Most Wanted (1997, directed by David Hogan)


James Dunn (Keenan Ivory Wayans) is an army sergeant with a talent for getting framed for crimes that he didn’t commit.

During the Gulf War, Dunn’s superior officer orders Dunn to shoot a shepherd boy.  Dunn refuses and, when the two men get into a fight over a gun, his commanding officer is accidentally shot and killed.  The army refuses to listen to Dunn’s explanation.  He’s convinced of murder and sentenced to death.  However, while Dunn is on his way to Leavenworth, he is rescued by Col. Casey (Jon Voight).  Casey explains that he is giving Dunn a chance to join a super secret vigilante group that targets evil doers.  Yes, Dunn will be expected to assassinate people but they’ll all be bad.  With no other options available to him, Dunn agrees to work for Casey.

Dunn’s first target is the corrupt owner of a pharmaceutical company (played by Robert Culp) but — surprise — it turns out that the target was actually the First Lady and that the entire plan was to set up Dunn as a patsy!  Now a “most wanted” fugitive, Dunn is forced to go on the run with a doctor (Jill Hennessy) who recorded the assassination with a camcorder.  (Remember, Most Wanted was made during the days of the landline phones.)  With Casey and his second-in-command (played by Wolfgang Bodison) determined to kill him and with only Paul Sorvino (as the head of the FBI) doubting the official story, Dunn has to find a way to reveal the truth.

Though he was subsequently overshadowed by his brothers, Damon and Marlon, Keenan Ivory Wayans was a really big deal in the 90s.  As the man behind In Living Color, he proved that black comedians and writers could be just as funny (and, in many cases, funnier) than their white counterparts over at Saturday Night Live.  It can be argued Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, and Jennifer Lopez would not have the careers that they have today if not for Keenan Ivory Wayans.  (All of them first found fame as members of the In Living Color ensemble, Carrey, Foxx, and Grier as cast members and Lopez as a “fly girl.”)  Most Wanted was Wayans attempt to transform himself into an action hero (perhaps not coincidentally, a year before Most Wanted was released, Damon Wayans had a minor hit with Bulletproof).

Keenan Ivory Wayans not only starred in Most Wanted but he also wrote the script and it’s interesting just how straight the action is played.  It would be natural to expect Wayans to turn the movie into a spoof but there’s little intentional humor to be found in Most Wanted.  Most Wanted takes itself seriously and the end result is an adequate but hardly memorable action movie, with Wayans jumping off of buildings and fighting off the bad guys.  The action scenes are well-shot if not particularly imaginative but, unfortunately, Wayans doesn’t really have the screen presence necessary to be a believable action hero.  Both the character of James Dunn and Wayans’s performance are just too bland to really be compelling.  Far more interesting are Jon Voight and Paul Sorvino, who are both entertainingly hammy in their roles.

There’s one good scene in Most Wanted, where Dunn finds himself being chased by what appears to be the entire population of Los Angeles.  Otherwise, this one is adequate but forgettable.

 

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Coming Home (dir by Hal Ashby)


Well, here we are!  It’s January 1st.  In just a few days, the Oscar nominations will be announced and then, on February 9th, the winners will be revealed!  From now until the day of the ceremony, I will be taking a look at some of the films that were nominated for and won Oscars in the past.  As of this writing, 556 films have been nominated for best picture.  I hope that, some day, I will be able to say that I have seen and reviewed every single one of them.

Let’s start things off with the 1978 Best Picture nominee, Coming Home!

Coming Home takes place in California in 1968.  While hippies stand on street corners and flash peace signs, teenagers are being drafted and career military men are leaving for Vietnam and people continue to tell themselves that America is doing the right thing in Indochina, even though no one’s really sure just what exactly it is that’s going on over there.  At the local VA hospital, the wounded and the bitter try to recover from their wartime experiences while struggling with an often heartless bureaucracy and feelings of having been abandoned by their country.

When Marine Corps. Capt. Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern) is deployed to Vietnam, he leaves behind his wife, Sally (Jane Fonda).  Told that she can no longer live on the base while her husband is overseas, Sally gets an apartment, a new car, and eventually a new hairdo.  She also gets a new friend, Vi Munson (Penelope Milford).  Vi smokes weed and is critical of the war in Vietnam.  It doesn’t take long for Sally to start to enjoy the idea of being free and not having to cater to Bob’s every whim.  Sally even ends up volunteering at the local VA hospital.

