"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, June 30, 2017

Night Moves

Some of the best American cinema from the 1970s reflected a sense of disillusionment and pessimism as a result of a series of shocking political assassinations in the 1960s and culminated with the Watergate scandal in the early ‘70s. There was a deep feeling of mistrust in authority and a sense that the United States was no longer the great country people perceived to be.

One of the best films that reflect these feelings to come out of this decade is Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), starring Gene Hackman as a down-on-his-luck private investigator. The actor had a great run of diverse roles around this time (including The French Connection, The Conversation, and Scarecrow) and this one is among his very best.

Early on, the film establishes Harry Moseby’s (Hackman) lone wolf credentials as his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) asks him why he doesn’t join his friend Nick’s agency, to which he replies, “That’s not an agency, that’s an information factory.” Hackman shows a deft touch at handling shifting tones as Harry goes from a serious discussion with his wife about his job to messing with her uptight boss at the high-end antiques store she works at: “When are we going bowling again?” he says with a straight face to which the annoyed man replies, “You seem to get some kind of weird satisfactions from this sort of thing, don’t you?”

Harry is thrown a job involving Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), a veteran actress whose teenage daughter Delly (Melanie Griffith) has gone missing. Arlene comes across as a bit of a washed-up boozehound and Janet Ward has a lot of fun putting an emphasis on the word “Biblical” when mentioning that her film producer ex-husband wanted to make Biblical epics. She represents the sad side of Hollywood where once beautiful actresses are phased out when they are deemed too old by studio executives.

Harry also finds out that Helen is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). The scene after he finds out shows Hackman masterfully conveying the jumble of emotions that must be playing behind Harry’s sad eyes. His new case has barely started and he’s dealing with his wife’s infidelity. She finally comes home from the movies and he’s watching a football game (although, his facial expression suggests that he’s not really watching it). She asks him who’s winning and he replies, “Nobody. One side’s just losing slower than the other.” It’s such a great line and sums up Harry’s mood perfectly. He doesn’t say much and he doesn’t have to because Hackman’s facial expressions say it all.

Harry methodically picks up Delly’s trail and encounters a beaten-up mechanic (a motormouthed James Woods), a bitter stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), and a good-looking stuntman (Anthony Costello) with a memorable laugh who’ve all briefly entered and exited her orbit along the way. Director Arthur Penn does an excellent job fleshing out these minor characters with their limited screen-time. They provide the initial impressions we get of Delly as a wild child with quite the sexual appetite.

Harry’s investigation takes him to Florida where Delly’s stepfather Tom (John Crawford) is chartering seaplanes. He finds her and begins to figure out what’s going: Tom is messing around with Delly, much to his girlfriend Paula’s (Jennifer Warren) chagrin. Tom’s also part of the local smuggling scene. In addition, Harry finds himself attracted to Paula, which only complicates things.

Gene Hackman is excellent as a private investigator that thinks too much. Harry is a complex character, haunted by his past – a strained relationship with his estranged father – and tired of dealing with lousy divorce cases, sifting through people’s dirty laundry when he has plenty of his own. The actor is given a rich character to fully inhabit, which he does with his trademark commitment.

While Melanie Griffith plays the free-spirited sex kitten who’s acting out to get back at her mother, Jennifer Warren plays a fascinatingly, fully realized character. Paula’s been around the block a few times but isn’t ashamed of her past. Regretful, perhaps, but not ashamed. She’s smart, demonstrating an understanding of the chess game Harry’s obsessively recreates, and matches him in the witty banter department. Warren has a down-to-earth beauty that has an authenticity to it and it is easy to see why Harry is attracted to Paula. She’s a sad character that seems lost in life much like Harry. These are damaged people looking for solace, trying to outrun the baggage of their past.

Scottish novelist Alan Sharp was working on a detective story called An End of Wishing with producer Robert Sherman. The former asked the latter, “Should I make this a typical detective story about a guy trying to solve a crime or should I make this what I really would like it to be, which is about a guy trying to solve himself?” Sherman told him to go the latter route and when the screenplay was completed, sent it to John Calley, then-head of Warner Bros.

The studio agreed to make the film for $4 million and brought Arthur Penn on board to direct. He was drawn to the script because the political assassinations in the ‘60s had made him depressed and “felt we needed to give voice to our grief. It was a beat-up culture.” Sharp changed the name of the script to The Dark Tower, which Penn subsequently changed to Night Moves during production. The screenwriter was surprised that the director liked his script as he felt it wasn’t resolved. They started working on it together and Sharp was also surprised that someone of Penn’s stature and experience didn’t know more about the screenwriting process than he did. The writer did find the director affable and very smart.

