18 Days of Paranoia #15: Marie (dir by Roger Donaldson)

The 1985 film, Marie, tells a true story.

(In fact, the film’s official title is Marie: A True Story, just in case there was any doubt.)

The film opens in Tennessee, in the early 70s.  Marie Ragghianati (Sissy Spacek) has left her alcoholic and abusive husband and is now living with her mother and trying to raise three children, one of whom is chronically ill, on her own.  Though she manages to win a scholarship to Vanderbilt University, she quickly discovers that having a degree does not necessarily translate into getting a job.  However, while Marie was a student, she became acquainted with Eddie Sisk (Jeff Daniels), a seemingly friendly lawyer who now has a job as the counsel for the newly elected governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton (Don Hood).  Marie goes to see Eddie and she soon finds herself working in the governor’s office.

With Eddie’s support, Marie rises up through the ranks.  Of course, he does get a little bit annoyed whenever Marie asks him why the governor is so eager to offer clemency to certain criminals.  At first, Eddie claims that it’s because the governor is against the death penalty and he doesn’t want to send anyone to die in “Old Sparky.”  Later, Eddie claims that it’s because the state has been ordered to do something about prison overcrowding.  And finally, Eddie admits that, on occasion, it’s done as a political favor.  It appears that some of the children of Tennessee’s wealthiest families have a really bad habit of getting arrested for some very serious crimes.

Eventually, there’s an opening on the state parole board and Eddie recommends that Marie be appointed the board’s new chairperson.  As Eddie explains it, the governor wants to put a Democrat on the board and he wants to appoint a woman.  (Despite the governor’s insistence that he wants to bring more women into state government, the film makes it clear that the Blanton administration was essentially a boys club.)  Marie agrees and soon, she’s making over a hundred dollars a day!  (That was apparently an unusual thing in the 70s.)

No sooner has Marie moved into her new position than she is informed that some of the governor’s aides have been selling pardons.  When Marie goes to Eddie about the situation, his charming facade disappears as he gets angry with her and accuses her of trying to ruin his career.  When rumors get out that she may have gone to the FBI, Marie becomes a pariah.  The governor demands her resignation, which she refuses to give.  She finds herself being followed by strange cars and harassed by the police.  (At one point, she is arrested for drunk driving despite being sober.)  Meanwhile, people start to show up dead.

When Blanton fires Marie on trumped-up corruption charges, she decides to take the governor to court.  Fortunately, Marie is friendly with a lawyer named Fred Thompson.  The future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate plays himself in this film and he gives such an authoritative performance that he went on to have a busy career as a character actor whenever he wasn’t running for or serving in office.

Marie is a strangely disjointed film.  On the one hand, you’ve got Sissy Spacek, Fred Thompson, and Jeff Daniels all giving excellent performances and you’ve also got an inspiring true story.  On the other hand, the film attempts to combine so many different genres that it sometimes feels as if you’re watching multiple films at once.  The film starts out as the story of a single mom trying to restart her life and then it becomes a workplace drama as Marie has to deal with gossip about her relationship with Eddie and hostile co-workers like fellow board member Charles Traughber (Morgan Freeman, in a small role that would probably be forgettable if it was filled by anyone other than Morgan Freeman).  Then it becomes a courtroom drama, with Fred Thompson cross-examining witnesses and giving final arguments.  Meanwhile, at the same time, it’s also a political thriller in which two men are brutally murdered before they can testify against the governor.  And then finally, it’s also a crime drama as detectives try to track down a career criminal who has friends in the governor’s office.  It’s a film of many good parts but those parts don’t always seem to easily fit together and the end result is somewhat awkward whole.

(Interestingly enough, some of the film’s moments that seem as if they’re most likely to be fictionalized are actually based on fact.  For instance, two men who could have brought down Blanton were mysteriously murdered at the same time that Marie was suing the state.)

