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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

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

Rockin’ in the Film World #20: EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS (Embassy 1983)


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You couldn’t go anywhere in 1984 without hearing “On the Dark Side” blaring from a car radio or your neighborhood bar’s jukebox. That’s thanks in large part to audiences rediscovering 1983’s EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS via repeated showings on HBO, turning the film into an instant cult classic and veteran Providence-based rockers John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band into FM-radio favorites. The film hadn’t done well when first released to theaters, but exposure on the fairly-new medium of Cable TV garnered new fans of both it and Cafferty’s soundtrack album.

Investigative reporter Ellen Barkin looks into the mysterious death of Eddie Wilson (played by Michael Pare’), lead singer of The Cruisers, whose death in a car accident is shrouded in secret, as the body was never found. Was it suicide? murder? or is Eddie still alive? She digs deep to uncover the facts about what happened that fateful night…

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Horror Film Review: The Sentinel (dir by Michael Winner)


Here’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from watching the 1977 horror film, The Sentinel:

Even in the 1970s, the life of a model was not an easy one.

Take Alison Parker (Cristina Raines) for instance.  She should have everything but instead, she’s a neurotic mess.  Haunted by a traumatic childhood, she has attempted to commit suicide twice and everyone is always worried that she’s on the verge of having a breakdown.  As a model, she’s forced to deal with a bunch of phonies.  One of the phonies is played by Jeff Goldblum.  Because he’s Goldblum, you suspect that he has to have something up his sleeve but then it turns out that he doesn’t.  I get that Jeff Goldblum probably wasn’t a well-known actor when he appeared in The Sentinel but still, it’s incredibly distracting when he suddenly shows up and then doesn’t really do anything.

Alison has a fiancée.  His name is Michael Lerman (Chris Sarandon) and I figured out that he had to be up to no good as soon as he appeared.  For one thing, he has a pornstache.  For another thing, he’s played by Chris Sarandon, an actor who is best known for playing the vampire in the original Fright Night and Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride.  Not surprisingly, it turns out that Michael’s previous wife died under mysterious circumstances.  NYPD Detective Rizzo (Christopher Walken) suspects that Michael may have killed her.

(That’s right.  Christopher Walken is in this movie but, much like Jeff Goldblum, he doesn’t get to do anything interesting.  How can a movie feature two of the quirkiest actors ever and then refuse to give them a chance to act quirky?)

Maybe Alison’s life will improve now that she has a new apartment.  It’s a really nice place and her real estate agent is played by Ava Gardner.  Alison wants to live on her own for a while.  She loves Michael but she needs to find herself.  Plus, it doesn’t help that Michael has a pornstache and may have killed his wife…

Unfortunately, as soon as Alison moves in, she starts having weird dreams and visions and all the usual stuff that always happens in movies like this.  She also discovers that she has a lot of eccentric neighbors, all of whom are played by semi-familiar character actors.  For instance, eccentric old Charles (Burgess Meredith) is always inviting her to wild parties.  Her other two neighbors (played by Sylvia Miles and Beverly D’Angelo) are lesbians, which the film presents as being the height of shocking decadence.  At first, Alison likes her neighbors but they make so much noise!  Eventually, she complains to Ava Gardner.  Ava replies that Alison only has one neighbor and that neighbor is neither Burgess Meredith nor a lesbian.

Instead, he’s a blind priest who spends all day sitting at a window.  He’s played by John Carradine, who apparently had a few hours to kill in 1977.

But it doesn’t stop there!  This movie is full of actors who will be familiar to anyone who enjoys watching TCM.  Along with those already mentioned, we also get cameos from Martin Balsam, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Eli Wallach, Richard Dreyfuss, and Tom Berenger.  There are 11 Oscar nominees wasted in this stupid film.  (Though, in all fairness, Christopher Walken’s nomination came after The Sentinel.)

Personally, The Sentinel bugged me because it’s yet another horror movie that exploits Catholic iconography while totally misstating church dogma.  However, the main problem with The Sentinel is that it’s just so incredibly boring.  I own it on DVD because I went through a period where I basically bought every horror film that could I find.  I’ve watched The Sentinel a handful of times and somehow, I always manage to forget just how mind-numbingly dull this movie really is.  There’s a few scary images but mostly, it’s just Burgess Meredith acting eccentric and Chris Sarandon looking mildly annoyed.  If you’ve ever seen Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, or The Omen, you’ll figure out immediately what’s going on but The Sentinel still insists on dragging it all out.  Watching this movie is about as exciting as watching an Amish blacksmith shoe a horse.

