Manhunter

Manhunter

It was Michael Mann directing, just off the out-of-left-field success of Thief and the current irresistible force behind the number one television drama on TV, a pastel wonderland called Miami Vice. It was William Petersen, just off the lead in To Live an Die in LA, and after this role it would be a long time before he’d raise his profile to these heights again, with a little something on CBS called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The source material was from Thomas Harris and he was pretty much at his peak when he wrote the book Red Dragon. Hannibal Lecktor (they spell it different in this one) is Bryan Cox, and film fanatic message boards to this very minute pulsate with comments on how his version of the iconic cannibal “wipes up the floor” with Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the exact same character in Silence Of The Lambs. I say there’s room for both. It’s a role that begs not be screwed around with, and Cox, with his permanent wince and gum-chewing jocularity, is not screwing around. One can’t say the same for ‘ol Tony in the misguided Lambs sequels. The bogeyman the two are trying to catch goes by the name “The Tooth Fairy” and Tom Noonan’s characterization of this unhinged giant will give you nightmares whether you are 9 or 99.

The film is beautifully shot, but that should surprise no one. Michael Mann is sometimes accused of being facile and unnecessarily “pretty,” but why go to movies at all if you don’t want to be accosted by wonderful imagery. Making a Florida beach look staggering is one thing, doing the same for Atlanta and St. Louis quite another. Every frame Mann shoots is mesmerizing. There is a scene featuring a blind woman, a tranquilized tiger and the serial killer himself that is absolutely unforgettable. The soundtrack is top-notch, Mann has always had an innate understanding of how to use music to supplement his vision–not every filmmaker has this gift.

It’s not perfect. The overblown role the National Tattler plays in the scheme of things is pretty ridiculous. There is also a cameo by Chris Elliot as a poker-faced G-Man that is as startling and inappropriate as a scrubs-clad Carrot Top bursting into someone’s dying grandmother’s hospital room with a tray of chicken pot pie, veggie mix, and chocolate milk as the family gathers around for her last breath.

In the end, when I go to IMDB and look at Michael Mann’s output, I don’t see enough. Thief, this movie, Heat, and of course the two television series Miami Vice and Crime Story are all monumental. Collateral and Ali were silly, the Miami Vice movie completely worthless. I haven’t seen The Insider or Last of the Mohicans. Still, I feel there should have been much, much more. And maybe there still will be–he’s only 71, after all. Er, well, maybe there won’t. But Manhunter is worth seeking out.

Robin Williams

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He emerged in the late 70s–a stand-up comedian of an undeniable originality and brilliance. His 1978 HBO special was staggering–an explosion of lightning-speed, gear-shifting improv that elbowed its hairy way into the pantheon of great comic performances the second it was recorded. A chance meeting with Arthur Fonzarelli at a Milwaukee leather bar landed him a cameo on a dying (Fonzie had literally jumped the infamous tiger shark earlier that same season) television show and he made enough of an impression to be handed his own show, in which he excelled. As the 80s dawned he, and Steve Martin, were considered the cream of the crop of the new young comedians.

Hollywood beckoned. But even as early as 1984’s Moscow on the Hudson, you could see the cream starting to curdle a bit as Robin hammed it up and chewed on the scenery like it was so many bowls of Bugles left out by craft service. In quality, the 80s were probably his peak, as he managed to give (generally) low-key and nuanced performances–with The World According to Garp, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society the highlights. Even the early 90s granted “us” a brief stay from the ugliness to come as he turned in some solid work in The Fisher King and the beloved zombie movie Awakenings.

Then it all went pear-shaped. His inability to turn his hyperkinetic zaniness “off” was probably pathological. It certainly didn’t do the guy any favors. Witness his enormous three decade body of work as an insufferable, out-of-control talk show guest. If you can. I simply could never watch these psychotic episodes for more than 30 seconds before switching over to QVC’s baseball card show or Tony Little’s latest miracle body-swelling implement infomercial. Whether Robin really was coked up or parodying someone coked up doesn’t matter a bit–leaping around the set treating both the host and any other guest(s) who happened to be around as pieces of furniture while screeching out non sequiturs in the same rote half-dozen “funny voices” he had cooked up in 1975 (flamboyant Stonewall-era hair dresser, stentorian Big Brother/God type, hybrid of the witches from The Wizard of Oz, panicked pilot in a nosediving fighter plane, addled Slavic peasant, feces-flinging monkey gifted with the power of speech) hardly qualified as humor. He simply wasn’t funny. Just sit still and answer the question in a succinct and coherent manner, sir!! But he couldn’t.

As far as his movies go, his greatest shortcoming seemed to be an inability or unwillingness to turn down any script or cinematic concept that came his way, no matter how wretched it was. For every One Hour Photo there were five or six Jakob The Liars. For every Good Will Hunting there were seemingly TWENTY Old Dogs. As long as he got to “do his thing,” as long as the role called for him to be insane, mawkish, vulnerable, uncontrollable, childlike, madcap, tearfully sentimental, filled with unfathomable wonder, or any combination of such, he was all in. The very lowest point was something called Patch Adams–cited by one critic as the worst crime against humanity since the dark days of Europe in the early 1940s. I actually just spent 15 minutes on IMDB and determined that 80% of his filmography is completely unwatchable. This must be a record of some sort. Tor Johnson, the poster child for appearing in worthless dreck, clocks in at only 60% on the same exact scale, for Heaven’s sake!

