Spring Breakdown #1: Midnight Express (dir by Alan Parker)


Since it’s currently Spring Break, I figured that I would spend the next two weeks reviewing films about people on vacation.  Some of the films will be about good vacations.  Some of the films will be about bad vacations.  But, in the end, they’ll all be about celebrating those moments that make us yearn for the chance to get away from it all.

Take Midnight Express, for instance.  This 1978 film (which was nominated for six Oscars and won two) tells the story of what happens when a carefree college student named Billy Hayes decides to spend his holiday in Turkey.

When the film begins, Billy Hayes (played by Brad Davis), is at an airport in Turkey.  He’s preparing to return home to the United States.  His girlfriend, Susan (Irene Miracle), informs him that Janis Joplin has just died.  When Billy responds by making a joke, Susan accuses him of not taking anything seriously.  What Susan doesn’t realize is that Billy actually has a lot on his mind.  For one thing, he’s got several bricks of hashish taped around his waist.  He purchased it from a cab driver and he’s planning on selling it to his friends back in the United States.  Unfortunately, Billy’s not quite as clever as he thinks he is.  Because of recent terrorist bombings, the Turkish police are searching everyone before they board their plane.  Billy finds himself standing out in the middle of the runway with his hands up in the air, surrounded by gun-wielding Turkish policemen.

Billy finds himself stranded in a country that he doesn’t understand, being interrogated by men whose language he cannot speak.  An enigmatic American (Bo Hopkins) shows up and assures Billy that he’ll be safe, as long as he identifies the taxi driver who sold him to the drugs.  Billy does so but then makes the mistake of trying to flee from the police.  In the end, it’s the American who captures him and, holding a gun to Billy’s head, tells him not to make another move.

Soon, Billy is an inmate at Sağmalcılar Prison.  He’s beaten when he first arrives and it’s only days later that he’s able to walk and think clearly.  He befriends some of the other prisoners, including a heroin addict named Max (John Hurt) and an idiot named Jimmy (Randy Quaid).  Billy watches as the prisoners are tortured by the fearsome head guard (Paul L. Smith) and listens to the screams of inmates being raped behind closed doors.  After being told that his original four-year sentence has been lengthened to a 30-year sentence, Billy starts to degenerate.  When Susan visits, Billy end up pathetically masturbating in front of her.  When another prisoner taunts Billy, Billy bites out the man’s tongue, an act that we see in both close up and slow motion.  If Billy has any hope of regaining his humanity, he has to escape.  He has to catch what Jimmy calls the “midnight express…..”

Midnight Express is a brutal and rather crude film.  Though it may have been directed by a mainstream director (Alan Parker) and written by a future Oscar-winner (Oliver Stone), Midnight Express is a pure grindhouse film at heart.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film.  The camera lingers over every act of sadism while Giorgio Moroder’s synth-based score pulsates in the background.  When Billy grows more and more feral and brutal in his behavior, it’s hard not to be reminded of Lon Chaney, Jr. turning into The Wolf Man.  The film may be incredibly heavy-handed but it’s nightmarishly effective, playing out with the intensity of a fever dream.

As for the cast, Brad Davis wasn’t particularly likable or sympathetic as Billy.  On the one hand, he’s a victim of an unjust system, betrayed by his own country and tortured by another.  On the other hand, Billy was an idiot who apparently thought no one would notice all that hash wrapped around his chest.  That said, Davis’s unlikable screen presence actually worked to the film’s advantage.  If you actually liked Billy, the film would be unbearable to watch.  Before Davis was cast, Dennis Quaid and Mark Hamill were both considered for the role.  If either of those actors has been cast, Midnight Express would be too intense and disturbing to watch.  For instance, it would be depressing to watch Dennis Quaid rip a man’s tongue out of his mouth.  You would be like, “No, Mr. Quaid, you’ll never recover your humanity!”  But when Brad Davis does it, you’re just like, “Eh.  It was bound to happen sometime.”

