Sunday, June 30, 2013

Frequency: Feel-good science fiction

Though many concepts in science-fiction are ones we wouldn’t want to see played out in reality (would you really want to be cloned, or to live on another planet?), time travel has a wide and irresistible appeal. Rod Taylor’s adventures in The Time Machine linger on in the memories of those weaned on the late, late show, and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is, after all, an odyssey through one man’s past, present, and future, comes back to haunt us every Christmas Eve. Even the crew of the Starship Enterprise reached their widest audience (one that included more than Trekkers) with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in which Captain Kirk and company returned from the future to visit present day San Francisco. The opportunity to once again see long dead loved ones, relive past pleasures, and rectify mistakes satisfies almost every yearning we have.

Yearning is at the heart of Frequency, directed by Gregory Hobbit from a screenplay by Toby Emmerich. It avoids the cliches of most time travel stories (there are no amusing scenes of the hero grappling with modern morals or technology), and goes most of them one better by having a believable and quite moving family relationship at its center.

The film opens in October 1969, a period quickly established with references to some of the year’s keystone events: the Mets are in the World Series (and would win in an amazing come from behind victory), and, when Frank Sullivan (Dennis Quaid) dances in his kitchen with his wife, Julia (Elizabeth Mitchell), it’s to the accompaniment of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” the recording that put the King back on his throne at the top of the pop charts. Frank dotes on his son, John, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” to him every night before bedtime, and he unwinds from the pressures of his job as a firefighter by endlessly puffing Camels, following his beloved Mets, and communicating with strangers on the other side of the airwaves on his pre-Internet ham radio.

Thirty years into the future, his son John is a 36 year-old cop, estranged from his girlfriend, immersed in the pursuit of a serial killer, and generally dissatisfied with life. Now living in his childhood home, he begins tinkering with his late father’s ham radio, and while discussing the Mets one night with a stranger on the airwaves, he tunes into the past. The baseball fan with whom he is speaking is not a stranger at all, but his father, alive and kicking in the year 1969. It is the day before his death in a warehouse fire.

Needless to say, the son warns his father of his impending doom, and the tragedy is avoided. But one does not change the past without impacting the future, and though Frank’s life has now been lengthened by twenty years (lung cancer from his cigarette habit is now set to claim him in 1989), disaster looms for others, including Julia, in the form of the Nightingale Killer, a psycho who has been murdering young women.

At this point, Frequency turns into a thriller, and a rather predictable one at that (spotting the killer is a piece of cake), but the thrills are well-handled by director Hobbit, and you’ll likely tighten the grip on the arm of your chair as father and son go head to head with the killer. More importantly, the tenderness of the father-son relationship is never overwhelmed by the plot’s many twists and turns, or by the action that almost dominates the film midway through. It is the tenderness that gives Frequency a special glow that is maintains from the first reel through the amusingly memorable and touching climax.

There are nice special-effects, but they are limited. It is the humans who take center stage. Dennis Quaid is excellent as usual, bringing an “average guy” vividly to life without resorting to condescension or sentimentality. Caviezel is equally good, and though Elizabeth Mitchell’s Julia has comparatively little screen time, she uses it well, conveying the strength of a woman who deeply loves her family, and whose love is abundantly returned. Andre Braugher, the fiery cop of TV’s “Homicide,” is less fiery here, but he provides a solidity that helps keep this imaginative yarn grounded in reality.

Frequency is a “feel good movie,” but one mercifully lacking the innocuousness that such a description often implies. Like time travel itself, Frequency casts a spell that is hard to resist.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks


A.I.: When Stanley Met Steven

Steven Spielberg and the late Stanley Kubrick had at least two things in common. Both are names associated with world class film making and both embraced science-fiction, a genre shunned by respectable filmmakers until Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey redeemed it from its B movie associations in 1968. Otherwise, these two directors are known for radically different styles. For Kubrick, people were often less important than their environment. Most of his films present characters dwarfed by their surroundings, be it space (2001), or a snowed in hotel with an ominous past (The Shining). The cold landscapes of such films led many critics to charge him with misanthropy. No such charge has ever been made against Spielberg whose films often reek of sentimentality and even cuteness.

It's hard to imagine two more unlikely bedfellows, but now we have A.I (Artificial Intelligence), a film that the notoriously slow Kubrick (only 13 films in five decades) planned to direct with Spielberg producing. Kubrick's death in March 1999 put the reins in Spielberg's hands (Kubrick is now listed as a producer) and the result is a curious credit for both. With cloning so much in the news, the subject matter is timely, although it's set in the post-apocalyptic future and deals not with clones but robots. No matter how lovable and cuddly David (Haley Joel Osment) may be, he is still a machine, adopted by a couple whose own son has died but has been frozen in the hope that science can resurrect him. David adapts well to the household, giving and receiving love like the best of children, but when the son is revived and returns home, David is suddenly an outsider who suffers from the lack of attention that is now bestowed on the "real" son.

Abandoned, and accompanied only by Teddy, a walking and talking "super toy," he now roams a world hostile to the robots that were mass-produced to such an extent that they threaten to outnumber the humans. Taking up with Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a fellow robot, he eludes those intent on destroying him because, as the first and only child robot, he is, as he says himself, "unique and special." But David's quest seems an impossible one: to find the Blue Fairy from the story of Pinocchio (which his adopted mother had read to him) whom he believes can turn him into a real boy worthy of his mother's love. David may not have to eat, sleep, or die like a mere mortal, but unlike the fully grown robots in his midst, he can be hurt just as he can love and be loved.

At times, you can spot Kubrick's influence, especially in the cold world of the Flesh Carnival, an organized rally in which humans delight in destroying the captured robots, but it is Spielberg's more humanitarian imprint that dominates. Some critics have even taken him to task for what they call a "happy ending," but I found the conclusion wistful and sad. However one views the finale, A.I provides plenty of food for thought at a time when it is now possible to create life in a laboratory. It also offers a moving John Williams score, and plenty of dazzling visuals, none of which overpower the remarkable performance of Haley Joel Osment. Even more than Spielberg or Kubrick, this film belongs to him.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, June 24, 2013

Ed Wood: A great movie about the world's worst director

Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood is a superb piece of work; a love letter to movie lovers. You can’t help but chuckle at the irony that this film about the man dubbed "the worst director of all-time" was nominated for two Academy Awards, winning in each of its categories. Edward D. Wood, Jr., a man whose work guaranteed that he would never collect an Oscar, was honored, if only second-hand, by the Academy sixteen years after his death at age 54.

Wood’s low-budget films are now legendary for their ludicrous writing, inept production, and amateurish acting. Cardboard tombstones may topple over, walls may shake and nearly collapse with the opening of a door, and scenes of stampeding buffalo may appear out of nowhere, but such disastrous moments represented nothing more to Wood than the suspension of belief. For all his incompetence, however, Wood did not really warrant the title of the world’s worst film director. That title would more accurately be slapped on a filmmaker who bores his audience. Wood can be accused of many cinematic crimes, but boring his audience is a charge for which any viewer of Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and his masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space will certainly clear him. Wood’s films are generally hilarious, a distinction that redeems his otherwise misguided productions.

It’s clear from Tim Burton’s treatment of Wood’s unusual story that the director of such offbeat, big budget hits as Batman, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, likes his subject. As portrayed by Johnny Depp, Ed Wood is a charmingly good-natured innocent who is madly in love with movies.

"All I want to do is tell stories," he says, and though his talent is not equal to his ambition, Wood told stories--poorly, perhaps, but with a sincerity that make them hard to resist.

Wood’s love for his craft is strong, however, too strong to reject even though he is repeatedly rejected by critics, studio heads, and even some of the oddest oddballs in the underground exploitation market of the movie business with whom he is forced to do business. Along the way, he must also compromise his integrity, if he has any, by making changes in the cast lineup to include an investor’s son, and even changing the title of his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, to Plan 9 from Outer Space to accommodate the conservative Christians who finance Wood’s bizarre epic about alien invasion.