Penn rehearsed with the cast for ten days before principal photography, which Hackman, with his improvisational theater background, enjoyed. Filming began in the latter half of 1973 at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in Florida and Los Angeles. Hackman, at the time, was dealing with personal issues and reportedly acted sullen during filming. Penn admitted that they didn’t pay much attention to plot and that it was “not going to be achievable, that you were never going to be able to delineate a mystery properly,” which may have hurt its commercial chances. Furthermore, he said, “We’re part of a generation which knows there are no solutions.” He and Sharp disagreed over how to end the film with the former wanting there to be hope that Harry would get back with his wife while the latter wanted Harry and Paula to go off together. They compromised on the ending that exists now.

Night Moves received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Miss Warren creates a character so refreshingly eccentric, so sexy in such an unusual way, that it’s all the movie can do to get past her without stopping to admire. But it does.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Harry is much more interesting and truly complex than the mystery he sets out to solve.” The Los Angeles Times’ Doug List wrote, “Few actors can communicate that kind of inner struggle better than Hackman…doesn’t require a role with offbeat characteristics or an overcharged personality to create an unforgettable character.” In his review for Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum called it a “haunting psychological thriller ambitiously sets out to unpack post-Watergate burnout in American life.”

Damaged people populate Night Moves: Arlene, chewed up and spit out by Hollywood; Delly following in her footsteps; Paula, an ex-hooker using Florida as a temporary waystation, and Harry, an ex-football player turned small-time private investigator. Near the end of the film, Harry tells Paula, “I didn’t solve anything. Just fell in on top of it,” which sums up his journey. What does it all mean and does it have to mean anything? These are some of the questions Harry wrestles with during the course of the film. Ultimately, he’s driven by the truth no matter how ugly or fruitless as the last image so brilliantly conveys. Night Moves is a fascinating character study with a tangible, lived-in feel that places an emphasis on behavior, and serves as a snapshot of a battered and bruised era trying to recover from turbulent events that took place in the ‘60s.


Hunter, Allan. Gene Hackman. St. Martin's Press. 1987.

Segaloff, Nat. Arthur Penn: American Director. University of Kentucky Press. 2011.

Friday, June 23, 2017


Drone technology is commonplace now but back in 1990 it was a novel concept and Hardware (1990) anticipated the use of remote controlled robots for warfare making it eerily relevant now more than ever before. This film marked an auspicious debut for filmmaker Richard Stanley as he successfully tapped into the emerging alternative rock music genre of the late 1980s with Cyberpunk culture to create a distinctive science fiction film with political undertones fused with thriller genre tropes. While it received negative reviews from critics back in the day, it was modestly successful commercially and has since gone on to become a cult film.

We are introduced to a post-apocalyptic futureworld where scavengers roam the wasteland known as the Zone looking for anything they can sell. Civilization exists in an industrial graveyard where radiation levels are still high, keeping people inside. Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) is a forager who buys the disembodied head of a robot from a fellow scavenger as a Christmas present for his beautiful girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis), a multimedia artist that welds metal sculptures.

Early on, Jill says about her sculpture, “It’s like I’m fighting the metal and so far the metal is winning.” These words prove to prophetic as she takes the robot head and adds it to her massive sculpture. Unbeknownst to her and Mo the robot head is actually a highly advanced military drone known as the M.A.R.K. 13. It activates and begins to reassemble itself. It soon sees Mo and Jill as threats and thus begins a battle between humans and robot, flesh vs. metal, humanity vs. technology as the film hurtles towards a bloody, horror movie showdown.

I like that Stanley takes the time to develop the relationship between Mo and Jill. They love each other but there is a tension between them as they quarrel over having kids and population control. There is a believable intimacy between them and Dylan McDermott and Stacey Travis have excellent chemistry together. Jill is no damsel in distress and is much more resourceful than her physically stronger boyfriend who tends to go charging into a dangerous situation. With the help of Mo’s best friend, Shades (John Lynch), also physically inferior, confronts the M.A.R.K. 13.

McDermott does a solid job of playing a flawed but ultimately stand-up guy that genuinely cares for Jill even if he’s not a 100% committed to their relationship. Character actor extraordinaire William Hootkins (Star Wars) shows up as Jill’s creepy neighbor who is obsessed with her and has been stalking her for some time. The actor is not afraid to go for it, playing a completely distasteful person whose comeuppance is well-deserved.

