Shattered Politics #37: Rosebud (dir by Otto Preminger)


Rosebud_-_1975_-_Film_Poster

Before I review the 1975 film Rosebud, allow me to tell you about how I first discovered the existence of this particular film.

The greatest used bookstore in the world is located in Denton, Texas.  It’s called Recycled Books and it is three stories of pure literary goodness!  (Plus, there are apartments on the top floor where I attended some pretty interesting parties but that’s another story….)  When I was attending the University of North Texas, I used to stop by Recycled Books nearly every day.  One day, I happened to be searching the Film and TV section when I came across a beat-up paperback called Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture.

This book, which was written by Theodore Gershuny, told the story of how the previously acclaimed director Otto Preminger attempted to make a film about terrorism.  Starting with the attempts of Preminger’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, to come up with a workable script and then going on to detail how Peter O’Toole came to replace Robert Mitchum as the star of the film and ending with the film’s disastrous release, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture proved to be a fascinating read.

After finishing the book, I simply had to see Rosebud for myself.  Unfortunately, at that time, Rosebud had not yet been released on Blu-ray or DVD.  So, I actually ended up ordering an old VHS copy of it.  The tape that I got was not in the best condition but it played well enough and I can now say that, unlike the majority of people in the world, I’ve actually seen Rosebud!

Which is not to say that Rosebud is any good.  It’s not the disaster that I had been led to expect.  In fact, it probably would have been more fun if it had been a disaster, as opposed to being just a forgettable film from a director who was probably capable of better.  Preminger started his career in the 30s and was considered, at one point, to be quite innovative.  He directed Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, two great films.  Unfortunately, there’s really nothing innovative about his direction of Rosebud.  In Gershuny’s book, Preminger comes across like an intelligent and thoughtful man who was too set in his ways to realize that what was shocking in 1959 was no longer that big of a deal in 1975.  (And, needless to say, it’s even less of a big deal in 2015.)

As for what Rosebud‘s about, it’s about a man named Sloat (Richard Attenborough), a former journalist who now lives in a cave in Israel and dreams of establishing a worldwide terrorist network.  Under Sloat’s direction, terrorists storm a yacht named the Rosebud and take the girls on board hostage.  The girls are wealthy and privileged.  Their fathers are judges, senators, and businessmen.  CIA agent Larry Martin (Peter O’Toole) is tasked with tracking down and rescuing the girls.  If it sounds like an action film — well, it’s not.  This is not a prequel to Taken.  Instead, it’s a very talky film that has a few isolated good moments and performances but otherwise, is fairly forgettable.

That said, the film does have an interesting cast.  Peter O’Toole seems bored by his role (and who can blame him?) but Attenborough briefly livens things up in the role of Sloat.  As for the girls being held hostage, they’re not given much to do.  One of them is played by a young Isabelle Huppert.  Long before she would play Samantha on Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall plays a hostage here.  The English hostage is played by Lalla Ward, who is now married to Richard Dawkins.

And then there’s the girl’s parents, who are played by an odd assortment of character actors.  Raf Vallone, an Italian, plays a Greek.  (His daughter, meanwhile, is played by the French Isabelle Huppert.)  Peter Lawford, looking somewhat dazed, shows up as Lalla Ward’s father.  (One of the sadder scenes in Gershuny’s book deals with Lawford’s attempts to remember his lines.)  And than, in the role of Cattrall’s father, we have a very distinguished looking man named John Lindsay.

John Lindsay was the former mayor of New York City, a man who ran for President in 1972 and, three years later, attempted to launch a new career as an actor.  Rosebud was his both his first and final film.  (Rumor has it that Martin Scorsese attempted to convince Lindsay to play Senator Palatine in Taxi Driver but Lindsay turned the role down.)  Lindsay is not particularly memorable in Rosebud.  It’s not so much that Lindsay gives a bad performance as much as it’s just the fact that he has a very bland screen presence.  That blandness probably served him well as a politician but, as an actor — well, let’s just say that John Lindsay was apparently no Fred Thompson.

And so that’s Rosebud.  It’s a film that, much like Maidstone, you can only appreciate if you know what went on behind the scenes.  I can’t really recommend Rosebud but, if you ever come across a battered old copy of Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture in a used bookstore, be sure to buy it!

Seriously, you will not be sorry.