In the end, Marie doesn’t really come together but it has a good cast and a good lesson: Never trust a politician.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)

And I beheld as Scorsese remade a classic movie and, Lo, there was De Niro, decorated in india ink and speaking in tongues…

In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 horror thriller, Cape Fear.  Both versions deal with the same basic story but each tells it in a very different way.  If the original Cape Fear was straightforward and to the point, Martin Scorsese’s version is so stylized that occasionally, it’s tempting to suspect that Scorsese might be parodying himself.  Zoom shots, negative shots, sweeping camera movements, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is full of all of them.  When a storm rolls in for the film’s operatic finale, the red clouds look as if their on fire.  Hell is coming to North Carolina, the film appears to be announcing.

While the plot largely remains the same, there are a few significant changes to the characters involved:

In the first Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady was an arrogant, swaggering brute.  In the remake, Robert De Niro’s Cady is still an arrogant, swaggering brute but he’s now also an evangelical who is tattooed with bible verses and who speaks in tongues.  Cape Fear‘s approach to Cady’s religion is so over-the-top that it almost makes Stephen King’s approach to religious characters seem subtle and nuanced.  De Niro also speaks in a broad Southern accent.  Occasionally, De Niro gets the accent right but most of the time, he sounds like he’s in a Vermont community theater production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden was a lawyer who caught Max while Max was attacking a woman and who then testified against Max in court.  That’s not the case with the remake’s version of Sam Bowden.  Despite being played by Nick Nolte, the remake’s Sam Bowden is such a wimp that you can’t help but dislike him.  His wife (Jessica Lange) doesn’t trust him.  His teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) resents him and his attempts to control her life.  In this version, Sam didn’t testify against Max in court.  Instead, Sam was Max’s lawyer and withheld evidence that could have secured Max’s acquittal.  What Sam didn’t realize is that Max would spend his time in prison studying the law and that Max would eventually figure out what Sam did.

As in the original film, Max shows up in North Carolina and proceeds to stalk the Bowdens.  Unlike Mitchum, who was all quiet menace, De Niro plays Max as being loud and obnoxious, the type who will sit in a theater, light a cigar, and intentionally laugh at the top of his lungs.  Max knows enough about the law that he knows exactly what he can get away with.  He poisons Sam’s dog.  He rapes Sam’s associate, Lori (played, in a heart-breaking performance, by Ileana Douglas).  In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, he pretends to be the new drama teacher and toys with Sam’s daughter.

With the help of a private eye (Joe Don Baker), Sam tries to get Max out of his life.  Eventually, Sam pretends to be out-of-town, all as part of a ruse to get Max to break into his house so that he can be shot in self-defense.  It’s here that Nolte’s wimpy performance becomes an issue.  It’s impossible not to laugh at the sight of Sam, all hunched down and desperately trying to run from room to room without being spotted through any of the windows.

To a certain extent, I suspect that were meant to see Sam as being a rather pathetic figure.  Scorsese doesn’t really seem to have much sympathy for him or his dysfunctional family.  If anything, the film seems to argue that Sam has been a bad lawyer, a bad husband, and a bad father and Max has been sent as a type of divine retribution.  Only by defeating Max can Sam find forgiveness and hope to have the type of life that Gregory Peck enjoyed in the first movie.

Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an uneasy mishmash of styles.  Is it an art film, a religious allegory, a horror film, or just a generic thriller?  It doesn’t seem to be sure.  Cape Fear‘s a Scorsese film so, of course, it’s always going to be worth watching.  But there are times when the film definitely runs the risk of overdosing on style.  Sometimes, Scorsese seems to be trying too hard to remind everyone that he’s a legitimately great director and ends up getting so invested in the film’s visuals that he runs the risk of losing the story.  De Niro has some scenes in which he is genuinely chilling but then he has other scenes where he is basically just a live action cartoon character.  The same can be said of the film itself.  It’s always watchable.  At times, it’s rather frightening.  But other times, it’s just too cartoonish to be effective.

If anything, this remake proves that sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple.

Catching Up With The Films of 2016: God’s Not Dead 2 (dir by Harold Cronk)


Much like Warcraft and Nine Lives, God’s Not Dead 2 is one of those films that you just know is going to be mentioned on all of the “worst films of 2017” lists.  I imagine that it will get a lot of Razzie nominations and it might even win a few.

