18 Days of Paranoia #4: The Falcon and the Snowman (dir by John Schlesinger)


The 1985 film, The Falcon and the Snowman, tells the story of two friends.  They’re both wealthy.  They’re both a little bit lost, with one of them dropping out the seminary and the other becoming a drug dealer who is successful enough to have a lot of money but inept enough to still be treated like a joke by all of other dealers.

Chris Boyce (Timothy Hutton) is the son of a former FBI agent (Pat Hingle).  He has a tense relationship with his father.  It’s obvious that the two have never really been sure how to talk to each other.  While his father is sure of both himself and his country, Chris is far more sensitive and quick to question.  While his father plays golf and attends outdoor barbecues, Chris becomes an expert in the sport of falconry and spends a lot of time obsessing about the state of the the world.  While his father defends Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation, Chris sees it as evidence that America is a sick and corrupt country.  Because his father doesn’t want Chris sitting around the house all day, he pulls some strings to get Chris a job working at the “Black Vault,” where Chris will basically have the ability to learn about all sorts of classified stuff.

Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) was Chris’s best friend in school.  Daulton’s entire life revolves around cocaine.  He both sells and uses it.  He’s managed to make a lot of money but his addiction has also left him an erratic mess.  Daulton’s father wants to kick him out of the house.  Daulton’s mother continually babies him.  Chris and Daulton may seem like an odd pair of friends but they’re both wealthy, directionless, and have a difficult time relating to their fathers.  It somehow seems inevitable that these two would end up as partners.

Chris Boyce and Daulton Lee, together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, they end up betraying their country.  (Boooo!  Hiss!  This guy’s a commie, traitor to our nation!)  After Chris discovers that the CIA has been interfering in the elections of America’s allies (in this case, Australia), he decides to give information to the Russians.  Since Daulton already has experience smuggling drugs over the southern border, Boyce asks Lee to contact the KGB the next time that he’s in Mexico.  Despite being a neurotic and paranoid mess, Lee manages to do just that.

Of course, as Chris soon comes to discover, betraying your country while working with a greedy drug addict is not as easy as it seems.  While Chris wants to eventually get out of the treason game, marry his girlfriend (Lori Singer), and finish up college, Daulton wants to be James Bond.  The Russians, meanwhile, soon grow tired of having to deal with Lee and start pressuring Chris to deal with them directly….

And it all goes even further downhill from there.

Based on a true story, The Falcon and the Snowman tells the story of how two seemingly very different young men managed to basically ruin their lives.  Boyce’s naive idealism and Lee’s drug-fueled greed briefly makes them a powerful duo but they both quickly discover that betraying your country isn’t as a simple as they assumed.  For one thing, once you’ve done it once, it’s impossible to go back to your normal life.  As played by Hutton and Penn, Chris and Daulton are two very interesting characters.  Boyce is full of righteous indignation and sees himself as being a hero but the film hints that he’s mostly just pissed off at his Dad for never understanding him or caring that much about falconry.  Daulton, meanwhile, is a lunatic but he seems to be aware that he’s a lunatic and that makes his oddly likable.  At times, it seems like even he can’t believe that Chris was stupid enough to depend on him.  The film provides a convincing portrait of two men who, because of several impulsive decisions, find themselves in over their heads with no possibility of escape.

The Falcon and the Snowman is an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking time capsule of a different age.  If the film took place in 2020, Daulton would be hanging out with the Kardashians and Chris would probably be too busy working for the Warren campaign to spy for America’s enemies.  If only the two of them had been born a few decades later, all of this could have been of avoided.

Previous Entries In The 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Privates Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Cannes Film Review: Missing (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1982 film Missing takes place in Chile, shortly after the American-backed military coup that took out that country’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende.

Of course, the film itself never specifically states this.  Instead, it opens with a narrator informing us that the story we’re about to see is true but that some names have been changed “to protect the innocent and the film.”  The film takes place in an unnamed in South America, where the military has just taken over the government.  Curfew is enforced by soldiers and the sound of gunfire is continually heard in the distance.  Throughout the film, dead bodies pile up in the streets.  Prisoners are held in the National Stadium, where they are tortured and eventually executed.  Women wearing pants are pulled out of crowds and told that, from now on, women will wear skirts.  The sky is full of helicopters and, when an earthquake hits, guests in a posh hotel are fired upon when they try to leave.  About the only people who seem to be happy about the coup is the collection of brash CIA agents and military men who randomly pop up throughout the film.

Again, the location is never specifically identified as Chile.  In fact, except for the picture of Richard Nixon hanging in the American embassy, the film never goes out of its way to point out that the film itself is taking place in the early 70s.  If you know history, of course, it’s obviously meant to be Chile after Allende but the film itself is set up to suggest that the story its telling is not limited to one specific place or time.

