18 Days of Paranoia #11: Betrayed (dir by Costa-Gavras)


The 1988 film, Betrayed, starts out on a strong note but then quickly becomes annoying as Hell.

It opens with shots of a radio talk show host, an outspoken liberal named Sam Kraus (Richard Libertini).  Kraus berates his callers.  Kraus ridicules anyone who is to the left of Bernie Sanders.  When a man with a rural-accent calls in and attacks Karus for being Jewish, Kraus calls the man an idiot.  After he gets off the air, Kraus walks through a parking garage and stops in front of his car.  Another car pulls up beside Kraus and suddenly, a masked man with a gun opens fire on Kraus, killing him.  The gunman gets out of the car and spray paints, “ZOG” on Kraus’s car before then fleeing the garage.

(ZOG stands for Zionist Occupational Government.  It’s a term used by the type of anti-Semitic dipshits who thinks that the Protocols of Elder Zion are real.)

From this shockingly brutal opening, we cut to panoramic shots of beautiful farmland and crops being harvested in the American midwest, the heartland.  Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger) owns a farm.  He’s a Vietnam vet who nearly received the medal of honor.  He lives with his mother and he has two children.  (He’s divorced and his ex-wife died as the result of a mysterious hit-and-run in California.)  Almost everyone in his small hometown seems to worship Gary.  They’re certainly curious about his new girlfriend, Katie Phillips (Debra Winger).

And really, they probably should be.  Katie Phillips isn’t Katie Phillips at all.  She’s actually an FBI agent named Cathy Weaver and she’s been sent undercover to investigate whether or not Gary was involved in the murder of Kraus.  Cathy, who comes from a broken family and who we’re told has always been seeking some sort of deeper meaning in her life, is charmed by both Gary and his family.  In fact, she falls in love with Gary.  She tells her superior, Mike Carnes (John Heard), that there’s no way Gary is dangerous.  Mike doesn’t believe her but, of course, Mike has a personal stake in this because he and Cathy used to be romantically involved.

(That’s right, everyone.  Betrayed is so narratively lazy that it resorts to making Mike a scorned lover, even though the film’s plot would have worked just as well if he wasn’t.)

As I said, the first part of the movie works.  Debra Wingers gives a strong performance and Tom Berenger is a charming roughneck.  For the first half-hour or so, the film does a good job of showing why men like Gary and his friends are susceptible to conspiracy theories and why they feel that the entire world is stacked against them.  You can understand why Cathy is so troubled by her assignment because Gary’s friends are hardly master criminals.  For the most part, they’re farmers who feel like their entire way of life has been taken away from them.

Unfortunately, almost immediately after Mike refuses to allow her to end her investigation, Cathy returns to the farm and sleeps with Gary.  Not only is this a plot development a disservice to everything that has previously been established about Cathy as a character but it also marks the point where the movie entirely falls apart.  Immediately after sleeping with Cathy, Gary suddenly goes from being a complex but troubled character to being a cartoonish super villain.  And listen — we’ve all been there.  You meet a guy.  He’s handsome.  He says all the right things.  He seems like he’s sensitive.  He makes you feel safe.  You let down your defenses for one night and the next morning, he’s yelling at you for wearing a short skirt in public.  It happens.  Of course, in Gary’s case, it means that he’s not only criticizing the way that Cathy dresses but he’s also taking her on a hunt where the prey is terrified person of color who Gary and his friends have kidnapped.  It also means that Gary drags Cathy along on a bank robbery and then expects her to join him when he wants to assassinate a presidential candidate.  Even after all that, Cathy remains conflicted about what to do with Gary.  The problem is that it’s not like Gary’s a guy who needs sensitivity training or who spends too much time watching ESPN.  Gary is a guy who is carting around weapons and talking about how he wants to kill “mud people.”  That Cathy still has mixed emotions after all of that goes against everything that the film previously asked us to believe about her.  Gary becomes too cartoonish to be plausible and, as a result, he drags down Cathy’s character as well.

Unfortunately, as the film’s narrative falls apart, so do the majority of the performances.  While Debra Winger struggles to make her character’s motivations plausible, Tom Berenger is reduced to doing a lot of glaring.  (Poor John Heard spends most of the movie shouting and bugging his eyes.)  About the only actor who comes out Betrayed unscathed is John Mahoney, who plays Shorty.  Shorty is one of Gary’s friends.  He’s a friendly and personable guy who seems to sincerely care about everyone and who has a charmingly gentle smile.  He’s also a total racist and the contrast between Shorty’s amiable nature and his hateful thoughts provide the latter half of Betrayed with its only powerful moments.  Mahoney gets one big scene, where he talks to Cathy about how much he hates violence but, at the same time, he feels that the world has left him no other choice.  Mahoney does a great job with his small role.  It’s unfortunate that the rest of Betrayed couldn’t live up to his performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum

A Movie A Day #7: Sharky’s Machine (1981, directed by Burt Reynolds)


220px-sharkys_machine_ver3After a drug bust goes wrong, Atlanta police detective Tom Sharky (Burt Reynolds, who also directed) is transferred from narcotics to the vice squad, the least desirable assignment in the Atlanta police department.  Despite all of his honors and commendations, Sharky finds himself reduced to busting hookers with Papa (Brian Keith) and Arch (Bernie Casey).  But then Sharky discovers evidence of a prostitution ring being run by Victor D’Anton (Vittorio Gassman), one that services the wealthiest and most powerful men in Georgia.

