Film Review: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Release Date: July 7th, 1971 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Monte Hellman
Written by: Rudolph Wurlitzer, Will Corry
Music by: Billy James
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson, Harry Dean Stanton

Michael Laughlin Enterprises, Universal Pictures, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about.” – G.T.O.

1969’s Easy Rider really left its mark on people, especially the film industry. It’s pretty apparent that it had an effect on this picture, as far as its tone and narrative. But that’s not a bad thing, as Hollywood really started to evolve around the turn of the ’70s. Films got darker, more personal and much more experimental, as indie filmmakers started to redefine what a motion picture could be.

I also find it interesting that this came out the same year as Vanishing Point, which also features a cool car, a plot full of hopelessness and a gritty realness that wasn’t common in films before this time.

Now this can feel like a slow moving picture but it’s got a lot of energy and a strong spirit. None of these characters are all that likable but there’s something about each of them that is intriguing and lures you into their orbit.

I really think that the glue of the picture is Laurie Bird, who plays a character simply referred to as “The Girl”. She is the object of every man’s desire in this film and it is kind of unsettling, as she is very much a minor and isn’t, in any way, glammed up or all that beautiful. She’s pretty obviously a runaway that sleeps her way to free rides across the country with no real direction in life and no personal aspirations to speak of. But her part in this really puts the other characters into perspective, as they are all vying for her companionship, even though she’s just a ghost that comes into their lives for a brief moment in time, probably because she’s got nothing else to do. And ultimately, she bolts at the end of the story, leaving the men pining over her in her dust.

If anything, this film is a strong character study with understated performances, except in regards to Warren Oates’ G.T.O. Oates was stellar in this as a pathological liar, who gives riders in his car a different backstory every step of this journey. But he provided just about all of the personality in the film, even if he comes off as a middle aged loser running away from a life he failed at.

The plot is pretty lose and not focused but it doesn’t need to be, as we aren’t so much concerned with the beginning and the end of this “race” in the film, so much as we are just peeking into the lives of broken people in an era where America sort of had a dark cloud over it between the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, a drug boom and coming out of the Free Love Movement.

This will not be a film that everyone will enjoy and those looking for car action should look elsewhere. Maybe check out the original Gone In 60 Seconds. But for those who enjoy films like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, they’ll probably also enjoy this.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Easy Rider.

Film Review: Christine (1983)

Also known as: John Carpenter’s Christine (complete title)
Release Date: December 9th, 1983
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: Bill Phillips
Based on: Christine by Stephen King
Music by: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul, Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, William Ostrander

Delphi Premier Productions, Polar Film, Columbia Pictures, 110 Minutes

Review:

“Whoa, whoa. You better watch what you say about my car. She’s real sensitive.” – Arnie Cunningham

I gew up in a time when John Carpenter was king. I was a big fan but somehow I always forget that this is in his oeuvre because I associate it more with the slew of Stephen King adaptations from the time.

That being said, it is still very Carpenter but it is also very much King. I guess it’s a pretty good marriage between two of the top horror icons of that era. And frankly, I still love this film even though I hadn’t seen it in quite awhile and forgot how much I enjoy it.

This still plays very well and is a great film in regards to how it builds up suspense.

I was also really impressed with the special effects, especially in regards to the scene where the car repairs itself in front of Keith Gordon’s Arnie. Man, that sequence is spectacular and considering that it was all done with practical effects in a time when CGI was still very primitive, makes me respect how perfectly they pulled it off behind the scenes.

Keith Gordon carries the film with his performance and he does a fantastic job transitioning from the weakling nerd that he is in the beginning to a kid driven by his obsession for his car and finally, as a character that is completely possessed by evil.

The performances by the other two leads, John Stockwell and Alexandra Paul, were also good. It’s the famous character actors that give this film a bit more seasoning though, as both Harry Dean Stanton and Robert Prosky deliver some really good scenes in the film.

I really liked John Carpenter’s score but his music always had a certain presence that accented the frights in his films. This score is no different and his use of audible effects seemed more refined than what he did in Halloween. Not to take anything away from his audio trickery in Halloween but I think that he really found his groove with it here. And while it may go unnoticed by most people who watch this film, it’s these little flourishes that sets Carpenter apart from the pack and gives his films more of an edge.

This is a good coming of age story that doesn’t have a happy ending for everyone. It’s creepy but it’s effective. And I’ve always loved that there really isn’t an explanation in regards to the car being possessed by evil. It’s a machine that just has to kill.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Stephen King films of the ’70s and ’80s: Maximum OverdriveSalem’s LotCarrieSilver Bullet, etc.

