Monday, June 26, 2017

WRASTLIN' PICTURES

Wrestling's been good to me over the years. I've never stepped inside the squared circle as a formal competitor per se, but I will admit to watching and reenacting a whole bunch of WWF and WCW as a young Southern tot. Also, there's the Barton Fink connection. Any screenwriter worth their salt should have at least one Wallace Beery wrastlin' picture under their belt. In giddy anticipation of Netflix's new GLOW series, I sampled some of the non-Coen Bros wrestling flicks (male and female) I'd been meaning to get to over the course of the last few weeks. Here's how that particular bout panned out...


NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950) - Jules Dassin

Richard Widmark plays a desperate, degenerate con man trying to finesse his way to the top of a profitable London wrestling promotion. Though this film focuses more on the scheming done outside the ring, there is one prolonged bout between Polish wrestling legend Stanislaus Zbyszko (where WWF champ Larry Zbyszko got his name) and Cauliflower Alley Club founder Mike Mazurki, a match which ends in eventual death. Noir master Jules Dassin (Rififi, Topkapi) leaves the intricately plotted heists at home this go-round but doubles down on the bleak, bleak, bleak. If you like your wrestling depressing and your protagonists on the weaselly side (Widmark, sweating with opportunism even more than the brutes in the ring), this one may be for you. 


PARADISE ALLEY (1978) - Sylvester Stallone

Despite being a huge Stallone/Rocky/Rambo fan as a kid, I somehow managed to get through life never seeing his first directorial effort and only wrestling movie...unless you count the Hulk Hogan scenes in Rocky III and, yes, all the arm wrestling in Over The Top. Had I heard bad things? Maybe. Whatever the reason, it was unsound. Because--surprise of surprises--Paradise Alley is actually pretty good! Is it original Rocky good? No, not by a long shot. But it's definitely a few notches above Rocky V, maybe even Rocky Balboa

Stallone plays the fast-talking hustler in a trio of Hell's Kitchen brothers. Armand Assante is the jaded war veteran older bro, and Lee Canalito is the soft-spoken Brando-ish younger brute who Stallone pimps out as a babyface champ ("Kid Salami"). There are a few great scenes with Stallone and an organ grinder monkey and a brief appearance by Tom Waits as the indecipherable local piano man Mumbles (unfortunately Waits and the small simian don't get much shared screen time). There's also a well-lensed and choreographed end match where Kid Salami takes on WWF legend Terry Funk in a rain-drenched wrestling ring (lots of slo-mo splashing). So why did Paradise fail to make the splash that the Rockys did? I guess, post-Italian Stallion, audiences had trouble buying Stallone as a fast-talking anything. In casting himself as the brains and not the braun, he alienated the fan base he'd built overnight. Not to worry. He snagged them right back the next year with his second directorial jab...Rocky II.


BLOOD & GUTS (1978) - Paul Lynch

If you've ever thought to yourself, "Where is the wrestling version of Fat City I so long for?" or, better still, "Where is the Canuxploitation wrestling version of Fat City I so long for, ay?" then this movie may be the answer to your poutine-soaked dreams. Veteran tough guy William Smith (he of Cronenberg's Fast Company and the dude who went mano y mano with Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can) plays an aging low-rent circuit wrestler whose already shitty world goes even more to shit with the arrival of a new buff blonde upstart. Smith takes him under his wing in the ring, but his thanks for showing this whipper snapper the ropes? The ingrate sleeps with his girlfriend and starts taking all his gigs! As you might guess, alcohol consumption and angina diagnoses also factor heavily into Smith's misery. This one's not quite as polished as Aronofsky's take on similar material 30 years later, but it's a fine '70s "loser movie" all the same.


THE ONE AND ONLY (1978) - Carl Reiner

For those who prefer their '70s wrestling flicks lighter and with more HervĂ© Villechaize, don't worry, the director of The Jerk and The Man With Two Brains has your back. Henry Winkler plays a profoundly narcissistic stage actor named Andy Schmidt who browbeats his hometown Ohio girlfriend Mary (Kim Darby) into moving to NYC to pursue his big Broadway dreams. When Mary gets preggers and  Andy can't get a respectable acting gig, he turns to pro wrestling with a little help from fellow struggling actor and part-time dwarf wrestler Milton (Villechaize). After trying on a bunch of wrestling personas, Andy finally strikes gold with a Gorgeous George styled Lothario character. Winkler and HervĂ© make a fine comic tag-team, but this is definitely a lesser Reiner effort. It's more rom-com than slam-com, and there isn't much body work for WWE die-hards to chew on.


BELOW THE BELT (1980) - Robert Fowler

As the first ladies wrestling movie on my watch card, I really wanted to like this one. Sadly, the unbearable music montages (there are many) and the lackluster direction in stitching them together killed my enthusiasm within the first fifteen minutes. Regina Braff plays an NYC waitress whose bad experiences with deadbeat men propel her into the ring...to fight other women. The Honeymoon Killers' Shirley Stoler is on hand as a veteran grappler to offer sage advice, some bonding and a bit of a boost to Braff's otherwise sleepy lead performance. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to contend with my own Mid-Movie Snooze.


