Film Review: Westworld (dir by Michael Crichton)


“Draw,” says Yul Brynner.

“Whatever,” says a tourist who has spent a lot of money to spend their vacation at the Delos amusement park.

BANG!  Down goes the tourist, as the robot revolution of 1983 begins.

Recently, TCM broadcast the 1973 science fiction thriller, Westworld.  Since I am absolutely obsessed with the more recent HBO revival, there was no way I could resist watching the original film.  It was an interesting experience.  While the film is far more simpler and straight-forward than the television series, they both essentially tell the same story.  A bunch of rich humans pay a lot of money to pretend to be either cowboys or knights or Roman citizens for a week.  Everyone has a great time until, eventually, the robots stop doing what they were supposed to do and instead, begin to fight back.

One thing that the movie and the series definitely shared is a less-than-positive view of humanity.  The movie focuses on two businessmen.  Peter (Richard Benjamin) is the nerdy one.  John (James Brolin) is the hypermasculine one.  Peter is visiting Westworld for the first time.  John is a frequent guest who loves gunning down any robots who looks at him the wrong way.  Neither one of these characters is particularly likable.  Peter starts out as a self-righteous hypocrite who ends up sleeping with a sexbot, despite being married.  John brags about how easy it is to kill the robots, mostly because the robot’s are programmed to not fight back.

Meanwhile, the human engineers who work behind-the-scenes and keep Delos running are all blandly incompetent.  When the robots start to malfunction, the engineers can only shrug and wonder why.  They’re so ineffective that, halfway through the movie, they get sealed up in their own control room, slowly suffocating to death while the park collapses around them.

As opposed to the TV series, the robots in Westworld never achieve any sort of real consciousness.  Even when they malfunction, it doesn’t lead to a true rebellion as much as it just causes them to ignore any previous directives about killing the guests.  When the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) starts stalking Peter and John across the park, it’s not an act of ideology or, for that matter, even revenge.  It’s simply that the Gunslinger has been programmed to be a killer and this is what a killer does.

It all leads to an extended chase sequence involving the Gunslinger and Peter and, despite the fact that it doesn’t have much of a personality, it’s hard not to be on The Gunslinger’s side.  If nothing else, the Gunslinger is at least good at what it does.  Peter, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most incompetent heroes to ever show up in a movie.  After spending the first half of the movie being smug and dealing with robots programmed not to fight back, Peter now has to try to win on an even playing field.

Westworld was the directorial debut of writer Michael Crichton.  The film’s flaws are largely the flaws that you would expect from a first-time director.  Occasionally, the pacing falters and the first half of the film sometimes moves a bit too slowly.  (There’s one saloon fight that seems to go on forever.)  During the first half of the film, there’s several scenes involving another tourist (played by Dick Van Patten) who seems like he’s going to play a major role in the film but, after the first hour, the character literally vanishes from the film.

Despite those flaws, Westworld remains an exciting mix of suspense and science fiction.  Though his actual screentime is rather limited, Yul Brynner easily dominates the entire film.  In the role of the Gunslinger, Brynner is a relentless killing machine.  What makes the character especially disturbing is that Brynner plays him without a hint of emotion or expression.  The Gunslinger gets no pleasure out of killing nor does he seek to accomplish any sort of identifiable goal.  The Gunslinger simply kills because that’s what he was programmed to do.

While I prefer the HBO series, the original Westworld is still an exciting and entertaining film, one that probably seems a lot more plausible today than when it was first released 46 years ago.  Watch it the next time your home robot gets bored.

Celebrate National Trivia Day With The Actors Who Could Have Been James Bond!


 

Today is National Trivia Day so I thought why not share some trivia?  I love film trivia.  I especially love trivia about who was considered for certain films.  Hell, one of my most popular posts on the Shattered Lens dealt with all of the actors who were considered for the Godfather!

(I even came up with an alternative cast for The Godfather, even though I consider the actual film to be the best cast film in history.)

