Film Review: Testament (dir by Lynne Littman)

The 1983 film, Testament, is about death.  It’s about the death of a family, the death of a town, the death of a way of life, and the death of hope.

And you may be saying, “Well, gee, Lisa — that sounds like a really happy movie.”

Well, it’s not meant to be a happy movie.  Testament is a painfully grim movie about the end of the world.

The movie takes place in the town of Hamelin, California, which we’re told is 90 minutes away from San Francisco.  It’s a nice town, the type of place where everyone knows each other.  Mike (Mako) runs the local gas station and cares for his disabled son, Hiroshi (Gerry Murillo).  Elderly Henry Abhart (Leon Ames) spends his time on his radio, talking to strangers across the world.  Fania (Lilia Skala) offers up piano lessons.  Father Hollis (Philip Anglim) looks over the spiritual needs of the parish.  It’s a normal town.

The town is home to the Weatherlys.  Carol (Jane Alexander) is a stay-at-home mom who does volunteer work and who is directing the school play.  Tom (William Devane) is a common sight riding his bicycle through town every morning before heading off to work in San Francisco.  They have three children.  Mary Liz (Roxanna Zal) is a teenager who is taking piano lessons.  Brad (Ross Harris) is always trying to impress his father and is looking forward to his 14th birthday.  Scottie (Lukas Haas, in his first film) is the youngest and never goes anywhere without his teddy bear. They’re a normal family living a normal life in a normal town.

And then, one day, everything changes.  Scottie is watching Sesame Street when the program is suddenly interrupted by a clearly terrified anchorman who announces that New York has been bombed.  The president is about to speak but, before he can, there’s a bright flash of light, an distant explosion, and the entire town loses power.

At first, the people of Hamelin try to remain hopeful.  Though Tom works in San Francisco and San Francisco is among the many cities that have apparently been bombed (by who, we never learn), he also left a message on the family’s answer machine, telling them that he was on his way home.  Even with Tom missing, Carol continues to insist the he’ll be coming home at any minute.

Tom doesn’t come home.

The rest of the film follows the slow death of the town.  Even though the town was not damaged by the blast, the fallout soon hits.  Cathy (Rebecca De Mornay) and Phil (Kevin Costner) bury their newborn baby after it falls ill from radiation poisoning.  Mike, Henry, and Fania all start to grow physically ill and, in some cases, dementia sets in.  Father Hollis goes from being hopeful to being tired and withdrawn as he tries to attend to each and every death.  Larry (Mico Olmos), a young boy whose parents have disappeared, briefly moves in with the Wetherly family.  He disappears about halfway through the movie and we never learn if he left or if he died.  All we know is that no one mentions him or seems to notice that he’s gone.

Over the course of the film, Carol buries two of her children.  By the end of the film, her remaining child is starting to show signs of being sick, as is she.  Testament, which opened with bright scenes of a happy town, ends in darkness, with only a handful of people left among the living.  Even those who are alive are clearly dying and can only speak of the importance of remembering all of it, what they had and what they lost.

Sounds like a really happy film, right?  Well, it’s meant to be depressing.  It was made at a time when nuclear war was viewed as being not just probable but also inevitable.  Testament is a film that portrayed what a lot of people at the time were expecting to see in the future and, as a result, it’s not meant to be a particularly hopeful movie.  It’s a film that accomplishes what it set out to do, thanks to a great (and Oscar-nominated) performance from Jane Alexander and Lynne Littman’s low-key direction.  Unlike a lot of atomic war films, Testament does not feature any scenes of burning buildings or excessive gore.  That actually what makes it even more disturbing.  Even after the war, Hamelin still looks like it did beforehand, with the exception that many of the houses are now empty and that all of the residents are slowly dying.

(Would I have reacted as strongly to the film if I hadn’t watched it at a time when many people are afraid to go outside?  Perhaps not.  But this pandemic has brought extra power to a lot of films that may not have had as much of an impact in 2018.)

Testament is a powerful film, though not necessarily one that I ever want to watch again.