Stanley makes some unusual musical choices, like Simon Boswell’s spaghetti western-tinged score that kicks off the film with the scavenger with no name (played by Fields of the Nephilim frontman Carl McCoy) wandering the wasteland, or playing classical music over Mo’s hallucinogenic demise complete with fractal imagery no less – the M.A.R.K. 13 literally orchestrating it all. It really earns its Cyberpunk credentials by including choice cuts like “Stigmata” by Ministry and “The Order of Death” by Public Image Ltd., which enhance the futuristic feel of the world Stanley has created.

Stanley fleshes out his futureworld via radio broadcasts featuring Iggy Pop as an enthusiastic DJ known as Angry Bob, providing tantalizing details of just how bad things have gotten. Outside, everything takes on a hellish red haze. Mo and Shades take a cab driven by none other than legendary rock ‘n’ roller Lemmy who puts on “Ace of Spades” by his band Motorhead on the stereo. Much like Blade Runner (1982), the desired destination for those who can afford it is outer space but who can afford it? Certainly not Mo and Jill.

The original idea for Hardware came out of a dream Richard Stanley had when he was 13:

“I had a series of dreams about the guy in the hat, the character that turns up in Dust Devil and a bunch of other things. In one dream he was searching for something, and he digs up the metal skull with the camera lens eyes and hypodermic teeth.”

Aspects of those dreams surfaced in a Super-8 short film entitled, “Incidents in an Expanding Universe,” that Stanley made piecemeal while going to school in South Africa when he was a teenager. Most of the inspiration for what would become Hardware came from music videos, horror comic books like Creepy and Eerie, as well as spaghetti westerns and Italian horror movies. He wrote the screenplay in a week while listening to Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” repeatedly.

After finishing the script for Wicked Films and TV, Ltd., Stanley joined a guerrilla Muslim faction in Afghanistan. While there, he was nearly killed by a Russian missile and spent three days wandering with a wounded comrade strapped to his back until he found a Red Cross refugee camp. It was there that he learned, via telex that a deal had been made with Palace Pictures to turn his script for Hardware into a film. Stanley went straight from the battlefield and into pre-production on his film.

Originally, Hardware was set in England but when Miramax got involved, becoming co-financier and its distributor in the United States, they insisted that American actors play Jill and Mo. Stanley wanted to cast Bill Paxton as Mo and Jeffrey Combs as Shades but was only allowed to employ two Americans and had already cast Stacey Travis as Jill, which meant that Combs was out. Stanley met with Paxton, who really wanted to do it, but couldn’t get out of his commitment to making Navy SEALs (1990). The filmmaker originally envisioned Mo to be more like a Hell’s Angel but Dylan McDermott changed him to a career military soldier that believes in family and reads The Bible. As a result, Stanley didn’t like the character as much because he lacked the deeper flaws he had originally envisioned.

The taxi cab driver was originally to be played by Sinead O’Connor but she had to pull out due to a scheduling conflict and Stanley persuaded hard rocker Lemmy to do it at the last minute for a bottle of Jack Daniels. He was given a shoulder holster with a pistol during filming and proceeded to draw it and the weapon accidentally fell out of his hand and into the Thames River, lost forever.

Most of the film was shot in the Roundhouse, an empty building that had been derelict for years (it used to be a concert venue for the likes of Jimi Hendrix), in Camden Town. The production built Jill’s apartment in the middle of the building and lived there for six weeks. Some city exteriors were filmed in Canning Town and Port Talbot in Wales, the latter of which had inspired the futureworlds of Blade Runner and Brazil (1984). The desert scenes were shot in Morocco. The production saved up enough money to take a crew of eight there and found it very challenging, encountering a “freak storm with flash floods and a lot of people drowned in a nearby town,” Stanley recalled.

The shooting schedule was originally set for seven weeks but stretched to nine with cast and crew working grueling 12-hour days, six days a week for little money. Six models of the M.A.R.K. 13 were used for filming with a modified battery remote-control one costing $80,000, a full costume, a foam one for stunt work, a fire resistant one, a pair of walking legs, and a bag of assorted parts.

Predictably, Hardware did not do well with critics at the time of its initial release. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Watching Hardware is like being trapped inside a video game that talks dirty.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “D+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “ It’s as if someone had remade Alien with the monster played by a rusty erector set.” The Washington Post’s Richard Harrington wrote, “Hardware is an MTV movie, a mad rush of hyperkinetic style and futuristic imagery with little concern for plot (much less substance).” In her review for the Chicago Tribune, Johanna Steinmetz wrote, “Though it does know how to hammer home a point, Hardware doesn’t always have matching nuts and bolts.” Stanley said of his own film at the time: “I want to inflict serious damage on the audience…I’m sticking my finger up at everything. I purposely wrote the dialogue to be vitriolic and disgusting…I’m moving punk from vinyl to film.”