I also happen to love the James Bond films.  (Well, not so much the recent Bond films.  I’ve made my feelings on SPECTRE clear.)  As a franchise, I absolutely love them.  So, with all that in mind, here is a look at the actors who could have been Bond.  I’ve compiled this article from many sources.  And yes, you could probably just find a lot of the information on Wikipedia but then you’d miss out on my editorial commentary.

Hoagy Carmichael

Ian Fleming himself always said that his pick for Bond would have been the musician, Hoagy Carmichael.  He even made a point, in Casino Royale, of having Vesper Lynd exclaim that Bond looked like Hoagy Carmichael.  Of course, the first actor to actually play Bond was Barry Nelson in a 1954 television adaptation of Casino Royale.  Nelson is probably best remembered for playing Mr. Ullman in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Barry Nelson, the first James Bond

When Dr. No went into production in 1961, many actors were considered for the role before Sean Connery was eventually cast.  Many of them were very well-known actors and, had they been cast, Dr. No would not have been remembered as a Bond movie.  Instead, it would be remembered as a star vehicle for … well, let’s take a look at some of the better-known possibilities:

Among the famous actors who were mentioned for Bond in 1961: Cary Grant, Richard Burton, James Mason, Trevor Howard, Stanley Baker, George Baker, Jimmy Stewart, Rex Harrison, and David Niven.  (Of that list, I think Burton would have made for an interesting Bond.  If the Bond films had been made in the 1940s, Grant would have been my first choice.  Trying to imagine Jimmy Stewart as a British secret agent is … interesting.)

Once it became obvious that a star was not going to play Bond, the role was offered to Patrick McGoohan and Rod Taylor.  McGoohan had moral objections to the character.  Rod Taylor reportedly felt that the film would flop.  Steve Reeves, the American body builder who became famous for playing Hercules in Italy, was reportedly strongly considered.  At one point, director Terrence Young wanted to offer the role to Richard Johnson, who later played Dr. Menard in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2.

Of course, the role went to Sean Connery and made Connery a huge star.  In 1967, after Connery announced that he would no longer play the world’s most famous secret agent, there was a huge and widely publicized search for his replacement.  Some of the names that were considered are intriguing.  Others are just bizarre.

Oliver Reed

To me, perhaps the most intriguing name mentioned was that of Oliver Reed.  Reed definitely would have brought a rougher edge of the role than some of the other actors considered.  However, that’s one reason why Reed wasn’t picked.  Apparently, it was felt that he did not have the right public image to play the suave Mr. Bond.

Somewhat inevitably, Michael Caine was sought out for the role.  Caine, however, refused to consider it because he had already starred in three back-to-back spy thrillers and didn’t want to get typecast.  Caine’s former roommate, Terrence Stamp, was another possibility but wanted too much control over the future direction of the Bond films.  Future Bond Timothy Dalton was considered to be too young.  Another future Bond, Roger Moore, didn’t want to give up his television career.  Eric Braeden has the right look for Bond but was German.  Rumor has it that producer Cubby Broccoli even considered Dick Van Dyke for the role, though I find that hard to believe.  An even more surprising possibility was the nobleman Lord Lucan, who was offered a screen test in 1967 and who, ten years later, would vanish after being accused of murdering his children’s nanny.

Lord Lucan

Among the actors who auditioned before George Lazenby was cast in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Michael Billington, Jeremy Brett, Peter Purves, Robert Campbell, Patrick Mower, Daniel Pilon, John Richardson, Anthony Rogers, Hans De Vries, and Peter Snow.

After the mixed reception of both Lazenby’s performance and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby was soon out as James Bond.  Even today, there’s a lot of controversy about what led to Lazenby being dismissed from the role.  Some say Lazenby demanded too much money.  Some say that Lazenby was merely used a pawn to try to get Sean Connery to return to the role.  Regardless, Lazenby only made one film as Bond.  (Of course, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has retroactively been recognized as being one of the best of the series.)

