A premise like ALIEN NATION’s is as rare a mineral as unobtainium. It alchemically melds two seemingly unmixable genres (’80s cop thriller and sci-fi alien movie) in a way that organically lends itself to social commentary within pop entertainment. I wouldn’t say ALIEN NATION succeeds wildly in those goals, but it gets the job done and just the conception of it is so beautiful it can get away with coasting.
At its heart it’s a standard-issue interracial buddy cop movie. Like Dirty Harry and a million other movie cops, Detective Matthew Sykes (James Caan)’s partner dies, and he tries to solve the case with a new partner who happens to be from a different culture, and has a very different personality and approach to law enforcement. Like Tyne Daly in THE ENFORCER, Detective Francisco (Mandy Patinkin, DICK TRACY) is part of an advancement program to promote diversity, and is receiving rejection and resentment from the usual self-centered-backwards-afraid-of-change-knuckledragging-anti-progress assholes. Sykes isn’t any more enlightened than his bros, but he knows Francisco is on a case that might be related to the guys who killed his partner.
So Sykes says culturally insensitive things, insults his partner, makes a fool of himself, but starts to learn, they get to know each other, they bond with each other, he changes his perspective, starts to stand up against racism from the other cops, all while they go after the killers.
But Francisco is different from other cops who are different, because he’s not just a different race or gender from Sykes, he’s from a different planet. He’s a Newcomer, an alien. Three years ago they arrived in “an intergalactic slave ship,” but they’re genetically engineered to be highly intelligent and adaptable, so they’ve already integrated into human society much more than the ones in DISTRICT 9 did. They have large, bald heads with distinctive spots on their skin, but they’re humanoid so they just wear suits and ties and sunglasses and shit like anybody else, and they take on human names and jobs and try to fit in like any immigrant in America. (read the rest of this shit…)
I wrote a new piece, The State of Action Filmmaking, 2017, sort of a 2016 in review. I thought it was for The Village Voice actually but it has surfaced on the L.A. Weekly. So check it out. I am proud to get a big picture of Michael Jai White in the L.A. Weekly, I don’t know how often that happens.
THE ARTICLE IS HERE
Something about this gloomy post-election mood has got me digging out my jazz CDs and records. Actually, it started with the handful of blues albums I own, which makes perfect sense, you can see how Orange Dawn (as I’ve decided to call our new age) would make me feel like listening to “Hell Hound On My Trail.” After that I went to Nuclear War by Sun Ra. Obvious through line there as well. But eventually I moved on to one of the Thelonious Monk albums I’ve latched onto over the years, Underground.
Check out the cover, with Monk hunkered down in a… barn? Bunker? Basement? with a rifle, some grenades, and a tied-up Nazi, makes it seem rebellious. He’s supposed to be part of the French Resistance, it seems. He looks like a jazz guerrilla committing musical sedition.
In general, though, the jazz I like feels more spiritual. It’s a mix of repetitive rhythms and unpredictable melody, spinning around, building momentum, plowing along until it explodes or stops and quietly steps away. Usually there are no words, no subjects. Just moods. Colors. So it’s like a meditation, a prayer in tongues.
All this meditating and praying and then the act of trying to put my love of piano into words to write about LA LA LAND inspired me to pull out the ol’ THELONIOUS MONK: STRAIGHT NO CHASER dvd. This is a beautiful, sad documentary about my favorite pianist. It’s produced by Clint Eastwood and Malpaso, who put up the money to finish the movie when nobody else would. (read the rest of this shit…)
After DO THE RIGHT THING made Spike Lee into a major cultural force, he set his sights on a few subjects he thought were important. Before he made his MALCOLM X movie with Denzel, and before he didn’t make his Jackie Robinson movie with Denzel, he tackled a broader topic: a jazz movie with Denzel.
It was a subject near and dear to Lee’s heart. His father Bill Lee was a jazz bassist and composer for his first four films (this being the last), and he’d befriended Branford Marsalis on DO THE RIGHT THING, so The Branford Marsalis Quartet (plus Terence Blanchard on trumpet) plays the music here. I seem to remember Lee being publicly hostile toward Bertrand Tavernier’s ROUND MIDNIGHT and Clint Eastwood’s BIRD for focusing too much on drug addiction, a complaint possibly aggravated by his annoyance at reporters asking him why DO THE RIGHT THING didn’t deal with drug addiction.
