Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Monsignor (dir by Frank Perry)

(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s taking her longer than it took Saint Malachy to transcribe The Prophecy of the Popes!  She recorded the 1982 film, Monsignor, off of Retroplex on March 8th!)

Maybe it’s because I’m a fourth Italian and I was raised Catholic but Monsignor amused the Hell out of me.

See, Monsignor is a big, sprawling epic about the Church and the Mafia.  I don’t know much about the production of this film but, having watched it, I’m going to guess that it was made by people who were neither Catholic nor Italian.  This is one of those films that is so full of clichés and inaccuracies and yet so self-important that it becomes oddly fascinating to watch.

It tells the story of Father John Flaherty (Christopher Reeve, an Episcopalian who gives a performance so wooden that one worries about getting splinters just from watching it).  When we first meet Father Flaherty, he’s just taken his orders.  He’s a good Irish kid from Brooklyn.  The neighborhood’s proud of him, because he has volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the army.  (The film opens during World War II.)  The neighborhood is even prouder when he performs a Mafia wedding.  Don Appolini (Jason Miller), who may be a mobster but who still loves the Church, is especially impressed.  He expects big things from Father Flaherty.

(The father of the bride, incidentally, is played by Joe Spinell, who played Willy Chicci in Godfathers One and Two and who achieved a certain infamy when he starred in Maniac.)

Father Flaherty goes to war and discovers that it’s not easy to be a man of God in a war zone.  Everywhere around him, soldiers are either dying or losing their faith.  (Perhaps it would help if Father Flaherty knew how to properly conduct a Requiem Mass but the movie screws that up, with Flaherty saying, “”Requiescat in pace” when he clearly should have said, “Requiescant in pace.”)   After trying, in vain, to comfort a mortally wounded man, Flaherty snaps, picks up a machine gun, and starts blowing away Germans.

Having broken the Thou Shalt Not Kill Commandment and indulged in one of the seven deadly sins, Father Flaherty apparently decides to commit every other sin as well.  Or, at least, it seems like that’s his plan.  The thing is, Christopher Reeve’s performance is bland that it’s difficult to guess what could possibly be going on inside of Flaherty’s head.  Is he disillusioned with the church or does he still have faith?  When he says that he feels guilty over his transgressions, is he being sincere or is he lying?  It’s impossible to tell because, when it comes to Father Flaherty, there’s no there there.  He’s literally an empty vessel.

That, of course, doesn’t stop him from becoming a powerful man in the Church.  Through his Mafia connections, he makes a fortune on the black market and launders money for the church.  He also has sex with a cynical, nymphomaniac postulant nun, who is something of a stock figure in films like this.  In this case, the role is played by Genevieve Bujold.  Despite the stereotypical nature of her character, Bujold comes the closest of anyone in the cast to giving a nuanced performance but her character abruptly vanishes from the film.  One can literally hear the producers in the background saying, “Okay, we’ve indulged in the sexy nun thing.  Send her home now.”

Towards the end of the film, there’s a flash forward that is so abrupt that I didn’t even realize it had happened until I noticed that Christopher Reeve and Jason Miller now had a little gray in their hair.  The flash forward doesn’t really accomplish much.  Father Flaherty has lost a lot of the Mafia’s family and the Mafia’s not happy about it.  It’s kinda like the Vatican subplot in The Godfather Part III, just with less interesting actors.

Anyway, Monsignor obviously thinks that it has something to say about both the Church and the Mafia but it’s actually remarkably empty-headed.  Strangely enough, for an epic film that cost 10 million dollars to make (that’s in 1982 money), the whole film looks remarkably cheap.  If a community theater decided to put on a production of Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, the end result would probably end up looking a lot like Monsignor.

And yet, I really can’t hate Monsignor.  It’s so bad that, as I said earlier, it’s also oddly fascinating.  You watch and you ask yourself, How many details can one film about Catholicism get wrong?  How many Italian stereotypes can be forced into a movie with a Mafia subplot?  Now, I should point out that, at no point, does Don Appolini say, “Mama mia!” but, if he had, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s just that type of film.

