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Motel Hell (1980)

Coming in the middle of the cannibal craze of the ’70s and ’80s, Motel Hell has less interest in graphic exploitation than in a grim portrait of crazy people. Yes, it’s billed as a horror-comedy, and it does contain a few legitimate laughs, but this is a real horror film. It’s more disturbing than traditionally scary, but frankly, that’s the way I like ’em.

The film opens as a quiet study of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun—seriously!), a rural motel owner (the title comes from a sign reading MOTEL HELLO, but of course the “O” has burned out) who enjoys the musings of an eerie televangelist who seems to broadcast 24 hours a day. Oh, he also goes out in the middle of the night and kills passing motorists. In his mind, he’s doing God’s work. God wouldn’t let him kill them if they weren’t bad, which is why Terry (Nina Axelrod) changes everything. She survives a motorcycle crash, and Vincent realizes she’s special, and it’s his duty—and God’s will—to nurse her back to health.

Initially terrified of her apparent captor, Terry develops Stockholm Syndrome and decides to stay and work for Vincent and his even creepier sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). What Terry doesn’t know is that the family harbors a disturbing secret: Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat business—which sells the best meat anyone in the 100-mile radius in which they’re sold has ever tasted—contains a heaping helping of Soylent Green. A recipe passed down for generations, Ida buries the deceased neck-deep in the dirt of a secret garden. Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell on the details. We’re simply to understand that “planting” them and slitting their throats (apparently so they can stew in their own blood) reanimates them. Ida and Vincent wait until they’re “ripe” before plucking them from the dirt and mixing them with pork.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Terry’s ignorance of Vincent’s secret life as she gets closer to him. Really, though, the plot is an afterthought. The film is at its best as a study of a twisted family unit, aided immeasurably by Calhoun and Parsons. This could have easily turned into the obnoxious sort of film where the director strains to mine laughs from the incongruity of characters doing deplorable things in a nonchalant way, but director Kevin Connor allows Vincent and Ida to play everything absolutely straight. Their dialogue during the “processing” scenes is the sort of intentional cheese that could have sunk the entire movie, but it works because Calhoun and Parsons play the characters as people absolutely convinced of their moral righteousness. They don’t mug for the camera.

The film’s third act relies a bit too much on cheesy horror cliches, which may have worked in a more overtly comedic film. Here, I just never got the sense that anyone was trying to be funny. Enough of the film legitimately disturbed me that when the filmmakers started to make the most obvious possible choices, it disappointed me. Once the attempt at plot takes over, it never matches the bizarre depravity of Ida’s garden and Vincent’s slaughterhouse. The rushed happy ending doesn’t help redeem it.

Nevertheless, the majority of Motel Hell works pretty well. Like a low-budget Poltergeist, it manages to combine real laugh lines like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone famous before—how come I’ve never heard of you?” with eerie elements like the grotesque sound of Ida’s “plants” choking on their own blood. It loses some steam in the end, but it’s worth watching for the numerous things it does well in the first 70 or so minutes.

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Golden Gate (1994)

I’d like to believe a movie can only get as bad as Golden Gate on purpose. Sometimes, a bad film is simply a result of amateurish ineptitude or wild miscalculations. This is a different case. It boasts a screenplay by playwright David Henry Hwang, who (deservedly) won every available award for M. Butterfly. Director John Madden went on to make the overrated but undeniably well-made Shakespeare in Love. Matt Dillon has gone on to be a quietly underrated actor, turning in great performances in even the most unchallenging films (he’s the only reason to watch One Night at McCool’s). Even composer Elliot Goldenthal—who I bring up because Golden Gate has, quite possibly, the worst score I’ve heard in a motion picture, ever—went on to receive three Oscar nominations and one win for his work on other films. So what the hell happened? I wish I knew.

The film opens in 1952, where Dillon tries his damnedest to convince us he’s a hardboiled FBI agent in possession of a law degree. As Agent Kevin Walker, he’s neither articulate enough nor tough enough to make the character believable. (On the plus side, he does a decent job of “aging” his performance as time passes in the story.) Walker is partnered with the fairly obnoxious Ron Pirelli (Bruno Kirby), on the hunt for filthy commies in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When they fail to find any, their boss presses them for a conviction. Walker comes up with the idea of arresting kindly laundryman Chen Jung Song (Tzi Ma) for the extremely thin reason that he’s organized a way for the Chinese-American population to send money to their families back home. Since “trading” with China is illegal, Song gets ten years in prison.

