Valley Girl

Valley Girl (1983) movie poster

(1983) dir. Martha Coolidge
viewed: 08/29/08

I’ll just put this up front: Valley Girl is one of my favorite movies.

I’ve liked it since I first saw it on cable probably around 1984 or so.  I had it more or less as a guilty pleasure up until 10-15 years ago when I “came out” as a fan unironically.  I don’t pose it against the highest of cinematic art, but I think it’s a charming film, the best of the 1980’s teen films, a film with a sweetness and romantic heart that features fine performances in both the leading roles (Nicolas Cage’s first leading role and Deborah Foreman) and in many of the additional cast: Frederic Forrest as Foreman’s dad, Elizabeth Daily as the sweet, semi-trampy friend, Michael Bowen as the braindead hunk villain, Cameron Dye as Cage’s goofball pal, and even Heidi Hollicker as Foreman’s small-minded pal.

The film has an excellent soundtrack with Modern English, Sparks, The Psychedelic Furs, and performance footage of Josie Cotton and the Plimsouls, who also contribute wonderfully to the soundtrack.  I actually had a buddy in film school who wrote a paper on the use of the soundtrack in the film to reflect the goings on in their respective scenes: Modern English’s “I Melt With You” being a prime romantic point, but also more innocuously when background party music features Sparks “I’ve Got Angst in My Pants” when the nervous partygoers first find their footing, The Payola$ “Eyes of a Stranger” signifying Cage’s bedroom eye glances when first making contact with Foreman, and most amusingly, Josie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer?” at the moment in which Cage confronts Bowen for a fist-fight to establish manhood and ultimately Foreman’s hand.  It’s actually pervasive throughout the film, so hopefully you get the point.

Ostensibly, it’s a relatively explicit Romeo and Juliet for the early 1980’s Los Angeles.  Cage’s Randy is the Hollywood new wave-ish punk and Foreman’s Julie is the titular Valley Girl from “the Valley”, spouting amusingly archaic and colorful slang, the wrong side/right side of the Los Angeles tracks.  And while Julie’s parents, aging hippies, offer more open-minded advice, it’s Julie’s friends who airheadedly yearn for the most staid and true forms of romance are the ones who look to break them up.

Both Cage and Foreman are genuinely sweet and have a true chemistry.  In fact, watching it this time, probably the first time in 10 years or so, I felt very touched by her performance.  Okay, fair enough, I have the softest of soft spots for this film, but this is why.  I think it had a great deal of charm.

Most perhaps sadly and amusingly, my biggest takeaway from this viewing of this film (one of less than 15 films that I own on DVD) was that I think my approach to romancing girls, from my youngest years at it, were modeled heavily on Randy’s charm and sincerity, with the romantic, swoony pick-up lines to the knockabout humor.  Sad, probably, this.  But true.

While some of my other favorite films include Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959), Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), as well as probably a few others (it’s a question that I dislike overall — choosing a favorite anything), Valley Girl is indeed a personal favorite.  It’s one that I just simply like, enjoy, and still do, very much.

I’m out and proud on this one.

Street Kings

Street Kings (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. David Ayer
viewed: 08/28/08

Street Kings is the latest film from director David Ayer, who made his name in Hollywood by writing about the tough streets of contemporary Los Angeles, raising his star most prominently in the Oscar Awarded Training Day (2001) which earned Denzel Washington his award and good credits to Ethan Hawke, too.  I’ve still never see it.  I did, however, catch Ayer’s directorial debut, Harsh Times (2005), which was a pretty tough, gnarly story of a psychotic ex-military man returning the the “city of Angels” to get a law enforcement job, only to be too crazy for anyone except for the Office of Homeland Security.  A pretty interesting story, study, and hung on the intensity of Christian Bale, it was one of those films that kind of came and went, but was better than a lot.

Street Kings, which has the additional “street cred” as a story originally from L.A. noir Modernist James Ellroy, who also took a pass at the screenplay too.  But, instead of the typically intense, yet typically believable Christian Bale in the lead, we have Keanu Reeves playing the tough bad mad-dog bad cop with a drinking problem and a missing moral center.

