Film Review: The Day After (dir by Nicholas Meyer)


“This is Lawrence. This is Lawrence, Kansas. Is anybody there? Anybody at all?”

The words of Joe Huxley (John Lithgow) hang over the ending of The Day After, a 1983 film that imagines what the aftermath of a nuclear war would be like not on the East or the West Coasts but instead in the rural heartland of America.  Huxley is a professor at the University of Kansas and, as he explains early on in the film, Kansas would be an automatic target in any nuclear war because it houses a number of missile silos.  When he explains that, it’s in an almost joking tone, largely because the missiles haven’t been launched yet.  Instead, the only thing we’ve heard are a few barely noticed news stories about growing tensions between America and Russia.  About halfway through The Day After, the bombs go off and there are suddenly no more jokes to be made.

When the bombs drop over Kansas, we watch as cities and field and people burst into flames.  In a matter of minutes, several thousands are killed.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that I was probably more upset by the image of a horse being vaporized than I was by the death of poor Bruce Gallatin (Jeff East), the college student who was planning on marrying Denise Dahlberg (Lori Lethin).  I guess it’s because horses — really, all animals — have nothing to do with the conflicts between nations.  Humans are the ones who take the time to build bigger and better weapons and The Day After is one of the few films about war that’s willing to acknowledge that, when humans fight, it’s not just humans that die.

The bombing sequence is lengthy and I have to admit that I was a bit distracted by the fact that I recognized some of the footage from other movies.  A scene of panicked people running through a building was taken from Two-Minute Warning.  A scene of a building exploding and a construction worker being consumed by flames was lifted from Meteor.  As well, there’s some stock footage which should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a documentary about the early days of the Cold War.  Still, despite that, it’s an effective sequence simply because it’s so relentless.  Some of the film’s most likable characters are vaporized before our eyes.  Steve Guttenberg, of all people, is seen ducking into a store.

Guttenberg plays Stephen Klein, a pre-med student who manages to survive the initial attack and takes shelter with the Dahlberg family at their ranch.  At first, it’s a bit distracting to see Steve Guttenberg in a very serious and very grim film about the nuclear apocalypse but he does a good job.  The sight of him losing both his teeth and his hair carries a punch precisely because he is reliably goofy Steve Guttenberg.

If the film has a star, it’s probably Jason Robards, the doctor who witnesses the initial blast from the safety of his car and then treats the dying in Lawrence, Kansas.  He does so, despite the fact that he doesn’t know if his wife, son, and daughter are even still alive.  He continues to do so until he also falls ill with radiation poisoning.  Knowing that he’s dying, he heads home just to discover that there is no home to return to.

Home is reccuring theme throughout The Day After.  Everyone wants to return to their home but everyone’s home has been wiped out.  “This is my home,” Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) tries to explain before he’s attacked by a group of feral nomads.  Home no longer exists and trying to pretend like life can go back to the way it once was is an often fatal mistake.

Real happy film, right?  Yeah, this isn’t exactly a film that you watch for fun.  I have to admit that I made a joke about how I wouldn’t want to die while wearing the unfortunate blue jumpsuit that Jason Robards’s daughter chooses to wear on the day of the nuclear attack and I felt guilty immediately.  (Well, not that guilty.  Seriously, it was a terrible fashion choice.)  The Day After is a film that gives audiences zero hope by design.  It was made at a time when it was generally assumed that nuclear was inevitable and it was designed to scare the Hell out of everyone watching.  And while I can’t attest to how audience may have reacted in 1983, I can say that, in 2020, it’s still a powerful and disturbing film.

“Is anybody there? Anybody at all?” Joe Huxley asks and by the end of the film, the answer doesn’t matter.  The damage has already been done.

Parallel Lives (1994, directed by Linda Yellen)


A large group of people gather together one weekend for a fraternity/sorority reunion.  Since college, some of them have become rich and powerful.  Some of them are now famous.  Some of them are now seedy and disreputable.  They all have college memories, though there’s such a wide variety of age groups represented that it’s hard to believe that any of them actually went to college together.  After the men spend the day playing practical jokes and touch football and the women spend the night talking about their hopes and dreams, they wake up the next morning to discover the someone has murdered Treat Williams.  A pony-tailed sheriff (Robert Wagner) shows up to question everyone.