Ten years later, Chen gets released. Still wracked with guilt, Walker reluctantly takes the assignment to follow Chen in the hopes that he will continue his alleged communist activities. Walker tracks him thoroughly enough to watch the man commit suicide by hurling himself off a lovely scenic overlook near the Golden Gate Bridge. Feeling even guiltier, Walker sidles up to Chen’s attractive daughter, Marilyn (Joan Chen), and convinces her he’s a public defender who got to know Chen in prison. He whispers sweet, made-up-but-presumably-true nothings about Chen in her ear, and they start sleeping together. Naturally, Marilyn dumps him when she finds out the truth. Six years later, Marilyn is fully hippiefied and joined up with an Asian-American radical movement to convince the world either that they aren’t communists, or that communism isn’t so bad. Walker manages to get embroiled in this movement, too.

The chief problem, aside from the tragic miscasting of Dillon, is the script. It’s both a structural mess—free-floating through major events of the ’50s and ’60s without much sense of purpose—and features some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s frustrating that the movie has several opportunities to go into interesting directions, but it fails to capitalize on them. For instance, shortly before Chen’s suicide, Walker pledges to himself that he’ll help him rebuild his life. It’s supposed to be a tragic irony that Chen kills himself immediately thereafter, but I’m more interested in the story of a guilty FBI agent sacrificing his career to help a man he framed than the story the film actually tells. Walker’s romance with Marilyn—a woman less than half his age, and he’s not that old—is kind of creepy, especially since we’ve watched him gaze sympathetically at her as a little girl in 1952. There’s also frustratingly heavy-handed symbolism about the divide between two worlds and how it affects the Chinese-American community but also affects Walker (who’s torn between his own sense of ethics and the FBI’s bloodthirsty commie hunting).

The dialogue is the worst kind of on the nose. For some reason, Madden and Hwang made the decision to utilize something akin to a fantasy sequence for certain moments of the film. All the action stops, spotlights hit the main characters, and they speak to each other as if hypnotized, directly expressing their feelings in the laziest possible way. It’s a baffling choice that makes an already bad film suffer even more. Worse than the dialogue, though, is the grating voiceover narration, which attempts to tell Walker’s story as some sort of pseudo-mystical Chinese fable. He’s always referred to as “the man,” and there are numerous analogies to animals and nature. It would all be very poetic if it weren’t so stupid. It’s also another lazy device: When the film doesn’t slip into fantasy mode, Hwang allows the cheesy narration to explain feelings and motivations instead of working them organically into the characters’ behavior.

Then there’s that godawful score. Imagine someone hired Mike Post to do the soundtrack for a soft-core porn film, but the only instruments they gave him were a sultry saxophone and stereotypical Chinese instruments. That about sums it up. Aside from the stereotypical Asian-ness, it doesn’t match the tone of the film at all, and it does nothing to evoke the period. It sounds like a product of the mid-’80s, not the early ’50s, early ’60s, or late ’60s. And that’s another thing—the film covers 16 years, but the score never makes any changes to reflect the passage of time. Its spooky jazz feel wants to create a ’40s noir vibe, but it’s really better suited to a music video in which Bruce Willis plays the harmonica while dancing on a pool table in a foggy bar.

Golden Gate is the rare film where a group of talented people gathered together to make the worst possible product. Maybe it’s unfair to insinuate they made a bad film intentionally, but it’s hard to imagine these people doing such terrible work on accident.

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Bad Medicine (1985)

Based on a novel inspired by true events, the setup of Bad Medicine is this: in an unnamed country “somewhere in Central America,” Dr. Ramón Madera (Alan Arkin) has established an underfunded medical school that will accept virtually anybody and somehow provides degrees that are good in the United States. Among the Spanish students are a handful of Americans who couldn’t get into any U.S. medical schools. It’s a combination of fish-out-of-water comedy and political satire, but more than that, it’s about how medical school is difficult even when you go to a bad one.

Hilariously self-asborbed, Madera runs the school like a dictatorship, concerned more with meting out harsh punishments and garnering positive publicity than providing a decent education. He rides around campus in a limousine bearing the school flag. Humorless goons (Joe Grifasi and Gilbert Gottfried) issue demerits for wearing “loud” (tan) pants and white shoes. They mark students absent for sitting in the wrong seats. Students have to wait in long lines for a five-minute anatomy session working on the school’s only available cadaver (which has been in use since the school opened five years ago). Classes are taught entirely in Spanish, despite the segment of the student body who doesn’t speak the language. They live in roach-infested hovels, and according to the only American sophomore (Julie Kavner), very few foreigners survive their first year. It’s unclear if this is a result of stress or death.