That’s where she meets Luke (Jon Voight, looking youngish and incredibly sexy), a bitter but sensitive vet who, having gone to Vietnam and returned to the U.S. as a paraplegic, is now outspoken in his opposition to the war.  Luke is also friends with Billy (Robert Carradine), who is Vi’s shell-shocked brother.  When Luke and Sally first meet, they collide in a hallway and Sally gets a bag full of urine spilled on her.  It’s only later that Luke and Sally realize that they knew each other in high school and soon, they’re having an affair.  Luke, who is as gentle a lover as Bob is brutish, brings Sally to her first orgasm in a sensitively-directed scene that should be studied by any and all aspiring filmmakers.

Unfortunately, the problem with having an affair while your husband is away is that, eventually, your husband’s going to come back.  Bob returns from Vietnam and he’s no longer the confident and gung ho officer that he was at the start of the film.  He now walks with a pronounced limp and, like Luke, he’s angry.  However, whereas Luke has channeled his anger in to activism, Bob tries to keep his emotions bottled up.  (He does take the time to give the finger to a few protesters and, considering how obnoxious most of the protesters in this film are, you can’t help but feel that Bob may have had a point.)  When Bob discovers that Luke and Sally have been having an affair, he snaps….

Meanwhile, Billy is having a hard time readjusting to life, Vi is getting picked up by sleazy men in bars, and there’s a ventriloquist who shows up a few times.  There’s a lot going on in Coming Home and, at times, it feels like the film’s trying to cram in too much.  The film often seems a bit disjointed, with semi-documentary footage of Voight hanging out with real paraplegic vets awkwardly mixed in with didactic scenes of Sally turning against the war.

That the love story between Sally and Luke is so effective has far more to do with the performances of Jane Fonda and especially Jon Voight, than it does with anything in the film’s script.  Indeed, the script itself doesn’t seem to be too concerned with who Luke and Sally were before they collided in that hallway and it also doesn’t seem to be all that interested in who they’ll be after the end credits role.  As written, they’re just plot devices, specifically created and manipulated to express the film’s antiwar message.  But then you see Jon Voight’s haunted eyes while he’s listening to a group of vets discuss their experience or you hear the pain in his voice while he talks to a bunch of high school students and it’s those little moments and details that tell you who Luke is.  By that same token, Jane Fonda does a good job of showing each stage in Sally’s liberation, even if you can’t help but feel that the main reason Sally becomes an anti-war feminist is because she’s played by Jane Fonda.

Of course, in the end, the entire film is stolen by Bruce Dern.  You actually end up feeling very sorry for Bob Hyde (and, to the film’s credit, you’re meant to).  It would have been very easy to just portray Bob as being a close-minded pig but the film respects his pain just as much as it respects Luke’s anti-war activism and Sally’s need to be free.  In the end, you actually feel worse for Bob than you do for either Luke or Sally.  Bob is as much a victim of the war as anyone else in the film.

Coming Home was one of the first films about Vietnam to ever be nominated for best picture.  Jane Fonda and Jon Voight both won Oscars but the film itself lost to a far different look at the war in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Deliverance (dir by John Boorman)


1973’s The Exorcist is often cited as the first horror film to ever be nominated for best picture and technically, I guess that’s correct.  It was definitely the first best picture nominee to ever deal with a battle between humans and a malevolent supernatural force and no one can deny that The Exorcist has influenced a countless number of horror films.

That said, I think you could make the argument that Deliverance, which was nominated for best picture the year before The Exorcist, was in its own way, a horror film.  Certainly, every crazed hick slasher film that has come out since 1972 owes a debt to Deliverance.  Deliverance‘s ending has been imitated by so many other horror films that it’s become a bit of cliche.  Though there might not be any supernatural creatures in Deliverance, the film still features its own set of horrifying monsters.  The toothless redneck rapists (played by character actor Bill McKinney and rodeo performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) seem as if they’ve jumped straight out of a nightmare and into the movie.  Of course, they aren’t the only monsters in this film.  There’s also the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, which is due to be dammed up and seems to be determined to take out its anger on anyone foolish enough to try to navigate it.

Much as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which came out just two years after Deliverance), the main theme here seem to be that you should be careful about going off the main road.  Just as the unfortunate hippies and college students in Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved to be no match for a clan of backwoods cannibal, the four middle-aged men at the center of Deliverance discover that they’re no match for either nature or its inhabitants.  At the start of the film, we watch as three of the men deal with the locals in a condescending and rather smirky manner.  Only one of them actually tries to be nice to the locals, engaging in a banjo duel with a young boy who clearly loves his banjo but who still refuses to smile or shake hands.  The boy knows what the men are getting themselves into them.  The boy knows what awaits them.

