Film Review: All The King’s Men (dir by Steven Zaillian)


On September 10th, 1935, a Senator named Huey Long was shot and killed at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rogue.

While it’s generally agreed that Carl Weiss, the son-in-law of a political opponent, approached Long, there’s still some debate as to whether or not Weiss was the one who shot Long. Did Weiss fire one shot at Long or was Long himself accidentally shot by his many bodyguards, all of whom opened fire on Weiss? (Weiss died at the scene, having been wounded at least 60 times.) There’s even some who argue that Weiss didn’t even have a gun on him when he approached Long and that Long’s bodyguards misinterpreted Weiss’s intentions. Or, as some more conspiracy-minded historians have suggested, perhaps Long’s bodyguards were themselves paid off by one of Long’s many enemies. With Huey Long, anything was possible.

Huey Long has been described as being an American dictator, a man who ran for office as a populist and who, as governor and then senator, ruled Louisiana with an iron fist. His slogan was “Every man a king,” and he promoted a platform that mixed Socialism with redneck resentment. (In modern terms, he mixed the vapid but crowd-pleasing rhetroic of AOC with the bombastic but calculated personal style of Donald Trump.) He often played the flamboyant buffoon but he also knew how to reward his friends and punish his enemies. At the time of his death, he was planning to run for President against FDR. It’s said that, in typical Long fashion, he planned to run as a third party candidate and draw away enough votes from Roosevelt to allow Republican Alf Landon to win. Then, in 1940, Long would run for the Democratic nomination and send President Landon back to Kansas.

Huey-Long-radio-3000-3x2gty-5c2934d246e0fb00012da4a1

Whether his plan was feasible or not, they came to an end with his death. However, his legacy continued as members of the Long family dominated Louisiana politics for decades to come. Huey’s brother, Earl, served as governor of Louisiana for several contentious terms. Huey’s son, Russell, spent nearly 40 years in the Senate and, as chairman of the Finance Committee, was one of the most powerful men in the country. As late at 2020, Huey’s third cousin was serving in the Louisiana Senate. In the past few years, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been compared to Huey Long. Of course, if Huey were alive today, he’d probably be very popular online. Political Twitter has never met an authoritarian that it couldn’t make excuses for.

Among those who were fascinated by the life and death of Huey Long was a Southern poet and novelist named Robert Penn Warren. Warren used Long as the basis for Willie Stark, the man at the center of the novel All The King’s Men. In the novel, Stark is a classic and tragic American archetype, the man of the people who loses his way after coming to power. Stark starts the book as an idealist who wants to make life better for the poor but who, as he works his way up the political ladder, loses sight of why he first entered politics in the first place. He goes from fighting for the people to fighting only for himself. The book was controversial but popular and won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize. In later interviews, Warren often said that All The King’s Men was never meant to be a book about politics but instead a book about two men, Willie Stark and reporter Jack Burden, losing their way during the tumult of the Great Depression.  Regardless of Warren’s intentions, most readers and critics have focused on the book as a cynical look at American politics and the authoritarian impulse.

All-the-Kings-Men-1949

Considering the book’s popularity, it’s not surprising that All The King’s Men was turned into a movie just three years after it was published.  Directed by Robert Rossen and starring a perfectly cast Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, the film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1949.  Just as with the book, the film was considered to be controversial.  Many claimed that the film’s cynical portrayal of American politics was the equivalent of supporting communism, despite the fact that both the novel and the original film present Stark as being the epitome of the hypocritical Marxist dictator.  Indeed, if any character would have inspired audiences in 1949 to distrust socialism, it would have been a faux populist like Willie Stark.  Still, John Wayne was so offended by the book and the script that he very publicly turned down the role of Willie Stark.  That was all the better for Broderick Crawford, who won an Oscar playing the role.  When seen today, the original All The King’s Men holds up surprisingly well, as does Crawford’s lead performance.  Filmed in harsh black-and-white and featuring a cast of cynical, tough-talking characters, it’s a political noir.

Those who found the 1949 version of All The King’s Men to be dangerously subversive obviously had no idea what was in store for them and the country over the next couple of decades.  There’s a reason why the best-known book about the downfall of Richard Nixon was called All The President’s Men.  By the start of the current century, with all of the political corruption that was happening in the real world, the flaws and crimes of Willie Stark seemed almost quaint by comparison.  In 2006, with George W. Bush serving his second term, America embroiled in two unpopular wars, and the economy looking shaky, it was decided that it was time for a new version of the story of Willie Stark.

