The Conquering Hero: Baby Blue Marine (1976, directed by John D. Hancock)


The year is 1943 and America is at war.  All young men are expected to join the Marines and fight for their country but the Corps is not willing to accept just anyone.  Marion (Jan-Michael Vincent) wants to continue a family tradition of service but, as his drill sergeant (Michael Conrad) puts it, Marion just is not pissed off enough to be a Marine.  Marion is kicked out basic training and told to go home.  He is given a blue uniform to wear on his jury so that anyone who sees him will know that he couldn’t cut it.

Ashamed of his failure and in no hurry to confront his family, Marion takes the long route home.   While having a drink in California, he meets a Marine (Richard Gere) who did not get kicked out of basic training.  Though not yet 30, this shell-shocked Marine already has a head of gray hair, which he says he got from the horrors of war.  The Marine is due to return to the fighting in Europe but, upon meeting Marion, he sees a way out. When Marion gets drunk, the Marine knocks him out, switches uniforms with him, and goes AWOL.

When Marion comes to, he discovers that everyone that he meets now judges him by his new uniform.  Strangers buy him drinks.  Other servicemen try to pick fights with him.  When he stops off in a small Colorado town, a local waitress (Glynnis O’Connor) falls in love with him and nearly everyone that he meets assumes that he must be a hero.  Marion doesn’t exactly lie about his past.  Instead, he simply allows people to believe whatever they want to believe about him.  It seems like an idyllic situation until three prisoners from a nearby Japanese internment camp escape and the towns people expect Marion to help capture them.

Loosely plotted and sentimental, Baby Blue Marine is a dramatic version of Preston Sturges’s Hail The Conquering Hero.  Though the film has a gentle anti-war message, it’s actually more about nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent time.  If the film had been made at height of the Vietnam War, it might have been more angrier and more cynical.  But, instead, this is one of the many post-Watergate films that wistfully looked back upon the past.  When Marion settles into the town, he finds what appears to be a perfect and friendly home.  Only the nearby internment camp and the town’s hysteria over the escape prisoners serve as reminders that things are never as ideal as they seem.  Jan-Michael Vincent gives one of his best performances as the well-meaning Marion and actors like Richard Gere, Bert Remsen, Katherine Helmond, Dana Elcar, Michael Conrad, Bruno Kirby, and Art Lund all make strong impressions in small roles.

One of the few films to be produced by television mogul Aaron Spelling, Baby Blue Marine is not easy to find but worth the search.

Playing Catch-Up: Autumn in New York, Griffin & Phoenix, Harry & Son, The Life of David Gale


So, this year I am making a sincere effort to review every film that I see.  I know I say that every year but this time, I really mean it.

So, in an effort to catch up, here are four quick reviews of some of the movies that I watched over the past few weeks!

  • Autumn in New York
  • Released: 2000
  • Directed by Joan Chen
  • Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessy, J.K. Simmons, Sam Trammell, Mary Beth Hurt

Richard Gere is Will, a fabulously wealthy New Yorker, who has had many girlfriends but who has never been able to find the one.  He owns a restaurant and appears on the cover of New York Magazine.  He loves food because, according to him, “Food is the only beautiful thing that truly nourishes.”

Winona Ryder is Charlotte, a hat designer who is always happy and cheerful and full of life.  She’s the type who dresses up like Emily Dickinson for Christmas and recites poetry to children, though you get the feeling that, if they ever somehow met in real life, Emily would probably get annoyed with Charlotte fairly quickly.  Actually, Charlotte might soon get to meet  Emily because she has one of those rare diseases that kills you in a year while still allowing you to look healthy and beautiful.

One night, Will and Charlotte meet and, together, they solve crimes!

No, actually, they fall in love.  This is one of those films where a young woman teaches an old man how to live again but then promptly dies so it’s not like he actually has to make a huge commitment or anything.  The film does, at least, acknowledge that Will is a lot older than Charlotte but it still doesn’t make it any less weird that Charlotte would want to spend her last year on Earth dealing with a self-centered, emotionally remote man who is old enough to be her father.  (To be honest, when it was revealed that Charlotte was the daughter of a woman who Will had previously dated, I was briefly worried that Autumn in New York was going to take an even stranger turn….)

