Nov 19, 2020


“I heard you paint houses.”

“Yes, I do. I also do my own carpentry.”

A friend of mine once said that Martin Scorsese makes the same movie over and over, and I had to do everything in my power to avoid picking up a nice-looking pen off a bar and kick-stabbing him in the throat until he was a bloody mess on the ground. (I’m kidding.) (Or am I?) In a really superficial way, one could believe this was a sound observation: it’s not just because the most well-known portion of Scorsese’s filmography has taken place in the world of the Italian mafia (though relegated to only four films, including The Irishman), with a single detour into the world of Irish crime in The Departed, but also because Scorsese’s own style and techniques carry over from film to film, giving them an almost brand-like feeling. There’s the first-person narration, the “crime is awesome” montages, the Rolling Stones soundtrack, the gorgeous spot-lighting, the frenzied smash-cut editing, and an ensemble of familiar faces like Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel, the somewhat obscure Frank Vincent, and pretty much the entire supporting cast of The Sopranos. “I liked it the first time I saw it…when it was called Goodfellas,” a mid-90s SNL oddity known as David Spade once said about Casino. Gestating since at least 2008, The Irishman was predictably lobbed from the start with the same kind of shallow proclamations that Scorsese and De Niro were going to make yet another version of Goodfellas, even before a single frame had been shot. Once the film finally made its long-awaited debut on Netflix, twelve years after it was first announced, the camp was still split on what kind of film The Irishman was vying to be. Was it just another Goodfellas riff, or was it something decidedly different?

In case you haven’t deduced it for yourself during one of my typically elongated lead-ins, The Irishman is, indeed, something decidedly different. Is it about the mafia? Yes, it is. Does it involve a fair number of Goodfellas et al. cast members? Yes, it does. But where Goodfellas was a Scarface-ish allegory about opulence, power, and the eventual fall from grace, The Irishman is an Unforgiven-like examination of a misspent life immersed in dirty tasks for dirty people at the expense of one man’s family. That the film is headlined by an aging De Niro wasn’t just the result of the film being in pre-production for a very, very long time, but it’s also the point of The Irishman entirely. It’s about sin, regret, mortality, and legacy. And yes, De Niro, as one tends to do, has aged. For lack of a more respectful word, De Niro is now an old man. His elderliness has crept into his take on Frank Sheeran that both benefits and handicaps his performance, guiding him in his role of a soft-spoken, somewhat slowwitted boob eager to please his masters like a loyal dog, but which is also occasionally at odds with the visual technology being employed to shave decades off his real age. In a way, De Niro’s appearance and performance sum up the experience of The Irishman as a whole – still engaging, still artfully made by one of cinema’s remaining old-school masters, but maybe, perhaps, a couple decades too late.

Based on prosecutor Charles Brandt’s “non-fiction” book I Heard You Paint Houses (I say “non-fiction” because it was based entirely on Sheeran’s version of events, which many have claimed to be dubious), The Irishman is a sprawling epic where genuine history and possible artifice intermingle in ways that, regardless of the film’s ultimate dance with reality, is still a compelling story. The Irishman weaves a complex narrative of many characters, many conflicts, and many intersecting timelines. With a running time of three and a half hours, that’s not surprising. What is surprising is how quickly those three and a half hours go by. Surrounding the main cast of De Niro’s hired hitman Frank Sheeran, Joe Pesci’s mob boss Russell Bufalino, and Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa is an extensive ensemble cast who bring to life many of Philadelphia’s crime figures, including infamous mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), Felix “Skinny Razor” DiTullio (Bobby Canavale, sporting a “rescinding” hairline), and an unexpectedly excellent Ray Romano as attorney Bill Bufalino. (In a weird bit of my family’s history, The Irishman makes brief mention of crime figure Frank Sindone, who helped plan the hit on Bruno and was later found dead in an alley with three bullets in his head. My Philadelphia-born father once unknowingly shared a car ride with Sindone and others from the neighborhood and later described him as “pretty fuckin’ intense.” My father also had a cousin [for whom things didn’t end well] who worked at the Latin Casino, which is featured during Sheeran’s “Appreciation Night” after he becomes President of the teamsters’ local union 326. I keep telling him he needs to write his own book about 1970s Philly because he’s seen some shit.)