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

‘Two Days, One Night’ Review (dir. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)


two-days-one-night-poster

In a year full of truly great films of all sizes & shapes, only the Dardenne brothers could make such a subtle and slight film that still manages to make all other releases seem completely insignificant to me. Once again they tell a small, emotional and naturalistic story whose themes and situations manage to be as universal as they are singular. The effect the film has is slow but powerful. I walked out of the theater thoroughly loving what I had just seen – and a bit speechless – but on the ride home it hit me like a ton of bricks. I don’t want to get too personal – but I suffer from depression and the emotional weight on the shoulders of the film’s main character so perfectly mirrored those I have felt that to even think about some of her smaller personal moments takes my breath away, and leaves a pit in my stomach. And yet, I can’t help but look back on the film with a smile. It is beautiful and honest in ways very few are.

It stars Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a married mother or two who is on leave from work because of a battle with clinical depression. She was just beginning to recover but is on the verge of relapsing when she learns that her coworkers were forced to vote on whether they wanted to receive a year end bonus – but only if Sandra was fired. They chose the money – and so Sandra must spend the weekend visiting each of them to try to convince them to change their minds when they vote a second time on the upcoming Monday. Each end up having their own reasons for wanting the money – and the encounters often end in tears, rejection and in once instance violence. But Sandra must do it – for bother her family and herself.

The result is a portrait of a woman facing seemingly insurmountable emotional, moral and social odds – a humanistic view of all things good and bad about human nature; and an examination of the devastating affect of depression. Its structure covers greed, love, survival, regret, self worth – and a whole multitude of other themes. There is also a current of economic commentary on the wealth gap and struggles of the working class. In other words – it is the Dardenne brothers doing what they do best – in what is perhaps their best work.

The core of the film is Marion Cotillard who gives what I think is far and away the best performance of the year. She is a magnificent actress and brings great physicality to the role. Her head hangs. Her arms and shoulders are pulled in tight – closing herself off to the world – and her eyes are always on the verge of tears. She perfectly emulates the apathy, anxiety and sadness her illness inflicts – and it is equal parts mesmerizing and excruciating watching her have to face her family, co-workers and herself through it all; something that I know from experience is very hard to do.

The ending is incredibly beautiful and down right perfect in my eyes. After such a long journey that ran the gauntlet of emotions and themes, it all circles back and ends looking inwards – as it should. This isn’t just one woman’s struggle to save her job, but also one to save herself – an attempt to rediscover the person her depression has refused to allow her to be. It is hopeful in ways those who have not suffered from depression might not quite understand. It ultimately didn’t matter what the result of the vote was, the fact that she was able to keep fighting – that she was able to find moments of pure happiness amongst it all – was what touched me most. More importantly, the fact that she spends the whole film questioning her worth – whether she even deserves to exist – and was able to make the final decision her own meant so much to me. Depression doesn’t just go away and Sandra may never truly get “better”…but that she was able to walk away with a smile – instead of fighting back tears – was a glimmer of hope that she (we all) will, even if just a little bit.

Looking at the few films from 2014 I still want to see, I think I can safely say this is my favorite from last year. Why? Aside from everything I mentioned above, this is perhaps the only film in which after it settled in I didn’t sit there wondering where on my top ten list it would appear – I just knew. That is how much it meant to me.

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Twitter.

Shattered Politics #35: The Trial of Billy Jack (dir by Tom Laughlin)


Trial_of_billy_jackFor the past week, I’ve been in the process of reviewing 94 films about politicians and, to a lesser extent, politics.  I’ve recently taken a look at Born Losers and Billy Jack, the first two segments in the cinematic life of future U.S. Sen. Billy Jack.  Today, I’m taking a look at the third part of the Billy Jack saga, 1974’s The Trial of Billy Jack!

I have to admit that, when you’re watching these first three films, it’s a little hard to see how Billy Jack is ever going to end up in the U.S. Senate.  After all, The Born Losers ended with Billy getting shot in the back by an overeager deputy sheriff.  Billy Jack ended with Billy shooting at the National Guard and then getting arrested for murder.  And then, in Trial of Billy Jack, Billy gets released from prison but promptly kills yet another member of the Posner family and then eventually, the National Guard shows up (again!) and ends up gunning down at least half of the students at the Freedom School.

If I didn’t already know that Trial would be followed up Billy Jack Goes To Washington, I think I’d be justified in being a little pessimistic about Billy’s future.

But anyway, let’s talk about The Trial of Billy Jack.  After the surprise box office success of Billy Jack, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor set about to make a sequel that would not only revisit the themes of Billy Jack but which would touch on literally every single other political issue of the day as well.  The result is a three-hour mess of a film that, despite the excessive length and a generally preachy tone, remains oddly watchable.

