Category: Political Thriller


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Without wanting to be “that” guy, it’s easy to tell the real Stephen King fans from the casual readers. Though the man has nearly turned horror into his raison d’etre, his most loyal readers know that many of his most accomplished works fall outside of the typical purview of supernatural horror fiction, and some even abandon horror entirely to be modern fantasy epics (The Dark Tower novels) or simple tales of hope and redemption (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption). Long-time readers of this blog know that I consider his political allegory Under the Dome to be one of the best modern novels I’ve read in recent years. And while The Dead Zone may not rest at the top of my list of King’s works, it was one of the first novels to really explore the man’s range as an author.

As much as I love the 1979 novel, Mr. King’s sprawling and occasionally unfocused tale doesn’t seem like the ideal candidate for a faithful film adaptation. The main villain isn’t really introduced until towards the end of the book, and much of the film’s conflict is internal and psychological. But, to David Cronenberg’s credit, he made one of the most faithful King adaptations I can think of (most Stephen King movies have sadly little to do with their source book). 1983’s The Dead Zone has its share of problems in coming to the big screen, but it helped introduce a whole generation to the possibilities of Mr. King outside of typical horror fare.

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When affable high middle school English teacher Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) drops off his girlfriend after at a night at the fair, his life as he knows is it is destroyed when his car is totaled by an 18-wheeler on a rainy night. Johnny wakes up fives years later from a deep coma, and his whole world has moved on without him. His girlfriend has gotten married and even has children, and his mother dies of a heart attack not long after he wakes up. However, Johnny has bigger problems than just acclimating to being out of the world for five years. When he wakes up, he now has the power to see into a person’s future and past simply by touching them.

Johnny’s powers awaken when he brushes arms with a nurse in the long-term care facility where he’s staying after he wakes up. He sees the nurse’s daughter burning in a fire-consumed house, and it is only by the stroke of Johnny’s premonition that he is able to save the girl. It isn’t long before word of Johnny’s powers reach the public, and he’s brought in to help solve a serial murder case in the classic King town of Castle Rock. After Johnny’s powers expose him directly to the horrors of man during that investigation, he wants to retire until a chance meeting with rising politician Greg Stillson (The Departed‘s Martin Sheen) brings him visions of the apocalypse.

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While The Dead Zone isn’t really a horror book/film, David Cronenberg expertly taps into the dread and horrific violence at the center of the tale. And his direction fuels the unsettling, psychologically unstable world that Johnny must now navigate. In the scene where Johnny and Sheriff Walt Bannerman (Alien‘s Tom Skeritt) finally confront the Castle Rock Killer, Cronenberg (whose background was in sci-fi/horror squickfests) employs every tool at his disposal to heighten the tension and disgust for a man who’s murdered so many girls. And during the premonition sequences, Cronenberg lends the proceedings just the right amount of surrealism to sell the supernatural aspect of what Johnny is experiencing.

A quick search of Christopher Walken in my blog’s search bar shows that if this isn’t straight out the first Christopher Walken movie I’ve reviewed, it’s at least the first one where he’s had a substantive role. And that’s crazy to me since I’ve reviewed over 360 films. Walken gives one of my favorite film performances of all time in The Deer Hunter and while Johnny isn’t as demanding as the shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, it’s still a psychologically complex role and Walken has to show so much of the internal conflict present in King’s novel that had to be left unsaid in the film (for time’s sake). Walken’s Johnny is a frazzled and weary man, but he’s also one that is kind and tough and fiercely protective of the things he cares about. Martin Sheen also bursts off the screen as the sociopathic Greg Stillson.

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Clearly, in a film that’s just over an hour and a half long, much of the characterization of King’s novel is lost, and the scenes involving the Castle Rock killer (as excellent as the denouement may be) seems rushed and almost distracting from the movie’s main themes, but more than most King films, Cronenberg manages to keep enough in to make the film function both as a movie in its own right but also a faithful King adaptation. Even as a novel, The Dead Zone lacks the epic ambition of The Stand or It, but for fans of supernatural thrillers and a movie with a genuinely shocking final act, The Dead Zone is an artifact of 1980s filmmaking that has aged well to this day.

