Disaster on the Coastliner (1980, directed by Richard C. Sarafian)


A completely computerized passenger train is traveling across the country, with the Vice President’s wife as one of the passengers.  When Jim Waterman (Paul L. Smith), a man who blames the railroad for the death of his family, manages to hijack the train he plans to ram into a locomotive until his demands a met.  He wants railroad president Estes Hill (Raymond Burr) to take responsibility for the crash that killed his wife and children.  With Waterman determined to crash the two trains, it falls to dispatchers Al Mitchell (Lloyd Bridges) and Roy Snyder (E.G. Marshall) to try to figure out a way to stop the collision.  Helping them out on the train is a con artist named Stuart Peters (William Shatner!) who may be wanted by the police but who is still willing to do whatever it takes to save his fellow passengers.

Disaster on the Coastliner is an above-average made-for-TV disaster movie.  Even though it was obviously made for a low-budget and that the majority of the money was probably spent on securing the B-list cast, there are enough shots of the train careening on the tracks to bring happiness to the hearts of most disaster movie fans.  The cast is full of the type of people who you would typically expect to find in a movie like this, people like Raymond Burr, Lloyd Bridges, and William Shatner.  Bridges, interestingly enough, gives the same performance here that he gave in Airplane! and when he starts ranting about how everything’s computerized, he sounds like he could be reciting dialogue from that film.  The only difference is that Airplane! was a comedy while Disaster On The Coastliner is meant to be a drama.  Raymond Burr also does a good job hamming it up as the president of the railroad.  He spends most of the movie sitting behind his desk and looking annoyed, which was pretty typical of Burr in the years after Perry Mason and Ironside. 

For a lot of people, the main appeal of this film will be seeing what William Shatner was doing in between Star Trek movies.  This is a typical early 80s Shatner performance, when he was still trying too hard to win that first Emmy but also when he had just starting to develop the self-awareness necessary to poke fun at his own image.  Shatner really digs into the role of a conman with a heart of gold.  He delivers his lines in his trademark overdramatic style but, in scenes like the one where he sheepishly discovers that a door that he’s been pounding on was unlocked all the time, Shatner actually seems to be in on the joke.  Shatner also did his own stunts in this film, including one where he had stand on top of a speeding train.  In his autobiography, Shatner wrote that he wasn’t even wearing a safety harness in the scene so give it up for Bill Shatner.  That took guts!

Fast-paced and agreeably unpretentious, Disaster On The Coastliner is an enjoyable runaway train movie.

 

Under Siege (1986, directed by Roger Young)


Let’s say that you are the governor of Arkansas and, once again, your state is running out of money and will soon not be able to afford to pay its bills.  What do you do?

That was the problem facing Governor Bill Clinton in 1986.  His solution was to allow a big Hollywood production to come down to Little Rock and film someone throwing explosive devices at the state capitol.  The capitol building at Little Rock looks like a smaller version of the capitol building in Washington D.C.  The producers of Under Siege needed to shoot a scene where terrorists attempt to blow up Congress.  Even though the state capitol wasn’t actually blown up in the film, the dome did end up with extensive burn marks that were visible for years afterwards.  Many people in Arkansas were not amused that they had to allow a film crew to set their capitol on fire just to pay the bills.  Still, if Bill Clinton hadn’t agreed to blow up the state capitol building, Arkansas could have gone bankrupt and then he probably would have lost his reelection bid in 1986.  If Bill Clinton wasn’t reelected, he never would have been elected to the presidency in 1992, Hillary Clinton would never have been elected to the Senate in 2000 and, in 2016, the Democrats wouldn’t have been stuck with the only possible nominee who could have actually lost to Donald Trump.  When you look at it that way, Under Siege is one of the most significant films ever made.

As for the film, it’s a 3-hour, made-for-TV movie about what happens when Islamic extremism hits home.  Notorious terrorist Abu Ladeen (Thaao Penghlis) has managed to sneak into the United States and is hiding out in Detroit.  He directs a series of attacks on beloved American institutions.  Not only is the Capitol Building bombed but a mall is also attacked.  While President Maxwell Monroe (Hal Holbrook, who was born to play presidents) tries to keep America from falling apart, his hawkish advisers tell him that now is the time to launch a strike against Iran, despite Iran claiming to have nothing to do with the attacks.  Only the director of the FBI, John Garry (Peter Strauss), and the Secretary of Defense, Andrew Simon (Paul Winfield), argue that the president should exercise caution.  Garry is convinced that the attacks are the result of homegrown, domestic extremism and not an international conspiracy.  Garry is a very hands-on FBI director.  He’s the type of FBI director who will chase a terrorist down a street in Washington D.C.  Let’s see James Comey do that shit.

