Miami Connection (1987)
A minor cultural artifact that would be languishing in the used VHS bin at Half-Price Books were it not for Drafthouse Films, who managed to turn it into a sort of cause celebré last year. If you like your heroes to be a rock band made up of five orphans who have sworn friendship forever, and who use the proceeds from their club gigs to pay for college, this is the movie for you. If you’d like these five friends to be “black belts in Tae Kwan Do”, this is especially the movie for you. If you want your five black belt rock stars to fight a bunch of motorcycle-riding, drug-dealing ninja (in Orlando, Florida), then you already own the Blu-Ray.
I put “black belts in Tae Kwan Do” in quotes because it becomes pretty obvious that only three of the members of Dragon Sound have any moves (in fact, the diminutive Gino Vanelli-looking lead guitarist is pretty much the girl of the group), and one of those is star/producer/co-director Y.K. Kim, for whom English is a distant second language.
The dialogue is largely improvised, which means I give the movie’s sound man a big thumbs up, because there would be no way to convincingly loop any of the scenes, because everybody talks at once (and not in a good Howard Hawks way). The fight scenes aren’t dreadful, and some are pretty good, though watching the bad guys dutifully line up to attack our heroes one-by-one on a largely empty street is kind of painful.
An interview with Y.K Kim on the DVD reveals that Miami Connection was turned down by every distributor as, quote, “Crap”, unquote, until one guy agreed, but only if they completely re-did the ending, since in the original the bad guy got away and a Dragon Sound member died. With a new bloody showdown and a formerly fatal sword wound downgraded to “Walk it off, wuss” status, Miami Connection went out into the world, to wait 25 years for anyone to appreciate it.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
And for every story where a distributor said that something was “crap” and was right, there seem to be five stories about the same thing, but the movie in question was a masterpiece that the bean-counter could not appreciate. Such is the case with actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, The Night of the Hunter.
Based on the novel of the same name by Davis Grubb, Hunter is the tale of serial killer Harry Powell, a travelin’ man who professes to be a preacher, finding widows with money, marrying them, killing them, and moving on. While serving time in prison for auto theft (30 days!), he meets up with Peter Graves, due to be hanged for a bank robbery in which he killed two men. Powell manages to find out that Graves hid the ten thousand dollars, but won’t tell where; after his release, Powell goes searching for this newly-created widow, and the ten thousand.
The story is largely told from the point of view of Graves’ ten year-old son, John (Billy Chapin), sworn to protect his younger sister Pearl and the location of that ten thousand dollars. With an ease born of practice, Powell sweeps their windowed mother off her feet (Shelley Winters, very convincingly projecting a brittle, damaged vulnerability) and eventually murders her, tying her body to an old model T and dumping it in the river, producing one of the movie’s indelible images: Winters’ hair drifting lazily in the current, echoing the surrounding weeds.
The kids strike out on their own down the same river, Powell in inexorable pursuit (“Don’t he never sleep?” marvels John), eventually winding up in the care of Lillian Gish (who came out of retirement specifically for this role), playing a woman who has found new meaning in her life caring for orphans the Depression has sent her way. She sees through Powell’s guile immediately, and in a nighttime confrontation, the spurious preacher finds himself no match for a good woman with a shotgun.
Part of the genius of Night of the Hunter is that it slips so subtly into the boy’s point of view, we almost don’t realize we’ve left an adult’s mindset behind. We’re surprised that the adults of the tiny town don’t see through Mitchum’s bullshit as easily as we do, but that’s because we’re sharing John’s experience. Powell is a surprising change for sex symbol Mitchum, who must have leapt at the chance to play a character so different from his usual fare.
In a story that is going to be too familiar, an executive at the first screening called the movie “too arty” and buried it on the second half of a double bill with the now largely forgotten medical potboiler Not As A Stranger, also featuring Mitchum. The posters and advertising materials reveal just how clueless United Artists was as to what approach to take with Night of the Hunter, and it almost vanished from sight, championed only by a very few until its true status as a classic was embraced.
Laughton, never the most confident of artists, took it all very much to heart and never directed another movie. Which is a damned shame.
“BRILLIANT! Another round!”
Fisherman Nolan (Richard Harris) thinks that capturing a killer whale and selling it to an aquarium or sea park will finally pay off the mortgage on his boat. What he manages to do is harpoon his target’s mate, resulting in a gruesome whale miscarriage on his deck and the unending enmity of a killer whale who, doctor Charlotte Rampling informs us, is capable of feeling grief and unending vengeance.
This is indeed the McGyver of killer whales, causing huge explosions in the seaside town and targeting vulnerable supports of buildings so he can bite off Bo Derek’s leg. Nolan is responsible for four human deaths and millions in property damage by the time we reach the final showdown, and despite attempts to generate sympathy for the character, I never stopped rooting for Orca.
At least I now have seen the movie was that was plastered all over the back of comic books until they invented Megaforce.
Finding identical star maps in several ancient civilizations, two scientists (Logan Marshall-Green and Noomi Rapace) have figured out that a race of beings called The Engineers created life on Earth and left this calling card as an invitation. The near-ubiquitous Weyland Corporation funds an expedition to the planet to try and make contact. Things do not go well.
First: Jiminy Christmas, what a cast. Beside Rapace, you have Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbinder, and, eventually, Guy Pearce. That is a hell of a lot of quality acting talent. You have special effects that are often incredible. What you do not have is much of a compelling story. In short, you have a Ridley Scott movie.
Prometheus is at its best when it is functioning as a sense-of-wonder story, a stripped-down-to-the-basics space opera about exploration and first contacts. It veers into horror (and even Cronenbergian medical horror in the movie’s most intense segment) in ways that worked like gangbusters in Alien but seem somehow tacked on here.
Because Prometheus, you see, is a prequel to Alien. What our heroes find is a seemingly abandoned Engineer base full of bioweapons that was going to be shipped to Earth but something went wrong and the Engineers themselves were the ones that got destroyed. Exactly why the Engineers, having created life on Earth, were suddenly so determined to eradicate it is a question left unanswered, and in fact is the entire reason for the movie’s denouement, and possibly a reason for all the bad press and rancor I had heard during the general release. My pal Roger Evans had read an interview with Scott that explained it all, and proceeded, like a kindergartener with a dead rat chasing his classmates all over the playground, to pursue me until I read it. I really don’t need to have everything explained for me. I frequently enjoy the mystery more than the solution. But now I know. And it did kind of bruise my opinion of the movie.
Really, I think Prometheus works better outside the Alien universe. Trying to shoehorn it in is just going to cause headaches. And this is from someone who strenuously pretends the Alien vs Predator moves never happened.
Honestly, the biggest, most jagged pill for me to swallow in the movie is that it takes place in 2094 or so. Which means interstellar flight in 80 years. I suppose that’s possible, but I’m doubtful. When I was a kid, we sent men to the Moon regularly and you could fly from New York to Paris in a few hours. What the hell happened? Whatever it was, it makes a rapid advancement like that, even financed by a voracious corporation, very dubious to my mind.
Then again, my next movie will be Queen of Blood, which takes place in 1990, when a mere 21 years after the Moon landing, we have a fully functioning Moon Base and plans to go to Mars. That didn’t seem too far-fetched in 1966, so I’m hoping I’m wrong and we do, indeed, wind up on that road again.
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