Film Review: You People (dir by Kenya Barris)


Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amirah Mohammed (Lauren London) have been dating for six months.  Ezra is a Jewish atheist who works at a brokerage firm but who says his lifelong dream has been to be a podcaster.  Lauren is Black and a devout Muslim.  A graduate of Howard University, she is pursuing a career as a designer.  Despite coming from very different backgrounds, Ezra and Amirah are deeply in love and want to get married.  However, becoming engaged also means …. MEETING THE PARENTS!

Shelley and Arnold Cohen (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and David Duchovny) are self-styled progressives who immediately embarrass Ezra by going out of their way to trying to show how liberal and non-racist they are.  Shelley, in particular, goes out of her way to bond with Amirah but it’s immediately obvious that Shelley views Amirah as being more someone to show off than as an actual human being.  Meanwhile, Akbar Mohammed and Fatima Mohammed (played by Eddie Murphy and Nia Long) are members of the Nation of Islam who admire Louis Farrakhan and who claim that the Jews were behind the slave trade.

Just from that plot description, you can see a huge part of the problem with the new film, You People.  Whereas Shelley’s problem is that she’s too quick to brag about how much she loves the idea of having a black daughter-in-law, Akbar’s problem is that he’s an anti-Semite.  His main objections to Ezra are that 1) Ezra isn’t black and 2) Ezra’s Jewish.  While Shelley takes Amirah shopping, Akbar tries to get Ezra killed by tricking him into wearing “the wrong colors” to a barbershop.  While Shelley shows off Amirah to all of her liberal friends, Akbar shoves Ezra onto a basketball court.  While Shelley is awkwardly trying to prove that she’s an ally, Akbar is inviting himself to Ezra’s wild Las Vegas bachelor party.  (Akbar is disturbed to discover that Ezra has a “coke guy.”  If this film had been made ten years ago, Ezra would have had a weed guy and it would have been easier to buy the film’s contention that Akbar is being unreasonable.)  Shelley is certainly obnoxious and she fully deserves to get called out for her behavior.  But Akbar is an anti-Semite who peddles the type of conspiracy theories that have been at the center of the alarming rise in recent hate crimes.  Whereas Shelley is clueless, Akbar is actually malicious.  And while that’s a story that one certainly could try to tell, it also makes it a bit difficult to buy the film’s fanciful ending.  The movie ultimately can’t decide if it wants to be a fearless satire of race relations or a feel-good romcom.  The tone of the film switches from scene to scene and Kenya Barris’s direction is so inconsistent that he makes Judd Apatow look like a disciplined filmmaker by comparison.

The cast is full of talent but the characters are largely one-dimensional.  Jonah Hill is undoubtedly a good actor but he’s also nearly 40 years old and, with his full beard, he looks about ten years older, which makes it a bit hard to believe that he would be that concerned with getting the approval of his future in-laws.  At first, a role of Akbar would seem ideal for Eddie Murphy but, with the exception of a scene where Akbar quizzes Ezra on his favorite Jay-Z song in an attempt to trick Ezra into saying the “n-word,” Murphy doesn’t really get to do much other than stand around with a pained expression on his face.  Probably the most interesting performance in the film comes from Mike Epps, who plays Akbar’s brother and who is one of the few characters willing to call everyone out on their hypocrisy.  But, unfortunately, Epps is only in a handful of scenes and the film uses him as more of a dramatic device than a fully rounded character.

As I watched You People, I couldn’t help but think about another film about an interracial wedding, Rachel Getting Married.  That film provided a believable and multi-layered look at two different cultures coming together.  You People, however, can’t quite make up its mind what it believes or what it wants to say and, unfortunately, what it does say is often said with a surprising lack of self-awareness.  At times, it’s so proud of itself that it feels like it almost could have been written by Shelley Cohen.

You People is streaming on Netflix.

Lisa Reviews A Palme d’Or Winner: M*A*S*H (dir by Robert Altman)


With the Cannes Film Festival underway, I have been watching some of the past winners of the prestigious Palme d’Or.  On Thursday night, Jeff and I watched the winner of the 1970 winner of the Grand Prix (as the Palme was known at the time), Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H.

