I’ll Have Another!

Bob Hughes:  “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using.  You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something.  Maybe it’s not dope.  Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline.  Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head.  But something.  Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”

[Matt Dillon, “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989)]

Alcohol, drug abuse, dark chocolate (Ahh, well, maybe not that one!) have been major problems for the human race going all the way back to the very beginnings of civilization itself.  There are many possible explanations as to why so many individuals continually fall prey to addiction, but unfortunately, it’s a complex problem with no easy answer.  Numerous actors in the public eye have also had their careers and personal lives damaged, destroyed, and even cut short due to addiction.  Individuals such as Wendell Corey, Gail Russell, Veronica Lake, Errol Flynn, Robert Newton, Peter Cook, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Michael K. Williams, and others all died due to, or related to addiction.  Others like Robert Young, Kim Stanley, George C. Scott, Clark Gable, Broderick Crawford, Jean Simmons, Paul Newman, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Robert Mitchum, Maureen Stapleton, Jason Robards, Dick Van Dyke, Colin Farrell, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr., etc. all went through the horrors of addiction too.  A few of them were able to kick their habit.  The majority of them did not!  If I wanted to, I could probably have an entire Blog Post just listing the names of all of the actors that were alcoholics or addicts at one time or the other.  Alfred Hitchcock once said, in a general way, that “all actors should be treated like cattle.”  However, regarding addiction, he was no better than they were since he was an alcoholic too, and there were far more people in the film and television industry who were addicted than the actors themselves.  However, using addiction as the main subject for a motion picture or in television shows or episodes of television shows was not allowed for a long time.  This month’s Blog Post will discuss the subject of addiction in motion pictures as well as highlight the films that brought dramas of addiction into viewing prominence.

All the way up into the mid-nineteen forties, alcoholism was usually shown as a side affliction often in a humorous way with W.C. Fields as its standard bearer which was not surprising since he was a bad alcoholic in real life.  Maybe the only really excellent presentation of alcoholism for a dramatic film back then was for the 1937 hit motion picture, “A Star is Born.”  Winning a number of Academy Awards while also being nominated for Best Picture, and later remade a number of times including most recently in 2018, it told the romantic story of a young aspiring actress (Janet Gaynor) becoming a star due to help from a fading movie star (Fredric March) whose own alcoholism ultimately destroys his life.  This version, which was the best of them all. was unfortunately still more focused on the romance between the two characters rather than the disease of alcoholism itself.  About the only other quality dramas back then with alcoholism as a major part of the storyline were not to be found on the motion picture screen, but rather found in the theater, especially for the plays by the legendary playwright, Eugene O’Neill.  Great plays like “The Iceman Cometh”, Moon for the Misbegotten,” and maybe his greatest, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” all featured individuals psychologically haunted by their own demons accentuated by alcohol and drug addiction. O’Neill didn’t pull any punches in his works maybe because he too had a history of addiction as did his various family members including his later wife, and all of his children. However, film dramas that had any focus on drug addiction back then, were even less prevalent than those that had a focus on alcoholism.

Maybe the only film back then that focused on drug addiction was the ridiculously awful “Reefer Madness” (1936) which focused on the dangerously addictive drug known then as… Marijuana!!!  This stupid propaganda film, originally financed by a church group showed the evils of high school students getting addicted to marijuana which led them into committing all sorts of crimes along with them suffering such horrible things as delusions, insanity, and really going “wild” (like overeating Doritos, French kissing, watching old episodes of “Sesame Street” run backwards, etc.)!  A year after this film’s original release, the general hysteria about cannabis helped in no small part by the passage of 1937 Marihuana Tax Act resulted in similar types of trash films being made which focused exclusively on marijuana instead of any real hard drugs.  The act itself was drafted by Harry J. Anslinger, the Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who was the original father of the “war on drugs”, and who advocated harsh drug penalties on any users, especially those doing marijuana.  Anslinger (who many nicknamed “Ass-linger”), was a vile Racist who remained the Head of the Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years until he finally was removed in 1962.  The act itself was finally overturned in 1969 which enabled “Reefer Madness,” long considered by critics as being one of the worst films ever made, to be rediscovered in the early 1970s and gaining new life on college campuses and the midnight movie circuit as a laugh out loud cult film satire.  Maybe it was poetic justice that the hypocritical Anslinger, who also provided morphine to the alcoholic, morphine addicted, and generally loathsome Senator Joseph McCarthy (Hmm, maybe he should have been nicknamed, “Kiss Ass-linger” instead) while covering up McCarthy’s addictive proclivities, ultimately became addicted to morphine himself due to angina before finally dying in 1973.

Finally, two landmark films, at long last, opened the door for serious dramas to be made about alcohol and substance abuse (and not marijuana either).  For alcohol, it was the Oscar winning film, “The Lost Weekend” (1945).  For drug abuse, it was the controversial drama, “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955).  “Weekend” starred Ray Milland as Don Birnam a failed alcoholic writer who goes off the sobriety wagon through one long weekend.  This film was realistically shot on the streets of New York City and even had permission to film some scenes in the alcoholic ward inside Bellevue Hospital.  However, it was uncompromising in showing Milland’s character suffering delirium tremens when going through alcohol withdrawal along with including some of his frightening hallucinations.  Major liquor industries lobbied hard to either undermine or even have the film destroyed including, supposedly, trying to offer Paramount Pictures $5 million to destroy the film.  If that story was true, it didn’t work!  “Weekend” was a huge hit, and besides winning an Oscar for “Best Picture, it also won a number of other Oscars including ones for Milland’s performance, and for Billy Wilder’s direction.  Wilder, always in fine caustic comedy form, once said that he would have burned up the film’s negative himself if their original offer was personally made to him.

“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955), directed by Otto Preminger, starred Frank Sinatra (Oscar nominated) as Frankie Machine, a former heroin user now newly clean. However, once back in his old rundown North Chicago neighborhood, he soon relapses and starts using heroin again.  The main reason why serious films about drug abuse were not made before “Arm” was due to, once again, censorship by the Production Code Authority (PCA) under Joseph Breen, and Preminger, who butted heads with Breen before, took him on again when the PCA wouldn’t give “Arm” their seal of approval.  Fortunately, United Artists, large theater chains, and for once, the Catholic National Legion of Decency, disagreed with the PCA’s decision and the film was shown nationwide receiving both popular and critical acclaim.  Shortly afterwards, the production codes were revised which allowed greater freedom for film makers to seriously explore other controversial subjects like kidnapping, miscegenation, abortion and prostitution (Wait a minute!  No rock and roll?) including better depictions of drug abuse.  My own personal feelings about both pictures are that, for the time that they were made, they were both good pictures (especially “Weekend”).  However, better ones were to be made years later which realistically presented a better depiction of alcohol and substance abuse.

Nevertheless, before moving on to these latter pictures I’d like to highlight one other picture with an alcohol abuse theme that never received the recognition that it deserved, nor the lead actor’s incredible performance in it.  That picture was the drama, “Come Fill the Cup” (1951) starring James Cagney.  Upon first appearance, this picture didn’t appear to be anything more than a cheap melodrama directed by journeyman director Gordon Douglas about Lew Marsh (Cagney), an older, formerly good reporter but with a bad alcohol problem.  It’s never explained why he has a drinking problem; he just does.  Eventually, he is fired, and when Paula, his girlfriend, leaves him, he turns into a hopeless dirty vagrant staggering along the streets until he finally collapses and is taken to a local hospital’s alcoholic ward.  To shorten the tale, he becomes friends with an ex-alcoholic (James Gleason), moves in with him, stays sober, slowly works his way back to his old job on the newspaper, and is ultimately promoted to the position of chief story editor while hiring other ex-drunks to work at the newspaper too.  However, after six years of sobriety, his boss asks for Lew’s help in another matter.  The boss’s nephew, Boyd (Gig Young), is an alcoholic, and he wants Lew’s help in getting him clean and sober.  Only problem, Boyd is now married to Paula, and Boyd’s intransience, and Lew still having feelings for Paula are starting to threaten Lew’s sobriety too!

Cagney had history in having to deal with an alcoholic in real life.  His father was an alcoholic, and he incorporated those experiences and the physical mannerisms of an alcoholic into his portrayal of Lew Marsh.  Whether it’s in the picture’s early scenes where he is in a smiling relaxed state of denial about his affliction, to his later staggering down the streets in a drunken daze scrounging for a handout so he can stumble into the nearest bar, or to his going through the brutal effects of “delirium tremens” in a hospital while filthy and strapped down onto a bed thrashing around violently, his performance is frighteningly real and authentically scary.  Yet other quiet moments like some of the looks he gives to an unwilling Boyd are laced with his own self-doubt and even fear, not that he might not be able to help someone to help himself, but that the fragile sobriety that Lew has been able to carefully maintain, might finally be starting to crumble.  For my money, the most powerful scene is the entire picture, and one of the greatest acting sequences in a motion picture that I have ever seen, is when Lew angrily confronts Boyd after it appears, at first, that Boyd might have caused the death of Lew’s close friend.  It is on a dark street at night and Cagney, in a rage, is verbally ripping Boyd apart while slapping him across the face back and forth, again and again.  However, as he is doing this, he is breaking down in agony crying until he doesn’t even have any remaining strength left because he is so consumed with grief.  When I first saw that scene so many years ago, I literally jumped back shocked because it was so authentic, I couldn’t believe that Cagney was actually acting because it was so unflinchingly raw and real.  As great as Ray Milland’s performance in “Lost Weekend” was, Cagney’s performance was even greater.  Although Gig Young’s performance was good too and Oscar nominated, Cagney’s astonishingly powerful performance was not!  As a sad side note, the multiple divorced Young was a bad alcoholic in real life too, and in 1978 he suffered a bad end by committing suicide after murdering his latest wife.  I suppose you could just add his name to the list of those whose lives were destroyed by alcoholism.

A later picture which depicted alcoholism as more of a disease, and in a far more realistic manner than ever before was the film, “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) directed by Blake Edwards.  It was adapted by the acclaimed Playhouse 90 teleplay of the same name by JP Miller who also wrote the screenplay for this picture.  “Roses” told the story of Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) a San Francisco public relations representative who meets, then dates, and later marries Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick).  However, while dating Kirsten, a teetotaler, she picks up Joe’s habit of casual drinking which she finds very enjoyable.  Unfortunately, after marrying and having a child together, both of them start drinking more and more.  For Joe, he uses it as a release from the pressures of his job.  For Kirsten, it’s not only to keep up with Joe, but also because she likes the feeling she gets from alcohol and doesn’t recognize that she has an addictive personality that makes her more susceptible to over indulging.  Soon their lives start going downhill, and despite their love for each other, Joe starts to realize that the need to stop drinking and stay sober is far more important than anything else, even if Kirsten does not!

This picture was far different than any of the previous pictures that I profiled.  To ensure accuracy, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was a technical advisor on this film.  The picture did show Joe’s character going through delirium tremens just like in past pictures.  However, it also showed him going to AA meetings, obtaining a sponsor, his and Kirsten’s constant attempts and failures in keeping sober, the obsessive behavior of alcoholics, their need to be around other drinkers rather than either to drink alone or to be around other sober people, and the squalor in their home environment.  These were things that were not explored in past pictures.  Also, maybe the most poignant thing about “Roses” was in how it showed individuals slowly becoming alcoholics during their everyday lives without ever even realizing it.  This was especially true for Blake Edwards, and for actors’ Lemmon and Remick.  During the making of this film both Edwards and Lemmon, who were both heavy drinkers in real life, came to the realization that they were alcoholics, and Edwards stopped drinking a year later before going into substance-abuse recovery.  Lemmon and Remick both sought help from AA too in dealing with their issues years later after completing this film.  Come Academy Awards time, Lemmon and Remick received Oscar nominations for their performances, and “The Days of Wine and Roses” has been praised as one of the most accurate and best pictures about alcohol addiction that has ever been made.

The last two pictures that I want to highlight for this month’s Blog Post are of a more unusual nature concerning substance abuse.  They are “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) and “Another Round” (2020).  “Cowboy” was directed by Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) and adapted from an unpublished autobiographical novel (at that point in time) by James Fogle.  It starred Matt Dillon as Bob who, with his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) and his best friend Rick and Rick’s teenage girlfriend Nadine, lead a nomadic existence across the Pacific Northwest circa 1971 robbing pharmacies and hospitals wherever they go.  They are drug addicts with Bob as their leader and, as the picture revolves around their various schemes in robbing and getting high and the other types of lowlifes that they meet in their little world as well as law enforcement led by a tough police detective named Gentry (James Remar), you hear Bob in voiceover narrating some of the proceedings as well as his views about life and drug use in general.  Everything seems to go well (sort of) for a while until a sudden death, Bob’s goofy fear of a hex being put on them, and his even bigger fear of possibly being hit with some serious prison time make him finally want to get clean.  Only thing, even with the best of intentions, sometimes Bob just can’t seem to escape his past.

James Fogle was a serious drug user, dealer, and career criminal who continued his criminal activities long after this film’s release before ultimately dying in prison in 2012.  However, Van Sant brilliantly adapted Fogle’s novel into a terrific film about the druggie life style which was, at times, hysterically funny, but at other times, pathetic and sad.  Visually, the film alternates between looking, at times, gritty and dirty while looking, at other times, spacey and unfocused, usually whenever Bob, and the other members of his little (fake) family, get high.  Before starring in this picture, Matt Dillon sort of came across like someone who, for his next career move would have been better served checking out acting possibilities at your local Dinner Theater or working the register at the neighborhood Dollar Store because his previous teen idol acting efforts fell into the general categories of being either laughingly amateurish or just plain outright stupid.  However, for “Drugstore Cowboy” he is a revelation!  Telling his story in flashback while riding to a hospital in an ambulance, he charismatically grabs your attention by the throat and never lets it go.  Even when he is acting awkward, confused, or scared with more concerns about being hexed or cursed than a Halloween Witch on a broomstick, his Bob still comes across as weirdly street smart, unintentionally funny, and amazingly, even insightful and charming.  It’s a great performance!  Although “Drugstore Cowboy” is a portrait of the dead-end lifestyle of a bunch of junkie “losers,” the viewing audience is the ultimate “winner” thanks to fine direction by Van Sant and a standout performance by Matt Dillon!

The Danish film, “Another Round” directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is a black comedy drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as Martin, one of a group of four colleagues and friends who work at a school in Copenhagen and who all feel that their lives have become boring and redundant.  While out together one night, they discuss a theory by psychiatrist Finn Skarderud stating that humans are born with a blood alcohol content (BAC) deficiency of 0.05% and that if one maintains their BAC at 0.05% it would make an individual not only more relaxed, but also more creative.  Later they all agree to conduct an experiment to test the theory using themselves as test subjects while maintaining a group log tracking what occurs when they start drinking at regular intervals to maintain that specific blood alcohol level.  Martin is especially eager to participate since he is depressed and alienated from his wife, his children, and his students.  They also stipulate that while conducting this experiment they will never drink and drive, they will never let their BAC drop below 0.05%, and that they will never imbibe after 8:00 pm or on weekends. Almost immediately all of them find their lives improved both at work and at home.  Martin even reconnects with his wife, his children and his students.  All of the group members are so happy with their results that they then agree to push the experiment even further by raising their BAC limit to 0.10%. After all, what could ever possibly go wrong?

Director Vinterberg based this picture on a play he had previously written and, according to Vinterberg, it was supposed to be a much angrier movie.  However, four days into filming tragedy struck when his daughter Ida, who was supposed to have a part in the picture, died in a car accident.  Vinterberg later decided to rewrite the screenplay to make the picture more of a life-affirming one about individuals being awakened to life rather than just a picture about people drinking.  A film that could have been just another parable about individuals destroying their lives due to alcohol abuse became something entirely different thanks to Vinterberg’s delicate way of balancing both the humor and the touching drama of the individuals in the story.  “Another Round” was also helped by the fine acting from his entire cast, and especially, by Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Martin.  In the beginning, it was a little hard to believe that Mikkelsen, who has previously played such strong dominating characters in past films could play someone more hesitant and depressed.  However, how he has his character of Martin subtly change, whether drunk or sober, is convincing, and he ultimately turns in a fine performance.  Maybe the highlight of the film is when Mikkelsen, who when younger, trained as a gymnast and was a professional dancer for almost a decade, breaks into a wild, and joyfully enthusiastic dance.  What’s even more impressive is that (1) before this film, he didn’t professionally dance in almost 30 years, and (2) he did all of the dancing himself while not using a body double even for his more acrobatic dance moments.  For the 2020 Academy Awards that year, Thomas Vinterberg was nominated for Best Director and “Another Round” won the Oscar for the Best International Feature Film.

And as for myself, all I have to say about it is…

“I’ll drink to that!”


Unexpected Withdrawals!

Clyde Barrow:  “This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow.  We rob banks.”

[Warren Beatty, “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967)] 

Motion pictures about crime have always been popular with the general public.  One of the very first films that popularized this genre was the silent film, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903).  Besides it being a Western (another popular genre), it was also a crime picture involving a robbery.  Basically, crime pictures from the very beginning usually consisted of either stories of murder or of robbery in many different ways.  For robberies or “heists,” It was not really surprising why they were so popular, once you thought about it.  They could fall into any number of different and popular categories for a picture.  They could also be emotionally suspenseful, dangerous, exciting, violent, complex, frightening, thought provoking, etc.  For some of these pictures, you could even find yourself actually rooting for the criminals like in the more recent “Ocean’s Eleven” pictures for example.  You really wouldn’t want to see George Clooney ever put into prison at the end of any of these films, would you?  If that were the case, we might be deprived of him doing more of those wonderful (?) Nespresso commercials, won’t we?  Hmmm!  On second thought, lock him the Hell up!  Nevertheless, for this month’s Blog Post I will be discussing various types of “heist” pictures (and hold the Nespresso please)!

Right around in the beginning and middle of the nineteen fifties two good ones were made with one being a big budget MGM picture, and the other, a guilty pleasure sort of one that was good despite having some of the worst casting choices for a motion picture that I have seen in a long time.  The big budget one was the acclaimed heist picture, “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) directed by John Huston.  The storyline involves a planned heist where a just released from prison criminal named “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) backed by crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) enlists a 3-man team to pull off a big-time jewelry robbery.  Of course, for most heist pictures like “Jungle,” even when the heist succeeds something always goes wrong which ultimately leads to almost everyone’s self-destruction.  However, despite that, this MGM picture was exceptional for a number of reasons.  First, was the fine screenplay by Ben Maddow and Huston which provided fully developed background stories for all of the film’s major and minor characters.  Second, was the striking black and white cinematography by Harold Rosson (“The Wizard of Oz”) capturing the darkness and general seediness of the world that these criminals inhabited.  Third, was Huston’s skill both in directing the story and in eliciting fine performances from his entire cast.  Among the actors, especially noteworthy were Sam Jaffe’s performance as the heist team’s criminal mastermind along with Sterling Hayden, as Dix Handley, the heist team’s thug or as “Doc” originally described him, “a hooligan.”  They make a fascinating pair.  Jaffe’s “Doc” is older and physically slight, but also cerebral, calm, and very analytical.  Hayden’s Dix is physically towering and intimidating, but despite being an uneducated Southerner who only wants enough money to buy back his old family farm that was originally lost during the Great Depression, he is soulful, sentimental, and ultimately very loyal to Doc.  By the end of the picture, Hayden just about breaks your heart.  Huston, a great director, was a master of crime/Noir themed dramas whether it was just in providing screenplays for such films like “High Sierra” and “The Killers” or directing classics like “The Maltese Falcon.”  For “The Asphalt Jungle,” he crafted one of the greatest heist films of all time.

The second good heist/robbery film that I want to highlight, is “Violent Saturday” (1955) directed by Richard Fleischer.  This one mixed tawdry soap opera melodrama in with a planned bank robbery in the southwest town of Bisbee, Arizona by three hardened criminals (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, and J. Carrol Naish).  As the three hoods prepare for their bank robbery attempt you see a number of connecting storylines unfolding which would make “Payton Place” seem like a church social by comparison.  First, you have rich drunk Richard Egan (Department Store Manikin No. 1) married to a philandering wife considering an affair with sultry nurse Virginia Leith (Department Store Manikin No. 2) while she is being secretly ogled by bank manager/designated town pervert Tommy Noonan (who sort of looks like a Woody Allen clone) whenever Leith is undressing in front of her window at night (Doesn’t everyone?).  Second, you have local old biddy librarian and budding thief Sylvia Sidney (who looks like the official winner of a lemon sucking contest) blackmailing the goo-goo eyed bank manager.  Third, you have happily married plant foreman Victor Mature with an annoying young son (who should have his head shoved into an outhouse toilet) because the brat is always haranguing Daddy because he didn’t serve in World War II.  Fourth and last (and my favorite), the criminals are holding an Amish family hostage at their isolated farm where the hoods will make their getaway and with the Amish father played by… Ernest Borgnine!!! (Which is about as believable as Marilyn Monroe playing the “The Sound of Music’s” Maria von Trapp).  Right about now Dear Reader you are probably thinking, “And why do you actually “like” or even “think” this is a good picture?  Well… (Oh No, don’t say it!) a number of reasons!