If you grew up in the South, as I did, you’ll recognize all four of the men.  It’s not just that they’re played by recognizable actors.  It’s that each one of them is a common archetype of the type of men you find down here.

For instance, there’s Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the self-styled alpha male with his leather vest and his bow-and-arrow and his constant talk about how society is eventually going to collapse and only the strong are going to survive.  You know that Lewis is full of it from the minute you see him but he’s so charismatic that you can also understand why the other three men have fallen under his control.

And then there’s Bobby (Ned Beatty).  Bobby is quick to laugh and quick to talk and quick to make a bad joke.  When he says that he’s a salesman, you’re not surprised.  From the start of the film, Lewis complains that Bobby isn’t strong enough or serious enough and, when the mountain men attack, Bobby is the one they target.  And yet, towards the end of the film, Bobby is the one who sells the hastily concocted story about what happened on the river.

Drew (Ronny Cox) is the nicest of the men.  With his glasses and his guitar and his rather touching belief that everything will be okay if everyone just tells the truth, Drew’s the prototype of the Southern liberal.  One can imagine him teaching in a community college and vainly trying to convince his relatives that segregation and nostalgia for the Confederacy is holding the South back.

And finally, there’s Ed (Jon Voight).  Ed smokes a pipe and it’s obvious that he’s someone who has a very secure life.  Ed is the one who is everyone’s friend.  He’s the one who sticks up for Bobby.  He’s the one who reminds Drew to wear his life jacket.  He’s the only one who can get away with (gently) mocking Lewis.  Ed seems like a nice guy but, at the start of the film, there’s a strange emptiness to Ed.  You get the feeling that the reason Ed is friends with everyone is because he doesn’t have any firm beliefs.  Instead, he just adapts to each situation and says whatever everyone wants to hear.  You can’t help but wonder what Ed believes.  By the end of the movie, of course, both Ed and the viewer have learned what Ed is capable of doing.

Cox, Voight, and especially poor Ned Beatty are all perfectly cast in their roles.  Burt Reynolds reportedly felt that this film was his best performance and he was probably right.  Director John Boorman captures both the beauty and the menace of nature, leaving you both in awe of the the river and fearful of what it can do those foolish enough to try to conquer it.  Interestingly enough, while Boorman was directing Deliverance, he was offered The Exorcist.  He turned it down, feeling that the script was too exploitive of the possessed child.  Boorman would, however, direct The Exorcist II: The Heretic (co-starring Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty).

(At the same time, Jon Voight was offered the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist but, like Boorman, turned the film down so he could work on Deliverance.)

While the film is best known for its sequences on the river, one should not overlook the haunting scenes of the survivors once they make their way back to civilization.  After having spent the previous 80 minutes or so presenting everyone in the backwoods as a threat, the final third of Deliverance actually emphasizes the decency of the townspeople.  When one of the men breaks down and starts to cry in the middle of dinner, everyone is quietly respectful of his emotions.  Towards the end of the film, as the survivors are driven out of town, they find themselves stuck behind the old country church, which is being moved upriver.  “Just got to wait for the church to get out of the way,” their driver says while the church’s bell mournfully rings for both the death of the town and the death of innocence.

(Of course, even with all the kind townspeople around, there’s still a somewhat menacing sheriff.  It’s just not a Southern film without a scary sheriff, is it?  “Don’t you boys ever do nothing like this again,” he says at one point.  The sheriff is played by James Dickey, the author of both the novel and the screenplay on which the film is based.)

Deliverance was nominated for three academy awards.  In the directing and the editing categories, it lost to Cabaret.  For best picture, it lost to The Godfather.  Deliverance, The Godfather, and Cabaret, all competing against each other?  1972 was a very good year.

Horror Film Review: Anaconda (dir by Luis Llosa)


In many ways, the 1997 monster film Anaconda is an incredibly dumb movie but let’s give credit where credit is for.  Whoever was in charge of casting this movie managed to assemble the most unlikely group of co-stars that you would ever expect to see in a movie about a documentary crew who run into a giant snake while sailing down the Amazon River.

I mean, let’s just consider the most familiar names in the cast.  Jennifer Lopez.  Ice Cube.  Jon Voight.  Owen freakin Wilson.  I mean, it’s not just that you wouldn’t expect to come across these four people all in the same movie.  It’s that they all seem to come from a totally different cinematic universe.  They’ve all got their own unique style of acting and seeing them all on the same small boat together is just bizarre.  You’ve got Jennifer Lopez, delivering her lines with a lot of conviction but not much sincerity.  And then you’ve got Ice Cube coolly looking over the Amazon and basically daring the giant snake to even think about trying to swallow him.  Owen Wilson is his usual quirky self, delivering his lines in his trademark Texas stoner drawl.  And then you’ve got Jon Voight.

