Parallel Lives (1994, directed by Linda Yellen)


A large group of people gather together one weekend for a fraternity/sorority reunion.  Since college, some of them have become rich and powerful.  Some of them are now famous.  Some of them are now seedy and disreputable.  They all have college memories, though there’s such a wide variety of age groups represented that it’s hard to believe that any of them actually went to college together.  After the men spend the day playing practical jokes and touch football and the women spend the night talking about their hopes and dreams, they wake up the next morning to discover the someone has murdered Treat Williams.  A pony-tailed sheriff (Robert Wagner) shows up to question everyone.

Parallel Lives was made for Showtime with the help of the Sundance Institute.  Today, it’s a forgotten film but, for some reason, it was very popular with American Airlines during the summer of 1997.  That summer, when I flew to the UK, Parallel Lives was one of the movies that we were shown.  (It was the second feature.  The first feature was Down Periscope, a submarine comedy starring Kelsey Grammar.  Fourteen year-old me enjoyed Down Periscope but, in retrospect, it wasn’t much of a flight.)  A month and a half later, when I flew back to the U.S., Parallel Lives was again one of the films shown on the flight!  For that reason, I may be the only person on the planet who has not forgotten that a film called Parallel Lives exists.

Parallel Lives, I later learned, was an entirely improvised film.  The huge cast were all given their characters and a brief outline of the film’s story and they were then allowed to come up with their own dialogue.  Unfortunately, no one did a very good job of it and the men were reduced to bro-ing it up while the women spent most of the movie having extended group therapy.  The story doesn’t add up too much and, even when I rewatched it from an adult’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of everyone talking about how different the real world was from college.  Technically, the film’s a murder mystery but you can’t improvise a successful murder mystery.  This film proves that point.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there are 26 characters, all trying to get a word in at the same time.  Some of the roles don’t make much sense.  Dudley Moore shows up, playing an imaginary friend.  (How do you improvise being a figment of someone’s imagination?)  James Brolin introduces himself to everyone as being, “Professor Doctor Spencer Jones” and that appears to be as far as he got with his improv.  Ben Gazzara is a gambler and Mira Sorvino is the prostitute that he brings to the reunion while Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, moons the camera several times.  Jack Klugman is a senator with Alzheimer’s and Patricia Wettig is his daughter.  The majority of the movie centers around Jim Belushi, playing a reporter and falling in love with JoBeth Williams.  Liza Minnelli, Helen Slater, Levar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Matthew Perry, Ally Sheedy, and Gena Rowlands all have small roles.  How did so many talented people come together to make such a forgettable movie and why did American Airlines decide it was the movie to show people on their way to another country?  That’s the true mystery of Parallel Lives.

Most Wanted (1997, directed by David Hogan)


James Dunn (Keenan Ivory Wayans) is an army sergeant with a talent for getting framed for crimes that he didn’t commit.

During the Gulf War, Dunn’s superior officer orders Dunn to shoot a shepherd boy.  Dunn refuses and, when the two men get into a fight over a gun, his commanding officer is accidentally shot and killed.  The army refuses to listen to Dunn’s explanation.  He’s convinced of murder and sentenced to death.  However, while Dunn is on his way to Leavenworth, he is rescued by Col. Casey (Jon Voight).  Casey explains that he is giving Dunn a chance to join a super secret vigilante group that targets evil doers.  Yes, Dunn will be expected to assassinate people but they’ll all be bad.  With no other options available to him, Dunn agrees to work for Casey.

Dunn’s first target is the corrupt owner of a pharmaceutical company (played by Robert Culp) but — surprise — it turns out that the target was actually the First Lady and that the entire plan was to set up Dunn as a patsy!  Now a “most wanted” fugitive, Dunn is forced to go on the run with a doctor (Jill Hennessy) who recorded the assassination with a camcorder.  (Remember, Most Wanted was made during the days of the landline phones.)  With Casey and his second-in-command (played by Wolfgang Bodison) determined to kill him and with only Paul Sorvino (as the head of the FBI) doubting the official story, Dunn has to find a way to reveal the truth.