Working with Papa, Arch, and a burned-out bugging expert named Nosh (Richard Libertini), Sharky begins a surveillance of Domino (Rachel Ward), one of Victor’s girls.  As the days turns into weeks, Sharky falls in love with Domino, who doesn’t even know that she’s being watched.  Sharky also discovers that Domino is sleeping with Hotckins (Earl Holliman), who is about to be elected governor of Georgia.  At the same time, a heroin-addicted assassin named Billy Score (Henry Silva) is assassinating anyone who could reveal Victor’s crimes.

There are two great sequences in Sharky’s Machine.  One is the opening credits scene, in which a bearded Burt Reynolds walks through the roughest parts of Atlanta while Randy Crawford sings Street Life.  This scene lets everyone know from the start that this is not another Burt Reynolds good ol’ boy comedy.  The other is a cat-and-mouse chase through an Atlanta skyscraper, as Sharky and his partners try to track down Billy Score, who is so doped up on painkillers that he barely flinches whenever he’s shot.  Billy Score is one of the most frightening movie villains of all time, seemingly indestructible and capable of moving like a ghost.

henry-silvaWith the exception of maybe Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine is Burt Reynolds’s darkest movie.  There are moments of humor and appearances by the usual members of the Burt Reynolds stock company, like John Fiedler and Charles Durning.  But overall, this is one dark movie.   Likable characters die.  Sharky cries and loses two fingers when they are graphically chopped off by the bad guys.  A woman’s face is literally blown off.  Even when Sharky starts to talk about his childhood, a sentimental moment the occurred in almost every Burt Reynolds film, Domino tells him that she doesn’t care.

In other words, this ain’t The Cannonball Run.

Burt Reynolds’s first cut of Sharky’s Machine reportedly ran for 140 minutes.  Twenty minutes were cut before it was released into theaters and, as a result, Sharky’s Machine sometimes seems to be rough around the edges.  (One important supporting character is killed off-screen and if you don’t pay close attention to the dialogue, you might never know what happened to him.)  Still, this violent film noir, which Reynolds once called “Dirty Harry in Atlanta,” is one of Burt’s best.

sharky-machine

In Memory of Robin Williams #3: Awakenings (dir by Penny Marshall)


Awakenings

The 1990 Best Picture nominee Awakenings is exactly the type of film that seems to have been designed to make me cry.

Taking place in 1969 and based (very loosely, I assume) on a true story, Awakenings features Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer.  Dr. Sayer is a dedicated and caring physician but he also suffers from an almost crippling shyness.  He’s at his most comfortable when he’s dealing with a group of patients who have spent the last 40 years in a catatonic state, suffering from a tragic disease known as encephalitis lethargica.  (One thing that I learned from watching this film was that, from 1917 to 1928, there was an epidemic of this disease, with millions either dying or being left catatonic.)  While the rest of the medical establishment (led by John Heard, who always seems to be the embodiment of the establishment in films made in the 90s) assumes that the patients are destined to spend the rest of their lives in a vegetative state, Dr. Sayer is convinced that the patients can be awakened.  He soon discovers that, even in their catatonic state, the patients will react to certain stimulii.  One woman can catch a baseball.  Another appears to react well to music.  And finally, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) — who fell ill with this disease when he was a child — tries to communicate with a Ouija board.

Over the objections of his supervisors, Dr. Sayer treats the patients with an experimental drug.  Leonard is the first one to get the drug and is also the first one to wake up.  While the rest of the patients wake up, Dr. Sayer tries to help Leonard adjust to the 1960s.  At first, everything seems to be going perfectly.  Leonard even manages to strike up a sweet romance with a woman named Paula (Penelope Ann Miller).  However, it soon becomes obvious that the awakening is only going to be a temporary one as Leonard and all the other patients start to descend back into their catatonic states…

It’s easy to criticize a film like Awakenings for being manipulative and sentimental.  And the fact of the matter is that the film is manipulative and it is sentimental and undoubtedly, it probably is a massive simplification of the true story.  (The character played by John Heard is such an obvious villain that he might as well have a mustache to twirl.)  And yes, you know even before it happens that there’s eventually going to be a montage of an amazed Leonard staring at a girl in a miniskirt while Time of the Season plays on the soundtrack.

But, no matter!  It’s a tremendously effective film and it earned the tears that I shed while watching it.  Both De Niro and Williams give excellent performances which add a good deal of depth to scenes that could otherwise come across as being overly sappy.  De Niro has the more showy role but it really but it’s the performance of Robin Williams that really carries the film.  As played by Williams, Dr. Sayer is a fragile soul who hides from the world behind his beard and his professional determination.  When he finally asks a nurse (Julie Kavner) out to dinner, it’s impossible not to cheer for him.

It’s also impossible not to cheer a little for Awakenings.

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