Cleaning Out The DVR: The Star Chamber (dir by Peter Hyams)

Here’s a good example of why I need to clean out my DVR more regularly:

I recorded the 1983 legal thriller, The Star Chamber, off of Starz on March 14th.  I know what you’re saying.  “Big deal!  That wasn’t that long ago.”  Well, did I mention that it was March 14th, 2017?

That’s right!  The Star Chamber sat on my DVR for over a year before I finally got around to watching it last night.  You’d be justified in asking why it took me so long and I’m afraid that I really couldn’t give you a definite answer.  I can, however, tell you the four main reasons why I recorded it in the first place:

  1. I’m always intrigued whenever I come across a movie of which I haven’t previously heard.
  2. The movie was described as being about a conflicted judge and I just happen to love legal films.
  3. I really, really liked the title.  The Star Chamber?  Did that mean it took place in a room full of stars?
  4. Before I recorded The Star Chamber, I only had 55 films on the DVR.  Since I don’t like odd numbers, recording The Star Chamber took care of that problem.

As for the film itself, The Star Chamber is another one of those movies where a group of vigilantes end up getting pissed off because liberal California judges are letting too many murderers go free because of pesky, constitutional technicalities.  The twist here is that the vigilantes are the same judges who keep tossing out evidence and ruling that confessions are inadmissible in court.  After spending their day setting free the dregs of society, the judges all gather in a nearby house and review the evidence before voting on whether or not they believe the accused was actually guilty.  If the verdict is guilty, the judges promptly hire a hit man who proceeds to clean up the streets.

The newest member of this tribunal is Judge Steven R. Hardin (Michael Douglas).  Hardin is haunted by the technicalities that forced him to toss out a case against two accused of child murderers.  (Making things even worse, the child’s father commits suicide afterward.)  Despite his initial reservations, Judge Hardin signs off on hiring an assassin to take the two men out.  But, when it becomes apparent that the two men actually were innocent, Judge Hardin is horrified to discover that there’s no way to call off the hit…

The Star Chamber is an oddly constructed movie.  When the movie starts, it feels like a typical police procedural.  From there, the movie turns into a rather talky examination of the U.S. legal system, with Judge Hardin trying to balance his idealism with the often frustrating reality of what it takes to uphold the law.  The movie then briefly turns into a conspiracy film, featuring middle-aged men in suits holding secret meetings and debating whether or not they’re serving the greater good.  And then, towards the end of the movie, it turns into an action film, with Judge Hardin being chased by two drug dealers, a contract killer, and a suspicious police detective (Yaphet Kotto).  Judge Hardin may start the movie as a conflicted liberal but he ends at someone who can blow up the entire second floor of a drug lab.  In many ways, The Star Chamber is a deeply silly film but, as directed and co-written by Peter Hyams, it’s also just pulpy enough to be entertaining.  The dialogue may be over-the-top but so is Michael Douglas’s performance so it all evens out in the end.

It may have taken me a while to get around to watching The Star Chamber but I’m glad that I finally did.  It’s a ludicrous film and all the more entertaining as a result.

Film Review: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (dir by Robert Stone)

“Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”

— Patty “Tania” Hearst

2004’s Guerrilla is not the first movie that I’ve reviewed about the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst.  Previously, I took a look at Abduction, a grindhouse film that was released while Hearst was still missing, and 1988’s Patty Hearst, which was based on Hearst’s own book about her ordeal.  However, Guerrilla is different from those two films in that it’s a documentary and it features interviews with people who actually knew Patty and her kidnappers.

It’s a strange and complicated story, the type that you would probably be dismissed as implausible if not for the fact that it actually happened.  In 1973, Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster was gunned down in a parking lot.  Because Foster was the first black man to held the position of superintendent, it was originally assumed that he had been gunned down by a racist paramilitary group.  However, a neo-Marxist group known as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) soon took responsibility for the murder, claiming that Foster had been tried in a people’s court and sentenced to death for his crimes.  (Foster’s “crime” was apparently trying to introduce ID cards in Oakland schools.)

Who were the SLA?  They were a small group of self-styled revolutionaries.  Though their leader was a black, escaped convict named Donald DeFreeze, the other members of the SLA were white and largely middle class.  They enjoyed sending out portentous political announcements and they went out of their way to try to portray themselves as being a highly disciplined and regimented military organization.  Donald DeFreeze changed his name to “Field Marshal Cinque.”  According to the interviews in Guerrilla, most of their fellow radicals viewed the SLA as being a joke.  (One contemporary expresses his disappointment in meeting the SLA and discovering that they were all very boring and middle class.)  No one could understand the logic behind murdering Foster, who was viewed as being a progressive educator.

