A Movie A Day #103: Mobsters (1991, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff)


The place is New York City.  The time is the prohibition era.  The rackets are controlled by powerful but out of touch gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Salvatore Faranzano (Michael Gambon).  However, four young gangsters — Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and Bugsy Siegel (Richard Greico) — have an ambitious plan.  They want to form a commission that will bring together all of the Mafia families as a national force.  To do it, they will have to push aside and eliminate the old-fashioned mob bosses and take over the rackets themselves.  When Masseria and Faranzano go to war over who will be the new Boss of all Bosses, Luciano and Lansky seen their opportunity to strike.

I love a good gangster movie, which is one reason that I have never cared much for Mobsters. Mobsters was made in the wake of the success of Young Guns and, like that film, it attempted to breathe new life into an old genre by casting teen heartthrobs in the lead roles.  There was nothing inherently wrong with that because Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel were all still young men, in their 20s and early 30s, when they took over the Mafia.  (Costello was 39 but Mobsters presents him as being the same age as they other three.)  The problem was that none of the four main actors were in the least bit convincing as 1920s mobsters.  Christian Slater was the least convincing Sicilian since Alex Cord in The Brotherhood.  As for the supporting cast, actors like Chris Penn and F. Murray Abraham did the best that they could with the material but Anthony Quinn’s performance in Mobsters was the worst of his long and distinguished career.

Fans of Twin Peaks will note that Lara Flynn Boyle had a small role in Mobsters.  She played Luciano’s girlfriend.  Unfortunately, other than looking pretty and dying tragically, she was not given much to do in this disappointing gangster film.

A Movie A Day #88: Where The Day Takes You (1992, directed by Marc Rocco)


This month, since the site is currently reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, each entry in Move A Day is going to have a Twin Peaks connection.  Where The Day Takes You is a movie that has not just one but two connections to Twin Peaks.

Where The Day Takes You is an episodic film about young runaways living on the streets of Los Angeles.  Led by 22 year-old King (Dermot Mulroney), who ran away from home when he was 16, the runaways form a surrogate family.  While being constantly harassed by both the police and well-meaning social workers, some of the runaways get addicted to drugs while others turn to prostitution in order to survive.  Some find love.  Some find death.  They all go where the day takes you.  (Not sure if that was the movie’s tag line but it should have been.)

Where The Day Takes You is a gritty and often tough film, though it’s effectiveness is undercut by a predictable ending and the presence of too many familiar faces in the cast.  The runaways are made up of a who’s who of prominent young actors from the 1990s.  Balthazar Getty plays King’s second-in-command.  Sean Astin plays an obviously doomed drug addict.  Alyssa Milano and David Arquette play prostitutes.  Ricki Lake and James Le Gros play comedic relief.  Will Smith, in his film debut, plays a wheelchair-bound runaway.  Christian Slater and Laura San Giacomo show up as social workers while the police are represented by Rachel Ticotin and Adam Baldwin.  Everyone gives a good performance but the film would have worked better with unknown actors or even real runaways.  No matter how good a performance Sean Astin gives as a heroin addict, he is always going to be Sean Astin and it is always going to be difficult to look at him without saying, “I might not be able to carry the ring but I can carry you!”

The movie’s first Twin Peaks connection is that Lara Flynn Boyle, who played innocent Donna Hayward on Twin Peaks, plays innocent runaway Heather in Where The Day Takes You.  The role is cliché but Boyle shows the same charm that she showed while playing Donna.

The movie’s second Twin Peaks connection is more unexpected.  Kyle MacLachlan is effectively cast against type as Ted, the drug dealer who keeps most of the runaways hooked on heroin and who is perfectly willing to leave an overdosed junkie in a garbage bin.  Ted is about as far from Dale Cooper as you can get.

Film Review: Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II (2013, dir. Lars Von Trier)


IMG_9689

I’ll try and keep this short, unlike the movie, which if you watch the director’s cut as I did, comes out to about five and a half hours. Once you’ve sat through something like Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), which comes out to a little over twelve hours, this isn’t much. Also, despite what I’m going to say about it, it’s problems don’t come from it’s length. A lot of movies damage themselves by going past two hours, but not this one. The length really wasn’t an issue for me.

