A Movie A Day #233: Secret Honor (1984, directed by Robert Altman)


Disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) sits alone in his study.  He has a bottle of Scotch, a loaded gun, and a tape recorder.  He is surrounded by security monitors and paintings.  All but one of the paintings are portraits of former presidents, all of whom are destined to be more fondly remembered than Nixon.  The only non-presidential painting is a portrait of Henry Kissinger.  Over the course of one long night, Nixon drinks and talks.  He talks about his Quaker upbringing and his early political campaigns.  He rails against all of his perceived enemies: Eishenhower, the Kennedys, the liberals, the conservatives, and everyone in between.  As he gets drunker, he starts to talk about the real story behind Watergate and why his resignation actually shielded the country from a greater scandal.  As Nixon explains it, his resignation was his greatest act of patriotism, his secret honor.

A mix of historical fact and speculation, Secret Honor was one of the filmed plays that Robert Altman directed in between the flop of Popeye and his comeback with The Player.  Secret Honor is a one-man show, with Philip Baker Hall and only Philip Baker Hall on screen for the entire movie.  Though he looks nothing like Nixon, Hall gives an amazing performance.  Hall’s Nixon is bitter, angry, full of self-pity, and occasionally even sympathetic.  Altman’s stagey direction makes no attempt to hide Secret Honor‘s theatrical origins but it is impossible to look away from Hall’s mesmerizing performance.

(Secret Honor was made long before Hall found fame as a character actor.  It was his fourth feature film and his first major role.)

Secret Honor will probably not change anyone’s opinion on Nixon.  Nixon haters will find more to hate and Nixon defenders will find more to defend.  But everyone will agree that Philip Baker Hall gives a great performance as one of America’s most controversial presidents.

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Film Review: The Last Word (dir by Mark Pellington)


So, I watched The Last Word tonight.

It’s a film that premiered, earlier this year, at Sundance and then it got a very brief theatrical run.  It was directed by Mark Pellington, who is one of those odd directors who, for some reason, I always assume is more talented than he is.  Seriously, when I saw this was directed by Mark Pellington, I actually got excited.  I was like, “Mark Pellington!?  He’s great!”  Then I realized that I wasn’t really sure who Mark Pellington was.  I looked him up on Wikipedia and I realized that I was mistaking him for actor Mark Pellegrino.  Mark Pellegrino played Jacob on Lost and is an outspoken Libertarian.  Mark Pellington is some guy who started out in music videos and then eventually moved up to directing pedestrian films.

Anyway, the film stars Shirley MacClaine as this annoying old busybody who demands that Amanda Seyfried write her obituary because MacClaine wants to know what people are going to say about her after she’s dead.  When Seyfried discovers that everyone hates MacClaine, she writes a boring and very short obit.  “Everyone hates you,” she helpfully explains.  So, MacClaine sets out to do some great things so that her obituary will have a little more spark.  She’s going to set a fire of quirkiness, she is!  Of course, this leads to MacClaine adopting a little black orphan, getting a job as a DJ at the local radio station (she plays boring adult contemporary music, of course.  No EDM), and helping Seyfriend get a boyfriend.

To be honest, this film would probably be a lot more bearable if it was a prequel to Bernie, because then you would at least know that you could look forward to Jack Black showing up with a hunting rifle and putting everyone out of their misery.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, this is another one of those movies where a cranky old tyrant teaches all of us young folks how to better appreciate life.

Y’see, Shirley MacClaine is playing an oldster so she has a sharp tongue and she’s always putting people in their place.  Because she had to struggle, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that she spends most of her time making everyone around her miserable.

Amanda Seyfried, on the other hand, is a millennial so she puts her feet on her boss’s desk and has no direction in her life.  Why, she just needs some annoying, elderly busybody to come into her life and make her listen to smooth jazz.  She might even get a hipster boyfriend out of the deal!  (Of course, her potential hipster boyfriend is a 2008-style hipster as opposed to a 2017-style hipster.)

Meanwhile, AnnJewel Lee Dixon (as the little girl that MacClaine adopts) is a plot device so she doesn’t do anything unless the script specifically needs her to humanize the other characters.  She gets to dance towards the end of the film.

