Suburbia, and six more movies



Today on Siskel & Ebert & Doug at the Movies: a sci-fi conspiracy theory, a scatterbrained werewolf flick, love and anarchy in London, a half-clever short subject, sci-fi that just sits there, and two movies with the same title, one of which is brilliant and the other… isn't.

• Capricorn One (1977)
• Demon Cop (1990)
• The Girl Chewing Gum (1966)
• Moon 44 (1990)
• Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)
• Suburbia (1983)
• SubUrbia (1996)

I'm saying yes to Capricorn One, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, and Suburbia from 1983.

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Capricorn One (1977)

Astronauts James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and OJ Simpson are going to be the first men to land on Mars. They're secured in the command pod, countdown is continuing, all systems go, when a serious man in a serious suit opens the capsule door. "Please follow me," he says. "There's no time to explain. Please follow me!" 

That's a crucial moment. If any of them had said, "Fuck off, I'm going to Mars," then none of what happens could've happened.

We're humans, though, with a natural tendency to do what we're told, so the astronauts unbuckle themselves, climb out of the cockpit, and follow the man to a waiting Learjet. They're flown horizontally a long ways away, as the rocket to Mars launches vertically without them, and without incident.

When the jet lands, the astronauts are locked in a room, where eventually a senior NASA guy comes in, and explains that there's a slight flaw in the ship's life support system. It can't support life, but they tested it too late to be fixed, so here's the new plan, guys. Instead of landing and walking around on Mars, you're going to 'land' and walk around on a Mars set. It'll look great on TV. And if you say no, your your wives and kids are all flying home together from the launch, and something could go wrong…

This silly story is peppered with a few characters who have a sense of humor, which helps. Waterston and Elliot Gould, as the only reporter who even suspects anything's up, both crack plenty of jokes, some funny, some dumb. Gould has a running argument with his boss, where they mostly throw quotes from classic movies at each other.

Written and directed by Peter Hyams, and made without the cooperation of NASA, this features Hal Holbrook, Karen Black, Telly Savales, and Brenda Vaccaro. Music by Jerry Goldsmith, who never achieved the fame of John Williams, but should've.

It's a B-movie, but it's a grand time, and toward the end there's one of the best helicopter/biplane chase sequences in the history of film. 

Verdict: YES.

Part of me wants to apologize for liking this movie so much. When it came out, conspiracy nuts were widely considered kooks, and Capricorn One felt like a knowing wink. Sure, this is crazy, but — what if?

Now, of course, conspiracy kooks comprise about half the population, and in today's election the political party that argues against reality will take control of the US Congress. And that sucks, but it doesn't make this little wingnut movie any less enjoyable.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Demon Cop (1990)

With a title like Demon Cop, it's almost impossible to be disappointed, but cripes this is bad. The dialogue, lighting, sound, music, direction, script, and editing all seem to be the work of an egg beater. Every scene introduces a new clue, threat, or plot twist, which quickly becomes incomprehensible. At about the midway point, the story so far is summarized by an Interpol cop with a fake German accent, delivering a minute and a half of hooey:

"You are faced with a demon that is transmitted by blood, a 500-year-old spirit of retribution. Whoever is infected will seek vengeance from whomever is responsible for personal injustice. The demon metamorphizes in relation to the progressive cycle of the moon. He has a degree of sickness on the quarter moon, the illness is elevated by the half moon, it is unbearable by the third quarter moon, by the time of the full moon, the shape-changer, the demon, assumes full form, and then executes its vengeance in a horrible, brutal way.

"Now, I must make this perfectly clear. You cannot destroy the demon, but you can stop the individual embroiled with it. First, take this into consideration. Individuals infected with this demon do not know who they are. They have been deceived to believe that some other element is responsible for their severe state of illness. They possess regenerative powers. If they are wounded in places that would otherwise prove fatal, the woulds will heal. Even in human form, if they are fatally wounded they will continue to function, although that does not mean that they feel no pain.

"You have weaponry and special ammunition in your possession that I possessed. It will completely destroy the heart of the individual infected with this demon. Next to blood, it's the secondary sustaining life force. The demon can only function in a living physical body or it cannot operate. To substantiate how the weapon was put to use, examine the evidence on the body of John Doe, lying in your morgue..."

Well, that certainly clarifies things, but again, that's only the story by the middle of the movie. A hundred more twists are yet to come, and where they're going, only the egg beater knows.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Girl Chewing Gum (1966)

On a busy street in London, director John Smith 'directs' footage of people crossing the street and traffic passing by. It's amusing, because Smith's English accent sells it, but it's also annoying, because almost all of it was filmed while a burglar alarm sounded, so ring ring ring.

"Let's have the man in the white boiler suit come in from the right. Stop at the lamppost and fold your arms. Now, look around you. Walk back to the left again, and look left and right as you cross the road."

It's a short film that lasts only eleven minutes, which is 2½ minutes longer than the narration, and about five minutes past the point where it's modestly amusing. 

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Moon 44 (1990)

It's 2038, earth has been ruined, and giant corporations are at war over the resources being mined from other planets. Michael Paré stars as an undercover cop, disguised as a prisoner, sent to an outer space training camp where convicts are taught to be fighter pilots. Most of these inmate/trainees are tough guys, but a few are young and scared kids, one of whom is raped in the shower by a tough guy.

