Homicide: The Movie (2001, directed by Jean de Segoznac)


Before The Wire, there was Homicide: Life On The Streets.

Based on a non-fiction book by the Baltimore Sun’s David Simon, Homicide: Life on the Streets aired for seven seasons on NBC, from 1993 to 1999. For five of those seasons, Homicide was the best show on television. Produced and occasionally directed by Barry Levinson, Homicide was filmed on location in Baltimore and it followed a group of Homicide detectives as they went about their job. From the start, the show had a strong and diverse ensemble, made up of actors like Andre Braugher, Ned Beatty, Jon Polito, Melissa Leo, Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson, Richard Belzer, Daniel Baldwin, and Yaphet Kotto. When Polito’s character committed suicide at the start of the third season (in a storyline that few other shows would have had the courage to try), he was replaced in the squad by Reed Diamond.

Homicide was a show that was willing to challenge the assumptions of its audiences. The murders were not always solved. The detectives didn’t always get along.  Some of them, like Clark Johnson’s Meldrick Lewis, had such bad luck at their job that it was cause for alarm whenever they picked up the ringing phone. As played by Andre Braugher, Frank Pembleton may have been the most brilliant detective in Baltimore but his brilliance came with a price and his non-stop intensity even led to him having a stroke while interrogating a prisoner. Kyle Secor played Pembleton’s partner, Tim Bayliss.  Bayliss went from being an idealistic rookie to a mentally unstable veteran murder cop in record time, spending seven seasons obsessing on his first unsolved case. Homicide dealt with big issues and, much like its spiritual successor The Wire, it refused to offer up easy solutions.

Despite the critical acclaim and a much hyped second season appearance by Robin Williams (playing a father who was outraged to hear the detectives joking about the murder of his family), Homicide was never a ratings success. After five seasons of perennially being on the verge of cancellation, the producers of Homicide finally caved into NBC’s demands.  The storylines became more soapy and the cases went form being random and tragic to being what the detectives had previously dismissively called “stone cold whodunits.”   New detectives joined the squad and the focus shifted away from the more complex veterans. Not only did this not improve ratings but also those who had been watching the show from the start were not happy to see Pembleton and Bayliss being pushed to the side for new characters like Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) and Laura Ballard (Callie Thorne). Falsone, in particular, was so disliked that there was even an “I Hate Falsone” website. At the end of the sixth season, Andre Braugher left the show and that was the end. The seventh season limped along, with Bayliss growing increasingly unstable.  The show ended with the implication of Bayliss turning into a vigilante and resigning from the Baltimore PD. It was not a satisfying ending. Richard Belzer’s John Munch moved to New York and became a regular on Law & Order: SVU but the rest of the detectives and their fates were left in limbo.

Fortunately, on February 13th, 2000, NBC gave Homicide another chance to have a proper conclusion with Homicide: The Movie.

Homicide: The Movie opens with a montage of Baltimore at its best and its worst, a reminder that Homicide never abandoned the city that had supported it for seven years.  While other shows recreated New York or Chicago on a soundstage, Homicide was always an authentic product of Baltimore. Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto) is now running for mayor on a platform calling for drug legalization. When Giardello is shot at a campaign stop, all of the current and former members of the Homicide Unit come together to investigate the case.   While Giardello fights for his life, Pembleton and Bayliss partner up for one final time.

Homicide: The Movie fixes the main mistake that was made by the final two seasons of the show. Though all of the detectives get their moment in the spotlight (and all true Homicide fans will be happy to see Richard Belzer and Ned Beatty acting opposite each other for one final time), the focus is firmly on Pembleton and Bayliss. It doesn’t take long for these two former detectives, both of whom left the unit for their own different reasons, to start picking up on each other’s rhythms. Soon, they’re talking, arguing, and sometimes joking as if absolutely no time has passed since they were last partnered up together. But, one thing has changed. Bayliss now has a secret and if anyone can figure it out, it will be Frank Pembleton. What will Pembleton, the moral crusader, do when he finds out that Bayliss is now a killer himself?

The movie follows the detectives as they search for clues, interview suspects, and complain about the state of the world.  However, in the best Homicide tradition, the investigation is just a launching point to investigate what it means to be right or wrong in a city as troubled as Baltimore.  In the movie’s final half, it becomes more than just a reunion movie of a show that had a small but fervent group of fans. It becomes an extended debate about guilt, morality, and what it means to take responsibility for one’s actions. The final few scenes even take on the supernatural, allowing Jon Polito and Daniel Baldwin a chance to appear in the reunion despite the previous deaths of their characters.