Society in Hardware is obsessed with population control and why not? Who would want to bring up children after World War III? Inhabitable space is of a premium after most of the world has been reduced to a derelict wasteland. For such a small budget, Stanley does an excellent job of creating a tangible world with its own distinctive lived-in look and feel.

Hardware warns of being over-reliant on technology as the M.A.R.K. 13 traps Jill in her apartment by taking control of the door locks, the phone and all of the electrical systems putting her at a severe disadvantage. Science fiction can often act as a warning – beware of what the future may bring or how the abuses of technology could be our undoing. We are supposed to heed the warnings of these fictional prophecies but we rarely do.


“Cult Director of Hardware Richard Stanley Interviewed.” The Quietus. June 24, 2009.

Forsythe, Coco. “Richard Stanley Interview: Dust Devil.” Future Movies. June 22, 2009.

Jones, Alan. “Hardware: Filming High Concept on Low Budget.” Cinefantastique. 1991.

McAllister, Matt. “Interview: Richard Stanley.” Sci-Fi Bulletin. 2009.

Nutman, Philip. “On Robots and Ratings.” Fangoria. 1990.

“Richard Stanley: Interview.” Time Out London.

Vijn, Aro. “Richard Stanley, I Presume? An Interview with the Director of Hardware.” Screen Anarchy. November 18, 2009.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Con Air

By all rights, Con Air (1997) should have been an awful waste of time – just another tired Jerry Bruckheimer testosterone action movie whose final fate should have been wedged between beer and pick-up truck ads on television. Instead, the movie cleverly sends up and celebrates nearly every action cliché in the genre. No expense is spared as Powers Boothe is enlisted to solemnly intone the virtues of the U.S. Rangers at the beginning of the movie and then has Trisha Yearwood sing a sappy love song (“How Do I Live”) over the protagonist reuniting with his wife.

U.S. Ranger Cameron Poe (Nicolas Cage) is due to be paroled after killing a drunk who threatened him and his wife (Julia Roberts wannabe Monica Potter). We are subjected to the typical passage of time montage documenting Poe’s stint in prison as director Simon West and the screenplay by Scott Rosenberg slyly reference a similar sequence with Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona (1987) and the prison riot scenes in Natural Born Killers (1994). No, really. The prologue clocks in at a speedy five minutes and change, economically setting up the premise. Then, the opening credits play over Poe in prison reading and writing letters to his daughter, employing every cliché in the book all with a thick as molasses Southern drawl.

Of course, Poe’s trip home isn’t going to be that easy as his knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time continues when the plane he’s on just happens to be transporting the worst criminal scum on the planet. Chief among them, Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom (John Malkovich), a serial rapist (Danny Trejo), a Black Panther-esque militant (Ving Rhames), a Hannibal Lector rip-off (Steve Buscemi), a young Dave Chappelle riffing his way through the movie as a minor criminal that incites the jailbreak, and a whole slew of mass murderers.

Naturally, the convicts get free of their restraints and take control of the plane. To make matters worse, Poe’s buddy (Mykelti Williamson) goes into insulin shock. On the ground, U.S. Marshal Vince Larkin (John Cusack) and DEA Agent Duncan Malloy (Colm Meaney) get into a heated debate about how exactly to deal with the runaway plane – Larkin wants to take it down through peaceful means while Malloy wants to shoot it out of the sky. Naturally, it’s up to Poe to do the right thing and save the day.

Clearly riffing on his psychotic assassin from In the Line of Fire (1993), albeit with a much better sense of humor, John Malkovich gets the lion’s share of the movie’s best dialogue and delivers it with his trademark scathing dry wit. He really seems to be having fun with this role. Along comes Steve Buscemi as a criminal with a revered and feared reputation and yet we never actually see him do anything to support these claims. He and Malkovich get locked into a competition to see who can deliver the best one-liner with the driest of deliveries.

Colm Meaney and John Cusack have a lot of fun bickering back and forth, as the former plays an assholish DEA agent, a typical blowhard authority figure, while the latter plays a cerebral U.S. Marshal – one of his trademark characters dropped into a slam-bang Bruckheimer action movie. Part of the fun of watching Cusack in Con Air is seeing him navigate the kind of movie he doesn’t usually do, butting heads with Bruckheimer stereotypes with often interesting results.