In a way, even though any film should consider a comparison to Goodfellas extremely flattering, The Irishman works much better as its own beast. The gliding cameras, the eclectic oldies soundtrack, the voiceover: sure, those things are all present and accounted for – but The Irishman is measured, calm, patient, and mature. It’s a film that stands on its own, of course, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the long and very successful careers of those who made it. It’s Scorsese touching base with audiences and gently reminding them that his on-screen mafia tales are what’s attracted the most eyes, garnered his best critical notices, and punctured pop culture in ways that many of his other films didn't. And let’s face it: Scorsese wouldn’t have gone back to this same well so many times if he, himself, wasn’t so fascinated with a life of crime. What began on a small scale in something like 1973’s Mean Streets, made with a guerilla-style, low-budget scrappiness, has culminated forty-five years later with The Irishman, a two hundred-million-dollar epic that likely hit more eyeballs in its first day on Netflix than did his 2016 Jesuit priest drama Silence during its entire theatrical run. Indeed, Scorsese trots out many of his trademarks, though the occasionally abrupt editing by longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is much more restrained, in keeping with The Irishman’s slower pace. Though Scorsese still falls back on voice-over from a few characters, now they directly address the camera like they’re confessing their sins to us, the audience. As for his new bag of tricks? Yes, the controversial de-aging technology, which landed with audiences in extremely polarizing ways. “It looked great!” versus “It looked terrible!” flooded reviews and talk-backs. Snotty backseat drivers uploaded their own “deep fake” videos to Youtube to show how it could’ve been done cheaper and with better results. But here’s the thing: the de-aging technology itself actually looks fantastic, removing the deep creases and weathered appearances of our charming older men. The problem, however, is that those brand-new youthful faces are then pasted over their still-old dumpy bodies, and the additional decision to have De Niro wear blue contact lenses to “look Irish” (even though he played an Irishman in Goodfellas and wore no such thing) only does a disservice to the millions of dollars spent on those faces. Despite what the actors and choreographers tried, old men can only move like old men, and when it comes time for De Niro to knock down and kick-stomp the local grocery store owner, he kicks like an old man, and it’s hard not to notice.

Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran is an atypical performance for the De Niro we’ve come to anticipate from a Scorsese film, but perfectly appropriate and in line with not only the real Frank Sheeran, but the work De Niro has been doing as an actor since the early 2000s. Throughout his collaborations with Scorsese, or during the “nod” roles he’d play after the fact that painted him as a mob boss of sorts, De Niro was always in a position where he wielded power and influence (or in the case of Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, baseball bats). Audiences have spent the last several decades affiliating themselves with De Niro the boss, from Goodfellas’ Jimmy Conway to Casino’s Sam Rothstein. This time, however, he’s the bag man, the hired gun, the administrative assistant who just so happens to steal and kill. Hell, he’s not even comfortable pulling the car over unless someone else says it's okay. “I was a working guy,” Sheeran says early on before he made his way into the crime world, but even after that, he was still a working guy – it’s just that the things he did are what changed. Sheeran, as presented, is a pathetic figure, only finding worth in the eyes of the crime figures who want him around while barely making time for his own family. One gets the impression that De Niro, for the first time in his life, is actually wanted around, and it renders him a purposely toothless presence, putting him into certain situations to perform acts he doesn’t have the guts to refuse. When Sheeran retreats to an empty bedroom to make a private phone call he’s been dreading, it’s the most pathetic De Niro has made one of his characters look in his fifty years of acting – even more than his famous scene in Taxi Driver where he’s being consistently rebuffed over the phone by Cybil Shephard’s Betsy, whom, after a disastrous date, wants nothing to do with him. “What kind of man makes a phone call like that?” Sheeran later muses during one of the film’s final scenes. De Niro, the boss who stomped on Billy Bats’ skull, who tore through the pimp underworld to save a young girl, who refused to be knocked down by Sugar Ray Robinson, has become a spineless, subservient slave, and he was the one who let it happen.

Sharing the screen with De Niro for the first time since 1995’s Casino is Joe Pesci, who makes a welcome return to Scorsese and co.’s world, his last high-profile project being his good friend De Niro’s 2006 directorial project, The Good Shepherd. Let me just say this: he was incredibly missed, and he offers up the film’s best performance. Gone are the days of the volatile Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro. Though his Russell Bufalino is “the boss,” he exacts that title almost manipulatively in soft-spoken but firm tones. He never, once, goes big, mirroring De Niro’s more neutered approach, and it’s quite honestly one of the best performances in his career. But don’t worry! Al Pacino is definitely ready to take on everyone’s yelling for them. Speaking of, though Pacino offers a fine performance as Jimmy Hoffa, he seems to be playing just another version of Pacino instead of the real man; if we must compare, it doesn’t come close to Jack Nicholson’s take from 1992’s Hoffa, directed by Danny Devito.

Though The Irishman is about ugly things, it doesn’t glamourize them in the same ways as Goodfellas and Casino. In some respects, The Irishman feels like the thematic third part of a trilogy that includes those two titles. It’s the end result of long lives spent creating and depicting stories of crime, but also of the real lives that inspired those stories, the toll taken from living on the wrong side of the law, and that no matter what one’s calling in life may be, eventually, everything comes to an end. And if, at the end of your life, you’re haggling with the salesman over the price of your own coffin – when you’re the one making the arrangements for your funeral because your family won’t do it – you know that’s a life that was lived selfishly, cruelly, and deeply alone.