The story finds its anchor in Jeff Marx (Steve Guttenberg), the black-sheep son of a family of frowning physicians. He’s smart but unmotivated, and he doesn’t have the grades to get into medical school. His insistent father (Bill Macy) registers him at Madera Universidad de Medicina (M.U.M., one of the subtler references to Madera’s hilarious mother issues). Although he has the brains for it, Jeff doesn’t know that he wants to be a doctor. At one point, he gripes that he never had a choice—he asked for a firetruck for Christmas, and his parents bought him an ambulance. This has always been his path, whether he wanted it or not. One of the nice things about Bad Medicine is watching Jeff find a sense of purpose as he starts to embrace medicine.

Jeff quickly meets Liz Parker (Julie Hagerty), a nurse back in the U.S., and they form a social group with the other Americans: Dennis (Curtis Armstrong), a wealthy Southerner obsessed with psychopharmacology; Cookie (Kavner), the seasoned veteran; and Carlos (Robert Romanus), a Puerto Rican New Yorker trying to pass for a native to get a tuition discount. The characters go from a disparate, disjointed group to a cohesive medical team over the course of the film, despite the dubious nature of their studies.

You see, as a PR stunt, Madera assigns them to go to a nearby village where nobody has ever seen a doctor, but he’s too cheap to send them with medicine. When Jeff gets shot in the leg by an irate and confused villager, Madera cancels the program. However, the villagers are in desperate need of medical care. The students realize it means more to them to help the villagers than to remain at Madera, so they forge pharmacy requests and open a clinic in the village. Quickly, the students all realize how desperately they want to learn in order to help those who need it, but they have to resort to stunts like bribing a morgue attendant to get a fresh cadaver for their anatomy studies. (They keep it on ice in Dennis’s bathtub.)

Meanwhile, Madera has become smitten with Liz, who agrees to go out with him in order to cover up their clinic. Madera is the source of the film’s most offbeat comedic moments. Typically, writer/director Harvey Miller mines comedy from the characters and their struggles to self-educate in less-than-desirable conditions, as well as the culture-clash antics of confused Americans adjusting to Central American life. Although Madera’s comedic beats come directly from the characters, he’s quite bizarre, the sort of man who thinks a statement like, “God sent me to you in order to spawn,” is the height of romance. A huge, tacky painting of his elderly mother hangs on one wall of his office; an elaborate gun collection adorns another. Despite the way he runs the school, his heart really is in the right place: He wanted to create a medical school where nobody suffers the discrimination he did while interning at his alma mater, UCLA. Ultimately, that all roots back to his self-absorption and inferiority complex, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. As played by Arkin (in one of his most underrated, criminally forgotten roles), Madera goes from a one-note stereotype to a fully-formed human, a walking contradiction whose ambition is frequently hampered by his ignorance and short temper.

Aside from having deceptively strong, believable characters played by a cast of ringers, Bad Medicine finds another major strength in its portrayal of medical school. Obviously, things at M.U.M. are patently absurd, but Miller gets the finer details right: A small group of students spending the majority of their time together, developing trust and deeper relationships than is typically portrayed in raucous “college” movies. Instead of mining conflict from competition among students, it allows them to work together in conflict against the school and the crumbling city of Valencia. It also, amazingly, emphasizes the rewards of education, and the notion that education comes more from experience and self-motivation than quality schools and competent instructors. This is suspiciously complex for a genre that’s usually more interested in keggers. Ironically, it does a better job of tapping into nerdy ideals than the previous year’s much more well-remembered Revenge of the Nerds (a film whose success is probably the reason Bad Medicine exists at all).

If I have one qualm with the movie, it’s that it employs numerous “native” extras who go to M.U.M., but none of them have anything to do with the American group. I understand that the movie focuses on the foreigners trying to make their way through medical school amid cultural confusion, but it’s a tad dispiriting that none of the native students have any interest in giving their own countrymen needed medical attention. I admit, from a dramatic standpoint, it’d make it way too easy for them to have both a translator and an ally familiar with the country’s cultural customs, but it’s a stark omission in an otherwise enjoyable comedy.

I’ve seen Bad Medicine a half-dozen times over the course of 15 years, and it seems to get better with each viewing. The fact that it doesn’t even have a proper DVD release—in an age where DVDs are on the decline—is criminal. Twentieth Century Fox put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane on DVD, but not Bad Medicine? What a world. On the plus side, if you have Showtime, you can TiVo it and have a nicer copy than my fading, fuzzy VHS tape.