If not for what happened in the months after Foster’s murder, the SLA probably would have faded into the same obscurity that has swallowed up so many activist groups.  After two members of the group were arrested, the SLA retaliated by kidnapping Patty Hearst.

At the time that she was abducted, Patty Hearst was a nineteen year-old student at Berkeley.  She was also the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate whose life famously inspired the film Citizen Kane.  With the entire world now watching, the SLA announced that Patty would be executed unless the Hearst family arranged for every poor person in California to receive $70 worth of food.  As is portrayed in cringe-inducing detail in the documentary, the Hearst family actually attempted to meet the SLA’s demands, just to watch the food distribution program descend into chaos.  As for the SLA, they were not impressed by the Hearst family’s effort.  Even more tellingly, Patty was not impressed.  In a recording sent to the press, Patty complained that her family hadn’t made enough of an effort and assured everyone that the SLA was treating her in accordance to international law.

Shortly afterwards, the SLA released another recording.  In this recording, Patty announced that she had been given the option of either returning to her family or joining the SLA.  She had decided to join the SLA and take the new name of Tania.  Soon, Patty Hearst was robbing banks and declaring “death to the fascist insect.”

Was Patty sincere in her conversion or was she brainwashed?  That’s the question that Guerrilla explores, while leaving it to the audience to decide for themselves what was actually going on in Patty’s mind.  Though Patty is not interviewed in the film, we do get to hear the recordings that she made during her time with the SLA.  We listen as she goes from being a sacred abductee to a self-declared “urban guerrilla.”  Listening to her dull, flat voice, you get the feeling that she didn’t have much of an individual identity before she was kidnapped and she had even less of one after she converts to the SLA cause.  When she talks about how much she loves the other members of the SLA, she sounds like an actress giving a bad audition.  Before she was kidnapped, she was a Hearst.  After she was kidnapped, she was a revolutionary.  At no point do you get the feeling that she was ever just Patty.

It’s an interesting story and Guerrilla is a fascinating documentary, one that explores how idealism can sometimes be just as dangerous as cynicism.  It’s also a film that explores how the kidnapping of an heiress received more attention than the murder of a teacher.  It’s interesting to note that, while the other members of the SLA eventually ended up either dead or in prison, Patty Hearst ended up getting a full pardon from Bill Clinton.  It’s hard not to feel that the story would have been much different if the SLA had kidnapped Jane Smith instead of Patty Hearst.

Film Review: Gimme Shelter (dir by Albert and David Mayles and Charlotte Zwerin)

After you watch Woodstock, you owe it to yourself to watch another documentary from 1970.  This one is called Gimme Shelter and it deals with the infamous Altamont Free Concert.  Taking place a few months after Woodstock, Altamont was originally envisioned as being Woodstock West but, as Gimme Shelter illustrates in disturbing detail, it ultimately became something far different.

Here are a few images from both Gimme Shelter and the Altamont Free Concert:

This is Mick Jagger, the lead singer of The Rolling Stones.  The Rolling Stones were the final act to perform at the Altamont Free Concert and their performance was meant to be the conclusion of their 1969 American tour.  Gimme Shelter was originally meant to be a documentary about the final days of the tour and clips of a confident and charismatic Jagger performing in Madison Square Garden are sprinkled throughout the first 40 minutes of the film.  They provide a striking contrast to the chaos of the second half of the film, in which Jagger finds himself ineffectually trying to maintain order as fights break out in front of the stage.

This is Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’s drummer.  Though Gimme Shelter is usually referred to as being a documentary about the Rolling Stones, the film pretty much centers around Mick and Charlie.  Gimme Shelter‘s framing device involves Mick and Charlie watching a rough cut of the documentary itself.  While Mick always seems to maintain an air of deliberate detachment, Charlie seems to be visibly disturbed by what happened during their performance at Altamont.

(In another memorable scene, the group is shown listening to their latest recording.  While this rest of the group plays up to the filmmakers, Charlie quietly takes in the music and appears to be surprised when he notices that he’s being filmed.)

This is the Melvin Belli.  An attorney, Belli appears throughout the first half of Gimme Shelter, making the arrangements for the Altamont Free Concert and obviously having a great time showing off for the camera.  At one point, Belli makes a comment about opening for the Stones.  While Belli’s joking, it’s obvious from the tone of his voice that he’d love nothing more than to do so.  In fact, Belli is so busy being entertaining that he really doesn’t seem to notice that, even during the planning stages, the Altamont Free Concert doesn’t sound like a good idea.

