Film Review: Wargames (dir by John Badham)


If you thought Tom Cruise nearly started a war in Top Gun, you should see what Matthew Broderick did three years earlier in Wargames!

In Wargames, Broderick plays David Lighter, a dorky but likable teenager who loves to play video games and who spends his spare time hacking into other computer systems.  (Of course, since this movie was made in 1983, all the computers are these gigantic, boxy monstrosities.)  Sometimes, he puts his skills to good use.  For instance, when both he and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) are running the risk of failing their biology class, he hacks into the school and changes their grades.  (At first, Jennifer demands that he change her grade back but then, a day later, she asks him to change it again.  It’s kind of a sweet moment and it’s also probably the way I would have reacted if someone had done that for me in high school.)  Sometime, David’s skills get him into trouble.  For instance, he nearly destroys the world.

Now, keep in mind, David really didn’t know what he was doing.  He was just looking for games to play online.  He didn’t realize that he had hacked into NORAD and that Global Thermonuclear War was actually a program set up to allow a gigantic computer named WOPR to figure out how to properly wage a thermonuclear war.  David also doesn’t know that, because humans have proven themselves to be too hesitant to launch nuclear missiles, WOPR has, more or less, been given complete control over America’s nuclear arsenal.

(Wargames actually starts out with a chilling little mini-movie, in which John Spencer and Michael Madsen play two missile technicians who go from joking around to pulling guns on each other during a drill.  Of course, Madsen’s the one ready to destroy the world.)

Of course, the military folks at NORAD freak out when it suddenly appears as if the Russians have launched a nuclear strike against Las Vegas and Seattle.  (Not Vegas!  Though really, who could blame anyone for wanting to nuke Seattle?)  In fact, the only thing that prevents them from launching a retaliatory strike is David’s father demanding that David turn off his computer and take out the trash.  However, WOPR is determined to play through its simulation, which pushes the world closer and closer to war.  (One of the more clever — and disturbing — aspects of the film is that, even after the military learns that the Russians aren’t planning the attack them, they still can’t go off alert because the Russians themselves are now on alert.   Once the war starts, it can’t be stopped even if everyone knows that the whole thing was the result of a mistake.)

With the FBI looking for him, David tries to track down the man who created WOPR, Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood).  However, Falken is not easy to find and not as enthusiastic about saving the world as one might hope….

Watching Wargames was an interesting experience.  On the one hand, it’s definitely a dated film.  (Again, just look at the computers.)  At the same time, its story still feels relevant.  In Wargames, the problem really isn’t that WOPR wants to play a game.  It’s that men like Dr. John McKittrick (well-played by Dabney Coleman) have attempted to remove the human element and have instead put all of their faith in machines.  The appeal of a machine like WOPR is that it has no self-doubt and does whatever needs to be done without worrying about the cost.  But that’s also the reason why human beings are necessary because the world cannot be run on just algorithms and cold logic.  That’s a theme that’s probably even more relevant today than it was in 1983.

Wargames is also an exceptionally likable film.  In fact, it’s probably about as likable as any film about nuclear war could be.  On the one hand, you’ve got everyone at NORAD panicking about incoming missiles and then, on the other hand, you’ve got David and Jennifer having fun on his computer and trading flirty and silly quips.  Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are both likable in the two main roles.  Broderick brings a lot of vulnerability to the role of David.  (David Lightner is a far more believable teenager than Ferris Bueller.)  He handles the comedic scenes well but he’s even better as David grows increasingly desperate in his attempts to get the stubborn adults around him to actually listen to what he has to say.  When it appears the only way to save the world is to swim across a bay, David is forced to admit that he’s never learned how to swim because he always figured there would be time in the future.  Yes, it’s a funny scene but the way Broderick delivers the line, you understand that David has finally figured out that there’s probably not going to be a future.  It’s not that he doesn’t know how to swim.  It’s that he’ll never get the chance to learn or do anything else for that matter.

Wargames is definitely a film of its time but its themes are universal enough that it’s a film of our time as well.

Stranger On My Land (1988, directed by Larry Elikann)


The Air Force wants to build a new air base in Utah but the Whitman family refuses to sell their ranch.  Bud Whitman (Tommy Lee Jones) served in Vietnam and he disapproved just as much of forcing Vietnamese villagers to move as he now disapproves of the idea of allowing the government to force American citizens to move.  When a judge rules that the Air Force can force the Whitmans to vacate their property under the rule of eminent domain, Bud announces that he still will not be moving.  With several of Bud’s old combat buddies showing up to support Bud, the villainous county surveyor, Connie Priest (Terry O’Quinn), prepares to take matters in his own hands.