Oh, and then there’s Anne Heche.  She plays MacClaine’s estranged daughter.  The reunion between her and MacClaine is so overwritten and overperformed that some viewers will probably be inspired to rip out their hair while watching it.

Hey, did I mention that there’s a scene where MacClaine does something quirky and all of the supporting characters break out into applause?  I think we’re supposed to clap to but I think most members of the audience will be too busy ripping out their hair by the handful.

Fortunately, I really love my hair so I resisted the temptation to start plucking strands out of my head while watching the film.  It wasn’t easy, though.  To be honest, the pain of plucking a strand of hair is nothing compared to the pain of watching the first fifteen minutes of this film and realizing that you already know every thing that’s going to happen.  By the time that the priest showed up and started to cry while talking about a time that MacClaine’s character had been rude to him, I imagine that viewers with less self-control were halfway bald.  But, as I said, I love my hair too much to take my frustration out on it.  Instead, I just kicked the coffee table a few times.  Now, my foot hurts.  Ow.

Seeing as how Shirley MacClaine is one of the last of the truly great actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age and she actually does give a pretty good performance (when the script allows her), it’s a shame that the rest of the movie is such a let down.  Then again, this film is full of talented people who are let down by an overwritten script and Mark Pellington’s painfully obvious direction.  This is one of those films that tries to hard to be profound that it forgets the importance of being entertaining.

As I watched this movie, I took a glance at Mark Pellington’s filmography.  Did you know that he directed The Mothman Prophecies?  The Last Word really could have used a visit from the Mothman.  Seriously, this film was crying out for a scene of MacClaine putting Mothman in his place.  The fact that Mothman did not appear leads me to wonder what exactly this film was hiding.

Seriously, why are the people behind The Last Word protecting the Mothman?

Back to School Part II #22: Three O’Clock High (dir by Phil Joanou)


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For the next entry in my back to school series of reviews, I want to say a few words about the 1987 comedy, Three O’Clock High.

I have no idea how Three O’Clock High did when it was originally released into theaters.  I know, I know — I could just look it up on Wikipedia or the imdb but I’m lazy and, besides, I hate that whole idea that box office success is somehow synonymous with quality.  That said, Three O’Clock High is one of those films that seems to be in a permanent cable rotation (seriously, it always seems to be playing somewhere and there’s always a few people on twitter talking about how excited they are about coming across it) and I kind of hope that it did well when it was originally released.  It’s an entertaining and genuinely funny little high school comedy.

Three O’Clock High tells the story of Jerry (Casey Siemaszko).  Jerry is a high school student, one of those kids who is a bit anonymous.  He’s kind of a nerd but so much of a nerd that he painfully sticks out of the crowd at this school.

You know who does stick out of the crowd?  Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson).  Buddy is the new kid at school.  He’s a big, hulking, and rather intimidating figure and he comes with quite a fearsome repuations.  All anyone can talk about are the stories that they’ve heard about Buddy’s dangerous past.  The one thing that the rumors all have in common is that Buddy does not like to be touched.  In fact, it appears that his aversion to being touched has made him the most dangerous high school student in the country.

The first hour of Jerry’s school day is spent working at the school newspaper and, of course, his teacher has a bright idea.  Why not welcome Buddy to the school by interviewing him!?  Sure, why not!?  Everyone loves to be interviewed!  And why not get Jerry to do the interview?

The problem is that Buddy doesn’t want to be interviewed.  And, once he realizes that Buddy not only doesn’t want to talk to him but is actually getting rather annoyed with him (this may be because Jerry chooses to approach Buddy in the boy’s bathroom), Jerry asks Buddy to forget that he even bothered him and then reaches over and punches him on the arm.

Of course, this leads to Buddy announcing that he and Jerry are going to have a fight.  At 3 pm.  In the school parking lot…

The rest of the film plays out like a surrealistic, teen-centered parody of High Noon, with Jerry desperately trying to figure out a way to avoid the fight.  He tries to frame Buddy by placing a switchblade in his locker, just to have Buddy use the knife to disable his car, effectively trapping Jerry at the school.  He tries to help Buddy cheat on a test.  He tries to get the principal to kick him out of school.  He even tries bribery!