With Connery still claiming that he would never return to the role, the film’s producers went through the motions of looking for a new Bond.  Once again, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were considered.  Connery suggested that a talk show host named Simon Dee should play the role.  An actor named Roger Green auditioned.  So did Michael Gambon, though he later said he was turned down because, in his own words, he “had tits like a woman.”  Interestingly, several Americans were mentioned.  Clint Eastwood as James Bond?  Burt Reynolds?  Adam “Batman” West? The mind boggles but their names were mentioned.

John Gavin

And interestingly enough, an American was cast.  John Gavin is best known for playing Sam Loomis in Psycho but he was also, briefly, James Bond.  After Gavin accepted he role and signed a contract, Sean Connery announced that he would be willing to return to the role.  Gavin was paid off and Connery went on to star in Diamonds are Forever.

After Diamonds, Connery left the role for a second time and, once again, Bond was recast.  This time, Roger Moore would finally accept the role.  However, before Moore was cast, several other actors were considered.  Some of the regular possibilities were mentioned again: John Gavin, Simon Oates, Timothy Dalton, and Michael Billington.  Others considered included Jon Finch, Ranulph Fiennes, Peter Laughton, and Guy Peters.  Some of those names are probably as unknown to you as they are to me but it’s intriguing to think that Guy Peters may not be a well-known name but, at one time, there was a possibility that he could suddenly become one of the biggest stars in the world.

Looking over the history of the Bond franchise, it’s interesting to see the number of times that Moore tried to leave the role, just to be talked into returning.  Every time that Moore considered quitting, a new group of actors would be considered for the role of Bond.  In 1979, when Moore said he might not return after Moonraker, Timothy Dalton, Michael Jayston, Patrick Mower (who was also considered for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and Michael Billington were all considered as replacements.  So was Julian Glover.  Ironically, when Moore did agree to return to the role, Glover was cast as the villain in For Your Eyes Only.

David Warbeck

To me, the most intriguing actor mentioned as a replacement for Roger Moore was David Warbeck.  Warbeck was a television actor and model who subsequently had a nearly legendary film career in Italy.  Not only did he play a key role in Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker!, but he also starred in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat and The Beyond.  He also appeared in the best of Italian Apocalypse Now rip-offs, The Last Hunter.  In interviews, Warbeck claimed that he was under contract to Cubby Broccoli to step into the role in case Roger Moore ever walked off the set.  The likable and rugged Warbeck would have been an interesting Bond.

In 1983, when Moore again said he might not return to the role, Michael Billington (who actually did appear in a Bond film when he played a KGB agent killed at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me) would be once more considered as a replacement.  British TV actors Lewis Collins and Ian Ogilvy were also considered for the role.  In a repeat of what happened with John Gavin in Diamonds are Forever, American actor James Brolin was actually put under contract until Moore agreed to play the role in Octopussy.

James Brolin, in a screen test for Octopussy

After A View To A Kill, Moore left the role for the final time.  Famously, future Bond Pierce Brosnan was actually cast as his replacement until the surge of interest created by his casting led to the renewal of Remington Steele, the American television show in which Brosnan was starring.  Once the show was renewed, Brosnan could no longer work the Bond films into his schedule.

Among the other names mentioned: Sean Bean, Simon MacCorkindale, Andrew Clarke, Finlay Light, Mark Greenstreet, Neil Dickson, Christopher Lambert, Mel Gibson, and Antony Hamilton.  Sam Neill was another possibility and reportedly came very close to getting the role.  Watch any of the films that Neill made when he was younger and you can definitely see hints of Bond.

Sam Neill

In the end, Timothy Dalton finally accepted the role.  Ironically, for an actor who spent 20 years being courted for the role, Dalton turned out to be a bit of a flop as Bond.  He made two movies (both of which were considered to be disappointing when compared to the previous Bond films) and then left the role.

Looking over the contemporary reviews of Dalton as Bond, one thing that comes through clearly is that a lot of people resented him for taking a role that they felt should have gone to Pierce Brosnan.  When the Bond films resumed production with Goldeneye in 1994, Brosnan finally stepped into the role.  Reportedly, if Brosnan had turned down the role, the second choice was Sean Bean.  Much like Julian Glover, Bean may have lost out on 007 but he did end up playing the villain.

