The Most Hated Woman in America


Madalyn Murray O’Hair does her thing.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Netflix) Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Michael Chernus, Alex Frost, Vincent Kartheiser, Jose Zuniga, Brandon Mychal Smith, Sally Kirkland, Anna Camp, Ryan Cutrona, Andy Walken, Devin Freeman, Peter Fonda, Anthony Vitale, Ward Roberts, David Gueriera, Danya LaBelle. Directed by Tommy O’Haver

 

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a polarizing figure. Notoriously profiled by Life Magazine as the Most Hated Woman in America, her lawsuit against the Baltimore School System – which eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court – marked essentially the end of mandatory Bible passage reading in schools after mandatory school prayer had been abolished a few years earlier. She founded American Atheists and was a gadfly arguing for complete separation of church and state.

Her disappearance from her Austin, Texas home along with her son and granddaughter in 1995 raised nary an eyebrow. She was notorious for her publicity stunts and was known to take off mysteriously for weeks at a time. However, there was something about this particular occasion that just didn’t sit right. A San Antonio reporter, enlisted by concerned friends of O’Hair, looked into the affair and eventually came up with a former employee with an axe to grind.

It’s hard to believe but there have been no cinematic biographies of the notorious O’Hair until now. Melissa Leo, one of the more versatile and underrated actresses of our generation, takes on the role and does a bang-up job of it. O’Hair was an acerbic and abrasive personality who had a tendency to alienate those around her, not the least of which was her own family – her son William, played here by Vincent Kartheiser, was completely estranged from his mother by the time of her disappearance and these days spends his time trying to undo the achievements his mother made in the name of secularism.

The movie is mostly centered on her disappearance, kidnapped by former employee David Waters (Lucas), an ex-convict who discovered that American Atheists had off-shore accounts worth millions that could make him a very nice severance package. With thug Gary Kerr (Cochrane) and his friend Danny Fry (Frost), he kidnapped O’Hair and her family and stowed them in a seedy hotel until the end.

The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks covering the highlights of O’Hair’s life and career. The story flow is often disturbed by these flashbacks; I think the filmmakers might have been better served with a more linear narrative here. There are re-creations of her frequent talk show appearances (she was a favorite of Carson and Donahue for her combative nature and acid sense of humor) as well as essentially fictional accounts of what went on during the days she was kidnapped.

There are really several stories being covered here; the life story of O’Hair, the story of her bumbling kidnappers which is handled in something of a Coen Brothers style, and the reporter’s story which is more of an All the President’s Men kind of tale. The three styles kind of jostle up against each other; any of the three would have made a fine movie but all three stories tend to elbow each other out of the way and make the movie somewhat unsatisfactory overall.

The kidnapping scenes have a certain dark humor to them that actually is quite welcome. There’s no doubt that the kidnapping was a botched affair that didn’t go anything close to how the kidnappers hoped. I also appreciated the history lesson about O’Hair’s life; in many ways today the details of what she accomplished have been essentially overshadowed by emotional reactions to her perceived anti-religious views. Most of her detractors don’t understand that O’Hair wasn’t after abolishing religion altogether; she just didn’t want it forced on her kids in school, or on herself by her government (she also led an unsuccessful charge to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance). In that sense I can understand and even appreciate her vigilance but it seems fairly certain that her personality alienated people and in many ways overshadowed her message. You do win people over more with honey than vinegar.

REASONS TO GO: Melissa Leo channels Madalyn Murray O’Hair, warts and all. An interesting mix of historical and hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence, when it comes, is shocking and tone-changing. The movie kind of jumps around all over the place.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some shocking violence and a scene in which rape is implied.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film depicts David being hired on as an office manager, in reality he was hired as a typesetter and later promoted.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bernie
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Lazar

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Futureworld


The future is phallic.

The future is phallic.

(1976) Science Fiction (American Independent) Peter Fonda, Blythe Danner, Arthur Hill, John Ryan, Stuart Margolin, Yul Brynner, Alan Ludden, John Fujioka, Dana Lee, Burt Conroy, Darrell Larson, Nancy Bell, Judson Pratt, Jim Antonio, Mike Scott, Ed Geldard, Charles Krohn, Jim Everhart, Jan Cobbler, James Connor, Catherine McClenny. Directed by Richard T. Heffron

sci-fi-spectacle

This was a sequel to the popular hit film Westworld which on the day this is being published is making its debut as an HBO miniseries. Rather than a major studio behind the wheel however, AIP was funding this and of course as was typical for AIP films there was a kind of TV movie-of-the-week quality to the proceedings.

