Double Jeopardy (1992, directed by Lawrence Schiller)


Salt Lake City is riveted by the sensational murder trial of mountain climber Lisa Burns Donnelly (Rachel Ward).  Lisa killed her ex-boyfriend, Eddie.  She says that she did it in self-defense after Eddie raped her.  The prosecution claims that she murdered Eddie after he caught her cheating on him with another man.  Lisa’s lawyer, Karen Hart (Sela Ward), is up for a judgeship.  Her husband, Jack (Bruce Boxleitner) is Lisa’s ex-boyfriend.  What Karen doesn’t know is that, other than Lisa, Jack is the only person who witnessed what happened the night of the murder because, just moments before, he and Lisa had been committing PG-13-rated adultery in her shower.

One of the interesting things — in fact, maybe the only interesting thing — about Double Jeopardy is that several online sellers claim that the film stars Aaron Eckhart.  It is true that Eckhart is in the movie.  It was shot in Salt Lake City while he was a student at BYU and it was his film debut.  However, Eckhart has about a minute of screen time and about five lines.  He plays a Marine named Dwayne who someone meets in an airport.  His big line is, “Semper Fi, babe!”

As for the film, since it’s set in Salt Lake City, there’s a lot of talk about how Lisa is being unfairly judged for her unconventional (read: non-Mormon) life style and there’s a heavy-handed subplot about Jack trying to put on a production of The Crucible but it doesn’t add up too much.  It would probably have been easier for the movie to make a point about religious and moral persecution if Lisa wasn’t actually guilty of murdering Eddie.  Instead, the movie leaves you thinking, “Maybe those Mormons have a point.”

Double Jeopardy tries hard to be something more than your standard legal thriller but it’s pretty forgettable.  Rachel Ward was always a great femme fatale and Sally Kirkland gives a good performance as the cop who sees through both Lisa and Jack.  The film was produced for Showtime at a time when cable was still trying to prove that it could provide original content worth paying for so there’s some cursing and sideboob tossed in, as if to say, “See?  You don’t get this on NBC!”  Otherwise, this is a by-the-numbers made-for-TV movie.

Email of the Damned: Paranoia (1998, directed by Larry Brand)


Interior designer Jana Mercer (Brigitte Bako) is haunted by the night that her entire family was murdered by serial killer, Calvin Hawks (Larry Drake).  Even though Calvin was captured and imprisoned, she still fears that someday he’ll get out.  Calvin, meanwhile, feels that he and Jana have a special bond because he decided to allow her to live.  From his prison cell, he follows her life via the internet.  He even sends her messages, which doesn’t do much for her state of mind.  Finally, a former neighbor of hers invites her to return to her old neighborhood so that she can confront her fears.  However, after serving 20 years in prison, Calvin has been released for good behavior.  As a part of his parole, he is not allowed to go anywhere near Jana or any of the scenes of his crimes.  Soon after getting released, Calvin decides to violate his probation.  A serial killer violating probation?  Who would have guessed?

Paranoia raises a few questions.  What type of prison would allow a serial killer to have a laptop in his cell and access to the internet, let alone send out messages unsupervised?  What type of legal system would sentence a serial killer to only 20 years in prison?  Why wouldn’t the authorities make any effort to let Jana, as the sole survivor of Calvin’s crimes, know that Calvin is about to be released from prison?  Why would Jana, a recluse who says she is incapable of trusting people, be so quick to accept an invitation to go to the country with someone that she barely knows?  It makes no sense but the movie still somehow maintains enough suspense to work.

The best thing about Paranoia are the performances of Brigitte Bako and Larry Drake.  Bako, who was one of the best of the 90s direct-to-video stars, brings some needed sass to the role of Jana while Larry Drake was a B-movie veteran who always made a good villain.  Larry Brand, who also did Overexposed and The Drifter, wrote and directed Paranoia and, just as he did in those two previous films, Brand includes a lot of pop cultural references.  It’s not every day that you see a direct-to-video B-movie that includes an inside joke about The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Brand and his cast bring some unexpected style to the nonsensical story.

Watching Paranoia today, it’s hard not to get nostalgic.  With a plot that hinges on email almost as much as the plot of Sleepless in Seattle, it’s a 90s film, through and through.  They don’t make them like this anymore.

