I’m sure there are plenty of real-life biker gangs that have been a terrifying menace in whatever communities they rumble through, but I feel like most of my exposure to that culture has been sanitized & defanged to the point where I don’t see them as a threat. From Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones to Vanilla Ice in Cool as Ice, there’s a long history of retro biker gangs that look tough on the screen but never actually follow through on their threats. Likewise, most bikers I see in the streets these days appear to be bored men in midlife crisis, trying to muster up some Leather Daddy fashionability instead of just plain Dad Vibes. Apparently, that de-emphasized biker menace bothered notorious genre filmmaker Walter Hill as well, presumably after growing up in the Marlon Brando era of biker-with-a-heart-of-gold dramas as a teenager. Hill seemingly made an entire feature film just to make bikers feel genuinely dangerous again, terrorizing a 1980s audience with revamped black-leather bullies from his 1950s youth.
Streets of Fire is a 50s teen-delinquent throwback sleazed up with 80s music video neons. Self-described as “a rock & roll fable” set in “another time and another place,” it exists in a make-believe limbo that covers both decades at once – the same neon-noir aesthetic as Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind. It’s basically The Wild Ones sped up for MTV sensibilities, with music-video crosscutting and a constant, aggressive drumbeat keeping the audience’s blood pumping like mad while its rabid biker gangs raise Hell up & down the streets of the fictional city of “Richmond” (read: Chicago). Bikers get away with stripping innocent citizens nude in the street and dragging them across the asphalt trailing behind their roaring bikes as they smash every storefront window in their vicious path, but they cross a line when they kidnap a famous rock ‘n roll singer in the middle of her sold-out concert. The heist mission to rescue that singer from biker-gang territory nearly burns the entire city to the ground, and it’s legitimately terrifying in a way few—if any—1950s biker films were allowed to be.
The only thing that really slows Streets of Fire down is its dead-eyed lead, Michael Paré, which is bizarre since the rest of the cast is packed with exciting, charismatic people you always love to see. Willem Dafoe is a gorgeous sex goblin as the main biker villain, recalling his leather-clad brute performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Loveless. Likewise, Diane Lane’s performance as the kidnapped rock ‘n roll singer feels like an MTV-era update to her persona in The Fabulous Stains, right down to the red & black color story of her wardrobe. Rick Moranis is maybe the only main player who’s cast against type as the tough-guy music manager who hires a vigilante to rescue his missing talent, playing the part of a macho bully that’s usually reserved for men three times his size. Paré does not bring much to the table as the mercenary hero in contrast. He’s generically handsome, but he’s got no personality to speak of. Walter Hill directs every single character to deliver action hero one-liners in amphetamine-rattled noir speak, and Paré’s the only one who mumbles his way through them like a long-lost Stallone brother.
While Paré is a major liability as the narrative center of attention, Hill’s high-style visual theatrics more than compensate for his lack of screen presence. Flaming motorcycles, S&M butcher outfits, neon crosslighting, and a music video performance of the soft-rock hit “I Can Dream About You” all violently combine to make a singular genre picture – one that revitalizes a long-subdued subculture that’s rarely as tough as it looks. For the record, Cool as Ice is also a high-style delight; I just wouldn’t say that Vanilla Ice was exactly “scary” in it. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is a goddamn nightmare.
This … experience (I’m not quite sure it’s a “movie”) opens in an awkward flashback to a time four years ago that barely resembles our present reality, so I will, too. Back in November of 2017, I rode a bus with an exposed face to a movie theater that was located in the same strip mall as an honest-to-goodness travel agency, where I pushed a lever on a dispenser that provided me with a plastic straw that wasn’t even wrapped in paper, just piled into said dispenser with all of its brethren willy nilly by a teenage employee using their bare hand. And I used that straw to drink an ICEE that was as blue as the sky and as big as my femur. The film that I went to see that grey November Saturday was the theatrical release ofJustice League, which I found … sufficiently diverting. “Look!,” I typed with my naïve little fingers, “Up on the screen!” digits as yet unravaged by just how stupid, undignified, and dangerous life was about to become, in every single way it possibly could. “It’s big! It’s dumb! It’s loud!” I wrote, not really thinking myself clever but pressed to come up with anything better. “It’s Justice League!” Now, here we are, a pandemic, an insurrection, and three and a half years later, and the revelation is at hand, and I have to say, it troubles my spirit (which we’ll get into in a minute here), if not my sight, vexed to nightmare.
