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Max Splatter: Critic-at-Large

Max Splatter ImageNo-holds-barred critiques of cultural affairs.

A graduate of the prestigious Newark Institute of Graffiti Arts, Splatter reviews films, television, books and whatever else takes his fancy. Due to his frequent spasms of narcolepsy, however, we can not always be sure that he accurately describes the subject under review. Since we place such a low premium on fact-checking, we simply take him at his word. Besides, even if he makes up this stuff, he probably provides more insightful observations per paragraph than you can get in most of the real reviews you see, hear, or read.

The full reviews appear immediately after the summaries.

Current Review Summaries

Film Reviews
The Wizard of Oz (Director's Cut)
Don't miss Vic Fleming's riveting drama about a runaway delinquent caught between feuding drug lords in depression era immigrant Manhattan. Garland is brilliant as the Kansas slacker who becomes a mob assassin. MGM toned down the social commentary with a few transparent script changes but the director's cut allows the original vision to shine through in ways few ever imagined. Read the full review.

Television Reviews
La Femme Nikita
Their ends are just but their means are ruthless.
Left Wing
Their ends are just but their means are ruthless.
The Practice
Their ends are just but their means are ruthless.

The Full Reviews

Film Review:     The Wizard of Oz (Director's Cut)

The Wizard of Oz: Director's Cut
For years Hollywood insiders whispered about the existence of an unusual director's cut for MGM's classic Wizard of Oz, one that preserved all the gritty details of L. Frank Baum's pulp fiction thrillers about the drug trade in the New York slums, usually referred to as the Oz stories. (Oz, in street slang, referred to the abbreviation for an ounce and was used when buying marijuana, as in "give me an Oz." The term later mutated into "buzz.") Word was that Vic Fleming, who directed the film, created a dark and edgy social drama about life in the New York slums, but MGM thought his message a little too downbeat and pro-leftist, two issues of great concern in the Depression era. So they made a couple of minor but transparent script changes that disguised the underlying story. Sharp critics of the time, though, suspected something amiss but couldn't quite put their fingers on it. Now, MGM, eager for a new twist to milk its cash cow, has released the long sought after original director's cut and it's a don't miss opportunity for film buffs.

Filmed originally in all black and white, The Wizard of Oz tells of the adventures of a young Kansas delinquent named Dorothy. Unhappy with life in a farm-based foster home where she has to get up early to do chores, put up with ridiculous school regulations, and do without shopping malls and drive-in burger stand, her inner-slacker acts, earning the reputation of a school trouble-maker. Naturally she falls in with the wrong crowd. One day, caught in the bathroom smoking weed, the principal expels her and she sneaks back to the farm. Sitting down behind the barn she lights another joint,inhales deeply, and falls asleep, dreaming about running away from white-bread Kansas and getting down with the cultural diversity of New York City night life. She imagines herself singing the blues in a Harlem nightclub (performing her signature song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow Coalition.") But when she awakes, she ain't in Kansas anymore. She's standing on the corner of Hester and Mulberry, in New York's Little Italy.

Almost immediately, she gets into a street brawl with the drug-dealing sister of a local Italian gang leader and accidentally causes a scaffold full of bricks to drop on top of and kill her attacker. Some of the shopkeepers, fearing a violent retaliation, warn her to get out of town before the dead girl's family learns what happened. One of the residents whispers to her about the Wizard of Oz, a rival marijuana dealer in the Emerald City (a euphemism for the Irish community in Hell's Kitchen on the Manhattan West Side) who might give her shelter. In an interesting Brechtian twist, Fleming portrays the Italian community as people of diminutive stature, signifying the low status of the immigrants in the Capitalist world around them.

Dorothy sets out down Broadway, known as the Yellow Brick Road because that's where many of the marijuana dealers plied their trade, and seeks out the Wizard. Along the way she meets up with three former Republican congressmen defeated in the Roosevelt landslide. The first is a brainless stuffed shirt, the second a heartless welfare cutter, and the third a cowardly warmonger who enlisted in the National Guard. Each of the three laments his lowly state and begs Dorothy to help him change his public image so that he can be re-elected to Congress. Dorothy tells them to mellow out, that the Wizard of Oz has just what they need. The three naive Republicans fail to catch Dorothy's drift and at first hesitate to get involved with a drug dealer. Then they figure this Oz guy might contribute to their re-election campaigns. So, they decide to follow along with Dorothy, hoping the young urchin would give them a proper introduction. Dorothy, however, was only concerned with getting back to Kansas before she got into anymore trouble and hoping to find a way to scam these guys out of some money for a return bus ticket.

