Parallel Lives (1994, directed by Linda Yellen)


A large group of people gather together one weekend for a fraternity/sorority reunion.  Since college, some of them have become rich and powerful.  Some of them are now famous.  Some of them are now seedy and disreputable.  They all have college memories, though there’s such a wide variety of age groups represented that it’s hard to believe that any of them actually went to college together.  After the men spend the day playing practical jokes and touch football and the women spend the night talking about their hopes and dreams, they wake up the next morning to discover the someone has murdered Treat Williams.  A pony-tailed sheriff (Robert Wagner) shows up to question everyone.

Parallel Lives was made for Showtime with the help of the Sundance Institute.  Today, it’s a forgotten film but, for some reason, it was very popular with American Airlines during the summer of 1997.  That summer, when I flew to the UK, Parallel Lives was one of the movies that we were shown.  (It was the second feature.  The first feature was Down Periscope, a submarine comedy starring Kelsey Grammar.  Fourteen year-old me enjoyed Down Periscope but, in retrospect, it wasn’t much of a flight.)  A month and a half later, when I flew back to the U.S., Parallel Lives was again one of the films shown on the flight!  For that reason, I may be the only person on the planet who has not forgotten that a film called Parallel Lives exists.

Parallel Lives, I later learned, was an entirely improvised film.  The huge cast were all given their characters and a brief outline of the film’s story and they were then allowed to come up with their own dialogue.  Unfortunately, no one did a very good job of it and the men were reduced to bro-ing it up while the women spent most of the movie having extended group therapy.  The story doesn’t add up too much and, even when I rewatched it from an adult’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of everyone talking about how different the real world was from college.  Technically, the film’s a murder mystery but you can’t improvise a successful murder mystery.  This film proves that point.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there are 26 characters, all trying to get a word in at the same time.  Some of the roles don’t make much sense.  Dudley Moore shows up, playing an imaginary friend.  (How do you improvise being a figment of someone’s imagination?)  James Brolin introduces himself to everyone as being, “Professor Doctor Spencer Jones” and that appears to be as far as he got with his improv.  Ben Gazzara is a gambler and Mira Sorvino is the prostitute that he brings to the reunion while Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, moons the camera several times.  Jack Klugman is a senator with Alzheimer’s and Patricia Wettig is his daughter.  The majority of the movie centers around Jim Belushi, playing a reporter and falling in love with JoBeth Williams.  Liza Minnelli, Helen Slater, Levar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Matthew Perry, Ally Sheedy, and Gena Rowlands all have small roles.  How did so many talented people come together to make such a forgettable movie and why did American Airlines decide it was the movie to show people on their way to another country?  That’s the true mystery of Parallel Lives.

30 Days of Noir #28: Time Table (dir by Mark Stevens)


Like many good crime films, this 1956 film noir opens on a train.

A passenger has suddenly been taken ill and his wife, Linda (Felecia Farr), wants to know if there’s  a doctor on board!  Fortunately, there is!  Dr. Paul Bucker (Wesley Addy) just happens to be on the train and it only takes him a few minutes to figure out that the man is suffering from polio.  Paul arranges for the train to make an unscheduled stop in the next town so that the man can be taken to the hospital.  Paul also asks to be allowed to go to the baggage car, so that he can retrieve his doctor’s bag.  Of course, he can!  Who is going to say no to doctor, especially in a situation this serious?

Paul goes back to the baggage area to claim his little black bag and that’s when something unexpected happens.  He opens up his bag and pulls out a gun.  It turns out that Paul is not only a doctor but he’s a thief as well.  After tying up everyone in the car and knocking them out with a sleeping drug, Paul proceeds to blow open a safe and steal all the money within.

When the train makes it unscheduled stop, Paul, the man, and Linda (who is actually Paul’s wife), disembark.  They get into an ambulance driven by the shady Frankie Page (Jack Klugman) and they head off.  It’s only after Paul’s escaped that the robbery is discovered.