I’m speaking, of course, about Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
What a rough beast to come round at last, slouching towards HBO Max to be born! There’s no way that the modern reader doesn’t know what I’m referring to, but in case you are reading this some decades in the future, when the internet has collapsed in on itself and there’s nothing left to read but Cathy comics, the fabled Swampflix Tablets, and Chuck Klosterman’s Downtown Owl, I’ll explain. Once upon a time, there was a movie that wasn’t finished because of a tragedy in the director’s life. As a result, directorial duties were handed off from Zack Snyder (aka the film bro’s Michael Bay) to Joss Whedon (aka the thinking man’s Harvey Weinstein) so that the latter could hopefully bring to the DC film franchise some of the tangential Marvel prestige that the former’s previous films had failed to garner. Whedon churned out a mediocre-at-best live action cartoon that was cursed with the worst production problems since God decided to make Richard Stanley into the modern day Job, plagued by contract disputes about facial hair, beset by horrible jokes about the nature of brunch, and savaged by most critics. Immediately, the drowning vermin in the extended gutters began to demand “The Snyder Cut,” and Warner decided to just go ahead and do it, teaching all of the too-online Twitter incels the valuable lesson that you pester and pester and pester long enough (40 months, as it turns out), you’ll eventually wear down everyone enough to get what you want. I’m sure that won’t have any long term consequences that we’ll all regret forever!
As a result of the death of Superman (Henry Cavil) at the end ofBatman v. Superman, a mysterious cube on Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), is activated. This cube is one of three “mother boxes,” sentient computers that, in this version, are used in conjunction with one another to terraform planets into the same hellish landscape as Apokalips, the home of DC supervillain Darkseid (Ray Porter), an omnicidal monarch whose life’s work is to find the Anti-Life Equation, which can be used to subjugate and enslave by destroying all free will in the universe. Diana relates to Bruce “Batman, obviously” Wayne (Ben Affleck) that, in some prehistoric past, Darkseid had visited earth and attempted to unify the mother boxes, but that his attack was repelled by a group of Amazons and gods, Atlanteans (who had not yet migrated to beneath the waves), and humans, with a Green Lantern thrown in there for good measure. The mother boxes themselves were left behind when Darkseid’s forces retreated, and each group—man, Atlantean, and Amazon—were given one of these MacGuffins to guard and stand vigil over. Now, the boxes are awakening after countless centuries of dormancy, and the first has called to the villainous Steppenwolf to reunite it with its fellows in order to turn everything into magma. And it’s up to Bruce and Diana to unite the seven, or six rather, in order to combat him.
The first attempted recruit is Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the son of an Atlantean woman and a human man, with one foot in both worlds and at home in neither (I assume this is explained in Aquaman). He all but laughs in Bruce’s face and disappears into the sea. Elsewhere, Diana meets Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former Gotham City University football star who prior to the start of the story was in an accident that claimed his mother’s life and should have killed him as well. In a desperate move, his father Silas (Joe Morton), a STAR Labs scientist with access to the excavated mother box that was to be guarded by mankind, uses the alien technology to save Victor’s life, turning his son into a walking deus ex machina who also happens to be the emotional core of this narrative. Like Aquaman, he too also initially rejects Diana’s offer to join her and Bruce, since he’s too busy doing things that actually make the world a better place (like redistributing wealth, albeit very, very slowly). The only luck the duo have in soliciting assistance is when they meet Barry Allen, aka the Flash (Ezra Miller), a speedster whose superpower lets him move at such speeds that it sometimes affects the flow of time itself. Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is trying to find the third and final mother box in order to do his thing, and this plan includes abducting anyone who’s been near it, including Silas, which brings Cyborg into the fray. They track the abductees to one of the Snyder Cut’s multiple nondescript industrial locations and manage to free them, but even with an assist from Aquaman, they get their asses handed to them, so they decide to cut through this Gordian Knot by digging up Superman’s rotting corpse and bringing it back to life with the mother box, like you do.