There are, of course, three versions of M*A*S*H.  All three of them deal with the same basic story of Dr. Hawkeye Pierce and his attempts to maintain his sanity while serving as a combat surgeon at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean war.  All three of them mix comedy with the tragedy of war.  However, each one of them takes their own unique approach to the material.

The one that everyone immediately thinks of is the old television series, which ran for 11 seasons and which can be found on Hulu and on several of the retro stations.  The television series starred Alan Alda as Hawkeye.  I’ve watched a handful of episodes and, while the episodes that I’ve seen were undeniably well-acted and well-written and they all had their heart in the right place, the show’s deification of Hawkeye can get to be a bit much.  Not only is Hawkeye the best surgeon at the 4077th, he’s apparently the best surgeon in all of Korea.  In fact, he may be the best surgeon on the entire planet.  Not a single thing happens in the camp unless Hawkeye is somehow involved.  When a nurse is killed by a landmine in one episode, the focus is not on the other nurses but instead on how Hawkeye feels about it.  When bombs are falling too close to the camp, the focus is again only on Hawkeye and how much he hates the war.  If you didn’t already know that he hated the war, Hawkeye will let you know.  Wish Hawkeye a good morning and he’ll yell at you about how many people are going to be wounder by the end of the day.  Even when one agrees with Hawkeye, the character’s self-righteousness can be a bit much.

Less well-known is the first version of M*A*S*H, a short and episodic novel that was published in 1968.  The novel was written by Dr. Richard Hornberger, who actually had served in Korea at a M*A*S*H unit and who reportedly based Hawkeye on himself.  The book is a rather breezy affair.  Reading it, one can definitely tell that it was inspired by someone telling Hornberger, “Your stories about Korea are so funny and interesting, you should write them down!”  The book avoids politics, reserving most of its ire for military red tape.  Hornberger was a Republican who so disliked Alan Alda’s interpretation of Hawkeye that, when he wrote a sequel to M*A*S*H, he included a scene in which Hawkeye talked about how much he enjoyed beating up hippies.

And then there’s the version that came in between the book and the television series, the 1970 film from Robert Altman.  The film retains the book’s episodic structure while also throwing in the anti-war politics that would define the television series.  (Though the film was set in the 50s, Altman purposefully made no attempt to be historically accurate because he wanted it to be clear that this film was more about Vietnam than Korea.)  From its opening, the film announces its outlook, with shots of helicopters carrying severely wounded (possibly dead) soldiers to the camp while a song called Suicide is Painless plays on the soundtrack.  The song was written by director Robert Altman’s fourteen year-old son, Mike.  Reportedly, it took Mike five minutes to come up with the lyrics.  When the instrumental version of the song was later used as the theme song for the television series, Mike Altman made over a million dollars in royalties.

The film opens with Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) arriving at the 4077th MASH in a stolen jeep and it ends with them getting sent home in the same jeep.  Though Duke is set up to be a major character, he soon takes a backseat to another surgeon, the unfortunately nicknamed Trapper John (Elliott Gould).  Much as with the television series, the movie centers around Hawkeye and Trapper John’s antics.  When they’re not in the operating room, they’re drinking, carousing, and playing pranks that are far more mean-spirited than anything the television versions of the characters would have ever done.  (Indeed, the book and movie versions of Hawkeye probably would have hated Alan Alda’s Hawkeye.)  Unlike the television version of Hawkeye, the film’s Hawkeye is not the best surgeon in Korea.  In fact, he’s not even the best surgeon at the 4077th.  (That honor goes to Trapper.)  Instead, he’s just one of many doctors on staff.  They’re rotated in and then, at the end of their tour, they’re rotated out.  Hawkeye loses as many patients as he saves.  The film’s doctors are not miracle workers, nor are they crusaders.  Instead, they are overworked, neurotic, often exhausted, and frequently bored whenever there aren’t any wounded to deal with.  The film emphasizes that the doctors are as professional inside the Operating Room as they’re rambunctious outside of it.  Unlike the television series, Hawkeye doesn’t joke while working.  He’s usually too busy trying to stop his patients from bleeding to death to tell jokes or to complain about the war that brought them to the OR.

