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Christmas Story [Joulutarina] (2007)

Now that they have the power, respect, and money to do whatever the hell the want, Pixar has elected to make challenging, frequently gut-wrenching films for children and adults. This is something too many American production companies don’t have the guts to do, because it’s much easier to pander with mindless, innocuous entertainment that diverts kids with an engrossing but empty experience and appeases the Moral Majority with its sanitized-for-your-protection content.

Europe has no such problems traumatizing its children with memorably upsetting kids’ fare. The unimaginatively titled Christmas Story contains a depressing sequence matched only by Up: During a harsh winter storm, Nikolas (played as a child by Jonas Rinne) is left to care for his baby sister, Aada, while his parents venture out in search of medicine for ill Aada. They die in the storm, and Aada succumbs to her illness. Now an orphan, the tiny village needs to figure out what to do with Nikolas. Nobody wants him, but the villagers reluctantly agree to pass him around and care for him for a year, rotating every Christmas.

Six years pass quickly, and the village has sunk into even harder times. Bad weather has ruined their crops, and the nearby lake seems “empty of fish.” With families barely staving off starvation as it is, nobody can deal with an extra mouth to feed. The village is forced to sell Nikolas into indentured servitude. An avid woodworker who has developed a habit of leaving small, wooden trinkets on the doorsteps of his friends and neighbors at Christmas, now it’s time for Nikolas to learn the trade professionally, under the guidance of Isaak (Kari Väänänen)

This development leads Christmas Story to overcome its relentlessly upsetting first act and find genuine poignancy in the relationship between sensitive Nikolas and snarling Isaak. Like most brutish men in family films, Isaak harbors a dark reason for his behavior: his sons abandoned him long ago. At first, he sees much to resent in Nikolas’s eagerness and kindness, but he quickly realizes Nikolas’s presence has given him back what he thought he lost, and vice-versa. Their relationship slowly shifts from adversarial to familial, leading to a handful of tearjerker moments that would melt even the coldest heart.

As Isaak, Väänänen’s incredible performance shines. He plays what could have been a stock character with heartbreaking complexity. Take, for example, an early scene in which Nikolas attempts to cheer up the cranky Isaak by cleaning his entire cabin/workshop from top to bottom. When Isaak returns from a day of selling in the village, his expressive face registers a mixture of bewilderment and genuine affection. He holds this expression for an instant, just long enough for it to register with the audience, before contorting back to his usual sneer and growling, “Now how am I supposed to find anything?” But his bark lacks sincerity (skillfully dubbed by John Turturro to match Väänänen’s performance).

Nikolas grows older (eventually played as an adult by Hannu-Pekka Björkman), takes over Isaak’s business, and devotes it entirely to an ever-expanding Christmas operation. He dispels rumors that he’s the mysterious stranger leaving gifts on doorsteps. Only Isaak and Nikolas’s best friend, Emil (Mikko Kouki), know the truth. The secret is soon learned by Emil’s daughter, Aada (Nella Siilasmaa/Laura Birn), who was named for Nikolas’s departed sister in another effective tearjerker moment. Aada keeps Nikolas’s secret and, as she grows up, becomes Nikolas’s dearest friend.

As he ages, Nikolas has to deal with one of the more unexpected children’s-film developments: getting older and coming to terms with a life in which he gave every part of himself away and lacks the customary signifiers of a life well-lived (a family, a nest egg, a home of his own). This is uncharted territory and unexpectedly philosophical for a movie aimed at kids, particularly one telling the origin story of Santa Claus. However, it’s material like this that helps Christmas Story overcome the burden of its subject matter and feel like a real movie about a real person.

Unlike virtually every American holiday film made since the mid-’80s, the film never makes the mistake of desperately pandering to become a Christmas classic. Echoing It’s a Wonderful Life in clear but not derivative ways, Christmas Story captures the spirit of giving, the emotional toll it can take on the giver, and the value of forging lasting friendships. It’s easily among the best Christmas movies of the past 25 years. Seek it out.

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Jingle All the Way (1996)

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Rainier Wolfcastle is being interviewed by Kent Brockman about his latest film, in which he plays a father who visits his son at college and is horrified to learn he’s a nerd. When Brockman says, “I’m laughing already,” Wolfcastle says stoically, “It’s not a comedy.” In a better world, Jingle All the Way would also not be a comedy. As I watched it, I imagined the possibilities of this story—a lone man trying to get a Christmas toy for his beloved son—retold through the prism of star Arnold Schwarzenegger’s usual ultraviolent, hard-R theatrics. By this point in his career, Schwarzenegger had become the cuddliest pituitary case on the planet, eschewing direct-to-video obscurity by playing up his popularity with children and making light Ivan Reitman comedies full of adorable moppets and pregnant men. Even his most famous villain became a good guy and child protector in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

The fact that Jingle All the Way plays like a live-action cartoon aimed at children should have surprised nobody upon its release in 1996. However, it’s a film of such crass cynicism, I wish it had gone to even darker extremes with its ideas, some of which are actually pretty interesting.

