Film Review: Countdown to Looking Glass (dir by Fred Barzyk)


“The world’s ending!  Let’s watch the news!”

That, in a nutshell, is the main theme of the 1984 film, Countdown to Looking Glass.  It’s a film that imagines the events leading up to an atomic war between the United States and Russia.  It’s designed to look like a newscast.  A distinguished anchorman named Dan Tobin (played by a real-life anchorman named Patrick Watson) gravely discusses the conflict between the two countries.  Another reporter (played, somewhat jarringly given the film’s attempt to come across as authentic, by Scott Glenn) reports from an aircraft carrier.  We see a lot of stock footage of planes taking off and world leaders meeting and people fleeing from cities.

There are a few scenes that take place outside of the newscast.  They involve a reporter named Dorian Waldorf (Helen Shaver) and her boyfriend Bob Calhoun (Michael Muprhy).  (If your name was Dorian Waldorf, you would kind of have to become a television news reporter, wouldn’t you?)  Bob works for the government and has evidence that the world is a lot closer to ending than anyone realizes.  Dorian tries to put the evidence on air but Dan tells her that they can’t run a story like that with just one source.  It would be irresponsible…. when was this film made?  I guess 1984 was a lot different from 2020 because I can guarantee you that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC would have had no problem running Dorian’s story and creating a mass panic.

(If Dan Tobin’s ethics didn’t already make this film seem dated, just watch the scene where Tobin announces that, because of the growing crisis, the networks will now be airing the news for 24 hours a day.  From the way its announced, it’s obvious that this must have been a radical and new idea in 1984.)

Still, despite those dramatic asides, Countdown to Looking Glass is largely set up to look like a real newscast.  We get stories about people naively singing up to serve in the army because they think war will be fun.  We get interviews with a group of experts playing themselves.  (The only one who I recognized was Newt Gingrich.)  Everyone discusses the dangers of nuclear war and also whether or not humanity could survive an exchange of nuclear weapons.  No one sounds particularly hopeful.  Dan Tobin says that he always believed that nuclear war was inevitable but that the sight of all of the destruction would cause the combatants to come to their senses.  That sounds a bit optimistic to me and the film suggests that Dan has no idea what he’s talking about.

In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass is a victim of its format.  The newscast itself is rather dull, as most newscasts tend to be.  Even the scenes that take place outside of the newscast tend to feel rather awkward, as if Murphy and Shaver were recruited for their roles at the last minute.  In the end, Countdown to Looking Glass works best as a historical artifact.  This is what a news report about the end of the world would have looked like in 1984.  Watch it and compare it to how the news is covered in 2020.

Speaking of watching it …. well, it’s not easy.  It’s never been released on video but you can watch it on YouTube.  The upload’s not great but that’s pretty much your only option.

Film Review: Wargames (dir by John Badham)


If you thought Tom Cruise nearly started a war in Top Gun, you should see what Matthew Broderick did three years earlier in Wargames!

In Wargames, Broderick plays David Lighter, a dorky but likable teenager who loves to play video games and who spends his spare time hacking into other computer systems.  (Of course, since this movie was made in 1983, all the computers are these gigantic, boxy monstrosities.)  Sometimes, he puts his skills to good use.  For instance, when both he and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) are running the risk of failing their biology class, he hacks into the school and changes their grades.  (At first, Jennifer demands that he change her grade back but then, a day later, she asks him to change it again.  It’s kind of a sweet moment and it’s also probably the way I would have reacted if someone had done that for me in high school.)  Sometime, David’s skills get him into trouble.  For instance, he nearly destroys the world.

Now, keep in mind, David really didn’t know what he was doing.  He was just looking for games to play online.  He didn’t realize that he had hacked into NORAD and that Global Thermonuclear War was actually a program set up to allow a gigantic computer named WOPR to figure out how to properly wage a thermonuclear war.  David also doesn’t know that, because humans have proven themselves to be too hesitant to launch nuclear missiles, WOPR has, more or less, been given complete control over America’s nuclear arsenal.

(Wargames actually starts out with a chilling little mini-movie, in which John Spencer and Michael Madsen play two missile technicians who go from joking around to pulling guns on each other during a drill.  Of course, Madsen’s the one ready to destroy the world.)

