The Garbage Pail Kids Movie

 

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987) movie poster

(1987) dir. Rod Amateau
viewed: 05/28/10

Back in the late 1980’s, despite the fact that I was an older teenager, I collected Garbage Pail Kids cards.   I liked the subversive grossness and recognized the style as reflective of another series of stickers that I had liked as a kid, Wacky Packages, which were pun/lampoons of common products.  And interestingly, reading up on it, one of the product creators was the very talented Art Spiegelman of Maus fame.  Certainly, it was not something that a lot of teenagers were collecting, but I was relatively avid and still have the bulk of my grossings of the time.

However, I never did see “the movie”.  And though I feel like I had a bit of a sense of its existence, I probably easily gathered that it was going to be utter crap.  Still, given some of my leanings at the time, I suppose it’s a little surprising that I never saw it at the time.

Well, that’s what Netflix is all about.  Never having to say you’ve never seen something.

It’s atrocious.  Really, after having just watched the hilariously bad Troll 2 (1990), I have to say that The Garbage Pail Kids Movie could well be in the running for one of the worst films of the period.  It’s not as purely inept as Troll 2, but it’s annoying, obnoxious, and painful,…and it even has a song/dance number.

I’m shaking my head as I write this.  The story is about a young boy, Dodger (apparently an orphan but who knows — played by Mackenzie Astin, son of John Astin and Patty Duke), who works at a local curiosity shoppe for the kindly Captain Manzini (Anthony Newley).  Manzini has a garbage can containing seven or eight of the Garbage Pail Kids including Ali Gator, Valerie Vomit, Foul Phil, Nat Nerd, Windy Winston, Messy Tessie, and Greaser Greg.  They are all played  by little people in very ugly little costumes and semi-animatronic masks.   In fact, they are uglier than the cards.

And ugliness is the theme of the movie.  Probably the funniest part of the movie is the “State Home for the Ugly” where the ugly and unpresentable are caged up like animals and crushed in a garbage truck compactor.  I actually thought that was pretty funny, including the dog catcher-like goons that go around hunting down “the ugly”.

Dodger is harrassed and beaten up by bullies who look a little too old to be doing what they are doing.  But he has a crush on Tangerine (Katie Barberi), the moll of the top thug of his trouble.  And Tangerine has a dream of making 1980’s fashion and making it big.  And the Garbage Pail Kids help Dodger make some of his own and join her in her quest for high 1980’s fashion.  And actually, from a fashion perspective, this movie has a lot of choice moments and outfits.

The whole thing is Z-grade, PG-rated, nonsense.  Fart jokes and pee jokes prevail.  And yet the story of Dodger and his love for Tangerine gives rise to some moderately melodramatic moments as he learns his lesson that he is merely being used by the young lady.  And going with the theme of ugly/beauty, he tells her at the end, when she tries to atone for her abuse, that he “doesn’t think she’s pretty anymore”.  And the bottom line theme of inner beauty being greater than physical beauty…well, this movie luckily doesn’t really try to hit that home too hard.

The film is bad, but fun bad.  Not as fun as if it was more perverse and less PG, but it still has that analog charm of low-budget 1980’s movies.  It well could be a cult film in the hands of the right provocateur.  And as eye-rollingly annoying as many moments are, I still feel a little satisfied that I finally saw it.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

(2010) dir. Mike Newell
viewed: 05/28/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

The list of films adapted from video games is not a particularly auspicous one.  Starting with the misbegotten Super Mario Bros. (1993), the couple of Lara Croft movies, a number of films by noted bad filmmaker Uwe Boll, the Resident Evil film series, you’ve really got to wonder if there will ever be a good movie adapated from a video game.  Ever.

I find myself occasionally watching a film that is not adapted from a video game and thinking to myself that it has the plot (or lack thereof) to compare it to a film adpated from video games, but then I realize that I am potentially denigrating something that of which I know little.  I mean, of all the video games that have been made into movies, I think the only one that I’ve ever played was Super Mario Bros. And perhaps that is dating myself a bit.  But I do know that the “video game” has risen immensely in technical complexity, storyline, and in its general form.  So much so that I am willing to believe that there are video games with much more quality potential plot scenarios than the ones that have thusfar been transformed into film.

