The Cult Movie Club: Diner (1982)

I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.

Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982. MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.

It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.

Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.

Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).

Daly, Rourke, Stern, Bacon, Guttenberg and Reiser in ‘Diner’

Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’. In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.

The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’. One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.

And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.

Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.

He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters. He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).

‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters. Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s?

So, Barry – any chance of a sequel?

(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago…and Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. No comment…)

The Cult Movie Club: Yellow Submarine (1968)

No, ‘Yellow Submarine’ doesn’t really have anything to do with the ’80s (or does it? See below…), but this website wouldn’t exist without the Fabs. And whilst obviously not strictly a ‘cult’ movie, it does feel somewhat forgotten these days, showing only once on terrestrial TV during my lifetime and rarely seen in the cinema.

But watching it on the big screen last week during its short 50th anniversary re-release, it struck me as the ultimate psychedelic artefact, a feast of day-glo imagery, pop psychology, Scouse kidology and mind-blowing music. The tale of the evil Blue Meanies’ battle against John, Paul, George and Ringo was a total trip and has also aged well – my nieces loved it.

Most importantly, the music sounded fantastic: it was a treat to hear ‘It’s All Too Much’, ‘All Together Now’, ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Only A Northern Song’ loud and proud. The other Beatles may not have particularly cared for George’s former and latter but they were revealed as true psych classics, with kickin’ bass and drums and disturbing/babbling string and horn cut-ups.

Ian MacDonald sums up ‘It’s All Too Much’ brilliantly in his classic book ‘Revolution In The Head’: ‘Lyrically very much the locus classicus of English psychedelia… The revolutionary spirit then abroad in America and Europe was never reciprocated in comfortable and sceptical Albion, where tradition, nature and the child’s-eye-view were the things which sprang most readily to the LSD-heightended Anglo-Saxon mind.’

I’m not a big cartoon fan but even I can tell that the animation in ‘Yellow Submarine’ is pretty special, a big influence on Monty Python, XTC (see the cover of Oranges And Lemons) and a myriad of ’80s video directors. The ‘Eleanor Rigby’ section is moving, unique, memorable. And then there’s the more-than-decent script: playwright Lee Minoff and screenwriter Erich Segal, later to hit big with ‘Love Story’, probably supply the spiritual oomph and ‘Odyssey’-like plot, while poet Roger McGough presumably added the authentic Scouse.

Of course, some object to the representation of the Fabs in ‘Yellow Submarine’. As Pauline Kael pointed out in her original New Yorker review, they were no longer rock stars but non-threatening family favourites, offering up an already nostalgic vision of ‘love’. Accordingly, the film was a reasonable hit in the UK but much bigger one in the States, released in the year of the Tet Offensive and deaths of Martin Luther King Jr./Robert Kennedy. Escapism was needed.

And maybe still is. But do see ‘Yellow Submarine’ on the big screen if you can. And if you’re like me, you may even shed a quiet, nostalgic tear during ‘When I’m 64’.

Wanna See Something Really Scary? Two Takes On ‘The Twilight Zone’

‘Wanna see something really scary?’ Day Aykroyd’s ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ catchphrase was an open invitation to me back in 1983.

I had just seen John Landis’s ‘Thriller’ video, George Romero’s ‘Creepshow’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and was rapidly becoming a ‘confirmed ghost story and horror film addict’, as Jack calls Wendy in ‘The Shining’.

Although ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ was briefly a big VHS hit in my house, these days it looks like a bit of a misfire (decent Joe Dante and George Miller sections, less-than-decent Spielberg and Landis). The Miller story was of course a remake of the superb Richard Matheson-penned ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ which starred William Shatner as the terrified passenger driven insane by the possibility that a gremlin is sabotaging his aircraft.

But I mainly loved the flavour of the 1983 movie’s Landis-directed-and-scripted opening and closing tags. I can still randomly remember chunks of dialogue, especially Albert Brooks’ little ad-libbed songs (‘Look at those two apes/This must be where they live’ etc…).

Then my recent Cassette Revisitation Program brought round The Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Twilight Zone’, recorded a couple of years before the movie was released. Jay Graydon and Alan Paul adapt the original source music (either composed by Bernard Herrmann or Marius Constant, depending on which websites you trust…) with aplomb and, though the track comes a bit too close to disco for my liking, I was really knocked out by Janis Siegel’s lead vocal; her phrasing and enunciation are really something.

And what a band: Graydon on guitar and production, Jai Winding on keys and Toto in the engine room. Graydon’s stunning harmonized solo should possibly have been in my ‘wackiest guitar solos of the 1980s’ list and Winding lays down some excellent Fagen-esque keys. I like the lyric too: ‘Unpretentious girl from Memphis/Saw the future through her third eye…’ Throw in a spot-on impression of Rod Serling (or is it actually Rod?) and you’ve got a nice little tribute song. Released as a single in June 1980, it made #25 in the UK and #30 in the US.

But anyway, where were we? Back to the movie. ‘Happy’ Halloween, heh-heh-heh…

Magic Mickey: ‘Angel Heart’ 30 Years On

angel_heartIn 1987, Mickey Rourke was fast becoming one of the most controversial movie stars of the era, the go-to guy for potentially commercial but decidedly ‘off-colour’ material.

Even David Bowie rated Rourke as one of the coolest people on the planet in ’87 – to my knowledge, only Mickey, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and Al B Sure! ever shared ‘lead vocals’ on a Bowie solo album (though their collaboration was less than essential…).

‘Angel Heart’ turns 30 this week. I’ve been a Mickey fan since randomly renting the video circa 1988. If, as Marlon Brando attested, acting (or at least good acting) is essentially ‘behaviour’, Rourke delivers one of the great modern screen performances in the film.

He mumbles lines, adds strange emphases (‘Yeah, I could be free‘) and quirky ad-libs, smirks inappropriately and generally shambles around in his filthy linen suit; Pauline Kael memorably wrote that ‘he has enough dirt on him to sprout mushrooms’. But he also deals with the action sequences with aplomb, looking like he could take care of himself in a bar fight.

Most importantly, Rourke tempers the increasingly hokey supernatural elements of the film with a believable, sympathetic, relatively down-at-heel protagonist: ‘Harry Angel seems to be a regular knockaround guy in Brooklyn. He likes the simple life, going for a beer, getting laid whenever he can. He minds his own business. He just gets by. He works, reads the comics, he takes a walk,’ Rourke told his biographer Christopher Heard.

William Hjortsberg’s screenplay for ‘Angel Heart’, based on his New York-set novel ‘Falling Angel’ (described by Stephen King ‘as if Raymond Chandler had written “The Exorcist”’), had been hanging around Hollywood for a while. First it looked like Robert Redford would produce and star.

Then ‘Midnight Express’/’Fame’ director Alan Parker came onboard, rewrote the script (with the questionable decision to relocate most of the action to New Orleans) and offered the lead role to naysayers Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the latter taking the role of Louis Cyphre (geddit?) instead.

Enter Mickey. Parker made it clear to Rourke that he was nowhere near his first choice, but was interested in what he could bring to the role. Rourke was disillusioned with acting in general and Hollywood in particular but desperately needed the part: ‘I was about to lose my big-assed house in California and needed a big paycheck fast…’ Parker warned Rourke that he wouldn’t put up with any funny business, also apparently giving him many a dressing-down on set.

But how does ‘Angel Heart’ stack up these days? It’s still incredibly watchable, salvaged by the Rourke/De Niro scenes and Mickey’s eccentric ‘behaviour’. Bonet is a refreshingly natural presence and De Niro hams it up semi-convincingly. Trevor Jones’ original soundtrack (recorded at the aptly-named Angel Studios in Islington, North London) still holds the attention alongside some great crooner and blues tunes.

But Parker searches in vain for his inner Nicolas Roeg (or Ken Russell?), showing his background in advertising with a succession of beautiful, if clichéd, images of ‘evil’ (a glistening, freshly-extracted human heart, ceiling fans, lift shafts, writhing bodies, blood-stained walls), memorable crane shots and disorientating flashbacks, but it all feels way too slick.

Kael again: ‘There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.’ There’s also a lack of memorable secondary characters – Charlotte Rampling and Brownie McGhee seem miscast and barely register.

‘Angel Heart’ just about broke even at the box office but has enjoyed a healthy cult following since. My brother tells me that it most definitely worked on the big screen, delivering a real sense of impending doom. I don’t doubt it.