Unlike the Medveds, Harry and Michael, whose Golden Turkey Awards brought about Wood’s resurgence, Burton’s film is not smug. It doesn’t patronize its subject, but instead celebrates Wood’s love affair with film, a love no doubt shared by the maker of Ed Wood. That passion for the magic of moviemaking is evident throughout the film, and is what makes it a surefire candidate for cult status in the years to come. This is a film buff’s movie, hence its failure at the box-office when released in time for Halloween 1994. To fully enjoy Ed Wood almost requires an all consuming passion for the movies, good and bad movies alike.

The sets and black-and-white photography are beautiful to behold, the script by Rudolph Grey and Scott Alexander is fresh and alive with many memorable moments, and the performances are first-rate. As the angora sweater wearing Wood, Johnny Depp is simply wonderful. Jeffrey Jones nails phony psychic Criswell to a T, Bill Murray is his always delightfully insincere self as Bunny Breckinridge, the effeminate member of Wood’s ensemble who is obsessed with having a sex change operation, and Lisa Marie is sexy, stunning, and arrogantly aloof as horror movie hostess Vampira. Sara Jessica Parker also shines as Wood’s long suffering girlfriend, as does Patricia Arquette as her replacement for Wood’s affections, and Juliet Landau as the most ambitious member of Wood’s ragtag repertory company. Even the great Orson Welles is briefly resurrected from the grave, seems to be, anyway, thanks to Vincent D’ Onofrio’s magical cameo as Wood’s idol.

Then there’s Martin Landau’s Oscar winning portrayal of the tragic Bela Lugosi. Spouting profanity laced insults at his rival Boris Karloff, admiring the "jugs" on Vampira, and pompously but artfully reciting Wood’s generally atrocious dialogue, Landau does not merely inhabit some very impressive makeup, he appears to serve as a medium for the long dead actor’s spirit. Prior to the film’s release, Landau stated that he wished not only to portray the screen’s legendary horror star, but to give a great Lugosi performance. He succeeds on both counts.

Everything about Ed Wood clicks perfectly. The film pays tribute not only to Wood, but to the era - the 1950’s - in which he made his very unique mark. It conjures a mood similar to Joe Dante’s Matinee, but even more delightfully. Ed Wood, a tribute to the man who made some of the worst movies in history, is one of the best pictures of 1994, and one of the greatest films ever made about the movies.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 1994 Brian W. Fairbanks


A Perfect World

When A Perfect World opened in American theaters in November 1993, the folks at Warner Bros. no doubt believed their world was perfect. After all, if a movie starring double Oscar winners and box-office champions Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood isn't a sure bet with audiences, what is?

The answer: Robin Williams in a dress.

A Perfect World opened the same day as Mrs. Doubtfire, and while the latter mined gold at the box-office for several months, A Perfect World fizzled out after making a comparatively grim $30 million. Yet this film that marked Clint Eastwood's first directorial effort since winning a pair of Oscars for producing and directing Unforgiven, is one of Eastwood's best efforts, and features the most commanding performance Kevin Costner has ever given.

A Perfect World centers around Butch Haynes (Costner), an escaped convict who abducts a small boy (T.J. Lowther) whom he nicknames Buzz. The boy was abandoned by his father and finds in Haynes a surrogate, albeit one who thinks nothing of putting a bullet through the head of a fellow escapee. As they roam Texas, the two establish a bond. Abused as a child, Haynes is determined to provide Buzz with the father figure neither of them had, but Haynes' conception of fatherhood is twisted as a result of his having lived a life of crime since he was his captive's age. Tragedy is not far behind, nor is Red Garrett (Eastwood), a Texas ranger who, with his deputies and a criminologist (Laura Dern), is tracking Haynes in a camper slated for use by President Kennedy during his upcoming visit to Dallas. The time is November 1963.

Like most of Eastwood's directorial efforts, A Perfect World takes its time - 138 minutes - getting to where it wants to go. The pace is leisurely and the acting is exceptional, especially by Costner who, shedding his clean good guy image, gives his best performance to date. His facial expression as he watches a young boy get slapped by his father is particularly memorable, conveying the pent up anger he feels about his own misguided upbringing. Lowther is equally good, on hand as an actor, not just a cute kid. Eastwood, in a supporting role (in which he takes second billing for the first time since appearing with Shirley Maclaine in 1970's Two Mules for Sister Sara), lets Costner and Lowther take center stage while Dern is shoved into the background so much that her role is superfluous.

For its first two hours, A Perfect World is a compelling drama. Unfortunately, those final eighteen minutes, featuring one of the longest death scenes ever filmed, are so melodramatic as to be ludicrous. Because of that, A Perfect World misses the bullseye after spending so much time precisely on target. Still, Costner and Lowther make such a terrific team, and their misadventures are so believably rendered, that A Perfect World, though not perfect, is very good, indeed.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 1993 Brian W. Fairbanks


Friday, June 21, 2013

Insomnia: Pacino keeps you awake

In the tiny coastal village of Nightmute, Alaska, the sun never sets but bursts through the clouds and the blinds of Los Angeles detective Will Dormer's room twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day. But is it the sun that is keeping him awake or his conscience?

Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film, lets its troubled 'hero' face his dark night of the soul in constant daylight as if to taunt him with the knowledge that every secret, every dirty deed, will be brought to light, sooner or later.

Dormer (Al Pacino) is a good cop with a sterling reputation whose cases are studied in police academies. But he carries his commitment to justice too far by planting evidence, once to ensure that a child killer would not escape conviction. Now, with the Internal Affairs division of the LAPD digging into his past cases, he's been sent with his partner to Nightmute to help the local police solve the murder of a teenage girl.

With his nerves already frayed from the pressure he's under back home, Dormer stumbles around in a perpetual state of unease, rarely sleeping as he piles blankets, pillows, and anything handy against the windows to block out the midnight sun. With his partner, he pursues a suspect through a thick daylight fog, and, unable to see, makes a major mistake which he compounds by trying to conceal it. Unfortunately, the suspect, a writer of dime store mystery thrillers named Walter Finch (Robin Williams) who is, in fact, guilty, witnesses Dormer's deed and blackmails him into silence.

Insomnia then becomes a cat and mouse game, a battle of wits between two guilty men, both of whom try to justify their actions but fail miserably in the attempt. But who is the guiltier of the two? Finch, a cold blooded killer, or the unethical but well-intentioned Dormer who is caught in a trap of his own design with two possible means of escape: compromise the truth still further, or destroy his reputation by owning up to his mistakes.

Directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento), Insomnia gives Al Pacino his best role since 1995's Heat. Bleary-eyed and operating on a sleep deprived brain, he suffers hallucinations as Finch claws through his crumbling conscience. Despite the almost Shakespearean tragedy of his character, Pacino avoids the scenery chewing he has engaged in too often of late, and gives his best performance since The Godfather films.

In a welcome change of pace from the sweet and maddeningly coy roles he usually plays, Robin Williams is also effective as Finch. Ditto Hillary Swank as the novice Alaskan cop who idolizes Dormer. The Alaskan setting is a compelling character in itself. Its icy beauty and almost barren landscape create an isolating effect as symbolic of Dormer's life as that ever present daylight is of his nagging guilt. Although Insomnia has the obligatory chase scenes, it is not an action film. It is a character study and an exceptionally fine one.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2002 Brian W. Fairbanks


Boat Trip: Not so gay comedy

When people talk of an Oscar curse, they might point to Cuba Gooding, Jr's career as proof that it does indeed exist. Since winning the gold as best supporting actor for 1996's Jerry Maguire, the affable African-American actor's work has been so unimpressive that the actors he defeated in that Oscar race - William H. Macy, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Edward Norton, and James Woods - should demand a recount and perhaps plot a daring Ocean's Eleven-like robbery to remove the gold statuette from his mantel.

The latest mediocrity to which Gooding Jr is attached is Boat Trip, a waterlogged comedy that might have sailed smoothly if they had patched up the holes in the script with some genuine laughs.