But back to Robin. Innately talented? Yes. Good-hearted guy? It certainly appears that way. National Treasure? Give me a fucking break.

Rain Man

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Are there real-life “Rain Men” who actually walk among us? And just what is a Rain Man, anyway? If we can agree it is a generally hopeless person, who is still able to do one thing, and only one, superlatively well, then, yes, it can be said that there are real Rain Men. Let’s take a quick look at just, who, back in the 80s, might have served as inspiration for the now world-famous movie character that Barry Levinson created.

Greg Ginn–Plays guitar well. Has problems with “everything else.”

H. Ross Perot–Good at making money, not so good at making sense

Michael Richards–“Kramer” is apparently so golshdarn funny they paint oil portraits of him. It’s a shame the person who portrayed him is so maladroit in nearly every other phase of his existence, up to and including stand-up comedy.

Joe Piscopo–His Sinatra imitation was impeccable. When he’s not doing that, he’s about as charming as the guy slipping roofies to your sister on her L.A. vacation.

Oliver North–Had a sharp eye for picking attractive secretaries. Not entirely certain what other purpose he served.

J. Mascis–Plays guitar well. Has problems with “everything else.”

When original casting choice David Byrne dropped out of the project after only one week (citing “religious differences” with co-star Tom Cruise) Dustin Hoffman stepped in. And he ran with it–all the way to the Oscars, where, unable to break character, he dropped the statuette on his big toe and fell into the large Japanese Temple-shaped cake that had been baked to commemorate Akira Kurosawa’s Lifetime Achievement award. All whilst cawing “Don’t burn the baby!!!!” like a deranged mynah bird.

Of course not–what kind of person would scald an innocent baby??

Stupid, stupid Rain Man.

Satisfaction

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This is a tough one to write. I mean, Mallory Keaton (born in 1966 as “Justine Bateman”) obviously means the world to me and after her TV series ended, well, she had to do something, didn’t she? Apparently, she scrawled her John Hancock on the first script to come across her kitchen table, and in hindsight, it wasn’t the best choice she could have made. They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but Mallory’s first post-Family Ties footstep sent her in the completely wrong direction and her subsequent career ended up being a voyage of about six or seven meters, a fair measure short of a thousand miles.

Okay, it may have been that she was bound and determined to shed her vaguely prep, barely sentient (but still so very, very hot) Midwestern good girl image, but for her to attempt to portray a rebellious rock n’ roll singer right out of the blocks was just too much and too sudden of a jump. Did we see Shelly Long hamming it up as Nancy Spungen in Sid and Nancy or Erin Moran breaking out the electrical tape to play Wendy O. Williams in The Story of the Plasmatics? No, we did not. I remember I happened to stumble upon this movie while it was playing in the background at some party during the scene where Mallory’s character is trying to stir things up by shouting out some anti-authority slogans during a high school graduation ceremony and instantly bursting into tears at how wrong it all was. It got even worse when she ends up being the lead singer in a “rock band” since neither she nor the people writing and filming the movie have the faintest idea of what a rock band, or even rock music, is. It’s all as genuine as margarine and just as sickening, I’m afraid, reaching a low point when Mallory starts banging on a cowbell with all the earnest ridiculousness of some bell-bottomed member of Foghat.

The entire project isn’t helped by having Julia Roberts slinking around its edges–playing bass guitar in mom jeans, of all things. I have never for a single second found this woman sexy, lovable, charismatic, or even a halfway decent actress. America’s Sweetheart?? You have got to be joking. I mean at least she’s tall, but I’ll take Sigourney Weaver or even Wendie Malick the next time I want to look up at a famous actress as we leave a fine restaurant hand in hand after enjoying a delicious meal I haven’t paid for. In fact, I blame HER for forever sullying Mallory’s good name. Sometimes, it’s okay to be irrational.

Donald Trump

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Donald Trump in the 80s was quite a different kettle of rotted fish from the TV personality we (cough) “love” now. First off, he was relatively new and hadn’t yet been given enough time to do much damage. Even then, though, there was already something cartoonish about the fellow. Start with the name, which sounded every bit as manufactured as Stuart Goddard telling some coked-up MTV VJ his name was “Adam Ant.” Ridiculous. Except the Trump name was real–Donald was the baby prince of an already established scuzzball empire built by his father. The surname is an anglicized version of the Low German word “Drumpf.” And yes, just as you might have guessed, that translates to “toadstool” in English.

