Saturday, May 12, 2012

Smokey and the Bandit

Year 4, Day 133 - 5/12/12 - Movie #1,132

BEFORE: While I'm down South, I'll check out another one of those films that "everyone" has seen before, except for me, apparently.  Rod Steiger from "In the Heat of the Night" links to Burt Reynolds (last heard in "All Dogs Go to Heaven") through a 2001 film called "The Hollywood Sign". 

THE PLOT: The Bandit is hired on to run a tractor trailer full of beer over county lines, pursued by a pesky sheriff.

AFTER: Well, there are some films that are just the product of their times, and then just don't seem to make sense in the modern world.  And I'm not even talking about Burt Reynold's career, which was at its peak around about the time this film was made.

You know how you see a film from the 1970's or 1980's, and someone's in a bit of trouble, like their car breaks down, and they needed to be somewhere important, and you just wonder why they didn't use their cell phone to call for help?  Then you remember, that technology wasn't in use then.  Same goes for GPS, wi-fi, and I bet a whole lot of things we take for granted these days - they've really ruined old movies that depends on certain plot points or miscommunications.

This relates to this film in two ways: First, the CB radio.  Wildly popular for some reason in the 1970's among people who found some fascination with the trucker lingo and lifestyle, or maybe just trying to connect with others in a cold, faceless world.   My dad was a truck driver for over 40 years, but never had a CD radio or said things like "Breaker, good buddy" or called a policeman a "smokey".  But if it's dangerous and illegal now to drive while talking on the phone or texting, then by extension, CB radios should have been illegal back then too.  They should have been used only during emergencies to call for help, not to determine the best ways to speed through populated areas, or to flirt with loose women who liked truck drivers.

Secondly, the job in this film, transporting cases of Coors beer from Texas to Atlanta.  While it is true that Coors was a regional product until the mid-1980's, and it was largely confined to the Western U.S., I don't know whether it was specifically illegal to transport it across state lines.  Facts be damned: Wikipedia is telling me that Texarkana, TX was located in a dry county, anyway - so the premise is shot from the get-go.

As a beer drinker, I have to wonder why anyone would want so much crappy beer to be hauled across the country anyway.  Of course, American beer really came alive in the mid-1980's with craft brews like Anchor Steam and Sam Adams, so I have to remember that back in the 1970's, maybe Coors was considered a tasty beer by comparison.  I certainly wouldn't drink it now, not with all the amazing diverse beers on the market.

But, we come back to the "bet", which is to drive round-trip 1,800 miles in just 28 hours, bringing the Coors beer to a party in Atlanta, since (apparently) local Georgia beer won't suffice.  The actual round-trip distance between Atlanta and Texarkana is just 1,260 miles, so it's good to know that no one was in danger of getting hurt by doing actual research for this screenplay.  Why bother with the facts?  With two drivers for the trip, why not take shifts so one can sleep while the other drives?  No, that would make too much sense, I suppose -

But Burt Reynolds needs to drive the TransAm as a "blocker", even though he spends much of the movie cavorting with a woman he picks up, and not actually blocking for the truck.  I assume by "blocking" he's supposed to get the cops to chase him instead of the truck that's going 90 miles an hour, but honestly this plan never really works right, since he's usually off doing something else.

The Texas lawman, Buford T. Justice, is way out of his jurisdiction - and no one can quite figure out how he knows about the beer, or why he's so relentless on catching the Bandit.  But that's because he's got his own reasons for the pursuit, and they don't involve the beer at all.

I'd like to see a count on which film destroyed the most police cars - this one was probably only beaten by "The Blues Brothers".   But other than that, the movie just didn't land with me, since the premise and most of the details seemed so out of line with reality.

NITPICK POINT: Three young men are stripping a car by the side of the highway (they appear 30 seconds after the car is abandoned, which seemed a little odd).  Presumably all three men are on high-alert, since they're breaking the law.  So how come none of them hear a police car drive up, and a portly sheriff exit the car?

NITPICK POINT #2: If Bandit and Snowman keep switching CB radio channels so the cops can't track their conversations, then how come every trucker (and non-trucker) along the route knows about their backstory?  They wouldn't have been in any one place, or talking on any one frequency, long enough for anyone to know the details of their trip.

Also starring Sally Field (last seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), Jackie Gleason (last seen in "The Hustler"), Jerry Reed, Paul Williams, Pat McCormick.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Diablo sandwiches

Friday, May 11, 2012

In the Heat of the Night

Year 4, Day 132 - 5/11/12 - Movie #1,131

BEFORE: Yeah, I could have saved this for my upcoming virtual road-trip around the U.S., but as long as I'm into police films, I'll check out how the law does things down in Mississippi.  And since this is another Best Picture Oscar-winner, it's time for a numbers check - after this I will have seen 53 out of the 84 Best Picture winners, 74 out of the American Film Institute's top 100 American movies, and 274 of the alleged "1001 Movies to See Before You Die".  I'm liking my numbers, though there are still 255 films on the list to see.

Linking from "Internal Affairs", Faye Grant was also in "The January Man" with Rod Steiger (last seen in "On the Waterfront").

THE PLOT:  An African-American detective is asked to investigate a murder in a racist southern town.

AFTER: This film works as an early portrayal of police forensics - a lot of this might be old hat to us now, after watching so many seasons of "CSI" and "Law & Order", but there was a time not too long ago when criminal science didn't extend too far beyond dusting for fingerprints.  As a visiting police officer who is familiar with techniques that the local police force is unaware of, Virgil Tibbs is quite literally the smartest man in town.  And as a homicide expert, his skills are needed to solve the murder of a prominent town benefactor.

Problem is, he's black in a society that barely acknowledges civil rights - and begrudgingly at that.  Being black is practically a crime in itself, or at least a justification for random violence - he has to work carefully around the taboos inherent in the racially-charged situations.  Some townspeople refuse to even be in the same room as him - so how can he gain the respect he deserves?

He does it by having his theories proven correct, time and time again.  Which is nice to see in a film, good old-fashioned stuff like reconstructing a crime scene, or retracing a person's steps, and having that pay off.  True, he gets a little blinded by racial prejudices himself, and starts accusing the town's most prominent plantation owner, but he does backtrack and correct himself.  Again, the pacing is similar to "Law & Order", because the first person they arrest on those shows is never the perp anyway.

Yeah, it's a bit depressing to see such blatant racism on display, and this really wasn't that long ago, but I'll bet it was accurate.  I think it's a bit naive to assume there's not much homicide in a small Southern town, and the film does resort to caricature at some points, but it is was it is.  Er, was.  Good to see a cop with persistence and tenacity to stick with the case until the right person was charged.

Also starring Sidney Poitier (last seen in "The Jackal" with Richard Gere, damn, I missed that connection!), Warren Oates (last seen in "1941"), Lee Grant, William Schallert.

RATING: 6 out of 10 orchids

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Internal Affairs

Year 4, Day 131 - 5/10/12 - Movie #1,130

BEFORE: I may have added this to my collection while confusing it with "Final Analysis", but that doesn't matter now - all that matters is that Richard Gere carries over and plays a cop in this one too, so this is the best place for it in the chain.  

I'm planning a "world tour" later this year, with films set in various U.S. and foreign cities, an idea I totally stole from TCM "31 Days of Oscar" programming - that will be a good way to connect whatever's left on the list, even though they may have nothing else in common.  I'm sort of warming up for that now by watching cop + crime films set in different cities - tonight I'm back in L.A., after leaving Brooklyn.

THE PLOT: Raymold Avila joins the Internal Affairs Department of the Los Angeles police. He and partner Amy Wallace are soon looking closely at the activities of cop Dennis Peck whose financial holdings start to suggest something shady.