The plot is right out of a TV sitcom. Jerry (Gooding Jr) and best buddy Nick (Horatio Sanz), depressed about the sorry course their love lives have taken, sign up for a singles cruise, hoping to meet the loves of their lives, or at least partake of some meaningless sex. When booking the cruise, they offend the gay travel agent (Will Farrell) who - get ready for some big laughs - sends them off on an all male GAY cruise! Just imagine the hilarity that could result from that scenario. Unfortunately, you'll have to imagine it because there is nary a chuckle to be had from the stale script, so hoary it might have been salvaged from the garbage pail in which producers tossed story ideas deemed too juvenile for The Love Boat.

Of course, it's obvious that the cruise is populated by gay men, after all, the cruise is populated almost exclusively by males, but it's not obvious to Jerry and Nick because, as in most bad comedies, their ignorance concerning their situation is supposed to be amusing. Instead, it just makes the characters look dumb. Suffice it to say, they catch on eventually, and Jerry, smitten with one of the few females on board, a man hating dance choreographer played by Rosalyn Sanchez, takes advantage of her belief that he's gay to get close and woo her.

The acting is strictly adequate, but then adequate is about all Gooding, Jr. has ever been. Charming and likeable, but not noticeably talented, he suggests that Oscar is a curse only to those who win undeservedly. Sanchez is attractive and should appeal to the heterosexual males who would consider seeing a film with a gay theme.

The only other bright spot in the cast is former 007 Roger Moore as a homosexual who develops the hots for chubby Nick, who, for all of his homophobic behavior, realizes he's gay in the end. This is nothing but politically correct slop meant to endear the film to gay audiences after the film has spent so much time having fun at their expense. Most of the homosexuals in the film are swishy stereotypes. That seems to have offended some gay critics, but since drag queens and other gay stereotypes can be found in abundance in gay bars and pride parades, the only thing really offensive about Boat Trip is that it fails as a comedy. It isn't funny. Neither is the course of Cuba Gooding, Jr's career.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Band (and Dylan) in The Last Waltz

The Last Waltz is Martin Scorsese’s glossy souvenir of The Band's final concert on Thanksgiving night 1976 at San Francisco's Winterland Theater. With a major auteur behind the camera, The Last Waltz has more of the weight of a "real movie" than most rock documentaries, the majority of which have been made on the cheap, in 16mm and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. Filmed in 35mm, Scorsese’s film looks more professional, but like most rock docs, it will likely appeal only to fans of its main subject.

The Band came to prominence in 1966. They were still known as The Hawks when they provided Bob Dylan with an electric arsenal that wowed and enraged his fans on a tour of Europe, preserved by Columbia Records on The Bootleg Series Volume Four: The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert (actually recorded in Manchester, hence the quotation marks) belatedly released in 1998. Following Dylan’s motorcycle accident, they holed up with the bard in Woodstock and made the series of delightfully crude recordings that came to be known as The Basement Tapes. The Band’s Dylan connection meant the world was listening when they released their debut album, Music from Big Pink, in 1968.

Dylan appears near the finale performing "Forever Young," "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," and leading an all-star lineup on "I Shall Be Released."

In between the musical numbers with the other guest performers (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Dr. John, and even Neil Diamond), there are interviews with The Band, most prominently Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, in which they reminisce about music and light too many cigarettes. For the avid fan, this may be fascinating stuff. For the rest of us, it’s mildly interesting.

The Last Waltz
was billed as The Band's "Farewell Concert” which may have inspired all those other rock bands, such as The Who, in the dozen or so “farewell” tours they embarked on in the years to come.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hitchcock's disappointing Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain is regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s misfires. It was a respectable hit at the box-office in 1966, but by then the Master of Suspense, though attracting admiration from subscribers to the auteur theory, had fallen out of favor with the mainstream newspaper critics who, following the innovative Psycho, had written him off as old-fashioned and out of touch.

The romantic scenes in Torn Curtain lend credence to that view. They belong in a film from an earlier decade. Whenever Paul Newman and Julie Andrews share a tender moment or her eyes gaze lovingly upon him, John Addison’s music score is out of control, soaking the film in sappy sentiment.

But when it comes to the suspense for which Hitchcock is justly hailed, Torn Curtain rises from the mediocrity of its romance and becomes brutally modern. The murder of the KGB agent who follows Newman’s defecting scientist to a Russian farm where he has an unnecessary meeting with an American agent is as brilliant as anything Hitchcock has ever done. It’s a slow, agonizing scene that demonstrates how difficult it is to end a human life. Addison’s baton is on hold throughout the scene, and the absence of music only makes it more effective.

The scene in Dr. Lint’s lab where Newman and a Russian scientist write competing theories for a nuclear device on a chalkboard is another highlight. “You’ve given me nothing,” the eccentric Russian tells Newman. “You know nothing.” Newman is intensely staring at the board, memorizing his opponent’s formula while a voice on the PA urgently demands he be brought to the office. The scientist slams the chalkboard shut and demands that Newman not leave the room.

Of course, Newman leaves, and, with Andrews in tow, embarks on a predictable flight to safety.

Judged against Hitchcock’s better films, Torn Curtain is a disappointment, but its best moments make it well worth seeing.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, June 13, 2013

David Massaro salutes Ray Harryhausen

The following is a letter that David Massaro, retired English instructor at West Technical High School in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote to the widow of Ray Harryhausen following the great special-effects wizard's passing at age 92 on May 7 of this year. Massaro, an avid film and science-fiction buff, began a correspondence with Harryhausen in the 1950s after being impressed with his work in It Came from Beneath the Sea. Harryhausen's most celebrated and influential work was still to come - The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts - and the correspondence deepened into a lasting friendship. I am posting the letter online at Mr. Massaro's request. It is followed by a letter that Mrs. Harryhausen wrote to Massaro shortly before Harryhausen's passing. - Brian W. Fairbanks


My dear Diana,

When Allan Davis visited you and Ray some years ago in your home with his camcorder, Ray did an impression of himself at the age of 102. It was most amusing and quite credible as both his parents were long-lived. His passing on May 7th is such a shock.

My student, Dan Anderson, who has gone into special effects work and who just lost his mother and, one year before lost his daughter Kristina, wrote me and said, “I remember when I was 8 and seeing a movie with a giant octopus. It was so cool the way it moved and destroyed that bridge. Not knowing it then but Ray Harryhausen was in my life. And because of you, I was able to meet and spend time with this man and his lovely wife during their Cleveland visit.”

“Last night I wanted to watch a Ray Harryhausen movie. My hand led me to his early Fairy Tales on my DVD shelves. It was perfect viewing for me. They are so beautiful and innocent, and you can see the love and effort he put into them. I was glad I chose them.”

“Ray’s passing leaves a hole in our hearts. We will always have our wonderful memories. I think he is up there with Olaf and Agnes Stapledon and with his friends: Charles Schneer, Ray Bradbury, O’bie with his wife Darlyne, and Forry. They are planning their greatest stop-motion epic ever, one frame at a time. And I am sure he is now seeing his beloved dinosaurs, but perhaps thinking that his drawings and designs were better and more theatrical than the Creator’s. Perhaps he is correct as I’ve never seen a cooler allosaurus than Gwangi.” (This ends Dan’s letter.)

Forry gave me Ray’s address at a SF convention when he was living on West 45th Street in LA. I wrote Ray his first fan letter (he called it “wonderous”) in 1955, praising It Came From Beneath The Sea. Our correspondence lasted up to his death in May of this year, or a period of 47 years.

Your husband had a passion for the works of two Englishmen we shared: Frederick Delius (1862-1937) and Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950). Long before it was available in America, he sent me on VHS tape the BBC film, A Song Of Summer where actors dramatize the death of Delius from syphilis. Stapledon’s SF novel Star Maker (1935) dramatizes God in language more vivid than anything in the Old Testament. God is seen through the framework of modern astronomy and Darwinian Evolution.

I think Stapledon is the greatest “artist-philosopher” who ever lived (the phrase comes from G.B.Shaw). I speculated in my last and final letter to Ray what a Stapledonian heaven would look like to those who would eternally live within its boundaries. I told Ray, all would live with God and live through the histories of His earlier creations, our own cosmos, and the many creations ahead surpassing our own. “We will never be bored,” I told Ray. (Spielberg should film Star Maker.) I’d like to think these comforting thoughts were in Ray’s mind as he passed. Tony Dalton wrote me that he knew nothing about Stapledon until Ray enlightened him. That was the last letter and closed the correspondence.

