Shattered Politics #46: Used Cars (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


Used_Cars_film_poster

“Do you think we like being associated with the President of the United States?  I mean, we run an honest business here!” —

Jeff (Gerrit Graham) in Used Cars (1980)

As a film lover, I’ve sat through so many disappointing commentary tracks that, when I come across one that’s actually fun and informative, it causes me to like the film even more.  One of the best commentary tracks that I’ve ever heard was the one that Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell recorded for the DVD release of the 1980 comedy Used Cars.

The film — which was an early credit for both director Zemeckis and screenwriter Gale — tells the story of two rival used car lots.  The bad guy car lot is owned by Roy L. Fuchs (Jack Warden).  The good guy car lot is owned by Roy’s brother, Luke Fuchs (also played by Jack Warden).  The top salesman at the good guy car lot is Rudy Russo (Kurt Russell).  The film shows what happens when Luke dies and Rudy tries to prevent Roy from taking over the lot.

The commentary track is distinguished by just how much Zemeckis, Gale, and Russell seem to truly enjoy watching and talking about the film.  Kurt Russell, in particular, has an incredibly engaging laugh and his sense of fun is contagious.  However, for me, the most interesting part of the commentary track came when Bob Gale explicitly compared Rudy Russo and Luke’s daughter (played by Deborah Harmon) to Bill and Hillary Clinton and then even starts to do a surprisingly good imitation of Bill’s hoarse Arkansas accent.

What made it interesting was that the comparison was absolutely correct.

Politicians are salesmen.  Much as politicians will say anything to get your vote, the salesmen in Used Cars will say and do anything to get your money.  Politicians sell promises that are too good to be true.  Rudy Russo and Roy L. Fuchs do the same thing, claiming that their used cars are just as good and safe as a car that’s never been owned before.

In fact, one of the major plotlines in Used Cars is that Rudy is plotting to make the move from selling cars to buying votes.  There’s a vacancy in the state senate and Rudy is planning on running for the seat.  All he has to do is come up with the $10,000 necessary to buy the nomination from the local political machine. (I imagine it would be more expensive to buy a nomination today.)  Luke agrees to loan Rudy the money but, before he can, Luke goes on a test drive with a former race car driver.

The driver works for Luke’s evil brother, Roy.  Roy knows that Luke has a heart condition and he specifically sends over that driver to give Luke a fatal heart attack.  Just as Rudy is trying to sell a car to a costumer who is skeptical about whether or not he should pay an extra fifty dollar for something he doesn’t want (“$50.00 never killed anyone!” the customer insists), Luke staggers into the office and dies.

(The shocked customer agrees to pay the extra fifty dollars.  Ever the salesman, Luke grabs the fifty before he dies.)

With Luke dead and his estranged daughter nowhere to be seen, Roy is next-in-line to take over Luke’s car lot.  So, Rudy hides the body and tells everyone that Luke is down in Florida.  Both he and his fellow salesman, the hilariously superstitious Jeff (Gerrit Graham), conspire to make as much money as possible before anyone discovers the truth.

How do they do it?  Illegally, of course!

First off, they break into the broadcast of a football game and do an ad.  Then, they use strippers to attract customers.  And finally, Rudy comes up with his master plan, interrupting a televised address from the President of the United States.

“You can’t fuck with the President!” Jeff says.

“Hey, he fucks with us…” Rudy responds.

Seriously, I love Rudy.

In fact, I really liked Used Cars.  It’s a good combination of broad humor and clever satire and both Kurt Russell and Gerrit Graham give such likable performances that you can ignore the fact that they’re both playing total jerks.  (In fact, I would argue that one reason that we love Rudy is because he’s so honest about being so crooked.)  Not every scene worked perfectly.  The scene where Rudy and Jeff interrupt that football game goes on forever and, after a spokesmodel’s dress is ripped off, becomes so uncomfortable to watch that it actually takes the film a while to recover.  But then, after that, you get the interruption of the President’s speech.  You get Jeff freaking out over whether or not red cars or unlucky.  You get some fun driving school humor.  And, of course, you get a cute dog that can do tricks and helps to sell cars.  The film recovers and, ultimately, Used Cars is a celebration of small businesses everywhere.

And you know what?

I really hope Rudy did make it into the state senate.

We need more Rudy Russos in government.

And we really need more commentary tracks featuring Kurt Russell!

Shattered Politics #45: The Changeling (dir by Peter Medak)


Changeling_ver1If you love horror movies, you have to track down and see The Changeling.

First released in 1980, The Changeling stars George C. Scott as John Russell, a composer.  At the start of the film, he watches helplessly as both his wife and his daughter are killed in a horrific auto accident.  The grieving John leaves his New York home and relocates to Seattle, Washington.  With the help of a sympathetic realtor, Claire Norman (Trish Van Devere), John finds and rents a previously abandoned Victorian mansion.