On the positive side, the films features some pretty shots of New York and there is actually a pretty nice subplot, in which Will tries to connect with the daughter (Vera Farmiga) that he never knew he had.  Maybe if Farmiga and Ryder had switched roles, Autumn in New York would have worked out better.

  • Griffin & Phoenix
  • Released: 2006
  • Directed by Ed Stone
  • Starring Dermot Mulroney, Amanda Peet, Blair Brown, and Sarah Paulson

His name is Henry Griffin (Dermot Mulroney).

Her name is Sarah Phoenix (Amanda Peet).

Because they both have highly symbolic last names, we know that they’re meant to be together.

They both have cancer.  They’ve both been given a year to live.  Of course, they don’t realize that when they first meet and fall in love.  In fact, when Phoenix comes across several books that Griffin has purchased about dealing with being terminally ill, she assumes that Griffin bought them to try to fool her into falling in love with him.  Once they realize that they only have a year to be together, Griffin and Phoenix set out to make every moment count…

It’s a sweet-natured and unabashedly sentimental movie but, unfortunately, Dermot Mulroney and Amanda Peet have little romantic chemistry and the film is never quite as successful at inspiring tears as it should be.  When Mulroney finally allows himself to get mad and deals with his anger by vandalizing a bunch of cars, it’s not a cathartic moment.  Instead, you just find yourself wondering how Mulroney could so easily get away with destroying a stranger’s windshield in broad daylight.

  • Harry & Son
  • Released: 1986
  • Directed by Paul Newman
  • Starring Paul Newman, Robby Benson, Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Judith Ivey, Ossie Davis, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Borowitz, Maury Chaykin, Joanne Woodward

Morgan Freeman makes an early film appearance in Harry & Son, though his role is a tiny one.  He plays a factory foreman named Siemanowski who, in quick order, gets angry with and then fires a new employee named Howard Keach (Robby Benson).  Howard is the son in Harry & Son and he’s such an annoying character that you’re happy when Freeman shows up and starts yelling at the little twit.  As I said, Freeman’s role is a small one.  Freeman’s only on screen for a few minutes.  But, in that time, he calls Howard an idiot and it’s hard not to feel that he has a point.

Of course, the problem is that we’re not supposed to view Howard as being an idiot.  Instead, we’re supposed to be on Howard’s side.  Howard has ambitions to be the next Ernest Hemingway.  However, his blue-collar father, Harry (Paul Newman, who also directed), demands that Howard get a job.  Maybe, like us, he realizes how silly Howard looks whenever he gets hunched over his typewriter.  (Robby Benson tries to pull off these “deep thought” facial expressions that simply have to be seen to be believed.)  There’s actually two problems with Howard.  First off, we never believe that he could possibly come up with anything worth reading.  Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Paul Newman could ever be the father of such an annoying little creep.

Harry, of course, has problems of his own.  He’s just lost his construction job.  He’s having to deal with the fact that he’s getting older.  Fortunately, his son introduces him to a nymphomaniac (Judith Ivey).  Eventually, it all ends with moments of triumph and tragedy, as these things often do.

As always, Newman is believable as a blue-collar guy who believes in hard work and cold beer.  The film actually gets off to a good start, with Newman using a wrecking ball to take down an old building.  But then Robby Benson shows up, hunched over that typewriter, and the film just becomes unbearable.  At least Morgan Freeman’s around to yell at the annoying little jerk.

  • The Life of David Gale
  • Released: 2003
  • Directed by Alan Parker
  • Starring Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet, Laura Linney, Gabriel Mann, Rhona Mitra, Leon Rippy, Matt Craven, Jim Beaver, Melissa McCarthy

For the record, while I won’t shed any tears whenever Dzhokahr Tsarnaev is finally executed, I’m against the death penalty.  I think that once we accept the idea that the state has the right to execute people, it becomes a lot easier to accept the idea that the state has the right to do a lot of other things.  Plus, there’s always the danger of innocent people being sent to die.  The Life of David Gale also claims to be against the death penalty but it’s so obnoxious and self-righteous that I doubt it changed anyone’s mind.