Despite being one the best shows in the history of television, Homicide: Life on the Streets is not currently streaming anywhere, not even on Peacock.   (Considering how many Homicide people later went on to work on both Oz and The Wire, it would seem like it should be a natural fit for HBOMax.) From what I understand, this is because of the show’s signature use of popular music would make it prohibitively expensive to pay for the streaming rights. Fortunately, every season has been released on home video.   Homicide: The Movie is on YouTube, with the music removed.  The movie’s final montage is actually more effective when viewed in complete silence.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972, directed by John Huston)


During the lawless day of the old west, a drifter named Roy Bean (Paul Newman) wanders into the desolate town of Vinegaroon, Texas.  When he enters the local saloon, he meets the vagrants who run the town.  They beat him, they rob him, and they tie him to the back of his horse and leave him to die.

Bean, however, does not die.  Instead, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful young woman named Maria Elena (Victoria Principal).  Carrying a gun, Bean reenters the saloon and promptly kills nearly everyone who previously attacked him.  (“I’m not done killing you yet!” Bean yells at one fleeing woman.)  Bean sits down in front of the saloon and waits for justice.  Instead, he’s visited by a lecherous traveling preacher (Anthony Perkins), who buries the dead and gives Bean absolution.  Bean declares that he is now the “law of the West Pecos.”  As the preacher leaves, he looks at the audience and says that he never visited Bean again and later died of dysentery in Mexico.  He hasn’t seen Bean since dying so the preacher is sure that, wherever Bean went, it wasn’t Heaven.

Judge Roy Bean dispenses rough and hard justice from his saloon and renames the town Langtry, after the actress Lillie Langtry.  Bean has never met Langtry or even seen her perform but he writes to her regularly and pictures of her decorate the walls of his saloon.  Bean hires outlaws to serve as his town marshals and sentences prostitutes to remain in town and marry the citizens.  Lawbreakers are left hanging outside of the saloon.  Bean enters into a common law marriage with Maria and, for a while, they even own a bear, who drinks beer and helps Bean maintain order in the court.  Bean may be crazy but his methods clean up the town and Langtry starts to grow.  As Langtry becomes more civilized and an attorney named Arthur Gass (Roddy McDowall) grows more powerful, it starts to become apparent that there may no longer be a place for a man like Judge Roy Bean.

The real-life Judge Roy Bean did hold court in a saloon and he did name the town after Lilly Langtry.  It’s debatable whether or not he was really a hanging judge.  Because he didn’t have a jail, the maximum punishment that he could hand out was a fine and usually that fine was the same amount of however much money the accused had on him at the time of his arrest.  Because of his eccentricities and his reputation for being the “only law west of the Pecos,” Roy Bean became a legendary figure.  The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean acknowledges from the start that it’s not a historically accurate, with a title card that reads, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been.”

Based on a script by John Milius and directed by Hollywood veteran John Huston, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is one of the strangest westerns to ever be released by a major studio.  Featuring multiple narrators who occasionally speak directly to the camera, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an episodic mix of low comedy, graphic violence, and syrupy romance.  (The film’s sole Oscar nomination was for the song that played over scenes of Bean and Maria going on a romantic picnic with their pet bear.)  Familiar faces show up in small roles.  Along with Perkins and McDowall, Tab Hunter, Ned Beatty, Jacqueline Bissett, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Zerbe all play supporting roles.  Even a heavily made-up Stacy Keach makes an appearance as an albino outlaw named Bad Bob.

Jacqueline Bisset in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Milius has gone on the record as calling The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean a “Beverly Hills western” and he has a point.  He envisioned the script as starring Warren Oates as a less likable and much more morally ambiguous version of Judge Roy Bean and he was not happy that his original ending was replaced by a more showy pyrotechnic spectacle.  Milius envisioned the film as a low-budget spaghetti western but Huston instead made a Hollywood epic, complete with celebrity cameos and a theme song from Maurice Jarre and Marilyn Bergman.  Milius said that his experience with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is what led to him deciding to direct his own films.