The film stars Schwarzenegger as Howard Langston, a workaholic who tries to make up for years of neglect by buying his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd), a Turbo Man action figure. On Christmas Eve Day. Naturally, all the stores are sold out, which leads Howard to pathetic extremes. He gets involved in an enormous brawl over a lottery drawing for the town’s last shipment of Turbo Man figures. A suspicious mall Santa (James Belushi) takes Howard to a secret sweatshop run by all the mall Santas in the Twin Cities, where they sell him a Mexican knockoff Turbo Man for $300. This sequence leads to one of the film’s strangest moments, in which Howard delivers merciless beatings to the Santas with a novelty-sized candy cane.

Howard reluctantly teams up with single-dad Myron Larabee (Sinbad), an unstable postman willing to sell out Howard at every turn to get a Turbo Man for his own child. Their rivalry/friendship occupies most of the film’s runtime, as they commiserate before racing to the next possible Turbo Man destination. This eventually builds to such insanity as Howard fighting with a vicious reindeer (no, really) and inadvertently setting fire to smarmy neighbor Ted’s (Phil Hartman, not surprisingly the film’s lone bright spot) house trying to steal the Turbo Man under his tree. Ted’s busy trying to put the moves on Liz (Rita Wilson), Howard’s perturbed wife.

Finally, Howard stumbles into the staging area of the city’s Christmas parade, where he’s mistaken for a fill-in Turbo Man. They slap the costume (which, for cartoon-logic reasons, includes fully functional weaponry and a jet pack) on him, stick a Turbo Man action figure in his hands, and shove him out onto the float. Meanwhile, Myron dresses up like Turbo Man’s villain, Dementor, and attempts to steal the Turbo Man action figure. When Howard gives it to Jamie (who, again for cartoon-logic reasons, doesn’t recognize the only musclebound Austrian in Minnesota as his own father—if he were Swedish, I might have bought that), Myron chases Jamie through the rooftops of Minneapolis, nearly killing a small child in pursuit of a Christmas gift.

This is the sort of cynical world in which Jingle All the Way takes place, and hopefully you have a sense of why I wish it had gone darker and more extreme with the material. Inspired by the Cabbage Patch Kid frenzy of the ’80s, the film predated the Tickle-Me Elmo fad by a few months—the perfect time to make an actual statement about the absurd consumer patterns and lemming mentality in this country. Instead, the film tries to work as a sunny cartoon, the sort of film where a bomb explodes and the next shot shows the man holding the bomb, face blackened with soot, hair tousled, eyes wide with confusion and dismay. The cartoonish tone does nothing to dull the film’s cynicism, which gives the whole film a strangely passive-aggressive feel. Clearly, the filmmakers see the inherent insanity in holiday shopping, lending the film an undercurrent of anger and disapproval, but they don’t have the guts to make a statement about it. It’s a film that’s mad as hell but will still take it until such time as it’s willing to discuss the possibility of not taking it anymore.

Maybe it works as a colorful cartoon for kids. I have a dim recollection of kids liking the film a great deal when it came out. I have to assume the film’s blackened edges have something to do with it trying to appeal to adults, but it falls flat. Unlike something like Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus, whose company produced this film), Jingle All the Way has no humanity for adults to sink their teeth into. Daffy Duck has more relatable human traits than Howard Langston, and that’s a problem the film never attempts to overcome.

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Prancer (1989)

If you spend the holidays weary and depressed, wishing you could take a sucker-punch to the gut that might make you feel a little bit better about your own life, do I have the movie for you! Prancer is a staggeringly great film on its own merits, but it’s impossible to imagine happy families gathering together to watch it. It’s not really a film that exists to be enjoyed so much as endured, like a marathon of domestic abuse and mind-bending sadness.

In an impressively natural performance, Rebecca Harrell stars as Jessie Riggs, daughter of an Indiana apple farmer (Sam Elliott in one of his best performances) who struggles to put non-apple food on the table as much as he struggles with being a single father to an eight-year-old girl he doesn’t wholly understand. Jessie clings to her belief in the power of Christmas and Santa Claus—late in the film, father John grouses that she plays Christmas records year-round—despite all evidence to the contrary. In a poignant scene emblematic of the tone, richness of character and theme, and utter despair of this film, Jessie’s best friend, Carol (Ariana Richards), announces she no longer believes in Santa Claus, which Jessie counters by saying, “If Santa’s not real, then God’s not real.” When Carol suggests maybe that, too, is true, Jessie cries that if God’s not real, heaven’s not real, and if heaven’s not real—where did her mother go?