Via technobabble and superheroic shenanigans, they manage to resurrect Superman, but it’s Pet Sematary rules so he’s not all there at first, at least until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and they fly away together, and the two of them reunite with MARTHA (Diane Lane) back at the now-repossessed Kent family farm for a bit while the other five supes fly off to Russia to attack Steppenwolf’s base. Superman eventually joins them, and there’s a lot of CGI action for a really long time, and then the credits roll. Or rather, they don’t, as this thing has more fakeout endings than Return of the King. We get a prison break, a harbor rendezvous, and a dream sequence/future vision that leads into a scene in which Bruce meets the Martian Manhunter (Harry Lennix), all for the price of admission, which I guess is just whatever you were already paying for HBO Max.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League is (infamously) presented in 4:3, which means that it’s in the same aspect ratio as the television you watched as a child (presuming you’re old enough to read and enjoy this website), which honestly did wonders for the release as a whole. Any time something was very, very dumb, my unconscious just said, “This isn’t cinema, it’s TV from the Baywatch generation,” and my conscious was like “pew pew lasers, zap zap zap.” The fact that it’s broken into segments that make it perfect for viewing in chunks while riding an exercise bike, which is the only way that I do anything now anyway since we’re all getting vaccinated and immunized and I will once more have to be perceived in public again, doesn’t hurt either. Although I hate to give the subset of internet weirdos who build their whole identity around the claims that Disney buys positive reviews and that the DCEU is some kind of grand artistic statement instead of an inconsistent corporate product any credit for being right, even if only by accident, this version of the narrative does things that Marvel would legitimately never do. For better or for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is not going to have a bunch of Scandinavian women ululating on a gravel beach because someone rented Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and although that’s not a metric of greatness, it’s moody and atmospheric in a way that I didn’t expect. So, yeah … this is good, actually?
Which is not to say that it’s good consistently. There are many, many scenes that take place solely in the realm of The Mind, and not in a way that’s beautiful or complex so much as a way that’s very … brown acid. Everything about the epilogue is pure hot steaming garbage, especially the much-vaunted reappearance of Jared Leto’s Joker. Maybe it’s not the best barometer, but I often use the rapidity of how quickly a TVTropes page grows as well as its editorial tone (or lack thereof) in combination with the Twitter discourse to gauge just how problematic a given fandom is, and I have to say, YIKES. In what is easily the narrative’s worst scene, Joker and the Bat have a super macho, aggro argument about the deaths of loved ones that prompts Affleck’s Batman to proffer a death threat that’s delivered with the same exact cringe as BVS’s infamous “Why’d you say that name?” or the out-of-context Dick Grayson line “Fuck Batman” from Teen Titans, but since the worst people on the internet have adopted kinning/LARPing the Joker, they’re eating this scene up like it’s cherries jubilee on the Fourth of July. It just goes to prove that giving these people this cut of Justice League is possibly the worst thing that we have done as a society. It’s like it’s the last week of school and a bedraggled fourth grade teacher has finally given up on trying to improve the morals, education, or enlightenment of a boy who doesn’t respect his female classmates’ bodily autonomy, the opinions of any individual other than himself, or why it’s wrong to torture small animals, and just gives him a candy bar to shut him up before we head into the long, dark summer slide of western civilization, turning and turning in the widening gyre.
So how to grade something like this? It’s unequivocally a better experience than the theatrical cut, which I gave a 3.5 star review (albeit with the Camp Stamp signifier). It also demands some kind of qualifier to any measure of its quality, however, as things fall apart upon inspection, and the centre cannot hold… your attention for very long, but to call this “camp” doesn’t seem right either, despite the weirdly performative nature of its machismo. But can I justify giving this a 3.5+ star review with no real warning to the potential viewer who uses Swampflix as a guide to quality? I’m flipping a coin and living with the decision.