Again, Milius has a point but John Huston’s version of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean has its strengths as well.  Though he may not be the madman that Milius originally envisioned, Paul Newman gives a good, grizzled performance as Roy Bean and the role served as a precursor for the type of aging but determined characters that Newman would specialize in during the final phase of his career.  Due to its episodic structure, the film is uneven but it works more often than it doesn’t.  The chaotic early scenes reflect a time when the west was actually wild while the later scenes are more cohesive, as society moves into Langtry and threatens to make formerly indispensable men like Roy Ban obsolete.  Even the cameo performances fit in well with the film’s overall scheme, with Anthony Perkins standing out as the odd preacher.  Finally, the young Victoria Principal is perfectly cast as the only woman that Roy Bean loved as much as Lily Langtry.

Though it’s impossible not to wonder what Warren Oates would have done with the title role, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a good end-of-the-west western.

In Memory of Ned Beatty


Ned Beatty died yesterday, at the age of 83.

Ever since I heard the news last night, I’ve been thinking about what an amazing actor Ned Beatty was. He could play it all. He could play a hero, he could play a villain, and he could play the quirky comic relief. He could effortlessly move from the movies to television to the stage and he seemed to instinctively grasp how to modify his style for each medium. Physically, he was instantly recognizable but he still managed to disappear into every role he played. You never thought you were watching Ned Beatty. Instead, you thought you were watching Bobby in Deliverance or Detective Bolander on Homicide or Otis in the first two Superman movies.

It’s amazing that, in his long career, Ned Beatty was only nominated for one Oscar and it wasn’t for his film debut in Deliverance. Playing the Atlanta salesman who is raped by two inbred hillbillies, Beatty gave a fearless performance in a role that a lot of established actors probably would not have had the guts to accept. Beatty wasn’t nominated for Deliverance or for his charming work in the British film, Hear My Song. Instead, he was nominated for his thunderous cameo in Network, in which he told Howard Beale that he had upset the natural order of things and, in a few brief minutes, stole Network from every other member of that film’s legendary cast. The same year that Beatty was in Network, he also appeared as an honest but befuddled investigator in All The President’s Men. Though his screentime was limited in both films, he made a lasting impression.

One of my favorite Beatty performances was as Detective Stanley Bolander on Homicide: Life on the Streets. For the first three seasons of that underappreciated show, Beatty played a veteran detective, the type of man who had dedicated his life to giving a voice to the voiceless. Who can forget him in the pilot, taunting Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch into solving a cold case? Even though Beatty was the best-known actor in the film’s cast, he still blended in effortlessly with the ensemble. Watching Homicide, you didn’t see Ned Beatty. You saw Detective Stanley Bolander, an aging Baltimore detective who had seen the worst but still tried to do the best job that he could. Beatty left the show after three seasons, under circumstances that are still hazy, though everyone seems to agree that blame ultimately rests with the ratings and youth-obsessed executives at NBC, who never appreciated the show while they had it.

(Considering we’ve lost both Yaphet Kotto and Ned Beatty in the same year, I hope at least one streaming service will pick up Homicide so people who missed it the first time can see how great it was. Homicide really laid down the foundation for The Wire.)

Ned Beatty was one of the greats. R.I.P.

NETWORK, Ned Beatty, 1976

Stroker Ace (1983, directed by Hal Needham)


In 1983, Burt Reynolds had the choice of appearing in two films.

He was offered the role of former astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Terms of Endearment, a role that director/screenwriter James L. Brooks wrote specifically with Reynolds in mind.  The role was designed to play to all of Reynolds’s strengths and none of his weaknesses.  It was also a key supporting role in a film that was widely expected to be an Oscar contender.

Or, Reynolds could star in Stroker Ace, another car chase film that was going to be directed by his old friend, Hal Needham.  No one was expecting Stroker Ace to be an Oscar contender but Needham and Reynolds had made three similar films together and all of them had been hits at the box office.

Reynolds decided to star in Stroker Ace.  Jack Nicholson received the role of Garrett Breedlove and went on to win his second Oscar.  As for Burt, he later called Stroker Ace “the beginning of the end.”