Final Score: B+

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I’m on literally like five or six different types of cold/sinus/allergy medicines at the moment, so if this review is incomprehensible gobbledy-gook, that’s why, and I’ll fix it when I’m not drugged out of my gourd and my sinuses don’t make my face feel like it’s simultaneously melting and being squeezed by a massive vise)

If you were a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, how would you vote in the race for Best Picture? Would you vote for what you simply thought was the finest film of the year based solely on its artistic merits or would you allow for more complicated factors such as mainstream accessibility and cultural significance? I bring this up because for the last five years, I can’t honestly imagine that the Academy voters went with Option A (unless their tastes in movies are just stunningly shallow) and instead went with the option of smart films with mainstream appeal. It’s not that The King’s Speech or The Artist are bad films. They’re very good films, but like 2012’s Best Picture winner, Argo, they were released in a sea of films with far more artistic vision and insightArgo2

With that prior warning, it may come as a shock when I say that Argo is a virtually flawless film. There wasn’t a single moment in the film where I thought to myself, “That was mishandled,” or “They should have done that differently.” However (and I’m about to coin a word here), it was also a totally “awe”-less film. For a movie that is now enshrined as the “Best Picture” of 2012, there was simply not a single exceptional element to the film.  At literally no point in the film (except for maybe Alan Arkin’s performance but more on that later) did I sit up and say, “Wow. That was superb.” From the direction (Ben Affleck’s now infamous Best Director snub was honestly well-deserved) to the cinematography to the characters to the story, everything about the film was very good. Nothing about it was great.

A fairly fictionalized account of real events, Argo is the story of a recently declassified CIA op that occurred during the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980. After the Iranian revolution that deposed U.S.-supported Shah Reza Pahlavi and began the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s turn into an Islamic Republic, Iran had a very legitimate beef with the actions of the U.S. government in overthrowing their democratically elected leader prior to Shah Pahlavi. And after months of unrest, protestors stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 American diplomats and members of the foreign service hostage for 444 days. Argo is the story of six Americans who escaped the embassy before they were captured and the efforts of the C.I.A. to extract them from Iran.

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Tony Mendez (Dazed and Confused‘s Ben Affleck) is a C.I.A. exfiltration expert. His job is to get wanted targets out of highly hostile environments without any violence or calls for alarm. When the State Department and C.I.A. are tasked with extricating the six American escapees (who have been staying at the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran), Mendez has to come up with a plan to get them out of the nation alive. So, Mendez decides to have the escapees pretend they’re part of a film crew surveying Iran as a possible location for their new science fiction film, and with the help of Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (The Big Lebowski‘s John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Catch-22‘s Alan Arkin), that’s just what Mendez is going to do.

Perhaps my biggest complaint about the film is that it’s like eating a box of popcorn. When all is said and done, the film tastes good and it keeps you full as you’re going along, but when the credits roll, you realize it was completely empty and you’re hungry for something of actual substance. I said earlier that the film was flawless although perhaps that was the wrong word. It has a big glaring flaw, but you only really notice upon later reflection once the credits roll. This is a film simply over-flowing with eccentric and interesting characters, but for the life of me, I couldn’t give a shit about a single one of them because the film spent zero time developing them and letting the audience emotionally invest in their troubles.

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Part of me also wants to find fault in the almost comically stoic performance from Ben Affleck as the film’s lead, but upon reflection, I’m going to say that it makes sense and is logical within the context of the performance. Mendez is a hardened C.I.A. spook and his job is navigating high-tense situations. It makes perfect sense that he would be as calm and collected as humanly possible. But, honestly, the only performance from the film that wowed me was another delicious comic turn from Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed movie producer. If nothing else sticks with me from Argo, the catchphrase “Argo-fuck-yourself” has already become part of everyday vocabulary thanks to Alan Arkin.

I was also bothered by the film’s decision to add unnecessary and totally fictional conflict and complexity to the mission that Tony Mendez was trying to perform. I understand that the film wouldn’t be very interesting if it had stuck strictly to the facts of the “Argo” case, but it could have found depth and tension in other areas rather than a strict portrayal of historical facts with some completely made-up shit thrown in for good measure. The film wants to be taken seriously as a portrayal of the events that occurred (and it does get a lot of points for showing why Iran had a good reason to hate the U.S. at the time), but when it adds fictitious elements like the near shoot-out at the airport in the film’s climax, the movie loses some of its credibility.

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And Argo committed one of the most disappointing movie crimes of all (at least for me). Other than the often hilarious and refreshingly comic moments that lampooned the sillier sides of Hollywood, the film seemed to never generate an emotional response from me other than a vague sense of pleasure from the admittedly very clever and daring mission it portrays. I didn’t care about the characters. Their actions never make me feel sympathy or distaste. And, as mentioned before, their characterizations (even that of Tony Mendez) were crudely thin.

