Film Review: Countdown to Looking Glass (dir by Fred Barzyk)


“The world’s ending!  Let’s watch the news!”

That, in a nutshell, is the main theme of the 1984 film, Countdown to Looking Glass.  It’s a film that imagines the events leading up to an atomic war between the United States and Russia.  It’s designed to look like a newscast.  A distinguished anchorman named Dan Tobin (played by a real-life anchorman named Patrick Watson) gravely discusses the conflict between the two countries.  Another reporter (played, somewhat jarringly given the film’s attempt to come across as authentic, by Scott Glenn) reports from an aircraft carrier.  We see a lot of stock footage of planes taking off and world leaders meeting and people fleeing from cities.

There are a few scenes that take place outside of the newscast.  They involve a reporter named Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver) and her boyfriend Bob Calhoun (Michael Muprhy).  (If your name was Dorian Waldorf, you would kind of have to become a television news reporter, wouldn’t you?)  Bob works for the government and has evidence that the world is a lot closer to ending than anyone realizes.  Dorian tries to put the evidence on air but Dan tells her that they can’t run a story like that with just one source.  It would be irresponsible…. when was this film made?  I guess 1984 was a lot different from 2020 because I can guarantee you that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC would have had no problem running Dorian’s story and creating a mass panic.

(If Dan Tobin’s ethics didn’t already make this film seem dated, just watch the scene where Tobin announces that, because of the growing crisis, the networks will now be airing the news for 24 hours a day.  From the way its announced, it’s obvious that this must have been a radical and new idea in 1984.)

Still, despite those dramatic asides, Countdown to Looking Glass is largely set up to look like a real newscast.  We get stories about people naively singing up to serve in the army because they think war will be fun.  We get interviews with a group of experts playing themselves.  (The only one who I recognized was Newt Gingrich.)  Everyone discusses the dangers of nuclear war and also whether or not humanity could survive an exchange of nuclear weapons.  No one sounds particularly hopeful.  Dan Tobin says that he always believed that nuclear war was inevitable but that the sight of all of the destruction would cause the combatants to come to their senses.  That sounds a bit optimistic to me and the film suggests that Dan has no idea what he’s talking about.

In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass is a victim of its format.  The newscast itself is rather dull, as most newscasts tend to be.  Even the scenes that take place outside of the newscast tend to feel rather awkward, as if Murphy and Shaver were recruited for their roles at the last minute.  In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass works best as a historical artifact.  This is what a news report about the end of the world would have looked like in 1984.  Watch it and compare it to how the news is covered in 2020.

Speaking of watching it …. well, it’s not easy.  It’s never been released on video but you can watch it on YouTube.  The upload’s not great but that’s pretty much your only option.

Bloody Good Show: Robert Quarry as COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (AIP 1970)


cracked rear viewer

Robert Quarry’s screen career wasn’t really going anywhere by 1970. He had a good part in 1956’s soapy noir A KISS BEFORE DYING , but mostly he was relegated to uncredited bits in movies and guest shots on episodic TV. Quarry kept busy on the stage, until being approached by producer/actor Michael Macready to star in THE LOVES OF COUNT IORGA, originally envisioned as a soft core porn flick with horror elements. The actor said he would accept the job but only if it were turned into a straight modern-day vampire tale, and thus was born COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE, launching Quarry into a new phase as a 70’s horror movie icon.

The plot is an updated version of Stoker’s DRACULA, with a few changes. Here, the Bulgarian-born Count Yorga is a recent transplant to California, and we first meet him conducting a séance on behalf of Donna, whose late…

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Horror Film Review: Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids) (dir by Michael Laughlin)


I want to tell you about one of my favorite horror films.  It’s a strange one and I think you might like it.

It’s a movie from 1981.  It was filmed in New Zealand, even though it takes place in a small town in the American midwest.  It was directed by Michael Laughlin and the screenplay was written by Bill Condon, who has since become a director of some note.  This was Condon’s first screenplay.  In Australia and Europe, this movie is known as Dead Kids.  In America, the title was changed to Strange Behavior.

Here, watch the trailer:

It’s a pretty good trailer, actually.  That said, as good as the trailer may be, it doesn’t even come close to revealing just what an odd film Strange Behavior actually is.  If David Lynch had followed up The Elephant Man by directing a slasher movie, chances are the end result would have looked something like Strange Behavior.