The title character of Stroker Ace is a good old boy race car driver.  He’s a typical Reynolds character.  He grew up in the South and learned how to race cars by watching moonshiners outrun the police.  Now, he’s a star on the NASCAR circuit but he’s also arrogant and needlessly self-destructive.  Because this is a Hal Needham car chase movie, those are portrayed as being good traits.  When Stroker loses his former sponsor after pouring wet concrete on him, he’s forced to accept sponsorship from a crooked chicken mogul (played by Ned Beatty, who deserved better).  When Stroker’s not driving his car while dressed as a chicken, he’s romancing the prudish Pembrook Feeney (Loni Anderson).

It’s hard to describe the plot of Stroker Ace because it really doesn’t have a plot.  There’s a few scenes where Burt looks directly at the camera and smirks.  It’s supposed to remind us of Smoky and the Bandit but Stroker Ace doesn’t have the spectacular stunts that the first film had nor does it have the comedic energy of Jackie Gleason.  Instead, it’s got Jim Nabors as a mechanic named Lugs.  The former star of Gomer Pyle does say “Golly” but he doesn’t sing.

The main problem with Stroker Ace is that there’s no reason to root for Stroker Ace.  The Bandit was good at his job and cared about his car.  The same thing is true about the stuntman that Burt played in Hooper.  Stroker is a racer who would rather destroy his car than come in second and who loses his sponsorships because of his own stupid behavior.  Stroker Ace doesn’t care about anything so it’s difficult to get outraged over him having to wear a chicken suit while racing.

Reynolds later described turning down Terms of Endearment for Stoker Ace as being one of the biggest mistakes of his career.  When he talked about how the Terms of Endearment role won Nicholson an Oscar, Reynolds added that he didn’t win anything for Stroker Ace because “they don’t give awards for being stupid.”  It was a missed opportunity for sure and Reynolds would have to wait another fourteen years before Boogie Nights finally proved that he could do more than drive cars and smirk at the camera.

Despite the failure of Stroker Ace, Reynolds and Needham remained friends and even made two more film together (Cannonball Run II and Hostage Hotel).  Their friendship later served as the basis for the relationship between the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Footsteps (1972, directed by Paul Wendkos)


Paddy O’Connor (Richard Crenna) is a former football player-turned-coach whose record of success has been overshadowed by his own arrogance and heavy drinking.  O’Connor has such a bad personal reputation that he’s found himself unemployable.  Only one man is willing to give him a chance.  Jonas Kane (Clu Gulager) played football with Paddy and he’s now coaches for a small college.  Kane may not like O’Connor but he knows that O’Connor might be the key to turning around his team’s fortunes and, at the same time, saving Kane’s job.  Kane hires O’Connor to serve as a his defensive coordinator.

At first, O’Connor’s cockiness rubs people the wrong way.  It’s not until O’Connor moves offensive player J.J. Blake (Bill Overton) to defense that the team starts to win.  And once the team stars to win, everyone’s problems with O’Connor disappear.  Kane can only watch helplessly as O’Connor moves in on his girlfriend (Joanna Pettet), knowing that he owes his job to O’Connor remaining at the school.

However, when Blake gets a concussion, O’Connor is forced to decide whether or not to let him play.  Boosters like Bradford Emmons (Forrest Tucker) want Blake to play, regardless the risk.  The NFL scouts, who are looking for the next number one pick, want to see Blake on the field.  Blake says he wants to play but O’Connor can tell that he’s lying about the extent of his injury.  With everyone breathing down his neck and a syndicate of gamblers pressuring O’Connor to shave points so that the spread pays off, O’Connor has to decide what to do.

Though this made-for-TV movie may not be as well-known as some other films, it’s one of the best movies ever made about college football.  Though it may be short (only 74 minutes), it still examines all of the issues that have always surrounded college football.  Despite not getting paid for their efforts, the players risk serious and permanent injury during every game, just on the slight hope that they might someday make it to the NFL.  The coaches, who are supposed to be looking after the players, are more interested in padding out their win-loss record and hopefully moving onto bigger and better-paying jobs.  Meanwhile, aging alumni and boosters demand that the team win at all costs, regardless of what happens to the men on the field.  Footsteps intelligently explores all of those issues and suggests that the risks are ultimately not worth the rewards.

Along with an intelligent script, Footsteps is helped by a talented cast.  Crenna and especially Gulager both give excellent performance as the two rival coaches.  Al Lettieri (Sollozzo from The Godfather) plays one of the gamblers.  Beah Richards plays Blake’s mother, who makes the mistake of believing O’Connor when he says that he’s going to always have Blake’s best interests at heart.  Ned Beatty has a small role as another assistant coach who is forced to make an important decision of his own.  Keep an eye out for Robert Carradine and James Woods, both of whom have tiny roles.

