Monday, April 28, 2014


Only now does it occur to me...  that while John Cusack may not have actually delivered the worst Richard Nixon performance in history, he was probably the most miscast.  Let's take a look at some other cinematic Nixons:

Anthony Hopkins in NIXON.  Probably the best-known cinematic Nixon, and certainly a very well-acted one, but on the whole he's a little miscast and the movie's a touch bloated, I'd say.

Philip Baker Hall in SECRET HONOR.  Probably the most intense Nixon of the bunch, and in a one-man show, to boot.  There's a real intimate, terrifying artistry to his work.

Dan Hedaya in DICK.  My personal favorite.  I would go so far as to say that DICK is a severely underrated movie and one of the smartest comedies of the 90s.  People had been saying for years that Hedaya would make a great Nixon, and of course he did.  I mean, his eyebrows alone are better than Cusack.

And who could forget Frank Langella in FROST/NIXON? Oops!  That's the wrong picture.  That's Langella as "Skeletor" in MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE.  Here's the right one:
Another great performance that plays up the more condescending elements of Nixon's persona, the parts of him who always believed he was the smartest man in the room– invulnerable, even when the cold, hard truths were speaking otherwise.

Which leads us back to Cusack.  Who's not even trying.  They put a l'il Nixon nose on him– let's give them that– but that's all they did.  What we're looking at here is still John Cusack, doing a classic awkward Cusack mini-grin... while wearing a l'il Nixon nose.
You know what?  I'm prepared to revise my initial statement:  yes, this is the worst Nixon performance in film history, even worse than Buck McDancer in HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX.

The best thing we can take away from this is the new understanding that Cusack must have thought THE PAPERBOY BASED ON THE NOVEL "THE PAPERBOY" BY PETE DEXTER was actually a brilliant movie, hence his decision to work with Lee Daniels a second time.  (Or maybe it was just the money.)

There's plenty of other strange casting, too–
Why they cast Robin Williams as Eisenhower in a world where J.K. Simmons exists is sort of a head-scratcher:

Alan Rickman always brings some wonderful dickery to his roles, but he's still not quite right for Ronald Reagan:

And Mariah Carey gets her airbrushed face smudged with a little dirt for her role as a poor, 1920s sharecropper (though Lee Daniels employs a similar technique as Susan Seidelman did with Madonna in DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN– he keeps the part brief, and mostly non-speaking):

Whew.  Okay.  Three more observations:

#1.  Love the matching figure skater/SOUL TRAIN costumes on Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in this authentic 1970s tableau:
and I think the movie would have been better served if these outfits had rated more screen time.

#2. It's sort of amusing that Oprah has become so accustomed to award shows, state dinners, and the VIP treatment that she can no longer muster the excitement of attending one for the first time, even when her role demands it:

Unremitting ennui: the price of success

#3.  And finally, the venerable Clarence Williams III– in a bit part that amounts to basically "the Obi-Wan Kenobi of butlers"– might be the only person who walks away from this thing completely unscathed.

Though I still like him best when he's terrifying and teamed with John Glover.

In closing, LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER BASED ON THE ARTICLE "A BUTLER WELL SERVED BY THIS ELECTION" BY WIL HAYGOOD is no THE PAPERBOY BASED ON THE NOVEL "THE PAPERBOY" BY PETE DEXTER; it's not a hotbed of unintentional comedy or a purveyor of Southern Fried Sleaze-o-Rama, it doesn't induce any spit-takes, grand guffaws, or jellyfish-related urination.  No, it's just a mediocre Oscar grubber that's not too great, but not too bad, either.  It's about as deep as NBC's THE SIXTIES or FORREST GUMP or ACROSS THE UNIVERSE and for some, hell, that's deep enough.

–Sean Gill

Friday, April 25, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... CONSPIRACY THEORY

Only now does it occur to me...  that CONSPIRACY THEORY is one of the best documentaries of the 1990s.