Parallel Lives was made for Showtime with the help of the Sundance Institute.  Today, it’s a forgotten film but, for some reason, it was very popular with American Airlines during the summer of 1997.  That summer, when I flew to the UK, Parallel Lives was one of the movies that we were shown.  (It was the second feature.  The first feature was Down Periscope, a submarine comedy starring Kelsey Grammar.  Fourteen year-old me enjoyed Down Periscope but, in retrospect, it wasn’t much of a flight.)  A month and a half later, when I flew back to the U.S., Parallel Lives was again one of the films shown on the flight!  For that reason, I may be the only person on the planet who has not forgotten that a film called Parallel Lives exists.

Parallel Lives, I later learned, was an entirely improvised film.  The huge cast were all given their characters and a brief outline of the film’s story and they were then allowed to come up with their own dialogue.  Unfortunately, no one did a very good job of it and the men were reduced to bro-ing it up while the women spent most of the movie having extended group therapy.  The story doesn’t add up too much and, even when I rewatched it from an adult’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of everyone talking about how different the real world was from college.  Technically, the film’s a murder mystery but you can’t improvise a successful murder mystery.  This film proves that point.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there are 26 characters, all trying to get a word in at the same time.  Some of the roles don’t make much sense.  Dudley Moore shows up, playing an imaginary friend.  (How do you improvise being a figment of someone’s imagination?)  James Brolin introduces himself to everyone as being, “Professor Doctor Spencer Jones” and that appears to be as far as he got with his improv.  Ben Gazzara is a gambler and Mira Sorvino is the prostitute that he brings to the reunion while Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, moons the camera several times.  Jack Klugman is a senator with Alzheimer’s and Patricia Wettig is his daughter.  The majority of the movie centers around Jim Belushi, playing a reporter and falling in love with JoBeth Williams.  Liza Minnelli, Helen Slater, Levar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Matthew Perry, Ally Sheedy, and Gena Rowlands all have small roles.  How did so many talented people come together to make such a forgettable movie and why did American Airlines decide it was the movie to show people on their way to another country?  That’s the true mystery of Parallel Lives.

Brute Farce: Wilder & Pryor Go STIR CRAZY (Columbia 1980)


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Gene Wilder  and Richard Pryor weren’t really a comedy team at all, just two incredibly funny comic actors who happened to work well together.  Both were stars in their own right, first appearing together in the 1976 comedy-thriller SILVER STREAK, with Pryor in the pivotal supporting role as a thief who aides the in-danger Wilder. Audiences loved the chemistry between the two, and of course Hollywood took notice. STIR CRAZY is not a sequel, but a funny film of its own allowing Gene and Richard to be their loveably loony selves.

New Yorkers Skip Donahue (Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Pryor) are a couple of buds who’ve both lost their jobs. Playwright Skip’s a dreamer, while aspiring actor Harry’s a realist, but somehow Skip talks his pal into leaving The Big Apple to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. Their cross-country trek ends when Harry’s decrepit Dodge van breaks down in…

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Horror Film Review: Poltergeist (dir by Tobe Hooper)


The 1982 film Poltergeist tells the story of the Freeling family.

There’s Steven the father (Craig T. Nelson) and Diana the mother (JoBeth Williams).  There’s the snarky teenager daughter, Dana (Dominique Dunne), who has a surprisingly good knowledge of the local motel scene.  There’s the son, Robbie (Oliver Robins), who is scared of not only a big ugly tree but also a big ugly clown doll that, for some reason, sits in his bedroom.  And then there’s the youngest daughter, Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke).

They live in a planned community in Orange County, sitting just a few miles away from the cemetery.  (Or so they think….)  They’ve got a nice house.  They’ve got nice neighbors.  They’ve got a nice dog.  They’re getting a pool in the backyard.  There are hints that Steven and Diana may have once done the whole rebellion thing.  They still occasionally get high, though they do it with a smugness that somehow manages to make marijuana seem less appealing.  But, for the most part, Steven and Diana are happy members of the establishment.  Steven sells real estate and is a favorite of his boss, Mr. Teague (James Karen).  Diana is a stay-at-home mom who doesn’t get upset when some unseen spirit rearranges all the furniture in the kitchen (seriously, that would drive me crazy).  They’re the type of family that falls asleep in front of the TV at night, which is a bit of a mistake as Carol Ann has started talking to the “TV people.”