As far as I know, Footsteps has never officially been released on DVD.  I saw it late one night on the Fox Movie Channel.

Ministry of Vengeance (1989, directed by Peter Maris)


David Miller (John Schneider) is a former soldier who served in the Vietnam War.  Though David managed to survive the war, the majority of his platoon did not and he is still haunted by the day when he was forced to blow up a kid who was working for the VC.  After getting out of the army, David renounces violence and war and he becomes an Episcopal priest.  (His denomination is never really made clear but he wears a collar and he’s got a family so I assume he’s Episcopal.)  He marries Gail (Meg Register) and they have a daughter named Kim (Joey Peters).  Eventually, the Millers find themselves in Rome, where David works with a kindly minister named Hughes (George Kennedy) and preaches the word of the God and the gospel of nonviolence.

Unfortunately, the Millers just happen to be in an airport when it’s attacked by a group of terrorists led by Ali Aboud (Robert Miano).  As David watches, Aboud personally executes his wife and daughter.  Though David survives the attack because Aboud says, “Leave the priest alive!,” his faith is shaken and he goes from renouncing violence to renouncing peace.  After the local CIA agent (Yaphet Kott) refuses to tell David the name or the location of the terrorist who killed his family, David just happens to open up a magazine and finds himself staring at a picture of Ali Aboud.  Ministry of Vengeance may claim to be about faith but it’s mostly about coincidence.

After David discovers that Aboud is in Lebanon, he decides it’s time for him to fly over and dispense some “eye for an eye” justice.  First, David has to get trained by his old drill instructor (James Tolkan).  Once he’s back in fighting shape, David heads off to Lebanon, little aware that Aboud is actually a CIA informant and that the agency is prepared to kill to protect its assets.

Ministry of Vengeance is one of those direct-to-video films where the majority of the budget was spent on getting a handful of “name” actors to make a brief appearance and give the entire production the feel of being a legitimate movie.  So, along with George Kennedy and Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty shows up as a quirky minister in Lebanon while Prince’s former protegee, Apollonia Kotero, plays Beatty’s daughter.  None of them get to do as much as you might like.  It’s always good to see Kotto, even if he’s appearing in a bad film, but his role here is mostly just a glorified cameo.  Most of the film is about John Schneider, trying to balance his faith with his desire for vengeance.  That’s a potentially interesting angle to bring to the story but the movie’s handling of the issue is shallow.  David has doubts about his mission but only when it’s convenient for the film’s narrative.

There are a few good action scenes.  James Tolkan is a blast in the R. Lee Ermey roll of the hardass drill sergeant.  Otherwise, Ministry of Vengeance is as forgettable as a guest sermon.

(Not Quite A) Mardi Gras Film Review: The Big Easy (dir by Jim McBride)


One of the more surprising things about the 1987 film, The Big Easy, is that there aren’t any big Mardi Gras scenes.

Don’t get me wrong.  Several characters in the film mention Mardi Gras, usually in a semi-mocking way.  And there is a scene in a warehouse where Ellen Barkin and Ned Beatty walk past some fearsome looking floats which Beatty says are being stored there until Mardi Gras.  But that’s pretty much it.

Despite not having any huge Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is essentially a cinematic love letter to New Orleans.  (In fact, one could probably argue that the film is so in love with New Orleans that, by not including any big Mardi Gras scenes, the film is saying, “There’s more to this wonderful city than just beads, boobs, and people throwing up i the streets!”)  While the film does have a plot — technically, it’s both a romantic comedy and a crime drama — the plot is ultimately less important than the city where it takes place.  The Big Easy was shot on location in New Orleans and the camera loves every single street, building, and bridge to be found in the Crescent City.  The Big Easy loves the distinctive music and dialect of New Orleans.  Even more importantly, The Big Easy loves the attitude of New Orleans.  This is perhaps one of the most laid back and nonjudgmental crime films to have ever been made.