Oh my God, Jon Voight.

Voight plays Paul Serone, a Paraguayan who says that he can help the documentary crew find an isolated Amazon tribe but who, once he gets on the boat, basically takes over and announces that he’s actually a snake hunter and he’s planning on capturing the biggest anaconda in existence.  It takes a while for the snake to show up.  When it finally does, it’s actually a pretty impressive throw-back to the type of cheesy by entertaining monsters that used to show up in drive-in movies back in the 50s and the 60s.  But really, the biggest special effect in the movie is Jon Voight.  Wisely, Voight doesn’t waste any time trying to be subtle or in anyway believable in the role of Serone.  Instead, Voight gives a performance that seems to be channeling the spirit of the infamous Klaus Kinski.  Voight growls, snarls, and glares as if the fate of the world depended upon it and he rips into his Paraguayan accent with all the ferocity of a character actor who understands the importance of being memorable in an otherwise forgettable movie.  It’s as if Voight showed up on set and looked at what was going and then said to himself, “Well, Jon, it’s all up to you.”  Serone is really a pretty vicious character.  I mean, he literally strangles a character to death with his legs!  But, thanks to Voight’s crazed energy he’s still the most compelling character in the movie.  It’s really scary to think about what the film would have been like without Voight shaking things up.  Along amongst the cast, Voight seems to understand just how silly Anaconda truly is.  Voight takes a rather middling monster movie and, through sheer force of will, manages to make it at least somewhat entertaining.

Personally, I’d like to see a remake of Anaconda, one that would feature the same cast but would be directed by Werner Herzog.  Just imagine if Herzog had told the story of that trip down the Amazon.  Gone would be the bland dialogue and rudimentary character motivations.  Instead, we’d have Jennifer Lopez slowly going insane while hundreds of monkey lay siege to the boat and Ice Cube musing on the never ending conflict between man and nature.  Herzog’s Anaconda would probably be just crazy enough to keep up with Jon Voight’s performance.

A Movie A Day #149: The All-American Boy (1973, directed by Charles Eastman)


Vic “The Bomber” Bealer is an amateur boxer who appears to be poised to escape from life in his dreary hometown.  He is such a good fighter that he is on the verge of making the U.S. Olympic Team and he is so good-looking that everyone, from his teenage girlfriend (Anne Archer) to his gay manager (Ned Glass) to a woman he meets at a gas station, automatically falls in love with him.  However, after his girlfriend tells him that she is pregnant, Vic abandons both her and boxing.  When she leaves town to have an abortion, Vic starts boxing again but then he learns that she may not have actually had an abortion and Vic leaves for Los Angeles, to see both her and his son.

Sadly, there is something about boxing that has always brought out the pretentious side of some filmmakers and that is the case with The All-American Boy.  This episodic film (which claims to portray “The Manly Art In Six Rounds”) tries to present Vic as being an anti-hero but mostly, he just seems to be vacant loser.  Vic sulks through the entire film, despite not really having much to sulk about.  When one of his conquests asks him what he is thinking, Vic replies, “I ain’t thinkin'” and the movie provides no reason to doubt him on this point.  I was not surprised to learn that The All-American Boy was filmed in 1969 and was deemed unreleasable until the combined success of Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance made Voight into a star.  On the plus side, when he made the film, Jon Voight looked like he could actually step inside the ring and throw a few punches.  On the negative side, the boxing scenes go heavy on the slow motion which, when overused, just looks stupid.  Raging Bull, this film is not.

When it comes to The All-American Boy, Duke has the right idea:

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: Midnight Cowboy (dir by John Schlesinger)


midnight_cowboy

Tonight, I watched the 1969 winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, Midnight Cowboy.

Midnight Cowboy is a movie about Joe Buck.  Joe Buck is played by an impossibly young and handsome Jon Voight.  Joe Buck — and, to be honest, just calling him Joe seems wrong, he is definitely a Joe Buck — is a well-meaning but somewhat dumb young man.  He lives in Midland, Texas.  He was raised by his grandmother.  He used to go out with Annie (Jennifer Salt) but she eventually ended up being sent to a mental asylum after being raped by all of Joe Buck’s friend.  Joe Buck doesn’t have many prospects.  He washes dishes for a living and styles himself as being a cowboy.  Being a Texan, I’ve known plenty of Joe Bucks.

Joe Buck, however, has a plan.  He knows that he’s handsome.  He’s convinced that all women love cowboys.  So, why shouldn’t he hop on a bus, travel to New York City, and make a living having sex with rich women?

Of course, once he arrives in the city, Joe Buck discovers that New York City is not quite as inviting as he thought it would be.  He lives in a tiny and dirty apartment.  He can barely afford to eat.  Walking around the city dressed like a cowboy (and remember, this was long before the Naked Cowboy became one of the most annoying celebrities of all time) and randomly asking every rich woman that he sees whether or not she can tell him where he can find the Statue of Liberty, Joe Buck is a joke.  Even when he does get a customer (played, quite well, by Sylvia Miles), she claims not to have any money and Joe Buck feels so sorry for her that he ends up giving her his money.

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As I watched the first part of the movie, it stuck me that the main theme of Midnight Cowboy appeared to be that, in 1969, New York City was literally Hell on Earth.  But then Joe Buck has flashbacks to his childhood and his relationship with Annie and it quickly became apparent that Midland, Texas was Hell on Earth as well.  Towards the end of the film, it’s suggested that Miami might be paradise but not enough to keep someone from dying on a bus.

Seriously, this is a dark movie.

Joe Buck eventually meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).  Ratso’s real name is Enrico but, after taking one look at him, you can’t help but feel that he’s a perfect Ratso.  Ratso is a con man.  Ratso is a petty thief.  Ratso knows how to survive on the streets but New York City is still killing him.  As a child, Ratso had polio and now he walks with a permanent limp.  He coughs constantly, perhaps because he has TB.  Ratso becomes Joe Buck’s manager and roommate (and, depending on how you to interpret certain scenes and lines, perhaps more) but only after attempting to steal all of his money.

Unfortunately, Ratso is not much of a manager.  Then again, Joe Buck is not much of a hustler.  Most of his customers are men (including a student played by a young but recongizable Bob Balaban), but Joe Buck’s own sexual preference remaining ambiguous.  Joe Buck is so quick to loudly say that he’s not, as Ratso calls him, a “fag” and that cowboys can’t be gay because John Wayne was a cowboy, that you can’t help but suspect that he’s in denial.  When he’s picked up by a socialite played by Brenda Vaccaro, Joe Buck is impotent until she teases him about being gay.  In the end, though, Joe Buck seems to view sex as mostly being a way to make money.  As for Ratso, he appears to almost be asexual.  His only concern, from day to day, is survival.

Did I mention this is a dark movie?

And yet, as dark as it is, there are moments of humor.  Joe Buck is incredibly dense, especially in the first part of the movie.  (During the second half of the film, Joe Buck is no longer as naive and no longer as funny.  It’s possible that he even kills a man, though the film is, I think, deliberately unclear on this point.)  Ratso has a way with words and it’s impossible not to smile when he shouts out his famous “I’m walking here!” at a taxi.  And, as desperate as Joe Buck and Ratso eventually become, you’re happy that they’ve found each other.  They may be doomed but at least they’re doomed together.

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There’s a lengthy party scene, one that features several members of Andy Warhol’s entourage.  I was a bit disappointed that my favorite 60s icon, Edie Sedgwick, was nowhere to be seen.  (But be sure to check out Ciao Manhattan, if you want to see what Edie was doing while Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo were trying not to starve.)  But, as I watched the party scene, I was reminded that Midnight Cowboy is definitely a film of the 60s.  That’s both a good and a bad thing.  On the positive side, the late 60s and 70s were a time when filmmakers were willing to take risks.  Midnight Cowboy could only have been made in 1969.  At the same time, there’s a few moments when director John Schlesinger, in the style of many 60s filmmakers, was obviously trying a bit too hard to be profound.  Some of the flashbacks and fantasy sequences veer towards the pretentious.

Fortunately, the performances of Voight and Hoffman have aged better than Schlesinger’s direction.  Hoffman has the more flamboyant role (and totally throws himself into it) but it really is Voight who carries the film.  Considering that he’s playing a borderline ludicrous character, the poignancy of Voight’s performance is nothing short of miraculous.

Midnight Cowboy was the first and only X-rated film to win best picture.  By today’s standards, it’s a PG-13.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #100: Pearl Harbor (dir by Michael Bay)


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“And then all this happened…”

Nurse Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) in Pearl Harbor (2001)

The “this” that Evelyn Johnson is referring to is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  You know, the date will live in infamy.  The attack that caused the United States to enter World War II and, as a result, eventually led to collapse of the Axis Powers.  The attack that left over 2,000 men died and 1,178 wounded.  That attack.