As much as I loved to see the likes of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel sharing the screen together again, it pains me to say that The Irishman could’ve been a flawless endeavor if our primary trio of actors had been relegated to playing the last two time periods depicted in the film, while falling back on younger actors for the previous two. (Hey! Like they did in Goodfellas!) Having said that, The Irishman is still top-tier filmmaking for everyone involved and showcases a director who, despite his age, has no intent on slowing down. 

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Nov 13, 2020


 [Contains spoilers.]

Considering how often Hollywood stumbles upon a great idea and lays the groundwork for turning that great idea into a great movie, only to subsequently revisit that idea over and over with terrible sanctioned sequels or straight-up rip-offs, it’s amazing there aren’t more American-made James Bond imitations out there trekking the globe, neutralizing espionage, and generally making the genre more mediocre. It seemed filmmakers and financiers were a little less willing to borrow liberally from the imagination of author Ian Fleming and long-time Bond producer Albert Broccoli, so except for the Blaxploitation movement, which eagerly borrowed the character’s archetype of working undercover, bedding women, saving the day, and being a total bad-ass, resulting in some of the silliest movies of the sub-genre like 1977’s Black Samurai with Jim Kelly or 1973’s gender-swapping Cleopatra Jones with Tamara Dobson, you’d be hard-pressed to find many American productions riffing dangerously close to the concept. (Get Smart doesn’t count.) As usual, to find a bevy of borrowed concepts executed to shameless degrees, you’d have to go across the pond to lands near and far – and when I say far, I mean far, far from Hollywood’s trademark owners and rights-holders – to get a sweet, sweet taste of that Bondsploitation.

The Philippines had Weng Weng, a little person with a max height of 2’9” who starred in his own series of Bond-inspired spy spoofs, Agent 00 and its sequel For Your Height Only. (These are real.) If you follow cult movies with any regularity, then it won’t surprise you to know that India, too – alongside their own versions of Superman and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” – had ripped off the Bond series, this one flagrantly rubbing their unauthorized use of the brand in Hollywood’s faces with the aptly titled James Bond 777, described as “the adventures of Kishore, a ‘James Bond 777’ CBI agent, as he and heroine Sopa battle criminal mastermind ‘Boss’ and his gang which includes whip-cracking Jamilla and a trio of highly trained dogs.” Australia got in the game with the action caper The Man From Hong Kong in 1975, co-produced by Chinese financiers, and starring, ironically, Australia’s own native son George Lazenby, who famously took over for Sean Connery in the earliest days of the Bond franchise after the Scotsman demanded more money than producers were willing to pay. (Lazenby is the subject of a tremendous and unexpectedly hilarious documentary on Hulu called Becoming Bond – I can’t recommend it enough.) But leave it to Italy, king of the counterfeiters, in addition to their own versions of JAWS (Great White aka The Last Shark), Escape From New York (The Bronx Warriors), and Mad Max (The New Barbarians) to make not just their own Bond rip-off, but to actually have the audacity to cast – wait for it – Neil Connery, younger brother of Sean Connery and very much a real human being you didn’t know existed until just now. Known, hilariously, as O.K. Connery, Operation Kid Brother, and Operation Double 007, it even includes a handful of actors who had appeared in earlier James Bond films like DR. No’s Anthony Dawson and Bernard Lee to establish that the Italians were really going for it. (Interestingly, Connery’s character isn’t called James Bond or a remotely similar pseudonym, but rather “Dr. Neil Connery.”) Years later, in 1984, Kid Connery also appeared in China’s unrelated Mad Mission 3: Our Man From Bond Street for celebrated cult director Hark Tsui (Van Damme’s Knock Off and Double Team), in which “a master thief is duped by lookalikes for James Bond and the Queen of England into stealing a valuable gem from a heavily guarded location, then must help the police recover it.” Six of these movies were made between 1982 and 1997, released in China and America under the monikers Aces Go Places and Mad Mission, respectively, and while they were all spoofs of the Bond franchise, only one of them featured a Connery. Guess which brother.

Meanwhile, somewhere over in Turkey, a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Pallardy, director of softcore films like Erotic Diary and Hot Acts Of Love, was prepping his own take on the Bond concept, only this time with a twist. Buoyed by a pretension and grandiose self-importance of which only European filmmakers are capable, White Fire (aka Vivre Pour Survivre) takes the concept of an undercover superspy (Robert Ginty, The Exterminator series) and gives him…a sister (Belinda Mayne, from another Italian rip-off, Alien 2: On Earth), who gets involved with her brother’s missions. Our characters’ fates are written in the film’s very strange prologue, which feels like something James Glickenhaus would’ve directed while being Italian, as our young brother and sister witness the assassination of their parents by anonymous soldiers (one of which includes a pretty gnarly death by flamethrower, allowing for a fiery cameo from the director himself). Young Bo and his sister Ingrid (sometimes accidentally called “Inga” by people who should know better) grow up under the care of Sam (Jess Hahn, The Trial), “the American” who saved them as children on the beach. With his guidance, they become Turkey’s go-to brother-and-sister superspy team straight outta MI-6.