Although Richard Fleischer was never a “great” director, at times, he could still be a pretty “good” director capable of doing a number of different types of pictures reasonably well. Despite the cheap soap opera storylines and, at times, the terrible miscasting and bad acting, this film at least was one where the actual robbery attempt and the bank robbers themselves were more interesting and believable than the so-called law-abiding citizens.  First, you had McNally as Harper, the brains and sinister leader of the group.   Next you had the toad-like Naish as Chapman, a quiet experienced thief with a touch of irritability beneath the surface.  Best of all, you had Marvin (in the film’s best and most charismatic performance) as Dill, an insomniac who is always sucking on his asthma inhaler, and quick to threaten (“Sit down mister or I’ll kill you quick!”) or violently act when necessary while oozing an almost joyful streak of sadism in his eyes.  Fleischer (“Between Heaven and Hell,” “The Vikings”, etc.) along with his fellow contemporaries, Directors’ Robert Aldrich (“Attack”, “Kiss Me Deadly”, etc.) and Anthony Mann (“The Naked Spur”, “Men in War”, etc.) during the nineteen fifties were all well known for pushing the envelope of violence in their pictures to a level not readily seen in motion pictures before, and “Saturday” had some brutal and controversial violence in Fleischer’s skillful action scenes helped by Charles G. Clarke’s fine Cinemascope color cinematography.  He also had his hoods show a level of believable cruelty not readily shown in pictures before whether it was Dill deliberately grinding a child’s hand into the pavement after the boy tried to pick up Dill’s inhaler when he inadvertently bumped into him, or the exasperated Chapman trying to keep another little boy quiet during the bank robbery by grabbing some hard candy and shoving it at the kid while saying, “Stick these in your kisser and go suck on ‘em.”  By the time the nineteen sixties and director Sam Peckinpah’s violent “The Wild Bunch” (1969) rolled around, the groundwork had already been laid previously by directors like Richard Fleischer for films like “Violent Saturday.”

Now even though I just mentioned “The Wild Bunch,” I’m not going to discuss that particular picture for this Blog Post.  Instead, I’m going to now focus on a different popular type of heist picture.  You see, the previous pictures cited had criminals meticulously planning their robberies or heists.  However, there were other heist films where the criminals could just clumsily barge in and where, more often than not, they just had a gun and an attitude to back themselves up while committing their crimes.  One such influential film like this, which also pushed the graphic violence envelope, was the biographical crime drama “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) directed by Arthur Penn.  This picture told the story of Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty), two legendary Depression era outlaws who led a gang that robbed banks and killed numerous people in Texas and other surrounding areas before they were finally killed in the early nineteen thirties.  A young criminal couple on the run in a doomed romance while robbing banks or committing other kinds of assorted mayhem was a popular subject for a number of other films before “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Some of them were “You Only Live Once” (1937), “They Live by Night” (1948), and “Gun Crazy” (1950) for example.  However, this film was far different because it broke numerous taboos by showing more sex and violence than ever before while sometimes even shifting its dramatic focus back and forth by suddenly swerving from hard drama to an almost Keystone Kops slapstick comedy or to a tender romance or to some graphic and horrific violence.  It was popular with influential film critics, the general public, and counter culture types in America during the nineteen sixties who readily labeled the characters in “Bonnie and Clyde” as anti-establishment standard bearers.  This picture also came out during a time when the Hollywood Censorship code was finally being loosened with new and younger filmmakers gaining prominence while eroding the old Studio system and incorporating new ideas about how future motion pictures should be made.  Now Dear Reader, I’m sure that you may think that I’m about to further sing the praises for this landmark American motion picture.  Well, if you think so, then you would be making one very big “mistake.”  You see, that is because I think that “Bonnie and Clyde” is one of the biggest pieces of Horse S**T, that I have ever seen!

First, this picture glamorized a pair of ignorant “white trash” two-bit murderous criminals.  Second, the horrible direction by Penn which included choppy film editing, sudden confusing shifts of dramatic tone/focus, and overtly loud exaggerated noise from the constant shootouts and the annoying Flatt and Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” instrumental banjo piece continually being piped throughout the picture was enough to make anyone develop a DEFCON One Migraine.  Three, the acting was atrocious.  Michael J. Pollard as the gang’s mechanic/wheelman and the film’s comic relief, had all the personality of a tree stump.  Estelle Parsons’ Oscar winning (???) performance as Blanche Barrow, Clyde’s brother’s wife and one of the few members of the gang still alive when this picture was released, mainly consisted of her screaming her head off 50% of the time so Penn could make Dunaway’s Bonnie appear more “cool.”  Maybe Penn should have been more focused on having Dunaway give an actual performance rather than trying to make her look “cool.”  The real Blanche Barrow was so PO’d that she later said, “That film made me look like a screaming horse’s ass!”  Oh, and four, speaking of a “Horse’s Ass,” then there was Warren Beatty.  Always a limited actor, Beatty got into constant arguments with Penn while being so vain that the 6’4” actor was afraid that he would be upstaged by the 5’7” Dunaway so, not so surprisingly, she always had to wear flat shoes so he could tower over her.  Needless to say, that didn’t do anything to improve his performance since he acted more like some sort of a squawking scrawny rooster strutting around in a henhouse rather than an actual bank robber.  His and Dunaway’s piss poor attempts at talking with a Texas twang was about as believable as Borgnine acting Amish.  About the only individuals who came off with any dignity at all from this mess were Gene Hackman in his performance as Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck, and Burnett Guffey’s fine Oscar winning color cinematography.  Legendary outlaw John Dillinger summed it up best.  He called the real Bonnie and Clyde, “Punks who are giving bank robbers a bad name!”  If he was still alive, maybe he would have said the same thing about the individuals who made the motion picture, “Bonnie and Clyde.”  

However, a far better version of a heist film where a bunch of amateur bank robbers clumsily try to rob a bank is the underrated German crime thriller, “Victoria” (2015) directed by Sebastian Schipper.  The picture starred Laia Costa as the aforementioned, Victoria, a young Spanish woman who just moved to Berlin and, as the picture begins, is seen kinetically dancing late one night in a cheap underground club.  As she starts to leave she strikes up a conversation with four other young German men who she joins in a late night walk through the city after they were denied access into the club.  They ultimately convince her to continue to party with them where they wind up on an apartment roof getting further high by drinking and smoking marijuana while their unofficial leader, Sonne (Frederick Lau) flirts with her.  After leaving them because she has to open up a cafe where she works before the crack of dawn, and with Sonne accompanying her, his three friends later unexpectedly meet at the cafe’s entrance where one of them named Boxer (Franz Rogowski) is acting extremely nervous and worried.  The Germans have to quickly leave for an important appointment but return when one of them is so inebriated that he’s fallen unconscious.  At that point, Boxer demands that Sonne ask Victoria to replace their drunken friend and help them.  It turns out that Boxer was formerly incarcerated, and that a gangster named Audi who protected him in prison now demands that Boxer and his group do something for Audi as payment.  Luckily for Boxer, Victoria agrees.  Unluckily for Victoria, once they meet Audi and his dangerous gang, Audi gives the Germans some guns and orders them to immediately leave to rob a specific late night bank of 50,000 euros along with Victoria or Audi will hold Victoria as a hostage.  Now, acting as their getaway driver, Victoria becomes an actual part of their robbery team.       

 At first, just from the prior paragraph’s plot description, “Victoria” wouldn’t appear to be too different from other heist films would it Dear Reader?  However, if you came to that conclusion, you would be sorely mistaken.  You see that is because Director Schipper’s 138 minute heist thriller was shot in a real time continuous single take by his cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grevlen from about 4:30 am to 7:00 am on April 27, 2014 at 22 different locations.  The entire screenplay consisted of only 12 pages, and with most of the dialogue being improvised by his actors.  However, despite the improvisations, and the overall hyper guerilla film making by Schipper, it works spectacularly.  He only had three chances in the film’s budget to attempt this, and his first two attempts (along with an earlier version using traditional shot cutting) were all unsatisfactory.  Because the visual focus of the picture revolves around Costa’s Victoria, she is in almost every scene and you experience her reactions almost like you are right next to her.  From her being in a stolen getaway car desperately trying to start it while her fellow bumbling associates charge into bank, to her and her associates panicking while driving when she takes a wrong turn (Which was genuine.  She actually missed the turn which could have ruined the final take…), everything looks realistic.  Her interactions with Lau’s soulful Sonne alternate from light hearted, to uneasiness, to agitated, to romantic, and to ultimately, sad and tragic.  Both of them along with Rogowski’s Boxer give great performances.  Some visual parts of the picture move too slowly and some of the camera movements by cinematographer Grevlen are disjointed and confusing.  However, as a one of a kind and different sort of heist thriller, “Victoria” hits a home run!

Now before I close this month’s Blog Post there are two other great heist/robbery pictures that I can highly praise for your viewing pleasure.  The first one is the epic ensemble cops and robbers’ crime drama, “Heat” (1995), directed by Michael Mann.  “Heat” starred Robert De Niro as Neil McCauley, a career criminal who leads a high-tech gang specializing in big time bank and armored car heists.  Opposing him is LAPD Lieutenant Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) and his equally top-notch robbery-homicide investigation team.  After McCauley commits a successful armored car robbery that, unfortunately, results in the death of three armored car guards due to the rash actions of a new member of McCauley’s crew, he starts to fall under the purview of Hanna’s investigation.  As the inquiry proceeds, these two vastly different groups will slowly converge into a later fatal violent confrontation on the downtown streets of L.A.  Mann’s picture adeptly shows us a world where cops and crooks are far more similar than dissimilar in the ways that they handle/mishandle their own lives, and how the life they choose to live affects them on a personal level.  The thrice married Hanna’s current marriage is starting to fail, and he is struggling to connect with his mentally unstable stepdaughter, while McCauley is totally isolated and alone.  Some of the other hoods and cops’ personal lives are profiled here too along with their assorted significant others with their own personal woes.  Other interconnecting individuals are also tied into their world like Neil’s fence, Nate (Jon Voight), a double-crossing money launderer named Van Zant (William Fichtner), and a last-minute getaway driver named Don (Dennis Haysbert) for example. 

The basis for this film was from an actual case by former Chicago police officer Chuck Adamson who investigated similar crimes by a career criminal also named Neil McCauley in the early nineteen sixties.  Both individuals even met for coffee once, and a similar meeting in “Heat” was shown with De Niro and Pacino meeting for coffee where they both showed their mutual professional respect for each other while also admitting that they would kill the other if it ever became necessary.  The dialogue for this powerful scene was based on some of the conversation that the actual two men once had with each other.  Unfortunately, for the real McCauley, that prophecy came true.  He and most of his gang were killed by Adamson and his robbery-homicide team during an armored car heist in 1964.  In 1979 Mann wrote the screenplay for “Heat,” and he even made a 90-minute pilot for a future television series entitled “L.A. Takedown” in 1989 which was just an abbreviated version of this future picture.  When the pilot for the series failed, he revisited the idea of turning his original screenplay into a much larger and more all-encompassing motion picture, and Boy, did he ever deliver!   

For “Heat,” Mann, helped by spectacular cinematography from Dante Spinotti, staged one of the greatest bank robbery shootouts in modern motion picture history.  The cast was given prior weapons and tactical training by former British SAS members and this action sequence has been favorably cited for its realism and its accuracy, so much so, that a number of real-life criminals around the world used “Heat” as their inspiration in committing similar types of crimes.  This picture received universal acclaim by various film critics and was a huge box office hit.  Mann elicited fine, believable, and complex performances from all of his actors from his own revised and expanded screenplay.  However, despite all of that, come Academy Award time this movie was completely ignored.  It didn’t even receive one nomination.  However, as the years have gone by it has only received more and more respect, not for just being a great crime heist thriller, but for being an all-around great motion picture!

The second great heist picture that I want to praise is “Destroyer” (2018) starring Nicole Kidman.  This was an entirely different type of crime picture in that it was a dark character study of a deeply damaged former undercover police officer seeking retribution for an undercover operation that went horribly wrong 17 years prior.  Kidman portrays LAPD detective Erin Bell who, working in tandem with an FBI undercover agent (Sebastian Stan), infiltrated a gang of extremely dangerous bank robbers led by their equally dangerous and sociopathic leader, Silas (Toby Kebbell).  When Erin (in the present day) receives a dye stained $100 bill in an unmarked envelope at her police station and has it confirmed that the bill was originally from that original bank robbery so long ago, she knows that it was from Silas (who was never caught) letting her know that he is active again, and maybe, at the same time, taunting her.  From that point on, and telling no one else, Erin slowly starts to secretly hunt Silas to try and stop him before he strikes again.  The only questions at this point in time are why is she taking on this task alone, and what really happened those many years ago?  As she follows her leads which forces her to face, many of the same people from her distant past, and through the use of various flashbacks shown at different points in time, the reasons for her actions will ultimately be revealed.  

Nicole Kidman has been a major film star for a long time, and during that time she has been equally praised and criticized.  While she has been lauded for her acting, and previously won a Best Actress Oscar for “The Hours” (I never saw it!) as well as being nominated many other times, she has also been equally criticized for her “method acting” style along with some really weird and bizarre performances like in “Eyes Wide Shut” (I saw it, and it stunk worse than a septic tank!).  She has also made headlines in her personal life too, maybe because she once had a former husband of nebulous sexuality and a current one that is a recovering alcoholic.  Nevertheless, she can definitely act as her recent performances for such things as “Big Little Lies” (Emmy winner) and “Being the Ricardos” (Oscar nominated) aptly demonstrate.  However, for her performance in “Destroyer,” here you see something that is really very, very special. 

When you see someone, not only give a great performance, but maybe one that is a career best performance like the one she gives in “Destroyer,” sometimes all you want to do is just quietly sit back and internally say, “WOW!”  She completely disappears into the role almost as if she metamorphosed into someone else.  Almost unrecognizable as an older burned out drunk, she has a face more weathered than a Mojave Desert fence post that a swimming pool full of Botox could never obscure.  As she drags herself along on her dark quest, she physically moves like the weight of a world full of past regrets rests on her shoulders like some sort of modern-day Atlas!  Everyone she meets, from a rage filled teenage daughter that would rather spit in her face than say a word to her, to an ex-husband who approaches her like someone inching through in a minefield while blindfolded, they all seem to know that she’s someone one inch away from either exploding or completely disintegrating before their very eyes.  Yet she is also recklessly dangerous like when she turns to two supporting officers when they ask her for additional backup as they are about to take on Silas’ gang during a bank robbery, and she tersely replies, “Backup? This is a GUN FIGHT!”, and then charges in front of them to take on Silas’ gang.  While making this picture Kidman caught the flu but she just utilized it in her performance to make her character even more dissipated and burned out.  That takes some real guts!  Karyn Kusama’s film direction is also very good despite her having some difficulties in showing which scenes are present day or in the past.  The performances by the rest of the cast are excellent too, especially one by the always great Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as a junkie member of Silas’ gang.  Although not as big budget or spectacular as “Heat,” the bank robbery action sequences are suspenseful and heart pounding!  Maybe less really is more!  This downbeat film was not a financial success, and Kidman didn’t get Oscar nominated for her performance.  However, if you want to see an underrated slow burning crime thriller with an unforgettable performance, see “Destroyer.”

To sum it all up, whether it’s an older classic like “The Asphalt Jungle,” or more recent neo-Noirs like “Heat” or “Destroyer,” heist motion pictures can be an exciting and thought provoking viewing experience.

And you don’t even have to worry about being arrested for it either!


The Great OUCH…Doors!

John Ottway:  It was only when I was a lot older, I realized he had written it.  It was untitled, four lines.  I read it at his funeral:  “Once more into the fray.  Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.  Live and die on this day.  Live and die on this day.”

[Liam Neeson, “The Grey” (2011)]

Remember when you were very young and your parents, who were probably wondering if there was some legal way, they could offer you up as a human sacrifice to someone so they could just have five minutes of peace and quiet without you bothering them, would temporarily solve this problem by telling you to either, “Go outside and get some fresh air” or “Go outside and play.”  Even though you would usually comply, you also might have caught what was actually going on if this occurred during the winter and it was snowing so bad that snow drifts were piling up in front of all of the windows.  At that point you then realized that the only individuals who might have ever wanted to frolic outside would have either been a polar bear or Santa Claus.  Heck, even for Santa Claus, he only had to risk suffering frost bite one night every year.  The rest of the time he was probably on some beach somewhere working on his tan and hammering down Mai Tais!  However, not lucky and soon to be shivering little you!  The various aspects of being outside or in the Great Outdoors can bring out many different feelings in all of us, both good and bad, can’t they?  However, one unpleasant realization could be discovering that being in the Great Outdoors was something more risky than anything you might ever possibly imagine.  This month’s Blog Post will explore different films about individuals in the Great Outdoors discovering that they have taken on something far more dangerous than they have ever realized.  

One of the greatest writers of stories about animals and individuals surviving in the outdoors was Jack London.  His popular novels such as “The Sea Wolf” and “The Call of the Wild” have been adapted numerous times for films and for television.  The most recent adaption of “Wild” was a 2020 film version starring Harrison Ford and a computer-animated “Buck,” the St. Bernard sled dog that Ford ultimately rescues and has as his companion.  However, for this version’s quality, well, other than the fact that the computer-animated “Buck” gave a better performance than Ford, and that the original novel focused on “Buck” and not the humans, this version was best suited for children and their accompanying parents who could take a quick nap during its runtime.  Fortunately, a much better dramatization about an individual who underestimates the dangers in the outdoors was “To Build a Fire” (1969).  This adaption, based on a 1908 short story by London, was only 52 minutes long.  It told the tale of an unnamed man (Ian Hogg) who is a newcomer to the Yukon and who sets out on a winter hike in sub zero temperatures to visit some prospectors (“the boys”) at their base camp accompanied only by his large husky dog.  Ignoring prior warnings against traveling alone during such extreme weather conditions he soon discovers that he is risking his life when he gets wet, his hands become numb when they are exposed to the air, and he can’t even light his matches to “build a fire” as he is slowly succumbing to hypothermia.  This adaption of London’s classic story builds suspense, even though there is almost no dialogue at all.  However, it does have one ace in the hole, which is the actual narration of London’s story as it unfolds by actor/director Orson Welles.  Although David Cobham rather than Welles, directed this film, his narration is gripping.  He tells the story with a quiet calm tone in his voice, emotionless and cold, which conveys a deadlier chill than any weather one might experience in the Yukon.  Directed in a realistic manner by Cobham with almost no camera trickery, “To Build a Fire” is a gripping little film.

Other outdoor pictures, which involved mountain climbing, and which were usually populated by overconfident individuals threatened by both nature and themselves in dealing with the frigid extremes of such an environment, were also made before “To Build a Fire.”  However, they were especially prevalent in the nineteen fifties, and they were also especially lousy.  First, you had the 1950 drama, “The White Tower” (the movie, not the hamburger joint) about five people brought together by Carla [Alida Valli) to be the first ones to climb “The White Tower,” a huge Swiss mountain to honor her father who died while trying to reach its top.  Her group consists of “hunky” Glen Ford acting “clunky.”  Then you had fellow oldsters Cedric Hardwicke, Oskar Homolka, and Claude Rains who all look like they couldn’t lift themselves up onto a step stool let alone actually climb a mountain.  Last, you had Lloyd Bridges as Hein, the unrepentant blond ex-Nazi (with a bad sauerkraut soaked German accent) who wants to Blitzkrieg the mountain, but feels that these inferior race members of his climbing party will hold him back.  Maybe the only real reason to watch this howler, besides trying to keep from bursting out laughing whenever everyone mountain climbing is wearing capri shorts while not wearing any gloves (Didn’t any of them read the Jack London story?), is due to fine on location color cinematography by former Oscar winner Ray Rennahan.  Otherwise, you’d might be better off just going to a real “White Tower” and order the fifteen cent “grease” burger rather than seeing “The White Tower.”  While the burger might give you gastric indigestion, this picture might give you mental indigestion!

The next far fetched mountain climbing saga was “The Mountain” (1956).  For this one, after a plane crash near the top of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, two brothers, Zachary (Spencer Tracy) and Chris (Robert Wagner???) have competing objectives for wanting to climb the mountain to reach the plane.  For deceitful bad brother Chris, it’s to rob the dead!  For salt of the earth good brother Zachary, it’s to keep Chris from dying in the effort while trying to change Chris’s mind.  Now let me mention the one good thing about this movie:  Franz Planer’s spectacular outdoor color cinematography.  Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the film.  Long time bad drunk Tracy was 56 years old at this point in time, but he looked more like he was 76 years old with a face more weathered from alcohol than any craggy mountain peak.  As an actor, Tracy could never convincingly do a foreign accent for any of his roles, so here he compensated by speaking hesitantly and in a simple manner so his acting defects weren’t easily noticed while wearing baggy clothing to hide how hefty and out of shape he actually was.  Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily pay attention to all of that because the rest of the cast (Wagner, Claire Trevor, William Demarest, E.G. Marshall, etc.) were saying their lines without any accents at all while acting about as French as a bunch of fries!  Maybe the funniest thing of all was the casting of 27-year-old Wagner as Tracy’s brother instead of his “son.”  Whoever thought that one up must have been drunker than Tracy ever was.  Oh, and a special mention must also be made for Robert Wagner’s performance. 