In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, that attack is just one of the many complications in the romance between Danny (Ben Affleck), his best friend Rafe (Josh Hartnett), and Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale).  The other complications include Danny briefly being listed as dead, Danny being dyslexic before anyone knew what dyslexia was (and yet, later, he’s still seen reading and writing letters with absolutely no trouble, almost as if the filmmakers forgot they had made such a big deal about him not being able to do so), and the fact that Rafe really, really likes Evelyn.  Of course, the main complication to their romance is that this is a Michael Bay film and he won’t stop moving the camera long enough for anyone to have a genuine emotion.

I imagine that Pearl Harbor was an attempt to duplicate the success of Titanic, by setting an extremely predictable love story against the backdrop of a real-life historical tragedy.  Say what you will about Titanic (and there are certain lines in that film that, when I rehear them today, make me cringe), Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet had genuine chemistry.  None of that chemistry is present in Pearl Harbor.  You don’t believe, for a second, that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett are lifelong friends.  You don’t believe that Kate Beckinsale is torn between the two of them.  Instead, you just feel like you’re watching three actors who are struggling to give a performance when they’re being directed by a director who is more interested in blowing people up than in getting to know them.

Continuing the Titanic comparison, Pearl Harbor‘s script absolutely sucks.  Along with that line about “all this” happening, there’s also a scene where Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) reacts to his cabinet’s skepticism by rising to his feet and announcing that if he, a man famously crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair, can stand up, then America can win a war.

I’ve actually been to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.  I have gone to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I have stood and stared down at the remains of the ship resting below the surface of the ocean.  It’s an awe-inspiring and humbling site, one that leaves you very aware that over a thousand men lost their lives when the Arizona sank.

I have also seen the wall which lists the name of everyone who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and until you’ve actually been there and you’ve seen it with your own eyes, you really can’t understand just how overwhelming it all is.  The picture below was taken by my sister, Erin.

Pearl Harbor 2003If you want to pay tribute to those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, going to the Arizona Memorial is a good start.  But avoid Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor at all costs.

Back to School #55: Varsity Blues (dir by Brian Robbins)


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“I don’t want your finger.”

Bleh!

The 1999 high school football film Varsity Blues has been showing up on cable fairly regularly lately and, seeing as how I’m currently in the process of reviewing 80 of the best, worst,  most memorable, and most forgettable high school films of all time, I decided that I might as well watch the whole thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years.  I knew that it was set in Texas.  I knew Jon Voight played a fanatical football coach.  I knew that James Van Der Beek played an idealistic quarterback who clashed with the coach.  I knew that there was a fat guy named Billy Bob, mostly because every time an out-of-state director makes a film about Texas, there’s a fat guy named Billy Bob.  I knew about as much as one could learn from that episode of The Office where Michael Scott shows the film during “Movie Monday.”

"I don't want your truck."

“I don’t want your truck.”

But I had never seen the whole film so I decided, why not?  After all, I had already decided to review several other Texas-set high school films — The Last Picture Show, Dazed and Confused, Dancer, Texas, and Rushmore.  And hey those films were all good so maybe Varsity Blues would be good too!

Bleh.

One of the big clichés about Texas is that the entire state is obsessed with football.  (The other big cliché, of course, is saying that “everything is bigger in Texas.”  As if being a tiny state like Vermont is somehow preferable…)  I’ve always found the whole “Texas worships football” thing to be amusing because I’m a Texas girl and I don’t know a thing about football.  People tend to talk about Texas and football as if there aren’t any fanatical football fans in New York or California.  Ultimately, of course, it has little do with football and everything to do with the fact that the rest of the country loves to hate my home state.  If Vermont was known for being obsessed with football, there’d probably be thousands of articles about the “proud history of Vermont football.”  But since it’s Texas, we end up with movies like Varsity Blues.

"I don't want your painfully obvious at social commentary."

“I don’t want your painfully obvious attempt at social commentary.”

Anyway, Varsity Blues tells the story of Mox (James Van Der Beek), who is a backup quarterback for the championship-winning West Caanan High School football team.  However, Mox isn’t just your average jock.  For one thing, he’s seen reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  (It’s indicative of this film’s approach to characterization that we never learn whether Mox actually understands or even likes Slaughterhouse Five.  We’re just supposed to be impressed by the fact that he owns a copy of the book.)  Mox wants to leave Texas to go to an Ivy League school.  He doesn’t want to play under the legendarily abusive Coach Kilmer (Jon Voight).  (How evil is Kilmer?  So evil that he poses for pictures like the one above.)   And Mox resents the pressure put on him by his football-crazed father.  (“You throw that fucking pigskin!” his dad shouts at one point.)  As Mox puts it, “I don’t want your life!” and the line is just hilarious because Van Der Beek’s attempt to sound like a Texan is hilarious.

