The Hunger – Amazon Prime Week

The Hunger is currently available on Amazon Prime.

The Hunger (1983)

“Sensual vampire story stars rock legend David Bowie as an ailing centuries-old vampire whose fanged-lover, Catherine Deneuve, seduces a mortal while seeking a new partner.”

She’s that kind of a woman. She’s… European. “

Tony Scott’s theatrical directorial debut, The Hunger, is a film ahead of its time. The Hunger is all style and not much substance. The movie is very loosely based on the Whitley Streiber novel of the same name.

The first goth rock band, Bauhaus, is featured over the opening credits singing their iconic song, Bela Lugosi’s Dead. While Bauhaus would be on nineteen different soundtracks, this was the first and only time they appeared on film. By they, I mean lead singer Peter Murphy. The other members are featured only as arms or legs. Bauhaus broke up that year.

The Hunger belongs to the trio of actors at the center of the film. Thankfully each one is not only superb but sexy as well. Because so much of the theme of The Hunger is aging, it is nice that Scott went with a trio of mid-to-late-30s actors instead of youngsters.

French superstar Catherine Deneuve has a wonderfully mature icy, sexy demeanor as our central vampire, Miriam. Singer David Bowie was stylish to begin with but handles the aging quite well as Miriam’s companion John. Susan Sarandon leaves her wide-eyed Janet from Rocky Horror behind, playing researcher Sarah Roberts.

The Hunger has cult classic written all over it. The first requirement for cult classic is that it be stylish. The vampires are stylish. They have a stylish home in New York with a stylish staircase, a conservatory, a lily room and an attic with doves, a spotlight, and flowing gauzy curtains. They even have a remote that controls not a television or stereo but a spotlight (re-purposed slide projector?). The wardrobe is stylish, the Egyptian weapon is stylish, the darkened nightclub is stylish.

The second requirement is that it appeal to a niche group. The Hunger is clearly made for the goth movement except that it predates the majority of that. It is also apparently popular in the lesbian community – not a surprise as the scene where Deneuve seduces Sarandon is an absolute stunner.

Makeup artist extraordinaire Dick Smith, already an old hand at age makeup with Little Big Man, does a superb job of aging David Bowie and a monkey. Howard Blake’s score and musical stings work well and is seen briefly as a piano player.

Sorry to be vague here but I hate spoilers. The ending, while, of course, stylish, throws away everything that we learned over the course of the film and as such is rather jarring. In spite of that, I really enjoyed this very different vampire tale.

People Watch: Look for actor Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, The English Patient) as 2nd Phone Booth Youth. Ann Magnuson is a young woman picked up at a bar.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 – Do Not Get on That Train week

This is Do Not Get on That Train week. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is currently available on instant Netflix.

AVOID: The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) – Rated R for graphic language and violence.

“When a group of hijackers led by criminal mastermind Ryder (John Travolta) take the passengers aboard a New York subway train hostage and demand a kings ransom, it is up to subway dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) to bring them down. Directed by Tony Scott (Man on Fire), this action thriller — an update of the 1974 film from Joseph Sargent — also stars James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luis Guzmán and Michael Rispoli.”

“Life is simple now. They just have to do what I say.” – one of the few printable lines in the movie

Well I wanted to like this movie but I simply cannot. I also feel somewhat of a hypocrite for recommending a Steven Seagal film yesterday and panning a Denzel Washington film today.

Denzel Washington is a wonderful everyman. To me he represents a more recent Tom Hanks, Jimmy Stewart, or Gregory Peck (or for those of you who are color conscious a modern Sidney Poitier). He handles serious roles with dignity while managing a lighter touch on the material where it is required.

While normally playing the hero, his tour de force performance in Training Day won him his second Oscar. He had previously won a Best Supporting Actor nod for Glory as well as nominations for The Hurricane, Malcolm X, and Freedom.

Why oh why then does he keep working with director Tony Scott?

The Scott brothers are one of my cinematic love-hate relationships. Ridley Scott, in my opinion, is one of the best directors working today. He has directed four of my all-time favorite movies (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down and many other wonderful yet flawed films (The Duellists, Thelma & Louise, Kingdom of Heaven, Black Rain).

His brother Tony consistently takes good material and good actors and trashes both with his signature visual stylings. It is not that most of his films are awful – they actually are not – it is that while watching them you cannot help but think how much better the movie would be if someone else had made it.

