Film Review: Cold Turkey (dir by Norman Lear)

The 1971 satire, Cold Turkey, is the film that boldly explores just how much into the ground one joke can driven.

It’s a film that imagines what would happen if a big tobacco company decided to try to improve its image by giving people an incentive to quit smoking.  In the real world, of course, they ended up funding and coming up with anti-smoking commercials that were so lame that they would make viewers want to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes just to spite the self-righteous people lecturing them during the commercial breaks.  In the film, however, Marwen Wren (Bob Newhart) comes up with the idea of offering to pay 25 million dollars to any community that can completely stop smoking for 30 days.

Wren figures that no large group of people will be able to just give up smoking for a month.  Not in 1971!  However, Wren didn’t count on the single-minded determination of the Rev. Clayton Hughes (Dick Van Dyke).  Hughes is the stern and self-righteous minister of Eagle Rock Community Church in Eagle Rock, Iowa.  He knows that Eagle Rock could really use that money so he sets off on a crusade to convince all 4,006 of the citizens of Eagle Rock to take the pledge to quit smoking.

As I said at the start of this review, Cold Turkey is pretty much a one-joke film.  The joke is that everyone in the movie — from the tobacco company execs to the citizens of Eagle Rock to Rev. Hughes — is an asshole.  They start the film as a bunch of assholes and, once they try to quit smoking, they become even bigger assholes.  Soon, everyone in town is irritable and angry.  The only people happy are the people who never smoked in the first place, largely because they’ve been set up as a sort of paramilitary border patrol.  Even though his anti-smoking crusade lands him on the cover of Time, Rev. Hughes is also upset because he started smoking right before it was time to quit smoking.  He deals with his withdraw pains through sex and frequent glowering.

Wren is concerned that the town of Eagle Rock might actually go for a full 30 days without smoking so he attempts to smuggle a bunch of cigarettes into the town and then runs around with a gigantic lighter that looks like a gun.  It’s a storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere but then again, you could say that about almost all of the subplots in Cold Turkey.  There’s a lot of characters and there’s a lot of frantic overacting but it doesn’t really add up too much.  Storylines begin and are then quickly abandoned.  Characters are introduced but then never do anything.  For a while, It seems like the film is at least going to examine the Rev. Hughes’s totalitarian impulses but no.  Those impulses are clearly there but they’re not really explored.

If I seem somewhat annoyed by this film, it’s because it really did have a lot of potential.  This could have been a very sharp and timeless satire but instead, it gets bogged down in its own frantic storytelling and the film’s comedy becomes progressively more and more cartoonish.  By the end of the movie, the President shows up in town and so does the military and it all tries to achieve some Dr. Strangelove-style lunacy but the film doesn’t seem to know what it really wants to say.  It seems to be setting itself up for some sort of grandly cynical conclusion but instead, it just sort of ends.  One gets the feeling that, at the last minute, the filmmakers decided that they couldn’t risk alienating their audience by taking the story to its natural conclusion.

Admittedly, while watching the film, I did find myself comparing Hughes and his bullying mob to the same people who are currently snapping at anyone who suggests that maybe the Coronavirus lockdowns were a bit excessive.  It’s easy to think of some modern politicians and media figures who probably would have had a great time in Eagle Rock, ordering people around and shaming anyone who wants a cigarette.  But otherwise, Cold Turkey was just too cartoonish and one-note to really work.

Great Moments In Comic Book History: Conan The Barbarian Visits Times Square

Without a doubt one of the greatest Conan stories ever told, What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today? opens in the Hyborian Age with everyone’s favorite barbarian getting tossed into a well by an evil sorcerer.  It turns out that the well has the power to send people through time and, before you know it, Conan the Barbarian finds himself transported to 1977 New York!

If you know anything about Conan (especially the version of Conan who appeared in Marvel Comics), you probably have all sorts of expectations about how Conan would handle being in New York in 1977 and the great thing about this issue of What If? is that fulfills every one of them.  Conan neither speaks nor understands the language, he’s wearing a loincloth, carrying a sword, and he’s in the most crime-ridden spot in America.  Being Conan, he does what he does best.  He kills muggers, makes love to a taxi driver, and eventually gets sent back to his time via a lucky strike of lightning.