Just kidding! They become JEWEL THIEVES.

I know, I know, hang on – we’re getting there.

The siblings – the both of them, mind you, at least I think – inexplicably work at a diamond mine in the middle of a desert in Istanbul (which is misspelled on the opening title card). Apparently, I think, Bo and Ingrid have been stealing diamonds from their company for years and selling them to your usual collection of bad guys, only a higher-up at their company, Yilmaz (Gordon Mitchell), is both aware of this and in on it for reasons never explained.

Soon we meet the bad guys, headed by Sophia (Mirella Banti, Tenebrae), sometimes called “Sophie” by people who should know better, a fierce Italian crime lord. Or is it Barbossa (Benito Stefanelli), sometimes accidentally called Barbarossa by people who should know better, who is actually the one in charge? Or is it Paydin (???), a man who definitely exists in the movie but who doesn’t appear on IMDB or anywhere on the Internet? Yilmaz, it seems, is in cahoots with this shady trio, and has a deal to sell them the diamonds that Bo and Ingrid have been pilfering from the diamond mine. Say, why bother with all these extra steps? Why wouldn’t Yilmaz just steal the diamonds himself and cut out the middlemen? What in the good gravy of Turkey is going on in this movie?

White Fire throws an awful lot at you during the first five minutes of its present day, and frankly, if you’re not already lost at that point, I’m impressed. Is this entire diamond operation good or bad? Hell, are Bo and Ingrid good guys or bad guys? Is this one of those crime/caper flicks born from the era where you rooted for the thief, like Charley Varrick or The Getaway, or does director Pallardy fail to understand characterization? No justification is ever offered for why Bo and Inrid have chosen this line of work, but White Fire definitely wants us to sympathize with them regardless of how they ended up there.

Now, about that incest…

At some point during the movie’s making, Pallardy made the baffling choice to portray his two heroic siblings as being closer than normality allows. Adult Bo seems…a little too preoccupied with his sister. Mainly, her beauty. Mainly, her naked beauty after she climbs out of the pool following a skinny dip session, at which point he rips away her towel to get a glimpse of her fine flesh. “You’re not anybody’s kid sister anymore,” he says, his eyes trained on her naked form. “You know, it’s a pity you’re my sister,” he adds.

And boy, it’s weird.

Really, that’s just the beginning – merely a single instance that, if you wanted to, could be dismissed as one of those unfortunate translation hiccups that happens every so often in European/American co-productions (similar to how Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills seems overly possessive of his daughter in the first Taken, with his dialogue at times more appropriate for an eager young lover than his own progeny). On paper, there’s nothing “wrong” with this. American culture has always been more buttoned up than our European counterparts, right down to how we interact with our own families. They kiss their relations on the mouth; we don’t. Third generations see their grandparents with regularity and even live with them in greater numbers; we don’t. And, I guess, they leer at their naked sister and opine about how the only thing keeping their libido in check is their DNA; we…definitely don’t. (Insert typical redneck joke here.) Just the fact that most European statues and artwork portray naked subjects and ours have on thirty layers of stuffy clothing tells you everything you need to know about the difference in our cultures.

Because of how truly insane White Fire ends up getting, I don’t know if it’s a spoiler to tell you that Ingrid is attacked and killed by the flick’s requisite bad guy (well, gal) during the first act, and after Boris’s entire life ends emotionally, Sam does the only responsible thing he knows to do: he chooses a prostitute who looks like Ingrid (Diana Goodman), gets her plastic surgery, and trains her to mimic Bo’s departed sister, eventually – basically – replacing the departed Ingrid with this new model named Olga. Why Sam assumed that Bo’s fragile, compromised mind would be able to handle such a casually cold doppelganger switcheroo is part of what makes White Fire so goddamn fascinating. This isn’t Sam acting as the covert snake in the grass for some shadowy crime group; he’s not some mind-fuck genius like Hannibal Lecter putting the mental whammo on an already delicate target. This was just Sam being Sam because he honestly thought this was an okay and helpful idea; i.e., “Ah, jeeze, Bo’s sister died. I better get him a new one.” In fact, the closest to real, actual human that Sam gets with respect to his plan is that Ingrid had already been immersed in the shady goings-on of these bad guys (you know, the ones who KILLED HER), and they could use Olga, her replacement, by re-inserting her right back into the scheme and none of their progress would be wasted. Sam really wants to get rich! And I’m not postulating here, because he caps off the breakdown of his weirdo plan to Bo by saying, “We’d be rich!” Oh sure, Sam wants Bo to get over his pain, but he also wants them out of the smuggling game for good, and the fabled white diamond could be their ticket to retirement. It all hinges on Sam’s well assembled scheme (and I’ll paraphrase to make a point):

Bo: “The bad guys definitely shot a nail into Ingrid’s brain and she’s dead.”