One night, Jessie tries to run away (a recurring theme with her). In the forest, she sees a reindeer and convinces herself it’s Prancer, one of Santa’s reindeer, who got lost. It disappears like a UFO, which confirms her suspicions of its magical powers. In the distance, she hears a rifle shot, but before she can investigate, John appears, chewing her out for “taking a walk” (he’s as delusional as she is) at night, when hunters have secret off-season deer stands set up all over the woods. While driving her back home, John announces his only choice is to shuffle her off to her Aunt Sarah, who can provide all the things he can’t. Despite her contentious relationship with John, Jessie sees this as a fate worse than death. Before she can argue, the reindeer appears in the middle of the snow-covered road, wounded from the shot heard earlier. John pulls out his own rifle, prepared to put the reindeer out of its misery, and as Jessie violently protests, the reindeer disappears again. John’s as stunned as Jessie, but he has to believe in a logical explanation.

Soon enough, Jessie finds the reindeer grazing in the barn. She hides it in an abandoned farmhand cabin, feeds it Christmas cookies and hay, and attempts to nurse it back to health. She enlists the aid of the local vet (Abe Vigoda) and does chores for the local scary lady (Cloris Leachman, who lives in an enormous, filthy house) in order to pay for oats. Before long, Jessie makes the mistake of asking a mall Santa (Michael Constantine) to pass a message along to the real Santa—she has Prancer, and he’ll be ready to fly on Christmas Eve, so he needs to meet her at Antler Ridge. The mall Santa immediately takes the story to the local paper, which leads to innocuous family pilgrimages to the Riggs farm. Once John realizes what Jessie has done, he sells the reindeer to the local Christmas tree salesman and shores up plans to send her to Aunt Sarah.

Even as the third act attempts to warm the hearts of viewers, Prancer never loses its grim sense of realism. The film never makes it entirely clear if Prancer flew or merely dove off the cliff at Antler Ridge (in actuality, Illinois’s own Starved Rock) to a grisly death, but that’s not what the film is about. Without ever overstating it, the film has less to do with the magic of Christmas than the power of faith—in Santa and Prancer, in God and heaven, and in the idea that Jessie’s life might improve as she learns to deal with the horrendous loss of her mother and life in a family where she’s not really unloved but also not really cared for.

Prancer is a wonderful film, but it’s not for anyone who wants to spend Christmas happy. “Less miserable” is the best it can do for the already-miserable, and it’ll just bring happy folks down. Nevertheless, if you want to feel an authentic emotional experience and a renewed sense of faith, you won’t do any better than this film. Even the venerable masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life—itself incredibly downbeat until its last few minutes—doesn’t plunder such dark depths or explore weighty themes with such subtlety and grace.

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High Spirits (1988)

High Spirits is an odd, uneven misfire that, like a handful of movies (most recently, Morning Glory), suffers from a serious identity crisis. At times, it’s a wacky special effects comedy, but it’s not very funny and never seems like it much wants to be, and the special effects are fairly awful for the time. Sometimes, it’s a haunted-house mystery, only it’s not all that mysterious. At other times, it wants to be a raucous sex comedy, but its PG-13 rating prevents it from getting any sexier than silhouettes and innuendo. Some films can handle the balancing act of genre-bending craziness, but this isn’t one of them.

The film opens with Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole) trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage on Plunkett Castle, a coastal Irish relic with leaky ceilings, moldy walls, and all the charm of a cave. He tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a hotel, and now the mortgage holder—a shady American investor—wants to move the entire castle to Malibu. Left with no choice but to hang himself (the only running gag in the film that provides consistent laughs), he’s stopped at the last minute by the realization that marketing the hotel as a haunted castle might lure in dumb tourists.

The first half hour of the film—easily the best part—focuses on Peter’s efforts to convince a demographically diverse (but still lily-white) group of Americans that the hotel is really haunted. Using his disinterested, largely inept staff as ghosts suspended with wires or projected with mirrors, he creates a haunted-house experience surpassed in badness only by the dozens of overpriced haunted houses dotting Wisconsin Dells. The proceedings should get more complicated when it’s revealed that the castle really is haunted, and they do, but only because the film can’t figure out what to do with itself once the revelation occurs.

It tries for romance. When a drunken Jack Crawford (Steve Guttenberg) stumbles into the wrong room and encounters a ghost couple locked in a pattern of endlessly reenacting the murder of Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah), he thinks it’s more silly gags—until he steps in front of Martin Brogan’s (Liam Neeson) knife and breaks the pattern. Quickly, Jack falls in love with Mary, whose sweetness and generosity seems like the perfect antidote to Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo), his shrill ice princess of a wife. Freed as well, Brogan sets his own sights on Sharon, but his involves less romance and more fondling.

There’s more sex comedy, in the form of Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher), studying for the priesthood, and Miranda (Jennifer Tilly), who fills his chaste brain with impure thoughts. The ghosts’ efforts to rid the castle of tourists has the side effect of thrusting (so to speak) these two into sexy situations. Both actors are game and amusing, but the subplot feels more like padding than a worthwhile contribution to the story.

