Cinemax Friday: Sworn to Justice (1997, directed by Paul Maslak)


Janna (Cynthia Rothrock) is a psychologist who is also a martial arts expert.  One night, she comes home to discover that her sister and her nephew have been murdered and that the killers are still in the house!  Though Janna manages to fight off the attackers, she also gets a nasty bump to the head.  Weeks later, after she’s gotten out of the hospital and she’s ready to get back to work, she discovers that she now has ESP!

All Janna has to do is touch someone or hold something in her hand and she has visions of the past and sometimes the present.  (She has those special ESP powers that do whatever needs to be done at the moment.)  When she finds her sister’s brooch, she flashes back to the night of the attack and sees the faces of the men who attacked her sister.  Using her newfound power, Janna sets out to get revenge.

But even as she tracks down the thugs who killed her sister, Janna still does not know the identity of the person who ordered the hit.  She just knows that he’s known as “The Man.”  Could he have something to do with the arrogant cop killer (Brad Dourif!) for whom Janna is serving as an expert defense witness?  Or could The Man by the publisher (Kurt McKinny) with whom Janna is having a steamy affair?  (This was a late night Cinemax film, after all.)  Or could it be the detective (Tony Lo Bianco) who is supposed to be investigating her sister’s death?

As far as Cynthia Rothrock martial arts films are concerned, Sworn to Justice is pretty good.  Rothrock was not only a force to be reckoned with in fight scenes but, as this film shows, she was a likable actress, too.  For the most part, she’s able to hold her own even when acting opposite seasoned scene stealers like Brad Dourif, Tony Lo Bianco, Mako, and even Walter Koenig, who plays Janna’s mentor with an outrageous German accent.  While the film’s fight scenes are just as good as you would expect from a Cynthia Rothrock fick, the ESP twist adds just the right amount of weirdness to keep Sworn to Justice from coming across as just another low-budget martial arts film.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Even while she’s getting revenge for their deaths, Janna never seems to be that broken up over the deaths of her sister and her nephew.  At worse, she’s seems to be annoyed by the inconvenience of it all.  It’s just something else that she has to find the time to deal with.

There are a few scenes that are so darkly lit that it’s almost impossible to see what’s happening but then there are other scenes, like the one where Janna shows off her favorite martial arts moves to her new boyfriend, that work surprisingly well.  This is a 90s production all the way, which means a saxophone-scored sex scenes and synthesizer-scored action scenes.  Sworn to Justice is a good Cynthia Rothrock film, even if most audiences will end up figuring out the identity of The Man long before she does.

 

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

A Movie A Day #232: Tyson (1995, directed by Uli Edel)


If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson.  In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.

In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall.  At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn.  The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield).  After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.

Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing.  Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison.  As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.  Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo.  All of that happened after Tyson aired.  Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style.  There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.

The best thing about Tyson is the cast.  Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen.  In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role.  Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger.  Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.

HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Winner: The French Connection (dir by William Friedkin)


TheFrenchConnection

Earlier today, thanks to Netflix, I watched the 1971 best picture winner, The French Connection.

Based on a true incident, The French Connection is the story of two NYPD detectives, the reasonable and serious Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) and his far more hyperactive partner, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman).  When we first see them, Doyle is dressed as Santa Claus and they’re both chasing a drug dealer through the streets of New York.  When they eventually catch up with the dealer, Russo plays good cop while Doyle plays batshit insane cop.  That’s a pattern that plays out repeatedly over the course of the film.  Russo suggests caution.  Doyle blindly fires his gun into the shadows.  Russo is sober.  Doyle is frequently drunk.  Russo is careful with his words.  Doyle is a casual racist who never seems to stop talking.  The one thing that Russo and Doyle seem to have in common is that they’re both obsessed with catching criminals.