David Gale (Kevin Spacey) used to the head of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.  He used to be a nationally renowned activist against the death penalty.  But then he was arrested for and convicted of the murder of another activist, Constance Harraway (Laura Linney) and now David Gale is sitting on death row himself.  With his execution approaching, journalist Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet) is convinced that Gale was framed and she finds herself racing against time to prevent Texas from executing an innocent man…

There’s a lot of things wrong with The Life of David Gale.  First off, it was made during the Bush administration, so the whole film is basically just a hate letter to the state of Texas.  Never have I heard so many inauthentic accents in one film.  Secondly, only in a truly bad movie, can someone have a name like Bitsey Bloom.  Third, the whole film ends with this big twist that makes absolutely no sense and which nearly inspired me to throw a shoe at the TV.

Of course, the main problem with the film is that we’re asked to sympathize with a character played by Kevin Spacey.  Even before Kevin Spacey was revealed to be a sleazy perv, he was never a particularly sympathetic or really even that versatile of an actor.  (Both American Beauty and House of Cards tried to disguise this fact by surrounding him with cartoonish caricatures.)  Spacey’s so snarky and condescending as Gale that, even if he is innocent of murder, it’s hard not to feel that maybe David Gale should be executed for crimes against likability.

A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

A Movie A Day #69: Intersection (1994, directed by Mark Rydell)


This one is just dumb.

Vincent Eastman (Richard Gere) and his wife, Sally (Sharon Stone), own an architectural firm.  Vincent is supposed to be creative and passionate but mostly he’s just Richard Gere in mom jeans.  Sally is a brilliant businesswoman but she is also emotionally repressed to the point of being frigid.  Vincent eventually starts having an affair with a travel writer named Olivia (Lolita Davidovich), who is everything that Sally is not.  Despite Martin Landau telling him that he has to make a decision because, and I quote, “Keep everything under one roof. That’s a basic rule of architecture,” Vincent cannot choose between his hateful wife and his loving mistress.  First he writes a letter to Olivia, telling her that he can not leave his wife.  Then, he sees a little girl who, like Olivia, has curly red hair and he takes that as a sign that he should leave his wife.  He calls Olivia and leaves a gushing message on her machine, telling her that he’s leaving Sally.  But before the letter is sent or the message is heard, Vincent is in a car crash that leaves him in a coma.  As both his wife and his mistress wait outside his hotel room, Vincent has visions of his two lovers swimming by him and struggles to decide who to follow.  Even in a coma, Vincent is an indecisive prick.

Intersection was on HBO while I was sick.  I watched it and it just made me feel worse.  Intersection was made during a weird period of time when Richard Gere was a romantic star and Sharon Stone was trying to prove that she was a serious actress.  Stone lobbied to be cast against type as Sally but she plays the role as so hard and bitchy that there’s never any question as to whether or not Vincent should leave her for Olivia.  Lolitia Davidovich (whatever happened to her?) does what she can with Olivia but the character never has any existence beyond her relationship with Vincent.  As for Richard Gere, when he starts hyperventilating about seeing a little girl who looks like his mistress, you’ll want to report him to social services.

Sadly, Intersection was directed by Mark Rydell and written by Marshall Brickman, two people who did great work before Intersection and have done very little since.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #102: Chicago (dir by Rob Marshall)


ChicagopostercastIt’s strange to refer to a best picture winner as being underrated but that’s exactly the perfect description for the 2002 film Chicago.

When Chicago was named the best picture of 2002, it was the first musical to take the top prize since The Sound of Music won in 1965.  Until the box office success and Oscar triumph of Chicago, it was assumed by many that a musical had to be animated in order to be successful.  After Chicago won, the conventional wisdom was changed.  Dreamgirls, Nine, Rock of Ages, Hairspray, Jersey Boys,  Into the Woods, Les Miserables, none of these films would have been produced if not for the success of Chicago.  It’s also due to Chicago that television networks are willing to take chances on shows like Glee and Smash.  And while I think a very valid argument could be made that we would all be better off without Glee, Smash, and Rock of Ages, you still can not deny that Chicago both challenged and changed the conventional wisdom.