Can you imagine? “Wes Anderson, don’t you have a responsibility to your community to show that rich people use coke?” “Makers of SWEET HOME ALABAMA, where is the meth?” Fuck you. Just for the sake of my blood pressure I’m gonna assume every reporter who asked that has since sent Spike flowers and a card with a long, heartfelt, handwritten letter of apology.
Surprisingly, Lee’s jazz movie just replaces heroin with other vices. Washington’s quintet-leading trumpeter Bleek Gilliam is some kind of womanizer who tries to have two girlfriends at the same time, med student Indigo Downes (Joie Lee) and aspiring singer Clarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams in her first role). His childhood friend/terrible manager Giant (Spike himself) has a dangerous addiction to sports gambling and is in debt to his bookie (Ruben Blades, SECUESTRO EXPRESS, COLOR OF NIGHT). But these troubles are kind of woven into a casual and down to earth story about Bleek’s fairly minor struggles doing shows at the Beneath the Underdog jazz club, during a slow-brewing musical and love rivalry with his saxophone player Shadow Henderson (Wesley God Damn Snipes, BLADE). (read the rest of this shit…)
LA LA LAND is a straight up musical from Damien Chazelle, writer of the music-themed thriller GRAND PIANO, director of the thrilling music movie WHIPLASH. Instead of heart-pounding tension this time he goes for brazen, shameless romance – romance for the idea of falling in love, and for the city of Los Angeles, its history and the potential it represents for aspiring actors and musicians.
I was a little skeptical when it started. The opening, where Los Angelenos temporarily abandon their gridlocked cars for a long-take song and dance number on the freeway overpass that the bus jumped from in SPEED, has a whiff of Old Navy commercial cuteness, and the story of an actress from a small town struggling to make it in big ol’ Hollywood and she’s not looking for a guy but her friends drag her to a party and just when she least expects it… well, it seems a little too straight up exactly the corny old cliche. But as soon as it’s zeroing in on the specific lives and personalities of the two people about to meet and bicker and flirt and fall in love and chase their dreams together and apart, all of that corniness becomes a strength. These two are too charming and funny for you not to kinda fall in movie-love with them yourself, or at least feel a buzz of vicarious courtship. (read the rest of this shit…)
In PINK CADILLAC, Clint Eastwood plays Tommy Nowak, a skip tracer who has to bring in a woman who jumped bail after getting blamed for her stupid husband’s stupid prison buddies’ counterfeiting scheme. Of course he catches her, but ends up protecting her and falling for her and what not. Do not get this confused with the one where he’s a cop who has to escort a mob trial witness from Vegas to Phoenix and falls for her. That’s THE GAUNTLET. That one has a bus, not a Cadillac.
I’d say this qualifies as an action comedy. It takes itself seriously, it’s not broad like the EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE movies, but Clint goes further than his usual wry one-liners, because Nowak loves to wear disguises and play characters. In the opening he catches a guy by making him think he won a date with Dolly Parton from a country radio station. Just for this he does a “Crazy Carl Cummings” DJ persona and a briefly-British-accented limo driver. Since he later quibbles with his boss over gas mileage I really wonder how he paid for the limo and costume. I guess he just thinks it’s worth the expense to fuck with people. During the drive back to Sacramento he asks the guy what kind of music he wants to listen to, and when he doesn’t make a choice, Tommy puts on some Dolly Parton. (read the rest of this shit…)
Sorry I’ve been out of commission since Christmas. I didn’t intend to take a vacation, but some bots got stuck inside the datas or whatever (don’t know all the technical jargon) and totally crashed the sight. I guess somebody was mad at my dangerous message about the Star Wars prequels being interesting or something, I don’t know. It’s been getting worse all month and suddenly my sight was totally dead for days. Luckily Chris is on the case (please thank him) and it seemed like it was working yesterday and still this morning, so I was already to go and I wrote this and then as I was finishing up it was back to 503 Service Unavailable land.
But if you are reading this then apparently you are reading this, and that’s good. I thought I would do a year in review and link back to some of my favorite things on outlawvern.com from this last year.
First, a toast to 2016:
Goodbye and good riddance, 2016, you cruel and treacherous sonofabitch. You genius-killing, hope-destroying, progress-devouring monster. You ignorant, ought-to-fucking-know-better-you’re-an-adult, bullshit-Facebook-post-believing, perfectly-willing-to-enable-open-racist-oppression-and-claim-it’s-just-economic-anxiety stooge of a year. You injured us, you tortured us, you brought shame on us, and then made fun of us for it. Now you are over and it’s worse than the fucking Comedy Central Roast of Chevy Chase – not one sympathetic soul will step forward to defend you. (read the rest of this shit…)
John Ford’s 3 GODFATHERS is a nice Christmas western. It takes place in the desert and the titleistical trio of outlaws are dying of thirst for most of it, but it’s mentioned that it’s Christmas time, and there are allusions to the three wisemen, the star, and other aspects of the Nativity story.
