo Man's writer/director Alex Cox (a Brit, by the way) rises to the challenge, almost completely avoiding the pits that have vanquished O'Brien and other filmmakers with midnight-movie ambitions.

We should also give credit here to the film's producer Michael Nesmith, former songwriter/singer/ guitarist for The Monkees. His Emmy-winning video album Elephant Parts also is an influence; like it, Repo Man makes great use of a not-so-obvious low budget; its photography is smart; its structure is episodic; and its chugging Iggy Pop theme music joins a memorable soundtrack with more hardcore efforts by Circle Jerks, Fear, Black Flag, and Suicidal Tendencies.

It's Cox's constant inventiveness with the details of his movie that make it stick out. Every shot is littered with details that can't possibly be absorbed in one sitting (but it's the sight of thousands of generic, black-and-white labels on every product that stay with us). To boot, Cox has thought through every facet of his story and lined it all with facetious comments about modern-day mores. It's unfortunate that the third act gets bogged down with weird-but-dull plot twists, but that's forgivable, if a little disappointing. (I almost wish the whole movie had taken place without the alien plot, because it's the clash between the repo man and punk worlds that's the film's most interesting dynamic.)

Even the performances are fine. Emilio Estevez serves up an engrossing mesh of Johnny Rotten, James Dean, and Wally Cleaver. He's a worthy heir to his talented father, Martin Sheen, to whom he bears a striking resemblance (see 1974's Badlands and notice the similarities). Stubbled, disheveled Harry Dean Stanton is, as always, completely absorbing as a man on the edge of a dangerous insanity. And lastly, I have to mention the superb character actor Tracey Walter, whom I first noticed alongside William Sanderson as a grubby team of Texas villains in 1981's Raggedy Man. As the acid-casualty Miller, he lets loose with monologues that provide Repo Man with its key notions: that life, indeed, is a bed of coincidence linked together only by time; that one faction of society is no better at its worst than another; and that automobiles, inside of which over half of Repo Man takes place, may quite possibly be either mankind's greatest savior or, more likely, its dreaded downfall.