Film Review: An Innocent Man (1989, directed by Peter Yates)


Jimmie Rainwood (Tom Selleck) is an aeronautics engineer who, with the exception of once getting arrested for marijuana possession in college, has lived a clean and productive life.  Mike Parnell (David Rasche) is a corrupt narcotics detective with a raging coke habit.  When Parnell and his partner, Scalise (Richard Young), get a tip about a house where drugs are hidden, Parnell is so coked up that he gets the address wrong.  They end up breaking into Jimmie’s house and, when Jimmie steps out of the bathroom holding a hair dryer, Saclise shoots him.

Jimmie survives getting shot but that’s the least of his problems.  In order to cover up their mistake, Parnell and Scalise frame Jimmie.  They replace the hair dryer with a gun.  They plant drugs in Jimmie’s house.  Because of his previous marijuana conviction, no one believes Jimmie when he says he was set up.  Convicted of a crime that he didn’t commit, Jimmie is sentenced to six years in prison.  While his wife (Laila Robins) does everything that she can to get him released, Jimmie is preyed upon by the other prisoners.  His only friend is Virgil (F. Murray Abraham), a veteran prisoner who shows Jimmie that he’s going to have to do some terrible things to survive being in prison.

As he showed when he directed Bullitt, the late Peter Yates was a director who could make even the most conventional genre material feel fresh and that is what he did with An Innocent Man.  Made at a time when American leaders bragged about their devotion to the war on drugs, An Innocent Man is critical of both the police and a legal system that cares more about punishment than rehabilitation.  Even if the plot is predictable, the film is gritty enough to make an impression.  Jimmie is so victimized and Parnell and Scalise are so smug that, by the time Jimmie finally has a chance to orchestrate his revenge, you can’t wait to see the cops get what’s coming to them.

Part of the appeal of An Innocent Man is that it features actors who you normally would not expect to appear in a film like this.  Tom Selleck, best-known for playing upright authority figures, plays a frightened man who is forced to sacrifice his humanity to survive.  When the movie started, I was skeptical that Selleck could pull off the role but, by the end of the film, he had the thousand-yard stare of a man who had been to Hell and back.  Meanwhile, David Rasche, best known for his work in sitcoms, is more than convincing as the most corrupt narc around.  Best of all is F. Murray Abraham, playing the seasoned convict who knows how to get things done in prison.  When he tells Jimmie that he has to “take of care of this,” even if it means committing a real crime, you believe him.  By the end of An Innocent Man, nobody’s innocent anymore.

A Movie A Day #38: Fighting Back (1982, directed by Lewis Teague)


fightingbackpost

The time is 1982.  The place is Hell on Earth, also known as Philadelphia.  Crime is out of control and the police are powerless to stop it.  When deli owner John D’Angelo (Tom Skerritt) and his wife, Lisa (Patti LuPone), confront a pimp named Eldorado (Pete Richardson), he rams his car into the back of their car, causing the pregnant Lisa to lose her unborn child.  At almost the exact same time, John’s mother (Gina DeAngles) is mugged by two thugs who chop off her ring finger.

In the grand tradition of Charles Bronson, John decides to fight back.  But he doesn’t go it alone.  With his best friend, a police officer named Vince (Michael Sarrazin), John starts the People’s Neighborhood Patrol.  The PNP is going to clean up Philadelphia, one street at a time.  The media (represented by David Rasche) make John into a celebrity.  The black community (represented by Yaphet Kotto) suspect that John and the PNP are guilty of racial discrimination.  The Mafia wants to bring John over to their side.  John runs for city council but he still has time to drop a grenade in a pimp’s car.