The French Connection is also the story of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a suave and always impeccably dressed French businessman.  Charnier has a plan to smuggle several millions of dollars of heroin into the United States by hiding it in a car that will be driven by an unsuspecting (and rather vacuous) French actor named Henri Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale).  Working with Charnier is a low-level mafia associate named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and a lawyer named Joel Weinstock (Harold Gray).

(Incidentally, Weinstock’s chemist is played by an actor named Patrick McDermott, who also played Susan Sarandon’s abusive hippie boyfriend in Joe.  The French Connection was McDermott’s third film and also his last.  I point this out because McDermott totally steals his one scene in The French Connection.  When one considers both his performance here and his work in Joe, it’s strange and unfortunate that McDermott’s cinematic career ended after just three films.  According to a comment left on the imdb, he later ran a health food store in Nebraska.)

When Doyle and Russo just happen to spy Sal hanging out with a group of mobsters at a local club, they decide (mostly on a whim) to investigate what Sal’s up to.  They notice that Sal drives a car that he shouldn’t be able to afford.  Will they discover how Sal is making his money and will they be able to stop Charnier from smuggling his heroin into the United States?

Well…let’s just say that The French Connection was made in 1971.  That’s right, this is one of those films where everything is ambiguous.  Neither Russo nor Doyle are traditional heroes.  Neither one of them is foolish enough to believe that their actions will make a difference.  Instead, they seem to view it all as a game, with Doyle and Russo as the win-at-any-cost good guys and the French as the bad guys.  And, indeed, it’s interesting to note that, when the police do make their move against Charnier, it’s the people who work for him who suffer the worst punishments.

I have to admit that, as a civil libertarian, Doyle is the type of cop who should make my skin crawl.  He’s an obsessive bigot, the type who runs into the shadows with his gun drawn and blindly firing.  When I watched The French Connection, a part of me wanted to get offended and say, “It’s none of your business why Sal has an expensive car!”  But I didn’t.  In fact, I was rooting for Doyle the whole time.  The French Connection is probably one of the best cast films of all time.  Hackman gives such a good performance that, while you can’t overlook Doyle’s flaws, you can accept them.  Meanwhile, Rey is so sleazy and smug in the role of Charnier that you really don’t care about his rights.  You just want to see him taken down.

(That said, if I ever got hold of a time machine and went back to New York in 1971, I’d rather be arrested by Russo than Doyle.  Doyle seems like he’d be the type to grope while frisking.)

Seen today, it’s a bit odd to think of The French Connection as being a best picture winner.  It has nothing to do with the film’s quality.  The film’s performances remain strong.  William Friedkin’s documentary-style direction is still compelling and he makes the decay of 1970s New York oddly beautiful.  Instead, it’s the fact that The French Connection essentially tells a very simple story that, when seen today, feels very familiar.  It’s a cop film and it includes every single cliché that we’ve come to associate with cop films.  (Russo and Doyle even have a supervisor who yells at them for not doing things by the book.)  But, what you have to realize is that the majority of those clichés were invented by The French Connection. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then The French Connection is probably one of the most flattered film ever made.

And what better way to end this review than by sharing The French Connection‘s most influential scene?  In the scene below, Doyle chases a commuter train that happens to be carrying one of Charnier’s associates.

Apprecier le film!

44 Days of Paranoia #15: God Told Me To (dir by Larry Cohen)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at the underrated horror/sci-fi/paranoia film, God Told Me To.

This film was first released in 1976. At the time of that initial theatrical run, the film was called God Told Me To Kill. That title proved to be rather controversial and the film was promptly pulled from circulation and then re-released under the new title of Demon. However, since Demon was such a painfully generic title, the name change didn’t do much to help the movie at the box office and, again, it was yanked from circulation and the title was changed for a third time.  Under the name God Told Me To, the film was once again re-released.

Not surprisingly, given this chaotic release history, God Told Me To never quite got the attention that it deserved. Over the years, the film has developed a cult following among those (like me) who have discovered the film on DVD or Blu-ray.  But God Told Me To still remains something of an unknown film.