Wagner, who is now in his nineties, has been a big-time movie star for over seventy years.  In his long successful career, he has been able to develop and constantly maintain one unique and special trait that no other actor has ever been able to rightfully claim.  Namely, it was his skill in continually being… The Worst Actor in America, year after year after year!  Yes, worse than Tab Hunter!  Yes, worse than Ryan O’Neal!  Yes, even worse than Sylvester Stallone (Sorry Sylvester, I know you tried really, really hard, but even you gave some good performances for “First Blood” and “Creed”).  How this shallow, no talent, “pretty boy” dope has ever been able to be this continually successful for so long, I’ll never know!  Maybe it was due to his perfectly coiffed hair which always looked the same in every film (except in “Prince Valiant” where he sort of looked like Buster Brown).  If you just took any Cabbage Patch Doll and put his hairdo on it, you had Robert Wagner.  However, in “The Mountain”, for once, he actually looked and acted quite different.  Here, if you took his hairdo and just put it on “Chucky” instead of the Cabbage Patch Doll, you had Wagner’s performance as Chris.  He is trying so overtly hard to be reprehensible while contorting his face into a pretzel that his acting is unintentionally and hysterically “campy.”  It might be a career worst performance, and in his case, that’s really saying something!  To sum it all up, as a picture, “The Mountain” is aptly named.  However, just don’t ask what it’s a “mountain” of?  You might not like the answer!

Other types of extreme outdoor pictures of individuals trying to survive could fall into two specific categories.  The first category would be individuals threatened by other individuals in the outdoors.  The second category would be individuals threatened by other creatures in the wild.  There are some fine examples in the first category such as “The River Wild” (1994) starring Meryl Streep (as an action hero no less) as a former river guide who, while on a family whitewater rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho, is menaced by two violent criminals.  Even better was the whitewater canoeing survival thriller, “Deliverance” (1972), directed by John Boorman.  Based on the acclaimed novel by James Dickey, this picture told the story of four Atlanta businessmen who decide to take a weekend canoeing trip down a river in the northern Georgia wilderness.   They consist of Lewis (Burt Reynolds), an experienced outdoorsman and the group’s macho leader, his close friend Ed (Jon Voight) who has done some previous trips with him, and Bobby and Drew (Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) who have no experience at all.  Leaving the stress of modern life behind them, they hope to have some fun and a little adventure on the river.  Instead, they will discover that there is much to appreciate about civilization after all when their lives are threatened by two violent hillbillies forcing them into a fight for survival. 

Boorman, helped immensely by Vilmos Zsigmond’s outstanding cinematography, crafted an intense and disturbing picture.  He had Zsigmond film the scenes of the outdoors desaturated, muting the vibrant colors of the natural landscape and the river itself to make everything look darker which created an atmosphere of dread and unease.  This also helped to make the scenes of the rapids even more ominous and threatening.  The four actors were also put into dangerous situations during filming.  To minimize costs, this production was not insured, and Boorman was insistent that the actors should do their own stunts which resulted in Beatty almost drowning, and all of them suffering various injuries.  Despite all that, “Deliverance” was a critical and popular box office hit and received a number of Academy Award nominations for Best Picture along with Boorman for Best Director.  However, it did not receive any nominations for either Zsigmond’s cinematography or for Reynolds performance as Lewis.  Regarding Reynolds, this film was the break thru role that made him a star, and if ever there was a part that was tailor made for one actor, then its Reynolds as the character of Louis Medlock.  Like the character in the novel, his Lewis is not awkward but more at ease in the natural world rather than in modern society.  By his manner alone he assumes the leadership role, and although he is macho, it’s not overt.  It’s a terrific physical performance and Reynolds even stated that this film was the best thing that he had ever been in.  Although Jon Voight also gave a fine performance as the uncertain everyman Ed, who winds up having to become the new leader when Louis is injured, it’s Reynolds who you cannot take your eyes off of.  Unfortunately, the really sad thing is that not only was Reynold’s performance ignored come Oscar time, but he also never, ever had a role as perfectly cast or as great, ever again.  A scary tale of survival in the wilderness, “Deliverance” is a classic!    

For the second category of individuals threatened by creatures in the outdoors, one had a number of film choices to choose from.  First, you had the really bad Western drama, “The Night of the Grizzly” (1966) with Clint Walker as a former lawman who settles down with his wife and children in Wyoming to become a rancher.  Instead, they and everyone in the surrounding area are threatened by a bloodthirsty grizzly nicknamed, Howie… I mean, SATAN!!!  In this unintentional laugh fest, you were far more fearful for the poor old grizzly than Walker, since the six-foot six-inch Walker looked far larger than good old Satan (although Satan had all the best lines).  Then you had the Alaskan survival drama, “The Edge” (1997) with Anthony Hopkins as Charles, a gazillionaire, and Alec Baldwin as Bob, a photographer who is having an affair with Charles’ wife, Elle Macpherson (Can’t say I blame him).  The two of them are forced to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash while being hunted by a huge (Is there any other kind?) Kodiak bear played by that great carnivoran thespian, “Bart the Bear” (I’m not kidding!).  Stupidly advertised as “Jaws with Claws,” this film was much more than just that.  Helped by a fine screenplay by David Manet, this survival thriller/character study gave a fascinating portrait of two mismatched men: (1) the younger, more virile, and increasingly envious Bob, and (2) the older, smarter, and more quick thinking and adaptable Charles who have to work together to survive.  Both actors, especially Hopkins, gave great performances, and although this picture was not a success, it is still a terrific film about survival in the wild.

An even better character study of survival in the wild, and the last picture that I will discuss for this month’s Blog Post is the film, “The Grey” (2011).   This one starred Liam Neeson as John Ottway, a professional hunter/sharpshooter hired by an Alaskan oil company to provide security by killing any grey wolves that threaten the oil workers there.  Depressed and suicidal, he flies back with a bunch of the oil workers to Anchorage, but upon the flight back their plane runs into turbulence and crashes somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness leaving the survivors to fight for survival when they are threatened by the extreme weather and a roving pack of wolves that start picking them off one by one (I guess the “bear” union was on strike when this picture was made).  “The Grey” was a different kind of survival tale for a number of reasons.  First, it was not a real action thriller, and you didn’t even see the complete final confrontation between Ottway and the main Alpha wolf at the end of the picture.  Second, it was not an accurate representation of how wolves really act in the wild with “The Grey” actually promoting some of the worst stereotypes that people wrongly associate about wolves.  Three, Ottway, who becomes the leader of the survivors since he is supposedly the most knowledgeable individual about how to survive in the wild, makes some of the worst decisions that anyone could ever think of, which actually puts their group into even greater danger.  This picture received some big-time justifiable criticism from a number of wildlife and environmental organizations for gross misinformation about wolves in general along with how anyone with even a minimal amount of knowledge could realistically survive better than the characters portrayed in this film.  Hence, why am I, along with others, willing to praise such a picture?  Well, that is because this picture is not supposed to be realistic, but more of an “allegory.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an “allegory” is defined as being…

A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.”

What is the allegory conveyed in this picture?  Well, with an allegory you can have so many personal interpretations as to what something might actually mean that too often directors use it to make things so vague or unclear that you finally just want to say, “What the Hell just happened” or “What does all of this really mean?”  A number of months ago I wrote about certain directors and their pictures, like Stanley Kubrick for “2001, A Space Odyssey” or Jane Campion for “Power of the Dog” who did this to such a degree that, even if their pictures were not believable or realistic, they were also not interesting along with being so slow, overly long, boring and vague that they just made you feel infuriated and personally cheated in some way. Other name directors even made an entire career out of making all of their motion pictures that way such as, to a lesser extent, Federico Fellini, along with maybe the very worst of them all being Ingmar Bergman. 

I feel that “The Grey” is a meditative piece in the guise of an action/survival picture about an individual (Ottway) dealing with loneliness and past grief in a dark, cold, unforgiving world.  Although, in the beginning he is suicidal, during this ordeal he instead fights to find a purpose, and to help the others as best he can even if their situation is dire, and with little hope for survival.  Although Ottway is an admitted atheist, he still has the capacity to look up and cry out in an explicative filled rage for G-d to give him something real to prove that G-d exists so that Ottway can actually believe again. However, when there is no answer, he just says, “F**k it, I’ll do it myself!”  He’s a sort of “Job” or “Christ” figure who carries the wallets (souls) of the dead with him and even lays them out in the shape of a cross as a means of remembrance.  What Ottway and all of these damaged men (“Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes.  Men unfit for mankind.”) are running from is also maybe their fears, their failures, and even death itself personified by the wolves stalking them and the cruel environment around them.  However, no one can escape their fate.  You just have to ultimately face it which, in the end, Ottway finally does! 

You wouldn’t expect such a film to be made by a director like Joe Camahan who was better known previously for making such shaggy dog action flicks like “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team.”  The screenplay adapted by Camahan and Ian MacKenzie from his novel is also excellent, fully fleshing out all of the characters in depth, even those with little screen time.  All of the actors give fine performances, and with a special shout out to Frank Grillo, as Diaz, the most obnoxious member of the group who actually turns into someone quite touching when he finally has to face his final end.  However, best of all is Neeson’s towering performance as Ottway.  He runs the emotional gauntlet from tough, to pensive, to unsure, to afraid, to resolute, and even, to being caring and thoughtful.  There is an early scene in the picture where he comforts a dying man that is absolutely riveting.  It’s one of the finest performances of his entire career.  For such a downbeat motion picture that was deliberately made in such a way that it might have ultimately hurt its box office receipts, it was surprisingly successful too.  It made back over three times of what it originally cost as well as receiving some serious critical acclaim.  As a picture, “The Grey” will have you thinking about it long after its final minutes fade!

And if you have any complaints about it, my orthodontically challenged friend, “Bart the Bear” would like to have a word with you!  


Just Horsing Around!

Red Pollard:  “You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t.  He fixed us.  Every one of us.  And, I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too!”

[Tobey Maguire, “Seabiscuit” (2003)]

When I was in High School there was one class that I, along with my fellow classmates, especially abhorred.  That class was French class.  Now it had nothing to do with the French language as a whole.  These feelings would have been the same had it been Spanish, German or just about any other language class.  I think it tied into our own difficulties with our corresponding English class which just reinforced in everyone’s mind that we didn’t really know how to either understand or to properly use English grammar. Hence, now having us attempt to learn a foreign language was something far, far worse.  Therefore, my fellow students would always dread being questioned about either French grammar or its proper pronunciation.  However, Devilish little me concocted a means to dodge or to, at least, lessen the possibility of being put into such a situation.  You see, our teacher, as did most teachers back then, would usually focus their attention and questioning to the students in the back of the classroom since they were probably the ones least likely to have done their homework, and that our teacher’s gaze would supposedly never directly concentrate on them.  Of course, these students were very wrong in this assumption. Hence, I dodged this possibility by always seating myself at the desk directly in front of our teacher’s podium while he conducted his lesson.  My face would feign intense concentration, interest, and comprehension of what he was saying as he stared right past me. As he did this I continued my subterfuge by scribbling some inane incomprehensible notes that not even a cryptologist could possibly decipher while my prepubescent mind was whisked away to a tropical isle where I was residing in a hammock fanned by scantily clad island girls eager to please my every whim.  You see, this was my version of hiding in plain sight, which always worked reasonably well until final exams came along which unfortunately, thrust me back into cruel reality.

For some of my past Blog Posts I highlighted certain types of subjects that were also sort of “hiding in plain sight,” in that these subjects were usually so obvious that you wouldn’t ordinarily notice them until I actually pointed them out to you.  Some past examples were films and television series that had tales involving identical twins/doubles, sidekicks working with a major star, or even team-ups with certain actors working together constantly in different roles.  However, this didn’t mean that I, unlike yourself, haven’t missed certain subjects that have been utilized numerous times for theater, film, or television series too!  A new one just recently occurred to me by sheer happenstance that made me say to myself, “Why haven’t I ever thought of that one before?”  Well, Dear Reader, since I have thought of it now, it will also now be the subject for this month’s Blog Post.  It is a subject that has been utilized for numerous stories for both young and old alike. Many famous novels have even been written about it too in many different ways.  What is it, you may ask?  Well, this month’s Blog Post will discuss tales relating to … HORSES!  Now don’t roll your eyes just yet Dear Reader.  You might be surprised once I elaborate further!

A number of popular novels about horses were tailor made for adaption into popular motion pictures and television films/series with a number of them being remade numerous times.  Some of them were:

  • “National Velvet” – based on the 1935 novel and with the most popular version, the 1944 film starring a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old English girl who, after winning a gelding in a raffle, decides to train it to run in the Grand National steeplechase with the help of a young drifter/retired racehorse jockey named Mi (Mickey Rooney) and the support of her mother (Oscar winner Anne Revere).
  • “My Friend Flicka” – based on the 1941 novel and the first of a trilogy of novels that were all adapted into a series of movies starting in 1943, and which was even adapted into a television series in the nineteen fifties.  This one was a coming-of-age story of a young boy (Roddy McDowall) living on a ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming and his relationship with a young mustang colt named “Flicka.”
  • “Black Beauty” – based on the 1877 novel and with so many film adaptions (both silent and sound) along with television, theater, and even animated adaptions that it could make your head spin.  This one told the story of a horse in England (from the horse’s perspective) from its early years up to its final retirement, and how it was either treated or mistreated by its various owners.
  • “The Black Stallion” – based on a series of twenty novels starting in 1941 with the most popular version being the 1979 film which tells the story of Alec Ramsey (I know! I know!) “another young boy” who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with (I know! I know!) “another black stallion” and, after being rescued, ultimately sets out to enter him in a race against two champion horses after he’s properly trained by an old retired racehorse jockey named Henry (Mickey Rooney… I know! I know!  Frigging him again, too!).

It would be nice to say that these were great film/television adaptions but honestly, they really were not.  Too often they were more or less made with children in mind, and they were usually dumbed down so as not to seriously offend or shock anyone.  Even Black Beauty,” which was originally not intended as a novel for children by author Anna Sewell, but instead, was to foster sympathy, kindness, and a better understanding of how horses were too frequently mistreated as working animals was way toned down to G rated family fare.  Maybe the only one previously mentioned that was somewhat decent was “National Velvet”, and that might have been due to the fine performances of Revere and Rooney along with good direction by Clarence Brown (“The Yearling”).  Fortunately, there were two other films pertaining to horses that transcended these limitations.  One was an adaption from a famous novella by John Steinbeck while the other was an adaption from a famous stage play which was also adapted from a bestselling novel by Michael Morpurgo.  The main reason why these two motion pictures might have been so good was because they were directed by two great directors who did not dumb them down to make them palpable for only children.  The first one was John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” (1949) directed by Lewis Milestone.

“Pony” is a simple slice of life story that takes place on a California ranch at the beginning of the Twentieth Century where stern father Fred Tiflin (Shepperd Strudwick) gives his young son Tom (Peter Miles) a red pony colt to raise while helped by experienced ranch hand Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum).  At first, everything goes well, but due to mistakes later made by both Billy and Tom, a tragedy occurs which results in Tom having to face the harsh realities of adulthood.  At first glance, this young boy’s coming of age story is nothing original.  Nor is the performance of Peter Miles memorable, either, in the role of Tom.  However, this was one supposed children’s story about a boy’s love for a horse that had more adult themes.  First, although the film followed this tale through young Tom’s eyes, it still didn’t sugar coat the life around him.  Fred Tiflin, Tom’s father, is borderline cruel and distant with Tom, his frustrated wife and Tom’s mother Alice (Myrna Loy), and Alice’s senile grandfather (Louis Calhern). This causes family tension all around.  Second, Billy and Tom are not perfect but too often, fallible.  Third, some of the film’s tragic moments were less muted and, as a result, more shocking than usual for a family film.  These aspects of the picture were brought out thanks to Milestone’s fine direction and also by Steinbeck, who adapted two of his novella’s chapters for this picture.  “Pony” also had fine color cinematography by former Oscar winner Tony Gallo, and a legendary film score by the great Aaron Copland himself, which has been imitated by numerous motion picture film composers for Westerns ever since.  Despite Miles, the rest of the cast gave strong performances and for once, a family film involving a boy’s love for a horse was more than just a children’s film.

The second picture that I also want to praise is the more recent Steven Spielberg motion picture, “War Horse” (2011).  This film was basically a World War I war story about an English boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose father wins a thoroughbred colt at an auction despite the fact that the animal is not a working horse that can actually plough their field.  Albert names the colt “Joey,” and the two of them develop a close bond with Albert even teaching Joey how to successfully plow their field.  Unfortunately, when World War I begins, Albert’s father has to sell Joey to the army despite Albert’s wishes after rain ruins their family’s crops.  From that point on a parallel story unfolds involving Joey’s life interacting with numerous individuals on both sides of the conflict along with Albert’s later enlistment and transfer to the European theater’s front lines where both experience the devastation of the conflict while just trying to stay alive. 

This picture is not just another boy and his horse “love story,” but a powerful portrait of the carnage of warfare and its effect on both animals and humans.  Spielberg had been accused in the past of making Walt Disney like motion pictures focusing on coming-of-age stories of children (“E.T.”) or adventure tales (the various Indiana Jones films) which, while family oriented, could be labeled as overly sentimental, sugary, and too often unrealistically upbeat.  He finally silenced a lot of these idiot accusations with his later Oscar wins for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”  For “War Horse” Spielberg tried to have it both ways.  The picture was rated PG-13, meaning that it was generally appropriate for children ten-years-old and above although it had scenes of dead animals and people, some swearing, and intense wartime scenes.  However, there was no gore, and really no gratuitous violence so it was more acceptable for the whole family.  This also was a different type of war film in that there were examples of decency shown by soldiers on both sides of the conflict to Joey even with soldiers on both sides, while under a flag of truce, helping to get the horse untangled from barbed wire in “No Man’s Land.”  Yet at the same time it shined a light on how many horses were used by both groups to move equipment and men along with how many more perished during the conflict.  It was estimated that overall, 10 million horses died, and that out of a million horses that were sent over by the United Kingdom, only 62,000 returned.  “War Horse” was the highest grossing World War I picture ever made up to that time, and it was also nominated for a number of Academy Awards including Best Picture that year too.  Was the motion picture sentimental?  It sure was!  Was it also brilliant Epic film making balancing the horrors of war with a touching tale of humanity as well?  Yeah, it sure was that too!  But then, that’s Steven Spielberg!  And that’s “War Horse!”

Another group of motion pictures about horses were biographical dramas.  Some examples were “Secretariat” (2010) about the life of the race horse Secretariat, one of the greatest racehorses of all time, winner of 1973 Triple Crown, and the first horse to accomplish that feat in twenty-five years.  Next, you had the comedy drama “Dream Horse” (2020), the true story of “Dream Alliance” an unlikely race horse bred by Welsh bartender Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) who forms a syndicate of her fellow neighbors providing financial support to enable her horse to compete and ultimately win the Welsh Grand National.  Then you had the story of the horse, Comanche, not overcoming long odds to be a champion, but overcoming long odds to stay alive. It was, supposedly, the only horse of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under George Armstrong Custer to survive after their annihilation at the Battle of the Little Bighorn for the kids friendly Disney motion picture, “Tonka” (1958).  The first two that I just mentioned had their merits, but for “Tonka”, well, other than the fact that (1) Comanche was just one of a number of horses that actually survived the battle with the Indians taking the rest while leaving the badly wounded Comanche behind, (2) the picture made up a fantasy story that the horse was originally named Tonka because another movie just came out then called “Comanche” (not about a horse) forcing Disney to change the name of their film, (3) except for a couple of native Americans in the cast, all of the rest of the Indians were either Latinos, or Caucasians led by Italian born Sal Mineo playing “White Bull”, the main Indian character, and (4) as an accurate biographical drama about Comanche, the hackneyed “Tonka” was nothing more than a crock of “Bull!”

Fortunately, a better biographical drama about a horse, even if it was about another race horse, was the motion picture, “Seabiscuit” (2003).  Based on the celebrated non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit” was a biographical drama of one of the most famous Thoroughbred racehorses of all time and the three individuals who helped the horse to achieve its fame.  First, you had the horse’s owner, Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) a self-made multi-millionaire who, after a personal tragedy, acquires a stable of racehorses, one of which, is an older, smaller, lazy, and unmanageable horse named Seabiscuit.  Second, was Howard’s trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) an itinerant horseman and man of few words who utilized innovative methods in training the horse to become a champion.  Third, and last, you had jockey John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who is injury ridden, blind in one eye, and down on his luck when he is hired by Smith to be Seabiscuit’s jockey.  Director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) expertly captured, not just the excitement of the horseracing competition, but also the general mood of the time period (1936-40) that Seabiscuit’s story took place.  Since this occurred during the Great Depression, this classic underdog story of such a horse becoming a champion was, for a lot of the American public then, a sign of hope during a time of great economic hardship. Ross, an accomplished multiple Oscar nominated screenplay writer also wrote the film’s fine screenplay, and he is additionally helped by expert cinematography from John Schwartzman, narration from famed historian David McCullough, and good acting by his talented cast.  Although the picture was a big hit with multiple Oscar nominations, it was still criticized by some for being sort of old fashioned and sentimental, sometimes to a fault.  However, close to twenty years later it still holds up very well as maybe being one of the best biographical horse racing dramas ever made.