But you know what?  I watched God’s Not Dead 2 on YouTube and I enjoyed it, though probably not for the reasons that the filmmakers intended.  God’s Not Dead 2 is one of the most thoroughly over-the-top and shamelessly melodramatic films that I have ever seen.  This is one of those faith-based films where all of the Christians are practically saintly while the atheists are portrayed as being so evil that they might as well be tying people to train tracks and twirling their mustaches.  This is one of those films where the good guys discuss their plans while sitting in quaint kitchens while the bad guys gather in conference rooms and growl about how much they hate religion.  And the propaganda is just so blatant and lacking in subtlety that it becomes undeniably watchable.

God’s Not Dead 2 is, for lack of a better comparison, the Reefer Madness of Christian filmmaking.  It’s a film that makes Rock: It’s Your Decision look like a work of subtle nuance.  You may want to look away but you won’t be able to.

Essentially, God’s Not Dead 2 takes the heavy-handed sanctimonious sermonizing of the first film and then adds a healthy dash of anti-government paranoia.  (And you know how much I love anti-government paranoia.)  In this one, Melissa Joan Hart is a teacher who makes the mistake of 1) mentioning to her class that the Sermon on the Mount inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King and 2) counseling a student who is struggling to deal with the death of her brother.  (When the student asks Melissa what gives her strength, Melissa replies, “Jesus.”)  Melissa is brought before the school board, which says that Melissa has broken the law and that they want to take away her teaching license.  Offering absolutely no support is her principal (Robin Givens).  Fortunately, a handsome lawyer (Jesse Metcalfe) is willing to help her out.  He doesn’t believe in God but how long do you think that will last?

Prosecuting Melissa is … a lawyer from the ACLU!  We know that this lawyer is evil because his name is Peter Kane and he’s played by Ray Wise.  And here’s the thing — Ray Wise gives perhaps the least subtle performance of the year.  When he talks about the importance of convincing America that there is no God, he does so with the type of evil gleam in his eye that we typically tend to associate with lower tier MCU villains.  When he cross-examines Melissa’s students, he smirks like a serial killer.  Whenever he has to say words like “God” or “Jesus,” he literally spits them out.  The only thing that trips him up is when a Christian admits to having once been an atheist and Wise looks so stunned that you half expect him to say, “But that is illogical and does not compute” before revealing that he’s actually a robot sent from the future. He’s one of the most evil characters of all time and Wise so throws himself into the role that you can’t help but enjoy watching him.

So, on the one side, you have Ray Wise spitting hellfire and, on the other side, you have a literally beatific Melissa Joan Hart.  And let’s give credit where credit is due — Melissa Joan Hart does as well as anyone could with her seriously underwritten and kinda drab character.  (Add to that, Melissa Joan Hart was Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and, therefore, I will always give her the benefit of the doubt.)

Meanwhile, there’s another subplot going on.  The local preacher — who somehow manages to get on the jury, despite the fact that there’s no way a preacher would actually be put on the jury of trial that centered around separation of church and state — is being pressured by the local authorities.  They want to see copies of his sermons.  Damn government!

Of course, what’s interesting is that this actually did happen in Houston.  In 2014, several preachers were presented with subpoenas demanding copies of their sermons, in order to determine if they had been preaching against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.  For that matter, there was also recently a story down here about a high school football coach who lost his job because he led his team in a prayer.  There is a basis in reality for both of the film’s main storylines but you’d never guess that from watching God’s Not Dead 2.  God’s Not Dead 2 is so melodramatic and so firmly devoted to its good-vs-evil worldview that it sacrifices whatever real world credibility it could have and probably does more harm than good to the cause that it supports.

That being said, it’s a fun movie in much the same way that the Atlas Shrugged trilogy was fun.  It’s just so silly and over-the-top that you can’t help but watch.  I imagine that believers will enjoy seeing the nonbelievers ridiculed while nonbelievers will enjoy shaking their head and saying, “How can anyone buy into this?”  By taking the side of half the audience but doing so in a way that seems to confirm every pre-conceived notion held by the other half, God’s Not Dead 2 appeals to all.

