Remembering Brandon Lee: The Crow

Before Heath Ledger’s little pill misadventure prior to his stunning performance as The Joker made it to screen, another actor playing a white-faced smiling avenger in a breakthrough role died before the film was released. Brandon Lee, starring in Alex Proyas’s adaptation of the brutal comic mini-series, The Crow. Due to a tragic and avoidable accident on set, Lee was shot and died 12 hours later in the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident; with only 8 days of shooting (sic) remaining, the producers finished the film with stunt doubles, in an eerie déjà vu of his father Bruce Lee’s death and the subsequent posthumous release of his final film, Game of Death.
Even eerier was the plot of the film itself, about a murdered musician back from the grave to avenge his death and his raped and murdered fiancé, Shelly. Directed by Alex Proyas, it’s a dark visual feast that proved incredibly influential to films that followed. Lee played Eric Draven, the seemingly invulnerable revenant who hunts down the Detroit thugs who killed him; he rises from his grave when a crow alights on it to caw. Once he has risen, he will not rest until he’s killed everyone involved, and only appears to a young street girl named Sarah, and a sympathetic cop (played by Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson) who stayed with Shelly as she died.
Brandon had previously appeared in a fun but forgettable martial arts actioner called Rapid Fire, and an “unlikely buddies” cop duo with Dolph Lundgren shooting and karate chopping their way to a Showdown in Little Tokyo. That film gets a bad rap, and while ridiculous- it’s made by the same director as the iconic action flick Commando– both Lundgren and Lee make amusing banter out of lines Shane Black would be ashamed to write. They have fun with it, and Lundgren shows range unexplored in most of his other work. Lee was a newcomer, but nearly stole the show with graceful martial arts moves and a snappy sense of comic timing.
In The Crow, he had to play something completely different. A dark and brooding Goth icon clad in a leather trench coat, plastered with white make-up and an ironic doll’s smile. After all, the character created by James O’Barr was based on an amalgam of Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy, and Iggy Pop and the story came from the author dealing with the death of his girlfriend by a drunk driver. Dark stuff. Not something your typical martial arts action star does. But Lee took the character and made him into a playful demonic apparition, not an obsessed Ahab but a spirit not only bent on dragging his tormentors to hell, but comforting the living. In one of the best scenes, he corners Sarah’s junkie mother (Anna Levine; the cut whore in Unforgiven) and squeezes the heroin out of her veins, telling her “Mother is the name of God on the lips of all children. Your daughter is waiting.”
The film is peppered with great dark dialogue from O’Barr’s excellent comics, such as Eric’s sick joke as he torments a pawnbroker: “Jesus walks into a motel, and hands the innkeeper three nails… and says ‘Can you put me up for the night?'” Jon Polito plays the pawnbroker, great as always; you’ve seen him in the Coen Brothers movies, here and there. The cast also includes Tony “Candyman” Todd as a memorable mob gunman, David Patrick Kelly (Sullie from Commando) as gang thug T-Bird, and first-timer Rochelle Davis as young Sarah. She played the role well, but never appeared in a film again. According to articles, she is still disturbed over Brandon’s death, and sadly, has fallen in with people like Eric’s killers (full article).
The screenplay by splatterpunk alumni David J. Schow and John Shirley only falters where it dips into the Hollywood well that demands comic relief; if this were made after The Dark Knight, it would be a different story. But perhaps the brief respites from the oppressive wasteland of the Detroit metro area on Devil’s Night are what the story needed. Alex Proyas, in his first Hollywood film, brings great visual chops to the board. The film is brutally dark but we manage to see everything we need. When Eric sends T-Bird and his car exploding off a pier, he tags the scene with some lighter fluid, giving us a flaming crow silhouette. We get many “crow’s eye views” as Eric’s harbinger bird of death soars the city seeking his victims.