Other examples of fine character driven dramas involving horses was the film “The Rider” (2017) directed by Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”). This picture is a slice of life true story about Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau, playing himself), a young former rising rodeo star who’s forced to retire after suffering brain damage during a competition. Now living in poverty with his fractured family, the picture dramatizes his efforts to try and find a new way of life after what he loved most is snatched away from him.  Another fine film was “The Mustang” (2019) directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. It starred Matthias Schoenaerts as a violent long term incarcerated convict who participates in a rehabilitation program centered around training wild horses for future sale at auction, and how he personally changes during the process.  Lastly, for television, you had the short-lived HBO series, “Luck” (2012) about the intersecting lives of various individuals involved in horse racing at the Santa Anita race track.  While the series received critical acclaim and had top notch talent both behind the scenes (Michael Mann, David Milch, etc.) and in front of the camera (Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, etc.), unfortunately, it was abruptly cancelled due to three horse deaths occurring during the show’s production.  These examples were all a step above the normal stuff usually associated with dramas pertaining to “horses.”

Lastly, also for television, you even had comedies (both good and bad) involving talking horses.  Two of them I will mention further before closing this month’s Blog Post.  First, for the “bad” you had the CBS nineteen sixties sitcom, “Mr. Ed” (1961-66).  Basically, this show was about a klutzy accident-prone married architect named Wilbur (Alan Young), and his palomino horse, the aforementioned “Mr. Ed” who only talks to Wilbur and no one else which causes Wilbur all sorts of trouble whenever his wife or other individuals see him talking to the “horse,” and with Mr. Ed not saying anything “of course!”  This show was originally based on a series of short stories, and Arthur Lubin, the show’s producer and sometime director, was originally involved ten years earlier with another series about a talking animal.  Would you believe this guy directed six of the “Francis, The Talking Mule” movies before tackling Mr. Ed?  Maybe he was more used to directing talking animals instead of talking “humans!” 

Anyway, “Mr. Ed” was the first of a bunch of sixties sitcoms that were labeled “Fantasy Sitcoms” like ABC’s “Bewitched” and “The Addams Family”, and NBC’s “I Dream of Jeannie” and, my favorite (not), “My Mother the Car” about someone with… you guessed it, a talking car (at least it didn’t have some mouth appearing on the grill work whenever it spoke).  Fortunately, that one was cancelled after one season.  Unfortunately, “Mr. Ed” lasted six long seasons.  The show’s juvenile humor was basically designed for children in mind so it was as silly and as stupid as humanly (or maybe non-humanly) possible.  CBS seemed to have a habit of making a number of these mindless sitcoms for children like “My Favorite Martian,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Dennis the Menace,” and even “Lost in Space” (although not an actual sitcom) where the children were smarter than the adults.   For “Mr. Ed” instead of a child acting smarter and more adult than Wilbur, you now had a horse smarter than brain dead Wilbur, and who could probably teach him a thing or two about how to properly count by the number of times the guy could be taught to stamp his F*&king Foot on the ground!  However, as a fun side note, years later after this mental waste was off the air but still seen in syndicated reruns, an Ohio fundamentalist Christian group claimed that this show’s well known theme song was “Satanic!”  About the only thing you could possibly say to that one is… Neigh!  Neigh!

However, for the good you had the far better series about a talking horse with the Netflix adult animated black comedy-drama, “BoJack Horseman” (2014-20).  The series’ premise revolved around a horse named BoJack Horseman, a washed-up star of a 1990s sitcom called “Horsin’ Around” (Hmm!  Now, there’s a Catchy Name!) currently living in Hollywoo, an alternate world (patterned on Los Angeles) where humans and anthropomorphic animals live and interact side by side.  BoJack, now in his 50s, is a bitterly cynical, depressed, and self-loathing alcoholic. Although he can be caring and insightful, he constantly self-sabotages himself, which causes turmoil in all of his personal and professional relationships.  He plans a return to public relevance with a tell-all autobiography ghostwritten by Diane Nguyen (a human) while contending with his agent/former girlfriend Princess Carolyn (a pink Persian cat) and his sitcom rival, the thrice married Mr. Peanutbutter (a yellow Labrador Retriever) whose former wives include Diane Nguyen and Jessica Biel (I’m not kidding)!  To say this show was off the wall, is putting it mildly.  The series was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and with the illustrations provided by Lisa Hanawalt. It was the first Adult Animated original series done for Netflix.  Since the series was not on regular Network television, they were able to address numerous hot-button issues like substance abuse, gun violence, abortion, sexual harassment, LGBTQ characters, and so much more.  For the first year the series got mixed reviews, but once “Horseman” finally settled down it got universal acclaim for the remainder of its run.  Just like for “The Simpsons,” numerous stars either showed up to spoof themselves or they played other animated characters.  They even had actress Margo Martindale play herself in an episode where BoJack played the racehorse Secretariat in a fictional movie version of the horse’s life.  It just so happened that Martindale had a role in the original film version of “Secretariat” (2010).  No coincidence there, Dear Reader!  But is the series actually funny you may ask?  You better believe it!

So, if you’ve never seen “BoJack Horseman”, gallop… I mean, race… I mean trot… I mean… Oh, you know what I mean!  Just go see it!

And speaking of seeing… see you all next month!


Disorder in the Court!

Mr. Cimoli:  “Say, how much do you think my pelvis is worth?”

“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich:  “By itself, nothing.  So it’s a good thing you came to me.  Before we’re through, we’ll have them begging for mercy.”

Mr. Cimoli:  “Well, who’s “them”?”

“Whiplash Willie” Gingrich:  “That I haven’t figured out yet.”

[Howard McNear to Walter Matthau, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966)]

Many different types of professions have been portrayed from the very beginning for films, television and various streaming services.  Members of the armed forces, law enforcement, and the medical profession are a few that immediately come to mind, and dramas focusing specifically on these professions have been constantly popular with the general public as well as providing box office gold for the major film studios, networks and media services.  Another popular profession dramatized was also one involving lawyers or the various different aspects of the judicial/legal system.  They could cover such things as criminal justice, comedy, horror, mystery, romance, or even legal issues of historical importance for example.  This month’s Blog Post will discuss various types of films and television series about the legal profession.

A number of legal dramatizations based on fact have been done for both film and television.  Two examples, which were both originally done for the theater, were “Inherit the Wind” (1960) and “The Andersonville Trial” (1970).  “Wind”, directed by Stanley Kramer, was a dramatization of the famous 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial where legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow defended teacher John Scopes, who violated Tennessee’s “Butler Law” forbidding the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded school vs. former U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan who represented the state.  This legendary 1955 play, which was also a veiled attack against McCarthyism, starred Spencer Tracy in the Darrow role and Frederic March in the Bryan role (although both characters had different names in the film).   Even though both actors gave powerhouse performances, this picture was, in retrospect, only good, rather than great.  This was due, unfortunately, to Stanley Kramer’s style of direction.  Although Kramer did a number of successful and socially progressive themed pictures (“The Defiant Ones”, “Judgement at Nuremberg”, “Ship of Fools”, etc.), he was too often as subtle as a buffalo stampede through a church!  He could be so heavy-handed in his messaging, that it was all you could do to keep from just yelling at the movie screen, “OK Stan, will you quit pontificating, and just tell the G-d Damn story already.”  It also didn’t help that he miscast Gene Kelly as a stand-in for H.L. Mencken reporting on all of the proceedings.  Kelly might have been a dancing/choreographer colossus, but unfortunately, he also was, a “colossally” bad film actor.  Every time he opened his mouth to say some supposedly cynical smart-ass comment, you just wished that Humphrey Bogart (if he would have still been alive) would have been the one saying that line instead.  Fortunately, a far better historical dramatization, and one that cost a whole lot less, was for “The Andersonville Trial.”

Expertly directed by George C. Scott, who also starred in the original 1959 Broadway production, “Trial” was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by MacKinlay Kantor about the war crimes trial of Henry Wirz, the Confederate commander of the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia where some 13,000 out of 49,000 Union prisoners died due to exposure, malnutrition, and disease.  This was not so much a movie, but more of a filmed stage dramatization with all of the scenes shot indoors with few sets, and with the focus of the drama, almost exclusively on the acting.  To instill even more accuracy, all of the witnesses portrayed in the film were actual witnesses who testified at Wirz’s trial, and in a number of cases, their dialogue was taken almost verbatim from the actual trial transcript.  Oh, and regarding the acting, it’s spectacular!  Scott assembled an all-star cast with William Shatner as real-life Chief JAG Prosecutor Lt. Col. Norton Chipman, Richard Basehart as Wirz, Cameron Mitchell as real-life Major Gen. Lew Wallace, Jack Cassidy (Emmy nominated) as Wirz’s defense counsel, and numerous other fine actors (Buddy Ebsen, Michael Burns, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, etc.) as witnesses testifying during the trial.  Scott even had big time name character actors like Kenneth Tobey, Ian Wolfe, Charles McGraw, Alan Hale Jr., Bert Freed, etc. in non-speaking roles as members of The Board of Military Judges that would determine Wirz’s fate.  Everyone gives fine performances, even Shatner, if you can exclude some of his more hyper-spastic moments.  Despite its cheaper production costs, and the fact that it was shown as an episode on the PBS’s anthology series Hollywood Television Theatre rather than on any of the major networks, “The Andersonville Trial” still won the Emmy for Outstanding Single Program that year, and a Peabody Award as well.  After all these years, it is still one of the most compelling historical courtroom dramas ever made.  

There have also been other fine historical courtroom dramas made too!  As examples, you had…

  • “Compulsion” (1959):  An adaption of the fictionized novel of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder trial, with Orson Welles giving one of the finest performances of his career as a lawyer (patterned after Clarence Darrow) who defends two young adults (Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman) charged with murdering a 14-year-old boy.
  • “Breaker Morant” (1980):  Australian picture dramatizing one of the first historical war crimes prosecutions in British military history involving Australian soldiers serving in the British army during the Second Boer War of 1899-02 accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and civilians during the conflict.  Directed by Bruce Beresford and with Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown as two of the accused.  Just like for “The Andersonville Trial” the accused defense here also utilized what was later known as the “Nuremberg Defense”, or in other words, “They were just following orders…” It didn’t work!  The soldiers were executed anyway!
  • “In the Name of the Father” (1993):  Irish biographical drama about Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the “Guildford Four”, who was falsely convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings that killed four British soldiers, a civilian, and injured many others.  Conlon was tortured, his father (Pete Postiethwaite) arrested and thrown into prison with him, and when the authorities found proof that they were innocent, they deliberately withheld the evidence instead.  This powerful drama was directed by Jim Sheridan (“My Left Foot”), and after seeing it, it will make your blood boil!  

OK, Dear Reader, before you ask me whether I am going to keep highlighting controversial and somber real life courtroom dramas that could get you depressed or angry, I will quickly answer that question for you… NOPE!  Moving right along, courtroom dramas were also quite abundant for the category of suspense or mystery/crime films.  Only problem was that too many of them were absolutely terrible.  For example, you had the 1996 legal thriller “Primal Fear” (AKA Edward Norton gives Richard Gere an Acting Lesson) with Gere more interested in mugging for the camera to show off how pretty he is rather than actually trying to believably play Norton’s defense attorney.  Then you had the 1993 film,” The Firm” (AKA Gene Hackman gives Tom Cruise an acting lesson) with Cruise so out of his league next to Hackman, who plays a senior partner in a law firm that is actually controlled by the mob, that you almost felt sorry for him until Cruise flashed his pretty “capped” teeth once too often and you just wished that the mob either “capped” Cruise or at least pulled his teeth out instead.  Maybe the worst one of them all was the 1988 film, “Criminal Law” with Gary Oldman playing another young brash defense attorney defending rich psycho Kevin Bacon, but more concerned with how much of the scenery he could chew up while over acting worse than a used car salesman trying to be sincere.  Despite these losers, there have been some good ones too.  One of the best of them all was the legal thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957) directed by Billy Wilder.

Based on a short story by Agatha Christie, “Witness for the Prosecution” starred Charles Laughton as senior English barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts, who, after recovering from a recent heart attack, and despite his nurse’s (Elsa Lanchester) misgivings, decides to take on the case of Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) who is charged with murder.  The murder victim was a wealthy older widow so enamoured with Vole that he was named as the main beneficiary in her will.  Although strong circumstantial evidence implicates Vole, Roberts believes him innocent, and Vole even has an alibi provided by his older German wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich).  Therefore, it comes as a shock to Robarts when, during the trial’s proceedings, Christine is named as a witness for the prosecution and, when called to the stand, she immediately implicates Vole as the murderer.  Now what’s barrister Roberts to do? 

Whatever you may think of Agatha Christie as a writer, she could definitely craft fine mystery stories. However, for this picture it also helped that this adaption had Billy Wilder as the film’s director.  Besides being a great director, Wilder also was skilled in helping to craft great screenplays usually containing a mix of cynicism laced with gallows humor.  The performances of all of the cast are top notch with Power, despite some bad exaggerated moments, fine as a likeable charmer who also might have a hidden dark side.  Wilder even managed to get an actual real performance out of Dietrich as Christine.  Dietrich, vain as always, had plastic surgery done beforehand, wore heavy make-up, and even had “tape lifts attached to the sides of her head to pull her facial skin back to hide her wrinkles so she could still look somewhat younger.  Hell, if botox was around then, she probably would have jumped into a bathtub full of the stuff if it could keep her from looking like Dick Tracy’s “Pruneface.”  After all of that it still didn’t help her come Oscar time.  Laughton, his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Wilder, and the picture itself all got well deserved Oscar nominations while Dietrich was left on the sidelines probably still smearing herself with cold cream.  It also was one of only two adaptions of her works [the other being “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)] that Agatha Christie actually liked.  As a courtroom crime thriller, “Witness for the Prosecution” is a gem.   

Television had a number of successful legal dramatic series too.  These series usually fell into two major groups.  The first group involved legal dramas where the focus was on lawyer(s) defending individuals accused of a crime.  The second group consisted of legal dramas where a prosecutor tried to prove someone guilty of a crime before a jury.  For the first group, two popular early television legal dramas were “Perry Mason” (1957-66) and “The Defenders” (1961-65) both on CBS.  “Perry Mason” starred Raymond Burr as the aforementioned Mason, a criminal defense lawyer, and was based on a series of detective novels by author Erle Stanley Gardner.  The show’s episode format consisted of having Mason always defend someone wrongly charged with murder and where, while assisted by his confidential secretary (Barbara Hale) and PI (William Hopper), he always has to square off against aggressive District Attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman).  Things usually look bleak until Mason always finds some clue which he utilizes to unmask the real killer, usually on the witness stand, and where the killer always confesses to the crime conveniently before the end of every episode.  As a drama exploring complex legal issues, this show was about as complex as a straight line, and the acting, what there was of it, was even broader than Raymond Burr’s waist… line.  And as for how hard it was to actually figure out who the killer was for every episode, well… even Cheetah the chimpanzee could figure that one out!  Maybe the unintentionally funniest thing about this show was that both Burr and Talman during the late nineteen forties and throughout the nineteen fifties were the “go to guys” for playing sleazy, psychopathic, perverted, sadistic, bad guy/killers in role after role after role.  In “Mason” Raymond Burr, for once, actually played a “good guy.” However, for Talman, even though he was now technically a “good guy” too, he still played Burger like a bullying bad guy while always losing to Perry Mason every frigging week and pouting like Marlene Dietrich after a botched face lift.  I always felt that good old District Attorney Burger must have had pictures of the Los Angeles Mayor in the sack with an armadillo.  How else would anyone still want this bum to be the District Attorney!

“The Defenders” however, was an entirely different and far better type of legal drama.  E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed (before he became an acting joke on the “Brady Bunch”) played father-and-son defense attorneys who specialized in legally complex cases, and which was the direct antithesis to the slop found on “Mason.”  The show was not necessarily a crime, mystery or courtroom drama.  Instead, it was an exploration of the law itself, and how it applied to various types of issues where morality and legal ethics could fall into a gray area, and where victory was not always the end result.  Writer Reginald Rose (“12 Angry Men”), was the creator of the show, and “The Defenders” helped to highlight a number of controversial issues such as abortion, capital punishment, immigration quotas, “no-knock” searches, the insanity defense, the Hollywood blacklist, custody rights, along with many, many others.  Despite all of that, the show was neither dry nor dull.  However, it was definitely, realistic and thought provoking.  For three years in a row, it won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series as well as an additional ten Emmys in all.  Never a huge rating success, after it’s third win it was believed that conservative corporate elements in CBS had the show moved from the more popular Saturday night lineup to CBS’s Thursday night ratings graveyard shift where it was subsequently cancelled.  However, it was the harbinger for other future legal dramas that also took on controversial subjects such as ABC’s “Judd, for the Defense” (1967-69) and “The Practice” (1997-2004).

Maybe the biggest and most successful television legal drama show of them all began in 1990, and it was such a long-term success that it led to the creation of additional dramatic series as well as a television film, several video games, and international adaptations of the series.  What was the series you may ask, Dear Reader?  Why it was NBC’s “Law & Order” [(1990-2010) and (2022-present)].  The premise was that after a violent crime (usually murder) was committed, the first half of an episode followed two investigating detectives who ultimately found a suspect that they had arrested.  Then the second half of the episode followed two prosecutors following advice from the District Attorney as to how they should proceed.  It was in how the prosecutors tried to handle each case that the show explored various larger ethical and legal issues where justice was not always so well defined or determinable.  For years this series, filmed on location in New York City and done in a semi-documentary style, was must see TV with whip smart dialogue, believable performances, and sharp sophisticated original stories that, at times, had surprising twists which could change the outcome of a case, and not always favorably.  As much as I originally loved this show, somewhere during its long run I finally noticed a heavy-handed change by the show’s executive producers which made, what I once loved, unwatchable. 

The series was known for utilizing plots for some of their stories from some recognizable recent criminal case which they advertised as being “Ripped from the Headlines”, but the incorporation of elements of an actual legal case into one of “Law & Order’s” episodes was never overt and never heavy handed.  Unfortunately, that changed as years went by.  In its later years and more recently, every episode was now from a highly recognizable real case, but it was so clumsily obvious that any real originality was gone.  Also, the show now was often focused on some of the personal lives of the detectives and prosecutors rather than just sticking to the details of a particular case.  Next, the acting (maybe due to the low quality of the scripts) steadily grew worse with everyone coming across more like caricatures than believable human beings.  Lastly, basically almost all of the cases were resolved with the prosecutors being triumphant.  What was once a great show was now nothing more than a sort of reverse “Perry Mason” with the good old ghost of Hamilton Berger hanging over it, and grinning from ear to ear!  Perhaps the greatest crime in “Law & Order” was for it to still be on the air at all!  

The last subject that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post regarding the legal profession is well… definitely not a drama, but something else entirely, namely, a comedy.  In films you could have one about a fish out of water lawyer played hilariously by Joey Pesci as a newly minted New York City lawyer defending two youths (or is it Youts?) in rural Alabama accused of murder in “My Cousin Vinny” (1992).  Or you could have another one about top-notch divorce attorney George Clooney who has the tables turned on him when he mistakenly becomes romantically involved with marriage-for-money predator Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Cohen Bros. riotous comedy farce, “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003).   Or maybe you might even have a television sitcom about the night shift in a Manhattan municipal court, and all of the strange and whacky individuals accused of various charges along with the equally whacky members of the legal profession presided over by a young unorthodox judge played by Harry Anderson in “Night Court” (1984-92).  All of these would be good examples to discuss further.  However, the last one that I want to highlight for this month’s blog post is the last great film, comedy or otherwise in director Billy Wilder’s storied career (OK! I’ll admit it!  I like him a lot!). That picture is the black comedy classic, “The Fortune Cookie” (1966). 