In God Told Me To, Tony LoBianco gives an excellent performance as Peter Nicholas, a tough New York police detective and devout Catholic.  As the film starts, Nicolas is burned out on his job. He’s separated from his mentally unstable wife (played by Sandy Dennis) but can’t bring himself to divorce her and marry his girlfriend (Deborah Raffin) because it would go against his religious beliefs.

Nicholas finds himself investigating a serious of seemingly random murders that all have two things in common.  First, the murderers are all “average” people, the types who would you never expect to commit such terrible crimes.  Secondly, when captured, each murderer dismisses his crimes by explaining, “God told me to.”  As Nicholas investigates, he discovers that every murderer can be linked with a mysterious figure named Bernard Phillips (played the late, great Richard Lynch).

Nicholas’ investigation leads him to discover that Phillips was the product of a virgin birth, causing Nicholas to both question his own religious faith and to wonder wither or not Phillips is just another crazy cult leader or if he might be God himself…

And that’s about all I can tell you without running the risk of totally spoiling the film.  Let’s just say that God Told Me To is one of those films where nothing is quite as it seems.  Since the film establishes early on that literally anyone could be a potential killer, the viewer is forced to watch every character who wanders through the scene, looking for any hint that he or she is about to snap.  This is a film that keeps you off-balance and, unlike a lot of horror films, it  features a twist that’s both plausible and unexpected.

God Told Me To was directed by Larry Cohen, an exploitation veteran who has been responsible for some of the most thought-provoking B-movies in cinematic history. Like many of Cohen’s films, God Told Me To is something of a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.  Both Peter Nicholas and Bernard Phillips prove to be fascinating characters and, during the film’s final third, Cohen takes both of them in unexpected directions.

God Told Me To is one of those films that every fan of horror and cult cinema should see at least once. If you haven’t seen it, now is the perfect time for you to discover it for yourself.

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

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Kill The Irishman (dir. by Jonathan Hensleigh)


Jonathan Hensleigh’s fact-based gangster film Kill The Irishman had a brief (and limited) theatrical run earlier this year and received generally mixed reviews.  I myself didn’t see it in the theaters but instead, caught it OnDemand a few weeks ago and I was genuinely surprised to discover that this film, while far from being perfect, is also hardly the simple Goodfellas rip-off that I had originally been led to suspect.  Instead, Kill The Irishman is a somewhat flawed but ultimately quite rewarding David-and-Goliath story about a real-life David who was known as “the Irishman.”

Kill The Irishman tells the true story of Danny Greene (played by Ray Stevenson), an Irish-American gangster who went from being a corrupt union boss to challenging the Sicilian mafia’s dominance of the criminal underworld of Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1977, Greene became, for a brief period of time, a media celebrity when he survived several assassination attempts while fighting a war for control of the Cleveland rackets.  As the film both informs and shows us, this violent, underground war led to a total of 35 bombings, all designed to kill either Greene or one of his allies.  By surviving these attacks, Greene briefly appeared to be indestructible and seemed to be on the verge of reviving the long-dormant Irish mafia. 

As a film, it takes a while for Kill The Irishman to really click.  From the start director Hensleigh shows a real feel for capturing the feel of a once great city slowly dying but the 1st half of the movie still threatens to get bogged down in all the clichés of the modern gangster film — there’s a bit too much clunky narration from Val Kilmer (who sleepwalks through his role as a fictional police detective who grew up with Greene) and a few too many montages set to old rock tunes.  It’s all watchable enough and there’s a few memorable sequences (my favorite being the early scenes of Greene on the job, slaving away under an oppressive sun) but on the whole, it just feels like the 100th low-budget remake of Goodfellas.  The highlight of this part of the film is Christopher Walken’s typically eccentric yet genuinely sinister performance as an early Greene mentor-turned-enemy.