But ultimately, three o’clock arrives and Jerry must face his destiny…

Three O’Clock High is cheerfully cartoonish and rather entertaining little film.  Director Phil Joanou pays homage to a countless number of other films, often framing the high school action like a Spaghetti western stand-off and, when the final fight arrives, it’s just as wonderfully over-the-top and silly as you could hope for.  Casey Siemaszko, who was also in Secret Admirer, is perfectly cast as Jerry and Richard Tyson is both funny and intimidating as Buddy.  Meanwhile, ineffectual adults are played by everyone from Philip Baker Hall to Jeffrey Tambor to Mitch Pileggi.  There’s a not a subtle moment to be found in Three O’Clock High but the relentless stylization definitely works to the film’s advantage.

I’d keep an eye out for the next time that Three O’Clock High shows up on Showtime.  It’s an entertaining film about teens doing what teens have to do.

Insomnia File #10: Eye For An Eye (dir by John Schlesinger)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Eye_for_an_Eye_(1996_film)_poster

If you were awake at midnight and trying to get some sleep, you could have turned over to ThillerMax and watched the 1996 revenge thriller, Eye For An Eye.  However, the film wouldn’t have helped you get to sleep.  Eye For An Eye is not a film that you sleep through.

Eye For An Eye opens with Karen McCann (Sally Field) comforting her youngest daughter, Megan (Alexandra Kyle).  Megan is terrified of a moth that has flown into her bedroom.  “Kill it, mommy, kill it!” Megan shouts.  Instead, Karen gently takes the moth in her hand and allows it to escape through an open window.  In those first few minutes, the film tells us everything that it feels to be important about Karen.  She’s a mother.  She lives in a big house in the suburbs.  And she wouldn’t kill a moth…

But — the name of the title is Eye For An Eye and that would seem to promise killing so we know that something terrible is going to happen to change Karen’s outlook on life.

And it does!  The next afternoon, Karen is stuck in traffic and calls her oldest daughter, 17 year-old Julie (Olivia Burnette).  In an extremely harrowing sequence that is pure nightmare fuel, Karen helplessly listens as Julie is raped and murdered.

A white trash deliveryman named Robert Doob is arrested for the crime and we immediately know that he’s guilty.  First off, his name is Robert Doob and that’s a serial killer name if I’ve ever heard one.  Secondly, he smirks at Karen and her husband (Ed Harris) and, in a particularly cruel moment that was especially upsetting to this former stutterer, he imitates Julie’s stammer.  Third, Robert has tattoos and Satanic facial hair.  And finally, Robert Doob is played by Keifer Sutherland.  And usually, I find Keifer and his growl of a voice to be kinda sexy in a dangerous sorta way but in Eye For An Eye, he was so icky that he just made my skin crawl.

Robert Doob is obviously guilty but an evil liberal judge throws the case out on a technicality.  After Karen gets over the shock of seeing justice perverted, she decides to take the law into her own hands.  After meeting a professional vigilante (Philip Baker Hall, looking slightly amused no matter how grim he tries to act), Karen decides to learn how to use a gun so that she can get her revenge…

There’s not a single subtle moment in Eye For An Eye but that’s actually the main reason I enjoyed the film.  Everything — from the performances to the script to the direction to the music to … well, everything — is completely and totally over-the-top.  The symbolism is so heavy-handed and the film is so heavily stacked in favor of vigilante justice that the whole thing becomes oddly fascinating.  It may not be a great film but it’s always watchable.  It may not be subtle and it may even be borderline irresponsible in its portrayal of the American justice system but who cares?  By the end of the movie, I was over whatever real world concerns I may have had about the film’s premise and I was totally  cheering Karen on in her quest for vengeance.  I imagine I’m not alone in that.  Eye For An Eye is the type of film that elitist movie snobs tend to dismiss, even while secretly knowing that it’s actually kinda awesome.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers

In Praise of Seinfeld’s Joe Bookman


BookmanLt. Joe Bookman is a cop.  He works for the New York Public Library, helping to track down delinquents who vandalize books and fail to pay their late fees.  Yes, the library cop is named Bookman but he has already heard all the jokes.