...ALL THE MARBLES (1981) - Robert Aldrich

This women's wrestling comedy with the unwieldy, ellipsis-laden title used to play on HBO all the time when I was a young lad. I caught bits and pieces on the sly when I could, but the R rating made it a tough sneak since it only came on later in the evening when the family TV was off-limits to impressionable eyes. Finally peeped in full, I'm pleased to report that it's a top-shelf women's wrestling picture. Peter Falk is great (as always) as Harry, the crusty manager of the California Dolls with a talent for living lean on the road and a yen for listening to Pagliacci cassettes in between. His chemistry with his two lady wrestlers is paternal but mostly in that Cool Older Dad sorta way. California Dolls Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon hold their own against the Cassavetes/Columbo pro and make for a solid, believable tag-team on the canvas. This was veteran director Aldrich's last film, and though it's lighter fare than a lot of his earlier classics (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen, etc.) he brings a master craftsman's hand to all the in-ring scenes. Definitely recommended for GLOW fans and wrestling aficionados in general.


MY BREAKFAST WITH BLASSIE (1983) - 
Linda Lautrec & Johnny Legend

Andy Kaufman's hour-long pro wrestling spin on My Dinner With Andre mostly involves him talking to wrestling legend Fred Blassie about personal hygiene habits, their shared reluctance to shake hands with fans, and Blassie's disturbing insistence on rubbing their pregnant waitress's belly for luck time and again. Kaufman doesn't wrestle any women in the Sambo's Diner where they meet for brunch in downtown L.A. But he does insult a table of ladies who ask for his autograph. He then cajoles the most attractive one for her phone number ("I'm a famous actor. I'm play Latka on Taxi. You should know me.") Though there's no actual wrestling involved, Kaufman and Blassie do nearly get vomited on by a weird restaurant patron (Bob Zmuda, in disguise). The barely suppressed joy on Kaufman's face watching this whole staged stunt unfold is worth the price of admission.


BODY SLAM (1986) - Hal Needham

Stuntman turned director Hal Needham brings his Cannonball Run approach to the world of professional wrestling. In a nutshell, pack your movie with as many stars  as possible and hope no one notices how dull it is. Roddy Piper, Captain Lou Albano, Ric Flair, The Samoans, Tanya Roberts (Sheena!), Billy Barty, Charles Nelson Reilly, to name a few.  The problem here is you don't have charming rake Burt Reynolds at the center of all the chaos. Who do you get instead? The A-Team's "Faceman" Dirk Benedict as a wheeler dealer rock promoter turned wrestling hack. His character falls somewhere between not sleazy enough to be interesting and not charming enough to be a leading man. The movie itself doubles as a feature-length promotion for the WWF and a less than memorable rock band named Kick. What?! You don't remember Kick?! Maybe this bitchin' track will refresh your memory.


NO HOLDS BARRED (1989) - Thomas J. Wright

If the wrestling scenes in Rocky III didn't slake your Hulkamaniac thirst, this agreeable goof of a movie arrived seven years later to wring every last nickel out of the walking/sweating/flexing '80s corporation known as Terry "Hulk Hogan" Bollea. Here Bollea plays "Rip Thomas," a thinly veiled version of his superstar Hulk Hogan WWF/WWE persona. Tiny Lister plays his in-ring nemesis Zeus, though the storyline is much more concerned with his feuds outside the squared circle with Vince McMahon stand-in Brell (Kurt Fuller). As a McMahon financed production, the wrestling scenes are solid, and most everything else that requires "legit acting" is unintentionally hilarious. There's a particularly amusing scene in which the Hulkster has to grieve at the bedside of his hospitalized brother, which reminded me of high school production of the Tom Cruise-Jason Robards scene in Magnolia. The Hulkster also gets a few meet-cute moments with love interest Joan Severance. One involves them platonically sharing a motel room bed and the Hulkster constructing a gentlemanly curtain to separate them. The whole time I couldn't help but wonder: How are they going to shoot around that obstruction for the sex tape?


LIPSTICK & DYNAMITE, PISS AND VINEGAR: 
THE FIRST LADIES OF WRESTLING (2004) - Ruth Leitman

Without a doubt the best women's wrestling doc I've seen. These feisty octogenarians are the real deal women who started it all, overcoming decades of sexism, domestic abuse, homophobia, racism (you name the cultural offense, they battled it) to stake their claim to the ring. GLOW might be fun, but this is the more sobering side of that same story. And, seriously, does any male wrestler come tougher than The Fabulous Moolah or Mae Young? Tell me, Stone Cold Steve Austin, when was the last time you gave birth to a human hand?


THE WRESTLER (2008) - Darren Aronofsky

It's almost been a decade. I was due for a re-watch. Still my favorite "real life" wrestling movie of all time. Mickey and Aronofsky bringing the pain (and the metal) like nobody else can.


