Saturday, June 8, 2024

#2,959. Turbulence (1997) - 4 Decades of Ray Liotta


The debate rages on as to whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. The detractors contend it is an action film that just happened to be set during the holiday. I can see that argument (and to be fair, Die Hard was released to theaters in the summer of 1988), but I watch it every December all the same.

That said, I don’t think there’s much doubt about 1997’s Turbulence being a Christmas movie. Featuring a wild cross-country flight and the chaos that arises due to some very extreme circumstances, the “Christmas Stamp” is all over this film. From the opening scene (set in a small, snowy town that could have been lifted from a Hallmark movie) to the plane itself, which has Christmas lights draped throughout the cabin, the holiday remains prevalent throughout. Hell, the in-flight movie is It’s a Wonderful Life!

But like Die Hard, it isn’t tidings of comfort and joy that you’ll remember when Turbulence is over. For better or for worse (and there are aspects of both), it’s the insanity of it all that you won’t soon forget.

Convicted serial killer Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta), who escaped from San Quentin two years earlier, is recaptured in New York by L.A. detective Aldo Hines (Hector Elizondo). It was Hines who initially arrested Weaver, and has made it his life’s mission to ensure the fugitive is transported back to California and returned to death row.

Weaver, who insists that Hines planted evidence to frame him, is placed in the custody of U.S. Marshals, and, along with fellow prisoner, bank robber Stubbs (Brendan Gleeson), boards a 747 on Christmas eve for the long flight west.

Once on-board, Weaver takes a special interest in flight attendant Teri Halloran (Lauren Holly), who is still reeling from a failed romance. With a handful of other passengers along for the ride, the plane takes off, just after both the pilot (J. Kenneth Campbell) and his co-pilot (James MacDonald) are informed they may have to alter their course mid-flight, to avoid a heavy storm that is ravaging the Midwest.

During a trip to the restroom, Stubbs gets the upper hand on one of the Marshals. A gunfight ensues, and when the smoke clears, all of the Marshals are dead.

They won’t be the last to die on this Christmas Eve, and the odds of the plane making it safely to California grow longer by the second.

Ray Liotta was always a good villain, and his Ryan Weaver is no exception. Likable at first (we even wonder if his accusations against Hines are valid), he begins to show his character’s creepier side the moment he sets eyes on Teri Halloran. Once the story gets rolling, Liotta is off the chain, going over-the-top more than once, but always in an entertaining way.

For her turn as the plucky flight attendant Teri, Lauren Holly was nominated for both a Golden Raspberry Award and a Stinkers Bad Movie Award for Worst Actress. And I call bullshit! Sure, Holly is no Pam Grier (Coffy, Jackie Brown), Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Aliens), or Linda Hamilton (The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), but she’s far from terrible as the flight attendant dealing with a potential killer and a plane that could break apart once it enters the eye of a storm. Leave Ms. Holly alone, she did a fine job!

Like many action films (especially in the ‘90s), Turbulence gets more outlandish with each passing scene. There are moments that may even have you laughing out loud (one involving a truck on the roof of a parking garage made me chuckle, yet not as much as how the filmmakers “fixed” that particular… situation). But the term “stupid fun” seems to have been coined for movies like Turbulence, and aiming at that admittedly very low target, it comes damn close to the bullseye.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, June 1, 2024

#2,958. Lady on a Train (1945) - Films of the 1940s


On her way to New York to visit relatives for Christmas, San Francisco socialite Nicki Collins (Deanna Durbin) peers out the window of her train car and witnesses a murder.

Sounds like the perfect set-up for a film noir, doesn’t it? Only 1945’s Lady on a Train, directed by Charles David, is, first and foremost, a comedy.

And it’s a damn good one!

As soon as Nicki arrives at Grand Central Station, she dodges Mr. Haskell (Edward Everett Horton), the courier sent by her father to meet her, and rushes to the nearest police station to report the murder. But the police don’t believe her story, so she turns to her favorite mystery writer, Wayne Morgan (David Bruce), in the hopes he will be willing to help solve this case.

Morgan, unfortunately, is even less interested that the police, but when Nicki follows Morgan and his fiancé to the movie theater, she catches a newsreel announcing the “accidental death” of wealthy shipping magnate Josiah Waring (Thurston Hall).

Recognizing him as the man she saw killed, Nicki sets off to look for clues at Waring’s vast estate. Only she arrives just as his will is being read, and is mistaken for Margo Martin, a night club dancer and the deceased Mr. Waring’s young fiancé!

Thus begins a series of misadventures that will see Nicki being romanced by both Jonathan (Ralph Bellamy) and Arnold (Dan Duryea), two of the late Waring’s disinherited nephews; and on the run from Mr. Saunders (George Coulouris), the night club manager who is desperate to retrieve a pair of bloody slippers that Nicki uncovered at the estate.

With a story that would be right at home in a crime / thriller, Lady on a Train, with its sharp dialogue and funny situations, is instead a comedy with a decidedly screwball flare. The opening scene on the train, where Nicki is talking in circles, trying to find out from the conductor the name of the town that the train just passed, is hilarious, as are Nicki’s first interaction with Horton’s Mr. Haskell and her attempt to report the murder to a cop manning the front desk (played by I Love Lucy’s William Frawley). These scenes get Lady on a Train off to a very strong start, and the movie loses very little of its steam from there on out (it’s only during a trio of musical numbers that things slow down a little).

Though not as well-known today, there was a time in the late 1930s and early ‘40s when Deanna Durbin was box-office gold. Signed as a teenager by Universal, Durbin headlined a number of musicals, all of which turned a profit. She has even been credited her with saving the studio from bankruptcy!

But Durbin was anxious to explore more challenging parts, and, after a brief suspension by Universal for refusing a role, she was permitted her choice of director and project. Lady on a Train was one of the first two she selected, and though it was not a success financially, the movie proved, without a doubt, that Deanna Durbin was more than a pretty face with a golden voice.

Durbin has moments in this film where her comedic timing matches that of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (especially in her scenes with Edward Everett Horton and David Bruce), and it’s a shame she didn’t make more movies like Lady on a Train.

With the studio and her fan base demanding she return to her musical roots, a frustrated Durbin appeared in only a handful of films between 1946 and 1948 before announcing her retirement in 1949. And to see her in Lady on a Train is to realize what might have been had she been allowed a bit more freedom.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, May 25, 2024

#2,957. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003) - 2000s Made for Television


The improbability of events depicted in this film is the surest indication that they actually did occur”.

In January of 1914, Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who was battling the forces of President Victoriano Huerta, announced that he was willing to work with any American film company that would produce a movie about his cause.

Needing money to fund his revolution, and hoping to negate the bad press he had been receiving from the news outlets run by William Randolph Hearst, Villa met with Frank N. Thayer of the Mutual Film Studio, which was run by Harry E. Aitkin and legendary director D.W. Griffith.

From the partnership between Villa and Mutual, the full-length movie The Life of General Villa was born. Combining staged scenes (directed by Christy Cabanne and starring Raoul Walsh as a young Villa) and footage of actual battles between Villa’s forces and those of the Government, The Life of General Villa premiered in New York City in May of 1914, and turned the tide of public opinion in Villa’s favor.

Directed by Bruce Beresford and written by Larry Gelbart (who also executive produced), the 2003 HBO film And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is a spirited telling of this very unusual story, and is one of the best films about the silent movie industry that I’ve ever seen.

As And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself kicks off, Aitkin (played by Jim Broadbent) and Griffith (Colm Feore) have decided to send Aitkin’s assistant (and nephew) Frank Thayer (Eion Bailey) to Mexico to meet with the legendary Pancho Villa (Antonio Banderas). After paying Villa $25,000 in gold and promising him 20% of the profits, Thayer and his crew set to work filming a battle the very next day.

Unfortunately, this initial footage, which is turned into a short film, is murky and fails to make an impact. When Villa also runs into some trouble for executing a British landowner (who accused Villa of stealing his cattle), another film project is put into motion, a full-length drama / documentary titled The Life of General Villa.

It’s everyone’s hope that this new film will be a success, but will Villa and Thayer survive long enough to finish both the movie and the revolution?

The cast is impressive. Joining those mentioned above, Michael McKean plays director Christy Cabanne and Kyle Chandler is Raoul Walsh, both of whom traveled to Mexico with actress Teddy Sampson (Alexa Davalos) to shoot the dramatized moments of Villa’s early life. Also strong (and at times damn funny) in support is Alan Arkin as Sam Dreben, a Jewish American mercenary hired by Villa to help his cause; and Matt Day appears in a few scenes as John Reed, the journalist whose socialist leanings formed the basis of Warren Beatty’s award-winning movie Reds. As the Mutual executives, Broadbent and Feore are memorable, as is Bailey, whose Thayer develops a genuine friendship with Villa.

That said, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself is, without a doubt, the Antonio Banderas show! Delivering what might be his greatest performance, Banderas is boisterous, amusing, and sometimes frightening as Villa, who, despite his out-of-control ego, truly wants to free his people from government tyranny, a government supported, in large part, by wealthy Americans (Villa reveals at one point that the real source of William Randolph Hearst’s animosity towards him is that the millionaire publisher owns some eight million acres of Mexico, a country rich in oil).

Under director Beresford’s keen eye, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself moves at a brisk pace, with battle sequences that are exciting and bloody (the sight of Thayer and his team capturing footage of the action while simultaneously putting themselves in harm’s way is nerve-racking and funny at the same time). Yet the film’s most appealing aspect is not only that it’s cast of characters is based on real people (even Alan Arkin’s Dreben), but also real events. According to writer Larry Gelbart, a good deal of the film’s scenes actually happened; an early moment, where Villa confronts a Catholic priest who impregnated a teenage girl, is something, per Gelbart in his DVD commentary, Villa did.

Along with being a smooth, entertaining western / war film, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself also functions as an informative biopic of a famous military leader, and an expose of the earliest days of the motion picture industry. The fact that it approaches greatness on all counts is a true marvel.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, May 18, 2024

#2,956. Citizen X (1995) - 1990s Made for Television


Based on a real serial killer who terrorized the U.S.S.R. throughout the 1980s, murdering some 50 young women and children, Citizen X is a gripping, well-acted movie that, along with exploring some of the usual tropes you’d expect to find in politically-themed thrillers, still has enough that is fresh to make it worthwhile.

Forensic specialist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), recently assigned to the post by his superior, Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland), finds himself dealing with an obvious serial killer when the decomposed bodies of seven children are found in a forest near Rostov. Promoted by Fetisov to be lead detective on the case, Burakov spends the better part of the next decade trying to track down a killer who refuses to stop, stabbing and mutilating child after child before (in some instances) sexually assaulting their remains.

Frustrated at every turn, both by the lack of evidence and the increasing pressure put on him by Bondarchuk (Joss Ackland), the head of the local Soviet crime committee and a staunch Communist, Burakov’s mental state slowly disintegrates. Yet he continues searching for a monster who, until he is behind bars, will never stop his reign of terror.

Like a good many movies in which a determined investigator faces off against bureaucrats, Citizen X features obligatory scenes where Bondarchuk, well-played by Ackland, continually criticizes Burakov’s methods, including his desire to speak with the American F.B.I. and compare notes, a request that Bondarchuk and the rest of the committee immediately deny. More than this, Bondarchuk often interferes in a way that is far from helpful, at one point insisting that Burakov release a potential suspect because he is a “Communist in good standing”.

As I said, these showdowns are nothing new for this sort of movie, but it is only a small fraction of Citizen X, and, though well-handled, pale in comparison to what makes it a truly unique motion picture.

First off is the relationship that develops between Rea’s Burakov and Sutherland’s Fetisov. During their first encounter, when Bukarov announces to the committee he believes there is a serial killer on the loose, Fetisov is dismissive and even insulting towards his newest subordinate. In their initial exchanges, we are firmly on Burakov’s side, and like him, believe Fetisov is covering his own ass, a high-ranking official who wants to keep his nose clean, rarely going to bat for Burakov. But then, like Burakov, we realize over time that we may be wrong about Fetisov. Watching their relationship move from one of animosity to something more substantial was a twist I wasn’t expecting, and both Rea (who won Best Actor at the Stiges Film Festival for his performance here) and Sutherland (who took home both a Primetime Emmy and a Golden Globe for his turn as Fetisov), are outstanding throughout.

But where Citizen X really impressed me were the scenes in which we watch the killer at work. Unlike the film’s central characters, we know in the first 10 minutes who it is that’s committing these horrible crimes: Andrei Chikatilo, played brilliantly by Jeffrey DeMunn. A husband and father of two, we spend a little time with Chikatilo outside of the murders, witnessing moments between him and his abusive wife (including one very uncomfortable sexual encounter shared by the two) and his run-ins with his superior at work, who also goes out of his way to embarrass Chikatilo. Yet even in these scenes, writer / director Chris Gerolmo is careful not to develop too much sympathy for his killer, and these moments are balanced with us tagging along with Chikatilo as he stalks his prey, lures them into the woods, and brutally stabs them numerous times (often, his victims are well under 12 years old). The killings seem more violent than they truly are (save one or two, which get pretty graphic), yet every single one is upsetting to watch. We understand Chikatilo, but we do not like him, and never once do we root for him to elude the justice that is closing in.

Released in 1996, Citizen X marks yet another venture into Communist Russia produced by HBO, after 1985’s Gulag and the magnificent 1990 biopic Stalin. With Citizen X, they round out what I’d recommend as a damn fine afternoon triple feature.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, May 11, 2024

#2,955. Desperate Lives (1982) - 1980s Made for Television


Originally broadcast on American network CBS in March of 1982, Desperate Lives is the kind of “morality movie” that could easily take things a bit too far. It could over-dramatize, deliver its message with a heavy hand, and feature scenes so exaggerated that it’s good intentions would be lost in the process.

I’m not gonna lie… there are moments in this film that do just that. But there’s also enough here to ensure its anti-drug agenda doesn’t get completely lost in the histrionics.

It’s the first day of school, and Eileen Phillips (Diana Scarwid), the new counselor, meets Freshman Scott Cameron (Doug McKean) in the parking lot. Just by looking at him, Eileen can tell Scott is high, and brings him into her office for a chat, hoping to steer him away from drugs.

Scott’s older sister, Sandy (Helen Hunt), who has experimented with drugs herself , also tries to help Scott. But peer pressure as well as his turbulent relationship with his parents (Diane Ladd and Tom Atkins) send Scott deeper into his downward spiral.

He befriends the local dealer, Ken (Sam Bottoms), and even starts selling drugs for him, all the while using harder and harder stuff himself. Try as she might, Eileen can’t convince her fellow teachers or the administrator, Dr. Jarvis (William Windom), to get involved. Nor can she reach Scott, who may already be a lost cause.

First and foremost, Desperate lives is a very “80s” movie, from The opening theme, written and performed by Rock Springfield, to the obligatory montages scattered throughout (in one, Eileen and her boyfriend Stab, played by Art Hindle, take Scott on an afternoon biking trip, hoping to show him there’s more to life than getting high). As for its anti-drug message, the movie is rarely subtle. The students proclaim that “everyone is doing it” while the teachers and faculty turn a blind eye for the same reason, feeling overwhelmed by it all. And, in what is undoubtedly the film’s most over-the-top moment, Helen Hunt’s Sandy is convinced by her boyfriend Steve (Grant Cramer) to try some homemade PCP he just cooked up in the school lab, and has such a “bad trip” that she leaps out of a second-story window!

There are plenty of cliches throughout, from the parents saying “Not my kid” to the character of Julie (Michele Greene), a friend of Sandy’s who trades sex for drugs with Ken and almost drowns during swim practice because she is so high.

Desperate Lives, however, proves to be a bit more than the Reefer Madness of the ‘80s (as it’s been called). For one, unlike a few reviewers, I thought Doug McKean gives a solid performance as Scott. The first exchange between him and Scarwid’s Eileen is handled well by both. In addition, Sam Bottoms plays the drug dealer Ken as just smooth enough to lure kids in (the scene where he convinces Scott to deal drugs for him features some of the movie’s most impressive dialogue), and just sleazy enough that we want to see him taken down. Helen Hunt, despite her “stunt work”, is also likable as the sister trying to help, and her scenes with McKean’s Scott resonate.

As for the ending, well… it’s even more over-the-top than anything that came before it, and seen through modern eyes, it may have viewers laughing out loud. But hey, I got a little choked up as well.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Saturday, April 13, 2024

#2,954. Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic (1975) - The Films of Richard Donner


This made-for-TV movie hits pretty hard, shining a light on an issue most weren’t aware of in 1975: teenage alcoholism. Even director Richard Donner initially turned the project down because he didn’t believe it was a real problem (producer David Levinson took him to a local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and, after hearing the testimony of a pre-teen alcoholic, Donner immediately signed on).

In the opening moments of Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, voice-over narration provided by Michael Lerner (who also has a key role in the movie) plays over black and white photos of high school kids. Lerner informs us that, by 1975, America had approximately half a million preteen and teenage alcoholics.

But that’s just a number. What Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic does - and does very well - is bring the issue to the forefront, and in a manner that’s positively grueling.

Sarah Travis (Linda Blair) is not a happy kid. Her dad (Larry Hagman) is out of the picture, and Sarah’s mother (Verna Bloom) is remarried to a successful executive (William Daniels). What’s more, Sarah now lives with her mom and stepdad, which means she’s starting over in a new school.

One night, at a party thrown by her parents, Sarah steals a guest’s drink and quickly downs it in the kitchen. This kicks off what would prove to be a long and perilous addiction for Sarah, who even uses booze to help her fit in at school.

Her new boyfriend, Ken (Mark Hamill, two years before Star Wars made him a household name), is concerned about Sarah’s drinking, and worries she is taking it too far. But Sarah can’t stop. She sneaks liquor from her parents whenever she can, and, on occasion, steals it right off the shelves of liquor stores.

Concerned for her daughter but a little more worried about her social standing in their new neighborhood, Sarah’s mom reluctantly agrees to take Sarah to psychologist Dr. Marvin Kittredge (Michael Lerner). At that first session, Dr. Kittredge tells mother and daughter that the only way he can help Sarah is if she admits, then and there, that she is an alcoholic. But Sarah doesn’t believe she is, insisting she can stop drinking anytime she wants.

Sarah still has a little more to learn - and a lot further to fall - before she will realize just how serious her problem has become.

Always a strong director of children (The Omen, The Goonies), Richard Donner coaxes a brilliant performance from Linda Blair, who is just as good playing Sarah the insecure teen as she is portraying Sarah the teenage alcoholic. Her scenes with Mark Hamill have a sweetness to them, and watching their relationship grow brings something special to an otherwise hard-hitting story.

On the flipside are the scenes in which Sarah is drinking. And she drinks a lot! At parties… in her room… even standing in front of her locker at school.

We know what it is that drives Sarah to drink. Her mother is all about not embarrassing the family in their neighbor’s eyes, and dotes more on her older married daughter (Laurette Spang) than she does Sarah. As for Sarah’s dad, in the one scene in which they are together, we notice right away he is also addicted to alcohol (he downs several beers while the two are walking down the street).

But over the course of the movie, Sarah will make dear old dad look like a teetotaller.

Sarah hits lows that, frankly, for a TV movie in the ‘70s, surprised the hell out of me. There is a brilliant scene at an AA meeting (which Sarah walks out of after hearing an 11-year-old admit he is an alcoholic), but it’s the final 10-15 minutes of Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic that will shock you.

Written by husband / wife team Richard and Esther Shapiro, Sarah T. Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic is a movie with a message, and it delivers that message with a crippling right hook.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, April 6, 2024

#2,953. This is Cinerama (1952) - Documentaries


The threat of television loomed heavy over the motion picture industry in the early 1950s, and Hollywood needed to up the ante to compete with the more convenient home-based medium.

It was then that Cinerama was born.

Invented by film pioneer Fred Waller, Cinerama utilized images shot by three individual cameras, operating in unison by way of a single shutter, that, when projected, offered viewers a widescreen experience like no other, a complete “field of vision” presentation beamed onto a 146-degree screen that wrapped around the theater. Combined with another new innovation, stereophonic sound, the Cinerama process was unlike anything seen before, and the movie that introduced it to the world was the 1952 documentary This Is Cinerama.

Produced and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper, the mastermind behind another revolutionary motion picture, 1933’s King Kong, This is Cinerama opens with a black and white sequence, presented in the standard aspect ratio, during which narrator Lowell Thomas offers a rundown of the history of moving images, from the attempts by prehistoric man and ancient Egyptians to show pictures in motion to the days of early animation, Thomas Edison, and The Great Train Robbery.

Once this segment is over, Lowell, staring straight ahead, bellows “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama”, at which point the screen expands, the picture changes from black and white to color, and the viewer is treated, in full stereo sound, to a ride on a rollercoaster (the cameras were attached to the front of the Atom Smasher coaster in New York’s Rockaway Playland).

I can only imagine how that first audience reacted to this initial sequence, but to paraphrase Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, they ain’t seen nothing yet!

This is Cinerama follows it up with a variety of amazing segments, shot in Venice (including a Gondola ride), Scotland (The Rally of the Clans at Edinburgh Castle), Vienna (featuring an outdoor performance by the Vienna Boys Choir), Spain (where we witness a bull fight in a packed arena), and Milan (one of the film’s most impressive sequences, the triumphal scene from the opera Aida, staged at the La Scala Opera House).

Then, after a brief intermission and a demonstration (audio only) of Stereophonic sound, This is Cinerama focuses on a more “American” experience, with a half-hour water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens followed by aerial images (shot from a B-25 bomber) of some of the country’s more familiar landscapes, including Manhattan, Washington D.C., Chicago, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon. Even today, in this age of high-tech entertainment, all of the film’s sequences are breathtaking.

The three-camera process as presented in This is Cinerama would be featured in a handful of movies over the next 10 years, mostly documentaries (Search for Paradise in 1957, South Seas Adventures in 1958), but also in two narrative films, both released in 1962: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and the amazing How the West Was Won. It was during the making of How the West Was Won that the Cinerama corporation realized it could create a similar (though not quite as grand) widescreen 70mm experience using a single camera, as opposed to the more expensive three-camera set-up. This new technique, renamed Ultra Panavision 70, would become the standard for Cinerama in the years to come, and be utilized in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Still, even with its short life span, This is Cinerama proved there was something special about that three-camera set-up. Watching it on Blu-Ray, projected onto my high-definition television, gave me a taste of just how cutting-edge this process was at the time, yet I can’t help but envy those lucky patrons who saw the movie in 1952 on that 146-degree screen.

I was enthralled, impressed, and entertained, but they were witnesses to history in the making.
Rating: 9 out of 10