It presents a complicated portrait of its subject, Mel Gibson, who, between films, supplements his income by working as a cabbie in New York City and peddling conspiracy theories to anyone who'll listen.  It explains how it was traces of government mind control conditioning that led to his mastery of the crazy-eye in the LETHAL WEAPON series (and beyond)

And how he used the art of collage to mend his wounded mind.
In its torture scenes  (this documentary contains not one, but two lengthy Gibson torture scenes!), it reveals the reasons behind Gibson's life-long obsession with sadomasochism (LETHAL WEAPON 1-4, RANSOM, PAYBACK, BRAVEHEART, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, et al.)
 The 'ole scotch tape on the eyeballs maneuver 

and in its capturing of the paranoid mindset, it shows that there are truly sinister cabals everywhere,

mostly of the sort that cause Gibson to wander out of a hospital and pop up, unannounced, in the backseat of your automobile.

In closing, it certainly ranks high among other Joel Silver-produced documentaries– such as the story of cryogenically frozen supercop John Spartan (as explored in DEMOLITION MAN), the quirky study of a musically inclined cat burglar (in HUDSON HAWK), and the exploits of a brassy bouncer who tames dirty bars (in ROAD HOUSE).

Monday, April 21, 2014

Film Review: STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989, William Shatner)

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 107 minutes.

Tag-line: "Why are they putting seatbelts in theaters this summer?"  [Why, indeed?!]
Notable Cast or Crew: William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, David Warner (TITANIC, TRON, TIME BANDITS), Laurence Luckinbill (COCKTAIL, THE BOYS IN THE BAND), Spice-Williams Crosby (famed stuntwoman, THE LOST BOYS, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, BATMAN & ROBIN).  Music by Jerry Goldsmith (ALIEN, POLTERGEIST, GREMLINS).
Best One-liner:  "Damn it, Spock!  God damn it!"

Though STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER could easily be remembered as the STAR TREK movie where Spock zips around in roller-blade rocket boots or the STAR TREK movie where Uhura puts the moves on Scotty, it should mostly be remembered as the STAR TREK movie where Captain Kirk kills God.  Allow me to elaborate.

Leonard Nimoy helmed STAR TREKS III and IV, and apparently watching his fellow cast-mate take the Director's chair inspired William Shatner to take a stab at one himself.  Already a veteran director– of exactly 10 episodes of T.J. HOOKER, that is– Shatner steps into the role like many actors who find themselves directing for the first time:  with a combination of utter sincerity, greenhorn amateurism, and a tremendous attention to detail- where acting specifics are concerned.  As such, the story, too (co-written by Shatner) is incredibly ambitious, often naïve, and grandly metaphysical, like the work of a college student who just took Philosophy 101 and is bursting with ideas- some of them fresh, some groan-worthy. 

With all that in mind, I would now like to examine my five favorite elements of this much-maligned fifth STAR TREK film:

#1.  The go-go dancing, three-breasted cat-woman.  

It must be noted that portions of this film take place on a desert planet, a poor man's Tatooine or Arrakis, you know, one of those planets where everybody wears a burlap sack and nobody has any fun.

On this planet (Nimbus III), there is a dive bar– and you all know I'm a sucker for dive bars. 

Inside this dive bar (nay, on this dive bar's bar) a three-breasted cat-woman lazily go-go dances

as the patrons sip their drinks and pretend not to look, afraid that eye contact will result in a community-theater-quality version of "Memory,"

and indeed I am absolutely certain that they swiped that costume from the wardrobe department of a regional production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's CATS.

Now, though this three-breasted woman predates TOTAL RECALL (1990) and comes after VICIOUS LIPS (1986, yet another movie to feature a three-breasted alien), I'm going to go ahead and say that TOTAL RECALL remains the cultural touchstone we most widely associate with three-breasted alien women.  Therefore, I would like to analyze the spectrum of human interest, using a Venn diagram to demonstrate that STAR TREK V truly has something for everyone:

I learned how to make a Venn diagram in Microsoft Office just so I could show this to you.  I hope you appreciate it.