There’s a lot of good actors in the film but it’s obvious that most of them just needed to pick up a paycheck.  I’ve read a lot of criticism of Cristina Raines’s lead performance but I actually think she does a pretty good job.  It’s not her acting that’s at fault.  It’s the film’s stupid script and lackluster direction.

A Movie A Day #146: The Dogs of War (1981, directed by John Irvin)


Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) is a professional mercenary who is hired, by a British businessman, to overthrow the government of Zangaro.  Though Zangaro is currently ruled by a ruthless dictator, Shannon’s employers want to replace him with someone even worse, all so they can get their hands on the country’s platinum mines.  After Shannon is captured and tortured by the government, he wants nothing else to do with Zangaro.  Instead, he wants to return to New York and propose to his ex-wife (JoBeth Williams).  But, when she turns down his proposal, Shannon and his mercenary army return to Zangaro.

Before winning an Oscar for The Deer Hunter and becoming one of our most popular character actors, Christopher Walken was a finalist for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars.  If not for George Lucas’s decision to hire Harrison Ford to read lines for the actors at the auditions, Christopher Walken’s career could have developed far differently.  The Dogs of War, which was Walken’s first big film after the high of The Deer Hunter and the low of Heaven’s Gate, features Walken playing a character who has much in common with George Lucas’s original conception of Han Solo, an amoral mercenary who will work for anyone who pays him.  Walken is almost too good as Jamie, playing the part as being so aloof and ruthless that it is sometimes hard to feel any sympathy for him at all.  If he had taken that approach to playing Han Solo, audiences would have really been shocked when Han returned to attack the Death Star.  They would probably be worried that he had returned because the Empire offered him a thousand credits to kill Luke.

The Dogs of War has an intriguing premise but it’s a very slow movie that gets caught up in all the minutia that goes into staging a coup.  It’s exciting when Walken and his mercenaries finally attack the dictator’s compound but it takes forever to get there.  The book, by Frederick Forsyth, is a well-written page turner but the film adaptation largely falls flat.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Big Chill (dir by Lawrence Kasdan)


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There are certain films that truly are “You just had to be there” films.  These are the movies that were apparently loved by contemporary audiences but, when viewed today, it’s difficult to see just what exactly everyone was getting so excited about.  Sometimes, this is because the film itself was so influential and has been copied by so many other films that the original has had its power diluted.  And then, sometimes, it’s just a case that the film was never that good to begin with.

I’m guessing that The Big Chill must be one of those “you just had to be there” type of films.  First released in 1983, The Big Chill was nominated for best picture.  If you look the film up over at the imdb, you’ll find lots of comments from people who absolutely adore this film.  However, when I watched the film as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar, I have to admit that my reaction can be best summed in one word.

Meh.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that The Big Chill was a bad film.  To be honest, it was neither memorably bad nor remarkably good.  Instead, it just was.  Overall, the performances were good, the direction was shallow, and the screenplay was occasionally good and occasionally shallow but mostly, it was the epitome of serviceable.

At the start of The Big Chill, Alex is dead.  With the exception of a scene where his corpse is being prepared for burial, Alex never actually appears on screen.  (Originally, Kevin Costner was cast to play the role in a flashback but director Lawrence Kasdan cut the scene.)  What little we learn about Alex, we learn from listening to the other characters in the film talk about him.  For instance, Alex was apparently brilliant but troubled.  He attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s and was close to 7 other politically radical students.  While everyone else was busy selling out their ideals, Alex stayed true to his and, as a result, he ended up spending his life depressed and poor.  Alex ultimately ended up committing suicide, an act that leads to his 7 friends reuniting for his funeral.

Opening with Alex’s funeral and taking place over one long weekend, The Big Chill follows Alex’s friends as they try to figure out why Alex committed suicide and debate whether or not they’ve sold out their college ideals.  They also spend a lot of time listening to the music of the youth, getting high, watching a football game, and washing dishes.

(Interestingly enough, they spend the weekend in the exact same house where Alex committed suicide.  Which, to be honest, I would think would be kind of creepy.)