In the meantime, the dead-girl's boyfriend learns what happened and swears revenge, sending his swarthy Italian henchman all over town looking for the killer. As the search proceeds, Dorothy and her companions seek out the Emerald City. The path leads them into Hell's Kitchen, an impoverished neighborhood full of weird looking characters, unlike anything Dorothy has ever seen. She and the three Republicans wander around with jaws dropped and eyes wide open. After several failed attempts to locate the Wizard, a couple of skuzzy-looking drunks direct them to a local pub. Told by the bartender that the Wizard would grant them an audience, they look around but see no one fitting the description. Instead, they hear a booming voice from behind an office door asking them what they wanted.

Dorothy said she needed to get back to Kansas fast, and the three ex-Congressman explained their election problems and the need to change their public images. The voice promised them that he could help, but first they would have to knock off his rival, the head of the Italian gang that was chasing after Dorothy.

Realizing she's between a rock and a hard place, she sets off on her homicidal mission, gathering the three Republicans for backup. The three companions, sensing an opportunity to win re-election, decide to help Dorothy out but, this being Halloween night, they put on disguises so that no one would recognize them. One dressed up like a scarecrow, one a tin man, and the third a lion. All four then trudge back to Little Italy, by now tired from their constant wanderings. As they cross the Italian poppy fields near Washington Square Park, the source of the Italian heroin supplies and bakers' poppy seeds, they lay down amidst the flowers and fall asleep.

While they doze under the stars, the Italian search party finds the quartet and takes them prisoner. Of course, Dorothy slips out of her bindings and manages to drown the Italian gang leader in a vat of spoiled grappa. She frees her accomplices and they all return to Hell's Kitchen to claim their rewards from the Wizard.

Back in the pub, one of the Republicans notices that the office door is open and sneaks a peek. Recognizing the man behind the desk as the local Democratic ward-healer, he shouts out, "You fraud!"

The embarrassed Democrat shuffles out from behind his desk, tells them that the guy they killed was actually an informer for the FBI, and begs them not to disclose the truth about his affairs. "No one likes a snitch," Dorothy says, and the Republicans agree to keep silent in return for some secret help in their re-election campaigns. Dorothy, tired of life in the big city, just asks for a ticket back home. The Wizard agrees to all the terms and gives Dorothy a pair of souvenir red shoes made in Milan.

Dorothy falls asleep on the return bus trip and when she awakes, she is back behind the barn where she first toked the joint. "Wow!" she shouts. "There's nothing like Acapulco Gold." A smile lights up her face and the camera pans down to her feet, where she is wearing the red shoes. The screen fades to black.

As you can see, there are few differences between the original story and the final filmed version. Indeed, the classic version made the drug connections far more explicit. The Emerald City appeared as a hallucinogenic paradise while the poppy fields belonging to the Wizard's rival were far more expansive than in the director's cut. The casting of young Judy Garland as the delinquent murderer was one of the most inspired casting decisions of all time. Her doe-eyed vulnerability gave the film a shot of erotic tension whenever she interacted with the three leering tag-alongs. The only significant change is the downplaying of the Republican ties to the three imbeciles, something the conservative studio bosses insisted upon. Finally, it should be noted that Fleming wanted to shoot the original all in black and white, emphasizing the dark and shadowy world of immigrant Manhattan, while the studio insisted on color for wider audience appeal. This resulted in the one compromise that improved upon Fleming's original vision, with the initial farm scenes shot in black and white and the drug-induced nightmare in full color, a brilliant and shocking transition the first time you see it. As with the popular version, young children should be kept away from these frightening stories of amoral violence. Although not rated, it is less violent and frightening than the popular classic, with Fleming placing his emphasis on the shocking social conditions in lower Manhattan. Still, as with the popular original, drug themes are pervasive and parents should be careful about letting children see either of these films.

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 Television Review:     La Femme Nikita

La Femme Nikita may be the funniest military sit-com since Mash, and maybe since the old Sgt. Bilko series in the fifties. The action takes place within the confines of a super secret espionage organization loaded with high tech gear. Think Maxwell Smart's shoe phone updated for the computer age. The show's premise is that the agency is run by right-wing fanatics who kidnap and train left-wing criminals to serve as agents. The would-be assassins have a choice between serving the Right or death, clearly a great idea that leads to all sorts of laugh-a-minute story twists. As Nikita raucously intones at the start of each episode, "Their ends are just but their means [giggle, giggle] are ruthless. [laughter]"

In a recent representative episode, Section (as the boss is called) told the team he was worried that the recent transfer of nuclear secrets from the Democratic National Committee to the Chinese military could unleash a wave of terrorist acts across the world and threaten American security. He orders Michael, his chief operative, to take out a team and launch a nuclear first strike against Beijing, to serve as a warning.

As Michael, Nikita, and the other members of the assault team penetrate Chinese air space in a Stealth aircraft, Nikita becomes conscience-stricken and says to Michael, "If we take out Beijing it could lead to a loss of contributions to the Democrats. A Republican might get elected , eliminate health care, expand poverty, and feed poor children ketchup souffles. I can't live with that on my conscience. I'd rather be canceled [an agency term for eliminated.]"