To Keanu’s credit, when he’s not speaking, he’s a lot more effective of an actor.

But when he does speak, he sounds as dumb as a bag of hammers.  He’s just not capable, really, of this kind of a role, one in which realism and morality really are the crux upon which the film turns.  The film itself is there.  It’s a good story of corruption and then Corruption and then CORRUPTION in the L.A.P.D.  But Keanu, though he tries, just is too weak to make it work.

The rest of the casting varies greatly.  Forest Whitaker is strong, as are a couple of others.  But the casting is spotty across.  I think it’s the film’s biggest weak point.  And while Ayer is not a bad director, he’s also not necessarily capable of making do with these weaknesses necessarily.

It’s a shame.  There is a good movie here, or almost here.  It’s not an utterly wasted effort.  Reeves looks okay for the part, a bit more haggard and aging, possibly world-weary.  But then he talks.  Maybe he was meant for the Silent era.

The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid (1989) movie poster

(1989) dir. Ron Clements, John Musker
viewed: 08/27/08 at The Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Seeing Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the Castro Theatre was more than just seeing The Little Mermaid.  This was The Little Mermaid (Sing-along), featuring handout clappers, poppers, glowsticks, and other goodies.  I reckoned it to be like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), for kids.  And it was quite a bit of fun.  Took both Felix and Clara and the two neighbor girls and amusement was had by all, including Felix, who swore that he hated the movie beforehand.  He had to admit that he had fun in the end.

For Disney, The Little Mermaid was a turning point, a turning point in many directions.  The studio, which defined itself and feature animated films in its earliest work, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1940) in the musical format, adapting the more classical (public domain) fairy tale.  The Little Mermaid was a return to this form for the studio, whose prior feature animated films had continued to decline in quality and popularity.  It was also the last of the Disney features to be created with tradtional cel animation, transitioning forward to more digitized production.

It also was the first in a series of huge hits for the studio, reclaiming the domain of American kiddie fare, feature animation, and ultimately marketing, marketing, marketing.

Oddly enough, Disney has seemingly relpased into a malaise after having tried to strike gold again and again with its formulae.  After the successes of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), somewhere between Pocahontas (1995) and Tarzan (1999) and ultimately Home on the Range (2004) (Disney’s last film to feature “traditional animation”).  They still have a long way to go to catch up with Pixar, even if they are partnered up with them financially.

The Little Mermaid is pretty good, which was good enough for 1989.  The songs, “Under the Sea”, “Kiss the Girl”, and “Part of Your World” made for more humable stuff than the studio had produced since The Jungle Book (1967), when the studio had some great songwriters on staff.

Oddly enough, my eroded memory of last having seen the film (believe it or not those of you with children raised on repeated watchings of the Disney canon) aparently not long after it first came out on video, I found myself most appreciating the same scene that I liked the most back in that time: the maniacal French Chef Louis, chasing after the crab Sebastian, while singing “Les Poissons”, a tune with hilarious lyrics about loving fish by “chopping off their heads” and “rubbing salt on them”.  It’s very funny.  Could stand on its own.

Not the studio’s greatest, but good.  My apologies to those who might be offended by that.

High Sierra

High Sierra (1941) movie poster

(1941) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 08/26/08

My Humphrey Bogart/John Huston fest was a little accidental, but most of these films, including High Sierra (1941), Key Largo (1948), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) had been in my Netflix queue for some time.  High Sierra, unlike the others, I actually had seen before when I was living in England on the BBC or BBC2.  My interest in the crime novel hadn’t fully formulated at that time, nor perhaps has it even now…though I am willing to argue a bit more perspective.

High Sierra, in comparison with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948), is  much more a potboiler, much more a templated thriller with more of the cliche elements, characters, and whatnot.  If that matters to you.  The fact is, High Sierra, from a W. R. Burnett book, re-worked by Burnett and John Huston, is still much more the classic pulp story, one in which the anti-hero is a noirish ex-con who seeks to find the American dream by means of the anti-American dream, the bank robbery.