Here are a few things that make this one of Conan’s greatest adventures:

First, the story incorporates the real-life New York City Blackout of 1977.  In fact, it’s even suggested that it was the temporal energy surge of Conan’s arrival in 1977 that led to the blackout in the first place.  The 1977 blackout, which occurred while New York was suffering from a heat wave and tensions were already high due to the Son of Sam murders, led to widespread rioting.  And to think, it was all Conan’s fault!

Another cool thing about Conan’s trip to 1977 is that most New Yorkers just assume that he’s another Times Square weirdo, with one person actually making the mistake of grabbing Conan’s sword and declaring himself to be Darth Vader!  The people who see Conan mention that he looks like Sylvester Stallone and, I kid you not, Arnold Schwarzenegger!  Keep in mind, this story was published several years before the future governor of California was selected to play Conan the Barbarian in the film of the same name.

Finally, this story is different from other issues of What If? in that it definitely happened.  A typical What If? story would imagine what would have happened if a super hero had lost their latest battle.  (Usually, everyone would die and the universe would end.  What If? was dark.)  What If? #13, though, is just a Conan story.  He goes to the future and then he goes back to the past.  No one’s history is changed.  As far as I’m concerned, What If #13 tells a story that, in terms of the Marvel canon, really happened.  Conan really did cause the Blackout of 1977 and Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson really did see him in Times Square.

For all of these reasons, Conan the Barbarian’s trip to 1977 truly was a great moment in comic book history!

What If? (Vol. 1 #13, February 1979)

“What If Conan the Barbarian Walked the Earth Today?”

  • Writer — Roy Thomas
  • Penciler — John Buscema
  • Inker– Ernie Chan
  • Colourist — Glynis Wein
  • Letterer — Joe Rosen
  • Cover Artist — John Buscema, Ernie Chan

Previous Great Moments In Comic Book History:

  1. Winchester Before Winchester: Swamp Thing Vol. 2 #45 “Ghost Dance” 
  2. The Avengers Appear on David Letterman
  3. Crisis on Campus
  4. “Even in Death”
  5. The Debut of Man-Wolf in Amazing Spider-Man
  6. Spider-Man Meets The Monster Maker

Bang The Drum Slowly (1973, dir. by John Hancock)


The last time I wrote a film review for this site, it was because I was missing baseball.

Guess what?

I still miss baseball!  Luckily, I’ve still got plenty of baseball films to keep me busy until the MLB gets its act together and starts up again.  I hope we’ll get baseball this year but if we don’t, at least I can watch a movie like Bang The Drum Slowly.

Bang The Drum Slowly is the ultimate baseball movie.  It’s about a pitcher named Henry Wiggin (Michael Moriarty) who plays for the New York Mammoths and who has a side job selling insurance and writing books.  When it’s time to renegotiate his contract, Henry says that he’ll re-sign with the team if the team agrees to not release or trade one of their catchers, Bruce Pearson (a really young Robert de Niro).  Henry says that he and Bruce are a package deal.  No one can understand why Henry cares because Bruce isn’t an outstanding player and everyone thinks that he’s slow but Henry finally gets the team’s general manager, Dutch (Vincent Gardenia), to agree to his terms.  What only Henry knows is that Bruce is terminally ill and that he will be lucky to survive the entire season.

Though the Mammoth eventually make a run for the World Series and there’s a lot of great baseball footage, Bang the Drum Slowly is more about friendship than it is about winning or losing.  Henry is willing to sacrifice everything to make sure that Bruce enjoys his final days and Bruce finally gets to play on a wining team.  Because Bruce is so young and he appears to be so healthy for most of the film, it’s really devastating when he suddenly does get ill and he’s finally has to come to terms with his mortality.  I cried a lot while I was watching Bang The Drum Slowly.  You will too.

The other players eventually rally around Bruce and they become a stronger teams as a result.  That’s one of the things that I love about baseball.  One player, no matter how good, can’t win a game on his own.  Instead, the entire team has to work together.  Not everyone can go out and try to hit a home run.  That’s not the way you win at baseball.  Instead, you win by doing what you have to do to bring your teammates home.  Bang The Drum Slowly celebrates friendship and loyalty and it perfectly captures the spirit of the game.

We may not be able to watch baseball right now.  But at least we can watch movies like Bang The Drum Slowly.

The Trigger Effect (1996, directed by David Koepp)

Annie (Elisabeth Shue) and Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan) are a married couple with an infant daughter and a macho best friend named Joe (Dermot Mulroney).  When a suddenly blackout throws the city into chaos, Matthew and Annie can only watch as the world seems to go mad all around them.  Matthew quickly goes from being mild and straight-laced to stealing medicine from the local pharmacy and purchasing a shotgun with Joe.  When a potential burglar is killed by one of their neighbors, Annie, Matthew, and Joe decides that it’s time to get out of town and head up to Annie’s parents’ house.  Things do not go as planned as one of the three ends up seriously wounded and the members of the group have to decide how far they’ll go to survive.

The Trigger Effect has an interesting premise and raises some relevant questions about how far people will go to protect themselves in a crisis.  Unfortunately, the execution is almost totally botched.  Shue, MacLahclan, and Mulroney are all good actors but none of their characters are that interesting and an attempt to insert some sexual tension between Annie and Joe just feels like a cheap cliche.  Since the movie doesn’t make it clear who these three were before the blackout, it’s hard to be effected by what they do after the lights go out.

Michael Rooker has a cameo at the start of the film’s third act.  It involves him yelling and, because it’s a big dramatic moment, you won’t want to laugh but it’s hard not to because his rant just goes on for so long.  In that one moment, whatever reality has been created by the film goes straight out the window.  It all leads to a predictable ending that feels like it was taken from the Giant Book of Hollywood Cliches.  That’s a good book if you can find a copy.

This was David Koepp’s directorial debut and it has the weaknesses that you would expect to find in a first film.  Koepp’s second film, Stir of Echoes, would be a marked improvement.

Here Are More Covers From Hard Case Crime!

Hard Case Crime publishes novels about crime.  Some of them are reprints of classics from pulp era.  Others are new works by authors paying homage to hard-boiled detective and crime stories of the 50s and 60s.  The retro covers also pay homage to the pulp era.  Some of the best cover artists around — from Robert McGinnis to Glenn Orbik to Chuck Pyle and many others — have done covers for Hard Case Crime and I absolutely love them.  There are many people who buy these books strictly for the covers.  I’m one of them.

I’ve shared several Hard Case Crime covers on this site.  Here are a few of the more recent covers to come out of Hard Case Crime:

by Paul Mann

by Paul Mann

by Laurel Blechman

by Mark Eastbrook

by Mark Eastbrook

by Mark Eastbrook

by Mark Eastbrook

by Mark Eastbrook

Game Review: Rockstar (1989, Wizard Games)

Do you want to be a rockstar despite having no musical talent?

Then get over to the Internet Archive and play Rockstar, which is about as close to being a music superstar as most of us will ever get a chance to be!

In Rockstar, you’re a musician.  You start out as a poor, aspiring star.  You’ve got health, creativity, and happiness but you also don’t have any money.  How can you get money?  You can tour the local pubs.  And once you get the money, maybe you can record a single or even an album.  If that album sells well, you might get a record contract.  With a record contract comes so much money that you never have to worry about it again and that’s a good thing because, if you go bankrupt, you have to get a real job and the game ends.

Unfortunately, once you’ve signed that record deal, you’re pretty much a slave to the record company.  They’re going to want you to tour and record and make videos on a regular basis.  Tour too much and it will have a bad effect on your health.  Record too often and your creativity will dry up.  Work too hard and your happiness will go downhill and there will be a good chance that the game will suddenly tell you that you’ve committed suicide.

Fortunately, there’s a way to recharge your happiness and your creativity!  You can take drugs!  The game gives you the option to decide which drugs you want to take.  You can drink.  You can smoke marijuana.  You can drop acid.  You can do cocaine and heroin.  You can get hooked on speed.  Of course, you can be a rock star without doing drugs but it takes a lot longer and it’s not halfway as fun.  The secret is to find the perfect balance of drugs and to go to rehab whenever you’ve become too addicted.  (Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually end up dying of an overdose.)  Unfortunately, going to rehab pretty much zaps away all of your happiness.  Assuming that you survive the rehab experience, you’re only option to cheer yourself up is to start doing drugs again.  Do too many drugs and you’ll overdose.  You might survive the overdose but you’ll have to recover in the hospital, which again sucks away your happiness.  Once you get out of the hospital, you better call your connection and quick.