Of course, the military folks at NORAD freak out when it suddenly appears as if the Russians have launched a nuclear strike against Las Vegas and Seattle.  (Not Vegas!  Though really, who could blame anyone for wanting to nuke Seattle?)  In fact, the only thing that prevents them from launching a retaliatory strike is David’s father demanding that David turn off his computer and take out the trash.  However, WOPR is determined to play through its simulation, which pushes the world closer and closer to war.  (One of the more clever — and disturbing — aspects of the film is that, even after the military learns that the Russians aren’t planning the attack them, they still can’t go off alert because the Russians themselves are now on alert.   Once the war starts, it can’t be stopped even if everyone knows that the whole thing was the result of a mistake.)

With the FBI looking for him, David tries to track down the man who created WOPR, Dr. Stephen Falken (John Wood).  However, Falken is not easy to find and not as enthusiastic about saving the world as one might hope….

Watching Wargames was an interesting experience.  On the one hand, it’s definitely a dated film.  (Again, just look at the computers.)  At the same time, its story still feels relevant.  In Wargames, the problem really isn’t that WOPR wants to play a game.  It’s that men like Dr. John McKittrick (well-played by Dabney Coleman) have attempted to remove the human element and have instead put all of their faith in machines.  The appeal of a machine like WOPR is that it has no self-doubt and does whatever needs to be done without worrying about the cost.  But that’s also the reason why human beings are necessary because the world cannot be run on just algorithms and cold logic.  That’s a theme that’s probably even more relevant today than it was in 1983.

Wargames is also an exceptionally likable film.  In fact, it’s probably about as likable as any film about nuclear war could be.  On the one hand, you’ve got everyone at NORAD panicking about incoming missiles and then, on the other hand, you’ve got David and Jennifer having fun on his computer and trading flirty and silly quips.  Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy are both likable in the two main roles.  Broderick brings a lot of vulnerability to the role of David.  (David Lightner is a far more believable teenager than Ferris Bueller.)  He handles the comedic scenes well but he’s even better as David grows increasingly desperate in his attempts to get the stubborn adults around him to actually listen to what he has to say.  When it appears the only way to save the world is to swim across a bay, David is forced to admit that he’s never learned how to swim because he always figured there would be time in the future.  Yes, it’s a funny scene but the way Broderick delivers the line, you understand that David has finally figured out that there’s probably not going to be a future.  It’s not that he doesn’t know how to swim.  It’s that he’ll never get the chance to learn or do anything else for that matter.

Wargames is definitely a film of its time but its themes are universal enough that it’s a film of our time as well.

Film Review: Top Gun (dir by Tony Scott)


Oh, where to even begin with Top Gun?

First released in 1986, Top Gun is a film that pretty much epitomizes a certain style of filmmaking.  Before I wrote this review, I did a little research and I actually read some of the reviews that were published when Top Gun first came out.  Though it may be a considered a classic today, critics in 1986 didn’t care much for it.  The most common complaint was that the story was trite and predictable.  The film’s reliance on style over substance led to many critics complaining that the film was basically just a two-hour music video.  Some of the more left-wing critics complained that Top Gun was essentially just an expensive commercial for the military industrial complex.  Director Oliver Stone, who released the antiwar Platoon the same year as Top Gun, said in an interview with People magazine that the message of Top Gun was, “If I start a war, I’ll get a girlfriend.”

Oliver Stone was not necessarily wrong about that.  The film, as we all know, stars Tom Cruise as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, a cocky young Navy flyer who attends the TOPGUN Academy, where he competes with Iceman (Val Kilmer) for the title of Top Gun and where he also spends a lot of time joking around with everyone’s favorite (and most obviously doomed) character, Goose (Anthony Edwards).  Maverick does get a girlfriend, Charlie (Kelly McGillis), but only after he’s had plenty of chances to show both how reckless and how skilled he can be while flying in a fighter plane.  Though the majority of the film is taken up with scenes of training and volleyball, the end of the film does give Maverick a chance to prove himself in combat when he and Iceman end up fighting a group of ill-defined enemies for ill-defined reasons.  It may not be an official war but it’s close enough.

