North Dallas Forty (1979, directed by Ted Kotcheff)


Pete Gent was a college basketball star at Michigan State University who, in 1964, received a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.  Intrigued by the $500 that the team was offering to any player who attended training camp that summer, Gent accepted.  Despite the fact that Gent had never before played football, the Cowboys were impressed with his athleticism and they signed him to the team.

For five seasons, Gent played wide receiver.  During that time, he caught a lot of balls, became close friends (or so he claimed) with quarterback Don Meredith, and got under the skin of Coach Tom Landry with his nonconformist attitude.  After several injuries kept him off the field during the 1968 season, Gent was traded to the Giants who waived him before the next regular season began.

Out of work and with no other team wanting to sign him, Gent wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about his time with the Cowboys.  North Dallas Forty was published in 1973 and it immediately shot up the best seller charts.  When the book was published, football players were still regularly portrayed as being wholesome, all-American athletes and the Dallas Cowboys were still known as America’s Team.  North Dallas Forty shocked readers with its details about groupies, drugs, racism, and gruesome injuries.  The NFL, of course, claimed that Gent was just a disgruntled former player who was looking to get back at the league.  When asked about the book (which portrayed him as being a marijuana-loving good old boy), Don Meredith was reported to have said, “If I’d known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more.”

Meredith had a point, of course.  In the book, Pete Gent portrays himself as not only being the smartest man in football but also as having the best hands in the league.  Men want to be him.  Women want to be with him.  And the North Dallas Bulls (which is the book’s version of the Dallas Cowboys) don’t know what they’re losing when they release him for violating the league’s drug policy.  Today, when you read it and you’re no longer shocked by all of the drugs and the sex, North Dallas Forty comes across as mostly being a case of very sour grapes.

Luckily, the film version is better.

Nick Notle plays Phil Elliott, a broken-down receiver who wakes up most mornings with a bloody nose and who can barely walk without first popping a hundred pills.  Phil is a nonconformist and a rebel.  He loves to play the game but he hates how it’s become a business.  Mac Davis plays Seth Maxwell, the team’s quarterback and Phil’s best friend.  Seth is just as cynical as Phil but he’s better at playing politics.  G.D. Spradlin is B.A. Strother, the cold head coach who is a thinly disguised version of the legendary Tom Landry.  In the novel, B.A. Strother was portrayed as being a hypocritical dictator.  The film’s version is more sympathetic with Strother being portrayed as stern but not cruel.  Strother even tells Phil that he “can catch anything.”

Both the film and the book take place over the course of one week leading to a big game against Chicago.  In the book, Phil says that he and Seth don’t care about whether or not they win.  In the movie, they much do care but, at the same time, they know that they’re being held back by a system that cares more about whether or not they follow the rules than if they win the game.  While Phil’s teammates (including Bo Svenson as Joe Bob Priddy and John Mantuszak as O.W. Shaddock) behave like animals, Phil falls in love with Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon), who doesn’t care about football.

Pete Gent was originally hired to write the film’s screenplay but left after several disagreements with producer Frank Yablans.  (The screenplay was completed by Yablans, directed Ted Kotcheff, and an uncredited Nancy Dowd.)  The movie loosely follows the novel while dropping some of its weaker plot points.  As a result, the film version has everything that made the novel memorable but without any of Gent’s lingering bitterness over how his career ended.  The novel used football as a metaphor for everything that was going wrong in America in the 60s and 70s but the movie is more of a dark comedy about one man rebelling against the system.

There’s only a few minutes of game footage but North Dallas Forty is still one of the best football movies ever made, mostly because Nick Nolte is absolutely believable as an aging wide receiver.  He’s convincing as someone who can still make all the plays even though he’s usually in so much pain that it’s a struggle for him to get out of bed every morning.  He’s also convincing as someone who loves the game but who won’t give up his freedom just to play it.  This is a definite improvement on the novel, in which Phil seemed to hate football so much that it was hard not to wonder why he was even wasting his time with it.  Country-and-western signer Mac Davis is also convincing as Seth Maxwell and fans of great character actors will be happy to see both Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman in small roles.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, North Dallas Forty is a great film.  Coming at the tail end of the 70s, it’s a character study as much as its a sports film.  It’s also one of the few cinematic adaptations to improve on its source material.  As a book, North Dallas Forty may no longer be shocking but the movie will be scoring touchdowns forever.

