Citizen Cohn (1992, directed by Frank Pierson)

The year is 1986 and the powerful attorney Roy Cohn (James Woods) is dying.  The official story is that Cohn has liver cancer but the truth is that he’s dying of AIDS.  As he lies in his hospital bed, he thinks about his past and the events the led to him becoming one of the most feared and powerful men in America.  He is haunted by the ghosts of his many enemies, people like communist spy Ethel Rosenberg (Karen Ludwig) and his former colleague, Bobby Kennedy (David Marshall Grant).

Not surprisingly, a good deal of Cohn’s memories center around his association with Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Joe Don Baker), a charismatic alcoholic who, in the 50s, charged that he had a list with the names of communist spies deep within the government.  Cohn and Kennedy served as the counsels on McCarthy’s committees.  Cohn is with McCarthy from the beginning and he’s with him until the end of the senator’s career.  In fact, it’s Cohn’s own shadowy relationship with an army private that ultimately leads to McCarthy’s downfall.

Except for one aspect of the film, Citizen Cohn is one of the best films to ever be produced by HBO.  The film covers a lot of history in a little less than 2 hours and it does so in a way that is always interesting and easy to follow.  By including incidents from every phase of Cohn’s life, as opposed to just focusing on his time as McCarthy’, the film also shows how someone like Roy Cohn can become a behind-the-scenes power player despite the majority of the country having no idea who he is.  James Woods gives one of his best performances as the hyperactive and unapologetically corrupt Cohn while Joe Don Baker is perfect as the self-pitying Joseph McCarthy.

The problem with the film, and your mileage may vary on how big an issue this is, is that it almost presents Cohn’s final days — dying of AIDS in a lonely New York hospital room — as being some sort of deserved fate for everything that he did wrong in life.  For me, even in the case of someone like Roy Cohn, that’s a step too far and it comes very close to presenting AIDS as some sort of divine punishment (which, itself, comes dangerously close to mirroring the homophobic statements that were made — and still are being made — by anti-gay activists).  That may not have been the film’s intention but, with the flashback structure and all of his dead enemies materializing to taunt Cohn as he lies dying, it’s still a very valid interpretation.

Some of that is perhaps unavoidable.  Cohn, in both real life and the film, died largely unrepentant for anything he did during his life.  As the central character of a biopic, Cohn never has the type of big moment that you would hope for, where he would realize that it was wrong for him to destroy so many lives and show at least a hint of contrition for his past behaviors.  That Roy Cohn is even a compelling character is a testament to the talent of James Woods because it’s certainly not due to any sort of hidden goodness lurking underneath the surface of Cohn’s snarling personality.  The lack of apologies and regrets that made Cohn a powerhouse in real life also makes him an ultimately unsatisfying subject for a movie.

Super Bowl Alternative: The “Other” BLACK SUNDAY (Paramount 1977)

cracked rear viewer


My New England Patriots aren’t in this year’s big game, and I can’t stand that big-headed Peyton Manning, so my interest in tonight’s Super Bowl is minimal. And the halftime show does nothing for me: Coldplay is probably one of my least favorite bands (Beyoncé’s OK, though). So if like me, you’re not planning on spending much time watching Roger Goodell’s season-ending spectacular (can’t stand Goodell, either) may I suggest an alternative, namely John Frankenheimer’s thriller BLACK SUNDAY.


No, it’s not the 1960 Barbara Steele/Mario Bava horror classic, this BLACK SUNDAY is a rousing political thriller about terrorist organization Black September plotting a strike against America at the biggest game of them all, the Super Bowl. Beautiful but deadly terrorist Dahlia (Marthe Keller) has recruited the bitter, unstable blimp pilot Michael Lander (Bruce Dern at his 70’s psycho best) to turn the blimp into the ultimate suicide bomb, with plastique explosives setting…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #123: The Cobbler (dir by Thomas McCarthy)


Oh, Cobbler, Cobbler — what a frustrating film you are!

There was a time when everyone was excited about seeing The Cobbler.  It was originally scheduled to come out in 2014 and, along with Men, Women, & Children, it was supposed to be part of the dramatic recreation of Adam Sandler.

After all, one of the main reason why critics like me hate to see Adam Sandler devoting his time to stuff like That’s My Boy is because, in the past, Sandler has actually proven himself to be a surprisingly good and likable dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, dramatic Sandler films never seem to make much money and, as a result, Sandler goes back to making films where he, David Spade, and Chris Rock play former high school classmates.  If only one Sandler dramedy could be a success, we tell ourselves, then he’d never feel the need to make another movie like Jack and Jill

(And yes, I realize that’s probably wishful thinking on our part.  Even if Adam Sandler somehow won an Oscar, I get the feeling he’d follow the win by starting work on Grown Ups 3….)

The Cobbler promised that not only would Sandler be playing a more low-key role than usual but he would also be directed by Thomas McCarthy, who previously directed the excellent The Visitor and Win Win.  Based on his previous films, McCarthy seemed to be the perfect filmmaker to give Adam Sandler some credibility.

