Film Review: The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark (dir by Charles Jarrott)


I recorded the 1980 film, The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, off of TCM because I looked at the title and the fact that it starred Elliott Gould and I figured that it would be a film about an expedition to recover the actual Noah’s Ark.  I figured that it would feature scenes of Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer (who I just assumed would be in the movie) climbing Mount Ararat and having comical disagreements about all of the snow.  I also assumed that the movie would end with the real Noah’s Ark sliding down the mountain while Gould and Plummer tried to steer it.

Seriously, it sounded like fun!

Of course, it turned out that I was wrong.

It turns out that The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark is about an out-of-work pilot named Noah Dugan (Elliott Gould) who has a gambling problem and owes a lot of money to the mob.  Normally, you’d be worried that this means Dungan has a contract out on his life but instead, it just means that a bald guy named Benchley (Dana Elcar) keeps popping up and saying that Dugan’s got a week to come up with the money.

Since this film was made before our current socialist moment, Dugan is forced to get a job.  Unfortunately, the only one that he can get involves flying a missionary (Genevieve Bujold) and a bunch of animals to a South Pacific island.  Dugan agrees but, because the plane is an old World War II bomber, he ends up having to make an emergency landing on a remote and uncharted desert isle.

Of course, it quickly turns out that Dugan, the missionary, and the animals aren’t alone!  First off, it turns out that two orphans (played by Ricky Schroder and Tammy Lauren) stowed away on the airplane.  And then, we discover that there are two Japanese soldiers stranded on the island as well!  They’ve been there since World War II!  Fortunately, one of them is named Cleveland (John Fukioka) and can speak English.

(As for Christopher Plummer, he’s nowhere to be seen because he’s not in the movie.)

Anyway, can you guess what happens?  If you think that Noah and the gang turn the plane into a big boat, you’re on the right track.  If you think that cynical Noah turns out to actually have a soft spot when it comes to children, you’re right.  If you think that Noah and the missionary embark on the most chaste romance in movie history …. oh my God, have you seen this movie before!?

Here’s the thing with The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark — the animals are cute.  I mean, the animals really are adorable.  There’s this one duck who has more screen presence than every human in this movie.  And normally, I’d say that cute animals can save just about any movie but this might be the exception to the rule.

I mean, I get it.  This was a movie for kids and that’s great.  But my God, this is a slow movie.  We start with Dugan getting threatened by the gamblers and then it’s another 25 minutes before Dugan even starts the engine on that plane.  I get that this is a family film but I imagine that even families in 1980 would have been bored to death by it.  Elliott Gould certainly seems to be bored, as he gives a performance that all but screams, “Where’s my paycheck!?”

What would have improved The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark?

Christopher Plummer, dammit.

Film Review: Mean Johnny Barrows (dir by Fred Williamson)


“Dedicated to the veteran who traded his place on the front line for a place on the unemployment line. Peace is Hell.”

— the end credits of Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)

“He’s not that mean.”

— Me, while watch Mean Johnny Barrows

Who is Johnny Barrows?  As played by blaxploitation star Fred Williamson, Johnny Barrows is a former football great who later served in Vietnam and won several silver stars.  As a soldier, he killed an untold number of people but he is always quick to explain that he wouldn’t do the same thing as a civilian.  Even after the war ended, Johnny remained in the army, teaching new recruits.  He was good at his job but, one day, a racist officer decided to play a stupid trick on Johnny.  During a training exercise, that officer put a live landmine out on the training grounds.  After defusing the mine, Johnny promptly punched the officer.  The result?  A dishonorable discharge and the lesson that peace is Hell.

Johnny returns to Los Angeles and discovers that the country he fought for isn’t willing to fight for him.  Because of his dishonorable discharge, Johnny can’t find a good job.  Because he can’t find a job, he can’t afford a place to live.  Johnny stays on the streets.  His only friend is a self-described philosophy professor (Elliott Gould, in an amusing cameo) who teaches Johnny all about soup kitchens.

