My weekly movie reviews. You can also read these on letterboxd.
Two Double Features focused on the work of directors Abel Ferrara and Paul Schrader
Blue Collar (1978)
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
It’s time to get serious about studying Paul Schrader’s work and it seems there’s no better place to start than his directorial debut. The filmmaker is clearly at the top of his game right now, with the combination of First Reformed and The Card Counter, but how did he get there and where did his directing journey begin?
Blue Collar is a striking debut. Visually plain compared to Schrader’s later work, it focuses instead on its characters. The behind the scenes stories about high tension between the leads is honestly hard to believe because their onscreen chemistry is so good. It’s another argument that having a good time while making a movie has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the finished film. Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel are in top form but it’s Richard Pryor who really shines. More than any other film he made, this one captures the raw energy that made his stand-up so great. The magnificent performer is allowed to let loose and be his irreverent self. His character’s journey is a powerful one and Pryor proves that he had the chops to be one of our top dramatic actors. Sadly, he never got the opportunity to do this kind of work again.
An unpredictable, though-provoking look at unions, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar is a must see for any movie lover.
Watched on Criterion Channel.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars
This is my second go-round with Abel Ferrara’s notorious film. It’s impossible to watch it without making a comparison to Werner Herzog’s “remake” with Cage. That film is funny, insightful, disturbing, gripping, touching, unpredictable, and ultimately profound. This one is tedious, repetitive, self-important, humorless, and ultimately dull. I like Keitel but I can think of a long list of films he’s better in, including the far superior exploration of Catholic guilt that Scorsese made years before. This is the perfect double feature with King of New York, his most overpraised films in a career that needs a critical reassessment.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
The flaw that makes Paul Schrader’s second feature fail for me is the casting of George C. Scott. This is yet another example of how badly a great actor can be used in a film.
Scott is never believable as the ultra-Christian father. Of course I can’t speak for every Christian but I spent the first nineteen years of my life deeply embedded in the evangelical world. I’ve met many fathers like the one Schrader has written about. I also understand Calvinism and participated in arguments against it that reading of the Bible many years ago. That being said, I don’t buy Scott’s reaction to his daughter’s descent into the world of sex workers. Yes, he cringes in the porno movie theater but where is the internal struggle over this life shaken change? I don’t even believe when he explains his doctrine to Season Hubley, who gives the best performance in the movie by the way. It’s like he’s reciting the rules of baseball not his core beliefs.
From beginning to end, Scott feels more like a cop or private detective than a christian father. He proceeds through the film with an unshakeable assurance. Even John Wayne’s Ethan in The Searchers struggled more with his quest, a relevant comparison since this is one of Schrader’s riffs on the Western classic. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to switch Scott and Peter Boyle or to cast someone else altogether who could give a nuanced, complex performance. The movie hinges on how this character is played and as it is, Schrader’s follow up to the excellent Blue Collar is a miss. It’s one I’d like to see him remake (or which I’d love to remake) because I think it could truly be done better.
Watched on Tubi.
Body Snatchers (1993)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
No adaptation of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers will ever come close to Don Siegel’s sci-fi masterpiece, though I’m sure even after three attempts some Hollywood studio or streaming service is out there concocting yet another version. However, Abel Ferrara’s adaptation deserves more credit than it gets and far surpasses the overrated 70s remake.
I admire the film for trying to do something very different with the source material, re-located the story to an army base and making the protagonist a teenage girl. Gabrielle Anwar brings intelligence to her role, which could have been easily mishandled. Her romantic counterpart, played by Billy Wirth, is another role that could have been another pretty boy but Wirth gives him a quiet, pensive quality. Even with these key performances, the film’s set up just isn’t as well-built as Siegel’s. Perhaps the movie should have taken another twenty minutes to explore the pod people’s infiltration of the base. As is, the development of the narrative feels rushed and the supporting characters, especially Whitaker and Ermey, are shallow as a result.
However, there are some truly terrifying moments in the last 45 minutes. Another thing I appreciate about this film is the method in which the pod’s make their replicas. It made my skin crawl when I first saw this movie in my teenage years and I was delighted that the effect has not diminished. When all hell breaks lose, I was on the edge of my seat. There are unfortunately some contrived things that happen in an otherwise thrilling third act but overall there’s a lot to appreciate and have fun with here.
Was Abel Ferrara the right director for this material? It seems like Larry Cohen, who co-authored the story, might have been the man for the job but we’ll never know. It’s an odd addition to Ferrara’s filmography but I prefer it to the two films he made right before it.
One last note on future adaptations: I would not be surprised if the next time we see a version of Finney’s story, it will be in series form. The one way to explore this tale in a fresh way would be to show how humans might try to survive long term in a world run by the pod people.
Watched on Amazon