GLOW: THE STORY OF THE GORGEOUS LADIES 
OF WRESTLING (2012) - Brett Whitcomb

As documentaries go, this one's a mini flyweight, but it's a nice primer for the Netflix series, if for nothing else than to gauge all the "dramatic license" storyline changes that were made. Emily "Mt. Fiji" Dole's story is the most touching, and it was interesting to learn that B-movie director and Pia Zadora spouse Matt Cimber was the dude who Marc Maron's character was based upon.


GLOW (2017) - Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch

Finally, the main event. How was Netflix's 10 episode take on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling? It's just as much fun as it should be, so much so that I binged all ten in the course of two days. Alison Brie plays nicely against type. Betty Gilpin is a true find (at least to me...I'd never heard of her previously). Brit chanteuse Kate Nash is the series' secret weapon. And, surprise, Marc Maron can actually act a little bit. I'm not sure how many seasons this thing can go before the premise develops ring rash, but, if it's anything like the first one, I'm good for at least one or two more bumps. Recommended for fans of wrestling, women's wrestling, and the fairer sex in general.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

SUMMER ACTION CRAPTACULAR!!!


Summer is officially here, and so is my appetite for beer, fried chicken and exceptionally bad action movies from the VHS era. I'm talking crap action auteurs like Sidaris, Shervan, Prior, Firstenberg, Golan, Glickenhaus, Santiago, Zito. Maybe some '90s John Woo and Michael Bay.

All summer long I will be sweating out the blistering 100+ Texas temps by staying indoors as much as humanly possible, watching steroidal men and women shoot guns onscreen at each other instead of at me (hopefully). Why am I in the stronghold of abysmal tattoo art, great BBQ, fine local beer, and dismal right-wing Texas politics at the absolute worst time of the year?
Don't ask. Just keep watching this spot for updates.

In the meantime, pop a tab, swipe a drumstick, spark a J, and grab your gat.
Cashiers De Cinema's Summer Action Craptacular is where the greasy action's at!!!


Monday, May 01, 2017

DEMME DUE DILIGENCE


It was with much sadness that I fielded a friend's text last Wednesday alerting me that one of my favorite '80s/'90s directors, Jonathan Demme, had passed away. Unlike Bill Paxton's recent demise, I didn't learn of this one via Twitter since I've been taking a much needed vacay from that onerous site. From now on, I think I prefer receiving all my director/actor death notices this way. Rather than scrolling through a series of bland insta-tribute tweets from movie clickbait sites ("Silence of the Lambs Director Dies At 73," etc.), I received a simple message: "R.I.P. Demme." 'Nuff said. I knew who the man was. I knew what his work meant to me. I knew what I had to do. I had to finish out the parts of his filmography I'd been meaning to get to ASAP.

This past weekend, I found myself in good company: three late '70s Demme pictures I'd never seen and three '80s Demme flicks that were already among my favorite films of all time. I was also in the company of a very bellicose feline (cat-sitting duties, don'tcha know). But that's a different post for a different obsolete website (Is CatshiersDeCinema.com taken?). Here's how I mourned the late, great Johnny D...


FIGHTING MAD (1976)

The last of Demme's Roger Corman School of Run-and-Gun Filmmaking efforts and, regrettably, the least. This one lacks the W-I-P sass of his directorial debut Caged Heat and the rag-tag rambunctiousness of his Corman/Cloris Leachman follow-up Crazy Mama. I'm guessing, for Demme, shooting movies in twelve days with a budget of two dollars in change was starting to grow a little tiresome by this point. It also could've been the script, a boilerplate "we gotta save the farm from encroaching land developers" melodrama with a slight vigilante twist. Peter Fonda plays the angry farmer's son with a grudge and a crossbow instead of the usual shotgun or Walking Tall baseball bat. He's got the "mad" part down, but there's  very little "fighting" until the last ten minutes. When the avenging finally does come, it's not exactly with Rambo's mercenary finesse . The big problem here may be the general lack of women-folk in the cast. Demme tends to shine most brightly when his lens is trained on resourceful, whip smart females. A young Scott Glenn does show up briefly as Fonda's brother though. And that's good for somethin'.


CITIZENS BAND aka HANDLE WITH CARE (1977)

You know how all your single urban-dwelling friends (such as myself) complain about online dating? Well, transplant that same frustration to late '70s Texas and replace the Internetz with CB radio, and you've got a recipe for a spirited romp about the complexities of romantic love delivered via short wave signal. Potential suitors don't have clever usernames here; they have goofier "handles." Everybody is cattin' around with everybody else over the airwaves, sometimes atop air mattresses. Demme stalwart Paul Le Mat plays Spider, a CB repairman who lives with his elderly alcoholic father. He's had enough of the heavy breathers, the religious crackpots, the neo-Nazis and neighborhood kids exploiting the emergency channels with their frivolous transmissions. He decides to make it his one-man quest to "clean up the band." Little does he know his ex-fiancee Electra (Candy Clark) has just struck up a late-night CB chat affair with his older brother Blood (Bruce McGill). 