I’m also not going to pick out all the little stupid things like you see me do with Hallmark movies. Yes, Stellan Skarsgard says the Christian church split up in 1054 into Roman Catholic and Orthodox, but it actually fractured a long time before that break. Or the onscreen text, which you would expect in a Godard film. Especially when Skarsgard brings up Fibonacci numbers. That probably only ticked me off because I went through about nine years of college level computer science and really don’t want to hear about Fibonacci numbers ever again. Also, there’s a scene where she makes one attempt to have sex with black guys. It kind of reminded me of that “documentary” from the early 1970’s called Black Love. It’s there to mention that men are homophobic, but she is implicitly homophobic since sex with a woman is never brought up in this sex addict film. Von Trier also whips out the Two Kinds Of People In The World cliche, but it only makes sense if everyone is right handed. Well, let’s talk about the movie.

First, if you’re a fan of Lars Von Trier, then it’s a no brainer. This movie is for you. Don’t hesitate to watch it. If you are like me and love Breaking The Waves (1996), then this has similar material, but it’s not even remotely as moving. If you were offended by Dogville (2003) like I was, then don’t worry, this isn’t offensive stuff. It’s just boring.

The movie is about a girl named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who recounts her life as a self proclaimed nymphomaniac to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgad). The movie cuts back and forth between the actual story and then Seligman’s thoughts on it. Kind of like sitting in on a therapy session if it were being conducted by college students in a debate class. And that’s where this film’s biggest issue is for me. A lot of the analysis feels pedestrian or the kind of thing you would expect in a college paper written by a student who hopes the teacher will be impressed. And at times its almost like argument for arguments sake. Like when you’re in a class and a topic is tossed out for discussion. The topic may actually be rather simple, but people keep trying to throw things in to pad out the conversation to fill the class time. A lot of the dialogue feels like that sort of thing.

The story begins when she is a little girl and takes us up to the events that led Seligman to find her in the alley outside of his place at the beginning of the film. Her father is played by Christian Slater who I think does a good job. His British accent may be a problem for you, but it wasn’t for me. Neither was it a problem for me with Shia LaBeouf’s character who is a male presence in Joe’s life pretty much throughout the film. The accent was a problem for me with Uma Thurman’s character though.

There’s a point where Joe just starts referring to the men in her life by letters. She casually tosses them around. During one of these scenes, Uma Thurman shows up as the wife of one of the guys who’s there with Joe along with their kids in tow. The scene is supposed to start a little funny, then get really uncomfortable as it keeps going. Like when Thurman asks if she can show her kids the “whoring bed”. The problem for me was the accent. If they had just let her speak normally, then it would have worked, but it was a voice that at this point in her career is obviously not her’s and I can’t suspend disbelief. So the scene was just hilarious to me. Especially when she actually screams. That made me think of Julianne Moore in Map To The Stars (2014), which also had me laughing.

This film has been dismissed as porn or on the flip side, played up for showing so much. People especially like to mention that the sex is unsimulated. Well, it really doesn’t count in my book if that isn’t Shia LeBeouf’s penis, which it isn’t. They use CGI to graft porn actors genitalia onto some of the actors. So it’s not anything to brag about. Is it porn? Far from it. Anybody who tells you that has no idea what they are talking about. It probably comes closest to an exploitation movie at best in that department.

I said I wouldn’t pick out little flaws, but there’s a big one I have with the title and her consistently referring to herself as either a nymphomaniac or being addicted to sex. She’s not really addicted to sex. She’s addicted to sex like someone who only smokes Marlboro is addicted to cigarettes, but won’t smoke any other brand. She’s like that. She’ll take penetration by a penis, give a blow job, and poorly dabbles in S&M. That’s really it. She’s rather discriminating about what she’ll do. Another analogy is like when someone says they’re a cinephile, but that means to them that they love watching highly acclaimed foreign films. An addiction to something broad like movies or sex means you’re indiscriminate. However, I get why Von Trier sticks with the term nymphomaniac because the movie does have a reason to make sure the apparent love of sex and guilt about it is explicitly associated with a female character. The ending depends on it.

The only thing that was kind of noteworthy to me was how the way the movie is shot changes in the final part of the film. It’s divided into chapters and in the last one Von Trier either shot it to get film grain and over exposed lights or did it in post processing. I think it was probably a reference to a movement in film he was involved in back in the 1990’s called Dogme 95. You can watch something like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998) and it will look similar.