AFTER: This is another treatise on the difficulties of police work - Gere's character even has a nice soliloquiy on the effect that the job, even when performed well, has on a policeman's body, mind, soul and marriage(s), to the point where so many end up suicidal, or on the take.

So it's no surprise that when the Internal Affairs Bureau starts investigating how cops are getting their off-duty work as security guards, they soon find out that they've only scratched the surface, and that one cop in particular seems to be at the center of all kinds of nasty business.  I'm trying to maintain the spoiler-free zone, so I'll comment on my reactions to the events in the film, rather than the specific events themselves.

The film gets interesting when the cop starts to get inside the IAB officer's head, and throws down some suspicion on the guy's wife to distract the investigation into his dealings.  The IAB officer then does a bad job of staying ahead of the cop's actions, or a good job of staying one step behind, depending on how you look at it.

The relationship between the IAB officer and his wife gets contentious, and they fight verbally and physically - yet oddly they're still fighting for each other, fighting for the relationship.  I'm reminded of the mind games that I just witnessed by watching the latest season of "The Amazing Race", 2 episodes a night for the last week.  If you ever want to test your relationship to the breaking point, by all means go on a reality-show race around the world.

When some of the contestants on "TAR", usually a married or dating couple, get frustrated with difficult tasks, or with each other's performance, you can see how quickly conversations can spiral out of control.  Especially this season, where "Hey, honey, you didn't read that clue right," or "Come on baby, you can do this task!" can quickly turn into "You're always yelling at me!" or "This stupid race was your stupid idea, anyway!"  Which of course, for overly dramatic people, is just one step away from "Don't even talk to me!" or "Maybe I'll just SIT HERE and not finish the race!"

Which makes for great television, of course, if you like seeing people argue.  But one contestant in particular this season was particularly bi-polar, and went from zero to crazy in seconds flat, as sort of a conversational pre-emptive strike.  Yes, you can win arguments that way, but in doing so, you cheapen the process.

But, as that TV show (and this film, I suppose) prove - someone can't get inside your head unless you let them do so.  And someone can't push your buttons until they know you well enough - so I hope everyone is fortunate enough to find that one person who they want to drive crazy (and let themselves be driven crazy by) on a permanent basis.

However, this is one of those films that doesn't really end, it just sort of...stops.

Also starring Andy Garcia (last seen in "Black Rain"), Nancy Travis (last seen in "Three Men and a Little Lady"), Laurie Metcalf (last heard in "Toy Story 3"), William Baldwin, Annabella Sciorra (last seen in "Jungle Fever"), Faye Grant (last seen in "Omen IV: the Awakening") with a cameo from a 9-year old Elijah Wood (last seen in "Avalon").  

RATING: 5 out of 10 lunch dates

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Brooklyn's Finest

Year 4, Day 130 - 5/9/12 - Movie #1,129

BEFORE: I've got a few cop/crime films to choose from, but I'm going with this one because my trivia team played in Brooklyn last night, and came out on top, netting me $23 profit and making us "Brooklyn's finest" where trivia is concerned.  I can link from "The Mod Squad" a few ways, since Claire Danes was in a film called "The Flock" with Richard Gere (last seen in "Autumn in New York"),  and Richard Jenkins co-starred with Gere in "Shall We Dance". 

THE PLOT: Three unconnected Brooklyn cops wind up at the same deadly location after enduring vastly different career paths.

AFTER: This is from the same director as "Training Day", and in many ways it appears to be cut from the same cloth.  The cops portrayed here are very different, but they exist in a world of moral ambiguity.  One is a veteran cop, one week from retirement, who tends to turn a blind eye to most crime since he's essentially checked out and burned out.  The second is a family man, who has no problem pocketing money during a bust, since he's trying to buy a house for his wife and kids.  And the third is an undercover cop who's been undercover so long, he's in danger of crossing over to protect his identity.

Any one of these stories might have supported it's own film, I think - but they're even stronger when combined together.  When juxtaposed, they present a gripping, if rather bleak, portrait of modern police work and the effect it has on the policemen.

Also, it's an exercise in parallel editing - which is really a misnomer since parallel lines in geography never touch, but as a rule parallel storylines in a film are designed to (eventually) interact.  This film took so long in getting there, I thought perhaps it was going to be the rare exception to the rule, and I think I would have been OK with that.  As it stands, the way that the stories come together seemed a bit forced, kind of like the way "Crash" was, only without the blatant use of metaphor.  Geez, that film won the Best Picture Oscar, and this film was at least as good as that one, possibly better.  Why wasn't this one nominated?

Maybe this one's just a bit too real for that - but at one point in the film all three main characters are seen to be in potentially explosive situations at the same time (presumably) and who's to say that's not possible?  I think the point is that any situation the police find themselves in could go south at any time unless cooler heads prevail.  And all this is in just one project in one precinct in one borough of NYC.  Sheesh.

Also starring Don Cheadle (last seen in "Iron Man 2"), Ethan Hawke (last seen in "Reality Bites"), Wesley Snipes (last seen in "Mo' Better Blues"), Will Patton (last seen in "The Mothman Prophecies"), with cameos from Ellen Barkin (last seen in "Switch"), Lili Taylor (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July"), Vincent D'Onofrio (last seen in "The Cell").

RATING: 6 out of 10 handcuffs

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Mod Squad

Year 4, Day 129 - 5/8/12 - Movie #1,128

BEFORE: I suppose I could have worked in the HBO movies "Recount" and "Game Change", about the 2000 and 2008 elections, respectively, but I'm feeling done with politics.  Besides, Josh Brolin is my link to the next topic, cop and crime films.  This is a reboot of a TV series from the 1960's that I never watched, but I'll give it a whirl.

THE PLOT: Three minor delinquents are recruited by a cop working undercover to bust a cop/drug ring.

AFTER: Well, this was not a game-changer by any measure.  I feel the need to compare it to Michael Palin's walk from Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch.  (If you're not familiar with it, please go check it out now on the YouTube, I'll wait)  Palin's character wants funding for a silly walk that he's developing, and after demonstrating it, the man in charge of funding points out that one leg wasn't being silly at all, and the other merely performs a forward aerial half-turn every alternate step.

That is to say, this film wasn't complicated at all, it was just a simple film about three people working undercover for the police.  Part of the problem was that there weren't too many characters, so if someone on the police force was corrupt, well, there weren't too many options in guessing who it was.  It's kind of like when you can figure out the killer on "Law & Order" by just reading the opening credits.  An Oscar-nominated actor isn't going to do a guest spot on a cop show unless he (or she) can play a complex role like a killer or a pedophile.  In more recent seasons of "L&O: SVU" I think they've pulled a few double-bluffs, hiring a name actor who turns out to NOT be the killer, but I digress.

I've done cop films as a theme at least twice already, and maybe you can hate on a film like, say, "Live Free or Die Hard" for being completely unrealistic and over-the-top, but at least it took chances, it put itself out there.  This one just lumbered along to the end, with all the excitement of a six-hour stakeout.

Starring Claire Danes (last seen in "The Hours"), Omar Epps, Giovanni Ribisi (last seen in "Avatar"), Dennis Farina (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Richard Jenkins (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux"), with cameos from Sam McMurray, Eddie Griffin (last seen in "John Q").

RATING: 3 out of 10 unmarked cars

Monday, May 7, 2012


Year 4, Day 128 - 5/7/12 - Movie #1,127

BEFORE: This was my planned endgame on the political chain, though it took a little longer to get here than I thought it would.  This is another film by Oliver Stone, director of "JFK" and "Nixon".  Linking comes courtesy of Curtis Armstrong, who was also in "Revenge of the Nerds II" with James Cromwell (last seen in "Surrogates").  Please, don't ask me how I knew that.