This version was directed by Steven Zaillian, the screenwriter whose credits included Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York, Hannibal, and American Gangster.  The role of Willie Stark was played by Sean Penn, who was both an Academy Award winner and an outspoken critic of George Bush.  (And, make no mistake about it, the new version of Willie Stark would be as much based on Bush as he was on Huey Long.)  Jude Law played Jack Burden, the reporter who narrated the story of Stark’s rise and fall.  Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley, and Kathy Baker all had supporting roles.  This was a cast full of Oscar nominees and, indeed, the film’s trailer had that portentous, “the movie is very important and award-worthy” feeling to it that studios go with whenever they’re trying to convince audiences that they have an obligation to see a film, regardless of how boring or annoying it may look.  Entertainment Weekly predicted that All The King’s Men would be an Academy Award contender. For nearly two months, one could not see a movie at the Dallas Angelika without also seeing thee trailer for All The King’s Men.  It was a movie that was due to arrive at any minute and it was coming with an awful lot of hype.

And then, the strangest thing happened.  The film itself kind of disappeared.  It arrived and then it promptly got lost.  The reviews were overwhelmingly negative.  Audiences did not turn out to see the film.  It was a box office bomb, one that pretty much ended Steven Zaillian’s career as a director.  The film played for a week in Dallas and then left the city’s movie screens.  Even if I had been planning on seeing the film when it was originally released, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity.  The Gods of cinema, politics, and Southern accents were conspiring to protect me from suffering through a bad movie and I guess I should be thankful.  There’s nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing a bad Southern accent in a movie and the trailer for All The King’s Men was full of them.

Way back in November of last year, I noticed that the 2006 version of All The King’s Men was available on Encore On Demand.  At the time, I had politics on my mind.  The Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections had bee held earlier that week.  Biden’s huge infrastructure bill had passed the House on the very same night that I came across the film.  Hell, I figured, could watching Sean Penn as Willie Stark be any worse than watching Joe Biden try to give a speech from the Oval Office?  So, I decided to give the movie a chance and I quickly discovered that watching Sean Penn’s Willie Stark was a lot worse.

In All The King’s Men, Sean Penn gives the type of bad performance that can only be given by a good actor.  Penn yells and grimaces and barks out order like the villain in a badly dubbed Bollywood movie.  When he watches a dancer, he doesn’t just look at her.  Instead, he stares with all the intensity of a cartoon wolf who has just spotted Little Red Riding Hood.  There’s nothing subtle about Penn’s performance, least of all his overbaked accent.  The only thing wilder than Penn’s accent is his hair, which often seems to be standing up straight as if he’s just removed his fingers from an electrical socket.  It’s a performance that is heavy on technique but empty on substance.  In both the book and the original film, Willie Stark is flamboyant in public but cool and calculating in private.  In the remake, Penn yells and sweats and jumps around and comes across as being so desperate that it’s hard to buy into the idea that anyone would believe a word that he said.  Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark was believable because Crawford, with his bulky build and his plain-spoken manner, came across as being a real human being.  One could imagine voters looking at Crawford and believing that he was just like them.  Sean Penn, on the other hand, comes across like a rich man’s version of a poor man.  Penn is too obviously condescending to be an effective populist.  Voters will forgive a lot but they’ll never forgive a politician who openly talks down to them.

As for the rest of the cast, they’re a very talented group but not one of them is convincingly cast.  In fact, many of them give career-worst performances.  Anthony Hopkins does his usual eccentric routine but it doesn’t add up too much because the audience never sees him as being anything other than Anthony Hopkins using a rather spotty Southern accent.  When Hopkins’s character dies, it’s not a tragedy because the character himself never feels real.  Instead, you’re juts happy that Hopkins collected a paycheck.  Kate Winslet seems to be bored with the role of Stark’s mistress.  Mark Ruffalo is dazed in the role of Winslet’s brother.  As Jack Burden, Jude Law seems as lost as anyone, which wouldn’t be problem if not for the fact that Jack is the one narrating the film.  When your narrator is lost, you’re in trouble.

There’s really only two members of the cast who escape the film unscathed.  Jackie Earle Haley is properly intimidating as Stark’s devoted bodyguard.  Haley doesn’t get many lines but one look at his disturbed eyes tells you all you need to know about how far he’ll go to protect his boss.  On the other hand, James Gandolfini gets several lines and he does such a good job of delivering them and he plays the role of a corrupt political boss with such a perfect combination of good humor and cold pragmatism that you have to wonder just how much All The King’s Men would have been improved if Gandolfini had played Willie Stark instead of Sean Penn.

