Film Review: Convoy (dir by Sam Peckinpah)


Well, it looks like we’ve got ourselves a Convoy!

The 1978 film Convoy opens with the image of a truck passing by some hills that have been covered with snow.  At a certain point, it actually looks like the truck is descending into a sea of white powder.  It’s an appropriate image because, to film lovers and cinematic historians, Convoy will always be associated with cocaine.

Convoy was meant to be a relatively small-scale B-movie, one that was meant to capitalize on the popularity of a novelty song, as well as the recent success of other car chase films.  Instead, it became a notoriously troubled production that went famously overbudget and overschedule as director Sam Peckinpah turned Convoy into a personal statement about modern cowboys and independence.  When the film was finally released, it was the biggest box office hit of Peckinpah’s storied career.  However, because so much money had been spent making the film, it still failed to make a profit and the film is regularly described as being one of the many flops of the late 70s that eventually led to the power in the film industry shifting away from the directors and over to the studio executives.  Many in Hollywood grumbled that it was Peckinpah’s well-known cocaine use that led to him having such trouble with what should have been a simple B-movie.  That’s probably a bit unfair to Peckinpah as it’s been written that just about everyone in Hollywood was using cocaine in 1978.

Add to that …. Convoy‘s not that bad.

Convoy tells the story of Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson), a legendary trucker who has never joined the Teamsters.  He’s an independent.  Rubber Duck’s nemesis is Sheriff Dirty Lyle (Ernest Borgnine), who is also an independent.  He’s never joined the policeman’s union.  As Rubber Duck puts it, “There’s not many like us anymore.”

Anyway, for reasons that are only vaguely defined, Rubber Duck leads a convoy of trucks across the southwest while being pursued by the police.  It has something to do with protesting the law enforcement tactics of Dirty Lyle, despite the fact that Rubber Duck appears to kind of like Lyle.  Soon hundreds of other independent truckers are joining Rubber Duck’s convoy, all to protest law enforcement.  Among those in the convoy are Pig Pen (Burt Young), Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair), and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye), who just wants to get home to his pregnant wife.  Traveling with Rubber Duck is Melissa (Ali MacGraw), who is supposed to be some sort of photojournalist.  Rubber Duck and Melissa fall in love but there’s only so much you can do with a love story when it centers around two of the least expressive stars of the 70s.  During the chase, Rubber Duck picks up some non-truckers supporters, including some religious fanatics in a microbus.  He and the truckers also drive through and destroy a lot of buildings, which kind of makes it look like the cops might have had a point.

What sets Convoy apart from other chase films of the 70s is just how seriously it takes itself.  There’s an undercurrent of melancholy that runs through the entire film.  Rubber Duck seems to know that America is changing and as people become more comfortable with the idea of sacrificing their freedoms, his days as an independent trucker are numbered.  Dirty Lyle also seems to be stuck in a permanent existential crisis, taking no joy in being a crook but still forced to do so by being a part of an inherently corrupt government system.  There’s a scene where a truckstop waitress offers herself up as a gift to Rubber Duck on his birthday and Peckinpah films it as if he’s making an Italian neorealist drama about Rome after the war.  When Spider Mike says that he has to get home to his wife, he says it with the pain of a man who knows that the system only cares about control and not happiness.  These aren’t just truckers.  These are men and women who are on the front lines battling a creeping culture of oppression.

Surprisingly enough, the film’s serious tone actually works to its advantage.  You may not fully understand why Rubber Duck is leading that convoy but you hope that it succeeds because you get the feeling that the world might end if it doesn’t.  When the film ends with Ernest Borgnine laughing like a maniac, it comes across less like a moment of amusement and more like an acknowledgment that the universe is a tragic farce.  Life is a riddle wrapped inside an engima and only Rubber Duck and Dirty Lyle seem to understand that fact.

Add to that, this is a film about independents refusing to allow themselves to be limited by the regulatory state.  In its way, it’s one of the most sincerely Libertarian films ever made and, with all of us currently living under “lockdowns” and hoping that our governors don’t join those who have already surrendered their better instincts to their inner tyrant (sorry, Michigan, Kentucky, and New Jersey), Convoy remains an important film.  Go, Rubber Duck, go!

 

A Movie A Day #228: Johnny Be Good (1988, directed by Bud Smith)


Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall) may be the best high school quarterback in the country but he has a difficult choice to make.  He promised his girlfriend, Georgia (Uma Thurman), that he would go to the local state college with her but every other university in the country wants him.  (Even legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell calls Johnny and advises him to go to an Ivy League college.)  As Johnny tours universities across the country, he faces every temptation.  By the time he makes his decision, will Johnny still be good?