There’s Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah (Glenn Close), who are the unofficial grown ups of the group.  It was at their vacation home that Alex committed suicide and, over the course of the film, we find out that Alex and Sarah had a brief affair.  Harold owns a company that makes running shoes and, to at least one friend’s horror, is now good friends with the local police.  Sarah, meanwhile, splits her time between crying in the shower and smiling beatifically at her friends.

(Incidentally, throughout the film, Kevin Kline speaks in one of the least convincing southern accents that I’ve ever heard…)

Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former public defender who, after deciding that all of her poverty-stricken clients really were scum, has now become a real estate attorney.  Meg wants a baby and is hoping that one of the men at the funeral might be willing to impregnate her.  Meg is a chain smoker so good luck, unborn child.  Before Alex killed himself, she had an argument with him.  (“That’s probably why he killed himself,” someone suggests.)

I liked Karen (JoBeth Williams) because she’s prettier than Meg and less condescending than Sarah.  She’s unhappily married to an advertising executive named Richard (Dan Galloway).  As they drive to the cemetery, Richard tells Karen that he can’t believe her famous friends all turned out to be so boring.  Karen is unhappy in her marriage and, after Richard returns home and leaves her in South Carolina for the weekend, decides that she wants a divorce.

That’s good news for Sam (Tom Berenger), an actor who is best known for playing private detective J.T. Lancer on television.  Sam is upset that nobody takes him or his career seriously.  Meg was hoping that Sam would be the father of her baby but, instead, Sam is more interested in Karen.

And then there’s Nick (William Hurt), who is a former radio psychologist-turned-drug dealer.  Nick was wounded in Vietnam and is impotent as a result.  In case you somehow forget that fact, don’t worry.  Nick brings it up every few minutes.

Michael (Jeff Goldblum) was my favorite among the men because he’s at least willing to admit that he’s a self-centered jerk.  Michael is a former underground journalist who now works for People Magazine.  Nobody seems to like Michael and yet, he’s still invited to stay over the weekend.  Personally, I like to think that he does so just to get on everyone’s nerves.  Good for him.

And finally, there’s Chloe (Meg Tillis), who was Alex’s much younger girlfriend and who doesn’t seem to be impressed with any of Alex’s friends (with the exception, of course, of impotent old Nick).

I have to admit that I probably would have responded more to The Big Chill if it was actually about my generation, as opposed to being about my grandparents. Someday, someone my age will make a movie about a bunch of college friends reunited for a funeral and it will be filled with my music and my cultural references and I’ll think it’s brilliant.  And then, a 30 years later, some snotty little film reviewer will watch and probably say, “Meh.  Old people.”

Such is life.

Film Review: Someone To Watch Over Me (dir by Ridley Scott)


Last night, my BFF and I were searching for a movie to watch.  As we were looking through what was available on demand, we came across a film from 1987 called Someone To Watch Over Me.  The film was described as being a romantic thriller about a “happily married cop who becomes infatuated with the wealthy and beautiful woman he’s been assigned to protect from a death threat.”

“This sounds like it might be good,” I said, “Plus, it’s directed by Ridley Scott and he’s good … sometimes.”

“Who’s in it?” my BFF asked.

“Tom Berenger.”

“Who?”

“He was in Inception.”

“Who did he play in Inception?  Was he the rich guy or was he one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s friends?”

“Neither.  He was just kinda there.”

Anyway, whether it was the Inception-connection or the fact that my friend was tired of listening to me obsessively read the description of every single film that was available on demand, we decided to watch Someone To Watch Over Me.

And you know what?

It’s no Inception but Someone To Watch Over Me is still a fairly entertaining little film.

In Someone To Watch Over Me, a youngish Tom Berenger plays Mike Keegan, a New York cop who has just been promoted to detective.  When wealthy socialite Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers) witnesses a murder, Mike is among the detective assigned to guard her.  Though the resolutely blue-collar Mike and the sophisticated Claire come from different backgrounds, they both find themselves attracted to one another.  For Mike, Claire represents the type of lifestyle that he can only dream of.  For Claire, Mike is the opposite of the pretentious and vapid men that usually surround her.  Unfortunately, a sinister gangster is attempting to kill Claire and Mike’s down-to-earth wife Ellie (played by Lorraine Bracco) will kill him if she ever finds out.