It's all a fun down-home slice of Americana pie, but the best part is the Charles Napier love triangle. Napier's "Chrome Angel" is a long haul trucker who's been keeping multiple wives with multiple families on the DL in different parts of the state. When his wives get wise to his tricks and a new martial arrangement is put on the table for negotiation, this little CB radio movie from the late '70s almost seems in lock-step with the endlessly perplexing sapiosexual/heteroflexible OKCupid/Tinder digital dating age. If you're in the mood for something a little more old-fashioned, well then check out this Radio Shack Charles Napier commercial from 1977.


LAST EMBRACE (1979)

Demme riffs on Hitchcock to middling results. Roy Scheider plays a government spook who grows all sorts of paranoid after this wife is killed on an assignment in El Paso. He spends a scene or two in a sanitarium, grieves for a solid ten minutes of screen time before meeting the comely grad student Ellie (Janet Margolin) who sublet his NYC apartment while he was away. It doesn't take long before he's receiving odd Biblical death threats written in Hebrew and being tailed around the city by fellow agent Charles Napier (of course!). There's a fun chase/shootout with Napier and Scheider in a church bell tower, then a whole bunch of hokum about decades-old white slavery/prostitution rings which Scheider's grandfather was head of and Ellie's grandmother was victim to. Now Ellie wants revenge. Or something like that. The script by David Shaber is pretty preposterous. Imagine Marathon Man with less running, no invasive dentistry and half a brain. Demme does his best to milk suspense out of a few tourist trap locations. Niagara Falls looks majestic, but it's no Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest. For top-shelf Maid of the Mist intrigue, I'll stick to Superman II.


MELVIN AND HOWARD (1980)

I first saw this Demme comedy classic WAY back in the early HBO days before I knew who Howard Hughes was, much less what a director did. The opening scenes with Jason Robards' Hughes motorcycling manically in the desert and, later, being a cantankerous grump when Paul Le Mat's genial Melvin rescues him stuck with me over the years. Watching it again this weekend, I was struck by just how much Paul Thomas Anderson source material there is in Melvin and Howard. The desert motorcycle scenes in The Master. The game show mania in Magnolia. Punch Drunk Love's off-kilter romantic vibe. Fast dollies into faces. A sleazy Robert Ridgely. A ghostly Jason Robards. I knew PTA was heavily influenced by Demme, I just didn't realize how much. This is essential viewing for any Demme retrospective (or PTA retro for that matter), Silenced Lambs be damned. He takes the gentle American slice of life approach he adopted in Citizens Band and perfects it with an assist from a great Bo Goldman script.


STOP MAKING SENSE (1984)

I'm a Heads fan till the end, and I've seen their Demme-directed concert film a number of times. It may be my favorite concert film ever (sorry, Marty, I've only seen The Last Waltz once). I'd planned on just putting it on in the background while I did exercises (yes, film geeks exercise!). Don't you know it, I got so engrossed I skimped on the sit-ups and ended up watching large portions of SMS instead. The way I see it, young David Byrne did all the exercising for me. Dude really knows how to run laps around a stage and dance the tango with lighting fixtures. This movie has more energy than most action movies, and Demme's egalitarian lens gives the side musicians as much loving attention as The Man in The Big White Suit. Three days later, I'm still humming: "Heaven...heaven is a place...where nothing really happens..."


SOMETHING WILD (1986)

Not to harp on Silence of the Lambs again (which is a bona fide classic serial killer thriller indeed), but, for me, the apex of Jonathan Demme's long and illustrious career will always be Something Wild. This movie blew me away when I first saw it on VHS. I really didn't know what I was getting into when I wrenched that bulky black tape from the mammoth cardboard Erol's Video clamshell and kerchunked it into the deck. What starts out as meet-cute '80s rom-com quickly turns into an '70s crime film then a late '60s road movie then an old Hollywood style thriller before turning really dark and becoming a home invasion horror movie at the end. Something Wild hopscotches more genres than a meth addict flipping late-night satellite channels. It's got more Roger Corman DNA on it than a Motel 6 mattress! 

Somehow, Demme manages to juggle all these wildly varying tones like an expert movie magician. The eclectic soundtrack is a mid-80s revelation (David Byrne, UB40, Oingo Boingo, Steve Jones, New Order, The Feelies, Sister Carol). Jeff Daniels is the best he's ever been. Melanie Griffith is the best she's ever been (yes, I had a mad kid-crush on her funky boho femme fatale Lulu...of course). And let's not forget that Something Wild is the movie that first gave us Ray Liotta and landed him the lead in Goodfellas. This is the movie responsible for all of my ill-advised late '80s dine-and-dashes from local Friendly's and Shoney's eating establishments. This is the movie that made me want to move to the East Village back in the day. This, in my humble opinion, is Jonathan Demme's best film and how I will always choose to remember him. In Lulu/Audrey's words, he, like Charlie Driggs, was one of Hollywood's great "closet rebels."

