Posts in: November 26th, 2010

Only the Lonely (1991)

For people of my generation, John Hughes’s oeuvre—as writer, director, and/or producer—is widely regarded as classic fare. Superior films like The Breakfast Club and Planes, Trains and Automobiles stand side by side with charming but iffy fare like Uncle Buck and Dutch as comforting, thoughtful entertainment that has withstood the test of time (despite heaping dollops of ’80s cheese permeating each film). How did the great romantic comedy Only the Lonely fall through the cracks and drift into obscurity?

John Candy stars as Danny Muldoon, a mild-mannered Chicago cop plagued with guilt and fear about leaving his mother, Rose (Maureen O’Hara), alone. Rose, herself, is petrified of abandonment, which causes her to lash out unpleasantly whenever she feels threatened. In a meaner actress’s hands, Rose’s browbeating and casual racism would come across as shrill and unnecessary. O’Hara plays Rose as a woman both crippled by fear and ignorant of the pain she causes others. After all, as Rose often says, she’s just telling it like it is.

As expected, things get tough when Danny meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy), an introverted undertaker who wants to transpose her gift for making up the dead to making up Broadway stars. Danny and Theresa start an awkward, tentative relationship that’s as sweet as it is sad. The romance is hard enough without Rose, but she casts a long shadow over Danny. He cancels dates to keep from leaving her alone, interrupts Theresa in mid-sentence to call her, and is frequently overcome with tonally jarring fantasy sequences involving her dying in disturbingly over-the-top ways.

Ultimately, Danny wants to break free of his mother and his life, but he’s spent 38 years under her thumb. Even his love for Theresa can’t easily overcome that much accumulated guilt and worry. As expected, he has to make difficult choices. As he does, the film heads in a surprisingly melancholy direction, which I suppose could explain why it hasn’t endured as a romantic-comedy staple. Even with its eventual happy ending, it gets kind of grim, but it’s grim in believable ways. Danny’s problems with Theresa and Rose are increasingly complicated, and writer/director Chris Columbus refuses to provide easy solutions. The happy ending feels like a well-earned sigh of relief rather than a predictable crossing of the most obvious possible finish line.

I don’t want to get too defensive of Columbus, who has been unjustly maligned for numerous reasons (too many of them having to do with his perfectly fine work on the first two Harry Potter movies), but Only the Lonely proves—just like Hughes did with Planes, Trains and Automobiles—that he’s just as capable of writing and directing challenging films for adults as he is crowd-pleasing but generally thoughtful kids’ movies.

But here’s the question I always need to answer when I review romantic comedies: Is it funny? If you like John Candy’s schtick, this won’t disappoint. It cultivates his usual “funny yet vulnerable” movie persona into a character crippled by neuroses, who uses his quick wit and even his weight as defensive measures to keep people at a distance. O’Hara also manages to mine a surprising number of big laughs from such an unpleasant character. In addition to being funny, it helps sell the idea that she’s not a bad person—just horribly misguided and woefully ignorant—which makes it easier to understand Danny’s dilemma.

Only the Lonely may not be for everyone, but it has all the elements I look for in a romantic comedy: Funny, colorful characters; a charming cast; and a story that takes romantic relationships seriously and isn’t afraid to portray them as difficult but rewarding. You’re better off with this than The Proposal.

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Marked for Death (1990)

At the risk of tarnishing my critical reputation, I have to admit that I’ve become a follower of Seagalogy. Before Steven Seagal became a punchline, he spent roughly eight years as one of the biggest action stars around. These films—what Seagalogy author Vern rightly refers to as “the Golden Era” of Seagal films—may not seem culturally significant, but they are. Seagal’s films accomplished two things few other action films achieve: a personal touch that hits on artfully repeated themes, motifs, and foibles not dissimilar from any of the great auteur filmmakers, and a political agenda completely at odds with traditional action films. Whereas most ’80s actioners boasted a jingoistic, rah-rah-U.S.A. feeling of Reagan-era patriotism, Seagal’s films had prescient obsessions with political corruption, the influence of corporations and organized crime on politicians and law enforcement, environmentalism, domestic terrorism, and the ineptitude with which the U.S. handled the “war on drugs.” With the notable exception of Marked for Death (coincidentally, the only film Seagal made for 20th Century Fox during his seven-picture deal with Warner Brothers), Seagal didn’t portray a one-man army kicking the asses of anti-American foreigners. In Seagal’s world, the biggest enemy the U.S. had to face was itself.