For more effective are John Hurt and Bo Hopkins.  Hurt and Hopkins both have small roles but they both make a big impression, if just because they’re the only two characters in the film who aren’t either yelling or crying all of the time.  While everyone else is constantly cursing their imprisonment, Hurt is quietly sardonic.  As for Hopkins, we’re supposed to dislike him because he’s with the CIA and he sold out Billy.  But honestly, no one made Billy tape all that hash to his chest.  Finally, you’ve got Randy Quaid and Paul L. Smith, who both glower their way through the film.  Smith is wonderfully evil while Randy Quaid is …. well, he’s Randy Quaid, the loudest American in Turkey.

Midnight Express was such a success at the box office that it caused an international incident.  There’s not a single positive Turkish character to be found in the entire film and it’s impossible not to feel that the film is not only condemning Turkey’s drug policies but that it’s also condemning the entire country as well.  The Turkish prisoners are portrayed as being just as bad as the guards and even Billy’s defense attorney comes across as being greedy and untrustworthy.  Watching the film today can be an awkward experience.  It’s undeniably effective but it’s impossible not to cringe at the way anyone who isn’t from the west is portrayed.  In recent years, everyone from director Alan Parker to screenwriter Oliver Stone to the real-life Billy Hayes has apologized for the way that the Turkish people were portrayed in the film.

Despite the controversy, Midnight Express was a huge box office success and it was nominated for best picture.  It lost to another controversial film about people imprisoned in Asia, The Deer Hunter.

 

Music Video of the Day: Drive by R.E.M. (1992, directed by Peter Care)


“It’s a subtle, political thing. Michael specifically mentions the term ‘bush-whacked’. But if you want to take it like ‘Stand’, that’s cool, too. You like to think that you can appreciate these songs on any level you want to. I have a lot of records I listen to when I’m just doing the dishes. Like Ride records. I really like Ride a lot. And I have no idea what the songs are about. And I really don’t care. I don’t even worry about it. Lyrics are the last thing I listen to, unless someone is hitting me over the head with it.”

— R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on Drive

Drive may have written to encourage young people to get involved in politics and to vote but I have always thought that the video was about the dangers of crowd surfing.  The video was filmed over two nights at Los Angeles’s Sepulveda Dam.  According to Michael Stipe, both Oliver Stone and actor River Phoenix showed up for the filming: “Oliver had been drinking and they got into a fight in my trailer. It was fun to watch. And it kind of fueled the energy that this video, from beginning to end, kind of carries through it.”

This video was one of several videos that Peter Care directed for R.E.M.  Care also directed videos for Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Depeche Mode, and Fine Young Cannibals.  Care has also directed one feature film, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.

Supposedly, Adam Scott is an extra in the video.  I have yet to spot him.

A Scene That I Love: The Opening of Scarface


Produced by Martin Bregman, directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, the 1983 remake of Scarface is one of the best-known, most iconic gangster films ever made.  It opened to mixed reviews but it’s gone on to be recognized as a classic.  Everyone can quote the script:  “Say hello to my little friend!” “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.”  “Say goodnight to the bad guy!”

Scarface starts with one of my favorite opening scenes of all time.  Powered by Giorgio Moroder’s score, the opening credits of Scarface play out over footage of the real-life Mariel boatlift.  Combined with footage of Fidel Castro ranting that Cuba does not need the Marielitos, this opening gives real-world credibility to everything that follows.  We then segue from the actual boatlift to Al Pacino as Tony Montana, answering questions with that shit-eating grin on his face.

Listen to the interrogation scene carefully and you’ll hear both Charles Durning and Dennis Franz, dubbing the lines of the actors who played the immigration agents.

Here Are The Satellite Nominations!


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The International Press Academy — a.k.a. the Oscar precursor that nobody cares about — announced their nominees for the best of 2016 earlier today and it was a very good day for a film that I cannot wait to see, La La Land!

