A Movie A Day #234: The Final Days (1989, directed by Richard Pearce)


Since yesterday’s entry in movie a day featured Philip Baker Hall playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, I decided to use today’s entry to talk about a movie that featured Lane Smith in the same role.

Based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s follow-up to All The President’s Men, The Final Days is about the final months of the Nixon presidency.  The movie begins shortly after the resignations of Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and follows Nixon (Lane Smith) as he grows increasingly more isolated and reclusive in the White House.  All the familiar moments are here, Nixon ranting against the Kennedys and the establishment, Kennedy talking about his difficult childhood, and, most famously, Nixon asking Henry Kissinger (Theodore Bikel) to pray with him on the night before his resignation.  The Final Days also focuses on the ambitious men who surrounded Nixon during his downfall and who helped to engineer his eventual resignation, especially Al Haig (David Ogden Stiers).

A lot of very good actors have played Richard Nixon.  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella both received Oscar nominations for playing him and Philip Baker Hall probably should have.  Rip Torn, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Dan Hedaya, and Bob Gunton have all taken a shot at the role.  But, in my opinion, no one has done a better job as the 37th president than Lane Smith, who bore about as close a resemblance to Nixon as anyone could without a prosthetic nose.  Even more than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Lane Smith captured not only Nixon’s insecurity and paranoia but also his provides hints of the great leader that Nixon could have been if not for his own self-destructiveness.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Accidental Tourist (dir by Lawrence Kasdan)


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I have to admit that I was tempted to be a little bit snarky in my review of the 1988 Best Picture nominee, The Accidental Tourist.  I was going to say that The Accidental Tourist was a perfect example of a genre of film that has always been oddly popular with the Academy, the emotionally stunted man in New England learns to love again genre.

But, then I realized that I was wrong.  The Accidental Tourist does not take place in New England.  It takes place in Baltimore which may be located up north but which is technically considered to be part of the mid-Atlantic.  But, even with that in mind, it was impossible for me to watch The Accidental Tourist without thinking of other New England-set Oscar nominees, such as Mystic River and Manchester By The Sea.

As for the film itself, it’s about a man whose depressing life would be unbearable to watch if not for the fact that everyone around him is so extremely eccentric.  Macon Leary (William Hurt) is a travel writer.  He’s writes books giving people advice on how best to behave while seeing the world.  Throughout the film, we hear snippets of his prose.  Macon warns people about overpacking.  He warns them about arriving late at the airport.  He warns them about not properly planning out their trip.  He suggests that travelers bring a book to read but not too many books.  And don’t bring magazines because they get wrinkled too easily.  Now, to be honest, I liked most of Macon’s advice but then again, I’m OCD and I spend most of my time trying to make sure that everything I own is properly organized and can be equally divided.

A year ago, during a fast food robbery, Macon’s son was shot and killed.  Withdrawing from the world, Macon barely reacts when his wife, Sarah (Kathleen Turner), leaves him.  After breaking his leg while trying to convince his dog to climb down the stairs into the laundry room, Macon ends up moving in with his three siblings: autocratic Porter (David Ogden Stiers), slightly less autocratic Charles (Ed Begley, Jr.) and sweet but neurotic Rose (Amy Wright).

And so it goes.  Even when his agent, Julian (Bill Pullman), starts to date Rose, Macon can’t bring himself to open up emotionally.  Fortunately, Macon meets Muriel (Geena Davis), a quirky dog trainer.  Though it takes a while, Muriel starts to pull Macon out of his shell.  Soon, Macon is spending his nights over at her apartment and bonding with her sickly son.

(Why does every single mother in these type of movies have a sickly son?  Just for once, couldn’t a single mother be portrayed as having a child who is well-adjusted, popular, and healthy?)

But, just when everything seems to be perfect, Macon’s phone rings.  It’s Sarah and she wants to give their marriage another chance…

Just judging from the tone of this review, you’re probably thinking that I disliked The Accidental Tourist.  Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.  While the film’s mix of grim reality and relentlessly quirky supporting character can be a bit overwhelming at first, the film works if you stick with it.  That’s the thing — you have to stick with it.  When William Hurt first stares at the camera with his dead eyes and starts to drone about the importance of not spending too much money while in Paris, it’s tempting to just give up.  But, as the film progresses, it improves and so does Hurt’s performance.  By the time he finally worked up the strength to hold Muriel’s son’s hand while walking the boy home from school, I had tears in my mismatched eyes.

