The opening of Used Cars (1980) has the ominous, wind-scoured character of a modern crime film in a desperate southwest town where a Sergio Leone western wouldn’t be out of place. The camera cranes down from a high shot over a struggling used car dealership, where a few pathetic beaters line the lot, and slowly glides over to one car with someone is crammed under the dashboard. The only sound is the lonely wind–the kind of strangled, desolate howl you get in dustbowl dramas and desert survival thrillers–and the grunts of the man struggling with the mechanics under the dash. And then we see the odometer turn back, shaving some 40,000 or so miles from the record. The title hits the screen, a brass band jumps in with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and the unidentified mechanic wriggles out to reveal Kurt Russell in a cheap, loud suit making his rounds to mask the sorry condition of the cars on the lot. It turns out that this is a crime movie after all, or at least a film of multiple misdemeanors and bald-faced misrepresentation, and the perpetrators are the good guys.
The second feature from director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer and producer Bob Gale, Used Cars comes right out of the screen comedy culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the underdogs snubbed their collective noses at authority, propriety, property and privacy laws and anything else that crossed their paths in slobs vs. snobs comedies like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980) and Ghostbusters (1984). Used Cars is raucous and reckless and far more gleefully corrupt than any of its brothers in rebellion …
You can thank The Film Noir Foundation for the rediscovery of Cry Danger(Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), the independently-produced 1951 film noir developed by star Dick Powell as a follow-up to Pitfall (1948). Like a lot of films made outside of the studio system, it fell through the cracks and was only recently restored by UCLA and The Film Noir Foundation, who searched for the best materials available and created a new negative and 35mm prints for screening. That restoration is the basis of this disc debut.
Dick Powell is in fine sardonic form as Rocky, a guy released from prison after serving five years for a bank heist he didn’t commit, thanks to a witness who verifies his alibi, and goes in search of the real criminal to spring his buddy, who is still serving time. Richard Erdman is the witness Delong, a Navy vet just off his last tour of duty, and he hitches himself to Rocky to see if he’ll find the loot. Rhonda Fleming is the buddy’s wife, but before that she was Rocky’s girl. Her affections are rekindled but there is more rapport between the low-key, unflappable Powell and Erdman, whose injured vet is a drunk and makes no bones about it. Erdman is even funnier and drier than Powell and has an inspired courtship with a blonde pickpocket in the trailer park, a young cutie who keeps robbing him as if theft was a form of flirtation.
Robert Parrish made his directorial debut with this film and it is terrific: efficient, tight, well-paced and full of attitude and dry humor. He shoots most of it on location in Los Angeles and the key location, a dumpy little trailer park on a hill that looks down upon the city, gives the film a great sense of character and location: they can see the dream below them as they mark time in their cramped trailers. There’s a dark heart under the snappy surface like the best low-budget noirs. William Conrad co-stars as the signature heavy, a gang leader by the name of Louis Castro that Rocky believes is the real mastermind behind the heist, and Regis Toomey is the tough cop with a wary respect for Rocky.
Olive doesn’t go in for supplements—they offer well-mastered discs at low prices—but this is one disc I’d love to see get the special edition treatment. Co-star Richard Erdman is still alive and well and sharp as a tack (he’s the world’s oldest college student in the TV sitcom Community) and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller has provided a lot of commentary tracks and interviews for other film noir releases on disc. A little background on the film and its production would have been very nice, but when it comes down to it, it is all about the film and the quality of presentation and this is top notch given the rescue job performed by UCLA.
Used Cars (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) – Robert Zemeckis made some of the most famous blasts of American pop culture cinema—Back to the Future and Forrest Gump among them—but none has his films root about the cynical underside of the American dream with the gleeful anarchic pleasure of this satirical cult classic from 1980. Kurt Russell is the epitome of the smiling mercenary selling lemons to suckers with dirty tricks and phony promises, aided ably by his superstitious buddy Gerrit Graham. The outrageous stunts (such as illegally jamming the Superbowl with a guerrilla commercial and hiring strippers to bump and grind on the cars like a Vegas sideshow) are more than simply high concept gags: Zemeckis and Bob Gale squeeze the limits of bad taste out of these lemons for a deliciously tart cinematic lemonade. The R rating is for foul mouthed tirades and nudity that would be at home in a risqué burlesque farce. Jack Warden has a field day playing twin brothers and Frank McRae is hilarious as the giant adrenaline-pumped mechanic. The crotch-grabbing Mexican junk car wholesaler is none other than Alfonso Arau, the ubiquitous character actor and director of Like Water for Chocolate.