I promised Ray I’d send him a copy of my book, A God For The Space Age: The Myths Of Olaf Stapledon, which I will send to you, Diana. I hope to publish it in 2013. Incidentally, I have a wonderful letter from President Obama thanking me for sending him Delius’s opera Koanga (this needs to be filmed) and tone-poem "Appalachia." Both works dramatize African-American suffering before the Civil War.

No one has ever written music more beautiful than that which flowed from Delius’s pen.
In heaven, where Delius is undoubtedly living, God says sometimes to his angels, “Stop for awhile your songs. Sing some of my Delius’s new compositions and some of his old.”
Ray, whose voice is as beautiful as Brace Beamer’s (the voice of The Lone Ranger on radio), will be lustily singing along.

My deepest sympathy to you and Vanessa.

PS: Notice that in the diagram, The Corridor of Creation, Stapledon makes “The Christian Cosmos” one of God’s “immature creations.” I think Stapledon’s tongue is in his cheeks.

As a Christian Stapledonian, I juggle that particular Cosmos forward in God’s creative time until it is the one in which you and I are living. When we love God, we do not want to lose Him. And He lets those creatures aware of Him never to be lost.

© 2013 David Massaro


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sin City: Film noir on steroids

When people talk about moral ambivalence in the movies, they’re often talking about film noir, a genre (subgenre, actually) that flourished in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. A paranoid, morally perverse world of terse talking tough guys and tougher women (more often called "dames"), film noir elevated pickpockets and prostitutes to hero status (Pickup on South Street) while corruption flourished in the highest, most pristine places. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, the streets were dark and rainy, and the shadows never as black as the protagonists’ souls.

The inhabitants of Sin City are dark souls, indeed, and the corruption reaches very high, into government and even the church. Its "heroes" are a scraggly lot. Most of them are good guys only because the bad guys are so much worse.

But the stories (there are several) and the characters (enough to leave you a little confused) are less important to Sin City than style. Based on Frank Miller’s "graphic novels" which had their roots in film noir, Robert Rodriguez’s film (with a brief sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) is a visual knockout, a nightmare that might have been inspired by too many viewings of Night and the City or Dark Passage. Some of the best noirs are so intense in emotion and visual style that they are perfect for comic book treatment, and Sin City inventively rings true to Miller's comics and the movies that inspired them.

Filmed in black-and-white with occasional splashes of color, Sin City is set in a bottomless pit of corruption called Basin City where the prostitutes have a deal with the cops, most of whom are as crooked as the road to Hell. The characters are mainly archetypes. There’s Bruce Willis as Hartigan, the good cop whose bum ticker doesn’t prevent him from gallantly rescuing a girl held hostage by a sadistic pederast, a sleazeball given free rein by the police because he’s the son of a corrupt politician (Powers Boothe) whose brother, a psychotic cardinal (Rutger Hauer), holds the real power. There’s a photojournalist (Clive Owen) at war with a dirty cop (Benicio Del Toro) for the affections of a waitress, heroic hookers (led by Rosario Dawson), and a grotesque thug named Marv who’s out to avenge the death of a hooker because he’s grateful she shared the sheets with someone so unattractive.

As Marv, Mickey Rourke is made up to look like a more menacing double for the young Jack Palance (who appeared in a number of noirs, including Panic in the Streets). At other times, he brings to mind Kirk Douglas, but only after the dimple-chinned icon's encounter with a sadistic plastic surgeon. Marv’s story takes up the most time, or seems to because it’s the most satisfying. A powerful, seemingly indestructible brute with a heart, if not of gold, than at least gold-plating, Marv speaks in dialogue that would make Mickey Spillane proud.

"It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town," he moans as he sits smoking cigarettes on the edge of the bed where his night of bliss took place. After he’s framed for murder, he explains his strategy for revenge: "This is blood for blood and by the gallons. This is the old days, the bad days, the all or nothing days. They’re back."

In Sin City, the bad days are back, indeed, and gloriously so. Like L.A. Confidential on steroids with a hit of LSD thrown in, it’s a bloody, violent, misogynistic movie that's not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, and if you can't leave your political correctness at the door, don’t enter. The violence is more reminiscent of a Road Runner cartoon than anything from the pages of Raymond Chandler, but it’s more intense, and often extreme. There are castrations, cannibalism, dismemberments, and buckets and buckets of blood. But though it pays homage to film noir, it’s still a comic book that throws reality out the window like one of Bogart’s cigarette butts. Characters engage in heroics that might even make Batman shy away, and bullets are not nearly as lethal as they tend to be in life.

Filmed almost entirely against computer generated backdrops, Sin City is an original, one of a kind movie with an almost Twilight Zone feel. It’s as if Miller left his drawing board to take a nap, and his characters took on a more vivid life while he slept. Sin City is like an hallucination in which dozens of film noirs are stuffed in a blender, and the best parts spill out in exaggerated fashion. You’ll love it or hate it, but you won’t forget it, not this year, anyway.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2005 Brian W. Fairbanks


The Others (2001): Fresh as a newly dug grave

In a lukewarm summer movie season dominated by lesser remakes of classic films (Planet of the Apes) and lesser sequels to movies that weren't that good in the first place (everything with a numeral in the title), The Others brings a welcome chill to the bijou. The title is already familiar. In singular form, it was the name of a Thomas Tryon best seller which was also the basis for a popular movie almost 30 summers ago. But if some of its parts seem to have been transplanted from other movies, the resulting whole is as fresh as a newly dug grave.

Set in the closing days of WWII, it takes place in a Victorian mansion where the lovely but stern Grace (Nicole Kidman) waits for her husband to return from the battlefield while caring for her two children, Anne and Nicholas (Alakina Mann and James Bentley). Both children are acutely sensitive to sunlight and must be kept indoors during the day. An elderly couple and their mute companion soon join the household after answering an ad seeking domestic help, but though they're a genial pair, their sudden appearance is suspect since they're responding to an ad that was never placed.

Bumps are heard in the night before their arrival. Anne insists she's been conversing and playing with a boy named Victor. The mysterious lad is one of several "intruders" whose presence is felt but never seen. Are Victor and his companions a figment of Anne's imagination or representative of something more sinister?

Such spooky stuff needs just the right mood and atmosphere to be effective, and writer/director Alejandro Amenabar gives us doors that open and close unexpectedly, fog that grows thicker and more oppressive with each footstep, and, eeriest of all, a "book of the dead" that is certain to give you the creeps. It's all executed with taste and style (if you're looking for gore, look elsewhere) with Javier Aguirresarbe's cinematography giving it all a dark autumnal look that brings to mind the season of Halloween.

As for those parts transplanted from other movies, the seasoned spook show aficionado may be reminded at times of The Innocents, The Haunting (the 1963 version), The Changeling, Don't Look Now, and The Sixth Sense. But Dr. Frankenstein didn't start entirely from scratch either. Taking a body from here, and a brain from there, he sewed it all together and had something new. The Others borrows its parts from quality sources and stitches them together seamlessly and superbly.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks


Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Since making his film debut a half century ago in Revenge of the Creature, Clint Eastwood has blown away hundreds of bad guys in dozens of westerns and cop movies, romanced Meryl Streep, and was best friends with an orangutan, none of which is likely to prepare you for Million Dollar Baby, his 25th film as a director. Superficially a boxing drama, it has earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. It’s also generating controversy.

Million Dollar Baby touches on a sensitive social issue, but it’s no more about that than it is about boxing. It’s a small scale, slice of life drama that veers unexpectedly into tragedy, as life itself sometimes does.

Eastwood is Frankie Dunn, a boxing coach and former cut man (the guy who patches up fighters when they step out of the ring) who runs a gym tended by his best friend, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former fighter who lost an eye when Frankie failed to stop a fight in time. Frankie feels guilty about that, but then he feels guilty about a lot of things. As his parish priest tells him, "Any man who attends Mass every day can’t forgive himself for something." He certainly doesn’t find forgiveness from his estranged daughter. His letters to her are consistently returned unopened.

When Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a waitress, turns up in his gym, determined to be a champion under Frankie’s tutelage, he’s not interested. But Maggie refuses to be discouraged. For her, boxing is the only ticket out of a life of poverty and defeat. She is self-described "trailer trash" from the Ozarks with a family of selfish rubes who care more about the money she earns than about her. Frankie reluctantly takes her on, and, sure enough, she has the stuff of which champion fighters are made, and proves it in a series of fights from which she emerges triumphant.

If this sounds like the plot of dozens of boxing films, you’re right, but what makes Million Dollar Baby better than the rest is the execution. Every scene, every line of dialogue in Paul Haggis’s screenplay (based on stories by F.X. Toole) serves a purpose, and Eastwood directs in the tight, lean manner for which he has been justly praised. Despite a running time of 132 minutes, nothing seems superfluous. With the aid of cinematographer Tom Stern, Eastwood also gives the film a noirish look that often makes you feel you’re watching a black-and-white movie. Best of all are the characters. These are people you care about, who’ve been knocked to the canvas by life but manage to keep on swinging.

Eastwood plays a variation on a role he’s played before, that of the gruff, wizened mentor, but as someone once said about art, it’s not how wide you go that counts, but how deep. Here, the 74 year-old icon goes deeper than he has in the past, and gives what is arguably his finest screen performance to date. Whether engaging in one of the several contentious conversations he has with his priest ("Have you got a minute to spare about the Immaculate Conception?"), swapping barbs with Scrap about the holes in the latter’s socks, or watching over Maggie as though she’s the daughter whose affection he craves, he’s a long way from the taciturn detective of Dirty Harry. (Eastwood also composed the film's spare, effectively melancholy score.) As always, Morgan Freeman never seems to be acting. He inhabits each scene naturally and effortlessly, as though he is the man he’s playing. As he did in The Shawshank Redemption, Freeman narrates, offering insights into the characters that they would be loathe to divulge themselves.

But the picture belongs to Swank. Feisty yet always feminine, she glows as Maggie, a determined woman who gives her all in the ring, but is compassionate enough to express concern about her injured opponent. The character has body and soul, as well as heart, and Swank embodies all three brilliantly.

Be warned, however, that this is no upbeat female take on Rocky. The picture takes a dramatic, unexpected detour in the final act that some conservative American media propagandists are condemning. By taking dialogue out of context, particularly Scrap’s final voice overs, they have accused the film of taking a controversial stance in a hotly debated social issue. One may not agree with the decisions the characters make, but it’s entirely believable that these characters would choose the paths they do. This is drama, after all, and Million Dollar Baby is a superb drama likely to keep playing in your mind’s eye long after the projection lamp goes dark.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks


Bobby Darin swings again in Beyond the Sea

Of the many biopics to reach the screen of late, Beyond the Sea is the best not because its director is a technical virtuoso (The Aviator's Martin Scorsese wins that contest hands down) or because its star is so well cast (Jamie Foxx in Ray is the winner there). Beyond the Sea trumps both because it's the most sincere and heartfelt. The subject is the late Bobby Darin, and it's clear that Kevin Spacey, the two-time Oscar winner who plays him, as well as directs from a script he co-wrote, admires and has great affection for the man born Walden Robert Cassatto. Such respect was almost a prerequisite for getting the green light for this project since Darin's star has dimmed considerably in the three decades since his death, possibly because Darin was almost impossible to categorize.

He started out as a rock and roller in the 1950s before transforming himself into a bow-tied, finger snapping nightclub singer in the ‘60s. By the end of the decade, he reinvented himself again, this time as a denim clad folk singer protesting the war in Vietnam and memorably crooning Tim Hardin's classic "If I Were a Carpenter."

It was an unusual career, but Darin was an unusual talent: a supremely gifted vocalist, performer, and songwriter who also distinguished himself as an actor, earning an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor for 1963's Captain Newman M.D. Off stage he was known for being brash, cocky, and impatient. The impatience isn't hard to understand. Darin's heart was weakened after a childhood bout with rheumatic fever, and he wasn't expected to see his fifteenth birthday. It's no wonder he was determined to accomplish as much as possible in whatever time he had. Death at age 37 is tragic, but for Darin, surviving even to that age was something of a triumph.

Yes, Spacey is too old for the part, almost a decade older than Darin was when he left the stage for good, but there is a slight facial resemblance, and, when crooning the title song and Darin's immortal version of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife," he even sounds a little like him. Yes, you heard right. In a daring and, perhaps, egocentric move, the actor has opted not to lip-synch to Darin's original recordings, but to do his own singing. The surprise is that he is generally superb, though no match for the real thing. Spacey handles the ballads with ease, but his voice is a little shaky on more uptempo numbers like "Dream Lover."

The key to Spacey's performance, and the ingredient that makes it a winner, is the sheer joy he exhibits in playing one of his idols. Joy is apparent throughout much of the film, quite an accomplishment when one considers that a happy ending is impossible.

When we first see Darin, he's onstage at the legendary Copa. He interrupts the performance to berate a musician and we learn this isn't a concert, but a movie set where Darin is starring in a film based on his own life. He argues with his manager, Steve Blauner (John Goodman), about the best way to begin the film, and whose memory of past events is accurate, when Darin as a boy appears to set them straight. The boy remains throughout the film, and he's not the only bit of fantasy we're to see. After we watch Darin's mother teach him piano and fill his head with dreams of stardom, reality is pushed aside as the streets are filled with singing and dancing, and a now grown Darin strides out of the Bronx for New York City to claim the fame and fortune that are his destiny.

Success comes with the 1958 novelty hit "Splish Splash," but Darin isn't content with teen idol status, and fights with his managers to record more adult material. His instincts are proven correct when his rendition of "Mack the Knife" reaches number one and wins several Grammys. Movie stardom is next, and on the set of his first film, he woos outwardly wholesome Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), the star of those Gidget movies. Against her mother's wishes, they marry after a courtship that finds Darin serenading his love with the classic ballad "Beyond the Sea."

They appear to be an ideal couple, but she resents his constant touring and ever present entourage. Darin's career also has disappointments which he doesn't handle gracefully. After losing the Oscar to Melvyn Douglas of Hud, he berates Dee, assigning her with some of the blame for his loss. "Warren Beatty is here with Leslie Caron, a best actress nominee," he screams, "and I'm here with Gidget!"

More traumatic than losing the Oscar is the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy whose presidential candidacy he supported, and the revelation that the woman he was raised to believe is his sister is actually his mother. By then, The Beatles and Bob Dylan had transformed popular music. Without a hit for several years, Darin scores a comeback with his sublime 1966 version of Tim Hardin's "If I Were a Carpenter." He hasn't merely changed his style of music, but his entire life. He tears off his toupee, throws away the bow-tie, and abandons Vegas and Beverly Hills for Big Sur where he engages in the kind of naval gazing typical of other "dropouts" from the era. When he returns to the stage, it's as "Bob Darin," and the songs reflect his more contemplative nature. The audience is not so introspective, so he returns to Vegas, toupee and bow-tie in place, and finds that Sandra Dee is correct: "People hear what they see." What they see is the Bobby Darin of old, and they love him and even his self-penned anti-war statement, "Simple Song of Freedom."

Reality dictates that this comeback be short-lived, and it's here that the film's fantasy sequences are most welcome in that they prevent the film from being too downbeat. Even after his heart gives out, Darin is back on stage for a final number. "Memories are like moonbeams," his mother told him. "You can do with them whatever you want." Darin's memory lives on, of course, in compact discs, movies, videos of his live performances, and now, in Spacey's marvelous tribute. Those who already know and appreciate Darin's talents are bound to enjoy Beyond the Sea more than those unacquainted with the legend, but here's an opportunity for new generations to be introduced to one of the 20th century's most versatile performers.

