Film Review: To Die For (dir by Gus Van Sant)


The 1995 satire, To Die For, is a very clever film about some seriously stupid people.

Of course, you could debate whether or not Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is actually dumb or not.  Suzanne may not know much about anything that isn’t on TV but she does have a natural understanding for what makes a good story.  She knows exactly the type of story that the public wants to hear and she does a good job of faking all of the right emotions.  As she proves throughout the course of the film, she’s also very good at convincing people to do stuff.  Whether it’s convincing the local television station to put her on the air as a weather person or convincing two teenagers to murder her husband, Suzanne always seems to get what she wants.

Of course, what Suzanne really wants is to be a celebrity.  She wants to be a star.  As she explains it, that’s the greatest thing about America.  Anyone can become a star if they just try hard enough and find the right angle.  If the film were made today, Suzanne would be a social media junkie.  Since the movie was made in 1995, she has to settle for talk shows and murder.

So maybe Suzanne isn’t that dumb but her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon) …. well, if we’re going to be honest, Larry’s more naive than dumb.  He’s the favored son of a big Italian family and it’s obviously never occurred to him that a woman would possibly want something more than just a husband and a lot of children.  He thinks it’s cute that Suzanne’s on TV but he’s also fully convinced that she’s going to eventually settle down and focus on starting a family.  It never occurs to him that his wife would be willing to sacrifice him on her way to stardom.

Of course, if you really want to talk about dumb, just check out the teenagers who Suzanne recruits to kill her husband.  They’ve been appearing in a documentary that Suzanne’s been shooting.  The documentary’s title is “Teens Speak Out,” which is something of an ironic title since none of the teens that Suzanne interviews really has anything to say.  Lydia (Allison Folland) is just happy that the “glamorous” Suzanne is pretending to care about her.  Russell (Casey Affleck) is the type of grinning perv who drops a pen just so he can try to get a peek up Suzanne’s skirt while he’s on the floor retrieving it.  And then there’s Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), with his flat voice and his blank stare.  Jimmy is briefly Suzanne’s lover before he ends up in prison for murdering her husband.  It doesn’t take much to convince Jimmy to commit murder, either.  Apparently, all you have to do is dance to Lynard Skynard while it’s raining outside.  Media interviews with Lydia, Jimmy, Suzanne, and Larry’s sister (Ileana Douglas) are sprinkled throughout the film and Jimmy continues to insist that he will always love Suzanne.

As for Suzanne, she’s got stardom to worry about….

Though the subject matter is a bit familiar and the film, made before the age of Twitter and Instagram, is a bit dated, To Die For‘s satire still carries a powerful bite.  One need only watch A&E or the Crime and Investigation network to see that Suzanne was absolutely correct when she decided that killing her husband would make her a star.  If To Die For were made today, you could easily imagine Suzanne leveraging her infamy into an appearance on Dancing With The Stars and maybe Celebrity Big Brother.  At the very least. she could get her own house hunting show on HGTV.  Delivering her often sociopathic dialogue with a perky smile and a positive attitude, Nicole Kidman is absolutely chilling as Suzanne.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix’s blank stare will continue to haunt you long after the film ends.

And speaking of endings, To Die For has a great one.  You’ll never hear Season of the Witch the same way again!

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: The Terminal Man (dir by Mike Hodges)


Check out the poster for 1974’s The Terminal Man.

Look at it carefully.  Examine it.  Try to ignore the fact that it’s weird that George Segal was once a film star.  Yes, on the poster, Segal has been drawn to have a somewhat strange look on his face.  Ignore that.  Instead, concentrate on the words in the top left corner of the poster.

“ADULT ENTERTAINMENT!” it reads.

That’s actually quite an accurate description.  The Terminal Man is definitely a film for adults.  No, it’s not pornographic or anything like that.  Instead, it’s a movie about “grown up” concerns.  It’s a mature film.  In some ways, that’s a good thing.  In some ways, that’s a bad thing.

