Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lost in America (1985)

Lost In America Movie Poster

Release Date: 3/15/1985

Starring: Albert Brooks, Julie Hagerty and Garry Marshall

Directed by Albert Brooks; Written by Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson

Albert Brooks’ 1985 comedy Lost In America is a film that I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for awhile now.  I’d seen it on cable TV back in the late 80’s and while I enjoyed it, I realize now that a lot of the humor was lost on me at the time.  As a teenager I wasn’t able to fully understand or empathize with Albert Brooks’ and Julie Hagerty’s characters reasons for dropping out of the corporate world and their eventual plight on the road to start their new lives.  Revisiting this film almost 25 years later allowed me to enjoy it on a new level.

The movie begins with David Howard (played by Brooks) unable to sleep as he second guesses the decision to sell his house after it’s already closed.  He’s talked down by his patient wife Linda (played by Hagerty) but once she’s convinced him it was the right decision he begins to overthink whether their new house was the right one to buy.  The next day David’s commitment/decision making issues continue at work when he calls the Mercedes dealership for the umpteenth time before finally making the decision to order his new car.  He meets with his boss expecting to get a promotion to Senior Vice President, only to find out the agency gave the promotion to a less qualified employee and David is being transferred to the New York office to work on the Ford campaign.  He doesn’t take the news well, curses out his boss, quits/gets fired, and storms out before he can be thrown out by security.

David bursts into Linda’s office and convinces her to quit her job and drop out of the corporate life with him.  That night they look up property listings in the East and decide to cash out and leave Los Angeles to drive across America and live off of their nest egg like Easy Rider.  Their quest to find freedom on the road is not without sacrifice of comfort: instead of motorcycles they get a top of the line Winnebago (complete with a microwave that includes a browning setting that David can’t stop raving about).  They stop in Las Vegas on the first night of their new lives and while David would prefer to spend the night in a trailer park, Linda convinces him to splurge on a hotel room and enjoy themselves for a night.  It starts off on the wrong foot when they’re forced to grease the manager’s palm for the only available room (a junior bridal suite with two heart shaped twin beds), but only gets worse when David wakes up the next morning with no sign of Linda.

He finds her in the casino frazzled on an adrenaline rush and at the tail end of an all night losing streak at the roulette table.  He’s advised by the casino manager (played brilliantly by Garry Marshall) that she’s seriously in the hole, and when he is finally able to pull Linda away from the table he finds out she apparently has a latent gambling addiction and she’s lost almost all of their $100,000 nest egg in a matter of hours.  The best scene in the film is David’s sincere yet hopeless attempt to get the casino to give them their money back.  With barely $1,000 of their nest egg left, they’re forced to stop in a sleepy Arizona town and find any job they can get.

As a 40-something with a mortgage and 20+ years in the corporate world, I can now empathize with the sentiment (and folly) of David and Linda’s quest for freedom.  The story isn’t preachy about dropping out or making a statement about 80’s excess, it’s about two people that make a wrong turn in their journey and have to dig themselves out of a hole.

For me the humor comes from the sense of irony that David and Linda didn’t throw caution to the wind, give their money away and try to live off the grid.  They know from the very beginning that the one thing they’ll need to start their new life is money.  What makes the story effective is that they’re doing everything right and it still blows up in their faces.  Even the plan to quit their jobs is planned according to their finances, it’s only an impromptu night in Las Vegas and a latent gambling addiction that knocks them off course.  No excuses, no corporate enemy, just personal responsibility and starting over.  Brooks and Hagerty have great chemistry as each unexpected bump in the road tests their marriage and their plan for a new life.  Brooks drags out their plight so effectively the audience forgets they’re only several days into their journey.  This film is a gem.

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Comic Book Review: World War Mob #1

World War Mob

Release Date 1/8/14

Written and Created by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo

Published by New Paradigm Studios

Currently available on Amazon; available on Comixology 1/29/14

When my brother and I started collecting comics back in the 70’s, our early collection included titles such as G.I. Combat, Sgt. Rock and Weird War Tales.  Those titles made up half of our comic book purchases each month, and we enjoyed them as much as any superhero comic back then.

It was around that time that we took our first family trip to Italy, which included a visit to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, one of the hard fought battlegrounds during the Italian campaign of World War II and a stone’s throw from our family’s hometown.  Over the years we’ve heard countless stories from our relatives who lived through the war in Italy during those years.

And so began our interest, if not obsession, with World War II.

In recent years I picked up as many war themed comics as I could find, but in my opinion there still weren’t enough.  Then I picked up a copy of Vito Delsante and Giancarlo Caracuzzo’s World War Mob #1 (of a four issue mini-series).  When I saw the cover  with Benito Mussolini in the crosshairs (by artist Mike Manomivibul), I was intrigued.  When I finished the first issue, I was hooked. 

World War Mob Page 1

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

The story begins in New York City’s Lower East Side in 1932.  A teenage Vincenzo Di Greco works his way up from street gang leader  protecting his turf to footsoldier for mobster Lucky Luciano.  He’s got a heart of stone and isn’t afraid to shed blood when necessary, which makes him, in his own words, a good soldier.  Delsante’s words and dialogue bring out the fire in Di Greco’s heart, and artist Giancarlo Caracuzzo’s doesn’t hold back when representing Di Greco’s neighborhood and his bloody handywork in World War Mob’s beautifully drawn and watercolored pages.