You have to hand it to Nicolas Cage; he certainly knows how to pick action movies that allow him to play ever so slightly left-of-center characters like The Rock (1996), where he played an anti-action hero, and Face/Off (1997), a stylish John Woo movie with an insane role reversal plot twist. In this movie, the actor looks ridiculous with his glorious mullet, taking his cue from Jean-Claude Van Damme’s similar ‘do in Hard Target (1993). With Con Air, Cage wisely plays Poe as if it were a straight-forward action movie, which is in sharp contrast to many of the larger than life characters around him. He’s gracious and smart enough to know that when everyone around him is playing larger than life characters, go the low-key route.

Getting his start in commercials, director Simon West wears his influences on his sleeve, doing his best Michael Bay impersonation as he employs oh-so dramatic slow-mo shots of badass characters walking towards the camera (a ‘90s staple – see Armageddon), our hero outrunning an explosion, and everything is gorgeously shot and edited within an inch of its life.

For a big, loud action movie, the dialogue is quite clever and, more importantly, delivered well by the cast – which, incidentally, is an incredible collection of movie stars and character actors. It is so jam-packed with talented thespians that you wonder how in the hell did the powers that be get them all to be in this movie? Con Air looks and sounds like a Bruckheimer action film but it is Rosenberg’s screenplay that is the wild card. It sets up the standard, implausible action movie premise and introduces the genre archetypes (i.e. the lone wolf protagonist with his pretty, loving wife and the criminal mastermind, etc.) and starts messing around with the formula.

Scott Rosenberg garnered a lot of buzz from his screenplay for Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995). Disney came calling and hired him to write a script. They gave him a Los Angeles Times article about a Federal Marshal program that transported inmates across the country. To research the operation, he went to Oklahoma City and spent three days on a plane with convicts. He observed, “hardened convicts at their worst. It was very unsettling, and a bit terrifying.” Rosenberg settled down to write the script, listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers albums and came up with an idea about a guy sent to prison when his wife was pregnant and had never met his daughter. This freed up Rosenberg to populate the script with “the craziest motherfuckers; the most absurd dialogue and set-pieces.”

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer read Rosenberg’s script and bought it for his production company but felt that it needed to be more character-driven. He worked closely with Rosenberg to “add more dimension” to the characters and make it a story about redemption. Bruckheimer hired Simon West to direct because he had been impressed by his T.V. commercial work.

Upon completing The Rock with Nicolas Cage, Bruckheimer asked the actor to star in Con Air. With this movie, he wanted to return to a “more old-fashioned style of action movie,” and used Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) as a point of reference, playing a character with good values. To prepare for the role, he visited Folsom State Prison where he had to sign a “no hostage” clause in order to walk among hardened inmates in the Level Four lock-up. Everything was fine until he, Bruckheimer, Rosenberg and West talked to one group of inmates in the yard and not another. All hell broke loose as one inmate tried to stab another.

Cage observed that many inmates had chiseled physiques and decided to take his cue from boxer Ken Norton and “look like I could survive anything, anywhere.” To this end, he adopted a specific diet, ran five miles a day and lifted weights frequently. At one point, the studio was worried that the actor was getting too ripped, which he found amusing: “I thought, ‘Now that’s a new one – too built-up for an action movie.’” In the script, Poe wasn’t too smart, “just a skeleton of a character,” according to Cage, and made him a Southern man that idolizes his wife. He also decided to make Poe an Army Ranger to explain how he could survive on a plane without a gun. Winning an Academy Award hadn’t mellowed out the actor as West remembered, “If we were doing an intense scene, he’d howl like a banshee and he’d leap around like a banshee, too. I’d give him a minute or two and then I’d say, ‘Let’s move on, Nick.”

Con Air received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The movie is essentially a series of quick setups, brisk dialogue and elaborate action sequences…assembled by first-time director Simon West…it moves smoothly and with visual style and verbal wit.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Con Air has an important secret weapon: an indie cast. All of the principals normally work in films more interesting and human than this one, which gives Con Air a touch of the subversive and turns it into a big-budget lark.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Con Air may be the closest thing yet to pure action thriller pornography. Ultimately, there’s nothing to it but thrust.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “But with a noise level so high the dialogue has to be screamed and more silly moments than sane ones, Con Air is an animated comic book put together to pound an audience into submission, not entertain it.”