But it’s probably the fight scenes that were most felt. In the final confrontation between Eric and the gang leader (played with an oily evil grin by Michael Wincott) in a roomful of gun-wielding thugs, we can’t help but recall the Joker in The Dark Knight strutting in to the meeting of his enemies. And while Eric has no pencil tricks, his dripping black hair and decrepit make-up are uncanny. But then again, The Crow came after Batman: The Killing Joke, so who knows who influenced who? One thing is for sure, as Brandon somersaults and pirouettes around the room in his trench coat as bullets fly and decimate the scenery, we know the Wachowski Brothers were watching. The famous lobby scene in The Matrix looks like a pale imitation. The film launched Proyas’s career and let him make the excellent Dark City, which may have cribbed a bit from Hellraiser but is still one of the most memorable films of the ’90s, melding film noir and science fiction in ways undreamed of since Blade Runner.
But Brandon, he pulled a James Dean and ended before he started. The story is, a .44 magnum revolver used by Funboy was loaded with shells that had the gunpowder removed, and the slugs replaced, so they’d be visible in the cylinders; this was done to save money and time, instead of finding inert shells. The gun expert did not remove the primers. When he went home, the inexperienced prop crew “played with it,” and an ignited primer sent the slug into the barrel. Then the gun was loaded with blanks for another scene, and the gun was not cleared. So, when the blank was fired, its gunpowder sent the slug lodged in the barrel into Brandon Lee’s abdomen where it hit his spine. His heart stopped before the ambulance arrived, but he was revived, and finally died 12 hours later at the hospital. The shooting was ruled an accident, and as far as I’ve been able to find, no one was sentenced.
Take that as you will, but John Landis went to court for the helicopter accident in The Twilight Zone; who decided to send the gun expert home and keep shooting? Brandon’s death came weeks before the biopic of his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story would come out, and the same conspiracy theories appeared. But Brandon didn’t know any ninja secrets; he learned from his father’s partner, Dan Inosanto. It was yet another tragic death heaped upon the Lee family, but instead of an allergic reaction to aspirin, this time it was reckless, if not criminal, negligence. I have a feeling those involved still suffer, if Rochelle Davis is wrecked over things she had nothing to do with. And I doubt the prop handlers are working in Hollywood, but I wonder. Maybe they were some producer’s nephew.
Brandon had great charisma, and probably would have been one of Hollywood’s first modern Asian action stars. The Crow was a huge hit, and would make $50 million in the U.S. alone, the tenth biggest R-rated film that year. For a new star and a director with a relatively unknown franchise, that was big. The other hit was the soundtrack, which included O’Barr influences like The Cure, as well as Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine and my favorite, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, who also appear onstage at Top Dollar’s club performing a remix of their song “Nervous Xians,” entitled “After the Flesh.” The film definitely would have springboarded him out of the martial arts ghetto with Jean-Claude and Seagal, and who knows what might have been?
Brandon’s tombstone is engraved with an epitaph from the novel The Sheltering Sky that he quoted in an interview before he died. It speaks of the brevity of life and is sadly, much too apt a marker for his brief, bright flare on the Hollywood scene. I’ll always wonder what could have been.