One of the most promising debut features of the year so far has been playwright Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, which coldly (and comically!) examines ruthlessness & sociopathy among the wealthy. Watching the film, there was something about its studied emotional distance and trilling tribal drum soundtrack that reminded me of the 2002 novel Fierce People in a way I couldn’t shake. A distastefully fun read, Fierce People is a work of outright pop fiction in which a young son of a cultural anthropologist studies the wealthy people in his immediate social circle as if he were a National Geographic reporter researching a third world tribe. One of the most significant aspects of Thoroughbreds is its featured performance of the late Anton Yelchin, a surprise delight that made its connection to Fierce People even more apparent. In 2005, a baby-faced Yelchin starred in a feature film adaptation of Fierce People, a movie I’ve been putting off watching for years because of its . . . muted reputation. Directed by Griffin Dunne—a prestigious auteur who has been involved in such celebrated projects as Practical Magic, Movie 43, and the Rear Window-riffing romcom Addicted to Love—Fierce People is an ill-conceived adaptation of a deeply #problematic novel that could only get more glaringly awkward in its translation to the screen. If considered in direct comparison to Thoroughbreds, it can only be understood as the lesser work on both a narrative & technical level, lacking both the latter film’s attention to dialogue and its thrilling sense of visual craft. Still, much like with the novel, I found myself enjoying Fierce People despite myself, if not only for the strength of its before-they-were-stars cast. Besides Yelchin (and old-timers Donald Sutherland & Diane Lane), the film also features performances from Kristen Stewart, Chris Evans, and Paz de la Huerta. I find the novelty of that crew near impossible to resist.
With an adapted screenplay from the novel’s own author, Dirk Wittenborn, Fierce People largely retains its original story, with only a few details excised for brevity. Because his mother (Lane) is detoxing from a cocaine habit on a rich man (Sutherland)’s dime, Yelchin’s impossibly smug protagonist misses an opportunity to study the fictional Ishkanani tribe in South America for a summer with his estranged father. He instead pours all his frustrated anthropological energy into studying the rich people around him for the primal racists, rapists and murders that the they truly are beneath their mask of civilization. Caught between the worlds of the wealthy (Stewart, Evans) and their exploited staff (de la Huerta), Yelchin’s coming of age story is a dangerous game of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll in a violently inhospitable environment. Besides Dunne’s awkwardly cheesy visualizations of his psychedelic drug trips and pubescent sexual awakening, the movie stumbles in a couple major ways that are likely to be instant turnoffs for most audiences. They’re both problems inherent to adapting the source material in the first place: 1) Part of Yelchin’s internal transformation requires him to dress like a South American tribesman and become a savage warrior. Again, the Ishkanani are a fictional people, but still. 2) The story takes a violent left turn in its second act with a plot-derailing male on male rape, which completely shifts its tone from dark comedy to sexual assault whodunit. It’s a turn that’s not entirely earned either onscreen or on the page, if not only because it values mystery over trauma. Even the film’s marketing is unsure how to deal with it, addressing only the more humorous opening half with inappropriate taglines like “Every family tree has its nuts.” It’s possible that someone who’s masterfully adept at uneven tones could’ve navigated these two issues in an expert adaptation, but Dunne & Wittenborn were probably not team to do so. Fierce People remains just as politically awkward (yet oddly compelling) as its source material.
I can’t recommend Fierce People, the book or the movie, in good conscience without a litany of cautionary warnings about its attitudes towards colonization & sexual assault (the latter of which is at least taken seriously, if not thoughtfully). However, I do think the strength of its cast, which only gets more unbelievable every year, is enough of a draw to overcome some of that awkwardness. This is especially true in Yelchin’s case, considering the rarity of seeing him command a lead role and the film’s thematic overlap with Thoroughbreds, which might prove to be one of his most significant performances. If you’re looking to supplant your Thoroughbreds experience with some extratextual materials, Fierce People would not at all be a terrible place to start; the connections are there. I’d just prepare yourself for an occasional cringe before taking the plunge. It’s far from the most self-aware of modern narratives, even if its ultimate target is the 1%.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the Roger Corman production Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, which is a delightful watch for all kinds of gleefully unhinged, Looney Tunes-type touches. Its cartoon energy isn’t entirely what makes it memorable, though. There’s a misshapen, decidedly unprofessional quality to the few scenes in the film where The Ramones, playing themselves, are asked to deliver a few lines of seemingly manageable dialogue, but can’t appear to be human while the cameras are pointed at them. I find that non-compliance with traditional screen presence to be something beyond punk, a strange ramshackle de-evolution that’s part exploitation pic fascination and part real world inebriation. Produced & directed by music industry weirdo Lou Adler (who also had a hand in Rocky Horror and some Cheech & Chong projects), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains somehow sustains the slovenly rock n’ roller energy from those Ramones scenes for the length of an entire feature. Better yet, the movie marries that misshapen, Ramones-style presence to a decidedly feminist diatribe against the way mediocre men who are gatekeepers to both punk & pop culture at large, deliberately keeping young women from having a voice in the counterculture landscape. It’s a fascinating film in that way and I’m baffled it doesn’t have a larger cultural footprint because of it.