In many ways, Marked for Death is Seagal’s strangest studio film. It touches on the usual Seagal themes but takes them into new, unexpected directions. The mystical seriousness with which it takes Jamaican voodoo magic, for instance, lends a bizarre, verging-on-surreal quality to the proceedings. It also boasts, thanks to the terrific direction by Dwight H. Little, some of his most varied, wildly imaginative action sequences.

An early, slightly misguided treatise against illegal immigration, the film introduces John “Hatch” Hatcher (Seagal), a deep-cover DEA agent who has grown weary of U.S. drug policy. After a botched operation in Mexico (featuring a youngish Danny Trejo), Hatch retires and returns to his childhood home in Chicago. Now owned by his single-mom sister (Elizabeth Gracen), Hatch’s childhood bedroom remains a museum of his life. We learn Hatch’s entire backstory through the Lincoln Heights High School football jersey, antique gun collection, and photos adorning the walls: Suburban kid, Vietnam vet, animal lover, gun enthusiast, and athlete.

Hatch soon reconnects with his old pal Max (Keith David), who coaches football at their alma mater. The local Jamaican drug-dealing community frustrates Max to no end. He gripes that back in their day, the worst thing they had to worry about was the quarterback knocking up a cheerleader. Now, he faces players dying of crack overdoses. Max wants to fight back against the Jamaicans, but Hatch’s world-weary posturing prevents him. Hatch makes a compelling, if dismaying, case that it’s not worth fighting an unwinnable war. Max, a fellow Vietnam vet, understands what Hatch means.

When Jamaicans open fire at Mafiosi in a bar where Hatch and Max just happen to be sharing a drink, things get weird. Hatch intervenes and has one of the Jamaicans arrested (the others are killed), putting him on the radar of Screwface (Basil Wallace), a green-eyed Jamaican madman with weird, symbolic keloidal-scar tattoos peppering his face and back. Screwface sends a squad to do a drive-by shooting on Hatch’s sister’s house. Her daughter is shot, she blames Hatch, and suddenly the stakes are personal. Hatch no longer wants to sit idly by and let the Jamaicans take over.

From here, the stakes continue to ratchet up until Hatch finally goes to Jamaica, storms Screwface’s secured compound, decapitates him, and returns the head to Chicago to show to his disciples. This is the sort of movie Marked for Death is. A secretly sexy university professor (Joanna Pacula) informs Hatch of the rituals of voodoo Screwface and his gang believe very strongly in. A rum-spitting Screwface performs a disturbing ritual on Hatch’s sister, which he claims gives him ownership of her soul. Divorced from reality but amazingly entertaining, this is one of Seagal’s most underrated films.

One moment, in particular, struck me as emblematic of Seagal’s obsession with symbolism and mythologizing his action heroes. Shortly before the final confrontation, Screwface lays out a trap for Hatch. He drives his classic Mustang past some roadwork, only to discover a garbage truck has pinned him from behind and a bulldozer is headed right for him. As the two large vehicles squeeze the life out of his car, Screwface arrives with a rum-based molotov cocktail and the sage line, “Let me introduce you to my sister—the goddess of fire!” The escape sequence boasts imagery and sound design that I am convinced intentionally evokes birth. Effectively, this is the moment of Hatch’s symbolic rebirth, but simply showing him make the decision to take down Screwface once and for all isn’t enough for Seagal or Little. We have to literally see him reborn via an automotive birth canal. Normally, I’d be the first to admit when I read too much into something, but I have a rather alarming familiarity with Steven Seagal’s oeuvre, and such symbolism is not out of place.

