Monday, August 30, 2010


Three Detroit auto plant workers - Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smoke (Yaphet Kotto) - lead lives of debt and desperation, alleviated only by booze, parties, and the friendship they share. When they decide to rob the union that they're pretty sure is screwing them, they discover evidence of higher-level criminality than they could have imagined. And when they try to blackmail the union for a bigger payout, their hopes are dashed, and the dark side of the American Dream is slowly revealed.

As eager as your proprietor, a Paul Schrader booster, was to see this film, I was somewhat dreading the experience. As one of millions whose fortunes have rollercoastered (mostly downward) in this problematic economy, I've been both intrigued and a bit dismayed by what I'm calling the cinema of despondency: films that accurately depict the lives of everyday people caught in the kind of trying economy we're experiencing today. Some of these films have been rep classics, but a number of striking contemporary films have enjoyed a high profile (like WINTER'S BONE) or been boosted by A-list talent (such as Michael Douglas for SOLITARY MAN) to depict the lives of characters days away from homelessness with debtors on their heels. And as bracing as it's been to see such relatable and timely stories playing in theatres around the world, such stories can hit close to home and make one long for a little escapism. Going into BLUE COLLAR, I thought (classic heist/noir narrative notwithstanding) it'd be another depressing/despairing portrait of souls battered by a faltering economy.

Instead it was a bracing, angry polemic exposing the bullshit that rains on the working classes, and the management forces whose best interest is to keep them angry and divided. Even when the film goes from its more quietly observed first half to its overtly noirish second, it's speaking directly, and angrily,

After Glenn Beck's bullshit this weekend, shitting on the legacy of Martin Luther King to create a toxic and idiotic lie that will only deepen the divides that are sinking this country, Schrader and co. put that shit into perspective, advocating passionately for those being drowned. A wake-up call set 32 years prior. Stay angry.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Despite my taste for weird fantasy and artful horror, your proprietor is by no means a gore-hound. Squeamish? A bit, perhaps, but I'm more averse to the depiction of cruelty and suffering than I am viscera and blood. So I was never in attendance for a screening of any of the films in the more sanguinary horror franchises in recent memory, but did belatedly catch up with SAWs and HOSTELs 1 and 2. I found the films neither as vicious as I'd feared nor, weirdly, quite as bad as I'd been told.

So when this film (the first, apparently, in a planned series by Dutch auteur Tom Six) hit the circuit, I was initially dismissive. But the movie's killer mad scientist concept lingered, and when the film resurfaced for a three-night run at the nearby Red Vic Movie House, I girded myself, and, ready for the worst, went in. I was not expecting to feel how I feel about the film, and leave it up to you to decide what this reaction says about the writer, but...

Here's the thing: You've got a juicy, if disturbing (and, the press mordantly, if wrongly, warns us, medically accurate) premise, and a doctor deranged enough to graft three humans together in a chain, mouth to anus. You've got an impressively weird German actor (the exquisitely named Dieter Laser) who looks like his mouth was carved out of his face by a scalpel. And you've got three actors willing to submit to the demands of the title role (who each give excellent panic and disgust when called for).

But it's not enough.

I'm willing to give Six the benefit of the doubt, and assume that he had a limited budget and timeframe to realize this thing. And yet the listing of a rehearsal space in America gave me pause, since there's no evidence on screen that anyone really engaged the concept. When you're working (for the most part) on a single set with a limited budget, it's time to tinker and flesh out details, but Mix hasn't set his sights any higher than his (admittedly outre) concept. Laser's ready for anything, and is a good mad scientist, but there's very little indication why he's putting humans through this. A little bit of a Frankensteinian relationship between creator and creation would have given the film some much needed texture. And I realize how oddball this sounds, but there was plenty of space to explore the relationship between the three segments after joining. It's a huge challenge for the actor (which Uta Hagen could never have anticipated), and there's considerable suspense in the final reel as we watch the segments finally figure out unified motion as they make a desperate bid for freedom.