Under Siege probably seemed outlandish in 1986 but it seems prophetic today.  The film’s depiction of both terrorism and the government’s shady response to it turned out to be accurate.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a very good movie.  It was co-written by Bob Woodward of Watergate and Washington Post fame, so of course John Garry is righteous beyond belief and the solution to all of America’s problem begin with contacting a newspaper editor and blowing the whistle.  America may be under siege but a strongly-worded editorial is here to save the day.

Under Siege used to regularly show up on late night television and the DVD was popular overseas.  (In France, it was called Au Revoir, America.)  Not surprisingly, after 9-11, it vanished from circulation.  If you can find a copy, watch it and ask yourself, “Would I blow up my state capitol just to pay the bills?”

A Herman Wouk Double Feature: The Winds of War (1983, directed by Dan Curtis) and War and Remembrance (1988, directed by Dan Curtis)


When the great American novelist Herman Wouk passed away earlier this month at the age of 103, he left behind a rich and varied literary legacy.  From 1947, the year that his first novel was published to 2016, the year that he published his memoirs, Wouk wrote about religion, history, science, and even the movies.  However, Wouk will probably always be best remembered for the three novels that he wrote about World War II.

Based on his own Naval service during World War II, The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951 and was later adapted into both a successful stage play and an Oscar-nominated film.  It also won Wouk a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a major American writer.  Nearly 20 years later, Wouk would return to the history of the Second World War with two of his greatest literary works, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  (Originally, Wouk was only planning on writing one book about the entire war but when it took him nearly a thousand pages to reach Pearl Harbor, he decided to split the story in two.)  Beginning in 1939 and proceeding all the way through to the end of the war, the two books followed two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows, as they watched the world descend into war. Along the way, the book’s fictional characters rub shoulders with historical characters like Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and even Stalin.  Carefully researched and meticulously detailed, the books were both critically acclaimed and popular with readers and, despite some soapy elements, they both hold up well today.

Given their success, it’s not a surprise that both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were adapted for television.  Today, HBO would probably give the books the Game of Thrones treatment, with 8 seasons of war, tragedy, romance, and Emmys.  However, this was the 1980s.  This was the age of of the big-budget, all-star cast network miniseries.  Wouk’s epic history of World War II was coming to prime time.

With a total running times of 15 hours, The Winds of War originally aired over seven evenings in 1983.  Produced and directed for ABC by Dan Curtis, The Winds of War had a 962-page script, a 200-day shooting schedule, 285 speaking parts, and a then-record budget of $35,000,000.  It also had Robert Mitchum, starring as Victor “Pug” Henry, an ambitious naval officer who somehow always managed to be in the right place to witness almost all of the events leading up to America’s entry into World War II.  Jan-Michael Vincent played Pug’s son, Byron, while John Houseman took on the pivotal role Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish scholar though whose eyes the home audience would witness the rise of fascism in Europe.  Terribly miscast as Natalie, Aaron’s niece and Byron’s lover, was 44 year-old Ali MacGraw.  Among those playing historical figures were Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Howard Lang as Churchill, and Gunter Meisner as Hitler.

I recently watched The Winds of War on DVD and, despite some glaring flaws that I’ll get to later, it holds up well as both a history of World War II and a tribute to those who battled Hitler’s evil.  Like Wouk’s novels, the miniseries does a good job of breaking down not only how Hitler came to power but also why the rest of the world was often in denial about what was happening.  Watching the entire miniseries in one setting can be overwhelming.  It’s a big production and it is also unmistakably a product of a time when the major networks didn’t have to worry about competition from cable.  It takes its time but, in the end, you’re glad that it did.  All of the little details can get exhausting but they’re important to understanding just how Hitler was able to catch the world off-guard.

Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw in The Winds of War

The miniseries does suffer due to the miscasting of some key roles.  Both Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw were far too old for their roles.  Vincent was 38 and MacGraw was 44 when they were cast as naive and idealistic lovers trying to find themselves in Europe.  It’s perhaps less of a problem for Vincent, who had yet to lose his looks to alcoholism and who looked enough like Robert Mitchum that he could pass as Mitchum’s son.  But MacGraw is simply terrible in her role, flatly delivering her lines and looking more like Vincent’s mother than his lover.  It’s particularly jarring when she mockingly calls diplomat Leslie Sloat “Old Sloat,” because Sloat was played by David Dukes, who was six years younger than MacGraw.