Bobby Darin still swings. So does this movie.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks
Originally published at Paris Woman Journal


Monday, June 10, 2013

Gladiator: Self-pity is not box-office

The 1950s were a time of great confusion for Hollywood. A government ruling forced the studios to relinquish their ownership of theaters, depriving them of a guaranteed showcase for their product. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), claiming subversive messages were being planted in Hollywood films, instituted a witch-hunt that gave birth to the still controversial “blacklist.” And a booming post WWII economy meant the American public could afford diversions other than movies, including television, which brought entertainment into the living room free of charge.

If Hollywood was powerless against the government and a vastly altered economy, it did meet the challenge of television. Cinemascope, a process that turned the once square movie screen into a huge rectangle, was introduced along with stereophonic sound. But Hollywood also needed blockbuster themes to fill that space, so they created the “spectacle.” You weren’t going to find a recreation of ancient Rome on I Love Lucy, or a slave rebellion on The Tonight Show, so the movies brought us The Robe, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur.

The fact that most of these films had Biblical themes may have been a way for Hollywood to show HUAC that the industry was not as subversive as Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed, but it was also a way to sneak in something else TV couldn’t offer: SEX! Salome didn’t dance in a raincoat, and Bathsheba didn’t tempt David while wearing a flannel nightgown. "Historical accuracy” (as filmmakers loosely defined it) helped Hollywood slip a lot of cleavage past the censors.

Like any genre, the “spectacle” faded from view, partly due to changing tastes, but also due to economics. A "cast of thousands" actually cost millions, and so did all those sets and costumes. But in 1995, Braveheart showed how computer technology could turn an army of a hundred into an army of thousands. So now, at a still astronomical cost of $100 million, Dreamworks and Universal bring forth Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, a recent Oscar nominee for The Insider, but still better known as Bud White, the short-tempered cop of L.A. Confidential.

What's it about?

In his one of his essays on Hollywood, author Gore Vidal (an uncredited writer on Ben-Hur) let the screenwriter whom he called the Wise Hack, explain the ingredients for a successful movie. The writers of Gladiator haven't strayed from the formula one bit.

"First you identify your characters. Then you show us your problem. Then you bring on your hero. Then you kick him in the balls. Then you show how he takes that kick. Does he feel sorry for himself? Never. Because self-pity is not box-office."

The problem in Gladiator is that the Emperor is dying. As his successor, the Emperor chooses a Roman General named Maximus (yes, Maximus. Names like Bob and Ralph never caught on in ancient Rome). Maximus is our hero. Ah, but the dying Emperor has a son, Commodus, who believes he is entitled to the title. So, before Maximus' appointment is made public, Commodus (commode?), murders his father, proclaims himself Emperor, then provides our hero with a kick to the groin by sentencing Maximus to death.

So, how does our hero take that kick to the groin?

Pretty well.

Maximus escapes execution, is sold as a gladiator (ala Spartacus), and soon becomes a big hit with the bloodthirsty crowd, and never does he show self-pity. Can his revenge against Commodus be far behind?

When a movie's running time is in the neighborhood of three hours, yes, it can be, and is, far behind, but we know his revenge is inevitable. After all, this isn't the first movie we've seen.

Whether or not Gladiator's box-office success is inevitable is another matter, but as "spectacles" go, it is sufficiently spectacular. If it lacks the inflated dignity of Ben-Hur and the passion of Spartacus, it easily outstrips any of those made in Italy "spectacles" starring Steve Reeves. There's plenty of violence, including beheadings, the cutting off of hands, and other forms of carnage. These aren't the kind of things Fred Astaire described in the song, "That's Entertainment!" but Fred is dead, my friends, and brutality is apparently what the people prefer these days.

In those rare moments when heads aren't flying off of necks and the blood ceases to flow, Gladiator is often a feast for the eyes, but the role that computers played in the making of the film is obvious once too often. Even when it's not obvious, somehow the "spectacle" isn't as impressive when you know it was generated at a keyboard, rather than built brick by brick by human hands. The somewhat washed-out colors of the sloppily choreographed battle sequences suggest the influence of Saving Private Ryan (also a Dreamworks production), and the script shows the influence of spectacles past with one notable difference. If there is even one fleeting reference to Christianity or anything Biblical, I missed it. There's no longer a Senator Joe McCarthy to appease, and, besides, "political correctness" demands that every religion be given equal time. Self-pity isn't box office, and neither is alienating a ticket buying customer whose own beliefs, or lack thereof, do not gel with the storyline.

Russell Crowe is both strong and sympathetic in the lead role. In beefing up for the film, he wisely resisted the temptation to look like he just stepped out of a Beverly Hills health club. He manages to look like an authentic gladiator rather than a Playgirl centerfold. A good actor who has yet to achieve stardom, Crowe isn't likely to get a better shot at the big time than this.

The rest of the cast is also quite good. Certainly, any movie that finds room for both Richard Harris (as the dying Emperor) and the late Oliver Reed (who died during filming) already has much in its favor. Like Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, and Christopher Walken, Harris and Reed are born "characters," and, as such, don't need much assistance from the screenwriter. These two are almost always worth watching.

Even this early into the year 2000, I can safely say that Ridley Scott's film is not the best picture of the year. But since Hollywood loves an epic, it won't surprise me if the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences smile broadly on Gladiator next year, just as it honored Mel Gibson's forgettable Braveheart in 1995. If Gladiator isn't worthy of the best picture Oscar, it's still a pretty good, generally thoughtful, if predictable, entertainment. In other words, it's exactly what Mr. Vidal's Wise Hack recommended.

For those of us old enough to remember the glory days of the "spectacle," the main appeal of Gladiator may be that it's kind of nostalgic. For younger viewers, it may provide a good introduction to the genre. It certainly beats another sequel to Scream.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2000 Brian W. Fairbanks


Elmer Gantry: Fire and brimstone to spare

Most authors, after selling their novels to Hollywood, complain when their work is altered, and, in many cases, distorted by filmmakers. Sinclair Lewis, however, did not complain when writer-director Richard Brooks retooled his massive novel Elmer Gantry for the screen. Lewis went so far as to advise Brooks to read all the criticisms of his book, then use them as a guide to make improvements to the title character whom he believed was more caricature than flesh and blood human being.

By the time Elmer Gantry reached the screen in 1960, Lewis had been dead nine years, so he never weighed in with his assessment of the production but one assumes he would have been pleased, if not by Brooks’ screenplay, then at least by the performance of Burt Lancaster who found in Elmer the role of a lifetime. Gantry is a boisterous, womanizing, and frequently intoxicated divinity student who is defrocked as a minister after seducing a deacon’s daughter. In that sense, the book and movie share common ground, but whereas Gantry’s stint as a revivalist in the camp of Sister Sharon Falconer is but one episode appearing midway through the novel, the film concerns itself with little else. In the novel, Gantry is an unrepentant hypocrite who finds in evangelism a channel for his energetic, almost manic, personality and colossal ego. Gantry, not given to introspection, never lets his conscience deter him from seeking the rewards of the flesh at the same time he praises Jesus. He is a con man who barely realizes that he is a charlatan.

As reinterpreted by Brooks and Lancaster, however, Gantry, though exhibiting a weakness for whiskey and women, is a man who believes what he preaches even when he doesn’t practice it. At the conclusion, when Gantry moves on to parts unknown after a fire has killed Sister Sharon and destroyed her temple, one is left with the impression that the old Gantry, who toyed with women and was intent on finding heaven on earth rather than in the afterlife, has died, too, replaced with a new refined model who escaped the flames of hell represented in the tragic climax and now walks in the light of eternal salvation.

It’s not a bad ending, but, in Lewis’ novel, it is not the ending at all. Elmer recovers from his genuine grief, turns his oratory skills to motivational speaking, and soon returns to evangelism with even greater success than before. But Elmer remains the same skirt-chasing egomaniac he was when introduced in chapter one, the character that Lewis, as well as Brooks and Lancaster, considered "unbelievable."

I disagree. Elmer in the novel may be shallow and difficult to relate to, but so is Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker, not to mention the average reader of The National Enquirer. In comparison to its literary counterpart, the film, though excellent on its own terms, falls short.

