Robots With A Cause: Class of 1999 (1990, directed by Mark L. Lester)


The year is 1999 and John F. Kennedy High School sits in the middle of Seattle’s most dangerous neighborhood.  Teenage gangs have taken over all of the major American cities and just going to school means putting your life in danger.  However, Dr. Bob Forest (Stacy Keach!), the founder of MegaTech, has a solution.  He has taken former military androids and reprogrammed them to serve as educators.  JFK’s principal, Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell!!), agrees to allow his school to be used a testing ground.  Soon, Miss Conners (Pam Grier!!!) is teaching chemistry.  Mr. Byles (Patrick Kilpatrick) is teaching gym.  Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) is teaching history.  When they’re not teaching, these robots are killing truant students and manipulating two rival street gangs into going to war.

Imagine mixing Rebel With A Cause with The Terminator and you get an idea of what Class of 1999 is like.  Two of the only good teenagers (played by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lind) figure out that the teachers are killing their classmates but they already know that they won’t be able to get anyone to listen to them because they’re just kids who go to school in a bad neighborhood.  Meanwhile, the teachers have been programmed to do whatever has to be done to keep the peace in the school.  Why suspend a disruptive student when you can just slam his head into a locker until he’s dead?  Director Mark L. Lester (who previously directed Class of 1984) is an old pro when it comes to movies like this and he’s helped by a better-than-average cast.  Any movie that features not only Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell but also Pam Grier is automatically going to be cooler than any movie that doesn’t.

When Class of 1999 was made, 1999 was considered to be the future and, in many ways, the movie did prove to be prophetic.  We may not have robot teachers (yet) but the idea of arming teachers and expecting them to double as cops has become a very popular one over the past few years.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to send my children to a school where the teachers all have to carry a gun while teaching but that may just be me.

Far Out, Man!: CHEECH & CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE (Paramount 1978)


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Hey Man, if you dig crude, vulgar stoner comedy… wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, Cheech and Chong, man. These two dudes were, like, really cool dudes, and made a lot of records and stuff, and… wait, what was I saying, man? OK, so Cheech and Chong were hippie culture’s answer to Abbott & Costello , and so popular they starred in a series of doper-themed movies, the first being UP IN SMOKE, a film basically about nothing except two burnouts trying to score some weed. C&C play their familiar personas of Pedro and Man, a pair of L.A. hippies floating their way through the world in a perpetual marijuana haze. . Sure, it’s uncouth, sophomoric, and defiantly non-PC, but had me laughing out loud forty years later!

The supporting cast features Stacy Keach as Sgt. Stedenko, a super-narc trying to stamp out drug use, and he’s a straight-edge riot…

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A Movie A Day #315: That Championship Season (1982, directed by Jason Miller)


Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania.  Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions.  Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season.  George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection.  Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife.  James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father.  James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job.  The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach.  All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.

Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season.  Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct.  (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.)  While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows.  The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.

One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity.  As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career.  Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.

A Movie A Day #130: Doc (1971, directed by Frank Perry)


No, this latest movie a day is not about Lisa and Erin’s cat.

Instead, Doc is yet another retelling of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Most cinematic depictions of that event present Wyatt Earp as being an upright hero, Doc Holliday as being his roguish friend, and the Clantons as being black hat-wearing villains.  Doc takes the opposite approach.  In this one, Wyatt (Harris Yulin) and his brother are sociopaths whose feud with the Clantons comes down to Ike Clanton’s (Mike Whitney) refusal to bow to their authority.  Wyatt is a coward and a physical weakling, who gets beaten up by Ike and is only saved when his friend, Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach), steps forward to protect him.

In this film, Doc is clearly dying from the minute he first appears.  Not only is Doc so thin that his bride actually carries him over the threshold, he is also constantly coughing.  His misery is only relieved by opium, herbs, and the love of Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway), the prostitute that he wins in a poker game at the start of the film.  Doc would rather just spend his remaining days with Katie but, because of his friendship with Wyatt, he is dragged into the Earp/Clanton fight.

Like most revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, Doc is a heavy-handed metaphor for the Vietnam War, with Wyatt Earp serving as an LBJ/Nixon stand-in and Doc Holliday standing in for all the leaders who enabled them.  It sounds interesting and Stacy Keach gives a good performance but Doc is glacially paced and Harris Yulin is thoroughly miscast as Wyatt.  It takes forever to get to the gunfight and the Doc is so determined to be revisionist that it forgets to be interesting.  Doc is an unfortunate misfire.