And really, as a starting point, depending on expectations, you still have to write a script, hire actors, stuntpeople, designers, directors, and actually make a movie.  So, in many ways, it’s not like the opportunity isn’t potentially there.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is the latest and perhaps the biggest film yet made from a video game.  Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, we’ve got a sort of fantasy adventure set at some fantasy point in time in Persia.  So lots of scimitars, Arab costumes, and lots of probably highly inaccurate depictions of styles and people that never existed.  But the story has echoes of others told.  A street urchin (Gyllenhaal to be) is brought by a king to be a “prince of Persia” along with two of his own blood sons.  They are a noble group, but are about to be duped by the evil machinations of the king’s brother, Ben Kingsley.

Here’s where the thing is a little funny.  Kingsley tells them that he has a spy who is certain that this other kingdom is developing weapons of mass destruction (swords and steel-tipped arrows) and that they need to be invaded and destroyed.  Though Gyllenhaal and his father doubt the verity of these reports, the uncle pushes them onward to attack.  Of course, it all turns out that this “intelligence” was falsified, and that in the end there is a great power “beneath” the castle that Kingsley’s conniving villain is really after.  I hope I don’t need to spell out this metaphor for you.

Because if you really start to muse over the implications beyond their surface, it’s awfully muddy.

The power is something that one accesses by using this special knife, with a red ruby button on the end of the hilt, to “turn back time”.  The knife trick only works for about a minute, but as the film’s title suggests, is sort of the key to the storyline.  Gemma Arterton, who caught my eye earlier this year in Clash of the Titans (2010), is the princess/protector of this secret power over time and also Gyllenhaal’s love interest.  She’s pretty darn gorgeous, I’ll give her that.

In the hands of director Mike Newell of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the romantic tensions between Gyllenhaal and Arterton feel like pure retread repartee.  And the action sequences are, while occasionally stimulating, often cluttered and over-edited, with occasional slo-mo grainy moments, and lots of clanging and clashing and hoo-haw.

While it’s no Uwe Boll film, it’s still quite weak summer blockbuster material.  Not an iota of freshness amidst the whole kit and kaboodle.  While it doesn’t hurt to linger on Gemma Arterton’s face for moments, the film doesn’t flex much intellectual muscle nor show a whit of action, jumping, swordfighting that one hasn’t seen many times before either.  And much like the subtext of the missing WMD’s, so goeth the entertainment value of the latest of our video game-spawned movies.

Legion

 

Legion (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Scott Stewart
viewed: 05/25/10

The apocalypse.  This time it’s all on God.  You see, he’s lost faith in mankind and so has sent his army of angels to destroy them, particularly one baby still in utero, who could signal a rebirth of life.  And these angels take the forms of monster-people, possessed, scary, sharp-toothed, for some reason.  And the only one who has come to help the humans in the archangel Michael, with tattoos, muscles, an English accent, and a whole lot of guns.

And this all takes place in a desert outpost called “Paradise Falls”.  Get it?  Paradise falls?  Maybe we should make that more obvious and put it up on top of the restaurant in great big neon letters.  Actually, that is exactly what we have.

So, clearly, not  a movie about subtlety.  But rather one of very obvious turns of oppositional representation.  See, God and the angels are the bad guys.  What!  The mother of an unwanted pregnancy is the birth mother of the new Christ.  She smokes.  She’s unwed.  She almost had an abortion.  What!

Actually, this film is an odd one from the religious perspective.  Playing against some obvious types with the angels as bad guys, apparently some religious types found it sacreligious.  But really, it’s an affirmation of the meek and the redemption of humanity.  So, what creative license the film utilizes, it’s still supports the overall vision of Christian systems.

But really, it’s a really, really lame movie.