Dennis Quaid plays Remy McSwain, a Cajun police detective with a nonstop grin and a cheerfully corrupt nature.  Today, we tend to associate Dennis Quaid with playing grim-faced authority figures and serving as the commercial spokesman for Esurance so it’s interesting to see him here, playing a lovable, charismatic, and undeniably sexy rogue.  Remy may be corrupt but he doesn’t mean any harm.  For the most part, he just takes the occasional bribe and sometimes looks the other way when it comes to certain crimes.  He used at least some of the money to put his younger brother through college so really, how can you hold his lack of ethics against him?

Ellen Barkin plays Anne Osborne, a state district attorney who has been sent to New Orleans to investigate allegations of police corruption.  Anne is serious about doing her job and exposing corruption.  At the same time, she also finds herself falling for Remy, even when she has to prosecute him on charges of taking bribes.  It doesn’t take them long to become lovers.

Together, they have great sex and solve crimes!

Actually, in this case, they really do.  The film opens with the murder of a local mafia boss.  (“We call them wise guys,” Remy says, at one point.)  When more drug dealers start to turn up dead, Remy’s boss, Captain Kellom (Ned Beatty), suspects that a gang war has broken out.  (Two of the drug dealers are found with their hearts missing from their bodies, which leads to a lot of talk about how one of the city’s biggest drug kingpins is into voodoo.  It’s not a New Orleans films without a little voodoo.)  Remy, however, has reason to believe that the murderers could be cops!

As I said before, the film’s plot is less important than the city where it takes place and the people who live in that city.  Director Jim McBride and screenwriter Daniel Petrie, Jr. do a good enough job with the crime plot but it’s obvious that they’re most interested in taking Remy and Anne and surrounding them with a host of eccentric, identifiable New Orleans characters.  As a result, the film is full of memorable performances from character performers like Ned Beatty, John Goodman, Lisa Jane Persky, and Grace Zabriskie.  Even Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans district attorney whose attempt to frame an innocent man for the murder of John F. Kennedy inspired Oliver Stone’s JFK, makes an appearance as himself.

Even without any big Mardi Gras scenes, The Big Easy is an entertainingly laid back tribute to New Orleans.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Deliverance (dir by John Boorman)


1973’s The Exorcist is often cited as the first horror film to ever be nominated for best picture and technically, I guess that’s correct.  It was definitely the first best picture nominee to ever deal with a battle between humans and a malevolent supernatural force and no one can deny that The Exorcist has influenced a countless number of horror films.

That said, I think you could make the argument that Deliverance, which was nominated for best picture the year before The Exorcist, was in its own way, a horror film.  Certainly, every crazed hick slasher film that has come out since 1972 owes a debt to Deliverance.  Deliverance‘s ending has been imitated by so many other horror films that it’s become a bit of cliche.  Though there might not be any supernatural creatures in Deliverance, the film still features its own set of horrifying monsters.  The toothless redneck rapists (played by character actor Bill McKinney and rodeo performer Herbert “Cowboy” Coward) seem as if they’ve jumped straight out of a nightmare and into the movie.  Of course, they aren’t the only monsters in this film.  There’s also the (fictional) Cahulawassee River, which is due to be dammed up and seems to be determined to take out its anger on anyone foolish enough to try to navigate it.

Much as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which came out just two years after Deliverance), the main theme here seem to be that you should be careful about going off the main road.  Just as the unfortunate hippies and college students in Texas Chainsaw Massacre proved to be no match for a clan of backwoods cannibal, the four middle-aged men at the center of Deliverance discover that they’re no match for either nature or its inhabitants.  At the start of the film, we watch as three of the men deal with the locals in a condescending and rather smirky manner.  Only one of them actually tries to be nice to the locals, engaging in a banjo duel with a young boy who clearly loves his banjo but who still refuses to smile or shake hands.  The boy knows what the men are getting themselves into them.  The boy knows what awaits them.

If you grew up in the South, as I did, you’ll recognize all four of the men.  It’s not just that they’re played by recognizable actors.  It’s that each one of them is a common archetype of the type of men you find down here.

For instance, there’s Lewis (Burt Reynolds), the self-styled alpha male with his leather vest and his bow-and-arrow and his constant talk about how society is eventually going to collapse and only the strong are going to survive.  You know that Lewis is full of it from the minute you see him but he’s so charismatic that you can also understand why the other three men have fallen under his control.

