Snatched (1973, directed by Sutton Roley)


Three women have been kidnapped and are being held prisoner in a lighthouse.  Robin Wood (Tisha Sterling), Kim Sutter (Sheree North), and Barbara Maxvill (Barbara Parkins) are married to three wealthy men and the kidnappers (one of whom is played by the great Anthony Zerbe) assume that the husband will be willing to pay whatever is necessary to get back their wives.  Paul Maxvill (John Saxon) and Bill Sutter (Leslie Nielsen!) are willing to put up the money but Duncan Wood (Howard Duff) scoffs at the idea of paying a million dollars just to see his adulterous wife again!

It sounds like the set-up for a Ransom of Red Chief-type of comedy but Snatched is actually a very serious and intelligent thriller, one that will definitely keep you on your toes as you try to keep up with who is working for who.  Kim is diabetic and is growing weaker every minute that she’s being held in the lighthouse.  Paul, Bill, and police detective Frank McCloy (Robert Reed) try to get Duncan to pay his share of the ransom but Duncan is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him and he refuses to pay for her.  On top of that, it turns out that one of the wives might be in on the scheme.  When she tells the kidnappers that she’s actually the one who came up with the plan, is she just trying to protect the other wives or is she telling the truth?  It leads to betrayal and a surprisingly downbeat ending.

Snatched is a well-produced made-for-TV movie.  The mystery will keep you guessing and the cast is made up of a collection of old pros.  Leslie Nielsen, cast here long before he reinvented himself as a comedic actor, is especially good as Bill Sutter and John Saxon gives one of his better performances as Paul.  Even Robert Reed gives a good performance.  Snatched is a classic made-for-TV mystery.

18 Days of Paranoia #13: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1970 police procedural, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, opens with a murder in San Francisco.

A prostitute has been found dead in a sleazy apartment building and, according to witnesses, she was visited, shortly before her death, by the Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau).  Rev. Sharpe is a prominent civic leader, an outspoken liberal who is a friend of the civil rights movement.  Sharpe is currently at the forefront of a campaign to pass a city referendum that will add a “mini city hall” to every neighborhood and will help to fight against the gentrification of San Francisco.  If Sharpe’s guilty, it will mean the death of the referendum.

Despite the fact that there’s a ton of evidence piling up against him and he kind of comes across as being a little bit creepy (he is, after all, played by Martin Landau), Rev. Sharpe insists that he’s innocent.  Yes, he’s been visiting prostitutes but he’s not a client.  No, of course not!  Instead, Sharpe explains that he’s simply counseling them and praying for their souls.  In fact, as far as Sharpe is concerned, this whole thing is just an attempt by the establishment to discredit his efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.

Heading up the investigation is a friend and supporter of Sharpe’s, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).  That may seem like a good thing for Sharpe, except for the fact that Tibbs is an honest cop and he’s not the type to let friendship stand in the way of doing a thorough investigation.  Tibbs admits that he supports Sharpe’s campaign and he wants the reverend to be innocent.  But Tibbs is all about justice.  Whether it’s teaching his son an important lesson about smoking or tracking down a potential serial killer, Virgil Tibbs is always going to do the right thing.

There are other suspects, all of whom are played by suitably sinister character actors.  Anthony Zerbe plays a criminal who lived near the prostitute.  Ed Asner plays her landlord, who may have also been her pimp.  Is Sharpe being set up by the powers that be or is Tibbs going to have to arrest a man whom he admires?

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was the second film in which Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs.  The first time he played the role was in 1967, when he co-starred with Rod Steiger in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night.  In that film, Poitier was a Philadelphia cop in the deep south who had to work with a redneck sheriff.  In They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Virgil is now working in San Francisco and he has to work the case on his own.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is a far more conventional film than In The Heat of the Night.  Whereas In The Heat of the Night had a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could just as easily have taken place in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.  With the exception of some slight profanity, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! feels more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual feature film.  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that there’s no real surprises to be found within the film.  You’ll guess who the murderer is within the first 10 minutes of the film and you’ll probably even guess how the movie will eventually end.

On the plus side, just as he did in In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier brings a lot of natural authority to the role of Virgil Tibbs.  He’s actually allowed to show a sense of humor in this film, which is something that the character (understandably) couldn’t do while he was surrounded by bigots and rednecks during his previous adventure.  Virgil gets a few family scenes, where we watch him interact with his wife and his children.  The scenes feel out of place but, at the same time, Poitier plays them well.

With Sharpe attempting to get his referendum passed and the possibility that riots could break out if Sharpe is indeed guilty of murder, there’s a slight political subtext to They Call Me Mister Tibbs!  Sharpe’s argument that he was being set up by the establishment undoubtedly carried a lot of weight in 1970.  Still, this is ultimately a shallow (if adequately entertaining) film that, for the most part, is only made memorable by Poitier’s commanding performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller

I Am Legend: THE OMEGA MAN (Warner Brothers 1971)


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When I was a lad of 13, back in the Stone Age, I saw THE OMEGA MAN on the big screen during it’s first run. I remember thinking it was real cool, with Charlton Heston mowing down a bunch of mutant bad guys with his sub-machine gun, some funny one-liners, and a few semi-naked scenes with Rosalind Cash. What more could an adolescent kid ask for in a movie? Now that I’m (ahem!) slightly older, I recently re-watched the film, wondering just how well, if at all, it would hold up.

I’m happy to report THE OMEGA MAN, despite some flaws in logic, stands the test of time as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi action/adventure, with a touch of Gothic horror thrown in. The film is the second of three based on Richard Matheson’s novel I AM LEGEND, the first written by Matheson himself (under the pseudonym Logan Swanson) as THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, a 1964…

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A Movie A Day #17: The Laughing Policeman (1973, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


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San Francisco in the 1970s.  Revolution is in the air.  Hippies are on every street corner.  A man named Gus Niles knows that he’s being tailed by an off-duty cop, Dave Evans.  Gus boards a city bus, knowing that Evans will follow him.  On the bus, an unseen gunman suddenly opens fire with an M3 submachine gun, not only killing both Evans and Gus but six other people as well.  After the bus crashes, the gunman calmly departs.  At first, it is assumed that the massacre was another random mass shooting, like Charles Whitman in Austin or Mark Essex in New Orleans.  But one San Francisco detective is convinced that it wasn’t random at all.

The Laughing Policeman was one of the many police procedurals to be released after the box office success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and, despite the name, it’s also one of the grimmest.  While the complex mystery behind why Evans was following Gus and who killed everyone on the bus is intriguing, The Laughing Policeman‘s main focus is on the often frustrating nitty gritty of the investigation, complete with false leads, uncooperative witnesses, unanswerable questions, and detectives who frequently make stupid mistakes.  The movie’s first fifteen minutes are devoted to the police processing the bus, with Stuart Rosenberg (best known for directing Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) using overlapping dialogue to give the entire scene a documentary feel.  As Detective Jake Martin, Walter Matthau is even more cynical and downbeat than usual while Bruce Dern provides good support as a younger, more volatile detective.  The supporting cast is full of 70s character actors, like Lou Gossett, Anthony Zerbe, Gregory Sierra,and playing perhaps the sleaziest drug dealer ever seen in an American movie, Paul Koslo.

The Laughing Policeman was based on a Swedish novel that took place in Stockholm but, for the movie, Swedish Detective Martin Beck became world-weary Sgt. Jake Martin and Stockholm became San Francisco.  Rosenberg directed the entire film on location, giving The Laughing Policeman the type of realistic feeling that would later be duplicated by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order.  Though it may not be as well-known as either Dirty Harry or The French Connection, The Laughing Policeman is a dark and tough police procedural, an underrated classic of the genre.

Incidentally, The Laughing Policeman was one of the first films for which character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing.  According to Dern’s autobiography, Matthau generously insisted that Dern be credited, with him, above the title.

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Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #28: The Turning Point (dir by Herbert Ross)


(Lisa is currently in the process of trying to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing all 40 of the movies that she recorded from the start of March to the end of June.  She’s trying to get it all done by July 11th!  Will she make it!?  Keep visiting the site to find out!)

The 28th film on my DVR was the 1977 film The Turning Point.  I recorded it off Indieplex on June 3rd.

I guess I should start this review by admitting that I really have no excuse.  As someone who grew up dreaming of being a prima ballerina and who unknowingly caused her mother to spend an incalculable amount of money of dance classes, dance outfits, dance shoes, dance trips, and all the medical bills that go along with having a klutzy daughter who is obsessed with ballet and as someone who continues to love to dance today, I really have no excuse for not having seen The Turning Point before last night.  Along with The Red Shoes and my beloved Black Swan, The Turning Point is one of three ballet movies to have been nominated for best picture.  It’s a film that, as a result of its box office success, established many of the clichés that continue to show up in dance movies to this day.

