Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Forgotten Movies (Thanksgiving Edition): Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH (1985)

Another Thanksgiving, another "turkey" edition of The Forgotten Movies. Unlike most other sites that decide to focus on "Thanksgiving Turkeys" and just end up re-hashing the same titles over and over again (BATTLEFIELD EARTH and SHOWGIRLS are really bad! Thank you, Ben Lyons.), I like to focus on movies that are truly, unquestionably, unmistakeably bad, but bad in ways that most other movies - be they good or bad - would be jealous of. Truth is, most "bad" movies are actually mediocre ones that don't have a lick of ambition about them, so when a film with certain pretensions flop endlessly like a whale on the beach, it's much more intriguing. It's also a bit more difficult to watch, partly because someone usually had a good idea or had a passion to say something and they simply couldn't do it right. Richard Brooks' FEVER PITCH, I think, is a perfect example of this, because Brooks was a smart filmmaker who could usually be counted on to make smart, slick, professional movies, and he was also a director who would bust his ass to go all-out on making films that would possibly be the ultimate word of that certain subject matter. Ambition was never his short suit, but a misplaced ambition, like the kind on display in FEVER PITCH, is pretty embarrassing to watch. A part of me wants to cut Brooks a break for this, but you can't watch this film and not think to yourself, "Just what the hell was he thinking?" If FEVER PITCH were any more of a car wreck, the prints would have been delivered to the theater in a tow truck.

Pretty much from the outset, you know FEVER PITCH is in trouble thanks to the tone that Brooks sets with his opening montage, set to narration spoken by star Ryan O'Neal that sounds like it comes out of a 40's Monogram rip-off of a 30's Warners social outrage picture. It tries for this hard-boiled, seen-it-all, DRAGNET approach that even in 1985 people would ask the person sitting next to them, "Does anyone really talk like that?" Unfortunately, this is the approach that Brooks takes throughout the entire picture, as most every character speaks like that, putting this film in a non-reality that is just way too out there. ''Gambling. Series. How many people gamble. How. Why.'' is but one example, and it keeps rambling on and on like that for the whole film. People talk in clichés all throughout FEVER PITCH that it becomes maddening, and very quickly in you're thinking, "Does Brooks truly expect us to take this seriously?" But then beyond the dialogue, it's an entire film full of clichés, one where every moment is maddeningly predictable (O' Neal's sportswriter turned gambling addict is writing a series about a gambler named "Mr. White" who is, unsurprisingly O'Neal himself) and laughably hokey; when O' Neal's daughter says, "I sure miss mommy", we're treated to a ridiculous flashback of how his wife died in a car crash while on her way to bail him out of a gambling debt. I mean, this thing is just stupid beyond belief.

What hurts here is that there's a good movie in here somewhere, or at the very least a good movie somewhere in Brooks' honest intentions. FEVER PITCH seems to know a thing or two about gambling (leading one to wonder just where Brooks' inspiration came from) and for 95% of its running time it has its heart in the right place about the subject. Someone could (and should) make a searing film about the subject, but when Brooks ends his picture by having O' Neal - having settled with loan shark Chad Everitt (in the film's one decent performance) - winning back all his debt in one night at the tables, you know this thing is not - what's the word? - good. It's quite possible this was a studio-imposed happy ending (though Brooks commanded enough respect in his career to have achieved final cut), but since this ridiculous is so much in line with the film that came before it, you have to assume that Brooks thought he knew what he was doing. Now, with all this said, I do feel the need to say that FEVER PITCH is also a very entertaining bad movie, and if you're indeed looking for a Thankgiving turkey then this is your cinematic Butterball. It does provide certain unique pleasures, such as the sight of the great Giancarlo Giannini sharing the same frame with Everett and William Smith (strangely enough, I know Quentin Taratino has expressed a certain admiration for it, and even screened it at his 2nd QT Fest back in 1998, but I don't know just what his approach is to this), but it's all still something of a shame. It's a head-scratcher, head-slapper of a motion picture that is out of time and out of place (I didn't even get to the weird Thomas Dolby score), and if it came from anyone else I would say give it a Golden Turkey award, but from the director of THE PROFESSIONALS, BITE THE BULLET, and IN COLD BLOOD, it truly does register as a "What the fuck?" kind of movie. But it does have to be seen to be believed, there's no question there.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Spaces In-Between: Catching Up to Kim Ki-duk's 3-IRON