World War Mob Panel

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

Cut to December of 1944.  Di Greco, now a captain in the U.S. Army, leads a squad through the snow of the Ardennes against the German army.  He’s not afraid to “bring the fight to them” as his squad takes out a German gun post.  Two months later, while on leave for some R&R in Sicily, he’s handed a note that leads him to an empty bar and face to face with New York mobster Meyer Lansky flanked by two GI’s as his personal security detail.

World War Mob Panel B

World War Mob #1
Written by Vito Delsante; Art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo
Published by New Paradigm Studios

Lansky gets to the point: Lucky Luciano wants Benito Mussolini assassinated and he’s in Sicily to recruit Vincent.  As they speak, four other representatives of the Five Families have traveled to Europe to recruit the other soldiers that will take part in the mission, one from each family.  Vincent looks over the list of his fellow recruits and spots a name from his past: Victor Santi of the Mangano crime family.  They have a history, and now they’ll be forced to work together to assassinate il Duce against incredible odds.  They’ve been given their orders (kill Mussolini or don’t come home), but they have to figure out a plan on the fly.  Their first problem: they’ll need to go AWOL to carry out the mission.

Reviews of World War Mob will make their share of comparisons with mafia/war movie combinations like Goodfellas meets The Dirty Dozen or comparable movies of those genres, but those comparisons are unnecessary because World War Mob is a great comic book with a story that stands on its own.  My only disappointment is that World War Mob is a four issue mini-series and I wish it was ongoing.  Once I finished the last panel of the last page, I started counting the weeks to the next issue.  Can’t wait for issue #2.

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One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich Poster

Release Date: December 7, 1970 (Sweden); May 16, 1971 (US)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Espen Skjonberg, Alf Malland, James Maxwell, Alfred Burke, Maxwell Thompson

Directed by Caspar Wrede; Screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Going into this weekend, my goal was to kick back and enjoy a few movies.  The blizzard and freezing weather in the Northeast inspired me to find a winter themed movie to fit my surroundings, but this turned out to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be.  My old standby for this weather is John Carpenter’s amazing The Thing, but I had already covered this film in my retrospective of The Summer of ’82.  I looked up other films set in winter and noticed most had a holiday theme and I had seen them in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  But out of the blue I remembered the film adaptation of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and I decided to track it down.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel about life in Stalin era labor camp was required reading for me sophomore year of high school.  It stayed with me over the years, even inspiring me to study Russian language in high school and college.  But I first learned about the film version several years ago as a result of a random IMDB search, and since then it’s been a curiosity for me because it’s extremely hard to find (except in terrible quality on YouTube – my only option) and the book hasn’t been tackled as a feature film again.  But what I find more curious was how this film could be completely forgotten in the first place.

Director Caspar Wrede’s opening shot of the film establishes the feeling of pure isolation as the camera makes its way toward the lights of the Soviet prison camp in the pitch dark early hours of a winter morning.  Prisoner C-854 Ivan Denisovich Shukhov (played by the great Tom Courtenay), serving his eighth year of a ten year sentence, wakes up feeling ill and hoping to get an exemption from work that day.  His day begins with punishment for not getting up on time, but rather than being led to “the cells” his guard orders him to clean the floors of the stark, lifeless officer’s lounge.  As Denisovich scrubs the floors with a bucket of ice cold water under a framed photo of a smiling Josef Stalin (referred to as “Old Whiskers” in Solzhenitsyn’s book), one can only imagine what “comforts” were available to the camp guards and staff, and if their tenure in the camp was as much of a sentence for them in their careers.

Denisovich is unable to get a medical exemption and is forced to work in sub zero temperatures laying bricks at a construction site.  The inmates must work if the temperature is above -40 degrees Celsius, and at 27 below zero they won’t be getting a reprieve that day.  This chapter of the book stood out the most for me (I still can’t fathom the idea of working with mortar at 27 below zero), and 25 years after reading it on the page, I finally heard Denisovich yell “Mortar!” as they worked fast to lay each course of bricks before the mortar froze.  It’s during this sequence of the film that we learn more about the inmates of The 104th (the 24 man squad of prisoners that Denisovich is assigned to) and the “crimes” that led them to the gulag.  Denisovich was captured by the Germans during World War II, escaped, but was accused by the Russian Army of obtaining his freedom from the Germans in exchange for spying.

Tthe film has a simplicity that allows the audience to look at the most mundane activity (meal time, waiting on line for parcels, bumming a cigarette, etc.) and feel the inmates’ loss of freedom and the weight of incarceration in the gulag without exaggerating or over dramatizing the day to day life of the camp.  The set design and wardrobe are stark and simple but effective in representing the bleak living conditions from the old, cramped wooden bunk beds to the filthy rags of clothes the inmates bundle together to protect themselves from bitter, unending cold.  Ronald Harwood’s screenplay has a faithfulness to the book’s tone, and the voice over dialogue taken from the book adds additional context to Denisovich’s plight and the day to day life in the camp.  Over ten years later, Courtenay would star in (and receive a Golden Globe award and Academy Award nomination) for his role in 1983’s The Dresser, also written by Harwood.

Film adaptations rarely match up to the original books they’re based on, but the film version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a good film in its own right and faithful to Solzhenitsyn’s novel.  Tom Courtenay’s performance is powerful and the representation of life in Stalin’s gulag is gut wrenching.  This film does not deserve to be forgotten and I hope it gets a release on DVD or streaming video soon.

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