In the trailers for the film, two key moments are shown.  In the first one, a little old lady with a walker and a sweet voice and face inquires of the pregnant mother of her due date and then tells her that the baby is going to burn, goes all demonic, climbs to the ceiling, and eventually gets shot.  The other, an ice cream man, dressed like a member of Devo for some reason, appears, screams, stretching his face out and then deforms into a long-limbed, semi-insect-like form.  This striking visual was a key for promoting the film.  But you know what?  Right after he does all that, he simply gets shot and killed and never shows up again.

And when the film tries to get all “human”, with its moralizing backstories and tender moments with the actors speaking their hearts, it’s outright painful.  I don’t know that the actors are bad themselves, but with dialogue like what they are saddled with, it’s pretty embarrassing to listen to.  And another thing, why does Dennis Quaid’s son, who was raised in Arizona according to the story, sound like he comes from Alabama?   When no one else has an accent of the sort?

The whole thing is a weak premise, a crappy effort, and an annoying waste of time.  It did strike me that this was the first DVD I watched of a film that had already come out in 2010 in the theaters.  And you know, I really knew that this was going to suck.  I thought the trailers looked lame, obvious, unsurprising.  But I guess that I have a weak spot for these horror films, though this actually with its mixture of genres, isn’t really pure horror.  Well, it’s purely horrible anyways.

Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 05/24/10

When Lena Horne passed away on May 9, I queued up this film, a debut of sorts for her and the first feature film directed by Vincente Minnelli, an early Hollywood all-African American film, full of complex representation issues and yet still full of wonder, charm, and real cinematic captures of the likes of Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among a stellar cast of other amazing African-American talents of the time.  And it, while doubtlessly flawed on a multitude of levels, also exudes great charm and warmth and wonder on a number of levels as well.

Adapted from a Broadway play, Cabin in the Sky is a Faustian musical, set entirely within an African-American pretext.  This, of course, is 1940’s Hollywood version of African America, so what it tends to depict most accurately are the stereotypes of the time and yet also the unbridled talent of the performers.  Well, somewhat unbridled.  The whole thing is bridled with its vision of this “ethinc” world.  But the film is not intentionally racist.  In fact, the film shows great affection for its characters, not simply idealizing them (because they are much of caricatures, cartoon characters, “types”), but indeed yearning toward their true humanity.

Actually, it’s not hard to be brought to mind of animated films like Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) or Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), both from director Bob Clampett.  While the animation takes the caricatures to extremes (as animation, particularly of that time, took everything to extremes), the image is one far more stark and racist-seeming than Cabin in the Sky comes anywhere near.  And I mention this to try to keep these potentially problematic depictions in perspective.  Not only are the scenarios and characters of Cabin in the Sky far from the most troublesome, they really shine through in some ways.  And to state a keen observation about these films, the makers were not as ill-intentioned as their depictions might seem, for there is a love and valuation on the music and styles, while exaggerated, are meant to be appreciative not derrogatory.

The film tells the story of Little Joe, played with great charm by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and his loving, long-suffering, adoring Petunia, played by Ethel Waters.  Little Joe, though he tries to be a good man, is tempted by gambling, drinking, and women, and though he’s drawn to repentence by Petunia, who is religiously religious, he is also drawn toward sin by his cronies and by the uber-sex kitten Georgia Brown (played by Horne).  When he takes a bullet in a brawl, he is confronted by both good and evil, who give him six months to amend his ways or he is due in hell.

The devils are an amusing lot, led by Rex Ingram as Lucifer Junior and his band of conniving assistants, who include Louis Armstrong (in a non-singing role).  The devils have little horns made from their hair, and while this may be a bit on the dodgy side of racial depiction, it is also a simple, succinct and clever use of art design, giving them all a little dash of the comical.  They send Georgia Brown to tempt Little Joe and it leads to the drama.

