Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)

The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

Backstreet Justice (1994, directed by Chris McIntyre)

“These straight-to-video, schlocky films I was getting were giving me an ulcer, basically because I was the only one on the set that cared about anything… Between that and my biological clock, I decided to give it all away.”

— Linda Kozlowksi, on why she retired from acting

When Linda Kozlowski talked about the “shlocky films” that soured her on acting, Backstreet Justice was probably high on the list.  Kozlowski may have found fame co-starring with her then-husband Paul Hogan in the Crocodile Dundee films but, in Backstreet Justice, there’s neither an Australian nor a sense of humor to be found.

Kozlowski plays Keri Finnegan, a tough and streetwise private investigator in Philadelphia.  Her late father was a policeman who was accused of corruption while her mentor (Hector Elizondo) is the district attorney.  Most of the cops hate Keri, especially Captain Giarusso (Paul Sorvino).  The one exception is her lover, Nick Donovan (John Shea).

The residents of Philadelphia’s worst neighborhood have hired Keri to protect them.  For the past two years, a murderer has lurked among them.  With the police showing no interest in solving the crimes, the neighborhood turns to Keri.  Keri’s investigation leads her to believe that the murders are being carried out be corrupt cops but Keri isn’t prepared for just how far up the corruption goes.

For a straight-to-video film, Backstreet Justice has a surprisingly good cast, with Paul Sorvino, Hector Elizondo, John Shea, Tammy Grimes, and Viveca Lindfors all appearing in supporting roles.  Linda Kozlowski holds her own opposite her better-known co-stars and is believable in the film’s many action scenes.  The movie has a good sense of urban squalor and captures the desperation of people living in a dying neighborhood.  The main problem with the film is that the central mystery is never that interesting and the solution is one that most people will see coming from miles away.  For all the violence and scenes of people chasing each other, Backstreet Justice is still a boring movie.

With the exception of one surprisingly explicit sex scene, Backstreet Justice could easily pass for a made-for-TV film or a pilot for a Keri Finnegan television series.  Instead, it was just another straight-to-video thriller and another reason for the talented Linda Kozlowski to leave acting behind.  Her final film appearance was in 2001’s Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #86: Zandalee (dir by Sam Pillsbury)


“I want to shake you naked and eat you alive…”

— Johnny (Nicolas Cage) in Zandalee (1991)

As you can probably guess from the quote above, Zandalee is a crazy little movie.

Zandalee takes place in New Orleans, which means that there’s a lot of rain, a lot of jazz, a lot of flamboyant accents, and a lot of sweat.  Zandalee (Erika Anderson) owns a boutique and spends most of her time jogging across the city.  (Zandalee has reddish hair, comes from a Catholic background, and runs a lot so naturally, I related to her.)

During one of her runs, Zandalee happens to pass a thief who is being chased by the police.  The thief flirts with her even while he’s being arrested.  The thief, interestingly enough, is played by a surprisingly hot Steve Buscemi.  Even more interesting is that, though his character makes a dramatic entrance and gets a lot of good lines, Buscemi doesn’t appear again until near the very end of the movie.  There’s really no point to Buscemi being in the film but somehow, it just seems right for him to suddenly be there.

And really, that’s the type of film that Zandalee is.  Odd characters pop up and then disappear.  Plot points are raised and then abandoned.  Events play out almost at random, as if Zandalee’s morning runs are taking her further and further into a dream world.

(It’s all a bit like Lost River, except for the fact that Zandalee is actually memorable in its weirdness, as opposed to just being annoying.)

Zandalee is married to Thierry (Judge Reinhold), a former poet who has abandoned his literary ambitions and taken over the family business.  Now, he’s mostly a figurehead who spends all of his time hanging out with drunk and uninteresting Philistines.  Thierry is so guilt-ridden over giving up poetry that he’s been rendered impotent.  Try as he might, he cannot make love.  As he puts it, while standing naked and staring out into the dark night, he is “a paraplegic of the soul.”

And then Johnny (Nicolas Cage) shows up.  Johnny was Thierry’s childhood friend.  Johnny is a painter and, from the minute he arrives, he’s giving Thierry a hard time for selling out.  Johnny also has long, stringy hair and a mustache and goatee.  He speaks in Nicolas Cage’s trademark muffled monotone, muttering lines of philosophical pretension.  When we first meet Johnny, he’s with Remy (Marisa Tomei, who much like Steve Buscemi, pops up and then vanishes and yet somehow it still seems totally appropriate that she’s in the film) but soon, Johnny has decided that he wants Zandalee.