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”

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The Arnold Project #15: Kindergarten Cop

It’s not a tumor, but Kindergarten Cop began one of many attempts Arnie made to soften his action star image. We already saw the one-joke Junior, and here we get a fish out of water treatment putting the Terminator in charge of a bunch of 5 year olds. Who destroy him faster than Sarah Connor ever could. 19 years later it still holds up, but has a lot of fat that could have been trimmed.
The story centers on that Hollywood cliche of a grizzled undercover cop, John Kimble, who doesn’t like partners and works alone. He’s also so obsessed on getting bad guys that his family life has disintegrated so much that we never even see his estranged wife and son. He finally nabs drug lord Cullen “cookie” Crisp, a pony-tailed uber-douche with a domineering mom (Carroll Baker, infamous for playing Baby Doll back in the ’50s), but his junkie witness isn’t enough to satisfy the D.A. The only solution, the plot suggests, is for them to hunt down the drug kingpin’s own estranged wife and son, who supposedly fled with $3 million.

The cops have a clue that her kid goes to a private school in Oregon, so they send Detective Phoebe O’Hara (Pamela Reed, also in Junior) to pose as a Kindergarten teacher so she can investigate, with Kimble there as backup. But instead she eats too much at a buffet and gets food poisoning, so Arnie has to cover for her. By now it’s so contrived that I wish they’d made it even goofier, like Jackie Chan goofy. Why bother with all the coincidences? It takes us good while before tough guy Kimble is before the classroom, but it’s worth it.
Arnie’s gift for comedy under the right hands is almost as good here as in True Lies, and Ivan Reitman manages to make him ignore W.C. Field’s warning about never working with animals or children to great success. Kimble also has a pet ferret. Despite these classic saboteurs, Arnie’s considerable presence manages to keep him the center of the laughs, even against a little kid whose Dad is a gynecologist, and constantly recites “boys have a penis! girls have a vagina!”
The meat of the film is watching Arnold play a tough guy who’s used to bashing heads to get his way deal with a gaggle of chaotic little kindergarteners with no attention spans. He loses it almost immediately, and has a classroom full of bawling children. But the ferret saves the day. He’s under the close eye of Principal Schlowski (now there’s a ’90s made-up movie name if I ever heard one) played by the inimitable Linda Hunt from The Year of Living Dangerously and Silverado. I’m sure part of the reason she was chosen was that she’s 4’9″ and her bulldog tenacity could make a fitting foil for Arnold. And it works. She’s always good, and gets just the right note here. We know she has the children’s interests at heart and isn’t just there for tension.

Soon Kimble is running the class like a drill instructor, getting the kids to play and clean up at the toot of a whistle, and even fall asleep when he reads them stories. All the while he plays sneaky games like ”Who is my daddy and what does he do?” to identify the kid, and therefore the mother. But it’s pretty obvious that the best child actor will be the kid, and the cutest mom will be the mom. This is Hollywood after all. And of course, Evil Dad has to show up to try to get his son back.
While I usually never eschew violence in a movie, I think this one would have been better if it was less bloody. We get to see the junkie witness O.D. thanks to the mobster’s evil mom, a school set on fire and shootings. Now i don’t think Columbine et al means we can’t have violence set in schools, but the film’s tone varies a lot thanks to this. Now, we all love the catharsis of watching abusive husbands and evil matrons get what’s coming to them, but I wanted more of Arnold’s classroom antics than action. If this was Arnie’s first post-action star comedy I could see him taking baby steps, but I liked Twins in 1988, and think that proved he could hack it.
Kindergarten Cop feels a bit too long (it’s nearly 2 hours) and a little dated nowadays, but it is still very entertaining, and one of Arnold’s classic roles. Everyone remembers “it’s not a tumah!” but there are plenty of hilarious scenes as the kids test his mettle. It was a bit tedious at times, but this would still make a nice movie for a weekend afternoon. And compared other comedies from the same era it’s definitely one of the better ones.

Rating: It’s NOT a tumah!
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The Arnold Project #13: End of Days

The millennium. Y2k. SATAN. These all come to a head in Arnold’s supernatural cop thriller End of Days, where he plays a suicidal cop destined to save the world from the Antichrist. With a bad case of stubble and his tongue planted firmly in cheek, with Kevin Pollak as his partner and Gabriel Byrne as the Devil, Arnold faces his toughest opponent yet: Lucifer himself.

The beast will have a mark, of 696969…

A prophecy is foretold; a child is born with a mark. The Pope is told that a woman must be killed, to save the world; he says that our salvation is also prophesied, and we must depend upon the man destined to do so. That man is Jericho Cane, NYPD cop with problems. When we meet Jericho (Arnie, that is) he has a gun to his head in his dark and dreary apartment. Before he can pull the trigger, his partner Bobby Chicago (smart-ass Kevin Pollak) shows up. This scene recalls Lethal Weapon, an infinitely better cop movie. This one has its moments, and there are many, but it is so confused and lacking a central vision that you wish it was a bit shorter.

We meet another nameless man, played by Gabriel Byrne, who is innocently washing up in a restaurant when a fiery presence explodes from the manhole covers down the block. It invisibly seeks him out, looking a bit better but reminiscent of the Predator in camo mode, and possesses him in the shitter. Doesn’t Satan know the rules? No eye contact in the men’s room. But ol’ Nick don’t follow the rules. He even kisses someone’s hot wife and grabs her tit at the dinner table. And the restaurant conveniently explodes as he exits.

I know it’s New York, but exploding restaurants full of rich people tend to make the news. But the big news is when Arnie gets shot at protecting an investment banker… who turns out to be our friend from the restaurant. The cops chase him down in an exciting sequence where Arnold hangs from a wire from a helicopter to get at the sniper running across the rooftops. The gunman obviously has no concern for his life, shooting at Arnold when he’s hanging onto him. They follow him into the subways and he spouts frightening imprecations before Arnold shoots him. Then it is discovered that he has no tongue. So is Arnie just having drunken hallucinations?