The film is light-weight in its tone and humor, featuring a number of great songs (“Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and “Taking a Chance on Love” both sung by Waters) and some vivacious dance sequences including a smooth number by villain Domino Johnson (John William Sublett), a dance number by Bill Bailey, and a group dance scene to the music of Duke Ellington’s band.  When the music and dance is on, its the performances themselves that are foregrounded, capturing the various artists in their element as much as is possible, and very worth the while.

Sadly, Lena Horne, despite cutting such a notable figure, doesn’t get much performance time herself, but she does indeed make an impression.

The whole of the product is more than the sum of its parts.  The film is a complex one to watch considering 21st century sensibilities regarding racial depictions, and it’s important to understand the circumstances for the production.  That the studio wanted to make a film promoting these talented African Americans is one of both true recognition of talent as well as a shot at finding a way to make money on that talent.  But at the same time, a movie like this at the time wouldn’t even be shown in a multitude of cinemas throughout the southern part of the United States.  The film, which I would argue should not be overly disdained for what might be troublesome from a stereotype-angle, also should be understood for all of what it was and wasn’t.  In a sense, to truly watch this film is to be informed of much of its production, stars, history, and the reality behind its creation.

Minnelli handles the material well, showing flashes of brilliance in some scenes, keeping the film bopping along despite some of its more mediocre qualities, and allowing the cast to have their moments of wonderful performances.  And it’s clear that the character or Little Joe, while not depicted as the brightest of brains, nor the most polished of the penitent, is one of deep character and humanity.

I actually quite enjoyed the film and am now quite eager to see other films of the period that are somewhat akin to it.

The Ghost Ship

The Ghost Ship (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Mark Robson
viewed: 05/12/10

The b-side of the Val Lewton double feature disc The Leopard Man (1943), The Ghost Ship is the first of several films directed by Mark Robson for Val Lewton, the first, in fact, of Robson’s films credited as director.  According to some, Robson was more aligned with Lewton’s vision than other directors with whom he worked, but The Ghost Ship is the first of his films that I have seen.  You can see that Lewton’s hand is clear across the various films that he produced, a consistent style and thematic bent, with various directors at the helm.

The Ghost Ship is an effective and strange sea-faring tale, a sort of poor man’s version of something like Melville’s Billy Budd or Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, the story of a young man gone to sea with a intellectual, maniacal father-figure of a captain.  While the film decidedly fails to achieve the heights of power of those books, it does an impressively effective job of cribbing together the drama, trapped at sea with a paranoid, angered crew and a captain who has murder in his heart, all in less than 70 minutes.

In pressing through with the backlog of Val Lewton’s RKO films, this, as I mentioned, is the first of several that Robson wound up directing for him, though not one of the ones that particularly called out to me.  I guess that’s kind of the benefit of the double-feature packaging.  It might take me even longer to reach out for each film individually, but even late as it was in the night, after having so quickly zipped through the effective and effecting The Leopard Man, I found myself just pushing forward and watching the next one.

Gotta love it.

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man (1943) movie poster

(1943) dir. Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 05/21/10

So many movies, so little time.  Of the many tropes and avenues of film-viewing that I follow, the entire catalog of films by director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton are actually high on my list of things to see before I die.  Problem is that my list is long, the breadth of topics/directors/genres/producers/stars/everything is tremendous, and while perhaps not infinite, the numbers of specific films that I want to see is longer than my poor little Netflix queue will allow me to hold (limit 500).

For producer Lewton and director Tourneur, the B-movies of the 1940’s are legendary and quite short, packaged happily often two films to a disc.  And in the horror/thriller genres, this is the kind of stuff that I could watch just about any day.  With such masterpieces as Cat People (1942),I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Night of the Demon to their credit as a team, they still have a lot of others left that I haven’t seen. And Lewton, as a producer, worked with other directors as well (and he is often given much of the credit for the consistency and quality of the films he produced on such low budgets.

But Tourneur has long been a favorite of mine, and as far as I can tell, he actually directed the best of the films produced under Lewton’s production staff (which included many other talented filmmakers such as Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945)).  Among his Lewton horror films, Tourneur also directed one of the best films noir, Out of the Past (1947), starring Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer (that’s a movie I need to see again!)