I suppose that around a year from now I’ll be putting together – be on here or just in my mind – a list of the best films of the decade, and when I do, Kim Ki-duk’s SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING will most certainly find its way onto that list. Not just the best Asian film I’ve seen this decade (and that is saying a lot), it’s easily the most beautiful, serine and peaceful, a motion picture of absolute beauty and poetry that few other have matched. While I was already a fan of Kim’s output (such as THE ISLE and BAD GUY), SPRING amazed the hell out of me due to its positive, hopeful, Zen-like spirit, which very much went against the brutality of his earlier work (THE ISLE boasting the most infamous use of fish hooks in cinema history). As fine as those films are (and THE ISLE, which floored the hell out of me at the 2001 Fantasia Film Festival, is another one of my favorites of the decade), they were not easy films to sit through, because they seemed to have a bitterness to them, an anger at the world and modern society that were brutal as you watch them, but once you spent time thinking about them (which you always do with Kim’s film) you began to see a different side. Boiled down to their essence, Kim makes films about our inability to express love to those around us, and despite the very extreme methods his characters go about making their feelings known, most of his films are love stories, in a way, albeit extremely fucked up ones. But SPRING proved to be his breakout feature because it not only featured none of the violence of the previous films, but it was something truly unique and visionary, a film that adhered to Buddhist philosophies that could be understood and appreciated by pretty much any audience. Sony Pictures Classics picked it up here, and when I got to see it in '04 I took a date who was aching to see 13 GOING ON 30 instead (she’d just turned 30), but who took a chance on my recommendation and it earned me points for having good taste in movies (the relationship didn’t work out, but she genuinely loved the movie). Later that year, Kim returned to Venice with 3-IRON, a further mediation on some of his past themes in a less violent, more audience-friendly package, and he won the Best Director award and another pickup from Sony Pictures Classics. Despite many raves (with some calling it Kim’s best film to date), I never got around to seeing it until just recently, and it’s proved to be an interesting film for me, proof once again that Kim is a filmmaker whose work I should continue to follow, no matter what.

One thing about 3-IRON that I like is that it’s got a tantalizing premise: A young man passes through Seoul dropping off leaflets for various restaurants, placing them in the doorways of apartment buildings and houses. When he returns the following day to see them unmoved, he knows that the tenants are not at home and he moves in. He’s no thief, however; he cleans the houses, does people’s laundry, fixes things, and replenishes the food he eats. If the people come home, he makes his way out quickly and finds the next place to stay, not really squatting per se, but just experiencing other people’s lives for a bit. But what’s interesting is that he does not seem to be destitute, as he rides a rather expensive motorcycle and is very quick-witted. Of course, he does end up getting involved in the life of one of the homeowners, and yes, it does blossom into a romance, but 3-IRON does not go into any of the directions you think that it would. While there are cases of mistaken identity and hiding from spouses, what Kim does with 3-IRON is what he did with SPRING… and make it a mediation on Buddhist philosophies, here about how we relate to one another in the space that we share. It’s a film about love and about relationships, yes, but it’s also about noticing, understanding, and utilizing all of the world that surrounds us, about how many of us don’t really see or appreciate everything that’s there. It’s about an abandonment of the material and practical world into one where those things that matter, those things that are truly essential, are simply those that appear right in front of us. I know this does not make a lot of sense if you haven’t seen the picture, but once you do, we’ll be on the same page.