Hysterically most of what is wrong with a Tony Scott film occurs literally within the first minute here. We approach the Columbia logo as through a tunnel and then we have a panoramic view of New York while a nice subway motif sets up the credits. Not content with that good start, Scott abandons it seconds later (seriously Scott has THE worst case of ADD of any Hollywood director) for a frenetic time-lapse montage of people swarming over the city streets with no shot lasting longer than a few seconds.

The first words heard are from a song and they are “got 99 problems but a b@tch  aint one” as we pan over Travolta with a cheesy moustache, cross earring and neck tattoo of a gun and the words “from my cold dead hands”. Is that supposed to be ironic? Apparently at that point the camera was just too steady so then we get some extra blurry and juddery camerawork, again with no shot lasting longer than a few seconds.

The F bomb – practically a Tony Scott trademark – is dropped in the song before the credits are done and still we are only in the first minute of the movie. The first line in the movie is “So” and the second line contains four F bombs. How old is Tony Scott? 12? Or did writer Brian Helgeland actually write that second line.

Please understand that I have nothing against profanity in films. South Park is one of the most profane films of all time and is absolutely hysterical. Where would John McClane (Bruce Willis) be without the ending to Yippie-Kai-yay? There are tons of places where profanity can appropriately be applied but using it because you cannot actually think of anything better to say just makes you look like an idiot.

I think it is hysterical that now that PG-13 films are allowed to throw in one non-sexual reference F-bomb that almost all of them do. Why? Because it is part of the business formula.

The 1974 original was a classic urban thriller. Walter Matthau was excellent as the beleaguered Garber and Robert Shaw was ice cool as Blue (Ryder in the remake). Blue had to deal with a worried cohort and keep a psychopathic one in check in addition to Garber. The bad guys were all color coded so that their real names were not used. Tarantino found this so cool that he borrowed it for Reservoir Dogs.

This remake jettisons the color names of course. Not only that but in the original, all of the perpetrators are disguised. None of the perpetrators in the remake are disguised

John Travolta plays Ryder, our hijacker. Unfortunately he has only one speed – full bore – so instead of a man with a plan, he just comes across as a complete psychopath. He has given so many good nuanced performances in the past but lately he has delved into the realm of self-parody.

Tony Scott also throws in two very good character actors, Luis Guzman and James Gandolfini, in pretty substantial parts. They do well though the part for Guzman is woefully underwritten. Though Guzman should not complain as the other two hijackers are complete ciphers.

At one point Garber (Denzel) says out loud to himself  “Jerry Pollard. I know Jerry Pollard. I went to Motormans school with Jerry Pollard”. Really does anyone actually talk that way? Was there no better way to convey this information?

The modern updates to the script are a mixed bag. One of the hostages having a laptop is certainly reasonable, though the way it is used becomes a bit laughable. They do have a clever stock market subplot that ultimately goes nowhere.

If you must watch this film, I highly recommend some dramamine. Scott loves to pan the camera for a few seconds and then jump to another character, pan for a few seconds and then jump back. I swear some of the later subway scenes were made for an anti-drug video.

The original script sets up a wonderful, tight ending and a great epilogue. Tony Scott and Brian Helgeland jettison this in favor of a bombastic over-the-top ending.

In the original the mayor has to make a few decisions such as approving the ransom – quite reasonable. Here the mayor actually talks to Ryder. When was the last time that you heard of a mayor being involved directly in hostage negotiations?

Scott continuously updates us on how much time is left but it quickly becomes comical, particularly as we are not advancing in time at all. I did like how one of the characters mentioned that they should have used a helicopter to deliver the money – thus sort of covering a plothole.

The part that really gets me is that every single good point in this movie (with the exception of Turturro below) was done better in the original and every change (except the stock market subplot sort of) that Scott and Helgeland made in the story made it worse.

The worst change is towards the end where Ryder does something completely and utterly nonsensical. I will not mention what it was to avoid spoilers but from that point on the movie went from being annoying to being monumentally stupid.

Avoid this movie and if you do not mind 70s films, put the original in your Netflix queue.

People Watch: John Turturro does a stellar job playing Camonetti, a hostage negotiator. He does a good job here but his performances for the Coen brothers are much better, particularly Jesus in the Big Lebowski and Bernie Bernbaum in Millers Crossing.

