A Movie A Day #337: Colors (1988, directed by Dennis Hopper)


Los Angeles in the 80s.  Beneath the California glamour that the rest of America thinks about when they think about L.A., a war is brewing.  Bloods vs Crips vs the 21st Street Gang.  For those living in the poorest sections of the city, gangs provide everything that mainstream society refuses to provide: money, a chance to belong, a chance to advance.  The only drawback is that you’ll probably die before you turn thirty.  Two cops — veteran Hodges (Robert Duvall) and rookie McGavin (Sean Penn) — spend their days patrolling a potential war zone.  Hodges tries to maintain the peace, encouraging the gangs to stay in their own territory and treat each other with respect.  McGavin is aggressive and cocky, the type of cop who seems to be destined to end up on the evening news.  With only a year to go before his retirement, Hodges tries to teach McGavin how to be a better cop while the gangs continue to target and kill each other.  The cycle continues.

Colors was one of the first and best-known of the “modern gang” films.  It was also Dennis Hopper’s return to directing, 17 years after the notorious, drug-fueled disaster of The Last Movie.  Hopper took an almost documentary approach to Colors, eschewing, for the most part, melodrama and instead focusing on the day-to-day monotony of life in a war zone.  There are parts of Colors that are almost deliberately boring, with Hodges and McGavin driving through L.A. and trying to stop trouble before it happens.  Hopper portrays Hodges and McGavin as being soldiers in a war that can’t be won, combatants in a concrete Vietnam.  Colors is nearly 20 years old but it holds up.  It’s a tough and gritty film that works because of the strong performances of Duvall and Penn.  The legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler vividly captures the harshness of life in the inner city.  Actual gang members served as extras, adding to the film’s authentic, documentary feel.  Among the actors playing gang members, Don Cheadle, Trinidad Silva, Glenn Plummer, and Courtney Gains all make a definite impression.  In a small but important role, Maria Conchita Alonso stands in for everyone who is not a cop and who is not a gang member but who is still trapped by their endless conflict.

One person who was not impressed by Colors was future director John Singleton.  Boyz ‘n The Hood was largely written as a response to Colors‘s portrait of life in South Central Los Angeles.

A Movie A Day #238: Lawman (1971, directed by Michael Winner)


In the 1880s, Jared Maddox (Burt Lancaster) is the marshal of the town of Bannock.  After a night of drinking and carousing leads to the accidental shooting of an old man, warrants are issued for the arrest of six ranch hands.  Maddox is determined to execute the arrest warrants but the problem is that the six men live in Sabbath, another town.  They all work for a wealthy rancher (Lee J. Cobb) and the marshal of Sabbath, Cotton Ryan (Robert Ryan), does not see the point in causing trouble when all of the men are likely to be acquitted anyway.  Maddox doesn’t care.  The law is the law and he does not intend to leave Sabbath until he has the six men.

Lawman starts out like a standard western, with a stranger riding into town, but then it quickly turns the western traditions on their head by portraying Marshal Maddox as being a rigid fanatic and the wealthy rancher as a morally conflicted man who does not want to resort to violence and who continually tries and fails to convince Maddox to leave.  In the tradition of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, there are no real heroes to be found in Lawman and, even when Maddox starts to reconsider his strict adherence to the law and refusal to compromise, it is too late to prevent the movie from ending in a bloody massacre.  Since Lawman was made in 1971, I initially assumed it was meant to be an allegory about the Vietnam War but then I saw that it was directed by Michael Winner, a director who specialized in tricking audiences into believing that his violent movie were deeper than they actually were.

Even if Lawman never reaches the heights of a revisionist western classic like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is still pretty good, with old pros Lancaster, Ryan, Cobb, and Albert Salmi all giving excellent performances.  The cast is full of familiar faces, with everyone from Robert Duvall to Richard Jordan to Ralph Waite to Joseph Wiseman to John Beck showing up in small roles.  In America, Winner is best remembered for his frequent collaborations with Charles Bronson.  Chuck is not in Lawman, though it seems like he should have been and Lee J. Cobb’s rancher is named Vincent Bronson.  Winner would not make his first film with Charles Bronson until a year later, when he directed him in Chato’s Land.