Though he was subsequently overshadowed by his brothers, Damon and Marlon, Keenan Ivory Wayans was a really big deal in the 90s.  As the man behind In Living Color, he proved that black comedians and writers could be just as funny (and, in many cases, funnier) than their white counterparts over at Saturday Night Live.  It can be argued Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier, and Jennifer Lopez would not have the careers that they have today if not for Keenan Ivory Wayans.  (All of them first found fame as members of the In Living Color ensemble, Carrey, Foxx, and Grier as cast members and Lopez as a “fly girl.”)  Most Wanted was Wayans attempt to transform himself into an action hero (perhaps not coincidentally, a year before Most Wanted was released, Damon Wayans had a minor hit with Bulletproof).

Keenan Ivory Wayans not only starred in Most Wanted but he also wrote the script and it’s interesting just how straight the action is played.  It would be natural to expect Wayans to turn the movie into a spoof but there’s little intentional humor to be found in Most Wanted.  Most Wanted takes itself seriously and the end result is an adequate but hardly memorable action movie, with Wayans jumping off of buildings and fighting off the bad guys.  The action scenes are well-shot if not particularly imaginative but, unfortunately, Wayans doesn’t really have the screen presence necessary to be a believable action hero.  Both the character of James Dunn and Wayans’s performance are just too bland to really be compelling.  Far more interesting are Jon Voight and Paul Sorvino, who are both entertainingly hammy in their roles.

There’s one good scene in Most Wanted, where Dunn finds himself being chased by what appears to be the entire population of Los Angeles.  Otherwise, this one is adequate but forgettable.

 

Film Review: The Panic In The Needle Park (dir by Jerry Schatzberg)


The 1971 The Panic in Needle Park tells the story of two young lover in New York City.

Helen (Kitty Winn) is an innocent runaway from Indiana who, when we first meet her, has just had a back alley abortion.  Her boyfriend, Marco (Raul Julia), doesn’t seem to be too concerned about her or anyone else for that matter.  Instead, it’s Marco’s dealer, Bobby (Al Pacino), who checks in on Helen and who visits her when she eventually ends up in the hospital.  It’s also Bobby who gives her a place to stay after she gets out of the hospital.

Bobby is a small-time dealer.  He’s not book smart but he knows how to survive on the streets and it’s hard not to be charmed by him.  He literally never stop talking.  As he explains it to Helen, he’s been in jail 8 times but he’s not a bad guy.  His brother, Hank (Richard Bright, who also co-starred with Pacino in The Godfather films), is a burglar and he legitimately is a bad guy but he and Bobby seem to have a close relationship.  Bobby also swears that he’s not a drug addict.  He just occasionally indulges.  It doesn’t take long to discover that Bobby isn’t being completely honest with either Helen or himself.

Together, Bobby and Helen ….

Well, they don’t solve crimes.  In fact, they really don’t do much of anything.  That’s kind of the problem with movies about drug addicts.  For the most part, drug addicts are boring people and there’s only so many times that you can watch someone shoot up before you lose interest.  Heroin may make the addicts feel alive but, with a few notable exception (Trainspotting comes to mind), it’s always been a bit of a cinematic dead end.  The film takes a documentary approach to Bobby and Helen’s descent into addiction and it’s not exactly the most thrilling thing to watch.

Bobby and Helen live in an area of New York that’s known as needle park, largely due to the fact that it’s full of addicts.  It’s a place where people sit on street corners and nod off and where everyone’s life is apparently fueled by petty crime.  An unlikable narcotics detective (Alan Vint) occasionally walks through the area and tries to talk everyone into betraying everyone else.  It turns out that being a drug addict is not like being in the mafia.  Everyone expects you to betray everyone else.

As I said, it’s a bit of a drag to watch but you do end up caring about Bobby and Helen.  They come across as being two essentially decent people who have gotten caught up in a terrible situation.  Even when they piss you off, you still feel badly for them because you know that they’ve surrendered control of their lives to their addictions.  It helps that they’re played by two very appealing actors.  This was only Al Pacino’s second film and his first starring role but he commands the screen like a junkie James Cagney.  Meanwhile, making her film debut, Kitty Winn gives a sympathetic and likable performance as Helen.  You watch Winn’s vulnerably sincere performance and you understand why Helen would have looked for safety with undeserving losers like Marco and Bobby and, as a result, you don’t hold it against her that she seems to be addicted not just to heroin but also to falling for the wrong men.  Helen does a lot of stupid things but you keep hoping that she’ll somehow manage to survive living in needle park.