When Johnny steps into an Italian restaurant and asks for food, he is shocked to discover that the owner, Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman), knows who he is.  Mario says that he played against Johnny in a high school football game.  (Perhaps Johnny’s shock is due to the fact that Mario appears to be at least ten years older than him.)  Mario gives Johnny something to eat and even offers him a job.  Realizing that the work is mob-related, Johnny says that he’s not interested.  He’s not going to break the law…

And here’s where we run into a problem with the film’s title.  The film is entitled Mean Johnny Barrows but, so far, he’s been almost painfully nice.  Then again, Mild Johnny Barrows doesn’t have much of a ring to it.

Anyway, Johnny does try to stay out of trouble.  He even manages to land a demeaning job cleaning the toilets at a gas station.  But his boss (R.G. Armstrong) is a real jerk and Johnny has his dignity, no matter how much the world wants to take it away from him.  Finally, Johnny agrees to work with the Racconi Family.  Not only does he become friends with Mario but he also falls for Mario’s girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Sherman).

Unfortunately, not all Mafia families are as kind-hearted and generous as the Racconi Family.  The Da Vinci family wants to flood Los Angles with drugs.  It’s all the master plan of Tony Da Vinci (Roddy McDowall).  Tony is eager to prove himself to his father and what better way to do that than to smuggle heroin?  Tony also loves flowers because … well, why not?  Anyway, when the Racconis object to Tony’s scheme, a mob war erupts.  Nearly all of the Racconis are killed.  It looks like it’s time for Johnny Barrows to put on his white suit, pick up a gun, and get vengeance for his surrogate family.

There are some pretty obvious problems with Mean Johnny Barrows, not the least of which is the casting of Roddy McDowall — perhaps the least Italian actor in the history of cinema — as a ruthless mafioso.  After having starred in several successful blaxploitation films, Fred Williamson made his directorial debut with Mean Johnny Barrows.  Williamson’s inexperience as director shines through almost every minute of Mean Johnny Barrows.  Though he does well with the action scenes, there are other parts of the film where Williamson doesn’t even seem to be sure where he should point the camera.  With almost every role miscast, the performances are pretty inconsistent but Williamson gives a good performance (it’s obvious that he understood his strengths and weaknesses as an actor) and Elliott Gould is an entertaining oddity as the Professor.

If anything saves the film, it’s that Williamson’s anger at the way America treats its veterans feels sincere.  The heart of the film is in the first half, which details Johnny’s struggle to simply survive from one day to the next.  Even if Williamson’s direction is often shaky, the film’s rage is so authentic that you do get caught up in Johnny’s story.  The film ends on a properly down note, suggesting that, for men like Johnny Barrows, there is no hope to be found in America.

To quote the film’s theme song: Peace is Hell.

A Movie A Day #289: Night Visitor (1989, directed by Rupert Hitzig)


Billy Colton (Derek Rydall) is a teenager who has a reputation for exaggeration.  Lisa Grace (Shannon Tweed) is his next door neighbor, a high-priced prostitute who does not mind if Billy spies on her.  When Billy tries to tell everyone about his wild new neighbor, no one believes him.  Billy decides to prove his story by grabbing his camera and sneaking next door.  Instead of getting proof that she’s a prostitute, Billy witnesses his neighbor being murdered by a robed Satanist, who just happens to be Zachary Willard (Allen Garfield), Billy’s hated science teacher!  Billy goes to the police with his camera but Captain Crane (Richard Roundtree) points out that Billy forgot to take off the lens cap.

What can Billy do?  He knows that Zachary and his strange brother, Stanley (Michael J. Pollard), are sacrificing prostitutes to Satan but he can’t get anyone to believe him.  Working with his best friend (Teresa Van der Woude) and a burned out ex-cop (Elliott Gould), Billy sets out to stop the Willard Brothers.