Film Review: Countdown (dir by Robert Altman)


 

Earlier tonight, on TCM, I watched the 1968 science fiction film, Countdown.

Who will be the first man to walk on the moon?  Will it be Chiz (Robert Duvall), who is a colonel in the Air Force and who has been training for years and who really should get the chance just because he has a really cool name like Chiz?  Or will it be Chiz’s best friend, Lee (James Caan)?  Lee may not have Chiz’s experience but he’s a scientist and selecting him would allow NASA to portray the mission of being one of peace as opposed to one of war.  Add to that, Lee has a full head of hair and he looks like a young James Caan, who was an undeniably handsome man back in his younger days!  I mean, seriously — who would you rather have as the face of the space program: Tom Hagen or Sonny Corleone?

Of course, it might not really matter who NASA picks because the Russians are determined to get to the moon as well.  And you know what that means!  If the Russians land on the moon first, they’ll turn it into a Socialist utopia and that’ll mean ugly architecture, bread lines, and a three-month wait for toilet paper.  The stakes have never been higher!

Countdown was made and released at the height of the space race, at a time when Americans really did feel that they were competing with the Russians to be the first to reach the moon.  (Of course later, it would be learned that the Russian space program actually managed to kill far more cosmonauts than it successfully sent into orbit.)  It came out a year before Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong became the first Earthling since Stanley Kubrick to ever step on the lunar surface.  As such, it’s interesting to see how Countdown imagines the experience of exploring the moon.  I won’t spoil who reaches the moon first but I will say that he moves remarkably quickly and with great ease for someone in a gravity-free environment.

Countdown is a good example of what I like to call a “time capsule” film.  Seen today, it’s kinda slow and a bit predictable.  For all the time that is spent on getting the astronauts ready to go into space, very little time is actually spent in orbit.  This is a very Earth-bound film.  And yet, if you’re a history nerd like me, it’s hard not to be a little bit fascinated by a movie like this.  In everything, from its fashions to its dialogue to its cultural outlook, this is very much a document of its time.  It may be a while until we have the technology necessary to travel through time.  Until then, watching a film like this might be as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing what the straight, non-Hippie crowd was doing in 1968.

If you’re a student of film history, Countdown is significant for being one of the first films to be directed by Robert Altman.  To be honest, if not for his name in the opening credits, you would probably never guess that Countdown was directed by one of America’s most influential and iconic directors.  Altman specialized in making film that were almost defiantly iconaclastic and there’s very little of that to be found in Countdown.  Admittedly, there are a few scenes that make use of overlapping dialogue and there’s a party scene that’s definitely Altmanesque.  However, the only reason I really noticed that party scene is because I was specifically looking for evidence of Altman’s style.  For the most part, the most identifiably Altmanesque element of Countdown is the casting of Michael Murphy in a small role.

The film is dominated by Robert Duvall and James Caan and, especially if you’re a fan of The Godfather, it’s undeniably fun to see these two acting opposite each other in something other than an epic gangster film.  (Duvall and Caan also acted together in The Rain People and The Killer Elite and were reportedly great friends off-camera as well.)  Duvall is especially good in Countdown, playing Chiz as a man torn between an innate sense of loyalty and his own competitive nature.  The scenes between Duvall and Caan have a charge to them that occasionally bring some much-needed life to this film.

In the end, Countdown is a fairly forgettable film but it’s worth seeing as a piece of history.

A Movie A Day #148: Badge 373 (1973, directed by Howard W. Koch)


In this cop film, Robert Duvall plays Eddie Ryan, a tough New York detective who gets suspended from the force when he is accused of tossing a Puerto Rican suspect off of a roof.  Eddie’s innocent but, because he spends all of his time talking about how much he hates Puerto Ricans and using Archie Bunker-style racial slurs, everyone assumes that he is guilty.  Eddie is suspended from the force but then his former partner is killed while investigating an operation to smuggle guns to, you guessed it, Puerto Rico.  Suspended or not, Eddie is going to track down the man who killed his partner.  If that puts everyone from his girlfriend, Maureen (Verna Bloom), to NYC pedestrians in danger, that’s just the way it has to be.