Indeed, the film version of M*A*S*H communicates its anti-war message not through indignant speeches but instead through bloody imagery.  The operating room scenes don’t shy away from showing the ugliness of war and they are occasionally so visceral that they almost seem to shame the audience for have laughed just a few minutes earlier.  One of the film’s more famous (and controversial) sequences features Hawkeye driving Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) to insanity by crudely taunting him about his affair with head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman).  Burns attacks Hawkeye, a response that actually seems rather justified even if it is played for laughs.  A scene of Burns being driven out of the camp in straitjacket is followed by a close-up of a geyser of blood erupting from a wounded soldier’s throat.  It’s a jarring transition but one that makes a stronger anti-war statement than any self-righteous monologue would have.  While Hawkeye and Trapper are taunting Burns and Margaret, soldiers are still being sent off to die.

The humor in M*A*S*H is often brutally misogynistic.  Margaret is described as being “a damn good nurse” but is continually humiliated because she believes in maintaining military discipline.  One can disagree with her emphasis on following all of the proper regulations while also realizing the Hawkeye and Trapper’s treatment of her is unreasonably cruel.  The scene where Trapper and Hawkeye expose her while she’s taking a shower is especially difficult to watch and there’s no way to justify their actions.  It’s frat boy humor, the type of stuff that you would expect from a bunch of former college football players, which is what we’re told Hawkeye and Trapper are.  (That, of course, is another huge difference between the film and television versions of the characters.)  That said, it’s debatable whether or not were supposed to find either Hawkeye or Trapper to be heroic or even likable.  As a director, Robert Altman shied away from making films with unambiguous heroes or villains.  Just as Margaret could be a “damn good nurse” and a “regular army clown” at the same time, Hawkeye can be both a dedicated doctor and a bit of a jerk.

After 90 minutes of bloody operating room scenes and Trapper and Hawkeye making crude jokes, M*A*S*H suddenly becomes a sports film as the the 4077th plays a football game against their rivals, the 325th Evac Hospital.  The change of tone can be a bit jarring but it’s perhaps the most important sequence in the film.  For a few hours, the doctors bring “the American way of life” to Korea and the end result is a game that’s played for money and which is only won through cheating and deception.  (Future blaxploitation star Fred Williamson made his film debut as the ringer who the 4077th recruits for the game.)  For all of the broad comedy of the game, it’s followed by a shot of the doctors playing poker while a dead soldier is transported out of the camp, wrapped in a white sheet.  Football may provided a distraction.  The money may have provided an incentive.  But the war continued and people still died.

Much of M*A*S*H‘s humor has aged terribly but the performances still hold up and the anti-war message is potent today.  Though Sutherland and Gould are undeniably the stars of the film, M*A*S*H is a true ensemble film, full of the overlapping dialogue and the small character performances that Robert Altman’s films were known for.  One reason why the film works is because it is an immersive experience, the viewer truly does feel as if they’ve been dropped in the middle of an operating field hospital.  Though Hawkeye and Trapper may be at the center of the action, every character, from the camp’s colonel to the lowliest private, seems to have their own story playing out.  This a film where paying attention to the little things happening in the background is often more rewarding than paying attention to the main action.  I particularly liked the performances of David Arkin as the obsequies Staff Sergeant Vollmer and Bud Cort as Pvt. Warren Boone.  Boone, especially, seems to have an interesting story going on in the background.  The viewer just has to keep an eye out for him.  Also be sure to keep an eye out for Rene Auberjonois, who reportedly improvised one of the film’s best-known lines when, after Margaret demands to know how Hawkeye reached a position of authority in the army medical corps, he deadpanned, “He was drafted.”

