Cleaning Out The DVR: The Comedians (dir by Peter Glenville)


Not to be mistaken for the Taylor Hackford-directed, Robert De Niro-starring disaster from a few years back, The Comedians is a film from 1967 that follows several different people as they attempt to survive day-to-day life in Haiti, back when Haiti was ruled by the dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.

Richard Burton stars Mr. Brown (Richard Burton), a deeply cynical and world-weary Englishman who owns what passes for a luxury hotel in Haiti.  Though Mr. Brown hopes to be able to sell the hotel and get out of Haiti, he is also having an affair with Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the German wife of Pineda (Peter Ustinov), the ambassador from Uruguay.  Mr. Brown tries to avoid politics, which it turns out is not easy to do when you’re living under a murderous regime.

Complicating Mr. Brown’s life is Major Jones (Alec Guinness), a retired British army officer who has come to Haiti to do business but who is promptly imprisoned when it’s discovered that he was invited to come to the island by a minister who was subsequently declared to be an enemy of the state.  The fascist Captain Concasseur (Raymond St. Jacques) arrests Major Jones and Mr. Brown takes it upon himself to try to get Jones released.  Unfortunately, Major Jones doesn’t quite understand how serious his situation is and he’s convinced the Haitians that he’s not only a brilliant military leader but that he can also arrange for them to receive a cache of weapons, which he claims he has hidden in a Miami warehouse.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) have also arrived on the island, hoping to set up a vegetarian center in Haiti.  (Mr. Smith even once ran for President of the U.S. as the candidate of the Vegetarian Party.)  In many ways, Mr. and Mrs. Smith serve as a stand-in for clueless American activists, obsessing over minor issues while ignoring the larger problems that are right in front of their faces.

From the start, The Comedians establishes Haiti as being a dangerous place, a country where the people live in fear of the brutal police and where the poor struggle to survive day-to-day while their rulers live a life of luxury.  It’s a place where political dissidents regularly disappear, though the police aren’t above murdering people in public as well.  It’s a country where the State rules supreme, controlling the citizens through both fear and a fierce cult of personality.  Rebels like Dr. Magiot (James Earl Jones) only want the country to be free but they know that, as long superpowers like America are supporting the regime, there’s little that the rebels can realistically hope to accomplish.

A major theme running through The Comedians is that the real suffering of the Haitian people is often overshadowed by the strategic concerns of the United States.  Unfortunately, pretty much the same thing happens within the film itself.  While there’s several black actors in supporting roles, the story focuses on the white characters and, as a result, it sometimes feels like the film’s message is less about the people being oppressed and more about how unfortunate it is that people like Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are being inconvenienced by it all.  Like many similarly well-intentioned political films from the late 60s, The Comedians get so bogged down in all of the personal dramas that it loses sight of what’s actually the important part of the story.  The film is often seems more interested in Brown and Martha’s affair than in the conditions that would lead to people like Dr. Magiot risking their lives to bring about change.

For the most part, it’s a well-acted film.  Richard Burton’s natural self-loathing is put to good use and Alec Guinness has a few poignant scenes as a pathological liar who doesn’t realize how much trouble he’s actually in until it’s too late.  (Guinness also has a scene where he wears blackface and pretends to be Burton’s maid.  He does this in order to escape from the secret police and the film doesn’t treat it as being a joke but it’s still rather cringey to watch.)  Elizabeth Taylor is miscast as Martha and her German accent comes and goes but Paul Ford and Lillian Gish do a good job playing clueless Americans.  Perhaps the film’s strongest performance comes from Zakes Mokae, who doesn’t say much as a member of the secret police but who exudes menace every time that he’s on screen.  Still, as well acted at it may be, the film is slowly paced and always seem hesitant about taking any position beyond a general sense that dictatorships are bad.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with reminding people that dictatorships are bad.  That’s especially an important message today.  The past few years have left me convinced that a lot of people secretly yearn for a dictatorship and would be willing to trade their freedoms for a false sense of security.  Though the film may struggle dramatically, it’s still works as a warning about what true authoritarianism actually is.

