A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

Film Review: The Hindenburg (dir by Robert Wise)


80 years ago, on May 6th, 1937, the Hindenburg, a German airship, exploded in the air over New Jersey.  The disaster was not only covered live by radio reporter Herbert Morrison (whose cry of “Oh the humanity!” continues to be parodied to this day) but it was also one of the first disasters to be recorded on film.  Looking at the footage of the Hindenburg exploding into flame and sinking to the ground, a mere skeleton of what it once was, it’s hard to believe that only 36 people died in the disaster.  The majority of those who died were crew members, most of whom lost their lives while helping passengers off of the airship.  (Fortunately, the Hindenburg was close enough to the ground that many of the passengers were able to escape by simply jumping.)

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of speculation about what led to the Hindenburg (which has successfully completed 63 flights before the disaster) exploding.  The most commonly accepted explanation was that it was simply an act of God, the result of either lightning or improperly stored helium.  Apparently, there was no official evidence found to suggest that sabotage was involved but, even back in 1937, people loved conspiracy theories.

And really, it’s not totally implausible to think that the Hindenburg was sabotaged.  The Hindenburg was making its first trans-Atlantic flight and it was viewed as being a symbol of Nazi Germany.  One of the ship’s passengers, Captain Ernest Lehman, was coming to the U.S. in order to lobby Congress to give Germany helium for their airships.  With Hitler regularly bragging about the superiority of German industry, the theory was that an anti-Nazi crewman or passengers planted a bomb on the Hindenburg.  Since no individual or group ever stepped forward to claim responsibility, the theory continues that the saboteur must have perished in the disaster.

At the very least, that’s the theory put forward by a film that I watched earlier today, the 1975 disaster movie, The Hindenburg.

A mix of historical speculation and disaster film melodrama, The Hindenburg stars George C. Scott as Col. Franz Ritter, a veteran of the German air force who is assigned to travel on the Hindenburg and protect it from saboteurs.  Ritter is a Nazi but, the film argues, he’s a reluctant and disillusioned Nazi.  Just a few weeks before the launch of the airship, his teenage son was killed while vandalizing a synagogue.  Ritter is a patriot who no longer recognizes his country and George C. Scott actually does a pretty good job portraying him.  (You do have to wonder why a seasoned veteran of the German air force would have a gruff, slightly mid-Atlantic accent but oh well.  It’s a 70s disaster film.  These things happen.)

Ritter is assigned to work with Martin Vogel (Roy Thinnes), a member of the Gestapo who is working undercover as the Hindenburg’s photographer.  Tt soon becomes obvious that he is as much a fanatic as Ritter is reluctant.  Vogel is a sadist, convinced that every Jewish passenger is secretly a saboteur.  Thinnes is chilling in the role.  What makes him especially frightening is not just his prejudice but his casual assumption that everyone feels the same way that he does.

And yet, as good as Scott and Thinnes are, the rest of the cast is rather disappointing.  The Hindenburg features a large ensemble of actors, all playing characters who are dealing with their own privates dramas while hoping not to burn to death during the final 15 minutes of the film.  Unfortunately, even by the standards of a typical 70s disaster film, the passengers are thinly drawn.  I liked Burgess Meredith and Rene Auberjonois as two con artists but that was mostly because Meredith and Auberjonois are so charming that they’re fun to watch even if they don’t have anything to do.  Anne Bancroft has one or two good scenes as a German baroness and Robert Clary does well as a vaudeville performer who comes under suspicion because of his anti-Nazi leanings.  Otherwise, the passengers are forgettable.  Whether they die in the inferno and manage to make it to the ground, your main reaction will probably be to look at them and say, “Who was that again?”

Anyway, despite all of Ritter and Vogel’s sleuthing, it’s not much of mystery because it’s pretty easy to figure out that the saboteur is a crewman named Boerth (William Atherton).  Having seen Real GeniusDie Hard and the original Ghostbusters, I found it odd to see William Atherton playing a sympathetic character.  Atherton did okay in the role but his attempt at a German accent mostly served to remind me that absolutely no one else in the film was trying to sound German.

