Gorky Park (1984)

Reevaluating films you forgot about as if you don’t have enough to do already…

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Gorky Park (1984)
Eagle Associates
Director: Michael Apted
Kino Classics

The film version of Martin Cruz Smith’s best selling novel could fall into the category of an above average but somewhat forgettable thriller you might enjoy on a rainy day and forget about. But some movies possess an ethereal quality elevating their historical worth. Gorky Park has several. The film’s mood created by James Horner’s bleak score, Ralf D. Bode’s cold cinematography, and stand out performances by William Hurt and Brian Dennehy, brings to life palpably America’s fear of Russia during the Cold War in the 80s. Russia was a diplomatic enemy to America during the eighties. Nowhere else did Russia play the baddy than in American movies. But more than most, Gorky Park abandons the stereotypes to create a bleak and paranoid entity supporting the dark narrative of a KGB murder cover up entwined with the dangerous Russian black market.

William Hurt plays Arkady Renko, an orthodox cop in Moscow who is regularly forced to acquiesce on his hunches and good sense to stay on his team’s good side. This time, on the case of three murdered students, Renko is urged to drop the case in no uncertain terms. But his sense of justice and the brutality of the slayings of three young, somewhat innocuous students compels him to investigate. Through an unlikely turn of events, Renko encounters William Kirwill (Dennehy), a New York City cop investigating the death of his brother in Moscow. While it seems Kirwill would have a hard time going unnoticed in Russia being an NYC detective, the chemistry between the two cagey cops is one of those magical duos created by the pairing of great character actors.

The film captures a moment in time when Russia was American’s sworn and mysterious enemy. Inherent fear of the ruthless and unforgiving KGB encourages dread and paranoia nicely in the narrative. Not allowing much comfort are the dangerous, “nothing to lose” characters involved in the black market. Alexie Sayle (British cult television program The Young Ones co-creator and author) makes a memorable appearance as a black market spiv, a role he has played several times for comedy. This role’s move to a dramatic setting makes a case for sympathy for the character quickly without giving away his fate. The supporting cast in general is a believable group of small-time criminals trying to sneak around a looming government that would show them little mercy were they caught.

The only telegraphed punch is Lee Marvin playing Jack Osborne, a suspicious merchant who quickly becomes the subject of Renko’s attention. Just being Lee Marvin means he’s up to something, but Marvin puts in a great performance while being a team player leaving Hurt room to portray the problem that won’t go away. The case finds Renko and Kirwill digging deeper into the connections given in the movie towards a slightly unlikely but entirely satisfying resolution. Gorky Park works as a thriller, a police narrative, and a document to America’s Cold War fear of Russia. (Billups Allen)

 

The White Ribbon (2009)

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The White Ribbon (2009)
Michael Haneke’s enigmatic style of interweaving convoluted plot lines paints an ominous portrait of a small German village shortly before the beginning of World War I. The town is experiencing a string of bizarre occurrences stretching the boundaries of bad luck. As the citizenry attempts to decipher its run of misfortune, bad light is cast on each of the primary characters. The genesis of these bad incidents appears solvable, but answers don’t come easy.

An unnamed elderly schoolteacher narrating from the future by Ernst Jacobi, but portrayed in the events of the film by Christian Friedel, recalls the distant memory of strange events transpiring in the year of his courtship and engagement to his wife Eva (Leonie Benesch). The story begins as the town doctor (Rainer Bock) is knocked off of his horse by a nefariously placed wire. The doctor is taken to a hospital out of town and an investigation begins. The police cannot figure out who tied the wire, nor can they figure out who took it down. Meanwhile, the town’s land Baron (Ulrich Tukur) becomes the target of vandalism. Children disappear. Adults disappear. As accidents become commonplace, no one is above suspicion. Even the town Pastor (Burghart Klaussner) is discovered to be so hard on his children he could be unraveling. As the plot progresses, theories about the source of all this trouble arrive and fade almost as quickly.