Pacino, of course, followed-up The Panic In Needle Park with The Godfather.  As for Kitty Win, she won best actress at Cannes but the role didn’t lead to the stardom that it probably should have.  Her best-known role remains playing the nanny in The Exorcist.

Backstreet Justice (1994, directed by Chris McIntyre)


“These straight-to-video, schlocky films I was getting were giving me an ulcer, basically because I was the only one on the set that cared about anything… Between that and my biological clock, I decided to give it all away.”

— Linda Kozlowksi, on why she retired from acting

When Linda Kozlowski talked about the “shlocky films” that soured her on acting, Backstreet Justice was probably high on the list.  Kozlowski may have found fame co-starring with her then-husband Paul Hogan in the Crocodile Dundee films but, in Backstreet Justice, there’s neither an Australian nor a sense of humor to be found.

Kozlowski plays Keri Finnegan, a tough and streetwise private investigator in Philadelphia.  Her late father was a policeman who was accused of corruption while her mentor (Hector Elizondo) is the district attorney.  Most of the cops hate Keri, especially Captain Giarusso (Paul Sorvino).  The one exception is her lover, Nick Donovan (John Shea).

The residents of Philadelphia’s worst neighborhood have hired Keri to protect them.  For the past two years, a murderer has lurked among them.  With the police showing no interest in solving the crimes, the neighborhood turns to Keri.  Keri’s investigation leads her to believe that the murders are being carried out be corrupt cops but Keri isn’t prepared for just how far up the corruption goes.

For a straight-to-video film, Backstreet Justice has a surprisingly good cast, with Paul Sorvino, Hector Elizondo, John Shea, Tammy Grimes, and Viveca Lindfors all appearing in supporting roles.  Linda Kozlowski holds her own opposite her better-known co-stars and is believable in the film’s many action scenes.  The movie has a good sense of urban squalor and captures the desperation of people living in a dying neighborhood.  The main problem with the film is that the central mystery is never that interesting and the solution is one that most people will see coming from miles away.  For all the violence and scenes of people chasing each other, Backstreet Justice is still a boring movie.

With the exception of one surprisingly explicit sex scene, Backstreet Justice could easily pass for a made-for-TV film or a pilot for a Keri Finnegan television series.  Instead, it was just another straight-to-video thriller and another reason for the talented Linda Kozlowski to leave acting behind.  Her final film appearance was in 2001’s Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.

A Movie A Day #336: The Bronx Bull (2017, directed by Martin Guigui)


New York in the 1930s.  Jake LaMotta (Morean Aria) is a tough street kid who is pushed into fighting by his abusive father (Paul Sorvino) and who is taught how to box by a sympathetic priest (Ray Wise).  When Jake finally escapes from his Hellish home life, it is so he can pursue a career as a professional boxer.  Ironically, the same violent nature that nearly destroyed him as a youth will now be the key to his future success.

In the late 60s, a middle-aged Jake LaMotta (William Forsythe) testifies before a government panel that is investigating that influence of the Mafia in professional boxing.  LaMotta testifies that, during his professional career, he did take a dive in one of his most famous matches.  LaMotta goes on to pursue an entertainment career which, despite starring in Cauliflower Ears with Jane Russell, never amounts too much.  He drinks too much, fights too much, and gets into arguments with a ghost (Robert Davi).  He also gets married several times, to women played by everyone from Penelope Ann Miller to Alicia Witt.  The movie ends with Jake happily walking down a snowy street and a title card announcing that Jake is now 95 years old and married to his seventh wife.  (The real Jake LaMotta died on September, 9 months after the release of The Bronx Bull.)