That said, I think Oliver Stone was wrong about one key thing.  Maverick doesn’t get a girlfriend because he started a war.  He gets a girlfriend because he won a war.  Top Gun is all about winning.  Maverick and Iceman are two of the most absurdly competitive characters in film history and, as I watched the film last weekend, it was really hard not to laugh at just how much Cruise and Kilmer got into playing those two roles.  Iceman and Maverick can’t even greet each other without it becoming a competition over who gave the best “hello.”  By the time the two of them are facing each other in a totally savage beach volleyball match, it’s hard to look at either one of them without laughing.  And yet, regardless of how over-the-top it may be, you can’t help but get caught up in their rivalry.  Cruise and Kilmer are both at their most charismatic in Top Gun and watching the two of them when they were both young and fighting to steal each and every scene, it doesn’t matter that both of them would later become somewhat controversial for their off-screen personalities.  What matters, when you watch Top Gun, is that they’re both obviously stars.

“I’ve got the need for speed,” Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards say as they walk away from their plane.  The same thing could be said about the entire movie.  Top Gun doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff.  We know that Maverick is cocky and has father issues because he’s played by Tom Cruise and Tom Cruise always plays cocky characters who have father issues.  We know that Iceman is arrogant because he’s played by Val Kilmer.  We know that Goose is goofy because his nickname is Goose and he’s married to Meg Ryan.  The film doesn’t waste much time on exploring why its characters are the way they are.  Instead, it just accepts them for being the paper-thin characters that they are.  The film understands that the the most important thing is to get them into their jets and sends them into the sky.  Does it matter that it’s sometimes confusing to keep track of who is chasing who?  Not at all.  The planes are sleek and loud.  The men flying them are sexy and dangerous.  The music never stops and the sun never goes down unless the film needs a soulful shot of Maverick deep in thought.  We’ve all got the need for speed.

In so many ways, Top Gun is a silly film but, to its credit, it also doesn’t make any apologies for being silly.  Instead, Top Gun embraces its hyperkinetic and flashy style.  That’s why critics lambasted it in 1986 and that’s why we all love it in 2020.  And if the pilots of Top Gun do start a war — well, it happens.  I mean, it’s Maverick and Iceman!  How can you hold it against them?  When you watch them fly those planes, you know that even if they start World War III, it’ll be worth it.  If the world’s going to end, Maverick’s the one we want to end it.

 

Film Review: Insignificance (dir by Nicolas Roeg)


The 1985 film, Insignificance, opens in New York City in the 1950s.

On the streets of New York, a crowd has gathered to watch as the Actress (Theresa Russell), a famous sex symbol, is filmed standing on a grate while wearing a white dress.  Beneath the street and the Actress, a fan has been set up and the crowd of onlookers cheers as the Actress’s skirt is blown up around her hips, again and again.  Standing in the crowd, the Actress’s husband, the Ballplayer (Gary Busey), watches and shakes his head in disgust.  After the scene has been shot, the Actress hops in a taxi while the Ballplayer chases after her.  A very famous man is in town and the Actress is on her way to pay him a visit.

In a nearby bar, the Senator (Tony Curtis), drinks and talks and sweats.  Though it may not be obvious from looking at him, the Senator is a very powerful man.  He’s leading an investigations into subversives who may be trying to bring down the United States government.  He may look like a small-time mobster but the Senator can make and destroy people on a whim.  He’s come to New York on a very specific mission.  He and his goons are planning on pressuring another famous man into testifying before the Senator’s committee.

Though they don’t know it, both the Actress and the Senator are planning on dropping in on the same man.  The Professor (Michael Emil) is a world-renowned genius.  When we first see him, he is sitting alone in a hotel room and looking at a watch that has stopped at 8:15.  The public may know the Professor for his eccentricities but, in private, he is a haunted man.  The Professor’s work was instrumental in the creation of the first atomic bomb.  And now, with both the U.S. and Russia stockpiling their atomic arsenals and the world seemingly on the verge of war, the Professor fears that his work will be the end of humanity.

