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Decade

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Futuristic flicks from the 70s are a guilty pleasure of mine and I watched a bunch of them with my father growing up. Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, Death Race 2000. You could count us in.

This one is meh. The world is run by a few corporations.  The executive class is the aristocracy, and they entertain themselves with luxury and regular ingestion of what seems to be a mix of ecstasy and LSD. The sport of the global masses is Rollerball, a violent and deadly mixture of roller derby, lacrosse, hockey and maul ball. James Caan is its biggest star, but for reasons unknown to us, he is being forced out of the game at his peak by corporate titan John Houseman, at a moment when the sport is moving to a “no penalty” phase, which will up the murders and further endanger his teammates.  Caan resists and delves deeper.

The picture mixes futurism and corporate skullduggery, but the latter is simplistic, and Caan’s attempt to get to the bottom of things is haphazard and a little dull. Caan also can’t convey the emerging intellect that could drive his lummox of a character to ask deeper questions. He seems as if he senses the silliness of the endeavor, and appears to be wincing at his own involvement.  Also, Houseman is really not a very good actor, pretty much at the level of his old Smith Barney commercials.

But the flick has its fun moments.  And even though one doesn’t equate director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, And Justice for All) and “action,” the Rollerball itself is good, clean, bloody fun.

On Amazon Prime.

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This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts.  This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.

His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“

Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.  

Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who  goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“

This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.

Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.

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Robert Altman directed this film after his three masterpieces – M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye – and directly before his next one, Nashville. It has all the hallmarks of an Altman film . . . overlapping dialogue, a leisurely almost poetic pace, and a complete disregard for traditional narrative.

The film is essentially about two degenerate gamblers – George Segal and Eilliot Gould – who haunt the poker rooms, casinos and race tracks of California and Nevada in search of the juice. While Gould is carefree and seemingly happily stuck in the mire, Segal has one foot in the straight world and one foot in the dens of iniquity. He owes, he craves, and he can’t wait for the next shot at a pot, so much so that when Gould leave him for a week, he feels as if he’s being ripped off, that somehow, his partner is keeping a score away from him.

Unlike some of Altman’s better films, there’s no real character development here.  Segal and Gould simply happen upon each other at a poker room and start hanging out and kibbitzing, often with two working girls who live with Gould.  Altman is so intrigued by the machinations of the lowlife, he forgets that we are only here to see what happens to these addicts.  And, until the end, not much does happen to them.

Ultimately, Segal comes to a fork in the road, but it is a bolt from the blue.  We don’t know much about him and Altman doesn’t really let us in.  So, when he takes one road over another, it is of no real moment.

Still, it’s a fascinating picture with a real affinity for the disreputable denizens of the 70’s cocktail bar, race track and casino.  Altman doesn’t glorify but he does offer a vivid portrait of the world.

 

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Paul Newman is ridiculous as an Apache but it’s as if he senses that fact in the first 10 minutes of the movie and just concludes, “Fuck it. I’ll just be Paul Newman.”  That’s just what he does, and thankfully,  from that point forward, all is well again in this Stagecoach-ish Martin Ritt western.

Newman and a group of misfits (including Martin Balsam doing his best Eli Wallach as a Mexican) share a stage to Bisbee and they are set upon by thieves/killers. Newman rises above the racism of his traveling companions (when they find out he is an Apache, they make him ride outside of the stage) and works to get them out of the jam.

It’s a tight script (based on Elmore Leonard story), it’s cynical, the ensemble is decently fleshed out, and it travels pretty well. 

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Dirty Harry was a film so conservative, Paul Newman gave it a hard pass. But not without cementing the franchise by recommending Clint Eastwood for the role.  Eastwood plays the iconic Inspector Harry Callahan, and when San Francisco is terrorized by a serial killer (the Scorpio, rather than the Zodiac), it turns to Harry to save its ass. Unfortunately, every time Harry gets near the crazed nut, some liberal judge or pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat is obstructing his simple moral code and his massive .44 Magnum. Finally, he just has to go rogue and takes matters into his own hands. After he finishes the job, a disgusted Callahan tosses his badge in the bay.

Except, the movie was wildly popular.

So . . . tin star retrieved.