Then there’s the half-hearted mystery, in which disbelieving parapsychologist Malcolm (Martin Ferrero) uses sophisticated equipment to disprove the presence of ghosts, only to repeatedly prove himself wrong and start to wonder who these ghosts are and how they ended up in this castle. Meanwhile, to add some more wacky sex comedy, Malcolm’s high-strung wife, Marge (Connie Booth), just wants him to relax and have sex with her.

Great casting aside, the film never really takes off, and part of the problem may lie in the structure. It opens at a manic clip, with a great deal of (frequently funny) physical comedy, witty banter, off-kilter sight gags, and Peter O’Toole being more hilarious than I ever thought possible. Once the guests arrive and the movie shifts focus and slows down, it also stops being interesting and coasts to a ho-hum ending that’s sort of happy, sort of existentially depressing, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Oft-repeated legend has it that producers literally locked writer/director Neil Jordan out of the editing room after they rejected his cut, which allegedly focused more on the mystery of the ghosts than the wacky comedy. Frankly, I’m not sure that would have helped salvage the movie. Maybe his cut made the film less uneven, but I can’t see how it’d make the overall story work better. Either way, we’re stuck with the movie we have, and that movie just doesn’t succeed.

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The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

The House on Skull Mountain is a relic from a time when checked bell-bottoms and powder-blue cowboy shirts weren’t fashion no-nos, when people drove cars the size of houseboats and thought of them as compact, when the guy with the handlebar mustache wasn’t a villain and/or a pedophile. Its very ’70s-ness is perhaps its most dominant feature, and it threatens to overwhelm and destroy an otherwise solid (if slightly goofy) horror film. Look past the surface, and you might find something resembling actual suspense, and occasional shock moments that actually shock.

What we have here is little more than a Blaxploitation haunted-house film. Like many films of the genre, it adds a supernatural twist to a fairly straightforward locked-room mystery. As the film opens, inexplicably wealthy voodoo priestess Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) lies on her death bed, a shriveled husk. She recites an incantation, then digs through a box of treasured mementoes, pushing past a handful of pin-filled voodoo dolls until she finds a group of letters. She tells her faithful manservant, Thomas (Jean Durand), to mail a handful of the letters bearing old-fashioned wax seals. Then, she passes from this mortal coil.

A group of disparate strangers gather at the titular house, a mansion on the outskirts of Atlanta that sits atop a matte painting of a mountain resembling a skull. First comes Lorena Christophe (Janee Michelle), a fetching direct descendent of Pauline. Well, technically, Phillippe Wilette (Mike Evans) shows up first, after nearly running Lorena off a treacherous mountain road. He’s the token jive-talking turkey, so indoctrinated in the slang and fashion of ’70s Black culture that it takes him awhile to remember the word “house.” Then comes Harriet Johnson (Xernona Clayton), the first to see the shadowy, robed figure who will eventually come after all of them.

They all arrive with the knowledge that they’re related, however distantly, to Pauline, and to each other. Phillippe doesn’t care—he just wants Thomas to read the will. Thomas ominously says they’re waiting for a fourth person, before leaving for a full week to let the fourth person arrive. He does, and to everyone’s surprise—he’s a white guy, and an anthropology professor, Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French, best known as Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie and Michael Landon’s human sidekick on Highway to Heaven). In addition to wanting to learn more about his roots, he’s fascinated by the history and artifacts of Pauline’s voodoo culture.

Over the course of their week together, the foursome starts to get picked off by supernatural forces, accomplished with the use of sometimes effective but frequently awful (and unnecessary) special effects. Left alone after Harriet and Phillippe bite the dust, Cunningham and Lorena find the time to fall in love—they assume, rather safely, that their familial relationship is distant enough for a romance to not be terribly creepy—but all is not well in the house on skull mountain. One night, Lorena disappears without a trace, and Cunningham must search for her before she dies, too.

The film approaches its voodoo sequences with painstaking—sometimes painfully dull—attention to detail. Long sequences involving bongo drums, gyrating, and colorful clothing give way to bizarre (one assumes fictitious, but who knows?) ritualistic killings. It all builds to a trippy ending that’s happy in a general sense, but only satisfying in the context of the ennui and cynicism plaguing those burned by the peaceniks and free love movement.

One of The House on Skull Mountain‘s major strengths is the direction by Ron Honthaner. This makes some sense; although this is his only directorial effort (a shame, I have to say), he spent years alternating between film editing and television writing (for four seasons of Gunsmoke, among other things). Despite the shaky special effects, Honthaner knows how to cut (or not cut) to maximize suspense and potential scares. Any campiness to be found here is on the surface—the goofy clothes, the jive talk, the sometimes hilarious romantic storyline—because Honthaner is making a serious, well-intentioned horror film. It doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.