Sean Bean

Among the other actors who were reportedly considered before Brosnan accepted the role: Mark Frankel, Paul McGann, Liam Neeson, Russell Crowe, and Lambert Wilson.  Ralph Fiennes, who has been M since Skyfall, was also considered.

As opposed to his predecessors, Brosnan seemed to be very comfortable with the idea of playing Bond and never threatened to leave the role.  Looking over the Bond-related articles that were published from 1995 to 2004, I found the occasional speculation about whether Rupert Everett would be the first gay James Bond or if Sharon Stone would be the first female James Bond but I found very little speculation about Brosnan actually leaving the role.  Indeed, when Brosnan officially retired as Bond in 2004, it was less his decision and more at the prodding of the franchise’s producers, who felt that the series needed to be rejuvenated with a new (and younger) actor.  After Brosnan left, the series was rebooted and Daniel Craig played the role in Casino Royale.

In the past, I’ve made it clear that Daniel Craig is hardly my favorite Bond.  I loved Skyfall (and I consider it to the 2nd best Bond film, after From Russia With Love) but, even in that case, I felt that the film succeeded despite Craig instead of because of him.  With Casino Royale, we were supposed to be seeing a young and inexperienced Bond.  That’s never come through to me, probably because Craig looked like he was nearly 50 years old when he made Casino Royale.

Among the actors who were mentioned for the role before Craig received the role: Ralph Fiennes (again), Colin Salmon, Ewan McGregor, Henry Cavill, Rupert Friend, Julian McMahon, Alex O’Laughlin, Clive Owen, Dougray Scott, and Goran Visjnic.  Dominic West, who I think would have been great in the role, reportedly ruled himself out because he heard a rumor that Brosnan would be returning to the role.

Dominic West

Daniel Craig, of course, has been talking about leaving the role ever since he was first cast.  I think Skyfall would have been a perfect movie for him to leave on.  (It would have saved the world from SPECTRE.)  However, Craig has apparently agreed to do at least one more Bond film.  Maybe two.

When Craig does leave, who will replace him?  Idris Elba, of course, is probably the most widely discussed possibility.  James Norton has also been named as a possibility.  Others that I’ve seen mentioned: Tom Hardy, Jack Huston, Aidan Turner, Tom Hiddleston, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, and Henry Cavill (again).

My personal choice?  Dominic Cooper.  He’d be an off-center Bond but I think it would still be an intriguing pick.

Dominic Cooper

Who knows what the future may hold for 007?  All I know is that I look forward to the speculation.

Happy National Trivia Day, everyone!

A Movie A Day #323: Ted & Venus (1991, directed by Bud Cort)


Strange movie, Ted & Venus.

Actor Bud Cort (you remember him from Harold and Maude) both directs and stars as Ted.  Ted is a homeless poet who lives on the beach and only has one friend, a mellow beach bum named Max (Josh Brolin).  Kim Adams plays Linda, who is the Venus of the title, a social worker who has a bodybuilder jerk for a boyfriend (Brian Thompson, who you might remember as the main villain in Cobra).  When Ted sees Linda, it is love at first sight and at first, the movie seems like it is going to be a quirky romantic comedy where Ted eventually wins Linda over.  When Linda turns down Ted’s advances, Ted does not give up.  Instead, Ted starts following her everywhere and making harassing phone calls.  Ted starts out as a nuisance and goes on to become a full-out stalker.  Everyone, even Max, tells Ted to stop bothering Linda but he is convinced that he can make her fall in love him.  He’s wrong.

Because of the presence of Cort both in front of and behind the camera, Ted & Venus sometimes seems like Harold and Maude: The Later Years.  Harold, the iconoclast that everyone loved, has grown up and become Ted, the unemployable stalker.  It’s an interesting idea and Cort pulls it off as an actor but not as a director.  You have to admire Cort’s devotion to his vision but it’s impossible to be certain what that vision was because the film’s tone is all over the place.  Cort gets a far better performance from himself than he does from the rest of the cast.