This is an early film from Roland Emmerich, who went on to make The Day after Tomorrow and Independence Day. It picks up points for briefly dealing with prison rape and not treating it like a joke, but sadly, that's the only kind thing I can say about Moon 44. It's as bland and blank as space itself. 

And so is Michael Paré. He was the handsome but vacant star of The Warriors, and here he's handsome but vacant again. He has a talent for it. The script says he's eager to study classical literature, but his face says room for rent. If he didn't have a cigarette hanging from his lips, his character would have no character at all.

Malcolm McDowell plays the bad guy and Roscoe Lee Brown (oddly uncredited) plays the bad guy's boss, but they're both on deep background. 

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987)

This one's a fond memory for me. By the mid-1980s I'd seen numerous small-scale subversive films — Harold and Maude, Pink Flamingos, Rocky Horror, etc — but Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was the first out-and-out politically subversive film I remember seeing. There aren't many.

It opens with a police raid on a quiet home, where cops shoot and kill an unarmed woman cooking in her kitchen, while a dog outside chases its tail. Just an ordinary day in any big city.

There are riots in the streets, buildings and vehicles aflame. Stuff like that happened in the Thatcher era, and were still happening as this film was made. For all I know, the riots shown in the movie are authentic. 

Sammy and Rosie and their friends are anarchists, often protesting, but just as often getting laid, and spending all their non-getting-laid time talking politics. Sammy is an Indian-Brit living in London, Rosie is his principled but wild-at-heart wife, and Sammy's dad Rafi is visiting from the old country. 

"How much do you know about him, Rosie?" her friend asks.

"Not much. I know that he was something in the government over there."

Indeed he was. Turns out Sammy's dad once held a high-level position, and oversaw torture and war crimes. Soon this visiting monster, now soft-spoken and wearing a nice suit, dangles the possibility of a huge inheritance for Sammy and Rosie.

The film has lots of political conversations that sound like dueling articles from Marxist and Maoist journals. That's most of the dialogue, honestly, and you might complain that it gets tedious. Almost all the dialogue is political. 

For me, those conversations were exhilarating when I first saw this. I'd love to have had conversations like that, if there was anyone to have them with, but most of the people in my life, then and now, want to talk about one or both of the twin gods, Jesus or football.

On seeing S&RGL again in 2022, the conversations seem somewhat stretched and the plot contrived, but I still enjoyed it, just for the joy of hearing smart people talk about smart stuff.

If the theme, setting, and dialogue aren't enough to convey anarchy, there's also a jazz band wandering the streets all through the movie, playing music so delightful that back in the pre-piracy days, I looked everywhere for the movie's soundtrack, but all I could find was the ordinary orchestral score. Never found the wandering jazz band.

Written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), and directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons). 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Suburbia (1983)

This opens with a dog mauling and killing a small child, so you know you're in for something special. 

Evan is a baby-faced suburban white boy whose mother screams at him a lot. Sick of it, he runs away, and is soon adopted by a band of wastoids and orphans living in a row of abandoned suburban houses. They're all runaways and survivors like him, who've become each other's family. They call themselves The Rejected, and tag their turf T R. 

"They call it suburbia, and that word is perfect because it's a combination of the words suburb and utopia. They didn't realize they'd be the slums of the future."

I was never punk but knew some kids who were, and this film captures them. Sometimes it's ugly and they're assholes, but yeah, that's them, and I hope they survived. It's all a band-aid ripped off a fresh wound, with the sex and drugs and stupidity toned down so this could be booked in mall cinemas.

The kids are mostly played by amateur actors, street punks recruited for the movie. Most of them can't deliver a lifelike line, but that fits the battered nature of the story. There's plenty of punk music that I didn't care for, including The Vandals, but that fits, too.

Suburbia is about anger, alienation, and hoping to find some people you can be you around. It's only temporarily optimistic, and too real for an easy resolution at the end.

Written and directed by Penelope Spheeris, working for Roger Corman.

Flea, later of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, has a supporting role as 'Razzle', one of the punk kids. At one point one of the other actors forgets and calls him Flea. "Hey, my name's Razzle, man," he says, and Spheeris left both lines in the movie. That's how raw this is. It's a mess and a masterpiece.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦

SubUrbia (1996)

A bunch of rowdy white twenty-something not-quite men and women drink beer in a convenience store parking lot, all night long. When the store manager comes out and asks them to move along, they taunt him with racist jibes. A girl gives an impromptu reading of her performance art next to the dumpster, and her boyfriend tells her it's awful. He's right, but he's an ass about it. An old buddy stops by the parking lot, and he's a singer who's hit the big time, complete with a limo and driver. His publicist steps out of the back seat, and she's a wild chick with issues. And on and on.

Every character has issues and gets to voice them, mostly in monologues. They're archetypes, shaken around by a script that wants to be Mamet on asphalt. It might have been watchable if just one of these characters had been written in some way likable, or even un-hateable. They're a parade of the people I've spent my life avoiding.

This is based on a play by Eric Bogosian, directed by Richard Linklater. Parker Posey, Giovanni Ribisi, and Steve Zahn are in the cast. Every one of them is capable of better than this, and SubUrbia, right down to the unexplained capital U in the middle, is excruciating.

Verdict: NO.


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   


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