The attention paid to bizarre, seemingly unnecessary details goes a long way toward putting this above many action films. Seagal obviously learned a lot from Andrew Davis (who worked intimately with Seagal on his first film, Above the Law, before they reteamed for Under Siege), a filmmaker whose work in the action genre is superior partly because of his willingness to fill his films with color and life that most action films ignore. Among other things, a standout moment in the film comes when Hatch and Max stock up on arms using a covert dealer from Hatch’s DEA days. As Hatch pays the man, he casually asks, “Still sober?” The dealer responds with stock 12-step aphorisms. It’s a completely unnecessary moment that instantly transforms a one-scene character into a real person.

The film also boasts some of Seagal’s most memorably offbeat dialogue, thanks in part to the weird patter from the Jamaicans. “Stop the blood clot cryin’! Everybody must dead!” Screwface screams to Hatch”s terrified sister. A weaselly Mob informant shouts at Hatch, “I’m Jimmy fuckin’ Fingers! I’m a made man!” just before Hatch shoots him in the head and whispers, “God made men.” After dispatching Jimmy fuckin’ Fingers, a disciple of Screwface called Monkey would rather dive out of an eight-story window than face Screwface’s punishment for being seen with Hatch. When Hatch returns to Max’s enormous Dodge Ram-Charger, he says simply, “One thought he was invincible; the other thought he could fly.” A confused Max replies, “So?” Hatch turns to him and expressionlessly states, “They were both wrong.” The film also has a twist ending so bizarre but so oddly fitting that I like to imagine it inspired a young M. Night Shyamalan, concluding with the (intentionally) funniest closing line in the history of action cinema.

Nobody other than Seagal made movies like this. Some may think there’s a very good reason for that, but I hold his Golden Era work in as high a regard as any of Joel Silver’s equally bombastic, idiosyncratic work. Like Silver, Seagal took a rote genre and made it his own, for better or worse. Marked for Death is not his best film, but it’s certainly his strangest, and that counts for something.

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Road House 2: Last Call (2006)

Making a good sequel—particularly one that contains none of the actors, characters, or locations from the original film—requires one thing above all else: getting the tone right. Anybody sitting down to watch Road House 2: Last Call will expect a campy, fun action movie that takes place in the same outsized world of legendary coolers, over-tanned villains, and internal strife revolving around torn-out throats. What they get is a standard dull DTV action film whose only ties to the original film are repeated quotes of its memorable dialogue.

Johnathon Schaech stars as Shane Tanner, moderately sleazy DEA agent and son of Dalton, Patrick Swayze’s character in the first film. Shane heads to Louisiana when he gets word that his uncle, Nate (Will Patton), has been hospitalized after a beating by a group of drug dealers because he won’t sell his bar. I will admit that pretty much the only good thing about this movie is the bar, which sits on the edge of a lake and simply looks great. I don’t know if they shot the film in a real bar or built one for the production, but whatever the case, it looks better than anything else in this movie.

With Nate hospitalized, Shane decides to take over the bar’s day-to-day operations until he can unravel a coke-smuggling/selling conspiracy that involves Wild Bill (Jake Busey). The small Louisiana town is roughly the halfway point between Miami and Texas, which makes it a great way station for a smuggling operation from Mexico. The film spends much less time at the bar than a film called Road House 2: Last Call should, concentrating instead on the cocaine material and the blossoming romance between Shane and Beau (Ellen Hollman), a nice but mildly trampy local teacher who’s conveniently ex-military. Eventually, Shane learns Wild Bill had some responsibility in the death of Dalton, which makes it personal. Violence ensues.

I don’t want to turn this review into a list of reasons why the original Road House is so amazing, but because the sequel gets pretty much everything wrong, I feel like a few comparisons need to be made. In the first place, the original film made an oddly low-stakes conflict into the stuff of heightened melodrama and over-the-top action. Ben Gazzara did not play an exceptionally well-tanned drug kingpin or Mafioso or anything else. He played a local businessman interested in a small-town monopoly. That’s it. The story wasn’t even slightly complicated, and it spent 60-70% of its time at the titular Double Deuce road house. The sequel’s decision to turn this into a standard drug-smuggling story (with a few tacked-on references to Wild Bill as Dalton’s murderer to create a tenuous, puerile tie to the original), ironically, makes everything routine. The fact that Gazzara would blow up a man’s auto-parts store because he won’t sell out is mind-blowingly silly; the fact that coke smugglers will kill to protect their operation is not.

I guess I just can’t figure out why anyone would want to pay homage to a gloriously over-the-top action film without really understanding what made the original so entertaining. Would anyone really watch it and say, “You know what this needs? Cocaine in front of the camera instead of just behind it”?

I might be alone in wanting to have fun when I watch an action movie. They’re escapist drivel, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want a brooding, Law Abiding Citizen-esque study of a man who doesn’t want to kill but simply has no other choice. The problem with recent action movies is that, from a narrative standpoint, they’re exactly as stupid as the ones from the ’80s and ’90s—but the people making them think making the protagonist a reluctant, glowering sourpuss makes the movies deep and compelling. Instead, they simply make them boring.

Shane Tanner isn’t always a hulking sourpuss, but he’s also not nearly as fun as Dalton in the original. Patrick Swayze had an indefinable energy that allowed him to play everything to the over-the-top fullest. In Joel Silver’s candy-coated action universe, Swayze stood out as a man of absolute, stone-faced seriousness. Instead of smartass one-liners, he had pop-philosophy monologues. However, the films themselves didn’t adopt his grave tone. In fact, Road House used his unflappable charisma to its advantage. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone could not possibly work as the ultimate cooler. In the cartoon world of the original film, you could believe Swayze as the emotionless bouncer to end all bouncers—a man who wouldn’t let women, drugs, and money distract him from his true purpose in life: allowing people have a good time at rowdy bars.

The same can’t be said for Schaech. The opening scene seems to exist to paint Shane Turner with the same brush as his “father.” An undercover DEA agent at a strip club, Shane spends some post-arrest time receiving a lap dance from another undercover DEA agent. Although he turns down her explicit request for sex, his leering response to the lap dance and obvious disappointment that he can’t flip her over and do his thing (seemingly because he received an emergency phone call about Nate, not because he’s too zen to require such animal pleasures) set him apart from Dalton rather than showing the similarities. When he lists Dalton’s rules to the workers at Nate’s bar, Shane seems sort of amused (and so do his employees) instead of absolutely committed to what amounts to the Ten Commandments for bouncers and barbacks.

It obviously doesn’t hold a candle to the original, but why does it even try? The connections to the first film are thinner than cheesecloth, and it’s sort of pathetic to ride another film’s coattails just to make a quick buck on name recognition.

Looking at it on its own terms, though, the film still doesn’t hold up. It takes the most generic possible approaches to the drug trade (angry, racist white men working for disrespectful Latinos), Louisiana culture (everyone unnecessarily rides fan boats), romance (Beau won’t tell Shane her name, then starts quietly stalking him to show she not-so-secretly wants him), and action (I defy you to find a single moment of action in this film that you haven’t seen in a better film). The acting ranges from mediocre to hammy, the leaden tone and sloppy action suggest a limited future for director Scott Ziehl, and the plot twists aren’t so much telegraphed by the movie itself as by the thousands of movies just like it.

Even if it spent enough time in the bar to earn its status as a Road House sequel, it would still qualify as the most generic of DTV action vehicles—a film that would be quickly forgotten were it not for needlessly co-opting the Road House name.

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