Favorite Son (1988, directed by Jeff Bleckner)


During a reception on the steps of U.S. Capitol, an assassin kills Contra leader Col. Martinez (Geno Silva) and seriously wounds Sen. Terry Fallon (Harry Hamlin), an up-and-coming politician from Texas.  An eager media catapults Fallon to national stardom and the beleagued President (James Whitmore), who is facing a tough reelection bid, is pressured to replace the current vice president (Mitchell Ryan) with Fallon.

The FBI only assigns two of their agents to investigate the assassination, a sure sign that someone wants the investigation to just go away.  Nick Mancuso (Robert Loggia) is a crusty, hard-drinking veteran agent whose career is nearly at an end.  David Ross (Lance Guest) is his young and idealistic partner.  When Mancuso and Ross discover that Martinez was injected with the HIV virus just two days before the assassination, it becomes obvious that there is a bigger conspiracy afoot.  It all links back to Sally Crain (Linda Kozlowski), who is Fallon’s legislative aide and also his lover.  (Fallon has a wife but she’s locked away in a hospital.)  Sally has an interest in bondage, as Ross soon finds out.

Favorite Son was originally aired as a 3-night, 4 and a half-hour miniseries.  It was later reedited and, with a running time of less than two hours, released theatrically overseas as Target: Favorite Son.  As a miniseries, Favorite Son is an exciting conspiracy-themed film that is full of scheming, plotting, interesting performances, and pungent dialogue.  Target: Favorite Son, on the other hand, is disjointed and, unless you know the original’s plot, almost impossible to follow.  If you’re going to watch Favorite Son, make sure you see the original miniseries.  My mom taped it off of NBC when it originally aired.  That was the only way that I was able to originally see the film the way that it meant to be seen.  The entire miniseries has also been uploaded, in three parts, to YouTube.

Hopefully, the original miniseries will get an official release someday because it’s pretty damn entertaining.  Harry Hamlin isn’t really dynamic enough for the role of Fallon but otherwise, the movie is perfectly cast.  Robert Loggia is so perfect for the role of Nick Mancuso that it almost seems as if the character was written for him.  (Loggia did later star in a one-season drama called Mancuso, FBI.)  Linda Kozlowski seems to be destined to be forever known as Crocodile Dundee’s wife but her performance as Sally shows that she was a better actress than she was given credit for.  The supporting cast also features good performances from Jason Alexander, Ronny Cox, Tony Goldwyn, John Mahoney, Kenneth McMillian, Richard Bradford, and Jon Cypher.

Favorite Son may be over 30 years old but it’s still relevant today.  In the third part, John Mahoney gives a speech about how American voters are often willfully ignorant when it comes to what’s going on behind the scenes in Washington and it’s a killer moment.  Melodramatic as Favorite Son may be, with its portrayal of political chicanery and an exploitative national media, it’s still got something to say that’s worth hearing.

 

Horror Film Review: The Belko Experiment (dir by Greg McLean)


How far would you go if all you had to do was follow orders?  That is the question posed by The Belko Experiment.

A violent and disturbingly plausible social satire/horror film, The Belko Experiment was released into theaters on March 17th.  It was one of the best films of the first half of 2017 but, as so often happens whenever a genre film subverts the traditional narrative, The Belko Experiment is also one of the most overlooked films of 2017.  It got mixed reviews, with most critics focusing on the fact that the script was written by James Gunn.  (Though Gunn may be best known for directing Guardians of the Galaxy, his non-MCU work has always  been distinguished by a subversive, often transgressive sensibility.)  A few critics dismissed it as being just another lurid celebration of violence, showing once again that you can always count on certain mainstream critics to unfairly categorize any film that doesn’t neatly fit into their preconceptions.  Yes, The Belko Experiment is violent.  And yes, it is gory and sometimes hard to watch.  However, to dismiss The Belko Experiment as merely being that latest entry in the torture porn genre is to totally miss the point.

Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) is one of the many employees of Belko Industries.  He’s a nice enough guy.  In fact, if I worked for Belko Industries, Mike would probably be one of my favorite co-workers.  He’s friendly.  He’s funny.  He’s not unattractive.  He’s kind of a less smirky version of The Office‘s Jim Halpert.  I’d want to be his friend.  Since Belko’s offices are located in a remote area of Colombia, I would want to make all the friends that I could.

(Early on in the film, we’re informed that every employee of Belko Industries has been required to get a tracking device implanted at the base of their skull.  They’re told that this is because there’s always the risk that one of them will be kidnapped by drug traffickers.  Of course, as the film plays out, we discover that it’s actually for a totally different reason.)

When The Belko Experiment begins, it’s a day like any other.  People show up for work. Some people actually do work.  Some people slack off.  Everyone tries to look busy whenever the boss, Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn), wanders by.  The maintenance workers (Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian) do their thing.  A few employees sneak up to the roof of the office building and get high.  Everyone tries to avoid Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinely), a pervy executive.  The security guard (James Earl) watches the door.  The newest employee (Melonie Diaz) learns about her new job and coworkers.

Of course, there are a few strange things.  Some new security guards have shown up and they don’t appear to be particularly friendly.  They turn away all of the locals who work at the office, only allowing in the American employees.  Everyone agrees that it’s strange but, instead of thinking about it too much, they just keep going about their day.

Then, the steel shutters slam down, effectively sealing the building off.

Then a voice (Gregg Henry) demands that they select two co-workers to die.  When the employees of Belko Industries refuse (with several dismissing the whole thing as being a tasteless prank), tracking devices start to randomly explode until four employees are dead.  The voice goes on to say that, unless 30 employees are killed in the next two hours, 60 people will be randomly killed…

Some of the co-workers refuse to kill their friends but many more do not.  And soon, even those who refused to take part in the murders, are forced to start killing just to keep from being killed themselves…

The Belko Experiment wastes no time in establishing that anyone can die at any moment.  It doesn’t matter how funny you were a few seconds ago or how likable you may be.  If the unseen voice decides to flip your switch, that “tracking device” will explode and it’ll take your head with it.  And, even if the unseen voice doesn’t get you, your coworkers might.

That, by itself, would be disturbing enough.  However, The Belko Experiment ultimately succeeds as a work of horror because it illustrates a truth that many people would prefer to ignore.  When the employees of Belko Industries start to kill each other, it feels all too plausible.  Culturally, human beings are conditioned to follow orders.  We like to have an authoritarian around to tell us what to do.  It’s a good way of avoiding responsibility for our own actions.  (“I was following orders.”  “I was following protocol.”  “I’m just doing my job.”)  As The Belko Experiment demonstrates, most people would never dream of hurting someone else … unless they were ordered to do so.  The characters in The Belko Experiment start the movie as individuals but, as the experiment unfolds, all quirks and differences vanish.  All that is left are drones who slavishly do what they’re told.

Making the nightmare scenario feel all the more believable is a large and strong cast of familiar faces.  As the closest thing that this film has to a hero, John Gallagher, Jr. is likable and you find yourself hoping that he’ll somehow manage to survive all of this with his humanity intact.  Tony Goldwyn brings some interesting shades to his role while John C. McGinley is memorably creepy as Wendell.  Micheal Rooker, Abraham Benrubi, Sean Gunn, Josh Brener, Melonie Diaz, Brent Sexton, and Adria Arjone all shine in smaller roles.  To be honest, you really don’t want to see any of these people suffer, which makes their inevitable fate all the more disturbing.

The Belko Experiment is ultimately a portrait of how easily people can be persuaded (or ordered) to surrender their humanity.  It’s the exact mentality that we currently see everyday, with people willingly becoming slaves to one ideology or another and then tossing around terms like “treason” whenever anyone dares to do something other than obey.  It’s the exact mentality that leads to people accusing you of being “selfish” when you refuse to surrender your right to self-determination.  Our real-life Belko Experiment has been going on for several years now and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.  This movie is frightening because it’s real.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #85: Ghost (dir by Jerry Zucker)


Ghost_(1990_movie_poster)Along with it being a part of my series of melodramatic film reviews, there are actually two reasons why I recently watched Ghost.

