Cleaning Out The DVR: The Star Chamber (dir by Peter Hyams)


Here’s a good example of why I need to clean out my DVR more regularly:

I recorded the 1983 legal thriller, The Star Chamber, off of Starz on March 14th.  I know what you’re saying.  “Big deal!  That wasn’t that long ago.”  Well, did I mention that it was March 14th, 2017?

That’s right!  The Star Chamber sat on my DVR for over a year before I finally got around to watching it last night.  You’d be justified in asking why it took me so long and I’m afraid that I really couldn’t give you a definite answer.  I can, however, tell you the four main reasons why I recorded it in the first place:

  1. I’m always intrigued whenever I come across a movie of which I haven’t previously heard.
  2. The movie was described as being about a conflicted judge and I just happen to love legal films.
  3. I really, really liked the title.  The Star Chamber?  Did that mean it took place in a room full of stars?
  4. Before I recorded The Star Chamber, I only had 55 films on the DVR.  Since I don’t like odd numbers, recording The Star Chamber took care of that problem.

As for the film itself, The Star Chamber is another one of those movies where a group of vigilantes end up getting pissed off because liberal California judges are letting too many murderers go free because of pesky, constitutional technicalities.  The twist here is that the vigilantes are the same judges who keep tossing out evidence and ruling that confessions are inadmissible in court.  After spending their day setting free the dregs of society, the judges all gather in a nearby house and review the evidence before voting on whether or not they believe the accused was actually guilty.  If the verdict is guilty, the judges promptly hire a hit man who proceeds to clean up the streets.

The newest member of this tribunal is Judge Steven R. Hardin (Michael Douglas).  Hardin is haunted by the technicalities that forced him to toss out a case against two accused of child murderers.  (Making things even worse, the child’s father commits suicide afterward.)  Despite his initial reservations, Judge Hardin signs off on hiring an assassin to take the two men out.  But, when it becomes apparent that the two men actually were innocent, Judge Hardin is horrified to discover that there’s no way to call off the hit…

The Star Chamber is an oddly constructed movie.  When the movie starts, it feels like a typical police procedural.  From there, the movie turns into a rather talky examination of the U.S. legal system, with Judge Hardin trying to balance his idealism with the often frustrating reality of what it takes to uphold the law.  The movie then briefly turns into a conspiracy film, featuring middle-aged men in suits holding secret meetings and debating whether or not they’re serving the greater good.  And then, towards the end of the movie, it turns into an action film, with Judge Hardin being chased by two drug dealers, a contract killer, and a suspicious police detective (Yaphet Kotto).  Judge Hardin may start the movie as a conflicted liberal but he ends at someone who can blow up the entire second floor of a drug lab.  In many ways, The Star Chamber is a deeply silly film but, as directed and co-written by Peter Hyams, it’s also just pulpy enough to be entertaining.  The dialogue may be over-the-top but so is Michael Douglas’s performance so it all evens out in the end.

It may have taken me a while to get around to watching The Star Chamber but I’m glad that I finally did.  It’s a ludicrous film and all the more entertaining as a result.

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 #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.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Scorpio (dir by Michael Winner)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  Having recorded over 150 movies since last January, she understands that this might be an impossible task but she’s going to try anyway!  She recorded the 1973 spy thriller, Scorpio, off of Retroplex way back on January 24th!)

On the surface, Jean Laurier (Alain Delon) would appear to be the perfect man.

He’s handsome.  He looks really good in a suit.  He’s wealthy.  He’s French.  And — get this — he loves cats!  He’s the type of guy who, when he discovers a stray cat in his hotel room, immediately starts to pet it and then gives it a saucer of warm milk.  He and his girlfriend (Gayle Hunnicutt) spend their spare time looking at cats and talking about how cute they are.  At one point, even though he’s just killed a man, Jean pauses when he sees a stray cat watching…

Oh, did I mention that Jean kills people for a living?  Well, he does but I’m sure they’re all bad guys.  Seriously, he’s just so charming (and he really, really loves cats) that you really can’t hold it against him that he’s an independent contract killer.  Add to that, his code name is Scorpio.

I have to admit that the film’s title — Scorpio — is the main reason that I chose to record this movie.  I’m a scorpio myself.  In fact, I’m such a scorpio that if I believed in astrology, I would point to my existence as proof that the stars actually do determine our fate.  Seriously, you don’t want to mess with us scorpios.  We’re scorpions.  We sting.

But anyway, back to the movie.