Christine is haunted by hallucinations, too. Homeless people taunt her in subway cars, telling her straightforwardly, “He is coming to fuck you, Christine.” And cackle as they explode into a thousand metal shards. The movie has a huge CG budget, but it doesn’t know how to use it. For example, Satan meets one of his worshippers, Udo Kier, and decides to warm up his demonic member on them. He melds their bodies into one, for a badly animated menage a trois. It’s so bad that even a nice set of tits couldn’t distract me.

Byrne’s blase’ Devil

Jericho and Bobby follow clues found on the tongueless priest assassin’s body, which leads them to his decrepit lair full of cryptic symbols and religious prophesy. His church is led by Father Kovak (Rod Steiger, how far you have fallen) who Arnold tries to question. He even follows him into the church’s secret spooky basement where a nun writhes on a bed with bloody stigmata. Steiger says the equivalent of “nothing to see here!” and shoos Arnold away. You’d think cops would care about bloody nuns and exploding restaurants, but hey this is New York.

I don’t even have a one-liner worth mentioning.

Before Lucifer finds Christine, a group of Vatican assassins try to kill her before he can slip her the Satanic pork sword. Arnie and Pollak just happen to be walking by, and shoot their way through her apartment before a priest can administer her last rites and slit her throat. And that’s all in the first hour. Gabriel Byrne’s Satan is the best part of the film- once he realizes his minions are incompetent and goes after Christine himself, things really start moving. When Arnie and Pollak are protecting Christine in her apartment, he has a novel way of dealing with their police van and the squad car guarding the building. The king of Hell’s urine is quite flammable, and he takes a leak in the street, tosses a cigarette and blows them to smithereens.

Arnie gets her to the church of the bleeding nun and has a little talk with old Lucifer. He offers him back his wife and daughter- and shows us how they were killed, by the mob, because Jericho testified against them. He’s one of those guys who’ll always do te right thing, even when the Devil is stepping on his bloody hand as he hangs out a highrise window. Byrne makes a fine Satan; he’s not as loud as Pacino, but just as dramatic and hedonistic. The movie is steeped in Hollywood Catholic Magic, where Satan is all-powerful and God sort of sits up there eating Cheetos and playing WoW, because we have to solve all our all problems with our own faith. Satan tells him, “Let me tell you something about God. He is the biggest underachiever of all time. He just has a good publicist, that’s all. Something good happens, “It’s His will.” Something bad happens, “He moves in mysterious ways.”

Satan can also walk right into a church and kill a bunch of priests, but Jericho manages to escape with her. Here he gets one of his best lines- as one of the Vatican assassins tries to sacrifice Christine, he shoots the blade off the knife. And then shoots the priest in the hand. “I can do this all day!” There’s the famous Arnie levity. We have so little in this dark and dreary film, which recalls the New York City of the ’80s. By 1999, Times Square was almost Disneyland, but End of Days makes Y2k truly feel like the Devil had returned.

“Get behind me, Satan! Um… on the other hand…”

By the last half hour, it feels more like an Arnie movie; Satan has Christine but must have some special fuck-pad planned for her, since he doesn’t just deflower her in the back of a cab. Jericho gets crucified on the Brownstone of Woe, but Priest Steiger saves his bacon, and he heads to the police station to load up with a grenade launcher and to use the NYPD magic people GPS to figure out where Christine is. It’s in a Satanic underground sewer pipeline filled with a billion candles, which actually looks pretty cool. If the Devil weren’t into foreplay, the world would have ended. But instead, Arnie gets to blow up natural gas lines with a grenade launcher and set a bunch of Satanists on fire. But hardly enough.

Byrne starts looking like Arnie did as the Terminator, as he gets more and more chunks shot off him- there’s a fun sequence on a moving subway train where they separate the cars and fire grenades the Devil, who acts like a zombie instead of the Prince of Evil. The final battle is in a cathedral, where Jericho has a religious epiphany as he loads his MP5 and grenade launcher under the the crucifix. He asks for strength, but it’s tough to take seriously in a movie where the Devil’s Urine has blown up cop cars, and Arnie eats a blender full of pizza and Pepto Bismol for breakfast. To make things utterly ridiculous, we get to see Satan’s true form as a mushy brown bat demon with tentacles, as he bursts through the floor.