Following the disaster at Westworld the Delos resort is trying to regroup. They are so confident that they can resume their resort life of allowing guests to live their fantasies, no matter how illegal or immoral they are, with robots bearing the brunt of sexual congress and murder. Their publicity shill, Duffy (Hill) is so sure that the bugs have been worked out and that the guests are completely safe that he has invited a pair of reporters – print columnist Chuck Browning (Fonda) who helped expose the disaster at Westworld – and Tracy Ballard (Danner), a once-upon-a-time journalist who was fired by Browning but became a famous TV news personality. The two couldn’t be more opposite if they could try, which in movie-speak means they’re going to fall in love.

Westworld has closed (although we get to visit the ruins and get a hand job for doing it), but Delos has retained Romanworld and Medievalworld as well as adding two new resorts – Spaworld which gives the illusion of eternal life and youth, and Futureworld, which allows the wonders of the solar system to be experienced from the comfort of a cruise ship-like spaceship.

Browning is a cynical, suspicious sort – particularly after a tipster named Frenchy (Geldard) shows up dead with an envelope full of newspaper clippings. Browning means to do some investigatin’ and Woodward and Bernstein ain’t got nuthin on him. In the meantime he flirts with Ballard, calling her by the pet name “Socks” which isn’t as endearing as he thinks. And with the aid of disgruntled maintenance worker Harry (Margolin), Browning begins to uncover a horrific plot going on at Delos with the sinister Dr. Schneider (Ryan) at its very center.

All this was supposed to take place in 1985 and while some of the technology isn’t there yet (human-looking and acting robots) the computers and electronics looked positively archaic by the time 1985 actually arrived. AIP was hoping to cash in on a hit movie which the original studio, MGM, had tried to develop but couldn’t get a script and a budget they wanted. AIP didn’t really care about the script and as for budget, well, let’s just say that they didn’t scrimp but they didn’t break the bank either.

Fonda was at the time still trying to kick his counterculture image of Easy Rider and so his “stick it to the man” mentality that Browning possesses struck a chord with his fans. Part of the dated element of this film is that I don’t think that reporters are as considered heroic and anti-establishment now as they were in the wake of the Watergate investigation of the Washington Post which had just taken place a few years earlier. These days we mostly look as reporters as part of the corporate media machine. They essentially do little to report the news and more to sell advertising and for certain don’t look out for the little guy.

Danner was a hottie back in the day; we sometimes forget that Gwynneth’s beauty came from somewhere. However, AIP wanted this to be more or less compatible with network television standards, so there is virtually no sex, hardly any violence and no swearing. It was a different time.

Brynner, making his last screen appearance, reprises his role as the Gunslinger from the first film (the only actor who appears here from Westworld) and his menacing glare is one of the highlights of the film. Most of the rest of the performances were fairly pedestrian although Ryan did do some mustache-twirling scene chewery as the true big bad, in a generic 70s TV movie kind of way.

Most of the movie seems to have the actors running around the bowels of Delos with a lot of pipes, catwalks and wires which I suppose is better than having to construct futuristic-looking sets. None of it makes a lot of sense but overall, it’s surprisingly entertaining. I first saw it as a teen boy and I carry with me the fond memories of seeing it in a theater which may color my appreciation of it now. Still, while this isn’t the kind of movie that attracts a cult following, it’s still got enough going to make it kind of fun and quite frankly that’s far more than a lot of contemporary films can say.

WHY RENT THIS: There is some fun robot action. Yul Brynner makes a menacing but silent villain. Surprisingly entertaining throughout in a guilty pleasure kind of way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Very dated. Doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense. The performances seem mailed in.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and mild profanity and a few disturbing images as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to utilize 3D imagery, as well as being Brynner’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Westworld
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

New Releases for the Week of September 6, 2013


Riddick

RIDDICK

(Universal) Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Jordi Molla, Katee Sackhoff, Bokeem Woodbine, Dave Bautista, Conrad Pla, Matt Nable, Keri Hilson. Directed by David Twohy