Film Review: The Avengers (2012)

Release Date: April 11th, 2012 (El Capitan Theatre premiere)
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Written by: Joss Whedon, Zak Penn
Based on: The Avengers by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Music by: Alan Silvestri
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany (voice), Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton, Ashley Johnson

Marvel Studios, Paramount, Walt Disney Studios, 143 Minutes, 173 Minutes (extended cut)

Review:

“The Tesseract has awakened. It is on a little world. A human world. They would wield its power, but our ally knows its workings as they never will. He is ready to lead. And our force, our Chitauri, will follow. The world will be his. The universe yours. And the humans, what can they do but burn?” – The Other

There was a time when this was the big culmination of all of Marvel’s achievements in their cinematic universe. I don’t think any of us realized how small the universe was then. It felt grand but now, in 2018, things have grown to a monstrous size, to the point where it’s hard to imagine how the upcoming Avengers movie is even going to work. I mean, this had six heroes in it, plus a few more characters. The next Avengers movie has to balance roughly sixty characters. It’s gotten insane.

Anyway, this was the first time we saw a big group of these characters crossover.

In this film, we see Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Mark Ruffalo replacing Ed Norton as Hulk, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. We also get Sam Jackson returning as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson and Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill, all important SHIELD characters and support for the Avengers team.

On the villain side, Tom Hiddleston returns as Loki and he has an army of Chitauri aliens gifted to him by The Other, who is a minion of Thanos.

The story does a decent job of uniting these heroes against a common and very large threat. The first act of the film is very good and I enjoyed it. The final act is also better than decent, even if the aliens are generic and unexciting. The middle act is what really soured me on this picture and it brings down all of the other parts that are actually good.

The middle of the film is pretty much just the heroes hanging out and gabbing on the SHIELD Helicarrier. Some shit pops off and we get to see the Avengers go into action… to fix a damaged propeller. The fact that a gazillion dollar SHIELD helicarrier doesn’t have some sort of emergency protocol for a failed or destroyed propeller is a gross mismanagement of government funds. You’re going to build a vehicle that costs more than the entire GDP of most countries and you don’t have emergency parachutes or balloons to guide the vehicle down to Earth? Good thing Iron Man was there to fly in circles and Captain America knew how to flip a switch.

Joss Whedon helmed this picture though and I’ve never been a fan, even though he is like Jesus to nerds. Does he know how to handle an ensemble cast? For the most part, but his experience is mostly in the realm of cheesy teen TV drama or the severely overrated Firefly.

While the last act of the film gets things back on track and exciting, I hate the Chitauri aliens. They’re drab, boring and ride around on some flying Sea-Doos shooting shit lasers. Then there are the giant flying worm creatures that didn’t do a damn thing other than chase Iron Man and crash into shit. What were they supposed to be doing? Couldn’t they have had aliens on their armored hulls and been more like weaponized battleships? Kinda like living Star Destroyers? I mean, a six year-old could have made them more interesting. In the end, the aliens should have been the Skrulls or even the Kree. I know that Marvel lost the movie right to the Skrulls, at least at the time, but damn, give us something more imaginative and cool.

The Avengers has its problems and I’m spending more time pointing them out than anything else but it is still an enjoyable film. It’s not as good as the best solo hero movies but it is hard to balance an ensemble and to focus on developing and enriching characters when there are so many. But that’s why the solo films are better movies, as these big team-up pictures are just spectacles or special events, the Royal Rumble of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But making this work was a giant undertaking and a tough challenge. It’s more positive than negative and the real highlight is seeing these characters exist in the same space at the same time.

Plus, it has Harry Dean Stanton in it.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: The other Phase One films from the Marvel Cinematic UniverseIron Man 1 and 2The Incredible HulkThor and Captain America: The First Avenger.

Documentary Review: Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012)

Release Date: September 4th, 2012 (Venice Film Festival)
Directed by: Sophie Huber
Music by: Chris Robertson, Roland Widmer

hugofilm, isotopefilms, Adopt Films, 77 Minutes

Review:

Very few actors have as much mileage as Harry Dean Stanton did. He passed away late last year and it sort of feels like there is a massive void that no one else will really be able to fill. Sure, he was a character actor of the highest regard but those few times where he got to be the lead were pretty damn exceptional.

I’ve been working my way through a lot of the Stanton roles I still haven’t seen. For a guy that has 202 IMDb credits, as an actor, I feel as if there will always be some Harry Dean gem I haven’t yet discovered.

This documentary is sweet and initimate. It’s pretty short but we get to spend time with Harry, as he talks about himself, in his own words. We also get to see him reminisce with some of the people he was closest too throughout his career: David Lynch, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, Debbie Harry and Wim Wenders. He also hear from his personal assistant and see him interact with others.

The documentary also has some bits where Harry sings and talks about how he regrets not trying his hand at music professionally.

While the film does cover some of Stanton’s most notable work, this is more a character study of the man himself.