With authorities baffled by the crime, insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens) is assigned to investigate the robbery with railroad policeman, Joe Armstrong (King Calder).  Despite the fact that Charlie has been promising to take a vacation with his wife (Marianne Stewart), Charlie takes the case.  Everyone knows that Charlie is one of the best in the business.  If anyone’s going to catch these criminals, it’s going to be Charlie!

Of course, Charlie has another reason for taking the case.  It turns out that Charlie’s the one who masterminded the entire robbery!  He’s the one who first met Paul while the alcoholic doctor was attempting to file a false claim.  It also turns out that Charlie has been having an affair with Linda and that Charlie’s planning on running off with her as soon as they take care of Paul.

Mark Stevens both directed and starred in Time Table and the end result is a well-made and genuinely exciting film noir, one that features all of the hard-boiled dialogue, shadowy interiors, and twisty complications that one could hope for from a good heist film.  Stevens not only keeps the action moving at a steady pace but he also keeps you guessing about whether our band of criminals are going to make it to Mexico or if they’re going to all fall victim to one betrayal too many.  The film is full of nice character turns, though the strongest performance comes from Wesley Addy, who brings a wounded dignity to his duplicitous character.

For fans of film noir, this is definitely one to watch.

Confessions of a TV Addict #10: Neil Simons’ Greatest Hit THE ODD COUPLE Will Endure


cracked rear viewer


When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .

The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working…

View original post 503 more words

A Movie A Day #33: Two-Minute Warning (1976, directed by Larry Peerce)


mpw-8771

For the longest time, I thought that Two-Minute Warning was a movie about a gang of art thieves who attempt to pull off a heist by hiring a sniper to shoot at empty seats at the Super Bowl.  As planned by a master criminal known as The Professor (Rossano Brazzi), the sniper will cause a riot and the police will be too busy trying to restore order to notice the robbery being committed at an art gallery that happens to be right next to the stadium.

I believed that because that was the version of Two-Minute Warning that would sometimes show up on television.  Whenever I saw the movie, I always through it was a strange plan, one that had too many obvious flaws for any halfway competent criminal mastermind to ignore them.  What if the sniper was captured before he got a chance to start shooting?  What if a riot didn’t break out?  The sniper spent the movie aiming at empty seats but, considering how many people were in the stadium, it was likely that he would accidentally shoot someone.  Were the paintings really worth the risk of a murder charge?

Even stranger was that Two-Minute Warning was not only a heist film but it was also a 1970s disaster film.  Spread out throughout the stadium were familiar character actors like Jack Klugman, John Cassevetes, David Janssen, Martin Balsam, Gena Rowlands, Walter Pidgeon, and Beau Bridges.  It seemed strange that, once the shots were fired and Brazzi’s men broke into the gallery, all of those familiar faces vanished.  When it comes to disaster movies, it is an ironclad rule that at least one B-list celebrity has to die.  It seemed strange that Two-Minute Warning, with all those characters, would feature a sniper shooting at only empty seats.  For that matter, why would there be empty seats at the Super Bowl?

That wasn’t the strangest thing about Two-Minute Warning, though.  The strangest thing was that Charlton Heston was in the film, playing a police captain.  In most of his scenes, he had dark hair.  But, in the scenes in which he talked about the art gallery, Heston’s hair was suddenly light brown.

Recently, I watched Two-Minute Warning on DVD and I was shocked to discover that the movie on the DVD had very little in common with the movie that I had seen on TV.  For instance, the television version started with the crooks discussing their plan to rob the gallery.  The DVD version opened with the sniper shooting at a couple in the park.  In the DVD version, there was no art heist.   The sniper had no motive and no personality.  He was just a random nut who opened fire on the Super Bowl.  And,  in the DVD version, he did not shoot at empty seats.  Several of the characters who survived in the version that I saw on TV did not survive in the version that I saw on DVD.

What happened?