 

Three Fugitives (1989, directed by Francis Veber)


Daniel Lucas (Nick Nolte) is having a bad day.  He’s just gotten out on parole after spending 5 years in prison for armed robbery.  No sooner has Lucas left the prison than he’s met by Detective Dugan (James Earl) and his partner, Inspector Tenner (Alan Ruck).  Dugan says that he knows that Lucas is going to return to his life of crime and that, when he does, Dugan will be there to arrest him.

Determined to go straight, Lucas heads to the nearest bank.  Maybe he thinks that going to a bank and not robbing it will convince everyone that he’s no longer a criminal.  Unfortunately, the bank does end up getting robbed, not by Lucas but by Ned Perry (Martin Short).  Ned’s not much of a bank robber.  In fact, he’s never committed a crime in his life.  But he desperately needs the money so he can afford a special school for his young daughter, Meg (Sarah Doroff), who hasn’t spoken since her mother died.  When the bank robbery doesn’t go as planned and Lucas ends up accidentally getting shot, Lucas and Ned end up going on the run together with Dugan and Tenner in pursuit.

When I was a kid, Three Fugitives was a movie that seemed like it was on television nearly every day.  Of course, it was popular on HBO but it also used to regularly show up on the local stations, with all of Nick Nolte’s profanity awkwardly edited out.  Looking back, I can see why Three Fugitives was so popular with television programmers who needed something fill a two-hour time slot.  It’s got enough broad slapstick and just enough violence to keep the kids happy while also being so sentimental and inoffensive that parents wouldn’t complain about what their children were watching.

That Three Fugitives was such a ubiquitous presence on television is really the only memorable thing about it.  On paper, the idea of pairing Nick Nolte with Martin Short sounds like it should generate a lot of laughs and they are funny in the initial bank hold-up but after that, neither seems to be acting in the same movie.  Nolte is too serious for the comedic scenes and Short is too cartoonish for the serious scenes and their partnership is never credible.  Nick Nolte was the king of the mismatched buddy comedy in the 80s but Three Fugitives is no 48 Hours.

Gang Related (1997, directed by Jim Kouf)


LAPD vice detectives DiVinci (Jim Belushi) and Rodriguez (Tupac Shakur) have a pretty good racket going.  They sell cocaine to drug dealers and then, once they get their money, they murder the dealers and take their drugs back so that the cocaine can be resold.  The murders are written up as being “gang-related” and because no one cares about dead drug dealers, Divinci and Rodriguez don’t have to worry about anyone actually investigating their crimes.

This all changes when they kill the wrong dealer.  It turns out Lionel Hudd (Kool Mo Dee) was actually an undercover DEA agent and now that he’s been murdered, his partner (played by Gary Cole) is investigating the murder.  Needing a patsy to take the fall, they arrest a homeless man who is known as Joe Doe (Dennis Quaid).  Joe can’t even remember what his real name is and, because he’s intoxicated when he’s arrested and interrogated, it’s easy for DiVinci and Rodriguez to talk him into believing that he killed Hudd.

At first, it seems like a perfect plan because the only people that the citizens of Los Angeles care about less than gang members and drug dealers are the homeless.  But then it turns out that Joe Doe is actually a wealthy surgeon and his family hires a prominent attorney (played by James Earl Jones, so you know he’s good) to defend him.  Meanwhile, the stripper (Lela Rochon) who DiVinci and Rodriguez coerced into identifying Doe as the murderer is having second thoughts.  And so is Rodriguez.

The plot of Gang Related may be convoluted and sometimes difficult to follow but that works to the film’s advantage as Divinci and Rodriguez find themselves plunging further and further down the rabbit hole of their own lies.  The audience may be confused but so are they so everyone’s the same page.  It seems like no matter what scheme DiVinci comes up with to try to cover for his own crimes, there’s always an unforeseen complication and most of the film’s narrative momentum comes from watching two corrupt cops go from being cocky to being desperate to save their own lives as their maze of deception becomes increasingly difficult to navigate.  Neither DiVinci nor Rodriguez is a likable character (though Rodriguez is, at least, troubled by what he’s become) so there’s a lot of pleasure to be had by watching these two finally face justice.