Steve Zaillian’s direction involves a lot of soft-focused flashbacks and several visual references to the Nuremberg rallies.  Just as with Penn’s performance, there’s nothing subtle about Zaillian’s direction, despite the fact that the story itself is so melodramatic that it calls for the opposite of a heavy-handed approach.  One wonders what exactly Zaillian was trying to say with his version of All The King’s Men, which presents Willie Stark as being a monster but still as the audacity to end with a clip of him giving a rousing campaign speech.  Again, the problem is that we never buy into the idea that Willie Stark was ever sincere in his desire to help the common man.  Everything about both Penn’s performance and Zaillian’s direction serves to suggest that, from the start, Stark viewed them as just being a means to an end.  Ending the film with a flashback of Willie giving a campaign speech is about as moving as a friend from high school contacting you on Facebook and then trying to get you to take part in a pyramid scheme.  There’s no sincerity to be found in any of it.

In the end, it’s a film of overheated performances and meticulously shot scenes that all add up to very little.  There are a few moments where Sean Penn’s body language and his vocal inflections suggest that he’s trying to channel George W. Bush but there’s nothing particularly shocking or subversive about that.  In 2006, every movie and TV show had to find a way to take a swipe at Bush and Penn’s never been particularly reticent when it comes to broadcasting his politics.  Though All The King’s Men was executive produced by political consultant James Carville, there’s very few moment in the film that feel authentic.  It’s like a high school senior’s view of politics.

All The King’s Men came and went quickly.  Fortunately, everyone was able to move on.  Steven Zaillian has not directed another film but remains an in-demand scriptwriter.  Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, and Kate Winslet all won Oscars after appearing in this film (though, it should be noted, none of them won for this film).  Mark Ruffalo and Jude Law went on to join the Marvel Universe.  Jackie Earle Haley continues to be a much-respected character actor.  Tragically, James Gandolfini is no longer with us but his performance as Tony Soprano will never be forgotten.  The second version of All The King’s Men wasted a lot of talent but, fortunately, talent always finds a way to survive.

Horror Film Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (Samuel Bayer)


“Hey, you guys!  The 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is on TV!”

“Alright!  I NEVER MISS A ROONEY MARA HORROR MOVIE!”

Indeed, way back in 2010, there a lot of hype accompanying the release of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.  It came out at a time when a lot of classic horror films were being rebooted for no particular reason.  Halloween got a reboot.  Friday the 13th got a reboot.  Texas Chainsaw Massacre has gotten a reboot.  So, it was just kind of expected that Nightmare on Elm Street would get a reboot, bringing the story into the modern age and making the story less problematic and blah bah blah.

And yet, for all the hype that accompanied the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, it was pretty quickly forgotten.  If I remember correctly, it failed to live up to box office expectations and, as a result, there was never a sequel to this reboot.  Jackie Earle Haley never got a second chance to play Freddy Krueger and, to be honest, that’s probably for the best.  Haley’s a great actor who deserves better than to be typecast as the actor who played the second best version of Freddy Krueger.  No matter how good a performance Haley could have given in any of the hypothetical sequels to the Nightmare reboot, he would have been overshadowed by Robert Englund’s definitive interpretation of the character.

Today, the movie seems to be best remembered as one of the films that Rooney Mara made before she was cast in the title role of David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Mara plays the role of Nancy, the sleep-deprived teenager whose friends are all having nightmares and dying in various grotesque ways.  In Nightmare on Elm Street, Rooney Mara is even more boring than usual but then again, the same can be said of just about everyone else in the movie, with the exception of Jackie Earle Haley and Clancy Brown.  The majority of the actors just go through the motions.  It’s as if they decided that, since they were appearing in a horror movie, they didn’t really have to make any sort of effort to do anything interesting with their characters.  One need only compare the performances of Heather Langenkamp and Rooney Mara to see why the original Nightmare On Elm Street remains a classic while the remake has been forgotten.

Of course, another reason why the reboot has been forgotten is because it’s not really that scary.  The original Nightmare is still scary.  The original can still give you nightmares.  Robert Englund’s performance still holds up.  The death of Tina is still terrifying.  The scene where Nancy looks at the gray streak in her hair and says that she looks like she’s in her 20s is still funny.  Nightmare on Elm Street still holds up.  The reboot, however, falls flat in the scares department.  I think part of the problem is that the dreams are too obvious in the reboot,  In the original, the waking world would segue so effortlessly into the dream world that you were always kept off-balance.  In the remake, the dreams are too easy to spot and they’re too dependent on CGI to be convincing as a actual nightmares.