Jack Lemmon starred as Harry Hinkle, a CBS cameraman who is slightly injured when a Cleveland Browns football player runs into him on the sidelines during a home game.  However, for Harry’s conniving brother-in-law (Walter Matthau), he has other ideas.  He is the scheming lawyer, William H. “Whiplash Willie” Gingrich who smells a possible financial jackpot quicker than a shark smelling blood in the water.  He quickly has Harry pretend to be partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound so he can sue CBS and the Cleveland Browns for a large insurance payout.  His scheme might actually work since new x-rays show the remnants of a compressed vertebra which, unbeknownst to anyone else, resulted from an injury that Harry suffered when he was a child.  However, there are just a few itsy-bitsy problems.  One, Harry only agreed to do it so he could hopefully win back his mercenary ex-wife (Judi West).  Two, the insurance company hired Cleveland’s best private detective Chester Purkey (Cliff Osmond) who is perched in an apartment across from Harry to see if he makes any mistake.  Three, and last, the football player (Ron Rich) that injured Harry is consumed with guilt and trying so hard to be Harry’s unofficial nurse that he is putting his own professional career at risk.  “Cookie” was the first team up of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in a motion picture together and they are hysterical.  They both play off of each other effortlessly helped in no small way by the Oscar nominated screenplay by Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond.  However, it’s Walter Matthau who steals the entire film as the consequential sleaze bag fast talking crooked ambulance chasing lawyer, “Whiplash Willie.”  He is never at a loss for words!  He never completely looses control!  And he is so slippery that he is never unable to squeeze out of any trouble that ensues no matter how hopeless things first appear to be.  Matthau justly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, and even “Better Call Saul’s” Jimmy McGill could learn a thing or two from Matthau’s “Whiplash Willie” in “The Fortune Cookie.”  

Well that concludes this month’s Blog Post.  So, if any of you need a special type of lawyer like Saul Goodman or Whiplash Willie, I’m sure that you can find one.  Of course, some of you might have a different view of lawyers which might best be summarized by playwright William Shakespeare’s Henry VI who once said…

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Well, to each, their own I always say!


Family Circus Redux!

Police Officer: “Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”

Grace: “In-laws!”

[Samara Weaving, “Ready or Not” (2019)] 

Well as we now approach the end of 2022, this month will be my annual Holiday Blog Post.  It will also officially be four full years since my Blog came into existence.  Since I have not yet had any mobs congregating in front of my home during this time period with torches, ropes, or pitchforks in hand demanding my scalp instead of an autograph, I assume that I have been doing something right during this time.  Of course, it also might have meant that there are so few individuals reading my blog that one would have had more interest in reading the ingredients on a cereal box rather than my monthly pearls of Blog wisdom.  Be that as it may, I still have much more to say about stuff pertaining to film, television, and subjects relating in some way to both.  Therefore, Dear Readers, sit back, relax, and away we go!

A couple of years ago I had a Holiday Blog Post titled “Family Circus” where I discussed various television  and cable shows involving family, not necessarily relating to the holidays but often synonymous with the holidays.  This was because, during the holidays, it was usually thought that families got together with each other to celebrate the festivities, even if various family themed shows had nothing to do with the holidays at all.  A number of these family shows were not necessarily wholesome or sweet, nor were they even shows where individuals were represented as a family by birth.  At times these families could be classified as a group with similar interests or beliefs.  However, when I did that Blog Post, I specifically limited my discussion to television or other cable series while excluding motion pictures entirely.  However, now I am returning to the subject of “family” for this year’s Holiday Blog Post although now I will aim my discussion exclusively to just motion pictures.

Family comedies were a popular subject for motion pictures alternating between quirkiness and general dysfunctionality.  A classic one made during the nineteen thirties was the screwball comedy, “My Man Godfrey” (1936).  This story took place in New York City during the Great Depression where a pair of spoiled competing high society sisters (Cornelia and Irene) of a rich and prominent family head to a waterfront dump site where a bunch of the homeless now reside to find a “forgotten man” as part of their scavenger hunt party.  There they find Godfrey (William Powell) who immediately rebuffs the aloof Cornelia, but accepts the same offer from the kinder, and zanier sister Irene (Carole Lombard) who wins the contest.  Once there, Irene pushes her other equally wacky family members to hire Godfrey to be their new butler while secretly having a crush on him.  As Godfrey assumes his role, he starts to affect everyone from the blustering put upon father (Eugene Pallette) to his befuddled wife, Angelica (Alice Brady) to the now vengeful Cornelia (Gail Patrick), and to even their maid and the wife’s protégé/gigolo Carlo (a scene stealing Mischa Auer).  This was one of the funniest films ever made with everyone’s performances outstanding thanks to Gregory La Cava’s brilliant direction.  La Cava was unusual in that he hated most studio executives so he worked as a freelance director for most of his career which unfortunately, limited his film opportunities.  He was also eccentric and openly encouraged his actors to improvise their scenes.  This was on full display in “Godfrey” which had no formal script, just pages of notes.  It didn’t matter.  The film was a huge hit and La Cava along with Powell, Lombard, Brady, and Auer were all nominated for Academy Awards that year, and years later it is still funny as Hell!

Fun Fact:   Hollywood, never learning to leave well enough alone, had someone come up with the semi-bright idea in 1957 to have a new version of “My Man Godfrey” made with David Niven as Godfrey and June Allyson in the Lombard role.  Other than the fact that Niven was a poor man’s Godfrey and Allyson was as convincing as Jim Parsons would have been if he played Tarzan, this version was worse than brushing your teeth with Clorox.

A more recent family related comedy drama was, “This Is Where I Leave You” (2014) starring Jason Bateman.  He played Judd Altman who, when leaving his wife after catching her having an affair with his boss, returns to his home town for his father’s funeral, and to also face his dysfunctional family members. They consist of (1) sister Wendy (Tina Fey) unhappy with her workaholic husband who neglects her while still pining for ex-boyfriend Hoory (Timothy Olyphant) now brain damaged due to a prior accident caused by Wendy, (2) older successful brother Paul (Corey Stall) unable to conceive with his wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) who was Judd’s ex-girlfriend, (3) youngest brother Phillip (Adam Driver) an immature feckless and unemployed playboy type with an older girlfriend, and (4) Judd’s mother Hilary (Jane Fonda) who wants all of her children together for the funeral, not because her husband wanted it, but because Hilary wanted to use the situation to announce some earth shattering news about herself.  Despite the deliberate soap opera storyline based on the fine novel and screenplay adaption by Jonathan Tropper, Director Shawn Levy (“Free Guy”) mixes the various serious and comedy dynamics very well which makes all of the film’s characters, not caricatures, but fallibly human.  Although “This is Where Leave You” was nowhere near as funny, nor as successful as “My Man Godfrey”, it was still a fine example of a quirky family that stumbles along while still supporting each other.

Famous Broadway plays involving family were also excellent sources for adaption into motion pictures like “The Little Foxes”, “Life with Father”, and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  However, there was another one that I particularly want to mention.  That one, which was very loosely based on an actual real-life family, was a little musical thing called “The Sound of Music.”  This monster Broadway hit musical has had numerous productions and revivals made since its original Broadway debut in 1959.  However, it was also adapted into an even bigger monster hit Oscar winning motion picture in 1965 while haunting our television screens ever since, especially during the holidays much like Chucky Heston’s “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.”  Directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the storyline (as if any of you have been living in a cave all of your life…) has Maria (Andrews), a young Austrian woman, who in 1938 becomes a governess to the seven children of a retired and widowed naval officer Georg von Trapp (Plummer) in their Austrian villa.  Once there, she changes how the children are taught moving from their father’s strict military discipline into a more loving and kind way which has the children both learning to trust and respect her.  This also softens von Trapp himself and ultimately Maria and von Trapp fall in love, marry, and escape Austria with their children just after the Third Reich’s annexation of Austria that same year.  The end!

Now I’m sure that you all want to know what I actually think of “Music.”  Well… supposedly, this picture was once picked by BBC executives to be broadcast after a nuclear strike, to improve the morale of any survivors.  However, I believe that if this picture was shown after a nuclear strike, it just might have caused the remaining survivors to off themselves instead!  Heck, it might have even encouraged an additional nuclear strike by someone just so no one would ever have to see it again.  If you excluded all of the historical inaccuracies of the story and the big budget excesses of this picture, you were still stuck with all of the smiling faces of Andrews, the children, the numerous supporting characters, and maybe even the surrounding flora and fauna, all looking like victims from the Joker’s laughing gas.  Christopher Plummer absolutely hated this picture.  He called it the most difficult role of his entire career due to his overall dislike of sentiment and working with children, and he was constantly drunk throughout its production.  Originally, both Andrews and Plummer didn’t even want to do their roles because the original Broadway production was so overtly sugary, schmaltzy, and fake.  Wise, who was also the producer, managed to convince both of them to take on their roles while also agreeing, as Andrews said to “Get the sugar out of this show!”  Unfortunately, Wise, who also originally turned down the chance to direct this film not once, but three times because he felt the same way as they did, tried to make some changes but to no avail.  Upon its completion, “Music” was still too stupidly cardboard and still too ridiculously sweet.  However, that’s OK, Dear Reader!  If you can put up with seeing Chucky Heston do his thing in “The Ten Commandments,” you can certainly put up with seeing “The Sound of Music” (unless you are diabetic)!

Another Fun Fact:  When they were filming that spectacular panoramic opening of  “The Sound of Music” (from a helicopter) where Andrews is in the Swiss countryside belting out, “The hills are alive with the sound of…” they had to re-shoot that scene over a dozen times due to the helicopter’s downdraft knocking Mary, I mean Maria, I mean Julie on her ass before they finally got it right.  Maybe she should have just sung that those “Hills are alive with the sound of the F*&KING Helicopter” instead!

Families involved in criminality or other illegalities were also ripe for portrayals in film.  Maybe the most famous crime family picture of them all was for the Oscar winning picture, “The Godfather” (1972) directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  The storyline for this one (also for those who were still living in that cave…) involved the New York crime family of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), his four children, their various underlings, and their opposing crime families all competing for power during the period of 1945 to 1955. Based on the pulp bestseller novel by Mario Puzo, this picture was originally not expected to be a success.  Why?  Well, for a number of reasons.

First, Paramount Pictures did a prior Mafia picture called “The Brotherhood” which bombed at the box office so they were hesitant about doing another gangster picture.  Of course, maybe it bombed because Kirk Douglas (with a shoe polish hair dye job) tried to play an Italian mob boss, but that’s another story.  Hence, Paramount, already in deep financial trouble due to other box office failures, originally wanted to just make a cheap present day gangster picture.  Second, Marlon Brando was box office poison at that time due to his prior box office failures going back over a decade, his disruptive behavior on previous film productions, and maybe, just for being an all-around Mega Asshole in real life.  Third, Coppola originally didn’t want to direct the picture because he felt that the book was sleazy and sensationalistic, but finally relented because he was in debt due to his own past failures as a director.  Fourth, Paramount had troubles with Coppola due to his indecisiveness in finding the right actors for the roles, and his overall difficulty in dealing with such a large production which cost the studio money, enough so that he was in constant risk of being fired.  Five, Paramount had issues with his using cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose visual style underlit scenes so they were always dark to emphasize the shadiness of the family’s criminal activities.  And six, the Mafia was continually trying to either interfere or not have the picture be made at all.  Despite all of this turmoil the movie was a colossal Oscar winning hit motion picture (Yes Dear Reader, this one I definitely liked)!  To ensure that a “family” aspect of the picture was developed among his actors, Coppola even held improvisational rehearsal sessions consisting of having the main cast members sit down in character for a family meal.  By doing this it helped the actors to organically establish each character’s role within the Corleone crime family.  His focus on “family,” even if they were monstrous, was one of the major reasons why “The Godfather” is now regarded as an all-time cinema classic!

Two other films that I want to praise pertaining to families behaving badly are the films “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007) and “Knives Out” (2019).  “Dead” was the last picture that the great film director Sydney Lumet made before he died, but unlike so many other directors whose careers waned with age, for this one, did he ever go out with a Bang (and not one from Vito Corleone either)!  This family saga was basically, a tragic betrayal by the two grown sons of their parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney).  First, you had older son Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drug using and embezzling finance executive whose crimes are about to be revealed during an audit.  Next, you had younger and weaker son Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced father desperately needing money to pay child support and his children’s tuition while also having an affair with Andy’s wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei).  Their plan is to have someone rob their parents’ jewelry store, fence the jewelry, and for Andy to use his share to escape to Brazil where he cannot be extradited.  Unfortunately, their plans end in disaster for everyone involved.

Much like his fellow contemporaries, motion picture directors’ William Wyler and Elia Kazan, Lumet was one of the greatest directors at being able to elicit great performances from his actors while emphasizing that his pictures should always have strong screenplays to enable his performers to shine.  This skill made him well known as being “an actor’s director.”  At a young age, he became an acclaimed off Broadway and economically astute television director in the nineteen fifties before moving onto directing a long list of great motion pictures (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” etc.).  These skills were on full display in his final picture.  All of his cast give incredible performances including those in secondary roles played by such fine character actors as Michael Shannon, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Amy Ryan for example.  He was still innovatively astute too.  Because he hated shooting on film, for this one picture, he used high-definition video or HD which produced a substantially higher image resolution than previous technologies and which made his visual scenes more striking.  Not bad for someone who made this film when he was 82 years old.  As a tragic family drama with Shakespearian overtones, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a motion picture masterpiece!

“Knives Out” is a different kind of family drama (or animal) altogether.  Here, the animals are the various members of the Thrombey family headed by Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) a rich mystery novelist who, as the film begins is found dead (probably from being forced to watch “The Sound of Music” again).  At first the police suspect suicide, but famed private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), soon starts to investigate Harlan’s death.  He quickly discovers that all of the family members had a strained relationship with Harlan, and much to gain from his death.  However, upon the reading of Harlan’s will, to everyone’s shock, his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) is the sole beneficiary.  Now everyone is conspiring against her, especially once it is determined that Harlan was murdered, and that evidence points to Marta as the culprit.  Underrated director Rian Johnson (“Looper”) crafted a fun Agatha Christie knock off mystery, and his original screenplay has enough humor in it to keep the picture from being taken too seriously.  He is also helped by an over-the-top performance by Daniel Craig as Blanc.  Johnson wanted the character of Blanc to be an American version of Christie’s “Poirot” and Craig, speaking with an exaggerated southern accent, is outrageous enough to make even Foghorn Leghorn blush.  Is he believable?  Hell no, but he sure looks like he’s having fun.  So does all of the rest of the cast which includes such veterans as Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, and Chris Evans among others. However, if we want to talk about someone actually delivering a believable performance, then Ana de Armas wins the prize hands down.  She believably portrays someone slowly gaining the confidence to stand up to all of them while maintaining her own humanity like an oasis in the middle of a desert of venality.  She sparkles, just like “Knives Out” does!

The last film that I want to highlight for this month’s Blog Post involving a rich family behaving badly is another kind of comedy film altogether.  However, this one is the comedy horror picture, “Ready or Not” (2019).  Here, the dysfunctional family is the uber-wealthy Le Domas family who made their fortune by manufacturing various popular board games.  Now Alex (Mark O’Brien), the son of the family patriarch, is getting married to Grace (Samara Weaving) at their colossal family estate, and where she will also meet all of Alex’s family.  Grace, formerly a foster child and raised from humble beginnings, is nervous, but truly loves Alex, and really wants to be part of a loving family.  After the official ceremony, Alex tells Grace that with every new addition to the family, per tradition, she has to join the family to play a game at midnight.  She agrees and while there his father Tony (Henry Czerny) tells Grace that this tradition was begun by his great grandfather who made a deal with a mysterious benefactor named Mr. Le Bail.  Le Bail also provided a special box where one was to pull a card from which showed the specific game that the cardholder was supposed to play.  However, when Grace draws a card from the box and it says, “Hide and Seek,” everyone is silent!  Tony tells Grace that she now has to stay hidden till dawn in order to win so she immediately goes off to hide in the huge mansion.  Unfortunately, what she doesn’t know until later is that, because she got that particular card, the entire family along with their support staff are now going to have to hunt her for real and kill her before dawn.  If they do not, they believe that they will all die instead!  Talk about “Wedding Night Interruptus!”

Yep, this one is an unabashed B Movie with a Quentin Tarantino vibe, only gorier.  It is also a laugh out loud send up of the rich and entitled along with a little bit of Satanic flair thrown in as well.  Amongst all of these family members trying to kill poor Grace and too often, mistakenly offing someone else instead, you need a score card to keep track of all of the mayhem.  I guess the rich can be every bit as klutzy as anyone else when trying to kill someone.  Anyhoo, throughout this increasingly zany murder fest, the one standout performance of the bunch is the one given by Samara Weaving as Grace.  Weaving, who I’ve previous praised before, is terrific playing an awkward person who probably had to grow up on her own, but is now forced, by circumstance, to go into survival mode once again to deal with this multitude of maniacally murderous morons (Try saying that one five times in a row).  From dumping her high heels for tennis shoes, to tearing off the bottom of her wedding gown to move around more easily, and to using anything that she can find as a weapon to defend herself, she is more than up to the task.  This movie was even a critical and popular hit too upon its release.  Will wonders never cease!  Although it may never be classified as high art, “Hide and Seek” is definitely, “highly entertaining!”

Well, Dear Reader, this ends another year of me finding more various strange stuff to comment on for, hopefully, your further amusement.  I hope that you have enjoyed it, and I hope that as the upcoming holidays approach you have a happy, healthy, prosperous, and, most importantly, safe New Year!

Keep smiling!


The Hunter and the Hunted!

High Spade: “We’ve hit a lot of towns, Lin.  What makes you think he’ll be here?

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

High Spade: “We’ve been wrong before.”

Lin McAdam: “He’ll be here.”

High Spade: “On account of that?” [High Spade indicates the Winchester ’73 rifle that is the top prize at Dodge City’s Fourth of July shooting competition] 

Lin McAdam: “If he isn’t here already, that gun’ll bring him.”

[Millard Mitchell to James Stewart, “Winchester 73” (1950)]

In the animal kingdom there are two opposing groups consisting of predators and prey.  These same types of groups also exist for aquatic creatures and insects too.  A predator or “hunter” does so in order to continue to exist even killing other weaker predators as a food source.  If they do not consume such food, the predators will ultimately starve, die, and their species will cease to exist.  Of course, other creatures can subsist on a plant-based diet, and do not necessarily have to kill other living creatures in order to survive, hence they will generally be the prey or those “hunted.”  However, for us humans, it is quite different.  While we can hunt other creatures for either food or other reasons, we also have situations where we can hunt each other too.  Now in this case, it is almost never as a food source (unless one is a budding cannibal in disguise).  If an individual or individuals hunt someone or something else, it is done in various ways and for various reasons, isn’t it?  Whether you may realize it or not, this type of activity has been an extremely popular one for numerous television series or motion pictures.  It is a subject that I will explore further for this month’s Blog Post.

A number of films that could easily fit into the above category would be dramas with an individual hunting various dangerous big game and where, sometimes, they could become the hunted instead.  However, these types of actions in films were often more of a side issue than the actual main storyline.  Also, sometimes such films, while possibly entertaining, were either shallow or just weak melodramas.  For example, you had “Track of the Cat” (1954), a weird, pseudo-Western about a ranch in Northern California during a particularly harsh winter being threatened by an unseen panther killing livestock, and the various brothers (Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, and William Hopper) at the ranch trying to hunt and kill the animal.  Unfortunately, the storyline was more concerned with the brothers along with the rest of their family members venting their spleen at one another rather than just offing the frigging Big, Bad, Putty-Cat.  More Eugene O’Neill rip-off than a real Western, this dull, pretentious snore fest was phonier than the never seen Putty Cat’s roaring in the Great Outdoors which sounded louder than some windbag opera singer in a Concert Hall.  If that one wasn’t bad enough, years later you had another winner with “Rampage” (1963).  It starred, once again, Robert Mitchum as a trapper, and Jack Hawkins as a big game hunter (clutching his rifle like someone holding his personal manhood in a vise grip) trying to capture a mixed breed big cat in Malaya for a Berlin Zoo.  Unfortunately, this storyline was more focused on Hawkins’ mistress, Elsa Martinelli, and Mitchum making goo-goo eyes at each other while driving Hawkins into a murderous rage.  Maybe the only thing worth watching here was to see whether Mitchum could keep sucking in his gut for the entire length of the motion picture rather than having his belly fat hang out over his belt buckle.  However, despite these two barking cinematic dogs, there were also some better films involving hunters in the wild too!

The first one, which was based on one of Ernest Hemingway’s most celebrated short stories, was “The Macomber Affair” (1947) directed by Zoltan Korda.  Robert Wilson (Gregory Peck), a professional hunter in British East Africa is hired by Francis Macomber (Robert Preston) and his wife Margaret (Joan Bennett) to hunt big game.  Soon enough you realize that the couple’s marriage is on the rocks and that Francis is mistakenly using the trip as a means for them to rekindle their relationship.  Unfortunately, the opposite occurs when Francis panics during a lion hunt and, after Wilson kills the lion to save him, his wife cruelly debases him further by starting to have an affair with Wilson.   The developing love triangle will ultimately result in tragedy.  All three actors gave solid believable performances thanks to fine direction by Korda and a top-notch adaption of the tale, which stuck almost entirely to the original story.  Preston, an underrated actor who even looked a little bit like a young Hemingway, was especially good playing a man who emotionally loses just about everything, but then starts to later find his own personal redemption even if comes too late.  Despite what you may feel about big game hunting in general and the sometimes over glorification of masculinity, toxic or otherwise, by Hemingway, “The Macomber Affair” was a terrific character driven drama.