For fans of Harry Dean Stanton, this is a really cool little film to experience.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other documentaries about other famous character actors. That Guy Dick Miller, immediately comes to mind.

Film Review: Paris, Texas (1984)

Also known as: Motel Chronicles (working title)
Release Date: May 19th, 1984 (Cannes)
Directed by: Wim Wenders
Written by: L. M. Kit Carson, Sam Shepard
Music by: Ry Cooder
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell, Aurore Clement, Hunter Carson

Road Movies, Filmproduktion GmbH, Argos Films S.A., 20th Century Fox, 147 Minutes

Review:

“I wanted to see him so bad that I didn’t even dare imagine him anymore.” – Jane Henderson

I haven’t seen much of Wim Wenders work but going into this, I had his film The American Friend on my mind, being that I had just revisited it the night before. This was also partially penned by Sam Shepard and stars underappreciated character actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell, as well as Klaus Kinski’s daughter, the very talented and beautiful Nastassja Kinski.

At its core, this is a story about redemption and about owning your problems and doing what needs to be done to set things straight. This film is dark yet it is very sweet. It deals with some serious issues from the characters’ pasts but pulls itself out of that muck, throws itself forward, pulls you through a lot of emotion and sadness but ultimately arrives at a satisfying and mostly happy ending.

This is an extraordinary and uncommon film. It almost works as a romance story in reverse. In fact, I guess this could be called an anti-romance. It shows you that even if two people really love each other but the damage is irreparable, they can still come together, non-romantically, to do what’s right for all parties involved.

As great as the legendary Harry Dean Stanton was, I don’t know if he ever put in a better performance than he did here. He was perfection, a real actor of the highest caliber and most of the time he didn’t have to say anything, his emotion and his words were conveyed on his face. In fact, he spends the first third of the movie completely mute. When he finally does start talking, it’s soft and very short. But once we get to the big scene where he has to finally open up and right his wrongs, he does so in such a genuine and beautiful way that you are drawn into his words and transported into his memories. Stanton’s performance in this movie is one of the best acting performances I have ever seen, period.

I also have to mention Nastassja Kinski’s performance, as she played opposite of Stanton in the film’s most pivotal moment. She held her own and helped to enhance Stanton’s performance by her reaction to his words and her response.

Dean Stockwell did a fine job in the first two-thirds of the film as Stanton’s brother but more in the role of being the eyes and ears of the audience, as he didn’t understand what the heck was going on with his brother and he wanted answers to the mystery of his brother’s four-year disappearance.

The look of this film is incredible and it boasts the cinematography of Wenders’ regular cinematographer, Robby Müller. The films uses that bright, electric, neon green that Müller is synonymous for, especially when used in contrast to dark backgrounds with accents of red and sometimes other colors subtly dropped in. The look here is very similar to Wender’s and Müller’s The American Friend, as well as another 1984 film Müller worked on, which also starred Harry Dean Stanton, Repo Man.

Paris, Texas is a really emotional film and I don’t know how anyone could watch it and leave the experience untouched. Very few films have the ability to actually touch the soul and transform the viewer or to give them at least a new perspective on things. This film, at least for me, opened my eyes to some things and really sort of changed how I have viewed some of my own life experiences. Wenders, through the profound performance of Stanton, was able to create something here that speaks directly to the human core. It’s soothing in it’s sadness and it’s loving finale. And ultimately, it drums up hope where there isn’t any.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Wim Wenders’ The American Friend for their visual similarities. I also like watching this with Repo Man, as they share their star and cinematographer. Plus, 1984 was just Harry Dean Stanton’s year.

Film Review: Repo Man (1984)

Release Date: February, 1984 (Berlin Film Festival)
Directed by: Alex Cox
Written by: Alex Cox
Music by: Tito Larriva, Steven Hufsteter, Iggy Pop (theme)
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Susan Barnes, Fox Harris, Miguel Sandoval, Vonetta McGee, Helen Martin, The Circle Jerks

Edge City, Universal Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“Some weird fuckin’ shit, eh, Bud?” – Otto

I don’t know what it is about this movie that makes it so f’n cool but it is unequivocally, one of the coolest movies ever made.

I mean, it has Harry Dean Stanton in it, who is one of the coolest actors that ever lived. It also has Emilio Estevez entering the height of his career during his years in the Brat Pack. It’s also a unique film that when looking at it within the context of the time it came out, had to have been a real artistic curveball. Frankly, I can see where many films that came out after this got some of their inspiration or just outright thievery.

It feels like it could be a David Lynch picture but it makes more sense and doesn’t get lost in its weirdness like many of Lynch’s pictures do. It also isn’t relying on its surreal dreamlike quality to propel the picture forward. It has a pretty easy to follow story where the strange bits just enhance the experience and don’t distract from the narrative.

