Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Horror on TV: Tales From The Crypt 6.1 “Let The Punishment Fit The Crime” (dir by Russell Mulcahy)


For tonight’s excursion into televised horror, we present you the premiere episode of the 6th season of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt!

In Let The Punishment Fit The Crime, attorney Geraldine Ferrett (Catherine O’Hara) is pulled over while driving through a small town in upstate New York.  It turns out that Geraldine didn’t have enough numbers on her licence plate.  (That’s because she has a vanity plate that reads, “Sue me.”)  It doesn’t sound like a huge crime but, as everyone at the courthouse keeps trying to warn her, she is in “a very strict town.”  Let The Punishment Fit The Crime is a satirical look at our overregulated and overlitigious society.

This episode originally aired on October 31st, 1994 — hey, this is a Halloween episode!

Enjoy!

 

Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


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Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.

In Memory of Robin Williams #1: Dead Poets Society (Dir by Peter Weir)


Robin Williams

Last Monday, after I first heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I struggled to find the right words to express what I was feeling.  Finally, I ended up posting this on Facebook:

I keep trying to write something about Robin Williams but the words aren’t coming to me. It’s all too big and strange and sudden and I can’t find the words to sum up my feelings. I feel like a part of my childhood died today. So, instead of trying to be more eloquent or wise than I actually am, I’m just going to say R.I.P., Robin WIlliams.

Finally, a little over a week later, I still don’t know what to say.  How do you sum up a life in just a few words?  I don’t think that they can be done for anyone.  It certainly can’t be done for as iconic a figure as Robin Williams.  So, instead of trying to do the impossible, I’ve spent the last few days watching and reviewing a few of Robin Williams’ films.

And, of course, one of those films had to be the 1989 best picture nominee Dead Poets Society.

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Now, a quick warning.  The review below is going to contain spoilers.  I’m going to talk about some very important plot points.  But surely you’ve seen Dead Poets Society already.  And even if you haven’t seen it, surely you’ve heard what the film is about and surely, you know what happens.  After all, who doesn’t?  But if you are one of those people who does not know or who has not seen the film — well, why haven’t you?

The first time I ever saw Dead Poets Society was in a high school creative writing class.  Our teacher — who, it quickly became apparently, considered herself to be the real-life version of the teacher played by Robin Williams — showed it to us, over the course of three class periods, as an introduction to writing poetry.  I enjoyed the film but the rest of the class absolutely loved it.  Especially the guys.  For the rest of the class year, I would listen to those guy as they bragged about how they were seizing the day.  I remember one day, the classroom was empty except for me and one of the boys.  I can’t remember what led to him doing it (and it could very well have been my suggestion that he try) but he eventually ended up standing on top of a desk just like the students at the end of the film.  Unfortunately, public high school desks aren’t quite as sturdy as private school desks and my friend soon ended up crashing to the floor as the desk slipped out from underneath him.

Ah, memories.

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Yes, Dead Poets Society is one of those films.  It’s a film that everyone seems to have seen, loved, and found to be inspirational.  And I have to admit that I’ve grown to appreciate it more over the years since I first saw it back in creative writing class.  With each subsequent viewing, I find myself less critical of the film’s melodramatic and predictable moments and more willing to accept the film for what it is — a celebration of life, poetry, and teaching.  Dead Poets Society, from the very moment that Robin Williams makes his first appearance sitting at the end of a line of stodgy old men and flashing an unapologetically impish smile, is a film that defies easy cynicism.  It’s a film that embraces you and you have to be very hard-hearted not to embrace it back.

Dead Poets Society, of course, tells the story of a private school in the 1950s and what happens when a new teacher (Robin Williams, naturally) encourages his students to celebrate creativity, to “seize the day” as the saying goes.  Not surprisingly, just about every other adult thinks that the students would be better off not seizing the day but instead preparing for a life of WASPy conformity.  This leads to a few of Mr. Keating’s students forming a secret society where they can read poetry, talk about their feelings, and basically do their best to honor the memory of Walt Whitman.