Insomnia File #42: Revenge (dir by Tony Scott)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

Earlier today, If you were having trouble getting to sleep around one in the morning, you could have turned over to TCM and watched the 1990 action film, Revenge.

Revenge is an almost absurdly masculine film about two men who are in love with the same woman and who, as a result, end up trying to kill each other and a lot of other people.

Jay Cochran (Kevin Costner) is a U.S. Navy aviator who, when we first see him, is doing the whole Top Gun thing of flying in a fast jet and making jokes while his navigator worries about dying.  Interestingly enough, Top Gun and Revenge were both directed by Tony Scott so perhaps this opening scene was meant to be a self-reference.  Well, regardless of intent, it’s a scene that goes on forever.  This is Jay’s last flight, as he’s due to retire.  We go through an extended retirement party, where everyone has a beer and Jay gives one of those bullshit sentimental speeches that men always give in films like this.

Jay has been invited to estate of Tibbey (Anthony Quinn), who is a Mexican gangster.  Tibbey and Jay are apparently old friends, though it’s never quite explained how the youngish Jay knows the not-very-youngish Tibbey.  Tibbey is one of those gangster who is incapable of doing anything without first talking about what an amazing journey it’s been, going from poverty to becoming one of the most powerful men in Mexico.

Tibbey apparently wants to play tennis with Jay and take him hunting.  Jay decides that he’d rather have an affair with Tibbey’s much younger wife, Miryea (Madeleine Stowe).  Miryea is upset that Tibbey doesn’t want to have children because he feels that pregnancy would ruin her body.  When Tibbey finds out about the affair, he sends Miryea to a brothel and Jay to the middle of the desert.  That’s Tibbey’s revenge!

Except, of course, Jay doesn’t die because he’s Kevin Costner and if he died, the movie would end too quickly.  So, Jay fights his way back from the desert, intent on not only finding Miryea but getting his own revenge on Tibbey!

(It’s hard to take a bad guy named Tibbey seriously, even if he is played by Anthony Quinn.)

Revenge goes on for way too long and neither Tibbey nor Jay are really sympathetic enough to be compelling characters.  You never really believe in Tibbey and Jay’s friendship, so the whole betrayal and revenge aspect of the film just falls flat.  On the plus side, youngish Kevin Costner is not half as annoying as cranky old man Costner.  Anthony Quinn was one of the actors who was considered for the role of Don Corleone in The Godfather and, watching him here, you can kind of see him in the role.  He would have been a bit of a crude Corleone but Quinn had an undeniably powerful and magnetic screen presence.  In Revenge, Quinn chews up and spits out all of the scenery and is not subtle at all but it’s entertaining to watch him because he’s Anthony Quinn.

Anyway, Revenge ends with a tragedy, as these things often do.  Anthony Quinn never says, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” and that, to me, is a true missed opportunity.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name
  28. The Arrangement
  29. Day of the Animals
  30. Still of The Night
  31. Arsenal
  32. Smooth Talk
  33. The Comedian
  34. The Minus Man
  35. Donnie Brasco
  36. Punchline
  37. Evita
  38. Six: The Mark Unleashed
  39. Disclosure
  40. The Spanish Prisoner
  41. Elektra

An Olympic Horror Film Review: Fatal Games (dir by Michael Elliot)


Like all good people, I am currently obsessed with the Winter Olympics!  As a result, over the past two weeks, I’ve been watching and reviewing a lot of Olympic-themed films.  Today, I watched the 1984 slasher film, Fatal Games!

If you look at the poster above, you’ll see that Fatal Games was advertised as being a film about “America’s Olympic hopefuls … competing in the Fatal Games!”  That’s kind of true.  The Olympics are frequently mentioned throughout Fatal Games but technically, no one in the movie is actually a member of the Olympic team.  At least not yet.  Instead, they’re all students at a special athletic academy.  Apparently, it’s supposed to be a high school, though we don’t ever see anyone taking a math test or attending English class or anything like that.  Instead, it appears that everyone at the school spends all day practicing gymnastics, swimming, or running.  In fact, it appears that there’s only 20 students at the school and, at most, 5 members of the faculty.  Maybe it’s meant to be like that school that all of the clones attended in Never Let Me Go.  Either that or it’s just an indication that Fatal Games was an extremely low-budget film.

