31 Days to Scare ~ High Spirits

The Facts:

Synopsis: The owner of an Irish castle decides to attract visitors by falsely claiming the building is haunted, only to have a pair of real ancestral spirits start causing trouble…

Stars: Peter O’Toole, Daryl Hannah, Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, Peter Gallagher, Jennifer Tilly, Donal McCann, Mary Coughlan, Liz Smith, Tom Hickey, Tony Rohr

Director: Neil Jordan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  As another October was drawing to a close and it was getting time to step away from focusing solely on scary movies for the year, I was thinking about what to feature for the last few posts.  I knew I’d cover some well-known titles and already planned out my Halloween entry but it was that last day, the 30th, that had me scratching my head.  Then it hit me…or actually it came crashing down.  I was just waking up this morning when a unexpectedly picture fell off the wall, causing a great deal of noise and starting the day off with a startle.  A faulty nail is the assured culprit but…what if a ghost was having some fun with me in the early hours?  For some reason, it got me in haunting mood and my mind went right to High Spirits, a silly but fun favorite of mine.

Now, let’s be clear.  A horror movie this is not so if you’re looking for blood, guts, and gore you can skip to tomorrow but if you need a spooky/goofy respite from suspense and are up for a trip back to the late ‘80s you have come to the right place.  Released in 1988 to mediocre reviews and no box office, this isn’t exactly an unheralded classic that didn’t get its due.  While I personally find it to be a riot, at the time it arrived in theaters audiences were already distancing themselves from this broad type of farce.  Over time, I think the movie has aged well and the cast is chock full of familiar faces, many of whom are turning in sharp and ribald performances.

Poor Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, The Stunt Man) is having trouble getting guests to stay at his castle in the Irish countryside.  Though the place is in need of repair, Plunkett and his staff of locals don’t do much to spruce it up to make it more appealing to the tourist trade.  When he’s (literally) at the end of his rope, a light bulb for an idea goes off when he’s reminded by his boozy mother (a delightful Liz Smith) about the numerous ghosts that supposedly live in the castle.  Why not market the castle as haunted and, once the guests arrive, fake the appearances to create massive buzz?  That should keep the rooms occupied and the cash coming in.  Right?

The plan works…almost.  When the first batch of tourists arrive, they include Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Diner) and Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo, The Sentinel) a couple on their second honeymoon and they clearly need it.  She’s an uptight city gal while he’s looking forward to getting the most out of their creepy Irish adventure.  They’re joined by a priest (Peter Gallagher, Hello, My Name is Doris), a sexpot (Jennifer Tilly), and a demanding family from the suburbs (led by Martin Ferrero from Jurassic Park).  The staff do their best to give the group a good scare but the results are less than thrilling.  Figuring out they’ve been duped pretty quickly, the guests plan their escape…and that’s when Jack meets Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah, Splash!), Peter’s very beautiful but very dead relative.

Murdered on her wedding night by a jealous husband (Liam Neeson, The Haunting) and doomed to repeat the violent act nightly for eternity, when Jack intervenes in a drunken daze it breaks the cycle and Mary is freed to be a regular old spirit.  Grateful to Jack for freeing her, the two strike up a connection that neither really found with their significant other.  The movie then becomes your typical boy meets ghost story, further complicated by her dead husband and his living wife getting into the mix.  All this happens while Plunkett tries to keep the other guests out of harm’s way when their less than haunted experience gets very real after the rest of the Plunkett ancestors get roused and the line between the living and the dead is tested.

Written and directed by Neil Jordan (who would score an Oscar four years later for The Crying Game and also gave us Greta in 2019), the movie is total Sunday afternoon rainy-day fare and I think it’s a lot of fun.  It’s obviously not trying to be a classic in any sense but it has some memorable moments and performances that are off-the-wall enough to be quite amusing.  Smith is a hoot at Peter’s mum who is always three sheets to the wind while it’s nice to see Neeson so early in his career in a lark of a comedic role.  Guttenberg and D’Angelo can play these types of roles in their sleep but they’re engaging nonetheless and Hannah makes for a lovely apparition.  The production design of the castle is impressive and, haunted or not, you’ll likely wish a similar stay would be in your future.