Sam: “Let’s go for it anyway.”

So, are Sam and Bo calling the bad guys’ bluff, or do they think some other unrelated group of bad guys are the ones responsible for Ingrid’s death so it wouldn’t be weird when she came back from the dead? And, to sound as callous as Sam for a moment, why the hell do they need Ingrid or Olga at all? Are they incapable of working directly with the bad guys to offload their cache of stolen diamonds? White Fire, in its ongoing theme, never makes that clear.

At first, Bo is understandably dismissive of this plan – and not because Sam, his longtime father figure, could be so uncaring, but because his plan relies on a lazy sleight of hand no one would ever possibly believe: the bad guys would see the newly transformed Olga, believe her to be Ingrid, and think, “Huh…I guess she survived getting her brain shot with a nail…and also forgot about that time we shot her brain with a nail.” Piss off with that emotional turmoil: logistics – this is where Bo’s main focus lies. And he’s not wrong.

Things only get worse once the scheme is underway and Bo starts treating his replacement sister pretty poorly – again, not because he’s still mourning over Ingrid’s death and how dare this impostor think she could replace her, but more because Olga initially fails to know the things that Ingrid knew and do things in the same way that Ingrid used to do them. She is a poor student behind on her studies and he is the teacher who’s had it. During one pivotal moment, Olga loses her cool while trying to be Ingrid and rattles off a sarcastic remark about how she’ll never be as perfect as Bo’s “saintly sister,” leading Bo to slap her very hard in anger. (This is your reminder from me, your host, that we’re still supposed to be rooting for Bo in spite of this – that, at this moment, White Fire, almost offensively, wants us to throw our full emotional support behind the girl-slapping, sister-replacing, sex-pervert diamond thief.) It’s that moment in every romantic dramedy where the main couple, with their own traditions and rituals, break up in a highly dramatic manner, and then later, after one or both of them have met someone new, they see in real time how their replacement lovers fail at being the same person they’re trying to replace. That’s exactly what Bo experiences during the second act of White Fire, only this time, the former lover he’s trying to replace is his sister, and yep, we’re still in increasingly weirder and weirder territory, but things, somehow, get weirder still – and much, much cringier.

When Olga returns from her successful plastic surgery (which also sees the return of Belinda Mayne), Bo falls in love with her immediately. “I love you, Ingrid,” he says, holding her tightly…and Olga is totally fine with this – totally fine with throwing away her entire identity and serving as understudy to a dead girl she’s never met with whom her own brother seems to be in love. Moments later, Bo and Olga are on a boat where she is straddling him. He slowly undoes the straps on the front of her dress and caresses her bare breasts…as flashback scenes of an underage Ingrid play in his mind. (Sam’s just a few feet away in the hull during all this, by the way.) Whether Bo is being intentionally portrayed as someone finally able to embrace the realization that he’s in love with his dead sister, or through necessary movie machinations lacking those deeper implications that exist simply to drive the narrative forward, White Fire never specifically clarifies. (In real life, director Pallardy has been angrily dismissive of the incest theory, trying to pass off this conspiracy as puritanical Americanism, even pointing the finger at those who believe such a thing and insinuating maybe they’re the ones with sexual hang-ups. Granted, it’s ingrained in our culture to be weary of open sexuality, even though we use it to sell everything – from gigantic hoagies to kids’ clothesbut I’d like to think we’re on the ball enough to know what incest looks like.)

Weirder still, this new love isn’t presented as a conflict. This isn’t some kind of psychological malady on which Sam looks back and which forces him to realize he’s made a terrible decision in setting this whole thing in motion. This isn’t a moment where parables about accepting death come into play and shape the rest of the movie, leading Bo to realize there is no replacing a lost love, plutonic or otherwise. If White Fire is successful, then the audience will want this to happen because Bo deserves to be happy, and the romance that blossoms between him and Olga is meant to mirror that kind of surface-level, happy-ending love as depicted in most superficial romances. White Fire doesn’t want its audience to feel conflicted, and it doesn’t want them to think, “Oh, Bo, no! Don’t go down this road!” White Fire wants its audience, instead, to sigh wistfully and say, “Ah…good for them. They deserve love.”