Robert Hightower (John Wayne), Pedro “Pete” Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendariz) and William “The Abeline Kid” Kearney (and introducing Harry Carey, Jr.) are riding into the small town of Welcome to rob a bank, but they stop to make fun of a guy (Ward Bond, RIO BRAVO, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) because the name on his house says “B. Sweet.” He goes by Buck, but his wife calls him “Perley” in front of them and they think that’s a hilariously “perty name” too. They’re being mean, but Mrs. Sweet (Mae Marsh, BIRTH OF A NATION) brings them coffee, makes small talk about where they’re from and growing up with red hair, and also mention to important plot points (the location of a watering hole and that there’s a town called New Jerusalem).
It’s all nice and good until Sweet puts on his vest and everybody sees his sheriff’s badge. Everybody puts on their “oh this” faces except Sweet, who puts on his “yeah, that’s right, I know what you dipshits are up to” face.
(read the rest of this shit…)
CHRISTMAS RUSH (or BREAKAWAY on DVD) is a 2002 action movie made for the cable channel then known as TBS Super Station. (Other original TBS movies that year: DEAD IN A HEARTBEAT, DISAPPEARANCE, ATOMIC TWISTER, COUNTERSTRIKE, FIRST SHOT). It’s a DIE-HARD-in-a-mall type setup and I believe the only DIE HARD copycat besides DIE HARD 2 that takes place at Christmas time.
Dean Cain (A CHRISTMAS ADVENTURE …FROM A BOOK CALLED WISELY’S TALES, A CHRISTMAS WEDDING, THE DOG WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS, THE CHRISTMAS GIFT, A NANNY FOR CHRISTMAS, THE DOG WHO SAVED CHRISTMAS VACATION, THE CASE FOR CHRISTMAS, THE DOG WHO SAVED THE HOLIDAYS, DEFENDING SANTA, SMALL TOWN SANTA, A BELLE FOR CHRISTMAS, MERRY EX-MAS, BEVERLY HILLS CHRISTMAS, A DOG FOR CHRISTMAS, BROADCASTING CHRISTMAS) plays Cornelius Morgan, edgy Chicago cop who gets suspended and is being sued for a shooting that happens while arresting Chinese gangsters. On Christmas Eve day he’s handed a subpoena and gets in a small snit with his wife Cat (Erika Eleniak, UNDER SIEGE, an episode of Hunter and a Wet ‘n Wild video). At night he tries to visit her at her work, a jewelry store in Chicago Place Mall, to give her flowers and apologize.
BUT! He sees the supposedly-retired thief Jimmy Scalzetti (Eric Roberts, CHRISTMAS IN COMPTON, SO THIS IS CHRISTMAS, ALL AMERICAN CHRISTMAS CAROL, A HUSBAND FOR CHRISTMAS, SANTA’S BOOT CAMP) strolling in looking all tough and intent on something and clearly not there to shop for holiday gifts or trenchcoats, which they are stocked up on. He follows them into an employees only hallway and sees that they’re there to rob the place. (read the rest of this shit…)
Late one snowy Christmas Eve, influential rich guy Daniel Grudge (Sterling Hayden) is visited at his mansion by his nephew, history professor Fred (Ben Gazzara, ROAD HOUSE), who confronts him about having blocked a cultural exchange program at the university. Their philosophical argument turns into yelling. After Grudge chews his nephew out and tells him to leave, Fred smiles and dryly says, “Merry Christmas, by the way.”
This somewhat legendary 1964 TV update of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, his followup to CLEOPATRA and only small screen venture. But the obvious voice here is writer Rod Serling, five years after starting The Twilight Zone, sticking with his favorite trick of using genre as a vehicle for heart-on-sleeve pleas about contemporary social issues.
We learn that Grudge’s son Marley was killed in combat on Christmas Eve. This is the source of Grudge’s dislike of Christmas, but also his isolationism. He sees liberals as people who get American military men killed:
“Every few decades we seem to pay for your indiscriminate affections with the lives of our sons.”
But Fred sees it as trying not to get anybody killed: “Those indiscriminate affections as you put it are simply the acknowledgment that all men have sons. That grief for the unnecessary dead is not exclusive to this country, this town or to the House of Grudge.” (read the rest of this shit…)