Taking place in the near future (and based on a novel by Michael Crichton), The Terminal Man tells the story of Harry Benson (played, of course, by George Segal).  Harry is an extremely intelligent computer programmer and he’s losing his mind.  It might be because he was in a serious car accident.  It may have even started before that.  Harry has black outs and when he wakes up, he discovers that he’s done violent things.  Even when he’s not blacked out, Harry worries that computers are going to rise up against humans and take over the world.

However, a group of scientists think that they have a way to “fix” Harry.  It’ll require a lot of brain surgery, of course.  (And, this being a film from 1973, the film goes into excruciating details as it explains what’s going to be done to Harry.)  The plan is to implant an electrode in Harry’s brain.  Whenever Harry starts to have a seizure, the electrode will shock him out of it.  The theory is that, much like Alex in A Clockwork Orange 0r Gerard Malanga in Vinyl, Harry will be rendered incapable of violence.

Of course, some people are more enthusiastic about this plan than others.  Harry’s psychiatrist (Joan Hackett) fears that implanting an electrode in Harry’s brain will just make him even more paranoid about the rise of the computers.  Other scientists worry about the ethics of using technology to modify someone’s behavior.  Whatever happens, will it be worth the price of Harry’s free will?

But, regardless of the risks, Harry goes through with the operation.

Does it work?  Well, if it worked, it would be a pretty boring movie so, of course, it doesn’t work.  (Allowing Harry’s operation to work would have been like allowing King Kong to enjoy his trip to New York.)  Harry’s brain becomes addicted to the electrical shocks and, as he starts to have more and more seizures, Harry becomes even more dangerous than he was before…

The Terminal Man is a thought-provoking but rather somber film.  On the one hand, it’s a rather slow movie.  The movie does eventually get exciting after Harry comes out of surgery but it literally takes forever to get there.  The movie seems to be really determined to convince the audience that the story it’s telling is scientifically plausible.  On the other hand, The Terminal Man does deal with very real and very important issues.  Considering how threatened society is by people who cannot be controlled, issues of behavior modification and free thought will always be relevant.

Though the film may be slow, I actually really liked The Terminal Man.  Judging from some of the other reviews that I’ve read, I may be alone in that.  It appears to be a seriously underrated film.  As directed by Mike Hodges, the film is visually stunning, emphasizing the sterility of the white-walled hospital, the gray blandness of the doctors, and the colorful vibrancy of life outside of science.  Though he initially seems miscast, George Segal gives a good and menacing performance as Harry.

The Terminal Man requires some patience but it’s worth it.

A Movie A Day #167: Stick (1985, directed by Burt Reynolds)


Stick (Burt Reynolds) is a veteran car thief who has just gotten out of prison.  No sooner has Stick arrived home in Florida then he accompanies his friend, Rainy (Jose Perez), on a drug deal that goes bad.  When Rainy is killed, Stick goes into hiding.  He manages to get a stable job, working as a chauffeur for an eccentric millionaire (George Segal).  He gets a new girlfriend (Candice Bergen) and starts to bond with his teenage daughter (Tricia Leigh Fisher).  Stick wants to go straight but, before he can, he knows that he has to confront the men who murdered Rainy.

Stick starts out strong.  The first half of the film finds Burt, who was often as underrated as a director as he was as an actor, in pure Sharky’s Machine mode, mixing the steamy Florida atmosphere with quirky character comedy and hardboiled action.  Adapting his own novel, Elmore Leonard wrote the screenplay and Stick seems like a classic Leonard hero, a criminal with his own moral code.  

But then Stick falls apart during the second half and it becomes obvious why both Reynolds and Leonard often cited this film as being one of the biggest disappointments of their careers.  Universal Studios disliked Burt’s first cut of the film and brought in a second screenwriter, who beefed up the action scenes and added the subplot with Stick’s teenage daughter.  Reynolds reshot the second half of the movie, no longer playing Stick as a tough criminal but instead as another variation on the Bandit.  The end result is a very disjointed movie, with Burt looking bored.

It does not help that the movie’s main villain is played by Charles Durning, who wears an orange fright wig and several Hawaiian shirts.  Durning was an actor who gave many great performances but never was he as miscast as when he played a drug dealer in Stick.