A Movie A Day #181: Guilty As Sin (1993, directed by Sidney Lumet)

When wealthy playboy David Greenhill (Don Johnson, doing a one-note Michael Douglas impersonation) is accused of throwing his wife out of a window, there’s only one lawyer who he wants to defend him.  Jennifer Haines (Rebecca De Mornay) may have just won a huge case but it is obvious that the only reason that David wants her on his team is because she’s sexy as Hell and David has an obsessive streak.  Still, despite the misgivings of her boyfriend (Stephen Lang) and her mentor (Jack Warden), she takes the case, convinced that she is the only attorney smart enough to be able to get David acquitted.

It becomes very obvious that David is not only probably guilty but that he might be a serial killer as well.  Not only does he start to turn up everywhere that Jennifer goes but, protected by attorney/client privilege, he starts to tell her all of his dark secrets.  Jennifer finds herself trapped into defending an obviously guilty client, one who appears to be setting her up to be his next victim.  Even when he fails to pay her for her services, the trial judge refuses to allow Jennifer to quit the case.

Back in the 90s, Guilty As Sin used to frequently show up on late night HBO and Cinemax.  I always watched because I had a crush on Rebecca De Mornay and I bet I was not alone as far as that’s concerned.  Late night cable is where Guilty As Sin belongs, which makes it strange that this weak and implausible movie was directed by Sidney Lumet.  One of the legitimately great American directors, Lumet directed several classic courtroom thrillers over the course of his career.  Guilty As Sin is not one of them.  This is probably the most impersonal film that Lumet ever made.  Other than the presence of Lumet favorite Jack Warden, there is nothing about Guilty As Sin that would lead anyone to think that it had been directed by the same man responsible for 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, or Prince of the City.

Fortunately, though Guilty As Sin was one of his Lumet’s last films as a director, it was not his final film.  Released in 2007, Lumet’s final film was a crafty thriller called Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, which showed that, at the age of 83, Lumet was still one of the greats and that Guilty As Sin was just a minor bump in an otherwise brilliant career.

Back to School #28: Risky Business (dir by Paul Brickman)

Risky Business

“It was great the way her mind worked. No guilt, no doubts, no fear. None of my specialities. Just the shameless pursuit of immediate gratification. What a capitalist.” — Joel Goodson (Tom Cruise) in Risky Business (1983)

So, this is the film where Tom Cruise — playing a high school senior named Joel, who has been left at home on his own while his wealthy parents go on vacation — ends up dancing around his living room in his underwear.  It’s a scene that has shown up in countless awards show montages and which has been parodied, imitated, and recreated to such an extent that even people who have never seen the movie know the scene.

Risky Business is about a lot of different things.  It’s a coming-of-age film.  It’s both a celebration and a satire of material excess and greed.  It’s a time capsule of the 80s.  It’s a comedy.  It’s a drama.  It’s a somewhat twisted romance.  It features good performances, clever dialogue, and an excellent soundtrack.  It’s a film that does for “Sometimes you just go to say, ‘What the fuck?'” what Dead Poets Society did for “Carpe Diem.”

But ultimately, for a lot of people, Risky Business is always just going to be about Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.

And why not?  It’s a great scene, one that deserves its fame.  I’m not just saying that just because I happen to love dance scenes in general.  When Joel celebrates having the house to himself by dancing, he’s also celebrating his independence.  He’s celebrating the fact that he can do whatever he wants.  He’s celebrating freedom.  It’s true that sometime you just got to say, “What the fuck?”  But some other times, you just have to dance.

And you can’t deny that Tom Cruise is at his most appealing and spontaneous in this scene.  Actually, he’s at his most appealing and spontaneous throughout the entire film.  Up until I watched Risky Business, my main impression of Tom Cruise was that he was the creepy guy who forced Katie Holmes to abandon Catholicism for Scientology and chop off her hair.   I knew he was an okay actor but his greater appeal was lost on me.  I think that if I had gotten to know the Tom Cruise in Risky Business before I got to know the Tom Cruise who jumped up and down on that couch and who is rumored to be the secret leader of Scientology, I might have a different opinion of him as an actor.