This is Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hell’s Angels.  He’s standing on the Altamont stage, watching Mick Jagger perform.  Why is Barger on stage?  He’s there because, for some reason, someone thought it would be a good idea to hire the Hell’s Angels to handle security at the concert.  (Barger is heard, in the film, saying that he was told that he could sit on the stage and drink beer and all he had to do was keep anyone else from approaching the musicians.)

What is Barger thinking as he watches Jagger perform?  This is a question that I think anyone who has ever watched Gimme Shelter has asked themselves.  Is he annoyed with or menacing Jagger or is he just doing his job and making sure that no one rushes the singer?  Perhaps it’s all of the above.

The man in green is Meredith Hunter.  This shot is the first time that Hunter appears in the film.  The second time is when he’s getting stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels security force.  Watching the documentary, Jagger asks to rewatch the scene of Hunter’s murder.  The filmmakers slow down the scene and show him both the knife being held by the Hell’s Angel and the gun being held by Hunter.

Even before Hunter’s death, Gimme Shelter has already shown us enough to convince us that the counter culture dream of Woodstock was the exception as opposed to the rule.  The final hour of Gimme Shelter takes place at the Altamont Free Concert and almost every scene feels like an angry rebuke to the positivity of Woodstock.  The crowds were angrier.  The scenery was far less aesthetically pleasing.  (Woodstock took place on a farm.  Altamont took place on a cement race track.)  Whereas Woodstock famously featured warnings about the “brown acid,” Gimme Shelter features one of the concert promoters reacting to concerns about the bad acid circulating in the crowd by saying, “Tough shit.”  Even the naked people at Altamont were far less attractive than the naked people at Woodstock.  Jefferson Airplane played at both festivals.  At Woodstock, they apparently had sound issues but otherwise, there were no problems.  At Altamont, as the cameras rolled, lead singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel with a pool cue.

(“I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that,” one of the members of the band announced.)

A few more images from Altamont:

Before the concert starts, this man cheerfully yelled “LSD!  Mescaline!” at everyone walking by.  I’m not sure if that was his dog or not.  But speaking of dogs…

…this dog casually wandered across the stage during the Rolling Stones’s performance.  It’s never clear where he came from or where he went after he left the stage.

Even with the Hell’s Angels beating up everyone in sight, a few people still enjoyed the concert.  This is who I relate to in the film because she was determined to enjoy herself no matter how weird things got.

But then there’s this guy, who was standing only a few feet away from Jagger when he started to freak out:

If Woodstock is ultimately all about peace and life, Gimme Shelter is a film that is suffused with conflict and death.  If you’re going to watch one, you owe it to yourself to watch the other.  In the end, the two documentaries together provide us with a view of a counterculture that had so much potential but which couldn’t escape the darkness that hid behind the light.

(Interestingly enough, future director George Lucas was one of the cameramen at Altamont that day.  Just as how Altamont was often cited as the end of the 60s, the blockbuster success of Lucas’s Star Wars would often be cited as the beginning of the 80s.)

I’ll end this review with a quote from Grace Slick, one that is still relevant today.  As she said as she watched Altamont descend into chaos: “You don’t hassle with anybody in particular. You gotta keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love. People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line. But the Angels also – you know, you don’t bust people in the head – for nothing. So both sides are fucking up temporarily; let’s not keep FUCKING UP!”

Film Review: Woodstock (dir by Michael Wadleigh)

A few nights ago, as I watched the 1970 documentary Woodstock, I thought to myself, “Goddamn, this is a long movie…”

Just how long Woodstock is depends on which version that you watch.  The original version, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary and which was also nominated for Best Editing (the first nomination ever for the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker), had a running time of little over three hours.  The version that I watched was the “director’s cut,” which clocks in at close to four hours.  Of course, since Woodstock was shot over the course of a three-day music festival, it could have been even longer.  32 acts performed at Woodstock but only 14 of them appeared in the original version of the film.  (By including footage of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Canned Heat, the director’s cut increases that number to 17.)

As for the music that does appear in the film, your reaction is going to depend on how much you like the music of the late 60s.  Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and Ten Years After are all brilliant but, at the same time, you also have to deal with Joan Baez rambling about her imprisoned husband and singing perhaps the smuggest version of Swing Low Sweet Chariot ever recorded.  Watching Crosby Stills & Nash perform, I was reminded of every boring grad student that I’ve ever known while John Sebastian’s stage patter sounded almost like a parody of hippie shallowness.  I would say that Woodstock was a perfect example of why the rockers are better remembered than the folk singers, except for the fact that my favorite musical performance in the film comes from Arlo Guthrie:

That said, Woodstock really isn’t about the music.  That may sound like a strange thing to say, considering that almost every concert film made since owes a debt to Woodstock but really, the most interesting parts of the film aren’t the performances.  Instead, it’s the interviews with the people involved, not only the concertgoers themselves but also the citizens of the nearby town of Bethel, New York.  Some of the people interviewed as very positive about the sudden hippie invasion.  Quite a few others are not.  One older man seems to be more concerned with working on his car than anything else.  Like any good documentary, Woodstock provides a record of the time when it was made.  As much as I like music, I absolutely love history and, to me, that’s the main appeal of Woodstock.  Watching the film is like getting a chance to step into a time machine and experience an age that I would otherwise never get a chance to know.

