Episode 37: Mean Streets (1973, Martin Scorsese) / Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991, Mark L. Lester)

This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast we grab our pieces and visit two urban jungles of two different ethnicities. Who runs their little ethnic enclave better, the Little Italians or the Little Japanese? If either film is to be believed, crime is a huge problem in both areas. The big difference is whether the local mob is home grown or imported directly from Big Tokyo. This also determines the tone of the movie, since one of the films directors carries some childhood sympathies for the people and lifestyle, while the other cast a world famous white guy and dropped him into smack dab into yellow peril.

Mean Streets is the film that made Martin Scorcese famous. The story involves the mafia, a subject which his films helped make famous almost as much as another Italian American gentleman, Francis Ford Coppola, with The Godfather that very same year. Unlike that famous crime saga, this film focuses on the low levels of mob employment and a young man struggling to justify his future career with his Catholic fear of eternity in Hell, played by Harvey Keitel. As if this weren’t enough to worry about, his best friend – Robert DeNiro, in a star making turn – is a loose cannon with a big mouth and debts all over town.

Scorcese never really grew as a filmmaker: he was great from the start. His interests didn’t have to grow either, he would continue to make films about crime, Catholicism and urban alienation with or without DeNiro in the coming decades and has only recently seemed to choose projects based on books he picked up at the library, like a random biography or cheesy horror novel. Mean Streets is at the epicenter of personal connection to the things which mattered most to him, filmed in the part of New York he grew up in and scored to the pop songs he grew up listening to. A real Italian slice of life with extra parmesan.

If the filmmakers behind Showdown in Little Tokyo had made Mean Streets, someone probably would’ve been killed with a pizza. That is to say, director Mark L. Lester of Commando fame did not bring with him any personal cultural understanding of the Japanese culture. The biggest overtures to Japanese culture are the casting of two non-Japanese Asian-Americans, Tia Carrere of Wayne’s World fame and Bruce Lee’s belated son Brandon Lee in his first American film.

The real star is not just a white guy but one of the whitest guys you know: Dolph Lundgren, out to clean up the mean streets of Little Tokyo with the superior understanding of Asian martial arts that only a Swedish guy can engineer. He and Lee trade some gay banter, crack skulls, and unlike a lot of buddy actions movies we’ve seen here on An Alan Smithee Podcast, director Mark Lester truly does not mess around when it comes to flattering one’s short attention span with outrageous violence. A big dumb fun dose of brain damage from 1991, the year that action movies died inside.




Episode 30: Slap Shot (1977, George Roy Hill) / Cruising (1980, William Friedkin)

This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast, we apparently continue our Queer Film Studies program with the most notorious and most quickly forgotten Hollywood movie ever made about gay men, and a not-very-gay movie which nonetheless contains jokes about homophobia and lesbians decades before it was fashionable.

The cult classic Slap Shot has essentially endured solely by word of mouth amongst Hockey fans since 1977. We’re now at the point where most people have at least heard of it, as evidenced by the recent straight-to-bargain-dvd-bin releases of Slap Shot 2: Breaking The Ice starring Stephen Baldwin, and Slap Shot 3: The Junior League starring a bunch of adorable urchins and Leslie Nielsen, getting in some last minute slumming before death. Both these follow ups feature the original film’s most indelibly iconic characters, the lovably dumb and merciless Hanson brothers, still doing their quasi-retarded shtick well into their 40s.

All comedy fans owe it to themselves to check this one out, besides the Hansons there’s the brilliant script (written by a chick, no less), the genial Paul Newman under direction from George Roy Hill of previous work like Butch Cassidy, the prerequisite various goony team members, and for Twin Peaks fans a stirring performance by young Sheriff Truman himself, Michael Ontkean. Oh, and the lesbianism.

Then, we delve into the seedy underbelly of New York gay bars circa 1979 for a serial killer thriller that no one asked for, no one watched, and few will ever defend. William Friedkin must have considered himself quite the progressive for setting what would otherwise be a competently directed potboiler in a subculture whose mainstream counterparts in male homosexual America were barely gaining acceptance on The Match Game and Hollywood Squares. There’s also a really cheap and stupid ending which completely contradicts the film’s mealy opening disclaimer:

This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole.

Besides protesting too much-eth, this warning actually tricks one into thinking William Friedkin had something to say about what the newly legal, pre-AIDS gay bar scene meant about the condition of homosexuality in our society. No, he seems to have simply thought gay bars to be the perfect setting for an undercover police thriller. This exploitative approach might have been forgivable had Friedkin embraced it, but the feigned compassion and stupid twist ending make Cruising probably the most off-handedly homophobic movie ever. Pacino has never looked more like Eric Bogosian.

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Episode 25: Blue Collar (1978, Paul Schrader/ The Hand (1981, Oliver Stone)

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This week on An Alan Smithee Podcast we roll up our sleeves and git-r-dun Paul Schrader style with Blue Collar, his directorial debut after becoming a household name writing Taxi Driver. The leads are one part household name, one part Hollywood name and one part b-actor on the verge of breakout. Richard Pryor was in his prime and does a dramatic turn while still being funny. Harvey Keitel was still riding high on the Martin Scorcese train but was about to disappear for ten years. Yaphet Kotto had a bunch of blaxploitation movie credit before Roots but it looks like he’ll always be remembered as the black guy in Alien. He’s in this too – and he’s awesome.


Schrader’s direction was probably never better after this, and his first time success is all the more impressive considering the accounts that his three leads hated each other’s guts. This is a very underappreciated movie, especially since Richard Pryor rapidly began his descent into lame movie mediocrity almost immediately after this unheralded serio-comic performance. Things kind of fall apart at the end but this odd mix of crime story, comedy and drama shows a ton of best effort from every talent involved.

To say The Hand is not the worst killer hand movie ever made is a backhanded compliment. You’ve got to hand it to Oliver Stone for having a career after this sophomore writing-directing effort (his debut was the even more forgotten Seizure.) Michael Caine is always handy for starring in crappy movies when he needs a new garage and gives Stone a performance just unpleasant enough to match the paranoid, misogynist and mean-spirited screenplay he wrote for him. Stone even gets hands-on and has himself killed in a cameo at one point. There’s more than a handful of things to talk about as we manhandle this rightfully neglected piece of shoddy handiwork.


Also, someone should have lent Stone a hand directing the “scary” scenes. They’re none too handsome.