Unemployed, broke, and mourning the recent loss of a key family member, three teenage girls do the only thing young, working class nobodies can do in a small industrial town: channel their angst into a punk band. Going through the punk ritual of drastically changing their physical appearances and the names they go by, the three-piece musical act, The Stains of the film’s title, luck themselves into an opening slot on a touring gig with two bands packed with macho assholes: a has-been glam rock nostalgia act and an up-and-coming crew of British punks. Like a rough-around-the-edges version of The Runaways, The Stains find themselves to be incredibly popular almost immediately with young women across the country who are desperate for a voice of their own in the punk angst subculture. The problem is that this fame & notoriety hits them before they’re ready as a band and as people. Mocked & exploited by record industry execs, TV news anchors, and the men they initially supported on tour, The Stains watch as the genuine anger they funneled into their songs (especially “I’m a Waste of Time”) & personal sense of style (a sex-positive spin on new wave fashion) is commodified and destroyed as a flash-in-the-pan novelty before they are even afforded enough time to find themselves as a band. It’s a somewhat tragic story where the enemy to the group isn’t fame itself, but the opportunistic, misogynist assholes who keep their grip locked tight on the keys to the pop culture kingdom.
What’s most immediately striking about The Fabulous Stains is its punk authenticity, which is not an easy spirit to capture on film. The Stains, who only had a few practices before they risked taking their show on the road, sound genuinely unpracticed, like The Raincoats by way of The Shaggs. Their punk rock rivals are a lousy lot of Brits mostly composed of ex-members of The Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook) and The Clash (Paul Simonon), who wrote their own songs for the film. That kind of credibility extends into the shit hole dive bars the movie’s central tour crashes through like a slow-moving trainwreck, as it mirrors the exact small town-trolling American tour that broke up The Sex Pistols a few years before the film was made. What’s important about that authenticity is that it sets up a grounded, believable scenario where The Stains, mediocre talents at best, would be able to resonate with so many young women across the country. A strong D.I.Y. punk ethos means that everyone is afforded a voice & equal opportunity. A lack of traditional musical talent can be easily overcome by a sneering, passionate attitude, as long as you can knock over the gatekeeping cretins who try to block your path.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains suffered just as much misogynist motherfuckery in the real world as the titular band did in its fictional one. The film’s writer, Nancy Dowd, reported sexist mistreatment during the production at the hands of Adler, the crew, and others. That clash of feminist ideology being filtered through a machismo-driven film industry lead to an extended period of post-production & editing room studio notes tinkering where Paramount Pictures struggled to figure out what to do with a movie they fundamentally did not understood. That stasis at least afforded the movie an insane filmed-after-the-fact epilogue that attempts to capitalize on the in-the-mean-time invention of Music Video Television and somehow both enhances the film’s themes & rapidly ages the babyfaced Stains (including Diane Lane & Lauren Dern) into fully formed adults in the blink of an eye. It didn’t help the film’s financial chances, though, since it was ultimately a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot proposition.
No matter how poorly The Fabulous Stains‘s production & distribution was handled, it did eventually make it into the right hands when it found a second life airing on television (just like Citizen Kane!). Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill cite the film as a major inspiration for their formation, which makes total sense, given the way the film is reverent of female punks inspiring other women to join the scene (which was essentially Bikini Kill’s entire ethos) and the way feminist dialogue made its way though the bullshit sex politics of the film industry to include lines like, “These girls made themselves,” “It was an old man in a young girls’ world,” and “I’m perfect, but nobody in this shit hole gets me, because I don’t put out.” The Fabulous Stains is far from a perfect, pristinely intact work (for that version of the same story I highly recommend We Are the Best!), but a large part of its power & charm is in its imperfection. It’s an authentically punk, fiercely feminist work that’s compromised production oddly mirrors the fictional band it profiles in its ramshackle story of a subculture scene & media landscape that wanted nothing to do with them or their entire gender in the first place.