Honestly, it’s not a bad movie, but it’s really for people who like Von Trier stuff. If you like his stuff, see it. If you don’t, definitely skip it. If you’re totally new, then don’t start here. Begin with Breaking The Waves and Europa (1991) before wading into films like The Idiots (1998), Dancer In The Dark (2000), Dogville, and beyond.

Shattered Politics #80: Bobby (dir by Emilio Estevez)


Bobby_poster

A few years ago, I was on twitter when I came across someone who had just watched The Breakfast Club.  

“Whatever happened to Emilio Estevez?” she asked.

Being the know-it-all, obsessive film fan that I am, I tweeted back, “He’s a director.”

Of course, I could not leave well enough along.  I had to send another tweet, “He directed a movie called Bobby that got nominated for bunch of Golden Globes.”

“Was it any good?” she wrote back.

“Never seen it,” I wrote back, suddenly feeling very embarrassed because, if there’s anything I hate, it’s admitting that there’s a film that I haven’t seen.

However, Shattered Politics gave me an excuse to finally sit down and watch Bobby.  So now, I can now say that I have watched this 2006 film and … eh.

Listen, I have to admit that I really hate giving a film like Bobby a lukewarm review because it’s not like Bobby is a bad film.  It really isn’t.  As a director, Emilio Estevez is a bit heavy-handed but he’s not without talent.  He’s good with actors.  Bobby actually features good performances from both Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf!  So, give Estevez that.

And Bobby is a film that Estevez spent seven years making.  It’s a film that he largely made with his own money.  Bobby is obviously a passion project for Estevez and that passion does come through.  (That’s actually one of the reasons why the film often feels so heavy-handed.)

But, with all that in mind, Bobby never really develops a strong enough narrative to make Estevez’s passion dramatically compelling.  The film takes place on the day of the 1968 Democratic California Presidential Primary.  That’s the day that Robert F. Kennedy won the primary and was then shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.  However, it never seems to know what it wants to say about Kennedy or his death, beyond the fact that Estevez seems to like him.

(Incidentally, it’s always interesting, to me, that Dallas is still expected to apologize every day for the death of JFK but Los Angeles has never had to apologize for the death of his brother.)

Estevez follows an ensemble of 22 characters as they go about their day at and around the Ambassador Hotel.  As often happens with ensemble pieces, some of these characters are more interesting than others.

For instance, Anthony Hopkins plays a courtly and retired doorman who sits in the lobby and plays chess with his friend Nelson (Harry Belafonte).  It adds little to the film’s story but both Hopkins and Belafonte appear to enjoy acting opposite each other and so, they’re fun to watch.

Lindsay Lohan plays a woman who marries a recently enlisted soldier (Elijah Wood), the hope being that his marital status will keep him out of Vietnam.  The problem with this story is that it’s so compelling that it feels unfair that it has to share space with all the other stories.

Christian Slater plays Darrell, who runs the kitchen and who spends most of the movie talking down to the kitchen staff, the majority of whom are Hispanic.  Darrell is disliked by the hotel’s manager (William H. Macy) who is cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone).

And then, you’ve got two campaign aides (Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty) who end up dropping acid with a drug dealer played by Ashton Kutcher.  Unfortunately, Estevez tries to visualize their trip and it brings the film’s action to a halt.

Estevez himself shows up, playing the husband of an alcoholic singer (Demi Moore).  And Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, gets to play a wealthy supporter of Kennedy’s.  Sheen’s wife is played by Helen Hunt.  She gets to ask her husband whether she reminds him more of Jackie or of Ethel.

(Actually, Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt are cute together.  Much as with Lohan and Wood, you wish that more time had been devoted to them and their relationship.)

And there are other stories as well.  In fact, there’s far too many stories going on in Bobby.  It may seem strange for a girl who is trying to review 94 films in three weeks to say this but Emilio Estevez really tries to cram too much into Bobby.

At the same time, too much ambition is better none.  Bobby may have been a misfire but at least it’s a respectable misfire.

Shattered Politics #67: The Contender (dir by Rod Lurie)


Contenderposter(Spoilers)

The 2000 political melodrama The Contender is one of the most hypocritical films that I’ve ever seen.

The Contender tells the story of what happens when U.S. Sen. Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen) is nominated to be vice president by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges).  During Laine’s confirmation hearings, Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) dredges up rumors that, at a college frat party, Laine took part in a threesome in exchange for money.