Speaking of the cast, the movie is full of familiar faces.  In fact, there are almost too many familiar faces.  It’s hard not to get distracted by all of the cameos.  If you somehow see this obscure movie, keep an eye out for: Woody Harrelson (who gets two lines and five seconds of screen time), Rhea Pearlman, Carol Kane, Martin Mull, Gena Rowlands, Pat McCormick, Vincent Schiavelli, Cassandra Peterson, and Andrea Martin.  When Ted is hauled into court, charged with stalking, the judge is played by LSD guru Timothy Leary.  I am not sure what Ted & Venus was trying to say but Bud Cort assembled an impressive cast to say it.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

Sisters_movie_poster

Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Horror Film Review: The Car (dir by Elliot Silverstein)


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“THE CAR IS IN THE GARAGE” 

— Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) in The Car (1977)

Yes, that’s right!  The car is in the garage and it’s hunting for blood!

The Car is a pretty stupid movie that doesn’t really work but at least it’s enjoyably stupid.  From the minute I started watching this movie, I knew that the only way I could recommend it would be if James Brolin shouted, “The car is in the garage!” at some point.  When he did, I had to cheer a little.  I love being able to recommend a movie.

The Car takes place in the small desert town of Santa Ynez.  Nothing much ever seems to happen in Santa Ynez, which perhaps explains why the police force is so large.  (Why wouldn’t you want to be a police officer in a town with no crime?  It wouldn’t be a very demanding job.)  Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley) keeps the peace and sends his time talking about how much he hates bullies.  Wade Parent (James Brolin) is his second-in-command and has a 70s pornstache.  Wade’s best friend is Deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox), a recovering alcoholic with impressive sideburns.  And then there’s a few dozen other cops.  Seriously, this tiny town has a HUGE police force.

One day, however, the police finally get something to do.  A black Lincoln Continental has suddenly appeared, stalking the roads around the town.  It doesn’t have a licence plate and the windows are tinted a dark red so it’s impossible to see who — if anyone — is driving.  Stranger still, the car’s doors have no handles.  When the car does show up, it seems to appear out of nowhere and once it’s run someone over, it seems to vanish just as quickly.

When the car first appears, it runs down two cyclists.  A few hours later, it kills an obnoxious hippie hitchhiker (John Rubinstein).  The only witness was alcoholic wife beater Amos Clements (R.G. Armstrong).  When Amos goes to the police, the car tries to run him over as well but instead, it ends up killing Sheriff Peck.

Now, Wade is in charge and he has to do something about the car.  Unfortunately, Wade’s girlfriend, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), made the mistake of screaming insults at the car when the car attempted to run down the school marching band.  Now, the car is stalking her.  Meanwhile, Luke is convinced that the car is being driven by none other than devil.  Wade says that’s impossible.  Luke points out that the car refuses to drive through consecrated ground.

And eventually, the car does show up in the garage…

The Car is one of the stupider of the many Jaws ripoffs that I’ve seen.  You’ll be rooting for the car through the entire film, which is good since the car kills nearly everyone in Santa Ynez.  (If any of them were likable, The Car wouldn’t as much fun to watch.)  It’s dumb but the film does have an appropriately silly ending and James Brolin does get to yell, “The car is in the garage!”

So, there is that.

Shattered Politics #69: Traffic (dir by Steven Soderbergh)


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I have mixed feelings about Steven Soderbergh.  On the one hand, his talent cannot be denied and you have to respect the fact that he’s willing to take chances and make films like The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant.  On the other hand, he’s also the director who has been responsible for overrated messes like Contagion and utter pretentious disasters like Haywire.  And it doesn’t help that Soderbergh’s fanbase seems to be largely made up of the type of hipsters who end up leaving comments under the articles at The A.V. Club.  Some people mourned Soderbergh’s retirement.  Personally, I think he made the right decision.  He retired before his misfires ended up outnumbering all of his masterpieces.

The thing about Soderbergh is that his good films are so good that it makes it all the more frustrating to watch his failures.  If Soderbergh was just your typical bad director than a film like Contagion wouldn’t be as annoying.  But this is the man who also gave us Traffic!