Anyway, the main problem with The Hindenburg is that it takes forever for the airship to actually explode.  The film tries to create some suspense over whether Ritter will keep the bomb from exploding but we already know that he’s not going to.  (Let’s be honest.  If you didn’t already know about the Hindenburg disaster, you probably wouldn’t be watching the movie in the first place.)  The film probably would have worked better if it had started with the Hindenburg exploding and then had an investigator working backwards, trying to figure out who the saboteur was.

However, the scenes of the explosion almost make up for everything that came before.  When that bomb goes off, the entire film suddenly switches to black-and-white.  That may sound like a cheap or even sensationalistic trick but it actually works quite well.  It also allows the scenes of passengers and crewmen trying to escape to be seamlessly integrated with actual footage of the Hindenburg bursting into flame and crashing to the ground.  The real-life footage is still shocking, especially if you’re scared of fire.  Watching the real-life inferno, I was again shocked to realize that only 36 people died in the disaster.

In the end, The Hindenburg is flawed but watchable.  George C. Scott was always at his most watchable when playing a character disappointed with humanity and the real-life footage of the Hindenburg disaster is morbidly fascinating.

Oh, the humanity indeed!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #68: Mazes and Monsters (dir Steven Hilliard Stern)


M_M_DVDIt’s amazing the things that you find when you randomly search the DVD section of Half-Price Books.  For instance, I found a very cheap DVD of the 1982 made-for-TV film Mazes and Monsters and I simply had to buy it.

Why?

Well, just look at the cover above.  Look at the ominous castle.  Look at the shadowy dragons flying around it.  Look at that Shining-style maze.  Look at the ominous tag line: “Danger lurks between fantasy and reality.”  And especially be sure to look at Tom Hanks gazing serenely over it all.

“Wow,” I thought, “Tom Hanks fights a dragon?  This is something that I’ve got to see!”

Well, there are no dragons in Mazes and Monsters.  There are a few monsters but they’re only briefly seen figments of Tom Hanks’s imagination.  The film is about a group of college students who obsessively play an RPG called Mazes and Monsters.  When one of the students (an annoying genius who wears wacky hats and is played by an actor with the surprisingly poetic name of Chris Makepeace) suggests that they play Mazes and Monsters “for real” in some caverns near the college, it leads to Robbie (Tom Hanks) have a mental breakdown.  Soon, Robbie is convinced that he’s actually a monk.  He breaks up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want to violate his vow of celibacy.  (Of course, the real fantasy is that a college student obsessed with playing Mazes and Monsters would have a girlfriend in the first place but anyway…)  He keeps seeing imaginary minotaurs lurking in the shadows.  Finally, he runs off to New York on a quest to find “the great Hall.”  It’s up to his friends to find him and hopefully impart an important lesson about the dangerous reality of RPG addiction.

Or something.

Listen, to be honest, if not for Tom Hanks, there would be no reason to watch Mazes and Monsters.  It’s poorly acted.  It’s written and directed with a heavy hand.  There’s some nice shots of downtown New York City but otherwise, it’s visually drab.

But, because Tom Hanks is in it and he’s playing a role that demands that he go totally over-the-top in his performance, Mazes and Monsters is totally worth watching.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks wander around New York City while dressed like a monk, this is the film for you.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks start to tremble while explaining that, as a monk, he’s not allowed to kill minotaurs, this is the movie for you.  Most of all, if you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks shrieking, “THERE’S BLOOD ON MY KNIFE!” while standing in an old school phone booth, this is definitely the movie for you!

Seriously.

Considering that Tom Hanks is currently viewed as being some sort of elder statesman of American film (and, even more importantly, Hanks seems to view himself as being some sort of national treasure), there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing him before he became THE Tom Hanks.  It’s good to be reminded that, at one time, he was just another young actor doing his best in a crappy made-for-TV movie.