Lame choppa chase screengrab stolen from Evil on Two Legs (see bottom for links)

It makes you wonder why he didn’t just pop up and grab Christine, 2 hours ago, to save us the trouble. In case you never saw The Exorcist, the only way to kill a demon is to let it possess you, and then kill yourself. Jericho’s reward for the ultimate sacrifice is getting to see his wife and daughter as he dies. You’d think Jesus would stop playing Nintendo for a minute to give him a thumbs-up and a “good one, dude.”

The movie wants to be a mix of The Devil’s Advocate, Seven and a cop movie with Arnold and Kevin Pollak vs. a Satanic Cult- Cobra, perhaps? It doesn’t feel like an Arnie movie at all, and probably should have starred a smaller star. While it does have a few moments, sadly Arnold is not a part of many of them. It’s more Gabriel Byrne’s turn to shine as Satan, and Kevin Pollak’s cop sidekick is nearly as entertaining as he was in The Usual Suspects, which also uses the Baudelaire quote, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing man he didn’t exist.” It doesn’t have the same power here, and my favorite line is Pollak defending his treason: “You’d be amazed what you’ll agree to when you’re on fire!”

If I was da Devil, I’d fuck someone hotta. Just sayin’.

Part of The Arnold Schwarzenegger Project is to watch every movie he’s in, even if you know it’s bad. Like Batman and Robin, which I saw in a dollar theater and wanted $2 back, I know I hve to endure it again. End of Days is another one I dreaded; I saw it in theaters, and along with Eraser and The 6th Day, made me look forward to his career in politics. However, I really can’t do this movie justice. Having read Corey’s review over at Evil on Two Legs where he declares it The Worst Movie of All Time, I have to agree. For a huge star on a big high concept project, it seems like it was put together on bar napkins, and perhaps written in hooker’s lipstick on a coke mirror.

It jams so much together, can’t decide if it’s scary, funny, or both, and makes very little sense. Sort of like a hyperactive fat nerd trying to be cool at a convention, trying to distract you from his body odor. Directed by Peter Hyams, who’s never been known for great movies- he’s sort of a Walter Hill with no style- this is probably his biggest movie. I like some of his older films like Outland, Running Scared (the Gregory Hines/Billy Crystal one from ’86) , the serviceable 2010: The Year We Make Contact; but he also did Timecop, Sudden Death and A Sound of Thunder. Add End of Days to Hyam’s crap list.

Rating: BULLSHET!

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Freddy Got Fingered

I never “got” Tom Green- but this movie generated so many bad reviews that I wanted to see it. And while I’d never class Tom Green in the league as trashmaster John Waters, the movie is a twisted spoof in the same vein as Waters’ best films. It’s a prank, on the producers and the viewers, and as disgusting and jejune as it is, I never wanted to stop watching it. Even when he starting jerking off a horse.
It sort of helps if you think the Jackass movies are funny. They’re full of idiotic, juvenile pranks but they somehow transcend stupidity and become a sort of art. Freddy Got Fingered is like that. It takes the typical coming of age comedy, where the boy must find a job or somehow make something of his life to please his parents, and injects it with vile fluids that come bursting out of its pores. If you thought Savage Steve Holland’s Better Off Dead was a li’l wacky, this movie might make your head explode. With vomit.
But if you give it a chance, it sort of grows on you. Green tries to be as offensive as possible. His father is played by Rip Torn as a growling madman, the epitome of all the impossible to live up to fathers from a thousand coming of age comedies. He mocks Green’s cartooning skills- rightfully so, as everything looks like Bill the Cat drawn by children- and tells him to get a real job. During his adventures to sell his drawings as a cartoon, he hits it off with a girl in a wheelchair who just wants him to beat her paralyzed legs with a stick and suck his cock all day. It’s to everyone’s credit that they play this all straight, so it works on a certain level.
The movie gets its title from when Tom & his Dad get dragged to counseling and he accuses Dad of sticking his finger up his younger brother’s butthole. They continue to out-do each other in their attacks until finally, Tom ships his father to Pakistan where he drenches him in elephant semen and they get held captive for months, play Russian Roulette like in The Deer Hunter, and bond through their torture. It’s bizarre, but funny if you view it as a sicko prank on formulaic movie crap. I’m glad I finally watched it, and I’m glad Tom Green got to make it. It’s a stupid movie, but the kind of bizarre what the fuck movie that used to be more common. Its no Pink Flamingos but it deserves a nomination in the hall of trash for just how far it went, with studio money. Congrats on that, Tom Green.
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Rating: WTF?