Gang Related was Tupac Shakur’s final film and it was released over a year after his death.  It’s a B-movie but it’s a well-made B-movie and Shakur gives a good and complex performance.  So does Jim Belushi, whose mounting desperation is really something to see.  Gang Related may be a B-movie but it’s portrayal of two criminal cops being empowered by a corrupt system is still relevant today.

Allan Quatermain and The Lost City Of Gold (1987, directed by Gary Nelson)


Having previously discovered and escaped King Solomon’s mines, Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) and Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) are now living in a domestic bliss in Africa.  They’re planning on eventually returning to America so that they can get married but it turns out that Allan has one more quest that he has to complete before he can truly settle down.

When Allan receives information that his long last brother is not only still alive but has also discovered a fabled Lost City of Gold, Allan sets out to discover the city for himself.  Traveling with Jesse and an old friend named Umslopogaas (James Earl Jones!), Allan makes his way across the Sahara, survives a battle with a group of native, and manages to find both the city and his brother!

However, all is not well in the City of Gold.  Queen Nyelptha (Aileen Marson) is on the verge of going to war with Queen Sorais (Cassandra Peterson, a.k.a Elvira, Mistress of the Dark!!).  Manipulating both of the queens is the evil high priest, Agon (Henry Silva!!!!).  To save the City of Gold and his future marriage, Allan will first have to figure out a way to defeat Agon.

Allan Quatermain and the Lost City Of Gold was filmed back-to-back with King Solomon’s Mines.  The two films were released within a year of each other and, while King Solomon’s Mines was a minor box office success, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold was not.  I wasn’t expecting much when I watched the film but, believe it or not, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold is not that bad.  It’s a definite improvement on King Solomon’s Mines.  Richard Chamberlain is more believable as Quatermain in the sequel and he and Sharon Stone share the minimum amount of chemistry to be somewhat believable as a couple in love.  If that sounds like I’m damning with faint praise, it’s still an improvement over King Solomon’s Mines, where the two of them often seemed as if they couldn’t stand to be anywhere near each other.  Best of all, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold has Henry Silva in a ridiculous costume and that automatically makes the film worth watching.

Henry Silva, everyone.

Like King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain and The Lost City of Gold adds a large dose of intentional humor to its adventure story.  Fortunately, the comedy here is better executed than in the previous film.  There’s less mugging on Chamberlain’s part and some of the dialogue is genuinely amusing.

Of course, Allan Quatermain and The Lost City of Gold is not without its flaws.  This is a low-budget Cannon film that often tries too hard to duplicate the success of the Indiana Jones films without ever showing much understanding of what made those films successful in the first place.  Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold can’t hold a candle to the classic adventure films of the past.  But, for a low-budget Cannon film starring Richard Chamberlain as a rugged, jungle explorer, it’s actually a lot of fun.

Plus, did I mention Henry Silva?

Scenes That I Love: James Earl Jones in Dr. Strangelove


It seems rather appropriate that, while we spend this year celebrating TSL’s 10th birthday, we’ve taken the time to recognize the birthdays of so many of our favorite directors and actors.  Earlier today, Jeff already paid tribute to Andy Kaufman and Donald Cammell.

Well, today is also James Earl Jones’s birthday and there’s no way we’re going to let that go unacknowledged.  James Earl Jones is 89 years old today and he’s still working.  Everyone, of course, knows Jones’s voice and the story of how, when he was a child, he suffered from a stutter so severe that he refused to speak.  (Jones has described the years before he entered high school as being his “mute years.”) What’s often overlooked is just how good of an actor James Earl Jones is.  Jones has played everyone from villains to mentors to heroes.  He’s appeared in every possible genre and his presence has never not been welcome.

James Earl Jones made his film debut with a small role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  Jones played Lt. Luther Zogg, one of the men aboard the B-52 bombardier that eventually causes the end of the world.

Jones has often said that he didn’t really care for either the role or the film.  Lt. Zogg is a small role and it is true that, if not for the fact that he’s played by James Earl Jones, you probably wouldn’t remember much about him.  For the most part, Jones spends the majority of the movie listening as Maj. Kong (Slim Pickens) talks about following orders and doing their patriotic duty.