Charlie Horman (John Shea) is an American who lives in the country with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek).  Charlie is a writer who occasionally publishes articles in a local left-wing newspaper.  In the aftermath of the coup, Charlie is one of the many people who go missing.  All that’s known is that he was apparently arrested and then he vanished into the system.  The authorities and the American ambassador insist that Charlie probably just got lost in the confusion of the coup and that he’ll turn up any day.  Even though thousands have been executed, everyone assumes that Charlie’s status as an American would have kept him safe.  As brutal as the new government may be, they surely wouldn’t execute an American….

Or, at least, that’s what Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) believes.  Ed is Charlie’s father, a businessman from New York who simply cannot understand what’s going on.  He can’t understand why his son and his daughter-in-law went to South America in the first place.  He can’t understand why his government is not doing more to find his son.  And, when he eventually arrives in South America himself, Ed cannot understand the violence that he sees all around him.

Working with Beth, Ed investigates what happened to his son.  At first, Ed blames Beth for Charlie’s disappearance and Beth can barely hide her annoyance with her conservative father-in-law.  But, as their search progresses, Beth and Ed come to understand each other.  Beth starts to see that, in his way, Ed is just as determined an idealist as Charlie.  And Ed learns that Charlie and Beth had good reason to distrust the American government…

Costa-Gavras is not exactly a subtle director and it would be an understatement to say that Missing is a heavy-handed film.  The Embassy staff is so villainous that you’re shocked they don’t all have mustaches to twirl while considering their evil plans.  When, in a flashback, Charlie meets a shady American, it’s not enough for the man to be a CIA agent.  Instead, he has to be a CIA agent from Texas who heartily laughs after everything he says and who brags on himself in the thickest accent imaginable.  When Charlie talks to an American military officer, it’s not enough that the officer is happy about the coup.  Instead, he has to start talking about how JFK sold everyone out during the Bay of Pigs.

As the same time, the film’s lack of subtlety also leads to its best moments.  When Beth finds herself out after curfew, the city turns into a Hellish landscape of burning books and dead bodies.  As Beth huddles in a corner, she watches as a magnificent white horse runs down a dark street, followed by a group of gun-toting soldiers in a jeep.  When Ed and Beth explore a morgue, they walk through several rooms of the “identified” dead before they find themselves in a room containing the thousands of unidentified dead.  It’s overwhelming and heavy-handed but it’s also crudely effective.  While the film itself is a bit too heavy-handed to really be successful, those scenes do capture the horror of living under an authoritarian regime.

(Interestingly, Missing was a part of a mini-genre of films about Americans trapped in right-wing South American dictatorships.  While you can’t deny the good intentions of these films, it’s hard not to notice the lack of films about life in Chavez’s Venezuela or the political dissidents who were lobotomized in Castro’s Cuba.)

Missing won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (an award that it shared, that year, with the Turkish film Yol) and it also received an Oscar nomination for best picture of the year.  (It lost to Gandhi.)

A Movie A Day #208: War Party (1988, directed by Franc Roddam)


On the hundredth year anniversary of a battle between the U.S. Calvary and the Blackfeet Indians, the residents of small Montana town decide to reenact the battle and hopefully bring in some tourist dollars.  The white mayor (Bill McKinny) and the sheriff (Jerry Hardin) both think that it is a great idea.  Even the local Indian leader, Ben Cowkiller (Dennis Banks, in real-life a founder and leader of the American Indian Movement), thinks that it will be a worthwhile for the Indians to participate.  The Calvary’s guns will be full of blanks.  The Indians will play dead.  However, as the result of a bar brawl the previous night, one of the local rednecks, Calvin Morrisey (Kevyn Major Howard), shows up with a gun full of bullets.  After he shoots one of the Indians, Calvin ends up with a tomahawk buried in his head.  Three Indian teenagers, Warren (Tim Sampson), Skitty (Kevin Dillon), and Sonny (Billy Wirth), flee into the wilderness.  Thirsty for revenge, a white posse heads off in pursuit.

War Party is an underrated and surprisingly violent movie.   Franc Roddam brings the same sensitivity to his portrayal of alienated Indians that he brought to portraying alienated Mods in Quadrophenia.  Though, at first, Kevin Dillon seems miscast as an Indian, he, Wirth, and Sampson all give good performances, as does Dennis Banks.  The movie is often stolen by M. Emmett Walsh and Rodney A. Grant, playing renowned trackers who are brought in to help the posse chase down the three youths.  That Grant’s character is a member of the Crow adds a whole extra layer of meaning to his role. Even though the setup often feels contrived and heavy-handed and anyone watching should be able to easily guess how the movie is going to end, War Party still packs a punch.

A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)


The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

A Movie A Day #157: Pacific Heights (1990, directed by John Schlesinger)


Michael Keaton is the tenant from Hell in Pacific Heights.

In San Francisco, Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine) have just bought an old and expensive house that they can not really afford.  In order to keep from going broke, they rent out two downstairs apartments.  One apartment is rented by a nice Japanese couple.  The other apartment is rented by Carter Hayes (Michael Keaton).  Carter convinces Patty and Drake not to check his credit by promising to pay the 6 months rent up front.  The money, he tells them, is coming via wire transfer.

The money never arrives but Carter does.  Once he moves into the apartment, Carter changes the locks so that no one but him can get in.  At all hours of the day and night, he can be heard hammering and drilling inside the apartment.  Even worse, he releases cockroaches throughout the building.  When Drake demands that Carter leave, the police back up Carter.  After goading Drake into attacking him, Carter gets a restraining order.  Drake is kicked out of his home, leaving Patty alone with their dangerous tenant.

Pacific Heights is the ultimate upper middle class nightmare: Buy a house that you can not really afford and then end up with a tenant who trashes the place to such an extent that the property value goes down.  As a thriller, Pacific Heights would be better if Drake and Patty weren’t so unlikable.  (When this movie was first made, people like Patty and Drake were known as yuppies.)  Much like Drake’s house, the entire movie is stolen by Michael Keaton’s performance as Carter Hayes.  Carter was not an easy role to play because not only did he have to be so convincingly charming that it was believable that he could rent an apartment just by promising a wire payment but he also had to be so crazy that no one would doubt that he would deliberately infest a house with cockroaches.  Michael Keaton has not played many bad guys in his career but his performance as Carter Hayes knocked it out of the park.

One final note: Keep an eye out for former Hitchcock muse (and Melanie Griffith’s mother) Tippi Hedren, playing another one of Carter’s potential victims.  Her cameo here is better than her cameo in In The Cold of the Night.

 

Pure 80s Hokum: Let’s Get Harry (1986, directed by Alan Smithee)


Lets-get-harry-movie-poster-1986-1020362350Let’s Get Harry opens deep in the jungles of Columbia.  The newly appointed American Ambassador (Bruce Gray) is touring a newly constructed water pipeline when suddenly, terrorist drug smugglers attack!  The Ambassador, along with chief engineer Harry Burck (Mark Harmon, long before NCIS), is taken hostage.  Drug Lord Carlos Ochobar announces that both the Ambassador and Harry will be executed unless the U.S. government immediately releases Ochobar’s men.  However, the policy of the U.S. government is to not negotiate with terrorists.  As grizzled mercenary Norman Shrike (Robert Duvall) explains it, nobody gives a damn about a minor ambassador.

Nobody in a small blue-collar town in Illinois gives a damn about the ambassador either.  But they do give a damn about their friend Harry!  When its obvious that the bureaucrats up in Washington are not going to do anything, Harry’s younger brother, Corey (Michael Shoeffling, Sixteen Candles), decides that he and his friends are going to go to Columbia themselves and get Harry!  Helping him out are Bob (Thomas F. Wilson, Back to the Future), Kurt (Rick Rossovich, Top Gun), Spence (Glenn Frey!), and Jack (Gary Busey).  If Jake Ryan, Biff Tannen, Slider, Buddy Holly, and the guy from the Eagles who wasn’t Don Henley can’t get Harry, then who can!?

There were a lot of these “American rescue mission” movies made in the 80s, everything from Uncommon Valor to The Delta Force to the Rambo films.  Plotwise, Let’s Get Harry adds little to the genre.  It’s about as simplistic and implausible as a Donald Trump campaign speech.  A bunch of terrorists are holding American hostages and making us all look bad while the establishment refuses to do anything about it?  Don’t worry!  Here come a bunch of heavily armed, no-nonsense American citizens to save the day and make America great again!

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There are two things that distinguish Let’s Get Harry.  First, Let’s Get Harry is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee.  From 1968 to 2000, Alan Smithee was the official pseudonym used by directors who wanted to disown a project.  Smithee has been credited as directing everything from Solar Crisis to Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home to The O.J. Simpson Story.  In the case of Let’s Get Harry, Smithee was standing in for veteran director Stuart Rosenberg (probably best known for Cool Hand Luke).  Rosenberg originally only planned for Mark Harmon to be seen only at the end of the film, much like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.  When TriStar Pictures demanded extra scenes featuring Harmon being taken and held hostage, Rosenberg took his name off the film.

(Before Rosenberg signed on to direct, Let’s Get Harry started out as a Sam Fuller project and he received a story credit on the film.  With the exception of some of the scenes with Harmon, which may have been shot by a different director, Rosenberg’s direction was adequate but Let’s Get Harry really does cry out for a director like Sam Fuller.)

Secondly, there is the cast, which is a lot more interesting than would be typically found in a low-budget, 80s action film.  Not surprisingly, by respectively underplaying and overplaying, Duvall and Busy give the two best performances.  Meanwhile, lightweight Mark Harmon gives the worst.  Perhaps because of the conflict between Rosenberg and the studio over his character, Harmon spends the entire movie looking lost.

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As an exercise in patriotic wish fulfillment, Let’s Get Harry is pure 80s hokum.  It may be dumb but it is also entertaining.  After all, any film that features not only Robert Duvall, Gary Busey, and Ben Johnson, but also Glenn Frey is going to be worth watching.  Let’s Get Harry has never been released on DVD and is currently only available on VHS.  Somebody needs to do something about this.

Let’s get Harry on DVD!

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