The Arnold Project #9: Junior

In ’88 Arnold Schwarzenegger made Twins with Danny DeVito and we loved it; next came Kindergarten Cop, and it was good; then Junior came out, the one where he’s pregnant, and he stopped making comedies. What put the nail in that coffin? He doesn’t get to shoot anybody or beat them up. Maybe that’s it. Junior is still entertaining, but mostly as a curio where we get to see Arnold play a pregnant man. Let me document this disaster for you.
Arnold plays Alex, a research scientist trying to make a fertility drug with his partner Larry (Danny DeVito again). They’re testing it on chimps, but after pitching to the FDA they get rejected and shut down. So they continue the experiment, except this time Arnold’s the chimp. Originally, they just want to get things started until they can continue research in Canada; but Arnold gets emotionally attached to the little embryo and keeps taking the Expectane drug, to take it to term.
The scientist who takes over their lab is Diana, played as clumsy yet endearing by Emma Thompson; Frank Langella gets to be the bad guy, the snooping University admin who cuts their funding. The script tries to weave several plotlines- a romance between Alex and Diana, hiding from Langella, and Larry’s ex-wife Angela getting knocked up byAerosmith to give us a pregnant woman counterpart- and it gets overlong and predictable. But Arnold and Emma hold things together, for the most part.
When you think about it, it’s not much of a stretch to think of Arnold as a physical actor. When we use that term we think of Buster Keaton, Johnny Depp, perhaps Jim Carrey- but not Schwarzenegger. We expect him to be pure presence. When we think of him acting physically, we remember his goofy screams, or fighting, but take a closer look. In True Lies for example, he gets great laughs from silent facial expressions between him and Tom Arnold, when he’s taking that test drive with Bill Paxton, and famously when he’s shot up with truth serum. In Junior he transforms from a bodybuilding champion and action star into a big pencilneck geek. Watch as he walks out of the FDA hearing- he doesn’t walk like Arnold, he’s an entirely different person.
It’s rare that we get to see Arnold act anymore, and the last 3 movies I saw in the theater gave him little to work with- Terminator 3, which lacked Cameron’s heart, End of Days where we had an uncomfortable crying scene, and The Sixth Day, which is hard to tell apart from Eraser, because he’s playing “The Arnold Character” in both. But Junior– which Roger Ebert gave a surprising 3 1/2 stars- may not be a great movie, but Ebert recognized its strengths. If Arnold’s characterization of a research scientist mad enough to inject himself with a fertility drug and carry a child to term can stand up next to Emma Thompson’s frazzled incarnation, it’s saying something. Maybe Ebert was staring at Emma and playing pocket pool, but I think he was onto something here.
It’s not hearing Arnold say things that’s funny- though hearing him tell Danny that his nipples are sensitive is enough to give me cramps from laughter- but how well he mimics being a pregnant woman. He plays it completely straight, and subtly. The dialogue actually seems to hamper him. When he’s cooped up in DeVito’s house during the experiment, his delight at going out to a medical convention is perfect. Soon we really believe that Arnold is carrying a baby. What’s unfortunate is the twists the plot takes to make things even more ridiculous, such as hiding Alex at a pregnant woman’s retreat, dressed in drag. “I was an athlete on the East German women’s Olympic team, and the steroids were handed out like Gatorade.”
Ivan Reitman has missed a lot recently, but some of what made his hits hit is here. Unfortunately there’s a lot of fluff, too. Danny DeVito deals with his ex-wife Angela, who got knocked up by a member of Aerosmith. The film is too long, too complex and fettered by a clumsy score. I love Emma Thompson, but she’s a female Jerry Lewis in this. She actually knocks a waiter’s platter up in the air at one point, and dances with toilet paper on her shoe only minutes later. It’s not her fault, but the script is very predictable, and that’s where the one-joke accusation comes from. Now the concept is a good one, but in a script that tries to be a funny “what if” scenario, then adds slapstick, then overdoes the smarm instead of letting it grow out of Arnold’s performance- it’s a tough sell. By the 90 minute mark I was writing this review, wishing it was over.