So, it’s becoming clear that my earlier statement that Argo was flawless is coming apart at the seams while I’ve yet to find much positive to say about this film. So, let me close out with this addendum to the torrent of issues I took with this Best Picture winner. I honestly enjoyed this film, and I thought it was a very good, mainstream crowd-pleasing thriller. It is the fact that it was named the Best Picture of last year that I feel the need to examine it with such intensity. As a political thriller and a loose retelling of historical facts, Argo is a success. But if you call this the most artistically significant film of last year, well, “Argo-Fuck-Yourself.”

Final Score: B+

 

(Quick aside before the actual review. Yet again. There’s a decent possibility we’re entering one of those rare [but beloved] periods on my blog where I review a bunch of really good movies in a row. Rashomon was excellent. The movie I’m about to review was also great. And the other movie I have at home is a Woody Allen film. Odds are that it will be good. I review such a wide range of films to ensure that I can practice reviewing movies I don’t like [since not every movie that a real critic reviews is a winner], but with how my blog’s list works, moments like these do happen every now and then. And thank god because they give me the energy to keep this blog going. When I review a bunch of movies in a row I don’t like, it sucks the energy out of me. End aside)

Is there anything worse than when one aspect of a film stops it from reaching perfection? There is. It’s when the aspect of the film that drags it down is an obvious (and unfortunate artifact) of the age said film was released in. Rebel Without a Cause (which I actually think is pretty much perfect so probably the wrong example to use here) had to be far too subtle about the homoerotic subtext between Sal Mineo’s Plato and James Dean’s Jim Stark. The ending of Double Indemnity the film (as opposed to the novel) was practically forced upon Billy Wilder by the Hays Code. The Hays Code remains as a fairly infamous reminder of a time when Hollywood was under strict scrutiny and any thing remotely morally subversive was doomed to wind up on the cutting room floor. The film noir classic Pickup On South Street came out at the end of the Hays era, but it’s absurd anti-Communist overtones mar an otherwise thrilling picture.


Pickup on South Street remains fresh 60 years later for a multitude of reasons (and even manages to make it’s Red Scare paranoia seem like a minor complaint). Without question, Pickup on South Street is one of the most brutal films of the Hays era that I’ve ever seen. Throw in its salacious sexual undertones, and it would appear that it was a miracle that it ever got made in the first place (much like Double Indemnity, there were many versions of the script that were deemed unacceptable by the Production Code office). Although it’s tame even by the standards of film that would get PG-13 ratings today, this film could pack more sexual sizzle into a roguish leer on the subway than some cheesy macho flick could with actual sex. More modern film makers could learn to operate by a less is more principle. One can only imagine what directors like Billy Wilder or Pickup on South Street‘s Samuel Fuller could have accomplished post-Code.

Candy (Jean Peters), an ex-prostitute, is on the subway when her wallet is nicked by two-bit pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark). Although Candy knows she’s delivering a package on behalf of her ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley), neither Candy nor Skip know that her wallet contained microfilm full of government secrets that Joey was planning on selling to Communist agents. After the feds, who were tailing Candy to bust the head Communist spies, and the local police try to lean on Skip to return the wallet’s contents (which they can’t prove he has in the first place), Skip gets wise to Communist plot. Despite falling for the tough-headed Candy, who uses her wiles to locate Skip herself not knowing she’s a pawn in espionage, Skip tries to play both sides to his advantage until his friend, a local snitch named Moe (Thelma Ritter), gets caught in the cross-fire.

From the film’s opening shot, you knew you were in for something special. It’s a long, complex scene with zero dialogue. As Skip gets on the train and unknowingly embroils himself in an international conspiracy, the camera frantically cuts back and forth between about four different faces. Every person we see has a motive. Candy wants to get to her drop-off without drawing any unwanted attention. Skip wants to distract Candy with his good looks so he can nick her wallet. And the two cops don’t want Candy or Skip to notice that they’re watching both of them. The sexual chemistry between Skip and Candy threatens to derail the entire picture in the first scene alone (and that’s before they know each other’s name or try to outmaneuver the other sexually to stay ahead). As Fuller cuts back and forth between their faces, you know this is a film that was hell-bent on crossing what “the line” meant in the early 1950s.

Richard Widmark was everything you’d want in a film noir anti-hero (and the exact opposite of every complaint I had about Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity). Never really becoming a good guy even after becoming the hero of the story, Skip is cocky, a rake, and only out for himself. He cares about people. He surely cares about Moe and even defends her when Candy lets Skip know that Moe was the one to rat him out. His attraction to Candy leads to the film’s violent climax. Yet, at the end of the day, he’s a thief and the little glimmer he gets in his eye as he nicks Candy’s purse or takes a gun off a Communist spy in a moving subway shines as bright as anything else in the film. For a textbook example of how to play a prideful but talented con man, you need not look much further than Richard Widmark in Pickup on South Street.