The Leopard Man, while receiving high praise on the film’s commentary by director William Friedkin, and certainly demonstrating flair of genius and quality filmmaking throughout, really isn’t as masterful as the others I’ve mentioned before, but is still a very quality flick.

Set in a small New Mexico town, the story follows a couple of competing dancer/performers in a local restaurant/club, who flare in their competition when the boyfriend/PR man for one of them brings a live “leopard” (the same black cat from Cat People) as a striking attention-getter.  But when this cat is frightened by the noise of castanets and patrons, it escapes into the darkness of the night, eventually mauling a young Mexican girl to death as she goes for a late night grocery run.

The PR man is beside himself with guilt over the death of this innocent, but is further perplexed when the hunt for the animal remains unsolved, and the killings keep coming.  Is it truly this black panther who is slaughtering the women of this village, or is it perhaps a man, a serial murderer who is imitating the panther’s mauling style to hide behind a veil for the brutal killings?

There are many nice sequences, visually, using the RKO filming lot effectively, developing atmosphere and creepiness far outstanding of the budgets with which they were working.  As well, the setting, this small New Mexican village, tints the narrative significantly, from the many Latina women in the story, songs sung, to even the strange, spooky religious precession that happens late in the film, commemorating the slaughter of the native people by conquistadors (but which looks like something of devil worship, perhaps, with black-hooded, candle holding men).  Again, it’s not germane exactly to the story, but it’s part of the mise-en-scene, the atmosphere of strange darkness.

Lewton and Tournuer, always interesting.

Godzilla’s Revenge

Godzilla's Revenge (1969) movie poster

(1969) dir. Ishirô Honda
viewed: 05/21/10

The kids wanted to watch another Godzilla movie.  Who was I to let them down?  We started watching Godzilla movies, which I grew up on, about 3-4 years ago with a mixed to positive range of response.  And, while it had been surprisingly an entire year since our last Godzilla movie (Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)), I was glad to resume our foray into Japanese cinema (such as it is).

We’ve not been watching them in any particular order, though we’ve been working our way through the catalog of the original Shōwa series.  Actually, this film was my first consideration back when we first started watching these films.  I had always remembered liking this one as a kid, but in my modicum of research had seen that it is derided  by many fans of the series.  It’s the most kid-friendly or kid-oriented of the Godzilla films, an anomaly for sure, but when you think about guys wrestling in big rubber monster suits, you have to think that they are all pretty kid-oriented.

Godzilla’s Revenge, or as it is also known, All Monsters Attack or Minya, Son of Godzilla tells the story of a little boy growing up on the rough industrial side of Tokyo, a latchkey child with a rich imagination and a series of bullies.  He “dreams” himself into a trip to Monster Island, home of Godzilla, Minya, and many other monsters, where he meets up with Godzilla’s son who talks (!) (and who sounds quite a bit like Gumby’s sidekick Pokey).  Minya has a tormentor, too, the hyena-laughing Gabera (who shares a name with the dreaming Ichiro’s bully).  Like Ichiro, Minya is being taught the lesson of “fighting one’s own battles”.

And if this wasn’t enough oddball plotline, there are also two goofy bankrobbers who are hiding out among the rundown industrial buildings, who end up kidnapping Ichiro, too.  The whole thing gets a little Home Alone (1990).

Despite the fact that the English dubbing is perhaps a series-worst and the silliness quotient is so high, the film is actually kind of enjoyable.  The soundtrack is virtual surf rock, the effects are cheap but sort of trippy and surreal.  And the general lack of drama, lack of a big battle scene, fact that seemingly several sequences are actually replicating sequences from other Godzilla movies, the whole thing works pretty well for the kids.  It’s funny because they sort of recognize the silliness too, that none of the monster sequences are happening outside of Ichiro’s fantasies.

