Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)


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Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.

Dave—–

* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!

Shattered Politics #53: The Godfather Part III (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


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Well, it’s come to this.

First released in 1990, The Godfather Part III was nominated for best picture (it lost to Goodfellas Dances With Wolves) but it’s got a terrible reputation.  Over the past two weeks, whenever I’ve mentioned that I was planning on reviewing The Godfather and The Godfather Part II for this series of reviews, everyone who I talked to mentioned that they loved the first two Godfather films and that they hated the third one.  Quite a few, in fact, suggested that I shouldn’t even bother reviewing the third one.  In their eyes, The Godfather Part III was like that one cousin who you know exists but, because he got caught cashing your grandma’s social security check, you never send a Christmas card.

But you know what?

It was never even an option for me to skip reviewing The Godfather, Part III.  First off, I’m a completist.  It’s long been my goal to review every single best picture nominee and, regardless of how much some people may dislike it, that’s exactly what The Godfather Part III is.

Plus, I love the Godfather movies.  I’m a fourth Italian (and, much like the Corleones, my Italian side comes from Southern Italy) and I was raised Catholic.  Let’s face it — The Godfather movies were made for me.  Even Part III.

So, with all that in mind, I recently sat down and rewatched The Godfather Part III.  And I’m not saying that it was an easy film to watch.  It’s a flawed film and those flaws are made even more obvious when you compare it to the previous two Godfathers.  It’s hard to follow up on perfection.  And I have to admit that, even though I had seen Part III before, I was still expecting it to be better than it actually was.  I had forgotten just how many slow spots there were.  I had forgotten how confusing the plot could get.  I had forgotten….

Okay, I’m really starting to sound negative here and I don’t want to sound negative.  Because I like The Godfather, Part III.  I think it’s a good but uneven film.  Some of my favorite films are good but uneven…

But this is a Godfather film that we’re talking about here!

The Godfather Part III opens in 1979, 20+ years since the end of the second film.  Tom Hagen has died off-screen (booo!) and Michael (Al Pacino) is nearly 60 and looking forward to retirement.  He’s handed the Corleone criminal empire over to the flamboyant Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).  Michael has finally become a legitimate businessman but he’s lost everyone that he loved.  Kay (Diane Keaton) has divorced him.  His son, Anthony (Franco D’Ambrosio), knows that Michael was responsible for killing Uncle Fredo and wants nothing to do with the family business.  Instead, Anthony wants to be an opera singer.  Meanwhile, his daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) is headstrong and rebellious.  (Or, at least, she’s supposed to be.  That’s what the audience is told, anyway.  None of that really comes across on the screen.)

Now, the first two Godfather films featured their share of melodrama but neither one of them comes close to matching all of the schemes, betrayals, and plots that play out over the course of Godfather, Part III.  Let’s see if I can keep all of this straight:

As the film opens, Michael is receiving an award from the Vatican.  Kay, who is now married to a judge, shows up with Mary and Anthony.  Michael is obviously happy to see her.  Kay glares at him and says, “That ceremony was disgusting!”  (Damn, I thought, Kay’s suddenly being kind of a bitch.  Fortunately, later on in the movie, Kay’s dialogue was both better written and delivered.)

Then, Vincent (Andy Garcia) shows up!  Vincent is one of those handsome, sexy gangsters whose every action is followed by an exclamation point!  Vincent is Sonny’s illegitimate son!  He wears a cool leather jacket!  He openly flirts with his cousin Mary!  He has sex with Bridget Fonda!  He kills Joey Zasa’s thugs!  He convinces Michael to mentor him!

And, as soon as Vincent enters the film, suddenly every scene starts to end with an exclamation point!

And then, Michael goes to Sicily!  He gets swindled by the corrupt Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly)!  He gets targeted by a corrupt Italian politician!  He confesses his sins to Cardinal Lamberto (Raf Vallone)!  Lamberto later becomes Pope!

Meanwhile, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach) is conspiring to kill Michael!  Because that’s what elderly Mafia dons do!  And then Kay, Anthony, and Mary all come to Sicily!  Anthony is going to be making his opera debut!  And soon Vincent is sleeping with Mary, even though they’re first cousins!

