Miniseries Review: Ford: The Man and The Machine (dir by Allan Eastman)


Henry Ford changed the world, for both the better and the worst.

Starting from his own small workshop in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford designed the first mass-produced automobile.  He transformed cars from being a luxury item to being something that nearly every family owned.  He created the concept of the assembly line.  He argued that workers needed to be paid a livable wage and he also advocated for an 8-hour workday.  At a time when every facet of American life was heavily segregated, he encouraged his factories an auto dealerships to hire black employees.  He was a pacifist, who took part in a widely-ridiculed but apparently sincere effort to try to convince the leaders of the world to just stop fighting.

Unfortunately, Henry Ford was also something of an unhinged lunatic, a man whose skill at engineering and his empathy for his underpaid workers did not necessarily translate into a sophisticated understanding of anything else.  When the workers in his factories tried to unionize, Ford employed violent strike breakers and he felt that most of the population were like a children and therefore incapable of governing themselves.  He understood how to make car but he also fell for all sorts of quack science and was a believer in reincarnation.

Worst of all, he was a rabid anti-Semite, who blamed almost all of the world’s problems on “Jewish bankers” and who played a huge role in popularizing a scurrilous work called The Protocols of Elder Zion in America.  Claiming to lay out the details of a Jewish plot to secretly control the world, The Protocols were a ludicrous document but many people believed them because they were promoted by Henry Ford, who was as big a celebrity in the early 20th Century as all of the social media influencers are today.  All these years later, The Protocols are still cited by anti-Semites.  A series of anti-Semitic editorials (which Ford later claimed to have signed off on but not actually written) were published in Germany under the title The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem.  Hitler wrote of his admiration for Ford in Mein Kampf.  Ford, it should be noted, did keep his distance from Hitler, though whether that was due to a personal distaste or the threat of an economic boycott is not known.  (Jewish leaders had already organized one successful boycott of Ford in the 20s, which led to Ford closing down his newspaper and offering up an apology.)  At the Nuremberg Trials, many of the Nazis said that they had first been introduced to anti-Semitism through the writings of Henry Ford.  Reportedly, when Ford saw newsreel footage of the concentration camps, he was so overcome with emotion that he collapsed from a stroke.

(Two years ago, when Nick Cannon regurgitated the usual anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on a podcast, he was pretty much saying the exact same thing that Henry Ford said at the start of the 20th Century.  Later, under threat of economic boycott, both Ford and Cannon would off up half-hearted apologies for their statements.  Ford continued to make cars.  Cannon continues to host a handful of television shows.  How does that work?)

First broadcast over two nights in 1987, Ford: The Man and the Machine was a Canadian miniseries about the long and controversial life of Henry Ford.  Cliff Robertson played Henry Ford.  Hope Lange played his wife while Heather Thomas played his mistress.  R.H. Thomson played Ford’s son, the sensitive Edsel.  Michael Ironside played Harry Bennett, a sinister figure who was hired to break up union activity and who eventually became Ford’s right-hand man.  If I remember correctly, I believe Canadian law actually required that Michael Ironside appear in almost every Canadian film and television show made in the 80s and the 90s.  His glowering presence and menacing line delivery practically shouted out, “Don’t mess with Canada,” and he does bring a note of genuine danger to his performance here.

Ford: The Man and the Machine opens in the late 20s, with an aging Henry Ford already starting to lose control of his mental faculties.  A series of flashbacks then show how Ford built his first engine, his first car, and eventually his first factory.  We watch as Ford goes from being an enthusiastic, self-taught engineer to being one of the most powerful men in the world.  Along the way, Ford grows arrogant.  The same stubbornness that led to his early success also leads to his later problems.  For all of his ability, Ford’s ego and his refusal to reconsider his conclusions leaves him vulnerable to both flattery and manipulation, whether it’s coming from the White House of Woodrow Wilson, from his own executives, or from the authoritarians who rose to power in Europe following the first World War.  As portrayed in the movie, he’s a loving father who also flies into a rage when Edsel designs a car on his own.  He loves his wife but he keeps a mistress.  He loves his family but he’ll always prefer to spend time working on his cars than spending time with them.  Henry Ford changes the world but his own hubris makes it impossible for him to change with it.