What has made 3-IRON particularly endearing to me is how it’s stayed with me for so long after I’d seen it. My initial reaction was not as impressed as I would have wished it’d been, especially after being so knocked out by his other works, and I felt that it wasn’t so much that I didn’t "get it", but that Kim was trying things that simply didn’t work as best they should. But again, what 3-IRON is about is perception in how we truly understand things by seeing them only after we become one with our environments, and while I certainly didn’t have a massive awakening of any sort to make me see the light, 3-IRON just kept creeping its way into my consciousness again and again until it finally began to become clearer and more translucent (and I believe this is the first time I’ve used that word here, so you know this film is something special). Once this got into my head, I also began to see what a hopeful and romantic film it was, because what it really does say is that we don’t have to have anything in our lives except those around us in order to live and that everything else is simply irrelevant (like, say, other spouses). This also makes 3-IRON a bit of an original film, something that can’t be contained or described as anything other than an experience more so than as a movie, although it’s not a blockbuster-type of experience, by any means. It’s a beautiful piece of work, one that I think also speaks to this new world of streamlining, downsizing, and struggling to survive that we’re finding ourselves in. It places the emphasis on what’s important in life and is about finding love and peace in this world. It’s a hopeful film for hopeful times and I think more people need to see it.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Oh... Fudge: 25 Years of A CHRISTMAS STORY

Anyone who knows me (or has been paying attention) knows that I’m a bit of a Christmas nut. Not overly religious by any means, just someone who truly enjoys the sights, sounds and smells of the holidays. I love how it makes the onset of winter bearable, perks people’s spirits up, brings about a reunion of friends and family, and yes, I sure do love getting gifts (I love giving them, too, but the getting’s the real fun). The major downside of the holidays is their over-commercialization, which has always been the case but seems to get worse and worse every year, and the really crappy holiday movies, specials and music that pops up every year. There’s always been second-rate holiday entertainment, but the amount of lame animated movies, TV flicks and albums out there these days is too much for me. It doesn’t exactly take away my holiday spirit, but it’s annoying, especially when you see things that shouldn’t be over holiday-ized but are. This came to mind the other day when walking through a massive Wal-Mart the other day (hey, sometimes you’ve got to go to Wal-Mart) and as I was looking through the holiday section of the store I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at what I was seeing: An entire endcap devoted to holiday merchandise from Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY. It went beyond just mere wrapping paper and Leg Lamp ornaments, but there were also snow globes, t-shirts, stickers, and a few too many other items to count. Listen, for the likes of Rudolph, Frosty and Peanuts this stuff is fine, but when I see all these CHRISTMAS STORY products on the shelves like clockwork this time of year, I always get a little sad. Something that’s so good, that began in such a genuine and honest way is now a cash cow that the marketers don’t seem to understand. I’m sure these people have seen A CHRISTMAS STORY, but do they understand it?

Listen, you don’t need me to tell you that A CHRISTMAS STORY is a terrific movie, because we all know that. It’s one of two classic Christmas movies directed by the late Bob Clark (the other being BLACK CHRISTMAS, of course) and I’m happy that it’s become a modern day classic, because it deserves to be called one. I’ve always loved how A CHRISTMAS STORY got what it was to be a kid in pretty much any age and how was very level-headed and down-to-earth about the holiday, about families, and about childhood in general. It’s not about saving Christmas or Santa or elves and reindeer or anything like that. It’s got very modest ambitions and it’s refreshingly not out to give you an important lessons about life and the spirit of giving, it’s just a slice of life and it comes across as pretty true, which is part of its appeal. So to see all this merchandise is more than a little disconcerting, because that’s not what A CHRISTMAS STORY is all about, either. You’ve got to remember that Ralphie nearly does shoot his eye out with that BB gun, and that the leg lamp is to be mocked, not proudly displayed in your own home or on your tree. People don’t understand the bitterness and disappointment that exists through most of Jean Shepherd’s work (even this one) or that A CHRISTMAS STORY was meant to be a sort of anti-Christmas movie that presented (no pun intended) the holiday as it truly was, not how advertisers thought we wanted it to be. Everyone has stories about Christmases that don’t always go right, which is part of the reason why this one has connected with so many people. Its current incantation as an annual source of revenue for Warner Brothers and the estates of Shepherd and Clark is great for them, but for what A CHRISTMAS STORY is supposed to represent, it kinda sucks if you ask me.

