Assault on Precinct 13,
and six more movies

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

This is a John Carpenter movie, so before hitting 'play', I'm gonna get some John Carpenter gripes off my chest. He writes, directs, and scores his movies, and he's a good director; you don't need me to tell you that. But he's overrated. He's a good writer, but every Carpenter movie I've seen could've used a rewrite or a co-writer to clean up clunky dialogue and plot points that don't make sense. As for his music, I guess he's DIY to save the cost of hiring someone who can write music, but he's not very good at it — it's always a few bars of simple mood music, repeated all through the movie.

… OK, now I've seen Assault on Precinct 13.

I was expecting to enjoy it, but find enough examples of Carpenter's lackadaisical standards to flesh out my opening complaints with some evidence, but — nope. It's excellent. It's the best movie Carpenter ever made.

A street gang has broken-and-entered an abandoned building; cops corner them, and shoot them all dead; cut to a newscast reporting that "Six youth gang members were killed in a shootout with police." That's really not what happened, and the next scene shows black, white, Asian, and Hispanic gang leaders forging a blood pact to have their vengeance. Gotta love racial unity.

Thus, there's an understandable motivation for what's coming. What's coming is, the gangsters are going to cut the power and phones, and lay siege to a police station that's being closed down. Most of the station's staff and equipment have already been relocated, so it should be an easy target.

As for my Carpenter complaints from before seeing the movie, as always his music is minimal and repetitious, and sounds like he gave it an easy afternoon's effort. Just this once, though, he's written a script that's close to airtight, and directed it pretnear flawlessly. This was an early Carpenter movie, and I missed it when it first came out, but now I finally see why some people have always insisted he's a genius.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Billy Jack (1971)

"When policemen break the law, then there isn't any law."

Billy Jack is half-native half-white, a Vietnam war hero who turned against the war and returned to the reservation. His Indian territory abuts an ordinary town full of ordinary assholes, and lots of them hate natives, or anybody else who isn't white. Billy Jack tries to control his violent temper toward those rednecks. He tries, he really tries.

This is an independently-made movie, and that's obvious. It has none of the slick, smooth feel of a studio movie, and none of an ordinary movie's predictability, where you've seen the same story in fifty other movies and it's all paint-by-number so you know what's going to happen before it happens. That's not Billy Jack.

There's a long scene at a town council meeting, for example, where a room full of characters are angrily yelling at each other. If a studio made the movie, that scene would be carefully choreographed and edited so even while giving you the 'feel' of an angry crowd, every word of dialogue would be crisp and clear, and every face photographed perfectly. In Billy Jack, that scene is chaotic, maybe filmed without a script, with shouts and insults coming from every direction, some of the words indecipherable, sometimes you're not sure who spoke — it's more like being at a town council meeting that's out of control, than watching a movie. Which is less cinematic, but far more convincing.

From its reputation, I thought Billy Jack was going to be an action movie, and there are some fights, but they're quick, staged as punch-cut-punch, and I doubt there's even two minutes of fisticuffs in the movie's running time. There are more gunfights than fistfights, but not lots of either, so it's not really an action movie. That's not a criticism, just a statement of fact.

The Neverending
Film Festival

There's an 1960s-style "experimental school," where kids are allowed to make their own decisions, create their own art, and discover their own selves. How they snuck a camera in there I do not know, but those scenes were filmed on location in my memories, not of school, but of some "experimental" day and weekend sessions that were supposed to straighten me out and didn't.

The tone of Billy Jack is all over the place. There's an extended and very funny bit about a staged robbery, where a confused cop eventually plays along. There are folk songs, sung slightly off-key. There's a ghastly rape. There are intellectual arguments about pacifism and revenge.

There are lots of real natives in the movie, mostly in the background, but they're treated with respect (by the movie, certainly not by the townsfolk). That said, leading actor Tom Laughlin looks like a white guy to me, and I don't find any evidence that he was of mixed race like his character is supposed to be.

Google tells me that Laughlin was married to Delores Taylor, his leading lady from Billy Jack, for almost 60 years until their deaths, and these seems to have been a lot of 'them' in their characters — they ran a Montessori preschool together, and they were lefty activists.

So Billy Jack is amateur and sloppy, but it's also a smart, fairly fair, very compelling look at the way things were in the late 1960s and early '70s — young people rebelling like they never had in previous generations (and never have since) while the rest of society looked on, bewildered, and responded stupidly when they responded at all. A few people who gave a damn made a very good movie about it.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967)

"We figured if it was a ghost, it must be friendly if it plays a guitar."

Here's a silly collection of country music and good old boys, with Ferlin Husky, Merle Haggard, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and of course, Lon Chaney Jr, because it's pretending to be a horror movie. No horrors here. Also no laughs. It's very quaint and not too bright, with some songs and bad acting on a road trip to Tennessee, and then the climax is 15 minutes of singing and strumming at the Nashville Jamboree.