Fighting Back was one of the many urban vigiliante films to come out after the success of Death Wish.  Fighting Back‘s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, also produced Death Wish but made the mistake of later selling the rights to Cannon.  Fighting Back was not the box office success that either Death Wish or its sequels were, even though Fighting Back is actually the better movie.  That’s because Fighting Back was directed by the underrated Lewis Teague.  Teague does a good job of making Philadelphia look like a war zone and the scenes of vigilante justice are enjoyable but, overall, Teague takes a far more ambiguous approach to vigilantism than Michael Winner did when he directed Death Wish.  As vile as Philadelphia criminals may be, John D’Angelo isn’t always that likable himself.  When Kotto accuses John and the all-white PNP of being racially prejudiced, Teague suggests that he has a point.  Tom Skerritt gives a good performance, playing John as a proud, blue collar guy who wants to do the right thing but gets seduced by his newfound celebrity.

Better acted than Death Wish and smarter than The Exterminator, Fighting Back is an underrated vigilante gem.

Fighting Back is also known as Philadelphia Security and Death Vengeance.

Fighting Back is also known as Philadelphia Security and Death Vengeance.

A Movie A Day #15: Special Bulletin (1983, directed by Ed Zwick)


specialbulletin2

“We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for a special report…”

Led by veteran anchor John Woodley, the RBS news team is providing continuing coverage of a developing crisis in Charleston, South Carolina, where terrorists are holding several members of the coast guard, a local new reporter, and his cameraman hostage on a small tugboat.  These are not typical terrorists, though.  Two of them are nuclear scientists.  One of them is a social worker.  Another one is a nationally-renowned poet.  The final terrorist is a former banker robber who was just recently released from prison.  This unlikely group has only two demands: that the U.S. government hand over every single nuclear trigger device at the U.S. Naval Base and that RBS give them a live television feed so that they can explain their actions to the nation.  If either of those demands are not met, a nuclear bomb will be detonated and will destroy Charleston.

This made-for-TV movie was shot on video tape, to specifically make it look like an actual news broadcast.  Though much of the movie seems dated when compared to today’s slick, 24-hour media circus, Special Bulletin was convincing enough that, when it was originally broadcast in 1983, it caused a mini-panic among viewers who missed the opening disclaimer:

specbull_disclaimer

Because the movie deals with the threat of nuclear terrorism instead of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war, it still feels relevant in a way that many of the atomic disaster films of the 1980s do not.  Beyond making an anti-nuclear statement, Special Bulletin is also a critical look at how the news media sensationalizes every crisis, with the RBS news team going from smug complacency to outright horror as the situation continues to deteriorate.  David Clennon and David Rasche are memorable as the two most outspoken of the terrorists and Ed Flanders is perfectly cast as a veteran news anchor struggling to maintain control in the middle of an uncontrollable situation.  Special Bulletin won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Special and can be currently be found on YouTube.

Keep an eye out for Michael Madsen, who shows up 57 minutes in and gets the movie’s best line: “That guy’s a total psycho ward.”

madsen-special-bulletin

Shattered Politics #85: In the Loop (dir by Armando Iannucci)


In_the_Loop_poster

First released in 2009, In The Loop is one of the most brilliant political satires ever made.

The film opens in London, as a slightly ridiculous man named Toby (Chris Addison) starts his first day as the special assistant to the Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander).  And what a day to start!  Both the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister are eager to invade the Middle East and, during an interview the previous night, Simon accidentally announced that war was “unforseeable.”  This has led to people accidentally assuming that Simon is anti-war (Simon really doesn’t seem to have an opinion one way or the other) but it also means that the Prime Minister’s compulsively profane assistant, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is now running around the office and threatening people.

(I doubt that there’s any way that I can do justice to Capaldi’s performance here.  You simply have to see him.  He is a force of nature, a tornado of nonstop profanity and aggression.)

Not every government official in the U.S. is enthusiastic about going to war.  Both Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and her former lover, Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini) are opposed to the war.  Karen’s assistant, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), has even written a paper that explains why a war in the Middle East could not be won.  Karen hopes to use Simon as a spokesman to keep the British out of the war and, therefore, America as well.

(Toby, meanwhile, just wants to have sex with Liza.)

However, there are a few factors that complicate things.  First off, Malcolm is determined to make sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants and if that means bullying and scaring everyone into supporting an unwinnable war, that’s exactly what he’s going to do.  Secondly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State For Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) is eager enough to start a war that he’s actually started a secret committee to find a way to get into the war.  (The committee, of course, has been called the Committee For Future Planning.)  Third, and perhaps most importantly, Simon is an idiot.