First off, this 1990 film was nominated for best picture and it’s long been my goal to watch and review every single film ever nominated for best picture.

Secondly, my Aunt Kate absolutely loves this movie.  Ever since she first found out that I obsessively love movies, she has recommended that I watch this movie.  And she hasn’t been alone.  A lot of people both in and outside of my family have recommended this film to me.  And, since I tend to be a bit of a contrarian know-it-all, I originally assumed that any film loved by that many people had to be terrible.  However, because I love mi tia, I decided to watch Ghost.

I have to admit that I started to laugh when I saw Demi Moore sitting at her pottery wheel because I’ve seen that scene parodied in so many different TV shows and movies.  As soon as a shirtless Patrick Swayze sat down behind her and joined his hands to hers to help shape a ceramic phallic symbol, I started to giggle.  As Unchained Melody played in the background, I wanted to be snarky.  But then I realized something.  If you can manage watch the scene without comparing it to all the parody versions, it actually works.  Patrick Swayze looked good and he and Demi Moore had the type of amazing chemistry that more than made up for the fact that neither one of them was a very good actor.  (That said, Patrick was very good at projecting decency and Demi was very good at crying and that’s really all that Ghost required.)  And, if the scene has proven easy to parody, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very sincere scene.  It’s so sincere that it’s even willing to risk coming across as being silly.

Of course, the entire film isn’t just Demi, Patrick, and a pottery wheel.  There’s also Whoopi Goldberg as a fake medium-turned-real-medium and Tony Goldwyn as the best friend who turns out to be a sleazy villain.  And, of course, there’s the cartoonish demons who pop up every once in a while so that they can literally drag the recently deceased down to Hell.

Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) is the world’s most unlikely New York City-based banker.  He owns a beautiful apartment with his girlfriend Molly (Demi Moore) but he has commitment issues.  He can’t bring himself to say that he loves Molly.  Instead, he just says, “Ditto.”  And, from the minute he first utters those words, you know that his habit of saying “Ditto,” is going to be an important plot point.  Anton Chekhov told us that any gun introduced during the first chapter must be fired by the third chapter.  Ghost tells us that any “Ditto” uttered during the first 10 minutes must be repeated by the end of the first hour.

Sam’s best friend and co-worker is Carl (Tony Goldwyn).  At the start of the film, Sam and Carl have a sweet bromance going and some of the best scenes are just the two of them acting like guys.  (There’s a fun little scene where they freak out a group of strangers on an elevator.)  Goldwyn is so likable as Carl that it’s actually genuinely upsetting to discover that he’s arranged for Sam to be murdered.  (Why?  It all involved a lot of financial stuff that basically went right over my head.  Greed is not only the root of all evil but it leads to narrative confusion as well.)  When Sam dies, he comes back as a ghost but nobody can see him but his fellow ghosts.  Vincent Schiavelli has a great cameo as a very angry subway ghost who teaches Sam how “life” works when you’re dead.

(Of course, Schiavelli isn’t on screen for too long because he’s almost too angry for the world of Ghost.)

Eventually Sam discovers that only one living person can communicate with him.  Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) is a fake medium who is just as shocked as anyone to discover that she can speak with the dead.  Whoopi won an Oscar for her performance here and she’s certainly does bring some needed humor and life to Ghost.  With Swayze, Moore, and Goldwyn all giving extremely and sometimes overly dramatic performances, you’re happy to have Whoopi there.

Ghost is designed to appeal to your emotions and it succeeds in doing just that.  If you look at the film logically, you’re missing the point.  In many ways, the film is undeniably silly but I still got some tears in my eyes when I heard that “Ditto.”

 

44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd

Film Review: The Mechanic (dir. by Simon West)


A few years ago, I declared that January should just be renamed Statham because seriously, Jason Statham was in like almost every single freaking movie released that month.  Seriously, it was like every time I turned on the TV, there was yet a new commercial featuring Jason Statham in some movie that I had absolutely no desire to see.  “Oh look,” I’d say, “that’s Jason Statham swinging a sword.  Oh, now he’s driving a car really fast.  Oh, wow, now Jason Statham’s looking off to the side and squinting…”

Well, this January, Jason Statham is only starring in one film and it might be the best of his career.  At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve been able to kind of see the guy’s appeal as a film star.  That film is The Mechanic and it opened this week.