Verdict: NO, but I suppose it might be of interest if you like old-style country music.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

This one's about a folk singer of minimal renown, with an amusing subplot about a cat the singer has unintentionally adopted. Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, John Goodman, and F Murray Abraham are in the cast, all excellent. It's written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen, and I've been a fan since Blood Simple, but this is not among their best. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is the name of the first solo album by Llewyn Davis, the aforementioned not-great singer. A movie about a so-so fictional singer is an interesting idea, but once it's established that he's of limited talent, maybe he shouldn't sing so much? Llewyn sings a lot in this movie, and every time he does, you're safe to fast-forward.

Actors playing other fictional folk singers sing a few songs, too — serious, passionate cover versions of "Five Hundred Miles" and "The Last Thing on My Mind." These are very familiar songs and they're performed quite well, but not in the background — they're front and center, like you're watching American Idol. I frickin' hate American Idol, and I want to watch a movie, not covers of classic tunes.

There's a bigger problem. Davis is revealed (several times) to be a kind of schmuck — full of himself, and unconcerned about anyone else, even the cat when it comes down to it. If you're asking me to give a damn about a so-so singer who's a schmuck, he'd need to be portrayed by a particularly winning actor, and he's not.

Oscar Isaac delivers his lines and hits his marks and there's nothing wrong with his performance, but he reminds of Aidan Quinn, star of several movies in the 1990s. Like Quinn, whatever elusive knack makes an actor into a movie star, someone you want to watch on the screen, Isaac ain't got it.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Intruder (1989)

Ever since John Carpenter made Halloween, most horror movies have been slasher movies. Strangle, stab, mangle, yawn. Slasher-movie monsters never use an AK-47, but the body count is always right up there with Buffalo or Uvalde or Highland Park or tomorrow's slaughter.

It must've happened, but at the moment I can't even think of any gun-less mass murders, ever. Yet we have hundreds and hundreds of movies about gun-less mass murders. And here's another. 

What annoys me is that Intruder starts better than most entries in this bloody boring genre. It's on the edge of interesting, occasionally funny, getting tense, and why? Because the bad guy doesn't have steak-knife fingernails or wear a hockey mask. It's not necessary. He's a monster all of us know — another loser dude, harassing his ex-girlfriend at the check-out counter in a grocery store. He has a dick and thinks it makes him a man. America has millions of dicks just like him, and that's horrifying. I was hoping the movie would be about that very realistic, very scary monster, but —

No. The slasher clichés begin right on schedule. The killer knows exactly where to hide. He can't be seriously injured. The shadows protect him, and he's above the laws of physics. Every character is doomed, except the prettiest girl. Strangle, stab, mangle, yawn. The killer has ingenious ways to one-by-one murder everyone in the store, using knives mostly, but also office equipment, the compacting machine, meat hooks in the butcher's department… When the movie ominously shows us the deli meat-slicer, I'd had enough. 

An ordinary loser like the guy at the start of this movie, a man who could testosterone-malfunction at any moment and kill someone, is infinitely more frightening than a supervillain who kills someone every three minutes, dropping one guy's chopped-off hand in the lobster tank, wrapping another like it's Atlantic cod, cutting one of his victims in half and hanging his legs in the meat locker, etc. Like most slasher movies, Intruder is far more effective before the knives come out.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Passenger (1975)

Written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jack Nicholson stars? I didn't know they'd ever worked together, and the world would be a better place if they hadn't.

Nicholson is in Africa, why is unclear, but after twenty minutes or so it's revealed that he's a reporter. Then he meets another man who soon dies — maybe Nicholson killed him, or maybe his death was just a coincidence. The corpse is another white guy, about Nicholson's height, weight, and age, and there's some resemblance, so Nicholson assumes his identity and runs to Yugoslavia. Why? It's unclear.

Now Nicholson is studying gun diagrams. People are watching him as he buys the airfare to Yugoslavia, but nothing happens. Jeez, this is dull and slow. It has artsy cinematography, long stretches with minimal dialogue, there's never any music, scenes are intentionally vague, and also, I was promised Maria Schneider but she's been on-screen for maybe ten seconds, sitting on a park bench, and she said nothing.

We're about halfway into the movie, but for me it's over. I'd never heard of The Passenger because it sucks.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Zaat (1972)

Something about a fish monster in love with a pretty woman.

This movie does not follow the regular recipe for low-budget horrors of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. It's built on laughably overwrought narration voiced by a scientist who's trying to be a fish. Some of the acting is quite amateur, and there's a racial slur that comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. The marine photography is gorgeous, though, the sci-fi sets are colorful with plenty of blinking lights, and the walking fish-thing looks convincingly monstrous, at least by the accepted standards of rubber-suited movie monsters. I didn't completely hate Zaat.

"This creature fought with more than arms and legs. I'm convinced it has a brain at work."

After watching it, I couldn't decide whether the movie drowns a mile off-shore, or barely succeeds as some sort of half-ass miracle of old-time cheap filmmaking, so — I watched it a second time. Maybe that's a recommendation in itself.