Though none of the characters are actually named over the course of the film, it should be obvious to anyone with even a slight knowledge of American history that the four main characters are meant to be versions of Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joe McCarthy, and Albert Einstein.  Insignificance imagines a meeting between these four cultural icons and really, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which they all could have met.  Joe DiMaggio actually was present during the filming of the subway grate scene from The Seven Year Itch and most accounts record his reaction as being not that different from what’s portrayed in Insignificance.  Albert Einstein was suspected of having communist sympathies and several scientific figures (including many who worked on the Manhattan Project) were investigated during the McCarthy era.  Finally, Marilyn Monroe was often frustrated by her “dumb blonde” image and said that she found Albert Einstein to be a very attractive man.  When she died, a biography of Einstein was reportedly found on her nightstand.

In the film, the Senator pressures The Professor to appear before his committee.  It’s not long after the Senator leaves that the Actress arrives.  The Actress announces that she’s fascinating by the theory of relativity and, using balloons, toys, and a flashlight, she proceeds to demonstrate the theory for the Professor.  The befuddled Professor is impressed.  The Actress informs the Professor that he’s at the top of her list.  Meanwhile, downstairs in another hotel room, the Senator is met by a prostitute who bears a resemblance to the Actress. The Ballplayer sits in the hotel bar, tearing up a picture of the Actress and wondering why their marriage is failing.

Because this film was directed by Nicolas Roeg, the film is full of seemingly random flashbacks.  We see the Senator as an altar boy, trying to impress a smiling priest.  We see the Ballplayer getting yelled at by his domineering father.  We see the Actress, growing up poor and being ogled, at first by the young boys at an orphanage and later by Hollywood execs.  Meanwhile, The Professor continually sees the destruction of Hiroshima.  His visions are apocalyptic and, towards the end of the film, he even gets a glimpse into a possible future of atomic hellfire.  It’s a film about fame and cultural transition, a film where people look to celebrities for hope while doomsday comes closer and closer.

Or something like that.  To be honest, I wanted to like Insignificance more than I actually did.  As is typical with so many of Nicolas Roeg’s films, Insignificance has an intriguing premise but the execution is a bit uneven.  There are moments of absolute brilliance.  Theresa Russell and Gary Busey both give perfect performances and the film’s final apocalyptic vision will haunt you.  And then there are moments when the film becomes a bit of a slog and the dialogue starts to get a bit too pretentious and on-the-nose.  Michael Emil has some good moments as the Professor but there are other moments when he seems to be lost.  Meanwhile, Tony Curtis gives such a terrible performance as The Senator that he throws the entire film off-balance.  Curtis bulges his eyes like a madman and delivers his lines like a comedian doing a bad 1930s gangster impersonation.

That said, Insignificance is still an interesting film.  It’s uneven but intriguing.  Though the film may take place in the 50s and may deal with a quartet of historical figures, it’s themes are still relevant in 2020.  People still tend to idealize celebrities.  Politicians still hold onto power by exploiting fear.  The possibility that everything could just end one day is still a very real one.  Insignificance is a film worth watching, even if it doesn’t completely work.

Film Review: Radioactive (dir by Marjane Satrapi)


If you want to talk about the birth of the modern world, you have to talk about Marie Curie.

That’s the argument made by the biopic, Radioactive.  It’s a compelling argument and it’s very much correct.  Born in Poland and a citizen of France, Marie Curie was the 1st woman to win the Nobel Prize, the 1st person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize a second time, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific fields.  She shared her first Nobel Prize (in Physics) with her husband, Pierre.  After Pierre’s tragic death, Marie won her second Nobel, this time for Chemistry.  Both her daughter and her son-in-law would go on to win Nobel Prizes of their own and the Curie family continues to produce notable scientists to this very day.

Marie Curie is best known for her pioneering research on radioactivity, a coin that she termed.  She developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes.  She discovered that radioactivity could be used to battle aggressive forms of cancer.  Without her research, there would be no nuclear power, no chemotherapy, no X-ray machines, and no atomic weaponry.  Marie Curie is one of the few people about whom it can legitimately be said that they changed the world.  Of course, Curie herself later died of a radiation poisoning.