The Bronx Bull is a largely pointless movie about the later life of the antisocial boxer who was previously immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.  In fact, The Bronx Bull was originally announced and went into production as Raging Bull II.  Then the producers of the original Raging Bull found out, filed a lawsuit, and the film became The Bronx Bull.  Because of the lawsuit, The Bronx Bull could cover every aspect of Jake’s life, except for what was already covered in Raging Bull.  In fact, Scorsese’s film (which undoubtedly had a huge impact on LaMotta’s later life) is not even mentioned in The Bronx Bull.

William Forsythe does what he can with the role but, for the most part, Jake just seems to be a lout with anger issues.  With a cast that includes everyone from Tom Sizemore to Cloris Leachman to Bruce Davison, the movie is full of familiar faces but none of them get too much of a chance to make an impression.  Joe Mantegna comes the closest, playing Jake’s best friend.  The Bronx Bull was not only shot on the cheap but it looks even cheaper, with studio backlots unconvincingly filling in for 1930s Bronx.  The film’s director, Martin Guigui, occasionally tries to throw in a Scorsesesque camera movement and there are a few black-and-white flashbacks but, for the most part, this is the mockbuster version of Raging Bull.

A Movie A Day #315: That Championship Season (1982, directed by Jason Miller)


Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania.  Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions.  Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season.  George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection.  Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife.  James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father.  James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job.  The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach.  All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.

Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season.  Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct.  (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.)  While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows.  The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.

One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity.  As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career.  Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #18: Careful What You Wish For (dir by


(Lisa recently discovered that she only has about 8 hours of space left on her DVR!  It turns out that she’s been recording movies from July and she just hasn’t gotten around to watching and reviewing them yet.  So, once again, Lisa is cleaning out her DVR!  She is going to try to watch and review 52 movies by Wednesday, November 30th!  Will she make it?  Considering that she only has a day left, probably not.  But keep checking the site to find out!)

careful-what-you-wish-for-official-poster

I recorded Careful What You Wish For off of Starz on November 4th.  It’s one of two films in which Nick Jonas appeared in 2016.  (The other film was the underrated Goat, which I really should get around to reviewing some day.  Maybe if I ever finish cleaning out this damn DVR, I’ll finally get a chance to get caught up on reviewing all of the other movies that I’ve seen this year.)

Anyway, in Careful What You Wish For, Nick plays Doug.  Doug is kind of a dorky, creepy guy who spends the summer at his parent’s lakehouse.  His neighbors are the Harpers.  Elliott Harper is super rich banker and he’s played by Dermot Mulroney so you know he’s no good.  Lena Harper (played by Isabel Lucas) is blonde, young, and always seems to be in the process of removing her bikini top whenever Doug comes around.

Doug is soon lusting over Lena and Lena appears to feel the same way.  Soon, they’re having an affair that is probably about as torrid as anything involving Nick Jonas can be.  Lena tells Doug that Elliott abuses her.  Doug says that she needs to get away from her husband.  Lena says that Elliott would kill her if she ever tried to leave…

And then Walter Neff shows up and starts talking about insurance…

Okay, no, he doesn’t.  But he might as well because Careful What You Wish For is pretty much a by-the-numbers film noir.  It’s obvious to everyone what’s going to happen.  Or, I should say, it’s obvious to everyone but Doug.  Doug is such a goony dumbass that his whole reaction to everything that happens can be summed up as: “At least I got laid.”

Personally, I think the film made a huge mistake by not having Doug wear a purity ring that he could dramatically remove before having sex with Lena.  Seriously, this film could have used some moments of self-awareness like that.  (And I do feel a little bit guilty about making fun of Nick here because he actually gives a pretty good performance in Goat.)  But no, instead, we get a scene where a bare chested Nick eats an Oreo cookie and it’s kinda gross because he really gets into eating that cookie.  I mean, Nick really tries to show us every second of pleasure that Nick gets from that Oreo.  But the thing is, Oreo cookies are gross and overrated and to me, there’s nothing more disgusting than watching as someone dips an Oreo into milk and then gets milk all over their chin when they eat it.  UGH!

