The Best Movie Critic + watching hour

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Streets of Fire

Last night was Streets of Fire at the Watching Hour. I’ll tell you what, Watching Hour host and curator Keith Garcia sure is an intimidating movie buff. He’s the kind of guy who makes a movie freak like me feel like an amateur. Hearing him wax on about co-writer Larry Gross and star Michael Paré, two figures I had been blissfully ignorant of before last night, really drove the point home. Sometimes I come close to feeling like I’m running out of movies to see, and that I’m pretty much familiar with all the regular movie personalities. That there isn’t a single Watching Hour movie in the upcoming month that I’ve seen before proves how wrong that mentality is. I don’t think I will ever run out of fresh movies to watch, and though occasionally I might feel that I’ve run out of ‘classics,’ or that I’m slogging through the dregs of movie history, there will always be a diamond in the rough to snap me out of it and remember there’s more greatness out there to be found.

Was Streets of Fire that diamond? Not exactly, but it wasn’t entirely unrefined coal either. I think I can best break my feelings about it in to a couple topical headings:

Visual technique:

The good: The cinematography by Andrew Laszlo is surprisingly deft. From the trailers, I expected the look of the movie to be more ‘accidentally 80s,’ dated in the worst but kitschiest way. What I saw instead was a very fresh, very cool, almost Dan Flavin-esque neon rainbow kaleidoscope. Each scene has its own visual character and intrigue. The night scenes are particularly of note, with no ‘natural’ lighting, but everything cast in garish, ‘ultra-modern’ florescence. For long stretch in the middle of the movie (when Diane Lane’s character is rescued from the biker bar), the screen is almost entirely blue, with only the occasional primary red or yellow to cut through the monochrome. I almost felt like I was watching a Dario Argento movie. Though perhaps a bit overused, the many shots of neon lights abstracted in dirty puddles were beautiful.

The bad: I have a big pet peeve about movies without a sense of geography. I hate it when I can’t figure out where a character is moving from and to in their setting. Not knowing where characters are in relation to a physical space and place rubbed be the wrong way all though Streets of Fire. I know comparing Streets of Fire to, say, Lawrence of Arabia is like comparing apples to fighter jets, but Arabia does a great job of exactly what I’m talking about. Literally, the action in that movie moves to the right (almost like a side-scrolling video game) except when they are returning to Cairo and move to the left, creating a subconscious understanding of where characters are in relation to their goals. Now I wasn’t expecting Lawrence of Arabia, but I just want a clear idea of what these people are doing. It didn’t help that the action scenes were cut so jumpy that I couldn’t ever really get a grasp on what was going on. That style may be in vogue right now, but it doesn’t work for Streets of Fire.

Cast:

The good: Willem Dafoe as Raven, the leader of the ‘Bombers,’ the biker gang that kidnaps Diane Lane so he can have sex with her. I may have been blinded by his wondrous vinyl overalls, but young Dafoe’s special brand of smarmy bizarroness really worked in this role. Though the final showdown between Dafoe and Paré suffers from the confused editing I mentioned before, Dafoe shines in this scene. His lip quiver is epic.

The bad: Well, not quite bad, but not spectacular either. Michael Paré’s Tom Cody comes off as a poor facsimile of John Wayne. This might actually be a combination of acting and story, but Paré just can’t seem to figure out which John Wayne to be. Is he the cool, calm, collected loner John Wayne from The Searchers and Stagecoach? If so, he suffers from too many friends and sidekicks. He cares too much. Or is he the gregarious and friendly John Wayne from Rio Bravo? If so, he cares too little, and is too much the asshole.

Music:

The good: Everything Diane Lane’s Ellen Aim sings is gold. Jim Steinman works. If he could have only written the entire score…

The bad: Ry Cooder. I really don’t care for this guy at all, and his contributions to the soundtrack were subpar even by his standards. Don’t get me wrong, I knew what I was getting into. I enjoy plenty of “rock movie” scores, this one just didn’t do it for me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled lately by finding some obscur-o rock movie score gems from the likes of Paul Williams and Rick Wakeman. Ry Cooder can’t hold a candle to those two.

For about half the movie Streets of Fire curiously seems on the cusp of drifting into a sort of queer cinema. When Amy Madigan’s McCoy infiltrates the Bombers’ bar, I could have sworn the dancer/stripper writhing of the countertops was a fella until she took off her shirt. It struck me at that moment that there had been a phenomenal amount of ‘beauty shots’ of Tom Cody looking intense in the movie, and that all of his female friends are either little sisters or lesbian ‘buds.’ On top of that Willem Dafoe’s vinyl and leather gang seems more poised to take over an S&M club than start any real trouble. This got me really excited for a minute. However, the revelation that the stripper is actually female marks a turning point in the movie. Diane Lane reappears as a love interest for Cody, and the movie is on the ‘straight and narrow’ after that. Too bad.

Of course, the real reason everyone should see this movie is that you can’t see every movie Bill Paxton has ever been in without seeing Streets of Fire. And you really should see every movie Bill Paxton has ever been in. Though this early cameo as a bartender is not quite the level of genius he achieves in, say, Terminator or Commando, his fake gap teeth (achieved by blackening out his two front teeth, which are still conspicuously present) must be seen to be believed. The pompadour ain’t bad either.

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