Here’s another scene that I want you watch.  It’s kind of a long scene, clocking in at 7 minutes.  But I want you to watch it because, in many ways, this scene is the epitome of Strange Behavior:

Strange Behavior is perhaps the only 80s slasher film to feature a totally random and totally choreographed dance number.  It comes out of nowhere but, in the world that this film creates, it somehow feels totally appropriate.  Of course, the nun is going to announce that she’s not wearing any underwear and then pretend to stab a guy in the back.  Of course, the cowboy’s going to throw up and then want to go out to his car with his date.  And of course, a bunch of people in costume are going to end up dancing to Lightnin’ Strikes.  In Strange Behavior, the strangest behavior is the only behavior that makes sense.

As for the film itself, it’s a mix of small town melodrama, slasher horror, and gentle satire.  Teenagers are being murdered by other teenagers and no one is sure why.  The chief of police, John Brady (played by character actor Michael Murphy, who gives a quietly authoritative performance that counters some of the weirdness of the rest of the movie), is trying to solve the crimes while trying to cope with the mysterious death of his wife.  His son, Pete (Dan Shor), is going to the local college, where classes are taught by a professor (Arthur Dignam) who died years ago but who filmed a few lectures before passing.  To make extra money, Pete does what many of the local teenagers do — he volunteers for medical experiments.  Researcher Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) oversees the experiments, handing out pills and occasionally administering a hypodermic needle to the eyes of a test subject.  Gwen is always cool, calm, and collected.  When one irate father draws a gun on her, Gwen quips, “I can’t stop you.  I don’t have a gun.”

But there’s more to this movie than just medical experiments and murder.  Strange Behavior is full of wonderfully eccentric supporting characters.  Other than John, there’s really nobody normal to be found in either the town or the movie.  Pete’s best friend, Oliver (Marc McClure), is cute and dorky.   Barbara (Louise Fletcher) just wants to marry John and live in a town where dead bodies don’t turn up in the middle of corn fields, propped up like scarecrows.  John’s best friend and fellow cop, Donovan (Charles Lane), has been around forever and has a great, no-nonsense approach to even the strangest of things.  When it becomes obvious that John is not going to be able to solve the murders on his own, big city cop Shea (Scott Brady) shows up and wanders ineffectually through the movie, spitting out hard-boiled dialogue like a refugee from a 1930s gangster flick.  And finally, receptionist Caroline (Dey Young) sits at her desk in the clinic, gossiping about the patients and smoking cigarette after cigarette.  Caroline is probably the smartest person in the movie.  As an administrative assistant, I appreciated that.

It’s an odd little movie, which is why I love it.  Laughlin, Condon, and the entire cast created a world where everything is just a little off-center.  It makes for terrifically entertaining and weird movie, one that works as both satire and straight horror.

Strange Behavior is a film that deserves to much better known than it currently is so my advice is go watch it and then tell you friends to watch it too.

Insomnia File #28: The Arrangement (dir by Elia Kazan)


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!

If, on Saturday you were having trouble sleeping at three in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1969 film, The Arrangement.

The Arrangement is one of those films where a rich guy gets hit by a sudden case of ennui and, as a result, spends the entire movie acting like a jackass.  However, as often happens in films like this, The Arrangement makes sure that we understand that it’s not the guy’s fault.  Instead, it’s his wife’s fault for not being as much fun as his mistress.

In this case, the guy is an ad executive who goes by the name of Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas).  His original name was Evangelos Arness but he changed his name when he was younger because he apparently didn’t want anyone to know that he came from a Greek family.  When we first meet Eddie, he’s attempting to commit suicide by driving his car into an 18 wheeler.  If he had died, the movie could have ended quickly.  However, since Eddie survived, the audience is now required to spend two hours watching Eddie as he tries to figure out what it all means.

Eddie’s father (Richard Boone) is dying.  His long-suffering wife (Deborah Kerr) just doesn’t understand that Eddie needs more than a big house and a nice pool to feel like a man.  Eddie’s mistress is Gwen (Faye Dunaway), whose new baby may or may not be Eddie’s.  Who could blame Eddie, the film demands to know, for being disillusioned with his comfortable life?

The Arrangement was one of the last films to be directed by Elia Kazan, who was a big deal in the 40s and the 50s and whose goal with The Arrangement was apparently to prove that he should still have been a big deal in the 60s and 70s.  Kazan’s way of doing this is to fill The Arrangement with all types of tricks that were designed to make young filmgoers say, “Man, that Eliza Kazan may be old but he’s one of us!”