Or, as he tells her when he approaches her during one of her runs, “I like it when you don’t wear anything underneath….”

Soon, Johnny and Zandalee are having a passionate affair.  Much as Zandalee once inspired Thierry’s poetry, she now inspires Johnny’s art.  Of course, Johnny is also inspired by cocaine.  Along with selling it and snorting it, Johnny also mixes it with olive oil and dips his fingers in it before fingering Zandalee.  And, as effective as some of these Johnny/Zandalee scenes are, it’s still impossible to watch all of this without thinking, “What the Hell, Nicolas Cage!?”

(Even by the standards of Nicolas Cage, Zandalee is a strange film.)

Anyway, eventually, Zandalee breaks it off with Johnny and Johnny’s paintings starts to suffer.  Thierry realizes what has been going on and it all leads to the scene below.

And, believe it or not, that all happens during the first hour!  Even after that epic dance off, there’s still another half hour of melodrama to go!  Zandalee is a seriously odd movie.

Zandalee can be viewed, in its uncensored entirety, on YouTube.  Usually, I’d embed the film at the bottom of this review but Zandalee is so extremely NSFW that it’s probably safer if you just go to YouTube and search for it yourself.

niccagezandaleeSeriously, Nic Cage wants you to do it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #55: The Tenth Level (dir by Charles S. Dubin)

10thlevelI first found out about the 1976 made-for-tv movie The Tenth Level while I was doing some research on the Milgram experiment.  The Milgram experiment was a psychological experiment that was conducted, under the direction of Prof. Stanley Milgram, in 1961.  Two test subjects were placed in two separate room.  One test subject was known as the “Learner” and he was hooked up to a machine that could deliver electric shocks.  The other subject was the “Teacher.”  His job was to ask the Lerner questions and, whenever the Learner gave an incorrect answer, the Teacher was supposed to correct the error by pushing a button and delivering the electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the shock would get worse.

Of course, what the Teacher did not know was that the Lerner was an associate of Prof. Milgram’s and that pushing the button did not actually deliver a shock.  The Lerner would intentionally give wrong answers and, after the Teacher pushed each subsequent button, the Lerner would groan in pain and eventually beg the Teacher to stop.  The test was to see how long the Teacher would continue to push the buttons.

The study found that 65% of the Teachers, even when the Lerner stopped responding, continued to push the buttons until delivering the experiment’s final 450-volt shock.  It was a surprising result, one that is often cited as proof that ordinary people will do terrible things if they’re ordered to do so by an authority figure.

The Tenth Level is loosely based on the Milgram experiment.  Prof. Stephen Turner (William Shatner) is a psychology professor who conducts a similar experiment.  Turner claims that he’s looking for insight into the nature of blind obedience but some of his colleagues are skeptical.  His best friend (Ossie Davis) thinks that Turner is mostly trying to deal with the guilt of being a WASP who has never had to deal with discrimination.  His ex-wife, Barbara (Lynn Carlin), thinks that the experiment is cruel and could potentially traumatize anyone who takes part in it.  Turner, meanwhile, is fascinated by how random people react to being ordered to essentially murder someone.

Eventually, a good-natured carpenter/grad student, Dahlquist (Stephen Macht), volunteers.  At first, Turner refuses to allow Dahlquist to take part because he’s previously met Dahlquist and Dahlquist is a friend of one of Tuner’s assistants.  However, Dahlquist literally begs to be allowed to take part in the experiment and Turner relents.

Unfortunately, the pressure of administering shocks proves to be too much for Dahlquist and he has a 70s style freak-out, which essentially means that the screen changes colors and everything moves in slow motion as he smashes up the room.  As a result of Dalquist’s violent reaction, Turner is called before a disciplinary committee and basically put on trial.

The Tenth Level is an interesting film.  On the one hand, the subject matter is fascinating and, if nothing else, the film deserves some credit for trying to seriously explore the ethics of psychological experimentation.  On the other hand, this is a film from 1976 that features William Shatner giving numerous monologues about the nature of man.  And, let us not forget, this is William Shatner before he apparently developed a sense of humor about himself.  That means that, in this film, we get the Shatner that inspired a thousand impersonations.  We get the Shatner who speaks precisely and who enunciates every single syllable.  And let’s not forget that Shatner is paired up with Ossie Davis, an actor who was never exactly subtle himself.

The end result is a film that is both thought-provoking and undeniably silly.  This is a film that will make you think even while it inspires you to be totally snarky.

(Also of note, John Travolta supposedly makes his film debut in the Tenth Level.  Apparently, he plays a student.  I have yet to spot him.)

You can watch it below!