On instant replay, the story came closer to making sense, the nutty narration at the start suddenly seems pertinent, and the low-key blow-your-mind ending works. I've decided there's something fishy going on here, in a good way.

Verdict: YES, if you're open to something odd, and if you're patient.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  


  1. You imply that you had never seen Assault on Precinct 13 before. I am 99% certain that you reviewed it in Pathetic Life, or at least told me about it. I never have seen it for one reason - I ordered it from our distributor when I worked at Video Wave in SF, and the tape was fucking blank, and they ran out and it went out of print or something, so it couldn't be replaced.


    1. Hope you at least got the store's money back. Sounds like a rat bastard runaround there.

      Usually when I forget seeing a movie I'll remember it as the movie goes along, but I sure don't remember seeing AOP13.

    2. Honestly, I'm as Swiss-cheese-brained as you, I may be wrong. And I have no idea if I bothered to get my money back, I think it was like a $6.00 tape at wholesale price, a movie that was 25 years old even then when I bought it in about 2001-2002.

    3. Well, it's worth seeing now. Torrent it free without guilt, since you've already paid...

  2. Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on Dave Von Ronk, who in real life was far more amusing and never catatonic. I liked the film but more as a tone piece than anything historical. So, it's not a movie I'd recommend to anyone who doesn't know the real deal about that GV folk scene, since the film gets it as wrong as Oliver Stone did the Doors. But admittedly with less pain. -- LArden

    1. Well, heck. Color me surprised. Didn't know it was "based on a true story." Even the part about the cat?

    2. Dave Van Ronk’s bio/autobio “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” is a must-read for anybody interested in the GV of the 50s and 60s. Dylan slept on Van Ronk’s couch his first night in NYC and ended up stealing DVR’s arrangement of House of the Rising Sun for his first album. But DVR saw genius in the 19-year-old and made sure Dylan had a place to sleep until Suze Rotolo took him in.

      Van Ronk remained a key character in the Village music scene until his early death in 2002.


    3. The comment above is right on key. I don’t know what the writers/producers were trying to do but they could have done worse than starting from the book noted above.

    4. As long as I’m thumbing music I just finished Searching for the Sound by Phil Lesh. If you’re curious about The Dead this a fine book by “the boring one” who isn’t boring at all.


    5. Now I'm reading a bit about Dave Van Ronk. It's like the universe itself, all the things I don't know and have never even heard of...

    6. Now connect Van Ronk to the Peace Eye Book Store in the Village and you have the Ed Sanders connection to the working class folk music of Van Ronk and Pete Seeger.

      More later when I can type.


    7. Your reading assignments are always more fun than anything they told us to read in high school...

      Peace Eye Bookstore

      The New York Police Department raided Ed Sanders’s Peace Eye Bookstore early in the morning on January 1, 1966, for allegedly distributing obscene materials. Ironically, Sanders had been selling Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts via the United States Postal Service since 1962 without being hassled, despite regularly receiving mail addressed to “Ed Sanders, Fuck You, Stuyvesant Station, New York” or “Fuck You, Peace Eye.”...

      Still reading...

    8. I was well blessed with a couple of subversive teachers in high school. They led me to the dark side and I saw the light. Just a glimpse. But it’s there, waiting quietly.


    9. Ah, I envy that.

      I *may* have had two subversive-ish teachers, but they both kept it so down-low I hardly even knew why I liked them. I think they feared being fired, so they kept quiet.

      One had a tendency to ask make-ya-think questions, and I only connected the dots when I saw him driving to work in a hippiemobile. The other asked the same kind of questions, but only after class...

      No wonder I dropped out. School seemed so irrelevant to me, except their classes, and two classes out of four years ain't much.

    10. One of the teachers (math) died about six months ago, well into his 80s 2000 miles from the only school at which he taught. In the remembrance section of the newspaper —online edition — that announced his death there were dozens of comments from former students who found his death notice across the miles and remembered him fondly.

    11. Must've been a heck of a good teacher. There are some. There'd probably be more if they depoliticized the school boards and paid teachers far better and then got administrators out of the way and let the teachers teach.

    12. Most teachers in blue states are well paid and get summers off. Most would do their jobs better without shook boards and centralized planning.

      Guy next door makes 90k (grade school) and is rebuilding his deck this summer.

    13. I immediately wonder if he's any good as a teacher. Had lots who weren't, so I do have a prejudice.

      If he's good, though, ain't nothing unreasonable about that wage.

  3. We spent an entire 50 minute class session learning about poet Wallace Stevens when we were supposed to be studying differential equations. I still read Mr Stevens. Carl Moore improved the quality of my life by teaching stuff that revealed both truth and beauty.


    1. You remember Mr Moore, and just passed him along. That's the immortality some few have — they're remembered, and become an inspiration after they're gone. Hope you'll be remembered by a few people, the way you remember Mr Moore. Doubt I will be.

      The Doctor said it: "Poetry, physics — it's the same thing." That was one of his better lectures.


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