Seriously, how had I not seen it before?

And make no mistake about it — The Turning Point is a dance movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s a plot.  Actually, there’s several plots and it’s not incorrect to describe The Turning Point as being something of a soap opera.  But ultimately, all the plots are just window dressing.  Director Herbert Ross started his career as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theater and the characters in The Turning Point are fictionalized portraits of people that he actually knew.  Ross’s love for both ballet and the dancers comes through every frame of The Turning Point and the film’s best moments are when the melodrama takes a backseat to the performances onstage.

But I guess we actually should talk about the melodrama.  Okay, here goes:

Many years ago, DeeDee (Shirley MacClaine) and Emma (Anne Bancroft) both belonged to the same New York ballet company.  DeeDee was the star of the company and was set to play the lead in Anna Karenina when another dancer with the company, Wayne (Tom Skerritt), got her pregnant.  DeeDee not only dropped out of the company but she married Wayne and moved back to his home state of Oklahoma.  (The film suggests, in an oddly regressive moment, that Wayne only slept with DeeDee in order to prove that, despite being a male dancer, he wasn’t gay.)  DeeDee and Wayne opened a dance studio in Oklahoma City while Emma got the lead in Anna Karenina and went on to become a prima ballerina.

18 years later, Wayne and DeeDee’s daughter, Emilia (Leslie Browne), is invited to join the company.  Because Emilia is shy and somewhat naive, DeeDee accompanies her to New York while Wayne stays behind in Oklahoma with their younger children.

Once in New York, DeeDee starts to wonder if she made the right decision when gave up ballet for domesticity.  She run into an old friend, conductor Joe Rosenberg (Anthony Zerbe, not playing a villain for once) and has an affair with him.  Meanwhile, Emma is having an affair with a married man named Carter (Marshall Thompson) and is struggling to accept that she’s getting older and will soon have to retire.  Just as DeeDee regrets giving up dancing, Emma regrets never having children.

Meanwhile, Emilia slowly starts to come into her own and blossom as a dancer.  She even ends up having an affair with the self-centered and womanizing Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov), one of the stars of the company.  Emilia and Emma start to grow close, with Emma treating Emilia like her own daughter.  DeeDee finds herself growing jealous of both her daughter and her former best friend.

Needless to say, it all leads to Emma throwing a drink in DeeDee’s face and the two of them having a cat fight on the streets of New York…

The Turning Point is no Black Swan or Red Shoes.  Leslie Browne (who was playing a character based on herself) was a great dancer but not much of an actress so you never care about her the way that you do Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  The dancers are amazing in both films but Darren Aronofsky literally put the audience in Portman’s ballet slippers while Herbert Ross keeps the audience at a distance, allowing them to watch and appreciate the dancers’s passion but not necessarily to experience it with them.

But, with all that in mind, I still enjoyed The Turning Point.  What can I say?  I love dance movies!  Both Shirley MacClaine and Anne Bancroft give excellent performances.  Bancroft apparently had no dance experience before shooting The Turning Point (and it’s hard not to notice that, whenever Emma is performing, the camera focuses on those moving around her as opposed to Emma herself) but she still does a good job of poignantly capturing Emma’s fear of getting older and her joy when she realizes that Emilia looks up to her.  MacClaine, meanwhile, has an amazing scene where she watches her screen daughter perform and, in just a matter of seconds, we watch as every emotion — pride, envy, regret, and finally happiness — flashes across her face.

And, of course, there’s that cat fight.  It’s a silly scene, to be honest.  But seriously, if there was any actress who could convincingly throw a drink in someone else’s face, it was Anne Bancroft.

The Turning Point was nominated for 11 Oscars and it ended up setting a somewhat dubious record when it managed to win exactly zero.  (This perhaps shouldn’t be surprising when you consider its competition included Annie Hall and the first Star Wars.)

Well — no matter!

Though the film may not be perfect, I liked it!

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Shattered Politics #93: American Hustle (dir by David O. Russell)


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“Some of this actually happened.”

— Opening Title of American Hustle (2013)

I have always been surprised by how much some people hate the 2013 best picture nominee, American Hustle.  Even two years after the film was first released, you’ll still find people whining that the film felt like David O. Russell’s attempt to remake Goodfellas (yes, I have actually seen more than a few people online making this idiotic claim) or claiming that the movie was overrated or that there wasn’t anyone in the film that they could root for.  While every film has its detractors, I’m always a little bit taken aback by just how passionately some people dislike this film.