The Blu-ray debut includes the commentary recorded for the earlier DVD release and the talk from director Zemeckis, co-writer and producer Bob Gale, and star Kurt Russell is almost as much fun as the film itself. “We wanted Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, except he’s totally corrupt,” is how Zemeckis explains the genesis of the story. Kurt Russell laughs back: “So you cast me!” These guys are having a blast laughing their way through their remembrances, but they manage to stay on track and keep the production stories coming. Also features four minutes of outtakes and along with Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score is a bonus score track with the unused score. Also includes an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
I can’t say I’m a major fan of Robert Zemeckis’ circus-like Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Disney) or the multiple performance provided by Carrey through the techno magic of CGI, a collection of caricatured cartoon figures with inconsistent, unconvincing British accents, while the uncanny valley makes the most “realistic” characters almost ghoulish in their waxy, mannequin-like appearance. But the density of detail is impressive and, let’s face it, it’s hard to really screw up this Dickens classic and Zemickis draws a lot of the dialogue right out of the text. Though I don’t remember the madcap chase through London as Scrooge, shrunk to the size of the mouse, scurries from the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come. It feels more like a potential theme park ride than an organic expression of the Dickens experience. I guess that explains the Disney possessive in the film’s title. Zemeckis chimes in with his own assessment of the film’s achievement in the audio-video commentary of the Blu-ray edition: “Every generation has their version of “A Christmas Carol” that sets it in their time and I think that the digital 3-D version “A Christmas Carol” is going to live as one of the quintessential movies of the 21st Century and the digital cinema.” He’s entitled to his opinion. I review the DVD and Blu-ray for MSN here.
I also review Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, a film where the actor chemistry and portrait of family dynamics tangled up with personal anxieties and frustrations outweigh the narrative contrivances of the script, at MSN here and dig into the Kino DVD of The Complete Metropolis, easily the landmark release of the week, on my blog here (with links to my review for Turner Classic Movies). * UPDATE: Due to an issue over region coding, the Kino Blu-ray has been delayed a week, but the DVD is apparently still on time * Here some of the rest of the week’s highlights.
Vengeance (IFC) – Johnnie To, the reigning king of the crime movie and the romantic code of gangster brothers within the mercenary world of organized crime, delivers another perfect little genre piece, this one with French pop legend Johnny Hallyday as a retired pro who comes to Macau to take revenge on the men who attacked his daughter’s family. Costello is a Frenchman in China who doesn’t speak the language, but in a way he does: as a former criminal professional himself (long since retired to become a chef and raise a family) he reads the signs and finds the men who can help him navigate the local underworld and back him up, and wouldn’t you know they are To’s eternal crew: Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Lam Ka Tung and the recurring cast of the honorable mercenaries who privilege professionalism above everything but brotherhood and justice, and they find both in this Frenchman’s quest, even though it means taking on their sometime-employer, decadent crime boss Fung (Simon Yam).
Politics, propaganda and poetry are whipped into an exotic cinematic cocktail in Mikhail Kalatozov’s delirious tribute to the Cuban revolution, I Am Cuba. The film, a co-production between the USSR’s Mosfilm and Cuba’s national film production company, ICAIC, was embarked upon as a gesture of solidarity in the wake of the Cuban Missile crisis. Castro, a film buff who loved both Hollywood movie and the great Soviet classics of the silent era, saw an opportunity to put Cuba’s story on film. Kalatozov (director of The Cranes Are Flying) saw the film as his opportunity to create his own Battleship Potemkin, but for the Cuban struggle against Batista. What he emerged with is an epic revolutionary art movie of socialist ideals that opens in the decadence of Batista’s Cuba and ends with the intoxication of righteous uprising against the capitalist oppressors.
I’ve had the pleasure of revisiting one of the best DVD releases of 2007 (and one of the greatest film rediscoveries of the 1990s) for Turner Classic Movies: I Am Cuba.
“We saw the film as a kind of poem, as a poetic narrative,” explained cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky in a 1965 interview. Urusevsky, who had previously shot Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying, and Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko joined director Kalatozov in a tour of Cuba to scout locations, soak up the culture, and get to know the people in order to find their story. Cuban poet Enrique Pineda Barnet was their screenwriter partner and tour guide. He helped sketch out ideas and characters with the three Soviet artists in group meetings in Cuba and then traveled to Moscow to help write the script from the notes and scene sketches. Pre-production reportedly took over a year as Kalatozov worked out every aspect of the film, and the shooting lasted almost two years.
The resulting portrait, ostensibly a collaboration between Soviet and Cuban artists, is undeniably European, the work of Russian filmmakers intoxicated by the Caribbean culture and music and set loose away from the oversight of Soviet studios and politicians. Continue reading “I Am Cuba and more on Turner Classic Movies”