Freeze frames?  Kazan’s got them!  Flashback after flashback?  Kazan spreads them all throughout the movie, even when they don’t really have anything to show us.  Scenes where the action is sped up for no identifiable reason?  Just watch Kirk Douglas trot down that hallway!  Rack focus shots?  Zoom shots?  A scene where the young Kirk Douglas argues with the old Kirk Douglas?  Casual nudity that’s still filmed in such a way that it feels oddly reticent, as if the filmmaker was just including it to try to establish his rebel credentials?  The Arrangement has it all!

It also has a lot of close-ups of Kirk Douglas.  In far too many scenes, he’s just sitting around with this blank look on his face and it doesn’t quite work because, as an actor, Douglas has never exactly come across as the type to get trapped in an existential crisis.  We’re supposed to view Kirk as being depressed and conflicted but, in all of his films, Kirk has always come across as someone who hasn’t known a day of insecurity in his entire life.

There are also a few scenes of Kirk just laughing and laughing.  For some reason, movies in the late 60s and early 70s always seemed to feature at least a handful of closeups of people laughing uncontrollably.  I’m not sure why.  (If you want to see the most extreme example of this, check out Getting Straight.)  These scenes are always kind of annoying because there’s only so much time you can spend watching someone laugh at the absurdity of it all before you want them to just close their damn mouth.  Especially when the person in question is a middle-aged man.  I mean, shouldn’t have Kirk figured out that the world is absurd before his 50th birthday?

Anyway, The Arrangement is a pretentious mess.  Of course, most films from the 60s are pretentious.  The problem with The Arrangement is that it’s also boring.  If you’re going to be pretentious, at least have some fun with it, like The Graduate did.  The Arrangement goes on forever and it’s never quite as profound as it seems to think that it is.  I once read a short story that a former friend of mine wrote.  She explained that writing the story had caused her to realize that, the longer you know someone, the more likely your initial impression of that person is going to change.  “You had to write an entire short story to figure that out?” I replied.  (That’s one reason why she’s a former friend.)  But that’s kind of how The Arrangement is.  For all the drama and the technique and the pretension, it has nothing to teach us that we shouldn’t already know.

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

Film Review: Countdown (dir by Robert Altman)


 

Earlier tonight, on TCM, I watched the 1968 science fiction film, Countdown.

Who will be the first man to walk on the moon?  Will it be Chiz (Robert Duvall), who is a colonel in the Air Force and who has been training for years and who really should get the chance just because he has a really cool name like Chiz?  Or will it be Chiz’s best friend, Lee (James Caan)?  Lee may not have Chiz’s experience but he’s a scientist and selecting him would allow NASA to portray the mission of being one of peace as opposed to one of war.  Add to that, Lee has a full head of hair and he looks like a young James Caan, who was an undeniably handsome man back in his younger days!  I mean, seriously — who would you rather have as the face of the space program: Tom Hagen or Sonny Corleone?

Of course, it might not really matter who NASA picks because the Russians are determined to get to the moon as well.  And you know what that means!  If the Russians land on the moon first, they’ll turn it into a Socialist utopia and that’ll mean ugly architecture, bread lines, and a three-month wait for toilet paper.  The stakes have never been higher!

Countdown was made and released at the height of the space race, at a time when Americans really did feel that they were competing with the Russians to be the first to reach the moon.  (Of course later, it would be learned that the Russian space program actually managed to kill far more cosmonauts than it successfully sent into orbit.)  It came out a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first Earthling since Stanley Kubrick to ever step on the lunar surface.  As such, it’s interesting to see how Countdown imagines the experience of exploring the moon.  I won’t spoil who reaches the moon first but I will say that he moves remarkably quickly and with great ease for someone in a gravity-free environment.

Countdown is a good example of what I like to call a “time capsule” film.  Seen today, it’s kinda slow and a bit predictable.  For all the time that is spent on getting the astronauts ready to go into space, very little time is actually spent in orbit.  This is a very Earth-bound film.  And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, it’s hard not to be a little bit fascinated by a movie like this.  In everything, from its fashions to its dialogue to its cultural outlook, this is very much a document of its time.  It may be a while until we have the technology necessary to travel through time.  Until then, watching a film like this might be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what the straight, non-Hippie crowd was doing in 1968.

