A Movie A Day #164: Split Decisions (1988, directed by David Drury)


Craig Sheffer seeks symbolic revenge and Gene Hackman picks up a paycheck in Split Decisions!

Ray McGuinn (Jeff Fahey) is a contender.  Ever since he let his father’s gym and signed with a sleazy boxing promoter, Ray has been waiting for his title shot.  His father, an ex-boxer turned trainer named Dan (Gene Hackman), has never forgiven Ray for leaving him.  Meanwhile, his younger brother — an amateur boxer and Olympic aspirant named Eddie (Craig Sheffer) — worships Ray and is overjoyed when Ray returns to the old neighborhood to fight “The Snake” Pedroza (Eddie Velez).  But then Ray is told that if he doesn’t throw the fight, he’ll never get a shot at a title bout.  When Ray refuses, The Snake and a group of thugs are sent to change his mind and Ray gets tossed out of a window.

Eddie is determined to avenge his brother’s death.  Does he do it by turning vigilante and tracking down the men who murdered his brother?  No, he turns pro and takes his brother’s place in the boxing ring!  Dan reluctantly trains him and Eddie enters the ring, looking for symbolic justice.  Symbolic justice just doesn’t have the same impact as Charles Bronson-style justice.

The idea of a barely known amateur turning professional and getting a chance to fight a contender feels just as implausible here as it did in Creed.  The difference is that Creed was a great movie so it did not matter if it was implausible.  To put it gently, Split Decisions is no Creed.  The boxing scenes are uninspired and even the training montage feels tired.  Look at Craig Sheffer run down the street while generic 80s music plays in the background.  Watch him spar in the ring.  Listen to Gene Hackman shout, “You’re dragging your ass out there!”  In the late 80s, Gene Hackman could have played a role like Dan in his sleep and he proves it by doing so here.  Underweight pretty boy Craig Sheffer is actually less convincing as a boxer than Damon Wayans was in The Great White Hype.

Split Decisions is another boxing movie that should have taken Duke’s advice.

A Movie A Day #147: Crazy Joe (1974, directed by Carlo Lizzani)


Crazy Joe (Peter Boyle) is a gangster with a chip on his shoulder and a self-taught intellectual who can (misquote) Sartre and Camus with the best of them.  Sick of being taken for granted, Joe and his brother, Richie (Rip Torn), attempt to challenge the Mafia establishment.  The mob sets Joe up and gets him sent to prison.  While doing time, Joe befriends a Harlem gangster named Willy (Fred Williamson).  Refusing to associate with the other Italian prisoners, Joe allies himself with the black inmates and even helps to start a riot over the prison’s inhumane conditions.  When he is released, Joe hits the streets of New York with a vengeance, now backed up by Willy and his criminal organization.

Crazy Joe is based on the life of Joey Gallo, who was briefly a New York celebrity, hobnobbing with actors like Jerry Orbach and writers like Norman Mailer before he was gunned down at Umberto’s Clam Shop in Little Italy.  Though the names were changed to protect the guilty, Eli Wallach plays Vito Genovese, Charles Cioffi plays Joe Columbo, and Luther Adler is Joe Profaci.  Fred Williamson’s character is based on the infamous Nicky Barnes.

Crazy Joe is a good and violent mix of the gangster, prison, and blaxploitation genres.  Despite wearing an unfortunate toupee, Peter Boyle is great at putting the crazy in Crazy Joe and Fred Williamson ups the coolness factor of any movie he appears in.  Keep an eye out for Henry Winkler, giving a very un-Fonzie performance as Joe’s right-hand man.

Movie a Day #110: Femme Fatale (1991, directed by Andre R. Guttfreund)


Joseph Price (Colin Firth) was once a painter but now he is the world’s least likely park ranger.  One day, he meets the beautiful and mysterious Cynthia (Lisa Zane).  Within days, Joe and Cynthia are married but one morning, Joe wakes up to discover that Cynthia is gone and she has only left behind a brief note.  Searching for his wife, Joe goes to Los Angeles and discovers how little he knew about Cynthia.  Joe’s search eventually leads him into the world of porn, drugs, S&M, and performance art.

This month, every entry in Movie A Day has had a least one Twin Peaks connection.  Femme Fatale has two.  Joe’s best friend, a laid back artist who is usually seen painting a topless woman who sometimes wears a brown bag over her head, is played by Billy Zane, who appeared as John Justice Wheeler during the second season of Twin Peaks.  Also, Catherine Coulson (the show’s famous Log Lady) appears as a nun who provides an important clue to Cynthia’s past.

Femme Fatale used to show up on HBO in the 1990s and it is currently on YouTube.  It may not be a great film but it does have a good cast.  Along with Billy Zane and Coulson, Femme Fatale also features Scott Wilson as a shady psychologist, Lisa Blount as an actress who used to work with Cynthia, and Pat Skipper and John Lavachielli as two talkative thugs named Ed and Ted.  Both Carmine Caridi and the great Danny Trejo show up in small roles.  It may seem strange to cast the very British Colin Firth as a park ranger but it works.  As for Lisa Zane, who is Billy’s older sister, Cynthia was probably her best role.

Predictable though the movie may be, Femme Fatale is enjoyably stupid if you are in the right mood.  There should always be a time and place for the old neo noirs of 1990s.