The remake does do one interesting thing.  There are several scenes in the film that seem to be designed to hint that maybe, in life, Freddy was actually innocent of the crimes for which was accused and that he was just set on fire because he was a convenient scapegoat.  That’s an intriguing idea and it certainly would have brought a whole new dimension to Freddy and his quest for revenge.  Just imagine how much of a mind-screw the film would have been if it had been revealed that Freddy had actually been framed by one of the same adults who later set him on fire.  Unfortunately, after making you think that the movie might actually do something unexpected, the film then reveals that Freddy actually was guilty and the whole story becomes a bit less interesting.  Revealing that Freddy was just a somewhat slow handyman who was wrongly accused would have brought some subversive life to this film but this reboot has no interest in being subversive.

Ignore the remake.  Watch the original.

Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: The Dark Tower (dir by Nikolaj Arcel)


What the Hell was The Dark Tower about, anyway?

It’s a legitimate question.  I know that the film was technically a continuation of Stephen King’s overrated Dark Tower books.  Matthew McConaughey was Walter, the Man in the Black, the man who is kidnapping psychic children so that he can weaponize their powers and destroy The Dark Tower.  Idris Elba was Roland, the last of the gunslingers, who is obsessed with killing Walter because Walter killed his father.  And Tom Taylor is Jake, an eleven year-old boy who lives in New York City and who keeps having visions of the Tower, Walter, and Roland.  Walter wants Jake.  Roland wants Walter.  Jake wants to understand it all…

And that’s pretty much the entire movie.  Jake switches back and forth between his world and Roland’s world.  Walter occasionally pops up in New York so that he can kill Jake’s family and assure that Jake won’t have any reason not to continue traveling with Roland at the end of the movie.  It all basically feels like the pilot for a television series and, to be honest, it probably wouldn’t be that bad of a show.  For one thing, if The Dark Tower was a tv show, there would be more of an opportunity to develop the characters of Roland, Walter, and Tom.  The Dark Tower movie only last 95 minutes and the majority of those minutes feel very rushed.

Obviously, if you’ve read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, this film will be easier for you to follow than it will be for people who have never had to suffer through them.  I know I’m in the minority as far as this is concerned but I find The Dark Tower series to be King at his most pretentious.  Interestingly enough, a little bit of pretension probably would have helped the film version of The Dark Tower.  As it is, The Dark Tower is almost too workmanlike and straight-forward.  It could have really used a pointless Stephen King-style soliloquy about faith, innocence, and horror.  At the very least, they could have had someone in the background, droning on about politics in a Maine accent.

I have to admit that I really, really, really wanted to like The Dark Tower.  I love Idris Elba.  I love Matthew McConaughey.  Even more importantly, I love being a contrarian.  Whenever a film gets as many negative reviews as The Dark Tower, my natural instinct is always to assume that it has to be a secret masterpiece.  I mean, seriously, who trusts critics?  I really wanted to watch The Dark Tower and then write a 1,000-word defense of it.  I was hoping that, much like The Counselor, it would turn out to be a masterpiece that only I could recognize.

Sadly, that didn’t turn out to be the case.  I will say that Matthew McConaughey seemed to be having a sincerely good time playing the bad guy.  And Idris Elba had just the right mix of weariness and compassion to play Roland.  But otherwise, the movie just felt so pointless.

Overall, this has been a pretty good year for Stephen King film adaptations.  It deserves to be nominated for an Oscar, though it won’t be.  Gerald’s Game made people thankful for Netflix.  The Dark Tower, though, will be quickly forgotten.

A Movie A Day #325: Damnation Alley (1977, directed by Jack Smight)


Anyone who has seen Damnation Alley knows that the only thing that matters is the Landmaster.

Damnation Alley has a slight plot.  A nuclear war has knocked the Earth off of its axis.  The skies are green and purple.  The scorpions are huge and the cockroaches eat humans.  Crazed survivors are living like savages, attacking anyone that they come across.  When a radio signal seems to indicate that there might still be civilization in Albany, four military men (George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent, Paul Winfield, and Kip Niven) decide to drive across the country to check it out.  To reach Albany, they will have to cross an inhospitable stretch of land called Damnation Alley.  They will be making the journey in two Landmasters, amphibious vehicles that provide RV comfort with the extra advantage of a rocket launcher.  Along the way, they fight scorpions, roaches, and pick up some extra passengers (Dominique Sanda and Jackie Earle Haley).