67 year-old Robert Mitchum was also much too old to play an ambitious junior officer, one whose main goal in life is still to ultimately become an admiral.  When he ends up having an affair with a younger British journalist played by 30ish Victoria Tennant, the difference in their ages is even more pronounced than in Wouk’s novel.  (Pug was in his 40s in The Winds of War.)  However, Mitchum overcomes his miscasting by virtue of his natural gravitas.  With his weary presence and authoritative voice, Mitchum simply is Pug.

A ratings hit and a multiple Emmy nominee, The Winds of War was followed up five years later by War and Remembrance.  Like its predecessor, War and Remembrance set records.  The script ran 1,492 pages and featured 356 speaking parts.  The production employed 44,000 extras and filming took nearly two years, from January of 1986 to September of 1987.  With a budget of $104 million, it was the most expensive television production to date.  The final miniseries had a 30-hour running time, which was divided over 12 nights.  War and Remembrance not only made history because of its cost and length but also as the first major production to be allowed to film on location at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  For many members of the generation born after the end of World War II, War and Remembrance would serve as their first introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Dan Curtis returned and with him came Robert Mitchum, now in his 70s and still playing a junior naval officer.  David Dukes once again played the hapless diplomat, Leslie Sloat.  Ralph Bellamy also returned as FDR as did Victoria Tennant as Mitchum’s lover, Polly Bergen as Mitchum’s wife, and Peter Graves as Bergen’s lover.  However, they were the exception.  The majority of the original cast was replaced for the sequel, in most cases for the better.  With John Houseman too ill to reprise his role, John Gielgud took over the role of Aaron Jastrow while Hart Bochner replaced the famously troubled Jan-Michael Vincent.  Robert Hardy took over the role of Churchill while Hitler was recast with Steven Berkoff.  Best of all, Jane Seymour replaced Ali MacGraw in the role of Natalie and gave the best performance of her career.  Other characters were played by a mix of up-and-comers to tv veterans, with the cast eventually including everyone from Barry Bostwick and Sharon Stone to E.G. Marshall and Ian McShane.

Jane Seymour and John Gielgud

With a stronger cast and (ironically, considering the running length) a more focused storyline, War and Remembrance is superior to The Winds of War in every way.  That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, of course.  The scenes featuring Barry Bostwick as a submarine commander feel as if they go on forever and Robert Mitchum still seems like he should be preparing for retirement instead of angling for a promotion.  But none of that matters when the miniseries focuses on Aaron and Natalie Jastrow and their struggle to survive life in the Theresienstadt Ghetto and eventually Auschwitz.  At the time that War and Remembrance was initially broadcast, the concentration camp scenes were considered to be highly controversial and many viewers complained that they were so disturbing that they should not have been aired during prime time.  (This was four years before Schindler’s List.)  Seen today, those scenes are the most important part of the film.  Not only do they show why the war had to be fought but they also demand that the world never allow such a thing to happen again.

Though it was considered by a rating disappointment when compared to its predecessor, War and Remembrance was still a multiple-Emmy nominee.  Controversially, it defeated Lonesome Dove for Best Miniseries.  Both Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been released on DVD and, like the books that inspired them, they both hold up well.  They pay tribute to not only those who fought the Nazis but also to the humanistic vision of Herman Wouk.

Herman Wouk (1915-2019)

Cleaning Out The DVR: Consenting Adults (dir by Alan J. Pakula)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take a while because Lisa has over 200 things recorded.  However, one thing is for sure: it’s all getting erased on January 15th.  Will Lisa be able to watch everything before doomsday?  Keep checking here to find out!  She recorded the 1992 thriller, Consenting Adults, off of Cinemax on February 22nd!)

Consenting Adults is a rather silly film from 1992, one which starts out as a typical sex-and-sin-in-suburbia type of film and then turns into something else.  It was directed by the distinguished director, Alan J. Pakula and the cast features people who have been nominated for (and, in some cases, won) multiple Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys.  It also features the daughter of somewhat overrated playwright, Arthur Miller.

“Wow!,” you’re saying, “who exactly is in this film?”

Well, there’s Kevin Kline and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  They play a seemingly happy married couple.  They have a nice house in the suburbs.  Kevin Kline has a good job as a composer.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio has really pretty hair.  It should be a perfect life but they’re both secretly bored with their safe marriage.