And yet, I think Jones is a bit too dismissive of the role.  It’s a small role but the undeniable authority of Jones’s voice provides a nice contrast to the country drawl of Maj. Kong.  Without Lt. Zogg calmly following orders, it would be too easy for the audience to dismiss Maj. Kong as an outlier as opposed to a representative of what the film viewed as being the military’s blase attitude towards the possibility of nuclear war.

Add to that, Jones’s delivery of “Hey, what about Maj. Kong?” is absolutely perfect.

So, with that in mind, here’s James Earl Jones in two scenes from Dr. Strangelove!

The Story of the Hills: The UFO Incident (1975, directed by Richard A. Colla)


Betty and Barney Hill (played by Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones) are a happily married couple living in New Hampshire in the mid-60s.  They are both haunted by something that happened two years previously, while they were on vacation.  They both remember something appearing in the sky over their car but they can’t remember anything that happened afterwards.  They are both haunted by nightmares and a strong feeling that something terrible most have happened to them.  Finally, they meet with Dr. Benjamin Simon (Barnard Hughes), who places them both under hypnosis.  Only then does a clear picture start to emerge of what Betty and Barney believe happened as they both describe being abducted and experimented upon by aliens.

The UFO Incident is a very sober and serious account of the Hills’s abduction.  It never takes a clear side as to whether Betty and Barney are remembering something that actually happened or if they’re just remembering elaborate dreams.  That works to the film’s advantage, though it might disappoint those looking for a more dramatic take on the subject.  This is a made-for-TV movie so don’t expect much from the special effects and the alien costumes look disappointingly cheap.  The important thing, though, is that the film treat the Hills and their story with respect and James Earl Jones gives one of his best and most relatable performances as Barney.  The film is as much about how even a good marriage can be threatened by stressful times as it is about the UFOs.

The UFO Incident is based on the non-fiction book, The Interrupted Journey by John G. Fuller, which purported to tell the story of the Hills and their abduction.  The Hills were two of the first people to come forward with a story about being abducted by aliens.  Much of the common elements that can be found in stories about alien abductions, like the little grey men, the medical experimentation, and the amnesia afterwards, began with the Hills’s account of what they believed happened to them in 1961.  The Hills, who were active and highly respected in their community, were considered to be unusually credible witnesses, though Dr. Simon ultimately decided that Barney’s recollections of being on the UFO were probably influenced by Betty’s descriptions of her nightmares.  Barney, himself, died in 1969, three years after the book was published.  Betty remained active in the UFO community until her death in 2004.

You’re Killing Me, Smalls!: Let’s Play in THE SANDLOT (20th Century-Fox 1993)


cracked rear viewer


Baseball movies are as American as apple pie, and everyone has their favorites, from classic era films like THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES and TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME to latter-day fare like THE NATURAL and FIELD OF DREAMS. There’s so much to choose from, comedies, dramas, and everything in-between. One of my all-time favorites is 1993’s coming of age classic, THE SANDLOT.

Like most baseball movies, THE SANDLOT is about more than just The Great American Pastime. Director David Mickey Evans’ script (co-written with Robert Gunter) takes us back to 1962, as young Scotty Smalls has moved to a brand new neighborhood in a brand new city. His dad died, and his mom (Karen Allen of NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE fame) has remarried preoccupied Bill (young comedian Denis Leary…. hmmm, I wonder what ever happened to him??), who tries to teach the nerdy kid how to play…

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Here’s The Trailer For The Lion King


Coming soon from Disney …. IT”S THE LION KING!

Apparently, it’s just like the previous Lion King except it’s now live action!  That’s fine with me.  I’ll watch anything involving cats.  Besides, I want to see how they do this scene:

Donald Glover will be providing the voice of Simba while James Earl Jones will be breaking heats all over again in the role of Mustafa.  The film will be directed by Jon Favreau, who worked wonders with The Jungle Book.  It’ll be interesting to see if he can pull it off again with this remake of one of Disney’s most beloved films.

The new Lion King comes out on July 19th!