The radioactive sky looks cool but otherwise, the scorpions and the cockroaches are all obviously fake and no one in the cast makes any effort to do more than recite their lines.  But no one who has watched Damnation Alley cares about any of that.  We just want to drive a Landmaster.

There is nothing that the Landmaster cannot do.  It  can speed across desert sand.  It can tear up city streets.  It can break through walls.  It can turn into a boat.  It can fire missiles.  It also appears to be bigger on the inside than the outside, just like the TARDIS.  Either that or whoever did the set design for Damnation Alley was not detail-oriented.

Despite the awe-inspiring Landmaster, Damnation Alley was neither a critical nor a box office hit.  It was one of two science fiction films released by 20th Century Fox in 1977.  The other one was Star Wars, which was a good movie but didn’t have a Landmaster.

As for the Landmaster itself, it currently resides in California and has appeared in a handful of other movies.  Sadly, it missed out on the opportunity to appear in any of the Smoky and the Bandit movies.  Burt Reynolds driving a Landmaster?  That would have been box office gold.

Right, Burt?

Back to School Part II #12: Breaking Away (dir by Peter Yates)


Has Indiana changed much since 1979?

I ask because I just watched Breaking Away, a 1979 nominee for best picture.  Breaking Away was shot on location in Bloomington, Indiana and on the campus of Indiana University.  And though the film doesn’t go out of its way to idealize either the state, the town, or the university –in fact, the title refers to the desire of several characters to break away from their life in Bloomington — it still manages to make Indiana look like the nicest place on Earth.  Add to that, Indiana University is home to the Eskenazi Museum of Art, which I will someday visit.

Breaking Away is actually a film about a lot of things: it’s a comedy, it’s a quasi-love story, it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, it’s a sports film, and it’s a sweet, good-natured film that made me cry.  At the heart of the film is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who has just graduated from high school and whose cheerful and eccentric exterior hides the fact that he appears to have no real future.  Dave is obsessed with bicycle racing and idolizes that the Italian cycling team.  In fact, he idolizes them so much that he decides to be Italian.  He rides around Bloomington, greeting people with a merry “Ciao!”  At home, he listens to opera and renames the family cat “Fellini.”  While his mother (Barbara Barrie) is understanding, his father (Paul Dooley) cannot understand what’s happening to his son.  Of course, Dave doesn’t truly believe that he’s Italian.  He just desperately wants to be something other than who he is.

And who is Dave?  He’s a citizen of Bloomington, a town that is divided between the upper class students at Indiana University and the blue-collar townies.  The students call Dave and his friends “cutters,” because the only real industry in town is working in the quarry, cutting stone.  The students look down on the cutters and the cutters resent the students.

Dave has three close friends, all of whom were big in high school and who are now facing an uncertain future of anonymity.  Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the funny and quirky one, the former basketball player who talks about how he would like to be a cartoon character.  Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is usually easy-going but loses his temper whenever anyone mentions that he’s short.  (At one point, Moocher’s boss orders him to, “Punch the time clock, Shortie!”  Moocher literally does just that.)  And finally, there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid).  Mike is their leader, a former high school quarterback who idolizes the Marlboro Man and who knows that he’s destined to spend the rest of his life in Bloomington, going from “20 year-old Mike” to “mean old man Mike.”

When Dave meets a student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), he pretends to be an Italian exchange student and, soon, he’s serenading her on the lawn of her sorority house.  That doesn’t make Katherine’s boyfriend, Rod (Hart Bochner), happy.  Rod and his friends beat up Cyril, which leads to another fight at a bowling alley.  (Cyril, for his part, gets his finger stuck in a bowling ball.)  Seeking to broker some sort of peace and understanding between the students and the town, the university president (played by John Ryan, who was the real-life President of Indiana University at the time) announces that the cutters will be invited to take part in the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University.

And you can probably guess how the race turns out.  It’s a feel-good sports film so you already know who is going to win and that he’s going to have to win after initially falling behind and sacrificing a big lead.  You know all that but it doesn’t matter.  Breaking Away is such a sweet and well-acted movie that it still brought tears to my eyes even if the ending didn’t surprise me.

And really, the film does have a few surprises.  For one thing, Rod turns out to be not as bad a guy as you initially think he’s going to be.  Over the course of the film, he gets two small reaction shots, both of which hint that he’s not as much of a jerk as he often appears to be.  It’s a minor detail and it’s easy to miss but what’s important that it’s there and it’s one of the many small details that makes Breaking Away feel alive.  After watching the movie, I feel like I could go to Bloomington and still find all these character hanging out at the quarry.

There’s another scene that I want to mention.  This is the scene that made me cry.  Dave and his father walk around the university and his dad talks about how he and the fathers of all of Dave’s friends helped to cut the stone that was used to build campus.  His dad admits that, even though he helped to build it, he’s never felt comfortable on the campus and then tells his son that he doesn’t have to be a cutter.  And it’s such a heartfelt scene and so beautifully performed by Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher that I started to cry.  Perfectly acted, perfectly directed, and perfectly written, what a great scene!  Fantastico!, as Dave might say.

I loved Breaking Away and I bet you would to.

Breaking Away

London Has Fallen Official Trailer


London Has Fallen

The White House under siege film Olympus Has Fallen from 2013 was a surprise hit and pretty much took the prize in the match-up between it and the bigger-budgeted White House Down starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx. What the latter didn’t have was the presence of Morgan Freeman, the steadfastness of Aaron Eckhart and the utter badass that is Gerard Butler. Olympus Has Fallen had all three and thus was the better of the two films.

It didn’t take long for the studio who made Olympus Has Fallen to start on a sequel with the three core figures from the first film (Freeman, Eckhart and Butler) back to fight the evil of terrorism on all freedom-loving citizens. I think the studios just thought the audience who saw the first film loved just how much Gerard Butler’s character kept stabbing people in the face.

Here’s to hoping London Has Fallen didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken…and more Gerard Butler stabbing people in the face.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #119: Shutter Island (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Shutter IslandThe 2010 film Shutter Island finds the great director Martin Scorsese at his most playful.

Taking place in 1954, Shutter Island tells the story of two detectives, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio, giving an excellent performance that, in many ways, feels like a test run for his role in Inception) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo, also excellent), who take a boat out to the Ashecliffe Hospital for The Criminal Insane, which is located on Shutter Island in Boston Harbor.  They are investigating the disappearance of inmate Rachel Solando, who has been incarcerated for drowning her three children.

Ashecliffe is one of those permanently gray locations, the type of place where the lights always seem to be burned out and the inmates move about like ghostly visions of sins brought to life.  It’s the type of place that, had this movie been made in the 50s or 60s, would have been run by either Vincent Price or Peter Cushing.  In this case, the Cushing role of the cold and imperious lead psychiatrist is taken by Ben Kingsley.  Max Von Sydow, meanwhile, plays a more flamboyantly sinister doctor, the role that would have been played by Vincent Price.

When a storm strands Teddy and Chuck on the island, they quickly discover that neither the staff nor the patients are willing to be of any help when it comes to tracking down Rachel.  As Teddy continues to investigate, he finds himself stricken by migraines and haunted by disturbing images.  He continually sees a mysterious little girl.  He has visions of his dead wife (Michelle Williams).  A horribly scarred patient in solitary confinement (Jackie Earle Haley) tells him that patients are regularly taken to a lighthouse where they are lobotomized.  When Teddy explores more of the island, he comes across a mysterious woman living in a cave and she tells him of even more sinister activity at Ashecliffe.  Meanwhile, Chuck alternates between pragmatic skepticism and flights of paranoia.

And I’m not going to share anymore of the plot because it would be a crime to spoil Shutter Island.  This is a film that you must see and experience for yourself.

This is one of Martin Scorsese’s most entertaining films, an unapologetic celebration of B-movie history. He knows that he’s telling a faintly ludicrous story here and, wisely, he embraces the melodrama.  Too many directors would try to bring some sort of credibility to Shutter Island by downplaying the film’s more melodramatic moments.  Scorsese, however, shows no fear of going over the top.  He understands that this is not the time to be subtle.  This is the time to go a little crazy and that’s what he does.

Good for him.

Back to School #32: Losin’ It (dir by Curtis Hanson)


Losin-It-The-Poster

Originally, my 32nd entry in my Back To School series was going to be Made In Britain, a film about a 16 year-old Neo-Nazi played by Tim Roth.  And, while I still suggest that you track down and watch Made In Britain (mostly for Roth’s amazing performance in the lead), I have to admit that, as I rewatched it, I found myself really struggling to find a way to fit it into the Back to School theme.  Made in Britain is a good film about a juvenile delinquent but it just didn’t seem like it was right for this series.  Maybe I’ll revisit it when I do my long-threatened series of “Europe Is As Messed Up As America” series of film reviews.

Instead, I decided to close out the 1983 portion of this series by taking a look at Losin’ It.  Along with Risky Business and All The Right Moves, Losin’ It is one of the three films released in 1983 that starred Tom Cruise as a high school senior who is obsessed with losing his virginity.  Much as in Risky Business, Cruise’s initial plan is to hire a prostitute.  And much like in All The Right Moves …. well, actually Losin’ It doesn’t have much in common with All The Right Moves beyond the presence of Cruise.  For that matter, it doesn’t really have much in common with Risky Business either.  Whereas All The Right Moves was a coming-of-age drama and Risky Business was a satire on capitalism, Losin’ It is pretty much a straight comedy.

And an amazingly generic one at that!

Set in 1965 and featuring a soundtrack that appears to exist solely to remind you that the film is set in 1965, Losin’ It tells the story of four teenage boys who go down to Tijuana, hoping to get laid.  There’s Woody (Tom Cruise), who is the nice guy who smiles all the time.  There’s Spider (played by future director John Stockwell), who we’re told doesn’t have to pay for it but wants to go down to Tijuana so he can see a “donkey show.”  (If you don’t know what a donkey show is, I’m sure it can be looked up on Wikipedia.)  And then there’s Dave (Jackie Earle Haley), who is short, loud-mouthed, and idolizes Frank Sinatra to the extent that he even wears a Sinatra-style fedora.  Tagging along is Dave’s younger brother Wendell (John P. Navin, Jr.), who is too young to get into any Mexican brothels but is hoping to buy some fireworks that he can then sell at school.

Anyway, they may think that they’re just going to Mexico but it soon turns out that they’re on a collision course with wackiness!  Dave and Wendell end up being held hostage in an auto junkyard.  Spider gets in a fight with a bunch of Marines and ends up in a Mexican jail.  And Woody — well, listen, we all know that there’s no way fresh-faced, All-American Tom Cruise is going to lose his virginity in a dirty old brothel!  Instead, he ends up pursuing a tentative romance with Kathy (Shelley Long), a newlywed who has come down to Tijuana to get a quickie divorce.

(Do they still give out quickie divorces in Tijuana or is that just something that happens in the movies?  I’m just asking for future reference…)

Anyway, of the Tom Cruise Must Get Laid Trilogy, Losin’ It is easily the most generic and forgettable but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a terrible movie.  Curtis Hanson keeps the action moving at a steady pace (and, if that sounds like faint praise, just try sitting through a film with an unsteady pace) and the cast is likable.  Tom Cruise is the one who gets all of the attention on the back of the DVD and he’s likable enough but really, if I had been alive and a film critic in 1983, I probably would have picked the handsome and charismatic John Stockwell as the one most likely to become a star.

Instead, 31 years later, Tom Cruise is the star (albeit a fading one) and John Stockwell is the one directing movies about life on the beach.

It’s a strange world.

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise

Jackie Earle Haley, John Stockwell, and Tom Cruise

Film Review: Lincoln (dir. by Steven Spielberg)


I am a history nerd.

If you’ve read my previous reviews here on the Shattered Lens, that’s not necessarily a major revelation.  Still, before I talk about Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the sure-to-be Oscar nominated Lincoln, you should know where I’m coming from as a reviewer.  Cinema may be my number one love but history, and especially political history, runs a close second.  To me, there is nothing more fascinating than learning how those in the past both viewed and dealt with the issues that we still face in the present.  Whereas some people take pride in being able to name every player that’s ever played for the Dallas Cowboys, I take pride in the fact that I can not only name every President and Vice President in order but I can also tell you exactly who they had to defeat in order to serve in those offices.

I love history and therefore, it was hard for me not to feel as if Lincoln was a film that was made specifically for me.  Covering the final four months of the life of the 16th president, this film tells the story of Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and to bring an end to the U.S. Civil War.  The film also documents Lincoln’s troubled marriage to the unstable Mary and his son’s decision to enlist in the Union Army.  Even though Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner don’t include any vampires*, there’s still a lot going on in Lincoln and it is to their credit that the film remains compelling despite the fact that everyone already knows how the story is going to end.