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There are seven members of the Dead Poets Society:

There’s Gerard Pitts, who doesn’t really make much of an impression.  The main thing that I always notice about Gerard Pitts is that he looks like a young version of Sam Waterston.  This made sense when I checked the end credits and I discovered that he was played by James Waterston, son of Sam.

Stephen Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) is another one who doesn’t actually get to do much (beyond boast about the fact that he has a genius I.Q. and create a makeshift radio) but, with his cute glasses, unruly hair, and friendly manner, it’s impossible not to like him.

Of the three main villains in Dead Poets Society, none of them are quite as loathsome as Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman).  The stern headmaster (played by Norman Lloyd) and the judgmental father (played by Kurtwood Smith) at least have the excuse of being old and set-in-their-boring-ways.  Cameron, however, starts out as a member of the Dead Poets Society but still has absolutely no problem betraying them.  As opposed to the adults in the movie, Cameron is someone who still had a chance to be something more than a worm. That being said, Dylan Kussman makes Cameron into a memorable worm.

Then there’s Knox Overstreet (played by Josh Charles, who appears to have only aged a year or two in between this movie and the first season of The Good Wife).  We know that Knox is rich because his name is Knox Overstreet.  Knox has a crush on a girl who goes to the local high school.  Knox’s subplot doesn’t really amount to much but it’s impossible not to like him because Josh Charles was (and is) simply adorable.

Charlie Dalton (played, quite well, by Gale Hansen) is the one who most enthusiastically embraces the idea of seizing the day.  He’s the one who pretends to get a tattoo, who demands to be known by a new name, who attempts to protest the school’s out-dated traditions, and who ultimately is punished with expulsion after he physically attacks Cameron.  (And, as sorry as I was to see Charlie leave the movie, Cameron totally deserved it.)  For a few months in 2008, Gale Hansen was a very active participant on the IMDB message boards, answering questions, giving advice, and generally just being a very gracious guy.  However, he suddenly stopped posting and, just as mysteriously, all of his previous posts were subsequently deleted.  Hansen, himself, hasn’t acted since 1998 and that’s a shame because he really did do a good job as the enthusiastic, idealistic, and not-quite-as-worldly-as-he-thinks Charlie Dalton.

Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is the one who, inspired to seize the day, appears in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, as a result, earns the wrath of his overbearing father.  Seen now, in the shadow of Robin Williams’ tragic death, the scene where Neil commits suicide takes on a terrible poignance and it no longer feels as melodramatic as it did the first time that I saw it.  Whereas, originally, it seemed hard to believe that a character played by the energetic and charismatic Leonard would end up committing suicide over a play, we now know that energy and charisma do not necessarily equal happiness.

And finally, there’s Todd Anderson (played by a very young Ethan Hawke), who is pathologically shy and who, at the end of the film, finally finds the strength to climb up on his desk.  After years of seeing in him in various Richard Linklater films, it’s strange to see the usually verbose Hawke playing such an introverted character.  But he does a good job, turning Todd into the film’s moral center.

Robin Williams In DPS

And then there’s their teacher, John Keating who, quite frankly, might as well be named Robin Williams.  That’s not to say that Williams doesn’t give a good performance as Keating.  Indeed, Williams is the glue that holds the film’s ensemble together and his performance so dominates the entire film that, every time that I’ve seen it, I’ve always been surprised to discover just how little screen time he actually has in Dead Poets Society.  As embodied by Robin Williams, John Keating becomes the type of teacher that everyone wishes they could have had just once.  The power of his performance comes from the fact that he not only inspires the viewers to “seize the day” but he actually makes you believe that the day is worth holding on to.  Without Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society would be easy to dismiss as just being a film about a bunch of privileged teenagers reading poetry and pretending to be rebels.  With Williams, however, the film becomes a celebration of life.

Robin Williams, R.I.P.

RW in DPS