And then there’s Rebecca Miller.  She’s the wife of the new neighbor.  She does thing like sing and bathe in front of an open window, allowing Kline to peek in at her.  She’s also apparently murdered about halfway through the film.  As the result of a wife-swapping scheme that was suggested by his neighbor, Kevin Kline’s semen is found in her body.  Kline goes to jail for murder.  His wife divorces him and marries the neighbor.  Hmmm….does it sound like maybe someone set Kline up?

That’s what Forest Whitaker thinks!  Whitaker plays an insurance agent who is investigating Kline’s neighbor.  It seems that the neighbor has made most of his money through insurance fraud.  Whitaker looks incredibly young in Consenting Adults.  He’s probably the most likable person in the film.  He seems to be amused by it all.

“Hey,” you’re saying, “you keep mentioning this neighbor but you have yet to tell us who played him.  You just keep saying, ‘the neighbor,’ which seems kinda awkward…”

I’m getting to the neighbor!  The neighbor is the evil genius behind all of Kevin Kline’s misfortune.  He’s a totally and thoroughly evil suburbanite and, even when he’s pretending to be a good guy, he doesn’t make much of an effort to hide the fact that he’s not to be trusted.  In fact, you could argue that Kline and Mastrantonio both had to be complete idiots to trust this guy in the first place.  That’s kind of one of the problems with this movie.   Not only is the neighbor’s scheme ludicrously complicated but, in order for it to work, he had to find two of the stupidest people ever…

“We get it, Lisa,” you’re saying, “Just tell us who plays this super villain neighbor!”

Uhmmm… *whispers* Kevin Spacey.

When I saw Consenting Adults on my DVR and I also saw that it starred Kevin Spacey, I figured that I would watch it as a test.  After everything that’s come out about Kevin Spacey, is it still possible to watch him in a movie and forget about the fact that you’re watching Kevin Spacey?  Or does Spacey’s very presence now make it impossible to watch any of his previous films?  In the grand scheme of things, of course, that should be the least of our concerns when it comes to Kevin Spacey but still, regardless of who he may be as a human being, he has appeared in some very good movies.

Of course, I quickly learned that Consenting Adults is not one of those very good movies.  That was obvious from the very first scene, which featured Kevin Kline looking like a madman while composing some of the most maudlin and less interesting music that I’ve ever heard.  In fact, Consenting Adults turned out to one the silliest movies that I’ve ever seen.

As for Kevin Spacey, he is cast as a cold-hearted narcissist who hides his true self underneath a charming and witty facade.  I think a lot of people would watch this film and assume that Spacey is basically playing himself.  (I have to admit that was pretty much my reaction, despite the fact that I usually try to separate the art from the artist.)  Since Spacey’s playing a loathsome villain, his presence doesn’t make Consenting Adults any more or any less difficult to sit through.  If anything, you really can’t wait to see him get his comeuppance.

(So, I guess the real Spacey test will be whether or not I can still watch L.A. Confidential and Baby Driver.)

Anyway, Consenting Adults is occasionally entertaining in an over-the-top, WTF is going on sort of way.  Spacey’s scheme is just so out there and makes so little sense that you can’t help but be impressed that everyone making the film kept a straight face.  Otherwise, this is a truly forgettable movie.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Silver Chalice (dir by Victor Saville)


If you ever needed proof that everyone has to start somewhere, look no further than the 1954 biblical epic, The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice features the film debut of Paul Newman, who later proved himself to be a legitimately great actor.  It’s true that, unlike a lot of actors, Newman made his debut in a starring role.  He never had to humiliate himself with any one-line roles or walk-on bits.  No, Paul got to humiliate himself with a starring role.

Paul Newman was 29 years old when he played Basil, a former slave turned sculptor.  Not only did Newman bear a disconcerting resemblance to Ben Savage (of Boy Meets World fame) but he gave a performance that was so bad that it’s kind of a shock that he ever worked again.  Basil is a passionate artist, one who survived being betrayed by his adopted family and slavery.  Newman comes across like a nice, young man from Iowa.  Usually, Newman looks miserable but occasionally, he flashes a somewhat weak smile.  When Basil gets mad, Newman speaks in a squeaky voice.  When Basil is feeling reverent, Newman furrows his brow like a hungover Russell Brand staring straight into the sun.