The main problem with Johnny Be Good can be found in the first sentence of the above synopsis.  Anthony Michael Hall plays the best high school quarterback in the country.  By taking on the role of Johnny Walker, Hall was obviously attempting to prove that he was capable of more than just playing nerds for John Hughes.  But Hall is never convincing as a quarterback, much less the best in the country.  Though he bulked up for the role, it is impossible to imagine Hall in a huddle, coming up with the big play that wins the game.  It’s easier to imagine Johnny getting shoved in a locker and left there until the school year ends.  Hall seems to be lost in the role and the movie never seems to be sure who Johnny Walker is supposed to be.  (Two years later, Hall would again play a jock and give a far better performance in Edward Scissorhands.)

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Johnny’s teammate and best friend, is even less convincing as a football player than Hall.  In the 1980s, Downey could play a quirky sidekick in his sleep but not a wide receiver.  Paul Gleason also shows up in the movie, basically playing the same role that he played in The Breakfast Club.  Uma Thurman is sweet and pretty in her film debut but it’s a nothing role.  Fans of Cannon Picture will want to keep an eye out for Steve James, in a small role as a coach.

Poorly written and slackly directed with few laughs, Johnny Be Good fails to take its own advice.

A Movie A Day #67: Animal Factory (2000, directed by Steve Buscemi)


Edward Furlong is Ron Decker, a spoiled 18 year-old from a rich family who is arrested and sent to prison when he’s caught with a small amount of marijuana.  Being younger and smaller than the other prisoners, Ron is soon being targeted by everyone from the prison’s Puerto Rican gang to the sadistic Buck Rowan (Tom Arnold).  Fortunately, for Ron, prison veteran Earl Copen (Williem DaFoe) takes him under his wing and provides him with protection.  Earl is the philosopher-king of the prison.  As he likes to put it, “This is my prison, after all.”  If he can stay out of trouble, Ron has a chance to get out early but, with Buck stalking him, that’s not going to be easy.

Based on a novel by ex-con Edward Bunker, Animal Factory was the second film to be directed by Bunker’s Reservoir Dogs co-stars, Steve Buscemi.  Though it was overlooked at the time, Animal Factory is a minor masterpiece.  Taking a low key approach, Buscemi emphasizes the monotony of prison life just as much as the sudden bursts of violence and shows why someone like Ron Decker can go into prison as an innocent and come out as an animal.  DaFoe and Furlong give two of their best performances as Earl and Ron while a cast of familiar faces — Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Chris Bauer, Mark Boone Junior — make up the prison’s population.  Most surprising of all is Tom Arnold, giving Animal Factory‘s best performance as the prison’s most dangerous predator.

Back to School #54: Rushmore (dir by Wes Anderson)


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It’s an understatement to say that Wes Anderson’s films tend to divide viewers.  It seems like critics either love his excessively stylized and quirky vision or else they dismiss him as being a pretentious, overrated, and overly concerned with the problems of the rich and the suburban.  Even among the writers here at the Shattered Lens, there are conflicting opinions.  Leon the Duke gave Moonrise Kingdom a rave review.  On the other hand, I know that Ryan The Trashfilm Guru is not particularly a fan of Anderson’s films.

Myself, I always find it usually takes me a while to warm up to an Anderson film.  With the exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I always seem to find myself somehow both impressed and slightly disappointed after seeing an Anderson film for the first time.  Perhaps it’s because Anderson is such a highly praised director with such a recognizable style that I always tend to go into his film with my expectations set way too high.  And so, I often times end up watching the latest Anderson film and thinking about how much I loved the film’s production design and some of the performances but often times feeling that, narratively, there was something missing.  On first viewing, Anderson’s trademark quirkiness can be overwhelming.  Usually it’s not until a second or third viewing that I really start to appreciate an Anderson film for something more than just the way it looks.  Eventually, I came to love Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel but it took me a while.

However, there is an exception to every rule.  And, as far as my reaction to Wes Anderson’s films are concerned, 1998’s Rushmore is that exception.  Rushmore is a film that I have unquestionably loved since the very first time I saw it.  Maybe it’s because, while Rushmore is undeniably quirky, that quirkiness doesn’t overwhelm the human aspect of the film’s story.  Maybe it’s because Rushmore — along with Bottle Rocket — is the most identifiably Texan of all of Anderson’s films.  Or maybe it’s just because Bill Murray gives such a great performance.

Seriously, Bill Murray makes any movie better.