If you’re a student of film history, Countdown is significant for being one of the first films to be directed by Robert Altman.  To be honest, if not for his name in the opening credits, you would probably never guess that Countdown was directed by one of America’s most influential and iconic directors.  Altman specialized in making film that were almost defiantly iconaclastic and there’s very little of that to be found in Countdown.  Admittedly, there are a few scenes that make use of overlapping dialogue and there’s a party scene that’s definitely Altmanesque.  However, the only reason I really noticed that party scene is because I was specifically looking for evidence of Altman’s style.  For the most part, the most identifiably Altmanesque element of Countdown is the casting of Michael Murphy in a small role.

The film is dominated by Robert Duvall and James Caan and, especially if you’re a fan of The Godfather, it’s undeniably fun to see these two acting opposite each other in something other than an epic gangster film.  (Duvall and Caan also acted together in The Rain People and The Killer Elite and were reportedly great friends off-camera as well.)  Duvall is especially good in Countdown, playing Chiz as a man torn between an innate sense of loyalty and his own competitive nature.  The scenes between Duvall and Caan have a charge to them that occasionally bring some much-needed life to this film.

In the end, Countdown is a fairly forgettable film but it’s worth seeing as a piece of history.

Film Review: The Thief Who Came To Dinner (1973, directed by Bud Yorkin)


0033bee5_mediumIn The Thief Who Came To Dinner, Ryan O’Neal plays Webster McGee, a Houston-based computer programmer.  After deciding that living in a capitalist society means that everyone steals from everyone else, Webster quits his boring job and decides to become a real thief.  Figuring that they can afford to lose a little wealth, Webster only targets the rich and powerful.  After he steals some incriminating documents from a crooked businessman (Charles Cioffi), Webster uses those documents to blackmail his way into high society.  Soon, Webster owns a mansion of his own and is living with a gorgeous heiress (Jacqueline Bisset, who played a lot of gorgeous heiresses back in the day).  Webster also has an insurance investigator after him.  Dave Reilly (Warren Oates) knows that Webster is a thief but he also can not prove it.  As Dave obsessively stalks him, Webster plots one final heist.

Until I saw it on TCM on Monday, I had never heard of The Thief Who Came To Dinner.  Directed in a breezy style by Bud Yorkin, The Thief Who Came To Dinner was an early script from Walter Hill.  Though the film is much more comedic than his best known work, it’s still easily recognizable as coming from Hill’s imagination.  The obsessive Dave and the coolly professional Webster are both prototypical Hill characters and their adversarial yet friendly rivalry would be duplicated in several subsequent Hill films.

The Thief Who Came To Dinner is an engaging movie that doesn’t add up to much.  The normally stiff Ryan O’Neal gives one of his better performances, though he struggles to hold his own whenever he has to act opposite the far more energetic Warren Oates.  Ned Beatty, Gregory Sierra, John Hillerman, Michael Murphy, and Austin Pendleton all appear in minor roles, making the film’s cast a veritable who’s who of 70s character actors.  And, of course, the film features Jacqueline Bisset at her loveliest.

The Thief Who Came To Dinner may not be well-known but it is an enjoyable and satisfying piece of 70s entertainment.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #58: An Unmarried Woman (dir by Paul Mazursky)


Unmarried_womanI have mixed feelings about the 1978 best picture nominee An Unmarried Woman and I really wish I didn’t because this is one of those films that I really want to love.

Erica (Jill Clayburgh, who did not win the Oscar that she deserved for this film) appears to have the perfect life.  She works at an art gallery in New York.  She has smart, sophisticated friends.  She has an accomplished teenager daughter (Lisa Lucas).  She has a beautiful apartment.  Early on in the film, she wakes up and literally dances from her bedroom to the living room and back again.

And, of course, she has a husband.  His name is Martin and he’s a successful stock broker.  Of course, there are hints that everything might not be perfect.  She and Martin are a cute couple but they’re not exactly passionate.  One need only watch Erica carefully wash dogshit off of Martin’s expensive running shoes to tell who is getting the most out of the marriage.  Add to that, Martin is played by Michael Murphy and, as anyone familiar with 70s cinema knows, Murphy specialized in playing well-dressed, outwardly friendly heels.  And, of course, the film is called An Unmarried Woman and the title can’t be true as long as Erica’s married.

So, you’re not exactly surprised when Martin suddenly breaks down in tears and tells Erica that he’s fallen in love with a younger woman and that he’s leaving her.