“But me and Topanga are soul mates…”

Then again, I’m not sure that any actor could have given a good performance as Basil.  The Silver Chalice has a terrible script, one that was written by Lesser Samuels.  (I’ll avoid the obvious joke about whether or not The Silver Chalice would have been better if written by Greater Samuels.)  Apparently, before Newman was cast, the producers pursued James Dean for the role.  I’m sure we all would have enjoyed seeing Dean slouch his way through the film but I doubt that even he could have done much with The Silver Chalice.

The Silver Chalice is based on a novel, which perhaps explains why there’s so many characters and so many unnecessary subplots.  Basil follows a path that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a 1950s biblical epic.  He’s a young Greek who is adopted into a noble Roman family.  When his kindly stepfather dies, Basil’s stepsiblings sell him into slavery.  It’s not an easy life but Basil is a talented sculptor so Joseph of Arimathea commissions him to make a silver chalice for the Holy Grail.  Basil goes from poor to rich to poor again to rich again to ultimately saved by grace.  He even gets to do the same walking towards Heaven thing that Richard Burton did at the end of The Robe.

Meanwhile, Simon Magus (Jack Palance) is wowing the citizenry with his magic tricks and claiming to be the risen Messiah.  Simon’s assistant just happens to be Helena, who knew Basil when he was younger.  Young Helena is played by dark-haired Natalie Wood.  Grown-up Helena is played by blonde Virgina Mayo.  They were both good actresses but there’s seriously no way that Natalie Wood would have ever grown up to be Virginia Mayo.

Jack Palance pretty much steals the movie, mostly because he gets to wear the silliest costumes:

Poor Paul Newman has to settle for a tunic and a miniskirt, while Jack Palance gets to wear this:

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the story of Simon Magus.  He tried to show off by flying over the Roman Forum so St. Peter said a prayer and Simon promptly plunged to his death.  Take that, you Gnostic!

Another interesting thing about The Silver Chalice is that the sets are very deliberately fake.  I don’t mean that they look cheap.  I mean, much as in the style of German Expressionism, the sets are specifically designed to remind you that you’re watching a movie.

For instance, look at the wall behind Palance:

Look at this pleasure palace:

Look at Rome at night:

The sets are extremely dream-like and yet everything else about the film is extremely slow and conventional.  One wonders if director Victor Saville was trying to make an art film, though there’s nothing else in his long filmography that would suggest that Saville was anything other than a workmanlike director.  In fact, most biblical epics of the time took a lot of pride in looking as expensive and “accurate” as possible.  Major studios in the 1950s were not known for artistic experimentation, especially when it came to Biblical epics.  It’s hard to know what to make of The Silver Chalice‘s artistic flourishes, which is why it’s easier to just focus on what a terrible performance Paul Newman gives.

That’s certainly what Paul did!  In 1966, when The Silver Chalice finally premiered on TV, Newman took out a newspaper ad in which he apologized for his performance and then asked people not watch.  Apparently, he also used to show the movie during parties on the condition that his guests mock the film while watching it.

I don’t really blame him.  It’s an amazingly dull film and Newman looks absolutely miserable in nearly every other scene.  However, because it did star Paul Newman, The Silver Chalice will always have a life on TCM.

Speaking of TCM, they last broadcast this film on February 24th as part of their 31 Days of Oscar.  (It was nominated for both its sets and its score.)  That is when I recorded it.  And, after watching it yesterday, I was more than happy to erase it.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Caine Mutiny (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


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It’s the 1940s and World War II is raging.  The U.S. Navy is model of military discipline and efficiency.  Well, except for the U.S.S. Caine, that is.  The Caine is something of a disorganized mess, where no one takes his job seriously and sailors have names like Meatball (Lee Marvin) and Horrible (Claude Akins).  The men love Lt. Commander DeVriess (Tom Tully), largely because he has given up on trying to enforce any sort of discipline.  However, DeVriess has recently been relieved of his command.  As he leaves, Meatball gives him a new watch, a gift from all the men.  DeVriess admonishes them, snapping that the gift is violation of Naval regulations.  He then puts the watch on his wrist and leaves the ship.

DeVriess’s replacement is Captain Francis Queeg and, at first, we have reason to be hopeful because Captain Queeg is being played by Humphrey Bogart.  Surely, if anyone can get this ship into shape, it’ll be Humphrey Bogart!  From the moment he arrives, Queeg announces that he’s going to enforce discipline on the Caine and if that means spending hours yelling at a man for not having his shirt tucked in, that’s exactly what Queeg is prepared to do.  However, it also quickly becomes apparent that the awkward Queeg has no idea how to talk to people.  He is also overly sensitive and quick to take offense.  Whenever Queeg makes a mistake (and he does make a few), he’s quick to blame everyone else.

the-caine-mutiny-deck

Realizing that the men are turning against him, Queeg even begs his officers for their help.  He asks them if they have any suggestions.  They all sit silently, their heads bowed as Queeg somewhat poignantly rambles on about how his wife and his dog both like him but the crew of the Caine does not.