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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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Cruising (1980)

Leading up to Cruising‘s 1980 release, it became the subject of numerous protests from gay-rights activists operating under the assumption that this film would defame their culture and set the burgeoning gay rights movement back decades. Despite the film’s opening disclaimer about it merely depicting a small subculture within the gay community, the activists were both right and wrong. Its world never takes the opportunity to portray homosexuals in any sort of positive way, and it quietly condemns the “leather bar” subculture. At the same time, the underlying message seems to be that hate crimes against the gay community only occur as a result of deep self-hatred of closeted homosexuals. It’s the sort of jeering knife-twisting that deplorable gay-bashers deserve. I just wish it had been the central theme of a better movie.

Al Pacino stars as Steve Burns, a New York City beat cop who takes the opportunity to advance his career by working undercover. A serial killer is on loose at various S&M clubs, and the victims all have a physical description similar to Burns’s. Because he’s the only one in the precinct who comes close to matching it, they send him undercover despite his inexperience. Burns checks in to a queer flophouse, befriends a few gay men living there to pump them (so to speak) for information, and goes to leather bars to observe the community in action, waiting to be picked up by the potential killer.

For awhile, I thought the film would turn into a great black comedy. Heterosexual Burns cannot abide what he sees in these clubs. He sits in the shadows, looking on with disgust, and grunting, “Not tonight” at any man who tries to pick him up. I thought this neighborhood of gay men would start assuming he’s the killer, because of his obvious disdain, his ignorance of the culture, and his unwillingness to participate. In other words, he’s a terrible undercover cop with zero training who botches the mission and loses the trust of the people he’s supposed to get close to, and he has a bunch of well-muscled gay men targeting him as the serial killer in their midst.

Boy, I wish that’s how the film had actually played out. Instead, it splits its time between a straightforward investigative procedural, a leering depiction of homoerotic depravity, and Burns’s increasing angst about thrusting himself (so to speak) into the gay underworld. See, he’s married (to Karen Allen!), so the feelings this assignment stirs up in his brain, heart, and loins make him extremely uncomfortable. After spending hours in clubs, he frequently defies his orders and goes home to have eerie, aggressive sex with his wife, followed by adopting a thousand-yard stare while ruminating on the confusing feelings. Of course, he can’t say too much, because not even she can know his undercover assignment—and besides, who wants to tell his wife that he might be secretly gay? All of this builds to a deranged ending that does fit the story writer/director William Friedkin has laid out, but it’s still sort of infuriating.

Although Cruising isn’t quite as bad as its reputation, it’s still awfully difficult to sit through. Friedkin relies on tawdry shock moments (including a bizarre, never-explained police interrogation in which detectives bring in a burly African-American man in nothing but a G-string and a Stetson to beat on the suspects) and the comically stereotypical behavior of the gay characters. It’s not as insensitive as the activists probably thought it would be, but come on—the prime suspect is a musical theatre major, for crying out loud. I don’t think it was Friedkin’s intention, but the portrayal of homosexuality really does come across like a disgusting world of depraved, self-loathing, mentally ill men who have no desires beyond sex and violence. Maybe that’s how your average straight man would react to spending a few hours in a leather bar, but it’s a film without any shades of gray. Do any of these men have lives outside the clubs? If so, do these lives involve anything beyond cheap flophouses with water-damaged ceilings and semen-damaged bedsheets?

Pacino plays Burns as a man plagued with chronic gay panic. He spends much of the movie quiet and bug-eyed, overreacts to passes from other men, and tries desperately but ineptly to find the killer, more to get out of the underworld than to stop the murders or further his career. It’s not an unreasonable way to play the role, but it certainly does nothing to help the film to portray homosexuality with any sort of nuance. Like the generic portrayal of numerous anonymous S&M fetishists, Burns’s fear that he might secretly be gay or—even worse—may have been turned gay simply by being near large groups of them presents a black-and-white world of cheap sex and color-coded bandannas.

In other words, Cruising wants to expose (so to speak) the unseemly side of a subculture many people already think is inherently unseemly. It wallows in its own depravity and cynicism. Friedkin shares the wealth of relentless negativity, spreading it to straight men and women as much as gay men, but it’s the sort of movie that will ultimately make anybody watching it feel sort of ill, regardless of sexual orientation or their personal feelings about homosexuality. It’s just that kind of movie.

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Scrooged (1988)

Here’s something you may not have realized while agonizing over Great Expectations in high school: Charles Dickens was hilarious. It may not be easy to parse his old-fashioned language, but he managed to combine withering, Swiftian satire with the frothy melodrama readers desperately wanted. Even better, he ridiculed Britain, created empathy for the downtrodden working-class (who couldn’t read but were oppressed by people who could), and used the popular techniques of melodrama to create unexpected tragedy amid relentless, dark-edged comedy. Few writers can successfully achieve such a combination, and for my money, it’s one of the reasons why he’s remembered and celebrated. The fact that so many adaptations of his work ignore the obvious comedic bent of his work frustrates me to no end. And then there’s Scrooged, which modernizes Dickens’s biting A Christmas Carol and infuses it with contemporary satire.