Roger Corman’s Bloody Valentine: THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (20th Century-Fox 1967)


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Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later,  Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!

We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Longest Day (dir by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki, Gerd Oswald, and Darryl F. Zanuck)


As my sister has already pointed out, today is the 73rd anniversary of D-Day.  With that in mind, and as a part of my ongoing mission to see and review every single film ever nominated for best picture, I decided to watch the 1962 film, The Longest Day!

The Longest Day is a pain-staking and meticulous recreation of invasion of Normandy, much of it filmed on location.  It was reportedly something of a dream project for the head of the 20th Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck set out to make both the ultimate tribute to the Allied forces and the greatest war movie ever.  Based on a best seller, The Longest Day has five credited screenwriters and three credited directors.  (Ken Annakin was credited with “British and French exteriors,” Andrew Marton did “American exteriors,” and the German scenes were credited to Bernhard Wicki.  Oddly, Gerd Oswald was not credited for his work on the parachuting scenes, even though those were some of the strongest scenes in the film.)  Even though he was not credited as either a screenwriter or a director, it is generally agreed that the film ultimately reflected the vision of Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck not only rewrote the script but he also directed a few scenes as well.  The film had a budget of 7.75 million dollars, which was a huge amount in 1962.  (Until Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, The Longest Day was the most expensive black-and-white film ever made.)  Not only did the film tell an epic story, but it also had an epic length.  Clocking in at 3 hours, The Longest Day was also one of the longest movies to ever be nominated for best picture.

The Longest Day also had an epic cast.  Zanuck assembled an all-star cast for his recreation of D-Day.  If you’re like me and you love watching old movies on TCM, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces go rushing by during the course of The Longest Day.  American generals were played by actors like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne.  Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of the President of the United States, had a memorable role as the Scottish Lord Lovat, who marched through D-Day to the sounds of bagpipes.  When the Allied troops storm the beach, everyone from Roddy McDowall to Sal Mineo to Robert Wagner to singer Paul Anka can be seen dodging bullets.  Sean Connery pops up, speaking in his Scottish accent and providing comic relief.  When a group of paratroopers parachute into an occupied village, comedian Red Buttons ends up hanging from the steeple of a church.  When Richard Beymer (who is currently playing Ben Horne on Twin Peaks) gets separated from his squad, he stumbles across Richard Burton.  Among those representing the French are Arletty and Christian Marquand.  (Ironically, after World War II, Arletty was convicted of collaborating with the Germans and spent 18 months under house arrest.  Her crime was having a romantic relationship with a German soldier.  It is said that, in response to the charges, Arletty said, “My heart is French but my ass is international.”)  Meanwhile, among the Germans, one can find three future Bond villains: Gert Frobe, Curt Jurgens, and Walter Gotell.

It’s a big film and, to be honest, it’s too big.  It’s hard to keep track of everyone and, even though the battle scenes are probably about an intense as one could get away with in 1962 (though it’s nowhere near as effective as the famous opening of Saving Private Ryan, I still felt bad when Jeffrey Hunter and Eddie Albert were gunned down), their effectiveness is compromised by the film’s all-star approach.  Often times, the action threatens to come to a halt so that everyone can get their close-up.  Unfortunately, most of those famous faces don’t really get much of a chance to make an impression.  Even as the battle rages, you keep getting distracted by questions like, “Was that guy famous or was he just an extra?”

Among the big stars, most of them play to their personas.  John Wayne, for instance, may have been cast as General Benjamin Vandervoort but there’s never any doubt that he’s playing John Wayne.  When he tells his troops to “send them to Hell,” it’s not Vandervoort giving orders.  It’s John Wayne representing America.  Henry Fonda may be identified as being General Theodore Roosevelt II but, ultimately, you react to him because he’s Henry Fonda, a symbol of middle-American decency.  Neither Wayne nor Fonda gives a bad performance but you never forget that you’re watching Fonda and Wayne.