R.I.P. Demme

Friday, March 31, 2017

TONS O' PAXTON: A DETOUR INTO THE LATE ACTOR'S LESSER-KNOWN FILMS


Bill Paxton's passing on February 25, 2017 came as a sudden, devastating blow to all who knew him, loved him and worked with him in real life. To those who knew him only through the veil of the silver screen, it was also something of a gut punch. A reliable fixture in film and TV throughout the '80s, '90s and well into the 2000s, the Fort Worth, Texas born Paxton excelled as a character actor early on, stealing scenes from tamer leads with his rambunctious energy. He specialized in bullies, sleazebags, gun nuts, psychotics and military types quickly outed as yellow-bellies on the inside. Chet from Weird Science. Private Hudson from Aliens. Simon in True Lies. We loved to watch them gloat, then crumble into man-tears at the first sign of real danger. Even his briefest performances were mini-studies in failed masculinity. Between these early memorable supporting roles and a lifetime "in" with director James Cameron, he could've hung up his supporting spurs and called it a good run.

But then, in the early-mid-90s, Paxton managed to make that oh-so-impossible leap for many actors by parlaying his razzle-dazzle side character work into a  healthy career as a quieter leading man. One False Move. Traveller. A Simple Plan. All were well-done indie crime films with Paxton at the center. They paved the way for larger leading roles in summer blockbusters (Twister, Mighty Joe Young), multiplex fare which finally gave him enough industry juice to do what he'd always wanted to do--direct himself in 2001's Frailty, perhaps his best work before and behind the camera.

After a successful five-season leading stint on HBO's Big Love in the mid-2000s, it was mostly back to memorable side character work for Paxton (Nightcrawler, Haywire, Edge of Tomorrow). Before landing the starring role in CBS's Training Day TV remake in 2016, it appeared as if his career had come full circle. Sadly, his second Second Act was cut short by a stroke during heart surgery just after completing the show's first season. But, judging by the work he left behind, he probably had a lot of interesting surprises still in store for us. Imagine how interesting a Paxton-directed version of Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms could've been?

I grew up on Bill Paxton movies. He always felt like that wild second cousin blown in from out of town to regale you with lurid tales of his wayward travels. In a way, Chet and Private Hudson were my anti-mentors, examples of how NOT to be a man. I loved them despite their flaws and because of them. I had no idea who Sam Peckinpah was growing up in the '80s, but I now feel with deep certainty that if Paxton were born 20 years earlier he would've been among Bloody Sam's stock company alongside Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Dub Taylor, and Ben Johnson. He was just one of those type of guys, a "good ol' boy," someone who always made you smile when they sauntered into frame. I've seen most of the essential Paxton performances, but there are a ton of curiosities and lesser-knowns on his resume that I missed. This extended blog post is about correcting that heinous oversight. As Chet might say: "How about a nice, greasy Paxton sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?"


CRAZY MAMA (1975) - Jonathan Demme

Blink for a second during Jonathan Demme's Roger Corman-produced sequel to Big Bad Mama, and you may miss Bill Paxton's first credited onscreen role. As a Southern deputy in pursuit of Cloris Leachman and her band of larcenous miscreants, he has but two lines, the more memorable of them referring to the gang's nubile, not-a-hostage: "She don't look kidnapped to me." It isn't much, but it's a start, one that didn't even earn Paxton his SAG card. Nevertheless, it got him out of the props department and in front of the camera. As for Demme, he films Crazy Mama with a boisterous energy. It may not his best work, not even his best Corman work (Caged Heat the year before was juicier). But, for '70s junk food cinema and an early Paxton sighting, it hits the spot.


NIGHT WARNING (1982) - William Asher

A few years later (after a brief onscreen blip in Stripes), Paxton reappears as a school bully in this possessive mother horror shocker starring the wonderfully unhinged Susan Tyrrell (of Fat City fame). Paxton's m.o. is basic High School '80s Douchebag: torment her son on and off the basketball court and cast aspersions on his sexual preferences. He doesn't have a heck of a lot to do, apart from getting milk dumped on his head when he takes the terrorizing too far. It's a shame he doesn't have any scenes with mother Tyrrell (in full Kathy Bates Misery mode here). It would've been great to see the two of them go head-to-head, even better if he'd been cast as the son (the lead is a bit of a blank slate). Still, Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) served him well as fertile training ground for later, greater bullying douchebags. Most notably, Weird Science's Chet.


TAKING TIGER MOUNTAIN (1983) - 
Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith

This hard-to-find and at times hard-to-watch early "experimental" film starring a 19-year-old Paxton is buried black-and-white treasure for Bill P. fans. Filmed with his buddies Kent Smith and Tom Hucakbee in the mid-70s, though not released until the mid-80s, it tells the very loose story of a male research subject (Paxton) brainwashed and gender-manipulated by a group of militant feminists into enacting a covert assassination attempt on the Welsh Minister of Prostitution. The resulting film is an assemblage of disparate parts, mostly MOS footage of Paxton traipsing around Wales with ruminations from William S. Burrough's dystopian The Blade Runner novella laid in on the soundtrack years after the fact. Part art film, part exploitation venture, part stag loop (yes, there is a scene of young Paxton receiving on-camera oral pleasures), Taking Tiger Mountain is a curious beast and early proof that Paxton could be a quiet, compelling presence even with his trademark colorful dialogue stripped away. Many actors would go to great lengths to see that an early resume film like this was buried for good. But judging from this interview and comments he'd made elsewhere, Paxton seemed more amused by its existence than anything else. Just listen to the opening 30 seconds of voiceover from the film. How could you not be amused?