And yet, despite its success and its continuing influence, Chicago is one of those best picture winners that often seems to get dismissed online.  Some of that’s because, by winning best picture, Chicago defeated not only The Two Towers (which is arguably the best installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy) but also Roman Polanski’s searing masterpiece, The Pianist.  Critics often point out that The Pianist won for best adapted screenplay, best actor, and best director but Chicago somehow managed to win best picture.  They suggest that the Academy was either worried about the implications of giving best picture to a film directed by Roman Polanski or else they were blinded by Chicago‘s razzle dazzle.  They argue that Chicago was merely an adaptation of an iconic stage production, whereas The Pianist and The Two Towers were both the result of visionary directors.

Well, to be honest, I think those critics do have a point.  The Pianist is one of the most emotionally devastating films that I have ever seen.  The Two Towers is the perfect mix of spectacle and emotion.  And yet, with all that in mind, I still love Chicago.

And it’s not just because of scenes like this:

Or this:

Or even this scene of Richard Gere tap dancing:

If you’ve been reading this site for a while then you know my bias.  You know that I grew up dancing.  You know that I love to dance.  And you know that I automatically love any film that features a dance number.  And, since you know my bias, you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, of course Lisa likes this….”  And you’re right.

But you know what?  Even if nobody danced a step in this film, I would still enjoy it.  (Though it would be odd to see a musical with absolutely no dancing.)  Chicago is not just about spectacle.  Instead, it tells a very interesting story, one that is probably even more relevant today than when the film was first released.

Set in 1924, Chicago tells the story of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger).  Married to the decent but boring Amos (John C. Reilly), Roxie wants to be a star.  She has an affair with slrazy Fred Casely (Dominic West), believing that he has showbiz connections.  When Fred finally admits to her that he lied in order to sleep with her, Roxie reacts by murdering him.  Because Roxie is pretty and blonde and claims to have been corrupted by the big, bad, decadent city, she becomes a celebrity even while she sits in jail and awaits trial.

Also in the jail is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a nightclub singer who killed her husband and sister.  Roxie idolizes Velma but, after Velma snubs her, a rivalry forms between the two.  Roxie hires Velma’s lawyer, the slick Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).  During the trial, Roxie becomes even more popular, Velma grows jealous, and the only innocent women on death row — a Hungarian who can’t speak English — is ignored and executed because she doesn’t make for a good news story.

Chicago is a cynical and acerbic look at both the mad pursuit of celebrity and the pitfalls of the American justice system.  In its way, it’s the film that predicted the Kardashians.  (If Roxie had been born several decades later, it’s not difficult to imagine that she’d build her career off of a sex tape as opposed to murder.)  Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones are both sociopathic marvels in their respective roles.  Even Richard Gere, who, in other films, can come across as being oddly empty, is perfectly cast and surprisingly witty in the role of Billy.

Director Rob Marshall does a great job of making this stage adaptation feel truly cinematic.  At no point does Chicago feel stagey.  Perhaps Marshall’s smartest decision was to tell the entire film through Roxie’s eyes.  Every musical lives and dies based on whether it can convince the audience that it would perfectly natural for everyone onscreen to suddenly break out into song.  Chicago is convincing because, of course, Roxie would view her life as being a musical.

And did I mention that the film features a lot of great dancing?

Because it so seriously does….

So, yes, it can be argued that Chicago beat out some worthier films for the title of best picture of the year.  But, regardless, it’s still a good and memorable film.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #63: American Gigolo (dir by Paul Schrader)


American_gigolo_postWell, here we are!  A month and two days ago, I announced the start of Embracing the Melodrama Part II, a 126-film series of reviews.  At the time, I somewhat foolishly declared that I would manage to review all of these films in just three weeks!  Four weeks later and we have finally reached the halfway point.

So yeah…

Anyway!  We started this series of reviews with 1927’s Sunrise and we have worked our way through the films of the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s.  And now, as we hit the halfway point, it’s appropriate that we start a new cinematic decade.