It took the talents of a young John Milius to pull Callahan back from the ranks of the fascist in the follow-up, Magnum Force, where the bad guys are actually cops, an execution squad working at the behest of seeming pencil-pushing, ass-covering bureaucrat Hal Holbrook (in fact, Holbrook is the mastermind of a new form of vigilante justice). In the second film, Callahan is still our cynical, equal opportunity bigot who loathes the politics, regulations and political correctness of the city. But he can’t quite get on board with a Star Chamber. As much as  he detests the system, he figures it’s better than any alternative.

In The Enforcer, Callahan is back to his conservative roots, and stuck with an affirmative action partner, Tyne Daley. In Dirty Harry, his partner was Hispanic and in Magnum Force, African-American, but one never got the impression they hadn’t earned their stripes. Daley, on the other hand, is introduced as someone who has never made a collar (felony or misdemeanor), a quota baby straight out of . . . . grrrrrr . . . . Personnel.

Worse, an officious woman from the mayor’s office – likely, straight out of a precursor to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion – is present at Daley’s interview, one conducted by Callahan.  Daley fails, miserably, but the fix is in and she’s given the gig.

After she importunes Harry to give her a chance, things start off rocky. On her first day, she almost gets her head blown off by a hand-held rocket launcher, almost loses her lunch during an autopsy, and unwittingly runs around half of San Francisco with a bomb. But she’s got moxie. And with a band of the most brutal hippies having just kidnapped the feckless “pay them!” mayor, you’re going to need Tyne Daley’s moxie.

The Enforcer is more of the same but smartly done. You get the satisfying back-and-forth between Harry and the government weasels:

Capt. McKay: That’s it Callahan, you just got yourself a sixty-day suspension.

Harry: Make it ninety!

Capt. McKay: A hundred-and-eighty, and give me your star.

Harry: (Giving Capt. Mckay his badge) Here’s a seven-point suppository, Captain!

Capt. Mckay: What did you say?!

Harry: I said stick it in your ass!

You also get a lot of gunplay, a jazzy Jerry Fielding score, some inspired action sequences, and numerous chases through eclectic, weird and grimy 1970s San Francisco. But it is Daley as the earnest sidekick who just wants to earn her stripes who elevates the picture.  She’s winning, sympathetic and you root for her, the first time a character from the corrupt system makes you say, “C’mon, Harry.  Lighten up.” When she meets Harry’s standards (she blows two of the bad guys away and to one, she says “You laugh at me mister, and I’ll shoot you where you stand”), you cheer.

Because how could you not?  Punk.

 

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My father took me to The Eagle Has Landed in 1976, and I of course loved it.   John Sturges (The Great Escape) can make a solid  war picture and this one was smart, cynical, compelling and the last one he directed.

As I watched it again last weekend, I imagined this script landing on some hotshot Hollywood moguls’ desk today.

First pages, not so bad.  The war is going poorly for the Nazis and they are looking into a plan to kidnap Churchill. 

Okay, so far so good.

The plan is dropped on an armless  Nazi with an eye patch.  No, not Tom, Cruise as Von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie.  That film is 30 years and a Bryan Singer sex scandal away.

This armless, eyeless Nazi is played by Robert Duvall.  And whoa!  In what he thought was a moment of whim on the part of Hitler, it turns out that the plan is feasible and the game is afoot.

So feasible that Duvall scours the records for the perfect German unit to take on the task of posing as a Polish outfit in a northern English town until Churchill arrives, when he can be snatched.  Who does he find?

Michael Caine, and his close-knit commandos, who have been kicking ass and becoming more and more embittered on the Eastern front.

But Duvall needs more; he needs two boots on the ground in the little town before the “Polish” troops arrive.  Enter . . . Donald Sutherland, an Irishman who hates the English so much he’s in league with the Nazis.

Okay.  It seems like a lot of money to be throwing at the bad guys. 

Who is the hero?

Larry Hagman?  J.R EWING?

Well, no, but Hagman does play the American commander on the ground in the quaint English town.  He’s no hero.  He’s more like John Larroquette in Stripes, a martinet wannabe who craves combat badly.  Hagman is incompetent, Caine’s men repel his frontal assault with ease, and he dies in such an ignominious manner, it’s almost comic.