And then there’s Bobby (Ned Beatty).  Bobby is quick to laugh and quick to talk and quick to make a bad joke.  When he says that he’s a salesman, you’re not surprised.  From the start of the film, Lewis complains that Bobby isn’t strong enough or serious enough and, when the mountain men attack, Bobby is the one they target.  And yet, towards the end of the film, Bobby is the one who sells the hastily concocted story about what happened on the river.

Drew (Ronny Cox) is the nicest of the men.  With his glasses and his guitar and his rather touching belief that everything will be okay if everyone just tells the truth, Drew’s the prototype of the Southern liberal.  One can imagine him teaching in a community college and vainly trying to convince his relatives that segregation and nostalgia for the Confederacy is holding the South back.

And finally, there’s Ed (Jon Voight).  Ed smokes a pipe and it’s obvious that he’s someone who has a very secure life.  Ed is the one who is everyone’s friend.  He’s the one who sticks up for Bobby.  He’s the one who reminds Drew to wear his life jacket.  He’s the only one who can get away with (gently) mocking Lewis.  Ed seems like a nice guy but, at the start of the film, there’s a strange emptiness to Ed.  You get the feeling that the reason Ed is friends with everyone is because he doesn’t have any firm beliefs.  Instead, he just adapts to each situation and says whatever everyone wants to hear.  You can’t help but wonder what Ed believes.  By the end of the movie, of course, both Ed and the viewer have learned what Ed is capable of doing.

Cox, Voight, and especially poor Ned Beatty are all perfectly cast in their roles.  Burt Reynolds reportedly felt that this film was his best performance and he was probably right.  Director John Boorman captures both the beauty and the menace of nature, leaving you both in awe of the the river and fearful of what it can do those foolish enough to try to conquer it.  Interestingly enough, while Boorman was directing Deliverance, he was offered The Exorcist.  He turned it down, feeling that the script was too exploitive of the possessed child.  Boorman would, however, direct The Exorcist II: The Heretic (co-starring Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty).

(At the same time, Jon Voight was offered the role of Father Karras in The Exorcist but, like Boorman, turned the film down so he could work on Deliverance.)

While the film is best known for its sequences on the river, one should not overlook the haunting scenes of the survivors once they make their way back to civilization.  After having spent the previous 80 minutes or so presenting everyone in the backwoods as a threat, the final third of Deliverance actually emphasizes the decency of the townspeople.  When one of the men breaks down and starts to cry in the middle of dinner, everyone is quietly respectful of his emotions.  Towards the end of the film, as the survivors are driven out of town, they find themselves stuck behind the old country church, which is being moved upriver.  “Just got to wait for the church to get out of the way,” their driver says while the church’s bell mournfully rings for both the death of the town and the death of innocence.

(Of course, even with all the kind townspeople around, there’s still a somewhat menacing sheriff.  It’s just not a Southern film without a scary sheriff, is it?  “Don’t you boys ever do nothing like this again,” he says at one point.  The sheriff is played by James Dickey, the author of both the novel and the screenplay on which the film is based.)

Deliverance was nominated for three academy awards.  In the directing and the editing categories, it lost to Cabaret.  For best picture, it lost to The Godfather.  Deliverance, The Godfather, and Cabaret, all competing against each other?  1972 was a very good year.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Illusions (dir by Victor Kulle)


(Lisa is currently cleaning out her DVR.  It’s taking forever and she’s loving every minute of it.  This is almost as fun as a Degrassi marathon.  Lisa recorded the 1992 psychological thriller, Illusions, off of Indieplex on March 1st.)

Illusions gets off to a pretty good start.  In a blue-tinted room, a man and a woman make out, with the whispered dialogue suggesting that they’re doing something that they’ve specifically been told not to do.  The woman is worried when an older woman opens the door but the man assures her that the older woman can’t see.  Soon, the film is switching back and forth, from the forbidden lovers to the old woman chopping up a huge chunk of meat.  The opening reminded me of the classic Italian horror film, Beyond The Darkness.

It’s an enjoyably surreal scene, one of many to be found in Illusions.  When we first meet Jan Sanderson (Heather Locklear), she’s waking up from a nightmare.  She’s in a hospital, recovering from some sort of earlier breakdown.  Her doctor (Susannah York) doesn’t think that Jan is ready to leave the hospital but Jan disagrees.  Jan can’t wait to rejoin her husband.