Shattered Politics #41: Billy Jack Goes To Washington (dir by Tom Laughlin)


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The Happy Hooker wasn’t the only person to go to Washington in 1977!  Billy Jack may have started out killing bikers and then moved on to killing Bernard Posner and then finally ended up killing yet another Mr. Posner but, in 1977, Billy Jack was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Now, it may seem strange to think of someone like Billy Jack being appointed to the U.S. Senate.  Over the course of the previous three films in the franchise, Billy had been shot in the back, shot in the leg, arrested for murder, convicted of manslaughter, and then shot by the National Guard.  In Billy Jack and The Trial of Billy Jack, Billy goes as far as to state that he does not feel the laws of the United States apply to him.

And then, when you consider that the three previous films all featured old, rich, white guys plotting to kill Billy, you would be justified in wondering how he would ever find himself appointed to serve in the senate.

But it happened!

And we’ve got a movie to prove it.

Directed by and starring Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack Goes To Washington is actually a remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  (To the film’s credit, it’s honest enough to actually give credit to Mr. Smith‘s screenwriters in the opening credits.)  What’s remarkable is just how faithful a remake Billy Jack Goes To Washington actually is.  All the scenes made famous by Jimmy Stewart — the scene where the newest member of the Senate attempts to introduce his first bill, the scene where he’s shocked to discover that Sen. Paine (played here by E.G. Marshall) takes orders from Boss Bailey (Sam Wanamaker), the scene where cynical Saunders (Lucie Arnaz) tells the senator that he should leave Washington, and, of course, that famous filibuster — are all faithfully recreated here.  The only difference, of course, is that it’s no longer idealistic Jimmy Stewart proving himself to be incredibly naive about politics.  Instead, it’s a former Green Beret, half-Indian, judo master named Billy Jack.

Tom Laughlin was a good actor, which is something that’s often overlooked by reviewers writing about the Billy Jack films.  As flawed as The Trial of Billy Jack may have been, Tom Laughlin was a compelling enough presence that the film itself remains a compulsively watchable 3-hour mess.  Laughlin had a very authoritative presence.  You looked at him and you knew that he knew what he was doing.  He was someone who you automatically wanted on your side, a natural born leader who knew how to get things done.  However, in Billy Jack Goes To Washington, Laughlin attempts to play Billy Jack as the type of naive neophyte who would be shocked to discover that politicians are corrupt.  But surely, after spending three films being harassed by every authority figure in America, Billy would have already realized that.  There’s nothing about Laughlin’s screen presence that suggests he could ever be that innocent.

And that’s the main problem with Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  For the film to have any chance of working, you have to forget everything that you’ve learned about Billy Jack over the previous three films.  However, if you haven’t seen any of the other Billy Jack films, then you probably wouldn’t be watching Billy Jack Goes To Washington in the first place.

Of course, since this is a Billy Jack film, there are a few scenes that were nowhere to be found in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  For instance, Saunders’s husband is murdered when he threatens to reveal the truth about Bailey’s operation.  Later, Billy, Jean (Delores Taylor), and Carol (Teresa Laughlin) are confronted by a gang of Bailey’s assassins and, for the only time in the entire movie, Billy goes through that whole routine where he takes off his boots while slowly speaking and then kicks everyone’s ass.  (Jean and Carol get to join in the ass-kicking as well and good for them!)

And, of course, there’s the scene where Billy, Jean, and the kids from the Freedom School (who are apparently now known as Billy’s Raiders) have a meeting with two liberal social activists.  It’s an interesting scene because it was clearly unscripted and it has a naturalistic feel to it that’s lacking from the rest of the film.  However, that does not mean that it’s a particularly good scene.  If I learned anything from Billy Jack Goes To Washington, it’s that self-righteous activists in 1977 were just as boring as self-righteous activists in 2015.

And yet, as I’ve said about all of the other Billy Jack films, I can’t bring myself to be too hard on Billy Jack Goes To Washington.  Again, it all comes down to sincerity.  It’s clear that Laughlin and Taylor felt they were making a difference with their films and that sincerity comes through in a way that makes Billy Jack Goes To Washington a likable, if rather inept, film.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington ran for a week in one theater in 1977 and was reportedly such a box office disaster that it couldn’t get a wider release.  (In a commentary track that he recorded for the film’s DVD release, Laughlin suggests the film was the victim of shadowy government forces.)*  While Laughlin and Taylor would later try to make The Return of Billy Jack, that film was left uncompleted at the time of Laughlin’s death.  So, the last time that filmgoers would see Billy Jack, he would still be U.S. Sen. Billy Jack.