Here are the Satellite nominations!

Special Achievement Award Recipients

Mary Pickford Award- Edward James Olmos
Tesla Award- John Toll
Auteur Award- Tom Ford
Humanitarian Award- Patrick Stewart
Best First Feature- Russudan Glurjidze “House of Others”
Best Ensemble: Motion Picture- “Hidden Figures”
Best Ensemble: Television- “Outlander”

Actress in a Motion Picture

Annette Bening, “20th Century Woman”
Emma Stone, “La La Land”
Natalie Portman, “Jackie”
Ruth Negga, “Loving”
Taraji P. Henson, “Hidden Figures”
Meryl Streep, “Florence Foster Jenkins”
Isabelle Huppert, “Elle”
Amy Adams, “Nocturnal Animals”

Actor in a Motion Picture

Casey Affleck, “Manchester by the Sea”
Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Snowden”
Viggo Mortensen, “Captain Fantastic”
Joel Edgerton, “Loving”
Andrew Garfield, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Tom Hanks, “Sully
Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Actress in a Supporting Role

Helen Mirren, “Eye in the Sky”
Michelle Williams, “Manchester by the Sea”
Nicole Kidman, “Lion”
Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”
Naomi Harris, “Moonlight”
Viola Davis, “Fences”
 Actor in a Supporting Role

Jeff Bridges, “Hell or High Water”
Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight”
Dev Patel, “Lion”
Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”
Eddie Murphy, “Mr. Church”
Hugh Grant, “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Motion Picture

“La La Land”
“Moonlight”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Lion”
“Jackie”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Loving”
“Hell or High Water”
“Nocturnal Animals”
“Captain Fantastic”
“Hidden Figures”
“Fences”

 Motion Picture, International Film

“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”- Finland
“Toni Erdmann”- Germany
“Julieta”- Spain
“A Man Called Ove”- Sweden
“The Salesman”- Iran
“The Ardennes”- Belgium
“Ma’ Rosa”- Philippines
“The Handmaiden”- South Korea
“Elle”- France
“Paradise”- Russia

Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media 
Title of Film
“Zootopia”
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
“Moana”
Finding Dory”
“My Life As a Zucchini”
“The Jungle Book”
“The Red Turtle”
“Miss Hokusai”
“Trolls”
“Your Name”

Motion Picture, Documentary

“Gleason”
“Life Animated”
“O.J.: Made in America”
“13th”
“The Ivory Game”
“The Eagle Huntress”
“Tower”
“Fire at Sea”
“Zero Days”
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week”

Director

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”
Mel Gibson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Tom Ford, “Nocturnal Animals”
Pablo Larrain, “Jackie”
Denzel Washington, “Fences”

Screenplay, Original

Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight”
Damien Chazelle, “La La Land”
Kenneth Lonergan, “Manchester by the Sea”
Taylor Sheridan, “Hell or High Water”
Matt Ross, “Captain Fantastic”
Yorgos Lanthimos/Efthymis Filippou, “The Lobster”

Screenplay, Adapted

Andrew Knight/Robert Schenkkan, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Luke Davis, “Lion”
Kieran Fitzgerald/Oliver Stone, “Snowden”
Justin Marks, “The Jungle Book”
Allison Schroeder, “Hidden Figures”
Todd Komarnicki, “Sully”

Original Score

Rupert Gregson Williams, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Justin Hurwitz, “La La Land”
Lesley Barber, “Manchester by the Sea”
John Williams, “The BFG”
John Debney, “The Jungle Book”
Hans Zimmer, “Hidden Figures”

Original Song

“Audition”- ‘La La Land’
“City of Stars”- ‘La La Land’
“Dancing with Your Shadow”- ‘Po’
“Can’t Stop the Feeling”- ‘Trolls’
“I’m Still Here”- ‘Miss Sharon Jones’
“Running”- ‘Hidden Figures’

