The Dirt On The Relentless: American Satan (2017, directed by Ash Avildsen)


The Relentless are the biggest band in the world, even though their music sounds like it belongs in the 80s.  Led by charismatic singer Johnny Faust (Andy Biersack), the Relentless have just released their debut album, American Satan.  Now, they’re touring the country, doing every drug they can get their hands on and every groupie that stops by their hotel.  The moral guardians say that The Relentless are a bad influence and are leading their children into Satanism.  For once, the moral guardians are right.  Back when they were just a struggling band in Los Angeles, The Relentless made a deal with Satan (Malcolm McDowell).  All they had to do was sacrifice the lead singer of a rival band (played by former teen idol Drake Bell) and all their dreams would come true.  However, if Johnny Faust had bothered to study his namesake, he’d know better than to make a deal with the devil.

The best thing about American Satan is that it was obviously made by people who know the music industry.  All of the details at the start of the film, with the Relentless struggling to get noticed and having to hit the streets and sell tickets to their own show, felt true.  It helps that most of the members of the Relentless were played by actual musicians.  What they lacked in acting talent, they made up for with authenticity.  The music industry is a tough business to break into, regardless of how good or bad your band is.  After watching Johnny and the Relentless struggle with crooked promoters and unsympathetic label owners, it was believable that they would consider signing a deal with the devil.

Much like the band, the movie lost its way after the contract with the devil was signed and official.  The rioting, the groupies, and the drugs were all too predictable and the movie just became The Dirt with Satan replacing Ozzy.  American Satan seems to be building up to an epic conclusion but it never seals the deal.  Instead, it just ends with a whimper, as if no one was sure where the story was supposed to be heading.  Still, any movie that finds roles for Malcolm McDowell, Bill Duke, Goldberg, and Denise Richards can’t be all bad.

At its worse, American Satan is an anti-climatic take on the Faust legend.  At its best, its Tipper Gore’s worst nightmare.

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


Primaryposter

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.

Shattered Politics #62: Bulworth (dir by Warren Beatty)


BulworthSo, if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Robert Redford’s Bill McKay after he was elected to the U.S. Senate at the end of The Candidate, I imagine that he probably ended up becoming something like the protagonist of 1998’s Bulworth, U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth.

As played by Warren Beatty, Bulworth is a veteran senator.  A former liberal firebrand, he may still decorate his office with pictures of him meeting Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King but Bulworth sold out a long time ago.  Now, he just says whatever has to say in order to get elected, including pretending to have a happy marriage. He has become a part of everything that’s wrong with Washington.

Sick of both politics and life in general, Bulworth decides that he’d rather be dead.  But, in order to make sure that his daughter collects on his $10,000,000 life insurance policy, Bulworth cannot commit suicide.  Instead, he arranges for a contract to be taken out on his life.  In two days, Bulworth will be assassinated.

Returning to California for his campaign, Bulworth gets drunk and suddenly starts to say what he actually believes.  He attacks the Washington establishment.  He attacks the voters.  He attacks the insurance companies and comes out for single payer health insurance.  With his desperate press secretary (Oliver Platt) chasing behind him, Bulworth spends the night dancing at a club where he discovers marijuana and meets a girl named Nina (Halle Berry).

(Platt, meanwhile, discovers that he really, really likes cocaine.)

Soon, Nina and Bulworth are hiding out in the ghetto, where Bulworth meets both Nina’s brother (Isiah Washington) and local drug dealer, L.D. (Don Cheadle), and gets a lesson about how economics actually work in the ghetto.  Soon, Bulworth is appearing on CNN where he raps his new political platform and suggests that the solutions for all of America’s problems would be for everyone to just keep having sex until eventually everyone is the same color.

Of course, what Bulworth doesn’t know is that Nina also happens to be the assassin who has been contracted to kill him…

I have mixed feelings about Bulworth.  On the one hand, the film starts out strong.  You don’t have to agree with the film’s politics in order to appreciate the film’s passion,  Bulworth is an angry film and one that’s willing to say some potentially unpopular things.  It’s a film about politics that doesn’t resort to the easy solutions that were proposed by some of the other films that I’ve reviewed for Shattered Politics.  Warren Beatty does a pretty good job of portraying Bulworth’s initial mental breakdown and Oliver Platt is a manic wonder as he consumes more and more cocaine.

But, once Warren Beatty starts rapping, the film starts to fall apart and becomes a bit too cartoonish for its own good.  You get the feeling that Warren Beatty, at this point, is just trying to live out the liberal fantasy of being the only wealthy white man in America to understand what it’s like to be poor and black in America.

Bulworth starts out well but ultimately, it begins better than it ends.

Shattered Politics #54: Dave (dir by Ivan Reitman)


Dave Poster

Way back in 1919, the terrible U.S. President and tyrannical dictator Woodrow Wilson* suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralyzed and unable to perform his duties.  By all standards, Wilson should have been removed from office, if just temporarily.  However, in those pre-Internet days, it was a lot easier to hide the truth about Wilson’s physical and mental condition.  While Wilson spent his days locked away in his bedroom, his wife Edith would forge his signature on bills.  Whenever anyone asked for the President’s opinion, Edith would give her opinion and then assure everyone that it was actually the President’s.

(And really, as long as you were promoting eugenics and white supremacy, it probably was not difficult to imitate Wilson’s opinions.)

Of course, back then, people were used to the idea of never seeing their President in public.  Hence, it was very easy for Wilson to remain sequestered in the White House.  If a similar situation happened today, it’s doubtful that anyone could successfully keep the public from finding out.  When we don’t see the President every day, we wonder why.  How, in this day and age, could a Presidential incapacitation be covered up?

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

Dave is the story of two men who happen to look exactly like Kevin Kline.  One of them is named Bill Mitchell and he’s the arrogant and corrupt President of the United States.  The other is named Dave Kovic.  He’s a nice guy who runs a temp agency and who has a nice side job going as a professional Bill Mitchell imitator.

So, when Bill has a stroke while having sex with a white house staffer (Laura Linney), it only makes sense to recruit Dave Kovic to pretend to the President.  White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella, so you know he’s evil) tells Dave that Vice President Nance (Ben Kingsley) is insane and corrupt.  Dave agrees to imitate the President.  Of course, Alexander’s main plan is to convince Nance to resign and then get Dave to appoint him as Vice President.  Once Alexander is Vice President, it will be announced that Mitchell has had another stroke and then Alexander will move into the Oval Office.

However, what Alexander did not take into account was just how much Dave would enjoy being President.  From the moment that he joyfully shouts, “God Bless, America!,” Dave’s enthusiasm starts to win the public over.  Suddenly, people are realizing that President Mitchell isn’t such a bad President after all.  Even more importantly, Dave wins over the first lady (Sigourney Weaver) who, previously, had little use for her philandering husband.  When Alexander claims that there’s no money in the budget to continue funding a program for the homeless, Dave calls in his best friend, an accountant named Murray (Charles Grodin), and has him rewrite the budget…

And you know what?

Dave is one of those films that tempts me to be all cynical and snarky but, ultimately, the film itself is so likable and earnest that I can even accept the idea that one accountant could balance the budget through common sense alone.  I’ll even accept the idea that Dave could come up with a program that would guarantee everyone employment without, at the same time, bankrupting the country.  Kevin Kline is so enthusiastic in the lead role and the film itself is so good-natured that it almost feels wrong to criticize it for being totally implausible.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a film for being likable.

Dave—–

* For those of you keeping count, that’s the third time in two weeks that I’ve referred to Woodrow Wilson as being  a dictator.  Before anyone points out that some historians rank Wilson as being in the top ten of President, allow me to say that I don’t care.  I DO WHAT I WANT!