And, let’s not forget, that not only would Sandler be working with Thomas McCarthy but Men, Women, & Children was being directed by Jason Reitman!  At one point, it truly appeared that 2014 was going to be the year that we saw the rebirth of Adam Sandler.

And then Men, Women, & Children came out and was a disaster, despite the fact that Sandler got fairly good reviews.  Meanwhile, rumors started to swirl that just maybe The Cobbler wasn’t as good as McCarthy’s previous film.  When The Cobbler‘s release date was pushed back to 2015 … well, we all knew what that meant.

Anyway, The Cobbler was released in a few theaters earlier this year and on VOD.  It’s now available on Netflix.  I watched it last week and it’s really not as bad as I expected it to be.  Of course, that’s not to say that it’s particularly good either.  It’s not terrible but it is disappointing.  Considering the director and the supporting cast (Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Dan Stevens, and Melonie Diaz, who was way too good in Fruitvale Station for you not to regret how this film totally wastes her), The Cobbler should at least be interesting.  Instead, it’s just kind of bland.

However, Adam Sandler does give a pretty good performance.  In this film, he plays Max, a shy and emotionally withdrawn cobbler.  He comes from a long line of cobblers and he inherited his store from his father (Dustin Hoffman).  Years before the film begins, Max’s father mysteriously vanished.  Now, Max spends his time going to and from work and taking care of his dementia-stricken mother.  His only friend is Jimmy (Steve Buscemi), the paternal barber who works next door.

In the basement of Max’s shop, there’s an old stitching machine.  About 30 minutes into the film, Max discovers that if be puts on a pair of shoes that have been repaired using the machine, he can physically transform into whoever owns the shoes.  After experimenting with being different people, Max eventually puts on his father’s shoes.  Transforming into his father, he has dinner with his mother.

The next morning, his mother dies.  Max cannot even afford to buy her a good headstone.  However, a local criminal (played by Method Man) has dropped off his shoes to be repaired.  Perhaps, by wearing the criminal’s shoes, Max can come up with the money…

I’m probably making The Cobbler sound a lot more interesting than it actually is.  And seriously, it sounds like it should a really good and thought-provoking movie.  Unfortunately, McCarthy awkwardly tries to combine the broadly comedic elements (i.e., Sandler transforming into a variety of eccentric characters) with the dramatic (which includes not only Max’s anger at his father but a few murders as well).  The film never finds a consistent tone and, as such, it remains an interesting idea in search of a stronger narrative.  Watching the film as it wanders from scene to scene, it’s impossible not to mourn all of the missed opportunities.

But, as I said, Adam Sandler does well.  Hiding his face behind a beard and only occasionally offering up a sad smile, Sandler gives a low-key performance that is full of very genuine melancholy.  In this film, he proves that he can act when he wants to.  You just wish that the rest of The Cobbler lived up to his performance.

Unfortunately, as far as the box office is concerned, The Cobbler is the least financially successful film that Sandler has ever appeared in.  This means that plans for Grown-Ups 3 are probably already underway…

(For those keeping track of the progress of Embracing The Melodrama Part II, we are now 123 reviews down with 3 to go.)

Shattered Politics #23: Fail-Safe (dir by Sidney Lumet)


After watching Dr. Strangelove, you may find yourself asking what that film would have been like if it had treated its doomsday scenario seriously.  Well, you can find out by watching yet another film from 1964, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe.

What’s Fail-Safe about?  Well, basically, it tells the exact same story as Dr. Strangelove, except without the humor.  Once again, an American bomber is accidentally ordered to launch a nuclear attack against Russia.  Again, the President (played, somewhat inevitably, by Henry Fonda) has to have an awkward conversation with the leader of Russia.  Again, a sinister defense advisor (this time played by Walter Matthau) argues that the world can survive a nuclear war.

Admittedly, there is no equivalent to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson in Fail-Safe.  However, there is a General Black (Dan O’Herilihy) who has a recurring nightmare about watching a bullfight while the sky around him glows with radiation.

Fail-Safe has the same plot as Dr. Strangelove but none of the humor.  In fact, Fail-Safe has absolutely no humor at all.  It’s one of the most somber films that I’ve ever seen.  It has a good opening with General Black’s nightmare and an effective ending that makes excellent use of freeze frames but the middle of the film is basically just a collection of endless debates.

And I’m sure that approach made sense at the time because, after all, Fail-Safe was dealing with a serious theme, it was directed by a serious filmmaker, and it featured a bunch of serious actors.  And maybe if I had never seen Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe would not seem like such a slow and boring movie.  But I have seen Dr. Strangelove and, as a result, it’s impossible to watch Fail-Safe without wanting to hear Henry Fonda say, “You can’t fight here!  This is the war room!”

Horror on TV: Night Galley 2.6 “A Question of Fear/The Devil is Not Mocked”


Much like Thriller, Night Gallery is an old horror anthology series that I’ve recently discovered thanks to reruns on Me-TV. Airing in the early 70s and hosted by Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling, Night Gallery usually featured two or three stories per episode and even provided a few early credits for director Steven Spielberg.

