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.

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.

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??

Cannonball Run I and II

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What could be more fun than to watch dozens of B and C-list movie stars cavorting on a cross-country death ride to meet up in Las Vegas to worship at the feet of their master, The Walkin’ Dude—Mr. Randall Flagg? Er, wait a minute I think I’m getting this movie mixed up with a BOOK by Stephen King called The Stand.

Let’s start again.

It was a late 70s Saturday night broadcast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World that pretty much hooked me on madcap cross-country ensemble comedies, but unfortunately for me, Hollywood never really produced too many of them.  Enter Hal Needham and Brock Yates. They had a dream of doing a movie loosely based on a real coast to coast race known as the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Trophy Dash and they were lucky enough to have a good pal in Hollywood to help them along, and not just any good pal, but the #1 box office attraction in the land. His name was Burt Reynolds and he got the thing green-lighted with probably about as much effort as it took him to undo Loni Anderson’s bra every night. The movie did so well that three years later they produced a sequel, titled, logically enough, Cannonball Run II.

Herewith in ascending order of magnitude is a brief look at some of the stars who were involved in either one or both of these uproarious films:

Jimmy the Greek—Way, way before the nasty cesspool of Steubenville, Ohio made a name for itself around the world by institutionally covering up a heinous sexual assault, it much more quietly went about the business of producing upstanding citizens like this guy and Dean Martin. I think I like the old Steubenville better.

Jackie Chan—Speaking of Ohio, in the hopelessly xenophobic General Motors-centric Ohio town I grew up in people actually threw sodas at the screen whenever this guy appeared. Because they thought he was Japanese.

Jack Elam—A superlative character actor, but this character was a disturbing one to watch. I hope for the sake of his immediate family he didn’t “take this role home with him” as some actors claim to do.

Burt Convy—Nowhere near as cool as the movie of the same name, which starred Kris Kristofferson as “The Rubber Duck”

Terry Bradshaw—The guy called every offensive play (for both teams!) in four Super Bowls and never lost a one.

Mel Tillis—I always found it odd that a man could be so richly rewarded for mocking people (albeit including himself) with speech impediments, but people weren’t so uptight about things back then.

Adrienne Barbeau—Maggie from Escape from New York. The damsel in distress from Swamp Thing. How anyone with a pulse could not want to eat her up like a super-sized hot fudge sundae has always been one of life’s great mysteries.

Telly Savalas—He brought a gravity to his role as Hymie Kaplan that no one else could have delivered. Jesse Jackson later mentioned by name how impressed he was with this character and got torched for it.

Dom DeLuise—The beloved Falstaff of many a Burt Reynolds and Mel Brooks movie. If he ever managed to do or say one thing that made me laugh I certainly can’t remember it. But it seems like he was a kind soul.

Peter Fonda—“Crazy Larry” will always be an A-lister in my book.

Dean Martin—Vindicated in the 21st century as quite possibly the coolest cat who ever lived, but in 1981 he was considered to be little more than a drunken buffoon stuck fast in an era that had long been passed by. I can only imagine the fun Dean and Jimmy the Greek had on set reminiscing about their childhood days running errands all across southeast Ohio for their mentor “Dom the Guppy.”

Roger Moore—People always say he was the “worst” James Bond but I thought he did just fine. He used to ski in Gstaad with William F. Buckley and David Niven! What did the people constantly tearing him down ever do? Bumper ski down some potholed street by grabbing onto the back of some rusted-out Pontiac Bonneville? I thought so.

Shirley MacLaine—I think this is about the time people stopped taking her seriously and she just took the ball and ran with it.

Burt Reynolds—Although these movies did well, the sun was setting on Burt’s career around this time and gallivanting around like an idiot with a bunch of other idiots didn’t help things much.

Frank Sinatra—And Frank, oh yes, Frank. Mr. Sinatra lived so passionately for the champagne and “classy broads”—it’s a shame his last ever movie role was a spectacle that was roughly the equivalent of having a shaken-up can of warm Blatz dumped over his head while in the act of having unprotected sex with a $5 chickenhead hooker. On a public street. Nice knowing ya, pallie!

To Live And Die In L.A.

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The southern California sun slowly leans down to kiss the horizon, its rays diffusing through insect-sized smog particles to create colors reminiscent of fire and blood as the incredibly unlikely group of musicians known as Wang Chung provide a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Welcome to William Friedkin’s Los Angeles. This the third and final film in Billy’s unholy Trinity—The French Connection and The Exorcist are the other two. William Petersen wears cowboy boots and jeans as tight as the spandex of a wannabe Sunset Boulevard rock star. He’s a cop so blindly outraged by the murder of his partner he doesn’t have the slightest clue what he’s doing and so he leads us down into the hellish depths of a supposedly “shallow” city. 

He’s chasing a man named Rick Masters and Willem Defoe’s reptilian intelligence and offhand wit immediately elevate his counterfeiter/artist to the pantheon of great movie villains. He tools around the ghetto in a jet black Ferrari 308 and gives his girlfriend a human plaything for her birthday. No small detail escapes him:

“You say you’re from Palm Springs, yet you don’t have a tan.”

Gotcha, pal, and another head is about to get blown off in an incredible twist that’s not-quite-the-ending.

What else? Dean Stockwell is a languid, cynical lawyer, Darlanne Fluegel one lithe thoroughbred of a pole dancer and John Turturro gets to play a character who is both mule AND rat. There’s a white-knuckle car chase that never seems to end. Friedkin lovingly applies every bit of style he can to this 2 hour film, but he would pretty much disappear soon after, his creativity spent. Michael Mann would pick up his torch and run with it.

FUN FACT: This movie spawned a porno spoof called To Live and Shave in L.A., the name of which was then appropriated by a noise-rock outfit from Florida who still release recordings to this day. So its impact has been pretty profound, I think.