When Scorpio is busted on a trumped-up narcotics charge (or maybe it was a legitimate narcotics charge, it was kind of hard to keep track), the CIA gives him a choice.  He can either go to prison or he can do a job for them.  Apparently, the CIA believes that Scorpio’s friend and mentor, Cross (Burt Lancaster), is a double agent who has been selling information to the Russians.  They want Cross eliminated.

Scorpio takes the job but it’s not going to be easy.  Cross is a veteran spy.  He has connections all across the world and he’s a ruthless killer, the type who forces a man to swallow a cyanide pill and then says, “You’ve got 30 seconds to live.”  In fact, the only person that Cross seems to care about is his wife (Joanne Linville) but he still doesn’t hesitate to abandon her when he realizes that their house is being watched

Cross taught Scorpio everything that he knows but there’s one lesson that Scorpio is still learning and that is to trust no one.  Is Cross actually a spy or is he being set up?  And, if Cross is being set up, what’s to prevent the same thing from happening to Scorpio?

Scorpio is probably one of the most cynical films that I’ve ever seen.  If Scorpio was a political protest, it would be full of people carrying cardboard signs reading, “Nothing Matters” and “All Is Darkness.”  Remember that annoying as Hell scene in SPECTRE where James Bond got drunk and demanded to know who a rodent was working for?  Well, imagine the disillusionment of that scene stretched out for two hours.

Fortunately, no one in Scorpio is as whiny as Daniel Craig was in SPECTRE.  In many ways, Scorpio is a triumph of old-fashioned movie star charisma.  Burt Lancaster is perfectly cast as the world-weary Cross while Alain Delon makes for a compelling Scorpio.  Both of them are believable killers and the film becomes as much about the competition between Lancaster’s old school Hollywood style of acting and Delon’s more refined (and very French) style of cool as it is about the competition between Scorpio and Cross.

Scorpio‘s a good little spy thriller, more than worth keeping an eye out for.

 

A Movie A Day #60: Outland (1981, directed by Peter Hyams)


outlandIt’s High Noon in space!

In the future, Marshal O’Neil (Sean Connery) has been hired, by Conglomerates Amalgamated, to enforce the law on a mining outpost that’s located on one of the moons of Jupiter.  Why are all the miners going crazy, taking off their spacesuits, and exploding?  Are they being hypnotized by that big red spot on Jupiter?  Or is the mining supervisor, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), forcing his workers to take amphetamines that cause them to have psychotic episodes?  O’Neil suspects the latter so Sheppard summons three intergalactic gunslingers to come and kill the marshal.  With no one, except for the outpost’s doctor (Frances Sternhagen), willing to stand behind him, O’Neil must stand up to three gunmen by himself.

The comparison between High Noon and Outland is obvious but the movie also owes much to Alien.  With its corrupt corporation, claustrophobic sets, and its blue-collar space workers, Outland seems like it could be taking place in the same movie universe as the Alien movies.  Like a lot of the films that Peter Hyams has directed, Outland is ambitious but slow.  It is never as much fun as something like Moon Zero Two.  The best thing about Outland is Sean Connery, convincingly cast as Gary Cooper in space.

Embracing the Melodrama #32: Ordinary People (dir by Robert Redford)


ordinary_people_oc87rd_1

For the past seven days, I’ve been reviewing — in chronological order — fifty of the most memorable melodramas ever filmed.  We started with a silent film from 1916 and now, we have reached the 80s.  What better way to kick off the decade than by taking a look at the 1980 Best Picture winner, Ordinary People?

Directed by Robert Redford, Ordinary People tells the story of the upper middle class Jarrett family.  On the surface, the Jarretts appear to be the perfect family.  Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland) has a successful career.  Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) keeps a perfect home and appears to be the ideal suburban matriarch.  However, one summer, their oldest son drowns in a sailing accident and their youngest son, sensitive Conrad (Timothy Hutton), attempts to commit suicide.  After spending four months in a psychiatric hospital, Conrad come back home and the family struggles to put their lives back together.  Even though he starts to see a therapist (Judd Hirsch) and starts dating his classmate Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), Conrad still struggles with his feelings of guilt over having survived.  Beth’s struggle to maintain a facade of normalcy leads to several fights between her and Conrad with Calvin trapped in the middle.

Among my fellow film bloggers, there’s always going to be a very vocal group that is going to hate Ordinary People because it won the Oscar for best picture over challenging black-and-white films directed by Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) and David Lynch (The Elephant Man).  They always tend to complain that Ordinary People is a conventional film that tells a conventional story and that it was directed by a very conventional director.  More than once, I’ve seen an online film critic refer to Ordinary People as being a “big budget Lifetime movie.”