And Traffic is a very good film.

First released in 2000, Traffic attempted to deal with the American war on drugs, a war that the film suggests might not even be worth fighting.  (Full disclosure: I support the legalization of drugs and, for that matter, just about everything else.  And yes, I am biased towards films that agree with me.  So is every other film critic out there.  The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.)  Traffic won four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Benicio Del Toro.  It was also nominated for best picture but lost to Gladiator.

Traffic tells three, barely connected stories.  Each story is given its own distinct look, feel, and color scheme.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to film’s visual scheme, it ultimately works quite well.  Though all of the film’s characters share the same general existence, they live in different worlds.  The only thing linking them together is drugs.

Judge Andrew Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is a judge on the Ohio Supreme Court who has recently been named as the new drug czar.  However, while Judge Wakefield is going around the country and talking to politicians (Harry Reid shows up playing himself and is just as creepy as always), his daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) is dating Seth (Topher Grace) and getting addicted to cocaine and heroin.  When Caroline run away, Judge Wakefield recruits Seth and, using him as a guide, searches the ghetto for his daughter.

The Wakefield scenes are bathed in cold and somber blues.  They’re beautiful to look at but, in some ways, they’re also some of the weakest in the film.  The whole plotline of Caroline going from being an innocent honor’s student to being a prostitute who sells her body for heroin feels a lot like the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice.  At the same time, it’s interesting and a little fun to see Topher Grace playing such a little jerk.  Grace gets some of the best lines in the film, especially when he attacks Wakefield’s feelings of smug superiority.

In the film’s second storyline, two DEA Agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman) arrest drug trafficker Eddie Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer).  Eddie works for the Ayala syndicate and, once he’s arrested, he turns informant.  Drug lord Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) is arrested.  While Carlos sits on trial, his pregnant wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and his sleazy business associate (Dennis Quaid) struggle to hold together the business and find a way to kill Ruiz before he can testify.

This storyline is filmed in bright and vibrant colors and why not?  The Ayalas are rich and, unlike the Wakefields, they don’t feel the need to hide their material wealth.  This is actually probably my favorite storyline, largely because it’s the best acted and the most entertaining.  Miguel Ferrer, in particular, steals every scene that he’s in.  The scene where he explains the economics of being a drug trafficker is fascinating to watch.

The Ayala storyline may be my favorite but the film’s most thought-provoking storyline is the third one.  Taking place in Mexico, it stars Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez, a casually corrupt police officer who gets recruited to work for General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who is heading up Mexico’s war on the cartels.  Following the orders of Salazar, Javier captures assassin Frankie Flowers (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is then savagely tortured by Salazar until he turns informer.  Javier comes to realize that Salazar is actually working for one of Mexico’s cartels.  When he decides to inform on Salazar, he puts his own life at risk.

The Mexico storyline is also the harshest and visually, it reflects that fact.  The heat literally seems to be rising up from the desert and the streets of Tijuana.  It takes a few minutes to adjust to the look of the Mexico scenes but, once you do, they become enthralling.

And Traffic, as a film, is undeniably enthralling as well.  Soderbergh deftly juggles the multiple storylines and brings them together to create a portrait of a society that’s being destroyed by the efforts to save it.  Hopefully, if Soderbergh ever does come out of retirement, he’ll give us more films like Traffic and less films like Contagion.

 

44 Days of Paranoia #19: Capricorn One (dir by Peter Hyams)


Last night, the temperature plunged here in Texas.  When I woke up this morning, I was confronted with a world that was literally frozen.  Needless to say, nobody in Dallas went to work today.  Instead, we all sat in our houses and tried to keep ourselves entertained.  I kept myself occupied by watching a film that was initially released way back in 1978 and which takes place in my home state.

The name of that film was Capricorn One and it’s the latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia.

Capricorn One begins with three astronauts preparing to take the fist manned space flight to Mars.  James Brolin is the stoic leader.  Sam Waterston is the guy who has a joke for every occasion.  And O.J. Simpson is … well, O.J. really doesn’t have much of a personality.  He’s pretty much just along for the ride.