Radioactive opens with Marie (played by Rosamund Pike) on the verge of death, before flashing back to show us her early life and she went from being an obscure scientist to becoming the world renowned Madame Curie.  We watch as she meets and falls in love with Pierre Curie (Sam Riley).  The film celebrates not only their love for each other but also takes a look at Marie’s struggle to escape from Pierre’s shadow.  Though she was acknowledged as his partner and won her first Nobel Prize with him, it’s not until Pierre is trampled death by a bunch of horses that Marie’s genius is truly acknowledged.  The scenes in which Marie expresses her frustration at being overshadowed by her husband are some of the best in the film, largely because the film doesn’t make the mistake of attempting to portray Pierre as intentionally stealing all of the glory for himself.  Instead, society just assumes that Pierre deserves most of the credit because …. well, Pierre’s a man and Marie’s a woman.

Unfortunately, Radioactive makes some perplexing narrative choices.  Throughout the film, there are random moments when we get a sudden flashfoward and see random people interacting with radioactivity.  For instance, we go to a hospital in the 1950s and we listen as a doctor explains that he’s going to use radioactivity to help a patient combat cancer.  Another scene features the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.  We see the nuclear tests in Los Alamos.  One moment, Marie is crying in the middle of the street.  The next minute, an ambulance drives past her, on the way to Chernobyl.  On the one hand, it’s easy to see what the film’s going for.  It’s showing us everything, good and bad, that will happen as a result of Marie Curie’s work.  It makes the very relevant argument that sometimes, in order to get something good (less pollution, treatments for cancer) you have to risk something bad, like the possibility of being vaporized by an atomic bomb.  But the flashforwards are handled so clumsily that they actually detract from the film.  When I watched the sequence taking place at the hospital, I found myself wondering if Marie Curie discovered bad acting before or after she discovered radioactivity.  This is probably one of the few instances where a biopic would have been helped by taking a more traditional approach to its material.

On the plus side, Radioactive does feature a very good performance from Rosamund Pike, who really deserves to be known for more than just killing Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl.  (Don’t spoiler alert me.  The film’s nearly 6 years old.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you weren’t ever going to.)  Radioactive is currently playing on Amazon Prime and you should definitely watch it if you’re planning on keeping radioactive isotopes in your desk at work.  Seriously, don’t do it.

Lifetime Film Review: Adopted in Danger (dir by Craig Goldstein)


DNA tests are tempting, aren’t they?

I mean, I’ve often been tempted to get one, even though I pretty much know all about my family history.  My maternal grandmother was born in Spain while my grandfather’s parents came to this country from Italy.  On my father’s side of the family, everyone is pretty much Irish with a little bit of German and French mixed in.  Despite the fact that I know all of this, it’s still tempting to do the whole DNA thing because then I’d have percentages to go along with my family history.  Percentages make every story better, or so I’ve heard.

Of course, there’s a lot of other people who get DNA tests because they’re hoping that they’ll turn out to have a really badass ancestor or that they’ll find some evidence that they’re actually more interesting than they appear to be.  Remember when Elizabeth Warren got that DNA test that proved she had less Native American ancestry than the average American?  That’s not a story that you’ll see repeated in a 23andMe commercial but it’s one that I found fascinating as an example of the importance that people put on having interesting ancestors.  I mean, technically, what’s wrong with saying, “Yes, my family’s boring but I’m not?”  Instead, we all want to say, “I’m interesting and so is everyone who has ever shared my DNA!”

That said, I’ll still probably never get a DNA test.  People always assume that DNA tests and ancestry research are going to bring them good news (“and then I discovered that I’m descended from the first person to ever open up a fast food restaurant in the state of Wyoming and it just changed everything….”) but it seems to me like they’re just asking for trouble.  Sure, you might be descended from a great and respected historical figure.  Then again, you also might discover that the people you thought were your parents stole you from the hospital.  You might discover that your father was actually the Goatman or something.  (It could happen.)  I mean, seriously, why take the risk when you can just take your grandmother’s word that, just because some your ancestors fought with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily agreed with him about everything.