Review: The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)


The Hunt for Red October

Fresh off the success of his two previous films, The Predator and Die Hard, John McTiernan was now tasked with adapting one of the 1980’s most popular novels with Tom Clancy’s debut techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

By 1990, the year the film was released, Gorbachev had thawed the Cold War that existed between East and West. The Berlin Wall was months away from being torn down and glasnost became the word of the day for most people who knew nothing but the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads since before born.

It was during the final years of the Cold War that an insurance salesman with a penchant for military and spy thrillers tried his hand in writing one. this first attempt became a worldwide sensation and was quickly put up in a bidding war by all the major studios. It would be Paramount Pictures who would win to adapt The Hunt for Red October for the big-screen and John McTiernan would be hired to steer the film.

While Sean Connery would ultimately be cast in the main role of Soviet submarine Marko Ramius, he wasn’t the first choice. German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast but ended up leaving production a coupe weeks into production due to prior commitments. So, in comes Connery and the rest, as they would say, is history.

The thing about film adaptations of popular novels has been how much of the novel could the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, be able to fit into a film that would run around 2 hours or so. Some cutting of scenes that fans loves would have to be done and depending on the scenes in the novel, a backlash could begin against the film even before filming was completed.

Fortunately, this was Hollywood in the late 1980’s and there was no such thing as the internet as we know of it today. There were no blogs dedicated to reporting on every minute detail of a film production. No amateur film newshound bringing up unsubstantiated rumors of the going’s on during a film’s production. This was still a Hollywood who controlled how news of their activities were going to be reported and what they decided to tell and show reporters.

This would be a boon for McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October since the film had some major help from not just the U.S. Navy, but from the Department of Defense in trying to make sure the film was as realistic as possible in portraying the life of American submariners, Naval personnel and how the intelligence community in the West operated. Again, this was also with the film portraying all these groups in a much more positive light in return for their assistance.

In today’s world, such a compromise from the filmmakers to gain the help from the military-intelligence apparatus would be akin to some as perpetuating warmongering and glorifying the military. I could see blogs shouting for boycotts if such a thing happened nowadays.

But returning to the film The Hunt for Red October, for a straight-by-the-numbers thriller it still brings a certain surprise and inventiveness in the action-thriller genre that other filmmakers decades later would try to emulate (Crimson Tide and the many Jack Ryan-based films). Despite a Russian accent that really was cringe-worthy even when first heard, Sean Connery made for a charismatic and sympathetic Marko Ramius whose reasoning for defecting with the titular submarine Red October went beyond just the politics of the era.

Backing him up was a strong ensemble cast with a very young Alec Baldwin in the role of Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones as his boss CIA director Adm. James Greer and Sam Neill and Scott Glenn as Cmdr. Borodin and Capt. Mancuso. The film goes in heavily into Clancy’s love for technobabble and military jargon, yet the actors involved seemed very game and convincing in acting out the dialogue that would sound ridiculous is just read without context and understanding.

While the film does sacrifice some of the more political maneuverings in the book, which meant less scenes with Richard Jordan as National Security Advisor Dr. Pelt, it does streamline the film to be more action-oriented. It was a shame they went that way in which parts of the novel to cut out since Jordan’s performance as Dr. Pelt was one of the highlights of the film, despite his limited screentime.

In terms of action, The Hunt for Red October proved once again that McTiernan knew how to handle both tension and action in equal measure. He makes the cat-and-mouse battle between the Soviet and American subs seem as thrilling as any fast-paced dogfight scenes that thrilled filmgoers when Top Gun premiered on the bigscreen.

Even the film’s orchestral score from the late and great composer Basil Poledouris would lend the film a certain level of martial prowess that Poledouris’ compositions were known for. Even after many viewings it’s still difficult not to hum the film’s Soviet national hymn-inspired theme.

While The Hunt for Red October was one of the last films of the Cold War-era that still showed the tug-of-war between the East and West, it was a fitting end to a part of Hollywood’s cinematic history that portrayed Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, as the big go-to Enemy that made action movies of the 80’s so popular with the Reaganite crowd.

The success of this film would begin a cottage industry of sequels featuring the character of Jack Ryan who would be portrayed in subsequent films by none other than Everyman himself Harrison Ford then in a miscasting in a later sequel by Ben Affleck.