In other words, welcome to the 80s!

Let’s start the 80s off with the 1980 film, American Gigolo.  Directed by Paul Schrader, American Gigolo is — much like Schrader’s Hardcore and The Canyons — a look at the sleazier side of life in California.  Julian Kaye (Richard Gere) is the most successful male escort in Los Angeles.  He’s handsome, he’s confident, he speaks multiple languages, and he maintains a proper emotional distance from … well, from everyone.  He’s got a fast car, expensive clothes, a great apartment, and — because it is the 80s after all — a small mirror that is perpetually coated in cocaine residue.

We don’t really learn much about Julian’s past.  We don’t know much about who he was before he became the American Gigolo.  (If this movie were made today, American Gigolo would be a part of the MCU and would end up joining The Avengers.)  However, the film is littered with clues.  For instance, we know that he used to work exclusively for Anne (Nina Van Pallandt) but he’s become so successful that Anne has lost her hold over him.  Before Julian worked for Anne, he worked for Leon (Bill Duke), a gay pimp.

Julian’s sexuality is a big question mark throughout the entire film.  Though all of his current clients are female and Julian brags about his ability to leave a woman feeling sexually satisifed, the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not he actually likes women.  (It’s suggested — though never explicitly stated — that Julian slept with men while he was working for Leon.)  Ultimately, for someone who has sex for a living, Julian seems oddly asexual.  It’s hard not to feel that Julian is only truly capable of desiring his own carefully constructed image.

Is Julian capable of love?  That’s the question that Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton) has to consider.  Michelle is unhappily married to a member of the U.S. Senate but she’s having an affair with Julian.

Michelle’s relationship with Julian is tested when Julian is accused of murdering one of his clients.  While Julian begs both his clients and his business associated to provide him with an alibi, he discovers that he’s basically alone.  Convinced that someone’s trying to frame him, Julian destroys his apartment and his car searching for clues.  As he grows more and more paranoid, his perfect image starts to crack and Michelle has to decide whether or not to sacrifice her marriage to protect him.

American Gigolo is technically a murder mystery but the murder doesn’t really matter.  Instead, it’s a character study of a man who is empty inside until, in Job-like fashion, he loses everything.  It’s also a very watchable exercise in pure, sleek, and probably cocaine-fueled style.  Richard Gere has always been an oddly hollow actor (and that’s not necessarily meant as a criticism) and that suggestion of inner emptiness makes him the perfect choice for the role of Julian Kaye.

American Gigolo is making the premium cable rounds right now.  Keep an eye out for it and don’t be surprised if you find yourself singing Call Me afterwards.

Scenes I Love: An Officer and a Gentleman


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The latest “Scenes I Love” comes courtesy of An Officer and a Gentleman.

This ending sequence to the film has become an iconic scene when one talks about some of the best romantic scenes in film. The film itself was your modern take on the age-old two people from the wrong-sides of the track falling for each other.

The ending scene made the film memorable in the end. It helped that the song written and composed for the film, “Up Where We Belong,” and sung as a duet by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes became as big of a hit as the film itself.

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You know that a scene has become a cultural mainstay when The Simpsons did a parody of it which ended up being just as memorable as the original.

Up Where We Belong

Who knows what tomorrow brings
in a world few hearts survive
All I know is the way I feel
when it’s real I keep it alive the road is long
There are mountains in our way
but we climb the stairway every day

Love lifts us up where we belong
where the eagles cry on a mountain high
love lifts us up where we belong
far from the world below up where the clear winds blow

Some hang on to used to be
live their lives looking behind
All we have is here and now
all our lives out there to find
The road is long and there are moutains in our way
but we climb the stairway every day

Love lifts us up where we belong
where the eagles cry on a mountain high
love lifts us up where we belong
far from the world we know
where the clear wind blows

Time goes by no time cry
life’s you and I alive

Love lifts us up where we belong
where the eagles cry on a mountain high
love lifts us up where we belong
far from the world we know
where the clear winds blow

Love lifts us up where we belong
far from the world we know
where the clear winds blow

Love lifts us up where we belong
where the eagles cry on a mountain high