And even more people want Michael dead and I’m not really sure why!  Everyone goes to the opera!  We sit through the entire opera!  Meanwhile, enemies of the Corleones are killed!  And some Corleones are killed!  And it all ends tragically!

Okay, I’m starting to get snarky here and it’s probably getting a little bit hard to believe that I actually do like The Godfather, Part III.  And, as much as I hate to do it, there are a few more flaws that I do need to point out.  Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and she has really pretty hair and we both have similar noses but …. well, let’s just say that it’s probably a good thing that Sofia pursued a career as a director and not as an actress.  Reportedly, Sofia was a last minute pick for the role, cast after Winona Ryder suddenly dropped out of the production.  It’s not so much that her performance is terrible as much as it’s not up to the level of the rest of the cast.  Watching this Godfather, you’re acutely aware of how much of what you’re seeing on screen was determined by Sofia’s inexperience as an actress.

And then there’s that opera.  Now, I know that I’m supposed to love opera because I’m a girl and I’m a fourth Italian.  And I do love big emotions and big drama and all the rest.  But oh my God, the opera at the end of the movie went on and on.  There’s only so much entertainment you can get out of watching actors watch other actors.

But, at the same time, for every flaw, there’s a part of the film that does work.  First off, the film itself is gorgeous to look at, with a lot of wonderfully baroque sets and scenes taking place against the beautiful Italian landscape.  Al Pacino brings a very real gravity to the role of Michael and it’s fun to watch him trying to win back Diane Keaton.  (In those brief scenes, The Godfather Part III almost becomes a romantic comedy.)  Talia Shire is obviously having a lot of fun playing Connie as being a Lady MacBeth-type of character.  (In fact, they needed to give Connie a film of her own where she could poison anyone who get on her nerves.)  And Andy Garcia does a great job as Vincent.  You watch him and you never have any doubt that he could be Sonny’s son.

The Godfather Part III may not live up to the first two Godfather films but what film could?

Shattered Politics #52: Blaze (dir by Ron Shelton)


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Oh those crazy Southern politicians!

As I’ve mentioned in a few other reviews, filmmakers have always loved to make movies about the crazy demagogues that we have historically tended to elect down here in the South.  Sometimes, those movies are serious and thought-provoking, like All The King’s Men.  And sometimes, like in Hold That Co-Ed, a film will attempt to play up the inherent humor in rabble rousing.  And then you’ve got films like Ada and Hurry Sundown, which are so melodramatic that those of us down South just have to shake our heads in amazement that people up North actually believe this stuff.

The 1989 film Blaze (which is currently making the rounds on cable) is a part of this cinematic tradition of films about flamboyant Southern politicians.  It’s part comedy and part melodrama and, perhaps not surprisingly, it takes place in 1950s Louisiana.

(Why isn’t that surprising? Listen, my family used to live in Louisiana.  I still visit Louisiana on a fairly regularly basis.  Louisiana is crazy.  That’s one reason why I love it.)

Blaze is based on the true story of Gov. Earl K. Long (played here by Paul Newman).  The younger brother of former Governor Huey P. Long (who himself served as the basis for the character of Willie Stark in All The King’s Men), Earl served as governor for three non-consecutive terms.  He was a flamboyant populist, in the style of his older brother, the type who campaigned as one of the “common” people and who was either extremely corrupt or extremely progressive, depending on which historian you happen to be reading.

In Blaze, Earl is nearing the end of his third term.  Because the state’s constitution does not allow a governor to succeed himself, Earl is currently campaigning for lieutenant governor, with the plan being that one of Earl’s allies will be elected governor and will then resign so that Earl can succeed him.  While this is traditionally the sort of thing that voters in Louisiana would love, Earl is struggling because some voters are angry over his support for the civil rights movement.

Earl is also struggling because he’s just met Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), a much younger stripper from West Virginia.  For Earl, it’s love at first sight and soon, Blaze feels the same way.  Soon, she and Earl are going across the state together.  However, after Earl’s opponents arrange for him to be sent to a mental asylum, Blaze is forced to consider that she might be too big of a political liability to remain with the man she loves.

