Body Rock (1984). I’m always on the lookout for ridiculous movies that reflect a passing trend through a funhouse mirror. With that in mind, 1984′s Body Rock must be the Rosetta Stone of trendy youth-oriented movies gone horribly wrong. This opus stars meatheaded Lorenzo Lamas as Chilly, a New York City rapper/break dancer/graffiti artist whose fly moves are only matched by his oversized ambition. He comes under the wing of of sleazy promoter Ray Sharkey, who gives him a stage show at his nightclub. Chilly soon finds that success isn’t the same as keepin’ it real, however. This movie is bad in the best way, very watchable and with a stylized take on East Cost hip-hop culture executed so wrongheadedly it makes Breakin’ look like a documentary. Lamas is about as awful as you’d expect, but the miscasting extends to supporting roles and even bit parts (one of Lamas’ homies is a chubby dude with a mustache!). The soundtrack is pretty fun, and bad (no match for Breakin’, again) — with Lamas doing a slow ballad that counts as a jaw-dropping, moribund lowlight. The number below, with skeleton-costumed dancers under black light, sums up the kind of cynical “let’s copy what the kids get on MTV” visuals you can bet on:
The Cheat (1931) and Merrily We Go To Hell (1932). Two intriguing pre-Code melodramas recently issued on DVD (from Paramount, who really needs to open up their vaults a lot more). The Cheat has slightly more appeal to modern audiences due to Tallulah Bankhead in an early starring role. Bankhead plays a well-heeled wife who flirts with, then wrongs, a mysterious Chinese man (the Paul Muni-ish Irving Pichel). In the film’s most potent scene, psycho Pichel brands her in the shoulder. She then shoots Pichel in his shoulder, with her husband Harvey Stephens gallantly taking the rap for the crime. Admittedly the film is undone by a storyline that was hoary even done as a 1915 silent. Bankhead is okay if somewhat too stylized an actress. Many say that Bette Davis ripped off Bankhead’s style, but in reality it was a more modern refinement on what Tallulah was doing. The more subdued Merrily We Go To Hell is the better bet, an intelligent domestic drama with terrific performances from Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Sidney plays a reckless heiress who meets offbeat newspaperman March at a swanky party. Despite her family’s protests and his predilection for the bottle, she marries the man. Even as March descends further into an alcoholic haze, eventually getting his play produced (with an ex-flame in the lead, no less), Sylvia finds the strength to keep the marriage going. A typical “women’s picture” in many ways, but the dialogue is especially good and smart. The film also offers an opportunity to check out the work of director Dorothy Arzner. The many scenes of characters bonding/sharing reveals that Arzner had a special gift for conveying human closeness onscreen (I just wish she and other women of her time had done more films!).
Demolition Man (1993). A nostalgic favorite of Christopher’s, we decided to watch it (first time for me) after discussing the movie at Taco Bell. This film has got to be one of the oddest depictions of the future I’ve ever seen, but the film is ultimately undone by typical action movie stupidity. Sylvester Stallone stars as a 1990s L.A. cop who is cryogenically frozen, then re-animated when his nemesis Wesley Snipes goes on a crime spree in a peaceful and renamed San Angeles in the 2030s. The city of the future is a strange utopia filled with brain-dead citizens who revere old commercial jingles and think the aforementioned Taco Bell is haute cuisine. Among the cops aiding Stallone is Sandra Bullock as an eager recruit and history buff whose chief talent is misquoting 20th century turns of phrase (“You can take this job, and you can shovel it.”). This had a lot of potential to be a good popcorn flick, but the humor is overdone, the characters lack any back story of note and there are too many explosions ‘n crap. This definitely has the imprint of action schlockmeister Joel Silver. Certainly a concept that can and has been done well (see Total Recall), but this particular enterprise is just noisy, choppy and dull. Stallone is too old; Snipes is a shallow, laughing idiot. Sandra Bullock’s gee-whiz character is the one bright spot.
Gyspy Girl (1966). Always on the lookout for unknown/underappreciated gems to check out on Netflix streaming, I came across this British coming-of-age drama, an excellent vehicle for the teen Hayley Mills directed by her own father, John Mills. In a role miles away from her Disney vehicles, Hayley plays Brydie White, a slow-witted country girl who lives with her alcoholic ma in a tiny English village. The girl is an outcast in her town (due to a tragic accident a few years earlier), with only the children of the village understanding her ghoulish preoccupation with animal deaths. She finds a kindred spirit in handsome gypsy Ian McShane; the two bond against the judgmental adults around them. Rather slow moving at times, and many of the adult characters are poorly rendered archetypes, but worthwhile viewing all the same. Hayley Mills is great, and it was cool to find McShane looking attractive in an earlier role. I also enjoyed the British country scenery. The many scenes with Mills interacting with the youngsters in the cast are the highlights, however. A genuine sleeper — Netflix customers need to seek this out!
Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010). As a longtime Joan Rivers fan (despite the fact that the woman’s face is approaching Jocelyn Wildenstein-scary levels of overwork), I was looking forward to last year’s acclaimed documentary on how the now 77 year-old comedy legend is doing. It was very interesting. I think the key word for her is “restless,” since this film finds her constantly on the move, questioning herself and her place in show biz, forever seeking ways for an older woman to stay relevant in that arena (really, though, The Apprentice?). Oddly enough, it doesn’t reveal a whole lot about Rivers that I didn’t already know. Only the appearance of a long-time assistant now grappling with a drug problem was a revelation. There are a lot of absorbing, revealing scenes, such as when Rivers does a charity meal delivery to a housebound, frail woman who was once a brilliant photographer. We also learn a lot about Rivers’ past, including her husband’s depression and suicide — although her notorious flop screenwriting/directorial debut Rabbit Test from 1978 is oddly never mentioned. She’s tenacious, for sure, but also insecure, overly pampered and too concerned with surface appearances vs. reality. From start to finish, I enjoyed this documentary… but strangely enough I ended up admiring Kathy Griffin (who appears among the chorus of famous fans here) a lot more for basically doing the same thing. The first season of Griffin’s My Life on the D-List reality show reveals much more about the toughness of struggling in show biz than this film attempts to convey.
Leaving (2009). Fantastic French marital drama is another notable non-English leading role for Kristin Scott Thomas (after her devastating turn in I’ve Loved You So Long). In this film, she plays a doctor’s wife who leads a comfortable upper middle class life in a with the couple’s two teen children. When the woman connects with a Spanish handyman (Sergi López) working on her well-appointed home, a friendly flirtation turns into a torrid affair. She decides to divorce her husband, but the man (a nicely intense Yvan Attal) will not let her go, even cutting off the family bank account when she decides to live with her lover. This was an absorbing film, with another winning performance by Scott-Thomas. I liked the varying emotions of her character as she gets further into the affair. The offbeat yet hunky López is a good match for her in the acting department, and the two share some realistic and tastefully depicted sex scenes (unthinkable in an American production). The story itself doesn’t cover any earth-shattering ground, but as far as domestic dramas go this is top notch stuff. Interesting to note how differently this situation plays in France (perhaps due to differing divorce laws?) than in the States.