Con Air works because the filmmakers take a simple set-up and expertly execute it. The movie still plugs in the usual, over-the-top set pieces. For example, a sports car is towed behind a cargo plane only to crash through a control tower and explode. Our hero’s best buddy even gets to utter a stirring soliloquy as he lies gravely injured. True to form, the ending is highly implausible and excessive even by Bruckheimer standards but you have to admire the filmmakers for going for it. There is a fascinating push and pull going on with this movie as it trots out all the usual action movie clichés while often commenting on them ironically in true ‘90s fashion – so much so that at one point, Steve Buscemi’s spooky killer even acknowledges said irony. Ultimately, what redeems Con Air – well-placed sense of irony – is, sadly, what goes missing when its sappy ending rears its ugly head, even if it tries to evoke the ending of Wild at Heart (1990). No, really.


Con Air Production Notes. 1997.

Longsdorf, Amy. “Traditional Values Drew Iconoclastic Nicolas Cage To Do Con Air.” The Morning Call. June 1, 1997.

“Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg Interview.” Kid in the Front Row. March 13, 2010.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mystery Men

Batman and Robin (1997) has often been credited with killing off the comic book superhero movie for a few years. Admittedly, nothing much of any merit had been released until Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film in 2000. Studios, clearly wary of not repeating the financial disaster of Joel Schumacher's bloated opus, had stayed away from mounting any large-scale production – case in point: the scrapping of a Superman movie despite having director Tim Burton and actor Nicolas Cage attached to it. Therefore, the mounting of Mystery Men (1999), yet another super hero film based on a comic book, seemed like a risky venture with a $68 million price tag, and which ended up only making back less than half of it. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. Mystery Men is such esoteric oddity – the costumed superhero equivalent of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984).

Based loosely on Bob Burden's Dark Horse comic Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men focuses on the misadventures of a bunch of inept super heroes: Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), The Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). They've got the costumes and the shtick down cold, the only problem is that none of them actually has any super powers. Furious merely works himself into an angry rage, the Shoveler... well, has his shovel, and the Blue Raja hurls cutlery with awful accuracy. Hardly, the Justice League of America. The REAL super-powered hero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is so good that he not only has vanquished every bad guy in Champion City but he has also snagged every corporate sponsor on the planet (his costume is decorated with logos of everything from Pepsi to Reebok). The problem is that he has no one left to fight and is in danger of losing his precious sponsors. He hatches a plan to free his arch-nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) but it backfires and Amazing finds himself at the mercy of his old foe. Naturally, it's up to Furious and his friends to become organized and stop Frankenstein before it's too late.

Director Kinka Usher sets a wonderfully eccentric tone right from the get-go as a gang known as the Red Eyes (whose ringleader is comedian Artie Lange no less) busting up a senior citizens soiree to steal their false teeth, artificial limbs, and so forth. Naturally, Furious and his pals are completely ineffectual and Captain Amazing swoops in and saves the day only to then be immediately whisked away by his publicist (played by renowned illusionist Ricky Jay).

After Batman and Robin the only direction the super hero movie could possibly go was into self-parody (Schumacher's film tried and failed to do this). Mystery Men wisely opts for this approach, complete with a corporate whore Superman clone (Captain Amazing) and a whole slew of absurdly named heroes that include the likes of The Waffler (complete with a syrup sidearm), the Spleen (“Pull my finger!”), and the PMS Avenger (who only works a few days every month). Mystery Men even goes so far as to set all the action in a glossy, neon urban landscape a la the Batman movies but where they degraded into art direction and style over substance, this movie maintains a good balance of stunning visuals and interesting characters.

What really makes these characters so fun to watch is the actors that play them. Ben Stiller is quite decent as a guy who thinks he’s tougher than he really is and always trying to prove himself to others, trying too hard, which gives off a whiff of desperation. Conversely, Greg Kinnear nails Amazing’s air of smug superiority and complete lack of empathy for those he’s sworn to protect.

Hank Azaria, a character actor with a flair for accents, sports an outrageous faux-British accented as the Blue Raja, a mama’s boy with pretensions of fighting crime. Casanova’s henchmen are known as the Disco Boys, which means that every time they appear on-screen they’re accompanied by disco music. Comedian Eddie Izzard plays one of them and so we get to see him do his best Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance impersonation and a defiant attitude as he refuses to believe that disco is dead.

Geoffrey Rush has delicious fun playing an evil super genius complete with a vampy Eurotrash accent. He and Kinnear banter back and forth in an amusing scene as their smug egomaniac characters try to outdo one another. Rush, in particular, is a delight as he over-enunciates his dialogue, employing dramatic pauses between phrases. Claire Forlani, who was briefly a cinematic “IT” girl during the 1990s, appearing in notable films like Mallrats (1995) and Basquiat (1996), turns up as Furious’ potential love interest but thankfully isn’t given much to do.