If that all sounds incredibly romanticized — well, it is.  After I watched Blaze, I did a little bit research on Earl and Blaze.  To say the film is fictionalized would be an understatement.  (Though, interestingly enough, Earl actually was sent to a mental asylum while serving as governor.)  But is that really a surprise?  Would audiences rather watch a movie about a corrupt, old racist who regularly cheated on his wife or would they rather watch a romanticized love story with hissable villains and moments of crowd-pleasing comedy?

As for the film itself, it’s okay.  It moves a bit too slowly for its own good and it’s never quite as enthralling as you might hope it would be, but both Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovich are well-cast and have a likable chemistry.  I related to the film’s version of Blaze Starr, mostly because we’re both redheads with big boobs who have a natural distrust of authority figures.  If you’re into Southern politics and you’re not obsessed with historical accuracy, you might enjoy Blaze.

 

Shattered Politics #51: Three For The Road (dir by B.W.L. Norton)


three-for-the-road-movie-poster-1987-1020243960It’s a little bit strange to go from watching and reviewing a film like Once Upon A Time In America to watching and reviewing a film like 1987’s Three For The Road.  But that’s one reason that I like doing things like Shattered Politics.  It’s always interesting to see how many different films can all be linked together by common elements.  In the case of Shattered Politics, those shared elements are politics and politicians.

Three For The Road is an 80s comedy.  In fact, it’s one of the most stereotypically 80s films ever made.  Senator Kitteride (Raymond J. Barry) may very well be the next President of the United States but first he has to do something about his rebellious teenage daughter (Kerri Green).  He has arranged for her to be shipped down to a reform school down South.

But who can he trust to drive her down there?  How about the newest member of his staff, Paul Tracy?  Paul looks up to Sen. Kitteridge and has political ambitions himself.  He’s such a responsible guy that, while all of his roommates are busy getting drunk and having sex, Paul locks himself away in his bedroom and studies.  So, naturally, who is cast as this straight-laced, ultra-responsible, uptight guy?  Why Charlie Sheen, of course!

Now, Paul has a roommate who comes along on the road trip with him and Robin.  T.S. is an aspiring writer.  (His actual name is Tommy but he demands to be known as T.S., in honor of T.S. Eliot.)  T.S. is an intellectual.  T.S. is a serial womanizer who is hit on by nearly every woman he meets.  (T.S. always asks them to name their favorite author as a test.)  So, of course, T.S. is played Alan Ruck, who is better known for playing Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Now, to be honest, I’m being a bit snarky here and that’s not really fair to either Sheen or Ruck.  Yes, they’re both miscast but that doesn’t mean that they don’t give good performances.  They both do as well as they can with the material that they’ve been given.  It’s just that the material itself… well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Three For The Road is not a bad film as much as it’s just an extremely forgettable one.  From the minute it opens with the predictable shots of D.C. landmarks to Paul and Robin falling in love to the eventual revelation that Sen. Kitteridge isn’t the great man that Paul thinks that he is, it all just feels extremely generic.  The film probably works best as a time capsule, a portrait of when it was made.

If you go to Three For The Road‘s imdb page, you can find a comment that was left by film director Richard Martini.  Martini wrote the original script for what would eventually develop into Three For The Road.  I say “develop” because, as Martini explains it, his script was apparently changed and rewritten on a daily basis.  While that’s certainly not a surprising thing to hear, it does sound like Martini’s original version would have made for a more interesting film.

In Martini’s original script, Sen. Kitteridge’s motivation for sending Robin to the institution was that Robin was embarrassing him with her own left-wing political activism.  That would have certainly brought a much needed edge to the film’s politics because, in the film that was eventually made, there’s really no point to Kitteridge being a senator.  He could just as easily have been a wealthy businessman or maybe a college president.  But apparently, once filming started, it appears that the filmmakers went for the least edgy approach possible.

(Martini also commented that, as a result of the actual film being so different from his original script, that he hates to read reviews of the film.  And, needless to say, I don’t blame him.  If Richard Martini is reading this review, please accept my apologies for any bad memories this review may have brought up.)

Three For The Road has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray but you can watch it on YouTube.

 

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

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