1971.  That was Bookman’s first year on the job.  Bad year for libraries.  Bad year for America.  Hippies burning library cards.  Abbie Hoffman telling everyone to steal books.  Bookman doesn’t judge a man by the length of his hair or the type of music that he listens to.  Rock and roll was never his bag.  But he’ll make sure you put on a pair of shoes before you step into the New York Public Library, fella!

You know that little stamp, the one that says “New York Public Library?”  That may not mean anything to you but it means a lot to Joe Bookman.   One whole hell of a lot.  Why would Bookman make such a big stink over old library books?  Here’s a hint, junior.  Maybe we can live without libraries, people like you and me.  Sure, we’re too old to change the world.  But what about that kid, sitting down, opening a book, right now, in a branch at the local library and finding drawings of pee pees and wee wees on The Cat In The Hat and The Five Chinese Brothers?  Doesn’t he deserve better?

Bookman 2Of the many odd characters who appeared on the sitcom Seinfeld, Joe Bookman (played by Philip Baker Hall) remains one of the most popular.  Unlike Kramer’s lawyer Jackie Chiles or Larry David’s impersonation of George Steinbrenner, Mr. Bookman only appeared in two episodes.  He had a cameo in the series finale and, before that, he appeared in the third season episode, The Library.  The scene where Bookman mercilessly grills Jerry Seinfeld about whether or not Seinfeld returned Tropic of Cancer is a classic, with Hall playing the dogged library cop like a modern-day Inspector Javert and Seinfeld obviously struggling not to laugh.

Seinfeld was famously described as being a show about nothing.  What set Lt. Bookman apart from the show’s regular characters was that he believed in something.  Joe Bookman believed in the sanctity of the New York Public Library.  He was an old-fashioned man with a code of honor, the type of man who take a bullet to save a book.

When he first appeared in 1991, Bookman was already angry about the way the world was changing around him.  He is probably even less happy today.  Where is Joe Bookman right now?  Maybe he’s retired and sitting on a beach, drinking a piña colada and reading Henry Miller.  Maybe.  But I like to believe that he is still on the job, collecting fines and searching for overdue books.

Whatever Bookman is doing now, he will always be there in syndication, reminding us to put our shoes on before stepping into the library and to return our books on time.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #93: Boogie Nights (dir by Paul Thomas Anderson)


Boogie_nights_ver1The 1997 film Boogie Nights (which, amazingly enough, was not nominated for best picture) is a bit of an overwhelming film to review.  It’s a great film and, if you’re reading this review, you’ve probably seen Boogie Nights and you probably already know that it’s a great film.  And if you haven’t seen Boogie Nights, you really should because it’s a great film.  So, this review, in short, amounts to: Great film.

Boogie Nights takes place in the late 70s and the early 80s.  Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a high school dropout who works as a busboy, lives with his parents, and has a really big cock.  (Indeed, one of the film’s most famous lines is, “This is a giant cock.”)  When we first meet Eddie, he’s likable and cute in a dumb sort of way.  Then he meets adult film director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and becomes a star.  At first, everything is great.  Eddie changes his name to Dirk Diggler and no longer has to deal with his abusive mother (a chilling Joanna Gleason).  Jack and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) become his new parents.  He gets a cool older brother in the form of actor Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly, totally nailing the “People tell me that I look like Han Solo,” line).  He makes friends with other adult film actors, like the desperately unhip Buck (Don Cheadle), the free-spirited (and secretly very angry) Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and the poignantly insecure Jessie St. Vincent (Melora Walters).  He gets new admirers, like Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  He also gets addicted to cocaine.  And while Dirk falls from stardom, the adult film industry is taken over by gangsters like Floyd Gondolli (Philip Baker Hall) and self-styled artists like Jack Horner find themselves pushed to the side.