Insomnia File #21: Truth (dir by James Vanderbilt)


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, last night, you found yourself awake at three in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2015 film, Truth.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Truth would have put you to sleep.  It kept me awake, largely because I was in a state of shock that any movie could be as bad as what I was watching.  Without running the risk of hyperbole, I can say that Truth is one of the worst fucking movies that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  It’s not just that the film is poorly scripted, inconsistently acted, and directed in the most heavy-handed way possible.  No, the problems with Truth went far beyond mere execution.  Truth is a film with an agenda, one that I kind of agree with, but it’s such a total misfire that it ends up doing more damage to its cause than good.  Truth is meant to be a defense of the much maligned mainstream media but it’s so poorly put together that it’s easy to imagine it being one of Donald Trump’s guilty pleasures.  Remember how all of us musical theater nerds used to hatewatch Smash?  I imagine that the White House staff does the same thing with Truth.

Truth is ostensibly based on a true story.  In 2004, veteran anchorman Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford) reported a story that then-President George W. Bush got preferential treatment while he was serving in the Air National Guard.  This story was considered to be especially big because 1) the Iraq War was deeply unpopular, 2) Bush was in a tight race for reelection, 3) his opponent, John F. Kerry, didn’t have much to offer beyond having served in Vietnam, and 4) questions were being raised about what Kerry actually did in Vietnam.

One of the most important pieces of evidence in Rather’s story were four memos that had been provided by a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Air National Guard, a veteran Bush-hater named Bill Burkett (played, in the film, by Stacy Keach).  Shortly after the story aired, conservative bloggers claimed that the memos were obvious forgeries.  After spending weeks defending the story and haughtily dismissing anyone who didn’t collect an eight-figure paycheck from CBS, Rather admitted on air that the authenticity of the memos could not be verified.  In the wake of the scandal, Rather’s longtime producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), was fired.  Rather retired a year earlier than expected and went on to become one of those reliably dull commentators who occasionally emerges to complain about how the world hasn’t been the same since Adlai Stevenson died.  Mapes later wrote a book, which argued that 1) the memos were authentic and 2) it didn’t actually matter whether they were authentic, even though they like so totally were.

With all the current talk about fake news and whether both the media and Hollywood exist in a bubble, Truth is a film that should be especially relevant but, as previously stated, it’s so clumsy and heavy-handed that it actually does more harm than good.  About halfway through the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which literally the entire country is shown watching 60 Minutes with awe-struck expression on their face.  Children are watching.  Customers in a bar are watching.  The cooking staff in the kitchen pauses in their work to watch the report.  Heroic music rises on the soundtrack.  This scene, with all of its self-important grandeur, pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with Truth.  It’s one thing to argue that the news media does, should, and must play an important role in American life.  It’s another thing to make your argument by constructing a fantasy world where the entire country plots their lives around watching 60 Minutes.  But that’s the way Vanderbilt directs the entire film.  He’s so high on the fumes of his good intentions that he doesn’t realize his film basically comes across like a parody of those intentions.

Especially in the second half of the film, there’s a lot of speeches about why journalism is important.  And those speeches may actually make a great point but the problem is that none of them convince us that Mary Mapes and Dan Rather didn’t get fooled by some painfully obvious forgeries.  In its laudable effort to defend journalism, Truth makes the mistake of excusing shoddy journalism. When, towards the end of the film, Mapes exclaims that the memos were only a minor part of the overall story and not necessary to prove that Bush got preferential treatment, you want someone to ask her, “If you could prove the story without them, then why did you include these unverifiable documents in the first place, especially considering that they were received from a questionable source?”  But nobody does because none of the film’s saintly characters have been written or portrayed with the nuance necessary to be able to survive a question like that.   Truth‘s problem is that it wants to have it both ways.  “It doesn’t matter that this story was based on obviously fake documents,” Truth says, “And, because Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were sent by God to tell the truth, the obviously fake documents were completely real.”

And then there’s the film’s performers.  Stacy Keach is great as Burkitt and his eccentric performance suggests the film that Truth could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with trying to portray its lead characters as saints.  But then there’s Robert Redford, whose portrayal of Dan Rather has all the nuance and personality of a wax figure.  (Redford wears suspenders.  That’s the extent of his performance.)  As Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett is totally wasted.  She doesn’t really have a character to play, beyond her male director’s conception of what a professional woman is supposed to be like.  (She also has a traumatic back story of abuse, which the film trots out in such a klutzy manner that it’s actually incredibly insulting to real-life abuse victims.)  Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Elisabeth Moss all show up as members of Mapes’s team.  Quaid is playing a military man so he gets to salute in slow motion.  Grace is playing a hipster with a beard so he gets this embarrassing scene where he rants about how he’s being targeted not because of sloppy reporting but because of a corporate conspiracy.  (This was obviously meant to be a huge applause moment but, like a lot of the movie, it doesn’t explain how the progressive cause is helped by shoddy journalism.)  Moss doesn’t get to do anything, other than sit in the background.  To waste a cast of this quality is a crime.