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Rushmore is named after Rushmore Academy, a private school in Houston.  (Rushmore is quite obviously based on St. Mark’s, which is perhaps the most exclusive private school down here in Dallas.  Owen Wilson, who collaborated on Rushmore‘s script with Anderson, was expelled from St. Mark’s in the 10th Grade.)  15 year-old Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, who gives a sympathetic performance as a potentially off-putting character) loves attending Rushmore.  He’s involved in a countless number of extracurricular activities and has written and directed several plays, the majority of which are based on films from the 70s.  (We see his stage version of Serpico and it’s hilarious.)

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Unfortunately, Max has a few problems.  For one thing, unlike most of his peers, he’s not rich.  He tells everyone that his father (Seymour Cassel) is a neurosurgeon but actually, he’s a barber.  Even more seriously, Max spends so much of his time starting clubs and writing plays that he doesn’t ever bother to study.  Max is on the verge of flunking out and, despite numerous warnings from Dr. Guggenheim (Brian Cox), he refuses to do anything to improve his grades.

Instead, Max is more interested in pursuing a crush he has on an older teacher, the widowed Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams).  What Max doesn’t realize is that his mentor, industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray), also has a crush on Ms. Cross.

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While Max may be the film’s main character, Herman Blume is, without a doubt, the film’s heart.  Blume is a Viet Nam vet (“You were in the shit?” Max asks.  “Yes, I was in the shit,” Blume replies) who has literally gone from rags to riches.  And now that he is rich, he finds himself living an empty life with a wife who doesn’t respect him and two sons who are total idiots.  When Blume starts to mentor Max and pursue Ms. Cross, he starts to care about living once again.

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Meanwhile, Max attempts to impress Ms. Cross by building an aquarium on the school’s baseball field.  This leads to Max getting expelled and having to enroll in a public school.  (Max continues to wear a suit and tie, even after being expelled.)  However, Max then discovers that Blume has been seeing Ms. Cross and soon, the mentor and the student become rivals…

And a lot of other stuff happens but you know what?  I’m not going to tell you what because if you haven’t seen Rushmore, you need to see it and discover all of this for yourself.  You won’t be sorry!

It may be named after the school but Rushmore is ultimately about how love and our dreams make life worth living.  For Max, Rushmore is his fantasy ideal, a world that he loves because it provides him a sanctuary from the harshness of the real world.  When Mr. Blume says, about Ms. Cross, “She’s my Rushmore,” we understand exactly what he means.  But, and this is what distinguishes Rushmore from so many other films about quirky love triangles, is that Ms. Cross is just as independent and important a character as Max and Mr. Blume.  Blessed with excellent performances from Seymour Cassel, Brian Cox, Jason Schwartzman, Olivia Williams, and especially Bill Murray, Rushmore is one of Wes Anderson’s best films.

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Embracing the Melodrama #42: Indecent Proposal (dir by Adrian Lyne)


This one is just dumb.

First released in 1993 and something of a perennial on AMC, Indecent Proposal tells the story of David (Woody Harrelson) and Diane (Demi Moore), two kids who meet in high school, get married, and end up living what, in Hollywood, passes for an average, middle class lifestyle — which is to say, Diane is a successful real estate broker, David is an architect, and they’re in the process of building their dream house on the beach.  (Just like everyone else you know, right?)  However, the economy goes bad, David loses his job, and they find themselves deep in debt.

Desperately, they decide to take a gamble.  Literally.  They go to Las Vegas and, at first, it seems like everything’s going to be alright.  David has a run of luck and makes a lot of money.  They make so much money that David and Diane end up having sex on top of it.  Now, I have to admit, if I ever won $25,000 dollars in Vegas, I would probably spread it on a bed and roll around naked on it as well.  But only if it was paper money.  Coins would probably be uncomfortable and I’d hate to end up with a hundred little impressions of George Washington’s profile running up and down my body.

But anyway, David and Diane make the mistake of sticking around in Vegas for a second day and they end up losing all of the money that they previously won and you better believe that when the chips are pulled away, Diane is shown trying grab them in slow motion while going, “Noooooo!”  Soon, David and Diane are sitting in an all-night diner and trying to figure out what to do next.  A waitress overhears them and sadly shakes her head.  Obviously, she’s seen a lot of movies about Las Vegas.

Anyway, this movie is too dumb to waste this many words on its plot so let’s just get to the point.  David and Diane meets John Gage (Robert Redford), a millionaire who offers to give David a million dollars in exchange for having one (and only one) commitment-free night with Diane.  David and Diane agree and then spend the rest of the movie agonizing over their decision.  Eventually, this leads to Diane and David splitting up, John Gage reentering the picture and proving himself to be not such a bad guy, and David eventually buying a hippo.

It’s all really dumb.