The miniseries is built around Cliff Robertson’s performance as Ford and Robertson does an excellent job in the role, convincingly playing Ford as he goes from being an enthusiastic dreamer to a paranoid millionaire to a doddering old man, a Bidenesque figuredhead who is only nominally in charge of his own company.  Neither the film nor Robertson shy away from showing us Henry Ford’s flaws.  Instead, both the production and the actor offer up a portrait of a complex man who transformed the way that people lived but who couldn’t escape from his own prejudices and resentments.  Ford: The Man and The Machine is a history lesson but it’s a valuable one.  If you’re a student of history, you’ll find much to think about in this miniseires.

For the record, I do drive a Ford and it’s a good car.  However, I tell myself that it’s named after Gerald Ford.

Insomnia File #52: The Next Karate Kid (dir by Christopher Cain)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable or Netflix? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, over the next few weeks, you find yourself having trouble getting to sleep, you might be tempted to log onto Netflix and watch the fourth season of Cobra Kai.  That’s certainly what I’m planning to do over the course of the next few days.  However, before you watch Cobra Kai, you should make sure that you’ve seen all of the earlier Karate Kid films because you never know who might show up on the show.  I mean, if Thomas Ian Griffith is coming back, anyone could be coming back!  And that includes Julie Pierce, the young karate student at the center of 1994’s The Next Karate Kid.

Julie (played by Hillary Swank) is a troubled teenager.  She lives in Boston with her grandmother.  She attends a high school that is run by a weirdly fascistic self-defense instructor named Colonel Dugan (Michael Ironside), who teaches all of the jocks to be tough, ruthless, and to show no mercy.  When Julie’s grandmother leaves to for Los Angeles so that she can relax, Julie’s new caretaker is an old family friend who turns out to be Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita).

At first, Julie wants nothing to do with Miyagi.  She’s still angry about the death of her parents in a car crash.  All she wants to do is take care of a falcon that lives on the roof of the school.  She does like a boy named Eric McGowen (Chris Conrad) but Eric is also friends with the members of Colonel Dugan’s paramilitary gang, the so-called Alpha Elite.  She needs someone who can understand her and her anger and, at first, Miyagi doesn’t seem like he’s capable of doing and of that.  But then Miyagi discovers that Julie has a natural talent for jumping on top of cars and this leads to….

Well, you know what it leads to.  It’s The Next Karate Kid!  Ralph Macchio was 33 years old when this film was first released and was a bit too old to still be playing a kid so the film’s producers tried to reboot the franchise by giving Miyagi a new student.  The Next Karate Kid pretty much hits all of the story beats from the first film, though it does change things up by not featuring a karate tournament.  Instead, it all leads to a post-prom fight between Miyagi and Dugan.  This film is your only chance to see Pat Morita face off against Michael Ironside and that’s got to be worth something.

The Next Karate Kid does not have a particularly good reputation and, watching the film, I understood why.  There’s very little of the spontaneity or the wit that made the first film memorable.  That said, I did appreciate Michael Ironside’s villainous turn.  If Hillary Swank doesn’t necessarily give the type of performance that would make you think, “Future two-time Oscar winner!,” she still does a good job of portraying the anger that’s at the heart of the character.  If nothing else, The Next Karate Kid deserves some credit for taking Julie’s anger seriously as opposed to just writing it off as being a “teen girl thing.”  The Next Karate Kid wasn’t as bad as I expected but it was still hard not shake the feeling that it was largely unnecessary.

