The Dark Backward (1991)

Dark Backward

Here’s another truly bizarre flick for the more adventurous cinephiles among you. It’s really sleazy and really gross — actually, there’s a bit of necrophilia within the first 10 minutes of this nausea-inducing satire — but it’s also really uniquely surreal, offering viewers a compound fracture-level break from the typical Hollywood/Cable TV fare that seems to assault us from almost every mainstream media format these days. Plus, it has actors like Bill Paxton, James Caan, Rob Lowe, Wayne Newton, and Lara Flynn Boyle cast in absolutely bonkers roles. And it features a scene with a human xylophone.

I just want to repeat that once: “A human xylophone.”

The Dark Backward’s rather dark narrative revolves around Judd Nelson’s character, who is an unspeakably awkward — and undeniably awful — standup comic in a dreary, dystopian reality, in which all billboards tout absurd products such as Pork Juice, Weaselroni, and Squeezable Bacon. When a third arm suddenly sprouts from the middle of his back, his fellow garbageman (and only friend) — played by the late, great Bill Paxton, who truly turned up to 11 for this particular role — augments his comedy act to highlight the grotesque, enigmatic appendage and, with the help of an unscrupulous talent agent — played by Newton — they achieve a moderate amount of success.

The movie, written and directed by Adam Rifkin, is wonderfully shot — from beginning to end — with brilliant colors and mind-boggling sets, and it’s consistent tone is both deliciously subversive and decidedly punk rock. (Imagine if Repo Man [1984] had been co-directed by John Waters and David Lynch [and maybe Jeunet & Caro for good measure], resulting in something like How to Get Ahead in Advertising [1989]… except not nearly as good.) The Dark Backward is raunchy fun — and it takes viewers quite far off the beaten path — but it never even attempts to transcend its farcical nature or toy with any motifs that are even slightly cerebral.

It’s enjoyable if you have a strong stomach and a pitch black sense of humor but, ultimately, it’s immature and forgettable. I’d give it three pot leafs out of five for its badass, hand-drawn opening credit sequence alone, though:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

Advertisements
The Dark Backward (1991)

Candyman (1992)

candyman

A film’s quality isn’t the main reason a 10-year-old child enjoys it or is impacted by it, especially in the horror genre. This realization has hit me time and again, watching old “favorites”—whether they’re my own (Gremlins [1984]) or someone else’s, which I’ve been introduced to late in the game (Poltergeist [1982]). It was also the source of my concern (and excitement) while heading to the theater on a weeknight to re-watch Candyman (1992)—a childhood favorite of mine that I had seen only once, 25 years prior.

An adaptation of a short story by Clive Barker, Candyman is a near-perfect opus of fears, wrapped in a moderately well-executed tale. The movie isn’t great, really, underperforming when it debuted, in part, due to its somewhat flat acting and disjointed pace. But the story appropriately avoids any attempts to be “scary” by investing heavily in fear and suspense, punctuated by disorientation and gore.

What the film does exceptionally well, for example, is take a bevy of real-life, abstract fears and manifest them into the physical world. Save for concerns like public speaking and heights, Candyman peddles a vast range of fear types—physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual—and has them enter and, ultimately, consume its characters with devastating results.

Growing up two hours north of the Cabrini-Green public housing development and the University of Chicago, where this horrific story is set, provided me with a physical anchor for the fears represented in the movie as well. As I passed by it on the freeway as a kid, I used to think, “That’s where the Candyman lives.” And that’s where, for many years, my fears of the unknown would concentrate, and quietly return gaze.

Because it isn’t particularly scary—definitely not “art” on-screen—but because it’s so well-versed in taking our internal fears that normally only tug subtly at the base of our brains and bringing them to the forefront of our minds, giving us nowhere to hide, I bestow upon this movie that is not to be named a fifth time…

…three pot leafs out of five:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

Candyman (1992)

All That Jazz (1979)

all that jazz

Wow. Bob Fosse was kind of an asshole, huh? I’d never seen Cabaret (1972) or anything that he’d been associated with before. But this movie, which he wrote about himself and then directed, makes it crystal clear that he was a chauvinistic speed-freak for at least a short period of his life. All That Jazz (1979) is the most egomaniacal bit of cinema I’ve seen in quite some time. The whole thing is pretentious and self-absorbed. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; to be sure, some of the best art on the planet is both pretentious and self-absorbed.