It’s top-notch stuff.  Ida Lupino, an eventual director and producer, a proto-feminist working in a genre that is not too feminist-friendly, is the poor moll, who contrasts to the sexy, sweet-thing club foot chick who turns out to be more of a grassback than Lupino.  High Sierra is rich mining material for the Freudian theorist who wants to deconstruct classic Hollywood.  It’s also a far cry, a futuristic far cry,  from the noir that would follow it.  Nonetheless, it speaks of Huston’s humanism that would show up in his work, an affection and appreciation for the working man, of whatever color that workingman’s skin might be.

This all might seem slightly passe by contemporary terms, but it’s all good stuff by the terms and realities of the film’s production.  It’s a tragic poem whose criticism leans towards the “straight” world.  It’s part of the ideology that leans into the idealism of the non-straight world, in which idealism, meaning, and importance is based on an ideology embedded in the world of known realities.

Yeah, it rocks.

Key Largo

(1948) dir. John Huston
viewed: 08/26/08

Part two of my would-be John Huston/Humphrey Bogart 1948 double feature, part two to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo is yet another of the classic Hollywood features that I’d never gotten around to seeing until now.

Set in a hotel in the titular Key Largo during a hurricaine, the characters are held hostage by a Al Capone-like mobster king played by Edward G. Robinson, who has come back from Cuba to deal some counterfeit greenbacks to some old cronies.  Bogart is the returning war hero who is adrift and a bit lost amidst the post-WWII world, an almost noirish hero in a storm of crime, chaos, and humidity.

Hard to fathom that John Huston knocked both this film and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in one year with Bogart, but that is the heydey of Hollywood for you.  Bacall is as gorgeous as she ever was, the widow of Bogart’s war buddy.  Huston seems to only populate his cast with top-notch talent in every role, a true character actor’s dream director.  The cast stinks with solid performances.

The only thing that I don’t get is that lame-ass AM radio 1981 single by Bernie Higgins (who? I thought it was Christopher Cross), “Key Largo”.  I quote the bard Higgins: “We had it all, just like Bogey and Bacall, starring in our own late-late show, sailing away to Key Largo”.

Did he actually watch the movie?  Maybe there is a Key Largo II: We Had It All, but mostly the characters are in dire danger throughout.  What the hell, Bernie?  Get a DVD player already and repent!

Anywhoo…I am all about John Huston at the moment.  I have one more Bogart/Huston collaboration at home at the moment, though High Sierra (1941) which Huston has a screenwriting credit though Raoul Walsh directs.  I plan to queue the hell out of John Huston movies.  That’s right.


Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Dave Filoni
viewed: 08/23/08 at AMC Loews Metreon 16 with IMAX, SF, CA

This ain’t your father’s Star Wars, unfortunately, I could have said to my son.

Animated in a style meant to reflect the puppet-stiffness of the 1960’s cult British television kids programme, Thunderbirds, the design and animation features an aesthetic that rules severely over its own quality.  While the characters are no better actors than those in the latter trilogy of creator George Lucas, their stiffness is a little less embarrassing than the humans that usually get to deliver such crappy lines.

It’s a lot of the action, some of the characters, and about nothing else to offer the less deeply invested fan of the Star Wars universe.  How much disappointment do they feel?  Or is this just part of the bigger picture?  Watering down a franchise further and further from the films that actually made the franchise viable.

Well, my son did enjoy it.  Clara didn’t like it.  I wasn’t surprised by that.

With a story set in between chapters Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), we get to follow the adventures of an adult, ass-kicking, not yet dark side Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, plus a couple of new female ass-kicking Jedi (both good and evil).  There is a story about Jabba the Hutt’s son being kidnapped by the bad guys, who try to make it look like it was done by the good guys.  Not epic.  An adventure.  A prelude to a television series.  A television series more apt in its quality and production rather than a feature-length theatrical release.

The only other thing that really struck me was Ziro the Hutt, an uncle of Jabba’s, badder to his badness, a turncoat in the house of the Hutt.  Ziro the Hutt is basically a Jabba the Hutt-look-a-like but painted up with glow-in-the-dark make-up and effeminite to the Maxx (sorry, got a little carried away with my Hutt-influenced spelling).  The thing is, this character is pretty much Truman Capote.  Why?  I don’t know.  The closest thing to a gay character that I recall in the Star Wars universe.  I believe a WTF is in order here.  So, WTF?