In Adopted in Danger, Candace (Allison Paige) actually does have a fairly good reason for wanting to get a DNA test.  She’s adopted and she has no idea who her birth parents are.  At the very least, she would like to know where she came from just so she can have a complete medical history before she and her husband try to start a family.  That certainly seems reasonable but, unfortunately, it turns out to be a lot more trouble than its worth.  Candace’s DNA indicates that she’s the daughter of real estate developer Tom Mason (Jason Brooks).  However, when Candace goes to see Tom and tells her that he’s her father, Tom refuses to consider the idea.  Tom, in fact, accuses her of just being after money and kicks her out of his office.

Why is Tom so adamant that he’s not Candace’s father?  That’s something that Candace and her friends investigate, in between drinking a lot of wine.  And I do mean a lot of wine.  I think this film may have set a record as far as scenes involving friends drinking wine and discussing DNA might be concerned.  However, all of that wine cannot stop the murderous schemes of a powerful family with a secret to hold and soon, Candace finds herself and everyone she knows being targeted.

The main problem with Adopted in Danger is that it’s fairly predictable.  I kept waiting for a big twist that would reveal that there had been a mix-up with the DNA or that Tom Mason was some sort of imposter or something that would have taken me by surprise but nope.  There’s no mix-up with the DNA.  Tom Mason is Tom Mason.  It’s just he comes from a terrible family and they don’t want anyone to know that Candace is his daughter.  Everything plays out the way you would expect it to play out.

That said, if you’re going to solve a mystery, you might as well do it while hanging out with your two BFFs.  DNA, in Adopted in Danger, may show where you’re from but but your friendships and your lovers show who you are and that’s not a bad message at all.

The Things You Find On Netflix: Tread (dir by Paul Solet)


On June 4th, 2004, the small town of Granby, Colorado was briefly the center of the nation’s attention.

On that day, an armor-plated bulldozer rumbled down the streets of Granby.  The driver of the bulldozer was a local business owner named Marvin Heemeyer.  Heemeyer, who had previously been at the center of a zoning controversy, spent two hours driving the bulldozer through various buildings in Granby.  He destroyed the muffler shop that he had once owned.  He destroyed a nearby concrete plant.  He drove through the Granby City Hall.  He smashed the bulldozer through the offices of the local newspaper.  He demolished the home of a family who he felt had conspired against him.  He took out a hardware store.  For two hours, the police chased him, firing their weapons at the bulldozer and discovering that nothing could slow him down.  In fact, it wasn’t until one of the bulldozers’ treads dropped into the hardware store’s basement that the rampage stopped,  Unable to free the tread, Marvin Heemeyer committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

Before he went on his rampage, Heemeyer recorded himself talking about why he was going to do what he did.  He mailed those tapes to his brother in South Dakota a few hours before getting in the bulldozer.  His brother later turned those tapes over to the FBI.  In the tapes, Heemeyer discussed what he felt was years of harassment by the Granby town council and the zoning board.  He described himself as being an “American patriot” and he even went so far as to say that he felt his rampage was predestined.  He also went on to express amazement that he was able to spend two years openly modifying the bulldozer and turning it into a tank without anyone asking him what was going on.  He also made clear that when he entered the bulldozer for the last time, he knew that he was never going to leave it.  He truly was going on a suicide mission.

Those tapes are at the center of Tread, a documentary about Marvin Heemeyer and his 2004 rampage.  The film alternates between people discussing their memories of Marvin and that day and the taped voice of Marvin himself attempting to explain his motivations.  Almost everyone who is interviewed talks about what a friendly and genuinely nice person Marvin seemed to be.  Even though Marvin spent two years planning his rampage, no one — not even his girlfriend — appeared to suspect a thing.  Even in the weeks directly before his rampage, Marvin was making plans for the summer.  One friend of Marvin’s does speculate that Marvin spent “too much time alone.”

As many people interviewed point out, Marvin was, by most measures, a successful businessman.  He had a reputation for being the best welder in the county and he opened up a muffler shop in a building that he bought for $44,000.  He later sold that building for $400,000.  However, as the tapes reveal, Marvin didn’t view selling his shop for a profit as being a success.  Instead, he viewed as something that he was forced to do by the town council and their refusal to side with him in a zoning dispute that he had with the manufacturers of a concrete plant.  Marvin felt that the town was ruled by one family and that family was conspiring against him and singling him out for harassment.

I’m about as anti-government as they come so my natural instinct, when Tread began, was to be sympathetic to Marvin’s anger, if not his solution.  And, having now watched the documentary, I still have no doubt that Marvin probably was, to an extent, targeted by the zoning board and the town council.  The fact of the matter is that it’s rare that people don’t let the least amount of power go to their head.  That’s especially true when it comes to small towns.  There seems to be a natural pettiness that comes along with having power.  That’s true regardless of whether you’re the mayor of a small town in Colorado or the governor of a state like …. oh, I don’t know, let’s just say Michigan and New Jersey.  At the same time, when you listen to Marvin’s voice on tapes, it’s obvious that there was more going on in Marvin’s head than just anger over the zoning dispute.  When Marvin talks about how God obviously wanted him to modify the bulldozer and use it to destroy the town, you realize that, if it hadn’t been the zoning dispute, it probably would have been something else.  Marvin comes across as time bomb while the town leaders come across as being the people who unknowingly lit the fuse.

I have to admit that, until I watched this documentary, I had never heard of him but a simple Google search revealed that, in the years following his death, Marvin Heemeyer has gone on to become a hero to certain anti-government activists.  Though it’s been 16 years since he unleashed his bulldozer on the town of Granby, his story still feels relevant today.  There’s still a lot of angry people out there and, if anything, the people in power have gotten even more heavy-handed and arbitrary in their behavior today than they were in 2004.  That said, if you’re looking for a film that either vilifies or blindly celebrates Marvin Heemeyer, Tread is not that film.  Overall, Tread portrays Marvin Heemeyer as being a complicated man who, in the town of Granby, found the perfect reason (or, depending on how much sympathy you may or may not have for him, excuse) to strike out.

It’s currently available on Netflix.

Film Review: The Comic (dir by Carl Reiner)


The 1969 film, The Comic, details the long and not particularly happy life of silent screen star Billy Bright (played by Dick Van Dyke).  Billy Bright tells us his story from beyond the grave.  The film opens with his funeral, which is sparsely attended and features the type of self-consciously mawkish eulogies that are usually trotted out whenever a generally unlikable person dies.  The only sign of life at the funeral comes when Billy’s oldest friend, Cockeye (Mickey Rooney), throws a pie at one of the speakers.  The speaker says that the pie was Billy’s final joke.

Billy Bright was a funny performer but a miserable man.  That’s pretty much the entire plot of The Comic.  We see the young Billy, performing in silent films and winning laughs through the seemingly impossible contortions through which he puts his body and his face.  Off-screen, Billy marries one of his co-stars (Michele Lee) and starts a production company.  When she discovers that he’s been cheating on her, their divorce is a major Hollywood scandal.

Even before the coming of the talkies, Billy struggles with alcohol.  Once the talkies do come, his career is pretty much over.  Billy became a star in silent films and he stubbornly wants to continue to make silent films, despite the fact that there’s no longer an audience for them.  Billy quickly goes from being a star to being forgotten.  He’s reduced to walking down Hollywood Boulevard with Cockeye and looking at the names under his feet.  When he reaches his name, he discovers that someone has dropped their gum on it.

Billy finally does get his comeback in the late 60s but it’s not much of a comeback.  He appears on a talk show and it’s hard not to cringe a little as the clearly infirm Billy duplicates some of his silent era pratfalls.  He’s reduced to appearing in a rather awkward commercial for a laundry detergent called, I kid you not, White-ee.  “That’s White-ee, baby!” his commercial co-star says after a freshly cleaned Billy emerges from a washing machine.

The idea that most funny performers are actually rather serious and depressing off-stage is certainly nothing new.  Judd Apatow has basically built an entire career out of making films about how funny people are actually carrying around tons of emotional baggage.  The thing distinguishes The Comic from so many other films about angsty comedians is that Billy Bright himself never seems to have a single moment of self-awareness.  Usually, films about miserable celebrities will at least have one scene where the main character realizes that his misery is all his fault.  Billy Bright is pretty much a jerk from the minute we meet him and he’s still a jerk when the film ends.  He’s the type of guy who makes a big deal about picking up his son from school but who still manages to grab the wrong kid because it’s been so long since he’s spent any time with his family that he’s really not sure what his son looks like.  Towards the end of the film, we see him watching one of his old films and what we notice is that he doesn’t seem amused at all.  Is he thinking about how he lost it all or is it possible that this man who made millions laugh never really had much of sense of humor himself?  The film leaves it to you to decide.

The Comic was written and directed by Carl Reiner, who undoubtedly knew quite a few Billy Brights in his life.  As such, the film feels authentic in a way that a lot of other films about creative people do not.  The Comic is a well-made film.  It’s hard not to appreciate the film’s obviously affection for Old Hollywood.  That said, Billy Bright is such an unpleasant character that I found the film difficult to enjoy.  Van Dyke is genuinely funny whenever he’s doing Billy’s silent film shtick and he’s genuinely tiresome when Billy’s ego gets out of control.  It’s a good performance as a generally unlikable character.  How you react to The Comic will probably depend on how much sympathy you can summon up for a character who doesn’t really seem to deserve any.

Lifetime Film Review: The Baby Monitor Murders (dir by Danny J. Boyle)


Apple Springs, Washington might seem like a nice little town but appearances can be deceiving.  Mallory Raymond has gone missing and no one can find her.  The local sheriff seems to suspect that her husband, Glenn (Dustin Lloyd). may have had something to do with it.  Meanwhile, Glenn is spending all of his time in the park where Mallory was last seen.  Is he searching for his wife or is he searching for another victim?

While Mallory is busy disappearing, Cassie (Natalie Sharp) is busy returning.  Cassie grew up in Apple Springs and she’s just returned from college.  She thought she was going to get an internship with a music label but that fell through.  Now, it looks like like Cassie is going to have to spend the entire summer stuck at her parent’s house.  That’s fine with her parents, of course.  They’re heading to Paris and they need someone to housesit.

Not wanting to spend another summer working at the local diner, Cassie is very happy when she just happens to run into Chloe Paine (Nicole LaPlaca), a lawyer who is planning on returning to work but who desperately needs someone to look after her daughter, Becca.  Chloe asks Cassie if she wants the job and Cassie accepts.

Soon, Cassie is spending hours a day over at the Paine house, taking care of Becca.  She gets to know Chloe’s husband, the seemingly friendly Tom Paine (Jon Cor).  She also gets to know Glenn, who it turns out just happens to work with Tom.  Cassie can’t help but notice that Tom and Glenn seem to always be arguing about something.

Strange things start to happen.  One night, Cassie is sure that she’s being watched.  Another night, she hears a menacing voice come over the baby monitor but, when she checks out Becca’s room, she doesn’t find anyone there.  And then, much like Mallory before her, Chloe disappears!

Where has Chloe gone?  Has she been kidnapped?  Has she been murdered?  And if that’s the case, who’s responsible?  Is it Tom, the seemingly perfect husband who seems to have a few secrets hiding underneath the friendly surface?  Or is it Glenn, who appears to be obviously unstable but who swears that the only thing he cares about is discovering what happened to his wife?  Even though almost everyone tells Cassie that she should just quit her job and stay away from the Paines, Cassie knows that would mean abandoning Beeca and that’s not something that she’s willing to do….

The Baby Monitor Murders, which initially aired way back in January, was originally entitled The Babysitter and really, that’s a better title for the film.  While the scene with the voice coming over the baby monitor is an undeniably creepy one, it’s also a rather minor one.  The film’s focus is much more on Cassie and her growing realization that she’s found herself in a dangerous and potentially deadly situation.  Natalie Sharp gives a good and sympathetic performance as Cassie, making her devotion to Becca feel believable and, as a result, giving this film a bit more emotional depth than the typical Lifetime film.  The mystery itself is frequently intriguing and you’ll find yourself going back and forth on whether Glenn or Tom is the one who Cassie should be weary of.  All in all, The Baby Monitor Murders is a good Lifetime film that will keep you guessing.