Anyway, seven of the students have just won some sort of regional competition and now they’re getting ready for nationals!  And, if they win at nationals, they’ll get to go to the Olympics.  However, they might not even make it to nationals.  Someone is stalking the blandly likable athletes and using a javelin to pick them off, one-by-one.

Interestingly, it takes people a while to notice that the number of potential Olympians is steadily dwindling.  Instead, people say stuff like, “Hey, have you seen Nancy?”  “Not for a few days.”  “Hey, have you seen Sue Ellen?”  “Didn’t she got to San Francisco to see her boyfriend?”

Well, I guess it’s understandable.  It’s not like anyone in the film is going to school to develop their critical thinking skills.  They’re athletes.  Who cares about all of the people mysteriously disappearing?  They have athletic stuff to worry about!

Fatal Games is pretty much a typical mid-80s slasher.  Interestingly enough, it’s structured like a giallo.  The murderer dresses in black and we get all of the required close-ups of the killer’s gloved hands.  The film introduces several potential suspects but doesn’t reveal the killer’s identity until the final ten minutes.

Is it the overly critical track coach?

Is it the creepy doctor?

Is it the nurse who is worried that the athletes are being injected with too many hormones?  (Obviously, she’s seen Goldengirl.)

Is it the swim coach?

Or is it her girlfriend, the swimmer who didn’t qualify for nationals?

Is it the gymnast whose grades are slipping?

Could it be the other gymnast who is always telling jokes?

Or the runner who has father issues?

Or is it Joe, the token weird guy?

They’re all given a scene or two to establish that they have a potential motive for wanting the seven aspiring Olympians dead.  When the killer and the killer’s motive is finally revealed, it’s so over-the-top and stupid that you can’t help but admire the film for actually going there.  The filmmakers obviously said, “Forget trying to make sense.  WE’RE GOING FOR IT!”

Anyway, the main problem with Fatal Games is that the murderer uses a javelin and, as a result, there’s a lot of scenes of the killer running through narrow school hallways, carrying this goofy-looking javelin.  Don’t get me wrong.  Javelins are sharp and scary and I wouldn’t want one thrown at me.  But still, when someone spends more than five minutes running down a narrow hallway while carrying a javelin, it just looks silly.  Let’s not even think about the logistics of using a javelin to kill someone in broad daylight without anyone else noticing.

That said, as silly and predictable as Fatal Games may have been, there were a few moments of inspired lunacy.  I already mentioned the ending, which is so over-the-top and silly that you can’t help but admire it.  But there’s also a few shots that are genuinely effective.  A scene where the killer suddenly appears in a doorway was handled well.  There’s also an oddly dream-like sequence in which a swimmer practices in the pool, little realizing that the killer is floating underneath her.  How did the killer get in the pool, with the javelin, without anyone noticing?  Who knows?  It’s still an effective scene.

Finally, I have to mention that Fatal Games opens with a song called “Take It All The Way,” which is so generically 80s that it’s oddly brilliant.  It’s almost as good as Graduation Day‘s “The Winner.”

Fatal Games is currently available for viewing on YouTube.

A Movie A Day #141: Breakheart Pass (1975, directed by Tom Gries)


California.  The 1870s.  Sheriff Pearce (Ben Johnson) boards a train with his prisoner, an alleged outlaw named John Deakin (Charles Bronson).  The train is mostly full of soldiers, under the command of Major Claremont (Ed Lauter), who are on their way to Fort Humboldt.  The fort has suffered a diphtheria epidemic and the soldiers are supposedly transporting medical supplies.

However, it’s not just soldiers on the train.  There’s also Gov. Fairchild (Richard Crenna) of Nevada, his fiancée (Jill Ireland), the Reverend Peabody (Bill McKinney), and a conductor named O’Brien (Charles Durning).  As the train continues on its journey, it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems.  People start to disappear.  A man is thrown from the train.  Two cars full of soldiers are separated from the train and plunge over a cliff.  There is also more to Deakin than anyone first realized and soon, he is the only person who can bring the murderers to justice.