The film is masterfully shot in black and white using stark contrasts creating an ominous backdrop for this bleak narrative. Heneke knows his audience and elements of German expressionism are prevalent with regards to the lighting and contrast to the point near satire. The film’s moves at a calculated pace: as characters drop in and out of favor, red herrings are slid in to drive the story and cast suspicion. Slow pacing and a convoluted plot twists may turn a few people off, but fans of his 2005 film Cache will enjoy the evolution in Heneke’s style. Heneke creates a convoluted maze in the tradition of Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Lost Highway (1997). The film forces the audience’s best guess right up until the end. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re up for a well-constructed thinker, the labyrinth of The White Ribbon will resonate. (Billups Allen)

 

Police Story (1985)

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Police Story (1985)
Golden Wray Films Ltd.
Directors: Jackie Chan, Chi-Hwa Chen
Written by Jackie Chan, Edward Tang
Criterion Collection 

In the wake of Bruce Lee’s untimely passing, Warner Brothers tried to find a quick replacement with star potential for the burgeoning kung fu market. Jackie Chan’s early leading role in Battle Creek Brawl (1980) was a fun film, but failed to find an audience in America. But elements of Chan’s comedy stunt work were an indicator of what was to come. Chan returned to Hong Kong and honed his unique skills in the kung fu market. His unique fighting style and proclivity for complicated stunt work led to a high point in his career with Police Story. Chan portrays a cop protecting a mob witness from being killed before a trial. With the simple but classic plot out of the way, Chan begins a series Buster Keaton-esque action sequences that would become his signature, make Police Story a franchise, and turn him into an international superstar shortly thereafter with films like Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and the Rush Hour series. Chan’s early work is great to watch.  Police Story is the arrival of a legend. (Billups Allen)

Police Story and Police Story 2 will be released as a double feature DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on April 30th. 

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Marlene (1984)

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Marlene (1984)
Bayerischer Rundfunk
Director: Maximilian Schell
Futura Film, Munich

Marlene opens on a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Marlene Dietrich repeatedly thwarted director Maximilian Schell’s attempts to make documentary about her. After much prodding from her Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) co -star, Ms. Dietrich finally acquiesces. The caveats are: 1) she will only allow Schell to record her voice: and 2) she won’t allow cameras in her apartment. Resigned to make the film, Schell films the tape recorder. It’s an unusual solution.

As the tape recorder begins to spin, Ms. Dietrich’s voice is heard indicting Schell: “Do you think I’d go and sit in some sad, stuffy old cinema and watch an old film?” Dietrich makes it clear early and often she doesn’t share her fan’s enthusiasm for film history. She never watches her films. They don’t interest her. As with many of the statements aimed directly at Schell, she makes it clear with claws out. She does not appreciate sentimentality and doesn’t play nice to be a good sport. Schell includes several audio clips of her bored defiance in the opening segment as the camera pans back slowly from the recorder. Covered is a range of topics Ms. Dietrich is going to discourage and scold Schell over. She answers questions with the venom and confidence of someone beating a congressional grilling.

The first shot eventually cuts to Mrs. Dietrich talking to the crowd at her final concert appearance. Here she is more humble, exemplifying the grace you would expect her to have as she leaves the stage for a final time. After a few more clips, the film cuts to her in a scene in the western Destiny Rides Again (1939). Here she’s swinging a gun around a saloon threatening Jimmy Stewart. The whole saloon has to hit the deck as she waves the gun around. This is a glimpse of the fun and anarchy prevalent in a typical Dietrich performance. As the film continues, we see many clips of her films. But if Schell is enjoying anything too much, she’ll shut it down with statements like “We (Germans) didn’t have kitsch. We didn’t have sentimental feelings.” And so they dance, Dietrich refusing for her or her apartment to be filmed for the documentary and Schell trying to appease her as best he can. Schell builds a set resembling her apartment, hires doubles of varying ages, and follows his staff around to use as second unit footage. There are also talking heads interviews with the few people close to her.

Dietrich opens up occasionally: not in a sentimental way, but more as if annoyed at Schell for being such a fool for being interested. She doesn’t seem to care about setting the record straight regarding the “fifty-five books” about her. She tells the story of the audition for what would inform her iconic performance of “Falling in Love Again” in her breakout film The Blue Angel (1930). Of course by her account, the books have it all wrong. It may sound like a documentary falling apart at the seams, but Schell works with what he has and Dietrich seems to occasionally let go of her inhibitions long enough to tell a story.

If the film sounds like little more than a grumpy rant by a Hollywood Icon, her rapport with Schell and inclination to give praise where praise is due creates occasional warmth driving the film forward. It becomes apparent some of her defensiveness has to do with her not wanting to appear to be pining for another time. You can’t help but root for Schell as he dissects statements she makes when she refuses to answer his questions directly. Throughout the film, Schell tries to sell her on commenting directly on her films, but she will not allow herself to be filmed or watch any of her old films. “I’ve been photographed enough” is her mantra. After, much pushing, she’s convinced to have a video brought to her house to watch one movie and one movie only: The Scarlet Empress (1934). She insists they fast-forward to the end. The screening instigates a fight with Schell that leads her to denigrate his existence by calling him an “old film buff”.