At first, it seems that John is alone with his grief.  But, as you can probably guess, it quickly becomes apparent that John isn’t alone in his house.  Windows shatter.  Doors slam.  And, most dramatically, every night a mysterious banging sound echoes through the house.  Slowly, John comes to suspect that his house might be haunted…

And, of course, it is!  It’s no spoiler to tell you that because the film is admirably straight forward about being a ghost story.  And what a clever ghost story it is.  I don’t want to give too much away so I’ll just say that the story behind the ghost involves a powerful family, an age-old scandal, and a powerful U.S. Senator (played, with a mixture of poignant sadness and menace, by Melvyn Douglas).

The Changeling is a very well-done and effective ghost story.  For the most part, director Peter Medak emphasizes atmosphere over easy shocks, the end result being a film that maintains a steady feeling of dread and sticks with you long after the final credit rolls up the screen.  George C. Scott is well-cast as John Russell, capturing both the character’s grief and his curiosity.  (There’s actually a very interesting subtext to the film, in that investigating death actually gives John a reason to live.)  At the time the film was made, he was married to Trish Van Devere and the two of them have a very likable chemistry.  And, as previously stated, Melvyn Douglas makes for a great quasi-villain.

(It’s interesting to compare Douglas’s intimidating work here with the far more sympathetic performances that he gave, around the same time, in Being There and The Seduction of Joe Tynan.)

My favorite scene in The Changeling comes when John and Claire hold a séance in order to try to discover what the ghost wants.  The séance team is made up one woman who asks questions, one woman who channels the spirit and writes down his answers, and one man who reads the answers after they’re written.  It’s a wonderfully effective scene, dominated by the eerie sounds of questions being asked, answers being scribbled, and then being shakily read aloud.  It’s probably one of the best cinematic séances that I’ve ever seen.

The Changeling is a wonderful mix of political intrigue and paranormal horror. It was also the first film ever to win a Genie award for Best Canadian Film, which just goes to prove the 90% of all good things come from Canada.

Shattered Politics #44: The Seduction of Joe Tynan (dir by Jerry Schatzberg)


The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)

You know how sometimes you see a film and you can just tell that it was probably a big deal when it was first released but now, in the present day, it’s just not that interesting?  That’s the way that I felt when I saw 1979’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan on Netflix.  This is one of those film’s that you just know was probably praised for being adult and mature when it was first released but seen today, it’s just kinda bleh.

Joe Tynan (Alan Alda) is a Democratic senator from New York, a committed liberal who is also an ambitious pragmatist.  As quickly becomes apparent, Joe is happiest when he’s at work.  He struggles to talk to his rebellious teenage daughter (Blanche Baker).  While he may love his wife (Barbara Harris), she’s also one of the few people in his life who isn’t always telling him how great he is and, to an extent, she resents having to live in his shadow.  At times, it seems like the only thing holding Joe’s family together is the possibility that Joe could soon be nominated for the presidency.

When a Southern judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, Joe is asked by his mentor, Sen. Birney (a great Melvyn Douglas), to not oppose the nomination.  While Joe originally agrees to keep quiet, he soon changes his mind when he’s approached by lobbyists who make it clear that, if he goes back on his word to Birney, they’ll be willing to support Joe for President.

Leaving behind his family, Joe heads down south where he meets a researcher named Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep).  With Karen’s help, Joe discovers that the judge actually is a racist.  He also discovers that, politically, he has a lot more in common with Karen than he does with his own wife and soon, they’re having an affair.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan is an odd film.  As written, Tynan is a decent but flawed man.  He may do the right thing but he does so largely because of his own ambition.  That’s not a problem, of course.  If anything, that would seem to be the making of a great political film.  Some of the greatest film characters of all time have been morally ambiguous.  But then, Alan Alda (who also wrote the script) gives a performance that would seem to indicate that he was scared of being disliked by the audience.  Alda is believable when he’s being a self-righteous crusader but, whenever he has to play up the pragmatic and ruthless side of Joe Tynan, he almost seems to have zoned out.  It’s interesting to compare Alda’s lukewarm performance here with the far more nuanced performance that he would give, as a less idealistic Senator, decades later in The Aviator.  As far as the film’s senators are concerned, Melvyn Douglas and Rip Torn (playing a libertine colleague) are far more believable than Alda.

The film’s best performance is delivered by Meryl Streep.  That might not sound shocking but actually, Streep’s performance here is surprising because it’s far more natural and less mannered than some of her more acclaimed performances.  Believe it or not, you actually forget that you’re watching Meryl Streep.

Ultimately, you have to respect the fact that the film attempted to tell an adult and mature story about politics but that doesn’t make The Seduction of Joe Tynan any less forgettable.

Shattered Politics #43: Being There (dir by Hal Ashby)


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As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  However, a few nights ago, I made an exception and I watched CNN.  The reason was because it was snowing in New York City and apparently, CNN anchorman Don Lemon was broadcasting from something called the Blizzardmobile.  I just had to see that!