In the Mechanic, Jason Statham plays a contract killer.  He’s known as a mechanic because he “fixes” problems.  After Statham’s mentor (Donald Sutherland) is killed, Statham takes the man’s son (Ben Foster) under his wing and starts to teach Foster the tools of the trade.  However, unlike the cool and detached Statham, Foster is a jittery and angry psychopath.  However, despite their differing approaches, they are forced to work together when the same man (Tony Goldwyn) who ordered Sutherland’s murder decides to come after them.

As I stated before, I’ve never quite gotten the appeal of Jason Statham as an actor.  In fact, as Jeff and I waited for the film to start, I said, “I’ve never really gotten Jason Statham.”  As soon as I said that, this woman sitting in front of us turned around in her seat and I swear to God, she rolls her eyes at me in this way that said, “Bitch, please.  Like Jason Statham would ever give your raggedy ass a second look.” 

I proceeded to narrow my eyes in a way that said, “You best be watching what you say, you nasty ass ho.”

She cocked her head in a way that said, “Oh, no you didn’t!”

I flared my nostrils in a way that said, “Oh yes, I did, you hootchie ass skank…”

She leaned forward as if to say, “Gurl, you need to get Jesus in your life…” 

I smirked as if to say, “Jesus?  What does Jesus have to do with this?”

Before she could answer, the movie started.

Anyway, what was my point?  Oh yes, Jason Statham.  In the past, I’ve never gotten his appeal but in this film, I did.  For the first time, I saw him as something other than just an expressionless English guy.  Statham is athletic but, unlike a lot of other action movie stars, he’s not so ludicrously muscle-bound that you can’t believe him as some guy you might run into out on the street.  Previously, I just thought that Statham was a bad actor but, with the Mechanic, I realized that, whereas other actors act with their eyes and their voice, Statham acts with his body.  You look at Statham with his constant scowl and his cold eyes and you believe that he could kill someone in real life as well as in the movies.  Statham is perfectly cast as a professional killer and The Mechanic wisely doesn’t try to suggest that the character is anything more than just a very disciplined sociopath.  Much like the best pulp heroes, Statham’s mechanic is a hero by default.  He’s a bad guy but everyone else in the movie is worse.

Also, there’s a scene about ten minutes into the film where Statham, fresh from killing a drug lord, changes clothes in a linen closet and as soon as he removed his shirt, I said, “Oh, I see the appeal now.”

Playing opposite of Statham, Ben Foster gives another one of his intense performances.  Throughout the film, Foster is perpetually on the verge of exploding and his typically high energy performance provides a nice contrast to Statham’s typical nonperformance.  He’s the Eli Wallach to Statham’s Clint Eastwood.  However, Foster doesn’t just rely on theatric for his character.  Instead, he gives a complex, multi-faceted performance as a character who, in the hands of a lesser actor, could have just been your average psychopath.  He even manages to win some sympathy for a character who, on paper, wouldn’t seem to deserve it.  Even more importantly, he brings out the best in Statham in a way that previous co-stars like Sylvester Stallone couldn’t. 

Director West keeps the action moving quickly without ever letting the movie degenerate into just a collection of over-the-top set pieces.  When the film does break out into action, West handles it like a pro and, as spectacular as the action may get, he still manages to keep things in the realm of the believable.  However, West also invests the film with a dark, almost grim atmosphere that fills every scene with a feeling of impending doom and growing paranoia.

The Mechanic is a fast-paced, unapologetic thriller that, in its way, ultimately becomes a masterpiece of the pulp imagination.   It’s very easy to imagine this as an Antonio Margheriti film from the early 80s, starring David Warbeck and Giovanni Lombardo Radice in the Statham and Foster roles.  Both director West and the cast deserve to be applauded for making a grindhouse film for the 21st Century.