However, once Greene goes on his own and starts to blow up every inch of Cleveland, the film comes into its own and establishes its own rough identity.  Hensleigh proves to be very adept at orchestrating chaos and, with the entire Mafia out to kill him, Greene goes from just being a thug to being a true underdog.  It’s impossible not to root for him and, much like the film, it’s here where Ray Stevenson comes into his own.  For the 1st half of the film, Stevenson seems like an adequate but uninspired choice for the role of Danny Greene.  However, once Cleveland starts exploding around him, Stevenson comes into his own.  He not only captures Greene’s cocky defiance but, as the film reaches its inetivable conclusion, he also captures Greene’s own growing paranoia and fear.  By the end of the film, Stevenson has given a performance that has masterfully juggled pride and regret, defiance and fear.  Regardless of whether it’s an accurate statement about the real Danny Greene, Ray Stevenson makes his version into a true tragic hero.

Along with Stevenson’s anchor of a performance and Walken’s scene-stealing characterization, Kill the Irishman is filled with familiar mob movie character actors, most of whom contribute some nicely realized turns as the various members of the Cleveland underworld.  Tony Lo Bianco, Mike Starr, and Paul Sorvino are all convincingly brutish as the leaders of the local Mafia and Vincent D’Onofrio is wonderfully flamboyant as Greene’s one Italian ally.  My personal favorite supporting performance came from character actor Robert Davi who was almost a little bit too believable as a cold-blooded murderer.  Not to get too specific here but if I ever happen to hire a professional assassin, I hope he looks like Robert Davi.

I have to admit that one reason why I ultimately enjoyed this flawed but worthwhile film is because I’ve always wished that I could have been a member of the Irish mafia.  (I wanted to be like Maggie from Gangs of New York and use my fingernails to rip open throats.)  For many of us Irish-Americans, there’s just this romance to the whole idea of the Irish Mafia and we’re always looking for evidence that the organization wasn’t, more or less, wiped out by the Italians.  (Fortunately, I happen to be a fourth Italian along with being a fourth Irish so the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a smidgen less traumatic for me).  If nothing else, the Irish mafia epitomizes two things that every true Irish-American knows to be true: 1) the Irish will never stop fighting no matter how intimidating the odds and 2) we’re all ultimately doomed regardless.  Kill the Irishman may not be a perfect film but it’s a fitting tribute to a better kind of criminal.

What could have been: The Godfather


I don’t know about you but I love to play the game of “What if.”  You know how it works.  What if so-and-so had directed such-and-such movie?  Would we still love that movie as much?  Would so-and-so be a star today?  Or would the movie have failed because the director was right to reject so-and-so during preproduction?

I guess that’s why I love the picture below.  Taken from one of Francis Ford Coppola’s notebooks, it’s a page where he jotted down a few possibilities to play the roles of Don Vito, Michael, Sonny, and Tom Hagen in The Godfather.  It’s a fascinating collection of names, some of which are very familiar and some of which most definitely are not.  As I look at this list, it’s hard not wonder what if someone like Scott Marlowe had played Michael Corleone?  Would he had then become known as one of the great actors of his generation and would Al Pacino then be fated to just be an unknown name sitting on a famous list?

(This page, just in case you happen to be in the neighborhood , is displayed at the Coppola Winery in California.)

The production of the Godfather — from the casting to the final edit — is something of an obsession of mine.  It’s amazing the amount of names — obscure, famous, and infamous — that were mentioned in connection with this film.  Below is a list of everyone that I’ve seen mentioned as either a potential director or a potential cast member of The Godfather.  Consider this my contribution to the game of What If….?