Cleaning Out The DVR: One On One (dir by Lamont Johnson)


Sometimes, I come across things on my DVR that I not only have no memory of recording but which I also cannot, for the life of me, figure out why I decided to record it in the first place.  I recorded the 1977 film One On One off of TCM on January 17th and I’m not really sure why.

It’s not that One On One is a terrible movie or anything like that.  It’s an extremely predictable film and it’s got one of those soundtracks that is extremely 70s but not cool disco-style 70s.  No, instead this film is full of the type of soft rock music that your grandmother listens to while driving to the local CVS Pharmacy.  (The majority of the songs are performed by a group called Seals and Croft and are painfully undanceable.)  But, even with that in mind, it’s not really a bad movie.  If I’m confused about why I recorded it, it’s because One on One is a movie about basketball, which is a sport that holds absolutely zero interest for me.

(My main issue with basketball has to do with the sound of all of those squeaky shoes on the court.)

But, before going any further, let’s watch a commercial:

One on One tells the story of Henry Steele (Robby Benson), a high school basketball star.  Henry is from Colorado, which this film seems to suggest is the equivalent of coming from Siberia.  When Moreland Smith (G.D. Spradlin). the renowned coach of Western University’s basketball team, offers Henry a full athletic scholarship, Henry negotiates a pretty good deal for himself.  Not only is his education going to be paid for but he also wins a guarantee that he’ll never be cut from the team and that his father will get a car.  All Henry has to do is keep his grades up but that shouldn’t be a problem.  Sure, Henry appears to be an idiot but the athletic department will set him up with a tutor and, as long as the coach is happy with him, it’s not like Henry’s actually going to have to go to class.

Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Henry picks up a hitchhiker (a very young Melanie Griffith) who promptly robs him of all of his money.  Once he arrives at the university, he discovers that Coach Smith is not going to be the surrogate father figure that he was expecting.  Instead, Coach Smith is a rather cold and ruthless taskmaster, whose main concern is winning.  When Henry, who is by far the shortest player on the team, struggles, Smith tells Henry that he needs to renounce his scholarship and return home.  When Henry refuses to do so, Smith becomes obsessed with trying to break him.

As Henry’s roommate, Tom (Cory Faucher), points out, Henry’s head is not in the game.  Instead, Henry can’t stop thinking about his tutor, Janet (Annette O’Toole).  At first, Janet assumes that Henry is just a dumb jock, largely because Henry’s a jock and he spends the first half of the movie acting really, really dumb.  Then, out of nowhere, Henry reveals that he’s not only read Moby Dick but he can quote passages from memory.  In fact, Henry even understands that Ahab was — wait for it — obsessed!  Oh my God, Janet realizes, Henry’s literate!  In fact, Janet exclaims that Henry is the first person she’s met who has actually read Moby Dick!  (Really?)  Janet and Henry fall in love but, unfortunately, Janet is already dating her psychology professor.

(The professor has got a beard that looks like it reeks of stale weed and he says stuff like, “Have you seen my sandals?,” so we know better than to take him seriously when he compares the popularity of college athletics to the rise of fascism.  When Henry accuses him of being a hippie, the professor just smirks and says something condescending.  Stupid hippie.)

Will Janet and Henry fall in love?  Will Janet dump her unattractive and unappealing boyfriend so she can date Henry?  Will Henry manage to pass his classes?  Will Henry ever get a chance to prove himself on the court?  Will … oh, why even ask these questions?  You already know what’s going to happen in this movie.  There’s really not a single unexpected moment to be found in One on One.  Everything about the film, from the coach’s ruthlessness to Henry’s transformation from idiot to savvy player, feels pre-ordained.  It’s a predictable movie but, at the same time, it’s a likable movie.  At the start of the film, Benson overplays Henry’s stupidity and O’Toole overplays Janet’s brittleness but, at the film progresses, both performers seem to relax and, by the time the end credits role, they’re actually a fairly likable couple.  Benson even gets a killer final line, one that I imagine made audiences in 1977 applaud.