A movie with this batshit a concept is not going to attract a mainstream audience. If you have people in seats who know that they're going to see some folks get sown ass to mouth, you gotta get ahead of them. And not just the cerebral shit I'm a bit appalled to hear myself advocating for in the previous paragraph; Six grabbed me with an explanation of the science of the thing, but some fairly obvious outlets for gore and viscera went weirdly unexplored, and I can't imagine I was the only one disappointed that I was coming up with images that were never matched by the action on screen. And though I don't hold the marketing of the film against Mix, it's weirdly crushing that "the most shocking film of the year" should wind up playing its concept so half-assed. Six has sworn up and down that David Cronenberg was a huge influence on his work, but there's a hell of a lot of thought behind Cronenberg's viscera, and none behind Six's.

Unless, of course, Six is in fact playing a long game to be fleshed out and more deeply explored in subsequent segments. Which may be possible, but though I can't deny I'm curious to see where he goes next, there's no evidence in this movie to suggest it'll be a worthwhile voyage.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


San Francisco film programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, in addition to being one of the good guys, has a cultural memory that intersects with that of your proprietor in many places. The films that I saw on Cinemax back when I was but an impressionable youngster were eagerly devoured by Ficks as well, and the man endeavors to bring many half-remembered gems back into the spotlight (and on the screen of the Castro Theatre).

When programming his massive, day-long series, his usual tactic (by his own admission) is to open with a lesser-known film. NIGHTHAWKS was the film that opened a quintuple-feature of manly-man films. (The others were BLOODSPORT; the John Carpenter two-fer of BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and THEY LIVE; and a secret midnight screening of the late-80s Hulk Hogan vehicle NO HOLDS BARRED.) At a glance NIGHTHAWKS looked like the most nuanced film on the bill, and I was pleased to find that it was, in fact, a quieter, beautifully-observed action film, with a novelistic scope, three-dimensional performances, and a faint but present distrust of authority that make it a film more of the 70s than the 80s.

The tale of New York plainclothes cops (Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams) taken off decoy duty to track a vicious freelance terrorist (Rutger Hauer) has plenty of scope and grit, and could easily have filled a three-hour film with suspenseful stand-offs and character development. This may well have been the plan, but by all accounts the movie was butchered by a studio that didn't appreciate what it had. The patchy, under-two-hours film that's left drew positive notices, but lukewarm box office, and the movie it could have been is lost to time.

But despite Jesse's warnings that we'd have to fill in some gaps on this one, there's still plenty that stands tall. The effective and well-depicted procedures of both New York law enforcement and European underground. The lovely sequence in which DaSilva (Stallone) and Fox (Williams) initially resist their counter-terrorist training, but become noticeably less rowdy and more absorbed as it continues. The INTERPOL terror specialist Peter Hartman (a completely believable Nigel Davenport) driven by duty, but noticeably human. A spiffy chase scene through New York's subway system (apparently directed, at least in part, by Stallone himself). Economical but effective performances by all involved, including Hauer's assured Hollywood debut as the supermonster Wulfgar and Williams' sedate but earthy cool...

...but it's Stallone's name atop the bill, and DaSilva's a character unlike any I've seen him play. We first see DaSilva in old lady drag, on decoy duty to catch a trio of muggers. It's as clear a signal as one can get that Stallone's playing against type, and the character doesn't disappoint. DaSilva wears his Vietnam service proudly (he's a ringer for SERPICO-era Pacino, really), but is fundamentally a man of peace - the film's most interesting conflict is between him and Davenport, who impatiently waits for DaSilva to accept that civilian casualties are inevitable in the quest for a psychotic terrorist. Stallone balances DaSilva's man-of-action qualities with his nuanced morality deftly - when the time comes for his final showdown with Wulfgar, we wonder how he'll proceed and we fear for his safety.

I'd never completely written Stallone off - my usual line was that he was a committed artist, but not a good one. NIGHTHAWKS has me seriously rethinking this stance (which many would believe is already generous), and though I strongly doubt such nuance will be in evidence in THE EXPENDABLES, I was delighted to see it on such confident display here. And happy that Jesse gave a damn enough to give the movie another chance. Here's to you, gentlemen.