Daniel Day-Lewis is getting a lot of critical acclaim for his performance in the title role and, for once, I actually have to agree with the critics.  Abraham Lincoln is one of the most iconic figures in American history.  He is such an icon that, at times, it’s hard to believe that this larger-than-life figure, with his stove-pipe hat and his homely face, was an actual human being who lived and breathed and died like any other human being.  It’s easier to think of him in the same way that Jesus Christ used to be represented in films like Ben-Hur, as an inspiring character who is always standing just a little bit off-camera.  The brilliance of Day-Lewis’s performance is that he makes us believe that this legendary figure could actually exist with all the rest of history’s mortals.  For lack of a better term, Day-Lewis humanizes Lincoln.  His performance contains all the bits of the Lincoln legend: the fatalistic melancholy, the steely resolve, the quick humor, and occasional flashes of self-doubt.  The genius of the performance is the way that it takes all the legendary pieces and arranges them to create a portrait of a very believable man.

Though the film is dominated by Day-Lewis’s lead performance, the film’s supporting cast does a good job at bringing to life the people around Lincoln.  Whenever one film can manage to find roles for Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, and Jackie Earle Haley, you’ve got good reason to be optimistic about what you’re about to see.  Probably the film’s showiest supporting role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.  Admittedly, Tommy Lee Jones gives a standard Tommy Lee Jones performance here but, especially when paired with Day-Lewis’s more internal acting style, the end result is still fun to watch.  Also giving a good performance is Sally Field, who plays Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife.  Historians have rarely been kind (or fair) to Mary Lincoln but Field makes her into a difficult but sympathetic figure.  Finally, even though the role of Lincoln’s son is not a challenging one, I’m always happy whenever Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up onscreen.

Ultimately, however, Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film.  Spielberg is a very good director but he’s also a very safe one.  The same can be said of Lincoln as a film.  The film’s cinematography, art design, and costume design are all brilliantly done and award-worthy but it’s still hard not to occasionally wish that Spielberg would have enough faith in his audience that he wouldn’t feel the need to have John Williams provide constant musical cues to let us know what we are supposed to be feeling about what we’re experiencing.  If you’re looking for hints of moral ambiguity, an unflinching examination of the rivers of blood that flowed on the Civil War battlefield, or for an in-depth portrait of Lincoln’s personal demons (and most historians agree that he had a few), you might want to look elsewhere.  This is not Martin Scorsese’s Lincoln.  This is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  This is a film that is meant to be inspiring (as opposed to thought-provoking) and, for the most part, it succeeds.

I have to admit that I went into Lincoln expecting to be disappointed.  Ever since the film first went into production in 2011, websites like Awards Daily have been hyping this film to death.  Before many of them had even seen the completed film, online critics were announcing that both the film and Daniel Day-Lewis were the clear front-runners for the Oscars in 2013.  As anyone who has read my previous reviews on this site knows, nothing turns me off more than the bandwagon mentality of the critical establishment.  Often times, when a film is embraced as vehemently and as early as Lincoln has been, I feel almost honor-bound to be a hundred times more critical of it than I would be of a film like Step Up Revolution.

However, Lincoln is a rarity.  It’s a film that, for the most part, actually lives up to all the hype.

—-

*I imagine that little joke will cause a lot of confusion to anyone who, ten years in the future, happens to stumble across this review.  To you, future reader who has forgotten all about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I can only apologize.

Trailer: Lincoln (dir. by Steven Spielberg)


One of the films for 2012 that’s seen by many as a major player in the end of the year Awards season. Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed and gestating historical drama about Abraham Lincoln will finally make it onto the big-screen this early November. Spielberg had initially chosen Liam Neeson to play the 16th President of these United States but as the project continued to get delayed he backed out and in comes Daniel Day-Lewis to take on a very difficult role.

Lincolnis based off of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of the 16th President, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. With Tony Kushner tasked with finally hashing out a final draft of the screenplay the film finally went into production in 2009. The cast is an ensemble led by Day-Lewis that includes several past Academy Award and Emmy winners like Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field and Hal Holbrook with other acting luminaries like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Walton Goggins, David Straithairn, Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Haley.

The first trailer finally arrived today, September 13, 2012, during a Google+ hangout with Spielberg and Gordon-Levitt and reaction to the trailer seems to range from “give Daniel Day-Lewis the Oscar already” to “an Oscar-bait if there was ever one”. No matter where one sat in their reaction to this trailer it will be interesting to see if Spielberg will come out with a film that doesn’t come off as maudlin and manipulative, but deliver a film that explores and tries to explain why Lincoln became such a beloved President in his time despite making so many unpopular decisions and sitting through the worst era of American history (Civil War) and decades since his death.

Here’s to hoping that the film is less like Amistad and more like Schindler’s List in terms of tone and narrative. We know why Lincoln is seen as the greatest President we ever had. What we want to know is the why’s.

Lincoln arrives in the theaters this November 9, 2012.