That said, the film is pretty much stolen by G.D. Spradlin.  Spradlin was a former Oklahoma oilman who reinvented himself as a politician and then as a character actor.  Best known for playing Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather, Part II, Spradlin had a flair for bringing casually corrupt authority figures to life.  In One on One, Spradlin turns Coach Smith into a Mephistophelean figure, offering Henry success at the cost of his soul.  Coach Smith is arrogant, oily, casually racist, and an all-around jerk but, at the same time, it is also obvious that he knows how to lead a team to victory.  The great thing about Spradlin’s performance is to be found in not just how menacing he is but in how charismatic he is.  You never doubt that Coach Smith is both a lousy human being and an absolutely brilliant coach.  If nothing else, he’s good at his job.

As I said at the start of this review, I am not really sure why I recorded One on One but it turned out to be better than I was expecting.  It is a flawed and uneven film but worth watching for Spradlin’s intriguingly villainous turn.

 

A Movie A Day #326: MacArthur (1977, directed by Joseph Sargent)


The year is 1962 and Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck), the legendary general, visits West Point for one last time.  While he meets the graduates and gives his final speech, flashbacks show highlights from MacArthur’s long military career.  He leaves and then returns to Philippines.  He accepts the Japanese surrender and then helps Japan rebuild and recover from the devastation of the war.  He half-heartedly pursues the Presidency and, during the Korean War, gets fired by Harry Truman (Ed Flanders).

MacArthur is a stolid biopic about one America’s most famous and controversial generals.  It was produced by Frank McCarthy, a former general who knew MacArthur and who previously won an Oscar for producing Patton.  McCarthy was obviously hoping that MacArthur was do its subject what Patton did for George Patton and both films follow the same basic pattern. a warts-and-all portrait of a World War II general with all of the action centered around the performance of a bigger-than-life actor in the title role.  Though obviously made for a low budget, MacArthur is a well-made and well-acted movie but it suffers because Douglas MacArthur was just not as interesting a figure as George Patton.  Gregory Peck does a good job subtly suggesting MacArthur’s vanity along with capturing his commitment to his duty but he never gets a scene that’s comparable to George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton.  The main problem with MacArthur, especially when compared to Patton, is that George Patton was a born warrior while Douglas MacArthur was a born administrator and it is always going to be more exciting to watch a general lead his men into battle then to watch him sign executive orders.

An October Film Review: Ed Wood (dir by Tim Burton)


From start to end, the 1994 film Ed Wood is a nearly perfect film.

Consider the opening sequence.  In glorious black-and-white, we are presented with a house sitting in the middle of a storm.  As Howard Shore’s melodramatic and spooky score plays in the background, the camera zooms towards the house.  A window flies open to reveal a coffin sitting in the middle of a dark room.  A man dressed in a tuxedo (played to snarky and eccentric perfection by Jeffrey Jones) sits up in the coffin.  Later, we learn that the man is an infamously inaccurate psychic named Criswell.  Criswell greets us and says that we are interested in the unknown.  “Can your heart handle the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr!?”

As streaks of lightning flash across the sky, the opening credits appear and disappear on the screen.  The camera zooms by tombstones featuring the names of the cast.  Cheap-looking flying saucers, dangling on string, fly through the night sky.  The camera even goes underwater, revealing a giant octopus…

It’s a brilliant opening, especially if you’re already a fan of Ed Wood’s.  If you’re familiar with Wood’sfilms, you know that Criswell’s appearance in the coffin is a reference to Orgy of the Dead and that his opening monologue was a tribute to his opening lines from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  If you’re already a fan of Ed Wood then you’ll immediately recognize the flying saucers.  You’ll look at that octopus and you’ll say, “Bride of the Monster!”

And if you’re not an Ed Wood fan, fear not.  The opening credits will pull you in, even if you don’t know the difference between Plan 9 and Plan 10.  Between the music and the gorgeous black-and-white, Ed Wood is irresistible from the start.

Those opening credits also announce that we’re about to see an extremely stylized biopic.  In the real world, Ed Wood was a screenwriter and director who spent most of his life on the fringes of Hollywood, occasionally working with reputable or, at the very least, well-known actors like Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi.  He directed a few TV shows.  He wrote several scripts and directed a handful of low-budget exploitation films.  He also wrote a lot of paperbacks, some of which were semi-pornographic.  Most famously, he was a cross-dresser, who served in the army in World War II and was wearing a bra under his uniform when he charged the beaches of Normandy.  Apparently, the stories of his love for angora were not exaggerated.  Sadly, Wood was also an alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 54.