Robert Duvall as an action star?  Duvall was only 41 when he starred in Badge 373 but it is still strange to see America’s greatest character actor jumping out of windows and chasing suspects.  Badge 373 was one of the many cop films made in the wake of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and the film is actually credited as being “inspired by the exploits of Eddie Egan.”  Egan also served as the inspiration for Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. Duvall is good in the role but he is almost a little too good.   Hackman played Doyle with a twinkle in his eye that suggested his casual racism was just a part of his streetwise persona.  Duvall is so grim and determined as Eddie Ryan that there is never any doubt that he hates everyone just as much as he says he does.

(Just as he did in The French Connection, the real-life Eddie Egan has a role in Badge 373.  He plays Eddie Ryan’s supervisor and best friend.)

Like most of the cop films that came out immediately after The French Connection, the highlight of Badge 373 is an extended chase scene.  In this one, Eddie escapes from the gun smugglers by hijacking a city bus.  The only problem is that Eddie isn’t sure how to drive a bus and Duvall acts the hell out of his struggle to figure out how to switch gears.  It’s worth the price of admission.

Let’s Go to the Drive-In with Charles Bronson in BREAKOUT (Columbia 1975)


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Charles Bronson  finally achieved superstar status in the 1970’s after years of toiling in supporting parts thanks to drive-in fare like THE MECHANIC, MR. MAJESTYK, and the DEATH WISH films. 1975’s BREAKOUT had a bigger budget, a better than average cast, and major studio support, but at it’s heart it’s still a drive-in movie, albeit a cut above the usual action flick.

Bronson casts aside his normal stoic, stone-faced screen persona as Nick Colton, a somewhat shady pilot/mercenary who’ll do anything for a buck. Charlie’s quite a charmer here, displaying a sense a humor and talking a lot more than usual. He’s in rare form, getting to display his acting chops, honed through over two decades in the business, and is obviously having a good time in the role.

Nick is hired by Ann Wagner to rescue  her husband Jay, framed by his own grandfather and sentenced to a ruthless Mexican pennitentary…

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The Game’s Afoot: THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION (Universal 1976)


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Sherlock Holmes has long been a favorite literary character of mine. As a youth, I devoured the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, marveling at the sleuth’s powers of observation and deduction. I reveled in the classic Universal film series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, and still enjoy them today. I read Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” as a teen, where a coked-out Holmes is lured by Watson to Vienna to have the famed Sigmund Freud cure the detective of his addiction, getting enmeshed in mystery along the way. I’d never viewed the film version until recently, and while Meyer’s screenplay isn’t completely faithful to his book, THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the novel.

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This is due in large part to a pitch-perfect cast, led by Nicol Williamson’s superb performance as Sherlock. We see Holmes at his worst…

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The Elements of Style: Steve McQueen in BULLITT (Warner Brothers 1968)


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Steve McQueen was the personification of 60’s screen cool in BULLITT, a stylish action film directed by Peter Yates. It’s the first of producer Philip D’Antoni’s cop trilogy, both of which (THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE SEVEN-UPS) I’ve previously covered. Unlike those two films, the grittiness of New York City is replaced by the California charm of San Francisco, and the City by the Bay almost becomes a character itself, especially in the groundbreaking ten minute car chase between McQueen’s Mustang and the bad guy’s Dodge Charger.

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Style permeates the film from the get-go, with the snappy opening credits montage by Pablo Ferro. Then we get right into the story, as San Francisco detective Frank Bullitt is assigned to guard mob witness John Ross, scheduled to testify before a Senate Subcommitte on crime. Hot shot politician Walt Chalmers wants Bullitt because of his reputation and PR value with the papers. Things go awry when Ross…

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Pure 80s Hokum: Let’s Get Harry (1986, directed by Alan Smithee)


Lets-get-harry-movie-poster-1986-1020362350Let’s Get Harry opens deep in the jungles of Columbia.  The newly appointed American Ambassador (Bruce Gray) is touring a newly constructed water pipeline when suddenly, terrorist drug smugglers attack!  The Ambassador, along with chief engineer Harry Burck (Mark Harmon, long before NCIS), is taken hostage.  Drug Lord Carlos Ochobar announces that both the Ambassador and Harry will be executed unless the U.S. government immediately releases Ochobar’s men.  However, the policy of the U.S. government is to not negotiate with terrorists.  As grizzled mercenary Norman Shrike (Robert Duvall) explains it, nobody gives a damn about a minor ambassador.