In most cases, the acting helps, too. Michelle has one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever laid my eyes on, but she was clearly hired more for her abundant beauty than her acting ability. Her large, expressive eyes nearly overcome the flat line readings, but they don’t quite make it. Fortunately, she has a pair of anchors in the form of the surprisingly terrific French (only surprising because the character is so different from his more famous roles, and he does a great job) and Durand. The former’s charming bashfulness and studious demeanor make a borderline incestuous romance founded on the corpses of distant relatives more plausible than it has any right to be. Durand’s glowering intensity make him an early favorite for the secret villain, so it’s no surprise (or spoiler) when it’s true, but he turns that intensity up to eleven after the reveal. It’s one of the all-time great crazy-villain roles in B-movie history. The supporting roles are padded with other solid players, notably Evans as Phillippe and Ella Woods as Thomas’s somewhat dopey wife.

The fact that they don’t make ’em like this anymore might cause a particular segment of the population to jump for joy. Really, though, I enjoyed The House on Skull Mountain. If you know what to expect and embrace it, it’ll be more of a pleasant surprise than a dated, eye-rolling trainwreck.

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The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (1990)

To put The Adventures of Ford Fairlane into context, one has to understand the popularity of Andrew “Dice” Clay at the time of its release. The unquestioned king of the late-’80s standup-comedy boom, his overwhelming popularity makes Dane Cook look like Geechy Guy (look him up). All this despite the fact that his explicit, misogynistic, oftentimes racist humor alienated enormous chunks of the audience. I’m no sociologist, but I have a theory that he came at exactly the right time to capitalize on the male fear of turning into the “sensitive ponytail man.” Dice served as a life preserver and a mouthpiece for all the terrible things weak-minded meatheads wished they could voice in a rapidly changing society where—gasp!—women and minorities were starting to receive the same fair and equitable treatment as white males. Needless to say, Dice’s celebrity was short-lived, but this misguided film existed to catapult him into bona fide superstardom.

Of all the people to force Andrew “Dice” Clay on the moviegoing public, I can’t think of a better person than Joel Silver. He doesn’t receive enough credit for his savvy understanding of genre conventions and bold willingness to subvert them within a seemingly mainstream movie. The man who produced revelatory genre blockbusters like 48 Hours and Die Hard had no problem with satirizing them with films like The Last Boy Scout, Hudson Hawk, and Demolition Man. In order to make Dice palatable for the masses, it would take someone with Silver’s canny instincts and willingness to poke fun at his own oeuvre.

Silver made a valiant effort, hiring director Renny Harlin (who helmed Silver’s incomparably silly Die Hard 2 the same year) and trenchant satirist Daniel Waters (Heathers, Hudson Hawk) to salvage a script about a “rock ‘n’ roll detective.” They attempted to turn it into a sublimely silly action-comedy, and at some points they succeed, but they’re consistently held back by Andrew “Dice” Clay.

It’s not so much Clay as the Dice persona. Clay may not be Laurence Olivier, but he has a charisma I only wish I could deny and proved his ability to act competently in Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story. The key should have been to humanize the Dice persona, in order to make him somewhat appealing to people outside the scope of his audience. Every time it feels like the film intends to do that, Dice forces another reference to banging broads or beating the shit out of someone. The thing is, there’s an obvious sadness haunting Clay’s surprisingly expressive eyes, showing his extreme confidence and crudeness as a façade. The film sometimes plays with the idea that Ford’s life—and, by extension, Dice’s—is sad and empty, but Dice refuses to let self-awareness denigrate who and what he stands for.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around the title character, Ford Fairlane, the epitome of cool circa 1959. He has the sideburns, the pompadour, the beaten leather jacket, the slick car, and the attitude. He’s frequently called “Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll Detective” by those who know him, and true to his name, he keeps an office on the Sunset Strip and spends his nights clubbing, drinking, and screwing his way into solving cases. The only scenes in the movie that work are a few early ones in which Ford revisits his old friend and former bandmate, Johnny Crunch (Gilbert Gottfried), who now works as a shock-jock for a radio station. Clay and Gottfried play these scenes as two old friends who simultaneously loved and hated their time together. Through nothing but subtext, they create a shared history that’s more interesting than anything else in the movie.

Johnny Crunch dies almost immediately after his few early scenes, but the film still could have worked. The screenplay tries to stick Ford into the modern version of a hardboiled detective story, and just as Miles Archer’s death serves as a catalyst for Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ford and Dice could have earned some audience respect by actually caring about his slain friend. Unfortunately, the film is too easily distracted to care much about Johnny, and Dice is too macho to show any concern for anything that won’t allow him to eventually see boobies. Johnny becomes one of a handful of music-scene deaths that Ford finds himself investigating. Both Johnny and wealthy socialite Colleen Sutton (Priscilla Presley) pay Ford to find a missing girl, Zuzu Petals (Maddie Corman), which anyone who has ever seen a movie from the ’40s knows will tie into the series of murders in one way or another.