Another picture also involving a love triangle, but tied into a tale about the hunt for a man-eating Bengal tiger is the lesser known, but equally powerful British drama, “Harry Black and the Tiger” (1958).  “Black” starred Stewart Granger as Harry Black, a former British Army Colonel who lost his leg during a POW escape in World War II.  Now with an artificial leg and residing in India, he makes a living hunting man-eating tigers for the Indian government.  However, being older, he is starting to doubt that he still has the necessary skills to deal with his new assignment, hunting a particularly dangerous murderous tiger near a tea plantation.  Things are even more complicated when he discovers who manages the tea plantation.  It is Desmond Tanner (Anthony Steel) accompanied by his wife Chris (Barbara Rush) and their young son.  It was due to Tanner’s cowardice during Black’s POW escape that cost him his leg.  Even worse, while recuperating in England and with Tanner still imprisoned, Black had a brief intense affair with Chris.  Now Tanner wants to accompany Black on his hunt to impress his young son while also knowing that there is still a strong attraction between Chris and Black.  Uh-oh!

Although “Black” could have just been another run of the mill stereotypical white hunter romantic adventure tale, it is superior for a number of reasons.  First, was the lush outdoor cinematography by John Wilcox capturing the exotic Indian landscapes.  Second, was the direction by Hugo Fregonese.  He often showed both Black and the tiger from each other’s perspective which made the animal even more terrifying whenever it hunted or zoomed in to suddenly kill someone.  Third, and most important of all, was the fine performance by Stewart Granger.  Granger was almost always more of a star than an actor, one who never really applied himself to working hard at being more than just charmingly tolerable in any film role (and to which Errol Flynn, whom Granger was often compared to, was also justifiably accused of).  Fortunately, whatever trick Director Fregonese used on him, whether it was by additional coaching or a cattle prod… it sure worked.  Granger is terrific in the role!  His Black is world weary, emotionally restrained, and full of self-doubt.  You can see his longing for Chris and she for him too by just a simple gesture or a look on each other’s face.  Rush gives a fine performance here too, and their interactions with each other are touching, not trite.  A strong drama with a mix of some scary and suspenseful moments, “Harry Black and the Tiger” is well worth your attention.

Another type of hunter vs. hunted film involved submarine warfare, especially pertaining to motion pictures about World War II.  German U boats hunting Allied shipping and they, in turn, hunting the U boats themselves were the basis for numerous films like the overrated and melodramatic pictures “U-571” (2000) and “Grayhound” (2020) along with much better ones like “Action in the North Atlantic” (1943), “The Cruel Sea” (1953), “Das Boot” (1981), and its more recent German television adaption (2018 – present).  However, the one that I particularly want to praise is the action sub thriller, “The Enemy Below” (1957), directed by Dick Powell.  “Enemy” starred Robert Mitchum as Captain Murrell, who has recently taken command of the USS Haynes, a destroyer escort now on patrol in the South Atlantic.  When the Haynes detects a U Boat commanded by the veteran Captain von Stolberg (Curt Jurgens), the hunt is on, and a nail-biting battle of wits between the two skippers begins over a 24-hour period.  No CGI was used here.  Actor/Director Dick Powell helped by spectacular big screen Cinemascope color cinematography by Harold Rosson (“The Wizard of Oz”) crafted a suspense thriller between two evenly matched opponents using actual ships, and naval personnel.  They even had a former German U Boat sailor providing technical assistance for this picture too.  Even though the screenplay didn’t really provide much depth to the characters, Mitchum and Jurgens were both still able to give decent performances.  The film portrays two adversaries who have mutual respect towards each other even as they make maneuver after counter maneuver while hoping that one will finally be able to outwit and kill the other.  “The Enemy Below” deservedly won the Oscar that year for Best Special Effects, and it is still one of the best submarine war pictures ever made.

Fun Fact:  Years later a great episode of “Star Trek” used this film’s storyline. So too did the TV show, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” by (1) incorporating scenes from “The Enemy Below” into their own enemy sub hunt episode, and (2) even weirder, it had actor David Hedison, who originally was in “The Enemy Below” in this episode since he was a series regular on “Voyage.”  However, for “Voyage”, that didn’t help it much at all.  Their episode, just like the TV show, still stunk to high heaven!

Westerns were also great in providing interesting storylines involving hunters and their human prey.  For example, you had the television show, “Wanted Dead or Alive” (1958-61) with Steve McQueen playing bounty hunter Josh Randall lugging a sawed-off Winchester rifle in his holster and successfully transitioning into a big-time movie star shortly thereafter.  However, it really was in the movies that great Westerns for hunters and the hunted were made.  Usually, these types of pictures revolved around three basic storylines…

  • US Marshals/Sheriffs hunting outlaws or anyone wanted for a crime.
  • Someone seeking revenge as a reason for hunting someone.
  • The US Army hunting Indians or the Indians doing the same to either soldiers or the civilian population.

Some of the good ones were “Winchester 73” (1950), “The Searchers” (1956), and the Coen Bros. version of “True Grit” (2010).  There were also a couple Westerns not as well known, but terrific too like “From Hell to Texas” (1958) and “Ulzana’s Raid” (1972).  Out of all of them, the one that I’d like to especially praise is “Winchester 73.”  It starred James Stewart as Lin McAdam who has a personal score to settle with outlaw Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), and is hunting him relentlessly with his partner “High-Spade” Frankie (Millard Mitchell).  Arriving in Dodge City where Wyatt Earp is the town’s Sheriff, they are forced to hand in their guns due to Earp’s rule against anyone carrying firearms in town which Earp also required Brown to do too.  However, things soon change when both Lin and Brown enter a shooting contest with the prize being a “One of One Thousand” Winchester 1873 rifle.  Lin wins the contest and the rifle, but Brown and his cronies jump Lin in his hotel room, knock him out, steal the rifle, and ride out with Lin and Frankie in hot pursuit.  From that point on the film is one long chaise with that prized Winchester 73 coming into the possession of numerous individuals along the way.

James Stewart was at a career crossroads in 1950.  His previous films in the late nineteen forties were not successful, and he was fearful that he was being typecast because studios believed that he couldn’t do more challenging roles.  “Winchester 73” completely turned his career around, and forced the critics, the major studios and the viewing public to regard him in a new way.  His Lin, while still likeable, was also tougher, harder, meaner, and more suddenly violent if he had to be.  Stewart, who also was the first actor to take a cut of a picture’s profits rather than a straight fee, made three times as much money as he would have if he just got his normal fee because this movie was such a critical and popular box office hit.  It also helped that he was able to have Anthony Mann selected as the director.  Mann, who would go on to direct Stewart in four other acclaimed Westerns as well as in other dramas, crafted one of the finest Westerns ever made, and one of the best films of his entire career.  Mann was never shy about showing violence in his films, but it was never gratuitous or excessive.  He also was a great action director, and in this picture, he had one of the greatest shootouts and all-around action sequences in motion picture history.  It takes place at the end of the picture with Lin and Brown in a final showdown in a box canyon blasting away at each other with their rifles expertly shot by Mann’s great, former Oscar winning cinematographer William Daniels (“Naked City”).  A Western saga of revenge, “Winchester 73” is still one of the best.

Law enforcement hunting suspected criminals was also a popular category under the subject of the hunter and the hunted.  For literature, one of the greatest of them all was French author Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, “Les Miserables”.  The story of Jean Valjean, a former convict hunted by Inspector Emile Javert, has been adapted numerous times for motion pictures, television films/miniseries dramatizations, plays, musicals, etc. and its continued popularity will probably have it being remade till the end of time.  For television, another fine example was ABC’s “The Fugitive” (1963-67) starring David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, a doctor who is unjustly convicted for the murder of his wife.  Sentenced to death and en route to death row, he escapes after his train derails.  Now on the run, he is hunted mercilessly by Police Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse) with Kimble, while being hunted, also hunting the one-armed man who actually murdered his wife.  The similarities to “Les Miserables” was definitely intentional even having the law enforcement characters names somewhat similar (Javert and Gerard).  “The Fugitive” was a huge ratings success for ABC and, even though as an actor, David Janssen showed more emotional restraint than a Sphinx, he was still very sympathetic in the role.  The final episode of the series was the most heavily watched TV episode in the history of television by the viewing public at that time.  Years later the storyline was still popular when in 1993, a new critically acclaimed motion picture version of “The Fugitive” was made starring Harrison Ford as Kimble and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as Gerard.  I guess you just couldn’t keep an unjustly convicted guy down for too long, could you?

While “The Fugitive” focused your sympathies on someone unjustly accused of committing a crime, what about films or TV series about law enforcement departments actually hunting those who were actually committing crimes you may ask?  Well, there are so many that I couldn’t begin to list them all.  Sometimes the perpetrator was shown right at the very beginning of the story.  However, you also had a number of dramatizations where the criminal was not known and the film or television series had you follow the law enforcement department and their investigators (The Hunters) as they tried to apprehend the unknown criminal (The Hunted).  These types of crime dramas were more commonly referred to as “police procedurals” where they tried to show accurately, the nuts-and-bolts step by step way of how the different areas of law enforcement worked together to catch a criminal.  Numerous series like “Dragnet” (1951-59), “Homicide: Life on the Street” (1993-99), “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (2000-15), and others constantly inundated us with these stories.  Of course, sometimes police procedurals were also dramatizations of actual criminal cases too.  It is in this sub-group, that I will highlight one final great series before I’ll close this month’s Blog Post.  That series is the British true crime investigative drama, “Manhunt” (2019 and 2021).

“Manhunt” starred Martin Clunes portraying real life Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton, and both series were based on Sutton’s memoirs involving two extremely difficult cases in his career.  The three-part first series involved Sutton investigating the brutal murder of a young girl in 2004.  During his investigation he discovers that the perpetrator was an actual serial killer with evidence connecting him to two other previous unsolved murders of young women as well as attacks against other women.  He also finds out that there were mistakes made in the prior investigations which, if the errors didn’t occur, could have resulted in the actual killer’s earlier apprehension.  The four-part second series was even better.  This one was titled, “The Night Stalker” and it was based on Sutton’s review of an ongoing 17-year manhunt for a brutal serial rapist operating in South East London from 1992 to 2009.  This investigation was the largest and most complex rape investigation ever undertaken by the Metropolitan Police of Greater London.  Ultimately, this individual was also found to be an accomplished burglar who specifically targeted the elderly (including men), left next to no DNA or other forensic evidence, and meticulously observed his victims while planning his break ins and assaults.  After some time, Sutton was given more overall authority over the entire investigation while also getting the necessary funding and manpower to enable the police force to ultimately capture the criminal.

Clunes, who has a face that sort of looks like a bulldog, portrays Sutton almost like a tenacious bulldog too.  However, he is also someone capable of thinking out of the box to figure out a way to apprehend this criminal. He is terrific in the role, and so is the non-sensationalist Award winning direction by Mark Evans.  The crimes that these two individuals did were horrific, but you didn’t have to actually see the crimes being perpetrated to feel their impact both on their victims and on the various members of law enforcement who were hunting them.  “Manhunt” also showed how fallible Sutton and his investigators were at times along with all of the politics that he had to deal with. This included such things as how to (1) properly use the manpower and funding, (2) have all of the various law enforcement staff work together in as a team, and (3) deal with higher ups in the police establishment, the numerous news organizations, and the general public.  All too often, police procedural dramas could be so focused on details that the overall drama was lacking or boring.  This was not the case with “Manhunt” which was why it was suspenseful and engrossing rather than banal.  You would never picture Clunes’ Sutton ever pulling out a 44 Magnum and, like Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan say, “Make my Day!”  However, for “Manhunt”, I’d have been more likely to sweat bullets if Sutton, rather than Eastwood’s Callahan were hunting me!

Now, of course, If I were on the Outer Space cargo ship, Nostromo with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley hunting the “Alien,” I’d want Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Bronson, and Stallone along with me.  Hmmm! On second thought, I’ll skip Stallone…

I’d at least want someone able to walk and chew gum at the same time standing next to me!


School Days! School Days! Rotten, Lousy, School Days!

John Keating:  “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world!”

[Robin Williams, “Dead Poets Society” (1989)]

“Academic education” has been generally defined as an education which has learning as its primary purpose.  For most of us, attainment of an education is one of the most important parts of our life.  Whether we did it when we were very young or much later in life, our need or necessity to learn, has been instilled into us as a means or a way to have a successful or more fulfilling life.  However, what sort of learning or wisdom do we or can we ultimately gain to attain such goals?  Numerous novels, plays and various dramatizations focusing on obtaining an education or school life itself have been done for film, television, and cable.  Comedy, romance, drama, tragedy, even SY/FY and fantasy have all been utilized to good effect for a multitude of tales about learning or obtaining wisdom.  It is this subject that this month’s Blog Post will discuss in further detail.

A number of plays, situated in an academic setting, have been adapted into films over the years with varying degrees of success.  One of the earliest ones was from the novel, “Tom Brown’s School Days”, an 1857 novel by Thomas Hughes.  “Days” chronicled Hughes experiences in an elite English public school during the 1830s focusing on the aforementioned Tom Brown, a fictional character thinly based on Hughes brother George.  Brown’s efforts in obtaining an education are helped by his friendship with an older classmate named Harry East and by Dr. Thomas Arnold, the actual historical headmaster of the school at that time.  The novel also chronicled Brown’s travails with another classmate, the drunken and bullying Harry Flashman, who becomes Brown’s nemesis.  This novel’s popularity resulted in many screen adaptions with the very first one made in an early 1916 silent film version all the way up to a recent 2005 TV film.

A different type of a play concerning a student who, unlike Tom Brown, causes mayhem to all of those around her was the famous 1934 Lillian Hellman play, “The Children’s Hour.”  “Hour” was set in an all-girls boarding school where a disruptive child named Mary, accuses the two women who run the facility of having a lesbian relationship.  This results in their lives and those of others around them either destroyed or irreparably damaged.  Here, the child was just a secondary character that wasn’t trying to obtain any wisdom at all.  Instead, the focus was firmly on the two women whose lives were permanently altered.  This play was a huge hit and controversial due to its lesbian theme.  It was later adapted into a film version titled “These Three” (1936), and directed by William Wyler.  However, because of the Hays Production Code banning any mention of or subject concerning homosexuality or lesbianism, the movie’s storyline had to be changed.  Now the storyline consisted of just having the child make accusations that one of the two women was having an elicit sexual affair with the other one’s fiancé.  Although this film was a hit, the theme of adultery, which might have been “hot” stuff back in the Puritanical nineteen thirties was, by the standards of today, about as scandalous as an unwanted “good night” kiss on a first date.  The picture also wasn’t helped by Joel McCrea miscast as the fiancé.  McCrea, who was never much of an actor, and more suitable riding a horse and brandishing a six gun, looked about as comfortable playing a suit and tie wearing doctor as rock star Meatloaf would have been if he wore a speedo.  Wyler later had a chance to remake the film, now properly named “The Children’s Hour” in 1961 with the lesbian theme basically intact.  This version starred James Garner as the Doc, Audrey Hepburn as his fiancée, and Shirley MacLaine as Hepburn’s (more than just a friend) co-worker in charge of the school.  MacLaine gave an outstanding performance emanating a strong sexual desire, sometimes by just a look or a slight gesture towards Hepburn that told more than any words could.  Unfortunately, it’s too bad that the same was not also true for Hepburn and Garner’s performances.  Both of them were barely pedestrian in their roles, and this flaw turned “The Children’s Hour” into a soap opera rather than a strong drama.

A number of TV shows had, not just one young adult student acting disruptive, but rather, the entire student class possibly acting disruptive too.  Such shows were social dramas involving teachers striving to motivate students to learn at various interracial inner-city schools where numerous conflicts could arise.  For television you had such fine shows as the CBS drama, “The White Shadow” (1978-81) which starred Ken Howard as a white former professional basketball player who takes a job coaching basketball at an impoverished urban high school with a racially mixed team in South Central Los Angeles.  For ABC you also had the comedy-drama “Room 222” (1969-74) with Lloyd Haynes as an idealistic African-American school teacher in a racially diverse high school also in Los Angeles.  This half hour show was much milder than “Shadow” and didn’t touch on more controversial subjects.  Not to limit such shows to just being situated in Los Angeles, you also had a sitcom like “Welcome back Kotter” (1975-79) which was situated in Brooklyn, New York.  This comedy starred Gabe Kaplan (the aforementioned “Kotter”) in charge of a racially and ethnically diverse remedial class of loafers nicknamed the “Sweathogs”, and with one of them being John Travolta who played a dumb, stupid punk (before moving on up into playing an even bigger dumb, stupid punk in the movies).  Also, not to be ignored was “Fame” (1982-87), which was based on the hit 1980 motion picture of the same name.  This one was a comedy-drama interspersed with music that followed the lives of students and faculty at the fictional NYC High School for the Performing Arts.  It won a number of Emmy Awards and led to numerous concert tours, hit records, a Broadway musical, and even a bad 2009 film remake.

Serious motion pictures about teachers at multi-ethnic inner-city schools trying to help students to learn were popular too.  Unfortunately, too often their quality left a lot to be desired.  Maybe the worst one of them all was the unintentionally laughable, but for its time controversial, hit MGM film, “The Blackboard Jungle” (1955).  “Jungle” starred Glenn Ford as Rick Dadier, a new teacher at an inter-city high school with various students of mixed ethnic backgrounds.  Soon enough his idealism is smashed by the sometimes indifferent and other times open defiance of the students led by Gregory Miller (Sydney Poitier) and Artie West (Vic Morrow), who resist his efforts to motivate them to learn.  Dadier’s resolve is tested by (1) having to break up an attempted rape of a teacher in the school library on his first day there, (2) getting mugged by some of the students in an alley one night, (3) having his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) almost miscarry due to anonymous phone calls and letters suggesting he is having an affair, and (4) worst of all, having to put up with listening to Bill Haley and the Comets “Rock Around the Clock” instead of a real film score throughout the entire picture.

To say this movie was dated is putting it mildly.  Supposedly, originally someone had the bright idea to have the beginning of the film start with some Soviet type guy in Russia commenting about American decadence of some sort leading into the Comets blasting out “Rock around the Clock” as the credits started rolling down the screen.  Fortunately, that semi-brilliant idea was canned!  Unfortunately, other things were not!  First, you had a bunch of actors obviously in their twenties playing high school kids.  Second, you had Poitier as the sole African-American in the classroom being one of the class leaders that his predominantly Caucasian classmates follow.  Yeah, and I believe in the “Tooth Fairy” too!  Third, you had a heavy handed, overt, and deliberately sensationalistic portrayal of juvenile delinquent gangs openly terrorizing the entire school along with their staff which probably scared the pants off of the nineteen fifties viewing public.  “Jungle” made it seem like law enforcement was powerless to stop the violence and the chaos.  Gee, maybe they just needed John Wayne charging in with a Marine battalion to put those anarchistic Commie juvenile delinquents in their place!  Fourth, you were inundated with crude stereotypes instead of real believable characters in this movie.  You had your burned-out teacher (Louis Calhern with a wig more fake than a ten-dollar Rolex), your naïve jazz loving math teacher (Richard Kiley) who, of course, quits after getting his jazz records smashed by the juveniles, the needy frightened wife (Francis), the secret musically gifted student (Poitier), and the perpetually sneering gang leader (Morrow) to name a few.  This film was originally banned in Memphis and Atlanta, the U.S. Ambassador to Italy prevented the film from being shown at the Venice Film Festival, and a Senate committee condemned the film saying that “Jungle” would not have beneficial effects on contemporary youth.  So of course, both the movie and Bill Haley and the Comets became a big hit, especially among those supposed masses of delinquent Fifties juveniles.  And as for myself Dear Reader, even though I first saw the picture on TV when I was pretty young, I just thought that “The Blackboard Jungle” was one of the funniest, and most ridiculously campy things that I had ever seen!    

Other inner city school films were also later made like “To Sir, with Love” (1967) with Sydney Poitier now as the teacher instead of the student, “Up the Down Staircase” (1967) with Sandy Dennis, “Stand and Deliver” (1988) with James Edward Olmos in an Academy Award nominated performance as real-life high school math teacher Jaime Escalante, “Dangerous Minds” (1995) with Michelle Pfeiffer as real-life teacher LouAnne Johnson, and “Critical Thinking” (2020) with John Leguizamo who directed and starred as real-life social studies teacher Mario Martinez who led his Miami Jackson High School chess team to a win at the U.S. Chess Federation’s National High School Chess Championships in 1998.  All of these pictures except “Dangerous Minds” (which was really bad with more stereotypes than even “Blackboard Jungle”) had their merits, especially “Stand and Deliver” and “Critical Thinking” (Leguizamo deserved more acclaim both for his performance and for his directing).  However, motion pictures about students learning or developing wisdom, as I previously mentioned, were also a fertile area for stories involving horror or science fiction where maybe the students were just trying to “learn” how to survive!