But, listen — if you’ve ever wanted to see Nick Jonas roll an Oreo cookie over his lover’s bare ass, Careful What You Wish For is definitely for you.

Shattered Politics #62: Bulworth (dir by Warren Beatty)


BulworthSo, if you’ve ever wondered what happened to Robert Redford’s Bill McKay after he was elected to the U.S. Senate at the end of The Candidate, I imagine that he probably ended up becoming something like the protagonist of 1998’s Bulworth, U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth.

As played by Warren Beatty, Bulworth is a veteran senator.  A former liberal firebrand, he may still decorate his office with pictures of him meeting Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King but Bulworth sold out a long time ago.  Now, he just says whatever has to say in order to get elected, including pretending to have a happy marriage. He has become a part of everything that’s wrong with Washington.

Sick of both politics and life in general, Bulworth decides that he’d rather be dead.  But, in order to make sure that his daughter collects on his $10,000,000 life insurance policy, Bulworth cannot commit suicide.  Instead, he arranges for a contract to be taken out on his life.  In two days, Bulworth will be assassinated.

Returning to California for his campaign, Bulworth gets drunk and suddenly starts to say what he actually believes.  He attacks the Washington establishment.  He attacks the voters.  He attacks the insurance companies and comes out for single payer health insurance.  With his desperate press secretary (Oliver Platt) chasing behind him, Bulworth spends the night dancing at a club where he discovers marijuana and meets a girl named Nina (Halle Berry).

(Platt, meanwhile, discovers that he really, really likes cocaine.)

Soon, Nina and Bulworth are hiding out in the ghetto, where Bulworth meets both Nina’s brother (Isiah Washington) and local drug dealer, L.D. (Don Cheadle), and gets a lesson about how economics actually work in the ghetto.  Soon, Bulworth is appearing on CNN where he raps his new political platform and suggests that the solutions for all of America’s problems would be for everyone to just keep having sex until eventually everyone is the same color.

Of course, what Bulworth doesn’t know is that Nina also happens to be the assassin who has been contracted to kill him…

I have mixed feelings about Bulworth.  On the one hand, the film starts out strong.  You don’t have to agree with the film’s politics in order to appreciate the film’s passion,  Bulworth is an angry film and one that’s willing to say some potentially unpopular things.  It’s a film about politics that doesn’t resort to the easy solutions that were proposed by some of the other films that I’ve reviewed for Shattered Politics.  Warren Beatty does a pretty good job of portraying Bulworth’s initial mental breakdown and Oliver Platt is a manic wonder as he consumes more and more cocaine.

But, once Warren Beatty starts rapping, the film starts to fall apart and becomes a bit too cartoonish for its own good.  You get the feeling that Warren Beatty, at this point, is just trying to live out the liberal fantasy of being the only wealthy white man in America to understand what it’s like to be poor and black in America.

Bulworth starts out well but ultimately, it begins better than it ends.

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd

44 Days of Paranoia #17: Cheaters (dir by John Stockwell)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a quick look at a very good movie from the year 2000 that not many seem to know about, Cheaters.

During my senior year of high school, I always wore a short skirt on any day that I had a test in my algebra class.

Why?

Because I was a cheater.

Back when I was still a student, I always struggled when it came to my math classes.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work as much as it was that the work just bored me.  Whenever my teacher was talking about square roots and x+y and all the rest, I was usually busy daydreaming about  anything other than what I was supposed to be learning.

Fortunately, my sister Erin had been one year ahead of me in high school and had saved all of her old tests and quizzes.  Since we both had the same algebra teacher, I started using her old tests as a study guide.  It quickly became obvious that our teacher was simply reusing the same tests from year-to-year.  While the order of the problems might occasionally change, the solutions remained the same.

Every test day, I would wear a skirt and, right before class, I would write the answers on my thigh.  If the teacher walked by my desk while I was taking the test, I would just pull down on my skirt.  Fortunately, the teacher was a male so even if he did suspect that I was cheating, it’s not like he could tell me to lift up my skirt or, for that matter, even get caught trying to look down at my legs.

And that’s how I managed to pass algebra without ever paying attention to anything that was said in class.  I know that I should probably feel guilty about cheating but, to be honest, I don’t.  If I had it to do all over again, I would do the exact same thing.