The rest of the film deals with Erica’s attempts to adjust to suddenly being an unmarried woman and a single mom.  We follow as she struggles to get back her confidence.  The scenes of Erica dealing with her suddenly rebellious daughter really struck home to me, largely because I’m a rebellious daughter of divorce myself.  There’s a few great scenes of Erica turning to her girlfriends for support.  (Importantly, one of Erica’s friends is happily married, as if the film wants to make sure that we understand that not all marriages are as bad as Erica and Martin’s.)  We watch as Erica starts dating again, having a memorable one-night stand with the obnoxious but oddly likable Charlie (Cliff Gorman).  Finally, she ends up dating a rugged, bearded artist (Alan Bates) and she has to decide whether she wants to remain independent or not.

And it’s all amazingly well-acted and fun to watch but I have to admit that I was a little bit disappointed the first time that I saw An Unmarried Woman.  For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to like it as much as I wanted.  The more I thought about it, the more clear my issue with it became.

As a character, Eric was simply too wealthy.

As I watched Erica struggle with being an unmarried woman, it was hard for me not to compare her struggles with the struggles that my own mom had to deal with after her divorce.  The film, and specifically Clayburgh’s lead performance, got so much right.  But there’s a difference — a huge difference — between an unmarried woman who has an apartment in Manhattan and a dream job at an art gallery and a woman like my mom who worked multiple jobs, spent hours worrying about how to pay the bills, and who had to do all of this while dealing with four stubborn daughters.  And so, whenever I saw Erica talking to her therapist about how upset she was over suddenly being single, there was a part of me that wanted to say, “Try doing it while living in South Dallas and having to deal with a brat like me.”

The second time that I watched An Unmarried Woman, I was able to better appreciate the film.  Now that I knew that Erica’s experiences were not going to be universal, I could focus on Jill Clayburgh’s great performance in the lead role.  I could marvel at how marvelously wimpy Michael Murphy was in the role of Martin.  I could laugh at Cliff Gorman’s comedic performance.  As for Alan Bates as that bearded artist — well, sorry, that still didn’t work for me.  Eventually, I could accept Erica’s perfect apartment and her perfect job but suddenly introducing a perfect boyfriend who also happened to be a passionate and financially successful painter; it all felt like a bit too much.

But, in the end, An Unmarried Woman is a good film and a valuable historical document of its time.  If for no other reason, see it for Jill Clayburgh’s lead performance.

Shattered Politics #92: White House Down (dir by Roland Emmerich)


White_House_Down_poster_with_billing_block

To say that the 2012 film White House Down is stupid is probably unnecessary.  After all, the film was directed by Roland Emmerich and Emmerich specializes in making stupid films.

And, in many ways, White House Down is prototypical Emmerich film, a long and self-important collection of mayhem and heavy-handed pontification.  In the case of this film, liberal President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is pushing for a treaty that will magically bring about world police.  Naturally, a bunch of evil right-wingers (including characters played, somewhat inevitably, by James Woods and Richard Jenkins) don’t want world peace so they hire a bunch of mercenaries who attack the White House.  It’s all a part of a plot to force Sawyer to launch a nuclear attack on Iran because … well, why not?  Fortunately, aspiring secret service agent (and kick-ass combat veteran) John Cale (Channing Tatum) is there to work with the President and save the country.

And, since Emmerich is from the bigger is always better school of filmmaking, many familiar landmarks are blown up and it takes the film well over two hours to tell its simplistic story.  To be honest, if your action movie can’t get the job done in under two hours, then you’re going to have problems.  Once a viewer has spent two hours watching one movie, it’s inevitable that he or she will start to question the film’s logic.  If the film’s clever enough, all lapses and inconsistencies can be forgiving.  If the film is White House Down, it’s a lot less easy to be forgiving.

Of course, from a political point of view, Emmerich tries to have it both ways.  For anti-government types like me, it’s always fun to watch Washington D.C. blow up.  For those on the right, White House Down presents a situation that can only be solved by heroes with guns.  And, of course, Democrats can view White House Down as wish fulfillment, an alternative timeline where Barack Obama actually is as sincere and effective as they wish him to be.

In fact, if anything saves White House Down, it’s the chemistry between Foxx and Tatum.  Wisely, neither one of them appears to be taking the film that seriously and both of them seem to be having a lot of fun blowing things up.  Channing Tatum, in particular, deserves some sort of award.  How many bad films have been made tolerable by Tatum’s willingness to laugh at himself?  I’ve lost count but White House Down definitely benefits from his presence.  He and Foxx make Emmerich’s style of filmmaking as tolerable as it will ever be.

Shattered Politics #38: Nashville (dir by Robert Altman)


Nashville-Cover

“Oh we must be doin’ somethin right to last 200 years…”

— Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) in Nashville (1975)

The 1975 Best Picture nominee Nashville is the epitome of an ensemble film.  It follows 24 characters as they spend five days wandering around Nashville, Tennessee.  Some of them are country music superstars, some of them are groupies, some of them are singers looking for a first break, and at least one of them is an assassin.  The one thing that they all have in common is that they’re lost in America.  Released barely a year after the resignation of Richard Nixon and at a time when Americans were still struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of the 60s, Nashville is a film that asks whether or not America’s best days are behind it and seems to be saying that they may very well be.  (That’s a question that’s still being asked today in 2015.)  It’s appropriate, therefore, that Nashville both takes place in and is named after a city that everyone associates with perhaps the most stereotypically American genre of music that there is.

Nashville follows 24 characters, some of whom are more interesting than others.  For five days, these characters wander around town, occasionally noticing each other but far more often failing to make any sort of connection.

Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) is a veteran star, a somewhat comical character who sings vapid songs about home and family and who smiles for the public while privately revealing himself to be petty and vain.  His son, Bud (Dave Peel), is a Harvard graduate who acts as his father’s business manager.  Oddly enough, Haven is an unlikable character until the end of the film when he suddenly reveals himself to be one of the few characters strong enough to keep Nashville for descending into chaos.  Meanwhile, Bud seems to be a nice and modest guy until he takes part in humiliating another character.

Haven’s lover is Lady Pearl (Barbara Baxley), who owns a nightclub and spends most of the film drinking.  Much like Haven, she starts out as a vaguely comical character until she finally gets a chance to reveal her true self.  In Pearl’s case, it comes when she delivers a bitter monologue about volunteering for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Haven’s lawyer is Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty), an obsequies good old boy who is married to gospel singer Linnea (Lily Tomlin).  They have two deaf children.  Linnea has learned sign language.  Delbert has not.  Over the course of the film, both Delbert and Linnea will be tempted to cheat.  Only one of them actually will.

And then there’s Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), a mentally unstable singer who has come to Nashville with her manipulative husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield).  Almost every character in the film wants something from Barbara Jean.  A mostly silent Vietnam veteran named Kelly (Scott Glenn) claims that his mother knows Barbara Jean.  A nerdy guy named Kenny (David Hayward) comes to Nashville just to see her perform.

Both Kelly and Kenny end up getting to know Mr. Green (Keenan Wynn), a rare Nashville resident who doesn’t seem to care about music.  However, Mr. Green’s spacey niece, L.A. Joan (Shelly Duvall), is obsessed with having sex with as many musicians as possible.

Among those being targeted by L.A. Joan is Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), one-third of the folk trio Bill, Mary, and Tom.  Unknown to Bill (Allan F. Nicholls), Tom is sleeping with Bill’s wife, Mary (Cristina Raines).  Unknown to Mary, Tom is sleeping with almost every other woman in Nashville as well.  When Tom takes to the stage at Pearl’s nightclub and sings a song called I’m Easy, the audience is full of women who think that he’s specifically singing to them.

Another one of Tom’s songs, the appropriately titled “It Don’t Worry Me,” is frequently sung by Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who spend the entire film trying to get discovered while hiding out from her much older husband, Star (Bert Remsen).

Another aspiring star is Sulleen Grey (Gwen Welles), who is a tone deaf waitress who suffers the film’s greatest humiliation when she agrees to perform at a political fund raiser without understanding that she’s expected to strip while singing.  Trying to look after Sulleen is Wade (Robert DoQui), who has just been released from prison.

And then there’s the loners, the characters who tend to pop up almost randomly.  Norman (David Arkin) is a limo driver who, like everyone else in Nashville, wants to be a star.  The hilariously bitchy Connie White (Karen Black) and the bland Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) already are stars.  (The character of Tommy Brown is one of Nashville’s oddities.  He’s listed, in the credits, as being a major character but he only appears in a few scenes and never really gets a storyline of his own.)  There’s the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum), a silent magician who mysteriously appears and disappears throughout the film.

And, finally, there’s Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), an apparently crazed woman who is wandering around Nashville and pretending to be a reporter for the BBC.  (It’s never specifically stated that Opal is a fake but it’s fairly obvious that she is.)  How you feel about the character of Opal will probably determine how you feel about Nashville as a whole.  If you find Opal to be a heavy-handed caricature, you’ll probably feel the same way about the rest of the film.  If you find the character of Opal to be genuinely amusing with her increasingly pretentious musings, you’ll probably enjoy Nashville.