The Accidental Tourist is low-key but rather sweet film.  While the film centers around the performances of Hurt and Geena Davis (who won an Oscar for her work here), my favorite performances came from Bill Pullman and Amy Wright.  I honestly would happily watch a film that was just about their characters.

The Accidental Tourist was nominated for Best Picture but lost to Rain Man.

Back to School #40: Better Off Dead (dir by Savage Steve Holland)


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There’s something really sad about knowing that John Cusack does not like the 1985 teen comedy, Better Off Dead, despite the fact that he himself starred in the film.

Just how much he dislikes the film depends on who you talk to.  I read an interview with the film’s director — the wonderfully named Savage Steve Holland — in which he said that Cusack approached him after a screening of the film and told him that he totally hated the film and would “never trust” Holland again.  (What’s truly sad is that Holland also said that this encounter caused him to momentarily lose all interesting in film making.)  However, a few years ago, Cusack said, while answering questions on Reddit, that he didn’t hate Better Off Dead, he just felt that it could be better and that he was glad that other people still like it.  In another interview, Cusack said that the “absurdist humor” of Better Off Dead just wasn’t his thing.

John, I understand that you’re a serious actor and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the fact that you’re an outspoken liberal who is still intellectually honest enough to hold Obama up to the same standard to which you previously held Bush.  But honestly, John, maybe you should loosen up just a little.  Not all of your movies have to be The Butler!  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself onscreen.  And there’s nothing wrong with entertaining an audience and leaving them happy.  Better Off Dead may be one of more lightweight films that I’m reviewing for this Back to School series but it’s a lot of fun!  It makes people smile.  And you know what?  A lot of those smiling people are going to be more willing to see you in a film like The Butler because they’ve also seen you in films like Better Off Dead.

Add to that, you give a pretty good performance in Better Off Dead.  In fact, you provide the film with a much-needed center.  A lot of the comedy in Better Off Dead may be absurd but John, your performance is so likable and so grounded that you keep the film from getting too weird.  You do such a good job as Lane Myer and are so convincing as a well-meaning but dorky high school student who is trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Wyss) by skiing down a mountain that it allows everyone else to be as weird as the film will allow.  Without your excellent performance, John, the film would be a total mess.

BOD

Better Off Dead is essentially a collection of skits.  There’s a plot but the plot is really only there as an excuse for the nonstop jokes.  For instance, there’s Lane’s best friend, Charles (Curtis Armstrong, essentially playing the same character he played in Risky Business) who spends the entire film looking for things to snort and who, when standing atop of snowy mountain, says, “This is pure snow!  Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is!?”

And then there’s Monique (Diane Franklin), the foreign exchange student who lives next door to Lane and who pretends that she can’t speak English because she’s trying to avoid being set up with creepy Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider).

There’s Lane’s mother (Kim Darby), who cooks some of the strangest looking meals ever seen in an American film.  There’s also Lane’s younger brother, who never speaks but who knows how to build a laser gun.  Even Lane’s father (David Ogden Stiers). who seems relatively normal, still manages to destroy the garage door.

There’s the fact that Lane’s romantic rival is named Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier).  Is that not just the perfect name for a villain?

There’s my favorite scene in the entire film, where a geometry teacher (Vincent Schiavelli) explains a complicated problem to his class and the class responds by cheering him along.  “Who wants to come up here and solve the problem?” the teacher asks.  The entire class raises their hands and goes, “Me!”

There’s quotable and memorable lines like: “I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy,” ” Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ away a perfectly good white boy like that,” and “Gee, I’m really sorry your mom blow up, Ricky.”

And, of course, there’s that paperboy who wants his two dollars…

Seriously, John, Better Off Dead might not be your favorite movie but it’s really not that bad!

Want to see just how not bad Better Off Dead really is?  Watch it below!