And really, that’s the perfect ending for the saga of Billy Jack.  Starting out as a loner who protected a small California town from a biker gang to eventually becoming the protector of the Freedom School to finally embracing both non-violence and his love for Jean, Billy Jack earned himself a happy ending.

Having now watched and reviewed all four of the Billy Jack films, all I can do is say thank you to Delores Taylor and the spirit of Tom Laughlin.  It was great ride.

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* To be honest, the commentaries that Laughlin and Taylor recorded for the Billy Jack films are actually very informative and interesting.  Laughlin actually had a far better sense of humor than you might guess from some of the movies he directed.

Back to School #47: School Ties (dir by Robert Mandel)


School Ties

For the past two and a half weeks, we’ve been reviewing 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable high school films ever made.    We’ve been going in chronological order, starting with two films from 1946 and then working our way through the years that followed.  After 46 reviews, we are now ready to enter the 1990s.

And what better way to kick off the 90s than by taking a look at a film from 1992 that very few people seem to have ever heard of?

School Ties takes place in the 1950s, which of course means that everyone dresses like either James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Troy Donaue in A Summer Place.  It also means that the soundtrack is full of the same songs that tend to turn up in every film about the 1950s.  David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class teen from Pennsylvania* who wins a football scholarship to attend an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts.  At first, David struggles to fit in.  Not only are all of his classmates rich but they’re also extremely anti-Semitic.  However, David wins them over by playing hard on the football field and hiding the fact that he’s Jewish.  However, when the jealous Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon) discovers that David is a Jew, he reveals his secret and David is forced to confront his prejudiced classmates.

School Ties is one of those extremely well-intentioned films that’s never quite as good as you might hope.  With the exception of David and Charlie, the characters are all pretty thinly drawn and there’s more than a few subplots that really don’t really work.  For instance, Zeljko Ivanek shows up playing a sadistic French teacher who harasses one of Fraser’s friends (played by Andrew Lowery) and, as I watched Ivanek drive Lowery to the point of a nervous breakdown over proper verb conjugation, it occurred to me that I knew Ivanek was evil as soon as he showed up wearing his little bow tie and his beret.  (It’s also interesting how French teachers are always evil in films like this.)

That said, the message of School Ties is still a timely one.  On the surface, the message of “Don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick,” might seem pretty simplistic and self-explanatory.  However, every day we’re confronted with evidence that there are still people out there who don’t understand this simple concept.  As such, it’s a message that can stand being repeated a few times.

(Seriously, don’t be an intolerant, prejudiced prick.)

When seen today, School Ties is mostly interesting for who appears in it.  For instance, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Cole Hauser all show up here, 5 years before they would all co-star in Good Will Hunting.  One of the anti-Semitic students is played by Anthony Rapp who, a year later, would appear with Affleck and Hauser in Dazed and Confused.  Fraser’s sympathetic roommate is played by Chris O’Donnell.  As for Brendan Fraser himself, it’s a bit odd to see him playing such a dramatic role but he’s convincing and believable as a football player. It’s a good-looking cast and yes, you better believe that there’s a fight scene that takes place in a shower.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon wrestling each other while naked — well, this is the film to see.

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* Interestingly enough, David’s family lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania so I guess David could very well have gone to elementary school with Joe Biden and he may have family working at Dunder-Mifflin.

 

What could have been: The Godfather


I don’t know about you but I love to play the game of “What if.”  You know how it works.  What if so-and-so had directed such-and-such movie?  Would we still love that movie as much?  Would so-and-so be a star today?  Or would the movie have failed because the director was right to reject so-and-so during preproduction?

I guess that’s why I love the picture below.  Taken from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s notebooks, it’s a page where he jotted down a few possibilities to play the roles of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen in The Godfather.  It’s a fascinating collection of names, some of which are very familiar and some of which most definitely are not.  As I look at this list, it’s hard not wonder what if someone like Scott Marlowe had played Michael Corleone?  Would he had then become known as one of the great actors of his generation and would Al Pacino then be fated to just be an unknown name sitting on a famous list?