The theatrical version of Two-Minute Warning was exactly what I saw on the DVD.  A nameless sniper opens fire and kills several people at the Super Bowl.  In 1978, when NBC purchased the television broadcast rights for Two-Minute Warning, they worried that it was too violent and too disturbing.  There was concern that, if the film was broadcast as it originally was, people would actually think there was a risk of some nut with a gun opening fire at a crowded event.  (In 1978, that was apparently considered to be implausible.)  So, 40 minutes of new footage was shot.  Charlton Heston even returned to film three new scenes, which explains his changing hair color.  The new version of Two-Minute Warning not only gave the sniper a motive (albeit one that did not make much sense) but it also took out all of the violent death scenes.

Having seen both versions of Two-Minute Warning, neither one is very good, though the theatrical version is at least more suspenseful than the television version.  (It turns out that it was better to give the sniper no motive than to saddle him with a completely implausible one.)  But, even in the theatrical version, the potential victims are too one-dimensional to really care about.  Ultimately, the most interesting thing about Two-Minute Warning is that, at one time, an art heist was considered more plausible than a mass shooting.

tmw

Film Review: The Split (1968, directed by Gordon Flemyng)


The Split2The Split is one of the many films to be based on one of Donald Westlake’s Parker novels.  A classic antihero, Parker was a ruthless professional criminal who was only partially redeemed by being so much better at his job than all the other lowlifes around him.  In the movies, Parker has been played by everyone from Lee Marvin to Robert Duvall to Mel Gibson to Jason Statham.  In The Split, Parker is renamed McClain and he is played by Jim Brown.

McClain and his partner, Gladys (Julie Harris), have a plan to rob the Los Angeles Coliseum during a football game.  (Actual footage of the Rams playing the Falcons was used.)  McClain personally recruits a crew of criminals to help him pull off the heist.  Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman) is the getaway driver.  Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine) is the muscle.  Marty Gough (Warren Oates) is the electronic expert.  Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland) is the sharpshooter.

After pulling off the robbery, McClain stashes the money with his ex-girlfriend, Ellie (Diahann Carroll).  When her landlord, Herb Sutro (James Whitmore), finds out that Ellie has the money, he murders her and steals it.  When homicide detective Walter Brill (Gene Hackman) solves Ellie’s murder, he kills Herb and takes the money for himself.  Meanwhile, Gladys and the crew are convinced that McClain knows where the money is.  With everyone out to kill him, McClain tries to find the money.

The Split is mostly interesting because of its cast.  For all of his physical presence, Jim Brown was never much of an actor but the large supporting cast more than makes up for his limitations.  It’s fun to watch Sutherland, Borgnine, Harris, and Klugman compete to see who can steal the most scenes.  Meanwhile, a youngish Gene Hackman is as cantankerous as ever.  Then there’s the great Warren Oates.  Warren Oates was one of the greatest actors of all time and he spent his far too brief career stealing movies like The Split.

(The Split was released a year after Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, and Donald Sutherland had all appeared in The Dirty Dozen.  A year after The Split, Warren Oates and Ernest Borgnine would both be members of The Wild Bunch while Hackman and Brown would costar in Riot.)

The Split has some historical significance as the first film to ever be given an R rating.  Though tame by today’s standards, at the time of its release, The Split was considered to be extremely violent and audiences were also shocked by a brief flash of nudity.  Seen today, The Split is a conventional heist movie but it still shows what a group of good actors can do with so-so material.

The Split

12 Reasons To Love 12 Angry Men


Everyone already knows that the 1957 Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men is a classic.  We all know the film’s story — a teenage boy is on trial for murdering his family.  11 jurors want to convict.  1 juror doesn’t.  Over the next few hours, that one juror tries to change 11 minds.  Some of the jurors are prejudiced, some of them are bored, and some of them just want to go home.  And, as the film reminds us, all 12 of them have a huge  responsibility.  You don’t need me to tell you that this is a great movie.  Therefore, consider this to be less of a review and more of an appreciation of one of the best movies ever made.