And you may have noticed that I mentioned a lot of actors in the paragraph above.  That’s because Boogie Nights is a true ensemble piece.  It’s full of great performances and memorable characters.  Along with everyone that I mentioned above, the cast also includes William H. Macy as cinematographer “Little Bill” Daggett.  From the minutes we first meet Little Bill, we get the feeling that he might be a little bit too uptight for pornography.  Maybe that’s because his wife — played by the inspiring sex positive feminist and veteran adult film star Nina Hartley — is constantly and publicly cheating on him.  Macy and Hartley do not have as much screen time as the rest of the cast but, ultimately, their characters are two of the most important in the film.

And then there’s Robert Ridgely, who is marvelously sleazy as the paternal but ultimately icky Col. James.  When we first meet the Colonel, he’s almost a humorous character.  But then, suddenly, there’s one chilling scene where he opens up to Jack Horner and we are forced to reconsider everything that we had previously assumed about both the Colonel and his business.

And how can we forget Luis Guzman, as a club owner who desperately wants to appear in one of Jack’s films?  Or Ricky Jay as a plain-spoken cameraman?  Or how about Thomas Jane, playing one of those tightly wound characters who you know is going to be trouble as soon as you see him?  And finally, nobody who has seen Boogie Nights will ever forget Alfred Molina, singing along to Sister Christian and running down the street, clad only in black bikini briefs and firing a shotgun.

But it’s not just the actors who make Boogie Nights a great film.  This was Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film and, under his direction, we feel as if we’ve been thrown straight into Dirk’s exciting and ultimately dangerous world.  When the film begins, the camera almost seems to glide, capturing the excitement of having everything that you could possibly want.  But, as things go downhill for Dirk, the camerawork gets more jittery and nervous.   A sequence where Anderson cuts back and forth between Jack trying to shoot a movie on video (as opposed to his beloved film) and Dirk nearly being beaten to death in a parking lot remains one of the best sequences that Anderson has ever directed.

And then there’s the music!  Oh my God!  The music!

And the dancing!

And the singing!

I’ll be the first admit that I have no idea whether or not Boogie Nights is a realistic portrait of the adult film industry in the 70s and 80s.  But ultimately, Boogie Nights is not about porn.  It’s about a group of outsiders who form their own little family.  At the end of the film, you’re happy that they all found each other.  You know that Dirk will probably continue to have problems in the future but you’re happy for him because, no matter what happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future, you know that he’s found a family that will always love him.

As I mentioned at the start of this appreciation, Boogie Nights was not nominated for best picture.  Titanic was named the best picture of 1997.  As I’ve said before, I loved Titanic when I was 12.  But, nearly 18 years later, Boogie Nights is definitely the better picture.

It has stood the test of time.

 

Shattered Politics #67: The Contender (dir by Rod Lurie)


Contenderposter(Spoilers)

The 2000 political melodrama The Contender is one of the most hypocritical films that I’ve ever seen.

The Contender tells the story of what happens when U.S. Sen. Laine Hanson (played by Joan Allen) is nominated to be vice president by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges).  During Laine’s confirmation hearings, Rep. Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldman) dredges up rumors that, at a college frat party, Laine took part in a threesome in exchange for money.

When Runyon asks Laine about the rumors, she replies that she refuses to answer any questions about what she may or may not have done while she was younger.  She replies that it is “simply beneath my dignity” and you know what?  She’s absolutely right.  First off, if someone could be disqualified just because of what they did in college then nobody would eve be eligible to be President.  Secondly, and far more importantly, nobody would care about Laine’s sexual history if she was a man.

For over two hours, Laine refuses to answer any questions about the allegations and instead, she turns the tables on her attackers.  And while this alone would not have made The Contender a good film (because, after all, The Contender was written and directed by Rod “Straw Dogs” Lurie), it at least would have been a film that I could respect.

But, Rod Lurie being Rod Lurie, he just couldn’t help but fuck it all up.

Towards the end of the film, Laine is attending a White House reception.  She and President Evans sit down on the White House lawn and, as the stars shine above them, Evans says, “Just between us, is it true?”