There’s only two ways that Rockstar can end.  You can either voluntarily retire, which brings your career and your fame to an end.  Or you can eventually die, which brings your life to an end but which also ensures that you’ll be remembered forever.  It probably sounds like a depressing game but it’s not.  Whenever the game told me that my latest single was the number one song in America, Europe, and the UK, it made all of the drug overdoses and mental breakdowns worth it.  You don’t play a game like Rockstar to win.  You play it to see how long you can survive.  The longest I’ve kept one of my rock stars alive was for ten years.  Eventually, he drank himself to death while on holiday but it was still a hell of a ride.

Rockstar can be played at the Internet Archive.

An Offer You Can Take or Leave #13: Hoffa (dir by Danny DeVito)

The 1992 film, Hoffa, opens in 1975, with two men sitting in the backseat of a station wagon.  One of the men is the controversial labor leader, Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson).  The other is his longtime best friend and second-in-command, Bobby Ciaro (Danny DeVito).  The two men are parked outside of a roadside diner.  They’re waiting for someone who is late.  Jimmy complains about being treated with such disrespect and comments that this would have never happened earlier.  Jimmy asks Bobby if he has his gun.  Bobby reveals that he does.  Jimmy asks him if he’s sure that there’s a loaded gun in the diner, as well.  Bobby goes to check.

Jimmy Hoffa, of course, was a real person.  (Al Pacino just received an Oscar nomination for playing him in The Irishman.)  He was a trucker who became a labor leader and who was eventually elected president of the Teamsters Union.  He was a prominent opponent of the Kennedys and that infamous footage of him being interrogated by Bobby Kennedy at a Senate hearing seems to sneak its way into almost every documentary ever made about organized crime in the 50s.  Hoffa was linked to the Mafia and was eventually sent to prison.  He was freed by the Nixon administration, under the condition that he not have anything to do with Teamster business.  When he disappeared in 1975, he was 62 years old and it was rumored that he was planning on trying to take over his old union.  Everyone from the mob to the CIA has been accused of having had Hoffa killed.

Bobby Ciaro, however, was not a real person.  Apparently, he was a composite character who was created by Hoffa’s screenwriter, David Mamet, as a way for the audience to get to know the enigmatic Jimmy Hoffa.  Bobby is presented as being Hoffa’s best friend and, for the most part, we experience Jimmy Hoffa through his eyes.  We get to know Jimmy as Bobby gets to know him but we still never really feel as if we know the film’s version of Jimmy Hoffa.  He yells a lot and he tells Bobby Kennedy (a snarling Kevin Anderson) to go to Hell and he talks a lot about how everything he’s doing is for the working man but we’re never really sure whether he’s being sincere or if he’s just a demagogue who is mostly interested in increasing his own power.  Bobby Ciaro is certainly loyal to him and since Bobby is played by the film’s director, it’s hard not to feel that the film expects us to share Bobby’s admiration.  But, as a character, Hoffa never really seems to earn anyone’s loyalty.  We’re never sure what’s going on inside of Hoffa’s head.  Jack Nicholson is always entertaining to watch and it’s interesting to see him play a real person as opposed to just another version of his own persona but his performance in Hoffa is almost totally on the surface.  With the exception of a few scenes early in the film, there’s doesn’t seem to be anything going on underneath all of the shouting.

The majority of Hoffa is told via flashback.  Scenes of Hoffa and Bobby in the film’s present are mixed with scenes of Hoffa and Bobby first meeting and taking over the Teamsters.  Sometimes, the structure of the film is a bit cumbersome but there are a few scenes — especially during the film’s first thirty minutes — that achieve a certain visual poetry.  There’s a scene where Hoffa helps to change a man’s flat tire while selling him on the union and the combination of falling snow, the dark city street, and Hoffa talking about the working man makes the scene undeniably effective.  The scenes where Hoffa spars with Bobby Kennedy are also effective, with Nicholson projecting an intriguing blue collar arrogance as he belittles the abrasively ivy league Bobby.  Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to those scenes.  By the time Hoffa becomes a rich and influential man, you realize that the film isn’t really sure what it wants to say about Jimmy Hoffa.  Does it want to condemn Hoffa for getting seduced by power or does it want to excuse Hoffa’s shady dealings as just being what he had to do to protect the men in his union?  The film truly doesn’t seem to know.