#2.  David Warner.

Seems like everywhere you go, David Warner's around there someplace. Whether he's rocking out to Vanilla Ice, disapproving of folk dancing on Billy Zane's behalf, giving Stacey Keach a hair transplant, offering Neve Campbell acting pointers, psychoanalyzing Sam Neill, hunting lovable vampires, or smarmin' it up in a purple suit.  Like a bad penny, he always turns up– but unlike a bad penny, he's capable of delivering an engaging, nuanced performance.  (How proud I am to have enriched the English language with the brilliance of that sentence.)

He doesn't have a whole lot to do here, and when we first meet him, he looks pretty hung over:

When we last see him, he's all buttoned up and having a fine time at a Klingon cocktail party:

so I guess we've been through some kind of a hero's journey with him. 

#3.  Uhura reveals her true feelings for Scotty.

It would take too long and wouldn't really be worth it to explain what's happening there, but suffice it to say, Spock's half-brother (Laurence Luckinbill) is sending hippie vibes all over the Enterprise and it's like all those episodes from the original series where every other week somebody known for no-nonsense professionalism (Spock, McCoy, etc.) suddenly lets their hair down and gets wacky for twenty minutes or so before coming to their senses.  I always liked those episodes– it was like STAR TREK was momentarily hijacked by a soap opera.

#4.  The aforementioned rocket boots.

Are they stupid?  Yes.

Are they out of place in a movie that spends most of its run-time tackling the nature of spirituality with a straight face?  Assuredly.

Are they implausibly put to use on a regular basis?  Indubitably.

Do I love them?  Of course I do.

#5.  William Shatner vs. God.

I can already tell what you're thinking– how can William Shatner fight himself?  Well, contrary to William Shatner's opinion, I do not believe that William Shatner is, in fact, God.  Let's get to the bottom of this:  **SPOILERS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE TO FOLLOW**

So Spock's half-brother leads the Enterprise and her crew to the center of the galaxy to meet the being who many Earthlings, Vulcans, etc. have worshipped as "God" or "The Creator" or what-have-you.  The journey has some nice theosophical moments– mostly silly, sure, but occasionally it stumbles upon the subversive or the profound.  Anyway, they get to God:

who can change forms, but appears most comfortable as a giant blue head with fake eyebrows and a cheap Santa Claus beard.

Spock's half-brother is pretty excited to meet his maker, but the rest of the gang is fairly doubtful.  Note that Spock and McCoy appear uncomfortable/slightly dazed, whereas Kirk is peacocking, arms akimbo, already trying to upstage God.  Well, hold on to that thought.

God wants to borrow their spaceship, which seems perfectly reasonable until the 'Shat steps up to the plate, ready to poke a deity-sized hole in this religious experience:
"Excuse me."

 "What does God need with a starship?"

Now, to be fair, God kinda reacts like the God of the Old Testament would and shoots 80s lightning out of his eyes to smite the 'Shat:

which is sort of one of the best things I've ever seen.  Also, note that Shatner lives, and is thus invulnerable to smiting (which also explains the longevity of his music career).

We then get a cutaway to the Enterprise bridge so that Uhura and David Warner and some characters we don't really care about get to react with concern:

And then, with the look of an amazingly pouty teenager, the 'Shat asks (rhetorically?) "Why is God angry?" while McCoy looks on in shocked amazement.

Anyway, Shatner calls an airstrike in on God

and the Enterprise zaps a space torpedo down below which blows God up real good.

 Now I know that the takeaway here is probably that this bearded spirit was a con-man energy creature of some variety (he's skeptically referred to as "God" in the end credits), but who's to say– in the STAR TREK universe, anyway– that through his galaxy-wide psychic influence, he wasn't the being worshipped as a deity by much of mankind?
So my point is this: Kirk and crew regroup and the 'Shat says, "Let's get out of here."

