In The City: THE WARRIORS (Paramount 1979)


cracked rear viewer


Back in the 70’s, the crowd I hung out with didn’t give a rat’s ass about STAR WARS … THE WARRIORS was THE movie to see! The film reportedly resulted in outbreaks of violence, vandalism, and even three deaths  – including one up in Boston! – and Paramount Pictures pulled all its advertising, because that’s what adults do! Didn’t matter to us, though… everyone already knew about THE WARRIORS and it’s glorification of violence, and all the neighborhood cool kids just had to catch it (including a certain long-haired wiseass who used to amuse his street corner friends with his “useless knowledge” of old movies).

The myriad street gangs of New York City have declared a truce and gathered together for a big meet called by Cyrus, leader of The Riffs. The charismatic Cyrus whips ’em into a frenzy proposing they all organize into one huge gang to control The…

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Van Damme Directs: The Quest (1996, directed by Jean-Claude Van Damme)


In the 1920s, New York pickpocket Christoper DuBois (Jean-Claude Van Damme) flees both the police and the mob by stowing away on a boat.  Before he leaves, he promises a group of orphans that he will return to them.  Thay promise is easier made than kept because DuBois is captured by pirates, rescued by Lord Dobbs (Roger Moore), and then sold into slavery on an island off the coast of Siam.

Apparently, Siamese slavery means being taught in the ways of Muay Thai boxing because, when Dobbs eventually returns, DuBois is a champion fighter.  Not holding a grudge about the whole slavery thing, DuBois requests that Dobbs and his partner, Harri (Jack McGee), accompany him to the Lost City of Tibet so that DuBois can represent the United States in a martial arts tournament.  The winner receives a statue made entirely out of the gold, the legendary Golden Dragon.  Wanting the dragon for themselves, Dobbs and Harri go with DuBois to Tibet.  Also accompanying them is a reporter (Janet Gunn) and Max Devine (James Remar), the boxer was supposed to represent the United States but who dropped out when he realized that DuBois was the better fighter.

In the Lost City, DuBois survives several elimination rounds against the best fighters from across the world.  While DuBois always shows mercy to his opponents, his main rival, Khan (Abdel Quissi), indiscriminately kills anyone who gets in the ring with him.  Meanwhile, Dobbs and Harri make plans to steal the golden dragon for themselves.

When it comes to the second-tier action heroes of 1990s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was never as good an actor as Dolph Lundgren but he was still more likable than Steven Seagal.  Van Damme’s appeal was that, in real life, he could actually do all of the things that he did in the movies.  For action audiences, there was never any doubt about who would win if Van Damme and Steven Seagal ever went at in real life.   Movies like The Quest never impressed the critics but they did give Van Damme’s fans exactly what they wanted out of a Van Damme film.

The Quest was unique because it was Van Damme’s debut as a director.  Unlike a lot of actors-turned-director, Van Damme mostly resists the temptation to get too self-indulgent.  There is one scene where Van Damme wears old age makeup and another where he wanders through the slums of New York while dressed as a clown but Van Damme is smart enough to leave most of the heavy acting to capable professionals like Roger Moore and James Remar.  While Moore and Remar ham it up and keep things entertaining, Van Damme concentrates on fighting and trying to return to the orphans.  The fight scenes are sometimes too short but at least Van Damme makes a point of showcasing each competitor’s different style.  There aren’t many films that include both sumo wrestling and capoeira.

The Quest is basically Bloodsport in the 1920s but, as they used to say in the 90s, it’s still damme entertaining.

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

A Movie A Day #219: Wild Bill (1995, directed by Walter Hill)


The year is 1876 and the legendary Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) sits in a saloon in Deadwood and thinks about his life (most of which is seen in high-resolution, black-and-white flashbacks).  Hickok was a renowned lawman and a sure shot, a man whose exploits made him famous across the west.  Thanks to his friend, Buffalo Bill Cody (Keith Carradine), he even appeared on the New York stage and reenacted some of his greatest gun battles.  Now, Hickok is aging.  He is 39 years old, an old man by the standards of his profession.  Though men like Charlie Prince (John Hurt) and California Joe (James Gammon) continue to spread his legend, Hickok is going blind and spends most of his time in a haze of opium and regret.

Hickok only has one true friend in Deadwood, Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin).  He also has one true enemy, an aspiring gunslinger named Jack McCall (David Arquette).  McCall approaches Hickok and announces that he is going to kill him because of the way that Hickok treated his mother (played, in flashback, by Diane Lane).  Hickok does not do much to dissuade him.

Based on both a book and a play, Wild Bill is a talky and idiosyncratic Western from Walter Hill.  Hill is less interested in Hickok as a gunfighter than Hickok as an early celebrity.  There are gunfights but they only happen because, much like John Wayne in The Shootist, Hickok has become so famous that he cannot go anywhere without someone taking a shot at him.  Almost the entire final half of Wild Bill is set in that saloon, with Hickok and a gallery of character actors talking about the past and wondering about the future.

At times, Wild Bill gets bogged down with all the dialogue and philosophizing.  (To quote The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”)  Luckily, the film is saved by an intriguing cast, led by Jeff Bridges.  In many ways, his performance was Wild Bill feels like an audition for his later performance in True Grit.  David Arquette is intensely weird as the jumpy Jack McCall and Ellen Barkin brings the film’s only underwritten role, Calamity Jane, to life.  Smaller roles are played by everyone from Bruce Dern to James Remar to Marjoe Gortner.

United Artist made the mistake of trying to sell Wild Bill as being a straight western, which led to confused audiences and a resounding flop at the box office.  Ironically, years after the release of Wild Bill, Walter Hill won an Emmy for directing the first episode of HBO’s Deadwood, an episode the featured Wild Bill cast member Keith Carradine in the role of Hickok.

Shattered Politics #94: Persecuted (dir by Daniel Lusko)


Persecuted-2014-poster

It may seem strange that I would choose to end my series of reviews of films that feature politics and politicians by reviewing Persecuted, an obscure film from 2014.  After all, Shattered Politics started out with D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln.  Over the past three weeks, I’ve reviewed everything from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington to The Phenix City Story to Dr. Strangelove to The Godfather to Nashville to Once Upon A Time In America to The Aviator.  I have been lucky enough to review some of the greatest films ever made.  And now, at the end of this series, I find myself reviewing Persecuted, a film that has a score of 0% over on Rotten Tomatoes.

Consider that for a moment.

As I sit here typing out this sentence, not a single critic has given Persecuted a good review.  And I will admit right now that I’m not going to be the first.  Persecuted is cheap-looking, heavy-handed, melodramatic, histrionic, foolish, silly, preachy, predictable, strident, and just about every other possible criticism that comes to mind.  If the film is redeemed by anything, it’s that it is full of good actors who do the best that they can with characters that are either seriously underwritten or ludicrously overwritten.

Persecuted takes place in the near future.  Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) has written something called the Faith and Fairness Act, which would basically require churches to provide equal time to other religions and would make it illegal to suggest that only one religion has all the answers.  How exactly that would work, I’m not sure.  However, a big part of Harrison’s bill is that, in exchange for giving up any claim to having all the answers, churches will now get money from the federal government.  As a result, a lot of church leaders have sold out and announced their support for the bill.

However, evangelist John Luther (James Remar) refuses to support the bill.  As we’re told when Luther first appears, he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who used to be a professional gambler.  But then he found faith and he’s now the most popular man in the country.  Or, at least, he is until he’s drugged by the government and framed for murdering a prostitute.

So now, Luther is on the run.  He has to evade capture, prove his innocence, and reveal the truth about Harrison and his shadowy backers.  Helping Luther out is his father, an Episcopalian priest who is played by former real-life Presidential candidate Fred Thompson.  (Thompson, incidentally, is a very good actor and brings a lot of conviction and authority to his role.)  Not helping Luther are the former leaders of his church, one of whom is played by character actor Dean Stockwell.

I’ll admit right now that, as familiar and talented as all four of them may be, James Remar, Bruce Davison, Fred Thompson, and Dean Stockwell are hardly big stars and you really can’t blame any of them for presumably taking a job strictly for the money.  That said, it’s still odd to see such good actors appearing in a film like Persecuted and they all deserve at least a little bit of credit for doing their best with the material that they had to work with.  However, my favorite performance came from Brad Stine, who plays glib preacher who betrays Luther.  Stine is just so sleazy and hyperactive that he’s a lot of fun to watch.

Now, while Persecuted is obviously a faith-based film, it’s plot actually has more in common with the paranoia movies of the 70s than it does with Left Behind.  John Luther is a guy who knows the truth and has been framed as a result and he spends nearly the entire film on the run.  If anything, this is a film that will probably appeal more to conspiracy theorists than to Christians.  But, judging from the film, the conspiracy that’s trying to destroy John Luther doesn’t appear to be very competent.  How else do you explain that John Luther — the most famous man in the world — manages to easily evade capture despite the fact that he spends most of the film wandering around in broad daylight with dried blood on his face.  At one point, he even calls his wife and has a conversation with her.  “Ah!” I thought, “this is where we’ll discover that the conspiracy is listening in on the conversation!”  But no, that didn’t happen.  In fact, his wife talked to him while, in the background, two cops searched their house.  “The police are looking for you,” the wife says but neither one of the police officers seems to hear her.  Apparently, it didn’t seem to occur to any of them that John Luther might call his wife.  For a paranoia film to work, you have to feel like the film’s hero is in constant danger and Persecuted never succeeded in doing that.  How can anyone be scared of a conspiracy that can’t even handle the basics?

Persecuted is not a good film but, in its own unfortunate way, it is a relevant one.  Much as how the first film I reviewed for Shattered Politics, D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, told us a lot about America in the 1930s, Persecuted tells us a lot about how America is viewed by its citizens in the 21st Century.  Persecuted is a film that insists that our leaders can’t be trusted, that your friends will betray you if ordered to do so by those in authority, and that everything bad will come disguised as something good.  It’s not exactly an optimistic view of politics or America but then again, these are the times that we live in.  It’s been a long time since Billy Jack went to Washington.  It’s been even longer since Mr. Smith first showed up.

Now, instead, all we have is Bruce Davison telling us, “You thought you were bigger than the system and you’re not!”

And, on that note, Shattered Politics comes to an end!  I’ve had a lot of fun writing this series of 94 reviews and I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading them!  If there’s any conclusion that I think can be drawn from these 94 films, it’s that politicians will always betray you and politics will always depress you but movies will always be there to lift you back up.

If I had to choose between voting and watching a movie, I would pick a movie every time.  Fortunately enough, I live in a country where I am allowed to do both.

Trailer: Horns (Official Teaser)


radcliffe

The kids of the Harry Potter film franchise have all gone their separate ways. Some have moved on to taking smaller roles. Others have begun to take on roles that tries to rehabilitate their image from just being a Harry Potter actor. Emma Watson has had some success in redoing her post-Potter image. Yet, it’s the “Chosen One” himself who looks to really be going with as many left-field film role choices since the end of the franchise.

Daniel Radcliffe has been taking some interesting risks with his post-Potter career. Even before the franchise was over he had begun working on redoing his image. Whether it was doing the stage play Equus or taking on a horror film role with the gothic horror The Woman in Black, Radcliffe seems more than willing to leave his Potter days behind him.

The first trailer from the film adaptation of the Joe Hill penned dark fantasy Horns has now arrived. We see brief glimpses of Radcliffe in the title role with the proverbial horns that becomes the center of the film’s plotline.

Time will tell if Horns will be another notch in making Daniel Radcliffe less the Potter-kid and ore the talented actor he’s turning out to be.

Horns will be making it’s presence know this Halloween 2014.

Trailer: Django Unchained


The last couple days have seen the release of a number of upcoming films that should be jockeying for all those fancy-pants end of season awards. One such film is the latest film from Quentin Tarantino. Django Unchained is his latest trip into the grindhouse world with this film being his take on the spaghetti westerns made popular by Italian maestros like Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Enzo G. Castellari.

It’s an ensemble cast that’s headlined by Jamie Foxx in the title role with Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio (playing against the grain as the main villain of the piece). To pay respect to the very genre that this film owes not just it’s title, but theme and tone, Tarantino has even cast the original Django in Franco Nero in the role of Amerigo Vassepi.

Django Unchained is set for a Christmas Day 2012 release date (hopefully the world didn’t end just four days earlier).