Favorite Son (1988, directed by Jeff Bleckner)


During a reception on the steps of U.S. Capitol, an assassin kills Contra leader Col. Martinez (Geno Silva) and seriously wounds Sen. Terry Fallon (Harry Hamlin), an up-and-coming politician from Texas.  An eager media catapults Fallon to national stardom and the beleagued President (James Whitmore), who is facing a tough reelection bid, is pressured to replace the current vice president (Mitchell Ryan) with Fallon.

The FBI only assigns two of their agents to investigate the assassination, a sure sign that someone wants the investigation to just go away.  Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) is a crusty, hard-drinking veteran agent whose career is nearly at an end.  David Ross (Lance Guest) is his young and idealistic partner.  When Mancuso and Ross discover that Martinez was injected with the HIV virus just two days before the assassination, it becomes obvious that there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.  It all links back to Sally Crain (Linda Kozlowski), who is Fallon’s legislative aide and also his lover.  (Fallon has a wife but she’s locked away in a hospital.)  Sally has an interest in bondage, as Ross soon finds out.

Favorite Son was originally aired as a 3-night, 4 and a half-hour miniseries.  It was later reedited and, with a running time of less than two hours, released theatrically overseas as Target: Favorite Son.  As a miniseries, Favorite Son is an exciting conspiracy-themed film that is full of scheming, plotting, interesting performances, and pungent dialogue.  Target: Favorite Son, on the other hand, is disjointed and, unless you know the original’s plot, almost impossible to follow.  If you’re going to watch Favorite Son, make sure you see the original miniseries.  My mom taped it off of NBC when it originally aired.  That was the only way that I was able to originally see the film the way that it meant to be seen.  The entire miniseries has also been uploaded, in three parts, to YouTube.

Hopefully, the original miniseries will get an official release someday because it’s pretty damn entertaining.  Harry Hamlin isn’t really dynamic enough for the role of Fallon but otherwise, the movie is perfectly cast.  Robert Loggia is so perfect for the role of Nick Mancuso that it almost seems as if the character was written for him.  (Loggia did later star in a one-season drama called Mancuso, FBI.)  Linda Kozlowski seems to be destined to be forever known as Crocodile Dundee’s wife but her performance as Sally shows that she was a better actress than she was given credit for.  The supporting cast also features good performances from Jason Alexander, Ronny Cox, Tony Goldwyn, John Mahoney, Kenneth McMillian, Richard Bradford, and Jon Cypher.

Favorite Son may be over 30 years old but it’s still relevant today.  In the third part, John Mahoney gives a speech about how American voters are often willfully ignorant when it comes to what’s going on behind the scenes in Washington and it’s a killer moment.  Melodramatic as Favorite Son may be, with its portrayal of political chicanery and an exploitative national media, it’s still got something to say that’s worth hearing.

 

Goin’ South (1978, directed by Jack Nicholson)


Jack Nicholson was not an overnight success.

Nicholson was 17 years old when he first came to Hollywood in 1954.  Looking to become an actor, Nicholson toiled as an office worker at the MGM cartoon studio, took acting classes, and went to auditions.  It would be four years before he even landed his first role, the lead in the Roger Corman-produced The Cry Baby Killer.  When that film failed to become a hit, Nicholson spent the next ten years doing minor roles and occasionally starring in a B-picture.  He auditioned for some big parts, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, and Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, but his big break continued to allude him.  By 1969, Nicholson was so disillusioned with acting that he was planning to instead pursue a career as a director.  However, before Nicholson officially retired from the acting game, he received a call from the set of Easy Rider.  Depending on who you ask, Rip Torn, who had previously been cast in the role of alcoholic George Hanson, had either quit or been fired.  Bruce Dern, the first choice to replace Torn, was busy filming They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Nicholson agreed to step into the role and the rest is history.

Easy Rider may have made Jack Nicholson one of the world’s biggest film stars but he never lost his ambition to direct.  In 1971, he made his directorial debut with Drive, He Said, a film about campus unrest.  At the time, the film flopped at both the box office and with critics and quickly sunk into obscurity.  (It has subsequently been rediscovered and, in some cases, positively reevaluated.)  After the failure of Drive, He Said, it would be another seven years before Nicholson again got a chance to direct.

Nicholson’s second film as a director, Goin’ South, is a comedic western.  Nicholson plays Henry Lloyd Moon, an unsuccessful outlaw who used to ride with Quantrill’s Raiders.  When Moon is captured in Longhorn, Texas, he is sentenced to be hanged.  Fortunately, for Moon, Longhorn has a special ordinance.  Any man condemned for any crime other than murder can be saved from the gallows if a local woman agrees to marry him and take responsibility for his good behavior.  As a result of this ordinance, Longhorn is populated almost exclusively by single women and reformed outlaws.

While standing on the gallows, the cocky Moon is stunned to discover that none of the women want to marry him.  Finally, an old woman emerges from the crowd and announces that she’ll become Moon’s wife.  When Moon hops off the gallows and thanks her, the woman drops dead.  Fortunately, another, younger woman, Julia Tate (Mary Steenburgen, making her film debut), steps forward.

Once they’re married, the lecherous Moon discovers that Julia is a virgin and that the only reason she married him was so she could force him to work in the secret gold mine that’s hidden underneath her property.  The railroad will soon be taking over the land and Julia wants to get all of the gold before she leaves town for Philadelphia.  Though Julia, at first, wants nothing to do with Moon, he eventually wears her down through sheer persistence and the two fall in love.

Complicating matters is Deputy Towfield (Christopher Lloyd), who is upset because he feels that Julia was meant to be his wife.  Also, the members of Moon’s former gang (including Danny DeVito and Veronica Cartwright) show up at Julia’s house and discover the truth about the mine.

Goin’ South gets off to a good start.  The scene on the gallows, where Moon waits for someone to marry him and save his life, is genuinely funny and Nicholson and Steenburgen have a playful chemistry for the first hour of the movie.  Nicholson leers even more than usual in this film but the script is written so that the joke is always on Moon.  Much of the film’s humor comes from Moon always overestimating both his charm and his cleverness.  However, once Moon and Julia finally consummate their marriage, the movie loses whatever narrative momentum it may have had and gets bogged down with the subplots about Towfield and Moon’s gang.  There are funny moments throughout but the story gets away from Nicholson and the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, none of which build up to much.

Not surprisingly, Nicholson gets good performances from his cast, which is largely made up by the members of his 1970s entourage.  Along with Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, longtime Nicholson associates like Tracey Walter, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Bradford, Jeff Morris, and Luana Anders all appear in small roles.  John Belushi plays the tiny role of Deputy Hector.  (Goin’ South was actually the first film in which Belushi was cast, though production didn’t actually begin until after Belushi had finished working on National Lampoon’s Animal House.)  Unfortunately, despite all of the good performances, the script doesn’t do much to develop any of the characters.  Belushi especially feels underused.  (Because Belushi had moved on to Animal House by the time the film went into post-production, Nicholson ended up dubbing several of Belushi’s lines himself.)

Drive, He Said was largely considered to have failed at the box office because Nicholson remained behind the camera so he took the opposite approach with Goin’ South.  Nicholson is in nearly every scene and he gives one of his broadest performances.  It works for the first half of the film, when Moon is constantly trying to get laid and failing every time.  But, during the second half of the movie, Nicholson’s failure to reign in his performance works to the film’s detriment.  When the movie needs Nicholson to be romantic, he’s still behaving like a horny cartoon. Whenever he looks at Mary Steenburgen, it seems as if his eyes should be popping out of his head, Tex Avery-style.  He’s an entertaining cartoon, but a cartoon nonetheless.  As a result, Goin’ South is often funny but it still feels very inconsequential.

Like Drive, He Said, Goin’ South was both a critical and a box office flop and it temporarily turned Nicholson off of directing.  It would be another 12 years before he would once again step behind the camera.  In 1990, Nicholson directed The Two Jakes, the sequel to one of his best films, Chinatown That would be Nicholson’s last film as a director.  Nicholson acted for another 20 years, following the release of The Two Jakes.  To date, he made his final screen appearance in 2010, with a supporting role in James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know.  Nicholson has disputed claims that he’s officially retired, saying that he’s instead just being more selective about his roles.  Even though it’s been ten years since we last saw him on screen, Jack Nicholson remains an American icon and a living legend.

Guilty Pleasure No. 36: The Legend of Billie Jean (dir by Matthew Robbins)


Two weeks ago, while I was sick in bed, I watched The Legend of Billie Jean, a deeply silly movie from 1985.

Okay, get this.  Billie Jean (Helen Slater) and her younger brother, Binx (an incredibly young Christian Slater), live in Corpus Christi, Texas.  Binx has always wanted to go to Vermont.  That right there should tell you just how silly this movie is.  Not only does it feature a character named Binx but it also features Texans wanting to go to Vermont.  I’m a native Texan who loves to travel but I can tell you right now that the last place I would ever want to go would be Vermont.  In fact, down here, we tend to assume that Vermont’s just a place that was made up by the media.  Bernie Sanders?  He’s just an actor.  Seriously, there’s no way that Vermont actually exists.

Anyway, after Binx throws a milkshake in the face of local bully, Hubie Pyatt (Barry Tubb), Hubie steals Binx’s scooter.  (If you’re stuck with a name like Hubie Pyatt, it seems kinda predestined that you’re going to grow up to be a bully.)  After getting nowhere with the police, Billie Jean returns home to discover that Binx has been beaten up and his scooter has been dismantled.  Billie Jean goes to Hubie’s father (Richard Bradford) to demand some money to get the scooter fixed.  Mr. Pyatt responds by attempting to assault Billie Jean, which leads to Binx shooting Mr. Pyatt in the shoulder.

So now, Billie Jean and Binx are on the run.

Joining them in their flight are two idiot friends (Martha Gehman and Yeardley Smith) and Lloyd (Keith Gordon), the son of the local district attorney.  Because this is a movie, Billie Jean quickly becomes a media superstar.  Everyone wants to meet Billie Jean.  Everyone wants to help Billie Jean.  A sympathetic police detective (Peter Coyote) is determined to capture Billie Jean without violence but that might be difficult with the media constantly getting in the way.

While hiding out in a motel, Billie Jean turns on the TV and watches the classic 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc.  (I have to say that I’ve stayed in a few motels around Corpus Christi and never once did I turn on the TV and just happen to come across a classic silent movie.)  Moved by Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role, Billie Jean decides to cut her hair really, really short (though not as short as Falconetti’s).  I guess Billie Jean is supposed to be a 1980s version of Joan of Arc, which really doesn’t make any sense.  I mean, Joan of Arc heard the voice of God and led the French to victory over the British.  Billie Jean is just trying to get some money to get her brother’s scooter fixed and pay for a trip to the imaginary state of Vermont.

Meanwhile, Mr. Pyatt has recovered from his wounds and is now selling Billie Jean merchandise in his store.  The detective mentions how weird that is but Mr. Pyatt is just out to make some money.  Can you blame him?  The entire country is obsessed with Billie Jean!

As you might have guessed, The Legend of Billie Jean is incredibly silly but likable.   Despite having an inconsistent Texas accent, Helen Slater does a good job in the lead role of Billie Jean and it’s interesting to actually see Christian Slater before he developed the sarcastic style that, for better or worse, has come to define pretty much all of his performances.  Never for a second do you believe that Billie Jean would actually become a media superstar.  (Nor do you ever believe that she’s the type who would have the patience to watch a silent movie.)  I mean, when you get right down to it, it’s a pretty dumb movie.  But, when you’re sick in bed, The Legend of Billie Jean is a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line
  30. Wolfen
  31. Hail Caesar!
  32. It’s So Cold In The D
  33. In the Mix
  34. Healed By Grace
  35. Valley of the Dolls

Cannes Film Review: Missing (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1982 film Missing takes place in Chile, shortly after the American-backed military coup that took out that country’s democratically elected President, Salvador Allende.

Of course, the film itself never specifically states this.  Instead, it opens with a narrator informing us that the story we’re about to see is true but that some names have been changed “to protect the innocent and the film.”  The film takes place in an unnamed in South America, where the military has just taken over the government.  Curfew is enforced by soldiers and the sound of gunfire is continually heard in the distance.  Throughout the film, dead bodies pile up in the streets.  Prisoners are held in the National Stadium, where they are tortured and eventually executed.  Women wearing pants are pulled out of crowds and told that, from now on, women will wear skirts.  The sky is full of helicopters and, when an earthquake hits, guests in a posh hotel are fired upon when they try to leave.  About the only people who seem to be happy about the coup is the collection of brash CIA agents and military men who randomly pop up throughout the film.