Despite the film’s title, the actual Trial of Billy Jack only takes up a few minutes of screen time.  The prosecution lays out its case, which is that Billy Jack killed Bernard Posner.  The defense calls Billy to the stand and, instead of asking him about the events that led to Bernard’s death (i.e., the fact that Bernard was a rapist and that Billy caught him with a 13 year-old girl), they instead allow Billy to give his opinions on the political issues of the day.  And, since this film was released in 1974, we get a lengthy flashback to the Vietnam War where we see Billy refusing to take part in a civilian massacre.

And then Billy Jack is sent to prison.  And it’s actually quite some time before he shows up in the film again.  This actually took me by surprise because, when it comes to people directing films starring themselves, I’m more used to the narcissistic style of Norman Mailer.  But, in Laughlin’s case, he was actually willing to stay off-screen for close to an hour and allow the film to focus on Jean (Delores Taylor) and the Freedom School.

And that is one reason why I can never be as critical of the Billy Jack films as maybe I should be.  They really are such sincere films.  Laughlin was willing to stay off-screen and allow the film to be about the issues and for that he should be commended.  However, at the same time, Laughlin was not only the best actor in most of the Billy Jack films.  He was also usually the only good actor in the films as well.  So, while you respect Laughlin for not being a narcissist, you also kind of wish that maybe the film could have been more about him and less about the students at the Freedom School (which, to judge from the performances in this film, did not have much of a drama department).

When I reviewed Billy Jack, I mentioned that, if anything could cause me to transform from being the politically moderate girl that you all know and love to being a right-wing extremist, it would be having to spend any amount of time with the smug and self-righteous students at the Freedom School.  Well, by the end of the first half of The Trial of Billy Jack, I had spent so much time with those students that I was on the verge of ordering a Sarah Palin bumper sticker to put on my boyfriend’s car.

(Fortunately, Billy Jack got out of jail before I went that far but seriously…)

Of course, they’re not just students at the Freedom School anymore.  No, in the Trial of Billy Jack, the Freedom School suddenly has the power and resources to launch its own independent television station.  The kids are now crusading journalists.  They’re first expose is on a local businessman who repossessed a woman’s furniture after she failed to make the payments and … well, wait a minute.  Is that really an expose?  When you’re paying something off, aren’t you supposed to keep up with the payments?  If the students were trying to raise money to help the woman pay off her bills, that would be one thing.  But, instead, their expose seems to be that if you break a contract, there will be consequences.  Uhmmm…

BUT ANYWAY!  Best not to think too much when the powers of crusading righteousness are on display!

We also discover that one of the students has invented a machine that will tell you whether or not someone on television is lying.  Which again … what?  I mean, that’s a pretty powerful machine but it’s just kind of mentioned and then never really brought up again….

And then, for some reason, the students hold a big carnival in town and demand to know why the national media isn’t down there covering it.

Listen, this film is occasionally confusing.  It’s not three hours long because it’s an epic or anything.  Instead, it’s three hours long because, apparently, Tom and Delores just stuck every thought they ever had into the script.  Some of those thoughts — like the TV lie detector — are abandoned as soon as they are brought up.  Other thoughts — like the National Guard showing up and shooting up the Freedom School — are returned to over and over again.

Fortunately, Billy does eventually get out of jail and returns to the Freedom School.  Again, he finds himself debating non-violence with Jean and he also finds himself being harassed by yet another evil Mr. Posner (Riley Hill).  However, during the film’s undeniable high point, Billy goes on a vision quest.  He sees a bearded professor type and smacks him.  Then he sees Jesus Christ and smacks him too.

No, I’m not making that up!

However, Jesus forgives Billy and Billy learns that nonviolence is the way to go.  But then the National Guard shows up and starts shooting up the Freedom School and…

(Actually, what’s funny is that one of the National Guardsmen is played by William Wellman, Jr., who also played an evil biker named Child in The Born Losers.  I like to think that, after the events of Born Losers, Child cleaned up his act, got married, had a baby, and then joined the Guard.  And then he ended up shooting up the Freedom School, little realizing that his old enemy Billy Jack was just a few miles away “gettin’ hassled by The Man.”*)

Like I said, The Trial of Billy Jack is a mess but I’m still going to recommend because it really is a one-of-a-kind mess.  It’s one of those films that everyone should sit through at least once.  Full of pretentious dialogue, half-baked political posturing, and some of the most preachy end titles ever seen, The Trial of Billy Jack ultimately stands as a tribute to the determination of Tom Laughlin to both preach to the already converted and to preserve his own unique vision.

And you know what?

Good for him!  The Trial of Billy Jack may not be a good film but at least it’s a film that refuses to compromise.

Both Tom Laughlin and Billy Jack would return three years later in Billy Jack Goes To Washington!

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* Copyright 1967 by Big Evil Corporation PR Department.