If you think this is White Fire’s sole example of total insanity and reckless incompetence, you’re horribly wrong. All of White Fire is made with this kind of delusion where the siblings’ love isn’t nuts, or the good guys’ Ingrid/Olga-swapping plan isn’t absurd, or the bad guys’ schemes and double-crosses are totally clear, or the lead evil femme isn’t hilariously dubbed and very poorly portrayed, or the sought-after white diamond isn’t a totally useless subplot (considering it explodes at the end for absolutely no reason). Fred Williamson’s Noah eventually shows up as a kind of third-party complication looking for Olga, and he spends so much time in his own subplot that you become convinced White Fire is one of those situations where two unfinished films were edited together as one fully incomprehensible mish-mash. But nope! It was all part of the plan, I guess!

Right around now, you’re probably wondering, “this doesn’t sound like a James Bond rip-off at all.”

Well, strap it on, Moneypenny. The framework for your typical Bond picture is all right there in front of you. Right off the bat, Bo is Bond, and Ingrid/Olga are any number of Bond girls that have perished over the years, leaving Bond to wonder if the superspy world is for him. (In fact, the women in White Fire echo those from the Bond series: really only there to make shit much more complicated for the men, either through emotional sabotage or cloak-and-dagger duplicity, and they are almost entirely disposable.) Sam is “M,” Bond’s handler, mentor, and all-around paternal figure – the one who finds the missions, arranges the plays, sets Bo out into the criminal underworld while he stays behind and reaps the benefits. The diamond mine where the siblings work, only ever called “the organization,” looks less like an industrial mine and more like a post-apocalyptic bad-guy headquarters straight out of John Carpenter’s version of 1997’s New York, containing numerous shady rooms where people are tortured and executed, and where its armed guards have hilariously oversized helmets worn by the likes of Rick Moranis in Spaceballs. You’ve got the international bad guys, the espionage, the double-crosses, the triple-crosses, the sporadic fight scenes, the quippy one-liners. You’ve got the third-party frenemy in Noah, who seems like a bad guy, and possibly is a bad guy, but maybe ends up being a good guy because he helps the “siblings” out of a jam. You’ve got “the mission,” which is stealing the white fire diamond – a diamond so dangerous that it scorches the flesh of anyone who touches it – and you’ve also got what the movie is really about, which is who the hell knows? You guys, there’s a part where a hapless schmuck is tied down to an industrial table saw that inches closer and closer to his balls akin to the infamous laser beam scene from Goldfinger, only this time the poor slob doesn’t make it off the table. And if THAT wasn’t enough, you’ve got the goddamn TITULAR MOVIE’S THEME SONG.

White Fire is a mystery, and for so many reasons, chief among them: where did this movie come from? How is it possible that so many movies, either from the golden era of bad cinema (the ‘80s) like Chopping Mall or Pieces, or from the modern age like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or James Nguyen’s Birdemic or anything Neil Breen has ever directed, can be celebrated for their turdiness, but meanwhile, something so deliciously stupid as White Fire has gone unwhispered about on street corners like the anti-Candyman? But okay, fine – sometimes movies get lost for a long time and then come roaring back, so we can put that aside and focus on the question that truly matters: WHAT is going ON in this MOVIE? Can anyone tell me? Because I’ve spent three thousand words trying to lay it all out in order and it still doesn’t make a lick of sense. 

White Fire exists in its own world and lives by its own rules, where characters repeat lines of dialogue that should’ve been removed in the editing room, offering the impression that every character has obsessive compulsive disorder. White Fire is the kind of movie where Fred Williamson carries an unlit cigar at all times, even in scenes when he’s shielding himself from gunfire and moments from death (and you just know this was Williamson’s idea: sacrifice a tiny bit more realism in exchange for looking “cool”). White Fire is the kind of movie that depicts a normally icky place like a plastic surgery clinic as a haven for girls to wander around half-naked wearing colored togas like goddesses on Mount Olympus. And oh yeah, White Fire is the kind of movie where the girl-slapping good guy wants to bang his sister but then she gets a nail shot into her brain and dies so he finds a replacement and she gets plastic surgery to look like his dead sister and then he bangs her instead.

Honestly, cataloging and transcribing all of White Fire’s irrationality is an impossible task and I’m doing you a disservice by trying; instead, you need to experience it for yourself, because along with all the crazy, it’s entertaining as hell. It hits the ground running with rampant stupidity and never lets up. From literal chainsaw fights to haphazard car chases to unflinching giallo-like violence, White Fire is non-stop, and if the plot starts to feel like it’s not coalescing in your Bond-proofed brain, don’t give a fuck because it wouldn’t make sense no matter who was looking. If you like cheesy ‘80s action flicks, European curiosities, so-bad-it’s-good trash classics, overly dramatic Italian-style quick-zooms, or another title to watch during your Robert Ginty fan club meetings, White Fire is here to make you say, “Oh, brother – I love you.”

