In the Line of Duty: The Price of Vengeance (1994, directed by Dick Lowry)

Johnnie Moore (Brent Jennings) is a former limo driver turned criminal mastermind.  The members of his gang look up to him with cult-like admiration.  On his orders, they have been robbing businesses all over town.  Johnnie says that he is a man of God but he has no hesitation when it comes to ordering his men to threaten and sometimes kill any witnesses.  When Detective Tom Williams (Michael Gross) comes to close to finally convincing someone to testify against the gang, Moore orders his assassination.  When the members of his gang fail to get the job done because none of them want to shoot Tom when his family is around, Johnnie does it himself by dressing up as a clown and gunning Tom down in front of Tom’s son.  That was Johnnie’s biggest mistake because now, he’s got Tom’s best friend, Detective Jack Lowe (Dean Stockwell), after him.

After Street Wars, NBC’s next two In The Line of Duty films both focused on FBI sieges.  Both The Siege at Marion and Ambush in Waco featured true stories of the FBI trying to arrest religious fanatics and having to wait out a stand-off.  Ambush in Waco was controversial because it was not only based on the Branch Davidian stand-off but it was actually filmed while the stand-off was still going on.  Perhaps because of the controversy, The Price of Vengeance tells a much simpler and less exploitive story.  Johnnie Moore is a criminal who kills a cop.  Jack Lowe makes it his mission to put him away.  There’s no risk of anyone watching siding with Johnnie Moore like they may have done with David Koresh while watching Ambush in Waco.  Moore kills a man in front of his son and then laughs about it.  Everyone watching is going to want to see him get punished and they are going to cheer on the efforts of law enforcement to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

The Price of Vengeance is a typical police procedural but it has a good cast.  After playing a killer in the first In The Line of Duty movie and the lead FBI man in the third one, Michael Gross is cast as the victim here and he’s so likable that you’ll be angered when he gets gunned down.  Dean Stockwell brings his no-nonsense, down-to-Earth style to the role of Gross’s best friend and Brent Jennings is smug and evil as Johnnie Moore.  Mary Kay Place, Kathleen Robertson, and Justin Garms play the members of Gross’s family and they all do a good job of showing the trauma that they’ve suffered as a result of his murder.  Keep an eye out for Courtney Gains, playing a member of Moore’s criminal crew.  Gains played this same character in a dozen different films.  If you see Courtney Gains in a movie, look out because he’s up to no good!

The Price of Vengeance is a standard 90s cop show.  Nothing about it will take you by surprise but it’s partially redeemed by its cast.

A Movie A Day #109: Where’s Marlowe? (1999, directed by Daniel Pyne)

Two documentarians (Mos Def and John Livingston) decided to make a film about two real-life private detectives, Joe Boone (Miguel Ferrer) and Kevin Murphy (John Slattery).  At first, Boone is skeptical of the two filmmakers.  He watched their last documentary, a three-hour epic about New York’s water supply, and was disappointed by the lack of sex.  However, as the two filmmakers follow him around, he warms up to them and they discover that the tough and sarcastic Boone is actually a soft-hearted idealist who can barely pay the bills.  When Boone discovers that Murphy is sleeping with the wife of one of their clients, their partnership dissolves.  It looks like Boone is going to have to shut down his agency, unless the two filmmakers can help him solve his latest case.

Where’s Marlowe? starts out strong by focusing on Miguel Ferrer’s performance as Joe Boone.  Ferrer did not get to play many leading roles but he was perfectly cast as Joe Boone.  He is completely believable as an old-fashioned private investigator struggling to survive in the modern world.  During the movie’s less interesting second half, the attention shifts to the filmmakers trying to help Boone.  Mos Def and John Livingston are good in their roles but the film’s focus should have stayed on Ferrer.  Unfortunately, the main mystery is never as interesting as Miguel Ferrer’s solid lead performance.

Where’s Marlowe? started out as a pilot and it is easy to see where it would have gone if it had become a television series.  For all of its flaws, it is worth it just to see Miguel Ferrer in a rare leading role.

A Movie A Day #16: Boycott (2001, directed by Clark Johnson)


Originally made for HBO, Boycott is one of the best and, unfortunately, least-known films made about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Boycott tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, starting with the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to sit in the back of the bus to the eventual integration of the Montgomery public transportation system.  Clark Johnson directs Boycott in a semi-documentary, handheld style, which adds an immediacy to the oft-told story.

Boycott focuses on the role that 24 year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Jeffrey Wright) played as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and how the boycott’s success turned King into a national figure.  Jeffrey Wright does a great job playing the young King and it’s interesting to watch as the initially uncertain King finds both his voice and his strength as a leader.  Boycott works as a good companion piece to Selma, not the least because Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta Scott King in both of them.

Also giving a noteworthy performances are Terrence Howard as King’s second-in-command, Ralph Abernathy and Erik Dellums in the role of Bayard Rustin, who was one of King’s closest confidants but, because he was gay, was often left outside of the movement’s inner circle.  Before they worked together on Boycott, Dellums, the son of former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, co-starred with Clark Johnson on Homicide: Life on the Street.

