Book Review: Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture by Theodore Gershuny

In 1975, United Artists released a political thriller called Rosebud.

Rosebud was based on a best-selling novel.

Rosebud dealt with terrorism, an important topic both in 1975 and today.

Rosebud was directed by Otto Preminger, an acclaimed, award-winning filmmaker who was known for making controversial movies and who had a showman’s flair for publicity.

Rosebud had an international cast of screen veterans and up-and-coming stars.  Peter O’Toole, Richard Attenborough, Cliff Gorman, Peter Lawford, Raf Vallone, Adrienne Corri, Lalla Ward, Claude Dauphin, Isabelle Huppert, and Kim Cattrall all had key roles.  Former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate John V. Lindsay made his acting debut as a U.S. senator.

Rosebud was released with a good deal of publicity.

And, finally, Rosebud is almost totally forgotten today.  Not only did Rosebud receive less-than-stellar reviews, it’s box office failure pretty much spelled the end of Preminger’s directorial career.  (He directed one more film after Rosebud.)  Rosebud sunk into such obscurity that, for years, it wasn’t even available on anything other than VHS tape.  It was finally given a Blu-ray release in 2021 but, unlike some of Preminger’s other films, Rosebud isn’t going to end up getting a Criterion release anytime soon.  (That said, it can currently be streamed for free on a few sites.  So, go watch it after you finish this review.)

Having seen Rosebud, I can tell you that the film wasn’t forgotten because it was a disaster or anything like that.  Instead, Rosebud was forgotten because it was thoroughly mediocre.  There’s nothing particularly terrible about it but there’s nothing particularly good about it.  Instead, it’s a slowly-paced and flatly directed film.  There are a few interesting scenes, the majority of which involve Richard Attenborough’s terrorist.  But otherwise, it’s just a mediocre film from a director who was past his prime.

Interestingly enough, Rosebud’s mediocrity is what makes the 1980 book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, such an interesting read.  While directing Rosebud, Otto Preminger allowed journalist and filmmaker Ted Gershuny to observe every detail of the production.  From Erik Lee Preminger’s attempt to write a workable script to the casting sessions to the film’s eventual release, Gershuny was there.  Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture tells the story of how a group of talented people ended up making a thoroughly forgettable film.  There have been plenty of books written about the production of terrible movies.  There’s been even more books written about the making of classic films.  But Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture is one of the few books to take a serious and detailed look at what it’s like to make a thoroughly mediocre film.  And let’s be honest, most films are mediocre.  Most films are more likely to be Rosebud than they are to be The Godfather, Goodfellas or Battlefield Earth.

The book, not surprisingly revolves around Otto Preminger.  The Preminger described in the book is a complex figure, a proud man and an occasionally sensitive artist who is also frequently a bully.  As the book makes clear, Preminger can be kind but he also came of age at a time when it was common place for directors to yell and be autocratic.  Preminger’s habit of shouting rubs more than a few crew and cast members the wrong way.  When he’s not yelling, Preminger comes across as thoughtful and witty but there’s also an undercurrent of sadness to him as Preminger realizes that the film industry is changing and that he’s getting left behind.  The fact that he directed films like Anatomy of a Murder, Laura, Exodus, and The Cardinal didn’t matter in the new Hollywood.  The same things that had once led to Preminger being branded a rebel and an innovator now led to him being branded as being out-of-touch.  Rosebud was Preminger’s attempt to remain relevant, both artistically and politically.  Unfortunately, the 70s were a brutal decade for the directors who previously defined Hollywood’s Golden Age.  Some, like John Huston, were eventually able to adjust and make a few more good films before their careers were ended by either retirement or death.  Most, however, were like Preminger, too engaged to quit but too old-fashioned to keep up with the younger filmmakers.  Still, even when it becomes obvious that Rosebud is not going to work as a film, Preminger refuses to give up or surrender.  He’s going to make his movie.