I feel as if this was a MAJOR missed opportunity for a God-related action movie one-liner.  I shall now conclude this review with my Top Ten blasphemous one-liners that would have worked better for Shatner in this scene than a bland "Let's get out of here":

X.  (pithily murmured)  Oh, for God's sake...
IX.  God damn... yourself!
VIII.  Thy will be done– I blew ya to kingdom come!
VII.  Damned... with torpedoes!
VI.  Oh, Thank God... NOT!
V.   I believe it was Voltaire who said, 'If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him'... and then blow his ass to Broadway!
IV.  Who's a holy ghost now?
III.  Now that's what I call an eye for an eye!
II.  Talk about a baptism by fire!
I.  Heavens to Betsy!

And that's about all there is to say about that.  Three stars!

–Sean Gill

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Only now does it occur to me... DAYS OF THUNDER

Only now does it occur to me...  that following in the footsteps of incredibly "whacky" credit pairings like George A. Romero & Menahem Golan and Jesse Ventura & Andre Gregory that the mind-blowing, onscreen juxtaposition of Robert Towne and Tom Cruise is truly one for the record books.

You will note:  one of these men is the screenwriter of CHINATOWN and THE LAST DETAIL.  The other one is Tom Cruise.  Extra bonus:  the "76" car up there says "Die Hard" on the side of it.  Fine by me.

DAYS OF THUNDER subscribes to the genre of movie (TOP GUN, COCKTAIL, RISKY BUSINESS, THE COLOR OF MONEY) where Tom Cruise engages in a flashy and specialized activity (jet-flyin', cocktail-makin', pimpin', pool-hustlin'), works with a mentor (Tom Skerrit, Bryan Brown, Joe Pantoliano?-admittedly a stretch, Paul Newman) gets the girl (Kelly McGillis, Kelly Lynch, Rebecca De Mornay, Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio), loses the girl, gets the girl back again, and triumphs over all. To fill in the ingredients of DAYS OF THUNDER, we have:  Nascar-racin', Robert Duvall, and Nicole Kidman.

It's designed as a high-octane Tony Scott thrill ride where we cheer on our bad-boy hero who dips his hat low over his eyes, cause he's cool like that and quite the bad boy:

but upon watching it today, you can't help but root for Michael Rooker the whole time.  Michael Rooker (character-actor extraordinaire and veteran of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, THE WALKING DEAD, SLITHER, JFK, CLIFFHANGER, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, RENT-A-COP, and THE DARK HALF)

plays a rival driver who eventually becomes a sidekick to Cruise, but his natural pathos and inspired acting choices contrast so severely with Cruise's tiny-whiny-bad-boy demeanor that you have no choice but to think of him as the true protagonist of the film.  Also, Rooker's character name is "Rowdy Burns" and for the record, I have never disliked anyone named Rowdy.

At one point, after they're both  injured in a wreck, Rooker and Cruise have an epic wheelchair race (to their orderlies' dismay) that just might be the highlight of the film.

Furthermore, Rooker's wife is played by Junta Juleil favorite Caroline Williams (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2, ALAMO BAY, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN, STEPFATHER II: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY, LEPRECHAUN 3) who still remains one of Texas' best exports.

Seen here a little more morose than usual.

In closing, I will rattle off three disjointed observations:

#1.  I love it when Randy Quaid says that we look like monkeys fucking a football.

#2.  "Superflo" is only one letter away from "Superflu."

Also, there is so much "1990" happening in that picture, that I feel as if staring at it and meditating (á la SOMEWHERE IN TIME) could in fact transport you back to 1990.

#3.  Nicole Kidman plays an Australian medical doctor whom Tom Cruise mistakes for a stripper.  Later, Tom tries to buy Nicole's love (as in real life) by sending her a shitload of balloons, and– most importantly– a stuffed kangaroo dressed in a doctor costume, you know, because she's a doctor from Australia.

And the best part is that...  it works!  Score one for 'Merica.