Well, the Blizzardmobile turned out to be huge letdown.  I was hoping for something like the Snowpiercer train but instead, it just turned out to be a SUV with a camera crew and a pompous anchorman who hilariously kept insisting that he was knee-deep in a blizzard when even a Texas girl like me could tell that the Blizzardmobile was only encountering a few snow flurries.

So, I flipped around to see if any of the other news stations had anyone in a blizzardmobile.  What I discovered was that only CNN had a blizzardmobile but one thing that every news station did have was a panel of experts.  An anchorperson would say something like, “What does the future look like?” and the panel of experts would tell us what the future looked like to them.  What I found interesting was that I had no idea who these experts were but yet I was supposed to just believe that their opinions were worth considering.

I mean, for all I knew, those experts could have just been people who were spotted wandering around New York at night.  But, because they were introduced as experts and looked directly at the camera whenever they spoke, they were suddenly authoritative voices.

Oddly enough, the very next night, I watched a movie from 1979 that dealt with the exact same issue.

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers), a dignified, middle-aged man who lives in Washington, D.C. and works as a gardener for a wealthy older man.  Chance cannot read.  Chance cannot write.  Chance goes through life with a blank smile on his face.  Chance has never experienced the outside world.  Instead, he spends all of his time working in the old man’s garden and obsessively watching TV.  When the old man dies, Chance finds himself exiled from the house.  Wandering around Washington D.C., Chance asks a random woman to make him dinner.  He politely speaks with a drug dealer who pulls a knife on him.  Finally, he finds himself entranced by a window display of televisions.  Backing away from the window, Chance stumbles into the street and is struck by a car.

Though he’s not seriously injured, the owner of the car, Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine), insists that Chance come back to her mansion with him so that he can be checked out by her private physician (Richard Dysart).  As they drive back to the house, Eve asks Chance for his name.

“Chance the Gardner,” Chance replies.

“Chauncey Gardiner?” Eve asks.

Chance blankly nods.

Back the house, Chance meets Eve’s husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas).  Ben is a wealthy industrialist who is dying of leukemia.  Ben takes an immediate liking to Chance.  Because Chance is wearing the old man’s suits, everyone assumes that Chance is a wealthy businessman.  When Chance says that he had to leave his home, they assume that his business must have failed due to government regulation.  When Chance talks about his garden, everyone assumes that he’s speaking in metaphors.

Soon, Ben is introducing Chance to his friend, Bobby (Jack Warden).  Bobby happens to be the President and when he quotes Chance in a speech, Chance the Gardner is suddenly the most famous man in the country.  When he appears on a TV talk show, the audience mistakes his emotionless comments for dry wit.  When he talks about how the garden reacts to different seasons, they assume that he’s an economic genius.  By the end of the film, Bobby has become so threatened by Chance’s popularity that he’s been rendered impotent while wealthy, rich men plot to make Chance the next President of the United States.

Chance and Neil

In many ways, Chauncey Gardiner was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his era.

Being There is a one joke film and the idea of someone having no emotional skills beyond what he’s seen on television was probably a lot more mind-blowing back in 1979 than it is in 2015.  But I still enjoyed the film.  Peter Sellers gave a great performance as Chance, never sentimentalizing the character.  As well, the film’s point is still relevant.  If Being There were made today, Chance would be the subject of clickbait articles and Facebook memes.  (Chauncey Gardiner listed his ten top movies and number 8 will surprise you!  Or maybe This boy asked Chauncey Gardiner about his garden and his response was perfect.)

At its best, Being There is a film that will encourage you to question every expert you may see.  Especially if he’s just stepped out of a blizzardmobile…

 

AMV of the Day: Warriors (Various)


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The latest “AMV of the Day” is one of those rare, but impressive anime music videos which happens to have a several creators working together to make one video. These are called MEP which stands for Multi-Editor Project.

“Warriors” is a video collaboration between nine video editors by the names of Mycathatesyou, Kireblue, Xophilarus, Shin (aka tehninjarox), Obsidian Zero, Warlike Swans, Warlike Cygnet, PieandBeer and Rhianic. I always found it impressive that so many imaginative and creative individuals could work together to make one product. While collaboration between such people are not rare I’ve found that sometimes ego plays a huge part in making such things fail more than succeed.

As this video shows they’ve definitely succeeded in creating an anime music video which sticks to the theme of the Imagine Dragons’ song “Warriors”.

Anime: Kill la Kill, C-Bu: Stella, Women’s Academy, Kara no Kyokai, Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist, Pokemon, Slayers Evolution-R, No Game No Life, Fate/Zero

Song: “Warriors” by Imagine Dragons

Creator: Mycathatesyou, Kireblue, Xophilarus, Shin (aka tehninjarox), Obsidian Zero, Warlike Swans, Warlike Cygnet, PieandBeer, Rhianic

Past AMVs of the Day