That’s said, I still look forward to Julie’s eventual visit to Cobra Kai.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure
  40. The Spanish Prisoner
  41. Elektra
  42. Revenge
  43. Legend
  44. Cat Run
  45. The Pyramid
  46. Enter the Ninja
  47. Downhill
  48. Malice
  49. Mystery Date
  50. Zola
  51. Ira & Abby

Film Review: Top Gun (dir by Tony Scott)


Oh, where to even begin with Top Gun?

First released in 1986, Top Gun is a film that pretty much epitomizes a certain style of filmmaking.  Before I wrote this review, I did a little research and I actually read some of the reviews that were published when Top Gun first came out.  Though it may be a considered a classic today, critics in 1986 didn’t care much for it.  The most common complaint was that the story was trite and predictable.  The film’s reliance on style over substance led to many critics complaining that the film was basically just a two-hour music video.  Some of the more left-wing critics complained that Top Gun was essentially just an expensive commercial for the military industrial complex.  Director Oliver Stone, who released the antiwar Platoon the same year as Top Gun, said in an interview with People magazine that the message of Top Gun was, “If I start a war, I’ll get a girlfriend.”

Oliver Stone was not necessarily wrong about that.  The film, as we all know, stars Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a cocky young Navy flyer who attends the TOPGUN Academy, where he competes with Iceman (Val Kilmer) for the title of Top Gun and where he also spends a lot of time joking around with everyone’s favorite (and most obviously doomed) character, Goose (Anthony Edwards).  Maverick does get a girlfriend, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), but only after he’s had plenty of chances to show both how reckless and how skilled he can be while flying in a fighter plane.  Though the majority of the film is taken up with scenes of training and volleyball, the end of the film does give Maverick a chance to prove himself in combat when he and Iceman end up fighting a group of ill-defined enemies for ill-defined reasons.  It may not be an official war but it’s close enough.

That said, I think Oliver Stone was wrong about one key thing.  Maverick doesn’t get a girlfriend because he started a war.  He gets a girlfriend because he won a war.  Top Gun is all about winning.  Maverick and Iceman are two of the most absurdly competitive characters in film history and, as I watched the film last weekend, it was really hard not to laugh at just how much Cruise and Kilmer got into playing those two roles.  Iceman and Maverick can’t even greet each other without it becoming a competition over who gave the best “hello.”  By the time the two of them are facing each other in a totally savage beach volleyball match, it’s hard to look at either one of them without laughing.  And yet, regardless of how over-the-top it may be, you can’t help but get caught up in their rivalry.  Cruise and Kilmer are both at their most charismatic in Top Gun and watching the two of them when they were both young and fighting to steal each and every scene, it doesn’t matter that both of them would later become somewhat controversial for their off-screen personalities.  What matters, when you watch Top Gun, is that they’re both obviously stars.

“I’ve got the need for speed,” Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards say as they walk away from their plane.  The same thing could be said about the entire movie.  Top Gun doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff.  We know that Maverick is cocky and has father issues because he’s played by Tom Cruise and Tom Cruise always plays cocky characters who have father issues.  We know that Iceman is arrogant because he’s played by Val Kilmer.  We know that Goose is goofy because his nickname is Goose and he’s married to Meg Ryan.  The film doesn’t waste much time on exploring why its characters are the way they are.  Instead, it just accepts them for being the paper-thin characters that they are.  The film understands that the the most important thing is to get them into their jets and sends them into the sky.  Does it matter that it’s sometimes confusing to keep track of who is chasing who?  Not at all.  The planes are sleek and loud.  The men flying them are sexy and dangerous.  The music never stops and the sun never goes down unless the film needs a soulful shot of Maverick deep in thought.  We’ve all got the need for speed.

In so many ways, Top Gun is a silly film but, to its credit, it also doesn’t make any apologies for being silly.  Instead, Top Gun embraces its hyperkinetic and flashy style.  That’s why critics lambasted it in 1986 and that’s why we all love it in 2020.  And if the pilots of Top Gun do start a war — well, it happens.  I mean, it’s Maverick and Iceman!  How can you hold it against them?  When you watch them fly those planes, you know that even if they start World War III, it’ll be worth it.  If the world’s going to end, Maverick’s the one we want to end it.

 

Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: Deadly Companion (1980, directed by George Bloomfield)


Deadly Companion starts with John Candy sitting in a mental institution and snorting cocaine while happily talking to his roommate, Michael Taylor (Michael Sarrazin).  Michael has been in the institution ever since the night that he walked in on his estranged wife being murdered.  Because of the shock, he can’t remember anything that he saw that night.  When his girlfriend Paula (Susan Clark) comes to pick Michael up, Michael leaves the institution determined to get to the truth about his wife’s murder.  Once Michael leaves, John Candy disappears from the movie.

Michael suspects that his wife was killed by her lover, Lawrence Miles (Anthony Perkins) but there is more to that night than Michael is remembering.  Deadly Companion is a typical low-budget shot-in-Toronto thriller from the early 80s, with familiar Canadian character actors like Michael Ironside, Al Waxman, Kenneth Welsh, and Maury Chaykin all playing small roles.  Michael Sarrazin is a dull lead but Anthony Perkins gets to do what he did best at the end of his career and plays a thoroughly sarcastic bastard who gets the only good lines in the film.

What’s interesting about Deadly Companion isn’t the predictable plot and it’s certainly not Michael Sarrazin.  Instead, what’s strange is that several cast members of SCTV show up in tiny supporting roles, though none of them get as much of a chance to make as big an impression as John Candy.  Deadly Companion is a serious thriller that just happens to feature Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas.  It’s strange to see Michael Sarrazin trying to figure out who killed his wife while Eugene Levy loiters in the background.  It leaves you waiting for a punchline that never comes.

The SCTV people are in the film because it was directed by George Bloomfield, who also directed several episodes of SCTV.  Since this film was made before SCTV really broke into the American marketplace, it was probably assumed that no one outside of Canada would ever find the presence of John Candy in a dramatic murder mystery distracting.  Of course, when Deadly Companion was later released on VHS in the late 80s, Candy and the SCTV crew were all given top billing.

A Mardi Gras Film Review: Mardi Gras For The Devil (dir by David A. Prior)


A maniac is holding New Orleans hostage!  He’s committed a series of savage, Satanically-influenced homicides and the police cannot seem to even slow him down!  The entire city is terrified!

Well, actually … New Orleans doesn’t seem to be scared at all.  In fact, no one in this movie seems to be all that disturbed by all of the brutal murders that are happening around them.  Some people would probably say that’s because this film takes place during Mardi Gras and everyone’s too drunk to notice.  Why worry about being murdered when all you have to do to get a bunch of cheap beads is flash a boob?  Add to that, this is New Orleans.  New Orleans is a very forgiving city.

Anyway, regardless of whether people care or not, there’s a Satanic murderer prowling through the city.  Who is the killer?  Could he possibly be that guy who always dresses in black, who has a perfectly trimmed beard, and who is always throwing back his head and laughing before doing something evil?  The guy’s name is Bishop and he’s played by everyone’s favorite Canadian character actor, Michael Ironside.  As far as Michael Ironside villains are concerned, Bishop is pretty frightening though he’s nowhere near as a frightening as Darryl Revok.  I mean, he does a lot of evil stuff but he doesn’t actually make anyone’s head explode.

Detective Mike Turner (Robert Davi) is obsessed with stopping Bishop.  Unfortunately, Detective Turner doesn’t appear to be very good at his job.  I mean, everyone he knows he keeps getting seriously injured.  His first partner dies.  His second partner gets run over by a bus.  His ex-wife (Lesley-Anne Down) ends up trapped in a pool.  His girlfriend (Lydie Denier) ends up getting tied up in a barn while a time bomb ticks down across from her.  Fortunately, a few of these people do manage to survive.  Turner may not be a very good cop but, fortunately, Bishop isn’t that good of a serial killer.