Anyway, Monsignor is so sordid and stupid that it becomes entertaining for all the wrong reasons.  If you’re into that, you’ll enjoy Monsignor.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #8: Anne of the Thousand Days (dir by Charles Jarrott)


After I finished writing my review of Rolling Thunder, I continued the process of cleaning out my DVR by watching the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days.  How does a film like Anne of the Thousand Days compare to a film like Rolling Thunder?

They might as well have been conceived, written, directed, and released on different planets.

I recorded Anne of The Thousand Days off of TCM on March 26th.  The main reason that I set the DVR to record it was because Anne was a best picture nominee.  It may seem strange to think that this rather conventional film was nominated the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, and Midnight Cowboy.  It gets even stranger when you consider what wasn’t nominated that year: Medium Cool, If…, Last Summer, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice’s Restaurant, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time In The West, and a long list of other films.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend this entire review listing all of the 1969 films that feel like a more appropriate best picture nominee than Anne of the Thousand Days.

And yet, Anne was nominated for best picture.  In fact, it received a total of 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film that year.  Tellingly most of the nominations were in the technical categories and the only Oscar that it won was for its costumes.  Genevieve Bujold received a nomination for playing the title character and Richard Burton became the third actor to receive a nomination for playing King Henry VIII.

As for the film, Anne of the Thousand Days tells the oft-told story of King Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Told in flashback as both Henry and Anne wait for her to be executed on charges of adultery, the film shows us how middle-aged Henry VIII first met and fell in love with 18 year-old Anne Boleyn.  Standing in the way of Henry’s pursuit of Anne was the fact that 1) Anne intensely disliked him, 2) Anne was already engaged, 3) Anne’s sister was already Henry’s mistress, and 4) Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas).

Fortunately, Henry happens to be king and being king comes with its perks.

For instance, as king, he can order Anne and her fiancée to break up.  As king, he can casually dismiss his former mistress.  And, as king, Henry has the power that Anne finds to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.  At first, Anne merely loves the fact that Henry is obsessed with her.  But slowly, she comes to love Henry as a man as well…

The only problem is that Henry is still married and Catherine is still popular with the people.  Even after Henry divorces her and marries Anne, the common people refuse to accept Anne as their queen.  When Sir Thomas More (William Squire) refuses to recognize Anne as queen, Anne demands that More be executed.  When Henry initially shows reluctance, Anne announces that she will not sleep with him until More is dead.

Needless to say, Thomas More is quickly executed.

However, Henry’s attention has already moved on to Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson) and, desperate to get Anne out of his life, he arranges for Cardinal Cromwell (John Colicos) to frame Anne on charges of adultery and incest.  With Anne facing a humiliating trial and the possibility of execution, Henry makes her an offer.  If she agrees to an annulment, he’ll free her.  However, their daughter — Elizabeth — will lose her claim to the throne…

It’s telling that Charles Jarrott did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work as Anne of the Thousand Day‘s director.  There are a lot of technically good things about Anne of the Thousand Days but, despite all of the melodrama and sex and historical detail to be found in Anne, it never comes to life as a movie.  The costumes are to die for, the sets are impressive, and the cast is full of talented British character actors but the whole movie just feels oddly flat.  Try as it may, it can never convince us that either Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn is worth all the trouble.

Anne of the Thousand Days was obviously a big production, which probably explains all the Oscar nominations.  But otherwise, it’s one of the more forgettable best picture nominees.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Earthquake (dir. by Mark Robson)

Since it’s impossible for me to talk about anything without somehow relating it to a movie, I guess it makes sense that my reaction to San Francisco winning the World Series was to write a review of the award-winning, 1974 disaster film Earthquake.  If the Rangers had won, I would have been obligated to write up a review of No Country For Old Men.

But anyway, Earthquake

So, Earthquake is one of those movies from the 70s in which a large group of different characters had to deal with some sort of cataclysmic disaster that could, in theory, have happened in reality as well as up on the movie screen.  There were apparently about 2,000,000 of these films made between 1970 and 1980 and they all had titles like Hurricane, Tornado, Big Fire, Asbestos, Flash Flood, Lava Flow, Khardashian, Avalanche, and, of course, Earthquake.  These movies always featured an “all-star” cast of people that nobody had ever actually heard of and I guess part of the fun was trying to guess who would survive and who would die.  Apparently, they were the 1970s version of Dancing With The Stars.  Call it Dying With Celebrities.

Earthquake is one of best known of these films.  Apparently, it made a lot of money in 1974 and it won Academy Awards for its earthquake effects.  Bleh.  Whatever.  Have you ever really sat down and looked at a list of the movies that have won at least one Academy Award since they first started handing those things out?  Earthquake is like a 6 hour movie and Los Angeles doesn’t start shaking until halfway through.  The Earthquake itself only lasts for 15 minutes and it’s kind of impressive to watch but it’s 15 minutes out of 360.

Before the earthquake hits, we get to meet the usual cross-section of humanity.  Charlton Heston is an architect who is married to Ava Gardner who is the daughter of Heston’s boss, who is played by an actor named Lorne Greene who appears to be younger than either Heston or Gardner.  Heston has a mistress who is played by Genevieve Bujold who is really pretty, sweet, and boring.  Gardner is none of these things but she is a foul-mouthed alcoholic who fakes suicide attempts so I was pretty much on her side as far as the whole love triangle is concerned.  After the Earthquake, Heston and Greene and a bunch of accident-prone extras are stuck in the ruins of sky scraper.  Heston grimaces a lot in this film but you know what?  Say what you will about Charlton Heston’s politics or his clenched-teeth acting style, the man knew how to wear an ascot.

While Heston is torn between Gardner and Bujold (a plot development that reportedly inspired the famous Sartre play No Exit), Richard Roundtree just wants to jump over stuff on his motorcycle.  That’s right — John Shaft is in this movie and we can dig it.  He’s a professional daredevil.  He’s also a surprisingly dull actor.  Who would have guessed that, without a theme song playing, Shaft would turn out to be so boring?  Still, there’s a really cool scene where Roundtree tries to ride his motorcycle through Los Angeles in the middle of the earthquake and the film is worth watching for his all-flare stunt daredevil costume if nothing else.  Plus, Roundtree’s playing a character named Miles here and I like that name.

There’s another subplot.  It involves George Kennedy as a blue-collar cop who does what he has to do to try to maintain the peace before and after the Earthquake.  Bleh.  I mean, Kennedy actually gives a pretty good performance and he’s probably the most likable character in the film but seriously — Bleh.

And finally, this collection of humanity is rounded out by an aspiring actress (played by actress Victoria Principal who, four years earlier, had made history by being the first woman to successfully seduce actor Anthony Perkins and no, I don’t want to go into how I know that) and the psychopathic grocery store manager who is obsessed with her.  The grocery store manager is played by former child evangelist and 70s exploitation icon Marjoe Gortner.  Much as in the later film Starcrash, Gortner projects a remarkably unlikable vibe that works well for his character.  He also has a really bad perm and a mustache and his performance is so sublimely bad that it’s actually pretty good.  As for Principal, her character here is apparently the owner of 1974’s most ginormous afro and, like most women in the 70s, really should have considered wearing a bra.  It’s hard to really judge Principal’s performance because any time she’s on-screen, you just start thinking, “Oh my God, she had sex with Norman Bates but somehow, she thinks she’s too good for Marjoe Gortner?” 

These are the characters that we follow as Los Angeles is destroyed on-screen.  None of them are really much more than cardboard cut outs but there’s something oddly comforting about how shallow and predictable they all are.  Add to that, most of them end up dead so if you do dislike them, you’ll find a lot to enjoy.  You’ll especially enjoy the film’s final few moments unless, like me, you can’t swim and you’re terrified of drowning.  If you’re like me, that scene might give you nightmares. 

Flawed as it may be, I still have to recommend this movie as 1) a time capsule and 2) as a quintessential piece of American camp.  Every line of dialogue, every performance, every image, and every scene in Earthquake simply screams 1974.   I guess the best way to look at Earthquake is to think about it as if the movie’s a time machine.  You might not like where the machine takes you but you’re still going to get into the damn thing and, once you find yourself stuck in Iowa in the year 1835, you’ll find someway to force yourself to be entertained because otherwise, you’re just hanging out in Iowa in 1835.