THE PLOT: A chronicle on the life and presidency of George W. Bush.

AFTER: I'm kind of on the fence about this one - who am I, an ordinary citizen, to say who was a good president and a bad president.  I'm reminded of a school project I had to do in U.S. History class back in 8th grade, where I was assigned 5 presidents to research and rate on a scale from 1 to 5.  (Got an A-, I think)  It's easy when you're dealing with Washington or Adams, a bit tougher perhaps when you get to the more modern ones.  History hasn't fully decided on Bush, I think, even though he seemed completely inept to me during his two terms.  Sure, his malaprops made him seem empty-headed, but if I want to be fair, I have to admit that maybe we're just too close to it to make the call.

Unfortunately, this film offers little advice on that point, outside of stating facts that we're all mostly aware of - things that came up during the campaigns, like Bush's drunk driving arrests, fraternity pranks or his status as a born-again Christian.   What's worse, it relies on a structure similar to "Nixon", jumping around through the man's life and career like a political version of "Slaughterhouse Five".

If you've read my previous entries, you know this is a particular bugaboo of mine.  I always imagine that this time-jumping technique is used to liven up a story that was found to be dramatically weak or just plain uninteresting when it spools out in a linear order.  Under the best conditions, the scenes can be organized in such a way that the ones in the past are contrasted with the ones in the future, and some particular insight is gained.  But with both "Nixon" and this film, it seems more like they're organized in a random fashion, perhaps by tossing the various film clips in the air, and picking them up off the floor one by one and splicing them right into the film.  If there's a pattern or some kind of organization, some reason why THIS scene follows right after THAT one, I sure couldn't see it. 

So, I'm left to draw my own conclusions about the overall meaning - maybe that's the point, the director didn't want to push the narrative in any one particular direction.  If so, that's a copout.  The story's not going to find itself, a film is like a car, in that it works best when the driver has a destination in mind.

I'm going to fall back on the other political films I watched, to see if that offers any insight into George W.  Like Willie Stark in "All the King's Men", Bush has a distinct sense of right and wrong.  He wants to "do good things" - but who decides what the good things are?  Is war inherently "good", or is it "bad"?  Discuss.  Like Lincoln, Bush failed upward - we're all aware of his work history, failing in the oil fields and failing as the owner of a baseball team.  Like Jefferson, Bush was... I'm going to go with "clueless about his own hypocrisy", and leave it at that.  And like Nixon, Bush oversaw a war that became very unpopular over time.

Of course, Bush had his advisors, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, among others, and this film shows a number of top-level confabs between them, having conjectured conversations about WMDs and anthrax and whether (and how) to take out Saddam Hussein.  But it doesn't really take a stand at any point about whose idea anything really was, or whose fault either.

The one metaphor used (outside of a dream sequence where he's tormented by an approval-withholding Bush Sr.) depicts W. in an empty baseball stadium, standing in the outfield, waiting for the ball to be hit to him, then running back toward the warning track, hoping to make the game-saving over-the-wall catch.  I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to represent, but it seems fitting somehow.

I guess I'm ambivalent about George W. Bush.  Some days I wonder why he wasn't brought up on war crimes, since ultimately he was proven wrong about the WMD's in Iraq, and therefore there was no justification for the invasion.  Other days I wonder if he was the right idiot puppet in the wrong place at the right time, or something like that.

Starring Josh Brolin (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), Elizabeth Banks (last seen in "Role Models"), Richard Dreyfuss (last seen in "Moon Over Parador"), Jeffrey Wright (last seen in "Presumed Innocent"), Thandie Newton (last seen in "Jefferson in Paris"), Toby Jones (last seen in "Captain America: The First Avenger"), Scott Glenn (last seen in "Sucker Punch"), Bruce McGill, Colin Hanks (last seen in "King Kong"), Ellen Burstyn (last seen in "The Fountain"), with cameos from Jesse Bradford, Jason Ritter, Noah Wyle, Rob Corddry (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), Ioan Gruffudd (last seen in "Black Hawk Down"), Stacy Keach (last seen in "Escape from L.A.").