(Tip for actors: If you can’t do the accent, don’t try.  Because I guarantee, if I ever meet James Van Der Beek, I’m going to tell him that his accent sucked and then I’m going to laugh and laugh.  It probably won’t do much for his self-image.  Sorry, James.)

"I don't want James Van Der Beek's career."

“Get me on Hawaii 5-0 because I don’t want James Van Der Beek’s career.”

Anyway, when star quarterback Lance (Paul Walker) is injured, Mox is suddenly the team’s starting quarterback.  And you know what?  Mox is going to play the game his way!  Soon, he is standing up the cartoonishly evil Coach Kilmer and challenging small town Texas’s obsession with high school football.

And here’s the thing: this is a film that wants to have it both ways.  It wants to challenge the philosophy of winning at all costs and it also pretends to be about the unfair pressure that high school athletes are put under.  But you better believe that the film ends with Mox leading his team to victory.  And it’s not so much that Mox wins as much as it’s the fact that you know the film would never have the courage to actually have Mox lose.  The film wants to be celebration of rebellion but, ultimately, it’s just a standard sports film.

And, even beyond that, it’s just not a very good film.  I was shocked, when I checked with the imdb, to discover that Varsity Blues was actually filmed in Texas because the film feels like it was made in California.  It has no authentic Texas flavor to it.  What it does have is some of the worst fake accents that I’ve ever heard in my life.

Mox may not want his father’s life but I don’t want this stupid film.

varsitybluesheader

“Well, we don’t want your review!”

44 Days of Paranoia #42: The Manchurian Candidate (dir by Jonathan Demme)


For our next entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.  (You can read my review of the original by clicking on this sentence.)

During the first Gulf War, when a platoon of soldiers is attacked by Iraqi forces, their lives are saved by Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schrieber).  Raymond receives the congressional medal of honor and is eventually elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.  In many ways, Shaw is continuing the family business.  Not only was his father a Senator but so is his powerful and calculating mother (Meryl Streep).  As the film opens, Raymond Shaw has just been nominated for the vice presidency.  A strife-torn America looks to Shaw to save the country.  After all, he’s a war hero.

Or is he?

Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), who was a member of Shaw’s platoon, has spent the last few years having nightmares in which he and the other members of the platoon — including Shaw — were captured, brainwashed, and had implants inserted into their bodies.  When Marco discovers that the other members of his platoon have been having the exact same nightmare, he starts to investigate on his own.

When I first started watching this version of The Manchurian Candidate, my initial response was to go, “Bleh!  Remake!”  There’s a reason why most film bloggers automatically despise any and all remakes.  Usually, they add little to the original version and they rarely improve over what was previously there.  Even worse, remakes often times seem to be directed by some of the worst hacks in Hollywood.  What’s more insulting — to have your movie remade or to have it remade by Brett Ratner?

However, Jonathan Demme is not your typical Hollywood hack and that became quickly obvious as I watched his remake of The Manchurian Candidate.  Both Demme’s direction and the screenplay by Daniel Pine and Dean Georgaris show a lot of respect for the original while also providing a few surprises of their own.  Demme creates a convincing portrait of a society that has been consumed by secrecy and is now running the risk of collapsing under the weight of conspiracy.

Unfortunately, the remake doesn’t quite capture the satiric bite of the original.  One of the things that made the original Manchurian Candidate so memorable was the fact that both sides of the ideological divide were ultimately portrayed as being empty, shallow, and ultimately destructive.  The ultimate message was that neither the left nor the right should be trusted.  The remake is a lot more specific about who the villains are and what they believe in and, as a result, its attempts at social and political commentary are a lot more predictable.  The original Manchurian Candidate could both entertain you and make you think.  The remake is very entertaining but never quite thought-provoking.

While it can’t hope to improve on the original, the remake of The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made and compelling action film that features a trio of great performances from Denzel Washington, Liev Schrieber, and especially Meryl Streep.  As her performance here shows, Meryl really should be playing more villains because her performance here is not only impressive but also fun to watch.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd
  30. Nixon
  31. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  32. The Purge
  33. The Stepford Wives
  34. Saboteur
  35. A Dark Truth
  36. The Fugitive
  37. The Day of Jackal
  38. Z
  39. The Fury
  40. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
  41. Shattered Glass

6 Reviews of 6 More Films That Were Released in 2013: The Company You Keep, Dracula 3D, Getaway, Identity Thief, Pawn, Welcome to the Punch


In part of my continuing effort to get caught up on my 2013 film reviews, here are 6 more reviews of 6 more films.