Strange things start to happen.  As mentioned earlier, furniture starts to rearrange itself.  Whenever Carol Ann sits down in the kitchen, an unseen force moves her across the floor.  Diana, for whatever reason, thinks this is the greatest thing ever.  Then, on the night of a big storm, the big ugly tree tries to eat Robbie and Carol Ann goes into a closet and doesn’t come out.  Though Carol Ann has vanished, the Freelings can still hear her voice.  Apparently, she’s been sucked into another dimension and she’s being encouraged to go into the light.

Of course, this leads to the usual collection of paranormal researchers moving in.  The house decides to pick on one unfortunate guy and he ends up not only eating maggot-filled meat but also imagining his face falling apart over a sink.  A medium named Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) comes by and reprimands Steven and Diana for not doing exactly what she says.  Of course, it turns out that Tangina isn’t quite as infallible as she claims to be….

To me, Poltergeist is the epitome of a “Why didn’t they just leave the house” type of film.  Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that once Carol Ann vanished, Diana and Steven had to stay in the house to rescue their daughter.  I’m talking about all the stuff that went on before the big storm.  Seriously, if a ghost started moving furniture around in the kitchen, I’m leaving the house.  At the very least, I’m not going to take my youngest daughter and invite the ghost to push her around the kitchen.  Even stranger is that, at the end of the film, the Freelings still don’t leave the house even though the situation with Carol Ann has been resolved.  They hire a moving truck and make plans to leave but, instead of spending a night in a hotel, they instead decide to spend one more night in a house that’s apparently possessed by Satan.

Poltergeist is famous for bringing together two filmmakers who really seem like they should exist in different universes.  Steven Spielberg produced while Tobe Hooper directed.  It seems like it’s impossible to read a review of Poltergeist without coming across speculation as to how much of the film should be credited to Spielberg and how much should be credited to Hooper.  It must be said that the film does occasionally feel like it’s at war with itself, as if it can’t decide whether to embrace Spielberg’s middle class sensibilities or Hooper’s counter-culture subversiveness.  On the one hand, the emphasis on special effects and the early scenes where the Freelings watch TV and Steven gets into a remote control fight with his neighbor all feel like something Steven Spielberg would have come up with.  On the other hand, the obvious joy that the film takes in tormenting the Freelings feels more like Tobe Hooper than Steven Spielberg.  Or take the film’s finale, where the special effects are pure Spielberg but the scene of Diana getting assaulted in bed and then thrown around her bedroom feels like pure Hooper.  Really, it’s the mix of two sensibilities that make the film compelling.  Poltergeist’s planned community is appealing but it’ll still kill you.

Anyway, I like Poltergeist.  I certainly prefer the original to the remake.  It’s a silly film in many ways but it’s still effective.  Once you get over how stupid Diana acts during the first part of the film, JoBeth Williams gives a strong performance as a mother determined to protect her children.  And Craig T. Nelson gives a classic over the top performance, especially towards the end of the film.  Just listen as he screams, “Don’t look back!”  That said, my favorite performance comes from James Karen, who is perfectly sleazy as the outwardly friendly, cost-cutting land developer.

Poltergeist is still a good, scary film.  And, if anyone wants to play a lengendary prank this Halloween, show it to someone who has a fear of clowns.

A Movie A Day #217: Wyatt Earp (1994, directed by Lawrence Kasdan)


Once upon a time, there were two movies about the legendary Western lawman (or outlaw, depending on who is telling the story) Wyatt Earp.  One came out in 1993 and the other came out in 1994.

The 1993 movie was called Tombstone.  That is the one that starred Kurt Russell was Wyatt, with Sam Elliott and Bill Paxton in the roles of his brothers and Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday.  Tombstone deals with the circumstances that led to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  “I’m your huckleberry,” Doc Holliday says right before his gunfight with Michael Biehn’s Johnny Ringo.  Tombstone is the movie that everyone remembers.