Queeg’s officers are a diverse bunch, none of whom are quite sure what to make of Queeg or the state of the Caine.  Ensign Willie Keith (Robert Francis) is a wealthy graduate of Princeton University who, at first, likes Queeg but quickly comes to doubt his abilities.  On the other hand, Lt. Steve Marsyk (Van Johnson) has doubts about Queeg from the start but, as a career Navy man, his natural instinct is to respect the chain of command above all else.

And then there’s Lt. Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray).  Keefer is a self-styled intellectual, a novelist who is always quick with a snarky comment and a cynical observation.  (If The Caine Mutiny were remade as a B-horror film, Lt. Keefer’s name would probably be Lt. Sardonicus.)  From the minute the viewers meet Lt. Keefer, our inclination is to like him.  After all, he seems to be the only person in the film who has a sense of humor.  If we had to pick someone to have dinner with, most of us would definitely pick the erudite Tom Keefer over the humorless and socially awkward Francis Queeg.  As such, when Keefer starts to suggest that Queeg might be mentally unstable, our natural impulse is to agree with him.

It’s Tom Keefer who first suggests that it may be necessary to take the command away from Queeg.  And yet, when it comes time to take action, it’s Keith and Marsyk who do so while Keefer stands to the side and quietly watches.  And, once the Caine arrives back in the U.S., it Keith and Marsyk who are court martialed.  Will they be found guilty of treason or will their lawyer, Lt. Barney Greenwald (Jose Ferrer), prove that Queeg was unfit for command?

the-caine-mutiny-ferrer

Made in 1954 and based on a novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is one of those big and glossy 1950s productions that holds up a lot better than you might expect.  The film has its flaws.  In the role of Keith, Robert Francis is a bit on the dull side and a subplot in which he courts May Wynn feels unneccessary and only serves to distract from the main story.  But, for the most part, it’s an intelligent and well-directed film.  Humphrey Bogart turns Queeg into a pathetic and lonely figure and you can’t help but feel sorry for him when he talks about how his dog loves him.  Van Johnson also does well as Marsyk, effectively portraying a well-meaning character who is in over his head.  Jose Ferrer gets a great drunk scene at the end of the film and, of course, you can’t go wrong with Lee Marvin as a smirking sailor, even if Marvin only appears for a handful of minutes.

Fred MacMurray The Caine Mutiny

But for me, my favorite character (and performance) was Fred MacMurray’s Tom Keefer.  Technically, Keefer is not meant to be a likable character.  He’s totally passive aggressive.  He’s pretentious.  He’s smug.  At times, he’s rather cowardly.  And yet, Tom Keefer remains the most memorable and interesting character in the entire film.  He gets all of the good one-lines and MacMurray delivers them with just the right amount of barely concealed venom.  (“If only the strawberries were poisoned…” he says as he considers dinner aboard the Caine.)  It’s a great role and Fred MacMurray gives a great performance.  And you know what?  I don’t care how bad a character he may have been.  I still want to read Tom Keefer’s book!

The Caine Mutiny was nominated for best picture of 1954.  However, it lost to On The Waterfront.

Shattered Politics #60: Absolute Power (dir by Clint Eastwood)


Absolute_power

The main reason that I enjoyed the 1997 Clint Eastwood film Absolute Power was because it features a murderer who also happens to be the President.  As someone who dislike the idea of any one person having absolute power, I always get annoyed by the attitude that authority is something that has to be automatically respected.  Instead, I’ve always felt that all authority should be distrusted and continually questioned.

Just take President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) for example.  At the start of Absolute Power, he’s a popular President.  He’s quick with a smile.  He’s quick with a memorable line.  I imagine that excerpts from his State of the Union speech would probably be very popular on YouTube.  However, at the start of the film, elderly burglar Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) witnesses President Richmond getting violent with Jan Levinson-Gould.  When Jan resists him, two Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) run into the room and shoot her.

Okay, technically, the victim was not really The Office‘s Jan Levinson-Gould.  (They both just happen to be played by Melora Hardin.)  Instead, her name was Christy Sullivan and she was also the wife of one of Richmond’s top financial supporters, Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall).  After the murder, President Richmond and his chief-of-staff, Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), attempt to frame Luther for the crime.