Combine Rear Window with late 80s Satanic conspiracy theories and this is the result.  Not as bad as it sounds, Night Visitor is an unfairly obscure movie about Satanism in suburbia. While it has its share of dumb moments (like when Billy uses a watermelon to end a car chase), it also has enough good moments that suggest that Night Visitor is deliberately satirizing the excesses of the Satanic panic that, at the time of filming, was sweeping across the nation.  It also has a once in a lifetime cast.  Along with those already mentioned, keep an eye out for character actor extraordinaire Henry Gibson and future adult film star Teri Weigel.  Allen Garfield is especially good as the evil Mr. Willard.  Any actor can say, “I sacrifice you in the name of Satan.”  It takes a good actor like Allen Garfield to say it without making anyone laugh.

One final note: this movie was originally called Never Cry Devil, which is a much better title than Night Visitor.

A Movie A Day #260: The Naked Face (1984, directed by Bryan Forbes)


Dr. Judd Stevens (Roger Moore) is a mild-mannered Chicago psychologist who has never been in any trouble, so why has one of his patients and his receptionist been murdered?  Lt. McGreavy (Rod Steiger), who has a personal grudge against Stevens, thinks that the doctor himself might be responsible.  Dr. Stevens thinks that the first murder was a case of mistaken identity and that he is being targeted for assassination.  Detective Angeli (Elliott Gould) says that he is willing to consider Stevens’s theory but can Stevens trust him?  Or should Dr. Stevens put his trust in a veteran P.I. (Art Carney) or maybe even his newest patient (Anne Archer)?

An example of one of the “prestige” pictures that Cannon Films would produce in between Chuck Norris movies, The Naked Face has the potential be intriguing but both the direction and the script are too formulaic to be effective.  Even though the movie does not work, it is always interesting to see the non-Bond films that Roger Moore made while he was playing the world’s most famous secret  agent.  In The Naked Face, a lot of time is spent on establishing Judd Stevens as being the exact opposite as James Bond.  Stevens doesn’t drink or smoke and he is devotedly loyal to the memory of his dead wife.  When someone offers him a gun, Stevens replies, “I don’t believe in them.”  Unlike Bond, Dr. Stevens does not have the ability to come up with one liners.  He barely ever cracks a smile.  Moore is miscast in the role but he still does a better job than Rod Steiger, who bellows all of his lines, and Elliott Gould, who spends the movie with his head down.  I don’t blame him.

One final note: As much as The Naked Face tries to distance itself from the Bond films, it does feature one other connection beyond the casting of Moore.  David Hedison, who plays Dr. Stevens’s friend and colleague, also played Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die and Licence to Kill.

Marlowe at the Movies Pt 3: THE LONG GOODBYE (United Artists 1973)


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Elliott Gould was a hot Hollywood commodity in the early 1970’s. The former Mr. Barbra Streisand broke through in the 1969 sex farce BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE, earning an Oscar nomination for supporting actor. He was marketed as a counter-culture rebel, quickly appearing in MOVE, GETTING STRAIGHT, LITTLE MURDERS, and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. But his flame dimmed just as fast, and his erratic onset behavior and rumored drug abuse caused him to become unemployable. When Altman decided to make the neo-noir THE LONG GOODBYE, he insisted on casting Gould as Philip Marlowe. The film put Gould back on the map, and though critics of the era weren’t crazy about it, THE LONG GOODBYE stands up well as an artifact of its era and a loving homage to Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled hero.

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Philip Marlowe is clearly an anachronism is 70’s LA, with his ever-present cigarette, cheap suit, beat-up ’48 Lincoln…

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Shattered Politics #38: Nashville (dir by Robert Altman)


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“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”

— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)

The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film.  It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee.  Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin.  The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America.  Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be.  (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.)  It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.

Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others.  For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain.  His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager.  Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos.  Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.

Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking.  Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self.  In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin).  They have two deaf children.  Linnea has learned sign language.  Delbert has not.  Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat.  Only one of them actually will.

And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield).  Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean.  A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean.  A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.

Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music.  However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.

Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom.  Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines).  Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well.  When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.

Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).

Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing.  Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.

And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly.  Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star.  The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars.  (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities.  He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.)  There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.

And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC.  (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.)  How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole.  If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film.  If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.

There is one more very important character in Nashville.  He’s the character who literally holds the film together.  He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films.  That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens.  Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes.  Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally.  That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.

Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film.  Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences.  You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.

As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.  It’s the perfect companion for a great film.

 

Embracing the Melodrama #40: Bugsy (dir by Barry Levinson)


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Let’s continue to embrace the melodrama with the 1991 best picture nominee Bugsy.

Gangster Benjamin Siegel (Warren Beatty) may be known as Bugsy but nobody dares call him that to his face.  Siegel may be best known for his quick temper and his willingness to murder anyone who gets in his way, but Ben insists that he’s not as crazy as everyone considers him to be.  Instead, Ben knows that he’s a very special person, a visionary businessman whose business just happens to be organized crime.  Along with his childhood friends Lucky Luciano (Bill Graham) and Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), Siegel is one of the founders of the modern American crime syndicate.  Unlike his more practical-minded partners, Siegel revels in being a public figure.  Bugsy examines how Siegel became a celebrity gangster and how that celebrity eventually led to his downfall.

As the film opens, Luciano and Lansky send Siegel out to Los Angeles, specifically to look after their west coast business operations.  Before Siegel leaves, he is specifically told to keep a low profile.  So, of course, as soon as Siegel arrives in Los Angeles, he starts hanging out with actor George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and having a very public affair with actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening).  Siegel quickly falls in love with the glamour and glitz of Hollywood and starts to think of himself as being a movie star.  When he’s not working with violent gangster Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) to control the Los Angeles underworld, Siegel is attending film premieres and even shooting a Hollywood screen test.  Back in New York, Luciano and Lansky can only watch as their childhood friend goes out of his way to defy their instructions and become the most famous gangster in America.

Eventually, Siegel goes on a gambling trip to Nevada and comes up with an idea that is destined to change America forever.  With funding from Lansky and Luciano, Siegel begins construction on the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  However, Siegel’s plans are so extravagant and, in many ways, impractical that the budget soon soars out of control.  Not helping matters is the fact that Virginia is embezzling money from the casino’s budget.  Even after Siegel finds out, he can’t bring himself to be angry at her.  He understand that he and Virginia are essentially cut from the same cloth.

However, back in New York, Luciano grows more and more frustrated with Siegel’s wasteful ways and Lansky comes to realize that he can only protect his friend for so long…

Bugsy is a big, extravagant movie that tries to be a few too many things at once.  Over the course of two and a half hours, it attempts to be a love story, a biopic, a classic gangster film, an allegory for the American dream, a history lesson, a period piece, and finally, a metaphor for the act of filmmaking itself.  (When Siegel complains that Luciano and Lansky don’t understand why the Flamingo has to be huge, it’s hard not to feel that he’s meant to be a stand in for every director who has ever had his budget cut by a meddling studio executive.)  When a film tries to be so many different things all at once, you can’t be surprised when the end result is a little uneven.  Bugsy starts out slowly but gradually picks up speed and the final part of the movie is everything that one could hope for from an epic gangster film.

The film works best as a character study of a man who, in the best American tradition, attempts to reinvent himself by moving out west.  Back in New York, Ben is known as a cold-blooded and dangerous killer.  However, once he arrives in Los Angeles, Ben attempts to recreate himself as a celebrity and then as a visionary.  For him, the Flamingo is about more than money.  The Flamingo is about being remembered for something other than his nickname.  The Flamingo is his way to escape from his past.  However, as Bugsy makes clear, the past can be ignored but it never goes away.

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