So why did this mostly terrible film get respectful reviews?  Why did Sasha Stone and Jeff Wells insist that Truth was destined to be an Oscar contender?  Call it confirmation bias.  Truth plays to mainstream liberals (which includes the majority of film reviewers) in much the same way that God’s Not Dead 2 plays to Christians.  But just because you agree with a film’s ideology, that doesn’t make it an example of good filmmaking.  While artistic films are often political, it’s rare that political films are ever art.  If every anti-Bush film was an artistic masterpiece, we would be living in a cinematic golden age.

Here’s the thing.  We live in a time when the media is under attack and being used a convenient scapegoat for every bad thing in America. Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by portraying the media as being biased and that’s a charge that will undoubtedly be repeated many times over the next four years.  A heavy-handed mess like Truth doesn’t help anything.

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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?

Back to School #79: If I Stay (dir by R.J. Cutler)


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17 year-old Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) appears to have everything that a girl could want.  She has a wonderful, if somewhat goofy, father in former musician-turned-teacher Denny (Joshua Leonard).  She has a loving mother, a travel agent named Kat (Mirelle Enos).  She has an adorable little brother (Jakob Davies), a loyal best friend (Liana Liberato), and — best of all — she has an older boyfriend named Adam (Jamie Blackley), who is on the verge of rock stardom.  Even better, Mia has a wonderful future ahead of her.  A musical prodigy, Mia is cello player who is waiting to hear whether or not she’s been accepted to Julliard.

And then, one day on a snowy road, it all changes.  There’s a car accident.  Both Denny and Kat are killed.  Mia’s brother is several injured.  And Mia in a coma.  While her friends and what remains of her family watch over her at the hospital, Mia has an out-of-body experience.  She walks through the hallways of the hospital, she listens to her loved ones as they struggle to accept what has happened, and she remembers all of the days that came before the accident.  She remembers first meeting Adam.  She remembers falling in love with him.  She remembers their fights and then she remembers her family and she realizes that she’s facing a future without any of them.  Ultimately, Mia has to decide whether to wake up and stay or to die and perhaps be at peace.

Based on an excellent novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay is a tear jerker in the best sense of the word.  Yes, the film has been clearly designed to make you cry but what’s wrong with that?  Sometimes, crying is the best thing that one can do and, much like The Fault In Our Stars, the film’s tears are earned.  As directed by R.J. Cutler, the film strikes a deliberate and telling contrast between Mia’s lively memories and the stark coldness of the hospital through which she now finds herself wandering.  Joshua Leonard and Mirelle Enos bring a lot of life to the roles of the doomed parents and Stacy Keach is great as Mia’s grandfather.  (Try not to cry when he tells the comatose Mia that it’s okay to move on.  I dare you!)

Finally, Chloe Grace Mortez gives a wonderful and soulful performance of Mia.  Moretz is one of those young actresses who always seems to be both wise beyond her years and painfully fragile as well.  If I Stay contains yet another strong performance from her, one that elevates the entire film.  That said, I hope she gets to do a nice romantic comedy at some point in the future because, after all the trauma she’s acted out in everything from Kick-Ass to Texas Killing Fields to Carrie to If I Stay, she’s earned it!

As for If I Stay, it’s still playing at theaters even as I write this review.  If you haven’t already, go see it.

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Trailer: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Official Teaser)


Sin City A Dame to Kill For

Hard to imagine it’s been 9 years since the original Sin City hit the big screen. It was a comic book adaptation that many thought wouldn’t work, especially how Rodriguez envisioned it to be slavishly loyal to not just Miller’s dialogue but also his unique art style.

The original film’s success quickly ramped up rumors that a sequel was already being planned using the second graphic novel in the Sin City series. Rodriguez himself stated he wanted Angelina Jolie for the role of Ava Lord, the titular “Dame to Kill For”, but after years and years of delay the role finally landed on Eva Green‘s lap (not a bad choice and one I fully support).

So, we’re now going back to Basin City for more tales of booze, broads and bullets in this hyper-noir film that should be loved or hated in equal measures by those who have followed Frank Miller’s career. Once again the directing duties have been split between Rodriguez and Miller. Here’s to hoping that Miller has learned how to be a much better directer after his last film, The Spirit, tanked.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is set for an August 22, 2014 release date.