In both real life and the movies, Charles Bronson was the epitome of a tough guy, so it’s always interesting to see him playing a more cerebral character than usual.  There are some exciting and surprisingly brutal action scenes, including a scene where Bronson fights a cook (played by former professional boxer Archie Moore) on top of the speeding train, but Breakheart Pass is more of a murder mystery than a typical action film.  If Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie had collaborated on a story, the end result would be much like Breakheart Pass.  Bronson spends as much time investigating as he does swinging his fists or shooting a gun.  It’s not a typical Bronson role but he does a good job, showing that he could think as convincingly as he could kill.  Acting opposite some of the best character actors around in the 70s, Bronson more than holds his own.

Apparently, back in 1975, audiences were not interesting in watching Bronson think so Breakheart Pass was a disappointment at the box office and it is still not as well known as Bronson’s other films.  However, even if you’re not already a fan of the great Bronson, Breakheart Pass is worth discovering.

Insomnia File #24: A Star is Born (dir by Frank Pierson)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you found yourself awake and unable to sleep at 2:30 this morning, you could have always turned over to TCM and watched the 1976 film, A Star is Born. 

A Star is Born gets off to a good start by having Gary Busey give Kris Kristofferson a hit of cocaine.  As I pointed out on twitter, no movie that starts with Gary Busey offering cocaine to Kris Kristofferson can be all bad.

Anyway, Kris is playing John Norman Howard.  John Norman Howard is a big 70s rock star, which means that he has a beard and a bad case of ennui.  Despite all of the cocaine and whiskey, his career is on a downward spiral.  Part of the problem appears to be that he only sings one song and, half the time, he still can’t bring himself to remember all of the lyrics.  The song opens with John growling, “Are you a figment of my imagination or am I one of yours?” and John always ends up storming off stage before we can hear the rest of it.

Anyway, John ends up at this club in Hollywood that looks a lot like the place that Ryan Gosling opened up at the end of La La Land.  While at the club, John gets into a fight with Robert Englund (who I assume was playing a young Freddy Krueger) and totally interrupts the performance of the Oreos.

Who are the Oreos?   They’re a folk-singin’ power trio.  There’s One (Venetta Fields) and Two (Clydie King).  (According to the credits, that’s actually their names.)  And then there’s Esther Hoffman, who has a truly horrid perm and who is played by Barbra Streisand.  One and Two are black.  Esther, who stands right in the middle whenever they perform, is white.  And they’re called The Oreos!

Uhmmm, yeah…

Anyway, we really don’t learn anything about One or Two, beyond the fact that they are totally and completely devoted to Esther.  When Esther gets them fired from recording a cat food jingle, they just smile and laugh.  Sure, why not!?  After all, it’s not like struggling musicians need money or anything.  When Esther interrupts a performance to yell at John, One and Two smile and laugh.  When Esther, under John’s tutelage, becomes a big star and basically abandons the Oreos, One and Two show up at a recording session and smile and laugh.

Last night was my first time to actually see A Star is Born, though I had heard and read quite a bit about it.  Of all the versions of A Star is Born, this one made the most money at the box office but it also got the worst reviews.  Reportedly, the film’s production was a trainwreck with Barbra Streisand and then-boyfriend Jon Peters fighting with … well, everyone.

And yet, like so many cinematic trainwrecks, you simply cannot look away from it.  This version of A Star is Born gets so many things wrong that it becomes rather fascinating to watch.  Perhaps the scene that epitomizes A Star is Born comes when John refuses to perform his one song at a benefit concert and instead, brings out Esther and has her perform her songs.  First off, John’s hard rock band suddenly transforms into a Broadway orchestra and John’s audience — who presumably had paid money to hear that growling song about imagination — is overjoyed to instead have to listen to Esther’s style of lite pop/rock.  (Actually, to even call it rock is to needlessly stretch the definition of rock to its breaking point.)  Making the scene even more bizarre is that 1) John is basically exploiting a benefit concert to launch Esther’s career and 2) since the concert was being performed to support the American Indian Movement, the disembodied head of a Native American woman keeps appearing over Esther’s shoulder while she’s performing songs that have absolutely nothing to do with the cause that the concert is supposedly supporting.  It’s kind of the cinematic equivalent of that Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.

Anyway, things get even better when John buys an empty field and, in a ten minute montage, John and Esther literally build a house.  Seriously, I’m not kidding.  At no point do we see anyone other than John and Esther working on that house and yet, within a matter of minutes, they have an adobe mansion to live in.  I had no idea it was so easy to build a house.  It makes me wonder why people waste money buying houses when they can just buy an empty field and build their own.