A Movie A Day #91: Ruby (1992, directed by John Mackenzie)


Of all the stars to come out of Twin Peaks, Sherilyn Fenn’s star briefly shined the brightest and sadly, she was the most misused by Hollywood.  While it is true that Fenn has worked regularly since Twin Peaks went off the air, she has rarely gotten the great roles that someone with her talent deserves.  Instead, her performances have far too often been the best thing about an otherwise mediocre film.

For example, Ruby.

In this very speculative biopic about the strip club owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald and whose organized crime background has put him at the center of a thousand conspiracy theories, Danny Aiello plays Jack Ruby and Sherilyn Fenn plays his only friend, Sheryl Ann Dujean (or, when she’s stripping in the Carousel Club, Candy Cane).  The film portrays Jack Ruby as being a low-level mobster who is never as valuable or as important to his superiors as he thinks he is.  In this movie, Ruby is always on the outside looking in on the conspiracy and, when he kills Oswald, it is because he wants to prove that he is more than just a small time hood.  Candy, who was a composite of several Carousel Club dancers, maintains a strong platonic friendship with Jack and is always there for him to talk to, except for when she goes to Vegas to perform for and sleep with the President.

Ruby came out as the same time as JFK and it often seems like a fanfic based on Stone’s film.  Low budget and overwritten, Ruby never works as a movie but Danny Aiello is perfectly cast as the bombastic but insecure Jack Ruby.  Unfortunately, Ruby‘s screenplay often does not seem to know what it wants to say about its main character.  As Candy, Fenn is not given nearly enough to do but she still manages to show the same natural spark that made her a star on Twin Peaks.

Sherilyn Fenn is not the only Twin Peaks cast member to have a role in Ruby.  Keep an eye out for a post-Twin Peaks, pre-X-Files David Duchovny, playing the role of J.D. Tippit.

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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Back to School #44: Some Kind of Wonderful (dir by Howard Deutch)


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For the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been reviewing, in chronological order, some of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable teen films ever made.  We started with two films from 1946 and now, we find ourselves coming to the close of the decade that is often considered to be the Golden Age of teen films, the 1980s.  For our 44th entry in Back to School, we take a quick look at 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful.

Why a quick look?

Because, quite frankly, there’s not that much to say about it.

Some Kind of Wonderful is a story about an artistic, lower-class misfit who has a crush on one of the popular kids.  The only problem is that the popular kid is being cruelly manipulated by one of the richest students in school.  The misft also has a best friend who is totally in love with the misfit but the misft has somehow failed to notice this.  Eventually, the misfit does get to date the popular kid.  Both the popular kid and the misft are given a hard time by the members of their collective clique but they still manage to go on one truly amazing date.  Finally, the film ends with a big show down at a party and two people kissing outside.

Sound familiar?

If it does, that probably means that you’ve seen Pretty In Pink.  Some Kind of Wonderful is basically a remake of Pretty In Pink, the only difference being that the genders have been reversed and that the film is a lot more heavy-handed (and predictable) when it comes to examining class differences.   (Not coincidentally, both films were written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch and it must be said that when it comes to Some Kind of Wonderful, it’s easy to feel that both of them were simply going through the motions.)  The misfit is an aspiring painted named Keith (Eric Soltz).  His best friend is a drummer named Watts (Mary Stuart Masterson).  The object of Keith’s affection is Amanda (Lea Thompson).  Unfortunately, even though she lives in the same poor neighborhood as Keith and Watts, Amanda is dating the rich (and therefore, evil) Hardy (Craig Sheffer).

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When Keith finally works up the nerve to ask out Amanda, he doesn’t realize that she’s just broken up with Hardy and is on the rebound.  Watts is skeptical, telling Keith, “Don’t go mistaking paradise for a pair of long legs,” and I’m just going to admit that, as the proud owner of a pair of long legs, that line really annoyed me.  I guess it’s because I’ve known people like Watts, who always act like there’s something wrong with wanting to look good.

Shut up, Watts.

Shut up, Watts.

With the help of Watts and Duncan (Elias Koteas), the school bully that Keith managed to befriend in detention, Keith takes Amanda out on an amazing date and shows her a wonderful portrait that he’s painted of her.  At the same time, Hardy — angry because someone from a lower class is now dating his ex-girlfriend — starts to plot his own revenge…

There are some positive things about Some Kind of Wonderful.  There are two really good and memorable scenes that, momentarily, manage to elevate the entire film.  There’s the moment when Keith shows Amanda the painting.  And then there’s the erotically charged scene in which Keith and Watts practice how to kiss.  Koteas, Thompson, and Masterson all gives good performances.  Eric Stoltz is, at times, a bit too intense to sell some of the film’s more comedic moments but overall, he’s well-cast here.  (In fact, the only performance that I really didn’t care for was Craig Sheffer’s.  Sheffer one-dimensional villain only served to remind me of how good James Spader was in Pretty In Pink.)

That's no James Spader

That’s no James Spader

And yet, there’s just something missing from Some Kind of Wonderful, something that keeps this film from being … well, wonderful.  I have to wonder if I had never seen Pretty In Pink, would I have thought more of Some Kind of Wonderful?  Perhaps.  Whereas Pretty In Pink was full of the type of small details and clever moments that make it a joy to watch and rewatch, Some Kind of Wonderful is one of those films that you can watch once and enjoy it without ever necessarily feeling the need to ever watch it again.

Eric Stoltz is going to kill someone

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

—-

* 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.