Absolute Power is pretty much your typical Clint Eastwood action picture.  In the role of Luther, Eastwood snarls his way through the film and never dispatches a bad guy without providing a ruthless quip.  (When one bad guy begs for mercy, Luther replies that he’s “fresh out.”)  Luther has an estranged daughter, a lawyer named Kate (Laura Linney) and, despite the fact that she’s helping the homicide detective (Ed Harris) who is trying to capture him, Luther still pops up to look out for her.  In the end, Luther’s not only try to prove that the President is a murderer but he’s trying to be a better father as well!  Awwwwwww!

Again, it’s all pretty predictable but the film is worth seeing just for the chance to witness Gene Hackman play one of the most evil Presidents ever.  As far as soulless chief executives are concerned, Alan Richmond makes Woodrow Wilson look like a humanitarian!  And Hackman does a good job embodying the affable type of evil that could conceivably translate into an electoral landslide.

Absolute Power may not be a great film but it’s a good one to watch whenever you need an excuse to be cynical about the absolute power of the government.

Shattered Politics #41: Billy Jack Goes To Washington (dir by Tom Laughlin)


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The Happy Hooker wasn’t the only person to go to Washington in 1977!  Billy Jack may have started out killing bikers and then moved on to killing Bernard Posner and then finally ended up killing yet another Mr. Posner but, in 1977, Billy Jack was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Now, it may seem strange to think of someone like Billy Jack being appointed to the U.S. Senate.  Over the course of the previous three films in the franchise, Billy had been shot in the back, shot in the leg, arrested for murder, convicted of manslaughter, and then shot by the National Guard.  In Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack, Billy goes as far as to state that he does not feel the laws of the United States apply to him.

And then, when you consider that the three previous films all featured old, rich, white guys plotting to kill Billy, you would be justified in wondering how he would ever find himself appointed to serve in the senate.

But it happened!

And we’ve got a movie to prove it.

Directed by and starring Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack Goes To Washington is actually a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  (To the film’s credit, it’s honest enough to actually give credit to Mr. Smith‘s screenwriters in the opening credits.)  What’s remarkable is just how faithful a remake Billy Jack Goes To Washington actually is.  All the scenes made famous by Jimmy Stewart — the scene where the newest member of the Senate attempts to introduce his first bill, the scene where he’s shocked to discover that Sen. Paine (played here by E.G. Marshall) takes orders from Boss Bailey (Sam Wanamaker), the scene where cynical Saunders (Lucie Arnaz) tells the senator that he should leave Washington, and, of course, that famous filibuster — are all faithfully recreated here.  The only difference, of course, is that it’s no longer idealistic Jimmy Stewart proving himself to be incredibly naive about politics.  Instead, it’s a former Green Beret, half-Indian, judo master named Billy Jack.

Tom Laughlin was a good actor, which is something that’s often overlooked by reviewers writing about the Billy Jack films.  As flawed as The Trial of Billy Jack may have been, Tom Laughlin was a compelling enough presence that the film itself remains a compulsively watchable 3-hour mess.  Laughlin had a very authoritative presence.  You looked at him and you knew that he knew what he was doing.  He was someone who you automatically wanted on your side, a natural born leader who knew how to get things done.  However, in Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Laughlin attempts to play Billy Jack as the type of naive neophyte who would be shocked to discover that politicians are corrupt.  But surely, after spending three films being harassed by every authority figure in America, Billy would have already realized that.  There’s nothing about Laughlin’s screen presence that suggests he could ever be that innocent.

And that’s the main problem with Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  For the film to have any chance of working, you have to forget everything that you’ve learned about Billy Jack over the previous three films.  However, if you haven’t seen any of the other Billy Jack films, then you probably wouldn’t be watching Billy Jack Goes To Washington in the first place.

Of course, since this is a Billy Jack film, there are a few scenes that were nowhere to be found in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  For instance, Saunders’s husband is murdered when he threatens to reveal the truth about Bailey’s operation.  Later, Billy, Jean (Delores Taylor), and Carol (Teresa Laughlin) are confronted by a gang of Bailey’s assassins and, for the only time in the entire movie, Billy goes through that whole routine where he takes off his boots while slowly speaking and then kicks everyone’s ass.  (Jean and Carol get to join in the ass-kicking as well and good for them!)