For example, you had “Carrie” (1976) which was based on the Stephen King novel with Sissy Spacek laying telekinesis waste to her high school prom dance class after receiving an unappreciated pig blood makeover.  Although Piper Laurie’s awful over the top performance as Carrie’s psycho mom could make even Nicolas Cage’s worst bug-eyed drooling performances seem sedate by comparison, the real culprit for how bad this movie really is, was due to the ever-inept directing style of Brian De Palma.  De Palma never had a scene that he couldn’t misdirect, where you could always be sure he would overuse some sort of camera trickery as a distraction so he could throw in as much excessive sex, nudity, graphic violence, blood, and gore as was humanly possible.  Although “Carrie” was a big financial success, it’s the type of garbage that didn’t even deserve to be dumped into a rusted-out Dixie Dumpster.  However, a much better high school horror film was “The Faculty” (1998).  This film was sort of like an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Thing” YA clone where different members of an Ohio high-school faculty and their students were being infected by a wormlike parasite that would crawl into their earlobe to infect and control their minds (Hmm! Sort of like Fox News!).  When a bunch of the students discover what is going on, they team up to try and find and destroy the creatures’ queen before everyone is infected and the aliens “Take Over the World!!!”  (Yeah, that one again!).  This one was an unabashed campy cult flick, but it was surprisingly suspenseful with some real comic moments thrown in to lighten the horror.  It also had a surprisingly huge top-notch ensemble cast with such veterans as Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen, Piper Laurie (Yeah, her again, but not as bad!), Bebe Neuwirth, Robert Patrick, Louis Black, and Jon Stewart slumming along as infected or future infected faculty.  It also had Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Shawn Hatosy, Jordana Brewster, and Clea DuVall as some of the students trying to stop the alien invasion while also trying not to develop any zits in the process.  If you just want to have some fun without needing to learn any wisdom, “The Faculty” is a High-School Horror Hoot! (OK, even I’m groaning at that one).

Comedies were also readily available for movies pertaining to academia where laughter rather than learning took precedence.  Far too often they could just be a mix of gross out humor, nudity, and sex.  However, at other times, they could also be very, very funny.  Some of the good ones were “Animal House” (1978), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982), and “Back to School” (1986) for example.  However, one that I especially want to praise, and it’s not even a motion picture at all but a comedy drama television series especially created for Netflix and taking place in England, is “Sex Education” (2019 to present).  This series is an ensemble drama, but with the two main characters consisting of Otis (Asa Butterfield), an awkward teenage son, and his noted sex therapist mom, Jean (Gillian Anderson).  Jean, who is divorced, has no hesitation about talking or encouraging Otis to discuss all aspects of sexuality with her which makes Otis constantly uncomfortable and embarrassed.  What’s even worse is, that as the series begins, Otis is a virgin who struggles in even being able to masturbate.  He goes to a multi-ethnic high school with his best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), a flamboyant gay teen who keeps his sexual identity hidden from his religious family.  When Otis, who has picked up vast knowledge about sexuality over the years from his mother, helps a student resolve a sexual issue, he is approached by Maeve (Emma Mackey).  She is a beautiful, smart, and outwardly confident but internally troubled student with a false reputation for being promiscuous.  She proposes that the two of them start a little underground sex therapy clinic for the students where Otis helps them with their sexual issues while Maeve handles the financial side of the business along with finding future student patients for Otis.  As Otis conducts his therapy sessions, his status at school improves.  Unfortunately, so does his stress due to his own impotency issues, his necessity to keep his therapy work secret, and his slow growing attraction to Maeve and she to him.

“Sex Education” is hysterical.  Each episode explores some student or faculty member’s sexual issue right from the get go.  Just about nothing, either gay or straight, is off limits or taboo for this show.  However, this series is far more than a cheap titillating sex comedy show with heavy handed humor and card board characterizations.  “Education” is also a well-developed drama which discusses some serious contemporary issues in a thoughtful and intelligent way.  It is extremely well written allowing the entire cast to develop detailed complex characters that are believable and full of true feeling.  This was due to series creator Laurie Dunn, who wanted the show to be an homage to the John Hughes high school films of the 1980s (“The Breakfast Club”, etc.).  Well, my own honest opinion is that “Sex Education’ is better than the John Hughes films due to its honest depiction, not just of sexual issues, but of human relationships in general.  No one on the show is ever always right or ever always wrong.  No one is ever always bad or ever always good either.  And most importantly, no one on the show is so set in their ways that they cannot see an opposing view and even change with time.  This is a comedy drama where you see individuals, both adults and teenagers learning about themselves and gaining wisdom and understanding about life in general.  Each year, “Sex Education” is getting better and better along with every character showing more and more complexity and self-awareness.  That makes it truly special.  It has been a long, long time since I can honestly say that a particular television series is truly touching.  “Sex Education” definitely is!

The last two motion pictures that I want to highlight about teachers striving to help teens to learn, and to grow are serious dramas that have achieved past acclaim, and are both still relevant after all of these years.  They also have another thing in common.  Both films have a great performance by actor Robin Williams.  These two films are “Dead Poets Society” (1989) and “Good Will Hunting” (1997).  “Dead Poets” starred Williams as John Keating, a new English teacher at Welton Academy, an all-male elite prep school in Vermont in 1959.  Keating’s teaching methods are unorthodox to say the least. They include everything from having the students stand on the top of their desks to look at life from a different perspective to even having them make up their own distinct way of walking outdoors to encourage each of them to develop his own individuality.  The students enthusiastically take to his new way of teaching and branch out into developing new interests and passions, which Keating defines by the Latin expression of carpe diem meaning, “Seize the day!”  They even discover that Keating, a Welton alumni, was formerly a member of the unsanctioned Dead Poets Society when he was a student there.  The students resurrect the club which basically consists of their sneaking off into the woods to read and recite poetry and verse, including some of their own compositions.  As the year progresses, they each more and more live their lives more fully on their own terms.  Unfortunately, the prep school’s administration is steeped in rigid conformity which is contrary to both Keating’s teaching methods and even the existence of a group like the Dead Poets Society.  This conflict will ultimately result in tragedy.

“Dead Poets” was a huge hit that year thanks to fine direction by Peter Weir and a fine original screenplay by Tom Schulman who won an Oscar.  Weir did not have the picture focus primarily on Williams’ Keating, but rather on the students themselves, and how they were affected by Keating’s teaching.  This does nothing to diminish Williams’ performance which is mostly restrained and thoughtful which was not how Williams was ordinarily thought to be able to do convincingly.  Also fortunate was that the students, played by a young Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and others all gave fine performances too.  Weir, Williams, and the picture itself all received well deserved Academy Award nominations although none of them won.  Interestingly, at that same time, a number of film critics like Siskel and Ebert, Leonard Maitin, John Simon, etc. were dismissive of the film as a whole.  That’s OK!  Like I have said a number of times, always remember my personal mantra… “The Critics are full of S&*T!”  Carpe Diem, Dear Reader!

“Good Will Hunting”, directed very well by Gus Van Sant (“Drugstore Cowboy”) tells the tale of Will Hunting (Matt Damon in a star making performance), a wayward young adult with genius level intelligence, especially in mathematics, who works as just a janitor at MIT.  When Will secretly solves a complex mathematical problem left on a blackboard for graduate students and later, after getting into a gang fight where he is arrested, the professor who discovered that Will was the one who solved his problem confronts Will and gives him a choice.  Either Will can go to jail or agree to be released into his personal supervision where Will must study mathematics and also see a psychotherapist.  Will grudgingly agrees and ultimately is referred to Dr. Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) to address anger issues and self-loathing from abuse that he received as a foster child.  “Hunting” is helped by a great Oscar winning screenplay written by Damon and Ben Affleck who also plays his friend Chuckie in the film.  Damon is fantastic as Will, so cynically smart yet so secretly self-hating that he’d rather deliberately sabotage all of his interpersonal relationships because of the fear of failure which would cause him additional emotional pain.  He is equally matched by Williams as Dr. Maguire, restrained, analytical, but capable of pushing Will’s emotional buttons as well as having to take stock of his own issues when Will cruelly pushes Maguire’s emotional buttons right back.  Both individuals learn from each other and the best scenes in the entire movie are their fascinating interactions with each other.  By the time the Academy Awards came around, Robin Williams wasn’t denied this time.  He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. After twenty-five years, “Good Will Hunting” can still touch your heart!

Well, that raps it up for now!  You can have magical schools of learning like those in the various Harry Potter films.  You can also have superhero schools of learning like Professor Charles Xavier and his X Men school for mutants.  Or maybe you can just have something smaller, like a chronicle of a first year Harvard Law School student having to face the formidable Professor Charles W. Kingfield played so expertly by John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.”  The choices are almost limitless regarding motion pictures and television shows about places of learning or ways for individuals to learn and to seek wisdom.  Whatever, choices you may have made, Dear Reader in what you have wanted to learn, and what wisdom you may have attained …

I hope you became a better person because of it!

See you next month!


Lock Em Up!

Hilts: “You see the way the goons got those towers placed?”

Goff: (glancing at the towers) “Yeah.”

Hilts: “There’s a blind spot right in the middle.”

Goff: “A blind spot?”

Hilts: “A guy could stand at that wire and not be seen by that tower or that tower.  The one on the end is too far, they’d never see me, especially at night.”

Goff: “You’re crazy.”

Hilts: “You think so?  Well, let’s find out, right now!”

[Steve McQueen to Jud Taylor, “The Great Escape” (1963)]

We all enjoy freedom or at least what we feel is something that can reasonably be called “Freedom.”  Let’s say, you are taking a walk in the woods, and you see some plant growing around or through something in its way rather than be restrained.  No living thing likes to be impeded or imprisoned.  There is also an inherent need for every human being to be physically free, and when an individual is confined or constrained, they will just about do anything to escape or to be free in some other way.  Numerous movies and various television dramas have explored this dynamic in many different, varied, and surprising ways.  It is a subject that this month’s Blog Post will explore in further detail.

Two famous works of literature exploring one’s imprisonment, escape, and ultimate triumph were both written by Alexandre Dumas.  They are “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.”  “Cristo” told the tale of 19-year-old Edmond Dantes, who, in 1815, is unjustly denounced as a traitor and sentenced to life imprisonment at Chateau d’lf in France.  After being imprisoned for fourteen years, but educated during his imprisonment by a fellow prisoner who also tells him where to find a hidden treasure, he finally escapes and finds said treasure making him fabulously wealthy.  He then proceeds to seek retribution against all of those who framed him.  This popular adventure tale has been adapted so many times for films and television that it defies belief.  It also has been done for numerous theatrical plays and musicals, audio adaptions, animated adaptions, and even video games.  “Mask,” which was based on an actual historical fact that during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, a particular individual sentenced to life imprisonment was forced to wear an iron mask for the rest of his life, was also adapted by Dumas into a rousing adventure tale.  In Dumas tale, this man was supposedly King Louis’s identical twin, Philippe, who was helped by the “Three Musketeers” (Yep, those swashbuckling guys again) to escape and take the King’s throne.  Although not as insanely popular as “Cristo,” it still had a number of popular film and television adaptions made.  Maybe the best versions of both tales were performed by the same actor, Richard Chamberlain, who ably starred in two well received made-for-television film adaptions made in 1975 and 1977.

However, criminals or unjustly convicted individuals incarcerated in prisons were also a surprisingly popular subject for films and television.  An early acclaimed film focusing on the horrors of the Georgia chain gang prison system, and adapted from the memoir by Robert E. Burns, was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  This film starred Paul Muni as veteran James Allen who, when unsuccessful in finding any work while drifting into poverty in the South, is arrested and sentenced to the Georgia chain gang after being tricked into becoming an accomplice in a robbery.  Warner Bros. Studios in the nineteen thirties was the Hollywood standard-bearer in tackling socially relevant issues in the USA, and this hard driving and brutal expose of the chain gang system prevalent in the South caused an uproar.  Both the book and this movie helped to ultimately bring an end to the Georgia chain gang system.  As a film, this downbeat movie was, for it’s time, pretty brutal although the censors never allowed the studio to mention exactly where in the South this story took place.  Hmm!  Maybe it was in Never-never Land!

Anyhoo, upon its release (no pun intended) this film was banned in Georgia, LeRoy and Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Bro. were both barred from entering the state, and a libel suit was filed against the studio by the state of Georgia as well as by two prison wardens.  None of them won a Damn thing!  My own opinion is that, even though this picture is pretty dated, it still has some powerful moments, and Muni’s performance is still gripping.  Although he was justifiably, at times, criticized for overacting, Muni was also a powerful and commanding presence on both the stage and screen.  He was justly Oscar nominated for his performance.  By the film’s end, he has a final scene where he is on the run again and meets his girlfriend to wish her a permanent goodbye on a dark street at night.  She asks, “How do you live?” Then, in a closeup of his desperate and frightened face, he replies, “I steal,” before his face disappears into the darkness! Someone once said, bluntly, of Paul Muni, “That baby can act!”  He sure could Dear Reader.  He sure could!

Of course, most prison movies did not pertain to people wrongly incarcerated.  Fortunately, a number of them were still excellent films about life behind bars and not just films about convicts trying to escape.  For every great prison escape film like “Brute Force” (1947), you also had a fine film like “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) about prison life in general.  Although not as well-known as those two and with a much smaller budget, I especially want to mention “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), an excellent film about prison life, and the equal to those two pictures as well.  “Riot” concerns a prison riot (no surprise there) where a bunch of hardened inmates overpower the guards in their cell block and use them as negotiation pawns to demand changes to their brutal living conditions.  Their leader is Dunn (Neville Brand), who makes his demands to their liberal-minded prison warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) who has also been complaining about these same conditions for years to his higher ups to no avail.  As the negotiations drag on, the tension builds, not helped by a bureaucracy that is intransient to their demands, and by the instability of one of the other inmate leaders, Carnie (Leo Gordon), a violent psychopath nicknamed, “Crazy Mike.” “Riot” was directed by the always underrated Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), a great action/suspense director, who could crank up the tension with the best of them.  Some of the people involved in the making of this film actually had their own personal experiences of life in a penitentiary.  Actor Gordon previously served five years for armed robbery in San Quentin, and producer Walter Wanger previously served a 4-month prison term for shooting (in the groin) his wife’s lover.  This film was shot on location at Folsom State Prison using real inmates and guards in background roles.  Brand and Meyer, usually better known for playing “bad guys” or in supporting roles, gave standout performances in the lead roles.  The issues reflected in “Riot” along with the overall downbeat conclusion of this film have only been repeated over and over again in real life, all the way up to our present day.  Maybe some things will never change!

Speaking of some things that actually do change, but not in a good way, were prison films involving women incarcerated.  There were a few that were made during the pre-code and censorship days, but when the censorship laws were finally relaxed or ultimately eliminated, starting around the end of the nineteen sixties, a virtual tidal wave of “women in prison” films were made for release to the general public.  Besides the fact that around 99% of them were made with a budget less than what you would find in a “piggy bank”, quality-wise, they were all not even good enough to deposit into your local garbage dump.  Of course, although it did provide enough lame excuses to show as much female nudity, violence, and Lesbian sex as was humanly possible for adults and prepubescent teens to enjoy, the general degradation of women was not a factor that anyone making these films seemed to care anything about.  Television, sort of, got into the act too, but it blew up in their faces bigtime when actress Linda Blair, who got an Academy Award nomination at age 14 for the overrated “The Exorcist” (1973), followed that one up with the controversial NBC made-for-television prison drama, “Born Innocent” (1974).  Here, her character, a constant trouble making runaway from an abusive home, is sentenced to a girls’ juvenile detention center where she is later graphically raped by other girls in a shower during her incarceration.  Although TV censorship rules didn’t show any nudity or the extreme violence found often in films, and it was the highest rated TV movie for that year, it caused such an uproar among the general viewing public that it was one of the catalysts for the National Association of Broadcasters creating a family viewing policy since this was definitely an “adult,” rather than a “family” friendly movie.  Funny thing, around 10 years later Linda Blair did do a couple of prison sexploitation films [“Chained Heat” (1983) and “Red Heat” (1985)] where her acting skills were basically relegated into how often she removed her clothes.  Well, at least she did get a Raspberry Award nomination as Worst Actress of the Year for one of them.  For which one, you may ask Dear Reader?  Does it really matter?

Nevertheless, there was one truly great “women in prison” motion picture made years earlier that still holds up very well after all of these years.   That picture is “Caged” (1950) starring Eleanor Parker.  Here she played Marie, a 19-year-old innocent sentenced to prison as an accomplice to her husband in a robbery that went bad.  Now with her husband dead, and herself pregnant, she has to face surviving in a tough prison environment amongst the inmates, and deal with a monstrous and sadistic prison matron named Evelyn (Hope Emerson).  “Caged” was definitely not an exploitation film, but a serious drama about the dehumanization of an individual, and how the prison environment can create worse criminals instead of rehabilitating them.  The screenplay by Virginia Kellogg is terrific, and she even arranged, with the assistance of authorities, to be incarcerated for a while with a false conviction in four different prisons to ensure its accuracy.  “Caged” was also directed very well by John Cromwell (“Of Human Bondage”) who captured the grim, drab existence of prison life, and how it could drain the humanity out of anyone.  Eleanor Parker gives an incredible performance slowly losing her innocence while changing into a hardened future criminal by the film’s end.  Both she, Emerson, and Kellogg all received well deserved Academy Award nominations for their efforts.  If you ever want to see maybe, the one really great film about women incarceration, see “Caged.”

Made-for-television films and cable series were also capable of producing excellent dramas about prison life.  For example, on cable you had HBO’s “Oz” (1997-03) about an experimental unit in a men’s prison which was created by Tom Fontana (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), and who also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes.  You also had Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” (2013-19), based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her experiences in a women’s minimum security federal prison in Danbury, CT. starring Taylor Schilling as Kerman.  Both series were well received and were nominated for multiple awards over the years.  An example of a couple of great award-winning made-for-television prison films were CBS’s “The Glass House” (1972), and especially, ABC’s “The Jericho Mile” (1979).

“Mile” starred Peter Strauss (“Rich Man, Poor man”) as Larry “Rain” Murphy, a loner serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for killing his abusive father.  Nicknamed “Lickety-Split” due to his obsession for running around the prison yard, he doesn’t know how fast he actually is until he attracts the notice of the prison psychologist who has someone time him.  Once they discover how fast he really is, the warden has the state track and field coach (Ed Lauter) bring in a couple of top distance runners to compete against him and who he handily beats.  It’s at this point that the coach, with the warden’s approval, starts to train Murphy to possibly compete in the upcoming Olympic trials.  Unfortunately, conflicts between rival prison gangs along with Murphy’s sole friend, Stiles’ (Richard Lawson) involvement in the gang situation may derail his plans.  “Mile” was an original story by Patrick J. Nolan adapted by Michael Mann (“Miami Vice”, “The Insider”, “Heat”, etc.) who also directed.  This was Mann’s breakthrough film that launched his motion picture directing career, and despite TV network restrictions back then (for language, violence, etc.) it is still terrific.  His direction shows the intensity, fast editing, use of music, and sudden violence that his future films were known for.  He is matched in that intensity by Strauss’s performance as Murphy.  He’s an unrepentant “lifer”, perfectly willing (as they say) “to do the time” rather than submit to society’s need for him to express remorse for his past crime.  Strauss won an Emmy for his performance as did Mann and Nolan for their screenplay.  Whether it’s a prison film, a sports film, an inspirational film, or all of the above, it doesn’t really matter.  All I can say about it is that it’s a Damn fine film!

Prisoner of war movies or films about individuals imprisoned under a dictatorship can also qualify as dramas about incarceration, and many films have also been made under this classification.  Of course, some of them could really be putrid like, for example, “Prisoner of War” (1954) with such noted thespians as Steve Forrest (Dana Andrews less talented younger brother), Dewey Martin (who makes Tab Hunter look good by comparison), and Ronald Reagan (before he decided to make a career change) as POWs (all with perfectly coiffed hair) in North Korea brutally treated by Oskar Homolka (who played more spies and Russian officials than Hugh Hefner had girlfriends).  All I can say about this film is… Boo!  Bad!  Ugo!  Ugo!  Now you also had some really good ones like the French World War I prisoner of war film, “The Grand Illusion” (1937), and the Brazilian “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985), a drama about two prisoners sharing a prison cell during a Brazilian military dictatorship.  However, the one that I really want to praise in this genre is the great World War II prisoner of war escape film, “The Great Escape” (1963).