Oh good.  There’s a young Treat Williams and Jeff Conaway.  Good looking American GIs who . . . . hmmmmmm, these guys have no lines!  They barely even register!!

Wait, are you telling me . . . . the leads are all Nazis!!???

Yup.

In 1976, this is how Hollywood got past this inconvenient cast.  First, they made Duvall erudite and resigned, as well as armless and eyeless, and they had him present the opportunity to grab Churchill as an opportunity to sue for peace.

As for Caine, as he and his men are shipped back from the Eastern Front, they meet an SS unit rounding  up Jews at a railroad junction.  Out of sheer frustration, Caine assaults the SS commander, assists in the escape attempt of a Jewish woman, and for his troubles his men are all cashiered and consigned to tasks that will eventually result in all their deaths.  Did Caine revolt because he was torn over the Holocaust?  Well, no.  In his own words, “I have nothing for or against Jews, personally. But I’ve seen too many men die for cause, to watch a young girl be killed for sport!”

Okay.  Good enough for the Bicentennial.

And Sutherland?  Well, he’s humanized because his beef is about Ireland, not that icky master race stuff, and he’s quick with a drink and the brogue and he’s so charming, Jenny Agutter falls in love with him instantly (really, the weakest part of the picture because he’s too old for her, it’s too immediate, and what she does for her “love” is so extreme it just doesn’t pass the smell test).

Solid flick, clearly of its time.  Triggerocity at about an 8 out of 10. On Amazon.

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Alan Pakula’s sexual thriller is still a little jarring in its frankness, even today.  In the age of “sex tape as career move”, very little can astound or shock, but Jane Fonda’s electric and vulnerable turn as a call girl hunted by a killer gives the viewer entrée not only into the precariousness of her world, but in her own vulnerability.  She plays Bree Daniels, a struggling actress who considers her sexual exchanges mini-dramas, where she gets control, something she clearly needs desperately, even if it is self-destructive.  When we see her in action, she’s powerful and pitiable, all the while exhibiting how effective and alluring a good call girl can be.

Daniels is saved on more than one occasion by a laconic John Klute (Donald Sutherland), a police officer turned p.i. who is investigating the disappearance of a businessman who may or may not be her stalker.  Naturally, they develop a relationship.

Pakula (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men) has a keen eye for the shadows and menace in otherwise humdrum, pedestrian environs.  He also has great patience, which results in very understated, moving scenes, such as when Fonda flips through the catalogue of homicide photos of dead prostitutes, and her character and the viewer see her face in all of them.  The scenes where Fonda attempts to seduce Sutherland in order to establish control are similarly subtle, and Pakula places you directly in the dilemma of not wanting to be played but being enticed all the same.

There are problems.  Fonda is so good (she won Best Actress) I thought the scenes of her in therapy were unnecessary.  She’s strong in them, but she’s better expressing her foibles and fears in the context of the story.   As the detective, Sutherland runs into the opposite problem.  He is fully unexplored, a quiet mechanism for Fonda’s growth and nothing more.  I  wanted to know more about him.  Not tons, but something.

Still, this a very strong picture that holds up well, especially given the subject matter.

Another sweeping war epic from my past, along with Waterloo and Zulu, this one introduced me to the “stiff upper lip” Brit.  Unlike those films, this picture just doesn’t hold up at all.  Directed by Guy Hamilton (who had a much better time of it with four Bond films), the film is overly reliant on air battles that perhaps seemed impressive at the time, but now, are flat, difficult to comprehend (you rarely know which character is in which plane) and without drama.   Worse, what happens on the ground is remarkably staid and uninvolving.

It is, however, loaded with the cream of British actors (Michael Caine, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Edward Fox and Robert Shaw, to name a few), and of particular note, it features a strikingly handsome Ian McShane, who aged into the craggy, rough Al Swearengen of Deadwood.  You can see what Emmanuelle’s Sylvia Kristal saw in him.

 

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We always loved Baby Boom because the toddler reminded us so much of our daughter, in that she was adorable. I concede, one’s own daughter is always adorable. But our daughter was and is, objectively, adorable.