Now, let’s make one thing clear.  The plot of Someone To Watch Over Me is just as predictable as you think it is.  As you read my summary, you probably guessed every single thing that happens in the film.  There are no surprises and there are no twists.  Everything in the movie plays out exactly the way that you’re expecting it too.

And yet, as predictable as it was, I still enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me.  One reason was because of a scene in which Ellie reacts to Mike’s self-serving apologies by punching him in the face.  Lorraine Bracco — who is great in this film — throws that punch as if the fate of every woman on the planet’s self-respect depended upon it.  When she strikes out at her husband, it changes the film.  It’s no longer a film about romance.  Instead, it becomes a film about adultery.  Even while the film itself tries to play up the romance between Claire and Mike, both Ellie and Lorraine Bracco refuse to be pushed to the side.  After sitting through so many films that feature women nobly stepping aside so that their significant other can find happiness with his “true love,” it was refreshing to see Ellie call Mike out on his sanctimonious bullshit.

Secondly, I enjoyed Someone To Watch Over Me because it truly is a time capsule of the time when it was made.  I was born in 1985, which perhaps is why I’ve always been fascinated by 80s films.  If nothing else, they give me a chance to see what was going on in the rest of the world while I was busy learning how to walk.  Someone To Watch Over Me was released in 1987 and everything about it — from the fashion to the celebration of wealth and glamour to Ridley Scott’s artfully composed shots of New York at night to the vaguely cokey vibe given off by some members of the supporting cast to the landline phones — made me feel as if I had stepped into my own personal time machine.

So, in the end, Someone To Watch Over Me is not exactly a great or even a memorable film.  However, I’m still glad we watched it.

 

Guilty Pleasure No. 10: The Substitute (dir. by Robert Mandel)


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The most recent entry in the Guilty Pleasure series had Lisa Marie waxing poetically about the idealistic teacher in the “jungle” film The Principal. I counter and follow this up with a similar-themed film called The Substitute that came and went very quickly in the theaters (I’m not even sure if it did or just went straight to video) in 1996.

The Substitute stars veteran actor Tom Berenger (you may remember him in such films as Platoon, Major League and Sniper) as a Vietnam vet mercenary who ends up substituting as the substitute teacher for his girlfriend’s high school class as she recovers from an attack that has left her unable to teach. The girlfriend was played by one Diane Venora who in the very same year was in another little film called Heat by Michael Mann. These two polar opposite films in terms of their “quality” just shows you that when it comes to acting, unless one was a recognizable name then any role is a good role it seems.

Getting back to the film, Berenger’s character is the titular substitute in one of Miami’s worst inner-city high schools where, as the film’s tagline proudly proclaims, the most dangerous things about it was the students. That is until Berenger’s character shows up to find out who attacked his girlfriend and bring down the wrath of God himself (or at least Berenger’s character and members of his old mercenary team).

The film isn’t what one would call very subtle. We clearly see either two types of teachers in this school. There’s Berenger and his girlfriend who care for the young teens (the former woth tough love and the latter going about it in a more liberal sense) and then there are those who have given up on the school and just cashing in on a paycheck. This goes to the extreme with the school’s principal (played by Ernie Hudson) who begins to suspect that the new substitute might be more than he appears.

It’s the passive-aggressive interaction between the two roles played by Berenger and Hudson that made for some of the more hilarious sequences in the film.

Oh, another thing the film also involves a dangerous high school gang that uses the school as if it’s their own little fiefdom and the local drug kingpin using it as a way station to move heroin into the Miami inner-city school system. Oh, did I happen to mention that Marc Anthony plays the leader of the high school gang, because he sure does.

The Substitute almost plays out like how a teacher fed up with the inattentiveness of his students and the stress of doing a thankless job imagines the perfect scenario to “clean-up” the high school. It’s not through coddling and talking things out with the students. It’s about using military tactics to take out the dangers of gangs and drug dealers and tough love on those who are still worth saving.

Some have called the film as blatantly racist while others have pointed out how it is just an extreme version of the longstanding storyline of the educated and civilized white man saving the “natives” from themselves. What this film has over other school films of similar themes is how it doesn’t try to sugarcoat and hide behind ideals when it comes to it’s story. Plus, it’s such a guilty pleasure to see a typical 80’s action flick dressed up to be a late 90’s film. They really don’t make films like this anymore.