Anyway, with all that said, here’s that famous scene:

As I said, as famous as that scene may be, there’s actually a lot more to Risky Business than just Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear.  In fact, you could remove that entire scene and Risky Business would remain one of the defining films of the 80s.  It tells the story of Joel Goodson who lives up to his name in almost every way.  He’s a very good son.  He gets good grades in high school.  He’s a member of the Future Enterprisers of America.  His father has decided that Joel is going to go to Princeton and Joel isn’t one to argue.  When his parents leave him alone at the house, they also leave him with a long list of rules and they have every reason to believe that Joel will follow every one of them.

But then Joel meets a prostitute named Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) and he makes an enemy out of Guido the Killer Pimp (Joe Pantoliano) and then his father’s car ends up rolling into a river and, next thing you know, Joel is partnering up with Lana to turn his house into a brothel and they’re making $8,000 in one night.

And really, as good as Tom Cruise is, Rebecca De Mornay is even better because she has a tougher role to play.  As written, Lana is essentially a male fantasy figure.  (And there’s still a part of me that suspect the entire film was meant to be Joel’s daydream.)  But, as played by De Mornay, Lana actually becomes a real human being and someone who definitely has something important to say.  If Cruise gives the film its energy and its heart, De Mornay gives the film a brain. It’s no coincidence that Joel is the one who dances in the living room while Lana is the one who sets up business deals.  With her no-nonsense approach to life and her love of money, she comes to symbolize the film’s own conflicted views of wealth and success.  It’s not by chance that the American flag appears on TV while Joel and Lana are fucking in the living room.  Together, Joel and Lana are the perfect American success story.

Joel Goodson, Super Pimp

Quickie Review: By Dawn’s Early Light (dir. by Jack Sholder)


1990’s By Dawn’s Early Light is a telefilm adaptation by HBO of William Prochnau’s novel Trinity’s Child. The movie when it first aired on HBO seemed dated since the Soviet Union was ultimately going through its death throes as the military build-up initiated during the Reagan Administration crippled the USSR economically as they too tried to match the build-up in conventional and nuclear forces. Yet, despite the ending of the Cold War recent events domestically and around the world has made this HBO film seem less dated and quite timely.

The film is simplicity in the way the plot unfolds. A failed coup by dissident Soviet military commanders fails, but it’s after-effects of creating a “hot war” between the US and the USSR succeeds as both US President and Soviet Premiere make mistakes in their decisions. Decisions heavily influenced by their military commanders who see only black and white in how their respective nations should respond militarily. By Dawn’s Early Light shares some similarities to the classic 60’s Cold War films like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe. Both films deal with the human frailties and flaws helping influence events that could lead to nuclear armagaddon for the whole planet. By Dawn’s Early Light concentrates on several storylines to highlight the stress and difficulties individuals must face to either follow their orders to their inevitable conclusion or allow their conscience to help make their decisions in trying to stop the madness spiraling out of control. Though some people’s decisions are left wanting, the film ends with a glimmer of hope that may just bring the world from the brink of annihilation.

The acting by the cast of Rebecca DeMornay, Powers Boothe, James Earl Jones, Darrin McGavin, Martin Landau and Rip Torn are well done. Rebeccan DeMornay and Powers Boothe anchor one of the subplots as romantically involved B-52 crew pilots whose conflict comes from their own intimate closeness affecting command decisions and from the stress of families lost by the rest of the bomber crew. Darrin McGavin, Rip Torn and Martin Landau anchor the other subplot of competing Presidents. One a physically incapacitated US leader trying to avert escalating the conflict to the point of no return with another recently sworn in who fears of losing a nuclear war and thus wanting to strike back full and hard. In between these two leaders is the diabolical performance by Rip Torn as a warmongering Army colonel who sees only winning the war as the only objective. For a telefilm the acting is above-par and bordering on excellent. There’s not a weak link in this cast.