At the height of his star power, Bill Murray used his well-cultivated smartass persona to great effect in a string of cynical, brutal, punishing, hilarious comedies. Scrooged was the first in this series of minor masterpieces (which continued with Quick Change, What About Bob?, Groundhog Day, and Mad Dog and Glory), brilliantly exploiting Murray’s position as the world’s most likable asshole. Here, he plays the unsubtly named Frank Cross, president of a TV network, who has completely lost his humanity. Crass, selfish, angry, and obscene, we first meet Frank complaining about the promo for an upcoming live television adaptation of A Christmas Carol (starring Buddy Hackett, Jamie Farr, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold dancers). It’s not enough that the promo makes people want to watch it, he argues. They have to feel that if they don’t watch it, the world will end. He presents his own version of the promo, the sort of terror-inducing nightmare vision that ends with a mushroom cloud. (The day after it airs, he proudly shows off a newspaper article speculating that an elderly woman died because of the stress his promo caused.)

It won’t shock you to learn that Frank abuses his employees. In that opening scene, he fires Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) for raising appropriate concerns about the promo. He also torments his assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), an underpaid single mother with three kids, one of them mute. Her Christmas bonus this year? A washcloth, in addition to her usual network-monogrammed bath towel. Everyone hates and/or fears Frank, and with good reason. Since this is a variation on A Christmas Carol, that must mean three ghosts will visit him and remind him of the person he once was and should be. He’s warned of these ghosts by his deceased former boss (John Forsythe, in appropriately disgusting rotting-corpse makeup), and in one of the subtler jokes, Frank never once realizes the parallels between what’s happening to him and what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Ultimately, A Christmas Carol has the structure of a character study before the advent of psychology. There’s the exploration of Scrooge’s past, the depiction of how others perceive him, and the examination of his secret self-loathing. To use the parlance of Jim Cunningham, Donnie Darko‘s self-help guru/pedophile, fear motivates Scrooge instead of love. The purpose of his journey is to tap into his lost love of life and gain a new perspective.

Since Scrooged exists in a post-Freud world, this character study is bleaker and more resonant than Dickens’s. We get to see Frank as a child on Christmas Eve, glued to the TV. His mother drinks to avoid mothering and disappears (ostensibly to a bar) to avoid her husband, a snarling butcher who gives four-year-old Frank five pounds of milk-fed veal for Christmas instead of the choo-choo train he really wants. When Frank complains, his father instructs him to get a job. It’s shocking that he grew up to be a career-driven loner.

Then there’s Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), The One That Got Away. As Ghost of Christmas Past Buster Poindexter—sorry, David Johansen—takes Frank on a guided tour of his past, he’s allowed to see numerous examples of choosing career over love. He loses Claire in the process, but she is the pipeline to his humanity. A well-worn romantic-comedy conflict, the career-versus-love theme here goes deeper than the usual fluffy fare. Admittedly, Frank is career-obsessed, but Scrooged paints a portrait of a man who forces the obsession on himself in order to avoid real intimacy. He spends an entire lifetime putting up a wall around himself, and this Christmas experience echoes the words shouted by President Reagan a year before the film’s release: tear down this wall!

A combination of writing and performing sells this romance better than I would have imagined. Murray and Allen share the lived-in chemistry of a deeply connected couple who only split up because other priorities got in the way. Like Frank, Claire has put up a wall of her own—it’s just a wall that looks like selfless, altruistic action. She runs a nonprofit organization, but she gives so much of herself that she claims she has nothing left to give. Like Frank, she’s remained single, and she’s just as unhappy despite being an all-around better person. In stark contrast to their past selves, the present-day versions of the characters wear misery like a raver wears a Dr. Seuss hat: to draw attention to themselves while pretending they don’t crave the attention and love they find so lacking.

Then there’s Grace, Scrooged‘s secret weapon. She provides sharp relief from the merciless story of Frank’s terrible life. As played by Woodard, she stands as a beacon of normalcy in the film’s comically cynical world. Like Bob Cratchit (the character she represents), she feels sorry for Frank more than she loathes him. She also finds the simple joys in her modest life, the sort of joys Frank finds puzzling and saccharine until he realizes how nice it is to feel real human emotions.

Despite its redemptive arc, Scrooged‘s unsparing anger and negativity has prevented it from developing into a perennial classic. However, the film does a far better job of capturing Dickens’s tone than most adaptations of his work (a notable exception is Nicholas Nickleby). It’s hilarious, insightful, and as heartwarming as a movie that makes numerous jokes at the expense of frail elderly women can be.