Whenever I watch Woodstock, I’m always struck by the fact that I probably would not have enjoyed it as much as some of the people who attended.  I have a feeling that I’d be like that poor girl who is spotted about halfway through the film, crying about how it’s too muddy and crowded.  I always cringe a little when I see everyone bathing in the same dirty pond.  (A young Martin Scorsese worked on the film and reportedly spent the entire festival wearing an immaculate white suit.  That’s something that I would have liked to have seen.)  And yet, at the same time, I just find the documentary fascinating to watch.  I always find myself wondering what became of the people who were interviewed in the film.  How many of the hippies are still hippies and how many of them eventually ended up working on Wall Street?  Did the cranky guy working on his car even bother to see the film?  (It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t.  Movies, especially movies about a bunch of stoned hippies, really didn’t seem to be his thing.)  To me, questions like those are what makes a movie like this fascinating.

As an event, the original Woodstock is often cited as being the best moment of the 60s counterculture.  (30 years later, the 1999 Woodstock would be remembered as one of the worst moments in the history of both music and American popular culture.)  As a film, Woodstock is undeniably optimistic that the people who braved the rain and the mud so that they could see Joan Baez would somehow manage to build a new society.  Still, sharp-eyed viewers will note a hint of what was to come.  One of the first people interviewed in the documentary is a local shopkeeper.  As he speaks, a newspaper can be seen over his shoulder.

The headline reads: “Sharon’s Pals Balk At Probe,” a reference to the investigation into the murder of Sharon Tate by Charles Manson and his followers.  Seen today, that headline serves as a reminder that, even at the time it was occurring, the peaceful promise of the original Woodstock would be short lived.


A Blast From The Past: I Just Don’t Dig Him (produced by The Department Of Mental Health, State of Connecticut)

The haunting opening scene of I Just Don’t Dig Him…

Ah, parents and their children!

It doesn’t matter what year it is or where they live or who they are.  Parents never understand their children and children never understand their parents and, ultimately, there’s always that one friend who ends up nearly chopping his finger off.

At least, that’s the message that I got from watching the 1970 educational film, I Just Don’t Dig Him.

This film was produced by the state of Connecticut’s Department of Mental Health and apparently, it was designed to show that adults and teenagers actually had more in common than they realized.  For instance, in this film, both groups share an intense loathing for each other.

The film is about a father and his son.  The father spends all of his time complaining about his son.  The son spends all of his time complaining about his father.  For some reason, we’re treated to a really gross close-up of the son’s bare feet.  Meanwhile, the father applies aftershave as if the fate of the world depended upon it.  The son’s best friend assures him that his father isn’t so bad.  The father’s best friend assures him that his son isn’t so bad.  And then the son’s friend accidentally chops off his finger while fooling around with a car engine.  The father helps to stop the bleeding while his son stares at him resentfully.  The message appears to be that adults and children need to communicate better but, ultimately, you want an adult around if anyone starts bleeding.

I like films like this, largely because I’m an unapologetic history nerd and I Just Don’t Dig Him is such a product of its time that it might as well be wearing bell bottoms and dropping brown acid.  Watching the film today, it’s hard not to be amused by how intense both the father and the son are about … well, everything.  When the father shaves, you’re first thought is, “That man should not be allowed to handle anything sharp.”  When the son talks on the phone, you feel bad for whoever’s having to listen to him whine.  Generations are at war, this film seems to say, and there’s no hope until the younger generation realizes that they have no business working on cars.

With this being 4/20 and the world currently being caught up in its own increasingly tedious generational war, today seems like the perfect time to share I Just Don’t Dig Him!

Insomnia File #34: The Minus Man (dir by Hampton Fancher)

What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Last night, if you were unable to sleep at one in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1999 film, The Minus Man!