But the film is directed by Ishirô Honda, who directed the original Gojira (1954), as well as many of the other better films in the series. Actually, when I started off showing Godzilla movies to the kids, Clara was 3 and Felix was 5, so maybe this would have been a better choice at the time than
Son of Godzilla (1967), from which this film borrows footage. But you know, it’s kind of fun watching these films with them since they like them.

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948) movie poster

(1948) dir. Anatole Litvak
viewed: 05/17/10

File this one under “the mental illness movie” genre.  And even more explicitly, under the experience of treatment and incarceration for mental illness, the insides of the mental institution.  Believe it or not, it’s really quite a thing, a real psuedo-genre or subgenre.  I don’t even really know the proper classifications so I’m just riffing here.

The Snake Pit is one of the earliest of the films.  But you could technically consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as a potential start to this.  But really, the idea of “the mental illness movie” as I’m calling it, the film is more sociological than purely surreal.  There is an aspect of documentation, the real experience of a real person, with a real illness, and the crazy, fucked up world of psychiatry and psychiatric treatments used to try to “cure” the person.  In truth, the film has more in common with One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Girl, Interrupted (1999), or Prozac Nation (2001), but could also partially include Changeling (2008), or even more radically, Shock Corridor (1963) or Spellbound (1945).

Actually, this could well do for an interesting enough analysis on its own.   But my real reason for watching The Snake Pit at this point was really to catch up on a couple of films that I missed in a graduate film class on “the women’s picture”, a genre of melodrama, the precursor to “the chick flick” and something apparently much more rich and interesting.  Unfortunately, I find that Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955) is not actually available on DVD, which was the film’s partner in the class.

The Snake Pit is a good prototype of what I tried to describe initially here, drawn from a memoir of sorts, the direct experience of a woman in the 1940’s who spent 8 months in a mental institution.  The story is one of hope, in a sense, of a cure, or improvement of her ills, but also of the terror and madness of the depths of the institution itself, a prison for those whom society cannot absorb or care for, and the harsh treatment that can come from their caregivers.  Really, this could easily be an ongoing study, as psychiatry and psychology are such new sciences and what at any given time might have seemed a godsend of a solution is now visible for its flaws.

For instance, what illness does star Olivia de Havilland really demonstrate?  Schizophrenia?  She is treated with shock treatment and psychoanalysis, but a very paternalistic story is evolved.  How true to the time is such a story?  Is it still a success story?  What would the case be today?

Really, it’s a good film, strange and full of these types of questions, perhaps, for a modern viewer.  Why wouldn’t one find such an analysis of the history of 20th century psychiatry/psychology not be of value?  Even the treatments of today’s mentally ill, the over-medicated generation, might find that the whole evolution of the study, even through this Hollywood lens, somewhat fascinating.   As a film, from a genre perspective, could be looked at, analyzed, historically placed, given kudos for this or that, but this was my reaction, here.  I still quite wish that I could see The Cobweb soon.  It would give me some sense of partial closure.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Cristian Mungiu
viewed: 05/16/10

A harsh and harrowing thriller of sorts, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a Romanian film about a woman who helps her friend to get and illegal abortion in 1987, the late years of the Nicolae Ceauşescu-era Communist regime, one of the darkest and considered most-backward of all Eastern Europe in that time.  I say thriller “of sorts” because this is not about car chases, spies, bombs, machine guns, and the only death is that of a fetus aged to the date of the movie’s title.  And it’s a brutal experience, this film.

Aligned in the media as a sample of the Romanian New Wave (such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), and Police, Adjective (2009)), the film shares with those others a portrait of Romania that probably galls the tourism board (as noted by writer/cultural pundit Prince Gomolvilas), a country permanently under grey sodden skies, comprised of morose Soviet-era structures, and streets eternally slick with yesterday’s rain.  The portrait of Bucharest isn’t the pure heart of the film, but rather a tale of desperation, sacrifice, sublimation, and the threat of jail time.