One of the first major studio films to be openly critical of the military and the war in Vietnam, M*A*S*H won the Palme d’Or, defeating films like Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and The Strawberry Statement.  Unlike many Palme winners, it was also a box office success in the United States.  Though controversial, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  However, unlike the Cannes jury, the Academy decided to honor a different film about war, Patton.

Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 (1987, directed by Jeremy Kagan)


The year is 1969 and, in an Illinois courtroom, 8 political radicals stand accused of conspiring to disrupt the 1968 Democratic Convention.  The prosecution is putting the entire anti-war movement on trial while the defendants are determined to disrupt the system, even if it means being convicted.  The eight defendants come from all different sides of the anti-war movement.  Jerry Rubin (Barry Miller) and Abbie Hoffman (Michael Lembeck) represent the intentionally absurd Yippies.  Tom Hayden (Brian Benben) and Rennie Davis (Robert Carradine) are associated with the Students for a Democratic Society.  Bobby Seale (Carl Lumbly) is one of the founders of the Black Panthers while David Dellinger (Peter Boyle) is a longtime peace activist.  John Friones (David Kagan) and Lee Weiner (Robert Fieldsteel) represent the common activists, the people who traveled to Chicago to protest despite not being a leader of any of the various organizations.  Prosecuting  the Chicago 8 are Richard Schulz (David Clennon) and Tom Foran (Harris Yulin).  Defending the 8 are two radical lawyers, Leonard Wienglass (Elliott Gould) and William Kunstler (Robert Loggia).  Presiding over the trial is the fearsome and clearly biased Judge Julius Hoffman (David Opatoshu).

Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8 is a dramatization of the same story that inspired Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 but, of the two films, it’s Jeremy Kagan’s The Trial of the Chicago 8 that provides a more valuable history lesson.  By setting all of the action in the courtroom and recreating only what was said during the trial, director Jeremy Kagan and his cast avoid the contrived drama that marred so much of Sorkin’s film.  Kagan trusts that the true story is interesting enough to stand on its own.  Kagan includes documentary footage from the convention protest itself and also interviews with the people who were actually there.  While Kagan may not have had the budget that Sorkin did, his film has the authenticity that Sorkin’s lacked.  Kagan also has the better cast, with Michael Lembeck and Barry Miller both making Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin into something more than the mere caricatures that they are often portrayed as being.

The Trial of the Chicago 8 was a film that Jeremy Kagan spent a decade trying to make.  When he first tried to sell the idea behind the film to CBS in 1976, Kagan had Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, and Dustin Hoffman all willing to work for scale and take part in the production.  CBS still passed on the project, saying that no one was interested in reliving the 60s.  It wasn’t until 1987 that Jeremy Kagan was finally able to revive the film, this time with HBO.  It actually worked out for the best because, with HBO, there was no need to try to come up with a “clean” version for the language that was used in the courtroom or in the interviews with the actual participants.  The defendants could be themselves.

Though it has been overshadowed by Sorkin’s subsequent film, The Trial of the Chicago 8 is the definitive film about what happened in the aftermath of the the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Cover Me (1995, directed by Michael Schroeder)


A serial killer is stalking Los Angeles, killing the models who have appeared in an adult magazine. Because they’re not very good at their jobs, neither Sgt. Bobby Colter (Rick Rossovich) nor Detective J.J. Davis (Paul Sorvino!) have come up with any leads that could lead them to the murderer. Facing a dead end, they come up with a brilliant idea. Maybe a cop could go undercover as an erotic model! Fortunately, Bobby just happens to be dating a surprisingly attractive cop named Holly (Courtney Taylor). You have to love it when a plan comes together.

At first, Holly is hesitant but, realizing that there’s no other possible way to get the killer off the streets (because it’s certainly not like Bobby or J.J. could actually do any police work on their own), she agrees to pose for some pictures. Soon, she’s appearing in the magazine, working as a stripper, and discovering that she enjoys her new uninhibited lifestyle. Meanwhile, the killer has noticed her. The killer, by the way, is Dimitri (Stephen Nichols), who frequently disguises himself as a woman and who is driven to kill by his mother. Dimitri’s identity is revealed early on in the film so this doesn’t count as a spoiler. Cover Me is a mystery but it’s a mystery where everyone figures it all out except for the people who are supposed to be figuring it out.

Cover Me was one of the many direct-to-video films that found a home on late night Cinemax in the 90s. These films were advertised as being “erotic thrillers,” though there was usually little about them that was either erotic or thrilling. Cover Me was produced by Playboy and distributed by Paramount, which means that Hugh Hefner probably used to show up on set, wearing his sea captain’s hat and asking the strippers if they wanted to come back to the mansion and help him look for his Viagra. Because it’s a Playboy film, Cover Me has higher production values than the typical 90s erotic thriller but it’s still interesting that a company best known for publishing an adult magazine would produce a film about a killer targeting nude models. In the 70s, Playboy produced things like Roman Polanski’s adaptation of MacBeth, a cinematic triumph regardless of how one feels about Polanski as a human being. By the time the 90s rolled around, they were producing slightly less classy versions of Stripped to Kill.

Still, Cover Me is better than many of the other erotic thrillers that came out during the direct-to-video era. That doesn’t mean that it was a good movie, of course. There’s a reason why “Skinemax” was go-to punchline during the 1990s. As opposed to many of the other movies of the era and the genre, Cover Me has a talented cast that tries to make the best of the material that they’ve been given. I don’t know how Rick Rossovich went from appearing in The Terminator and Top Gun to starring in something like Cover Me but he delivers his lines with a straight face, which could not have always been easy. Paul Sorvino, Elliott Gould, and Corbin Bernsen are also on hand, all playing their parts like pros. (Between L.A. Law and Psych, Bernsen was a mainstay in these type of films, almost always playing either a pimp, a pornographer, or a strip club owner.) Finally, there’s Courtney Taylor, who is actually pretty good in the role of Holly. Though the role really only calls for her to be sexy, Taylor still plays it with a lot of conviction. Taylor’s performance is natural and likable and she sells even the most clichéd dialogue. Just as when she starred in the fourth Prom Night film, Taylor is always better than her material. Unfortunately, Courtney Taylor appears to have stopped acting around 2000.

Cover Me was shot at the same time as an early CD-Rom game called Blue Heat, where I guess the player would step into Holly’s shoes and try to solve the case. Because the company that developed the game went out of business before the game was published, Blue Heat didn’t come out until two years after Cover Me. I’ve never played the game but, from what I’ve read online, it was a point-and-click game where you could go to various places in Los Angeles and search for clues and interrogate suspects. The game came with multiple endings, depending on the decisions you made. Did anyone ever play this game? Let me know in the comments!

As for Cover Me, it’s not great but it’s also not terrible, which is high praise when it come to late night CInemax.

 

The Films of 2020: Dangerous Lies (dir by Michael Scott)


As soon as Elliott Gould showed up, I knew he was going to die.

Now, of course, I should clarify that I didn’t think that Elliott Gould the actor was going to die.  Instead, I thought that the character he was playing — Leonard Wellesley — was going to die.  Leonard, after all, is a wealthy man who has no family left and who is in bad health.  He keeps trying to give money to his caregiver, Katie (Camila Mendes).  Katie consistently refuses the money, even though she could really use it.  She and her husband, Adam (Jessie T. Usher), are drowning in debt.  Even after Leonard hires Adam to work as his gardener, they’re still struggling to make ends meet. Still, Katie doesn’t want to take Leonard’s money because Katie doesn’t want to take advantage of him.

For the plot to move forwards, it’s necessary for Leonard to die, though not before changing his will to leave everything to Katie.  Normally, when this happens in a movie, it turns out that the caregiver actually manipulated her employer into changing the will before murdering him but, in this case, Katie is totally innocent.  It’s actually kind of a nice twist.  As played by Camila Medes, Katie is someone who sincerely is trying to do the right thing, even if it means her life is occasionally difficult.  As played by Elliott Gould, Leonard may be a bit eccentric but he’s still just sincerely trying to thank the person who made his final days bearable.