Along with being both a satire of American-British relations (my favorite moment comes when a random American tourist tells Malcolm to stop cursing in public) and the lead-up to the Iraq War, In The Loop is also a devastating look at how government works.  In the Loop makes a good case that, for all the titles and the committee and the talk about doing what’s right, most government policy is the result of a combination of stupidity and needless aggression.  As played by Capaldi, Malcolm has no ideology or core beliefs.  He simply makes sure that the Prime Minister gets what he wants.

And if that means going to war, then Malcolm will do whatever it takes to push Britain into war.

Director Armando Iannucci is probably best known for creating two political comedies, the Thick of It and Veep.  And while I’ve never seen The Thick Of It, I absolutely love Veep.  From what I’ve read, all three projects share the same fictional universe.  (Capaldi’s Malcolm was the main character on The Thick Of It.)

Though, actually, I think it’s debatable just how fictional that universe is.  Ultimately, In The Loop is probably one of the most plausible satires that I’ve ever seen.

44 Days of Paranoia #12: Burn After Reading (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen)


For today’s entry in the Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderfully satiric look at espionage, greed, lust, and stupidity, 2008’s Burn After Reading.

Like most Coen Brothers films, Burn After Reading tells the dark story of a group of obsessives who all think that they’re far more clever than they actually are.  Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who, because of his alcoholism and generally sour personality, is demoted.  Cox angrily quits his job and then starts working on his memoirs.  Meanwhile, Cox’s wife Katie (played by Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the handsome but idiotic Mark (George Clooney).  On the advice of her divorce lawyer, Katie secretly downloads copies of all of Osborne’s records, including his memoirs.  Katie gives the disc to her lawyer’s secretary.  The secretary then proceeds to accidentally leave the disc at Hardbodies Gym.

This is where things, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, start to get complicated.  Two trainers at the gym — Linda (Frances McDormand) and her fitness obsessed friend Chad (a hilarious Brad Pitt) — find the disc and mistake Osborne’s very mundane files for national security secrets.  Linda, who is obsessed with raising enough money to get a boob job, convinces Chad that they should blackmail Osborne and demand that he pay them before they return his disc.  Osborne, who has no idea that Katie copied his records, refuses to pay so Linda takes the disc to the Russians.  This leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to several murders, all of which have to be covered up by the CIA, despite the fact that both the director of the CIA and his assistant agree that there’s no way to understand how any of this happened and that, in the end, neither one of them has learned anything from the experience.

Perhaps because it was released between the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man, many critics tend to dismiss Burn After Reading as just being an enjoyable lark and nothing more.  While it’s true that there’s not a lot going on underneath the surface of Burn After Reading, the surface itself is so fun, vivid, and vibrant that it seems rather petty to complain.  Burn After Reading finds the Coen Brothers at their most playful and snarky.

The Coen Brothers have made films in several different genres and styles but all of their work has one thing in common.  The Coens tell stories about obsessive characters who aren’t anywhere close to being as smart as they think they are.  When critics complain that the Coens tend to view their characters with a rather condescending attitude, they’re usually talking about films like Burn After Reading.  Fortunately, in the case of Burn After Reading, the Coens assembled one of their strongest casts.  From the insanely focused Frances McDormand to the perpetually smiling Brad Pitt to cynical John Malkovich, everyone does such a great job that you can overlook the fact that they’re all essentially playing idiots.  Perhaps the film’s best performance comes from George Clooney who, in the role of Harry, proves himself to be a very good sport by satirizing both his own reputation as a womanizer and his career as an old school movie star.  In one of the film’s best moments, Harry, gun drawn, dramatically leaps and then rolls into an empty bedroom.  Like almost all of the characters in Burn After Reading, Harry is just a big kid playing action hero and Clooney’s performance here is perfect.

As for Burn After Reading, it may not be perfect but it’s certainly a lot of fun.

51CW76jX8fL

Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective