18 Days of Paranoia #4: The Falcon and the Snowman (dir by John Schlesinger)

The 1985 film, The Falcon and the Snowman, tells the story of two friends.  They’re both wealthy.  They’re both a little bit lost, with one of them dropping out the seminary and the other becoming a drug dealer who is successful enough to have a lot of money but inept enough to still be treated like a joke by all of other dealers.

Chris Boyce (Timothy Hutton) is the son of a former FBI agent (Pat Hingle).  He has a tense relationship with his father.  It’s obvious that the two have never really been sure how to talk to each other.  While his father is sure of both himself and his country, Chris is far more sensitive and quick to question.  While his father plays golf and attends outdoor barbecues, Chris becomes an expert in the sport of falconry and spends a lot of time obsessing about the state of the the world.  While his father defends Richard Nixon during the Watergate investigation, Chris sees it as evidence that America is a sick and corrupt country.  Because his father doesn’t want Chris sitting around the house all day, he pulls some strings to get Chris a job working at the “Black Vault,” where Chris will basically have the ability to learn about all sorts of classified stuff.

Daulton Lee (Sean Penn) was Chris’s best friend in school.  Daulton’s entire life revolves around cocaine.  He both sells and uses it.  He’s managed to make a lot of money but his addiction has also left him an erratic mess.  Daulton’s father wants to kick him out of the house.  Daulton’s mother continually babies him.  Chris and Daulton may seem like an odd pair of friends but they’re both wealthy, directionless, and have a difficult time relating to their fathers.  It somehow seems inevitable that these two would end up as partners.

Chris Boyce and Daulton Lee, together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

No, actually, they don’t.  Instead, they end up betraying their country.  (Boooo!  Hiss!  This guy’s a commie, traitor to our nation!)  After Chris discovers that the CIA has been interfering in the elections of America’s allies (in this case, Australia), he decides to give information to the Russians.  Since Daulton already has experience smuggling drugs over the southern border, Boyce asks Lee to contact the KGB the next time that he’s in Mexico.  Despite being a neurotic and paranoid mess, Lee manages to do just that.

Of course, as Chris soon comes to discover, betraying your country while working with a greedy drug addict is not as easy as it seems.  While Chris wants to eventually get out of the treason game, marry his girlfriend (Lori Singer), and finish up college, Daulton wants to be James Bond.  The Russians, meanwhile, soon grow tired of having to deal with Lee and start pressuring Chris to deal with them directly….

And it all goes even further downhill from there.

Based on a true story, The Falcon and the Snowman tells the story of how two seemingly very different young men managed to basically ruin their lives.  Boyce’s naive idealism and Lee’s drug-fueled greed briefly makes them a powerful duo but they both quickly discover that betraying your country isn’t as a simple as they assumed.  For one thing, once you’ve done it once, it’s impossible to go back to your normal life.  As played by Hutton and Penn, Chris and Daulton are two very interesting characters.  Boyce is full of righteous indignation and sees himself as being a hero but the film hints that he’s mostly just pissed off at his Dad for never understanding him or caring that much about falconry.  Daulton, meanwhile, is a lunatic but he seems to be aware that he’s a lunatic and that makes his oddly likable.  At times, it seems like even he can’t believe that Chris was stupid enough to depend on him.  The film provides a convincing portrait of two men who, because of several impulsive decisions, find themselves in over their heads with no possibility of escape.

The Falcon and the Snowman is an entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking time capsule of a different age.  If the film took place in 2020, Daulton would be hanging out with the Kardashians and Chris would probably be too busy working for the Warren campaign to spy for America’s enemies.  If only the two of them had been born a few decades later, all of this could have been of avoided.

Previous Entries In The 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Privates Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: The Terminal Man (dir by Mike Hodges)

Check out the poster for 1974’s The Terminal Man.

Look at it carefully.  Examine it.  Try to ignore the fact that it’s weird that George Segal was once a film star.  Yes, on the poster, Segal has been drawn to have a somewhat strange look on his face.  Ignore that.  Instead, concentrate on the words in the top left corner of the poster.


That’s actually quite an accurate description.  The Terminal Man is definitely a film for adults.  No, it’s not pornographic or anything like that.  Instead, it’s a movie about “grown up” concerns.  It’s a mature film.  In some ways, that’s a good thing.  In some ways, that’s a bad thing.

Taking place in the near future (and based on a novel by Michael Crichton), The Terminal Man tells the story of Harry Benson (played, of course, by George Segal).  Harry is an extremely intelligent computer programmer and he’s losing his mind.  It might be because he was in a serious car accident.  It may have even started before that.  Harry has black outs and when he wakes up, he discovers that he’s done violent things.  Even when he’s not blacked out, Harry worries that computers are going to rise up against humans and take over the world.

However, a group of scientists think that they have a way to “fix” Harry.  It’ll require a lot of brain surgery, of course.  (And, this being a film from 1973, the film goes into excruciating details as it explains what’s going to be done to Harry.)  The plan is to implant an electrode in Harry’s brain.  Whenever Harry starts to have a seizure, the electrode will shock him out of it.  The theory is that, much like Alex in A Clockwork Orange 0r Gerard Malanga in Vinyl, Harry will be rendered incapable of violence.

Of course, some people are more enthusiastic about this plan than others.  Harry’s psychiatrist (Joan Hackett) fears that implanting an electrode in Harry’s brain will just make him even more paranoid about the rise of the computers.  Other scientists worry about the ethics of using technology to modify someone’s behavior.  Whatever happens, will it be worth the price of Harry’s free will?

But, regardless of the risks, Harry goes through with the operation.

Does it work?  Well, if it worked, it would be a pretty boring movie so, of course, it doesn’t work.  (Allowing Harry’s operation to work would have been like allowing King Kong to enjoy his trip to New York.)  Harry’s brain becomes addicted to the electrical shocks and, as he starts to have more and more seizures, Harry becomes even more dangerous than he was before…

The Terminal Man is a thought-provoking but rather somber film.  On the one hand, it’s a rather slow movie.  The movie does eventually get exciting after Harry comes out of surgery but it literally takes forever to get there.  The movie seems to be really determined to convince the audience that the story it’s telling is scientifically plausible.  On the other hand, The Terminal Man does deal with very real and very important issues.  Considering how threatened society is by people who cannot be controlled, issues of behavior modification and free thought will always be relevant.

Though the film may be slow, I actually really liked The Terminal Man.  Judging from some of the other reviews that I’ve read, I may be alone in that.  It appears to be a seriously underrated film.  As directed by Mike Hodges, the film is visually stunning, emphasizing the sterility of the white-walled hospital, the gray blandness of the doctors, and the colorful vibrancy of life outside of science.  Though he initially seems miscast, George Segal gives a good and menacing performance as Harry.

The Terminal Man requires some patience but it’s worth it.

A Movie A Day #166: Warning Sign (1985, directed by Hal Barwood)

The world might end, again.

There is a laboratory in the middle of the desert.  While everyone thinks that the lab is developing pesticides, it is actually a secret government facility where the scientists have developed a chemical that will turn anyone exposed to it into a homicidal maniac.  While the scientists are celebrating the success of their project, Dr. Tom Schmidt (G.W. Bailey — yes, Captain Harris from the Police Academy movies) steps on a vial and releases the chemical.  The lab locks down and the army (led by Yaphet Kotto) arrives.  The government wants to let the scientists kill each other off but a pregnant security guard (Kathleen Quinlan) is also trapped in the lab and her husband, the county sheriff (Sam Waterston), is determined to get her out.

Warning Sign was blandly directed by Hal Barwood, a longtime associate of both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  (Barwood wrote the script for Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express and designed the title sequence for Lucas’s THX 1138.)  Barwood tried to take a very Spielbergian approach to Warning Sign, a mistake because successfully imitating Spielberg is easier said than done.  Replace the shark with germs and the ocean with a lab on lock down and Warning Sign is  like Jaws, without any of the suspense or humor.  Sam Waterston’s germaphobic sheriff feels like a knock off of Roy Scheider’s aquaphobic police chief while Jeffrey DeMunn, as an alcoholic scientist, stands in for both Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw.    With the violence and the gore kept to a minimum, this is one of the most tasteful zombie films ever made.  Just compare it to George Romero’s The Crazies (or even the remake) to see how needlessly safe Warning Sign is.

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.


Shattered Politics #43: Being There (dir by Hal Ashby)


As a general rule, I don’t watch the news.  However, a few nights ago, I made an exception and I watched CNN.  The reason was because it was snowing in New York City and apparently, CNN anchorman Don Lemon was broadcasting from something called the Blizzardmobile.  I just had to see that!

Well, the Blizzardmobile turned out to be huge letdown.  I was hoping for something like the Snowpiercer train but instead, it just turned out to be a SUV with a camera crew and a pompous anchorman who hilariously kept insisting that he was knee-deep in a blizzard when even a Texas girl like me could tell that the Blizzardmobile was only encountering a few snow flurries.

So, I flipped around to see if any of the other news stations had anyone in a blizzardmobile.  What I discovered was that only CNN had a blizzardmobile but one thing that every news station did have was a panel of experts.  An anchorperson would say something like, “What does the future look like?” and the panel of experts would tell us what the future looked like to them.  What I found interesting was that I had no idea who these experts were but yet I was supposed to just believe that their opinions were worth considering.

I mean, for all I knew, those experts could have just been people who were spotted wandering around New York at night.  But, because they were introduced as experts and looked directly at the camera whenever they spoke, they were suddenly authoritative voices.

Oddly enough, the very next night, I watched a movie from 1979 that dealt with the exact same issue.

Being There tells the story of Chance (Peter Sellers), a dignified, middle-aged man who lives in Washington, D.C. and works as a gardener for a wealthy older man.  Chance cannot read.  Chance cannot write.  Chance goes through life with a blank smile on his face.  Chance has never experienced the outside world.  Instead, he spends all of his time working in the old man’s garden and obsessively watching TV.  When the old man dies, Chance finds himself exiled from the house.  Wandering around Washington D.C., Chance asks a random woman to make him dinner.  He politely speaks with a drug dealer who pulls a knife on him.  Finally, he finds himself entranced by a window display of televisions.  Backing away from the window, Chance stumbles into the street and is struck by a car.

Though he’s not seriously injured, the owner of the car, Eve Rand (Shirley MacClaine), insists that Chance come back to her mansion with him so that he can be checked out by her private physician (Richard Dysart).  As they drive back to the house, Eve asks Chance for his name.

“Chance the Gardner,” Chance replies.

“Chauncey Gardiner?” Eve asks.

Chance blankly nods.

Back the house, Chance meets Eve’s husband, Ben (Melvyn Douglas).  Ben is a wealthy industrialist who is dying of leukemia.  Ben takes an immediate liking to Chance.  Because Chance is wearing the old man’s suits, everyone assumes that Chance is a wealthy businessman.  When Chance says that he had to leave his home, they assume that his business must have failed due to government regulation.  When Chance talks about his garden, everyone assumes that he’s speaking in metaphors.

Soon, Ben is introducing Chance to his friend, Bobby (Jack Warden).  Bobby happens to be the President and when he quotes Chance in a speech, Chance the Gardner is suddenly the most famous man in the country.  When he appears on a TV talk show, the audience mistakes his emotionless comments for dry wit.  When he talks about how the garden reacts to different seasons, they assume that he’s an economic genius.  By the end of the film, Bobby has become so threatened by Chance’s popularity that he’s been rendered impotent while wealthy, rich men plot to make Chance the next President of the United States.

Chance and Neil

In many ways, Chauncey Gardiner was the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his era.

Being There is a one joke film and the idea of someone having no emotional skills beyond what he’s seen on television was probably a lot more mind-blowing back in 1979 than it is in 2015.  But I still enjoyed the film.  Peter Sellers gave a great performance as Chance, never sentimentalizing the character.  As well, the film’s point is still relevant.  If Being There were made today, Chance would be the subject of clickbait articles and Facebook memes.  (Chauncey Gardiner listed his ten top movies and number 8 will surprise you!  Or maybe This boy asked Chauncey Gardiner about his garden and his response was perfect.)

At its best, Being There is a film that will encourage you to question every expert you may see.  Especially if he’s just stepped out of a blizzardmobile…


Quick Review: John Carpenter’s The Thing

When I was little, my family used to have this cable service called WHT. I can’t remember what it stood for, but recall that it was a one channel station that would constantly show movies. It was like Starz for anyone who didn’t want to pony up the extra money for actual HBO at the time. Since it was set up at my Grandparents house (where I lived), sometimes we’d all gather around for a Movie Night on Saturdays. This is something my family’s done often during the years, and the current part of my family does this on Sundays now, premiering films we haven’t seen yet.

It was one of these Saturday nights that I first witnessed John Carpenter’s The Thing. I had to go to bed for it, being as young as I was for the film, but with the door open I could hear the music and sounds from my bed. At one point, I climbed out of the top bunk and snuck to the stairs, watching the film in my PJ’s. My family would get pretty engrossed with movies, so they never bothered to glance in my direction. After all, this was the first time any of them were seeing this film, and they all loved the original.

I was doing fine until that Husky’s head split open. If I just kept my mouth shut, I could have seen the whole film. After that, I couldn’t stop screaming, “Omigod! The doggie!!” I was met with cries of “Go to Bed!!” from just about everyone. Even though I climbed back into bed, there was no way I was able to fall asleep. Every gunshot, every yell caused me to bundle myself under my blankets with my eyes wide open.

Since then, The Thing has become a family favorite, a reliable go to film for any time it’s cold or rainy or dark. I even showcased it for my friends in Oregon who hadn’t seen it before and they also had almost the same reaction to that poor dog.

So, what is The Thing?

Other than maybe being John Carpenter’s strongest film (which many will argue, because there’s always a place for Big Trouble in Little China for me), it’s a great example of a work in progress that was just done and put to print. Like Jaws, the film ran into some problems. Special FX member Rob Bottin suffered from exhaustion from working so hard on the film. They had some issues with coming up with the final representation of The Thing that wouldn’t appear too cartoon-like or animatronic. There was even a fire during the taping of a huge effect shot involving a body ripping open because of the chemicals that were put into the latex workup. Even though the movie takes place in Antarctica (which I believe roughly 6 months of night), the film actually has a day and night cycle, having filmed in Juneau, Alaska. On top of that, with all of the money thrown at the film, it pretty much tanked at the box office. As quirky as all those elements are, the movie just works because of both the isolation of the characters, the trust issues that occur as a result of the events, and the claustrophobic space they live in. In some ways, it’s very similar to Ridley Scott’s Alien to me (sans the trust issues), but with much better lighting. The Thing is pretty much a cult classic at this point.

The story of The Thing is boosted if you’ve seen the original The Thing From Another World with the late James Arness, but it’s not a requirement. It starts off with a dog being chased by a helicopter, who manages to reach a Research Outpost in Antarctica, occupied by Twelve members. The crew soon discovers that that things aren’t exactly what they seem, but neither are they. Unlike the original movie, the creature in this film has the ability to absorb and mimic whatever organism comes into contact with (which actually is pretty creepy in its own right, that sense of violation). Trust plays a huge part in the story as the crew fight to save themselves while still trying to keep a close eye on who’s walking among them.

The atmosphere of the film is really augmented by the sound. As old as the film is, the sound quality holds up incredibly well on a surround system. The wind from the snow, bullets ricocheting, the panting of dogs and of course the dripping of blood all sound like someone put a microphone right up to all of them to capture it as best they could. The outpost, as big as it is, actually has a lot of narrow hallways with canisters stacked to the sides in many places, giving the place a cramped feel. Add to that Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme and you’ve got a recipe for horror. I mean, for someone who’s scored fantastic Westerns, one would think that Morricone and a Carpenter film might not gel well, but it really does.

Visually, compared to films today, The Thing is pretty tame for it’s effects, and some (the final rendering of the Thing itself, in particular) can be a little dated, but not so much that you should groan about it. At the time, however, it was considered gory (and I guess when you’re in shock on seeing a dog’s face split open, there’s someone smiling somewhere saying to themselves..”Yeah, that worked right there”).

The Thing marks another John Carpenter / Kurt Russell pairing. Russell’s R.J. MacReady is the figure we follow through the film. It’s through him that we try to make sense of everything going on. In one scene that involves him huddled in a corner with a flamethower and some dynamite, defending himself from his friends, you get the notion that you want to be on that guy’s side. Even if following him means getting blown up to a million pieces, because it really becomes difficult to trust anyone in this film. Paranoia plays a huge role.

The cast is rounded out by a few other notable members. Richard Dysart (L.A. Law, Prophecy) plays Doc Copper, and is actually pretty good here. Keith David (Requiem for a Dream, They Live) plays Childs, who really doesn’t believe in any of that “voodoo bullshit”. Thomas Waites (The Warriors) is Windows, who for me, represents the scared kid of the group. He’s not sure what’s up, he just wants to be away from it. Then, of course, you have Wilford Brimley, who seems to realize the problem but takes measures in his own hands rather telling the others just how bad things could get.

Overall, The Thing is highly recommended. I know there’s a remake in the works, and part of me is a little excited for it, hoping that it’s done well. I can’t imagine the filmmakers today running into half of the issues they had in the original.

The Thing also marks one of the best Director commentaries I’ve heard. If you have a chance to watch the film with the Director track on (which I believe Russell also has a hand in with Carpenter in talking about the film), it’s pretty interesting what they elaborate on. Also noteworthy (and funny) is Rob Bottin’s story on the effect sequence that started a fire.  That’s definitely worth a listen.