The most interesting changes employed by Brooks concern the characters of Jim Lefferts and Lulu Baines. In the novel, Lefferts is Elmer’s fellow student at divinity school. While both scoff at spiritual matters, Lefferts does so with more intelligence, having familiarized himself with such concepts as evolution which the simpler Gantry cannot grasp. In his film, Brooks recasts Lefferts as the equally cynical newspaperman who reports, in hard-edged H.L. Mencken style, on the revival meetings that he sees as pure hokum. Lula Baines gets a similar revamping. Instead of the deacon’s daughter whom Elmer seduces and, in the book, is pressured into marrying, she is now a former girlfriend turned prostitute who remains bitter at having been jilted.

The cast is fine. Jean Simmons is radiant as Sister Sharon, Arthur Kennedy is, well, Arthur Kennedy as Jim Lefferts, pretty much the same role he’d play with a different name in Lawrence of Arabia two years later, and Shirley Jones won a richly deserved Oscar as Lulu. Ironically, it's been rumored that when Elmer Gantry made its network television debut over CBS in 1965, Jones, who later starred for a competing network in The Partridge Family, was eliminated completely. It seems that the network disapproved of a prostitute being depicted on America’s television screens. Times have certainly changed. Burt Lancaster, portraying Elmer with fire and brimstone to spare, is wonderful in his Oscar winning role, but if you really want to get to know Elmer, read the book.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Traffic (2001)

Anyone who has watched with pity, scorn, or exasperation, the ruin that drugs have made of the life of a loved one doesn't need a lecture on the danger of illegal drugs. Director Steven Soderbergh knows that, and his new film, Traffic, doesn't lecture. It weaves in and out of the lives of those on the front line in the war on drugs, shifting back and forth between three different stories, observing the players, but never pointing an accusing finger at any of them. It's aware that when it comes to drugs, the victim and the culprit are often difficult to tell apart. Unfortunately, it's that very knowledge that cripples the movie.

Traffic begins in Mexico where a major drug bust is intercepted by a general who stands to profit from the success of the country's drug cartels. Photographed with a glaring yellow tint, Mexico looks as seedy as it always does in the movies.

The scene shifts to the USA where an Ohio judge (Michael Douglas) is appointed the country's new drug czar. He receives sympathy rather than encouragement from his predecessor, a man who is convinced that his successor's mission is as doomed to failure as his was. But the new czar is an idealistic sort, at least in his public statements. The trouble is, while he concentrates on the big picture, his eyes are blind to his own corner of the canvas. He makes the rounds of Washington cocktail parties, discussing his agenda with the government elite, but he's unaware that his daughter is free-basing cocaine in the family bathroom.

Meanwhile, in a posh California suburb, a wealthy society girl (Catherine Zeta-Jones) sees her life of ease turned upside down when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking. It's the first clue she's had that her husband is something other than a legitimate businessman.

For two and a half hours, Traffic paints a portrait of despair. There's weariness in the eyes of the Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro) who finds himself caught between his corrupt superiors, and the agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency who want him to be an informer. The drug czar is a ghost in his own home, and needs, as his wife tells him, three drinks just to say hello to his family. The California material girl, desperate to hang onto her life of luxury, takes over her husband's business affairs, concerned only with maintaining her lavish lifestyle at any cost.

Ambitious in a way few films have been of late, Traffic has its heart in the right place but not its head. It doesn't offer solutions and shouldn't be expected to, but it doesn't provide any insight either. It shows us the problem and the consequences, but so do television news reports. Soderbergh's lack of the kind of passion Oliver Stone might have brought to the topic leaves his film just lying there. Furthermore, much of what we see has been a staple of every cop show since Kojak. In addition to the forced irony of a drug czar with an addicted daughter, there's the amusing repartee between two street-smart cops (Don Cheadle and Luiz Guzman) assigned to a stakeout of the drug trafficker's home.

As troubling as it is to admit, Traffic is also a bit racist. It suggests the drug problem in our society is a problem only when it reaches the suburbs and infects the blue-eyed, blonde haired children of the upper middle class. When the czar's daughter sinks to prostitution, selling her body in flea bag hotels to support her habit, the customer we see her with is a black man. The filmmakers would deny it, of course, but this is meant as a double shock, a suggestion that she could sink no lower.

The performances are all good, and Soderbergh has assembled such a high profile cast that even the great Albert Finney pops up only briefly in a small role. The best moments belong to Cheadle and Guzman, who are smart and funny in a movie otherwise populated by characters that are sophisticated but dumb.

Named the best picture of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle, Traffic appears to be the front runner for the Oscar. That simply proves it's been a dismal year at the movies. Nancy Reagan's much ridiculed campaign advising young people to "just say no" to drugs may have been simplistic and perhaps naïve, but Traffic doesn't say much of anything. A film about a subject this serious should be compelling enough to stay with you for days. It should force the audience to ask themselves questions. By the time the credits rolled, the only question the film left me with was this one: what does Catherine Zeta-Jones see in Michael Douglas? By the time I got home, I was even asking myself what Douglas sees in her. That is not the mark of a masterwork.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2001 Brian W. Fairbanks


Natural Born Killers

To describe an Oliver Stone film as controversial is redundant. Not since 1981’s The Hand, a horror film in which cartoonist Michael Caine’s dismembered limb committed murder without it’s owner’s cooperation, has a Stone film not been debated at length in the media. The Vietnam epic Platoon invited criticism from those veterans whose tour of duty was not marked by prodigious drug taking. Born on the Fourth of July, the biopic of Ron Kovic, was vilified for inventing scenes meant to give more punch to an already hard-hitting story. In 1991, a series of charges and countercharges greeted JFK, a film that attempted to debunk the Warren Commission’s claim that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy. Like that hand in Stone’s forgettable and forgotten descent into the horror genre, Oliver Stone’s movies have a life of their own. They shamble out of the film lab like the Frankenstein monster and wreak havoc on the countryside.

The director’s most controversial feature is Natural Born Killers, a hyper, hypnotic collage of sound and image in which Stone points his self-righteous camera at the media, especially television news.

The charge? No, not that the media, which has been a thorn in Stone’s side (and a terrific promotional tool for his movies) is part of the same right wing faction that sent American soldiers to fight an unwinnable war, as well as, in the view of JFK, engineered the murder of a president who was preparing to end that unpopular war upon his reelection. No, Stone sees the media, and TV in particular, as a funhouse mirror that distorts life so dramatically that the viewer can’t distinguish O.J. Simpson from Davy Crockett.

The film follows the exploits of Mickey and Mallory, two victims of child abuse who embark on a killing spree. Some fifty are murdered in the course of the pair’s three week blood feast. They are apprehended and sent to prison, but escape in an explosive climax. Such a plotline could, with a variation here and there, describe dozens of crime movies, most of them inspired by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde.

But Natural Born Killers, being the handiwork of Oliver Stone, uses the plot as a rough sketch for a larger canvas. The killers are of less importance here than television which takes a more than passing interest in the murderous lovers. Mickey and Mallory always leave one witness to their carnage behind to ensure that they get full credit for their deeds. This M.O. is as good as being represented by the William Morris Agency, and Mickey and Mallory are soon the toast of American Maniacs, a weekly TV series devoted to real life crime hosted by a smooth Australian very obviously patterned on A Current Affair reporter Steve Dunleavy. Mickey and Mallory are now superstars, as recognizable as any sitcom star and no less charming.

There’s little about Natural Born Killers that’s subtle. Stone’s message about crime and television’s exploitation of tragedy is hammered home like one of Jack Webb’s moralizing lectures on Dragnet. As in JFK, Stone leaves much of the work to his editors who smoothly blend film shot in different gauges (8mm, 16mm, and 35mm) and artfully provide the film’s protagonists with backdrops that emphasize their own roots as television viewers. Mickey and Mallory make love and the window beside their bed is a movie screen filled with calvary charges. Mickey and Mallory drive down the highway and are surrounded by Indians, etc. The film shifts from color to black and white and an eerie shade of green, and Mickey’s face metamorphoses into the vision of the demon that his actions reveal him to be. Most memorably, Mallory’s abusive home life is presented as a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track and Rodney Dangerfield as her obnoxious, foul-mouthed father.