If nothing else, Ray Wise deserves some sort of award for perfecting the art of villainous overacting.  Though this year, he may have to share it with Kyle Secor.  Secor’s work in The Purge Election Year is impossible to top but Ray Wise sure does come close.

Overacting is not dead.

Shattered Politics #94: Persecuted (dir by Daniel Lusko)


It may seem strange that I would choose to end my series of reviews of films that feature politics and politicians by reviewing Persecuted, an obscure film from 2014.  After all, Shattered Politics started out with D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln.  Over the past three weeks, I’ve reviewed everything from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington to The Phenix City Story to Dr. Strangelove to The Godfather to Nashville to Once Upon A Time In America to The Aviator.  I have been lucky enough to review some of the greatest films ever made.  And now, at the end of this series, I find myself reviewing Persecuted, a film that has a score of 0% over on Rotten Tomatoes.

Consider that for a moment.

As I sit here typing out this sentence, not a single critic has given Persecuted a good review.  And I will admit right now that I’m not going to be the first.  Persecuted is cheap-looking, heavy-handed, melodramatic, histrionic, foolish, silly, preachy, predictable, strident, and just about every other possible criticism that comes to mind.  If the film is redeemed by anything, it’s that it is full of good actors who do the best that they can with characters that are either seriously underwritten or ludicrously overwritten.

Persecuted takes place in the near future.  Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) has written something called the Faith and Fairness Act, which would basically require churches to provide equal time to other religions and would make it illegal to suggest that only one religion has all the answers.  How exactly that would work, I’m not sure.  However, a big part of Harrison’s bill is that, in exchange for giving up any claim to having all the answers, churches will now get money from the federal government.  As a result, a lot of church leaders have sold out and announced their support for the bill.

However, evangelist John Luther (James Remar) refuses to support the bill.  As we’re told when Luther first appears, he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who used to be a professional gambler.  But then he found faith and he’s now the most popular man in the country.  Or, at least, he is until he’s drugged by the government and framed for murdering a prostitute.

So now, Luther is on the run.  He has to evade capture, prove his innocence, and reveal the truth about Harrison and his shadowy backers.  Helping Luther out is his father, an Episcopalian priest who is played by former real-life Presidential candidate Fred Thompson.  (Thompson, incidentally, is a very good actor and brings a lot of conviction and authority to his role.)  Not helping Luther are the former leaders of his church, one of whom is played by character actor Dean Stockwell.

I’ll admit right now that, as familiar and talented as all four of them may be, James Remar, Bruce Davison, Fred Thompson, and Dean Stockwell are hardly big stars and you really can’t blame any of them for presumably taking a job strictly for the money.  That said, it’s still odd to see such good actors appearing in a film like Persecuted and they all deserve at least a little bit of credit for doing their best with the material that they had to work with.  However, my favorite performance came from Brad Stine, who plays glib preacher who betrays Luther.  Stine is just so sleazy and hyperactive that he’s a lot of fun to watch.

Now, while Persecuted is obviously a faith-based film, it’s plot actually has more in common with the paranoia movies of the 70s than it does with Left Behind.  John Luther is a guy who knows the truth and has been framed as a result and he spends nearly the entire film on the run.  If anything, this is a film that will probably appeal more to conspiracy theorists than to Christians.  But, judging from the film, the conspiracy that’s trying to destroy John Luther doesn’t appear to be very competent.  How else do you explain that John Luther — the most famous man in the world — manages to easily evade capture despite the fact that he spends most of the film wandering around in broad daylight with dried blood on his face.  At one point, he even calls his wife and has a conversation with her.  “Ah!” I thought, “this is where we’ll discover that the conspiracy is listening in on the conversation!”  But no, that didn’t happen.  In fact, his wife talked to him while, in the background, two cops searched their house.  “The police are looking for you,” the wife says but neither one of the police officers seems to hear her.  Apparently, it didn’t seem to occur to any of them that John Luther might call his wife.  For a paranoia film to work, you have to feel like the film’s hero is in constant danger and Persecuted never succeeded in doing that.  How can anyone be scared of a conspiracy that can’t even handle the basics?