Tommy Lee Jones vs. Terry O’Quinn?  That sounds like it should have the makings of a classic but Stranger On My Land is a largely forgettable made-for-TV movie.  A huge part of the problem is that O’Quinn’s character doesn’t have any real motivation beyond just being a prick and that seems like a waste when you consider the number of interesting villains that Terry O’Quinn has played over the years.  This is the actor who, in The Stepfather, actually made a multiple murderer seem a little bit likable.  Connie Priest seems like a villain that O’Quinn could have done a lot with if only the film’s script hadn’t been so simplistic.  Tommy Lee Jones is always well-cast as a modern day western hero but again, the script doesn’t do much with his character.  He’s just Tommy Lee Jones yelling at people to get off his property.  You could probably go to Tommy Lee Jones’s own ranch and have the exact same experience without having to sit through the rest of this movie.  Even Bud’s ethical objections to the Vietnam War feel like something that was just tossed in to assure the people watching at home that he’s not meant to be some sort of gun-toting militiaman.  The best performance in the movie comes from Ben Johnson, who is plays Tommy Lee Jones’s father.  That’s prefect casting.  If Ben Johnson wasn’t actually Tommy Lee Jones’s father, he probably should have been.

The main problem with Stranger On My Land is that it was made for television and it had to operate within the limits of what was acceptable for television in 1988.  The entire movie seems to be building up to a fierce battle between Bud and law enforcement but instead, it settles for a personal fight between Bud and Connie.  The film’s sudden ending doesn’t feel authentic but it does feel like what you’d expect to find on ABC in the late 80s.

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)


cracked rear viewer

Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in…

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A Movie A Day #210: Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989, directed by Pat Flaherty)


Who’s Harry Crumb?

He is a private detective, the latest in a long line of gumshoes.  While Harry’s father and his grandfather may have been great detectives, Harry is about as incompetent as can be.  He is a self-styled master of disguise but not much else.  He is employed at Crumb & Crumb Detective Agency, solely because of his family background.  When the head of the agency, Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones), engineers the kidnapping of a millionaire’s daughter, he gives the case to Harry because he knows Harry will never be able to solve it.

Who’s Harry Crumb?

He is John Candy, the much beloved and much missed comedic actor from Canada.  As anyone who has ever seen an old episode of SCTV knows, John Candy could be one of the funniest men alive but Hollywood rarely knew what to do with him.  Other than the movies that he made with John Hughes, Candy was always stuck in either supporting roles or in bad comedies.  In Art Linson’s A Pound of Flesh, veteran film producer Linson writes that, because of Candy’s size, some Paramount executives wanted to cast him as Al Capone in The Untouchables.  That is something that I would have enjoyed seeing.  Instead, some actor named Robert De Niro got that role and Candy ended up making movies like Who’s Harry Crumb?

Who’s Harry Crumb? tries to be a mix of comedy and mystery but, due to a weak script and uncertain direction, it does not really succeed as either.  John Candy delivers a few laughs because he was a naturally funny actor but, as a character, Harry Crumb is not that interesting.  Instead, the film is stolen by Annie Potts, playing a duplicitous femme fatale.  Potts and Candy previously came close to working together in the original Ghostbusters.  (Candy pulled out of the role of Louis Tully so that he could play Tom Hanks’s brother in Splash.  He was replaced by his SCTV co-star, Rick Moranis.)  The rest of the cast seems bored and uninterested in what they are doing.  Even Jeffrey Jones, usually so reliable in smarmy bad guy roles, seems bored.

John Candy died just 5 years after the release of Who’s Harry Crumb?, leaving behind two intriguing dream projects, one a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle and another an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.  Sadly, Hollywood never really figured out what to do with this talented comedian.