Every fan of Ed Wood has seen this picture of him, taken when he first arrived in Hollywood and looked like he had the potential to be a dashing leading man:

What people are less familiar with is how Ed looked after spending two decades on the fringes of the film business:

My point is that the true story of Ed Wood was not necessarily a happy one.  However, one wouldn’t know that from watching the film based on his life.  As directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as being endlessly positive and enthusiastic.  When it comes to determination, nothing can stop the film’s Ed Wood.  It doesn’t matter what problems may arise during the shooting of any of his films, Wood finds a way to make it work.

A major star dies and leaves behind only a few minutes of usable footage?  Just bring in a stand-in.  The stand-in looks nothing like the star?  Just hide the guy’s face.

Wrestler Tor Johnson (played by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele), accidentally walks into a wall while trying to squeeze through a door?  Shrug it off by saying that it adds to the scene.  Point out that the character that Tor is playing would probably run into that wall on a regular basis.

Your fake octopus doesn’t work?  Just have the actors roll around in the water.

The establishment won’t take you seriously?  Then work outside the establishment, with a cast and crew of fellow outcasts.

You’re struggling to raise money for your film?  Ask the local Baptist church.  Ask a rich poultry rancher.  Promise a big star.  Promise to include a nuclear explosion.  Promise anything just to get the film made.

You’re struggling to maintain your artistic vision?  Just go down to a nearby bar and wait for Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) to show up.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best film.  It’s certainly one of the few Burton films that actually holds up after repeat viewings.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Wood and Burton shared a passionate love for the movies and that Burton related to Wood and his crew of misfits.  It’s an unabashedly affectionate film, with none of the condescension that can sometimes be found in Burton’s other film.  Burton celebrates not just the hopes and dreams of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and Criswell but also of all the other members of the Wood stock company, from Vampira (Lisa Marie) to Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), all the way down to Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Loretta King (Juliet Landau).  Though Ed Wood may center around the character of Wood and the actor who plays him, it’s a true ensemble piece.  Landau won the Oscar but really, the entire cast is brilliant.  Along with those already mentioned, Ed Wood features memorable performances from Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette (one playing Wood’s girlfriend and the other playing his future wife), G. D. Spradlin (as a minister who ends up producing one of Wood’s films), and Mike Starr (playing a producer who is definitely not a minister).

For me, Ed Wood is defined by a moment very early on in the film.  Wood watches some stock footage and talks about how he could make an entire movie out of it.  It would start with aliens arriving and “upsetting the buffaloes.”  The army is called in.  Deep delivers the line with such enthusiasm and with so much positive energy that it’s impossible not get caught up in Wood’s vision.  For a few seconds, you think to yourself, “Maybe that could be a good movie…”  Of course, you know it wouldn’t be.  But you want it to be because Ed wants it to be and Ed is just do damn likable.

As I said before, Ed Wood is a highly stylized film.  It focuses on the good parts of the Ed Wood story, like his friendship with Bela Lugosi and his refusal to hide the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who loves angora.  The bad parts of his story are left out and I’m glad that they were.  Ed Wood is a film that celebrates dreamers and it gives Wood the happy ending that he deserved.   The scenes of Plan 9 From Outer Space getting a raptorous reception may not have happened but can you prove that they didn’t?

I suppose now would be the time that most reviewers would reflect on the irony of one of the worst directors of all time being the subject of one of the best films ever made about the movies.  However, I’ll save that angle for whenever I get a chance to review The Disaster Artist.  Of course, I personally don’t think that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time.  He made low-budget movies but he did what he could with what he had available.  If anything, Ed Wood the film is quite correct to celebrate Ed Wood the director’s determination.  Glen or Glenda has moments of audacious surrealism.  Lugosi is surprisingly good in Bride of the Monster.  As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, what other film has a plot as unapologetically bizarre as the plot of Plan 9?  For a few thousand dollars, Wood made a sci-fi epic that it still watched today.  Does that sound like something the worst director of all time could do?

Needless to say, Ed Wood is not a horror film but it’s definitely an October film.  Much as how Christmas is the perfect time for It’s A Wonderful Life, Halloween is the perfect time for Ed Wood.

A Movie A Day #258: The Hunting Party (1971, directed by Don Medford)


Old west outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) wants to learn how to read so he and his gang ride into the nearby town and kidnap Melissa Ruger (Candice Bergen).  Because he saw her reading to a group of children, Calder assumed that Melissa was a school teacher.  Instead, Melissa is the wife of a brutal cattle baron and hunter named Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman).  Even after Calder learns the truth about Melissa’s identity, he keeps it a secret from his gang because he knows that they would kill her and then kill him as punishment for kidnapping the wife of a man as powerful as Brandt.  Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and Melissa starts to fall in love with Calder.  Meanwhile, Brandt learns that his wife has been kidnapped and, with a group of equally brutal friends, he sets out to get her back.  In Brandt’s opinion, Calder has stolen his personal property.  Using a powerful and newly designed rifle, Brandt kills Calder’s men one-by-one until there is a final, bloody confrontation in the desert.

Coming out two years after Sam Peckinpah redefined the rules of the western genre with The Wild Bunch, The Hunting Party owes a clear debt to Peckinpah.  Much as in The Wild Bunch, the violence is sudden, brutal, and violent.  What The Hunting Party lacks is Peckinpah’s attention to detail and his appreciation for the absurd.  Instead, The Hunting Party is just one shooting after another and, devoid of subtext or any hint of a larger context, it quickly gets boring.

Fans of Oliver Reed, however, will want to watch The Hunting Party because it features one of his best performance.  For once, Reed is actually playing the nice guy.  He may be an outlaw but he still cries when a mortally wounded member of his gang begs Calder to put him out of his misery.  Gene Hackman is also good, even though he’s playing one of his standard villain roles.  (The less said about Candice Bergen’s performance, the better.)  The Hunting Party may be dully nihilistic but Oliver Reed shines.

A Movie A Day #204: Tank (1984, directed by Marvin Chomsky)


If you had just moved to a small town in Georgia and your teenage son was framed for marijuana possession and sentenced to years of hard labor, what would you do?

Would you hire a good lawyer and file appeal after appeal?

Would you go to the media and let them know that the corrupt sheriff and his evil deputy are running a prostitution ring and the only reason your son is in prison is because you dared to call them out on their corruption?

Or would you get in a World War II-era Sherman tank and drive it across Georgia, becoming a folk hero in the process?

If you are Sgt. Zack Carey (James Garner), you take the third option.  Sgt. Carey is only a few months from retirement but he is willing to throw that all away to break his son (C. Thomas Howell) out of prison and expose the truth about Sheriff Buelton (G.D. Spradlin) and Deputy Euclid Baker (James Cromwell, playing a redneck).  Helping Sgt. Carey out are a prostitute (Jenilee Harrison), Carey’s wife (Shirley Jones), and the citizens of Georgia, who lines the road to cheer the tank as it heads for the Georgia/Kentucky border.  It’s just like the O.J. Bronco chase, with James Garner in the role of A.C. Cowlings.

The main thing that Tank has going for it is that tank.  Who has not fantasized about driving across the country in a tank and blowing up police cars along the way?  James Garner is cool, too, even if he is playing a role that would be better suited for someone like Burt Reynolds.  Tank really is Smoky and the Bandit with a tank in the place of that trans am.  Personally, I would rather have the trans am but Tank is still entertaining.  Dumb but entertaining.

One final note, a piece of political trivia: According to the end credits, the governor of Georgia was played by Wallace Willkinson.  At first, I assumed this was the same Wallace Wilkinson who later served as governor of Kentucky.  It’ not.  It turns out that two men shared the same name.  It’s just a coincidence that one played a governor while the other actually became a governor.

A Movie A Day #32: Number One (1969, directed by Tom Gries)


number-oneQuarterback Cat Catlan (Charlton Heston) used to be one of the greats.  For fifteen years, he has been a professional football player.  He probably should have retired after he led the New Orleans Saints to their first championship but, instead, the stubborn Cat kept playing.  Now, he is 40 years old and struggling to keep up with the younger players.  His coach (John Randolph) says that Cat has another two or three years left in him but the team doctor (G.D. Spradlin who, ten years later, played a coach in North Dallas Forty) says that one more strong hit could not only end Cat’s career but possibly his life as well.  Two of former Cat’s former teammates (Bruce Dern and Bobby Troup) offer to help Cat find a job off the field but Cat tells them the same thing that he tells his long-suffering wife (Jessica Walter).  He just has to win one more championship.