Throughout this huge film, there are bits and pieces that work so well that you wish the film had just concentrated on them as opposed to trying to tell every single story that occurred during D-Day.  I liked Robert Mitchum as a tough but caring general who, in the midst of battle, gives a speech that inspires his troops to keep fighting.  The scenes of Peter Lawford marching with a bagpiper at his side were nicely surreal.  Finally, there’s Richard Beymer, wandering around the French countryside and going through the entire day without firing his gun once.  Beymer gets the best line of the film when he says, “I wonder if we won.”  It’s such a modest line but it’s probably the most powerful line in the film.  I wish The Longest Day had more scenes like that.

The Longest Day was nominated for best picture of 1962 but it lost to an even longer film, Lawrence of Arabia.

Back to School Part II #18: Not My Kid (dir by Michael Tuchner)


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Not My Kid, a made-for-television from 1985, opens with 15 year-old Susan Bower (Viveka Davis) in a car with her friends.  They’re drunk.  They’re stoned.  They’re laughing.  And soon, they’re screaming as the driver loses control and the car ends up getting overturned!  (I’ve had that happen before.  It wasn’t fun but I survived with only a few cuts and bruises.)  Susan isn’t seriously hurt but, at the hospital, it’s discovered that she has alcohol and drugs in her bloodstream.

“NOT MY KID!” her father, surgeon Frank Bower (George Segal), declares.

“NOT MY KID!” her mother, Helen Bower (Stockard Channing, totally wasted in a thinly written role), agrees.

“Totally your kid!” her younger sister, Kelly (Christa Denton), says before then revealing where Susan hides her drugs.  This leads to Kelly getting beaten up by Susan and her drug addict boyfriend, Ricky (Tate Fuckin’ Donavon, decades before playing a hostage in Argo.).

Anyway, neither Frank nor Helen want to admit that Susan has a drug problem so instead, they go to see a smug family counselor who tells them that they are both being too hard on their daughter and that they need to just let Susan be Susan.  That sounds like a good (and easy) plan but then Susan runs away and disappears for two days.  After she’s finally found, stoned and hiding out in the family’s boat, her parents finally decide to send her to rehab.

The rehab is run by Dr. Royce.  Dr. Royce is played by Andrew Robinson and it took me a while to recognize him as being the same actor who played the Scorpio Killer in Dirty Harry.  Perhaps that explains why Dr. Royce came across as being such a creepy character.  As I watched this movie, I kept waiting for the big reveal where Dr. Royce would turn out to be a murderer or something.  That never happened, of course.  In the world of Not My Kid, the harsh and confrontational Dr. Royce is the only thing keeping the entire teenage population for shooting up heroin.

The majority of the film takes place at the rehab and it gets annoying pretty quickly.  This is one of those places where everything is done as a group activity.  Whenever someone says something, everyone in the group replies with, “We love you, so-and-so.”  When Susan doesn’t act properly ashamed of herself, the group gangs up on her.  “You’re a phony!” someone says.  “You’re full of crap!” another person adds.  “We love you, Susan,” the group chants.

AGCK!  Seriously, the rehab scenes totally freaked me out because it came across less like therapy and more like brainwashing.  I spent the entire movie waiting for Susan to escape and when she did, I was happy for her.  She may have been a self-destructive drug addict but at least wasn’t a mindless zombie like everyone else in the movie!  But then she ended up getting caught by her father and taken back to the rehab.

Meanwhile, her parents are going through therapy as well.  Again, it’s all group therapy.  When Frank tries to talk about how Susan’s behavior makes him feel, someone says, “You’re a phony!’  Another person adds, “You’re full of crap!”  And the group chants, “We love you, Frank.”  Okay, to be honest, I’m taking some dramatic license with the dialogue here but hopefully, you get the general idea.

I mean, seriously — I understand that I was supposed to be like, “Yay rehab!” while watching the movie but the rehab came across more like some sort of creepy cult.  It reminded me of both a Canadian film called, Ticket To Heaven and a Texas film called Split Image.  As I watched Not My Kid, I kept waiting for James Woods to show up as a cult deprogrammer.