1) The film is the feature debut of director Sidney Lumet.  As any student of American film can tell you, Sidney Lumet was one of the most important directors in the history of cinema.  After beginning his career in television, Lumet made his film directing debut with 12 Angry Men and he was rewarded with a much deserved Oscar nomination for best director.

2) The film’s story is actually a lot more complex than you might think.  12 Angry Men is such an influential film and its story has been imitated so many times that it’s easy to forget that the film’s plot is a lot more nuanced than you might think.  Despite what many people seem to think, Juror Number 8 never argues that the defendant is innocent.  Instead, he argues that the state has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, the defendant cannot be convicted.  That’s an important lesson that is too often forgotten.

3) The movie celebrates the power of one person determined to do the right thing.  Again, that’s a lesson that remains very relevant today.

4) As Juror Number Eight, Henry Fonda makes human decency believable.

5) As the angry and bullying Juror Number Three, Lee J. Cobb is the perfect antagonist.

6) As Juror Number Ten, Ed Begley makes Cobb seem almost reasonable.  To be honest, the scene where Begley’s racist ranting causes all of the other jurors to stand up and turn their back on him feels a bit too theatrical.  But it’s still undeniably effective.  Alone among the jurors, Juror Number Ten is the only one without any hope of redemption.  It’s a bit of a thankless role but Begley does what he has to do to make the character believable.

7) E.G. Marshall makes the wealthy Juror Number Four into a worthy opponent of Fonda without crossing the line into prejudice like Cobb and Begley.  In many ways, Marshall’s role is almost as important as Fonda’s because Marshall’s performance reminds us that not all disagreements are the product of ignorance or anger.

8) As the Jury Foreman, Martin Balsam is the epitome of every ineffectual authority figure.

9) As Juror Number Seven, Jack Warden is hilariously sleazy.

10) As Juror Number Nine, Joseph Sweeney grows on you.  The first time I saw the film I thought that Sweeney went a bit overboard but, on more recent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Sweeney’s performance.

11) As Juror Number Twelve, Robert Webber is hilariously shallow.  Juror Number Twelve is in advertising and Webber seems like he was right at home on Mad Men.

12)  Though they don’t get as much of a chance to make an impression, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, and George Voskovec all do good work as the other jurors.  If there’s ever been a film that proves the value of a great ensemble, it’s 12 Angry Men.

Scenes I Love: 12 Angry Men


With the recent passing of filmmaker Sidney Lumet I’ve gone through some of the films of his I’ve come to see as favorites of mine. One film which always came to the forefront whenever I spoke about Lumet as a filmmaker is his directorial film debut in 1957 with his adaptation of 12 Angry Men. Of all his films this is the one which I always go back to time and time again. Part of me is somewhat biased in regards to this film since I was part of a class reading of the original teleplay and played the role of Juror #3.

The scene in the film which I love the most has to be when Juror #8 (played with calm assurance by Henry Fonda) and Juror #3 (played with seething rage by Lee J. Cobb) finally get into it after a very long deliberation in trying to find a consensus on the guilt or innocence of the defendant in their case. I love how in this scene everything that’s right about the American jury system was being upheld by Juror #8. How the guilt or innocence of the defendant should come down to just the facts of the case and combing through all the testimony. How emotions and personal feelings and bias should never enter the equation. It is a person’s life in their hands and it is a responsibility too great to leave it to emotions to find the verdict.

This scene also shows the darker side of the American jury system in that there will be, at times, people chosen to preside as a juror in a case will come in with emotional baggage and a hidden agenda which clouds their decision making. They don’t look at the facts and testimony at hand but at what they believe to be true no matter what the facts may say otherwise. this is how the jury system becomes twisted and becomes part and parcel to the notion that justice is never truly blind but always colored by human frailties and prejudices.

Even 54 years since the films first premiered it still holds a powerful effect on me and those who sees it for the first time. It helps that you have a master filmmaker in Sidney Lumet guiding an exceptional cast of actors. One could come to the conclusion that the audience has the angel on one shoulder with Juror #8 and the devil on the other with Juror #3. All in all, a great scene that always stays with me long after the film has ended.