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Friday (1995)

In the 1989 companion book for Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing (which includes the original screenplay, production diary, and notes on the film), Lee expresses his desire to make a film that tackled racism while showing a lower-class African-American neighborhood in a positive light, implying (through fancy clothes and apparent lack of employment) that some of the characters are involved in the drug trade but not getting into the drug-related, Black-on-Black violence within the community (he saved that for Clockers). He wanted to make a slice-of-life film that unexpectedly erupted into the Italians-versus-Blacks violence that plagued New York at the time of the film’s production. True to his word, there are hints of the neighborhood’s dark edges (the errant boarded-up brownstone, Ossie Davis’s lovelorn wino, Giancarlo Esposito’s coveted Air Jordans, and Bill Nunn’s hulking figure stomping around the neighborhood with an enormous ghetto blaster, just daring someone to mess with him), but the film downplays many of the neighborhood’s endemic problems in order to focus on a deeper problem.

Friday serves as the polar opposite, a “laugh that I would not cry” take on urban decay that plays like a stoner-buddy comedy but doesn’t shy away from gangsters, drug dealers, gun violence, and the strange mixture of community spirit and abject terror that comes from living in a place like South Central, Los Angeles (or Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn). Played mostly for laughs, the film focuses on Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker), who while away most of a Friday on Craig’s front porch. Yesterday, Craig managed to get fired on his day off, so he starts Friday in a bad frame of mind. His father (John Witherspoon) suggests Craig join him in the dog-catching trade. When Craig balks that he doesn’t like dogs, his father considers that a virtue of the job—you can abuse and torture them in the process of catching them. (Late in the film, Mr. Jones watches 1993’s Man’s Best Friend and cheers for the unlikely outcome of a postman taking down the genetically mutated psycho-dog.)

Craig’s best friend, Smokey, is a lazy pot dealer who encourages Craig’s worst traits and smokes more product than he sells. His supplier, Big Worm (Faizon Love), gives him until midnight to get the $200 he owes for a batch of indo he was supposed to sell. Smokey enlists Craig’s help in getting the money; when Craig balks, Smokey tells Big Worm that he and Craig are in it together. Left with no other choice, Craig and Smokey alternate between scheming to get the money and sitting on the porch, watching the active neighborhood and trying not to think about their fate.

Much of the comedy comes from the interaction between straight-man Craig and clownish sidekick Smokey, whose obsession with getting high and passing along neighborhood lore effectively distracts Craig from his disastrous life. The laughs that don’t come from these two are provided by a colorful supporting cast that includes Bernie Mac, Tony Cox, Regina King, co-writer DJ Pooh, and Anthony Johnson. Aside from the generally off-screen menace of Big Worm, Craig’s major conflict comes from Deebo (Tiny “Zeus” Lister Jr.), a hulking terror who rides around on a stolen bicycle and casually robs people in the neighborhood. Craig and Smokey hiding their wallets and gold chains whenever he comes around becomes a running gag. When Deebo forces Smokey to help him rob a house, Smokey finds the $200 he needs—but Deebo snatches it, because that’s the kind of guy he is.

The amazing thing about Friday is that it manages to make Deebo, who uses only his size and demeanor to get what he wants, a bigger threat than Big Worm’s drive-by shooting (which is played mostly for laughs). The film’s central conflict is more about Craig learning to stand up for himself and be a man—without the aid of the Glock he hides in his underwear drawer—instead of letting people like Deebo roll over him constantly. The film’s third act gets quite dark and thematically echoes Cube’s breakthrough film, Boyz N the Hood, in giving Craig a difficult choice that may have dire consequences on Saturday, but maybe he can go to sleep on Friday feeling good about himself.

Inferior sequels have tainted Friday‘s legacy, so it’s easy to forget that it’s a solid comedy that’s about more than getting easy laughs (though it doesn’t shy away from those). That’s a shame, because it provides an entertaining, thoughtful glimpse into a world that, in cinema, generally serves as a backdrop for histrionic crime dramas.

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Casualties of War (1989)

What could possibly make the police action in Vietnam more unpalatable? How about the kidnap, repeated rape, and eventual murder of an innocent Vietnamese girl? Inspired by “the incident on hill 192,” Brian De Palma’s great film Casualties of War dramatizes one such stomach-churning story.