RATING: 4 out of 10 pretzels

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Elvis Meets Nixon

Year 4, Day 127 - 5/6/12 - Movie #1,126

BEFORE: I suppose the most logical movie to watch after "Nixon" should have been "Dick", that 1999 comedy about Nixon, since the two films shared at least two actors in common - Dan Hedaya and Saul Rubinek.  But I didn't know that, so I didn't have the latter film on my list, and opted to record this one instead.   Fortunately, linking from "Nixon" is still easy, since Anthony Hopkins was also in the film "Fracture" with Bob Gunton (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July"), who plays Tricky Dick tonight.

THE PLOT:  A "mockumentary" about Elvis's real-life trip to the White House to become a federal marshal under the DEA.

AFTER:  The very famous photograph of Elvis Presley, shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office - how did it come to be?  I'm sure you've seen the photo, if not, go check it out (I'll wait). 

Pretty cool, huh?  Though I suppose it's no weirder than the footage of Nixon on "Laugh-In", or any of the photo-ops these days when the championship sports team gets invited to meet the president, or there's footage of Obama throwing a gutter-ball while bowling on the campaign trail.  But the film draws connections between these two iconic figures - both rose to prominence in the 1950's, pretty much sat out most of the 1960's while the Beatles and JFK ruled the roost, and then both rose back to fame and glory in 1968 thanks to an election and a TV special.

According to this film, both were questioning their careers at the same time, both were wracked with self-doubt, and both liked to watch football games (though rooting for different teams) - but only one had a tendency to shoot out the TV screen if he didn't like the outcome - I'll let you guess which one.
The only other connection, and it's somewhat forced, is that both celebs were larger than life, and wildly referenced in the world of impressions - though back in 1970 there was no such thing as an Elvis impersonator, so if you saw a guy walking around in a rhinestone suit and a cape who looked like Elvis, it probably was him.

You could also say that both were out of touch, Nixon with his own honesty or lack thereof, and Elvis with the music scene, and the experiences of the common man.  And both were disheartened with the state of society, with the hippies and the counter-culture, the Vietnam protests and the drug scene.  Yes, there are certain ironies in both cases, with Elvis being "against drugs" yet at the same time dependent on speed ("uppers") to make it through the day.  And Elvis' obsession with boxes of chocolate (despite being allergic) almost gives this a "Forrest Gump" feel.  Almost.

So Elvis goes walkabout and leaves Graceland - learns how to buy a plane ticket for himself, and criss-crosses the country from D.C. to L.A. and back in a wild weekend, culminating in a hand-written and hand-delivered letter to Nixon, requesting that he be made a federal drug-marshal at large.  Seriously.  And Nixon takes the meeting, because he sees a way to connect with the youth vote through the rock and roll, and well, because it's Elvis.  Who wouldn't?

No one really knows what was said (or sung) in this closed-door meeting, so it's all conjecture.  But wasn't Oliver Stone's film mostly conjecture too?  Who's to say the meeting didn't inspire the comeback special from Hawaii, where Nixon sang "Burning Love"?  Wait a sec, that's not right. 

You can almost deduce what year this TV movie was produced, however, since there's just a few too many in-jokes, like Elvis hearing the Jackson Five on a taxi's radio, or Nixon making a reference to Elvis' daughter growing up and "not marrying a creep".  There's a big wink at the audience right there.  Let me just check - this film aired in 1997, and Lisa Marie was married to Michael Jackson from 1994 to 1996.  Seems about right.

Also starring Rick Peters, Curtis Armstrong (BOOGER!), Denny Doherty (from The Mamas and the Papas), Richard Beymer, with "interviews" with Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis, Graham Nash and Wayne Newton.

RATING: 3 out of 10 concealed handguns  (yes, I realize this is the same rating I gave "Nixon".)