I digress.

Baby Boom is currently on the Showtime rotation and in watching to see the facsimile of our daughter, we caught the entire picture. The little girl is still cute. The 1987 film, however, does not travel as well as the kid.

Diane Keaton is the go-go Manhattan executive on an upward trajectory when a long lost and recently deceased relative delivers her a beautiful little girl via will.

It’s a broad comedy.  I can accept that a baby would be delivered at the airport at the mere stroke of a pen. I can accept that the cutest baby in the world would almost be transferred from a Manhattan agency to a cold, poor, backward Iowa couple. I can accept that James Spader in a suit is a villain. Well, that last one is a requirement for 1980s films.

But after Keaton keeps the baby, she is so inept – as demonstrated by numerous silly vignettes of a Weekend at Bernie’s stripe –  it becomes unfunny.  She deposits the baby at a coat check. She can’t negotiate a disposable diaper. She feeds the doll pasta and red sauce.  Hilarity does not ensue

It’s just easy, schlocky and weak. And when she is jettisoned by her company, you don’t have the sympathy for her that you should.

After getting demoted, Keaton takes the baby to Vermont, buys a dream house that is actually falling apart, meets rustic veterinarian Sam Shepard, fights with him until he forcibly kisses her, then has rewarding and fulfilling sex with him, and then starts her own successful baby food chain, all to the standard twinkly saxophone and Kimball organ score of the time. Whereupon, the corporate heels call her back to offer her the moon for her little company.

She declines, delivering a confused declaration of independence, a stemwinder announcing that 1) she should not have to choose between family and work; 2) she should not have to move operations from quaint Vermont to Cleveland; 3) James Spader is a rat; 4) she may just take her baby food company national herself; and 5) oh, she’s having rewarding sex with Sam Shepherd.

Except 1) they offered her $3 million and a COO job at nearly $1 million per, but it was the opening offer and she could have asked double, while getting a ceremonial board seat or do-nothing exec slot with an ample salary; 2) they said at the outset the move to Cleveland was negotiable; 3) she could have insisted Spader work the account and tormented him unmercifully, or she could have asked for his head to seal the deal; 4) there is no way she could take this company national; she can’t operate a pair of Pampers; and 5) swooning, with an actual sigh, about Sam Shepherd in a business meeting reinforces a lot of the stereotypes the stemwinder was supposed to rebut.

But the baby is adorable.

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A technical advance in both sound and movement, and a caustic, first-of-its-kind black comedy, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H was once deemed a masterpiece. Alas, now, it is as culturally atonal and offensive as Gone With the Wind.

The women in the film are nothing but sexual playthings, constantly subject to the predations of Trapper John, Hawkeye and all the rest of the misogynists who inhabit the camp. The nurses are first and foremost flesh to be pawed at, conquests to be made. Add an indelible strain of homophobia, a black character named “Spearchucker” and Trapper John and Hawkeye in Japan yukking it up with racist Charlie Chan imitations, and you end up with the transformation of what used to be an iconic, anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam (Korea just plays the part) film into a vessel for the most retrograde and debilitating of social views, a moral blight as offensive as blackface.

Mind you, I do not come to this conclusion lightly or happily. Before my own reeducation, I would have found this a clever, funny and brash film. The characters possess incredible medical gifts and live in an untenable situation, surrounded by gore and death, and they resort to sophomoric gags and easy sex because that’s what some people under stress do, especially in dark comedies. The old me would view this film as cruelly hilarious. I might have also found the treatment of the women tempered by their corresponding consent, agency and obvious value to the camp.

But that was before I understood the power of patriarchal constructs. My God, at one point, Hawkeye brings a female nurse to a depressed colleague as if she were a comfort girl to a marauding victor. And she is dreamily driven off, her lust was so sated.

The brutal ouster of the pious Frank Burns and the ritual humiliation of Hot Lips Hoolihan aren’t the mere comeuppance of villains. Watch again as she is unbared in the shower. The leering men settle a bet as to whether she is, in fact, a true blond; she writhes, naked, abused, on the shower floor while they hoot and holler and jeer.  Despicable.

God help the campus movie house that accidentally runs this baby.