Persecuted is not a good film but, in its own unfortunate way, it is a relevant one.  Much as how the first film I reviewed for Shattered Politics, D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, told us a lot about America in the 1930s, Persecuted tells us a lot about how America is viewed by its citizens in the 21st Century.  Persecuted is a film that insists that our leaders can’t be trusted, that your friends will betray you if ordered to do so by those in authority, and that everything bad will come disguised as something good.  It’s not exactly an optimistic view of politics or America but then again, these are the times that we live in.  It’s been a long time since Billy Jack went to Washington.  It’s been even longer since Mr. Smith first showed up.

Now, instead, all we have is Bruce Davison telling us, “You thought you were bigger than the system and you’re not!”

And, on that note, Shattered Politics comes to an end!  I’ve had a lot of fun writing this series of 94 reviews and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading them!  If there’s any conclusion that I think can be drawn from these 94 films, it’s that politicians will always betray you and politics will always depress you but movies will always be there to lift you back up.

If I had to choose between voting and watching a movie, I would pick a movie every time.  Fortunately enough, I live in a country where I am allowed to do both.

Horror Film Review: Sinister (dir. by Scott Derrickson)

Sinister is the scariest film of 2012.

That’s not the way that I wanted to start this review because calling any film the best or the worst or the scariest reeks of hyperbole.  But, in the two weeks that since I first saw Sinister, I have not been able to get the film out of my head.  Sinister is not only a horror film.  It’s also a deeply disturbing experience that inspires you to keep an eye out for mysterious shadows while you’re leaving the theater.  As opposed to the similar Paranormal Activity films, Sinister remains scary even after the film itself has ended.  Sinister is like Insidious without that terrible ending.

In short, Sinister is the scariest film of 2012.

Sinister opens with a genuinely disturbing sequence, in which we see a family of four, standing next to a tree.  All of them are wearing bags over their heads, all of them are bound by tape, and all of them have a noose around their neck.  One of the tree’s limbs is sawed off by an unseen person, causing all four of our victims to be lifted up in the air and slowly strangled to death.  The grainy footage has the look of an old home movie and the whole scene has a sickeningly authentic feel to it.

Months later, Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family move into the house where the murders previously occurred.  Ellison is a formerly succesful true crime writer who is desperately trying to come up with the bestseller that can revive his career.  He plans to write about the murders that occurred in the backyard of his new home but he neglects to tell his new family that they’re living in a murder house.

While exploring his new home, Ellison discovers a mysterious box in the attic.  The box contains a film projector and several reels of film.  Late at night, Ellison locks himself in his office and watches the films.  He discovers that each reel of film contains two scenes.  In the first scene, we see a happy family spending time together.  In the 2nd scene, we see that same family being brutally murdered in a way that provides a macabre comment on what they were previously seen doing.  For instance, a film entitled “Pool Party ’66,” starts with a family happily playing in a pool and ends with them being drowned.  “BBQ ’79” opens with a family barbecue and ends with that same family being burned alive in their car.

As Ellison investigates, he finds himself becoming more and more obsessed with the macabre home movies and it starts to become obvious that Ellison is a bit unstable himself.  Meanwhile, his son is having night terrors, his daughter is painting pictures of people hanging from a tree, and the local sheriff (played by Fred Thompson, the former presidential candidate) is encouraging Ellison to abandon his book and just leave town.

Oh, and little pasty-faced children are showing up in the house, standing in darkened corners and scowling at Ellison and his family…

There’s only so much that I can say about Sinister without giving away too much of the film’s plot.  Sinister may start out feeling like the 100th rip-off of Paranormal Activity but, much like last year’s Insidious, it eventually takes off in a direction of its own.  Hawke gives a memorably unhinged performance and, unlike so many other horror films, Sinister actually follows through on all of its dark potential.  Sinister ends with a twist that’s so disturbing and unnerving that I have yet to get out of my head.

If you’re looking for the scariest movie playing in theaters this Halloween, Sinister is it.