Well, Felix enjoyed it.  I think.  We’ll have to see how he feels about it in a week or two.  It’s not especially memorable.  I think he told me that he liked it because it “wasn’t too long”.  I’m with him on that one.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. John Huston
viewed: 08/22/08

Truly one of Hollywood’s classics, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, oddly enough was not a film that I had ever before seen.  But recently, I had picked up a copy of the novel by B. Traven upon which the film had been based, read it, read up on it, and decided that the time had come to finally get around to it.

Directed by John Huston, one of several excellent John Huston/Humphrey Bogart collaborations, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is classic Hollywood at its best.  The story of a group of down-and-out Americans in Mexico during the 1920’s who take up the mining of gold in the harsh outlies of the Mexican desert amid outlaws, dodgy governement, viciously hard toil, and ultimately the greed of “what gold does to men’s souls”.  The film features many great performances, none better than the one by the director’s father, Walter Huston, as the wily old Howard, the one who has made and lost enough fortunes to be the cynnical realist of the bunch while actually having a sense of humor at the brutality of fate.

What is also vastly fascinating is the story of the author of the original material, B. Traven.  Rather than try to retell the details of this mysterious figure, I recommend reading up on it at the Wikipedia bio.  He himself is almost as interesting as the story he makes up.

Huston, whose work I really have failed to see enough of, really is one of the auteurs of Hollywood.  He made dozens of films, excellent films, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is as iconic as any of them, as iconic as Hollywood gets.

The film does pull an expected punch in the narrative, allowing one character to live that perishes in the book, allowing for more traditional hope and fulfillment of American dream idealism.  The book’s power is both in its intensive realism, a picture of Mexico that strikes quite a believable note, and in its Socialist humanism.  But the story is a harsh one, one which has a striking poetry in the fate of the luckless gold miners, the lure of the lucre, the evil evoked in even the hearts of otherwise decent men.  It works.  It’s not literature, but effective.  And the film rides that out in fine form.

Great, grand stuff.

The Long Goodbye

The Long Goodbye (1973) movie poster

(1973) dir. Robert Altman
viewed: 08/19/08 at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA

The most novel thing about going to see Robert Altman’s interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye was that it was in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, the hallowed ground of Bay Area cinema to which I had never been before.  Whereas some cinemas (like the Castro) offer the character of place and charm, the PFA is all about the movies.  Their schedule, which was just running out, was jaw-dropping in comparison with any other cinema around here.  Would that it was in San Francisco!  I may have to change my ways and venture out there more often.  I really should.

I’d seen The Long Goodbye back a few years ago at the Castro.  It’s a modern (1970’s modern) take on the character of Philip Marlowe and the noir world of Los Angeles.  Instead of Humphrey Bogart, we’ve got Elliott Gould, mumbling witicisms and wisecracks like Popeye the Sailor.  He’s not hard-boiled, he’s a smart-aleck.  And the Los Angeles he inhabits (in a crazy apartment way up on a hill) neighbors some drug-addled, topless hippie chicks who do non-stop yoga and meditation and drugs (apparently).

Not only is the physical Los Angeles different from the 1940’s, even though Altman uses many locations that would have fit of that era, but the filmic style is a stark contrast to the Hollywood style of the era.  The point in contrast is Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946) with its luminous black-and-white, classic Hollywood style.  Altman’s pacing, camera-work, entire approach is looser, sloppier, and somewhat improvisational.  The style has some of the distancing qualities of the French New Wave, but echoes again with the time of the film’s present.

It’s an active discourse in the film, the aging edifices and traditions of Hollywood, played with in enumerous ways throughout the film, from the opening and closing quips of the song, “Hooray for Hollywood” to its use of its own freshly composed theme song “The Long Goodbye”, composed by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, a jazzy retro number that Altman plays throughout the film in a multitude of versions, lush vocal renditions, a mariachi death march, hummed by the film’s villain…  It’s everywhere.  It’s misty.  But it’s de-mystified.