Luckily for you, it’s now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Nov 11, 2020


The concept of a “Bill and Ted 3” has been, at the very least, a discussion around Hollywood meeting tables for almost the last twenty years. Considered one of those long-mooted sequels that didn’t seem likely to ever exist, like 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 and next year’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Bill & Ted Face the Music somehow feels designed to both reflect and combat the horrifying, confusing, soul-crushing clusterfuck known as 2020. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s entries of Bill and Ted’s excellent adventures, the characters always exuded an idealism and sense of good that was rare for a time when movies geared toward the youth were usually tackling the pains of adolescence (Fast Times At Ridgemont High, everything John Hughes) or turning them into a generation out of touch with their emotions (Heathers, River’s Edge). That our beloved, never-stoned stoners seemed to lack the cerebral acuity of their fellow students, in spite of their at-times elaborate verbiage, is part of what made the characters so fun and even enviable. They weren’t hampered by the events of the real world. They weren’t concerned about their futures, even if they should’ve been. Their entire worldview was limited to San Dimas, and it was a world free of conflict. All they knew was they were friends, they had fun together, and their burgeoning two-man band, Wyld Stallyns, was going to blossom into a world-changing event.

After years of false starts, vague and optimistic updates from its leads, and a looong period of script development, Bill & Ted Face the Music arrived during a time, it would seem, when it was most needed (but which was, much to my chagrin, not called Bill & Ted’s Righteous Recon).

I have long said, and still believe, that while it’s possible to make a long-delayed sequel to a movie or series that manages to be a worthy new entry, it’s a much taller order to design that sequel to feel like the other movie(s) it’s following. Though the aforementioned Blade Runner 2049 achieved this, many, many others did not. Hell, not even King Beard himself was able to pull this off with his own late-comer sequel to a cherished ‘80s property – the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – which was not only terrible, but didn’t feel like it belonged to its own series whatsoever (except for that great punching sound). Somehow, in spite of everything, in defiance of our pessimism and working knowledge of Hollywood’s propensity for carelessly exploiting any brand with the least amount of street value, Bill & Ted Face the Music not only works as a movie, but successfully recaptures the magic of the series itself. 

Alex Winter easily steps back into the role of William S. Preston, esquire, and though his performance offers the most bubbly enthusiasm in the movie, it’s no secret that Winter went on to a quieter, more obscure career, and never had the same opportunities to further remove himself from his now most famous character – at least certainly not when compared to his juggernaut on-screen companion, one Keanu Reeves, burdened with an audience’s morbid curiosity to see if the actor, who went onto a decidedly less-comedic career that focused on action, dark thrillers, and dramas, could somehow re-embody the character who birthed a thousand memes. For the most part, Reeves is just as successful in re-finding the “whoaaa!” of Ted Logan, bringing to life a middle-aged mimbo with small dreams and little want in life, but his performance is occasionally hampered by an unintended melancholy that comes from his character’s very rare descent into glee. Simply put, Ted’s forgotten how to smile, and in a concept for a sequel that’s already surreal in the sense that it exists at all, it makes some of the sequel’s events feel just the least bit off.

Typical in these many-years-later sequels, Bill and Ted have multiplied, each having a daughter with their princess wives. Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) are the spitting images of their fathers, each adorably named after her honorary uncle and each as equally obsessed with the perfect rock and roll sound. They’ve nailed the brain-dead surfer delivery, with Lundy-Paine’s take on Reeves’ Ted especially spot-on, but thankfully, though their daughters are pivotal in the central conflict, this is by no means a passing-of-the-torch kinda sequel. Bill and Ted are still very much our heroes, even if they’re sharing the stage this time.

Regardless of this new generation, however, let it not be said that Bill & Ted Face the Music lacks the touch of the original band. Series writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon return to write their third Bill and Ted saga together, which resurrects as many surviving characters as possible from the previous movies, from Death’s William Sadler (who is a blast) to Ted’s father Captain Logan (Hal Landon Jr.) and Bill’s (former) stepmother, Missy (Amy Stoch). George Carlin’s Rufus is missed, but proper tribute is paid, and his daughter, Kelly (Kristen Schaal), takes on his watchful guardian duties with a goofy sincerity that fits her personality as well as her character. It would also be an understatement to say that Barry’s Anthony Carrigan as “Dennis,” the time-traveling assassin robot, absolutely steals the show every minute he’s on screen, shaving off the biggest laughs with a silly subplot that shouldn’t really work but always does.