PFC Erikkson (Michael J. Fox) is a bright-eyed rookie under the command of Sergeant Meserve (Sean Penn), a quietly deranged Captain Queeg type who seems all well and good until he discovers his squad can’t go into town to take advantage of the abundant prostitutes because it’s the V.C.’s turn. Enraged, Meserve gathers the squad (which includes well-known faces like John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo in early roles) and announces his plans to kidnap a villager girl to use as their life-sized sex doll. This makes Erikkson extremely uncomfortable, especially when he realizes Hatcher (Reilly) and Clark (Don Harvey) are not just willing to obey Meserve’s directive—they’re sort of excited by it.

Diaz (Leguizamo) confesses his fears about this plan to Erikkson, and they agree to back each other, but when push comes to shove, he would rather be accepted by the group than be an outcast. Erikkson stands up for what’s right and makes the bold decision not to rape the girl when it’s not his “turn.” De Palma builds his legendary suspense out of Erikkson’s isolation from this group. When they’re forced to work together, it’s hard to tell if Erikkson can trust the others in the squad. In an especially harrowing sequence, he gets time alone with the girl and immediately frees her. Like a confused puppy, she keeps running back to him instead of fleeing—and, of course, Clark catches him. Unwilling to let her out of his sight, Clark drags her to a combat zone. However, she’s taken ill and can’t stop coughing. Afraid she’ll let the V.C. get the drop on them, Meserve orders Diaz to slit her throat.

When they get back to base camp, Erikkson tells everyone he possibly can about what happened, but nobody cares. Nobody wants to create an international incident, and nobody wants to take responsibility for Meserve’s increasing instability. The best Erikkson can get is a transfer to a different company. The second half of the film chronicles Erikkson’s dogged search for justice amid apathetic officers and a squad that literally wants him dead. Although it gets a tad too hung up on the procedural aspects of the story (especially in the third act), the film manages to remain surprising and suspenseful even in its quietest moments.

Although the film capitalizes on Fox’s youthful appearance and nice-guy persona, Fox doesn’t play Erikkson as a Dudley Do-Right type. He’s a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, moderately inept soldier. It just happens that he’s thrown into the sort of situation where there’s an obvious distinction between right and wrong, and Erikkson has the guts to stand up for the right side, no matter the consequences. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to know kidnapping, rape, and murder are wrong.

Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter attempt to portray the psychological tolls of war using their characters and situations to imply a broader context, De Palma attempts to portray those same tolls while sticking closely to the characters as actual people. They don’t exist as metaphoric constructs designed to symbolize personality archetypes. It’s not strictly an anti-war film, because unlike the other two films mentioned, it makes no effort to imply that war made Meserve and Clark what they are. The point, it seems, is that bad apples exist everywhere. The chaos of war just gives them an excuse to do the things they can’t get away with in times of peace. De Palma targets a certain personality type and insinuates that the military infrastructure does allow for these bad apples to remain hidden or ignored, but only because of badder apples that have risen through the ranks. When Erikkson confronts the relentlessly unpleasant Captain Hill (Dale Dye), he’s told to transfer to another company. When Erikkson refuses to give up, the military court metes out appropriate punishments. It all comes back to a few bad people, not a big bad military or a devastating war.

Great though they may be, a strong undercurrent of hyperbole runs through most Vietnam movies. Not this one. Here, we have characters who feel like real people. Nothing’s black-and-white, and the war (for once) is just a setting, not a playground for heady symbolism rooted more in artful fantasy than grim reality. Casualties of War may not be realistic, either, but its characters feel human-sized, full of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

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The Rocketeer (1991)

For those of you too young to remember the halcyon days of the summer of ’91, let me enlighten you: It mostly involved Disney trying to shove The Rocketeer down the throats of an unprepared nation. As a moon-eyed, imaginative nine-year-old, I watched slack-jawed as Pizza Hut commercials loudly instructed me to “Blast off with the Rocketeer, against Neville Sinclair, the enemy agent!” My reaction was as follows: “Who? What? YESSSS!” Like Batman in the summer of ’89, I begged my parents to get the Pizza Hut novelty collector’s cup shaped like the Rocketeer’s helmet, scrounged around for enough change to buy Rocketeer-themed candy and toys, rented the NES game from the local video store, and had June 21 marked on my calendar.

Then I saw the movie. Cough.

Almost 20 years later, it’s easy to see why The Rocketeer failed: Disney marketed it squarely at kids—adults need not apply—but it’s not a kids’ movie. Obviously, Disney wanted a franchise on par with Paramount’s Indiana Jones and Warner Brothers’ Batman, but those movies were not strictly for kids, either. They’re actually pretty demented, and I’m sort of amazed I saw them as young as I did. Neither Paramount nor Warner Brothers marketed the films exclusively to kids, however. That was Disney’s failing. At best, the most appealing things The Rocketeer offered to the nine-year-old me were the always-cool super-secrecy of the rocket pack, and my introduction to buxom Jennifer Connelly, dolled up to look like a ’30s starlet (I didn’t know what a ’30s starlet was back then, but gosh I wanted to find out!).