And, of course, there’s the scene where Billy, Jean, and the kids from the Freedom School (who are apparently now known as Billy’s Raiders) have a meeting with two liberal social activists.  It’s an interesting scene because it was clearly unscripted and it has a naturalistic feel to it that’s lacking from the rest of the film.  However, that does not mean that it’s a particularly good scene.  If I learned anything from Billy Jack Goes To Washington, it’s that self-righteous activists in 1977 were just as boring as self-righteous activists in 2015.

And yet, as I’ve said about all of the other Billy Jack films, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  Again, it all comes down to sincerity.  It’s clear that Laughlin and Taylor felt they were making a difference with their films and that sincerity comes through in a way that makes Billy Jack Goes To Washington a likable, if rather inept, film.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington ran for a week in one theater in 1977 and was reportedly such a box office disaster that it couldn’t get a wider release.  (In a commentary track that he recorded for the film’s DVD release, Laughlin suggests the film was the victim of shadowy government forces.)*  While Laughlin and Taylor would later try to make The Return of Billy Jack, that film was left uncompleted at the time of Laughlin’s death.  So, the last time that filmgoers would see Billy Jack, he would still be U.S. Sen. Billy Jack.

And really, that’s the perfect ending for the saga of Billy Jack.  Starting out as a loner who protected a small California town from a biker gang to eventually becoming the protector of the Freedom School to finally embracing both non-violence and his love for Jean, Billy Jack earned himself a happy ending.

Having now watched and reviewed all four of the Billy Jack films, all I can do is say thank you to Delores Taylor and the spirit of Tom Laughlin.  It was great ride.

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* To be honest, the commentaries that Laughlin and Taylor recorded for the Billy Jack films are actually very informative and interesting.  Laughlin actually had a far better sense of humor than you might guess from some of the movies he directed.

12 Reasons To Love 12 Angry Men


Everyone already knows that the 1957 Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men is a classic.  We all know the film’s story — a teenage boy is on trial for murdering his family.  11 jurors want to convict.  1 juror doesn’t.  Over the next few hours, that one juror tries to change 11 minds.  Some of the jurors are prejudiced, some of them are bored, and some of them just want to go home.  And, as the film reminds us, all 12 of them have a huge  responsibility.  You don’t need me to tell you that this is a great movie.  Therefore, consider this to be less of a review and more of an appreciation of one of the best movies ever made.

1) The film is the feature debut of director Sidney Lumet.  As any student of American film can tell you, Sidney Lumet was one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.  After beginning his career in television, Lumet made his film directing debut with 12 Angry Men and he was rewarded with a much deserved Oscar nomination for best director.

2) The film’s story is actually a lot more complex than you might think.  12 Angry Men is such an influential film and its story has been imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that the film’s plot is a lot more nuanced than you might think.  Despite what many people seem to think, Juror Number 8 never argues that the defendant is innocent.  Instead, he argues that the state has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, the defendant cannot be convicted.  That’s an important lesson that is too often forgotten.

3) The movie celebrates the power of one person determined to do the right thing.  Again, that’s a lesson that remains very relevant today.

4) As Juror Number Eight, Henry Fonda makes human decency believable.

5) As the angry and bullying Juror Number Three, Lee J. Cobb is the perfect antagonist.

6) As Juror Number Ten, Ed Begley makes Cobb seem almost reasonable.  To be honest, the scene where Begley’s racist ranting causes all of the other jurors to stand up and turn their back on him feels a bit too theatrical.  But it’s still undeniably effective.  Alone among the jurors, Juror Number Ten is the only one without any hope of redemption.  It’s a bit of a thankless role but Begley does what he has to do to make the character believable.

7) E.G. Marshall makes the wealthy Juror Number Four into a worthy opponent of Fonda without crossing the line into prejudice like Cobb and Begley.  In many ways, Marshall’s role is almost as important as Fonda’s because Marshall’s performance reminds us that not all disagreements are the product of ignorance or anger.

8) As the Jury Foreman, Martin Balsam is the epitome of every ineffectual authority figure.

9) As Juror Number Seven, Jack Warden is hilariously sleazy.

10) As Juror Number Nine, Joseph Sweeney grows on you.  The first time I saw the film I thought that Sweeney went a bit overboard but, on more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Sweeney’s performance.

11) As Juror Number Twelve, Robert Webber is hilariously shallow.  Juror Number Twelve is in advertising and Webber seems like he was right at home on Mad Men.

12)  Though they don’t get as much of a chance to make an impression, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, and George Voskovec all do good work as the other jurors.  If there’s ever been a film that proves the value of a great ensemble, it’s 12 Angry Men.

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

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
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd