Scenes That I Love: The Viola Lee Blues Montage from Richard Lester’s Petulia


Who, you may be asking yourself, could have brought George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and the Grateful Dead all together in one movie?

The answer to that question is Richard Lester, who today celebrates his 91st birthday!  Though Lester is best-known for his work with the Beatles and with the Superman films, I think his best film was undoubtedly 1968’s Petulia.  A sharp social satire, Petulia took a look at what happened when the counter culture and the establishment collided in San Francisco.  And there’s perhaps no better symbol of that collision than George C. Scott, wearing a turtleneck and smoking cigarette while attending a Grateful Dead show.

While the band plays Viola Lee Blues, Scott wanders through 1960s San Francisco.

Scenes I Love: The Cross-Examination From Anatomy of a Murder


Since today is Otto Preminger’s birthday, I figured that this would be a good time to share a scene that I love from one of my favorite movies, Preminger’s 1959 film, Anatomy of a Murder.

In this scene, prosecutor Claude Dancer (played, in one of his first screen roles, by George C. Scott) cross-examined Laura Manion (Lee Remick), the wife of a man who has been accused of murder.  Playing the role of the defense attorney is James Stewart.  This scene is a master-class in great acting.  Preminger could be a bit of an inconsistent director but his willingness to take on controversial subjects set him apart from many of his contemporaries.  When he had the right material, as he did here, he could create the perfect mix of melodrama and art.  Preminger’s best films, like Anatomy of a Murder, stand the test of time.

Insomnia File #48: Malice (dir by Harold Becker)


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

If you were having trouble getting to sleep last night around 12 midnight, you could have turned over to the Cinemax and watched the 1993 thriller, Malice.  And then you could have spent the next few hours trying to figure out what you just watched.

Seriously, there’s a lot going on in Malice.  The screenplay is credited to Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank and while it has enough overly arch dialogue and untrustworthy women to plainly identify it as being a product of Sorkin’s imagination, it’s also filled with a mini-series worth of incidents and subplots and random characters.  This is also one of those films where no one can simply answer a question with a “yes” or a “no.”  Instead, it’s one of those movies where everyone gets a monologue, giving the proceedings a rather theatrical feel.  It’s the type of thing that David Mamet could have pulled off.  (Check out The Spanish Prisoner for proof.)  Harold Becker, however, was a far more conventionally-minded director and he often seems to be at a loss with what to do with all of the film’s Sorkinisms (and, to be fair, Frankisms as well).

The film starts out as a thriller, with a serial rapist stalking a college campus and Prof. Andy Safian (Bill Pullman) becoming an unlikely suspect.  Then it turns into a domestic drama as Andy and his wife, Tracy (Nicole Kidman), talk about starting a family.  Then Andy meets a brilliant surgeon named Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin) and the film turns into a roommate from Hell story after Jed moves in with them.  Then it becomes a medical drama after a mistake by Dr. Hill leaves Tracy unable to have children.  Then it returns briefly to the campus rapist story before then turning into a modern-day noir as Andy discovers that Tracy has secrets of her own.  (Whenever one watches a film written by Aaron Sorkin, you can practically hear him whispering, “Women are not to be trusted….” in the background.)  Even as you try to keep up with the plot, you find yourself distracted by all of the cameos.   George C. Scott glowers as Jed’s mentor.  Anne Bancroft acts the Hell out of her role as a drunken con artist.  Peter Gallagher is the lawyer you distrust because he’s Peter Gallagher.  Tobin Bell shows up as a handyman.  Gwynneth Paltrow, in one of her first roles, plays dead convincingly

It’s a big and busy and messy film and it too often mistakes being complicated for being clever.  Bill Pullman is a likable hero but you have to be willing to overlook that the script requires him to do some truly stupid things.  Nicole Kidman is always well-cast as a femme fatale but again, the script often lets her down.

Surprisingly enough, it’s Alec Baldwin who comes out of the film unscathed.  Watching Baldwin in this film, it’s hard to believe that he’s the same actor who has since become something of a bloated self-parody.  Yes, he’s playing an arrogant character (which is pretty much his trademark) but, in Malice, he actually brings a hint of subtlety and wit to his performance.  Baldwin does very little bellowing in the film, despite playing a role that one would think would naturally appeal to all of his bellowing instincts.  Malice is a mess but it’s nice to see the type of actor that Alec Baldwin once was.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure
  40. The Spanish Prisoner
  41. Elektra
  42. Revenge
  43. Legend
  44. Cat Run
  45. The Pyramid
  46. Enter the Ninja
  47. Downhill

Rage (1972, directed by George C. Scott)


Wyoming sheep rancher Dan Logan (George C. Scott) and his teenage son, Chris (Nicolas Beauvy), spend a night camping out on their land.  While Dan stays in the tent, Chris decides to sleep outside, underneath the stars.  The next morning, Dan leaves the tent to discover that all of his sheep are dead and that Chris is having violent convulsions.  Dan rushes his son to the local hospital, where he hopes that the family’s longtime physician, Dr. Caldwell (Richard Basehart), can save his son’s life.

However, at the hospital, Dan is separated from his son.  Two doctors that he’s never met before — Dr. Spencer (Barnard Hughes) and Major Holliford (Martin Sheen) — take over his case.  They tell him that Chris was probably just exposed to an insecticide and that both Dan and his son are going to have to stay at the hospital for a few days.  Dan is confined to his room and not allowed to see his son.

What Dan doesn’t know is that both he and his son have been unwittingly exposed to a secret army nerve gas.  Though the experiment was only meant to be performed on the animals that were grazing on Dan’s land, Dan and Chris were accidentally sprayed.  When Dan discovers the truth about what’s been done to him and his son, he sets out to try to get revenge with what little time he has left.

Fresh from refusing an Oscar for Patton, George C. Scott made his feature film directorial debut with Rage.  (He had previously directed The Andersonville Trial for television.)  As a director, Scott sometimes struggles.  Rage is so relentlessly grim and serious that even the most experienced director would have had a difficult time making it compelling.  The scenes in the hospital are effective claustrophobic but they’re also often dramatically inert.  The only humor in the film comes from Scott’s overuse of slow motion.  When even simple scenes, like throwing coffee on a campfire, are shown in slow motion, it goes from being ominous to unintentionally humorous.

As a director, Scott did make a very wise decision by casting himself in the lead role.  No one was better at portraying pure, incandescent anger than George C. Scott and the film picks up once Dan discovers what’s been done to himself and his son.  Once Dan sets off to get revenge, Rage becomes an entirely different film, one that is about both a father’s anger and the cold calculation of a government that views him as just as a subject to be tested upon.  The final scene is especially effective and suggests that Scott could have become an interesting director if he had stuck with it.

Scott would direct one more film, The Savage Is Loose, before devoting the rest of his distinguished career to performing.

Horror Scenes That I Love: After The Changeling’s seance….


So, last night, at the TSL offices, Jeff, Leonard, Case, and I watched Insidious!  It was an enjoyable experience.  I think we were all surprised to discover just how well Insidious holds up.  When the film reached the seance scene, in which the ghosts were asked questions and a possessed Lin Shaye would write out their answers, I said, “This scene reminds me of the seance scene from The Changeling!

And then I thought to myself, “That should be our next horror scene that I love!”

So, I went to YouTube and I searched for the classic (and really scary) seance scene from Peter Medak’s great 1980 ghost story, The Changeling.  And guess what?  I couldn’t find it!  I found a lot of scenes from The Changeling and I found a lot of people talking about how much they love the seance scene but I couldn’t find the scene itself!

So, here’s the best I could do.  This scene that I love takes place immediately after the seance and features George C. Scott listening and re-listening to a tape of the seance until he can finally hear the voice of the child who, years before, was murdered in his house.

Even if it’s not the seance scene, it’s still pretty good.  I personally consider this to be one of George C. Scott’s best performances.  And the sound of the little boy’s voice on the tape is chilling.

The Changeling is really good, by the way.  You should watch it, if you haven’t already!

Horror Film Review: Firestarter (dir by Mark L. Lester)


Adapted from Stephen King novel, 1984’s Firestarter is a film about a girl with a very special power.

Back in the day, a bunch of college students needed weed money so they took part in a government experiment.  Half of them were told that they were being given a placebo.  The other half were told that we would be given a low-grade hallucinogen.

Surprise!  The government lied!  It turns out that everyone was given the experimental drug!  Some of the students ended up going crazy.  One unfortunate hippie clawed his eyes out.  Meanwhile, Vicky (Heather Locklear) gained the ability to read minds.  She also fell in love with Andy McGee (David Keith), a goofy fellow who gained the ability to mentally control people’s actions.  They married and had a daughter named Charlie (played by a very young Drew Barrymore).  Charlie, it turns out, can set things on fire!  She’s a firestarter!

Well, of course, the government can’t just leave the McGees out there, controlling minds and setting things on fire.  Soon, the McGees are being pursued by the standard collection of men in dark suits.  Vicky is killed off-screen, leaving Charlie and Andy to try to find some place where they’ll be safe.

Good luck with that!  This is the government that we’re talking about.  The thing with films like this is that the government can do practically anything but it never occurs to them to not all dress in dark suits.  I mean, it just seems like it would be easier for all of these secret agents to operate if they weren’t automatically identifiable as being secret agents.  Anyway, Andy and Charlie are eventually captured and taken to The Farm, a really nice country estate where Andy and Charlie are kept separate from each other and everyone keeps talking about national security.

Running the Farm is Capt. Hollister and we know that he’s a bad guy because he wears a suit and he’s played by Martin Sheen.  Working with Hollister is John Rainbird (George C. Scott), a CIA assassin who kills people with a karate chop across the nose.  When Charlie refuses to show off her firemaking abilities unless she’s allowed to talk to her father, Rainbird disguises himself as a custodial engineer and proceeds to befriend Charlie.  Of course, Rainbird’s plan is to kill Charlie once she’s displayed the extent of her powers….

Stephen King has written that he considers this film to be one of the worst adaptations of one of his novels but, to be honest, I think the movie is actually a bit of an improvement on the source material.  Firestarter is probably the least interesting of Stephen King’s early novels.  Supposedly, Charlie was based on King’s youngest daughter and, reading the book, it’s obvious that everyone’s fear of Charlie is mostly a metaphor for a father trying to figure out how to raise a daughter.  Unfortunately, instead of concentrating on those primal fears, the book gets bogged down in boomer paranoia about MK-ULTRA experiments.

The movie, however, is just silly enough to be kind of charming.  For example, consider the way that Andy grabs his forehead and bugs out his eyes whenever he uses his powers.  Andy’s powers may be slowly killing him but he just looks so goofy whenever he uses them that you just can’t help but be entertained.  And then you’ve got Drew Barrymore sobbing while setting people on fire and George C. Scott growling through all of his dialogue and even Martin Sheen gets a scene where he gets excited and starts jumping up and down.  (And don’t even get me started on Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as the salt-of-the-Earth farmers who try to protect Andy and Charlie….)  Some of the special effects are a bit hokey, as you might expect from a film made in 1984 but occasionally, there’s a good shot of something (or someone) burning up.  It’s all so over-the-top and relentlessly dumb that you can’t help but be entertained.  You can even forgive the fact that basically nothing happens between the first 10 and the last 15 minutes of the movie.

Firestarter‘s silly but I liked it.

Catching-Up With Two Courtroom Dramas: Suspect and 12 Angry Men


As a part of my continuing effort to get caught up with reviewing all of the movies that I’ve seen this year, here’s two courtroom dramas that I recently caught on This TV.

  • Suspect
  • Released in 1987
  • Directed by Peter Yates
  • Starring Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson, John Mahoney, Joe Mantegna, Philip Bosco, Fred Melamed, Bernie McInerney, Bill Cobbs, Richard Gant, Jim Walton, Michael Beach, Ralph Cosham, Djanet Sears 

Suspect is a hilariously dumb movie.  How dumb is it?  Let me count the ways.

First off, Cher plays a highly successful if rather stressed public defender.  And don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that Cher is a bad actress or anything.  She’s actually pretty good when she’s playing Cher.  But, in this movie, she’s playing someone who managed to graduate from law school and pass the DC bar.

Secondly, Cher is assigned to defend a homeless man when he’s accused of murdering a clerk who works for the Justice Department.  The homeless man is deaf and mute, which isn’t funny.  What is funny is when he gets a shave and a shower and he’s magically revealed to be a rather handsome and fresh-faced Liam Neeson.  Liam doesn’t give a bad performance in the role.  In fact, he probably gives the best performance in the film.  But still, it’s hard to escape the fact that he’s Liam Neeson and he basically looks like he just arrived for a weekend at Cannes.

Third, during the trial, one of the jurors (Dennis Quaid) decides to investigate the case on his own.  Cher even helps him do it, which is the type of thing that would get a real-life attorney disbarred.  However, I guess Cher thinks that it’s worth the risk.  I guess that’s the power of Dennis Quaid’s smile.