Here’s a list of things The Rocketeer revels in that non-cinephiles under the age of 30 will either not understand or not care about: film noir, ’30s serials, Golden Age Hollywood, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men, aviation history, Errol Flynn, boarding houses, Al Capone, The Killers, Rondo Hatton, art deco, and zeppelins. As an adult with a moderate obsession with this period in history, I loved every second of it while fully understanding why, as a kid, I felt so let down and betrayed by the unending marketing assault. The film is a glorious paean to not just the ’30s, but the ’30s of cinema and comic-books—the gee-whiz sense that anything can happen. The film constructs a plot that entwines history and legend into one crazy, fantastical hodgepodge.

For a kid, the Rocketeer himself is a letdown. These other franchises follow larger-than-life heroes, getting them into tight scrapes and showing how they use cunning, ingenuity, and occasionally far-fetched gadgets to get out of trouble. The Rocketeer has one power—the ability to fly with a rocket backpack—that he barely uses. The screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo is less interested in the Rocketeer as a superhero so much as the world he inhabits. As a kid, that sucked. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful.

The story follows struggling pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell), who desperately needs to win an upcoming aviation competition to keep his struggling business afloat. Together with his father figure/mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), he designs a plane that’s sure to win—until a carload of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gangsters accidentally shoot it down while evading a pair of FBI agents (Ed Lauter, James Handy). With no money to build a new plane, and no way to make the rent on their hangar without winning the nationals, Cliff and Peevy have to resort to an old clown/stunt act that impresses rubes but humiliates the two of them.

The plot thickens when Cliff realizes the reason for the FBI/gangster shootout: They stole a secret prototype rocket pack developed by master aviator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn). Cliff finds the pack (hidden by the gangsters in the aftermath of the shootout) and discovers a surefire way to make money. The theft of the rocket pack is all over the newspaper and radio, so Peevy warns against using it so extravagantly. However, when a fellow pilot puts himself in danger in an attempt to save Cliff’s job, the only way for Cliff to save him is to don the rocket pack and fly up to his plane. Needless to say, the mysterious “Rocketeer” becomes an immediate sensation.

Cliff excitedly tells his girlfriend, Jenny (Connelly), a glorified extra in B-movies starring people like Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), a hammy swashbuckler obviously modeled after Errol Flynn. Sinclair overhears Cliff telling Jenny about the rocket pack, and the plot continues to thicken. Apparently, it was he who hired Valentine’s goons to steal the rocket pack in the first place. Now that he knows who has it, Neville decides he must get close to Jenny, in the hopes that he can use her to get the rocket pack. Why he wants the rocket pack, I’ll leave a mystery, but here’s a hint: Some spurious accusations about Errol Flynn’s associations with certain political parties appeared in an unauthorized, largely speculative biography in the early ’80s, and the writers used this to inform Neville Sinclair.

Lest I forget, Sinclair has a henchman, Lothar (“Tiny” Ron Taylor), made up to look and sound eerily like Rondo Hatton, star of the “Creeper” films of the 1940s. He was one of the rare non-giants to suffer from a pituitary disorder called acromegaly, which caused his facial features to distort grotesquely, making him ideal to play thugs and misunderstood killers. Lothar, however, stands over seven feet tall in addition to suffering from acromegaly. He’s a fearsome menace whose characterization makes him an effective villain, although it eliminates the Hunchback of Notre Dame poignancy the “Creeper” films had.

The writers develop such a convoluted plot, they have to strain to keep numerous balls in the air. The FBI searches for the rocket pack on behalf of Hughes; Valentine and Lothar search for the rocket pack on behalf of Sinclair; Sinclair kidnaps Jenny in order to bring the Rocketeer out into the open; and Cliff tries to keep the rocket pack hidden, just until he can make enough money to build a new plane. All of these characters and subplots converge in unexpected ways designed to thrill. The film is incredibly effective, with a sense of whimsy and adventure that owes a great deal to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films and the fast-paced adventure films of the period it encapsulates, without ever seeming derivative. The locales, production design, and casting are impeccable.

The Rocketeer could have turned into a phenomenal franchise had Disney marketed it to the correct demographic—middle-aged cranks and cinephiles who would drag their disinterested kids (and possibly grandkids) to a rollicking adventure evocative of their youths. Instead, it’s relegated to a Syfy Sunday afternoon. That’s a shame. Anyone who loves old movies and/or arcane ’30s trivia needs to see this film.

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