Boycott is a tribute to not just Martin Luther King but also the entire civil rights movement.

Horror Film Review: Alone in the Dark (dir by Jack Sholder)


“There are no crazy people, doctor.  We’re all just on vacation.”

— Frank Hawkes in Alone In The Dark (1982)

What is the difference between being crazy and being sane?  Why are some forms of delusion considered to be socially acceptable while others are condemned?  Who is the ultimate authority on what is normal and what is abnormal?  These are just some of the issues that are raised by the gleefully subversive 1982 horror film, Alone In The Dark.

We know that there’s something off about Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence) from the minute we meet him.  His smile is a little too nervous and his constant patter of positive words sound a little bit too rehearsed and convenient.  When he greets another doctor, he insists on hugging him but it’s an awkward hug.  Dr. Bain seems to be trying just a little bit too hard.  (In many ways, Pleasence seems to be poking fun at his best-known role, Halloween‘s intense and dramatic Dr. Loomis.)

Dr. Bain is in charge of a psychiatric hospital.  He doesn’t believe in conventional therapy.  Instead, his hospital is perhaps the most oppressively positive place in the world, a place where every delusion is treated as being perfectly normal and where the patients are treated very leniently.

In fact, security is only present on the third floor of the hospital.  That’s because the third floor is home to four inmates who are criminally insane.  Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance) is a former POW who suffers from paranoia and gets mad whenever he hears anyone curse.  Bryon “Preacher” Sutcliffe (Martin Landau) is a pyromaniac.  Ronald Estler (Erland van Lidth) is a gigantic child molester.  And finally, there’s The Bleeder, who always hides his face.  The Bleeder is a serial killer who is called the Bleeder because, whenever he kills, his nose starts to bleed.

Dr. Bain scoffs at the idea that these four even need security but, as he explains it, the state requires it.  However, one night, the power goes out and the four of them manage to escape.  As they make their way into the nearby town, they rather easily blend into the mob of “normal” people who are using the blackout as an excuse to go looting.

However, these four patients are on a very specific mission.  They had all grown to trust their psychiatrist, Dr. Merton.  However, Dr. Merton was eventually hired away by another hospital.  Frank is convinced — and has convinced the others — that Dr. Merton was murdered by their new psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz).  They’re goal now is to track down Dr. Potter and kill him and his family.

Meanwhile, Dr. Potter has issues of his own to deal with.  He’s a nice guy but he’s also a bit too uptight and rational for his own good.  (Early on in the film, he gets upset when his wife tries to get him to go see a band called the Sic Fucks.)  His younger sister, Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan), is visiting while she recovers from a nervous breakdown of her own.  She manages to get arrested while protesting a nuclear power plant and, when she gets out of jail, she insists on bringing another protester, Tom (Phillip Clark), home with her.

It all leads to one long night, during which the inmates lay siege to Dan’s house.  And, all the while, Dr. Bain worries about whether or not they’re all mad at him…

Alone in the Dark may come disguised as a slasher movie but actually, it’s a pitch black comedy, with a lot of the humor coming from the contrast between Dan’s rationality, Bain’s nonstop optimism, and the fact that every one else in the film is literally batshit insane.  The final siege is a masterpiece of suspense and Palance, van Lidth, and especially Martin Landau are memorably frightening in their menacing roles.  The film’s final scene deserves to be iconic.

Alone in the Dark is one of those horror films that definitely deserves to be better known.  Do NOT mistake it for the Uwe Boll film.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #75: Witness (dir by Peter Weir)

Witness_movieLast night, I was lucky enough to watch Witness, a best picture nominee from 1985.

Taking place in Pennsylvania, Witness tells the story of what happens when an Amish widow named Rachel (Kelly McGillis) and her 8 year-old son Samuel (Lukas Haas) decide to take a trip to visit Rachel’s sister.  Traveling on an Amtrak train, Samuel is amazed by his first view of the world outside of the close-knit and insular Amish society.  However, Samuel’s excitement soon turns to horror when they arrive in Philadelphia and he witnesses a man being brutally murdered.

Detective John Book (Harrison Ford, who received his first and, to date, only Oscar nomination for this film) is assigned to the case and arranges for Rachel and Samuel to stay with his sister.  John soon discovers that the murder was committed by two crooked cops, McFee (Danny Glover, who is pure evil in this film) and Ferguson (Angus MacInnes).  John goes to his superior officer, Chief Schaefer (Josef Sommer) with his evidence.  Soon after, McFee attempts to kill and seriously wounds John.  John realizes that Schaefer must be corrupt as well.

Book manages to drive Rachel and Samuel back to their farm in Lancaster County but, after dropping them off, he passes out from blood loss.  Knowing that sending John to the hospital would reveal Rachel and Samuel’s location to Schaefer, Rachel’s father (Jan Rubes) reluctantly allows John to stay at the farm.

And so, while McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer search for him, John temporarily pretends to be Amish.  He works in the fields.  He helps to build a barn.  He becomes something of a surrogate father to Samuel and he begins a forbidden flirtation with Rachel.