Her husband is Greg Sanderson (Robert Carradine), an archeologist who is currently working at a dig and who doesn’t appear to have much in common with Indiana Jones.  When Jan leaves the hospital, she moves into a house near the dig, one that Greg is renting.  As soon as Jan moves into the house, strange things start to happen.

For instance, she meets the caretaker, George (Ned Beatty).  George is an alcoholic, one who has recently been abandoned by his wife and his children.  According to Greg, George has a skill for telling scary stories.  For instance, there’s the one that he tells Jan about a murder that occurred in the house years ago.  Maybe George isn’t exactly the guy you want to have talking to someone who is recovering from a nervous breakdown?

However, before Jan can spend too much time getting freaked out about George, something else happens.  Greg’s sister arrives.  From the minute that Laura (Emma Samms) arrives, it’s obvious that she and Jan don’t like each other.  That Jan is nervous around her sister-in-law is understandable.  I love my future sister-in-law and I still spend hours worrying about whether or not she thinks I’m as cool as I think I am.  What’s strange is that Laura seems to view Jan as almost being a romantic rival.  From the minute that Laura arrives, she and Greg are whispering to each other and sharing flirtatious jokes.

(The fact that Greg and Laura were the couple in the film’s opening scene certainly doesn’t do anything to make them any less creepy.)

Jan finds herself suspecting that Laura may be conspiring against her.  When she orders Greg to tell his sister to go home, Greg says that he will.  When Jan wakes up the next morning, Laura’s gone.  Greg says that he kicked her out.  But Jan is haunted by a nightmare in which she murdered her sister-in-law and Greg helped to cover it up…

WHAT’S GOING ON!?

Well, you probably already know.  You’ve seen Gaslight, right?  You’ve seen Diabolique.  Maybe you’ve even seen a few Lifetime films.  You know how this stuff works.  Illusions is not exactly a surprising film and the movie itself occasionally feels disjointed.  The use of body doubles during the nude scenes is jarringly obvious and Jan’s narration was supplied by an actress who clearly wasn’t Heather Locklear.  Locklear, Beatty, and Samms all gave good performances but Robert Carradine was oddly cast.  His presence in the film made me think of Illusions as being Sam McGuire: The Early Years.

And yet, I still kinda liked Illusions.  It’s got just enough weird dream sequences for me to enjoy it.  You know me.  There’s nothing I love more than a weird dream sequence.  Many a mediocre film has been saved by blue mood lighting.

 

 

A Movie A Day #150: Back to School (1986, directed by Alan Metter)


Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) started with nothing but through a combination of hard work and chutzpah, he started a chain of “Tall and Fat” clothing stores and made a fortune.  Everyone has seen his commercials, the one where he asks his potential customers, “Do you look at the menu and say, ‘Okay?'”  He has a new trophy wife named Vanessa (Adrienne Barbeau) and a chauffeur named Lou (Burt Young).  Thornton never even graduated from high school but he gets respect.

However, his son, Jason (Keith Gordon), doesn’t get no respect.  No respect at all.  Jason is a student at a pricey university, where he is bullied by Chas Osborne (William Zabka) and can’t get a date to save his life.  Jason’s only friend is campus weirdo Derek Lutz (Robert Downey, Jr.).  When Thornton sees that his son isn’t having any fun, he decides to go back to school!

Back to School is a predictable but good-natured comedy.  It is like almost every other 80s college comedy except, this time, it’s a 65 year-old man throwing raging parties and making the frat boys look stupid instead of Robert Carradine or Curtis Armstrong.  On the stand-up stage, Dangerfield always played the (sometimes) lovable loser but in the movies, Dangerfield was always a winner.  In both Caddyshack and Back to School, Dangerfield played a self-made man who forced his way into high society and showed up all of the snobs.  While Back to School is no Caddyshack, it does feature Rodney at his best.

Rodney may be the funniest thing about Back to School but a close second is Sam Kinison, who owed much of his early success to Rodney Dangerfield’s support.  Kinison plays a history professor, who has some very strongly held views about the Vietnam War and who punctuates his points with a primal screen.

Also, keep an eye out Kurt Vonnegut, playing himself.  Rodney hires him to write a paper about Kurt Vonnegut for one of his classes.  The paper gets an F because Rodney’s literature professor (Sally Kellerman) can tell that not only did Rodney not write it but whoever did knows absolutely nothing about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

So it goes.