Some of it, of course, is because the film that beat American Hustle for best picture was the universally acclaimed 12 Years A Slave.  As hard as it may seem to believe now, there were a lot of people who thought that American Hustle might actually beat 12 Years A Slave.  Strangely enough, a lot of online film bloggers tend to take a Manichaen approach to the Oscars, viewing each year’s race in terms of good and evil. The film that they want to win represents good and, therefore, every competing film must represent evil.  It’s a pretty stupid and immature way of looking at things but, then again, the stupid and immature approach has worked pretty well for Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams over at AwardsDaily.com so who am I to criticize?

Of course, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the majority of American Hustle‘s most strident online critics have been male.  I imagine that they watched the film and, in Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, they saw every unresolved crush of their adolescence.  When Amy Adams successfully fooled Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper, these critics saw themselves being fooled.  When Jennifer Lawrence called Bale a “sick son of a bitch,” these critics felt that they were being called a sick son of a bitch.  American Hustle is a film about men who don’t know how to talk to women and that probably struck a little too close to home for a lot of those online critics.

(I imagine that the majority of online American Hustle haters probably preferred Rooney Mara’s version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Noomi Rapace’s.)

Of course, the truth of the matter is that American Hustle was one of the best films of a very good year.  Of all the films nominated for best picture of 2013, American Hustle was my personal favorite.

Based, very loosely, on true story, American Hustle is a period piece.  It takes place in the late 70s, which of course means that we get a lot of great music, a scene in a disco, and clothes that are both somehow ludicrous and to die for at the same time.  It’s a glamorous film about glamorous people doing glamorous and not-so-glamorous things and how can you not love that?

Irving (Christian Bale, giving a brave performance) is a generally nice guy who also happens to be a con artist.  His unlikely partner is Sydney (Amy Adams), a former stripper turned Cosmo intern.  When Sydney is working with Irving, she takes on a totally different identity and tells people that she’s Lady Edith Greensly, a British aristocrat who has international banking connections.  When Sydney plays Edith, she speaks in a posh British accent and what’s interesting is that her accent is often (deliberately) inconsistent.  However, as Irving points out, it doesn’t matter whether her accent is a 100% convincing or not.  What’s important is that people want her to be Lady Edith Greensly and people will make excuses for almost anything as long as it confirms what they want to believe.

Eventually, Irving and Sydney are arrested by ambitious and highly strung FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).  Richie, who spends a good deal of the film with curlers in his hair, lives with his mother and has a boring fiancée who he doesn’t seem to like very much.  (Richie is also briefly seen sniffing coke, which might explain a lot of his more extreme behavior.)  Richie wants to make a name for himself and he views Irving and Sydney as his way to do so.  He blackmails them into helping him set up and arrest crooked politicians and businessmen.  Richie also finds himself growing obsessed with Sydney, who he believes to be English even after she tells him that she isn’t.

All of this eventually leads to Irving and Richie setting up the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito, who may be corrupt but who also seems to sincerely care about helping the citizens of his town, wants to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City.  Irving and Richie introduce him to FBI agent Paco Hernandez (Michael Pena), who is disguised as Sheik Abdullah and who they claim is interested in investing in Carmine’s plans.  This, of course, leads to a meeting both with a local Mafia don (Robert De Niro) and with several politicians who agree to help out the Sheik out in exchange for money.

(And no, the film did not lie.  This is based on a true story, believe it or not.)

Complicating things is the fact that Irving himself comes to truly like the generous and big-hearted Carmine and how can you not?  When the film was first released, Jeremy Renner was a bit overshadowed by Bale, Cooper, Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence.  However, Renner gives the best performance in the film, playing Carmine with a disarming mix of innocence and shrewdness.  He’s the type of guy who is smart enough to walk out on the first meeting with the fake sheik’s associates but who is still naive enough that he can be charmed by Irving.  When the fake sheik gives Carmine an equally fake knife as a gift, the look of genuine honor on Carmine’s face is heart-breaking.

The other big complication is Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence).  Rosalyn is jealous, unstable, unpredictable, and, in her own way, one of the smarter people in the film.  She’s also a bit of pyromaniac and, when she accidentally blows up a new microwave, you’re really not surprised.  (And, when Rosalyn starts to obsessively clean the house while singing Live and Let Die at the top of her lungs, I felt like I was watching a blonde version of myself.)  When Rosalyn starts to have an affair of her own, it leads to American Hustle‘s satisfying and twisty conclusion.

(Again, a lot of the same online toadsuckers who irrationally hate American Hustle seem to hold a particular contempt to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in this film, as if to acknowledge that Lawrence — as always — kicks ass would somehow be a betrayal of Lupita Nyong’o’s award-winning performance in 12 Years A Slave.)

Don’t listen to the haters.  American Hustle is a great film, a stylish and frequently funny look at politics, corruption, and the ways that people con themselves into believing what they want and need to be true.

Shattered Politics #49: The Dead Zone (dir by David Cronenberg)


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So, it seems like every time that I write a review of any film based on a novel by Stephen King, I always have to start out by explaining that I think, while King’s success is undeniable, the fact that he’s overrated is also undeniable.  It’s a comment that I always make and then I have to deal with people going, “But, Lisa, everyone loves Stephen King!  He’s the most commercially successful author ever!  He’s a modern-day Charles Dickens!”

Bleh.

Make no mistake, I think that Stephen King is a talented writer.  However, I don’t think that he’s the greatest writer that has ever lived and that’s where I often come into conflict with King’s fans.  (Stephen King fans tend to be like religious fanatics when it comes to defending their belief.)  Having read both King’s earlier work and his more recent books, it’s hard for me not to feel that Stephen King has been growing steadily complacent.  There’s a certain self-importance to his prose and his plotting that, for me, is the literary equivalent of nails on chalk board.  If anyone is guilty of believing the most fawning praise of his biggest fans, it would appears to be Stephen King who, to judge from his twitter feed, appears to also believe that he’s our most important cultural critic as well.

(To be honest, I’d probably have more tolerance for King’s attempts at cultural and political criticism if he wasn’t so  predictable about it all.  Stephen King may write best sellers but that doesn’t mean he has anything interesting or unique to say about current events.)

Anyway, since I don’t feel like having to deal with all of that shit all over again, I’m not going to start this review by saying that I think Stephen King is overrated.  In fact … whoops.

Okay, so much for that plan.

Even I have to admit that The Dead Zone is one of Stephen King’s better books.  First off, it’s less than a 1,000 pages long.  Secondly, the hero isn’t a writer who spends all of his time whining about the political preferences of his neighbors.  Third, it deals with all of the “big” issues of faith, destiny, and morality but it does so in a far less heavy-handed manner than most of King’s books.

The Dead Zone is also the basis for one of the better films to be adapted from a Stephen King novel.  Directed by David Cronenberg and starring Christopher Walken, the film’s plot closely follows the novel.  Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) is a high school teacher who, after a horrific car crash, spends five years in a coma.  When he finally wakes up, he discovers that his girlfriend, Sarah (Brooke Adams), has married another man.  His mother has become a religious fanatic.  And, perhaps most importantly, whenever Johnny touches anyone, there’s a good chance that he’ll see either the person’s past or a possible future.

Needless to say, Johnny struggles with how to deal with his new powers.  After he helps to catch a local serial killer, Johnny goes into seclusion.  However, when he discovers that Sarah is now volunteering for ambitious politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), Johnny goes to a Stillson rally, shakes the man’s hand, and has a vision.  Johnny discovers that, if Stillson is elected to the senate, he’ll eventually become President and then he’ll destroy the world.

Much like The Shining, The Dead Zone benefits from being directed by a filmmaker who was both confident and strong enough to bring his own individual style to the material.  (Usually, when a King adaptation fails, it’s because it followed the source material too closely, as if the film’s producers were scared of upsetting any of King’s constant readers.)  Though the film’s plot may closely follow the novel, the movie itself is still definitely more of a product of David Cronenberg than Stephen King.  Whereas King’s novel devoted a good deal of time to Johnny and Sarah’s relationship, it’s treated as almost an afterthought in Cronenberg’s film.  Whereas King’s novel presented Johnny Smith as being an everyman sort of character, Cronenberg’s film gives us a Johnny who, from the start of the film, is a bit of an outsider even before he starts to see the future.  Whereas King put the reader straight into Johnny’s head, Cronenberg approach is a bit more detached and clinical.  Cronenberg’s Johnny is a bit more of an enigma than King’s version.