To see the likes of Janeane Garofalo and William H. Macy – two actors you wouldn't normally associate with being in a costumed super hero movie – running around fighting bad guys in outrageous costumes is truly a delight to behold. Her first appearance in the movie sees her character bicker with Furious. Frequent collaborators during the ‘90s, it is a delight to see them playfully take potshots at each other like bratty siblings.

Best of all, Tom Waits appears as a mad scientist who only invents non-lethal weapons (i.e. canned tornado). His first appearance in the movie is almost worth the price of admission alone. In an inspired bit of casting, Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans) portrays the enigmatic hero The Sphinx who acts a wise sage mentor to the ragtag group. The veteran actor usually doesn’t appear in goofy comedies like this one, which is too bad as he is an excellent straight man, giving his quasi-Yoda-type wisdom an amusing faux-gravitas, while looking ridiculous in his crime-fighting costume.

You have to admire a movie that features cameos by film director Michael Bay as the head of a gang of frat boys (“Still on probation for lethal hazing!”) and CeeLo Green as part of a rapping gang of criminals. As more of these disparate personalities show up I began to wonder how Usher got all of these people in one movie? He came from the world of television commercials and Mystery Men was his shot at the big time for studio filmmaking. Sadly, he was not prepared for the rigors of working within the confines of Hollywood and had difficulty fusing CGI effects work with making a comedy. Hank Azaria shed some light on the trouble involved in working on the movie: “It was tough. It was really like trying to be funny in the middle of a math equation or something…Very long hours, very stressful and tough on the set.” The actor hints that Usher didn’t have a clear vision for what he wanted the movie to be and clashed with the producer and some of the cast who all had their own ideas about what it should’ve been. It got to the point where Usher told Azaria the middle of principal photography, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts that I make than deal with all this nonsense.”

Mystery Men received mixed to negative reviews from critics with Roger Ebert leading the charge with his two out of four star review: “Comedy depends on timing, and chaos is its enemy. We see noisy comic book battles of little consequence, and finally we weary: This isn’t entertainment, it’s an f/x demo reel.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The jokes are smart in the screenplay by Neil Cuthbert, but they are allowed to wear thin despite the brief running time.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “Call Mystery Men a sketchbook in search of a movie; it’s still a super idea in a summer of flackery.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “For watching Mystery Men is a bit like sitting next to a brilliant person at a dinner party who just won’t shut up. Because this film is so self-conscious and, like Mr. Furious and friends, has a tendency to try too hard, it’s an effort you end up admiring more than completely loving.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “As incisive as a loud, wet raspberry and about as full of topical gravitas as the Dark Horse comic book on which it’s based…Mystery Men is one half of a very funny movie, and as we enter these dog days of August, half a funny movie is better than none.”

If anything, Mystery Men suffers from the same problem as Batman Returns (1992), in that it has too many colorful, intriguing characters and not enough time over its 120 minutes to develop all of them. With something like seven main characters, it often feels like some of their motivation for certain actions was left on the cutting room floor. For example, we have no idea how Mr. Furious, the Shoveler and the Blue Raja find Invisible Boy; they just show up at his door one day. This is just sloppy editing and pacing. However, it is credit to the actors that their performances are what hold this movie together. While the satirical elements of Mystery Men are nothing new if you've seen or read the fantastic comic book/cartoon, The Tick, it is still an entertaining, enjoyable movie.


Harris, Will. “Random Roles: Hank Azaria.” The A.V. Club. September 14, 2011.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Uncle Buck

I miss John Candy. I grew up watching the much-beloved comedian on SCTV and then his supporting turns in classic comedies like The Blues Brothers (1980) and Stripes (1981), but it was the movies he did with John Hughes that best displayed his comedic talents. They worked together on seven different occasions, from a walk-on role in Home Alone (1990) to co-starring with Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), but it was Candy’s starring role as the titular protagonist in Uncle Buck (1989) that brought out the best in him. Over the years, Candy and Hughes had become close friends and this movie could be seen as a cinematic love letter from the filmmaker to the comedian, tailoring a role specifically for him that best utilized his comedic skills.

When Cindy Russell’s (Elaine Bromka) father has a heart attack, she and her husband Bob (Garrett M. Brown) rush to be by his side, but who will watch their three children? Bob suggests his brother Buck (Candy). Cindy is apprehensive because he is single, does not hold down a steady job, gambles, and has zero experience with children, but after exhausting all other possibilities they go with him.

