A Movie A Day #219: Wild Bill (1995, directed by Walter Hill)


The year is 1876 and the legendary Wild Bill Hickok (Jeff Bridges) sits in a saloon in Deadwood and thinks about his life (most of which is seen in high-resolution, black-and-white flashbacks).  Hickok was a renowned lawman and a sure shot, a man whose exploits made him famous across the west.  Thanks to his friend, Buffalo Bill Cody (Keith Carradine), he even appeared on the New York stage and reenacted some of his greatest gun battles.  Now, Hickok is aging.  He is 39 years old, an old man by the standards of his profession.  Though men like Charlie Prince (John Hurt) and California Joe (James Gammon) continue to spread his legend, Hickok is going blind and spends most of his time in a haze of opium and regret.

Hickok only has one true friend in Deadwood, Calamity Jane (Ellen Barkin).  He also has one true enemy, an aspiring gunslinger named Jack McCall (David Arquette).  McCall approaches Hickok and announces that he is going to kill him because of the way that Hickok treated his mother (played, in flashback, by Diane Lane).  Hickok does not do much to dissuade him.

Based on both a book and a play, Wild Bill is a talky and idiosyncratic Western from Walter Hill.  Hill is less interested in Hickok as a gunfighter than Hickok as an early celebrity.  There are gunfights but they only happen because, much like John Wayne in The Shootist, Hickok has become so famous that he cannot go anywhere without someone taking a shot at him.  Almost the entire final half of Wild Bill is set in that saloon, with Hickok and a gallery of character actors talking about the past and wondering about the future.

At times, Wild Bill gets bogged down with all the dialogue and philosophizing.  (To quote The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot.  Don’t talk.”)  Luckily, the film is saved by an intriguing cast, led by Jeff Bridges.  In many ways, his performance was Wild Bill feels like an audition for his later performance in True Grit.  David Arquette is intensely weird as the jumpy Jack McCall and Ellen Barkin brings the film’s only underwritten role, Calamity Jane, to life.  Smaller roles are played by everyone from Bruce Dern to James Remar to Marjoe Gortner.

United Artist made the mistake of trying to sell Wild Bill as being a straight western, which led to confused audiences and a resounding flop at the box office.  Ironically, years after the release of Wild Bill, Walter Hill won an Emmy for directing the first episode of HBO’s Deadwood, an episode the featured Wild Bill cast member Keith Carradine in the role of Hickok.

A Movie A Day #203: Heartbreak Ridge (1986, directed by Clint Eastwood)


The year is 1983 and things are looking bad for the Second Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps.  The officers are almost all college graduates like Major Powers (Everett McGill) and Lt. Ring (Boyd Gaines), men who have never served in combat but who are convinced that they know what it means to be a Marine in the 80s.  Convinced that they will never have to actually fight in a war, the latest batch of recruits is growing soft and weak.  All of the slackers have been put in the Recon Platoon, where they are so undisciplined that they think that wannabe rock star Cpl. Jones (Mario Van Peebles) is a good Marine.  MARIO VAN PEEBLES!

They haven’t met Sgt. Highway yet.

Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway (Clint Eastwood) has seen combat, in both Korea and Vietnam.  He drinks too much.  He fights too much.  He has chased away his wife (Marsha Mason), despite his attempts to understand her by reading Cosmo and Ladies Home Journal.  Major Powers may think that Highway is a relic but Highway knows better than to worry about what a college boy thinks.  The Recon Platoon may think that they can defy him but that haven’t seen Highway throw a punch yet.  Everyone may think it’s a waste of time to learn how to fight but little do they know that America is about to invade Grenada.

Heartbreak Ridge is all about Clint Eastwood.  Without Clint Eastwood, it would just be another basic training film.  With Clint Eastwood, it is a minor masterpiece and a tribute to America’s fighting spirit.  In 1986, no one was better at glaring at a young punk or glowering at a clueless superior officer than Clint Eastwood.  Even the running joke of Highway reading women’s magazines works because it is impossible not to laugh at Clint Eastwood intently studying an issue of Cosmo.   Clint may have been 56 when he directed and starred in Heartbreak Ridge but he was still believable beating up men who were less than half his age.  (Mario Van Peebles thinks he’s going to be able to stand up to Clint Eastwood?  Get outta here!)  There is never any question that Highway is going to able to whip everyone into shape.  The only question is how many terse one-liners are going to be delivered in the process.   By the time Highway and his platoon reach Grenada, everyone is ready to watch Clint put the communists in their place and Clint does not disappoint.

Reportedly, the U.S. Marine Corps. initially supported Heartbreak Ridge but, in case of life imitating art, disowned the finished picture, feeling that the film’s portrayal of The Corps was inaccurate and the sergeant’s “training” methods were too old-fashioned to actually be effective.