"What are you going to do Nikita?," Michael quietly asks.

Just then, Berkoff, the agency cyperpunk, monitoring Chinese communications from spy satellites, warns Michael that the Chinese know about the Stealth violation of Chinese air space.

As Nikita grabs the plane's controls from the pilot, Michael quietly asks "What are you going to do Nikita?"

"Just watch," she replies.

Nikita then swoops over the American Embassy and launches three Scud Missiles directly into the center of the roof, completely obliterating the embassy and killing all the staff within. The appeased Chinese allow the plane safe passage out of the country.

When they return to base, Section asks how the mission went. Michael, covering for Nikita, quietly responds, "It went without a hitch. Mission completed."

"Good," Section responds, but a few minutes later he approaches Berkoff and says that his computer still shows Beijing in tact.

"Just a glitch, sir. I'll fix it right away." Berkoff then reprograms Section's computer to show a giant hole in the Beijing portion of the Chinese map. Berkoff, Nikita, and Michael all laugh. Michael then quietly tells Nikita, "I can't keep covering for you like this."

In the meantime, Section joins Madeline, his assistant who runs the psychiatric profiling unit, and they sit down to a cup of tea. Madeline remarks, "The plan was brilliant."

Section responds, "Yes, it was. We've been trying for years to get Congress to authorize the destruction of that security-leak hellhole of an embassy and replace it with a new high-tech counter-espionage building. But those damn cheapskate Republicans on the committee wouldn't authorize the funds and the Democrats didn't want to insult the Chinese. Now they have to rebuild the Embassy."

"Don't you think you took a big risk on Nikita aborting the mission the way she did?"

"I don't think so, Madeline. Your profiles on her have always been spot-on. She's still a liberal. Very predictable."

"Should we tell Michael and Nikita that the American Embassy was the real target all along?"

"I don't think so. Let her and Michael think they pulled one over on us. It'll make them cocky, expose their weaknesses."

Both smile and sip their tea.

The show is truly funny, especially if you like the "Yes, Minister" brand of humor. But I still have one small criticism. I wish they would cut out the canned laughter and put in a live studio audience. Berkoff's "The Computer Ate My Homework" routines are hysterical, but when the same laugh track intensity also follows Nikita's regular anti-Republican diatribes and Michael's lies on Nikita's behalf, funny though they may be, it diminishes the pleasure of Berkoff's brilliant repartee. Otherwise, this is don't miss TV.

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Television Review:     Left Wing

Left Wing dramatically depicts the struggle between idealistic liberals in the White House and corrupt hate-mongering conservatives in Congress. The series revolves around the lives of a core group of White House staffers, a group of unreconstructed sixties liberals who trained together in Bobby Kennedy's Attorney General's Office, where they learned to use the full power of the Federal government to crush their political opposition. This is one tough tribe of idealists. The stories unfold through the voice of young Vinnie Foster, a conscience-stricken White House lawyer who has troubled adapting to the rough and tumble world of Washington, where he's told that if he isn't with them he could be canceled. As he solemnly intones at the beginning of each show, "Their ends are just but their means are ruthless."

Like most Hollywood dramatic series, each episode usually follows several story lines, with some lasting over several episodes (known as arcs in the industry.) The most recent arc in the current series concerns President Rodham's announced intention to appoint a recently released Puerto Rican terrorist to the Supreme Court and the struggles over the nomination. Republican Senator Blacklynch, however, has, so far, successfully rallied public opinion to the Republican side by focusing on the irrelevant issues of the terrorist's background. In the most recent episode, Vice President Morris has been urging the President to play the race card, accusing the opposition of rejecting the nomination because the candidate is Hispanic. Rodham decides to commission a poll to see how the arguments fly. Presumably the results of that poll will be available in the next episode.

In an earlier story line concluded on the last episode, the Republican-controlled Senate began hearings into campaign finance abuses. Returning home late one night Senate Majority leader Benda Lott discovered his wife and children missing. In the next episode, the FBI's frantic efforts to locate the missing family comes up empty. In the concluding episode, Sidney Hack, a deputy to the Attorney General, approached Lott and told him that his family had been placed in the Witness Protection program pending the resolution of the Justice Department's own investigation into campaign finances. When Lott asks what he's talking about, Hack says that he can't disclose that. Lott then asks to be taken to see his family, and the agent tells him that the Department can't compromise their safety by letting anyone outside the investigative team know where they are being kept. "The Chinese have spies everywhere, perhaps on your own Senate staff." Lott rolls his eyes in disbelief, and then asks, "On my staff? Are you sure?"

"We can't comment," Hack replies.