Number One is unique for being one of the first movies to ever take a look at the dark side of professional football.  At 40, Cat is facing an uncertain future.  His years of being a star have left him unprepared to deal with life in the real world.  He has no real friends and a wife who no longer needs him.  This would seem like a perfect role for Heston, who always excelled at playing misanthropes.  Heston is convincing when he’s arguing with his wife or refusing to sign an autograph but, surprisingly, he is thoroughly unconvincing whenever he’s on the field.  For all of his grunting and all the lines delivered through gritted teeth, Heston is simply not believable as a professional athlete, even one who is past his prime.  (When he played the 40 year-old Cat, Heston was 46 and looked like he was 56.)  Whenever Cat throws a football, he’s played by Heston in close-ups and very obviously replaced by real-life Saints quarterback Billy Kilmer for the long shots.  A football film is only as good and convincing as the football action and, on that front, Number One leaves much to be desired.

The 1969 press photo displays Heston's throwing technique.

This 1969 press photo displays Heston’s throwing technique.

Two final notes: For the scene in which Cat is tackled by three Dallas Cowboys (all played by actual players), Heston requested that the players actually tackle him.  Heston ended up with three broken ribs.

Finally, Number One was made the cooperation of the New Orleans Saints and features several players in the cast.  When Number One was filmed, the Saints were still a relatively new expansion team.  Cat is described as having already led the Saints to a championship but it would actually be another 40 years before the Saints would finally make their first trip to the Super Bowl.

Shattered Politics #64: Dick (dir by Andrew Fleming)


Theatricalposterdick

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I love Dick but I still think it’s a pretty good film.  (Ha ha, see what I did there?)  Of course, to really appreciate this 1999 comedy, it helps to know a little something about political history.  For instance, it helps to know that the Dick of the title is President Richard Nixon (played here by a hilariously paranoid Dan Hedaya).  In 1973, as the result of his attempt to cover up White House involvement of a burglary at the Watergate Hotel, Nixon became the first President to resign from office.

A lot of the credit for Nixon’s downfall was given to two reporters for the Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played, in this film, by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch).  While Woodward and Bernstein investigated the Watergate break-in, they were reportedly fed information by a highly placed informant who was referred to as being Deep Throat.  For years, the identity of Deep Throat was a closely held secret.  Countless books were written that speculated as to who Deep Throat may have been.  (In the film All The President’s Men, he was played by Hal Holbrook.)  Finally, in 2005, it was revealed that Deep Throat was a FBI agent named Mark W. Felt, who was upset because he was passed over for a promotion.

And, quite frankly, that’s kind of a disappointing solution.  When you think about someone who brought down the government, you hope that he or she will turn out to be something more than just a disgruntled employee whose previous work consisted on running counter intelligence operations against domestic political activists.

In fact, it’s hard not to wish that, perhaps, Deep Throat could have been two 15 year-old girls who just happened to stumble across one of the biggest political scandals in American history.

Well, fortunately, this is the theory proposed in Dick.  Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) are two friends who, one night in 1972, sneak out of Arlene’s apartment so that they can mail a fan letter to singer Bobby Sherman.  While doing so, they happen to stumble across the Watergate burglars and get a good look at White House aide G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer).

The next day, while on a field trip to the White House, the two girls are spotted by Liddy.  Liddy arranges for them to be pulled to the side and questioned by chief-of-staff H.R. Haldeman (Dave Foley), who determines that the girls barely know who Nixon is and that they don’t understand what they witnessed.  However, before Haldeman can send the girls on their way, Nixon himself enters the office and complains about how poorly planned the break-in was.

This leads to an unlikely relationship between Nixon and Betsy and Arlene.  Hoping to win their loyalty (and their silence), Nixon arranges for them to be his official dog walkers.  Betsy and Arlene, meanwhile, still don’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on.  They accidentally bring pot cookies to the White House (which Nixon particularly enjoys) and Arlene even develops a mad crush on Nixon.

But, of course, Nixon eventually shows his true colors and Betsy and Arlene take down the government….