“Escape” chronicled the true story of one of the largest POW mass escapes in World War II.  Although the names of all of the characters were changed, a number of the individuals portrayed were fictitious or composites of a number of different persons, and most of the incidents (especially by the POWs after they escaped) were also fictitious, it is still, one great movie.  The details of how the escape occurred, how the escape tunnel was built, and how the POW concentration camp looked is extremely accurate.  The film is also great due to terrific direction by John Sturges.  At his best, Sturges was a great action and suspense director, and for an almost three-hour film, it never drags and is almost always engrossing.  He is helped by a great film score by Elmer Bernstein and expert cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp (“West Side Story”) who captures both the beautiful European landscapes while also capturing the claustrophobic conditions the POWs endured while digging their escape tunnel.  Best of all is the acting by his large ensemble cast.  James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, and others in smaller roles all have their moments to shine acting-wise.  And then, there’s Steve McQueen’s performance as Virgil Hilts!  As good as everybody else was, McQueen steals the film.  His Hilts is sardonic, irreverent, subtly insolent, and quietly intense, a loner who escapes so often that after being repeatedly recaptured and placed in solitary confinement (The Cooler) he is nicknamed, “The Cooler King.”  Everyone always remembered him in “Escape” for his wild motorcycle ride across the German countryside where it seemed almost like the entire Third Reich was after him.  However, I prefer to remember him best for his little scene just after his friend Ives is shot dead while trying to escape.  The sudden shock of it on his face and then his quiet non-verbal facial change into intense determination to quit being a loner and join with helping the mass escape attempt is just plain great acting.  “The Great Escape” is a fine film.

Some other more recent prison dramas have been made, ranging from good to bad:

  • The Good: The Clint Eastwood picture, “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) with Clint playing real life con, Frank Norris who engineered an escape with three others in a makeshift raft in 1962 where, to this day, it is believed that they all drowned.  Despite making the inmates, along with Clint’s Norris, a little too likeable, and the prison staff a little too unlikeable, it is directed expertly, once again, by Don Siegel who crafted a great suspense film.
  • The Bad: The Sylvester Stallone turkey, “Escape Plan” (2013) with Sylvester unintentionally laughable as a lawyer(?) turned prison security tester(?)  incarcerated in the world’s most “special super-secret secure” prison (Try saying that one five times).  Watching Stallone try to play some high-tech savvy security expert is sort of like watching an ape trying to put a square peg into a round hole over and over and over again.  Fortunately, I executed my own escape plan when I saw  Sylvester’s film.  It was right through the “Exit” door of the movie theater.

However, the last great prison drama that I want to praise for this month’s Blog Post, and which is based on a Steven King novella, is the film, “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994).  “Shawshank” starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947 for the supposed murder of his wife and her lover and his friendship with “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a fellow long-term lifer who, in voiceover, tells the story of Andy over the next two decades there.  Although this could be considered an escape film, it’s really a relationship drama between these two individuals, their fellow prisoners (James Whitmore, William Sadler, Gil Bellows, etc.) and Andy’s interactions with his sanctimoniously corrupt prison warden, Norton (Bob Gunton), and the warden’s equally corrupt sadistic captain of the guards Hadley (Clancy Brown).  Frank Darabont brilliantly directed this story, also providing a terrific screenplay which allowed every actor’s performance to stand out.  He also utilized Roger Deakins incredible cinematography and Thomas Neuman’s delicate film score to highlight, rather than distract, from the powerful dramatic and emotional scenes.   Maybe the best film scene, of which there were many, is a sequence after Andy obtains a recording of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” from a recent library donation and proceeds to play it (after locking the door) over the prison’s public address system.  No words are spoken but the inmates and even some of the prison staff stop whatever they are doing and just listen as the cinematography sweeps over all of the inmates on the prison grounds while showing the contentment on Andy’s face.  That, Dear Reader, is just plain outright great directing, and this film should have won the Oscar for Best Picture that year.  Unfortunately, “Shawshank” was not a financial success when first released, and despite the fact that it received a number of Academy Award nominations [Best Picture, Screenplay, Music Score, Actor (Freeman), etc.], it won…Nothing!  The greatest insult of all was that Darabont wasn’t even nominated for Best Director.  However, maybe now he is having the last laugh because “The Shawshank Redemption” has only grown, just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, more and more popular, and has received more and more acclaim over the following years.  It is now considered an American classic of hope and of humanity!

In closing, to quote Andy Dufresne…

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really.  Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

It’s a simple choice for all of us to make!

Isn’t it?



Dave Bowman: “Open the pod doors HAL.”

HAL: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Dave Bowman: “What’s the problem?”

HAL: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”

Dave Bowman: “What are you talking about, HAL?”

HAL: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.” 

[Keir Dullea to HAL, “2001, A Space Odyssey” (1968)]

For anyone under forty (or maybe even fifty) you probably never had certain restrictions that the rest of us had when we were your age.  Back then, we didn’t have the variety now available from various streaming services and numerous cable packages.  For example, when I was in that age range, I used to love watching ABC’s “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” documentary specials, NBC’s “The Wonderful World of Disney” nature documentary films and TV show episodes, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”, and even, before I knew any better, a little thing called “The American Sportsman” which was also on ABC on Sundays.  Now why would I say, “before I knew any better?”  Well, it was because “The American Sportsman” not only highlighted outdoor recreational activities such as hang gliding, whitewater kayaking, etc., but it also had various celebrities participating in hunting and/or fishing trips which too often devolved into hunting and killing big game.  While I readily admit back then that I thoroughly enjoyed watching some celebrity hunting dangerous big game, after awhile it finally sunk into my thick skull that, other than for food, why were these people killing such non-edible animals like lions, grizzly bears, cape buffalo, elephants, etc. other than it was (1) to show that they could do it, (2), to hang some future trophy on their wall, (3) to get a little extra publicity or money from ABC for themselves, and maybe, (4) for ABC to get big ratings by attracting the hunting community’s viewers while also providing a way for a lot of us non-hunters to sate our own blood lust urges by vicariously feeling like we were actually with William Shatner, Andy Griffith, Larry Hagman, Redd Fox, Shelly Hack, etc. killing these creatures while safely sitting at home with a beer in hand (Yes, I know, that was an extremely long “run on” sentence).  Perhaps we all had in us our own kind of “dark passenger” like Michael C. Hall’s serial killer Dexter Morgan did after all.

Now, you can avail yourself to such things as the National Geographic Channel, Discovery’s “Animal Planet”, and even “ESPN Classic” which rebroadcast episodes of American Sportsman after having a prior revival of the show titled “The New American Sportsman” on ESPN2 from 2002-2006.  Fine documentaries are still being made too, such as the Oscar winning Netflix original documentary film, “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) since Jacques Cousteau is no longer around.  However, Dear Reader maybe also around now you are probably thinking, “Is that what I am actually going to discuss for this month’s Blog Post?  Wildlife Documentaries?  Really?”  Well, not exactly!

You see, previously, motion pictures had expanded outside of continually being made inside film studios to the Great Outdoors.  Studios found that it could be more financially feasible and profitable to shoot films on location both domestically and overseas rather than to build fake sets at home.  This was especially useful with regards to making big budget epics even after the development of CGI, and a number of great films were made, and continue to be made all the way up to the present day.  Unfortunately, with this development, a new sort of problem arose regarding big budget motion pictures along with some smaller ones as well.  Pictures were now being made by directors more focused on making a picture with pretty artsy-fartsy visuals rather than actually making a movie with any real dramatic or believable depth.  Despite the pretty visuals, such films were actually, “Pretty…Awful!”  It is this development that this month’s Blog Post will discuss.

A great director that definitely wasn’t one of those artsy-fartsy types was British Director David Lean.  His pictures were known for being visually stunning helped by a number of great British cinematographers, so much so, that maybe from the period of 1945 to 1980 they were absolutely the best in the world.  The proof of that was in the number of Oscars that they were either nominated for or won with the help of David Lean.  For example, you had…

  • “Great Expectations” (1946): Oscar winner for best Black-and-White cinematography (Guy Green).
  • “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Jack Hildyard).
  • “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “Doctor Zhivago” (1965): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970): Oscar winner for best Cinematography – Color (Freddie Young).
  • “A Passage to India” (1984): Oscar nominated for best Cinematography – Color (Ernest Day).

However, these pictures, along with others that he directed, were not just visually stunning.  Most of them, whether good or bad (I’m looking at YOU, “Ryan’s Daughter”), usually had complex storylines with brilliant screenplays that Lean utilized to elicit powerful and memorable performances with only a few “bad” exceptions [like YOU TOO, Christopher Jones (“Ryan’s Daughter”)].  Whether it was the dark English countryside or London slums for his two great Charles Dickens’ adaptions, the wild Irish coastline, or such international locales as the canals of Venice, the jungles of Burma, the deserts in Arabia, the vastness of revolutionary Russia, and the India of the 1920s under British rule, Lean’s films, both large and small were textbook examples of how to show visually brilliant motion pictures, while at the same time, telling complex stories of individuals in a realistic and believable manner.  Unfortunately, just like the movie “Ben-Hur” led to a lot of really bad biblical movies being made afterwards, I believe that Lean’s influence led to a lot of visually stunning, but dramatically empty motion pictures being made ever since.  Even worse, a number of these glorified National Geographic films were highly acclaimed Academy Award winners along with being financially successful too.  However, who started this ball rolling?  There could be many opinions as to who was this first directing culprit.  I definitely have my own choice of who started and popularized this sort of garbage.  I feel that person was Stanley Kubrick!

In previous Blog Posts I had mentioned that Kubrick was one of the most overrated Asshole Film Directors that I have ever seen, but I never explained why.  Well, that is going to change right now.  While he made some fine films earlier in his career like “Paths of Glory” (1957) and “Spartacus” (1960) (maybe due to Kirk Douglas keeping Kubrick’s excessive tendencies in check) along with “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), he also made three of the worst visually stunning but dramatically feeble pictures that I have ever seen.  Those three were “2001:  A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), and “The Shining” (1980).

“2001”, supposedly based on a short story by Arthur C. Clarke had groundbreaking, for its time, visual and Oscar winning special effects.  What it didn’t have was… anything else.  The screenplay was deliberately almost non-existent with the two main actors (Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea) more lifeless than a speck of dust since he deliberately wanted the film to be a nonverbal experience that didn’t rely on a traditional narrative structure.  And it was!  It was a boring and long (142 minutes originally reduced from 161 minutes) nonverbal experience.  Instead of a music score he just used classical music which had no emotional or dramatic relationship to any scenes just to create some sort of a mood.  Now Dear Reader, does this kind of seem like a documentary with a few human reenactments thrown in?  Well, it sure does to me!  Also, you could tell after “2001’s” release that it was a crock of S**t because Lockwood, Dullea, Kubrick, Clarke, and maybe some drunk on a park bench all had different explanations for what it all possibly meant including the movie’s weird psychedelically incomprehensible ending.  Honestly, if I had to pick one of their explanations, I think I’d take the drunk on the park bench’s version, Monty, for ten bucks!  When “2001” was released, it was not, at first, a financial success, and had numerous people walking out either during or afterwards scratching their heads wondering “What in the ever-loving F**k did I just see!”  Kubrick, like the arrogant and pompous asshole that he was known to be, must have thought that it was beneath himself to actually provide an understandable explanation of what his movie was all about to the viewing public.  However, ultimately, it became a financially successful arthouse film classic especially among loads of stoned out Collage students in the following decades.  It also drew acclaim from a number of nose-up-in-the-air film critics (who also must have been stoned), that thought Kubrick’s non-traditional direction was brilliant rather than having balls the size of a flea to admit that “2001” was just a piece of boring incomprehensible Crap made by a poser artiste!

“Barry Lyndon,” was (very loosely) based on an 1844 novel by William Thackeray that told the story of the rise and ultimate downfall of an Irish rogue.  This 187-minute molasses uphill slog should have had someone like Peter O’Toole, Michael Caine or Albert Finney in the title role since they were all great actors who could personally pull off carrying such a visually epic film.  Kubrick’s choice:  Ryan O’Neal (who makes Christopher Jones look like Lawrence Oliver by comparison).  Despite “Lyndon” winning some Oscars (cinematography, costumes, art direction, etc.), for once, a lot of critics along with some of the general viewing public saw through Kubrick’s cold, lifeless, unemotional directing style which focused more on the pretty visuals, sets, and costumes rather than the actual storyline, and a lot of them were not pleased.  Also, by having O’Neal, who emoted about as convincingly as one of those giant balloons floating in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in the lead, it only demonstrated that Kubrick picked O’Neal for his “pretty boy” face alone, rather than his acting skills, since having a real actor on the screen might distract viewers from focusing on Kubrick’s visually sleep-inducing masterpiece!  “The Shining”, based on the Steven King horror novel, only had more of Kubrick’s same old Shit of using mostly classical music (badly) rather than a real film score, a badly altered adaption of the novel that royally pissed off King, an over reliance on visual technical wizardry like his over use of the Steadicam, an overlong film length (144 minutes), the same cold, lifeless, and detached directing style, and continued miscasting like Shelley Duvall (constantly shrieking worse than a tea kettle lid) and Jack Nicholson [in a warm-up before grossly overacting as the Joker in “Batman” (1989)].  It’s poetic justice that for the “Golden Raspberry Awards” that year, Kubrick was nominated for Worst Director for “The Shining.”  Oh, and as for him being such a total perfectionist control freak, his visually stunning opening panoramic overhead camera shot of a vehicle traveling up a Rocky Mountain Road also happened to include the shadow of the helicopter shooting the scene.  Ops!  Yeah, he’s a cinematic “GENIUS” alright!  When Pigs Fly!

Moving right along, you had other visually stunning but awful as well as overly, long epic films which would have been better served if they just removed all of the actors and showed them on the Travel Channel instead.  Some of these insomnia reducers were:

  • Out of Africa (1985): Despite Meryl Streep giving Robert Redford an acting lesson playing Danish Karen Blixen in 1913 British East Africa, this turgid romantic melodrama was more concerned with helping African tourism by showing as many shots of herds of African wildlife running along the countryside rather than watching Redford, try to play a Brit named Denys Finch Hatton (with an American accent).  My “English Leather” Deodorant Speed Stick was more authentic than his performance, and all the pretty scenery in the world couldn’t save this film from crashing worse than Redford did, not soon enough, in a biplane, by the end of this film.
  • The Mission (1986): It’s the indigenous Indians and Jesuits of the Paraguayan jungle of the 1750s vs. the Spanish forces sent to kill/enslave all of them.  Who will win?  Director Roland Joffe sure doesn’t care!  He would rather show as much of the jungle, rivers, and the towering Iguazu Falls than anything else.  While doing so, he seemed to have forgotten how to explain why all of the Spanish forces were able to climb up the sheer rock face of the Falls while pulling up their cannons, canoes, pianos, refrigerators, bank vault, Mama Cass Elliot, etc. behind them, and that none of the Indians and Jesuits thought to do anything like cutting all of their climbing ropes, or raining arrows, rocks, musket balls, spit balls, naughty words, etc. from the top of the Falls down on them before they reached the top and wiped them all out.  Oh well, I guess they were all too busy praying or watching all the pretty scenery to be bothered!
  • The Last Emperor (1987): Let’s do a film about the last Chinese Emperor Puyi (or is it Pee-Yew?).  And let’s have “legend in his own mind” John Lone (Who?) star.  And let’s have unapologetic Marxist Bernardo Bertolucci, whose greatest claim to fame was making the lovingly photographed Porn/Rape film, “The Last Tango in Paris” direct.  And let’s get it to be the first Western feature film authorized by the People’s Republic of China to be filmed in the “Forbidden City” in Beijing to show off all the pretty visuals.  And let’s allow the Communist Govt. (with Bertolucci’s eager concurrence) complete control over how the film will portray China, under Mao (who was the 2nd greatest mass murderer in history after Joseph Stalin) as being such a wonderful paradise after Puyi was properly tortur… I mean, re-educated.  And let’s just keep looking at all the pretty visuals over and over again, and forget about questioning anything else!
  • Dances With Wolves (1990): Kevin Costner goes native, while filming the vast Western Indian plains over and over, looking sorrowful, speaking the Lakota Sioux language badly, and playing their “great white savior.”  And let’s also not forget that all the Lakota Sioux are always very “good” and all the Caucasians (except Mary McDonnell and Cecil B. De-Costner) are always very “bad.”  Oh, and let’s also keep showing those vast plains, mountains, buffalo, Costner’s profile, etc. even more until you feel a strong urge to run to the nearest skyscraper to either (1) jump off the top of it or, (2) grab Kevin Costner by his flowing “Lassie” length locks of hair and throw him off the top of it instead!

All four of these aforementioned pictures won the Oscar that year for Best Cinematography which they all justly deserved.  Unfortunately, that is the only thing they deserved.  The sad thing is that three of them also won the Oscar for Best Picture along with numerous other Academy Awards.  I guess that it just goes to show that for film critics and the general public at large, “A sucker is born every minute!”

Lastly, I want to mention two other smaller, non-epics, but still “pretty” awful films for special condemnation.  The first one is “Enchanted April” (1991) which was a story of four dissimilar women in 1920s England who decide to leave their drab and gray rainy surroundings and rent a villa for a month in Italy.  Two of them have troubled marriages, another lost her boyfriend in World War I, and the fourth, is elderly and set in her ways.  They all arrive and, almost like magic, their surroundings are so wonderful that the two married women along with their husbands who arrive later all change and become gloriously happy again while the one who lost her love finds new love, and even the elderly one starts to be joyous.  The end!  While watching this film, between trying not to fall asleep and trying not to throw up, I noticed that maybe the two most annoying things about it was first, the inane idea that a trip somewhere sunny would solve everyone’s problems.  If that were the case, the entire psychiatric profession would be put out of business.  Second, the overt and distracting “pretty” visuals of the villa, the flowers, the ocean, and the sunshine where everything sparkled, and which took up so much of the viewing time were utilized to possibly try and hide the fact that this hackneyed and non humorous little film was sort of like having you sink your teeth into a delectable looking chocolate bonbon and discovering that the supposedly sweet filling inside was nothing more than a nugget of “Shit!”  This film made the crap on the Hallmark Channel seem like Oscar Wilde by comparison, but hey, maybe because it’s British, they thought that it was high art!  Right?  Wrong!

The second film turkey was a picture that came out in the past year to great acclaim and which, unfortunately, received twelve Academy Award nominations which were the most nominations for any film in 2021.  What picture was it, Dear Reader?  Why it’s…

“The Power of the Dog”

“Dog” is a psychological western that tells the story of kind hearted George (Jessie Plemons) and his extremely toxic masculine brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), co-owners of a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925.  When, after a cattle drive, Phil insults Rose (Kirsten Dunst), an innkeeper and her lisping effete son, Pete (queerer than a three-dollar bill), George steps in to quietly console her.  Shortly afterwards Rose, a widow, and George immediately marry and Rose and her son move into the brothers’ home, an action that sets the stage for Phil’s increasing hostility towards Rose and Pete.  This film was populated with fine actors and had a good performance by Cumberbatch.  It also had beautiful visuals of mountain ranges, plains, landscapes, trees, rocks, blades of grass, various plant life, streams, etc. heightened by sensitive lighting highlighting the color tones of everything.  If any gardeners or landscapers were in the viewing audience, they’d probably be wetting their pants in joy right about now.  However, there was only one little problem with “Dog” (Dear Reader you are probably now thinking…Uh-Oh, here it comes…) it was a truly awful picture, due to Jane Campion’s gross ineptitude as a film director.

What’s wrong with it?  Let me count the ways!  First, Campion deliberately directs everything slow even the dialogue between the actors in her pretty little scenes.  If you had to take a bathroom break while watching it, don’t worry!  By the time you got back to your seat a character would still be saying the remainder of that same line of dialogue that you were starting to hear when you left to take a leak.  Second, the overt homoerotic overtones emanating from Phil were obvious, but Campion was so heavy handed that she even inserted a non-subtle visual reference to painter Thomas Eakin’s “The Swimming Hole” to make a point about Phil’s sexuality.  However, instead of nude boys frolicking, you now had nude Cow…boys.  As my sister used to elegantly say, “You don’t have to hit me over the head with a bucket of Dog S**t to make your point!”  Well, folks take a good sniff!  Jane Campion just did that to you!  Third, for all of these fine actors, except for Cumberbatch, none of them have any real backstory or depth so their characters are undeveloped and uninteresting.  Fourth, Campion completely neglects to utilize Dog’s film score to either show a character’s emotional changes or to develop tension or suspense.  Five, some of the plot developments are unbelievable or far-fetched.  For example, after George consoles Rose by helping her serve the cowboys their meals in the inn, the next thing you know, they get married.  Talk about a short courtship!  Or Phil, after mercilessly tormenting Pete suddenly changes and starts to strike up a sensitive friendship with him.  Huh???  Six, and last, besides her need to slowly show off all the pretty scenery (if I saw one more distance shot of a long road with a jalopy on it, I’d want to plant an IED on that road and blow that sucker up), her direction was so vague and oblique that by the end of “Dog,” just like for “2001,” I was saying, “What the Hell just happened?”  Sadly, although “Dog” only won one Oscar, it had to be for Campion winning one for Best Director.  Maybe they should have just hired Stevie Wonder to direct instead.  It couldn’t have been much worse!

Usually I like mentioning what my choice for Best Picture of the year is.  However, this is one time that I’m going to do something a little different.  Hence, for 2021, my pick for the Worst Picture of the Year is “The Power of the Dog” …