When Runyon asks Laine about the rumors, she replies that she refuses to answer any questions about what she may or may not have done while she was younger.  She replies that it is “simply beneath my dignity” and you know what?  She’s absolutely right.  First off, if someone could be disqualified just because of what they did in college then nobody would eve be eligible to be President.  Secondly, and far more importantly, nobody would care about Laine’s sexual history if she was a man.

For over two hours, Laine refuses to answer any questions about the allegations and instead, she turns the tables on her attackers.  And while this alone would not have made The Contender a good film (because, after all, The Contender was written and directed by Rod “Straw Dogs” Lurie), it at least would have been a film that I could respect.

But, Rod Lurie being Rod Lurie, he just couldn’t help but fuck it all up.

Towards the end of the film, Laine is attending a White House reception.  She and President Evans sit down on the White House lawn and, as the stars shine above them, Evans says, “Just between us, is it true?”

Now, there’s two things that Laine could have said here that would have kept this film from falling apart.  Laine could have said, “It’s none of your business.”  And that would have been the right thing to say because, quite frankly, it is none of the President’s business.  The whole point of the movie has been that it’s not anyone’s business.

Or, if the film actually had any guts, Laine could have said, “Yes, it’s totally true.  Like most people, I experimented when I was in college.  But that doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m qualified to be your vice president.”

But no.  Instead, Laine smiles and says, “Nothing happened.  Two guys propositioned me, I said no, and they spread rumors.”

So, basically, the film is saying, “It’s nobody’s business if Laine was sexually active in college but don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. American Audience, she was a virgin until she turned 30.  So, it’s still okay for you to like her…”

And that’s the thing about The Contender.  It’s a film that doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions.  It’s a film that drags on for over two hours and it expects you to forgive it just because it pretends to have good intentions.  As a woman, there’s nothing I hate more than being pandered to and, for all of its attempts to come across as being feminist, The Contender is all about pandering.

What makes The Contender an interesting bad film — as opposed to just your usual bad film — is how even the littlest details feel false.  It’s obvious that Lurie knew all of the legal details that go into confirming a Vice President but he didn’t know how to make any of those details dramatically compelling.  So, the film becomes a bit of a know-it-all lecture.  By the time that Saul Rubinek popped up and said, “Do you know what Nelson Rockefeller said about the vice presidency?,” I found myself snapping back, “No, what did Nelson Rockefeller say about the Vice Presidency?  Please tell because ah am so sure that it is just goin’ to be the most fascinatin’ thang that ah will ever hear in mah entire life!”

(The more annoyed I get, the more pronounced my Texas accent.)

There’s a lot of weird little things about The Contender that just don’t work.  They may not sound like major problems but when combined together, they start to add up.  For instance, there’s a long shot where we see U.S. Rep. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) and his blonde wife at a White House reception and the shot just lingers on them for no particular reason.  Long after you would expect the shot to end, it’s still going.  This wouldn’t be an issue if there was some narrative reason for that shot.  Instead, it’s just randomly dropped in there.

And then, after Laine is nominated, we see the front page of a newpaper and there, in the middle of the page, is a headshot of Joan Allen.  Underneath it, a small headline reads, “It’s Laine!”  It just feels so fake.  Wouldn’t the nomination of the first female vice present actually rate a bigger headline and a more dynamic picture?

Speaking of fake, towards the end of the film, President Evans picks up a framed magazine cover and stares down at it.  The magazine, itself, looks like one of those joke “Man of the Year” pictures that people pose for at a state fair.  On the cover is a picture of Last Picture Show era Jeff Bridges.  The headline on the magazine reads: “President Jackson Evans.  His ideas have changed the world.”  Not his actions, mind you.  Not his policies.  Instead, his ideas have changed the world.  But the film shows us no evidence of this and, during Laine’s confirmation hearings, everyone spends the whole time debating the same old shit that they always seem to be debating in Washington.

(Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a name like Jackson Evans, I guess you might as well become President.)

Of course, when it looks like Laine might not be confirmed, President Evans speaks before Congress.  “For the first time, a woman will serve in the executive!” he declares, which seems like a hilariously awkward way to put it.  (People in this film don’t talk like human being as much as they talk like characters in some fucked up Washington D.C. fanfic.)  He then adds, “There are traitors among us!”

So, I guess the message here is yay for demagogues.

And don’t even get me started on Kathryn Morris, as the cheerful FBI agent who investigates Laine’s past and who, at one point, announces, “Laine is hope!”  Would a male FBI agent ever have to deliver a line that stupid?

And also don’t even get me started on the subplot about Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who stages an auto accident in an attempt to convince President Evans to nominate him for vice president.

The Contender is not a good film but it could have at least been a respectable film.  But then, Rod Lurie had to have President Evans ask whether it was true or not.

Perhaps being a hypocrite was the idea that changed the world.

 

 

Back to School #46: Heathers (dir by Michael Lehman)


heathers-movie-poster

Well, it had to happen.  We have finally reached the end of the 80s with this Back to School series of reviews.  The 80s are often considered to be the “Golden Age of Teen Films,” largely due to the efforts of director-writer-producer John Hughes.  In films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes skillfully mixed teen comedy with teen drama and the end results were some of the best-remembered and most influential films ever made.  At the same time, it’s also can’t be denied that, even as he was dealing with real issues of class differences and sexuality, Hughes also tended to idealize his teenage protagonists.  They were often cast as noble savages, struggling to survive in a world that was exclusively run by cynical and judgmental adults.  In The Breakfast Club, Ally Sheedy says that when you grow up, your heart dies.  That, more than anything, defines the way that most of the great teen films of the 80s tended to view the world.

By the end of the 80s, John Hughes had stopped making films about high school and teenagers and so, it is perhaps appropriate that the final Back to School review of the 80s should be for a 1989 film that often time seems to be taking place on a totally different plant from the films of John Hughes.  If Hughes told us that your heart dies when you grow up, Heathers would seem to suggest that most people’s hearts were never alive to begin with.

Heathers takes place at Westerburg High, a school full of student so rich that their mascot is a Rottweiler.  Westerburg is run by a clique of three mean girls, all of whom are named Heather.  Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is their leader.  Cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) is weak-willed and insecure.  And finally, Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) is the smartest of the Heathers.  She’s also bulimic.  Now, there is a fourth member of the ruling clique but she’s a bit of an anomaly because she’s neither mean nor named Heather.  Instead, her name is Veronica (Winona Ryder) and she is valued for her ability to forge signatures.

Heathers

Since joining the Heathers, Veronica has drifted away from old friends like Betty Finn (Renee Estevez).  And though Veronica quickly realizes that she doesn’t really belong with the Heathers, she doesn’t know how she can break free without also destroying her reputation of Westerburg.  Then, she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a prototypical rebel with a cause.  J.D. is not only an outsider at Westerburg but he’s proud of it.  Soon, he and Veronica are a couple and J.D. is pulling Veronica into his plans to destroy the social hierarchy of Westerburg High.

When a practical joke arranged by J.D. and Veronica leads to the accidental death of Heather Chandler, J.D. convinces Veronica to forge a suicide note.  As a result, Heather Chandler is canonized by the same students that she previously terrorized.  However, J.D. is not done killing.  With each new death (and with each forged suicide note), a new social hierarchy starts to form at Westerburg until, eventually, J.D. comes up with a plan that owes a bit to the end of Massacre at Central High

fashion-film-volume-8-heathers--large-msg-132147013822

Heathers is a darker than dark comedy and one that I imagine probably could not be made today.  (To be honest, I’m a little bit surprised that it could be made in 1989.)  Seriously, a comedy where one of the main plot points is that students become more popular after everyone has been fooled into thinking they committed suicide?  (Not to mention a scene where a grieving father shouts, “I love my dead gay son!”)  People would get so offended if this film was made today but you know what?  They would be totally missing the point.  The film isn’t making fun of suicide as much as it’s exposing the hypocrisy of a society that only seems to care about people after they die. To me, the most important scenes aren’t the ones where people react to the fake suicides.  Instead, the heart of Heathers‘s dark vision is to be found in the scene where a true outcast like Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn) fails in her attempt to commit suicide and is ridiculed by the same students and teachers who were previously patting themselves on the back at Heather Chandler’s funeral.

Heathers is dark but it’s also a genuinely funny film, filled with great lines and performances.  (“Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” is my personal favorite.)  It’s a film that still carries quite a satiric bite and a perfect film with which to end the 80s.

8-Heathers-quotes