Again, the location is never specifically identified as Chile.  In fact, except for the picture of Richard Nixon hanging in the American embassy, the film never goes out of its way to point out that the film itself is taking place in the early 70s.  If you know history, of course, it’s obviously meant to be Chile after Allende but the film itself is set up to suggest that the story its telling is not limited to one specific place or time.

Charlie Horman (John Shea) is an American who lives in the country with his wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek).  Charlie is a writer who occasionally publishes articles in a local left-wing newspaper.  In the aftermath of the coup, Charlie is one of the many people who go missing.  All that’s known is that he was apparently arrested and then he vanished into the system.  The authorities and the American ambassador insist that Charlie probably just got lost in the confusion of the coup and that he’ll turn up any day.  Even though thousands have been executed, everyone assumes that Charlie’s status as an American would have kept him safe.  As brutal as the new government may be, they surely wouldn’t execute an American….

Or, at least, that’s what Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) believes.  Ed is Charlie’s father, a businessman from New York who simply cannot understand what’s going on.  He can’t understand why his son and his daughter-in-law went to South America in the first place.  He can’t understand why his government is not doing more to find his son.  And, when he eventually arrives in South America himself, Ed cannot understand the violence that he sees all around him.

Working with Beth, Ed investigates what happened to his son.  At first, Ed blames Beth for Charlie’s disappearance and Beth can barely hide her annoyance with her conservative father-in-law.  But, as their search progresses, Beth and Ed come to understand each other.  Beth starts to see that, in his way, Ed is just as determined an idealist as Charlie.  And Ed learns that Charlie and Beth had good reason to distrust the American government…

Costa-Gavras is not exactly a subtle director and it would be an understatement to say that Missing is a heavy-handed film.  The Embassy staff is so villainous that you’re shocked they don’t all have mustaches to twirl while considering their evil plans.  When, in a flashback, Charlie meets a shady American, it’s not enough for the man to be a CIA agent.  Instead, he has to be a CIA agent from Texas who heartily laughs after everything he says and who brags on himself in the thickest accent imaginable.  When Charlie talks to an American military officer, it’s not enough that the officer is happy about the coup.  Instead, he has to start talking about how JFK sold everyone out during the Bay of Pigs.

As the same time, the film’s lack of subtlety also leads to its best moments.  When Beth finds herself out after curfew, the city turns into a Hellish landscape of burning books and dead bodies.  As Beth huddles in a corner, she watches as a magnificent white horse runs down a dark street, followed by a group of gun-toting soldiers in a jeep.  When Ed and Beth explore a morgue, they walk through several rooms of the “identified” dead before they find themselves in a room containing the thousands of unidentified dead.  It’s overwhelming and heavy-handed but it’s also crudely effective.  While the film itself is a bit too heavy-handed to really be successful, those scenes do capture the horror of living under an authoritarian regime.

(Interestingly, Missing was a part of a mini-genre of films about Americans trapped in right-wing South American dictatorships.  While you can’t deny the good intentions of these films, it’s hard not to notice the lack of films about life in Chavez’s Venezuela or the political dissidents who were lobotomized in Castro’s Cuba.)

Missing won the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (an award that it shared, that year, with the Turkish film Yol) and it also received an Oscar nomination for best picture of the year.  (It lost to Gandhi.)

Film Review: The Mean Season (dir by Phillip Borsos)


From the very first few scenes of the 1985 film, The Mean Season, one thing is abundantly clear.  People are dying in Florida.

In itself, that’s probably not a shock.  Death is a part of life, after all.  Add to that, the majority of The Mean Season takes place in Miami, the seventh most populous area of the United States.  It makes sense that the more people you have living in one area, the more people are also going to end up dead.  That’s just the way things work.

Still, Malcolm Anderson is getting tired of all the death.  Played by a youngish and sexy Kurt Russell, Malcolm’s a journalist.  He covers the crime beat for the Miami Herald.  He spends all day reporting on death and violence and he’s finally reached the point where he’s burned out.  He and his girlfriend, a teacher named Christine (Mariel Hemingway), are even planning on moving to Colorado.  Malcolm says that he could be very happy working at a small town newspaper.  His editor (Richard Masur) doesn’t believe him and, quite frankly, neither do we.  Malcolm may say that he wants peace and quiet but it’s hard not to feel as if he’s fooling himself.