Lott then demands that his family be returned. "Well, sir. If there were no investigation into illegal contributions, then we wouldn't have to hold them as material witnesses. But we can't very well drop the investigation while you're about to hold your own hearings. It would like partisanship when we just want to help you out. Of course, if you dropped the inquiry, then we could drop ours, and no one would think politics had anything to do with it."

"It's a done deal," says the Senate leader, as he picks up the phone to call his Administrative Aide.

In the third major arc, the House Ways and Means Committee, controlled by Republicans, had been struggling over the new budget. Republican Congressman Jim Heartless stated that it was the Republican Party's goal to eliminate poverty in America by starving to death every poor heterosexual man, woman, and child. In an effort to undermine Democratic unity over the budget cuts, the Republicans agreed to protect several medical and welfare programs favored by the gay community. The key vote on the committee belongs to Morton Horton, an openly gay Democrat from San Francisco. Jake Carville, White House Chief of Staff, has learned that Horton had previously had sexual relations with a woman, and threatened to out him if he doesn't fall into line. Torn between his desire to protect gays against severe budget cuts for AIDS research and the loss of his seat if his heterosexual past comes out, Horton has begun to behave in an irrational suicidal manner. Carville tells Rodham that if the bastard croaks, we can easily replace him with one of our own. "Up the pressure," Rodham says. Carville grins.

The last episode also presented the long-awaited confrontation between the chief power manipulators on both sides, Billy B. Goode of the Democratic National Committee and Dirk Mauler, the Republican Senator from North Carolina. The two men finally meet at the National Press Club annual dinner. In front of a room full of reporters, Goode sidles up to Mauler and says, "You know. You and I, and our allies, both hurt and destroy a lot of people in pursuit of our causes. Like you, we know that winning is all that counts. But you know what the trouble with you guys is? You don't care who you hurt to get ahead. Well, we Democrats care who we hurt, care deeply, and we feel the pain we cause. That's the difference between you and us. We care about the people we hurt, and the public knows it. That's why you control both Houses of Congress by such small margins."

Mauler, deeply touched by Goode's speech, turns to his secretary, Linda Trippey, and says, "You know, maybe he has a point."

Left Wing is a well-balanced show that tries to present both the pro-liberal and anti-conservative side of most issues. But its refusal to take a specific point of view, pro-liberal or anti-conservative, sometimes undercuts its effectiveness as drama. It leaves you screaming for an answer. The show is well-intentioned, but the public is not inclined to think much about political issues, so I suspect this show may be gone before the next election roles around. It's a shame. The Democrats need all the help they can get.

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Television Review:     The Practice

The Practice relates the trials and tribulations of the most ethically-challenged law firm in America. While most of the lawyers on the show often engage in actions that would normally lead to disbarment, Hollywood writers fail to understand this principle. They think that such lawyers usually move up to head the Creative Accounting Departments at the film studios. As Jimmy, the young embezzler hired by his old friend Bobby as a moral compass for the firm, intones at the beginning of each show: "Their ends are just but their means are ruthless."

In a recent story arc, Bobby, head of the firm, had been retained by the President of the United States to defend him on some trivial pederasty charges involving the young daughter of a White House intern. Unfortunately, the news broke on an otherwise slow Saturday and the media went into a feeding frenzy. Bobby, concerned that the publicity would prevent the President from corrupting the judicial process, suggests the President divert attention from the case with some newsworthy story, until the rush to judgement subsides. "Maybe you can militarily intervene in one of those centuries-old ethnic disputes, where the people all have funny unpronounceable names," he suggests.

"Are you crazy?" the President asks. "Start a war, kill innocent people, just to divert attention from a silly sex charge?"

"I'm telling you, sir. These are serious charges and you can go to jail if you don't handle it right. The publicity will eat you alive."

"Which country do you think I should attack?"

"I don't know, I'm a lawyer, not a politician." Looking at a map on the wall by the door, Bobby asks, "Why don't you just throw darts at the map?"

As Bobby steps out of the office and chats with the receptionist, he hears a slight thud on the wall near the door. On the Secretary's intercom, he hears the President ask his national security advisor if he has ever heard of Kosovo. "Don't think so, Mr. President. Let me run a computer scan and I'll get back to you."

Meanwhile, back in the office, Lindsay, Bobby's partner and girlfriend, makes a date with someone in the Special Prosecutor's office, hoping that she might learn some little tidbit or two that can help Bobby.

On other fronts, the remaining lawyers in the firm run into the usual mess of problems. Eleanor takes a jury hostage after the Judge makes a fat joke. Eugene, using the defense that his client couldn't have committed the robbery because he was on the other side of town committing a murder at that very moment, loses the case and punches out the prosecutor, breaking his nose. And Roberta threatens to expose a judge's dark secrets if he doesn't release her client on bail.

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