Despite all this, it won’t take away from my own pleasant memory of seeing A CHRISTMAS STORY 25 years ago this night at the old Madison Triplex. The place was packed – rather surprisingly, since I hadn’t seen much pre-release press on it – and everyone loved it. Having a bit of a holiday buzz in me already, it was the perfect way to start the holiday season (back in those days the Christmas movie season actually started in December). But what made it even better and all the more memorable was walking home to see the 1983 Madison Christmas tree finally up in the center of town, knowing damn well that the holidays had arrived. The Christmas that followed was a good one, as I remember it, with the usual kids vs. parents crud that went with it, so I'm happy A CHRISTMAS STORY came along when it did, as I wasn't going to be a kid much longer and its magic might not be as potent on me the older I got. It gets childhood just right, and that's why it's a classic.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Real First Black President

No commentary to be made here, just an opportunity to showcase the genius of Richard Pryor in his prime. Certainly attitudes have changed and history has caught up to it, but it's still great stuff.

Note John Witherspoon, Marsha Warfield, Tim Reid, and Johnny Yune also in there. Thanks to Ant Timpson for reminding me about this one.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Is That Your Final Answer? Danny Boyle's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

While it shouldn’t be this way, “feel good” (or FG) movies have become suspect. Movies that are supposed to make you feel good about life and the world around us have become so tiresome, so routine, so fucking mediocre, that you want to run away from them as far as you can. Pictures about long shots with gumption who go all the way are among the worst pictures I’ve ever seen, and I’ve come to avoid them over the last decade or so. Of course, when these pictures are good, like ROCKY or even ROCKY BALBOA, then they’re great and well worth seeing and worth praising, too. But for every ROCKY there’s a KARATE KID PART III that just goes through the motions and are so uninspired that it kills the whole genre. In order for a FG picture to work, it has to earn those good vibes, and way too many of them don’t seem to bother or don’t understand how to properly present the struggle. It’s not just that someone has to go through hard times in order for their triumph to work, it’s that the triumph has to be believable, something that the audience must relate to in some way. This is where Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE succeeds where many others fail - you understand the struggle. It’s not just that the lead character goes through a very tough life to get to where he is, or even that he’s a quite likable fellow, it’s that his story is one that you can see happening to people the world over, and it truly makes you feel good to see it resolved in the way it does.

What’s interesting about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is how Simon Beaufoy’s script (adapted from Vikas Swarup’s book, Q & A) hits so many of the standard feel good clichés (dead parents; tough childhood; lost long love; organized crime), but it doesn’t condescend. What the lead character goes through is fascinating to watch because it hits its emotional marks extremely well, and one feels that what they’re watching is a fairly true representation of life in India. I also admire how it’s not afraid to get into the dirt and grime of it (though I could have done without some scatological humor - not a fan of that stuff), presenting some things that most U.S. audience members wouldn’t be able to stomach unless they saw it in a FG movie. The balance of tough life to good life is not an easy to maintain, so it’s going to take skill and talent to do it right and SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE does. It also helps to have someone like Danny Boyle directing, since he’s been able to balance dirt and grime with style throughout most of his career, and with SLUMDOG the balance works so well that this proves to be one of his finest to date. There’s no cheap sentimentality on display here; Boyle is very much interested in the tough times as he is the ultimate triumph, which very clearly shines through. He may have been the ideal director for this material (and let’s also give credit to his co-director, Loveleen Tandan, for her contributions), and what you see here feels very much lived-in, not merely in the Indian surroundings, but also in what the characters are going through; it seems honest, which is the only way this could have worked. While there certainly are parts of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE that play into fantasy, there’s zero Hollywood sheen felt, and that’s what makes the difference.