Thomas Highway would disagree.

One final note: Bo Svenson has a small role as the man trying to steal Marsha Mason away from Clint.  If you have ever wanted to see Dirty Harry and Buford Pusser fight over the Goodbye Girl, here’s your chance.

Cleaning Out The DVR Yet Again #32: Sister Cities (dir by Sean Hanish)


(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 the end of Wednesday, December 7th!  Will she make it?  Keep checking the site to find out!)

Sister Cities originally aired on Lifetime on September 17th.  When it first aired, I was really expecting to like it just because it’s a movie about four sisters and I’m the youngest of four sisters.  Add to that, one of the sisters was named Dallas and Dallas is my city.  Seriously, I seemed destined to like Sister Cities.

But then I actually saw the film.  And I have to admit that, for the first hour or so, I felt a little bit guilty about not liking the film.  It may have been a painfully slow film but I figured that it deserved some credit for at least trying to take the time for the viewers to get to know the four sisters.  As well, I couldn’t deny that casting did a good job when it came to selecting the four lead actresses.  You looked at them and they all had enough features and mannerisms in common that you could actually believe that they were related.

In the film, the four sisters gather together after the suicide of their mother (played, in flashbacks, by both Amy Smart and Jacki Weaver).  The sisters all have their own distinct personalities and, for some reason, three of them are named after cities.

For instance, the youngest sister is named Baltimore (Troian Bellisario).  She’s a free-spirit who does what she wants.  Now, my boyfriend is from Baltimore.  I have friends who live in Baltimore.  I’ve visited Baltimore and I loved it.  But I would not name my daughter Baltimore because Baltimore is a great name for a city but it’s a terribly clunky one for a human being.  If I was going to pick a city to name my daughter after, I’d probably go with Savannah or maybe Charlotte.  Or, for that matter, maybe Ardglass.   But not Baltimore.

Then there’s Dallas (Michelle Trachtenberg), who is the super organized and neat sister.  She’s the one who gets taunted for always wearing matching underwear but seriously, what’s wrong with that?  At least Dallas gets a pretty name.

Austin (Jess Wexler) has a pretty name too.  We’re told that she’s a successful writer.  We never believe it for a second.  Austin lived with her mother and she’s the one who called the other sisters back home.  Austin is as close as the film comes to having a central character.

And then there’s Carolina (Stana Katic), who is the oldest.  She’s a lawyer and she’s angry because her mother named her after one of the Carolinas but never clarified which one.

To be honest, it’s a bit too much.  The sisters are all exaggerated types.  The mother is an exaggerated type.  They all have cutesy names.  The nonstop theatrical quirkiness of it all is very off-putting and it doesn’t help that the film’s first hour is painfully slow.  There’s a few attempts at dark humor but it’s never as insightful or affecting as it seems to think it is.

Then we get to the second hour and the film remains painfully slow but it also turns into a rather strident screed about assisted suicide.  Eventually, the whole film comes down to an extended flashback of a beatific-looking Jacki Weaver smiling as she calmly explains that Austin will have to help her commit suicide because she’s the only sister who is emotionally strong enough to handle it.  It was all so manipulative and heavy-handed that I ended up getting so annoyed that I took off my shoes and nearly threw them at the TV.

Sorry, Baltimore.

Sorry, Dallas.

Sorry, Austin.

Sorry, Carolina.

Halloween Film Review: Dreamscape (1984, directed by Joseph Ruben)


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Before there was Inception, there was Dreamscape!

DSDreamscape opens with the image of a woman running down a street while a red mushroom sprouts above the city behind her.  Just as a radioactive cloud envelopes the woman, the scene cuts to a man named John (Eddie Albert) waking up with a scream.  John is the President of the United States and he has been having reoccurring nightmares about nuclear war.  The dreams have shaken him to the extent that he plans of signing a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.

dreamscape-maxchrisBob Blair (Christopher Plummer, playing one of the slick villain roles that dominated his career until he finally won an Oscar for Beginners) is a political reactionary who works for a shadowy agency that is even feared by the CIA.  Determined to stop the President from signing that treaty, Blair recruits psychotic martial arts enthusiast Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly, of “Warriors, come out to play…” fame) to assassinate the President.  Tommy is a psychic who can enter people’s dreams and when you die in a dream, you die in real life.

Dreamscape_David_Patrick_KellyTommy is a part of a government-funded research project that is headed by Dr. Peter Novotny (Max Von Sydow) and Beth DeVries (Kate Capshaw).  Tommy was the program’s superstar until the arrival of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid).  Until he was recruited by Dr. Novotny, Alex was using his psychic abilities for gambling and womanizing.  Now, Alex has to use his abilities to save the President’s life.