Well, you know what?

I love Lifetime.  Lifetime is the best network on television and to me, a big budget Lifetime movie would be the best Lifetime movie of all.  And, at the risk of alienating all of my film-loving friends, if I had to choose between watching Raging Bull and Ordinary People, I’m going to pick Ordinary People every time.  Raging Bull is visually stunning and features great performances but it’s also two hours spent watching an incredibly unlikable human being beating the crap out of anyone who is foolish enough to love him.  Ordinary People may essentially look like a TV show but it’s also about characters that you can understand and that, as the film progresses, you grow to truly care about.

Yes, I do wish that the character of Beth had been given more of a chance to talk about her feelings and it’s hard not to feel that Ordinary People places too much blame on the mother.  But, even so, the film still ends with vague — if unlikely — hope that Beth will eventually be able to move past her anger and reconnect with her family.  The film may be hard on Beth but it never gives up on her.  That’s what distinguishes Ordinary People for me.  In many ways, it’s a very sad film.  It’s a film that was specifically designed to make you cry and I certainly shed a few tears while I watched it.  But, even with its somewhat ambiguous ending, Ordinary People is also a very optimistic movie.  It’s a movie that says that, as much pain as we may have in our life,we can recover and life can go on and it’s okay to be sad and its also okay to be happy.

And that’s an important lesson to learn.

(That said, if I had been alive and an Academy voter in 1981, I would have voted for The Elephant Man.)

And, for all you Oscar lovers out there, here are clips of Timothy Hutton and Robert Redford winning Oscars for their work on Ordinary People.

What Lisa Watched Last Night: Doing Time On Maple Drive (dir. by Ken Olin)


Early Friday morning, I found myself watching an old school made-for-TV movie, Doing Time On Maple Drive, on the Lifetime Movie Network.  If you’ve heard of this film, it’s probably because it features a kinda young Jim Carrey in a supporting role.

Why Was I Watching It?

Because when it’s 3 a.m. and you’re getting hit by the old insomnia curse, what’s a girl to do put turn on the TV and change the channel to the Lifetime Movie Network?

What’s It About?

The Carters appear to be the perfect American family.  They’ve got a beautiful house in the suburbs (on Maple Drive, no less), the children are all handsome and intelligent, the dad is a succesful businessman, the mom a perfect homemaker, and blah blah blah.  You know how this is going to turn out already, don’t you?  Dad is actually an overly competitive jerk, mom is in denial, the daughter is a neurotic mess, the youngest son is a closeted homosexual, and the oldest child is Jim Carrey.  He’s also an alcoholic and he claims that his name is actually Tim but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still Jim Carrey.

What Worked?

Tolstoy once said that all happy families are the same but that each unhappy family is unique.  The family in this film is unique because — well, oh my God, how dysfunctional can you be?  Not only do you have the judgmental parents and the alcoholic son but you’ve got the frigid daughter and the self-loathing gay son.  Just using one of these stock characters would have made the film’s storyline seem familiar and predictable.  However, tossing all of them into the mix and you’ve got an old school camp classic, complete with dramatic monologues, scary silences, and all the rest.  Though this was originally made and shown by Fox, Doing Time On Maple Drive really does take the beloved Lifetime Family Drama formula to its most logical extreme.

The film is also pretty well-acted and features some familiar faces for those of us who love horror and exploitation films.  For instance, the gay son is played by William McNamara who, if you’re an Argento fan, you may remember his extremely graphic death scene in Opera.

Making the film even more odd, McNamara’s character is engaged to Alison, who is played by Lori Loughlin, the mom from 90210.  How often do you get to see a mix of Argento, 90210, and Jim Carrey on screen?

What Didn’t Work?

Jim Carrey!  Don’t get me wrong, Jim did a good enough job playing his role but the whole time you’re watching the film, you keep thinking “that’s not Tim the alcoholic, that’s Jim Carrey.”

What’s ironic about that, of course, is that Jim Carrey is probably the only reason why anyone ever chooses to watch Doing Time On Maple Drive.  Well, Jim Carrey and insomnia.

(As a sidenote, Jim Carrey had to deliver the line, “I’ve done my time on Maple Drive,” which, of course, meant I had to yell, “We have a title!”)

“Oh My God!  Just Like Me!” Moments

During one dramatic moment, Alison tells her boyfriend, “What’s funny is a part of me always suspected you might be gay…”  This line made me cringe just because I said the exact same thing to one of my ex-boyfriends once.  He started crying.  It was just kinda awkward.

Lessons Learned

If you ever meet the “perfect” family, run away.