(Admittedly, another reason why I knew Leonard was going to die was because, whenever a veteran actor like Elliott Gould shows up in a movie like this, he’s usually going to end up playing someone who dies under mysterious circumstances.  Call it the Rule of Eric Roberts.)

Moving into Leonard’s house, Katie and Adam are surprised to discover a large trunk of cash.  While Katie wonders why exactly Leonard would have a huge trunk of money hidden away in his house, Adam is more concerned with what they can do with that money.  While Katie tries to resist the urge to get greedy, Adam starts obsessing on the money.  What else does Leonard have hidden around the house?

Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Hayden (Cam Gigandet) watches the house and plots his next move….

Dangerous Lies is a thriller that was released on Netflix back in April.  This is probably one of those low-budget movies that would have been overlooked if not for the fact that everyone was pretty much locked inside their house when it was released.  Watching Dangerous Lies provided a nice escape from the bad news of the pandemic.  Speaking for myself, it was kind of fun to watch Katie and Adam explore their new home.  After being stuck inside of mine for a month, the idea that I could suddenly inherit a mansion provided a nice bit of wish-fulfillment.

As for the film itself, it was a diverting thriller.  Elliott Gould brought some unexpected depth to the role of Leonard and Camila Mendes and Jessie T. Usher were believable as the couple at the center of the story.  They had a believable chemistry and Usher did a good job of portraying Adam’s losing struggle with his own greed.  This is the type of simple but entertaining film that you watch if you have a few hours to kill in the afternoon and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Who? (1974, directed by Jack Gold)


Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), an American scientist who was previously captured by the Soviets in East Berlin and who was gravely injured in a terrible car crash, is finally returned to the Americans.  But is it really Dr. Martino?  Making identification difficult is that the Soviets had to totally rebuild Martino’s body after his car crash.  He appears to still have one of his original arms but he’s otherwise a cyborg.  He now has a metal head with an expressionless face.  Is he really Lucas Martino or is he a spy?  Even though his fingerprints check out, it’s possible that the real Martino’s arm could have been surgically grafted onto an imposter’s body.

It falls to agent Shawn Rogers (Elliot Gould) to determine whether or not this Martino is the real Martino.  Rogers interrogates the man claiming to be Martino but struggles to determine whether or not the man is who he claims to be.  Complicating matters is that, even if Martino is Martino, it’s possible that he could have possibly been brainwashed by Shawn’s Soviet counterpart, Col. Azarin (Trevor Howard).  As Shawn interrogates Martino, the film frequently shows Azarin asking Martino the exact same questions.  Is the film showing what Shawn thinks happened or is the film showing what actually happened?

Who? is based on a classic sci-fi novel by Algis Budrys.  It’s pretty faithful to its source material but it doesn’t really work as a film.  Some of that is because, despite the fact that Bova gives a good performance, the cyborg makeup is never really convincing.  Many potentially dramatic scenes are ruined by how silly Bova looks.  Trevor Howard is too British to be convincing as a sinister Russian and Elliott Gould is likewise miscast as Shawn Rogers.  Gould was always at his best playing quirky, counter-cultural characters.  Just think about his performance in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where Gould was such a strange P.I. that it allowed Altman to deconstruct the entire genre.  In Who?, Gould is meant to be a much more conventional secret agent and he seems lost in the role.

Speaking of Robert Altman, he’s the type of director who probably could have worked wonders with Who?  I think Michael Crichton probably could have pulled off the film.  Maybe Mike Hodges, as well.  But Jack Gold was a much less adventurous director than any of these filmmakers and his direction in Who? is often too low-key and conventional.  I kept waiting for the film to really go for it and challenge my expectations and surprise me but it never did.  Who? doesn’t seem to know what type of film it wants to be.  Is it a spy thriller or a sci-fi film or an examination of what it means to be human?  It tries to be all three but just doesn’t succeed.

The idea behind the movie is a good one and Budrys’s book remains intriguing.  This is one that I wouldn’t mind seeing remade, perhaps by someone like Denis Villeneuve or Alex Garland.

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.