Also making a huge impression is Robert Mitchum.  Mitchum was originally cast in the film’s leading role and, having seen Rosebud, it’s easy to understand why Mitchum would seem like the ideal choice to be play Larry Martin, a cynical and hard-boiled journalist and CIA asset.  When Mitchum first appears in the book, he’s a breath of fresh air.  Even on the printed page, it’s easy to see that Mitchum’s no-nonsense style invigorated the disorganized production.  However, Mitchum quickly becomes disillusioned, walks off the film, and is hastily replaced by Peter O’Toole.  Not even Gershuny seems to be sure what specifically caused Mitchum quit the film, though it’s suggested that Mitchum felt that he had been personally slighted by Preminger.  (At one point, Mitchum claims that Preminger accused him of being drunk when he was sober.  At another point, it’s suggested that Mitchum walked because he realized that film wasn’t going to be any good and he felt he was wasting his time.)  O’Toole does his best to take Mitchum’s place, though his poor health proves to be almost as much of a challenge as Mitchum’s bad attitude.

(That said, O’Toole’s apparent frailty disappeared after the production received a bomb threat that is later revealed to have been a hoax.  The book suggests that O’Toole and his entourage tracked down the hoaxer and essentially beat the Hell out of him.)

It’s a highly interesting and well-written book, one that will make you appreciate the effort that goes into making even a forgettable film.  Used paperback copies can ordered off of Amazon for $22.00.  I found my copy at Recycled Books in Denton, Texas and paid $3.00 for it.  Support you local independent book stores, people.

Powerplay (1999, directed by Chris Baugh)

Shannon Tweed plays Jacqueline, a sexy con artist who seduces older men and then, after she poisons them, runs away with all of their money.  After her latest target, Benjamin Alcott (Bryan Kent), ends up floating dead in his swimming pool, Jacqueline heads off to find her next target.  Ben’s estranged daughter, Candice (Danielle Ciardi), is upset to learn that Ben only left her his library of book while leaving all of his money to Jacqueline.  Along with her sleazy boyfriend, Steve (Jim Richer), Candice tracks Jacqueline down and tries to con the con artist.

Shannon Tweed is top-billed in Powerplay but she’s not in much of the movie.  Both onscreen and off, this was clearly a take the money and run job for Tweed.  Still, a little bit of Tweed is better than no Tweed at all, especially where a film like Powerplay is concerned.  Of all the actresses who regularly appeared in late night Cinemax in the 90s, Tweed was definitely the most talented and she brings some needed energy to her scenes.  Tweed’s main strength as a star was always that she could be appealing and sexy even while she was smirking about killing someone and Powerplay makes good use of that ability.

The majority of the film, though, follows Candice and Steve as they try to track Jacqueline down.  In a nice twist, Candice is just as greedy, voracious, and cold-hearted as Jacqueline and Danielle Ciardi (who bore a probably not coincidental resemblance to Neve Campbell in Wild Things) does a good job of playing her.   This was Ciardi’s film debut and, according to the imdb, her only starring role.  That is too bad because it seems like she had the talent to do much more.  Unfortunately, Jim Richer is far less effective in the role of Steve.  In fact, all of the male performances in Powerplay are lousy and are not helped by an overly convoluted script that features a few plot twists that are incoherent even by the standards of the typical direct-to-video neonoir.  Powerplay ends with multiple cons and double-crosses but none of them feel earned.  There’s a difference between something like Stephen Frears’s The Grifters, where the con is obvious once you know what to look for, and Powerplay, where the con feels like a last minute addition to the script.

But who am I kidding?  This film wasn’t made for an audience that’s going to be watching for the plot.  They’re going to be watching because Shannon Tweed takes a shower while the man she poisoned dies nearby and because Candice is written and portrayed as almost being a nymphomaniac.  (Candice has a creative way of handling things when a hotel employee knock on the door of a room that she’s not supposed to be in.)  Powerplay has enough sex and nudity that it was undoubtedly popular when it showed up on late night Cinemax in 1999.  But it doesn’t have enough of a story to be memorable for any reason beyond that.

Film Review: American Siege (dir by Edward Drake)

For a few months, I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not I wanted to review American Siege.

On the one hand, I try to review every film that I see, regardless of how bad (or good) it might be.  I love movies.  I love talking about them.  I love writing about them.  I love sharing my opinions about them and hearing and reading the opinions of others.  That goes for all films, even really bad ones like American Siege.

On the other hand, American Siege is also one of the films that Bruce Willis made shortly before announcing his retirement from acting.  Since his retirement was announced, there have been a lot of stories that have suggested that Bruce’s condition led to him accepting a lot of roles that he normally would not have even considered and that Willis was not always fully aware of what was happening on the sets of the films in which he appeared.  Regardless of how much of that is true or not, it’s a heart-breaking story and it makes it difficult to watch Willis in a film like American Siege.

In American Siege, Willis plays a sheriff in a small Georgia town.  When a group of loud rednecks take a local pharmacist hostage, Willis and his deputies drive out to the man’s house.  However, Willis is ordered to stand down by the richest man in town, who is played by Timothy V. Murphy.  It turns out that the pharmacist has evidence that links Murphy to an unsolved crime.  The rednecks might be loud and stupid and self-destructive but it turns out that they’re not actually the worst people in town.

American Siege is 90 minutes of people shouting at each other and pointing guns out of windows.  There’s not much of a story to be found and even the unsolved mystery is a bit of a dud.  As was typical of his last few films, Bruce Willis is only on screen for a few minutes and he delivers his lines in a heart-breakingly flat monotone.  The rest of the cast is actually okay, even if they do go bit a overboard with the fake Southern accents.  The rednecks are convincingly redneck-y and Murphy is convincingly condescending as the rich man who has never had to face any consequences for his actions.  But the main reason anyone is going to watch this film is because of Bruce Willis and, sadly, there’s none of the swagger that made Willis in a superstar.

So, why am I reviewing American Siege?  Mostly it’s so I can recommend that, if you are really determined to watch one Bruce Willis’s later films, you skip American Siege and watch Gasoline AlleyGasoline Alley was made by the same director and it also features Bruce Willis but it’s a hundred times better than American Siege and it actually gives Willis a decent role to go out on.

Of course, my ultimate recommendation, as far as all this is concerned, is that you go and rewatch the first three Die Hards.  They’re not just for Christmas!

Novel Review: The Plot To Kill The President by Jack Pearl

President Harmon Stevens is a liberal who is looking to reign in the influence of the Military-Industrial complex and the CIA.  So, of course, it’s decided that the President must be taken care of.

Fortunately for the conspirators, back when Stevens was in the army, he took part in the court martial of a soldier named Paul.  Paul was given a dishonorable discharge on account of killing enemy POWs.  The reader is told that Stevens shouted, “You have the Mark of Cain on you!,” which …. okay.  I guess it’s possible that someone outside of 17th century Massachusetts spoke like that.  Now, Paul spends all of his time feeling bitter and watching cartoons.  He’s a Bugs Bunny fan because he believes that Bugs is a sociopath, just like him.  (Personally, I think Bugs is just a force of chaos.  Sociopath is a bit extreme.)  One day, Paul’s cartoon watching is interrupted by the opportunity to take part in a plan to take out Stevens.  However, Paul soon discovers that he’s being set up to be a patsy, much like Lee Harvey Oswald.  Will Paul risk his life to reveal the truth?

The Plot To Kill The President is one of the many paperbacks that I found in my aunt’s collection of old books.  It was originally published in 1972 and it’s very much a book that was inspired by the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracy theories surrounding it.  Paul is a disillusioned American.  It’s not just that he has a personal grudge against the President.  It’s that he no longer believes in the promise of America and, as a result, he has no problem with the idea of betraying it.  It’s not until an awkwardly written date with a recently naturalized citizen that Paul starts to realize that America can be saved.  (How awkward is the encounter?  At one point, Paul’s date recites the pledge of allegiance in the middle of a restaurant.)

Anyway, it’s a fairly silly and overheated book.  It’s written in the first person, so we’re not only subjected to Paul as a character but we’re also forced to spend way too much time in his head.  Paul is one of those people who has a lot of ideas but none of them are particularly interesting.  Before I started writing this review, I looked up the book online and I came across someone speculating that Jack Pearl was a pen name for Jack Ruby!  Actually, Jack Pearl was a journalist who wrote several paperback thrillers.  He also wrote a non-fiction book about the JFK assassination, in which he supported the idea that Oswald was a part of a larger conspiracy.  That’s not surprising.  The Plot To Kill The President was clearly written by a true believer, even if it’s never as convincing as it tries to be.

Probably the most interesting thing about the novel is that the copy that I read had a cigarette advertisement inserted into the middle of it.  It was for Kent cigarettes and featured attractive people laughing while holding cigarettes.  They all had perfectly white teeth, without a hint of nicotine staining.  I’ve noticed that quite a few 70s paperbacks came with cigarette ads.  I always wonder how effective they were.  In 1972, was anyone reading The Plot To Kill The President and thinking to themselves, “Damn, I need a cigarette?”

Film Review: Ambulance (dir by Michael Bay)

Ambulance is the ultimate Michael Bay movie.

Obviously, whether or not that’s a good thing for you personally will depend on how you feel about Michael Bay.  As a director, Bay specializes in kinetic thrill rides, the type of films where the camera never stops moving, the characters are attractive but shallow, and every plot development is an excuse for another action sequence.  Michael Bay is hardly the first, only, or last director to put action and spectacle above characterization and a coherent storyline.  However, he might very well be the most shameless about it.  Michael Bay’s approach has not made him a favorite of the critics but it has usually proved successful with audiences.  Personally, I’ve smirked at a lot of scenes in a lot of Michael Bay films.  (I still laugh whenever I remember the slow motion shot of the children playing in front of the faded JFK campaign poster in Armageddon.)  But, in this age of self-important filmmakers, it’s hard not to appreciate a director who just wants to have a good time.

And, make no doubt about it, Ambulance is definitely a good time.  The film’s plot is simple.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II rob a bank.  When the robbery goes wrong, they hijack an ambulance.  In the back of the ambulance is an EMT played by Eliza Gonzalez, who is desperately trying to keep a wounded cop (Jackson White) from dying.  Gyllenhaal and Abdul-Mateen also want to make sure that the cop doesn’t die because they know that, if they’re captured, the penalty for being a cop killer is considerably worse than the penalty for being a bad bank robber.  With the entire LAPD and the FBI in pursuit, the two men drive the ambulance through Los Angeles, trying to find a way to escape.  Essentially, Michael Bay said, “You know how everyone enjoys a chase scene?  What if we made the chase scene last for 136 minutes?”  And wisely, some people gave him money to do just that.

(Actually, that’s just the way that I like to imagine it.  Ambulance is actually a remake of a Danish film and Michael Bay originally passed on the project.  But, as they put it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, print the legend.)

Jake Gyllenhaal may be top-billed but the star of Ambulance is definitely Michael Bay.  In many ways, there’s not much about Bay’s direction here that’s different from what he’s been doing since The Rock.  The camera moves a lot.  The images are sharp and clear.  The rapid-fire editing captures the chaos of the action scenes, occasionally at the cost of letting the audience know just who exactly is shooting at who.  But what sets apart Ambulance from other Bay films is that Michael Bay finally discovered his greatest collaborator, the drone.  Bay’s camera flies across Los Angeles, zooming over buildings and down streets and essentially making the viewer as much a part of the chase as Gyllenhaal and the cops pursuing him.  Ambulance moves with so much energy and confidence that it doesn’t matter that it’s a bit too long and that Gyllenhaal’s plan often doesn’t make much sense.  Ambulance is a thrill-ride, a film that rewards anyone who is willing to just go with it.  It’s an example of what Lucio Fulci called “pure cinema,” where the story itself is not as important as the way the director puts it all together.  I enjoyed it.  That ambulance barreling through the streets of Los Angeles was the 21st century equivalent of the speeding train that thrilled and terrified audiences during the silent era.

Unfortunately, Ambulance struggled a bit at the box office.  I’m a bit confused as to why, other than it wasn’t a part of a franchise or a sequel (like The Batman, Dr. Strange, and Top Gun: Maverick) and it didn’t have the mix of strong reviews and pop cultural cachet that led audiences to make Everything Everywhere All At Once into a hit.  Along with reviews that were more interested in criticizing Michael Bay in general as opposed to actually considering whether or not the film itslef worked, Ambulance was damaged by the fact that audiences were still getting used to the idea of leaving their homes for a night out.  I get the feeling that a lot of people looked at the commercials for Ambulance and said, “That’s something I can watch at home.”  (Admittedly, that’s what I did.)  It’s a shame that Michael Bay’s ultimate (and, I would say, best) film is also one of the few to be deemed a box office failure.  The film is currently on Peacock.  Try to watch it on the biggest screen you can find.