Nobody in a small blue-collar town in Illinois gives a damn about the ambassador either.  But they do give a damn about their friend Harry!  When its obvious that the bureaucrats up in Washington are not going to do anything, Harry’s younger brother, Corey (Michael Shoeffling, Sixteen Candles), decides that he and his friends are going to go to Columbia themselves and get Harry!  Helping him out are Bob (Thomas F. Wilson, Back to the Future), Kurt (Rick Rossovich, Top Gun), Spence (Glenn Frey!), and Jack (Gary Busey).  If Jake Ryan, Biff Tannen, Slider, Buddy Holly, and the guy from the Eagles who wasn’t Don Henley can’t get Harry, then who can!?

There were a lot of these “American rescue mission” movies made in the 80s, everything from Uncommon Valor to The Delta Force to the Rambo films.  Plotwise, Let’s Get Harry adds little to the genre.  It’s about as simplistic and implausible as a Donald Trump campaign speech.  A bunch of terrorists are holding American hostages and making us all look bad while the establishment refuses to do anything about it?  Don’t worry!  Here come a bunch of heavily armed, no-nonsense American citizens to save the day and make America great again!

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There are two things that distinguish Let’s Get Harry.  First, Let’s Get Harry is one of the many films to have been credited to Alan Smithee.  From 1968 to 2000, Alan Smithee was the official pseudonym used by directors who wanted to disown a project.  Smithee has been credited as directing everything from Solar Crisis to Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home to The O.J. Simpson Story.  In the case of Let’s Get Harry, Smithee was standing in for veteran director Stuart Rosenberg (probably best known for Cool Hand Luke).  Rosenberg originally only planned for Mark Harmon to be seen only at the end of the film, much like Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan.  When TriStar Pictures demanded extra scenes featuring Harmon being taken and held hostage, Rosenberg took his name off the film.

(Before Rosenberg signed on to direct, Let’s Get Harry started out as a Sam Fuller project and he received a story credit on the film.  With the exception of some of the scenes with Harmon, which may have been shot by a different director, Rosenberg’s direction was adequate but Let’s Get Harry really does cry out for a director like Sam Fuller.)

Secondly, there is the cast, which is a lot more interesting than would be typically found in a low-budget, 80s action film.  Not surprisingly, by respectively underplaying and overplaying, Duvall and Busy give the two best performances.  Meanwhile, lightweight Mark Harmon gives the worst.  Perhaps because of the conflict between Rosenberg and the studio over his character, Harmon spends the entire movie looking lost.

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As an exercise in patriotic wish fulfillment, Let’s Get Harry is pure 80s hokum.  It may be dumb but it is also entertaining.  After all, any film that features not only Robert Duvall, Gary Busey, and Ben Johnson, but also Glenn Frey is going to be worth watching.  Let’s Get Harry has never been released on DVD and is currently only available on VHS.  Somebody needs to do something about this.

Let’s get Harry on DVD!

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Film Review: The Greatest (1977, dir by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman)


the_greatest_1977_portrait_w858The Greatest opens with 18 year-old Cassius Clay (played by Chip McAllister as a teenager and, as an adult, by Muhammad Ali himself) winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.  Returning home to Kentucky, Clay discovers that not even a gold medal can protect him from racism.  Angered after a restaurant refuses to serve him and his friend, Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River.  Under the training of Angelo Dundee (Ernest Borgnine), Clay turns pro and defeats Sonny Liston (Roger E. Mosley) for the heavyweight championship.  Inspired by Malcolm X (James Earl Jones), Clay also joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.  As heavyweight champion, Ali battles not only his opponents in the ring but racism outside of it.  The Greatest follows Ali as he loses his title for refusing to be drafted and concludes with the famous Rumble in the Jungle, where Ali won the title back from George Foreman.

