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Fictional Presidents You May Not Remember

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Here in the final weekend before the 2012 presidential election, figuring out who will occupy the Oval Office seems all too real. Perhaps a brief respite is in order. To that end, here is a selection of fictional presidents for your politically-overloaded pleasure.

JAMES EARL JONES IN “THE MAN”

In 1972, the idea of a black president made for gripping drama. Here’s the premise for this TV movie that was released as a feature film: the President and Speaker of the House are killed, and the Vice President is in ill health and declines the job. Suddenly, the president pro tempore of the Senate – the great James Earl Jones – is president. What follows is a morality play about racial fears, idealism and political hardball. Guess who wrote the screenplay? Rod Serling.

JEFF BRIDGES IN “THE CONTENDER”

Speaking of political hardball, I greatly enjoyed this 2000 movie that had Jeff Bridges as a wily Commander in Chief. The film was primarily about Joan Allen as a senator being considered for vice president, but Bridges also stood out. Partly it had to do with his cutthroat deal making; partly it was his strange obsession with sandwiches.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN “STAR TREK”

Oh yeah – fictionalized versions of real presidents are still fiction, in my book. Now some of you may prefer “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” or even “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” but to me nothing beats seeing Honest Abe (Lee Bergere) battle bad guys with Kirk and Spock on an alien planet. If you need to know the rationale for this scenario, then you clearly don’t understand the crazy vibe of “Star Trek,” season 3, 1969.

MARTIN SHEEN IN “THE DEAD ZONE”

Please, you didn’t think I was going to use “The West Wing,” did you? This is The Jimbo List, not The Obvious List. Here’s a different sort of Sheen presidency. In 1983’s “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel, Sheen is a nutjob Senate candidate. When the movie’s main character, a psychic, touches Sheen’s hand, he sees a vision of a future in which Sheen is president. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty.

FREDRIC MARCH IN “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”

March had just the right formality and gravitas to ground this 1964 political thriller. He played a U.S. president who dared to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets during the Cold War. This, in turn, leads to a potential overthrow of the U.S. government by a mad general. It’s a little melodramatic, in the way movies used to be, but still satisfying.

TERRY CREWS IN “IDIOCRACY”

By no means is this a recommendation of the 2006 comedy, “Idiocracy.” I actually found it a little depressing. But it accurately reflects a fear many people probably have, that our culture is elevating stupidity and celebrity at the expense of essential institutions. Crews, who I generally get a kick out of, is a kick-ass, gun-toting Prez here.

JOHN TRAVOLTA IN “PRIMARY COLORS”

As anyone who saw “Primary Colors” knows, it’s a thinly-veiled look at Bill and Hillary Clinton, complete with habitual womanizing and feel-your-pain empathy. I thought Travolta did a very good job playing a fictional version of someone we all think we understand.

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS IN “THAT’S MY BUSH!”

Remember this 2000 Comedy Central series? It lasted only a couple of months, using George W. Bush as fodder for a merging of sitcom cliches with current events. It was created by the “South Park” guys, and it had plots that included gun control, abortion, wacky neighbors and trying to impress the in-laws.

JACK NICHOLSON IN “MARS ATTACKS!”

The Martians were by far the coolest part of 1996’s “Mars Attacks!” Nicholson, overacting with wild abandon, was front and center as the president in this all-star comedy extravaganza. A few laughs, nothing more.

MARY McDONNELL IN “BATTLESTAR GALACTICA”

Believe it or not, McDonnell was a more realistic president in this TV space opera than many of the other examples on this List. She was pragmatic, deceptive, ruthless and driven. She also happened to be on a space ship.

CHARLES LINDBERGH IN “THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA”

In this 2004 novel, Philip Roth envisions a world in which Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The country quickly unravels in a frightening spiral of antisemitism. Roth adds his own family members into the alternate history, to great effect.

HENRY FONDA IN “FAIL-SAFE”

The burdens of the presidency weigh heavily on Fonda here, with good reason. There’s been a malfunction on one of our war planes – it’s about to nuke Moscow out of existence. Can we stop it? And if we can’t, what does the president do next?

ROBERT CULP IN “THE PELICAN BRIEF”

Pure potboiler, but lots of fun. Culp gives his supporting role as a villainous president a whiff of Ronald Reagan. He’s grandfatherly and let’s his staff do a lot of the heavy lifting.

KELSEY GRAMMER IN “SWING VOTE”

This somewhat minor 2008 comedy had a presidential election coming down to the vote of one dude out in New Mexico (Kevin Costner) who needed to recast his ballot. Grammer played the sitting president, running for re-election. I include this one mainly because it gives you a sense of what Grammer would bring to his fantastic portrayal of a Chicago mayor in TV’s “Boss.” In both comedy and drama, he’s believable as a powerful politician.

OLD RICHARD NIXON IN “WATCHMEN”

In the movie and comics versions of “Watchmen,” Richard Nixon has remained president right into the 1980s. It’s a chilling and cynical view of politics and public opinion, on a grand scale. With superheroes, of course.

PETER SELLERS IN “DR. STRANGELOVE”

What is it with these fictional 1964 presidents and their phones & nukes? Anyway, I loved Sellers in this role. His president, Merkin Muffley, was a mild-mannered guy handling an international crisis with all the bureaucratic pomposity we’ve come to expect from Washington, D.C. Here’s a typical line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

So there you have it – a plethora of fictional presidents. Now, back to our regularly scheduled election!