Director: Aram Avankian, Peter Bogdonavich, Richard Brooks, Costa-Gravas, Sidney J. Furie, Norman Jewison, Elia Kazan, Steve Kestin, Sergio Leone, Arthur Penn, Otto Preminger, Franklin J. Schaffner, Peter Yates, Fred Zinnemann

Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando): Melvin Belli, Ernest Borgnine, Joseph Callelia, Lee. J. Cobb, Richard Conte, Frank De Kova, Burt Lancaster, John Marley, Laurence Olivier, Carlo Ponti, Anthony Quinn, Edward G. Robinson, George C. Scott, Frank Sinatra, Rod Steiger, Danny Thomas, Raf Vallone,  Orson Welles

Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino): John Aprea, Warren Beatty, Robert Blake, Charles Bronson*, James Caan, David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Alain Delon, Peter Fonda, Art Genovese, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Jones, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Michael Margotta, Scott Marlowe, Sal Mineo, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Parks, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Richard Romanus, Gianni Russo, Martin Sheen, Rod Steiger**, Dean Stockwell

Sonny Corleone (played by James Caan): Lou Antonio, Paul Banteo, Robert Blake, John Brascia, Carmine Caridi, Robert De Niro, Peter Falk, Harry Guardino, Ben Gazzara, Don Gordon, Al Letteiri, Tony LoBianco, Scott Marlowe, Tony Musante, Anthony Perkins, Burt Reynolds***, Adam Roarke, Gianni Russo, John Saxon, Johnny Sette, Rudy Solari, Robert Viharo, Anthony Zerbe

Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall): James Caan, John Cassavettes, Bruce Dern, Peter Donat, Keir Dullea, Peter Falk, Steve McQueen, Richard Mulligan, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Ben Piazza, Barry Primus, Martin Sheen, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Rudy Vallee****, Robert Vaughn, Jerry Van Dyke, Anthony Zerbe

Kay Adams (played by Diane Keaton): Anne Archer, Karen Black, Susan Blakeley, Genevieve Bujold, Jill Clayburgh, Blythe Danner, Mia Farrow, Veronica Hamel, Ali MacGraw, Jennifer O’Neill, Michelle Phillips, Jennifer Salt, Cybill Shepherd, Trish Van Devere

Fredo Corleone (played by John Cazale): Robert Blake, Richard Dreyfuss, Sal Mineo, Austin Pendleton

Connie Corleone (played by Talia Shire): Julie Gregg, Penny Marshall, Maria Tucci, Brenda Vaccaro, Kathleen Widdoes

Johnny Fontane (played by Al Martino): Frankie Avalon, Vic Damone*****, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Greco, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Carlo Rizzi (played by Gianni Russo): Robert De Niro, Alex Karras, John Ryan******, Sylvester Stallone

Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (played by Al Letteiri): Franco Nero

Lucas Brasi (played by Lenny Montana): Timothy Carey, Richard Castellano

Moe Greene (played by Alex Rocco): William Devane

Mama Corleone (played by Morgana King): Anne Bancroft, Alida Valli

Appollonia (played by Simonetta Steffanelli): Olivia Hussey

Paulie Gatto (played by John Martino): Robert De Niro*******, Sylvester Stallone

—-

* Charles Bronson, who was in his mid-40s, was suggested for the role of Michael by the then-chairman of Paramount Pictures, Charlie Bluhdorn.

** By all accounts, Rod Steiger – who was then close to 50 – lobbied very hard to be given the role of Michael Corleone.

*** Some sources claim that Burt Reynolds was cast as Sonny but Brando refused to work with him.  However, for a lot of reasons, I think this is just an cinematic urban legend.

**** Despite being in his 60s at the time, singer Rudy Vallee lobbied for the role of the 35 year-old Tom Hagen.  Supposedly, another singer — Elvis Presley — lobbied for the role as well but that just seems so out there that I couldn’t bring myself to include it with the “official” list.

***** Vic Damone was originally cast as Johnny Fontane but dropped out once shooting began and announced that the project was bad for Italian Americans.  He was replaced by Al Martino.

****** John P. Ryan was originally cast as Carlo Rizzi but was fired and replaced with Gianni Russo.  Ryan went on to play the distraught father in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive.  Russo went on to co-star in Laserblast.

******* Robert De Niro was originally cast in this role but dropped out to replace Al Pacino in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.  Pacino, incidentally, had to drop out of that film because he was given the role of Michael in The Godfather.