However, it turns out that there really isn’t going to be a ride.  Just as the countdown begins, the astronauts are ordered to leave the capsule.  They are then transported to secret base in the Texas desert.  It’s here that they have a meeting with the Head of NASA, who is played by Hal Holbrook.  (It’s simply not a 70s conspiracy film if Hal Holbrook isn’t somehow involved).  Holbrook proceeds to deliver a stirring monologue where he talks about how he and Brolin have always dreamed of sending a manned flight to Mars.  However, as Holbrook explains, the life support system on the crew’s ship was faulty.  If Holbrook had allowed them to be launched, they would have died as soon as they left the Earth’s atmosphere.  However, if the mission had been canceled then there was a chance that the President would use that cancellation as an excuse to cut NASA’s funding.

So, as Holbrook explains, an empty spaceship has been launched into space.  As far as the American public is concerned, the three astronauts are currently on their way to Mars.  Now, in order to save the space program, they are going to have to fake the mission.  In a studio, a fake alien landscape has been set up and it’s from that studio that Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson will pretend to explore Mars.

Brolin, Waterston, and Simpson reluctantly agree to cooperate with the plan.  However, after doing the first fake broadcast, Brolin starts to have second thoughts.  Realizing that he can’t trust the three astronauts to keep a secret, Holbrook announces that the capsule’s heat shields failed during re-entry and that the crew of Capricorn One is now dead.  Now, all he has to do is have the three of them killed for real.

Meanwhile, a NASA technician (Robert Walden) stumbles onto evidence of the deception.  He subsequently vanishes but not before he tells reporter Elliott Gould about his suspicions.  While the three astronauts try to escape from Holbrook’s agents, Gould tries to find out what really happened to Capricorn One.

It’s probably half-an-hour too long, the plot is full of holes (the least of which being why Holbrook waited until after he had announced the fake deaths to order the real deaths), and director Peter Hyams allows a few scenes to run on and on while others seem to end with a jarring abruptness.  However, for the most part, Capricorn One is a well-acted and solidly entertaining film.  However, there are two things that make Capricorn One especially memorable.

First off, Capricorn One features one of the most exciting action sequences that I have  ever seen.  It occurs while Gould is investigating Walden’s disappearance.  After visiting Walden’s apartment and discovering that it’s inhabited by a woman who claims to have never heard of his friend, Gould is driving away when he discovers that his brakes have been disabled.  The car then starts to accelerate and Gould finds himself desperately trying to regain control as the car careens through the streets of Houston.  The scene is shot almost entirely from Gould’s point-of-view and, for five minutes, we watch as everything from other cars to unlucky pedestrians come hurtling towards the car.  For those few minutes, when the viewer and Gould become one, Capricorn One is not only exciting but it feels genuinely dangerous as well.

Secondly, Capricorn One features some of the oddest dialogue imaginable.  Peter Hyams not only directed the film but he also wrote the screenplay as well.  Watching the film, one gets the feelings that Hyams was so in love with his dialogue and with all of his quirky characters that he simply could not bring himself to cut anything or anyone.  As a result, the film is full of lengthy monologues.  When the characters speak to each other, they don’t have conversations as much as they trade quips.  Characters like Gould’s ex-wife (played by Karen Black) and his editor (David Doyle) show up for a scene or two, deliver monologues that are only tangibly related to the film’s plot, and then vanish.  Sam Waterston ends up telling the world’s longest joke while he climbs a mountain in the desert.  Towards the end of the film, Telly Savalas (who was in my favorite Mario Bava film, Lisa and the Devil) shows up as a foul-tempered crop duster and engages in a long argument with Gould who, despite being a reporter, never bothers to question why Savalas would have a crop dusting business in the middle of the desert.

But here’s the thing — it works.  As odd as some of the dialogue may be and as superfluous as some of the action is to the overall plot, it still all works to the film’s benefit.  The constant quirkiness works to keep the audience off-balance and to give Capricorn One its own unique rhythm.

Capricorn One — see it now before Michael Bay remakes it.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again