Riddick, one of the most dangerous men in the Universe, has been abandoned and left for dead on a hellish rock. Bounty hunters are on their way to collect him and they’re not too picky what shape he’s in when they turn him in. However, Riddick isn’t the only dangerous thing on this planet and the bounty hunters soon realize that their only chance for survival may be the very man they’ve come to take – only he may be harder to contain than the murderous creatures that live there.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for strong violence, language and some sexual content/nudity)

Bounty Killer

(ARC Entertainment) Matthew Marsden, Kristanna Loken, Gary Busey, Beverly D’Angelo. Twenty years after corporate greed brought the planet to its knees, the CEOs and executives are being hunted down by a new generation of heroes; bounty killers. Often going up against private armies, these guys go after the powerful to give them what they have coming. Definitely a lefty fantasy.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sci-Fi Action

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language and some sexuality/nudity) 

Laughing to the Bank

(L2Bank) Brian Hooks, Tabitha Brown, Laila Odom, Curtis Pickett. A struggling actor determines to get the funding to write, direct, star in and distribute his own film project. When the money vanishes, it’s just the start of a whole other thing to get the cash back.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Comedy

Rating: NR

Renoir

(Goldwyn) Michel Bouquet, Christa Theret, Vincent Rottiers, Thomas Doret. The beloved painter near the end of his life takes on a new model who brings new energy and passion out in the old man. However his son Jean, recuperating from war wounds, falls in love with her creating tension between father and son. This was one of my favorites at this year’s Florida Film Festival; you can read my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of art-related nudity and brief language)

Still Mine

(Goldwyn) James Cromwell, Genevieve Bujold, Rick Roberts, Julie Stewart. A man attempts to build a more suitable home for his ailing wife. Confronted by bureaucratic red tape and stop work orders, he defies the system in a race against time to complete the project before his wife’s illness gets more serious.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and brief sensuality/partial nudity)

Tio Papi

(Active Fox) Joey Dedio, Kelly McGillis, Frankie Faison, Elizabeth Rodriguez . A Miami bachelor is quite happy with his life of hedonism and non-stop partying. All that comes to a crashing halt however when he becomes the legal guardian of his sister’s six rambunctious kids.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Family

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, mild rude humor and brief language)

The Ultimate Life

(High Top) Peter Fonda, Logan Bartholomew, Bill Cobbs, Lee Meriwether. A man, reeling from lawsuits from his greedy extended family, missing his girlfriend away on a mission to Haiti and trying to run the foundation started by his late grandfather, finds some of old granddad’s journals. As he reads them, he becomes fascinated by the old man’s rise from rags to riches. But can he find the strength and the faith to withstand all the challenges being lobbed his way?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for a brief battle scene and mild thematic elements)

New Releases for the Week of June 28, 2013


White House Down

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

(Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Jimmi Simpson, Matt Craven. Directed by Roland Emmerich

A DC cop who had just been turned down for the secret service is touring the White House when it comes under a terrorist attack. Don’t you hate when that happens? In any case, he needs to rescue the president, keep his daughter safe and keep our country from collapsing. All in a day’s work, right?

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of  action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)

20 Feet from Stardom

(Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Bruce Springsteen. The world’s greatest backup singers of the rock and roll era get together to reminisce on their careers as some of the most recognizable voices in music whose names you don’t know. A big hit  as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Catch my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Music Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material) 

Copperhead

(Brainstorm) Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Fonda, Francois Arnaud. A pacifist farmer in upstate New York defies his neighbors and his government in 1862 as the Civil War rages. The resulting schism in the community thoroughly illustrates the fact that war isn’t only fought by its combatants and it can have a terrible cost on the community at large.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence) 

Fill the Void

(Sony Classics) Hadras Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir. A Hassidic family in Tel Aviv is rocked to the core when the eldest daughter dies in childbirth. When it looks like the widower will be matched with a Belgian woman, taking their only link to their deceased child with him, the family proposes that the younger daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) instead marry the widower. She now must choose between family duty and the call of her heart.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)

Ghanchakkar

(UTV) Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Rajesh Sharma. A master safe cracker decides to do one last heist before retiring and so he does – the big score he’s always dreamed of. The gang decides to split up and lie low until the heat dies down. However, when they reunite to collect their cash, they realize the safe cracker has had some sort of accident and has completely lost his memory. Or is he paying a rather dangerous game? They must stick around and find out which it is.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Heat

(20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans. An uptight FBI agent and a loose cannon Boston cop team up to take down a ruthless drug lord – if they don’t end up killing each other first. Oh and by the way – said agent and cop are women. This could get real ugly.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Buddy Cop Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence) 

The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day


The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day

The McManus clan prays for an audience to show up this time.