The greatest thing to be said about Bill & Ted Face the Music is its total and complete lack of anything involving cynicism, whether with itself or about the world in which it takes place. Because of this, it feels like an antidote for the ugliness and despair to which our world has fallen victim for the better part of the last decade. Except for a more grandiose representation of “the future,” which relies on visual effects that weren’t available during the previous Bill & Ted days of yore, Bill & Ted Face the Music resurrects everything about the series you remember it being. Bill and Ted are still friends, still jamming, still unconcerned about the state of their futures…that is until their next round of time-traveling adventures begin. Only then are they faced with a bevy of alternate futures where their musical careers crash and burn, where they are estranged from their families, and where they have failed to write the ultimate song that will unite the world. And if you’ll allow a brief detour into “no shit” territory, Bill and Ted aren’t just trying to save the entire world as we know it, but they’re trying to save themselves, too – from a present where their wives are close to leaving them, where they’re not eager to bear the burden of responsibility, and where they’re afraid to chase the dream they’ve been fated to obtain. For us, the audience, this is our in. This is what allows us to connect with our characters. And this is what gives Bill & Ted Face the Music its heartbeat. When we catch up with Bill and Ted a mind-boggling 29 years after the events of Bogus Journey, they’re not living the life you’d written for them in your heads. Based on what we know about these two lovable boobs who do nothing but Chauncey Gardiner their way through life, we expect them to be sharing a crappy two-bedroom apartment with pizza boxes and beer cans all over the floor and possibly getting fired at the same time over the phone because they work the same shift at the same job for which they failed to show up on the morning we’re finally catching up with them. But no, they’re actually living next door to each other in a nice-looking, middle-class development in a nice-looking, middle-class cul-de-sac. They drive plain cars, contend with plain problems, and lead plain lives. They, by god…look like us, and maybe because they are – well-meaning boobs with the responsibility for uniting the world, finding the common good in us all, celebrating the purest moments of life, and embracing all that which binds us in time. This is what we should all be doing, time-traveling phonebooths notwithstanding, and it took a couple of middle-aged doofuses to show us the way.

Much is made about the plot/conflict of Bill & Ted Face the Music – of Bill and Ted’s task to write the ultimate rock song that will unite the world – but for those viewers like me who respond much more emotionally to the ravages of time, both in real life and when reflected in properties that were major parts of childhood, it’s the pensiveness, the acknowledgement of lives lived, and the choices we can still make while we have the time that hits me in the feels the hardest. Maybe I should be ashamed or embarrassed that my eyes welled with tears not once but twice during this long-awaited Bill & Ted 3, but I’m not. Frankly, it’s the perfect movie for 2020, because it’s stuffed to the brim with everything our hearts needed: proof that we can, indeed, go back to the things from our youth and discover they are just as special as they ever were; an injection of goodness, hope, light, and a sense of community that’s been harmed and abused by a growing ugliness based on political differences; and finally, an escape into a world where two not-so-bright dudes can, against all odds, save the world. And in a time where it feels like we have more reasons to fear life than to celebrate it, well, that’s most triumphant.

[Reprinted from Daily Grindhouse.]

Nov 5, 2020


"What is your favorite life-affirming moment in horror?"

As I’ve written before, one of the most anticipated cinematic moments of my then-young life was the 1998 release of Halloween: H20. The studio-prestige approach to a slasher series that had by then descended to dubious levels and flirted with going direct to video, along with the involvement of Jamie Lee Curtis, was a major reason to celebrate the real return of Michael Myers. Though easily the best sequel at that time, these days, in the face of changing sensibilities and especially 2018’s far superior rebootquel, Halloween: H20 feels more like a mostly positive mixed bag. Regardless of its flaws, however, it easily contains one of the best sequences from the entire series.

After surviving several encounters with her long-lost brother, who finally found her hiding place after twenty years, Laurie Strode has a clear path to escape in front of her – there are no barriers, no hurdles to overcome. She’s no longer trapped in a closet or pounding on doors that will never open. She’s got an idling SUV, an open security gate, and her son, John (Josh Hartnett), is begging her to get back in the car and go. But for half her life, Laurie’s been running from her past and hiding behind a pseudonym as the headmistress of a private school in the shadowy hills of Northern California. Her life is in near-ruins; she’s an alcoholic who wakes up screaming in the morning and has an army of prescription drugs waiting in her medicine cabinet to help get her through. And she’s tired of this version of her life – enough that she’s going to make the conscious choice to stop running. In Halloween and Halloween II, every blow that Laurie lands against her attacker is reactionary and based on in-the-moment survival. This version of Laurie, however, goes on the offensive and willfully takes on the role as predator instead of prey. After sending John away, Laurie shuts the gate, smashes its controls, grabs a fire axe, and enters the game, bellowing her brother’s name as the camera takes a God’s eye view of the abandoned school grounds and composer John Ottman’s orchestral rendition of the Halloween theme floods the screen. In a concept further explored in 2018’s Halloween, this is the scene where Laurie refuses to be the victim any longer, and if there were such a thing as immovable fate, as Samuels once wrote, then she’s going to do the impossible and deny that fate as the victim…even if she dies trying.

 [Reprinted/excerpted from Daily Grindhouse.]