MORTUARY (1983) - Howard Avedis

Early experimental films aside, Paxton's first meaty role with a healthy dose of screen time was in this mostly forgettable horror quickie. In Mortuary, he gets to play an eccentric nerd rather than the token bully as Paul, the son of a mortician (Christopher George). Paul has a Mozart obsession and a mad crush on his already-spoken-for redhead classmate, Christie. As you might guess, both of Paul's obsessions take a nasty turn toward the psychotic as the movie progresses. It isn't long before the embalming cocktails come out and corpse orchestras are conducted. It's fun to see Paxton snag the early opportunity to "go weird," a vein he'd tap later and to greater degree with small, juicy roles in oddball indies like The Dark Backward and Boxing Helena. There's one particularly great scene of Paxton skipping merrily through a graveyard, flower bouquet in hand, after a resoundingly unsuccessful courtship attempt.


THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE (1983) - Franc Roddam

That same year, Paxton appeared in another small supporting role you could also file under "Chet Prep." He plays one of The Ten, a not-so-secret sect of pro-hazing cadets at a Deep South military academy committed to honor, tradition, and general racial intolerance. Credited here as "Wild Bill" Paxton, his Gilbreath is a deeply repugnant military bully, a young R. Lee Ermey in training. He leaves no insult unturned but reserves his worst taunts for the academy's new black cadet. It's a thankless role, but Paxton keeps it believable, channeling the type of bigoted d-bags people of every color have to sidestep every day. The movie (based on a Pat Conroy novel) may have its heart in the right place message-wise, but its execution is EXTREMELY DATED. The story is told through a white cadet's eyes (David Keith), and the black cadet (Mark Breland) who endures the bulk of the hazing/suffering is mostly given the short shrift. But Lords at least gave Paxton the chance to work with some fine fellow thesps, including Keith, Robert Prosky, G.D. Spradlin, a young Judge Reinhold and his soon-to-be-Aliens co-star, Michael Biehn.



PASS THE AMMO (1988) - David Beaird

Sadly, this spry Southern-fried crime comedy from the late-80s is the closest Paxton ever came to working with the Coen Brothers. His frequently broad Texas characterizations seemed tailor-made for their brand of filmmaking, and it's easy to imagine a theoretical Paxton cameo in Blood Simple, O'Brother, Where Art Thou? or No Country for Old Men. A direct collaboration regretfully never came to pass, but the pleasantly watchable Pass the Ammo serves as a window into what might've been. The setup is decidedly Raising Arizona-lite; a group of bumbling criminals headed by Paxton and girlfriend Linda Kozlowski scheme to rob a televangelist and his wife (a very game Tim Curry & Annie Potts). Instead, they end up party to an on-air hostage/kidnapping situation. The music is by frequent Coen composer Carter Burwell, and one of the credited screenwriters is Joel Cohen (the OTHER Joel...with an "H"). Arguably, Paxton came closer to Joel & Ethan territory ten years later in Coen cohort Sam Raimi's very Coenesque (and very good) A Simple Plan. But Pass the Ammo was an early indicator he could hold his own as a crime/noir lead.


BACK TO BACK (1989) - John Kincade

Unless you're an avowed Apollonia Kotero fan (or balls-deep in a Bill Paxton marathon binge), there's probably not much reason to take the 1989 straight-to-VHS Back to Back for a test drive. Paxton plays a hotshot L.A. lawyer who reluctantly returns to his hick hometown to help his younger brother (Todd Field) clear his recently deceased father's name of an armored car robbery years before. They go on a spin through the desert to locate the missing loot and pick up foxy hitchhiker Jesse (Apollonia) along the way. Light intrigue and forced romantic banter ensues. For this viewer, the primary highlights of Back to Back were getting the chance to see Paxton briefly mix it up with old western stalwarts Ben Johnson and Luke Askew.


BRAIN DEAD (1990) - Adam Simon

There are people in this world who somehow still confuse Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman based on, I can only presume, the shared syllable count of their names and nothing else. The two men's acting styles and personas couldn't be more diverse. I hereby submit Brain Dead as the antidote to that particular Pullman-Paxton disease, a film in which they appear side by side, often in the same scene. Pullman plays a brilliant and principled neurosurgeon. Paxton plays a scheming businessman and friend from Pullman's past. He's hired by a shady corporation to convince Pullman to slice into a paranoid mathematician Bud Cort's brain in order to unlock corporate assets they're afraid might vanish in the fog of delusion. It's a fun setup, and both Paxton-Pullman do their best to enliven their broad strokes psycho-thriller roles. But the script (an old Corman property leftover from the '60s) overstays its welcome even at a brisk 85 minutes. It could've been a very solid 22-minute Twilight Zone episode.