One day, Malcolm gets a phone call.  The voice on the other line (which belongs to character actor Richard Jordan) is deceptively calm.  The caller explains that he’s a fan of Malcolm’s work.  The caller also claims to be responsible for a series of murders that have recently taken place.  At first, Malcolm is skeptical.  After all, he gets calls from crazy people all the time.  That’s one reason why he wants to leave Miami, after all.  But then the caller starts to give Malcolm details about the crimes, details that haven’t been released to general public…

The killings continue and, after every murder, the caller contacts Malcolm.  Soon, Malcolm is appearing on the national news, giving carefully calculated interviews about what it’s like to be a celebrity.  Malcolm is soon on the front page of all the papers.  Malcolm’s happy.  His editor is happy.  But you know who isn’t happy?  The killer.  He didn’t go to all the trouble to kill those people just so Malcolm could get famous off of his hard work!  Soon, the killer is no longer content to just call Malcolm.  Now, he wants to meet face-to-face and maybe even get to know Christine as well…

The Mean Season is one of those movies that starts out well but then falls apart towards the end.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the killer eventually ends up kidnapping Christine.  You probably figured out that was going to happen as soon as I told you that Malcolm had a girlfriend.  (It doesn’t help that Christine is such an underwritten character that it feels like the only reason she was put in the film was so she could be used for one gratuitous nude scene and then get kidnapped.)   Once the killer kidnaps her, he goes from being a genuinely intriguing menace to just being a typical and overly verbose movie psycho.

That’s a shame because the first half of The Mean Season is really quite good.  The film makes excellent use of its locations, capturing the humid atmosphere of Florida in the summer.  As the killer, Richard Jordan alternates between being coldly calculating and surprisingly vulnerable without missing a beat.  (Interestingly, he appears to be personally hurt when he realizes that Malcolm doesn’t consider him to be a friend.)  Not surprisingly, Kurt Russell is likable as the conflicted Malcolm but his best moments are the ones where he suggests that Malcolm has become so addicted to fame that he’s almost hoping that the killer strikes again.  As the two homicide detectives who are assigned to keep an eye on Malcolm, both Richard Bradford and Andy Garcia are perfectly cast.  A scene where Bradford tries to comfort a child who accidentally gets in the middle of the search for the killer is the best in the film.  “We’re just looking for the bad guys,” he tell the traumatized child.  It’s small moments like this that elevates The Mean Season above the typical mid-80s serial killer film.

Seen today, The Mean Season — with its emphasis on newspapers — feels like a historical artifact.  If the film were made today, Russell would definitely work for either a 24-hour cable news channel or an online news site.  It actually would be interesting to see this story updated and retold for the age of clickbait.  Somebody needs to get on that and, while they’re at it, come up with the type of ending that an otherwise intriguing story like this deserves.

Cleaning Out The DVR: Just The Ticket (dir by Richard Wenk)


(Hi there!  So, as you may know because I’ve been talking about it on this site all year, I have got way too much stuff on my DVR.  Seriously, I currently have 193 things recorded!  I’ve decided that, on January 15th, I am going to erase everything on the DVR, regardless of whether I’ve watched it or not.  So, that means that I’ve now have only have a month to clean out the DVR!  Will I make it?  Keep checking this site to find out!  I recorded the 1999 romantic comedy Just The Ticket off of Epix on October 13th!)

Just The Ticket tells the story of Gary Starke (Andy Garcia).

Gary lives in New York City.  He is a tough, streetwise character, loyal to his friends and quick to anger if he feels that anyone is trying to take advantage of him.  He has no time for pretentious posturing or snobbish social gatherings.  Gary’s a man of the people.  He works with and takes care of an aging former boxer named Benny (Richard Bradford).  He looks after a pregnant, former drug addict named Alice (Laura Harris).  When the slick and dangerous Casino (Andre B. Blake) starts to do business in Gary’s territory, Gary is the only person with the guts to stand up to him.  Having never had a family (he’s never even seen his birth certificate and has no idea who his parents were), Gary has adopted the street people as his surrogate family.

That’s not all.  Gary is also a lapsed Catholic who, when he goes to confession, opens by saying that it’s been 25 years since his last confession and that he’s taken the Lord’s name in vain 20 to 30 times that morning.  Gary needs some help because his girlfriend, an aspiring chef named Linda (Andie McDowell), has left him and Gary wants to win her back.  The priest asks Gary if he can get him tickets to see the Knicks…

Why does he ask that?