Now, there’s two things that Laine could have said here that would have kept this film from falling apart.  Laine could have said, “It’s none of your business.”  And that would have been the right thing to say because, quite frankly, it is none of the President’s business.  The whole point of the movie has been that it’s not anyone’s business.

Or, if the film actually had any guts, Laine could have said, “Yes, it’s totally true.  Like most people, I experimented when I was in college.  But that doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I’m qualified to be your vice president.”

But no.  Instead, Laine smiles and says, “Nothing happened.  Two guys propositioned me, I said no, and they spread rumors.”

So, basically, the film is saying, “It’s nobody’s business if Laine was sexually active in college but don’t worry, Mr. and Mrs. American Audience, she was a virgin until she turned 30.  So, it’s still okay for you to like her…”

And that’s the thing about The Contender.  It’s a film that doesn’t have the courage of its own convictions.  It’s a film that drags on for over two hours and it expects you to forgive it just because it pretends to have good intentions.  As a woman, there’s nothing I hate more than being pandered to and, for all of its attempts to come across as being feminist, The Contender is all about pandering.

What makes The Contender an interesting bad film — as opposed to just your usual bad film — is how even the littlest details feel false.  It’s obvious that Lurie knew all of the legal details that go into confirming a Vice President but he didn’t know how to make any of those details dramatically compelling.  So, the film becomes a bit of a know-it-all lecture.  By the time that Saul Rubinek popped up and said, “Do you know what Nelson Rockefeller said about the vice presidency?,” I found myself snapping back, “No, what did Nelson Rockefeller say about the Vice Presidency?  Please tell because ah am so sure that it is just goin’ to be the most fascinatin’ thang that ah will ever hear in mah entire life!”

(The more annoyed I get, the more pronounced my Texas accent.)

There’s a lot of weird little things about The Contender that just don’t work.  They may not sound like major problems but when combined together, they start to add up.  For instance, there’s a long shot where we see U.S. Rep. Reginald Webster (Christian Slater) and his blonde wife at a White House reception and the shot just lingers on them for no particular reason.  Long after you would expect the shot to end, it’s still going.  This wouldn’t be an issue if there was some narrative reason for that shot.  Instead, it’s just randomly dropped in there.

And then, after Laine is nominated, we see the front page of a newpaper and there, in the middle of the page, is a headshot of Joan Allen.  Underneath it, a small headline reads, “It’s Laine!”  It just feels so fake.  Wouldn’t the nomination of the first female vice present actually rate a bigger headline and a more dynamic picture?

Speaking of fake, towards the end of the film, President Evans picks up a framed magazine cover and stares down at it.  The magazine, itself, looks like one of those joke “Man of the Year” pictures that people pose for at a state fair.  On the cover is a picture of Last Picture Show era Jeff Bridges.  The headline on the magazine reads: “President Jackson Evans.  His ideas have changed the world.”  Not his actions, mind you.  Not his policies.  Instead, his ideas have changed the world.  But the film shows us no evidence of this and, during Laine’s confirmation hearings, everyone spends the whole time debating the same old shit that they always seem to be debating in Washington.

(Of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a name like Jackson Evans, I guess you might as well become President.)

Of course, when it looks like Laine might not be confirmed, President Evans speaks before Congress.  “For the first time, a woman will serve in the executive!” he declares, which seems like a hilariously awkward way to put it.  (People in this film don’t talk like human being as much as they talk like characters in some fucked up Washington D.C. fanfic.)  He then adds, “There are traitors among us!”

So, I guess the message here is yay for demagogues.

And don’t even get me started on Kathryn Morris, as the cheerful FBI agent who investigates Laine’s past and who, at one point, announces, “Laine is hope!”  Would a male FBI agent ever have to deliver a line that stupid?

And also don’t even get me started on the subplot about Gov. Jack Hathaway (William Petersen), who stages an auto accident in an attempt to convince President Evans to nominate him for vice president.

The Contender is not a good film but it could have at least been a respectable film.  But then, Rod Lurie had to have President Evans ask whether it was true or not.

Perhaps being a hypocrite was the idea that changed the world.