It soon becomes apparent that Bishop has a motive for all of his murders, one that goes beyond the usual serial killer weirdness.  It turns out that Bishop’s murders are actually sacrifices and he has given his soul to Satan.  Giving your soul to the devil apparently gives you the power to do whatever the script needs you to do at any particular moment in the movie.  Fortunately, it also leaves you with a weakness that can be exploited whenever the movie decides to come to an end.

Am I saying that Mardi Gras For the Devil makes no sense?  I most definitely am!  However, that’s actually the film’s charm.  The film was made with so little concern for continuity and narrative logic that it plays out like a fever dream.  The cast is surprisingly good for a film like this, which means that everyone delivers the strangest of lines with the utmost sincerity.  Michael Ironside plays his role without a hint of subtlety, which is exactly the type of bad guy that a film like this requires.  Meanwhile, Robert Davi brings a weary cynicism to his role.  You can just hear him thinking, “Satanic serial killers?  I’m too old for this shit.”  Combine that with a fiery ending that doesn’t even try to make sense and you have a movie that, perhaps through no intention of the film’s director, manages to create and sustain a very surreal atmosphere.  The film may not be any good but it’s hard to look away from.

Though the film takes place at Mardi Gras and was released, in some countries, as both Mardi Gras For The Devil and Mardi Gras Nightmare, it actually has very little do with Mardi Gras.  The opening scenes were shot during a Mardi Gras parade but that’s about it.  The film was also released under the title Night Trap, which is a woefully generic title.  You can find the movie on YouTube.

A Movie A Day #347: High-Ballin’ (1978, directed by Peter Carter)


Hey, good buddy, remember the Snowman?

The Snowman was the handle of Cledus Snow, the independent trucker who, along with his basset hound Flash, helped the Bandit escape Smokey in three different movies.  Cledus was played by the country western singer, Jerry Reed.  Interestingly, when Smokey and the Bandit was still in preproduction, the film’s producers envisioned a low-budget drive-in movie with Reed in the role of the Bandit.  When Burt Reynolds signaled that he would be interested in playing the man in the black Trans Am, Reed was instead cast as Cledus.

The box office success of Smokey and the Bandit led to several road films being rushed into production and more than a few of them starred Jerry Reed.  Several other of them starred Peter Fonda, who had already proven himself to be the king of the road with Easy Rider.  However, High-Ballin’ is the only trucker film that can claim to have starred both Jerry Reed and Peter Fonda.

In High-Ballin’, Jerry Reed may be playing “Iron Duke” Boykin but he might as well just be Cledus Snow again.  Once again, Reed is an independent trucker with a family at home and a love for the road.  (Just as he did with Smokey and the Bandit, Reed even performed High-Ballin‘s theme song.)  The local trucker’s union is putting pressure on the independent truckers and trying to intimidate them into joining.  Iron Duke has no intention of doing that.  Iron Duke has been hired to haul a load of liquor to an isolated lumber camp and he is not going to let the union or its thugs stop him.  Helping him along the way is his friend Rane (Peter Fonda) and another independent, Pickup (Helen Shaver).

High-Ballin‘ was not as bad as I was expecting it to be.  Reed, Fonda, and Shaver are likable in the lead roles and the action scenes are exciting.  Fonda may have been a notoriously inexpressive actor but he was always believable whenever he was cast as a rebel or an outsider and the friendship between him and the more expressive Reed is as believable as the friendship between Cledus and the Bandit in Reed’s previous trucking film.  Of course, the main reason you are going to watch a movie like High-Ballin’ is to see how many different ways that a car or a truck can be destroyed and this movie does not skimp on the vehicular destruction.  It’s nothing great but, as far as 70s trucking films are concerned, High-Ballin’ is better than average.

One final note: keep an eye out for Michael Ironside in an early role.