Schell creates an anger montage using clips from her films and look-alikes destroying the set while the audio plays out her excessive beratement of Schell. The anger montage is an interesting piece of film exposing the artistic frustration. Has Schell gone mad? Or has he accurately articulated artistic frustration. Before the argument, Schell explains under his breath how her agent slipped him a note with a quote from Dante Alighieri: “There is no greater pain than the recollection of past happiness in times of misery.” The segment is a poignant wrap up towards the end of a challenging documentary and shines a vulnerable light on the aging star. Werner Herzog once said “There is never an excuse not to finish a film.” Schell’s Marlene is a glistening example of this advice. Schell created an excellent film and unwittingly captured a rare portrait of an enigmatic icon. (Billups Allen)

The Octagon (1980)

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The Octagon (1980)
American Cinema Productions
Director: Eric Karson
Trinity Home Entertainment

Although Japanese folklore can only vaguely pinpoint the origins of the ninja, Scott James can look at a roomful of corpses and determine the cause of death: ninjas! Does it have to be ninjas? Couldn’t it be disgruntled employees? Ninjas are as good a guess as aliens, I suppose. Chuck Norris plays Scott James and James is a guy very much like Chuck Norris. The film never fully explains James’ stake in the circumstances presented except he is an ex-soldier, ex-professional fighter, and he trained as a ninja. As the story progresses, he acquiesces to receive a call from someone for an assignment. Who does he work for? It doesn’t matter. Scott James walks around kicking ass. Women swoon. Evil schemes fail. His entering a room is enough to stop a square dance.

The movie is mostly a series of fights with an occasional break thrown in to attempt a plot. Eventually, we are treated to the excessive martial arts expo we are all waiting for. James and all his cronies converge on his old training camp run by his arch nemesis Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita). There, ninjas get a chance to show off their ninja training: training covering important topics such as how to hang around under leaves until an intruder happens by and how to stop in the middle of a fight you are winning and swing your weapons around skillfully until you get kicked in the head. And throwing stars. Yes, there are throwing stars.

If the plot sounds on the cusps of being comically vague by modern standards of action movies, The Octagon still stands as an excellent vehicle showcasing Norris’ talent as a martial arts practitioner. Modern movies no longer seem to care about time, space, or the limitations of the human body when it comes to action sequences. The Octagon delivers great analogue action in the tradition of the best Bruce Lee films. Norris obviously learned something about stage fighting from the master. The Octagon exceeds as a full-on karate movie: too much plot would slow it down.

The Octagon contains early appearances by Oz and Ghostbusters star Ernie Hudson and character actor Tracy Walter. The movie was written well before the Internet, before people had ready access to casual information. All that people knew about ninjas in 1980 was that they are awesome. That’s really all you need to know to enjoy The Octagon. (Billups Allen)

 

Get Crazy (1983)

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Get Crazy (1983)
D&P Productions
Director: Alan Arkush
Embassy Home Entertainment

After his failed, if not somewhat misunderstood, attempt to bring Andy Kaufman’s unique humor to the screen in 1981’s Heartbeeps, director Alan Arkush tried to rekindle some of the anarchic humor that made Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979) a success with 1983’s Get Crazy. Utilizing an excellent ensemble cast, Get Crazy is essentially a loosely connected chain of anecdotes of rock stereotypes surrounding a converging plot line involving a New Year’s Eve party at the Saturn Theater, a small Fillmore East-type venue. The converging plot lines are little more than a series of sight gags with an underlying anti-corporate message. But a load of clever rock jokes and a couple of interesting musical performances is far and above with what could be expected from a music related film these days. It’s an excellent pull for fans of jokes about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

The main plot line surrounds Saturn Theater owner Max Wolfe (Alan Garfield). Wolfe’s failing health brings him close to death hours before the yearly Saturn Theater New Year’s Eve concert where rich and famous rock stars return every year to perform out of respect for their roots. Wolfe’s failing health inspires music mogul Colin Beverly (Ed Begley Jr.) to make a play for Wolfe’s lease for the purposes of destroying the small venue and putting up a building of his own. Wolfe is relying on stage managers Neil Allen (Daniel Stern) and Willy Loman (Gail Edwards) to keep the show running on time and to thwart Wolfe’s greedy nephew Sammy (Miles Chapin) from sabotaging the show and obtaining the lease. Stern’s long underrated straight man routine plays well as the befuddled stage manager whose diplomacy bonds the eccentric rockers. Mining the rockers’ outlandish behavior is what works best about the film.