In the end, the film might look abit dated in its production design, but the story itself is very current and relevant.  What might have been a nice Cold War relic fairy tale when it first aired in 1990 on HBO has taken on more of a cautionary tale as more nations begin to acquire nuclear weapons with some of these nations not just enemies of the US and the world in general, but also led by men whose hold on sanity seem tenuous at best. By Dawn’s Early Light is a great piece political “what if” that hopefully remains just that and not a prediction of reality to come.

What If Lisa Marie Determined The Oscar Nominees…

With the Oscar nominations due to be announced this week, now seems like a good time to indulge in something I like to call “If Lisa Marie Had All The Power.”  Listed below are my personal Oscar nominations.  Please note that these are not the films that I necessarily think will be nominated.  The fact of the matter is that the many of them will not.  Instead, these are the films that would be nominated if I was solely responsible for deciding the nominees this year.  Winners are listed in bold.

For those who are interested, you can check out my picks for 2010 by clicking on this sentence.

Meanwhile, my picks for last year can be seen by clicking on this sentence.

Best Picture

Best Picture

Anna Karenina

The Avengers


The Cabin In The Woods

Django Unchained

Les Miserables

Life of Pi

The Master

Silver Linings Playbook


Ang Lee

Best Director

Drew Goddard for The Cabin In The Woods

Ang Lee for Life of Pi

Richard Linklater for Bernie

Quinton Tarantino for Django Unchained

Joe Wright for Anna Karenina


Best Actor

Jack Black in Bernie

Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master


Best Actress

Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone

Greta Gerwig in Damsels in Distress

Kiera Knightley in Anna Karenina

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Michelle Williams in Take This Waltz


Best Supporting Actor

Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook

Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained

Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths

Christoph Waltz in Django Unchained


Best Supporting Actress

Rebecca De Mornay in Mother’s Day

Dame Judi Dench in Skyfall

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Zoe Kazan in Ruby Sparks

Sarah Silverman in Take This Waltz


Best Original Screenplay

The Cabin In The Woods

Django Unchained

The Master

Ruby Sparks

Take This Waltz

Bernie Bearing Gifts

Best Adapted Screenplay

Anna Karenina



Life of Pi

Silver Linings Playbook


Best Feature-Length Animated Film




Pirates!  Band of Misfits

Wreck-It Ralph


Best Foreign Language Film



The Raid: Redemption

A Royal Affair

Rust and Bone

Ai Weiwei never sorry film

Best Documentary Feature

Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

The Central Park Five

First Position

The Queen of Versailles

2016: Obama’s America


Best Original Score

Beasts of the Southern Wild


The Dark Knight Rises

For Greater Glory

The Master


Best Original Song

“For You” from Act of Valor

“Yo No Se” from Casa De Mi Padre

“The Sambola! International Dance Craze” from Damsels in Distress

“Ancora Qui” from Django Unchained

“Abraham’s Daughter” from The Hunger Games

“The Baddest Man Alive” from The Man With The Iron Fists

“Razor’s Out” from The Raid: Redemption

“Big Machine” from Safety Not Guaranteed

“Skyfall” from Skyfall

“Anything Made Out of Paper” from West of Memphis

Les Miserables 

Best Sound Editing


The Dark Knight Rises

End of Watch

Les Miserables


Les Miserables2

Best Sound Mixing


End of Watch

Killing Them Softly

Les Miserables


Anna Karenina

Best Art Direction

Anna Karenina

The Avengers

The Cabin In The Woods


Les Miserables


Best Cinematography

The Hobbit


Life of Pi

Moonrise Kingdom



Best Makeup

The Hobbit

The Hunger Games

Les Miserables




Best Costume Design

Anna Karenina

Django Unchained

The Hunger Games


Moonrise Kingdom


Best Film Editing

Anna Karenina

The Cabin In The Woods

Django Unchained

The Master

Silent House

Life of Pi

Best Visual Effects

The Avengers

The Dark Knight Rises

Life of Pi


Men In Black 3

List of Films By Number of Nominations

8 Nominations — Django Unchained

7 Nominations — Anna Karenina

6 Nominations — Les Miserables, Life of Pi, The Master, Skyfall

5 Nominations — The Cabin In The Woods, Silver Linings Playbook

4 Nominations — Bernie

3 Nominations — The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games, Lincoln, Take This Waltz

2 Nominations — Brave, Chronicle, Damsels in Distress, End of Watch, Moonrise Kingdom, The Raid: Redemption, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone

1 Nomination —Act of Valor, Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, Argo, Barbara,  Beasts of the Southern Wild, Casa De Mi Padre, The Central Park Five, Cosmopolis, First Position, For Greater Glory, Frankenweenie, Headhunters, Killer Joe, Killing Them Softly, Lawless, Looper, The Man With The Iron Fists, Men In Black 3, Mother’s Day, The Pirates! Band of Misfits , The Queen of Versailles, A Royal Affair, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths, Silent House, 2016: Obama’s America, West of Memphis, Wreck-It Ralph

List of Films By Oscars Won

2 Oscars — Anna Karenina, Brave, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi

1 Oscar — Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry, Bernie, The Cabin In the Woods, Looper, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom, The Raid: Redemption, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Skyfall, Take This Waltz

The Daily Grindhouse: Mother’s Day (dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman)

One of the great things about writing about films is that occasionally you both get to watch a film that, despite all of your expectations, turns out to be pretty good and then you get to tell other people about it!  Case in point: 2012’s Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day opens with two memorable scenes.  In the first scene, we watch as a mysterious woman sneaks into a hospital and kidnaps a baby out of the maternity ward.  When a guard attempts to stop her, he ends up with a knife driven into his throat.  While we’ve seen similar scenes in other horror movies, it’s rare that we’ve ever seen this scene handled as well as it is in Mother’s Day.

The second scene opens with an almost intrusive close-up of a woman (played by Jaime King) sobbing as she stares at herself in a mirror.  Again, it’s not that we haven’t seen this scene in other horror films.  Instead, it’s the fact that Jaime King so totally throw herself into those sobs.  We believe her tears and immediately, we want to know why she’s crying and we want to know how she’s connected to that baby being kidnapped from the hospital.  In just two scenes, Mother’s Day captures our attention and, once it grabs a hold of us, it doesn’t let go for the next two hours.

It turns out that King and her husband have just bought a new house and, on one stormy night, they’re throwing a party with a few of their closest friends.  It quickly becomes obvious that, regardless of how happy everyone’s pretending to be, there’s a lot of tension between King and her husband.  Something has happened in the past that no one wants to talk about…

Suddenly, three heavily armed men barge into the house and take everyone hostage.  The three of them are brothers and they’ve just robbed the bank.  The youngest has been shot and is bleeding to death on the couch.  The oldest brother explains that they’re looking for their mother.  She used to live in the house before King and her husband bought it.  The brothers didn’t know that their mother had been kicked out of the house and they’ve been mailing money to the address for the past few months.  When King and her husband claim that none of the money ever showed up at the house, the brothers call their mother and soon, mom shows up to take control of the situation.

Mom is named Natalie and she’s played by Rebecca De Mornay.  From the minute she shows up, it’s obvious that Natalie is both obsessed with her children and that she’s totally and completely insane.  Continually switching between being sweet and psychotic, Natalie is a thoroughly frightening and disturbingly believable monster.  De Mornay wisely underplays Natalie’s more showy moments and prevents the character from becoming just another stereotypical movie psycho.  Instead, she’s the type of villain that we can easily imagine meeting in the real world.  Needless to say, that makes her a hundred time more frightening than any faceless killer with a machete.

Mother’s Day, which was made in 2010 but not released in the U.S. until earlier this year, is a remake of low-budget, 1980 horror film.  This is a rare case where the remake is about a thousand times better than the original.  Director Darren Lynn Bousman keeps the action moving at a perfect pace and the film’s cast (which includes True Blood‘s Deborah Ann Woll in a showy role) creates a disturbingly credible gallery of rogues and victims.

Mother’s Day is a rarity — a horror remake that not only deserves to be seen but which is so good that the original might as well just be an afterthought.

( An earlier version of this review appeared on