The Company You Keep (dir by Robert Redford)

Shia LeBeouf is a journalist who discovers that attorney Bill Grant (Robert Redford) is actually a former 60s radical who is still wanted by the FBI for taking part in a bank robbery in which a security guard was killed.  In one of those coincidences that can be filed directly under “Because it was convenient for the plot,” LeBeouf’s girlfriend (Anna Kendrick) works for the FBI.  Anyway, all of this leads to Grant going on the run and meeting up with a lot of his former radical colleagues (all of whom are played by familiar character actors like Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie).  Ben pursues him and discovers that Grant could very well be innocent and … oh, who cares?  The Company You Keep is a big smug mess of a film.   It’s full of talented actors — like Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, and Brit Marling (who, talented as she may be, is actually kinda terrible in this film) — but so what?  I lost interest in the film after the first 20 minutes, which was a problem since I still had 101 more minutes left to go.

Has there ever been a movie that’s actually been improved by the presence of Shia LeBeouf?

Dracula 3D (dir by Dario Argento)

Dario Argento’s version of the classic Dracula tale got terrible reviews when it was briefly released here in the States but I happen to think that it was rather underrated.  No, the film can not compares to classic Argento films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Tenebre.  However, the film itself is so shamelessly excessive that it’s impossible not to enjoy on some level.  The film’s moody sets harken back to the classic gothic villages of the old Hammer films, Thomas Kretschman turns Dracula into the type of decadent European aristocrat who you would expect to find doing cocaine in 1970s New York, and Rutger Hauer is wonderfully over-the-top as Van Helsing.  Yes, Dracula does turn into a giant preying mantis at one point but if you can’t enjoy that then you’re obviously taking life (and movies) too seriously.

Getaway (dir by Courtney Solomon)

I saw Getaway during my summer vacation and the main thing I remember about the experience is that I saw it in Charleston, West Virginia.  Have I mentioned how in love I am with Charleston?  Seriously, I love that city!

As for the movie, it was 90 minutes of nonstop car chases and crashes and yet it somehow still managed to be one of the dullest films that I’ve ever seen.  Ethan Hawke’s wife is kidnapped by Jon Voight and Hawke is forced to steal a car and drive around the city, doing random things.  Along the way, he picks up a sidekick played by Selena Gomez.  Hawke and Voight are two of my favorite actors and, on the basis of Spring Breakers, I think that Gomez is a lot more talented than she’s given credit for.  But all of that talent didn’t stop Getaway from being forgettable.  It’s often asked how much action is too much action and it appears that Getaway was specifically made to answer that question.

Identity Thief (dir by Seth Gordon)

My best friend Evelyn and I attempted to watch this “comedy” on Saturday night and we could only get through the first hour before we turned it off.  Jason Bateman’s a great actor but, between Identity Thief and Disconnect, this just wasn’t his year.  In this film, Bateman is a guy named Sandy (Are you laughing yet?  Because the movie really thinks this is hilarious) whose identity is stolen by Melissa McCarthy.  In order to restore both his credit and his good name, Bateman goes down to Florida and attempts to convince McCarthy to return to Colorado with him.  The film’s “humor” comes from the fact that McCarthy is sociopath while Bateman is … not.

It’s just as funny as it sounds.

Pawn (dir by David Armstrong)

An all-night diner is robbed by three thieves led by Michael Chiklis and, perhaps not surprisingly, things do not go as expected.  It turns out that not only does Chilklis have a secret agenda of his own but so does nearly everyone else in the diner.  Pawn is a gritty little action thriller that’s full of twists and turns.  Chiklis gives a great performance and Ray Liotta has a surprisingly effective cameo.

Welcome to the Punch (dir by Eran Creevy)

In this British crime drama, gangster Jacob (Mark Strong) comes out of hiding and returns to London in order to get his son out of prison.  Waiting for Jacob is an obsessive police detective (James McAvoy) who is determined to finally capture Jacob.

In many ways, Welcome To The Punch reminded me a lot of Trance and n0t just because both films feature James McAvoy playing a morally ambiguous hero.  Like Trance, Welcome to the Punch is something of a shallow film but Eran Creevy’s direction is so stylish and Mark Strong and James McAvoy both give such effective performances that you find yourself entertained even if the film itself leaves you feeling somewhat detached.