Sadly, Muhammad Ali has never been the subject of a truly great feature film.  Even Michael Mann’s Ali failed to really capture the mystique that made Ali into such an iconic figure.  The Greatest is interesting because Ali plays himself.  Unfortunately, The Greatest proves that Ali may have been a great showman but he was not a natural actor.  You only have to watch the scene where Ali tries to hold his own with Robert Duvall to see just how stiff an actor Muhammad Ali really was.  Ali’s best scenes are the ones where he is trash talking his opponents or training.  The film opens with Ali jogging while George Benson sings The Greatest Love Of All, a scene that is made all the more poignant when you compare the athletic and confident Muhammad Ali of 1977 with the frail, Parkinson’s stricken Ali of today.

29Muhammad-Ali-1Instead of recreating any of Ali’s legendary fights, The Greatest instead uses actual footage of the matches.  The real life footage is the best part of the film.  After all these years, Ali’s fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman remain exciting to watch.  Otherwise, The Greatest is too episodic and low budget to do justice to Muhammad Ali’s story.

If you want to see a truly great film about Ali and his legacy, watch the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, 2009’s Facing Ali or 2013’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali.  Ali is such an iconic figure that it may be impossible for any feature film to properly do justice to his life and legacy.  These three documentaries come close.

(Director Tom Gries died during the filming of The Greatest.  The movie was completed by Monte Hellman.)

Shattered Politics #77: Thank You For Smoking (dir by Jason Reitman)


Thank_you_for_smoking_PosterI have always hated those Truth.com commercials.  Truth.com is an organization that claims to be dedicated to eradicating smoking.  Their smug commercials are essentially the height of hipster douchebaggery, a bunch of self-consciously cool people wandering around and harassing random people about whether or not they smoke.  And then, of course, there was the commercial where they all gathered outside a tobacco company and pretended to be dead.  Of course, the truth about Truth.com is that they are essentially the same people who, in high school, would get offended whenever anyone wore a short skirt.  I really can not stand people like that.  (And don’t even get me started on those assholes who appear in the Above The Influence commercials.)  Myself, I don’t smoke because I have asthma.  But, seriously, whenever I see a Truth.com commercial, I’m tempted to run down to 711 and start.

And so maybe that’s why I like the 2005 comedy Thank You For Smoking.

The hero of Thank You For Smoking is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, who is first seen appearing on a talk show and winning over a hostile audience by announcing that the tobacco industry is going to be investing millions in researching way to keep young people from smoking and shaking the hand of a teenage honor student who is dying from lung cancer.  Over the course of the film, Nick shows us how he does business, everything from defending tobacco companies on talk shows to convincing a former Marlboro Man-turned-cancer-patient to drop his law suit.  When Nick isn’t working, he’s hanging out with his best friends (who are lobbyists for both the liquor and the gun industries), trying to bond with his son (Cameron Bright), or having sex with a reporter (Katie Holmes).

Now, in most movies, Nick Naylor would be the villain.  However, in Thank You For Smoking, Nick becomes a hero by default, if just because everyone who disagrees with him is even worse than he is.  Add to that, Nick has the benefit of being played by Aaron Eckhart while all of his opponents are played by balding actors with ugly beards.

Another reason that I liked Thank You For Smoking was because the main villain was a senator from Vermont and it’s about time somebody stood up to the tyranny of Vermont.  Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) has built a career out of campaigning against the tobacco industries and why shouldn’t he?  Who, other than Nick Naylor, is willing to defend them?  Finistirre’s latest plan is to change the law so that every pack of cigarettes has to be branded with a skull and crossbones warning.

When Nick and Finistirre finally face off, it’s a battle between those who believe in allowing people the freedom to make their own choices and those who hide their totalitarian impulse behind claims that they’re working for the greater good.

Thank You For Smoking was Jason Reitman’s first film.  And while it may be a bit too episodic and it frequently struggles to maintain a consistent tone, it’s still a lot better than both Labor Day and Men, Women, & Children.