The Minus Man is a strange little film about a rather odd man.  Vann (Owen Wilson) is a drifter.  He avoids questions about his past with the skill of someone who specializes in being whatever he needs to be at the moment.  When he rents a room from Doug and Jane Durwin (Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl), he tells them that he’s only drunk one beer over the course of his entire life, he always works, he always pays his rent on time, and that he’s never smoked “the dope.”  He says it so earnestly that it’s difficult to know whether you should take him seriously or not.  And yet, Vann is so likable and so charmingly spacey that you can’t help but understand why people automatically trust him.  Vann succeeds not because people believe him but because they want to believe him.

Vann’s new in town.  As he explains to a cop who pulls him over, he’s just interested in seeing the countryside.  From the minute that Vann shows up, he’s accepted by the community.  He goes to a high school football game and befriends the local star athlete (Eric Mabius).  He tries to help repair Doug and Jane’s marriage, which has been strained ever since the disappearance of their daughter.  With Doug’s aid, Vann gets a job at the post office and proves that he wasn’t lying when he said he was a hard worker.  Vann even pursues a tentative romance with the poignantly shy and insecure Ferrin (Janeane Garofalo).

In fact, it’s easy to imagine this film as being a sweet-natured dramedy where a drifter comes into town for the holidays and helps all of the townspeople deal with their problems.  However, from the first time we see him, we know that Vann has some issues.  As Detective Graves (Dennis Haysbert) puts it, Vann is a “cipher, a zero.”  There’s nothing underneath the pleasant surface.  Of course, Graves doesn’t really exist.  Neither does his partner, Detective Blair (Dwight Yoakam).  They’re two figments of Vann’s imagination.  They appear whenever Vann is doing something that he doesn’t want the world to find out about.

Whenever the urge hits him, Vann kills people.  When we first meet him, he’s picking up and subsequently murdering a heroin addict named Casper (Sheryl Crow).  Vann makes it a point to use poison because he says that it’s a painless death.  Vann also says that he’s doing his victims a favor, as he feels that the majority of them no longer want to live.  Vann is the type of killer who, after having committed his latest murder, sees nothing strange about volunteering to help search for the missing victim.

Like a lot of serial killer films, The Minus Man cheats by giving all of the best lines to the killer.  In real life, most serial killers are impotent, uneducated losers who usually end up getting caught as a result of their own stupidity.  In the movies, they’re always surprisingly loquacious and clever.  While Vann may not be a well-spoken as Hannibal Lecter, he’s still a lot more articulate than the majority of real-life serial killers.  As I watched the film, it bothered me that we didn’t really learn more about Vann’s victims.  (It would have been a far different film if someone had mentioned that Vann’s third, unnamed victim was “Randy, who was just having a bite to eat while shopping for a present for his little girl’s birthday.”)  Too often, The Minus Man seemed to be letting Vann off the hook in a way that a film like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or even American Psycho never would.

That said, The Minus Man may be occasionally uneven but it’s still an intriguing and sometimes genuinely creepy film.  The Minus Man makes good use of Owen Wilson’s eccentric screen persona and Wilson gives a very good performance as a man who has become very skilled at hiding just how empty he actually is.  Much like everyone else in the film, you want to believe that there’s more to Vann than meets the eye because, as played by Wilson, he’s just so damn likable.  Over the course of the film, Vann and Doug develop this weird little bromance and, as good as Wilson is, Brian Cox’s performance is even more unsettling because we’re never quite sure what Doug may or may not be capable of doing.  Even Janeane Garofalo gives a touching and believable performance as a character who you find yourself sincerely hoping will not end up getting poisoned.

With all that in mind, I wouldn’t suggest watching this film if you’re trying to get over insomnia.  This is the type of unsettling film that will keep you awake and watching the shadows long after the final credits roll.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian

4 Shots From 4 Films: Beauty #2, Poor Little Rich Girl, Outer and Inner Space, Lupe

4 Shots from 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots from 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

75 years ago today, Edie Sedgwick was born in Santa Barbara, California.

While at a party in 1970, Edie ran into a palm reader who grabbed her hand and then stepped away, shocked at just how short her lifeline was.  “It’s okay,” Edie sweetly told him, “I know.”  One year later Edie Sedgwick would pass away, with the cause of death officially being an overdose of barbiturates.  She only lived 27 years but, for a brief few years, she was one of the most famous women in America.  She was a model and an actress and, in her way, a revolutionary.  She died before she had a chance to play the roles that she truly deserved.  Instead, we have only a few films that she made with Andy Warhol and a lot of speculation about what could have been.

This post is dedicated to Edie on her birthday.

These are…

4 Shots From 4 Films

Beauty #2 (1965, dir by Andy Warhol)

Poor Little Rich Girl (1965, dir by Andy Warhol)

Outer and Inner Space (1966, dir by Andy Warhol)

Lupe (1966, dir by Andy Warhol)