By the time the babies are born it’s gone full-bore drama and loses all its comedic touches, which drains all the joy out of it; we’re just waiting for the train to come to the station. So while this movie is a triumph for Arnold, it’s a letdown as a whole. Paired with Red Heat (full review) it’s a fine example of Schwarzenegger restraint, and it’s unfortunate that Reitman didn’t have the guts to cut the smarm out of the movie and let it remain a comedy. That’s what makes it part of the early ’90s, I guess.

White Man’s Burden

The opening montage is at a candy factory, where white nougat is being surrounded by chocolate. Perhaps you remember the brouhaha- it came out during the tail end of the “reverse racism” era, when my fellow white males thought we were under attack for some reason. We were still reeling from the L.A. riots, but it was an interesting premise- blacks in positions of power, and whites as the disadvantaged underclass.

In a world… where it’s white folks who love grape soda…

This was going to be a NetFlix Q-Pick, but ever since Barack Obama was elected President, White Man’s Burden has been on Very Long Wait. Is whitey scared? It seems the movie has coincidentally slipped out of print. After 9/11 it was impossible to find copies of The Siege, too. The tinfoil hat-wearer in me wants to make something of this, but mediocre movies tend to disappear off shelves anyway. And this isn’t a great movie- it has a great premise, and some very good actors creating characters we like watching, but it dissolves into a bland conventional film.

The first 60 minutes are a spectacular vision of race vs. class; we see blacks inhabiting roles traditionally held by whites in film- such as a powerful businessman holding court before his family at a huge dinner table- and the only whites are the servant in the background, and a blue collar factory worker trying to lead a dignified life in a rough area surrounded by loud, trashy neighbors. Harry Belafonte plays Thaddeus Thomas, captain of industry, who feels entitled to his life of privilege; we meet him at a dinner party, making bemused comments about lazy, self-destructive white people. John Travolta is a Louis Pinnock, a worker at one of his factories, perhaps uneducated but a good worker who goes the extra mile. When the foreman asks him to deliver a package to the boss’s house, he does it even though it’s an hour out of his way.
Sorry son. Gonna have to let you go.

When he gets to the mansion, Louis walks around the side as instructed- and catches a glimpse of Thaddeus’s wife upstairs as she’s dressing. Thad notices, and tells his foreman- and next thing you know Louis is fired, even though he’s a hard worker. “Things just aren’t working out.” At the unemployment office, there’s little help for him- the jobs he’s qualified for don’t want him, and the ones he might get are minimum wage, not enough to support his family. His truck breaks down, and the cops hassle him as he sits beside it. A white crowd comes out to heckle, and he gets beaten for his trouble. When the rent is overdue, his wife and kids are evicted. He’s soon a man at the end of his rope, and when he goes to Thaddeus’s house to plead for his job back, he is sent away.

Driving Mr. Travolta

What do men do in Hollywood when they feel helpless? They find a gun and kidnap somebody. At first, Louis just wants Thaddeus to pay him a debt so he can support his family again. But when he can’t get the money, he decides to hole up with him, and isn’t quite sure what to do with him. But it gets the two characters together, and their interactions are the meat of the film. Lou hides with him in an abandoned building where a friend lives; then he remembers it’s his son’s birthday, so he has to tie Thaddeus in his truck and take him along. So he gets to watch when Lou’s son picks a black superhero figure, and start calling Thad “Blackhawk.” They bond at a grease shack over fries and hot dogs; skinheads, in place of ghetto thug central casting, give them shit. Thaddeus gets to see where his workers, who he disdains as genetically or culturally inferior, have to live.

“Blackhawk has to pee!”