10-4, good buddy.  I’m out.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Crime + Punishment in Suburbia (dir by Rob Schmidt)


(Lisa is once again trying to clean out her DVR!  She’s got about 182 films on her DVR and she needs to get them all watched by the end of this year!  Will she make it?  Not if she’s too busy writing cutesy introductions for her reviews to actually watch the movies!  She recorded Crime + Punishment in Suburbia off of Flix on February 25th!)

Oh, dammit.

I have seen some really pretentious movies before but Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is really something else.  As you might be able to guess from the title, the film is supposedly based on the Dosteyevsky novel but it takes place not only in modern times but in suburbia as well.  Oh, and it actually has next to nothing in common with Doteyevsky novel, beyond a murder and occasional religious symbolism.  And by occasional, I mean that there’s a scene where Vincent Kartheiser wears a Jesus t-shirt.

Kartheiser plays Vincent, a teenager who I think we’re supposed to think is dark and disturbed but instead he just comes across like a weird little poser.  I mean, honestly, it takes more than just wearing black clothes to be weird.  I had a closet full of black clothes when I was eighteen and it still never brought me any closer to enlightenment.  Anyway, Vincent is a classmate of Roseanne (Monica Keena) and Roseanne is dating a handsome but dumb jock named Jimmy (James DeBello).  Roseanne’s mother is named Maggie (Ellen Barkin) and Maggie has recently married an abusive drunk named Fred (Michael Ironside).

Fred is a total jerk so Maggie goes out with her best friend, Bella (Conchata Ferrell), to a bar.  It’s at the bar that she meets Chris (Jeffrey Wright), a handsome and charming bartender.  Soon, Chris and Maggie are having an affair and when Fred finds out, he rapes his stepdaughter.  Roseanne convinces Jimmy to help her murder Fred but, after the deed is done, Roseanne finds herself struggling with her conscience.

Now, of course, in Crime & Punishment, the whole point is that the murder itself was largely random and motiveless.  The rest of the book deals with the protagonist’s attempt to come to terms with not only his crime but also with the meaninglessness of it all.  In Crime + Punishment in Suburbia, Roseanne has a good reason for killing Fred.  Fred is such a monster that there’s no real confusion as to why Roseanne did what she did.  One could argue, quite convincingly, that if she didn’t kill Fred, he would have ended up killing her.  That makes the film’s later attempt at moral ambiguity feel rather hollow and empty.

The other problem with Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is that we don’t see the story through Roseanne’s eyes.  Instead, the entire movie is narrated by Vincent.  Now, Vincent Kartheiser is not a bad actor.  Anyone who has seen Mad Men knows that.  And, in this film, he occasionally gets to flash a cute smile that makes the character a little bit bearable.  But the character he plays, Vincent, is so weird and off-putting that you have no desire to spend 100 minutes listening to him portentously talk about his existence.  Considering that Monica Keena actually gives a pretty good performance as Roseanne, the decision to tell her story through Vincent’s eyes feels all the more mistaken.

The only thing more overwrought than Vincent’s narration is Rob Schmidt’s direction.  This is one of those films that uses every narrative trick in the book to tell its story.  Look at the wild camera angles!  Look at the sudden slow motion!  Look at the freeze frame!  This is one of those movies that you watch and you just want to shout, “Calm down!” at the director.

Crime + Punishment in Suburbia is one to avoid.

A Movie A Day #195: Best Revenge (1984, directed by John Trent)


Damn … John Heard died.

I know that almost everyone knows John Heard as either the father from Home Alone or as the detective on The Sopranos or maybe even the executive in Big.  Over the course of his long career, John Heard played a lot of neglectful fathers, greedy businessmen, and corrupt politicians.  Heard was good in all of those roles but he was capable of so much more.  Though he did not get many chances to do so, he could play heroes just as well as villains.