Anyway, don’t worry.  Everything turns out well in the end.  This was a made-for-TV movie, after all.  Not My Kid is way too heavy-handed for its own good and it lacks a certain self-awareness.  On a more positive note, George Segal does a good job in the role of Frank.

You can watch Not My Kid below!

Embracing the Melodrama #20: Ship of Fools (dir by Stanley Kramer)


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The 1965 best picture nominee Ship of Fools follows a group of passengers as they take a cruise.  The year is 1933 and the luxury liner, which has just left Mexico, is heading for Nazi Germany.  Both the passengers and the crew represent a microcosm of a world that doesn’t realize it’s on the verge of war.

There’s Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn), a dwarf who has the ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience about all of the fools that have found themselves on this ship.  He alone seems to understand what the future holds.

There’s Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle who spends almost the entire cruise flirting with the crew and other passengers, desperate to recapture her fading youth.  That also seems to be the main goal of Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin), an unsophisticated former baseball player who spends most of the cruise brooding about his failed career.

There’s the Countess (Simone Signoret), a political prisoner who is being transported to an island prison.  She falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner).  The doctor’s dueling scar suggests that he is a member of the old aristocracy and he is literally the film’s only good German.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also in the process of dying from a heart condition.

And then there’s David (George Segal) and his girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley).  David is a frustrated and depressed painter while Jenny is far more determined to enjoy life, which should be pretty easy because the boat is also full of performers and dancers.

Finally, there’s the buffoonish Rieber (Jose Ferrer), a German industrialist whose dinner table talk hints at the horrors that are soon to come.

Ship of Fools is a big, long film in which a large cast of stars deal with big issues in the safest way possible.  In short, it’s a Stanley Kramer film.  As one can tell from watching some of the other films that he directed (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and R.P.M.), Stanley Kramer made films that were often easier to admire than to actually enjoy.  As the critic Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and he retained the sensibility of a producer even after he stared directing.  As such, his films would address issues that were certain to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, he would never run the risk of alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues.  His films would have the type of all-star casts that would, again, bring in an audience but Kramer rarely seemed to give thought as to whether or not an all-star cast would distract from the film’s message.  Finally, unlike the truly great directors, Kramer never really figured out how to tell a story with images.  As a result, his movies were often full of characters whose sole purpose was to explain the film’s themes.

Does that mean that Stanley Kramer never made a good film?  No, not at all.  Judgment at Nuremberg remains powerful and R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure of mine.  Kramer was usually smart enough to work with talented professionals and, as a result, his films were rarely truly bad.  Some of them even have isolated moments of greatness.  It’s just that his films were rarely memorable and truly innovative and, therefore, they are easy for us to dismiss, especially when compared to some of the other films that were being made at the same time.

With all that in mind and for reasons both good and bad, Ship of Fools is perhaps the most Stanley-Kramerish of all the Stanley Kramer films that I’ve seen.  The film was apparently quite acclaimed and popular when it was originally released in 1965 but watched today, it’s an occasionally watchable relic of a bygone age.  How you react to Ship of Fools today will probably depend on whether or not you’re an admirer of any of the actors in large cast.  For the most part, all of them do a good job though you can tell that, as a director, Kramer struggled with how to make their multiple storylines flow naturally into an overall theme.  Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin give the two most entertaining performances and Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderfully hissable villain.  Oddly enough, I find myself most responding to the characters played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley.  I’m not sure why — their storyline is rather predictable.  Maybe it was just because Elizabeth Ashley’s character goes wild and starts dancing at one point.  That’s what I would do if I found myself stuck on a boat with a tortured painted.

(What is especially interesting is that neither Oskar Werner or Simone Signoret are particularly memorable and yet they both received Oscar nominations.  Perhaps 1965 was a weak year for acting.)

In the end, Ship of Fools is a movie that will be best appreciated by those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM and take a special delight in spotting all of the wonderful actors that, though they may no longer be with us, have at least had their talent preserved on film.  Ship of Fools may not be a great film but it does feature Vivien Leigh doing an impromptu and joyful solo dance in a hallway and how can you not appreciate that?

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