He also goes to town, where he watches as an idiotic local bullies the Amish, knowing that their religion forbids them from fighting back.  John responds by punching a bully, upsetting both the Amish and the a local store owner who yells that this will be terrible for the tourism.  In many ways, the scene is played for laughs and applause but there’s a very serious subtext here, as it would appear that the area’s main appeal to tourists is that you can humiliate the Amish without having to worry about any sort of retaliation.

While we, as viewers, definitely get some satisfaction from seeing John punch that jackass, it also allows Schaefer to discover where he and Rachel are hiding.  One morning, McFee, Ferguson, and Schaefer pull up outside the farm.  They get out of their car and, as the sun rises and with beautiful green fields on either side of them, the three men hold up their shotguns and start to walk down the road….

Witness may technically be a cop film but it’s actually so much more.  It’s a character study of a deeply cynical man who finds himself changed by simple and innocent surroundings.  It’s a love story, with Ford and McGillis illuminating the screen with their chemistry.  It’s a celebration of community, with the harshness of Philadelphia being contrasted with life among the Amish.  It’s a film full of beautiful images and it also features an excellent performance from Harrison Ford.

It’s a good film.  I’m glad that I witnessed Witness.

Horror Review: The Serpent and The Rainbow (dir. by Wes Craven)

The word zombies conjures up the flesh-eating variety popularized by George Romero’s horror films and the legion of films from others soon after. Prior to 1968’s Night of the Living Dead the word zombies was synonymous more with the gothic-like horror films which took the Haitian voodoo folklore about the recently dead being brought back to life by voodoo priests to act as mindless slaves. It’s this version of the word zombie which Wes Craven decided to explore with his 1988 film adaptation of the Wade Davis non-fiction book The Serpent and The Rainbow. Wes Craven’s film fictionalizes the ideas and treatises put forward in Davis’ book and creates a film which tries to put to light the true horror which lay behind the voodoo folklore regarding zombies.

The film introduces us to the ethnobotanist character of Dennis Alan (played by Bill Pullman) who’s approached by a major pharma-corporation about researching the scientific origins and cause of the voodoo “zombie”. He heads off to Haiti at a time when it’s going through a political upheaval that would lead to the subsequent revolution that topples the dictatorship of that country’s leader, Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier. During his time in Haiti he investigates story of a patient named Christophe who was reported dead 8 years past but seen recently walking about in a dazed manner. It’s while trying to get a handle on how Christophe was declared dead by authorities but then “resurrected” years later which brings Alan in contact with the local witch doctors who question Alan’s motives but also ridicule him for his narrow viewpoint regarding things which science cannot answer. But through persistence he finally gets one local to assist him in procuring the so-called “zombie powder” used to bring the dead back to life.

The Serpent and The Rainbow shows the real horror about zombification when Alan’s investigations and persistence to acquire the “zombie powder” brings the attention of the country’s secret police (the Tonton Macoutes) and one of it’s leaders and reported voodoo priest in Captain Dargent Peytraud (played by Zakes Mokae in a chilling performance) who warns him repeatedly not to continue. Repeated verbal warning and threats soon become more direct and physical as Alan finds out first-hand why no one in the country dares to speak of “zombies” to an outsider and why Captain Peytraud and his Tonton Macoutes were feared as if they were agents of the evil spirits of their voodoo faith.

Craven does a very good job in taking Wade Davis’ non-fiction book and creating a thrilling and suspenseful piece of horror which suggests that the lead character of Dennis Alan has stepped into a world that was steeped not just in the realm of science but also in the supernatural. The film includes some great scenes which shows Alan experiencing some very horrific nightmares which seems indistinguishable from his waking moments and vice versa. Unlike Craven’s previous work in horror which were imbued with some dark humor but always brutal in it’s depiction of everyday horror, this film rarely goes the gory route though the scenes of torture should make even the most hardened and jaded horror aficionado to squirm in their seat.

The true horror revealed by Craven’s film is the very human figure of Captain Peytraud and his Tonton Macoutes who use the local populace’s fear of “zombification” and how Peytraud has taken advantage of these people’s voodoo beliefs to control the public and keep themselves in power. It’s horror that many recognize and understand yet heightened even more with the addition of a local religious practice that’s relatively unknown and misunderstood by outsiders (especially by those in the West). The film never truly answers the question raised in the beginning of the film of whether the practice of “zombification” is wholly scientific and pharmacological in origins and cause or does religion and the supernatural has a hand in making the process occur. Even after the climactic encounter between Alan and Captain Peytraud in the end of the film only brings more questions which Craven seems to relish in not letting his film answer on either side of the discussion.

The Serpent and The Rainbow is one of those films during the 1980’s which never really got a fair shake from critics and the audience but has since gained quite a following in the years since it’s release. It’s actually one of Craven’s more subtle works during that period of time where violence in the film was the exception instead of the rule as in his past films. It’s a film which continues to gain fans as more and more younger film fans discover the film. Sometimes the word zombies doesn’t conjure up the typical flesh-eating variety but instead one even more horrific since it’s one based on real-life. Sometimes reality can be scarier than what we can conjure up in our minds. The Serpent and The Rainbow is one film which does a great job in supporting that.