In addition to Presley, Silver keeps Wayne Newton (in an impressively slimy performance as record company executive Julian Grendel), Vince Neil, Sheila E., and Morris Day on hand to prove the film’s rock ‘n’ roll credentials. Ed O’Neill gets the film’s only laughs as an incompetent detective whose burgeoning disco career was destroyed by Ford Fairlane. Ultimately, though, the film doesn’t add up to much more than a lot of solid supporting players and big-budget production values trying to prop up Dice as a movie star. Unfortunately, he’d get a lot more laughs if he stopped trying so hard to get laughs. He has a distinctive comic rhythm, but nothing he says or does in this film is ever funny, in part because he’s covered in the desperate flop sweat of a comic who realizes he’s in a vehicle that doesn’t match his persona’s sensibilities.

Harlin and the screenwriters desperately try to mine demented comedy (very similar to that featured in Hudson Hawk) by twisting action and mystery clichés. At every turn, Dice undercuts their efforts with unfunny voiceover narration or a not-as-pithy-as-he-thinks-it-is one-liner. I couldn’t tell you if Clay, Silver, or 20th Century Fox (or any combination thereof) made the decision to not allow Clay to break free of the Dice persona, but it was a bad one, one that ruins an expensive movie with enough potential to make me angry about its creative failure.

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Predator 2 (1990)

Personally, I think those who consider Predator a sneaky sci-fi classic are out of their minds. The film lacks the imagination of other sci-fi/action franchises (Alien, Terminator) and, lest we forget, spends more than half of its runtime on the tedious ambush of a South American coke den before the Predator shows up. From there, it’s a relatively small-scale cat-and-mouse game that owes more to Alien than anyone involved would like to admit. Even the sequel owes a lot to the Alien franchise, in that writers Jim and John Thomas keep only the title character, switching up genres and actors and pretty much everything else.

This time around, the franchise takes a relatively insane, kitchen-sink approach to myth-making. In a dystopian Los Angeles of the not-too-distant future (1997, which you’ll note puts it exactly ten years after the events of the first film), Lieutenant Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) runs a small, loyal squad of homicide detectives in a precinct cartoonishly overrun with gang violence. The film opens with a lengthy battle on a small, filthy section of a Los Angeles street. Explosions, machine-gun chatter, and rampant cocaine abuse (one highlight: a gangster stopping to snort a hit of cocaine, then rubbing a bunch into his wounds) alternate with Predatorvision, showing his arrival in the middle of the melée and his focus on… Well, it’s not exactly clear what his agenda is. He sort of seems like a prankster version of The Invisible Man, not really doing much beyond inciting additional violence once the police finally seem to have things under control.

After focusing his finally honed, mechanically enhanced hearing onto various gangsters and police, the Predator inexplicably decides to provoke an all-out war between the histrionic Colombians and the manic Jamaicans. (What was 20th Century Fox’s obsession with Jamaican villains in 1990? This year also saw the release of Marked for Death, an almost indescribably bizarre take on Jamaican gangs.) This is when the movie really starts to take off, with Joel Silver trying to outdo not only other Fox films, but his own (Die Hard 2 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane also came out that summer).

Unfortunately, every time the film threatens to veer toward a big-budget variation of a Cannon or Dino De Laurentiis film, the detectives hold it back. The ensemble is topnotch, with Glover leading Rubén Blades, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Bill Paxton on the hunt for a Predator. It’s just that the detective-procedural aspects of the film lack the fun and craziness of its many action sequences. The Thomases try to make it interesting by adding characters to get into Harrigan’s way. Silver regular Robert Davi shows up as a hateful police captain prone to fits of rage. He brings the Feds (led by an intense Gary Busey and a slightly unhinged Adam Baldwin) in on Harrigan’s investigation, forbidding him from continuing pursuit of the odd flayings that keep happening to gangsters in his precinct. Needless to say, Harrigan ignores that directive and continuously runs afoul of his superiors. Oh, Morton Downey, Jr., also shows up as a tabloid reporter doing a nonstop exposé on the violent streets of Los Angeles.

The film has a number of things going for it beyond craziness—a great ensemble, interesting (if dated) special effects, and a demented rendering of a future that’s already passed. It’s much grimmer and wilder than the reality turned out to be, but the film ably predicted the rise (and pathetic legitimizing) of tabloid journalism, the decay of the American city, and the ineffectiveness of underfunded urban police departments. It’s not exactly The Wire, but these problems that seemed small in 1990 have had quite a dramatic impact on the country. The fact that Predator 2 got it mostly right (even if it went way over-the-top with its ideas) helps keep its past-future-imperfect from seeming too dated.

Another big strength is the apparent verisimilitude. The film really did shoot in gang-controlled slums of Los Angeles, contending with gangsters pelting the cast and crew with debris and ruining takes by shouting obscenities. The squalor of the environs feels authentic, as does the Do the Right Thing-esque abuse of a Los Angeles heatwave to automatically make the proceedings sweatier and more intense. It’s a cheap device—especially after Do the Right Thing used it so masterfully—but it works.

My admiration for filmmakers who can vividly create a new world on the silver screen knows no bounds. Even though the procedural aspects of Predator 2 dulled what could have usurped Total Recall‘s title as the craziest big-budget action movie ever made, it’s a solidly constructed, wantonly violent film that betters its predecessor in every conceivable way. That doesn’t necessarily make it a masterpiece, but if you like your action movies with a heaping helping of goofiness, you’ll dig Predator 2.