(This page, just in case you happen to be in the neighborhood , is displayed at the Coppola Winery in California.)

The production of the Godfather — from the casting to the final edit — is something of an obsession of mine.  It’s amazing the amount of names — obscure, famous, and infamous — that were mentioned in connection with this film.  Below is a list of everyone that I’ve seen mentioned as either a potential director or a potential cast member of The Godfather.  Consider this my contribution to the game of What If….?

Director: Aram Avankian, Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gravas, Sidney J. Furie, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Steve Kestin, Sergio Leone, Arthur Penn, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner, Peter Yates, Fred Zinnemann

Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando): Melvin Belli, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Callelia, Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Frank De Kova, Burt Lancaster, John Marley, Laurence Olivier, Carlo Ponti, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Raf Vallone,  Orson Welles

Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): John Aprea, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson*, James Caan, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, Art Genovese, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Margotta, Scott Marlowe, Sal Mineo, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Parks, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Romanus, Gianni Russo, Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger**, Dean Stockwell

Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan): Lou Antonio, Paul Banteo, Robert Blake, John Brascia, Carmine Caridi, Robert De Niro, Peter Falk, Harry Guardino, Ben Gazzara, Don Gordon, Al Letteiri, Tony LoBianco, Scott Marlowe, Tony Musante, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds***, Adam Roarke, Gianni Russo, John Saxon, Johnny Sette, Rudy Solari, Robert Viharo, Anthony Zerbe

Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall): James Caan, John Cassavettes, Bruce Dern, Peter Donat, Keir Dullea, Peter Falk, Steve McQueen, Richard Mulligan, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Ben Piazza, Barry Primus, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Rudy Vallee****, Robert Vaughn, Jerry Van Dyke, Anthony Zerbe

Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton): Anne Archer, Karen Black, Susan Blakeley, Genevieve Bujold, Jill Clayburgh, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Veronica Hamel, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neill, Michelle Phillips, Jennifer Salt, Cybill Shepherd, Trish Van Devere

Fredo Corleone (played by John Cazale): Robert Blake, Richard Dreyfuss, Sal Mineo, Austin Pendleton

Connie Corleone (played by Talia Shire): Julie Gregg, Penny Marshall, Maria Tucci, Brenda Vaccaro, Kathleen Widdoes

Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino): Frankie Avalon, Vic Damone*****, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Greco, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Carlo Rizzi (played by Gianni Russo): Robert De Niro, Alex Karras, John Ryan******, Sylvester Stallone

Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (played by Al Letteiri): Franco Nero

Lucas Brasi (played by Lenny Montana): Timothy Carey, Richard Castellano

Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco): William Devane

Mama Corleone (played by Morgana King): Anne Bancroft, Alida Valli

Appollonia (played by Simonetta Steffanelli): Olivia Hussey

Paulie Gatto (played by John Martino): Robert De Niro*******, Sylvester Stallone

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* Charles Bronson, who was in his mid-40s, was suggested for the role of Michael by the then-chairman of Paramount Pictures, Charlie Bluhdorn.

** By all accounts, Rod Steiger – who was then close to 50 – lobbied very hard to be given the role of Michael Corleone.

*** Some sources claim that Burt Reynolds was cast as Sonny but Brando refused to work with him.  However, for a lot of reasons, I think this is just an cinematic urban legend.

**** Despite being in his 60s at the time, singer Rudy Vallee lobbied for the role of the 35 year-old Tom Hagen.  Supposedly, another singer — Elvis Presley — lobbied for the role as well but that just seems so out there that I couldn’t bring myself to include it with the “official” list.

***** Vic Damone was originally cast as Johnny Fontane but dropped out once shooting began and announced that the project was bad for Italian Americans.  He was replaced by Al Martino.

****** John P. Ryan was originally cast as Carlo Rizzi but was fired and replaced with Gianni Russo.  Ryan went on to play the distraught father in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.  Russo went on to co-star in Laserblast.

******* Robert De Niro was originally cast in this role but dropped out to replace Al Pacino in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Pacino, incidentally, had to drop out of that film because he was given the role of Michael in The Godfather.