You see, Gary is a legendary ticket scalper and…

Okay, I probably just lost you when I used the terms “legendary” and “ticket scalper” in the same sentence.  And I’ll admit that, when I discovered this movie was about ticket scalpers, it nearly lost me as well.  Just The Ticket treats ticket scalping with a dignity and reverence that I’m not quite sure it deserves.  I wasn’t surprised to discover that director/writer Richard Wenk apparently based the character of Gary on an actual ticket scalper that he knew.  A lot of bad movies have been made as the result of a director, writer, or producer coming across some mundane activity and thinking, “Wow, this would make a great movie!”

(That’s one reason why, every few years, we suddenly get a dozen movies about race car drivers.)

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Just The Ticket is not a terrible movie.  Admittedly, it’s totally predictable and there are a lot of scenes that don’t work.  For instance, there’s a lengthy scene where Gary and Linda destroy a snobbish food critic’s kitchen.  I could imagine Gary doing that because he has nothing to lose.  But Linda is actually hoping to become a chef in New York City.  Would she really run the risk of making a permanent enemy at the New York Times?  There’s nothing about Andie McDowell’s performance that suggests she would.  The scenes between Gary and his aging partner also tend to overplay their hand.  Richard Bradford gives a good performance as Benny but we all know what’s going to end up happening to him as soon as he starts crying after Gary insults him.

With all that in mind, Just The Ticket still has an undeniable charm.  Some of it is due to Andy Garcia’s dedicated performance.  He is frequently better than the material and he and Andie McDowell have enough chemistry that you do want to see Linda and Gary get back together.  Some of it is because Just The Ticket is not afraid to shy away from being sentimental.  It’s hard to think of any other romantic comedy in which the Pope plays such an important supporting role.  It’s a sweet movie.  It has a good heart.

There’s something to be said for that.

A Movie A Day #265: Hoodlum (1997, directed by Bill Duke)


1930s.  New York City.  For years, Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has been the benevolent queen of the Harlem underworld, running a successful numbers game and protecting her community from outsiders.  However, psychotic crime boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) is determined to move into Harlem and take over the rackets for himself.  With the weary support of Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Schultz thinks that he is unstoppable but he did not count on the intervention of Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).  Just paroled from Sing Sing, Bumpy is determined to do whatever has to be done to keep Schultz out of Harlem.

When I reviewed The Cotton Club yesterday, I knew that I would have to do Hoodlum today.  Hoodlum and The Cotton Club are based on the same historic events and both of them feature Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson.  Of the two, Hoodlum is the more straightforward film, without any of the operatic flourishes that Coppola brought to The Cotton Club.  Fisburne is surprisingly dull as Bumpy Johnson but Tim Roth goes all in as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia is memorably oily as the Machiavellian Luciano.  Hoodlum is about forty minutes too long but the gangster action scenes are staged well.  Bumpy Johnson lived a fascinating life and it is unfortunate that no film has yet to really do him justice, though Clarence Williams III came close with his brief cameo in American Gangster.  (Interestingly enough, Williams is also in Hoodlum, playing one of Shultz’s lieutenants.)

One final note: Hoodlum features William Atherton in the role of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.  Atherton plays Dewey as being a corrupt and sleazy politician on Luciano’s payroll.  In real life, Dewey was known for being so honest that Dutch Schultz actually put a contract out on his life after he discovered that Dewey could not be bribed.  I am not sure why Hoodlum decided to slander the subject of one of America’s most famous headlines but it seems unnecessary.

A Movie A Day #245: The Missouri Breaks (1976, directed by Arthur Penn)


After Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his gang of rustlers (played by Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, and Harry Dean Stanton) rob a train, Logan uses the money to buy a small ranch.  Their new neighbor is Braxton (John McLiam), a haughty land baron who considers himself to be an ambassador of culture to the west but who is not above hanging rustlers and hiring gunmen.  One such gunman is the eccentric Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a “regulator” who speaks in a possibly fake Irish brogue, is a master of disguise, and uses a variety of hand-made weapons.  Braxton hires Clayton to kill Logan and his men, despite the fact that his daughter (Kathleen Lloyd) has fallen in love with Logan.

A flop that was so notorious that it would be five years before Arthur Penn got a chance to direct another film, The Missouri Breaks is best remembered for Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance.  Brando reportedly showed up on the set late and insisted on largely improvising his part, which meant speaking in a comical Irish accent, singing an impromptu love song to his horse, and disguising himself as an old woman for one key scene.  (According to Patrick McGilligan’s Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, co-star Harry Dean Stanton grew so incensed at Brando’s behavior that he actually tried to rip the dress off of Brando, saying that he simply would not be “killed’ by a man wearing a dress.)  Brando’s later reputation for being a disastrously weird performer largely started with the stories of his behavior on the set of The Missouri Breaks.

I had heard so many bad things about Brando and The Missouri Breaks that I was surprised when I finally watched it and discovered that it is actually a pretty good movie.  For all of his notoriety, Brando does not enter this leisurely paced and elegiac western until after half a hour.  The majority of the movie is just about Jack Nicholson and his gang, with Nicholson giving a low-key and surprisingly humorous performance that contrasts well with Brando’s more flamboyant work.  While Arthur Penn may not have been able to control Brando, he still deftly combines moments of comedy with moments of drama and he gets good performances from most of the supporting cast.  Quaid, Stanton, Forrest, and Nicholson are all just fun to watch and the rambling storyline provides plenty of time to get to know them.  Whenever Brando pushes the movie too close to self-parody, Nicholson pulls it back.   The Missouri Breaks may have been a flop when it was released but it has aged well.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Night Game (dir by Peter Masterson)


Apparently, today is the opening day of the 2017 baseball season.  The only reason that I know that is because of my sister Erin.  I don’t know much about baseball, to be honest.  I know that my city’s team is the Texas Rangers and they were once owned by George W. Bush.  I know that Houston has a team called the Astros.  But, really, the main thing that I know about baseball is that my sister absolutely loves it.

So, when Erin asked me to review a baseball movie today, how could I say no?  I mean, I may know next to nothing about baseball but I certainly know something about movies!

For that reason, I’m going to take a few minutes to tell you about a 1989 film called Night Game.  Night Game is many things.  It’s a movies that features a lot of baseball, even though it’s not really a sports film per se.  It’s a police procedural, though the film itself suggests that the police often don’t have the slightest idea what they’re actually doing.  It’s a serial killer film, though its killer is never quite as loquacious as we’ve come to expect in this age of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan.  At times, it’s a slasher film, though it’s never particularly graphic.  Mostly, Night Game is a Texas film.

Directed by native Texan Peter Masterson, Night Game is like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in that it is one of those rare films that not only takes place in Texas but was actually filmed on location.  To be exact, Night Game was filmed in both Galveston and Houston.  The entire film has a friendly and quirky Texas feel to it.  Masterson may not have been a great visual director (If not for some language and nudity, Night Game could pass for a TV movie) but Night Game is a movie where the plot is less important than capturing the little details of a time. a location, and the people who lived there.  Though Night Game is 28 years old, it’s portrait of my home state still seemed very contemporary to me.  I guess Texas hasn’t really changed that much over the past few decades.

As for the film’s plot, someone is murdering young women in Galveston and leaving their bodies on the boardwalk.  Obviously, that’s not going to be good for attracting Spring Break revelers.  The film doesn’t make any effort to keep the murderer’s identity a secret.  We see his face fairly early on.  We also see that he has a hook for a hand.  Eventually, we do learn the murderer’s motives.  They’re pretty silly but then again, individual motives rarely make sense to anyone other than the guy with the hook for a hand.

Detective Mike Seaver (Roy Scheider) has been assigned to solve the case.  One thing that I really liked about Night Game was that Mike was pretty much just a normal guy with a job to do.  He wasn’t self-destructive.  He wasn’t always drunk.  He wasn’t suicidal.  He wasn’t always lighting a cigarette and staring at the world through bloodshot eyes while the lighting reflected off of his artful stubble.  He was just a detective trying to do his job and get home on time.  After sitting through countless films about self-destructive cops and criminal profilers, the normalcy of Mike was a nice change of pace.

Mike does have a backstory.  He used to play baseball and he still loves the game.  He goes to every Astros home game in Houston.  He’s in love with Roxy (Karen Young), who works at the stadium.  Things are only slightly complicated by the fact that Mike had a previous relationship with Roxy’s mother (Carlin Glynn).  Don’t worry, Mike’s not secretly Roxy’s father or anything like that.  It’s not that type of movie.

Anyway, Mike is such a fan of baseball that he realizes something.  The killer only strikes on nights that the Astros win a game.  And he only strikes if a certain pitcher was throwing the ball.  The obvious solution would be to shoot the pitcher in the arm and end his athletic career.  However, Mike’s too nice a guy to do that.  Instead, he just tries to track down the killer…

And, as I said, Night Game actually isn’t a bad little movie.  Make no mistake, it’s a very slight movie.  At no point are you going to say, “I’m going to remember that scene for the rest of my life!”  That said, it’s a surprisingly good-natured film and Roy Scheider’s performance is likable and unexpectedly warm.  With all that in mind, Night Game is an entertaining and (mildly) bloody valentine to my home state.

Plus, it’s a baseball movie!  I don’t know much about baseball but, if my sister loves it, it has to be a good thing!

When McQueen Met Ibsen: An Enemy of The People (1978, directed by George Schaefer)


What happened when famed action star Steve McQueen met playwright Henrik Ibsen?

Here’s Steve McQueen in The Great Escape:

Steve McQueen In The Great Escape

This is Steve McQueen in Bullitt:

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

Here’s Steve McQueen with his future wife, Ali MacGraw, in The Getaway:

Steve McQueen in The Getaway

And finally, here’s Steve McQueen starring in An Enemy of the People:

Steve McQueen in Enemy of the People

In the four years between appearing in the Oscar-nominated The Towering Inferno and starring in An Enemy of the People, McQueen notoriously turned down several high-profile projects.  He turned down the lead role in Sorcerer because director William Friedkin would not write a role for MacGraw.  He turned down the lead role in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind because he felt that he would not be able to cry on cue.  (When Spielberg offered to take out the crying scene, McQueen replied that it was the best scene in the script.)  Francis Ford Coppola could not afford his salary and McQueen missed out on the chance to play Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now, a role he would have been perfect for.

AnEnemyOfThePeople_posterInstead, after a four years absence, McQueen returned to the screen in one of the least expected films of his career.  Based on Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s original play, An Enemy of the People featured McQueen playing Dr. Thomas Stockmann, a scientist who discovers that his town’s local spring has been polluted by a tannery.  When Stockmann reveals his findings, the town turns against him and his family.  Stockmann has to decide whether to give into pressure from the town or to stay true to his principles.

As a star who was best known for playing stoic men of action, Steve McQueen was the last actor that anyone expected to appear in a film based on an Ibsen play.  McQueen also insisted on playing the role with a heavy beard and a stocky build, making him virtually unrecognizable on-screen.  Warner Bros. had no idea how to advertise An Enemy of The People so they didn’t.  After a year of sitting on the shelf, An Enemy of the People was given a limited run in a few college towns.  Many critics assumed that McQueen deliberately made an uncommercial movie just to get out of his contract with Warner Bros but, according to both Ali MacGraw and Marshall Terrill’s Steve McQueen: An American Rebel, McQueen was actually very enthusiastic about making An Enemy of the People and extremely disappointed when it was not a success.  After the film failed to find an audience, Steve McQueen returned to appearing in action films and westerns.

Steve McQueen in Tom Horn (1980)

Steve McQueen in Tom Horn (1980)

I recently saw An Enemy of the People on TCM and I thought it was slow and didactic.  (It did not help that An Enemy of the People is Ibsen’s weakest play.)  Especially in the beginning, there are a few scenes where McQueen struggles to hold his ground against co-stars Charles Durning and Richard Dysart, both of whom had far more theatrical experience.  But McQueen gets better as the film goes on and proves that his deceptively casual approach can still be effective even when he is playing an intellectual who chooses to make his point with his words instead of his fists.  He does a good job handling Ibsen’s notoriously wordy speeches.  By the end of the movie, the idea of Steve McQueen in an Ibsen play no longer seems strange at all.

After An Enemy of the People, McQueen would only make two more movies before dying of cancer at the age of 50.  Based on his performance as Dr. Stockmann, I believe that if McQueen had not died, he would have aged into being a great actor, in much the same way as Clint Eastwood.  It’s unfortunate that McQueen never got that chance.

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