One of his best performances is also one of his least seen.  In Best Revenge, he plays Charlie.  Charlie is a laid back drug dealer, someone who would probably hate and be hated by most of the authority figures that Heard was best known for playing.  Charlie is the ultimate mellow dude, without a care in the world.  All he wants to do is play his harmonica and spend time with his girlfriend (Alberta Watson).  However, an old friend (Stephen McHattie) wants Charlie to help smuggle 500 keys of hash from Tangiers to America.  Charlie wants nothing to do with it but then he finds out that the Mafia will kill his friend unless the drugs make it across the ocean.  Charlie and his friend Bo (Levon Helm of The Band) fly over to Morocco but are betrayed.  Charlie ends up in a prison cell, from which he has to escape so that he can rescue Bo, smuggle the drugs, and get revenge on those who betrayed him.

Because of the prison aspect and the fact that Charlie wears a fedora, Best Revenge was sold as being a combination of Midnight Express and Raiders of the Lost Ark but actually it is a character study disguised as an action film.  Despite the title, Best Revenge is more interested in the real-life logistics and hassles of being an international drug dealer than in any sort of revenge.  Though it is a role far different from the ones he may be best known for, John Heard was perfectly cast as a small-time drug dealer who suddenly finds himself in over his head.  Heard gives such a good  and sympathetic performance that this film, along with his work in Cutter’s Way and Chilly Scenes of Winter, shows what a mistake was made when Heard became typecast as the bad guy.

Best Revenge was filmed in 1980 but not released until four years later.  Along with appreciating Heard’s performance, keep an eye out for Michael Ironside in an early, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.

Insomnia File No. 5: Black Ice (dir by Neill Fearnley)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Black Ice 2

If you were having trouble getting to sleep last night at 2 a.m., you could have turned over to Indieplex and watched Black Ice, a Canadian thriller from 1992.

Why is the film called Black Ice?  Well, that’s a good question.  There’s a lot of snow and ice to be seen in the film but absolutely none of it is black.  According to the imdb, this film was also released under the title A Passion for Murder.  I have to admit that I kind of like A Passion For Murder as a title, simply because it’s so generic and empty that it becomes oddly brilliant.  If you were making a parody of the type of movies that Netflix usually lists in the “steamy thriller” category,  A Passion For Murder is probably the title that you would come up with.

But, as for this film, it opens as all thrillers from the early 90s must, with a man in a suit meeting his clad-in-black-lingerie mistress in a hotel room.  The man in the suit is an up-and-coming senator.  His mistress is the mysterious Vanessa (Joanna Pacula).  When Vanessa pressures him to leave his wife, the senator gets mad and leaves.  Vanessa goes back to her apartment, where she is soon visited by the senator.  She and the senator get into a fight.  She shoves the senator into a window, which shatters and promptly kills the senator.

Meanwhile, Ben Shorr (Michael Nouri) is barely making a living as a taxi driver.  He’s an aspiring writer and, just in case we had any doubts about his intellectual bona fides, he has a pony tail and talks almost nonstop.  (Ben also owns a goldfish that he’s named Travis, as in Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.)  Ben is pretty annoying and when he picks up Vanessa, you’re kind of hoping that she’ll end up killing him like she killed the senator.

But no, it turns out that Ben is supposed to be our hero.  Vanessa asks Ben to drive her from Detroit to Seattle.  And, of course, Ben agrees because … well, there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise.

It turns out that Vanessa is actually a secret agent.  She was supposed to seduce and eventually marry the senator.  Now that she’s accidentally killed him, her supervisor, Quinn, is determined to kill her.  Because this movie was made in Canada, the villainous Quinn is played by Michael Ironside.

The rest of the film is basically Quinn chasing Ben and Vanessa across the northwest.  Along the way, Vanessa and Ben fall in love.  One huge problem with Black Ice is that the audience knows everything about Vanessa before Ben does.  There are a lot of scenes of Ben trying to figure out why Quinn is pursuing Vanessa but, since we already know why, those scenes mostly feel like filler.  If  Vanessa had been as much of a mystery to the audience as she was to Ben for most of the film’s running time, Black Ice probably would have been a bit more intriguing.