The film is much more morbid than I expected it to be, though: Fosse’s preoccupation with death is established early on and — I’m sorry for this terrible pun — beaten like a formerly living horse right up to the [admittedly haunting] conclusion. The movie is frenetically edited by the apparently obsessive Mr. Fosse, resulting in a relatively surreal musical meditation on mortality (and monogamy) that puts a tight spotlight on the sleazy, “backstage” life of Broadway performers. It also showcases a lot of bare skin and sexuality in the process, which I found quite enjoyable since I am far from a prude.

All That Jazz feels a little Felliniesque at times, although its rigid execution ensures a uniquely American tone throughout, and it never achieves the truly-dreamlike quality that seems to come so naturally to many European directors. It certainly packs a lot of interesting, modern philosophy into a colorful, engaging narrative — and Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Fosse is nothing short of fabulous. But it’s also hard to ruminate on your own personal demons while Fosse is delving so deeply into his.

Three pot leafs out of five for being such a rhythmic and raunchy spectacle:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

All That Jazz (1979)

The Puppet Masters (1994)

MCDPUMA EC011

This flick had a lot going for it: A story by Robert Heinlein; a screenplay adapted by David S. Goyer (well, among others); a cast led by Donald Sutherland, Keith David, and Will Patton; and a bunch of slug-like, mind-controlling aliens. Unfortunately, these wonderful ingredients were thrown together so haphazardly that the result is typical Hollywood fare, complete with an overabundance of car chases, explosions, and choreographed fist fights. The film also demonstrates — yet again — that if you want to save the planet from malevolent alien invaders, you don’t hire young, flirty federal agents (Julie Warner and Eric Thai) to do it. Although the movie does, in fact, revolve around them, these two so-called protagonists mostly just get in the way of their veteran counterparts as their forced, pedantic sexual tension ratchets up, eventually culminating in one of the most awkward and unintentionally-funny shower scenes ever filmed.

The Puppet Masters is not without its charms, however. It does try, earnestly, to respect Heinlein’s thoughtful source material — and it’s chock full of gory, practical effects involving those icky, aforementioned alien slugs. It also features outdated technology from the 1990s, such as floppy disks and pagers, while managing to be entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way.

I adore the genre (as well as the ’90s) but The Puppet Masters isn’t the most solid entry. It’s on-par with John Carpenter’s remake of Village of the Damned (1995). But it’s not as good as Phantoms (1998) or The Arrival (1996), and I really shouldn’t even mention true classics, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), in the same breath.

Even though the alien slugs were awesome and gross, I can’t, in good conscience, rate The Puppet Masters better than Klute (lol). It gets two pot leafs out of five:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

The Puppet Masters (1994)

Point Blank (1967)

Point Blank

John Boorman and a small handful of directors, including Sam Peckinpah and John Milius, seem to understand — and capture — the tortured, destructive male psyche better than most. Their films, such as Excalibur (1981), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Conan the Barbarian (1982), respectively, always seem extremely “masculine” to me, as they channel the violent desperation and impotent rage of the modern everyman with more frenetic, testosterone-fueled style than their contemporaries. But they also curse their likable antiheroes with strangely steadfast moral compasses and samurai-like commitments to honor, which makes it surprisingly fun to root for the brutish, womanizing thugs they often use as protagonists.

In 1967, Boorman made his Hollywood “debut” with Point Blank — a gritty, semi-psychedelic revenge flick with the phenomenal Lee Marvin cast in the lead role. Marvin’s tough, brooding character, known only as Walker, is betrayed by his wife and his best friend after a heist on Alcatraz Island, shot in the gut, and left to die in the opening scene. He then regains consciousness and spends the rest of the movie tracking down those who “owe” him, crashing around California’s underworld like a coked-up bull in the proverbial china shop with Terminator-like persistence. Walker is wonderfully menacing in his pursuit, though he actually doles out very little violence himself. (Insert a sly wink to readers who have already seen the film here.) After he catches up with his ex-best friend — the great John Vernon, by the way, who I immediately recognized as the villain from Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) — Walker sets his sights on the corporate fat cats higher up in his criminal organization, who are used to having others do their dirty work for them. The whole thing is kind of like The Long Goodbye (1973) mixed with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) — except it predates both of those films by several years!

Of course, the female characters are a bit weak-willed and, generally, exploited. The fight scenes are sloppy, minimally-choreographed, and devoid of any “gentleman’s rules” (like most of the clumsy, awkward fights I’ve witnessed/been a part of). The dialogue is delightfully disorienting and esoteric while the music manages to be jarringly funky and simultaneously surreal. Yet, somehow, the resulting jumble of AV poetry whispers something very satisfying to a primordial part of the reptile-brain that most American men are stuck wrestling with on a daily basis.