Altman also features a security guard who specializes in mimickry of old movie stars.  The whole of Hollywood has been reduced to these odd job quirks.

The film is actually quite funny in many places, filled with running jokes like Elliott Gould striking matches off of the scenery and lighting cigarettes constantly.  Even in its humor, there is an air of sadness, the dying relationship of the famous author and his wife as he strives drunkenly toward suicide.  There is tragedy and deceit and a villain who is vicious for no good reason.  Gould’s Marlowe is almost effected by what he sees.  He, like the traditional Marlowe, is a moral center in an off-tilt world and is motivated by rectifying things.  But he’s also pretty carefree.

The film comes from Altman’s richest period when he made MASH (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us (1973), and Nashville (1975), among others.  It’s an odd film in looking from a noir tradition.  Not really a send-up, per se, but a definite re-working, though working with some of the traditions, even with screenwriter Leigh Brackett who had also co-written the 1946 version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, another reconnection with the Hollywood of the past within the Hollywood of its then-present.

Nude for Satan

Nude for Satan (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Luigi Batzella
viewed: 08/18/08

Talk about suffering for art.  Or maybe suffering because of it.

Nude for Satan was meant to be a nice pairing for a double feature with Vampyros lesbos (1971).  I hope that you can imagine the theme of the pairing from the titles alone.  However, I didn’t manage to watch them both in one night, and it’s just as well.

Nude for Satan is definitely one of the worst films that I have seen in ages.  From the camera work, the special effects, the half-assed narrative to the downright dullness, it’s really not worth the effort.

The story follows a doctor who discovers a beautiful woman in a car crash on a desolate country road.  He goes up to a mansion on a hill to seek help and finds (literally) behind door number 1: a cackling man lying on the ground with something like a rod through his neck, then behind door number 2: a sex scene (which he shudders at more quickly than the creepy dead guy.)  And yet, he keeps looking.  Like maybe the telephone is behind door number 3?

There is this whole duality thing, with doppelgangers of the man and the woman.  And there is the devil,…I guess.  The devil likes orgies.  And then there is this very bizarre, quite humorous really, scene in a big spider web with the phoniest-looking spider ever made.  I actually thought to myself that Ed Wood, Jr. might have enjoyed this film.

There is one other scene, the only cool effect, I thought, where the woman, confronted by the satan guy suddenly flashes naked like he has just undressed her with his eyes.  In the film in which the camera effects are as amateurish as you can possibly imagine, this was the one trick that worked.  You gotta take it for what you can.

In the end, it seems that the whole narrative is somewhat of a bizarre dream, brought on by the car crash, which, though one of the most cliche narrative devices around, somehow surprised me here.  Maybe just because I wasn’t expecting it.  This film does make Vampyros lesbos look like Citizen Kane (1941).


Vampyros lesbos

Vampyros lesbos (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. Jesus Franco
viewed: 08/16/08

You know, it’s funny, but I’d never seen a Jesus Franco film before.  He’s one of these living legends of cult/horror/exploitation/weirdness.  Still kickin’.  My interest in this film (yeah, I know the title suggests a lot), stemmed from my childhood, from a book I had on zombie films, featuring stills and movie posters.  The titilating title stayed with me and finally, the time had come.

Vampyros lesbos is exploitation.  The unbelievably beautiful Susann Korda is the female victim/inheritor of Dracula’s legend.  The film is a mod and odd take on the traditional Bram Stoker tale, playing the characters with sexual obsession, love, repression, and pop psychology.

It’s both arty and trashy, which is probably what appeals about Franco’s work.  It’s only arty enough, really, to recognize its artiness.  It’s only trashy enough to stoke some tantalizing images of lesbian vampire love and lots of comfortable nudity in the days before plastic surgery.

While it doesn’t quite reach the sublime pleasures of Doris Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965), it does reckon of other European horror films from the period of exploration and exploitation, Daughters of Darkness (1971) also comes to mind.  It’s not horrid, no.  It’s strange, semi-pretentious, mucho-camp art trash.

Is that not a form of beauty somewhere?

And it has this crazy-ass groovin’ soundtrack.  Weirdness.