As it is, Black Ice is pretty much a standard, low-budget chase film.  Michael Nouri is pretty annoying but Joanna Pacula and Michael Ironside both give good performances.  It snows throughout the entire film and there’s a few genuinely impressive shots of the three main characters running across the icy landscape.  Otherwise, Black Ice is pretty forgettable but it also doesn’t require much thought, which might make it an appropriate film to watch if you’ve got insomnia.

Black Ice

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover

The Things You Find On Netflix: 88 (dir by April Mullen)


88

If you go over to Netflix right now, you can watch 88, the best film of the year so far.

88 opens with a close-up of Gwen (Katharine Isabelle).  Gwen is sitting in a diner and she has no idea how she got there.  All she knows is that her boyfriend Aster (Kyle Schmid) is dead and that she believes that her former employer, Cyrus (Christopher Lloyd) is responsible.  Oh, and Gwen’s hand is also covered in a bloody bandage, largely because she’s missing a finger.  When Gwen tries to leave the diner, several gumballs and a gun fall out of her bag.  The cops eating breakfast overreact.  A waitress panics.  Gwen accidentally shoots someone as she flees.

Still with no idea where she is exactly or how she got there, Gwen discovers that she has a motel room key on her.  When she goes to the motel room, she discovers that the walls are covered with newspaper clippings.  And, of course, there’s a corpse in the bathtub.  On top of that, there’s also a rather hyperactive man named Ty (Tim Doiron, who also wrote the film’s script).  Gwen claims to have never seen Ty before.  Ty, however, says that they’re friends and they’re planning on killing Cyrus together.

Meanwhile, as we watch Gwen try to figure out what’s going on, we also follow the adventures of Flamingo (again played by Katharine Isabelle).  Flamingo is a tough-talking survivor, the type of girl who, when we first meet her, is busy strangling a random motorist so that she can use his car.  Flamingo goes from motel to motel, always staying in room 88.  She obsessively drinks milk.  When she runs into Cyrus and his gang on the street, they claim to know her.  However, Flamingo has no idea who they are.

Which, of course, does not mean that she’s not willing to kill them…

88 is a masterpiece of the grindhouse imagination, an over-the-top film that not only embraces its pulpy origins but practically revels in them as well.  The film is full of wonderfully strange and crazy moments, like when Gwen and Ty visit a flamboyant gun dealer or when Flamingo casually trashes a convenience store for no reason beyond the fact that she apparently feels like doing so.  There is not a single character in 88 who is not, in some way, memorably odd.  Between Gwen’s amnesia, Flamingo’s psychotic behavior, Ty’s cheerful embrace of violence, and Cyrus’s raspy monologues, 88 presents a world that is familiar and yet uniquely its own.  When Michael Ironside shows up as a strict but good-hearted sheriff, it only makes sense that, in the world of 88, Michael Ironside would be the face of law, order, and decency.

Now, to be honest, you’ll probably figure out just how exactly Gwen and Flamingo are related long before the film actually makes it explicit.  You probably figured it out just from reading this review.  But it doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, the specifics of the twist really doesn’t matter.  This film is a celebration of pure style and pulp energy.  Katharine Isabelle is brilliant, both as Gwen and as Flamingo.  In the role of Gwen, Isabelle gives a very sympathetic performance.  You want to understand what is happening to Gwen and, even more importantly, you want her to survive.  Meanwhile, as Flamingo, Isabelle is a force of pure, destructive nature.  Finally, in the role of Cyrus, Christopher Lloyd is a sleazy marvel and even manages to bring a hint of humanity to an occasionally demonic character.

88 is one of those films that will probably never get the critical support that it deserves.  However, I think it’s one of the best of the year so far.