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Jack (1996)

Every other scene in Jack suggests the movie it could have been with a bit more ambition and a lot more thought. It came at the tail-end of a national fascination with body-swapping comedies—Big; Vice-Versa; 18 Again; Like Father, Like Son—and it has a real opportunity to explore the topic with some substance. Because, you see, Jack doesn’t revolve around magic fortunetellers or mysterious idols; its title character suffers from a medical condition that will essentially ensure his death by age 20. He has no chance of switching back to another body and leading a normal life; this is it for him. Sometimes, the film recognizes this, but it too often eschews genuine pathos for fart jokes.

If you remember the old trailer, you know the story: Jack Powell (Robin Williams) is growing at a rapidly accelerated rate, roughly four years to every one of a normal child. After a bizarre sequence in which Karen (Diane Lane) goes into labor after two months of pregnancy (at a Halloween party, so everybody rushes to the hospital in wacky costumes), the film cuts ahead ten years and slips into a strangely melancholic tone. Director Francis Ford Coppola realizes Jack leads a life of deep sadness and loneliness, despite having loving parents. Because of his freakish qualities, they keep him indoors most of the time. He stares longingly out the window at the normal ten-year-olds, wishing he could live that life without having the intellectual or emotional capacity to understand why he can’t. Coppola’s not afraid to express that darkness, but he’s also not afraid to throw it all away for the sake of kids farting in a coffee can.

With some gentle encouragement from his tutor, Mr. Woodruff (Bill Cosby, in a surprisingly somber extended cameo), the Powells allow Jack to start attending public school. Initially an outcast, Jack proves his worth quickly in a variety of ways: Intellectually, he’s on the same level as the other kids, but he can also buy them Penthouses, impersonate the principal when kids get in trouble, and rule the basketball court based on his size rather than his skill. The film never really acknowledges that these “friends” are abusing his naïveté, ignorance, and freakishness for their own gain. It simply decides he’s proved himself to the kids and is a genuine friend.

In two interminable sequences, the film shows Jack having a hard time getting along with his intellectual peers (although he impresses them with his farting skills and willingness to eat their secret “initiation” concoction, which involves a lot of toothpaste and Tabasco sauce, his size and weight makes their elaborate treehouse collapse) and his physical peers (in a fit of depression, Jack rushes off to a bar, where he gets drunk with a fool (a cameo from Michael McKean), almost gets it on with his best friend’s mom (another cameo from Fran Drescher), and starts a barfight with some schoolyard taunts). I understand the theoretical purpose for these sequences. They show Jack doesn’t really fit in anywhere, which again reflects Coppola’s vision of Jack’s life as a tragedy rather than a comedy. The problem is, they’re neither funny enough nor insightful enough to make the film engaging.

Between these long stretches of emptiness, Jack has numerous compelling moments. Jack’s mind hasn’t really caught up to his adult hormones. When he develops a crush on his teacher, Miss Marquez (Jennifer Lopez), he can’t understand her rejection. Meanwhile, overprotective Karen worries more about Jack abandoning her than about him getting hurt. Her husband, Brian (Brian Kerwin), tries to reassure her that everything that’s happening now is perfectly normal, but her combination of fear and sadness is one of the few moments that resonates.

The film sometimes pays lip service to Jack’s slow realization that he’s going to die long before his peers, but it dismisses these thoughts without examining them with any real depth. The elegiac tone permeating every frame of the film (even the “wacky” sequences) makes it clear that Coppola correctly thinks Jack’s story is not a happy one, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough with that tragic undercurrent. In a perfect world, Jack would be a lot more like The Elephant Man than a big, dumb studio comedy. Numerous scenes hint at the film’s almost limitless possibilities—including a scene that flash-forwards to an elderly Jack at his high school graduation—but the screenplay and the conventions of big, dumb studio comedies keep it tethered.

On the plus side, Robin Williams delivers an impressively restrained performance as Jack. Playing an adult ten-year-old seems like the sort of character begging for Williams to go a million miles over-the-top, but with few exceptions, he gets the character exactly right. He plays Jack as a shy, naïve kid who knows he has a “disability” but would rather just play and have fun like a regular kid.

Despite the performance, Jack is a mess. It had the potential to be a great (if depressing) film about the nature of life. It has moments that spark ideas for a better way to tell the story, but the film never goes far enough in the right direction. Fart jokes and sight gags of giant Robin Williams crushing a tiny elementary school desk are simply too hard to resist, I guess.

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The War of the Roses (1989)

The strange thing about The War of the Roses is that it’s a film that wouldn’t work at all without its reaction shots. Thanks to Danny DeVito’s directing and the facial acting of its two leads, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, we understand that this once-loving couple has eased slowly and uncertainly into petty (but steadily escalating) behavior. Without that, it would be just another ugly, mean-spirited comedy about horrible people doing nasty things for no real reason (like its chief competition at the box-office, the Roseanne Barr star vehicle She-Devil, which I’ll reluctantly admit does have a few big laughs, but mostly it’s misanthropic).