Hoffa is definitely not an offer that you shouldn’t refuse but, at the same time, it’s occasionally effective.  A few of the scenes are visually appealing and the cast is full of character actors like John C. Reilly, J.T. Walsh, Frank Whaley, and Nicholas Pryor.  It’s not a disaster like The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Hoffa is an offer that you can take or leave.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls

Megaforce (1982, directed by Hal Needham)

Megaforce is the code name for America’s daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force. Its purpose: To defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Oh wait, that’s G.I, Joe!

Megaforce is another daring, highly-trained, Special Mission force.  Led by Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick), Megaforce is a group of international soldiers who have the latest technology at their disposal, like dune buggies and lasers and all of the cars the were left over from Cannonball Run.  They also have flying motorcycles that can shoot missiles and we can all agree that’s pretty damn cool.  When Megaforce is recruited to protect the Republic of Sardun from being conquered by the nation of Gamibia, it brings Ace and his men into conflict with Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva), who used to be a friend of Ace’s until he became a mercenary who would work for the highest bidder.  Duke’s latest employer?  GAMIBIA!

Megaforce is a strange movie.  Director Hal Needham later said that, when the film went into production, he felt he had his finger on the pulse of the country and apparently he thought America was ready for a movie about a group of men who wear skin-tight uniforms and who communicate almost exclusively by giving each other a thumbs up.  What led to Needham choosing to cast Barry Bostwick in the lead role?  Bostwick is very enthusiastic as Ace but he’s not a believable military leader.  We expect discipline and stoicism from our military leaders but Bostwick always seems to be a little too excited about everything.  “Remember,” he says, “the good guys always win!  Even in the 80s!”  Then he kisses his thumb, which is his way of letting the newest member of Megaforce, Zara (Persis Khambatta), know that she is loved.  I don’t know of many military leaders who were known for kissing their thumbs.  Patton probably could have gotten away with it.  Eisenhower, however, never would have been elected President if he had been half as enthusiastic as Ace Hunter.

There’s not really any plot to Megaforce.  Zara tries out for the group but she’s a woman so she has to prove herself.  Ace and his second-in-command, Dallas (Michael Beck), lead the troops in Gamimbia.  The soldiers shoot lasers and rockets from their glowing cars and their flying motorcycles but Megaforce is one of those strange action movies where no one is actually injured as a result of all the violence.  Megaforce was made for the kids.  It was made for an audience that cares more about flying motorcycles than plot or good acting or the non-existent romantic sparks between Barry Bostwick and Persis Khambatta.  In 1982, there probably wasn’t a parent alive who didn’t dread the prospect of their child demanding to watch Megaforce for the hundredth time.

Megaforce has a reputation for being one of the worst movies ever made but it’s not that bad.  How many other films feature something like this:

It’s impossible not to appreciate the brave efforts of the actors as they feign excitement over something that was definitely not actually happening in front of them.  Michael Beck and Barry Bostwick will make you believe that a green screen can be used to make a motorcycle look like it can fly.  Megaforce’s slogan may be Deed Not Words but who needs either when you’ve got a hundred dollars to spend on your special effect budget?

I will be the first to admit that Megaforce is no Delta Force but it’s dumb and sometimes it features Barry Bostwick on a flying motorcycle and it’s got Henry Silva in it, laughing like a maniac.  And finally, it leaves us all with a valuable lesson.  The good guys always win!  Even in the … 20s.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Vilmos Zsigmod Edition

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we pay tribute to the legendary cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond.  Born 90 years ago today in Hungary, Zsigmond got his start in the 60s with low-budget films like The Sadist but he went on to become one of the most in-demand cinematographers around.  In fact, of all the people who started their career working on a film that starred Arch Hall, Jr.,  it’s hard to think of any who went on to have the type of success that Zsigmond did.

Zsigmond won one Oscar, for his work on Close Encounters of Third Kind.  He was nominated for three more.  He also received a BAFTA award for his work on The Deer Hunter and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on Stalin.  He’s considered to be one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

In honor of the memory of Vilmos Zsigmond, here are….

4 Shots From 4 Films

The Long Goodbye (1973, dir by Robert Altman, DP: Vilmos Zsigmond)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, dir by Steven Spielberg, DP: Vilmos Zsigmond)

The Deer Hunter (1978, dir by Michael Cimino, DP: Vilmos Zsigmond)

Blow Out (1981, dir by Brian DePalma, DP: Vilmos Zsigmond)