One of the most intriguing bands is Nada, an over-the-top punk stereotype of the kind you have never seen outside of a Tony Basil video. Every member of Nada’s fifteen piece band is a representation of an eighties caricature of a punk rocker. Nada (Lori Eastman), the vocalist for whom the band is named, leads the band and is in charge of Piggy portrayed by Fear front man Lee Ving. As silly as they are together, their party antics are big fun; their involvement peaking during a version of “Hoochie Coochie Man” obviously recorded by Fear, but frames the antics of Ving and the other actors chaotically. Ving begins the song with a world-class stage dive that rivals the best 80s hardcore footage and the chaos that ensues reflects some great, albeit staged, punk footage.

Other acts arriving or racing to get to the venue are egomaniac Reggie Wanker (Malcolm McDowell) the legendary King Blues (Bill Henderson), metaphysical folk singer Audin (Lou Reed) and Jerry Garcia inspired commune leader Captain Cloud (Howard Kaylan of The Turtles). If you are into a certain type of silly humor, none of these characters are especially weak. McDowell plays an excellent jerk and Reed’s overly laid-back recluse is oddly meta.

Arkush sadly went on to direct Caddyshack II (1988). Caddyshack II at least got a DVD release. Get Crazy is difficult to find as it has only been released on home video as a VHS. It’s a silly film, but if you pine for the humor of Airplane! (1980) and love a little punk attitude, Get Crazy is a must-see. (Billups Allen)

Memorable line: “Okay! This building is coming down and 88 stories are going up. So fuck you, and fuck rock and roll!”

So many memorable lines: “God, this is my man, and you better take care of him. Or I’m gonna wax your ass.”

***Hot tip for record people: The soundtrack features Fear’s manic version of “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Lou Reed’s “Baby Sister” also isn’t found anywhere but on the soundtrack. I’m also kind of partial to the song “Hot Shot” Malcolm McDowell sings in the movie.

(A version of this article was published in Lunchmeat Magazine, Issue #8.)

 

Christmas Evil (1980)

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Edward R. Pressman Films
Director: Lewis Jackson

I have for a long time been particularly fond of a scene in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart where Laura Dern’s character Lula describes in disturbing detail her demented cousin’s obsession with Christmas. I would like to know if Mr. Lynch saw Christmas Evil. There are better-known Christmas themed horror movies, but to me Evil is a classic among classics. It’s the It’s a Wonderful Life for horror films.

After witnessing mommy and Santa Claus in the beginnings of having a “not-so-holy” night as a child, Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) becomes psychologically damaged and obsessed with Christmas. Thirty-three years later, Stadling collects Christmas ephemera, works in a toy factory, and spends his spare time skulking around his neighborhood keeping tabs on which kids are naughty and which ones are nice. His extended skulks create a sense of great unease driving the movie. What he’s thinking or what he’s capable of are never telegraphed. Maggart plays the neighborhood suspect as just about to unravel, but occasionally dropped into the position of being a good guy.

There is occasional gore, but the movie would not be nearly as scary without ride-alongs as we follow Harry on his various steak outs. There is not much open violence as there is a fear of not being able to follow his train of thought. The fun here is seeing his bizarre behavior and not knowing at any given time what he’s capable of. The movie knows that you know he’s going to snap at some point, but as to when and how far he will go the movie the movie plays cat and mouse by through various roadblocks including having him react nobly in the Christmas spirit in several scenarios.

The sound design is an extended series of ominous tones, tense music, and uneasy sound effects, some of which feel a bit ahead of their time as horror movie tropes. Some are quite strange including an extended segment of Christmas carols warbling through a busted tape recorder. The sound design is creative and produced a surreal atmosphere in a clever manner.

Maggart’s acting carries the character nicely as he delivers a paced unraveling predating the influx of the popular trope of the quiet man psycho killer that dominates so many 80s slasher movies. Maggart broods. When the movie permits, he takes a break, and acts genuinely human. His predicaments shift him in and out of reality to the point of farce.

Stadling’s younger brother Philip (Jeffery DuMunn) worries from his nice home in his well-adjusted life about his brother not coming over for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The brother’s concern and the phone call leading up to the climax is oddly convincing in a way that adds a human element to the killer often not found in horror movies. The phone call might sound a bit silly in light of the events of the film, but their conversation is definitely thoughtful in a way that gives pause.

The movie works so well as a slow burn it’s a pleasure not to see Harry go into full slasher mode. Even at his worst, he’s a wild card. More than just a slasher film, Evil is an awesome portrayal of an already unstable man coming apart at the seams in a Santa suit. It might be a lot of things, but it’s more than a guy going nuts in a Santa suit.  (Billups Allen)