I was actually planning on giving Point Blank three pot leafs out of five when I started this review, but because it’s such a smart, fresh, and early benchmark in the neo-noir genre, as I understand it — and because I’ve been enjoying the commentary track with Boorman and Steven Soderbergh that was included on the DVD I rented while I was writing this — I’m now happy to give this classic tale of crime and redemption four pot leafs out of five:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

 

Point Blank (1967)

The Parallax View (1974)

Parallax View

Lost and largely forgotten among a slew of political thrillers from the 1970s that involved far-reaching conspiracies and diabolical assassination plots, The Parallax View remains a solid entry in the genre. It begins with the assassination of a prominent presidential candidate inside Seattle’s famed Space Needle, followed by a white-knuckle brawl atop the structure. A congressional committee then informs journalists that the assassination was perpetrated by a lone gunman — even though the audience has been treated to a brief, frenetic scene that strongly suggests otherwise. What follows isn’t great, by any means — but it oozes so much mood and atmosphere that it becomes quite hard to look away.

A young and rather goofy-looking Warren Beatty stars in the lead role as hungry journalist, Joseph Frady, who follows a trail of breadcrumbs in the wake of the assassination and exposes a shadowy corporation that is apparently recruiting sociopaths for contract killings. There is a lot of explosive action to keep the viewer off-balance as the exceedingly dark narrative rhythmically unfolds and Frady is sucked further and further into the literal and figurative maelstrom.

It’s the second Alan J. Pakula film that I’ve reviewed on this site and, although I did enjoy it more than Klute (1971), The Parallax View suffered from some of the same technical drawbacks: The action was disorienting; the editing, amateurish; and the dialogue, ambiguous and/or misleading. Still, the film has a lot of strengths too: It’s violent and cynical climax has been reused and recycled countless times over the years, but it was probably quite shocking and off-putting at the time. (It’s actually still extremely off-putting today!) The movie’s sparse-but-eerie soundtrack also emerges at just the right times to echo and refract some of the anguish that must have been leftover from the tragic, high-profile assassinations that rocked the United States during the 1960s.

It’s a strangely compelling mess of a movie that features one of cinema’s most infamous montages, along with William Daniels — the beloved Mr. Feeny from TV’s Boy/Girl Meets World — in a prominent role. This flick also alerted me to the fact that people could simply walk on airplanes in the 1970s and pay for the ticket once they were in the air!

All things considered, I give The Parallax View three pot leafs out of five:
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

The Parallax View (1974)

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

handaids tale

I’ve decided to focus exclusively on older, more obscure movies to review here, since everyone else (and their mothers!) seem to have the blockbusters and new releases pretty well covered. My buddy, Jack Wolf, might decide to review some more popular, contemporary films on this site. But, until then, you’re probably not going to get anything but offbeat, esoteric picks from me.  So, with that in mind, I decided to [finally] watch The Handmaid’s Tale from 1990. I’m blatantly hoping that the recent success of the Hulu series — which I have never seen, by the way — will drive some traffic here. (Oh, and I’ve never read the Margaret Atwood novel either.) But the old film, which stars Natasha Richardson alongside Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall, is still quite disturbing in 2018.

The movie, which takes place in the fictional but terrifyingly-plausible country of “Gilead,” highlights just how poisonous the marriage of Church and State can be, depicting a conservative, patriarchal police state in which fertile “handmaids” are forced into surrogate motherhood for powerful, barren couples. This dystopian nightmare was efficiently — if a little clinically — committed to film by the German director, Volker Schlöndorff, who effectively swapped the relentless, bloodthirsty Stasi with uptight, sexually-repressed nuns and got strangely chilling results: brutal brainwashing techniques, public hangings, and hysterically violent lynch mobs to keep the masses of Gilead in line. But nothing is more hauntingly bizarre than the super-awkward sex/rape scene between the fully-clothed Robert Duvall, the extremely spiteful Faye Dunaway, and their poor handmaid, sandwiched between them in the missionary position.

The dated and admittedly stilted production does an admirable job, bringing this cautionary tale of religious fascism and fanaticism to life. Most of us (with brains) have awoken, over the past few decades, to the fact that sexism is utterly rampant in the world — and that organized, orthodox religion has, generally, helped to keep the proverbial “foot,” first referenced by Sarah Grimpke, firmly on the necks of our sisters. But, since the President of the United States is currently rushing a horrifyingly-conservative Supreme Court Justice through the confirmation process, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably more relevant now than it’s ever been before.

Because it was so brutal and genuinely frightening, I award this dated movie three pot leafs out of five (as I shudder at the current state of the union):
Pot Leaf Pot Leaf Pot Leaf

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)