THE DARK BACKWARD (1991) - Adam Rifkin

Of all the lesser-known curiosities on Bill Paxton's resume, perhaps the movie that best employed his particular set of skills and took them to their broadly comedic zenith was this oddball, three-armed comedian picture starring Judd Nelson, James Caan and, yep, Wayne Newton. As the accordion-toting bestie of struggling stand-up Marty Malt (Nelson), Paxton may technically be playing second fiddle, but he absolutely steals every scene he's in. His "Gus" is a gleefully repugnant opportunist with very little talent and super-sized stardom dreams. He's not beyond licking the areolas of a female corpse he discovers on his trash-collecting route or eating green sludge marinated chicken he finds expired in Marty's fridge. He's not above accosting local talent agent Jackie Chrome (Newton) to land a gig or exploiting Marty's newfound tridexterity when he grows a third arm from his vertebrae. He's not averse to being the drunken man-meat in a four-way circus sideshow sex sandwich or stealing Marty's chance at the spotlight when toothy Hollywood agent Dirk Delta (Rob Lowe in heavy dental prostheses) offers him a solo L.A. accordion show. 

As Gus, Paxton takes craven behavior and manic mugging to a sublimely exaggerated level, working the same kind of voodoo magic as Nic Cage in his best "uncaged" Nouveau Shamanic performances. He doubles down on his poor-excuse-for-a-big-brother performance in Weird Science and kicks it up a notch as "world's worst best friend." I'd seen this movie once before on VHS when it first came out and always remembered Paxton as the highlight. After learning of Bill's affinity for Buster Keaton on the Marc Maron podcast a few weeks before his death, I was compelled to revisit it. I think The Dark Backward might be the closest Paxton came to celebrating the silent film comedian's physical comedy genius while realizing his own. In the DVD commentary for the film, Paxton mentions how Janet Maslin of The New York Times claimed "the sky's the limit" when it came to his "obnoxious overacting" as Gus. Paxton laughs humbly and admits: "I took that as the highest compliment."



Sunday, January 08, 2017

BEST AND WORST OF 2016

2016 was a terrible year for world events. On that much we can probably agree. For me, it was definitely a stinkbomb for the ages personally, professionally and politically. What's worse is that there weren't a ton of good movies to take my mind off the crapfest going on outside the cineplex. The first four months of the year were predictably blah, until a fun Linklater movie landed around Tax Day to cheer me up. After that comes one of the worst summer movie seasons on record, the only films saving it from utter ruin coming out of left field at the end of August: a low-budget western and a home invasion horror movie. Once fall fell, the interesting, "challenging" movies finally started to drop...almost too many. By the end of August, I'd seen roughly 50 Year 2016 release movies. By the end of December, a whopping 130 movies (a record, even for me).

One positive to point out: It was an uncommonly good year for horror. Lots of innovation going on in that most maligned of genres. The Witch, Hush, Don't Breathe, The Love Witch, The Wailing, Train to Busan, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Eyes of My Mother. It's almost as if 2016 was steeling us for the most horrific film of all...a 2017 Trump presidency.

Don't get me started. Let's save the ranting for all things film-related. Once again this year, my Best/Worst of 2016 was written with Twitter compatibility in mind, the brief write-ups retrofitted for 140 characters. In other words, you may once again have to do a little recreational Googling to know what the hell I'm talking about. But, hey, at least the accompanying pics from 2014 have returned to provide you with a little eye candy...

THE BEST



10) AMERICAN HONEY: What youth & freedom feel like circa 2016. Too many Top 40 sing-a-longs but, hey, least it's not just 3 hours of texting.



9) CHRISTINE: Good film, devastating Rebecca Hall performance. The "Yes, but…" group therapy scene was the most gut-wrenching thing I saw all year.



8) EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! Sublime hang-out flick & most "accidentally gay" as per John Waters. Someone give Linklater's ass a double victory tap.



7) ZERO DAYS: Yes, the Russians are hacking us, but this terrifyingly timely doc suggests we've jammed a Stuxnet worm up their bum already.



6) HELL OR HIGH WATER: Modern day western with great acting & a welcome anti-bank grudge. Doesn't reinvent the wheel, but still a darn good yarn.



5) THE HANDMAIDEN: Chan-wook knocks it outta the Park with a sexy, twisty con artist tale. The gaze is strong in this one, male or female.



4) ELLE: Pitch black comedy of a very specific woman's very uncommon response to very brutal assault. Only Huppert & Verhoeven could pull it off.



3) TONI ERDMANN: The best alt-Father's Day movie you ever want to see. Pair with Hallmark card, petit fours, nude office party, false teeth.



2) MOONLIGHT: Jenkins avoids soapbox "issues" movie trap with highly personal, precise vision. #OscarsSoWhite? Not this year. #OscarsSoMoonlight.



1) OJ: MADE IN AMERICA: An 8 hour ESPN doc is my #1?! Somebody slap me w/ an ill-fitting leather glove. But, hey, that was 2016 for you…more cray than OJ.