This premise sets up a clash of cultures between the Chicago-based Buck and three kids in suburbia. He certainly has his hands full with them. Miles (Macaulay Culkin) is one of those precocious, wise-beyond-his-years little kids as is his sister Maisy (GabyHoffmann), a cute-as-a-button little girl. Then there is Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly), the holy teen terror, bitter about her parents moving from Indianapolis, where she was happy, to the suburbs of Chicago. She takes out this resentment on everyone in the form of withering sarcasm and outright nastiness. This sets up a battle of wills between the irrepressible Buck and the perpetually bitchy Tia.

While it is true that Buck is a little rough around the edges, he is adept at learning on the job and is fiercely protective of the kids, scaring off a sleazy bowler that hits on Tia at a bowling alley and punching out a kids party clown that turns up drunk at Miles’ birthday bash.

Uncle Buck is a fantastic showcase for John Candy’s considerable talents as he hits the big comedic set pieces out of the park while also doing all sorts of little bits of business, like a lazy Buck vacuuming Corn Flakes off his chest or driving the kids to school in his beat-up old boat of a car that backfires as if on cue, thoroughly embarrassing Tia in front of her classmates. Candy is also adept at visual comedy, like the moment where Buck makes a pancake so big he has to flip it with a snow shovel! For all of the weapons in his comedic arsenal, Hughes also gave Candy moments to tone down the shtick, like in the scene where Buck stands up to the assistant principal that disparages Maizy with a passionately delivered tirade:

“I don’t think I want to know a six-year-old who isn’t a dreamer, or a sillyheart. And I sure don’t want to know one who takes their student career seriously. I don’t have a college degree. I don’t even have a job. But I know a good kid when I see one. Because they’re all good kids, until dried-out, brain-dead skags like you drag them down and convince them they’re no good.”

This scene showcases Candy’s ability to do more than just tell jokes but also show how serious Buck is about taking care of these kids and how attached to them he has become. Candy also excels at the quieter, character moments, like when Buck confronts Tia after she orchestrates the break-up between him and his long-time, frustrated girlfriend (Amy Madigan). You expect him to really let the teenager have it but he doesn’t and you can see him keeping the explosive anger in check, simmering in Candy’s eyes.

Hughes isn’t afraid to inject serious moments here and there, mostly in the form of Tia’s bitter resentment towards the world, more specifically her mother. Jean Louisa Kelly does an excellent job of portraying a teenage girl filled with angst. Initially, Tia seems like a typical teen with an enormous chip on her shoulder but when she challenges Buck’s authority, it forces him to take a good look at the state of his own personal life.

In his feature film debut, Macaulay Culkin makes quite an impact, most notably in an amusing scene where Miles grills Buck with a series of personal questions, which he answers right back at him with crackerjack comic timing. He and fellow adorable ragamuffin, Gaby Hoffman primarily look and act cute, getting occasional well-timed zinger and handle them like old pros.

Much of the humor in Uncle Buck is derived from how Buck navigates the tricky waters of domesticity with his bachelor blue-collar ways clashing with life in the suburbs. While this makes him a cultural fish out of water, he also gives the kids a taste of his life when he takes them bowling and they meet some of the ne’er-do-wells that populate his world.

Uncle Buck could have easily resorted to being a Mr. Mom (1983) clone, which Hughes also wrote, but he deftly avoids this by showing a different clash of cultures. Whereas Mr. Mom featured an executive trying his hand at childrearing, Uncle Buck features an everyman afraid to commit to his girlfriend until he learns what it means to commit yourself to others that depend on him for basic things like food and security.

After Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), Hughes stopped making teen movies and moved into family fare with Home Alone (1990) and Curly Sue (1991), which proved to be a very smart, financial move on his part. Clearly, he realized that his brand of teen movies were played out and he had said everything he wanted to about the genre and wanted to try something new. What better collaborator to help make this transition then Candy, whom he had worked with more often than anyone else. They were close friends off-camera, their families hung out together. Hughes was understandably shaken when Candy died suddenly of a heart attack in 1994. It is no coincidence that he made fewer movies afterwards and eventually quietly retired from the business altogether.

Uncle Buck is Candy at his most charming and endearing but without being sappy as he keeps his performance grounded so that everything he says and does feels genuine. Hughes excelled at making entertaining crowd pleasers and this movie is a prime example. It is also a sobering reminder of how much Candy and his brand of comedy are sorely missed. The world is a poorer place without him and Hughes in it.