There’s a lot else to like here, too. I love that Boyle doesn’t commit his subtitles to the center of the screen, but rather places them where it emphasizes what the characters are feeling, and that’s damn effective. The picture also looks excellent (shot on a mix of both HD and 35mm) and the Mumbai locations are often quite striking, and you feel like you’re getting a true taste of what the city and country are like. The film is also extremely well cast, with a tremendously appealing Dev Patel and the lovely Freida Pinto in the leads, and a terrific Anil Kapoor as the host of the game show where the center of the film’s action takes place. So sure, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a total FG movie, but it actually does make you feel good when it’s over and that’s rare that an FG movie can actually pull that off these days. It’s certainly a crowd pleaser, but it’s one that even curmudgeons can get caught up in, which is the greatest compliment one can give it. Definitely worth your time.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Fantastic Fest: Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD

I think there's no shame in confessing a certain love for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Of all the late 80s/early 90s action stars, Van Damme was always the most likable, although that likability had as much to do with a certain goofball factor than any real talent. There was always something silly about Van Damme, even though he's not a bad martial artist by any means and is certainly physically imposing enough, but you could never look at this guy and buy him as any other kind of character than as Jean Claude Van Damme. I distinctly remember watching KICKBOXER with the old HQ 10 crew the night before its September 1989 opening, and we laughed our asses off during his drunken dance scene (to the tune of the cheap James Brown sound-alike, "Feeling So Good Today"); sure it was supposed to be funny, but he looked real stupid, endearingly so, and as he moved on from project to project - DEATH WARRANT, LIONHEART, DOUBLE IMPACT - trying to become the next Schwarzenegger, you could sense an eagerness to please, an attempt to grow, but no real talent. Unlike Seagal, who one would later come to dispise, Van Damme always seemed like he was trying, and when he started working with directors like John Woo on HARD TARGET and Peter Hyams on TIMECOP, the results were starting to show. The pictures were better, he was better, and you could sense a certain professionalism coming through. But then he pissed it away on second-rate material like STREET FIGHTER, SUDDEN DEATH and THE QUEST (which he directed) and it was all over. Although his two Tsui Hark epics, DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK-OFF, were wonderful returns to the silliness of old, it was too late for Van Damme. Direct-to-video seemed just right, and that's where he went. Though those pictures typically do well for their limited budgets (they can apparently be depended upon for a few hundred thousand units sold), no one has really missed Van Damme on the big screen; he seemed to be at home on DVD. In an odd way, his latest, JCVD, can not only be deemed as a theatrical comeback but also as a re-introduction to those who forgot about him while the Jason Stathams of the world took his place. More so than putting Van Damme back in the spotlight, it does something for more important: By re-inventing Jean-Claude Van Damme, action star, as Jean-Claude Van Damme, human being, he makes himself relevant for the first time in his career.

There's no question that Van Damme desperately needed a film like JCVD. He had become a joke to some people, an afterthought to many, and an example of the perils of Hollywood. His E! True Hollywood Story is one of the most sobering because he himself participated, coming clean on his many years of drug abuse, failed marriages, and bad career choices. So the fact that Van Damme likewise lets it all hang out for JCVD, portraying himself as a washed-up, desperate version of himself, is to be commended. And that he does it quite well, putting a side of himself on camera that he's never been able to do before, is the film's greatest strength. Van Damme, the man, is what's on display here, not Van Damme, the movie star, and you can tell that JCVD is an opportunity for him to exorcise some demons and make peace with himself and his audience. Other stars have poked fun at themselves before, but I honestly can't recall the last time one disassembled themselves so mercilessly, like Van Damme had hit a brick wall and came to hate himself with all his might. Is it the real Jean-Claude Van Damme? No, of course it isn't, but it's about as close as we're ever going to come to seeing it in a movie and what you see here is pretty heartbreaking, no matter who it really is on screen. There's a moment in the film where Van Damme really lays it all on the line and gives a speech that unquestionably comes straight from the heart, and it's a beautiful thing to see. Other action stars have shown their sensitive sides, but what you see here is Van Damme emotionally stripping himself bare, and it's a hell of a moment. In what you see of Van Damme in JCVD, I now have little to no doubt that he can have a career as a legitimate actor if he really wants one, and if he goes back to the direct-to-DVD stuff he's been doing, he'll have lost my respect. But for now, for this moment, Jean-Claude Van Damme has finally become an actor.

