Monday, January 11, 2016


I think for the bulk of my generation that were fans of the one and only David Bowie, if we had to pinpoint what our introduction to him was, the answer would invariably be Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Populated with infectiously fantastic songs from the actor, as well as him in a starring role, this was Bowie's movie through and through and he rocked every scene he was in, both literally and figuratively.

Sarah (played by Jennifer Connelly) is a sixteen year old girl who is perfectly content living in her own little world of her own imagination. One night while stuck at home babysitting her infant brother, a crying little brat named Toby, she recalls a passage in a favorite book of hers and calls upon the Goblin King to take her brother away. Much to her shock, Jareth the Goblin King (played by David Bowie), appears and takes him away thereby giving Sarah her wish. Immediately regretting what she said, Sarah pleads with him to give her back her brother. He declines to return the child, but issues a challenge instead. Sarah has thirteen hours to solve the Labyrinth that leads to his castle and rescue the tot. If she fails, he will be turned into a Goblin and reside in the Goblin City forever. With no other choice, she sets out to solve the Labyrinth, storm the castle and rescue her brother. Along the way, she picks up some friends such as the dwarf Hoggle (voiced by Brian Henson) and Ludo, a kind-hearted giant beast, who assist her in finding her way through the Labyrinth and deal with the various surprises and colorful characters that reside in it.

I'm still a bit stunned that Labyrinth was a box office flop when it was first released in 1986. It has such imagination behind it in the way everything is rendered as well as an array of various creatures, all beautifully rendered by the Jim Henson company. It also has a cheeky sense of humor to it and a witty script that was initially written by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame). Subsequent drafts were added to by the likes of Laura Phillips, George Lucas, Dennis Lee and Elaine May. The film is wonderfully directed by Jim Henson, who creates a unique and imaginative fantasy world filled with all sorts of fantastic and original creatures. The special effects are at times a bit dated, but there is one sequence that to this day absolutely blows my mind. It's the final confrontation between Jareth and Sarah at the climax in the film and it takes place in a cinematic variation of M.C Escher's painting "Relativity." Within this sequence, we have Sarah chasing after the baby Toby, while Jareth walks around taunting her, seemingly defying gravity, as he walks on various upside down staircases, ceilings and even at one point is walking underneath Sarah and then flips up around the end of a walkway and winds up right in front of her. It's nothing short of amazing and I still can't figure out how they pulled it off. 

Anchoring the film, we have two great performances by both David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, both of whom work quite well with the various puppets and animatronic characters that otherwise populate the film. Both give such natural performances that only help the other characters seem that much more real. Sarah starts off the film as being a bit bratty, but over the course of the film comes of age and finds her inner strength, growing in the process, which Connelly captures quite well. For someone that has to anchor the film, she does a magnificent job.

As for David Bowie, his turn as Jareth is incredibly charming, slightly spooky, and surprisingly sympathetic. In fact, I think he may be the most sympathetic villain in a film that I can recall. He even states quite openly to Sarah that everything he did he only did because she asked him to. His only crime was loving her and doing what she wished and all he gets in return is exasperation as she changes her mind. In fact, one can argue that his attempts to thwart her getting through the Labyrinth have less to do with keeping her brother and more with wanting her to stay. Outfitted in various garish and at times quite revealing costumes, it's no wonder Jareth found his way into a generation of young girls (and probably some boys, it is Bowie after all) hearts. Yes, there is a certain ick factor to a then 39 year old David Bowie chasing the affections of a sixteen year old girl but yet somehow Bowie gets away with it, if only on the fact that you get the sense that with Bowie's rendition of Jareth that the poor guy is just really lonely.      

David Bowie also contributed five songs to the soundtrack of the film, from the main theme "Underground" to the infectious "Magic Dance" and the haunting "As the World Falls Down" and "Within You," the soundtrack remains one of my all time favorites and I am in fact listening to it as I write this retrospective review right now. 

Overall, Labyrinth has gained a healthy cult following over the thirty years since it came out and will continue to live on for much longer. After initially flopping in theatres, it is nice to know it finally found it's audience. And, of course, this film will lead new audiences to discover the rest of David Bowie's expansive and impressive body of work, just as my generation did. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Swing Shift

Every year, at this convention I go to, Convergence, there is a tradition on the first night that is called the Kurt Russell Pizza Party that takes place in the movie room called the Cinema Rex, where pizza is brought in for everyone attending and we all watch a Kurt Russell movie. Now, I mention this because I have on occasion adopted this into my own home as well. Friday night is pizza night and I will on occasion partner this with a Kurt Russell movie. Tonight's selection was one that I had actually never seen before, Swing Shift.

Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kay Walsh (played by Goldie Hawn) is left behind after her husband Jack (played by Ed Harris) goes off to war. Soon after, she gets a job at a local factory assembling airplanes for the war and strikes up a friendship with her neighbor and co-worker, Hazel (played by Christine Lahti). Kay also starts to come into her own as she becomes more confident in herself and sheds her previous housewife demeanor. She manages to attract the attention of one of the plant's supervisors, Mike "Lucky" Lockhart (played by Kurt Russell). She initially resists his advances over the next several months, but as loneliness sets in, she gives in and a romance between the two begins to bloom. Meanwhile, Hazel has her own troubles trying to gain the attention of the owner of a local dance hall, Archibald "Biscuits" Touie (played by Fred Ward). 

These days, this film is probably best remembered as when Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell fell in love for real and while watching the film it was easy to see why that happened. They make such a great couple and have such great chemistry that I wasn't surprised that the film had some re-shoots to try and beef up the romance plotline between Hawn and Russell, to the detriment of director Jonathan Demme's original vision for the film, which according to the reports I've read focused much more on the friendship between Hawn and Lahti's characters. Unfortunately, this only hurts the film in the long run because it causes us to lose some sympathy for Hawn's character as the movie goes on and Harris returns home from the war. You see, we would sympathize with her if her husband was a dickweed, but he's not. He's definitely a product of his time, but he's also supportive, at least to some extent, of his wife working in the factory and even impressed when he finds out she's been promoted to supervisor. Russell's character, Lucky, is also similarly jerked around in the situation. Granted, he should have known better chasing after a married woman, but I still couldn't help but feel some sympathy for him. 

Still, the film isn't all bad but rather a bit muddled and confused in some spots. As a whole, the film does take a great look at that period of time when women took a giant leap forward into a workplace that was previously considered males only and prove that they were more than up to the task. In those scenes, this movie really takes off with it's own can do attitude and shows the growing camaraderie between all the ladies, including Holly Hunter in an early supporting role. In fact, I wish the film had focused more on that aspect of it rather than on the ill advised love story because it was in these scenes that the film really came alive. Based on what I've read, this is where Demme's original cut of the film focused more and I wish the studio had left enough alone. I found myself wanting more with Lahti's character, Hazel, the aspiring jazz singer working at the factory to make ends meet. I wanted more of the other ladies that we only see in passing. Yes, Kurt Russell was a bonafide cutie in this movie and I really did like his 4F, trumpet playing, factory supervisor character, but the film should've been about all of them and would have worked so much better if it had been. In a film populated with so many colorful and well drawn characters, spending so much time on a doomed romance, with a run time of only an hour and forty minutes no less, is somehow less appealing to me.         

Growing up, one of our favorite films of both my mother and me was the film Overboard, which was a film Goldie and Kurt made a few years after this one. It piqued my interest in seeing other things they had done together, namely this film. It was never the easiest movie to find and when I saw it was airing on Turner Classic Movies, I made sure to record it. Was it worth watching? Sure, I even though it was a pretty good movie with some great performances (especially by Christine Lahti, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role in this). But, as I read more and more about the movie and how it was taken away from it's director and re-cut and parts were re-shot it really bummed be out, because it really could've been a great movie if they had left well enough alone. The truly tragic part is that by all reports the deleted material has since been lost and destroyed, so most likely we'll never get a director's cut to see what could have been either. It's a damn shame because that's the movie I would've loved to have seen.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Hateful Eight

I can't help but get excited every time a new Quentin Tarantino film is released. He manages to spin such wonderful and wild tales populated by colorful characters and magnificent dialogue. With his latest film, The Hateful Eight, Tarantino makes his second Western and films it in a long thought gone format of Ultra Panavision 70. The last film that used this format was made in 1966. What he does with the format is a work of a master filmmaker. 