There is one more very important character in Nashville.  He’s the character who literally holds the film together.  He’s also the reason why I’m including Nashville in this series of reviews about political films.  That character is named Hal Phillip Walker and, though he’s never actually seen in the film, he’s still the driving force behind most of what happens.  Walker is a third-party presidential candidate, a man who seems to be universally admired despite the fact that his campaign appears to just be a collection of vapid platitudes.  Walker’s campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), comes to Nashville and sets up the Walker For President rally.  That’s where Nashville reaches its violent and not-all-together optimistic climax.

Reportedly, Nashville is a favorite film of Paul Thomas Anderson’s and you can see the influence of Nashville in many of Anderson’s films, from the large ensemble to the moments of bizarre humor to the refusal to pass judgement on any of the characters to the inevitable violence that ends the film.  Also, much like Anderson’s films, Nashville seems to be a film that was specifically made to divide audiences.  You’re either going to think that Nashville is a brilliantly satirical piece of Americana or you’re going to think it’s a self-indulgent and self-important mess.

As for me, I think it’s great and I think that, after you watch it, you should track down and read Jan Stuart’s The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.  It’s the perfect companion for a great film.

 

10 (Plus) Of My Favorite DVD Commentary Tracks


It seems like I’m always taking a chance when I listen to a DVD commentary track.  Occasionally, a commentary track will make a bad film good and a good film even better.  Far too often, however, listening to a bad or boring commentary track will so totally ruin the experience of watching one of my favorite movies that I’ll never be able to enjoy that movie in the same way again.  I’ve learned to almost always involve any commentary track that involves anyone credited as being an “executive producer.”  They always want to tell you every single detail of what they had to do to raise the money to make the film.  Seriously, executive producers suck. 

However, there are more than a few commentary tracks that I could listen to over and over again.  Listed below are a few of them.

10) Last House On The Left (The Original) — Apparently, there’s a DVD of this film that features a commentary track in which stars David Hess and Fred Lincoln nearly come to blows while debating whether or not this movie should have been made.  The DVD I own doesn’t feature that commentary but it does feature a track featuring writer/director Wes Craven and producer Sean S. Cunningham.  The thing that I love about their commentary is that they both just come across as such nice, kinda nerdy guys.  You look at the disturbing images onscreen and then you hear Cunningham saying, “We shot this scene in my mom’s backyard.  There’s her swimming pool…”  Both Craven and Cunningham are remarkably honest about the film’s shortcomings (at one point, Craven listens to some of his more awkward dialogue and then says, “Apparently, I was obsessed with breasts…”) while, at the same time, putting the film’s controversy into the proper historical context.

9) Burnt Offerings — When Burnt Offerings, which is an occasionally interesting haunted house movie from 1976, was released on DVD, it came with a commentary track featuring director Dan Curtis, star Karen Black, and the guy who wrote the movie.  This commentary track holds a strange fascination for me because it, literally, is so mind-numbingly bad that I’m not convinced that it wasn’t meant to be some sort of parody of a bad commentary track.   It’s the commentary track equivalent of a car crash.  Curtis dominates the track which is a problem because he comes across like the type of grouchy old man that Ed Asner voiced in Up before his house floated away.  The screenwriter, whose name I cannot bring myself to look up, bravely insists that there’s a lot of nuance to his painfully simple-minded script.  Karen Black, meanwhile, tries to keep things positive.  The high point of the commentary comes when Black points out that one actor playing a menacing chauffeur is giving a good performance (which he is, the performance is the best part of the movie).  She asks who the actor is.  Curtis snaps back that he doesn’t know and then gets testy when Black continues to praise the performance.  Finally, Curtis snaps that the actor’s just some guy they found at an audition.  Actually, the actor is a veteran character actor named Anthony James who has accumulated nearly 100 credits and had a prominent supporting role in two best picture winners (In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven).

8 ) Cannibal Ferox — This is a good example of a really unwatchable movie that’s made watchable by an entertaining commentary track.  The track is actually made up of two different tracks, one with co-star Giovanni Lombardo Radice and one with director Umberto Lenzi.  Lenzi loves the film and, speaking in broken English, happily defends every frame of it and goes so far as to compare the movie to a John Ford western.  The wonderfully erudite Radice, on the other hand, hates the movie and spends his entire track alternatively apologizing for the movie and wondering why anyone would possibly want to watch it.  My favorite moment comes when Radice, watching the characters onscreen move closer and closer to their bloody doom, says, “They’re all quite stupid, aren’t they?”