Fourth, the prosecuting attorney is played by Joe Mantegna and he gives such a good performance that you find yourself hoping that he wins the case.

Fifth, while it’s true that real-life attorneys are rarely as slick or well-dressed as they are portrayed in the movies, one would think that Cher would at least take off her leather jacket before cross-examining a witness.

Sixth, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the homeless man is innocent.  We know he’s innocent from the minute that we see he’s Liam Neeson.  Liam only kills who people deserve it.  The real murderer is revealed at the end of the film and it turns out to be the last person you would suspect, mostly because we haven’t been given any reason to suspect him.  The ending is less of a twist and more an extended middle finger to any viewer actually trying to solve the damn mystery.

I usually enjoy a good courtroom drama but bad courtroom dramas put me to sleep.  Guess which one Suspect was.

 

  • 12 Angry Men
  • Released 1997
  • Directed by John Frankenheimer
  • Starring Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, George C. Scott, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Jack Lemmon, Hume Cronyn, Mykelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos, William Petersen, Mary McDonnell, Tyrees Allen, Douglas Spain

The 12 Angry Men are back!

Well, no, not actually.  This is a remake of the classic 1957 film and it was produced for Showtime.  It’s updated in that not all of the jurors are white and bigoted Juror #10 (Mykelti Williamson) is now a member of the Nation of Islam.  Otherwise, it’s the same script, with Juror #8 (Jack Lemmon) trying to convince the other jurors not to send a young man to Death Row while Juror #3 (George C. Scott) deals with his family issues.

I really wanted to like this production, as it had a strong cast and a strong director and it was a remake of one of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, the remake just didn’t work for me.  As good an actor as Jack Lemmon was, he just didn’t project the same moral authority as Henry Fonda did the original.  If Fonda seemed to be the voice of truth and integrity, Lemmon just came across like an old man who had too much time on his hands.  Without Fonda’s moral certitude, 12 Angry Men simply becomes a story about how 12 men acquitted a boy of murder because they assumed that a woman would be too vain to wear her glasses to court.  The brilliance of the original is that it keeps you from dwelling on the fact that the accused was probably guilty.  The remake, however, feels like almost an argument for abandoning the jury system.

Dirty Boulevard: George C. Scott in HARDCORE (Columbia 1979)


cracked rear viewer

Cracked Rear Viewer: “Back in the day….”

Dear Readers: (groaning) “There he goes again. Another history lesson!”

CRV: “B-but it’s important to put things in their proper historical context!”

DRs: (sigh) “We guess you’re right. Sorry.”

CRV: (beaming) “No problem! Now, like I was saying…”

Back in the day, every major urban city, and many smaller sized ones, had what was known as a “Red Light District”, where sex workers plied their trade. These streets were loaded with sex shops, peep shows, massage parlors, strip joints, and Triple-X movie palaces, with hookers and drug dealers hawking their wares. New York City had its Times Square/42nd Street area, Boston had The Combat Zone near Chinatown, and Montreal the infamous St. Catherine Street. For Los Angeles, the action was on Sunset Boulevard, and it’s into this seedy milieu that writer/director Paul Schrader plunges George C. Scott in 1979’s HARDCORE, which isn’t about…

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A Movie A Day #232: Tyson (1995, directed by Uli Edel)


If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson.  In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.

In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall.  At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn.  The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield).  After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.

Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing.  Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison.  As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.  Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo.  All of that happened after Tyson aired.  Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style.  There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.

The best thing about Tyson is the cast.  Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen.  In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role.  Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger.  Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.

HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.

Criminally Underrated: George C. Scott in BANK SHOT (United Artists 1974)


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I’m a big fan of the novels and short stories of Edgar Award-winning writer Donald E. Westlake , named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America. His comic-laced crime capers featuring master planner Dortmunder were well suited for films and the first book in the series, THE HOT ROCK, was filmed by Peter Yates in 1972 with Robert Redford as the mastermind. Two years later came BANK SHOT, the second Dortmunder novel, starring George C. Scott but changing the character’s name to Walter Ballentine due to legal issues. Dortmunder or Ballentine, BANK SHOT is a zany film with a fine cast of actors that deserves another look.

Ballentine is doing life in Warden “Bulldog” Streiger’s maximum security prison, but when his shady “lawyer” and confidant Al G. Karp visits with an idea for a new “shot”, the hardened criminal makes his escape. Karp needs Ballentine’s expertise to plan the robbery of Mission Bell…

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