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #107: No Country For Old Men (dir by the Coen Brothers)


No_Country_for_Old_Men_posterI love my home state of Texas and I love movies. Therefore, it has always upset me that most movies set in Texas get the state totally wrong.  That’s not exactly shocking.  Unlike the rest of the states, there’s actually a lot of variety to Texas.  We’re a big state and we’re home to a lot of people.  Unlike some place like Vermont, Texas is a world all its own and it’s not surprising that most outsiders are incapable of getting their mind around that and instead find themselves embracing simple-minded clichés and stereotypes.  That’s perhaps why the best films about Texas tend to be ones that were actually made by Texans.  If you want to see the real Texas — flaws and all — than I suggest watching the films of Richard Linklater or perhaps Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.

And yet, it took two outsiders to write, produce, and direct one of the best films ever made about Texas.  The 2007 best picture winner No Country For Old Men was largely the work of two brothers from Minnesota, Joel and Ethan Coen.  It’s not only one of the best films about my home state but it’s also one of the best films of the past decade.

Based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men tells the story of three determined men in South Texas whose lives are interconnected despite the fact that three of them spend almost the entire movie one step behind each other.  In fact, despite a few brief encounters where their paths meet, it can be argued that, at no point, do any of them truly interact with each other face-to-face.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the type of person that anyone who has ever lived in Texas will have met.  He’s a hard-working, plain-spoken man, the type who drives a pickup, owns a gun, and likes to begin and end the day with a beer.  He lives in a trailer with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald, who may be Scottish but speaks here with an almost flawless Texas accent).  Llewelyn’s not a bad guy but he’s not as smart as he thinks and, like a lot of folks down here, he doesn’t like the idea of being told what to do.  In fact, he’d almost rather die for his trouble than admit to making a mistake.  When Llewleyn comes across the aftermath of a drug deal turned violent, he takes off with a suitcase that contains $2,000,000.  After barely escaping the remaining drug dealers (and the scene where Llewelyn is chased by a pit bull is a classic), Llewelyn sends Carla Jeans to stay with her sick mother and then he grabs the suitcase and heads over to the next county.  It quickly becomes apparent, to the viewers at least, that Llewelyn has absolutely no idea how to get out of the mess that he’s found himself in.

And it’s quite a mess because Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) has been hired to track down the money.  Perhaps one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Chigurh is an almost unstoppable force of death and destruction.  Chigurh pursues Llewelyn across Texas, killing almost everyone who he meets along the way.  Interestingly enough, just as Llewelyn continually makes excuses for his own greed, Chigurh also makes excuses for his murderous activities, seeming to obsess over the role of fate and chance.  Whereas Llewelyn refuses to give up the suitcase, even though it means that he’s putting his own wife in danger, because he insists that he can figure out a way to keep the money, Chigurh occasionally dodges responsibility for his own actions by flipping a coin and putting the blame on fate.

And finally, there’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who is both the most decent and the most ineffectual male character to be found in the film.  He’s an old-fashioned lawman, the type who, had this film been made in the 50s or the 60s, would have been played by Gary Cooper and would have both vanquished Chigurh and given Llewelyn and Carla Jean marriage advice as well.  In the world of No Country For Old Men, however, Ed is almost always one step behind both Chigurh and Llewelyn.  Instead of saving the day, Ed spends most of the movie shocked and saddened by the violence around him.  As the film draws to its conclusion, he’s left to wonder whether any one man can make a difference.  He’s left to literally wonder whether his area of South Texas has truly become no country for old men.

I recently rewatched No Country For Old Men on TCM and I was surprised to discover just how well this film holds up, even after repeat viewings.  If anything, the film actually improves on repeat viewings.  Once you know how the story is going to end (and, in a fashion typical of both the Coens and Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men does not have a traditional ending), it’s easier to see all of the things that you may have been too overwhelmed to appreciate the first time, like Kelley McDonald’s performance as Carla Jean and Stephen Root’s cameo as Chigurh’s shady employer.

However, for me, the main reason that I appreciate No Country For Old Men is because it is one of the few films that actually manages to get South Texas right.  My mom was born and grew up in South Texas, in the town of Benavides to be exact.  I’ve spent a lot of time down there.  The portrait that No Country For Old Man paints of South Texas is not always flattering but it is largely accurate.  No County For Old Men captures both the region’s terrifying violence and its natural beauty.  It’s honest about the fact that there are men like Anton Chigurh but, at the same time, you occasionally meet an Ed Tom Bell as well.  And, of course, there’s a Llewelyn Moss in every town.  He’s the one who you meet and you hope — often against your better instincts — that he won’t get in over his head.

The Academy named No Country For Old Men the best film of 2007.  For once, the Academy was right.