Cinematography

John Toll, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Linus Sandgren, “La La Land
James Laxton, “Moonlight”
Simon Duggan, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Jani-Petteri Passi, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki”
Bill Pope, “The Jungle Book”

Visual Effects

“The Jungle Book”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
“Doctor Strange”
“The BFG”
“Sully”
“Deadpool”

Film Editing

Tom Cross, “La La Land
Joi McMillon/Nat Sanders, “Moonlight”
Tim Squyres, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Alexandre de Francheschi, “Lion”
John Gilbert, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Steven Rosenblum, “The Birth of a Nation”

Sound (Editing and Mixing)

La La Land
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“The Jungle Book”
“Allied”
“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

Art Direction and Production Design

David Wasco, “La La Land
Barry Robinson, “Hacksaw Ridge”
Jean Rabasse, “Jackie”
Christophe Glass, “The Jungle Book”
Gary Freeman, “Allied”
Dan Hennah, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”

Costume Design

Colleen Atwood, “Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, “Love & Friendship”
Courtney Hoffman, “Captain Fantastic”
Madeline Fontaine, “Jackie”
Mary Zophres, “La La Land
Alexandra Byrne, “Doctor Strange”

A Halloween Film Review: Seizure (1974, directed by Oliver Stone)


seizure1Everyone had to start somewhere and, long before he became one of the leading political provocateurs of American cinema, Oliver Stone was just another struggling film school grad who was looking for a chance to make a name for himself.  Like many aspiring filmmakers, Stone made his directorial debut with a low-budget horror film.

Filmed in Quebec and featuring an eclectic cast that included a soap opera star, a former Warhol superstar, a faded teen idol, a past Bond girl, and a future Bond villain, Seizure stars Jonathan Frid (of Dark Shadows fame) as Edmund Blackstone.  Edmund is a horror novelist who is described as being “a modern-day Edgar Allan Poe.”  When Edmund’s rich friends get together for the weekend, they are terrorized by three maniacs: the Queen of Evil (Martine Beswick), a mute giant called the Jackal (Henry Judd Baker), and a psychotic dwarf named The Spider (Hervé Villechaize).  

All of Edmund’s guests face the inevitability of death in a different way.  Playboy Mark Frost (Troy Donahue) is too concerned with pursuing pleasure to realize that he’s in danger.  Businessman Charlie Hughes (Joseph Sirola) gets out his wallet and tries to buy his way out of trouble.  Mikki (Mary Woronov), Charlie’s much younger wife, strips down to her underwear and runs away.  Eunice Kahn (Anne Meachem) jumps out of a window after the Spider ticks her into using an aging cream.  Eunice’s husband, philosopher Serge (Roger de Koven), faces death with stoicism.  Edmund’s brother-in-law, Gerald (Richard Cox), is a long-haired hippie who accidentally gets shot in the head by Edmund and dies saying, “You bastard!”  Edmund’s wife (Christina Pickles) tries to protect her son (Timothy Ousey) and Edmund reveals himself to be the first of the many flawed father figures who would appear in Stone’s films.

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If not for the identity of its director, Seizure would be a forgotten film.  In fact, it seems to be a film that Stone wishes was forgotten.  He rarely mentions it in interviews and usually describes Seizure as being a “learning experience” and there’s really nothing about Seizure that would make you think the director would go on to win three Oscars.  It’s a slow and talky movie that is just occasionally weird enough to be interesting.  Seizure‘s philosophical digressions are pure Stone but otherwise, it’s hard to see any sign of the director that Stone would become in Seizure.

Still, what other movie features Jonathan Frid and Mary Woronov having a knife fight while Martine Beswick and Hervé Villechaize watch?

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


Dave Poster

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

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

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

The 1993 film Dave offers up one possible solution.

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

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

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

And you know what?

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

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

Dave—–

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