A lone stagecoach is making it's way through the snow swept Wyoming plains trying to beat an oncoming blizzard. The coach makes a sudden stop when a man appears in the middle of the road, sitting atop three dead bodies and a saddle. The man is Major Marquis Warren (played by Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier and current bounty hunter. The three men are his latest captures. The occupant of the stagecoach is John Ruth (played by Kurt Russell), another bounty hunter accompanying Daisy Domergue (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to hang for her crimes. Since the two know each other, John begrudgingly allows Warren to join them. Along the way they pick up another man out in the wild, Chris Mannix (played by Walton Goggins), who claims to be on his way to Red Rock as he is their new Sheriff. Neither man believes him but allows him to board the coach as well, just in case he might be telling the truth. All four of them, as well as the stagecoach driver, OB (played by James Parks), seek shelter at a frontier outpost known as Minnie's Haberdashery.   

Upon their arrival, something about the place seems off. Minnie and her associate Sweet Dave are both missing and the place has been left in the care of a man known as Mexican Bob (played by Demian Bichir). Among the others there are Sandy Smithers (played by Bruce Dern), an old Confederate general, as well as Oswaldo Mobray (played by Tim Roth), a professional hangman. Hiding in the corner is Joe Gage (played by Michael Madsen), who is trying to get home for Christmas, or at least that's what he says. Both John and Warren know something is not right there but find themselves unsure of who to trust. With a blizzard bearing down on them and nowhere to go, each of them tries to figure out who these other men are to see if there is someone there who may be in cahoots with Daisy waiting for their moment to pounce and set her free. 

There is so much that I loved about this movie. Quentin Tarantino once again does what he does best, which is craft a tale that so completely relishes in being unpredictable, but yet completely works. This film gets a group of characters together in an isolated place, each with their own colorful flourishes and cuts them loose on one another. There is a strong mystery aspect to this film as Wallace and John try to figure out if everyone is who they say they are. The tension is slowly ratcheted up as the blizzard outside grows worse and the sun begins to set. As it does, the mounting dread begins to rise as it begins to become clear that something very bad is about to go down at Minnie's Haberdashery, but the question remains how and from where it is coming.   

I also need to mention the cinematography of this movie as it is rather impressive. Just the decision to shoot it in Ultra 70 Panavision, which gives the film a frame 2.76 times wider than it is tall, on a film that largely takes place indoors is a wonder to behold. But what Tarantino and his Director of Photography Robert Richardson do with that frame is magnificent. Whether it is capturing the snow swept mountain passages at the beginning of the film or the intense moments in the cabin, every square inch of the frame is used. It's a gorgeous film and incredibly well shot, making me wish more films were shot like this. Although, perhaps if they were something like this would be less special.

The film has a fantastic cast as well with each of them turning in wonderful performances. Kurt Russell leads the group as John Ruth, who at times seems to be channeling a nastier John Wayne. It's nice to see Tim Roth make a return to the Tarantino-verse, having not made an appearance since Pulp Fiction (unless of course you count the anthology film Four Rooms). Likewise, it's nice to see Jennifer Jason Leigh on the big screen again, playing the truly despicable Daisy Domergue. Samuel L. Jackson is once again in badass Samuel L Jackson mode and that is just fine with me. He gives another suitably electric performance in this film. The real surprise for me though was Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix. He gives a charming performance, playing up the mystery of his character perfectly. He claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock, but at the same time you're not sure if you can trust him or not. Goggins plays the part wonderfully.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to the music in the film. The score is composed by the legendary composer Ennio Morricone. He wrote over an hour of new music for the film. They also used three tracks that Morricone had written for John Carpenter's The Thing, but were never used in that film. They fit in perfectly in this film though, which makes sense as this film has some strong thematic similarities with that sci-fi horror classic. He also uses The White Stripes' "Apple Blossom" and Roy Orbison's "There Won't Be Many Coming Home" because it wouldn't be a Tarantino movie without some anachronistic flourishes. I don't know, but the sight of a Stagecoach racing down a country road to the strains of The White Stripes just works, even though it shouldn't.  

Now, I'm the first to admit that Tarantino's films are not for everyone. It fits comfortably among his other films with a larger than life sensibility and it is quite violent as well. But for those who have enjoyed his other films, as well as an appreciation of classic film styles. With a hearty mixture of themes and blended genres, and mounting tensions as well as a fantastic isolated location just makes for fantastic viewing. In the end, it's all about these eight characters in one location and the sparks that fly between them. It's a fantastic, thrilling and intense film that certainly blew me away.