High art?  No.  High Spirits?  Yes.

Movie Review ~ Where’s My Roy Cohn?

The Facts

Synopsis: Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump.

Stars: Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Roger Stone, Liz Smith

Director: Matt Tyrnauer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After Donald Trump gained enough Electoral College votes to claim victory on election night back in 2016, most of America was left shell-shocked and wondering how this could have happened.  Keep in mind he lost the popular vote by millions.  Entering the final weeks of the campaign with a growing list of concerns over his qualifications to lead the nation, it was almost safely assumed he stood no real shot at winning.  So how did it happen?  Did we all just have too much faith in our democratic system?  Or did we not see that this rise to power was a long time in the making and a fox had been placed in the henhouse right under our noses even before the eggs had hatched?

The answer to the ascent of Trump can be traced back to one man, Roy M. Cohn, and he’s the subject of a new documentary making its way to theaters this weekend after first bowing at January’s Sundance Film Festival.  The first of two documentaries released in 2019 on the flamboyant lawyer who died of AIDS related complications in 1986 at the age of 59, director Matt Tyrnauer’s approach is a fairly straight-forward telling of Cohn’s life through friends and colleagues and archival interviews with the man himself.  Notoriously unlikable and almost proud of it, my only true exposure to Cohn up until this point was Al Pacino’s award-winning performance in the HBO mini-series Angels in America.

Reaching back to 1951 at the beginning of his career when Cohn was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and assisted in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs, Tyrnauer charts how the closeted attorney used his influence to kick off the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954.  Hoping to protect a fellow McCarthy aide drafted into service, his dogged pursuit of getting the man out of having to serve wound up backfiring and nearly exposing the private lives of Cohn and possibly McCarthy. Once he left McCarthy’s side he made his way back to New York where he became a trusted council for a number of individuals with ties to organized crime, always finding loopholes or working out deals to avoid jail time for his clients.  A feared legal eagle, Cohn wasn’t shy about wielding his power and enjoyed striking fear into his adversaries and even his close companions.

The last third of the documentary focuses in on Cohn’s relationship with Trump as the real estate magnate enters the big leagues in New York.  Retaining Cohn to provide advice for working the system and bartering the best deals with the least amount of loss, hearing the techniques he taught Trump sounds very familiar to the kind of behavior we see on a daily basis now.  Never admit you’re wrong.  Never apologize.  Claim defeat as victories.  All tactics Cohn pioneered that Trump, as his clear protégé, carries on to this day.

While informative, it’s also a fairly sad documentary because Cohn was such a deeply unhappy and hypocritical man.  Denying his sexuality for years in public though in private it was well known who he spent his time with, he still wanted people to believe he was going to marry Barbara Walters (of all people!), his longtime childhood friend.  Worst of all, when Cohn contracted HIV during a time when hundreds of people were dying from it,  Cohn vehemently squashed rumors he had the disease even as he pushed to be included in experimental treatment being conducted by the National Institute of Health.  This when close friend President Reagan hadn’t even said the word AIDS in public but was helping Cohn get into clinical trials behind closed doors.  Unthinkable.  On one hand, I’m sad for Cohn but on the other he was such a wicked person that there’s a part of you that almost feels his end was a sort of karma for his actions during his life.

The next Cohn documentary is set to air on HBO before the year is out and I’ll be interested to see what new angle it would take to tell us more that we didn’t learn here.  While not a comprehensive view of Cohn’s life, much of his childhood is reduced to small anecdotes by Tyrnauer in favor of focusing on the relationships he developed as an adult, it is informative and gives a good picture of why Cohn was such a polarizing individual to much of the country and why he was a golden god to a select few.  Even now, some of the subjects interviewed seem wary of Cohn’s reach from beyond the grave.