Douglas and Turner star as the Roses, Oliver and Barbara, a couple whose initial meeting foreshadowed the pettiness to come: they bid fiercely for a high-priced knickknack, and when Barbara wins, Oliver follows her to bicker. Almost immediately, disdain turns to passion, and before you know it, they’re married. By the time the first act is over, twenty years have passed. Oliver has become a successful corporate attorney primarily to finance the mortgage and decoration of Barbara’s dream house. Oliver’s constant working has created a wedge between the couple. So has Barbara’s boredom (induced by finally finishing the house and watching both of her kids go off to college), which she tries to cure by starting a high-end catering business.

One day, Oliver keels over, presumably of a heart-attack. The fact that it’s merely a hiatal hernia doesn’t make Oliver any less angry that Barbara never shows up at the hospital. She eventually confesses that she feared going to the hospital because she never wanted to imagine anything bad happening to her family. Oliver’s heartened, until Barbara goes on: She did start imagining Oliver had died, and she felt happy and relieved. This epiphany leads her to divorce him. She waives alimony in exchange for ownership of the house (her attorney uses an emotional letter Oliver wrote on what he assumed was his deathbed to justify the demand). Oliver feels he has an equal claim on the house, so with the help of his own divorce attorney (Danny DeVito), he cites an obscure precedent that would force them to share ownership of the house.

This sets off the chain of events that gives the movie its title. A few legitimate faux pas lead to petty vengeance, and the whole thing snowballs into a battle royale involving crushed cars, dead pets, and evacuation of urine in places where urine doesn’t belong.

The second hour of the film wouldn’t work at all without those reaction shots—moments that show us both Oliver and Barbara are still recognizably human. Their faces express the guilt and embarrassment anyone would feel with those early, accidental dust-ups. Once things have escalated, they vacillate between genuine anger at one another and the sort of wondering look of a person questioning whether or not he or she has gone too far. This doesn’t stop their bad behavior, and it doesn’t justify it, but it keeps Barbara and Oliver from turning into cartoon characters. It allows us to look at the whirlwind courtship in the first act without feeling like screenwriter Michael Leeson betrays who the Roses once were en route to third-act tastelessness. In fact, those reaction shots alone prevent the film from being as tasteless as it easily could have been. They transform the film from histrionic misanthropy into a genuinely funny farce about two bitter, angry people driven to extremes.

Of course, it helps that Douglas and Turner are perfectly cast as the Roses. They established their Bickersons-style chemistry in Romancing the Stone and its sequel, and DeVito pushes it to comic extremes. It works primarily because their chemistry has a certain weight and history to it; without that level of gravity, they’d just seem hateful. Instead, it feels like years of pent-up frustration on both sides unleashed in wave after wave of unvarnished hostility—but there’s still a tiny germ of love there, enough to let us think both Oliver and Barbara are reacting more from emotional pain than screenplay-mandated vindictiveness.

The thing is, none of this is present in the screenplay—or, at least, not in the dialogue. It all comes from the actors adding subtext and DeVito knowing exactly how to exploit that subtext. Although he also directed Hoffa and Matilda in the ’90s, DeVito the director has become synonymous with warped, dyspeptic comedies. However, this and Throw Momma from the Train contain much more humanity than his later comedies, 2002’s execrable Death to Smoochy and 2003’s borderline-unwatchable Duplex. It’s possible he got lucky with casting coups in these early films, but maybe he simply got too cynical.

Whatever his philosophical issues, his filmmaking skill-set is sharp as ever here. He knows how to put together comic set-pieces, but he also hits on emotional beats with these characters that inferior knockoffs like 1990’s Mad House ignore. Just as the performances elevate the screenplay (which is as much attributable to DeVito working with the actors as the actors themselves), DeVito’s eye for visual detail makes The War of the Roses more cinematic than a lot of comedies. It also allows him to pack in more jokes, in the corners of the frame or the background of a scene. To quote Kurt Longjohn, “It’s a real film.”

The worst thing I can say about it is that the framing device—in which DeVito’s character, Gavin D’Amato, tells the story of the Roses to a client (Dan Castellaneta) to dissuade him from filing for divorce—doesn’t really work. DeVito’s funny, and Castellaneta’s increasingly disturbed body language helps sell the soul-crushing gravity of the story, but it’s mostly just an excuse to narrate the story instead of revealing information in more natural ways. However, that’s a small issue in a very funny movie.

The War of the Roses hearkens back to a heady time when Hollywood made big, star-studded comedies for adults. I miss those days. Even a lot of the “hard-R” comedies coming out these days feel like they’re made for teenagers. At any rate, this is probably the best comedy about divorce not made by Woody Allen. It’s well worth a second look.

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