(Maybe they’re scared of the poltergeists.  Imagine how different this version of A Star Is Born would have been if it ended with Esther grabbing John and screaming, “YOU MOVED THE HEADSTONES BUT YOU LEFT THE BODIES, DIDN’T YOU!?  YOU LEFT THE BODIES!”)

Kris Kristofferson is well-cast as John Norman Howard but the film is pretty much centered around Barbra.  That, in itself, wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that Barbra is completely miscast.  She’s a great singer but she’s not a rock singer.  You never believe that the same people who want to hear John sing his one song would also want to hear any of Esther’s songs.  The fact that the film is basically 140 minutes of everyone insisting that Esther is the future of music only reminds us of the fact that she’s not.  Her style is throwback to the past, which is one reason why everyone’s grandmother loves Barbra Streisand.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Barbra and Kris actually had any chemistry but they really don’t.  There’s a scene where Barbra and Kris take a bath together and Barbra puts makeup on Kris’s face.  Between two people who have chemistry, that would be sexy and sweet.  Between Kris and Barbra, it’s just kind of icky and you find yourself wondering who took the time to light the hundreds of candles surrounding them.  Whenever Barbra and Kris kissed, I worried for her just because all I could think of was the stubble burn that Esther would have to deal with later.

Yet, in the end, the film makes so many mistakes that it becomes one of the most watchable movies ever made.  It may not be good but it sure is entertaining.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part

A Movie A Day #89: Paint It Black (1989, directed by Tim Hunter)


This month, since the site is currently reviewing every episode of Twin Peaks, each entry in Move A Day is going to have a Twin Peaks connection.  Paint In Black was directed by Tim Hunter, who directed three episodes of Twin Peaks, including the one that I reviewed earlier today.

Jonathan Dunbar (Rick Rossovich) should have it all.  He is an acclaimed sculptor but he’s being cheated financially by his dealer and sometimes girlfriend, Marion Easton (Sally Kirkland).  Things start to look up for Jonathan after he has a minor traffic accident with Gina (Julie Carmen).  Not only are he and Gina immediately attracted to each other but it turns out that Gina is the daughter of Daniel Lambert (Martin Landau), who owns the most prestigious art gallery in Santa Barbara.  It appears that Jonathan is finally going to get the big show that he has always dreamed of, but only if he can escape from Marion’s management.

One night, Jonathan helps out a man who was apparently mugged outside of an art gallery.  The man, Eric (Doug Savant), says that he’s an art collector and that he is a big fan of Jonathan’s work.  When Jonathan opens up about his problems with Marion, Eric decides to return Jonathan’s favor by killing Marion and anyone else who he feels is standing in the way of Jonathan’s success.  Because of the way that Eric artistically stages the murders, the police suspect that Jonathan is the murderer.

Depending on the source, Paint It Black’s original director was either fired or walked off the project and Tim Hunter was brought in to hastily take his place.  According to Hunter, he spent the production “shooting all day and rewriting all night.”  Paint it Black is a standard late 80s, direct to video thriller but it is interesting as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock.  Hunter taught a class on Hitchcock at the University of California at Santa Cruz and Paint it Black is full of shout outs to the master of suspense.  Marion’s murder is staged similarly to a murder in Frenzy.  There are frequent close-ups of scissors, a reference to Dial M For Murder.  Probably the most obvious homage is the character of Eric, who appears to be based on Robert Walker, Jr’s character from Strangers on a Train.

Rick Rossovich was best known for playing cops, firemen, and soldiers in movies like Top Gun, Navy SEALS, and Roxanne.  He’s not bad in Paint it Black but he is still not the most convincing artistic genius.  Doug Savant and Sally Kirkland were better cast and more enjoyable to watch.  In fact, Kirkland is killed off too early.  The movie loses a lot of its spark once she is gone.

Paint It Black may not live up to being named after one of the best songs that the Rolling Stones ever recorded but Tim Hunter took unpromising material and shaped it into something that is far more watchable than anyone might expect.

 

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: The Sting (dir by George Roy Hill)


Earlier tonight, as a part of their 31 Days of Oscar, TCM aired The Sting, the film that the Academy selected as being the best of 1973.  I just finished watching it and what can I say?  Based on what I’ve seen of the competition (and there were a lot of great films released in 1973), I would not necessarily have picked The Sting for best picture.  However, the movie is still fantastic fun.