The 1994 movies was called Wyatt Earp.  This was a big budget extravaganza that was directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starred Kevin Costner as Wyatt.  Dennis Quaid played Doc Holliday and supporting roles were played by almost everyone who was an active SAG member in 1994.  If they were not in Tombstone, they were probably in Wyatt Earp.  Gene Hackman, Michael Madsen, Tom Sizemore, Jeff Fahey, Mark Harmon, Annabeth Gish, Gene Hackman, Bill Pullman, Isabella Rossellini, JoBeth Williams, Mare Winningham, and many others all appeared as supporting characters in the (very) long story of Wyatt Earp’s life.

Of course, Wyatt Earp features the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral but it also deals with every other chapter of Earp’s life, including his multiple marriages, his career as a buffalo hunter, and his time as a gold prospector.  With a three-hour running time, there is little about Wyatt Earp’s life that is not included.  Unfortunately, with the exception of his time in Tomstone, Wyatt Earp’s life was not that interesting.  Neither was Kevin Costner’s performance.  Costner tried to channel Gary Cooper in his performance but Cooper would have known better than to have starred in a slowly paced, three-hour movie.  The film is so centered around Costner and his all-American persona that, with the exception of Dennis Quaid, the impressive cast is wasted in glorified cameos.  Wyatt Earp the movie tries to be an elegy for the old west but neither Wyatt Earp as a character nor Kevin Costner’s performance was strong enough to carry such heavy symbolism.  A good western should never be boring and that is a rule that Wyatt Earp breaks from the minute that Costner delivers his first line.

Costner was originally cast in Tombstone, just to leave the project so he could produce his own Wyatt Earp film.  As a big, Oscar-winnng star, Costner went as far as to try to have production of Tombstone canceled.  Ironically, Tombstone turned out to be the film that everyone remember while Wyatt Earp is the film that most people want to forget.

A Movie A Day #146: The Dogs of War (1981, directed by John Irvin)


Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is a professional mercenary who is hired, by a British businessman, to overthrow the government of Zangaro.  Though Zangaro is currently ruled by a ruthless dictator, Shannon’s employers want to replace him with someone even worse, all so they can get their hands on the country’s platinum mines.  After Shannon is captured and tortured by the government, he wants nothing else to do with Zangaro.  Instead, he wants to return to New York and propose to his ex-wife (JoBeth Williams).  But, when she turns down his proposal, Shannon and his mercenary army return to Zangaro.

Before winning an Oscar for The Deer Hunter and becoming one of our most popular character actors, Christopher Walken was a finalist for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.  If not for George Lucas’s decision to hire Harrison Ford to read lines for the actors at the auditions, Christopher Walken’s career could have developed far differently.  The Dogs of War, which was Walken’s first big film after the high of The Deer Hunter and the low of Heaven’s Gate, features Walken playing a character who has much in common with George Lucas’s original conception of Han Solo, an amoral mercenary who will work for anyone who pays him.  Walken is almost too good as Jamie, playing the part as being so aloof and ruthless that it is sometimes hard to feel any sympathy for him at all.  If he had taken that approach to playing Han Solo, audiences would have really been shocked when Han returned to attack the Death Star.  They would probably be worried that he had returned because the Empire offered him a thousand credits to kill Luke.

The Dogs of War has an intriguing premise but it’s a very slow movie that gets caught up in all the minutia that goes into staging a coup.  It’s exciting when Walken and his mercenaries finally attack the dictator’s compound but it takes forever to get there.  The book, by Frederick Forsyth, is a well-written page turner but the film adaptation largely falls flat.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Big Chill (dir by Lawrence Kasdan)


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There are certain films that truly are “You just had to be there” films.  These are the movies that were apparently loved by contemporary audiences but, when viewed today, it’s difficult to see just what exactly everyone was getting so excited about.  Sometimes, this is because the film itself was so influential and has been copied by so many other films that the original has had its power diluted.  And then, sometimes, it’s just a case that the film was never that good to begin with.

I’m guessing that The Big Chill must be one of those “you just had to be there” type of films.  First released in 1983, The Big Chill was nominated for best picture.  If you look the film up over at the imdb, you’ll find lots of comments from people who absolutely adore this film.  However, when I watched the film as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I have to admit that my reaction can be best summed in one word.

Meh.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that The Big Chill was a bad film.  To be honest, it was neither memorably bad nor remarkably good.  Instead, it just was.  Overall, the performances were good, the direction was shallow, and the screenplay was occasionally good and occasionally shallow but mostly, it was the epitome of serviceable.

At the start of The Big Chill, Alex is dead.  With the exception of a scene where his corpse is being prepared for burial, Alex never actually appears on screen.  (Originally, Kevin Costner was cast to play the role in a flashback but director Lawrence Kasdan cut the scene.)  What little we learn about Alex, we learn from listening to the other characters in the film talk about him.  For instance, Alex was apparently brilliant but troubled.  He attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s and was close to 7 other politically radical students.  While everyone else was busy selling out their ideals, Alex stayed true to his and, as a result, he ended up spending his life depressed and poor.  Alex ultimately ended up committing suicide, an act that leads to his 7 friends reuniting for his funeral.

Opening with Alex’s funeral and taking place over one long weekend, The Big Chill follows Alex’s friends as they try to figure out why Alex committed suicide and debate whether or not they’ve sold out their college ideals.  They also spend a lot of time listening to the music of the youth, getting high, watching a football game, and washing dishes.

(Interestingly enough, they spend the weekend in the exact same house where Alex committed suicide.  Which, to be honest, I would think would be kind of creepy.)

There’s Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), who are the unofficial grown ups of the group.  It was at their vacation home that Alex committed suicide and, over the course of the film, we find out that Alex and Sarah had a brief affair.  Harold owns a company that makes running shoes and, to at least one friend’s horror, is now good friends with the local police.  Sarah, meanwhile, splits her time between crying in the shower and smiling beatifically at her friends.

(Incidentally, throughout the film, Kevin Kline speaks in one of the least convincing southern accents that I’ve ever heard…)

Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former public defender who, after deciding that all of her poverty-stricken clients really were scum, has now become a real estate attorney.  Meg wants a baby and is hoping that one of the men at the funeral might be willing to impregnate her.  Meg is a chain smoker so good luck, unborn child.  Before Alex killed himself, she had an argument with him.  (“That’s probably why he killed himself,” someone suggests.)

I liked Karen (JoBeth Williams) because she’s prettier than Meg and less condescending than Sarah.  She’s unhappily married to an advertising executive named Richard (Dan Galloway).  As they drive to the cemetery, Richard tells Karen that he can’t believe her famous friends all turned out to be so boring.  Karen is unhappy in her marriage and, after Richard returns home and leaves her in South Carolina for the weekend, decides that she wants a divorce.

That’s good news for Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who is best known for playing private detective J.T. Lancer on television.  Sam is upset that nobody takes him or his career seriously.  Meg was hoping that Sam would be the father of her baby but, instead, Sam is more interested in Karen.

And then there’s Nick (William Hurt), who is a former radio psychologist-turned-drug dealer.  Nick was wounded in Vietnam and is impotent as a result.  In case you somehow forget that fact, don’t worry.  Nick brings it up every few minutes.

Michael (Jeff Goldblum) was my favorite among the men because he’s at least willing to admit that he’s a self-centered jerk.  Michael is a former underground journalist who now works for People Magazine.  Nobody seems to like Michael and yet, he’s still invited to stay over the weekend.  Personally, I like to think that he does so just to get on everyone’s nerves.  Good for him.

And finally, there’s Chloe (Meg Tillis), who was Alex’s much younger girlfriend and who doesn’t seem to be impressed with any of Alex’s friends (with the exception, of course, of impotent old Nick).

I have to admit that I probably would have responded more to The Big Chill if it was actually about my generation, as opposed to being about my grandparents. Someday, someone my age will make a movie about a bunch of college friends reunited for a funeral and it will be filled with my music and my cultural references and I’ll think it’s brilliant.  And then, a 30 years later, some snotty little film reviewer will watch and probably say, “Meh.  Old people.”

Such is life.