While certainly in America, where abortion is largely legal, the debate on the rightness of the termination of a fetus at various points along its incubation is split pretty severely, the film isn’t so much in question of the rightness or wrongness of the act.  It’s a crime in Romania 1987.  That’s why the two college roommates rent a hotel room and hire on a highly dodgy, yet straightforward man who is willing to perform the abortion (with dubious reason).  Everything is secretive.

Even if it was sunny outside, the women are still at the mercy of the system, the rules, the hotels, the police, and even the illegal doctor.  The women have to put themselves through great humiliation and downright abuse, which speaks to the extremity of their desperation.  And writer/director Cristian Mungiu very effectively manages tensions and terrors in almost benign ways.  When the abortion is performed, it’s not gruesome or explicit, but I was clenching my jaw throughout the scene.

Of the few Romanian films that I’ve seen, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a standout.   While they all employ a downbeat semi-verite style, slow and morose, this film is intense.  Its intensity belies its slow build, its long takes, its lack of musical soundtrack, its humdrum settings.  And while it’s hard to get excited perhaps about seeing a film whose topic is abortion, so politicized, dramatic, yet morally complex, this film really transcends much of that.  It’s humanist and hard work.

The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Perry Henzell
viewed: 05/15/10

I had long been wanting to see the 1970’s Jamaican crime film The Harder They Come after reading about it some years ago.  Circumstances being what they’ve been, I didn’t get a chance to see this influential and yet pretty obscure film until finally just now.  The film’s influence, however, didn’t turn out to be so much upon cinema itself, but on its music and culture, as the film’s soundtrack, featuring a number of songs by star Jimmy Cliff, was apparently the first major in-road made by reggae music in the United States.

The film itself, though, is also very interesting.  Released in 1972, The Harder They Come is a sort of classic crime drama, about a young man from the country who comes to the big city in hopes of making it big in the music business.  But the key element is the setting and production of the film.  This is Kingston at the beginning of the 1970’s, a place already notable for the ska music and other popular genres that have arisen from its heart and people, but still a place of great poverty, street hustling, and crime.

Shot with a near verite style, using non-actors in many if not all roles, including Cliff, who the director picked out off of an album cover for his dramatic possibilities, there is an honesty in the people and the location shooting that gives impressive power an immediacy to what could otherwise be considered a fairly tradtional crime story.  Adding to that, the story itself, is roughly based on a true life figure, a populist criminal musician from a time before.

As Cliff arrives in town to deliver the news of his grandmother’s passing to his mother, he tries to land “honest” work, but is turned down and winds up going to a meglamaniacal “preacher” who offers work but under strict rules, especially around his virginal adopted child, to whom Cliff’s character is attracted.  Cliff’s character sees the opportunity to make a record and make it big, but the system is set against him.  He’s offered $20 for his recording, and he finds no other way to enter either radio or dance clubs with his music unless he wants to play along with the non-Black management who controls the whole of the industry.

His frustration in work, piety, and popular musical success put him in line for the drug trade.  But much like the other roads to access money, the system is set in place.  One does what one is told, and if anyone tries to buck the system, they become quick fodder as a fall guy for the mafia.

Cliff’s character is a talented individualist, who strives for more, and whose ego drives him to fight these systems, much to his own detriment.  But as he sings about the oppression in his song, and his crimes drive him to star status in the papers and eventually on the radio, he manages, with great risk and great loss to become the populist icon, guns in both hands.

I’ve never been a fan of pure reggae but I’ve come around a lot to many other styles of Jamaican music that precedes that form.  The soundtrack is indeed something else.  One can only imagine how it came across in 1972.  And the film is a solid, earnest endeavor, with great performances by Cliff and others.

Writer/director Perry Henzell intended this film to be the first of a trilogy, but money never came around and so this film is the anomaly that it is.  A fascinating glance into a time and place no doubt much changed as so much of the world has, and a truly moving and engrossing story as well.  I did turn on the subtitles, though the film is in English.  Some of it is more easily discerned than other parts, but the musicality of the voices, echoing of some hard to place English town accents, is actually quite pleasant to hear.