Wednesday, November 16, 2011

After "Detroit Rock City", a violent fever dream

A very trippy trip down the Yellow Brick Road, Detroit Rock City is one of my favorite teen comedies ever. It has a lot of what I love – nostalgia, rock music, sexcapades – which is why I watched it countless times during my college years. In the decade following its release, I was surprised I didn't see the name of its director more often in the credits of other big-studio projects. Not until recently did I go to IMDb to look and see precisely what Adam Rifkin had been up to all these years. He’s kept fairly busy writing the scripts for family fare like Zoom and Underdog, and he’s continued to work as a director. His latest, the giant sperm monster movie “Wadzilla”, is by far the liveliest entry in this year’s amusing horror-comedy omnibus, Chillerama.

Rifkin’s first project after Detroit Rock City was a gritty independent crime film. Self-financed and -distributed with profits from his scripts for Small Soldiers and Mouse Hunt, Night at the Golden Eagle is about as different as possible in terms of tone from his previous directorial effort. It could be the most striking career turn for a filmmaker since Steven Spielberg followed up Jurassic Park with Schindler’s List. The movie presents a solid argument for creative independence, and shows Rifkin to be a director of wide-ranging talent who deserves to work on projects big and small in a variety of genres.

Rifkin wrote the script in the late 1980s, 12 years before Night at the Golden Eagle was produced. He resisted offers to make the film with younger leads, insisting the two main characters be played by actors in their 60s. Donnie Montemarano and Vinny Angiro – ex-cons and lifelong friends with little or no acting experience – were ultimately cast in the lead roles. (This is Montemarano’s sole film credit.) Their advanced age, personal history and thick Italian accents contribute a lot of the flavor sprinkled throughout this frequently astonishing movie.

We first meet Tommy (Montemarano) as he’s being released after a long stretch in prison. His old pal Mick (Angiro) is there to greet him. Both are petty criminals who have somehow managed to stick around for the long haul, so that they’re now at an age when they should be retiring from legitimate jobs they never bothered to get. Rifkin was right to hold out for the actors he wanted; they make this material fresh.

Mick announces a plan to go straight: they’ll move to Las Vegas and become blackjack dealers. The movie takes place entirely on the night before they’re set to leave for the Bright Light City, depicting one long descent into hell. We meet the desperate people who live in around the hotel Tommy is staying at, the Golden Eagle. He invites a street-walking hooker, Amber (Natasha Lyonne) to his room, where complications of the variety depicted in Peter Berg’s underrated dark comedy Very Bad Things ensue. Rifkin shows how the hopeless world in which these characters move is a cruelly self-reinforcing one. In a subplot, we meet the girl who will probably end up being Amber’s replacement, a teenage runaway (Nicole Jacobs) who’s being groomed by a fearsome pimp (Vinnie Jones, in a seductive, terrifying performance). Despite the grim subject matter, Tommy and Mick are often very funny together. So funny, in fact, that you might not realize at first what a disturbed individual Tommy has become from his prison experiences. In a chilling shot near the end of the film, we see him sitting alone in his room, where the bodies have started to pile up.

Throughout his career, Rifkin has shown a lot of affection for showbiz in all its sundry forms, frequently casting porn star Ron Jeremy in his films while also making room for the likes of Shannon Tweed and members of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The hotel where Night at the Golden Eagle was shot over 18 days on a $1 million budget has a storied history (Charlie Chaplin was reportedly once a guest), and Rifkin has peopled it with legends of Hollywood's past: the late tap-dancing star Fayard Nicholas, R&B singer Sam Moore, and B-movie actress Kitten Natividad, she of the 44" chest who appeared in such cult classics as Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens for the great Russ Meyer. By casting these wonderful performers in his movie, Rifkin heightens the tragedy of the piece; it's heartbreaking to see them as lowdown characters stuck in a place of lost dreams.

I think Rifkin is underrated as a craftsman. He brought incredible energy and dexterity to Detroit Rock City; the scene where the boys are shouting the lyrics to "Shout It Out Loud" as the camera does a complete 360 is one of the great rock-movie moments. Similarly, "Wadzilla" is a witty visual recreation of drive-in monster movies. He and his collaborators (including cinematographer Checco Varese and production designer Sherman Williams) bring the same talent for atmosphere to this film, from the opening shots of Lyonne hooking to the beat of "Hoochie Mama" by 2 Live Crew to the memorable crane shot that brings this thoroughly unhappy picture to a close. Rifkin reportedly turned down a three-picture deal with DreamWorks to make Detroit Rock City. You can argue whether or not he made the right career movie, but if he'd chosen differently we wouldn't have one of the best teen comedies of the '90s, and we wouldn't have his other passion project, the brilliant Night at the Golden Eagle.