Of course, Spielberg didn’t direct the episode below but that’s okay. It’s still pretty good. It tells two stories. In A Question of Fear, Leslie Nielsen plays a mercenary who takes a bet to spend the night in a haunted house. In The Devil Is Not Mocked, Dracula talks about how he fought the Nazis during World War II. Interestingly enough, Dracula is played by Francis Lederer who, 13 years later, played the same role in The Return of Dracula.

The episode of Night Gallery was originally broadcast on October 27th, 1971.

Ghosts of Christmas Past #23: The Twilight Zone 1.31 “The Star”

Tonight’s ghost of Christmas Past was recommended to me by the TSL’s own editor-in-chief, Arleigh Sandoc.  This episode of the Twilight Zone originally aired on December 20th, 1985.  Based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke, The Star features two men — one a scientist and one a priest — exploring the remains of a long dead alien civilization and discovering a connection to our own society.

And yes, it is a Christmas story.

Horror On TV: Twilight Zone 2.23 “The Obsolete Man”

I know that some people will claim that The Obsolete Man really isn’t a horror story but consider this:  What’s more horrifying than a world without freedom of thought or expression?  The Obsolete Man takes place in a world where books have been banned.  As a result, librarian Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) has been determined to be obsolete and, hence, is now scheduled to be executed.  Wordsworth appears to have accepted his fate but, as the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) discovers, Wordsworth is far more clever than he originally appears.

This episode of The Twilight Zone was written by Rod Serling and directed by Eliot Silverstein.  It was originally broadcast on June 2nd, 1961.

Review: The Thomas Crown Affair (dir. by John McTiernan)

In 1968 there was a little caper film titled The Thomas Crown Affair starring the ever-cool Steve McQueen and a radiant Faye Dunaway. The film was considered hip, cool and sexy in its way during the late 60’s. It took 31 years, but a remake was finally made of this film but this time around starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the roles originally played by McQueen and Dunaway. With some great direction from thriller and action filmmmaker John McTiernan, 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair ends up being the exception to the rule of remakes of older films turning out lesser than the original. This modern and updated version of The Thomas Crown Affair actually surpasses the original McQueen production. McTiernan’s film ably combines humor, thrilling action set pieces, sexy chemistry between the leads and just a beautifully shot film.

Set in New York that never looked as good as shot by McTiernan and his crew, Pierce Brosnan stars and shines as the title character Thomas Crown. Thomas Crown is a suave, roguish and successful businessman who has everything a man could ask for: money, power and any woman he desires.

What does a man like Crown would ever want in life?

The film looks at this and shows that no amount of money in the world could replace the adrenaline rush and thrill of getting acquiring it. Crown does this by staging a complex and elaborate plan to steal a Monet (San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk) from the NY Metropolitan Arts Museum and do so in the middle of the day. His plan goes off without a hitch and with none the wiser. This heist sequence was actually very fun to watch as McTiernan never lost command of the many threads being weaved to pull off Crown’s plan. McTiernan would one-up this with the climactic finish in the same museum but with a sequence I could only call as the anti-heist.

With the heist completed, the film soon introduces Crown’s foil in the form of Rene Russo as insurance investigator Catherine Banning. Ms. Russo never looked more beautiful, sensual and sexy as she did in this film. Her performance as the determined and crafty Banning more than holds up to Brosnan’s roguish and playful performance as Thomas Crown. From the moment she appears onscreen as the camera slowly pans up her silky-stocking leg and garters, Russo dominated the scene and pretty much commanded attention from everyone. This was especially true whenever she shared the screen with Denis Leary as police detective in charge of investigating the Monet heist. Leary’s always a strong performer in any film he’s in but was pretty much lost in the wake of Russo’s performance when both were on the screen.

The rest of the film was pretty much Crown and Banning trying to get into each others’ heads to find the one advantage that would give them an upper-hand in the “game” they’ve both decided to play. It’s hard to see who is chasing who in the film. Is Banning chasing Crown as her one and only suspect for the theft or is Crown playing her as part of a much more complicated scheme to spice his life. These questions swirl within the frame of the heist investigation and the growing relationship between the two strong-willed characters.

To say that Brosnan and Russo’s on-screen chemistry was strong would be a big understatement. The two pretty much sizzle when together. Whether it’s a playful, flirtation during a nice dinner out on the town to the two steamy dance numbers in the middle of the film. When Crown asks Banning if she wanted to dance or does she want to dance the temperature just went up by degrees. Their love scenes together shows that it could still be done with class and also have a sense of playfulness and fun. It also showed that young couples doing love scenes onscreen have nothing on the mature couple.

There’s not much else to say about McTiernan’s remake of the Thomas Crown Affair than to say that he took a good film, that showcased Steve McQueen’s coolness for everyone to see, and made a much more superior production in every sense. The direction was excellent and the cinematography was beautiful in every second shot. The cast performance was very strong with the two leads in Brosnan and Russo acting their hearts out on the screen. This film shows that remakes really are not bad ideas when put into capable hands. It would be nice to see how the sequel — tentatively titled The Topkapi Affair —  to this film turns out with pretty much the same cast and crew returning. I, for one, will be there to see it when it comes out.