Perhaps that’s why I related to the character of Jolie Fitch in Cheaters.

Jolie (played by Jena Malone) is a junior at Chicago’s Steinmetz High.  Jolie is one of the only students at Steinmetz to be more interested in academics than athletics.  She also idolizes English teacher Jerry Plecki (Jeff Daniels).  When Steinmetz’s buffoonish principal (Paul Sorvino) forces Jerry to take the unwanted job of coaching the school’s Academic Decathlon team, Jolie volunteers to help Plecki recruit an unlikely team of misfits and outsiders.

At the regional competition, the Steinmetz team just barely qualifies to move onto the state competition.  However, no one on the team feels that they have a shot at beating the team from the far wealthier Whitney Young Magnet High School.  As quickly becomes obvious, Whitney Young specifically goes out of their way to recruit the smartest students they can find and, as a result, they have won the state competition for five years straight.

Angered over the smugly elitist attitude of Whitney Young’s coach, Plecki obsessively pushes his team to study and prepare.  However, with the state competition quickly approaching, the Steinmetz Team comes into possession of a copy of the test for the state finals.  Obsessed with defeating Whitney Young, Plecki suggests that the students cheat.  After being pressured by both Plecki and Jolie, the rest of the team agrees to do so.

When Steinmetz subsequently wins state, the Whitney Young coach immediately demands an investigation into how Steinmetz could have possibly made such a dramatic improvement in just the period of a few months.

However, the rest of Chicago is charmed by the story of how the Steinmetz team came out of nowhere to win and Plecki and his students become celebrities.  However, when one spiteful student threatens to reveal the secret, both Plecki and his team are forced to scramble to cover up their cheating and prevent the truth from being exposed.

Cheaters is based on a true story, though I can’t tell you for sure how closely the filmmakers stuck to the facts of the case.  (If you look at the film’s imdb page, you’ll find a lot of negative comments left by a lot of angry students from Whitney Young).  However, what I can say is that Cheaters felt true.  By that, I mean that Cheaters captured both the importance of competition in high school and the fact that, when you’re a teenager, everything is a drama and, as a result, it’s a lot easier to justify things that, as an adult, you would refuse to ever consider.

When I was high school, I was involved with both the Drama Club and Speech and Debate and watching Cheaters brought back a lot of memories.  Cheaters gets all of the small details right — everything from the combination of exhaustion and exhilaration that comes from competing at an all-day tournament to the awkward attempts of “mature” adults to understand why winning is so important when you’re in high school.

Cheaters is also blessed with some excellent performances.  As Whitney Young’s smug coach, Robert Joy is properly loathsome.  Paul Sorvino brings some much-needed comic relief to the film and the scene where he awkwardly dances to the theme from Rocky is priceless.

The film, however, is truly dominated by Jena Malone and Jeff Daniels.  As the film’s nominal protagonists, Malone and Daniels both give wonderfully nuanced performances.  When the film starts, you find yourself rooting for both of them because not only are they likable performers but their characters seem so sincere in their desire to win.  However, as the film progresses, we start to see the small chinks in their armor.  We see how obsessed Jolie is with protecting Plecki.  Meanwhile, Plecki goes from being an almost idealized teacher to being something of a megalomaniac.  By the end of the film, we realize that we know far less about Jerry Plecki then we thought we did.  Jeff Daniels gives a performance that forces us to draw our own conclusions about Plecki and his motivations.

Some people might question reviewing a film like Cheaters in a series about conspiracy-themed films.  However, though it may not be as obvious as with a film like Three Days Of The Condor or JFK, Cheaters is a conspiracy film.  Beyond the conspiracy to win the Academic Decathlon by cheating, Cheaters is about the much more subtle conspiracy that will always cause students who go to schools like Steinmetz to be viewed as being less important than the students at a school like Whitney Young.  Cheaters is a film about a conspiracy, the conspiracy of cultural and economic elitism.

It’s a conspiracy that, Cheaters suggests, leaves many people with only two options: surrender or cheat.

Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog