Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Arrival (dir by David Twohy)


I recorded The Arrival off of Cinemax on March 3rd.  Having just watched it, I am 95% sure that it is not the same movie as the Arrival that I saw in theaters last fall.

It’s true that both films deal with the arrival of aliens and feature scenes that take place in space ships.  And it’s also true that both films involve scientists trying to figure out what the aliens want.  However, The Arrival that I recorded featured far more of Charlie Sheen than I remembered being in the Arrival that I saw in theaters.  Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner were nowhere to be seen but Charlie Sheen was all over the freaking place.

And I mean all of Charlie Sheen.  The Arrival was made back in 1996 and I guess that Charlie Sheen was still working out back then because, seriously, he is either naked or, at the very least, shirtless for the majority of the movie.  What’s funny is that, with a few minor exceptions, there’s rarely a reason for him to be naked.  I guess someone just said, “We might as well record Charlie Sheen looking fit and healthy while we still can…”

The Arrival is a relatively serious movie.  Oh, it has moments of humor but it’s all Hollywood blockbuster humor.  It’s not a comedy by any means.  It’s always strange seeing Charlie Sheen in a serious role because … well, he’s Charlie Sheen.  Plus, he was never a particularly good dramatic actor.  He walks through The Arrival with this grim look frozen on his face and that, combined with his muscular chest, makes him look like a killer robot from the future.  You keep waiting for Charlie to say, “I’ll be back.”

Of course, Charlie Sheen isn’t playing a killer robot.  He’s playing Zane Zaminsky, an astronomer who works for the government.  Or, at least, he did work for the government until he detected an alien signal coming from a nearby star.  He’s fired and blackballed by his boss, Phil (Ron Silver).  Unable to get work, Zane does what anyone would do.  He and Kiki (Tony T. Johnson), the streetwise neighbor kid, set up a DIY astronomy lab in his basement.

At least, that’s what I think he did.  I kind of had a hard time following The Arrival‘s plot.  It all seemed a little bit overcomplicated, especially when savvy viewers will have already guessed that 1) the aliens are real, 2) Phil is an alien, 3) there’s a big government conspiracy involved, 4) and Zane has stumbled across it.

What are the aliens doing on the planet?  To figure that out, Zane’s going to have to go to Mexico and meet with climatologist Illana Green (Lindsay Crouse).  However, we already know what the aliens are  doing.  They’re attempting to destroy the environment so that they can wipe out humanity.  We know this because that’s what aliens are always trying to do!  They’re always either trying to save the environment or destroy it.  My personal theory is that Bill Nye, The Science Guy is actually an alien.  It explains a lot.

Anyway, it may sound like I’m criticizing The Arrival but it was actually kind of a fun movie in its dumb way.  It’s a serious movie but it’s also kind of a silly movie.  Any film that features Charlie Sheen as anyone other than Charlie Sheen is going to be watchable just on a WTF sort of level.  Beyond that, Ron Silver makes for a rather convincing alien and director David Twohy keeps the action moving quickly.  Several of Twohy’s shots are memorably atmospheric, even if they often do feature a bearded and naked Charlie Sheen.

Is The Arrival as good as Arrival?  HELL NO!  Arrival is one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.  The Arrival is a rather minor sci-fi melodrama but it’s fun nonetheless.  Just don’t expect it to make any sense.  To quote the bard, John Lennon, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.”

A Movie A Day #30: Prince of the City (1981, directed by Sidney Lumet)


220px-prince_of_the_city_foldedIn 1970s New York City, Danny Ciello (Treat Williams) is a self-described “prince of the city.”  A narcotics detective, Ciello is the youngest member of the Special Investigations Unit.  Because of their constant success, the SIU is given wide latitude by their superiors at the police department.  The SIU puts mobsters and drug dealers behind bars.  They get results.  If they sometimes cut corners or skim a little money for themselves, who cares?

It turns out that a lot of people care.  When a federal prosecutor, Rick Cappalino (Norman Parker), first approaches Ciello and asks him if he knows anything about police corruption, Ciello refuses to speak to him.  As Ciello puts it, “I sleep with my wife but I live with my partners.”  But Ciello already has doubts.  His drug addict brother calls him out on his hypocrisy. Ciello spends one harrowing night with one of his informants, a pathetic addict who Ciello keeps supplied with heroin in return for information.  Ciello finally agrees to help the investigation but with one condition: he will not testify against anyone in the SIU.  Before accepting Ciello’s help, Cappalino asks him one question.  Has Ciello ever done anything illegal while a cop?  Ciello says that he has only broken the law three times and each time, it was a minor infraction.

For the next two years, Ciello wears a wire nearly every day and helps to build cases against other cops, some of which are more corrupt than others.  It turns out that being an informant is not as easy as it looks.  Along with getting burned by malfunctioning wires and having to deal with incompetent backup, Ciello struggles with his own guilt.  When Cappalino is assigned to another case, Ciello finds himself working with two prosecutors (Bob Balaban and James Tolkan) who are less sympathetic to him and his desire to protect the SIU.  When evidence comes to light that Ciello may have lied about the extent of his own corruption, Ciello may become the investigation’s newest target.

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Prince of the City is one of the best of Sidney Lumet’s many films but it is not as well-known as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, or even The Wiz.  Why is it such an underrated film?  As good as it is, Prince of the City is not always an easy movie to watch.  It’s nearly three hours long and almost every minute is spent with Danny Ciello, who is not always likable and often seems to be on the verge of having a nervous breakdown.  Treat Williams gives an intense and powerful performance but he is such a raw nerve that sometimes it is a relief when Lumet cuts away to Jerry Orbach (as one of Ciello’s partners) telling off a district attorney or to a meeting where a group of prosecutors debate where a group of prosecutors debate whether or not to charge Ciello with perjury.

Prince of the City may be about the police but there’s very little of the typical cop movie clichés.  The most exciting scenes in the movie are the ones, like that scene with all the prosecutors arguing, where the characters debate what “corruption” actually means.  Throughout Prince of the City, Lumet contrasts the moral ambiguity of otherwise effective cops with the self-righteous certitude of the federal prosecutors.  Unlike Lumet’s other films about police corruption (Serpico, Q&A), Prince of the City doesn’t come down firmly on either side.

(Though the names have been changed, Prince of the City was based on a true story.  Ciello’s biggest ally among the investigators, Rick Cappalino, was based on a young federal prosecutor named Rudy Giuliani.)

Prince of the City is dominated by Treat Williams but the entire cast is full of great New York character actors.  It would not surprise me if Jerry Orbach’s performance here was in the back of someone’s mind when he was cast as Law & Order‘s Lenny Briscoe.  Keep an eye out for familiar actors like Lance Henriksen, Lane Smith, Lee Richardson, Carmine Caridi, and Cynthia Nixon, all appearing in small roles.

Prince of the City is a very long movie but it needs to be.  Much as David Simon would later do with The Wire, Lumet uses this police story as a way to present a sprawling portrait of New York City.  In fact, if Prince of the City were made today, it probably would be a David Simon-penned miniseries for HBO.

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #55: The Tenth Level (dir by Charles S. Dubin)


10thlevelI first found out about the 1976 made-for-tv movie The Tenth Level while I was doing some research on the Milgram experiment.  The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment that was conducted, under the direction of Prof. Stanley Milgram, in 1961.  Two test subjects were placed in two separate room.  One test subject was known as the “Learner” and he was hooked up to a machine that could deliver electric shocks.  The other subject was the “Teacher.”  His job was to ask the Lerner questions and, whenever the Learner gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher was supposed to correct the error by pushing a button and delivering the electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the shock would get worse.

Of course, what the Teacher did not know was that the Lerner was an associate of Prof. Milgram’s and that pushing the button did not actually deliver a shock.  The Lerner would intentionally give wrong answers and, after the Teacher pushed each subsequent button, the Lerner would groan in pain and eventually beg the Teacher to stop.  The test was to see how long the Teacher would continue to push the buttons.

The study found that 65% of the Teachers, even when the Lerner stopped responding, continued to push the buttons until delivering the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.  It was a surprising result, one that is often cited as proof that ordinary people will do terrible things if they’re ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The Tenth Level is loosely based on the Milgram experiment.  Prof. Stephen Turner (William Shatner) is a psychology professor who conducts a similar experiment.  Turner claims that he’s looking for insight into the nature of blind obedience but some of his colleagues are skeptical.  His best friend (Ossie Davis) thinks that Turner is mostly trying to deal with the guilt of being a WASP who has never had to deal with discrimination.  His ex-wife, Barbara (Lynn Carlin), thinks that the experiment is cruel and could potentially traumatize anyone who takes part in it.  Turner, meanwhile, is fascinated by how random people react to being ordered to essentially murder someone.

Eventually, a good-natured carpenter/grad student, Dahlquist (Stephen Macht), volunteers.  At first, Turner refuses to allow Dahlquist to take part because he’s previously met Dahlquist and Dahlquist is a friend of one of Tuner’s assistants.  However, Dahlquist literally begs to be allowed to take part in the experiment and Turner relents.

Unfortunately, the pressure of administering shocks proves to be too much for Dahlquist and he has a 70s style freak-out, which essentially means that the screen changes colors and everything moves in slow motion as he smashes up the room.  As a result of Dalquist’s violent reaction, Turner is called before a disciplinary committee and basically put on trial.

The Tenth Level is an interesting film.  On the one hand, the subject matter is fascinating and, if nothing else, the film deserves some credit for trying to seriously explore the ethics of psychological experimentation.  On the other hand, this is a film from 1976 that features William Shatner giving numerous monologues about the nature of man.  And, let us not forget, this is William Shatner before he apparently developed a sense of humor about himself.  That means that, in this film, we get the Shatner that inspired a thousand impersonations.  We get the Shatner who speaks precisely and who enunciates every single syllable.  And let’s not forget that Shatner is paired up with Ossie Davis, an actor who was never exactly subtle himself.

The end result is a film that is both thought-provoking and undeniably silly.  This is a film that will make you think even while it inspires you to be totally snarky.

(Also of note, John Travolta supposedly makes his film debut in the Tenth Level.  Apparently, he plays a student.  I have yet to spot him.)

You can watch it below!

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: The Verdict (dir by Sidney Lumet)


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Speaking of the good, old-fashioned star power of Paul Newman, The Hustler and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were not the only films to receive an oscar nomination as the result of his charisma.  There’s also The Verdict, a 1982 best picture nominee that would probably be forgotten if not for Paul Newman’s performance.  However, since Paul Newman did play the lead role in The Verdict and he did give an amazing lead performance, The Verdict was nominated for best picture and, 33 years later, it ended up on TCM where I just watched it.

That’s the power of good acting.

Paul Newman plays Frank Galvin, a Boston-based attorney.  At one time, Frank was a lawyer at an elite firm.  But he has since fallen on hard times.  Now, he’s the type of attorney who crashes funerals and hands out his card.  He spends his spare time at his favorite bar, playing pinball and telling long jokes while stumbling about in a drunken haze.  In many ways, Frank represents everything that people hate about personal injury attorneys but, since he’s played by Paul Newman, you know that he’s going to turn out to be a good guy.

Frank only has one friend left in the world, his former mentor Mickey (Jack Warden).  Looking to help Frank out, Mickey sends Frank a medical malpractice suit.  A woman at a Catholic Hospital was given an anesthetic during child birth that has led to her now being brain dead.  Both the woman’s family and the Archdiocese are looking for a settlement.  The family needs the money to pay for her medical care.  The Archdiocese just wants the case to go away.  All Frank has to do is accept whatever settlement deal is offered…

However, something has changed for Frank.  He’s visited the comatose woman and, looking at her trapped in a vegetative state, he’s decided that the hospital needs to be held responsible for its mistake.  He rejects the settlement and takes the case to court, looking for both justice for the victim and redemption for himself.

That’s easier said than done, of course.  The Archdiocese has hired Ed Concannon (James Mason, perfectly cast), one of the best and most powerful attorneys in Boston.  Ed has a huge legal team working on the case.  Frank has Mickey.  As well, the Judge (Milo O’Shea) makes little effort to hide his contempt for Frank.

Probably the only bright spot in Frank’s life is that he’s met a woman.  Laura (Charlotte Rampling) meets him in a bar and soon, they’re lovers and Frank is confiding in her about the case.  What he doesn’t suspect is that Laura herself is a spy, hired by Concannon.

It looks like all is lost but then Frank discovers that there is one nurse (Lindsay Crouse) who might be willing to tell the truth about what happened at the hospital…

In many ways, The Verdict is a predictable film.  From the minute we first meet him, we know that Frank is going to be redeemed.  From the minutes that we hear about the case, we know who we’re supposed to root for and who we’re supposed to hiss.  Just about every courtroom cliché is present, right down to a surprise witness or two…

But no matter!  The Verdict may be predictable but it works.  As he proved with 12 Angry Men, Director Sidney Lumet knew how to make legal deliberations compelling and the entire film is full of small but memorable details that elevate it above its simplistic storyline.  As a director, Lumet gets good performances from his cast and, as a result, this is a film where the hero is flawed and the antagonists aren’t necessarily evil.  Even the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Boston (who, in most films, would have been a cardboard villain) is given a scene where he’s allowed to show some humanity.

And, of course, Paul Newman is great in the role of Frank.  When we first meet Frank, he looks and sounds terrible.  Indeed, it’s strange to see Paul Newman playing a character who is essentially such a loser.  (Even Eddie Felson in The Hustler had an appealing swagger about him.)  It’s during the scenes where Frank considers the woman in a coma that Newman starts to reveal that there’s more to Frank than what’s on the rough surface.  By the end of the film, Frank may be a hero but Newman doesn’t play him as such.  He’s still has that alcoholic rasp in his voice and his eyes still betray hints of insecurity and a fear that, at any minute, he’s going to screw up and mess everything up.  It’s a great performance, one for which Newman received a nomination for best actor.

Speaking of star power, Bruce Willis also shows up in The Verdict.  He’s an extra who appears as an observer in the courtroom.  He’s sitting a few rows behind Paul Newman.  (He’s also sitting beside Tobin Bell, the Jigsaw Killer from the Saw films).  It’s probably easiest to spot Willis towards the end of the film, when the verdict is read.  Bruce breaks out into a huge grin and almost looks like he’s about to start clapping.  Bruce only gets about 10 second of screen time but he acts the Hell out of them!

Thanks to Paul Newman, The Verdict is a memorable and entertaining film.  Be sure to watch it the next time it shows up on TCM.