HONORABLE MENTIONS



A BIGGER SPLASH: Another luscious Guadagnino flick to make me pissed I'm not Italian or idle rich. Can't wait for his Suspiria riff.



GREEN ROOM: Brutally efficient backwoods punk thriller. Dead Kennedys jam as movie. Director Saulnier keeps getting more interesting.



THE NEON DEMON: God (&I) finally forgive Nic Refn. Excessive, sure, but style over substance is the theme. A treat for ears/edible eyeballs. Yum!



NOCTURNAL ANIMALS: I'll watch Amy Adams read the phone book for 2 hours. Especially if it's a noir phone book w/ dirty Texas cop Michael Shannon.



RAMS: Underseen gem about Icelandic sheepherder brothers with serious sibling rivalry issues. It's on Netflix: Put it in your queue. Or your ewe.

THE WORST



10) SAUSAGE PARTY: What if Don Rickles directed a Pixar movie? Race/religion jokes as stale as expired cold cuts. Food orgy needed more mustard.



9) LIGHTS OUT: Horror flick about on/off switches. Lights on, it's a Lifetime movie. Lights off, it's a Lifetime movie w/ dumb jump scares. Click!



8) THE ACCOUNTANT: Rain Man + hitman + taxman = crap, man. "On the spectrum" Affleck beating his shins with a stick is sadder than any Sad Affleck meme.



7) KNIGHT OF CUPS: I'll follow Malick's ponderous VO & Steadicam thru endless fields of wheat. West of the 5 Freeway, the pretense loses me.



6) SUICIDE SQUAD: Remember when David Ayer was interesting? (Training Day, Harsh Times, End of Watch). This movie completely forgets.



5) WAR DOGS: Tired Scorsese wannabe with soundtrack courtesy of a Midtown sports bar jukebox. Think I know where Jonah got that laugh tho!



4) INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE: Polar opposite of Arrival's smart, humanistic sci-fi. Happy 4th, America. This is the movie/prez you elected.



3) BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE: The most high-profile entry in Affleck's 2016 triple-fail. Snyder & DC are most to blame though.



2) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Most tedious remake cash-in of the year. By the numbers action & Sarsgaard as villain is 110% non-threatening.



1) SWISS ARMY MAN: Charlie Kaufman but after 6 bowls of chili & traumatic brain injury. For weirdness done right, see The Lobster instead.

DISHONORABLE MENTIONS



BLAIR WITCH: "Hey, what if we reboot Blair Witch?" "OK, how do we make it relevant for 2016?" "I don't know…" (long pause) "DRONES!!!!!!"



DOG EAT DOG: Schrader screws the pooch again, despite having Cage, Dafoe & solid Eddie Bunker source material. Bad dog! Woof!



THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN: Airport novel makes glorious leap to forgettable in-flight movie. Skip the plane, skip the Train, have a drink in the station.



KEANU: More meme than movie (enough w/ the cat in a headwrap already!) Hadn't seen any Key & Peele. Probably won't see much more now. Sorry.



YOGA HOSERS: At this point, I watch Kevin Smith joints solely to fill slots on my Worst List. Dude's dependable like that, eh?

SUPERLATIVES

Best Civil War Mumblecore: MEN GO TO BATTLE.

Best Hollywood Popcorn Movie Made in South Korea: THE WAILING.

Best Anthropomorphic Avian Performance: Steven Seagull in THE SHALLOWS.

Best Satanic Goat Performance: Black Phillip in THE WITCH.

Best "Huppardieu": The Isabelle Huppert/Gerard Depardieu dream team reunion in otherwise so-so VALLEY OF LOVE.

Best Herzog Doc: INTO THE INFERNO. Runner Up: LO AND BEHOLD. Werner does lava flows better than data streams.

Best Movie You Wish You Saw With Your Goth College Girlfriend: THE LOVE WITCH.

Greasiest Movie of the Year: THE GREASY STRANGLER. Runner-Up: THE FOUNDER (Michael Keaton McDonald's biopic no one saw, including me)

Most White Powder Blown Up Someone's Nose in South America Since Dennis Hopper Died: EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT

Most Overrated: BLANDCHESTER BY THE SEA, BLAH BLAH LAND, MIDNIGHT NOT-SO-SPECIAL, ROGUE YAWN: A STAR BORES STORY

Obligatory One Word Biopic Rankings: JACKIE > BARRY > SULLY > LOVING > SNOWDEN

Obligatory Frankfurter Related Rankings: WEINER doc > WIENER-DOG > SAUSAGE PARTY

"Please, For the Love of Yahweh, Apostatize Already!" Award: Andrew Garfield as Jesuit priest in fine but infuriatingly repetitive SILENCE.

Movie You're Most Surprised Appears Nowhere on My List But Here: HAIL, CAESAR! A fun if lesser Coens effort. Clooney Curse Strikes Again!

Most Anticipated Films of 2017: T2: TRAINSPOTTING, THE BEGUILED (Sofia Coppola), LOGAN LUCKY (Soderbergh), THE DEUCE (technically TV but…)

Happy 2017, everyone!