The Sting reunited the director (George Roy Hill) and the stars (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and told yet another story of likable criminals living in the past.  However, whereas Butch Cassidy largely satirized the conventions of the traditional Hollywood western, The Sting is feels like a loving homage to the films of 1930s, a combination of a gritty, low-budget gangster film and a big budget musical extravaganza.  The musical comparison may sound strange at first, especially considering that nobody in The Sting randomly breaks out into song.  However, the musical score (which is famously dominated by Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer) is ultimately as much of a character as the roles played by Redford, Newman, and Robert Shaw.  And, for that matter, the film’s “let-pull-off-a-con” plot feels like an illegal version of “let’s-put-on-a-show.”

The film takes place in the 1936 of the cultural imagination, a world dominated by flashy criminals and snappy dialogue.  When con artists Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) inadvertently steal money from a gangster named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Lonnegan has Luther murdered.  Fleeing for his life, Hooker goes to Chicago where he teams up with Luther’s former partner, veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Gondorff used to be one of the great con artists but he is now living in self-imposed obscurity, spending most of his time drinking and trying to avoid the FBI.  Hooker wants to get revenge on Lonnegan by pulling an elaborate con on him.  When Gondorff asks Hooker why, Hooker explains that he can either con Lonnegan or he can kill him and he doesn’t know enough about killing.

The rest of the film deals with Hooker and Gondorff’s plan to con Lonnegan out of a half million dollars.  It’s all very elaborate and complicated and a bit confusing if you don’t pay close enough attention and if you’re ADHD like me.  But it’s also a lot of fun and terrifically entertaining and that’s the important thing.  The Sting is one of those films that shows just how much you can accomplish through the smart use of movie star charisma.  Redford and Newman have such great chemistry and are so much fun to watch that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you always understand what they’re actually doing.

It also helps that, in the great 70s tradition, they’re taking down stuffy establishment types.  Lonnegan may be a gangster but he’s also a highly respected and very wealthy gangster.  When Newman interrupts a poker game, Lonnegan glares at him and tells him that he’ll have to put on a tie before he’s allowed to play.  Lonnegan may operate outside the law but, in many ways, he is the establishment and who doesn’t enjoy seeing the establishment taken down a notch?

As entertaining as The Sting may be and as influential as it undoubtedly is (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films may be a lot more pretentious — which makes sense considering that Soderbergh is one of the most pretentious directors in film history — but they all owe a clear debt to The Sting), it still feels like an unlikely best picture winner.  Consider, for instance, that The Sting not only defeated American Graffiti and The Exorcist but Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as well.  On top of that, when you consider some of the films that were released in 1973 and not nominated — Mean Streets, Badlands, The Candy Snatchers, Day of the Jackal, Don’t Look Now, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Long Goodbye — it’s debatable whether The Sting should have been nominated at all.  That’s not a criticism of The Sting as much as it’s an acknowledgement that 1973 was a very good year in film.

So, maybe The Sting didn’t deserve its Oscar.  But it’s still a wonderfully entertaining film.  And just try to get that music out of your head!

Film Review: Big Bad Mama (1974, directed by Steve Carver)


Big_bad_mama_movie_posterToday is Angie Dickinson’s 84th birthday.  One of Angie’s best remembered films is Big Bad Mama, an entertaining and fast-paced gangster film that was produced by Roger Corman.

The year is 1932 and the setting is Texas.  Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) is a poor single mother with two teenage daughters (Susan Sennett and Robbie Lee) to support.  When Wilma’s bootlegger lover, Barney (Noble Willingham), is killed by the FBI, Wilma takes over his route.  Wilma wants her daughters to be rich like “Rockefeller and Capone” and soon, they graduate from bootlegging to bank robbery.  During one robbery, they meet and team up with Fred (Tom Skerritt).  Wilma and Fred are lovers until Wilma meets alcoholic con man, Baxter (William Shatner).  With Fred and Baxter competing for her affections and her youngest daughter pregnant, Wilma plans one final job, the kidnapping of a spoiled heiress (Joan Prather).