So far as good as Jean-Claude Van Damme is, one wishes that JCVD were a better movie overall. I'd heard about it from the now-famous Cannes market screening where Van Damme received a standing ovation, and have even been driving around a van with "Van Dam" license plates around Austin, all because of Tim League's enthusiasm for the movie. So maybe the hype was a bit much, but JCVD, fine as it was, didn't blow me away as a movie like it has some others. The problem is tone; while El Merchri is admirably trying to make a picture that keeps the viewer on their toes, he's not quite doing right by the material. One scene is comic, the next is tragic; one scene is fantasy, the next is meant to be realistic. He can't really find the right one and it can be a bit annoying. While shooting the film with an intriguing bronze tint, he also robs some of the more dramatic, down-to-earth moments of any kind of impact they might have had because they look like they come from a movie. His non-linear narrative approach is admirable, but also disjointed and somewhat hard to follow at times (and I'm usually pretty good at following non-linear narratives - seriously, I am!). It doesn't derail JCVD - there's still plenty of entertainment to be found here - it just takes a potentially great movie and makes it merely good. I don't want to harp on El Mechri too much, because he's obviously trying and certainly loves his subject matter as much as we do, but it feels like he doesn't exactly have the steady hand needed to make JCVD more than what it is. I respect that it's not another Jean-Claude Van Damme movie (though I wouldn't mind another KNOCK OFF, to be honest), or even a mainstream Hollywood-type movie, but it's still lacking a certain focus that could have put it over the top. Still, it has Jean-Claude Van Damme, and that's what really matters. Before JCVD, a statement like that was meant facetiously, but here it's 100% genuine; Van Damme has made you care about him for the first time in well over a decade. He's getting these kudos and respect because he's finally earned them, and you have to admire that. JCVD is his ROCKY BALBOA.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

All Right, America, I Love Ya! We Gotta Go...

Watched the election returns last night with my friend Maria and a crowd of about 200 at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, with footage alternating between CNN, Comedy Central and various SNL clips and movie clips (whenever a state was called for McCain, they cue up the White House explosion from INDEPENDENCE DAY). There wasn't a single McCain supporter in the room, and like pretty much every place you went there was a lot of excitement and applause for what we all felt was inevitable. So when the word finally came down from Jon Stewart (yeah, THE DAILY SHOW was on) at 10pm CST, it was a moment to remember always, with much hugging and kissing going around.

It wasn't always like this. A lot of people felt he was never going to make it past the Hillary juggernaut, but he was stronger than most had ever anticipated, and he has proven himself to be a master politician who you feel is unquestionably the right man for the job. It's a strong feeling, and feelings can't always take the place of facts, but we've seen enough of this man under pressure (under a lot of pressure) that you have to be a complete nutter (or my old landlady) to not have hope. Hope for the future, hope for renewal, hope for change, and a change for the best at that. This feels right, and that's a wonderful feeling.

Happy to be an American right now. Very happy.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Chewin' Bubblegum and Kickin' Ass - 20 Years of THEY LIVE.

The first presidential election I ever voted in was back in 1988, the big Bush vs. Dukakis dust-up. It was a pretty exciting thing for me to experience, finally being part of the democratic process and maybe playing a role in the future of America. I took a lot of pride and pleasure in voting for the first time, and the '88 election came at a time of great change and new freedom in my life, so it helped to mark an important time for me. No matter that my guy lost, I remember it all quite well: "Read my lips - no new taxes"; Willie Horton; Dukakis in that damn silly helmet; Jon Lovitz's "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy" line from SNL; and best of all, Lloyd Bentsen's legendary put down of Quayle during the debates. It wasn't anywhere near as exciting as this election, but I got a big jolt out of it, mostly because I felt like I was finding my voice a little bit, and I've always made sure I've voted in pretty much ever major election ever since (even took part in early voting here last week).