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called her a bland punching bag in the paper’s original 1953 review, but Jean Peters should join the pantheon of the great troubled dames of film noir. She may not have the ice cold veins of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (the film I can’t seem to help keep making comparisons to), but as a tough broad who gets caught up in a mess beyond her wildest dreams, she shines. It’s no wonder that her hard-edge and sensuality are enough to soften the armor surrounding Skip McCoy. She may not have Stanwyck’s dark side, but she can go toe-to-toe with the all time great femme fatales in the sexual heat department. She just has to flash her doe eyes and strut her flirtatious walk to get every man’s attention. While the script never came right out and said she used to be a hooker, context clues and Jean Peters’ knowing face  told the audience everything they needed.

The remaining stand-out performance was the Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter as the elderly stool pigeon Moe. In a film full to the brim of fast-talkers, Moe still seemed like the blue-print for all motor-mouth hustlers to come. Whether it’s her wounded pride when Candy calls her a “stoolie” or her showmanship selling cheap ties as her front as a snitch, Ritter captures both the tiredness that Moe feels towards “the game” as well as her constant scheming and survivalism. There’s a truly wonderful scene (that also simultaneously manages to be one of the movie’s most ridiculous moments but more on that later) where Joey shows up at Moe’s place to question her about Skip’s whereabouts that Ritter truly imbues Moe with the world-weary hustler pathos that is slowly weighing this old woman down.

Much like The Grifters, the dialogue in Pickup on South Street pops with an authentic vitality. The film almost never slows down to explain to the audience the myriad street crime/police slang terms that flow out of the protagonists mouth like water. Too many films insult the audience’s intelligence by assuming we can’t keep up with insider dialogue, but Pickup On South Street trusts the audience’s ability to use context clues. It makes the film feel like the ultimate pulp dime novel turned into a film, and for aficionados of the film noir genre, it’s an aural delight. The film absolutely drips with the perfect combination of intellectual and masculine energy that it gets your blood pumping while simultaneously stimulating your deep-seated desires for an inside look at the seedier underbelly of the 1950s.

But then, there’s the anti-Communism hysterics which threaten (but fail) to distract from an otherwise remarkable picture. In the same scene where Joey confronts Moe (and she gives an excellent speech about how tired she’s become), this same stool pigeon, who was willing to sell out her friend for $50, won’t talk to Joey cause he’s a Red. Just thinking about what she says is almost enough to make chuckle. She says she doesn’t know much about Commies, but she knows one thing. “I just don’t like ’em.” The whole film is painted with this whole anti-Red McCarthyist tinge, and it gets increasingly absurd. Just about the only manner in which the film averts brow-beating jingoism is with Skip who doesn’t care that Joey is a Commie. He’s upset because he kills Moe and slaps around Candy.

For all film noir fans, it’s a no-brainer. Pickup On South Street may not have the name recognitions of the Maltese Falcons or Double Indemnitys of the world, but it’s nearly as good. It’s a tough, smart, sexy movie that skirts the production rules of the era like few films before it. So, as long as you aren’t a Red (or aren’t a liberal that can’t look past the cultural era the film was made which produces it’s one unfortunate flaw), head on down to dark alleys and crowded subways of New York City. Just make sure you keep an eye on your purse/wallet. Skip McCoy might be hanging around waiting to nick it from you.

Final Score: A

Back when I reviewed the “classic” WW II movie The Longest Day, I talked about how a lot of the politically-tinged films of that era were are almost nothing more than jingoistic propaganda. The Longest Day itself wasn’t quite that anvilicious, but overbearing political talking points for the government were (and to an extent still are) a common part of so-called “message” films back in the day. Nowadays, there aren’t industry rules in place keeping studios from making political films that disagree with the government. As a modern day liberal pacifist, when I go back and watch obvious jingoistic propaganda films, it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach that great artists were basically selling their souls to make a quick buck. It’s really frustrating when there’s a halfway decent film beneath all of the obvious shilling. Such is the case with Fritz Lang’s political thriller, Man Hunt, a film that was released on the eve of World War II. The core tale of a man on the run for his life from the Gestapo was a passable if not exceptional tale of spy antics, but with its ludicrously over the top ending and almost cartoonish depiction of the Third Reich, Man Hunt has simply not aged well at all (especially compared to another film from the 40s that I’ve watched in the last 24 hours, Double Indemnity).