In many ways Dick is a one-joke film, in which Betsy and Arlene regularly find themselves blissfully unaware while history literally unfolds around them.  But it’s actually a pretty clever joke and it’s also a very plausible one.  People are often unaware that anything important is happening when it’s actually happening.  Often times, it’s only in retrospect that historical moments are seen to be truly historical.  And, ultimately, Watergate itself is such a bizarre scandal that it’s the perfect moment in history to be reinterpreted as a comedy.

Dick is ridiculous enough to be funny but plausible enough to be memorable.

Shattered Politics #57: Canadian Bacon (dir by Michael Moore)


Canadian_Bacon_(movie_poster)

I have mixed feelings about the 1995 films Canadian Bacon.

On the one hand, Canadian Bacon is the only non-documentary to have been directed by Michael Moore.  And I’m just going to admit right now that I don’t care much for Michael Moore.  I think he’s fake.  I think he’s the epitome of the type of limousine liberal who exclusively preaches to the converted and who, when all is said and done, does more harm to his causes than good.  Just because he doesn’t shave, dresses like a slob, and apparently has never been to a gym, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s worth $50 million dollars.  Just because he may claim to be for the workers, that doesn’t keep him from notoriously overworking and underpaying his own employees.  Just because he may make films critical of capitalism, that certainly hasn’t stopped him from investing millions in the very same companies that he claims to oppose. And, quite frankly, it’s hard for me to take seriously a man who rails against income inequality when that man happens to own 9 mansions, none of which are exactly housing the homeless right now.

On the other hand, I love Canada!  Canada has produced some of my favorite actors.  It’s the country that created Degrassi.  It’s the home of Lindsay Dianne and the Becoming A Bolder Being blog!  Seriously, how can you not love Canada?

In fact, if a war ever broke out between American and Canada, I’m not sure who I’d support.  Then again, hopefully Texas will have seceded from the U.S.A. before that happens.  I’m keeping fingers crossed about that.  Hopefully, once we have seceded, our first action will be to declare war on Vermont.  (Not the rest of America, though.  Just Vermont.)

The plot of Canadian Bacon is that the President of the United States (Alan Alda) is suffering from low approval ratings so he decides that America needs to find a new country to be enemies with.  Mind you, the President doesn’t necessarily want to go to war.  Instead, he just wants to have an enemy that he can always be on the verge of going to war with.  After a riot breaks out at a hockey game, the President’s advisors realize that Canada would be the perfect enemy!

(And, while this is played for laughs, there actually is a historical precedent here.  The War of 1812 was basically a result of America’s desire to conquer Canada.)

Anyway, American airwaves are soon full of anti-Canada propaganda and, since Michael Moore thinks everyone in America is an idiot except for him, gun-toting rednecks are soon preparing to do whatever it takes to defend America.  A patriotic sheriff named Boomer (John Candy) decides to invade Canada on his own.  Needless to say, things get even more complicated from there and soon a crazy weapons manufacturer (G.D. Spradlin) is plotting to launch a missile attack on Russia and … oh, who cares?

When Canadian Bacon tries to satirize politics and blind patriotism, it falls flat.  Michael Moore has somehow earned a reputation for being a satirist but, if you actually look at his work, it quickly becomes apparent that he really doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.  The humor in his documentaries is pretty much based on Moore saying, “Look how stupid everyone is except for me!”  Since the people who watch Michael Moore documentaries are usually people who already agree with Michael Moore, they naturally find that to be hilarious because they already think anyone who disagrees with them is a joke.  However, that doesn’t mean that Moore himself is a comic genius.  He’s just a guy telling a joke to an audience that already knows the punchline.

Canadian Bacon is long on righteous indignation but it’s short on anything that would make you want to spend 90 minutes listening to the same point being made over and over again.  Moore did make one good decision, in that he selected Rip Torn to play a crazed general.  Rip Torn can deliver militaristic insults with the best of them.

The few times that Canadian Bacon actually works is when it gently (as opposed to indignantly) satirizes Canada’s reputation for being the most polite (and most hockey-obsessed) place on Earth.  Dan Aykroyd has a great cameo as a Canadian police officer who pulls over Boomer’s truck and politely reprimands him for not including French translations for all of the anti-Canadian graffiti on the side of the vehicle.

Canadian Bacon could have used more scenes like that.

Love you, Canada!

Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)