Movies About Bad Movies

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In honor of “Argo,” the soon-to-be-released film about a military operation posing as a movie crew during the Iranian hostage crisis, we at The Jimbo List offer a selection of movies about bad movies. Really. See for yourself.

TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Truly one of the most ambitious comedies of recent years, “Tropic Thunder” stars Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black as actors in a Hollywood war flick who end up in an actual combat situation. It manages to skewer every part of the film industry, from egotistical actors to opportunistic directors and lunatic explosives consultants.

BOWFINGER (1999)

This Steve Martin-Eddie Murphy comedy is more entertaining than it has any right to be. The plot – about a low-rent director trying to make a film called “Chubby Rain” on a shoestring – is full of the usual gags about movies. Yet it kind of works. Martin conveys a real sense of passion for his utterly horrid production, and that’s the heart of the story.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

Embedded in the story of the wonderful “Singin’ in the Rain,” you have the trials and tribulations of silent film folks learning how to make talking pictures. Jean Hagen is a riot trying to tame her New York accent, while dealing with newfangled microphones. Let’s just say it’s a long road from “The Dueling Cavalier” to “The Dancing Cavalier.”

BE KIND REWIND (2008)

“Be Kind Rewind” has a beautifully odd premise. Clerks at a video store decide to shoot their own versions of every movie in the place – because they accidentally erased all the tapes. Jack Black (shown here as Robocop), Mos Def and Danny Glover do the honors.

AFTER THE FOX (1966)

I have a real soft spot for this comedy starring one of my favorites, Peter Sellers. He’s a criminal known as the Fox, who tries to smuggle stolen gold into Europe by pretending to be a movie director helming a new flick called “The Gold of Cairo.” Sellers is at his insane best. Also quite funny is Victor Mature, playing a vain Hollywood actor.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006)

Sadly, I can’t fully recommend “For Your Consideration,” which I consider the only dud in the Christopher Guest roster of semi-improvised films. This one is about a trio of actors who believe they’re on the verge of critical acclaim for their current production, “Home For Purim.” I normally love Guest and his stable of regulars (Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Fred Willard, Jane Lynch, Parker Posey), but this one fell flat.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (2008)

Yes friends, it’s a good, old-fashioned romantic comedy about two people (Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks) who decide to make a pornographic film. Certainly, this won’t be everyone’s idea of a good plot for a movie. But if you connect with Rogen’s brand of humor, which means filthy dialogue but full of heart, you’ll like it.

ED WOOD (1994)

We end with an ode to arguably the worst film in cinema history. Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood,” starring Johnny Depp and Martin Landau, is a comic gem. It takes a loving look at the career of Ed Wood, who directed the insanely awful “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” Burton finds the creative joy that can accompany even bad art, and Landau’s portrayal of an aging Bela Lugosi is amazing.

So, are there any masterpieces I’m leaving out? Add them to The List!

Cinema’s Great Chameleons

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Lots of actors use makeup and special effects to change their appearance for roles, but only a handful seem able to innately transform themselves on a regular basis. Luckily for us, many of them are plying their craft currently. Here are some of them, along with a few of their predecessors.

DANIEL DAY-LEWIS

I can’t wait to see this guy play Abraham Lincoln, which is his next project. Day-Lewis disappears entirely into his characters, from Bill the Butcher in “Gangs of New York” to Christy Brown in “My Left Foot.” His acting has a powerful, intense quality.

PETER SELLERS

I’m certainly not alone in thinking Sellers was a genius. Rather than trying to find the emotional core of historical figures, he developed fully-realized characters out of whole cloth. Clouseau, Dr. Strangelove, Chance the gardener – I loved them all.

SACHA BARON COHEN

To me, Sacha Baron Cohen is the heir to Peter Sellers. His commitment to his characters is total, which, in this era, includes taking on the guerrilla film making format of “Borat.” It will be interesting to see if he takes his talent to more dramatic roles, as Sellers eventually did.

SEAN PENN

Great, great actor in the lineage from Brando to DeNiro on down. One thing distinct about Penn, I think, is that he has a particular facility for tinkering with his voice and mannerisms. Harvey Milk (“Milk”), David Kleinfeld (“Carlito’s Way”), Jeff Spicoli (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) and Matthew Poncelet (“Dead Man Walking”) are very different dudes.

ROD STEIGER

Steiger found a niche starring in movie biographies of everyone from W.C. Fields to Napoleon. Those weren’t my favorites, though. Try out this double feature: Steiger’s Southern bigot sheriff from “In the Heat of the Night,” followed by his Holocaust survivor in “The Pawnbroker.”

NICOLE KIDMAN

Kidman’s career is often overshadowed by her personal life, which obscures a terrific filmography. She can play ditzy, sexy, neurotic, tragic and depressed. She also has a great flair for dialects.

CHRISTIAN BALE

The key to Bale’s acting, as much as anything else, is the way he adapts the contours of his own body. He was emaciated in “The Machinist,” wiry and wired in “The Fighter,” and buff as Batman.

JOHNNY DEPP

Thanks mainly to Tim Burton, Depp has had multiple opportunities to play with accents, wigs, timing and even singing. Throw in a funky pirate and an undercover cop infiltrating the mob, and you’ve got an exceptional gallery of characters.

MERYL STREEP

Streep’s reach and range are so amazing, so consistently on the mark, that it’s easy to take her for granted. She’s played Australian, Italian, British, Polish, highbrow, lowbrow, powerful and homeless. Her accents are flawless and her acting is unsurpassed.

Great chameleons, all. Now it’s your turn – which ones did I leave out?