Months before Germany and England declare war on each other, the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s own imperialistic military ambitions mean that the uneasy peace between the nations could be shattered at the slightest incident. When British ex-military man and now leisurely big game hunter Capt. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) decides to hunt the biggest game of all, his actions threaten to shatter the peace once and for all. On what he claims is a “sporting stalk” (which means he puts a target in his gun sights with no intention of pulling the trigger), Thorndike manages to get none other than the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler himself, in his gun sights (and even dry pulls the trigger [which means there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber]) when he’s caught by the Fuhrer’s guards. A Nazi intelligence officer wants to use Thorndike’s stupidity as an excuse to start a war with the British (and gain international support for it) by having Thorndike sign a confession to an intentional assassination attempt of Adolph Hitler and that he was acting under the orders of the British government. When he refuses again and again (even after being tortured), his captors try to make it look like he killed himself. However, he escapes and with the help of a young boy on a steam boat (The Poseidon Adventure‘s Roddy McDowell) and a young British prostitute (Joan Bennett), he leads the Gestapo on a chase through London as he tries to clear his name and escape the claws of the German machine.

Up until the end, Man Hunt was an enjoyable if generally unremarkable film. There was nothing about any of the performances (except for perhaps George Sanders as the Nazi intelligence officer) that was especially striking. The film was shot in fairly conventional fashion and the script took where you expected it to go. There was some slight stuff in there about the British class system (very, very slight), and perhaps some commentary about how much the British were being pussies about Hitler before he invaded Poland, but other than that, there just really wasn’t a whole lot happening in this film besides the plot which followed conventional “chase” film fare. However, it had its own nostalgic, innocent value at times. I really like a lot of the heroes from older thriller films. They’ve got a lot more steel in their spines and conviction in their beliefs than contemporary heroes (which is perhaps why contemporary great characters are better than most of the classic great heroes. The new characters are more complicated), but their innocent simplicity has its charm. But, boy, did this film’s end just drag the whole movie off a total cliff. Had it ended about two or three minutes before the real ending, this movie could have been a “B-” meaning I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t great or even particularly good. However, let’s just say that its ending was so Goebbels-esque in its over-the-top pro-war propaganda and calling British men to action that it ruined a lot of the rest of the film.

I’m going to keep this review short because Game of Thrones comes on in half an hour and I want to eat a little bit before it comes on. Man Hunt was never going to be a great film, but it had some good things going for it, and I know that Fritz Lang is a better director than this. M. and Metropolis are all-time classics. It’s a shame that Man Hunt threw away all of its artistic credibility away at the end of the film. If you enjoy classic political thrillers, you may find something to enjoy about this movie, but if you get irritated when political messages are awkwardly tacked on to films that seem to have no natural fit with the rest of the picture, you’ll probably get as frustrated with Man Hunt as I did. Outside of that niche of movie fans, the rest of you can pass.

Final Score: C+

 Here’s a little bit of Don Saas blog irony for you. One of the movies that I have at home from Netflix right now is Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Ran, which I’ve never actually seen, but one of the first Kurosawa films that I ever watched was Rashomon, a story about the investigation of a murder told from radically different points of view. The irony arrives in the fact that the film I just watched, 1956’s Shadow, tries so desperately to channel the style and themes of Rashomon but fails miserably at any attempt of matching Kurosawa’s genius or the original films unique entertainment. What it delivers are three semi-interesting vignettes loosely tied together in ways that barely make any sense and wrapped up in what has to be called one of the worst subtitle jobs that I have ever seen in my entire life.

Shadow is the first bit of Polish cinema that I’ve ever seen, and I’m not giving too much away when I say that it doesn’t leave me expecting too much from the nation. The film tells the story of a man who was seemingly thrown from a train and the investigation into his death. Except, that really isn’t what the movie is about. Instead, you get two detailed looks into the past lives during and after World War II of a Polish Nationalist freedom fighter trying to impede the German war effort and then a look after the War where members of the Communist Party try and fight a shady underground black market dealer. The last segment shows the actual “murder” at the beginning of the film, but at the end of the day, I had no idea how any of this was connected to anything else that happened in the film or what the real point of it all was.

I actually enjoyed the first two memories as, had they been fleshed out more, they could have been interesting thrillers in their own right. However, they were exercises in stylistic film making and nothing more since there isn’t a semblance of a coherent plot holding this whole film together. There weren’t any real connections between the stories despite occasional teasing that there might be, and there wasn’t any sort of higher meaning to be gained from the whole film. The cinematography could be pretty decent at times but that’s really about all I can say well for the film. This film can be avoided.

 Final Score: C