Fortunately, Cronenberg was fortunate enough to be able to cast Christopher Walken in the role of Johnny Smith.  King’s preference for the role was Bill Murray.  As odd as it may sound, you can actually imagine Bill Murray in the role when you read King’s book.  But, for Cronenberg’s more detached vision, Walken was the perfect choice.  People tend to spend so much time focusing on Christopher Walken’s quirky screen presence that there’s a tendency to forget that he’s actually a very talented actor as well.  He’s very likable and sympathetic as Johnny and brings a humanity and a sense of humor to the role, which provides a good balance to Cronenberg’s sense of detachment.

The Dead Zone is a good book and it was later turned into an occasionally good (and, just as often, not-so-good) television series.  However, the film is still the best.

Shattered Politics #34: The Parallax View (dir by Alan J. Pakula)


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Judging from the films that the decade produced, the 1970s were truly a paranoid time.  (Of course, 2015 is a paranoid time as well, which is probably why so many of the classic films of the 70s still feel incredibly relevant.)  Some weekend, you should watch a marathon of 1970s films and I guarantee that, by the time Monday rolls around, you will be looking for lurkers in every shadow and automatically distrusting any and all authority figures.  The 1970s were a good time to be paranoid.

And it’s really not surprising at all.  The previous decade was a time of turmoil and upheavel, a time when some people feared protestors and some people feared the establishment but, ultimately, everyone was afraid of someone.  When you think of the 1960s, you think about all the leaders who were violently assassinated — John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and more.  (And that’s just in America!)  And then the 70s came along, with Watergate and the revelations about the CIA partnering up with the Mafia to try to kill Fidel Castro.

The 70s were a good time to be paranoid and the films of the 70s reflected that fact.

Take for instance, 1974’s The Parallax View.  The Parallax View opens and ends with assassination.  In both cases, the victims are U.S. politicians who are running for President and whose ambitions have caused concern for the shadowy and rarely seen leaders of the established order.  In both cases, the official story is that the assassin was a lone gunman, a nut with a gun and absolutely no political or religious motivations.  Of course, both accused assassins were apparently involved with the shadowy Parallax Corporation and, over the course of the film, anyone who knows anything about Parallax ends up dying.  Reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) goes undercover to investigate the group but, as he does so, he grows increasingly paranoid and unstable, until finally  it’s easy to mistake him for any other paranoid madman, ranting in the street and, in many ways, indistinguishable from the accused assassins that he’s been investigating.  In many ways, Joe becomes like a character in a H.P. Lovecraft short story who, upon laying eyes on Cthulhu, is driven mad as punishment.

It’s a good film, one that’s enhanced by Gordon Willis’s trademark shadowy cinematography and the convincing desperation of Warren Beatty’s performance.  In the film’s best scene, Frady applies for a job with the Parallax Corporation.  As a part of his job interview, he’s taken a dark room and he’s told to watch a short film.  His reactions will help to determine what role he could possibly play at Parallax.

Needless to say, The Parallax View feels just as relevant today as it did when it was first released.  We still live in paranoid times and hints of conspiracy are still everywhere to be seen.  Perhaps the only thing that has changed is that, back in 1974, conspiracies could still take people be surprise.

Now, we just take them for granted.

James Bond Film Review: Licence to Kill (dir. by John Glen)


Licence to Kill, which was initially released in 1989, was the 16th “official” James Bond film.  It was also the second and the last one to feature Timothy Dalton in the role of James Bond.  This is the one where Felix Leiter gets eaten by a shark, Bond resigns from MI6, and ends up going to Central America in search of revenge.  Sad to say, it’s also one of my least favorite of the Bond films.

Licence to Kill starts out with Bond in Florida, attending the wedding of his best friend, Felix Leiter (played by David Hedison, who previously played the role in Live and Let Die).  However, before going to ceremony, Felix and Bond take a few minutes to arrest notorious drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  With the help of a crooked DEA agent (played by a wonderfully smarmy actor named Everett McGill), Sanchez escapes from custody.  Accompanied by his psychotic henchman Dario (Benecio Del Toro), Sanchez gets his revenge by killing the new Mrs. Leiter and feeding Felix to a shark.  When Bond discover the barely alive Felix, he also discovers a note that (in a scene borrowed from the novel Live and Let Die) reads, “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Investigating on his own, Bond discovers that Sanchez’s partner in Florida is the wonderfully named Milton Krest (played by a brilliantly sleazy Anthony Zerbe).  Soon, James Bond is on a mission of vengeance that involves tracking down and killing every member of Sanchez’s organization.  However, M (Robert Brown) doesn’t like the idea of his best secret agent killing the entire population of Florida.  Bond responds by resigning from the service and heading to Central America on his own.

