Skip to main content

Since when does a soap opera control the future of the country?

The Second Civil War
(1997)

This satire of a White House in crisis mode, as Ohio threatens cessation from the United States, was originally to have been directed by Levinson. Who made the same year’s intermittently effective Wag the Dog. Intermittently effective also describes Joe Dante’s HBO movie, which offers occasionally sharp and never-more-topical things to say about the buzz issues of immigration, personal sovereignty and media manipulation yet finds itself rather inert dramatically, when it needs to be propulsive.


It may be that Dante was the wrong guy for the task, or simply that the means of making this kind of media satire, nearly two decades on, now look rather antiquated. Today such a script would be shot handheld, ever restless, caught in a crescendo of events, a cross between The Thick of It and 24. It would certainly have disguised the budgetary restraints and made up for the manner in which Martin Burke’s screenplay (co-writer of Top Secret!) has numerous targets but lacks a clear method for coalescing them.


Dante commented in an interview in Joe Dante by Neil Baskar and Gabe Klinger, “every time I see it, some different aspect of the movie is in the news”, adding that everything that was wrong with the country is still wrong, if not more so. The hot topic of immigration is central to the plot, as Idaho governor Jim Farley (Beau Bridges) refuses to allow an influx of orphan refugees after India drops a nuke in Pakistan. While the White House is in a state, calling in James Coburn’s spin doctor Jack Buchan to smooth the less than sharp President’s (Phil Hartman) tormented brow, Farley is more preoccupied with his ex (Elizabeth Pena), a reporter of Mexican extraction.


In Burke’s scenario, not exactly startlingly cynical behaviour includes moving immigrants to states where they will vote for the President and, particularly amusingly, adjusting the deadline for Idaho to re-open its borders to 67 ½ hours (from 72) in order not to clash with an cliffhanger instalment of All My Children. The media’s influence looms large, with Dan Hedaya’s news director at NN network manipulating the landing of the plane full of orphans so it coincides primetime (agreed to by the Give to the Children Corp charity rep; everyone is buyable, as the Sioux Nation allows the army to cross their reservation in exchange for a casino next to Little Big Horn). In the ultimate in arse-covering, Buchan allows the clash between the US Army and the Idaho National Guard (which includes representatives from other National Guard units) to play out rather than admitting he misheard the governor’s plan to resign as an intention to secede from the US.


The casual hypocrisy of Farley, having an affair with a child of immigrants and eating “the usual” – fajitas – for breakfast, isn’t really that pointed, and the idea of a rather dopey president, in the light of Reagan and Bush Jr, seems rather passé (“This President’s going to end up as confused as a goat on AstroTurf unless we are careful”, warns Buchan, who habitually invokes past presidents so as to stir his into action). That said, the late Hartman is as peerless as you’d expect. James Earl Jones, as the voice of a bygone age of earnest reporting, is appropriately sincere and authoritative, in an Edward R Murrow kind of way, but the proceedings generally lack the weight his presence authorises.


Dante commented “what I really like about the picture is that there really aren’t any villains in it, that everybody has their own reason for doing what they do and they think it’s for a good cause”; they maybe wrongheaded but are never caricatures. Caricatures might have lent Second Civil War some bite though, strange as that may seem. It’s only when the picture spirals into the horror of open warfare and military firing squads that it attains this, and even then it doesn’t feel tonally of-a-piece; indifference leads to incitement and back again. There’s a fantastic scene where Joanna Cassidy’s anchorwoman Helena Newman, aghast at what she has just witnessed, attempts to rouse Ben Masters’ co-anchor Matthew Langford from his teleprompted reportage, banging his head against his desk while informing him “There IS no other news!” It’s the closest the picture gets to Network-style indignation and confrontation, and it needs more of it.


The best, most consistent element, is Coburn’s spin doctor, “a political facilitator” rather than a lobbyist, gifted a stream of memorable lines (“Dead supporters are the worst. I mean, they take up a ton of your time, and then where the hell are they when you need them?”) and brutal honesty about the election process (the President won, like all do, “for the sizzle, not the steak”; it’s only afterwards that “the poor bastards have to bite into fat and gristle”). He gets his former president quotes from a pool of limo drivers (“Wow, that Eisenhower had a way with words”) and, only partially joking, suggests that, in order to guarantee future voters, “What we do is take the Irish off birth control”.


The movie is littered with pointed observations and asides; the army is partially immobilised because, following Free Trade talks, the US Stopped making parts. Then later they stopped shipping parts. One of the militia members complains that they don’t want foreign banks taking their money… Footage of various comparable internal strifes is nixed by the network in favour of the last Rwandan massacre, as they have no Rwandan advertisers who might be offended. But a lot more of Second Civil War just rather bumbles along, and despite the galvanising presence of Dennis Leary, much of the on-the-ground reporting is unadorned and unimaginative. An extended confrontation between National Guard and US Army bigwigs, shown to be respectful but really flinging abuse at each other, is actually quite tedious, and the attempts at showing divisions of ethos in the newsroom (while ordering milk to go with a donut) lack flair.


The shoot went well for Dante, and he welcomed the fine cast (which includes repeat players Hartman, Leary, Ron Perlman, Wiliam Schallert, Kevin McCarthy, Kevin Dunn, Roger Corman, Robert Picardo, and, of course, Dick Miller, here as a cameraman). Unfortunately, after underwhelming test screenings, HBO began pressing for changes, leading to “my second most negative experience making a film”. His post mortem: “In terms of how good I knew the film could have been, before all the post-production meddling, the end result was very disappointing – more so than any other movie I’d done since Explorers”.


He’s hard on The Second Civil War then, and hard too on the later Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but unless there was something in there that gave it drive and momentum (one might argue Back in Action has too much of the those), I doubt the unexpurgated version was a lost masterpiece. Dante may be better poised as a filmmaker to take aim at targets indirectly, from the fringes of a plot, rather than making politics central to his features. Certainly, that’s tended to work best for him in his career, and as an exception The Second Civil War flourishes fitfully but is cumulatively rather languorous.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).