Anyway, I was planning on making quite a few points about this set-up but, quite frankly, this film is so dumb that I’m getting annoyed just writing this review.  So, instead of breaking this all down scene-by-scene, I’m just going to point out a few things and then move on to better melodramas.

1) Every character in the movie has a scene where they eventually ask what we (the viewing audience) would do if we were in a similar situation.  “Would you have sex for a million dollars?”  Well, let’s see.  Basically, the deal seems to be that you have safe, non-kinky, missionary position sex with a millionaire who you will never have to see again after you get paid.  And you’re getting a million dollars in return.  Would I do it?  OF COURSE, I’D DO IT!  It’s a million dollars, it’s just one night, and it’s not like you’re being asked to fuck Vladimer Putin or something.  If the film wanted to create a true moral dilemma, they should have cast someone other than Robert Redford as John Gage and they should have had Gage propose something more than just one night.  If Gage had been played by an unappealing actor (or perhaps if the film were made today with Redford looking as craggly as he did in Capt. America or All Is Lost) or if it had been a million dollars for Diane to serve as a member of Gage’s harem for a year, the film would have been far different and perhaps not any better but at least all of the subsequent angst would have made sense.

2) What really annoyed me is that, after Diane returns from her night with Gage, neither she nor her husband ever cash that million dollar check.  If you’re going to agree to the stupid deal, at least take advantage of it.

3) Finally, why would you accept a check for something like that?  Did Gage write, “For letting me fuck your wife” in the memo line?  Why not get paid in cash so, at the very least, you don’t have to deal with IRS?

Seriously, this movie is just dumb.

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Film Review: Diary of a Hitman (dir by Roy London)


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I’ve been on a mission to see as many obscure and forgotten films as possible, which is why, last night — via Movieplex OnDemand —  I ended up watching a 1991 film called Diary of a Hitman.

In Diary of a Hitman, Forest Whitaker plays Dekker, a professional killer.  Despite the film’s title, Dekker does not keep a diary.  What he does do is talk.  A lot.  The film is framed by scenes of him telling his story to somebody on the phone.  (I was never quite sure who he was supposed to be talking to.)  Over the course of the film, he talks to a psychiatrist.  He talks to his agent (Seymour Cassel).  He talks to a dominatrix.  He talks to a corrupt police officer (James Belushi).  He talks to a born-again Christian (Lewis Smith) who hires Dekker to kill his wife and a baby that he may or may not be the father of.  Eventually, he ends up talking to Jain (Sherilyn Fenn), the woman that he’s been hired to kill.  He even has a very brief conversation with Jain’s sister, Kiki (who is played, in a shrill cameo appearance, by Sharon Stone).

With all of the constant talking, it’s not surprising to discover that Diary of a Hitman was based on a stage play.  That’s especially obvious during the film’s second act, which almost entirely takes place inside of Jain’s apartment and basically consists of Fenn and Whitaker delivering dramatic monologues about life and death.  Director Roy London was an acting teacher (among his students were Sharon Stone and Sherilyn Fenn) and it’s perhaps not surprising that he never found a way to make such obviously stage-bound material feel cinematic.  Instead, London directed the film as if he was filming an acting exercise.  Just consider the scene where Kiki drops by the apartment unannounced.  While watching this scene, I kept having flashbacks to high school theater.  I could literally hear one of my old teachers saying, “Okay, for this scene, your motivation is to get her to leave the apartment and your motivation is to stay in the apartment no matter what.  And…go!”

That said, Diary of a Hitman is not a total waste of time.  Playing the agoraphobic Jain, Sherilyn Fenn (who can be seen playing a far more villainous character in this year’s Raze) gives a sympathetic performance, even managing to redeem a potentially distasteful scene where she attempts to seduce Decker.  (I’ve included that scene at the bottom of the review, mostly because — along with Sharon Stone’s cameo — it’s the only scene from Diary Of A Hitman that’s currently available on YouTube.)

And then there’s Forest Whitaker.  It’s hard to say whether Whitaker gives a good performance here or not, largely because the character of Decker makes little sense to begin with and he’s required to have a massive change of heart that seems to come out of nowhere.  (Whitaker has made a credible killer in several other films, just not this one.)  However, what Whitaker lacks in credibility, he makes up for in eccentricity.  In the role of Decker, Forest Whitaker gives one of the oddest performances that I’ve ever seen.  Delivering the majority of his dialogue in an occasionally incomprehensible rasp and flashing a wide smile at the most inappropriate of moments, Forest Whitaker is a force of misdirected nature in this film.  Again, it’s hard to say whether Whitaker actually gives a good performance here but he does make Diary of a Hitman worth seeing.