But it’s never a simple tale of walking a mile in another man’s moccasins. This isn’t Putney Swope or Watermelon Man; it’s played completely straight, with no gags, and that’s why it works. It plays in our heads. Whenever something seems off, just imagine Travolta as the black guy and Belafonte as the white one, and you’ll get it. Why is Louis almost afraid to touch him? Thaddeus walks through other people’s houses like he owns them. The swap gives you a briefly colorblind look at class in American society, the true taboo. We’re more likely to marry interracially than across income class. The ending is a bit predictable, and the conventional action story is the movie’s downfall. It was much more interesting watching Travolta and Belafonte’s characters interact, and if they’d worked things out differently, we’d have something.
Travolta does a good job of imitating a lower-class manner that never dips into a black stereotype. Same with Harry Belafonte- he affects a personality similar to John Houseman, echoing the privilege of the upper class, while never seeming anything but natural. The movie isn’t so much a reversal of racial roles as a swap of our expectations, and that’s where it works best. Belafonte does a fine job, but it’s too bad he’s not Sidney Poitier. Now that would have been a reversal- Mr. Tibbs as The Man. The movie will make you think- Travolta’s behavior seems strange, but if you imagine him as Denzel Washington- let’s say in John Q– you’ll see what they’re getting at. While this doesn’t play with your expectations as cruelly as the ingenious Funny Games, it is still interesting viewing.

Skinheads remain the villain in bizarro world. Take them bowling.

Candyman

As far as ghetto urban legend movies go, this is creepier than The People Under the Stairs, but not quite as memorable. The character of Candyman1 is excellent, and Tony Todd plays the legendary ghoul of Cabrini-Green with gusto. But the story meanders too much, and gets much too hackneyed for such an original premise.
Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen, Highlander 2: The Quickening, Sideways) is studying urban legends and wants to outdo the tenured profs at the U. She teams up with Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons, Silence of the Lambs, Hard Target) to seek out the origins of the darkest legend only spoken of in whispers, that of the Candyman2. Sort of an amalgam of “Bloody Mary” and ghost stories of escaped slaves, saying his name 5 times in front of a mirror will apparently summon him. He was the son of a slave who fell in love with a plantation owner’s daughter, and when whitey gets wind of it, they hack his hand off, jam a hook into the meaty stump, and then strip him naked and smash a beehive on his gonads. Ow.
His ashes were spread over the land that would be the home of the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, lorded over by gangs so powerful that the film-makers let them be extras in exchange for protection. As Helen delves into the evidence of the legend which include recent brutal murders and mutilations- a boy castrated in a restroom, a babysitter and child disemboweled- she explores the spooky underbelly of the projects, finding things that any urban explorer would jizz in their pants over. The best is when she finds a sub-basement, and emerges through a hole in the wall, around which Candyman’s3 face is painted on the other side.
Helen meets few people who are friendly to her- most outsiders come to the projects to gawk or brave the dangers, or as misguided do-gooders. She meets a young mother who sneers, and tells her not everyone here is a gangbanger or a drug addict, and most just want to be left alone to live in whatever dignity they can scrounge. She learns that people believe in the legend, and but are understandably quiet about it. You don’t talk much about a guy who comes to kill you if you say his name 5 times. Helen makes the mistake of saying his name in front of a mirror as a lark, and getting his notice.
Shortly after, Helen is approached by a strange man in a long pimp coat in the parking deck, with a deep and alluring voice. Who could that be? He speaks of her as if they are destined to be together, and after she faints, the body count starts to rise. This is where the movie falters, by becoming a slasher film. Helen awakes next to mutilated bodies, and we know she didn’t kill them because we saw Candyman4 do it; it would be better if we weren’t sure. She gets committed to a mental institution, and her husband Trevor (Xander Berkeley, T2, “24”) decides to get a newer model instead of trying to help. Soon Helen realizes that her only hope is to fight back, but how do you fight a monster?
The ending is ultimately unsatisfying, with little resolution- there is some interesting conjecture that legends only live because we believe, but that goes nowhere. In the end, the C-man is defeated too easily, and we get a new monster a little too reminiscent of Fredwina Krueger to take his place. The premise is a great one, but in the end they don’t do a lot with it. Philip Glass was brought on board to score it, but withheld the rights when he saw they’d changed it to a slasher film. I think he made the right choice. This could have been a lot better, and it’s a shame, because Tony Todd’s performance is unforgettable, and iconic.

He’s a real son of a bee! hyuk, hyuk.

Whew, I reviewed it and only said it 4 times! Oh wait, does the post title count? Shit.