Emilio Estevez put in a good performance as a punk rock kid fired from his menial job only to stumble into the repo man profession. His mentor is played by Stanton and the two immediately have a great chemistry that makes you care about their developing friendship. 1984 was a great year for Stanton between this and Paris, Texas.

The film also has small roles for Tracey Walter, who is a damn fine character actor that always brings something special to every role, and Vonetta McGee, best known for her roles in blaxploitation films in the 1970s.

Repo Man is a sort of punk rock fairy tale that feels like it is in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future but it really just takes place in what was modern Los Angeles in 1984. It’s a surrealist, absurdist fantasy that sees a bunch of strange people chasing after an old Chevy Malibu that has some really bizarre cargo in its trunk. The car changes hands a lot and and as the story progresses Estevez’s Otto gets in deeper and deeper where he is fending off his old punk rock gang and a government agency led by a woman with a metal hand.

If you were able to take punk rock and a science fiction B-movie, add in some comedy and smash them together, you’d get this film but even then, this is much better than the sum of its parts. This is a film that many have tried to knock off and failed and at first glance, Repo Man might be a turn off due to the shoddy nature of most of its imitators. But this is the real deal original and this is the reason why a legion of young filmmakers started making similar works in tone and style.

In truth, this is a hard film to describe and even to review. It’s unique and I don’t say that lightly. But it’s a beautiful picture in how it’s orchestrated, acted and directed. The cinematography and lighting are pretty stellar too and certain scenes almost remind me of some of Wim Wenders’ work from that same era. That makes sense though, as the cinematographer was Robby Müller, who worked with Wenders a lot and his work on The American Friend and Paris, Texas have a similar color palate to this picture.

If you’ve never seen Repo Man, you’ve done yourself a disservice. It’s cool, badass and colorful in all the right ways. Plus, it kicks off with a theme song by Iggy Pop.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: Any early David Lynch films, as well as Sid and Nancy or any other Alex Cox movie.

Film Review: Alien (1979)

Release Date: May 25th, 1979
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Tom Skerritt, Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Brandywine Productions, 20th Century Fox, 117 Minutes, 116 Minutes (2004 Director’s Cut)

Review:

“Ripley, for God’s sake, this is the first time that we’ve encountered a species like this. It has to go back. All sorts of tests have to be made.” – Ash, “Ash, are you kidding? This thing bled acid. Who knows what it’s gonna do when it’s dead.” – Ripley, “I think it’s safe to assume it isn’t a zombie.” – Ash

I saw Alien on the big screen once before. I think it was in 1999 when it was re-released for its twentieth anniversary. Granted, I can’t miss the opportunity to see this or its first sequel when they come back to theaters. Both are perfection and both are very different. While people have debated for decades, which film is better, I still can’t decide. Why can’t they both be the best? I mean, they are perfect compliments to one another because of the different things that each brings to the table, setting them apart narrative wise and tonally.

Where Aliens is a badass action thriller, the original Alien is really a pure horror movie set in space. The Alien formula was actually so effective, that people are still ripping this film off today. Almost every year, there is at least one film dealing with an isolated crew battling a dangerous creature in tight confines, whether it be a spaceship, an underwater facility or some science research base in the middle of nowhere. Alien is still the best of these kind of films, although John Carpenter’s The Thing is a very, very close second.

What makes this film work is how dark and how cold it is. Everything just comes off as bleak and hopeless. The film has incredible cinematography and its really unlike anything that was made before it. A lot of the visual allure, as well as the film’s looming sense of doom, is due to the design work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger. His style is like German Expressionism from the future in that it is dark, disorienting but also very tech-like and beautiful. Giger’s art is very unique and very much his own. Without Giger, I feel like Alien would have been a very different film.

With as iconic as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has become and as synonymous with the franchise as she is, it is weird seeing her not being the top billed star. That honor goes to Tom Skerritt but Ripley does become the focal point and Weaver gives a great performance, even if she isn’t as incredibly badass as she would become in the next film.

This film benefits from having a pretty amazing cast, though. In addition to Skerritt and Weaver, you’ve got Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Veronica Cartwright. All seven of these people have had pretty impressive careers with multiple notable roles.

The film is also directed by Ridley Scott, who has gone on to resurrect the franchise with new energy since he returned to the series with Prometheus in 2012 and then followed it up with the lackluster but still interesting Alien: Covenant in 2017.

Alien is still a very effective film and even if I have seen it dozens of times, there are certain parts in the movie where I still get chills. The effects hold up really well and still look damn good. And even if the sets and computers look really outdated for a movie set in the future, it still has a certain aesthetic that just works for me.

All things considered, there really isn’t a negative thing I can say about the film. It moves at a nice pace, builds suspense effectively, still feels chilling and has aged magnificently.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: Other Alien films and Blade Runner.