Dreamscape_Capshaw1Dreamscape came out the same year as Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street and they do share a few things in common.  During one scene set in the President’s nightmare, Tommy even has razor-sharp claws.  But ultimately, Nightmare and Dreamscape are two very different films.  Whereas Nightmare was a horror film, Dreamscape is an adventure film with horror elements.  In fact, Dreamscape feels like four different films all mashed together.  It’s a political conspiracy story, with Christopher Plummer plotting to kill the President.  It’s an adventure story, with Dennis Quaid as an appealing rogue.  It’s a love story, as Alex and Beth fall in love while researching dreams.  At times, it is also a very dark comedy, like when Alex enters the dream of a man who is terrified that his wife is cheating on him with everyone that they know.

Fans of cult cinema will appreciate that Dreamscape features one of David Patrick Kelly’s best villainous performances.  In the role of Tommy, he not only gets to do his usual bravura work as a weasley psychopath but he also gets to bust out an impressive impersonation of Bruce Lee as well.

dreamscape-4Along with David Patrick Kelly at his demented best, Dreamscape also features the Snakeman, a claymation monster who may look cheesy today but probably gave many youngsters nightmares back in 1984.  Like the Snakeman, all of the film’s special effects have aged but it does not detract from the film.  Since the special effects were used to create the film’s dreams, it doesn’t matter that they no longer look 100% realistic.  Dreams are supposed to be strange so the cheesiness of some of the special effects actually works to Dreamscape‘s advantage.

Dreamscape may not be as well-known as Inception or Nightmare on Elm Street but it is still a fun and entertaining excursion into the dream world.

Dreamscape

Quickie Review: Prince of Darkness (dir. by John Carpenter)


If there’s a horror filmmaker who truly deserves the label of maverick and master at the same time it would be one John Carpenter. From the very beginning, Carpenter did his films his way despite working within the Hollywood studio system. This has made his films turn out not as well-received later on in his career (especially during the 1990’s) as studio interference and him burning out after doing so many projects one right after the other. In 1987 he made one of the more under-appreciated horror film of that decade with Prince of Darkness. This was a film born out of Carpenter at some point during the 80’s studying on the subjects of theoretical physics and atomic theory (the man’s a veritable polymath).

The film begins with a sequence montage of setting up the setting for the film. It’s a rundown, but still occupied church in Los Angeles where we see an old priest pass away leaving another priest (played by Carpenter vet Donald Pleasance) the secret hidden within the church to him. This secret leads to this priest asking physics professor Birack (another Carpenter vet in Victor Wong) to assist him in unraveling the mysteries of the container beneath the church. With some of Birack’s best students to assist them the film moves onto the meat of the story. We find out that the container vessel that has been kept secret under the Church and by the Inner Circle of the Vatican itself is a prison for Satan itself who whose form is a swirling green liquid within.

Prince of Darkness, written by Carpenter himself under the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass, posits an interesting take on the concept of good vs. evil. The film puts forth the idea that Satan is not just evil, but may only be the son of an even bigger evil. An evil voiced out by the professor as the Anti-God. Carpenter’s foray into researching about theoretical physics really helps in making all the talk of quantum mechanics, atomic theory and the like within the film to try and explain evil in a scientific way made for an interesting film. It is definitely one of the more inventive take on the God vs. Satan theme then and even now.

The film does suffer from having a weaker cast the your typical Carpenter film. Pleasance seems to be sleepwalking through the film and whose only role seems to either burst out in indignant rage against what his Church tried to keep secret or to spout out observations in a hushed, conspiratorial tone. His opposite in Victor Wong does a much better job in the role of the physics professor whose not so entrenched in the material world of science that he’s not willing to entertain the thought that Satan really is the swirling green liquid in the container. The rest of the cast do a good enough job to be better than one-note, but not enough that its difficult to empathize with any of them that when they finally get killed or possessed in the film we don’t feel anything for them.

Prince of Darkness marked the second leg in what Carpenter has called his “Apocalypse Trilogy” which began with 1982’s The Thing remake and ends with 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness. Thematically this film works within the context of that apocalyptic theme. It is a film that’s really a low-budget “Second Coming” film which began to manifest within all forms of entertainment during the late 80’s as the 1990’s neared and the new millennium loomed over everyone. While the film’s cast performance was probably one major reason why the film didn’t do as well as it should’ve in a horror-crazy environment of the 1980’s the film has gained a considerable amount of a cult-following since. Prince of Darkness, as flawed as it was, really shows Carpenter at his most rebellious (something he would exponentially reveal years later with the subversive They Live) in not just taking on the concepts of God and Church vs Science and Logic, but in creating a film with an ending so ambiguous that it probably would kill what good will some audiences were willing to give it down the drain. But it’s an ending which tied into his “Apocalypse Trilogy” and one that horror filmmakers still not willing to use.