In typical Bond film fashion, James Bond manages to infiltrate Sanchez’s organization and Sanchez soon takes a liking to the man who has vowed to kill him.  Along the way, Bond romances both Sanchez’s abused mistress Lupe (Talisa Soto) and an ex-CIA agent named Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) and the viewers learn that Sanchez’s criminal enterprise not only involves drugs but also a crooked TV preacher (played by Las Vegas mainstay Wayne Newton) as well.

Let’s start with the positive.  Robert Davi, playing the role of Franz Sanchez, makes for a memorable villain.  Along with the silky charm and hints of madness that we’ve come to expect from Bond villains, Davi brings an almost perverse edge to the character.  Every line of dialogue that he delivers is practically dripping with decadence.  Whether he’s doting on his pet iguana, his main henchman Dario, or poor Lupe, Sanchez makes for a dangerously charismatic and compelling villain, one that feels like he would have been at home in one of Ian Fleming’s original novels.  Wisely, Davi plays his role almost as if he was playing James Bond and, as a result, the scenes that he shares with Dalton all have a crackling energy to them that is missing from the film as a whole.

In fact, almost all of the villains are compelling in this film, from Franz Sanchez all the way down to the lowliest henchman.  As played by a very young Benicio Del Toro, Dario is all smoldering intensity and arrogant swagger.  Smuggler Milton Krest is played by veteran character actor Anthony Zerbe and he gets one of the bloodiest death scenes in the history of the series.  However, I have to admit that my favorite bad guy was Sanchez’s business manager, Truman-Lodge (played by Anthony Starke).  Truman-Lodge is just so enthusiastic about the business opportunities that came along with allying oneself with evil that it’s rather infectious.

With such a memorable collection of bad guys, it’s a shame that the film didn’t provide them with any goals worthy of their evil talents.  In previous (and future) Bond films, far less interesting villains have still come up with plans to allow them to take over the world.  Even Moonraker‘s Hugo Drax was able to overcome his lack of personality and come up with a diabolical intergalactic scheme.  Meanwhile, Franz Sanchez — one of the most complex and impressive Bond villains of all time — is simply content to sell drugs and feed people to sharks.  It feels almost disrespectful to Davi’s performance that Sanchez’s goals are, ultimately, so boring.

And, in the end, I think that’s the main problem that I have with Licence to Kill.  The film feels so predictable.  There’s nothing about it that makes it comes across as a story that could only have been about James Bond.  Instead, it feels like the type of standard action/revenge film that always seems to come out every summer.  The film’s hero might be an Englishman named James Bond but he could just as easily be an American named Jake Sully.

According to Sinclair McKay’s invaluable history of the Bond franchise, The Man With The Golden Touch, Licence to Kill was specifically written to compliment Timothy Dalton’s more “realistic” interpretation of the Bond character.  As Dalton played Bond as grim and serious, Licence to Kill is a grim and serious film.  Innocents and villains alike die in bloody agony and, the few times that Dalton does smile, the expression looks so unnatural that you worry that his face is about to split in half.  Unfortunately, along with being grim and serious, Dalton’s Bond is also remote and uncharismatic and, with the exception of Robert Davi, he doesn’t have any chemistry with anyone else in the cast.  (Carey Lowell brings a lot of energy to the role of Pam but Dalton’s Bond never seems to be that into her.)  Dalton simply doesn’t make for a very compelling hero and, as a result, Licence to Kill ends up feeling like an empty collection of occasionally impressive stunts.

Licence to Kill holds a few dubious distinctions.  It was the least financially succesful of all the Bond films and it was also the last Bond film to be produced by Albert Broccoli and directed by John Glen.  It was also the last to feature Robert Brown in the role of M and, of course, it was also the last to feature Timothy Dalton in the role of James Bond.  (That’s not all that shocking when you consider just how miserable and bored Dalton seems to be in this film.)  Over the next six years, the Bond franchise would be mired in a lawsuit between Eon productions and producer Kevin McClory and when James Bond finally did return, he would do so in the form of Pierce Brosnan.

We’ll be taking a look at Goldeneye tomorrow.

What could have been: The Godfather


I don’t know about you but I love to play the game of “What if.”  You know how it works.  What if so-and-so had directed such-and-such movie?  Would we still love that movie as much?  Would so-and-so be a star today?  Or would the movie have failed because the director was right to reject so-and-so during preproduction?

I guess that’s why I love the picture below.  Taken from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s notebooks, it’s a page where he jotted down a few possibilities to play the roles of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen in The Godfather.  It’s a fascinating collection of names, some of which are very familiar and some of which most definitely are not.  As I look at this list, it’s hard not wonder what if someone like Scott Marlowe had played Michael Corleone?  Would he had then become known as one of the great actors of his generation and would Al Pacino then be fated to just be an unknown name sitting on a famous list?

(This page, just in case you happen to be in the neighborhood , is displayed at the Coppola Winery in California.)

The production of the Godfather — from the casting to the final edit — is something of an obsession of mine.  It’s amazing the amount of names — obscure, famous, and infamous — that were mentioned in connection with this film.  Below is a list of everyone that I’ve seen mentioned as either a potential director or a potential cast member of The Godfather.  Consider this my contribution to the game of What If….?

Director: Aram Avankian, Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gravas, Sidney J. Furie, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Steve Kestin, Sergio Leone, Arthur Penn, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner, Peter Yates, Fred Zinnemann

Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando): Melvin Belli, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Callelia, Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Frank De Kova, Burt Lancaster, John Marley, Laurence Olivier, Carlo Ponti, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Raf Vallone,  Orson Welles

Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): John Aprea, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson*, James Caan, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, Art Genovese, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Margotta, Scott Marlowe, Sal Mineo, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Parks, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Romanus, Gianni Russo, Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger**, Dean Stockwell

Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan): Lou Antonio, Paul Banteo, Robert Blake, John Brascia, Carmine Caridi, Robert De Niro, Peter Falk, Harry Guardino, Ben Gazzara, Don Gordon, Al Letteiri, Tony LoBianco, Scott Marlowe, Tony Musante, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds***, Adam Roarke, Gianni Russo, John Saxon, Johnny Sette, Rudy Solari, Robert Viharo, Anthony Zerbe

Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall): James Caan, John Cassavettes, Bruce Dern, Peter Donat, Keir Dullea, Peter Falk, Steve McQueen, Richard Mulligan, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Ben Piazza, Barry Primus, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Rudy Vallee****, Robert Vaughn, Jerry Van Dyke, Anthony Zerbe

Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton): Anne Archer, Karen Black, Susan Blakeley, Genevieve Bujold, Jill Clayburgh, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Veronica Hamel, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neill, Michelle Phillips, Jennifer Salt, Cybill Shepherd, Trish Van Devere

Fredo Corleone (played by John Cazale): Robert Blake, Richard Dreyfuss, Sal Mineo, Austin Pendleton

Connie Corleone (played by Talia Shire): Julie Gregg, Penny Marshall, Maria Tucci, Brenda Vaccaro, Kathleen Widdoes

Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino): Frankie Avalon, Vic Damone*****, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Greco, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Carlo Rizzi (played by Gianni Russo): Robert De Niro, Alex Karras, John Ryan******, Sylvester Stallone

Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (played by Al Letteiri): Franco Nero

Lucas Brasi (played by Lenny Montana): Timothy Carey, Richard Castellano

Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco): William Devane

Mama Corleone (played by Morgana King): Anne Bancroft, Alida Valli

Appollonia (played by Simonetta Steffanelli): Olivia Hussey

Paulie Gatto (played by John Martino): Robert De Niro*******, Sylvester Stallone

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* Charles Bronson, who was in his mid-40s, was suggested for the role of Michael by the then-chairman of Paramount Pictures, Charlie Bluhdorn.

** By all accounts, Rod Steiger – who was then close to 50 – lobbied very hard to be given the role of Michael Corleone.

*** Some sources claim that Burt Reynolds was cast as Sonny but Brando refused to work with him.  However, for a lot of reasons, I think this is just an cinematic urban legend.

**** Despite being in his 60s at the time, singer Rudy Vallee lobbied for the role of the 35 year-old Tom Hagen.  Supposedly, another singer — Elvis Presley — lobbied for the role as well but that just seems so out there that I couldn’t bring myself to include it with the “official” list.

***** Vic Damone was originally cast as Johnny Fontane but dropped out once shooting began and announced that the project was bad for Italian Americans.  He was replaced by Al Martino.

****** John P. Ryan was originally cast as Carlo Rizzi but was fired and replaced with Gianni Russo.  Ryan went on to play the distraught father in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.  Russo went on to co-star in Laserblast.

******* Robert De Niro was originally cast in this role but dropped out to replace Al Pacino in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Pacino, incidentally, had to drop out of that film because he was given the role of Michael in The Godfather.