His two great accomplishments this decade were the construction of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue and the 1989 release of the board game Trump: The Game.  The Trump Tower is everything you’d expect from something that was unveiled in the go-go 80s–tons of the “world’s finest marble” and heaps of the “planet’s rarest brass” all slapped together in the public areas to no memorable effect, but the black monolithic exterior does have a dozen or so live trees growing out of it, so you can give Trump credit for being a brave pioneer of sustainability if you want to. As for Trump: The Game, not enough people ever played it for history to record whether or not it was any fun, but I can say that as far as its name goes, it doesn’t hold a candle to the one released last year by a certain LA rapper called The Game: The Game.

His woman of choice for this decade was Ivana and she was very blond and very tall and liked to tell little fibs about being on the 1972 Czechoslovakian Olympic ski team. I don’t think she ever accomplished anything other than bringing three more Trumps into the world (readers can decide for themselves whether that is an actual accomplishment or something more akin to a criminal act) but her first name does comprise exactly one-half of my all-time favorite drag queen stage name: Ivana Koch.

Since this blog only covers a brief ten year period I am unable to discuss all the mischief he’s caused in the past 30 years or so, like trying to pave over half the Scottish Highlands or threatening to bum rush the White House every four years. He’s a hard man to look at, and recent rumors about him being the object of a new float in the 2014 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade are worrisome. It probably won’t come off– The Donald would never cede control of his image to a bunch of mere designers and float makers, but if he does insist on “playing himself” this coming November, organizers will hardly need to pump in any helium in order to send his bloated corporeality skyward.

Steff from Pretty In Pink

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If ever a movie character managed to seamlessly blend the ridiculous and the sublime, it would have to be Steff (no last name, please) from Pretty in Pink. The ridiculous? This is high school, yet James Spader was 26 at the time and looked about 32. He’s purportedly a rich “preppie” from Chicago but instead of wearing Polo Ralph Lauren with some Brooks Brothers thrown in as rich preppie kids from the midwest would have done back then, he prefers baggy silk/linen blend suits paired with sockless smoking slippers like some rent boy from South Beach. Most, if not all, high school students have classes to attend, but Steff wanders the hallways of the school at will, puffing on cigarettes and peeking in windows like some Versace-clad ghost who somehow never received his copy of the student rules and regulations handbook.

The sublime? All of the above! Spader plays this shuffling, slouching villain so over the top that it actually works. That breathtaking mad flow, that insufferable clipped diction, that bulletproof hands-in-jacket-pockets insouciance! Not to mention the relentless browbeating of his milquetoast buddy Blane, his vicious, tactless “wooing” of Andie, and of course he and Duckie going all handbags on each other in a deserted hallway. (Steff’s contemptuous “Nice, huh?” just before spitting on the school floor is the single best moment in the movie, in my book).

And the hits keep coming:

“What, are you shopping for records or something?” (A query directed towards a guy flipping through records while inside a record shop)

“If you got a hard-on for trash don’t take care of it around us, pal!”

“When Bill and Joyce are through with you, you won’t know whether to shit or go sailing.”

“You got a problem, friend??”

And of course his piece de resistance: “The girl was, is and will always be NADA.”

Is it really any surprise that after graduation, he moved out to LA, changed his name to Rip, and started slinging ‘caine?

Escape From New York

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The anticipation was visceral–electric, even. HBO had been running the trailer for months. And then finally, on some weeknight in December of 1981, they premiered Escape from New York. I was young–I hadn’t been allowed to see it in the theater despite howling for the privilege like a coyote with his leg in a trap, but by the time it hit cable, these painfully restrictive parental attitudes had softened. So I watched it, eagerly, like Christmas had come early that year.

Its impact was immediate. I walked into school the next morning and announced to my homeroom classmates that I was no longer to be called by my Christian name but rather by my new name, Snake, instead. No one paid me a bit of mind–I would continue to be addressed as “Mike”, “Dick”, or “Idiot” for the next 5 years or so, but that’s not the point. The point was that Snake Plissken was the coolest anti-hero I had ever seen. The previous holder of this title–Kelly Leak from The Bad News Bears–duly genuflected and took the next seat over.

What did this guy look like? An eyepatch, some seriously feathered hair, a sleeveless shirt woven from a material the labs of Under Armour and their competitors still can’t replicate, form-fitting camouflage pants, motorcycle boots and a tattooed cobra uncoiling out of his waistband. Someone in wardrobe was obviously familiar with the work of Tom of Finland, but that is merely hindsight. Escape From New York was science fiction, it was fantasy, it was a dystopian cautionary tale, it was the psychiatrist from Halloween tearing apart self-appointed Manhattan royalty with an M16. It was the fate of the entire human race hinging on which Maxell XLII-S got pushed into the government’s tape deck.

I’m using up my quota of words, but if you’ve seen it, you love it. Any other reaction is impossible. 35 years later, the one-word character names can still bring up images as vivid as Seurat’s riverbank pointillism: Cabbie. Brain. Maggie. (The) Duke. Hauk. Snake. And most indelible of all–Romero, with his demonic hiss and shock of white hair and handful of Presidential finger.

15 years later John Carpenter and Co. would move the whole shebang to the west coast, but I still haven’t even watched that one. Why try to outdo perfection??