But one aspect of election '88 that I will also always take to heart was John Carpenter's THEY LIVE, which opened on November 4, 1988, 20 years ago today, and 4 days before the national election. No, THEY LIVE wasn't a major part of either party's campaign, and it sure as hell didn't make any waves in the election, but it was one of the first pieces of political satire that I really got and I loved the hell out of it. Looking at it again a few weeks ago, I was not especially surprised that it held up perfectly (the only Carpenter film that doesn't - at least for me - is HALLOWEEN, actually), nor was I surprised that it's still resonant (unfortunately). It was a perfect coda to the Reagan era, 8 years of the rich getter richer, the poor getting poorer, big business, increased consumerism and corporate greed taking over the country (like I said it's strangely still resonant). But what got to me about THEY LIVE in 2008 is the scope of the piece, which is a surprisingly ambitious one, as it has a lot on its mind and works hard to accomplish a lot with very little. It was the second film in a two picture deal (the first being the under-appreciated PRINCE OF DARKNESS) that Carpenter had with Island Films to make two low budget films (both under $4 million) with complete creative control. Carpenter, obviously relishing the opportunity, went to town with his ideas and desire to make a mainstream, subversive entertainment. It's actually a pretty big story that Carpenter's telling (based on Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning"), but like such great genre directors of the past as Don Siegel and Phil Karlson, he knows to keep the focus on just one character and let all this stuff happen around them. And like those greats, that character is an everyman, a guy who's seen tough times; who's down but not out and is able to survive on street smarts while the Powers That Be. The thing is, it becomes a pretty big story, but Carpenter just keeps us focused on Roddy Piper's John Nada, and it all makes sense to us in the end. There's a lot going on here, and a heck of a lot of setups for a low budget movie, but Carpenter knew how to shoot fast and knew what he wanted on screen and there isn't anything there that he doesn't want on there. Carpenter is in full control here, and this is what makes THEY LIVE so great.

Another huge part of THEY LIVE's success is Carpenter's obvious joy in what he's doing; this is one unapologetic B-movie, and it's really damn fun. Goofy, silly fun, and yet subversively so, because for all of its action, violence, and machismo, there's a lot going on underneath the surface, beyond the social commentary. For one, THEY LIVE is also a terrific satire of the 80s (one of the definitive of the decade), with Carpenter making sure he lampoons (and literally destroys) everything about the decade that he hates. It's not just the consumerism, but also TV, so-called "entertainment", and the moral and social crusaders of the day (Siskel & Ebert are shown to be aliens, too), making it a damn funny picture, at times. The alien makeups (often cited as one of the film's problems) are lovably goofy, certainly not to be taken seriously, but also outrageous enough and otherworldly to pass muster, so if anyone tells me they hate the movie because they hate the makeups, I can't take their opinion seriously. Even back in '88 you knew that if Roddy Piper was the lead in a movie then you should allow for some silliness, but while Piper does allow Nada some dignity, it's when he says the now-classic line (which Piper improvised), "I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. - and I'm all out of bubblegum", that you know he's a willing conspirator in all this. It's not trying to be stupid so much as be cleverly silly, a fine line to walk, but one that THEY LIVE does incredibly well. It's as much of a lark as it is anything else, but one from the heart and one with something to say, told with a lot of muscle and a style that is very much its director's, so as a longtime fan I'm happy to see that it's lived on and become a cult classic. 20 years to the day, THEY LIVE is still living, thriving and potent, yet another earmark of a great movie. Second only to THE TERMINATOR as the ultimate B-movie classic of the 80s, I'd watch it again in a second.