The Fan – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including The Fan.

The Fan

PASS: The Fan (1996) – Rated R for strong language throughout and some violence.

“Directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), The Fan follows obsessive knife salesman Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), who wants to turn things around for his favorite ballplayer, a slumping, high-priced star for the San Francisco Giants, Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). De Niro befriends Snipes, but soon after, Snipes must struggle to keep the psychotic De Niro at bay.”

Thankfully Tony Scott tones down his normal directorial flourishes here – no bleached out color, no relentless jump cuts. Unfortunately he still loves his slightly off-kilter camera angles. He also pointlessly bathes an important sauna scene in red light. A pretty night shot of downtown buildings is severely overused.

Acting is good here. Wesley Snipes is quite good at playing the egomaniacal ball player. John Leguizamo is a lot of fun as the overactive Manny. Robert De Niro plays a obsessive baseball fan who gradually comes unravelled. Robert De Niro is excellent but the character seems like a simple aging/homage/ripoff of Travis (Taxi Driver) Bickle with a baseball twist. Ellen Barkin and Benicio Del Toro are good as well but aren’t really given anything to do.

The script is what ultimately sinks this film. It is clear that the writers have a love of baseball (though not Tony Scott as there are a huge number of baseball errors in the film). Wesley Snipes’ portion of the film is based on some old Babe Ruth chestnuts with some modern baseball commentary and Robert De Niro’s portion seems based on a combination of Taxi Driver and the more recent Falling Down (1993). Even though it is derivative the first two acts aren’t bad, just somewhat disjointed.

The third act is where it all falls apart and is utterly ludicrous – all suspension of disbelief is lost during a beach sequence (I try to avoid spoilers). Everything from that moment on will have you scratching your head and thinking, “what?!??”. Even if you try to accept what happens at the beach at face value, every scene after that gets even sillier.

Despite some really nice performances, I have to rate this one a Pass.

People Watch: Look for Jack Black who shows up briefly as a technician.

Christmas week – Enemy of the State

Besides taking place during the holidays (thus qualifying it for Christmas week status), Enemy of the State definitely knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

Enemy of the State

WATCH: Enemy of the State (1998) – Rated R for adult content, graphic language and violence.

“Hotshot Washington lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith) becomes a victim of high-tech identity theft when a hacker slips an incriminating video into his pocket. Soon, a rogue National Security agent (Jon Voight) sets out to recover the tape — and destroy Dean. Tony Scott directs this breakneck political thriller that co-stars Gene Hackman as an intelligence expert who comes to Dean’s aid.”

Tony Scott directed this tense thriller shortly after Will Smith came off Independence Day. Normally I find that his fast pace and jump cuts detract from the film but in this case they serve the story well. One of the background storylines in this movie is an upcoming vote on a bill that sounds a lot like a portion of The Patriot Act even though this film predates that by many years.

Will Smith is his usual likeable everyman self and Jon Voight is appropriately sinister as a man with an agenda. Gene Hackman does a marvelous update to his character from The Conversation (a very similar film) and steals every scene he is in. The cast is filled with easily recognized character actors giving good performances, many of whom aren’t credited for some reason. Jamie Kennedy and Seth Green play a funny pair of agent/analysts. Jason Robards lends some weight with a brief role as a Senator.

The film is very good but flawed. While the breakneck pacing keeps one from questioning some of the logic holes, the initial killing seems very far-fetched (far too public). The climax comes across as lazy and contrived since it is essentially the same climax as his earlier movie True Romance. Thankfully Tony Scott doesn’t overuse his odd angle  and color-shifted (or bleached) cinematography here – it only gets annoying a bit during a tunnel chase.

The theme of ubiquitous surveillance is wonderfully handled though credit should be given to the aforementioned The Conversation (1974) and The Anderson Tapes (1971) for breaking ground. Overall this is a highly enjoyable film that handles the subject matter in a fun instead of preachy manner. I also love one particular dialogue exchange.

Robert Dean: What the hell is happening?

Brill: I blew up the building.

Robert Dean: Why?

Brill: Because you made a phone call.

People Watch: Look for Tom Sizemore as a mob boss, Jack Black as an analyst, and Gabriel Byrne as an agent.