7) Race With The Devil Race with the Devil is an obscure but enjoyable drive-in movie from the 70s.  The DVD commentary is provided by costar Lara Parker who, along with providing a lot of behind-the-scenes information, also gets memorably catty when talking about some of her costars.  And, let’s be honest, that’s what most of us want to hear during a DVD commentary.

6) Anything featuring Tim Lucas — Tim Lucas is the world’s foremost authority on one of the greatest directors ever, Mario Bava.  Anchor Bay wisely recruited Lucas to provide commentary for all the Bava films they’ve released on DVD and, even when it comes to some of Bava’s lesser films, Lucas is always informative and insightful.  Perhaps even more importantly, Lucas obviously enjoys watching these movies as much as the rest of us.  Treat yourself and order the Mario Bava Collection Volume 1 and Volume 2.

5) Tropic Thunder — The commentary track here is provided by the film’s co-stars, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Robert Downey, Jr.  What makes it great is that Downey provides his commentary in character as Sgt. Osiris and spends almost the entire track beating up on Jack Black.  This is a rare case of a great movie that has an even greater commentary track.

4) Strange Behavior — This wonderfully offbeat slasher film from 1981 is one of the best movies that nobody seems to have heard of.  For that reason alone, you need to get the DVD and watch it.  Now.  As an added bonus, the DVD comes with a lively commentary track featuring co-stars Dan Shor and Dey Young and the film’s screenwriter, Bill Condon (who is now the director that Rob Marshall wishes he could be).  Along with providing a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia, the three of them also discuss how Young ended up getting seduced by the film’s star (Michael Murphy, who was several decades older), how shocked Condon was that nobody on the set seemed to realize that he’s gay, and why American actors have so much trouble speaking in any accent other than their own.  Most memorable is Young remembering the experience of sitting in a theater, seeing herself getting beaten up onscreen, and then listening as the people sitting around her cheered.

3) Imaginationland — As anyone who has ever listened to their South Park commentaries knows, Matt Stone and Trey Parker usually only offer up about five minutes of commentary per episode before falling silent.  Fortunately, those five minutes are usually hilarious and insightful.  Not only are Parker and Stone remarkably candid when talking about the strengths and weaknesses of their work but they also obviously enjoy hanging out with each other.  With the DVD release of South Park’s Imaginationland trilogy, Matt and Trey attempted to record a “full” 90-minute commentary track.  For the record, they manage to talk for 60 minutes before losing interest and ending the commentary.  However, that track is the funniest, most insightful 60 minutes that one could hope for.

2) Donnie Darko — The original DVD release of Donnie Darko came with 2 wonderful commentary tracks.  The first one features Richard Kelley and Jack Gyllenhaal, talking about the very metaphysical issues that the film addresses.  Having listened to the track, I’m still convinced that Kelley pretty much just made up the film as he went along but its still fascinating to the hear everything that was going on his mind while he was making the film.  However, as good as that first track is, I absolutely love and adore the second one because it features literally the entire cast of the movie.  Seriously, everyone from Drew Barrymore to Jena Malone to Holmes Osborne to the guy who played Frank the Bunny is featured on this track.  They watch the film, everyone comments on random things, and it’s difficult to keep track of who is saying what.  And that’s part of the fun.  It’s like watching the film at a party full of people who are a lot more interesting, funny, and likable than your own actual friends.

1) The Beyond — This movie, one of the greatest ever made, had one of the best casts in the history of Italian horror and the commentary here features two key members of that cast — Catriona MacColl and the late (and wonderful) David Warbeck.  The commentary, which I believe was actually recorded for a laserdisc edition of the film (though, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen a “laserdisc” and I have my doubts as to whether or not they actually ever existed), was recorded in 1997, shortly after the death of director Lucio Fulci and at a time when Warbeck himself was dying from cancer.  (Warbeck would pass away two weeks after recording this commentary).  This makes this commentary especially poignant.  Warbeck was, in many ways, the human face of Italian exploitation, a talented actor who probably deserved to be a bigger star but who was never ashamed of the films he ended up making.  This commentary — in which MacColl and Warbeck quite cheerfully recall discuss making this underrated movie — is as much a tribute to Warbeck as it is to Fulci.  Highpoint: MacColl pointing out all the scenes in which Warbeck nearly made her break out laughing.  My personal favorite is the scene (which made it into the final film) where Warbeck attempts to load a gun by shoving bullets down the barrel.  The wonderful thing about this track is that Warbeck and MacColl enjoy watching it too.