(2009) Action (Apparition) Norman Reedus, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Connolly, Julie Benz, Clifton Collins, Peter Fonda, Judd Nelson, Brian Mahoney. Directed by Troy Duffy

Once upon a time writer/director Troy Duffy wrote a script called Boondock Saints that became the subject of a heated bidding war among studios both major and otherwise. Miramax won that war and wheels were set in motion to get the movie made.

Unfortunately all the press and all the accolades went to Duffy’s head and his ego began to reign unchecked. All of this was captured in a documentary about the making of the movie called Overnight. When the movie finally came out, it did anemic box office on an extremely limited run and the documentary got better ratings than the film it chronicled did. It looked like Duffy’s career was over before it began.

A funny thing happened then; the movie took off in home video rentals and sales. In fact, it made enough to warrant a sequel, albeit ten years later. Despite the critical shellacking it took, people began to discover that Boondock Saints actually wasn’t a bad movie especially if you’re into Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

So how does the new movie rate? Well, it picks up about a decade after the first one left off. The McManus boys Connor (Flanery) and Murphy (Reedus) have been living quietly in Ireland on their dad Noah’s (Connolly) farm. Then news comes in that a beloved priest in Boston was murdered and pennies left on his eyes, a McManus brother’s trademark. It seems someone is sending a message; not only do they want the McManus boys back in the States they also want the authorities to think they are already.

Not being ones to back down from anything, they hop on a freighter and sneak into Boston. Aided by Romeo (Collins), a fan of their work and also a pretty good driver, they begin digging into the murder to try and find out who’s behind it and take them out before either the authorities or the murderers find the brothers. And by digging, I mean shooting everybody who gets within range and looks like they might have anything to do with it.

Doggedly on their tail is Eunice (Benz), a super-hot FBI agent who has inherited the case from Agent Smecker (a cameo by Willem Dafoe, who played the role in the original) who may be the one agent who can handle the boys and who has an agenda of her own to do so. And when things look bad, dear old Da comes in from Ireland to set things right.

The plot is pretty simple and the execution of it much better this time around. The body count is certainly higher and there is a bit more humor than there was before. One of the secrets to the movie’s charm is that the McManus brothers come off as guys you wouldn’t mind having a drink or ten with at the pub, and certainly guys you’d want in your corner if there was a fight at said pub. After the fight, you no doubt would want to go back to the pub with them to celebrate. Ah, to be Irish!

Reedus and Flanery step back into their roles as if no time has passed at all. Although the parts are a little bit less clearly written than they were in the first movie, they still hold the center of the movie together and put the Irish back into action anti-hero. Connolly is one of those actors who illuminates everything he’s in, and with his leonine mane and ridiculous amount of on-screen charisma, he is more of a force of nature than an actor here. He literally dominates every scene he’s in.

Benz, fresh off of “Dexter,” is scorching hot, something she didn’t particularly explore either in “Dexter” or in her new family show on ABC, “No Ordinary Family”. Not that it’s something she wants or even needs to pursue, but if she wanted to go the sex kitten route in her career, she’s certainly got the ability to go there.

Duffy knows what to do with violence in his action films, and some of the sequences here get superior marks for their execution, particularly the climactic gun battle and another involving a forklift in a factory. The movie has a phenomenal pace, and leaves no time for boredom.

Duffy and company set up the potential for a third movie and to be honest, I’d be interested to see it. That’s what you want to do with any sequel, and by that standard, mission accomplished. Hopefully we’ll get the chance before 2019.

WHY RENT THIS: The McManus boys are well-written and the film has the feel of a bunch of hell raising guys in a pub going out to blow off some steam. I’d walk a mile to see anything with Billy Connolly in it, and a mile more to see Julie Benz pulling off the sex kitten/FBI agent role. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie breaks no original ground and seems to coast on its own momentum in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of violence and foul language as well as a little bit of nudity; definitely for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequel made more money in its opening weekend than the first film made in its entire theatrical run.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with Connolly and Duffy gives some insight into their working relationship, and there is also some manic footage from the cast’s appearance at the San Diego Comic Con with extra-special guest ex-porn star Ron Jeremy(!).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.6 on a production budget of $8M; the movie didn’t quite make back its production and marketing costs.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ponyo