Big Bad Mama is one of the many Bonnie and Clyde rip-offs that Roger Corman produced in the 70s.  (Corman also gave us Bloody Mama and Crazy Mama.)  Big Bad Mama is a typical Corman gangster film, with fast cars, blazing tommy guns, Dick Miller, and plenty of nudity.  Angie was in her 40s at the time and, justifiably proud of her body, her full frontal nude scenes created a lot of publicity for the film.  William Shatner also strips down for the film and his sex scene with Angie is just as weird to watch as you would expect it to be.

The whole film changes as soon as William Shatner makes his first appearance.  He may be speaking with a Southern accent and he may be playing a sniveling coward but he is still William Shatner, with all that implies.  Watching Shatner, it is hard not to imagine that Big Bad Mama is actually a lost Star Trek episode where Kirk goes back in the past and meets special guest star Angie Dickinson.  Far more effective is Tom Skerritt, who is thoroughly believable as a Dillinger-style bank robber.

In the style of Bonnie and Clyde, Big Bad Mama presents its outlaws as being counter-culture rebels.  Every authority figure that Wilma meets — from a preacher played by Royal Dano to a corrupt sheriff to Dick Miller’s incompetent FBI agent — is presented as being hypocritical and arrogant.  Angie plays Wilma as a strong-willed and sexually liberated woman who refuses to allow anyone to tell her how to live her life or raise her daughters.  In the gang, both Fred and Baxter are subservient to her.  Big Bad Mama’s tag line was “Hot lead!  Hot legs!  Hot damn!” and that is a perfect description of Angie Dickinson’s performance.

Happy birthday, Angie Dickinson!

Angie and Shatner

Embracing the Melodrama #38: High Stakes (dir by Amos Kollek)


High Stakes

Yesterday, I said that Dance or Die was the most obscure film that I would be reviewing for this series of melodramatic film reviews.  Well, I may have spoken too soon.  Originally, I was not planning on reviewing the 1989 film High Stakes for this series.  Until a few nights ago, I had never even heard of it.  However, I watched it late last night and I realized immediately that I had to include it in this series.

High Stakes is one of those odd, older films that occasionally pops up as filler on Encore, playing in between showings of movies that people have actually heard of.  When I first came across this film listed in the guide, it was mentioned that High Stakes was Sarah Michelle Gellar’s film debut.  However, before all of my fellow Buffy fans get all excited, they should be aware that Sarah was only 12 years old when she appeared in High Stakes and she spends most of her screen time going, “Mommy!”  If not for her name in the credits, you would never suspect that the little girl playing Sally Kirkland’s daughter would later grow up to play one of the most iconic characters in film history.

Sarah plays the daughter of Bambi (Sally Kirkland), an aging New York-based prostitute and stripper who works for the demonic pimp Slim (Richard Lynch).  Bambi hates her life but she does what she has to do to support her daughter.  One night, Bambi finds a man passed out in the garbage across the street from her apartment.  That man is John Stratton (Richard LuPone), a crooked stock broker who has recently grown disillusioned with his greed-fueled life.  John is laying in the garbage because he’s just been mugged.  Despite her natural instincts, Bambi takes sympathy on John and allows him to come up to her apartment.  John and Bambi start to talk about their respective lives, just to have the conversation interrupted by one of Slim’s henchmen showing up at the apartment and demanding money.  John and the henchmen get into a physical altercation and soon, he and Bambi find themselves on the run with $4,000 of Slim’s money.

As directed by Amos Kollek, High Stakes is essentially two different stories.  One of which is rather conventional thriller, in which John and Bambi have to escape from Slim.  The thriller elements are rather predictable, distinguished only by Richard Lynch’s notably unhinged performance.  The other part of the film is the opposites-attract love story between John and Bambi and these scenes work a lot better.  LuPone and Kirkland have a lot of a chemistry and some of the best moments in the film are the ones where the characters simply talk about their different lives.  Kirkland, in particular, does a good job and she manages to bring some unexpected shadings to a stock role.  She’s especially good in her scenes with Sarah Michelle Gellar, radiating a very natural maternal instinct.  By the end of the film, you truly like Bambi and root for her.  Despite all of my natural expectations, High Stakes turned out to be a rather sweet and touching film.

High Stakes may be an obscure film but it’s definitely one to keep an eye out for the next time it shows up on Encore.

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sally Kirkland in High Stakes

That concludes the 80s.  Tomorrow, we’ll start in on the 90s.