For all of Stone’s skill, however, Natural Born Killers never hits the bullseye. In attempting to expose television as a material starved medium that has confused notoriety with hard won fame, Stone is a good ten years too late. In an age when Joey Buttofuoco is a household name, anyone who hasn’t gotten the message that television news and entertainment have become one and the same, to the detriment of both, won’t be enlightened by Natural Born Killers. The same basic point was made more effectively eighteen years earlier by Paddy Chayefsky in Network. That film was prophetic. Natural Born Killers is an anomaly in Stone’s career: it’s behind, rather than in tune with, the times.

Whatever it’s failings, Natural Born Killers is worth watching. Its imagery is striking, and the cast is top notch. Woody Harrelson’s Mickey is the boy next door grown to adulthood but not maturity, a man whose external charm is but a thin veneer for the beast within. Juliette Lewis’s Mallory is his female counterpart, a girl whose innocence is thwarted by her environment. The fact that Robert Downey Jr.’s Aussie newsman grates on the nerves is not a criticism of the actor but a compliment. How else should one respond to a parasite? In supporting roles as, respectively, the prison warden and Mallory’s father, Tommy Lee Jones and Rodney Dangerfield are delightfully perverse. The music Stone selected, including Canadian crooner Leonard Cohen warbling "The Future" ("it is murder") and Patsy Cline singing "I’m Back in Baby’s Arms" is terrific, as well. And where else can you hear Bob Dylan gasp his way through the standard "You Belong to Me"?

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, June 8, 2013

One of Bogart's best In a Lonely Place

Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, released by Columbia in 1950, was long regarded as one of star Humphrey Bogart’s lesser films, as were most of the Columbia released Santana productions he made both during and after his lengthy and legendary tenure at Warner Bros. It was the cult status bestowed upon director Ray in the following decades that led to a reevaluation of this moody, ambiguous character study and noir thriller. Now, Bogart’s portrayal of short-tempered, possibly homicidal screenwriter Dixon Steele is regarded as one of his best roles, one giving play to most of the qualities that made Bogart the archetypal figure he remains today. There’s the trace of paranoia in those expressive eyes that were equally capable of conveying a profound world weary sadness, an emotion he draws upon in his Steele characterization. Then there’s the air of intellectualism that always kept him from being a mere tough guy even when playing cheap hoods with names like Turkey Morgan and Rocks Valentine as he did before stardom hit with the triple knockout of High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca. And there’s that ever present threat of a violent streak. Bogart explodes from time to time, but more often than not he implodes.

As Dixon Steele, Bogart is given an opportunity to comment on the industry that made him. He grouses about the quality of the projects he’s offered and labels one director a "popcorn pusher." It is one of those popcorn projects that leads Steele deeper into the lonely place of the title. Rather than read the lightweight best-seller he’s been asked to adapt, Steele asks a secretary who has already read and liked it ("It’s what I call an epic") to come to his home and fill him in on the novel’s high points. When she’s found murdered the next morning, Steele, who seems as blasé and cynical when interrogated by the police as he is when approaching his latest assignment, is the suspect. Not only does he appear to be the last person to have seen the girl alive, but Steele has a history of violence, having broken one girlfriend’s nose and been involved in more than a few brawls, in barrooms and on movie sets. Thankfully, he has an alibi in the form of shapely Laurel Grey (Gloria Graham), a neighbor who, because she "likes his face," lies when telling police that she saw the girl depart alone.

A romance blossoms but Steele is erratic, frequently so preoccupied with his work that he’s unaware of her presence, and at other times displaying a fierce temper that makes her suspect that he may very well be the murderer that the police think he is. Will she be his next victim? In one of his explosions of anger, Steele beats a young motorist, almost killing him, after an accident in which he was to blame. Even Steele’s agent cannot escape his volatile temper. When the agent takes one of his client’s scripts without Steele’s consent, the writer knocks the agent’s glasses off and further alienates his admirers, pushing him farther into the lonely place he already inhabits.

But Steele is also capable of tenderness, although even his loyalties can lead him to violence. Early in the film, Steele punches out a producer who dares to mock his best friend, a once fine actor now lost to alcoholism. Sold by the studio as a murder mystery, In a Lonely Place is actually something else. It’s a portrait of an artist, a brilliant man whose creativity, especially when stifled, puts him at odds with both the assembly line atmosphere of the Hollywood in which he plies his trade, and with society at large. It takes Hollywood to task as effectively, if not as outrageously, as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. It is Bogart’s best film since Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and possibly his best film of the 50’s (it is certainly superior in all respects to the much overrated The African Queen). It also appears to be one of his most personal films. As Steele, Bogart is almost playing himself, an artist longing for a project that challenges his talents, and frustrated that his gifts are too often treated as a commodity, something exploited by those who lack his integrity to make a fast, convenient buck. This frustration feeds his violent, self-destructive tendencies. Even such minor touches, such as Steele’s fondness for ham and eggs, apparently reflect Bogart’s own preferences.

Though many of Bogart’s films from the 1950s, such as the wretched Tokyo Joe and his insipid teaming with June Allyson in Battle Circus, misused his considerable talents, In a Lonely Place takes full advantage of them. Nicholas Ray’s fine direction, Andrew Solt’s unpredictable screenplay, and Bogart’s brilliant performance make In a Lonely Place worthy of its reevaluation and now esteemed place in the Bogart canon.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


Joan Crawford: A dominatrix out west in Johnny Guitar

In his later years, the great Orson Welles often dined with author Gore Vidal. During one of their get-togethers, the film giant told the literary lion how humbling it was to hear French film critics suggest he was one of only three film directors worthy of consideration as a true artist. However, Welles also complained that these same critics who flattered him were also masters of what he called "the unexpected letdown." The letdown came when Welles discovered that the trio of which he was a part included not only D.W. Griffith, whom Welles greatly admired, but also Nicholas Ray, whom he did not.

Yes, Nicholas Ray, not Hitchcock, Huston, Kubrick, Ford, Lubitsch, or Wilder, but Nicholas Ray, the director of They Live By Night, Rebel Without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, the remake of King of Kings and the cult favorite Johnny Guitar. Francois Truffaut may have hailed Ray as "the poet of nightfall," and Martin Scorcese can gush over Johnny Guitar all he wants but, fact is, Welles was right to feel deflated. Ray may very well be an "auteur" whose films present a consistent personal vision, but he is not a great auteur on the level of the creators of Birth of a Nation and Citizen Kane. But Ray’s work is highly regarded by film buffs, and rightfully so. The 1954 western Johnny Guitar is a minor classic, not really a western at all but a bizarre psychological study laced with insightful social commentary.

The plot has Joan Crawford maintaining a powerful hold on a boom town where the railroad promises to bring even more boom. Crawford operates a casino on the outskirts of town and she’s buying more and more property, poised to become the West’s ultimate dominatrix. She’s also suspected of having led the robbery of a stagecoach, a crime that claimed the brother of Mercedes McCambridge who despises Crawford and wants to run her out of town. The reversal of gender roles is the most interesting aspect of this movie, the first western in which two women wear the pants and dominate the proceedings. The tension between these two is considerable, and it’s no wonder. Crawford, apparently resentful that there was another woman in the cast, allegedly did one of her Mommie Dearest numbers on her co-star, making life hell for the poor actress throughout the shoot.

The women’s strength is enhanced by the casting of two comparatively weak actors in the leading male roles. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Guitar with that look of goofy detachment that was always his trademark. Hayden came into his own as an actor with Dr. Strangelove and The Long Goodbye in roles that capitalized on his considerable eccentricity (primarily showcased in a 1977 appearance on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow program), but that was still a decade away. For now, even the quality films in which he starred, including John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, were treated like B films by their studios because Hayden was primarily a B actor.

Scott Brady is in a lesser league than Hayden, an actor whose name you recognize but whose face you can never seem to place, even when you’re staring directly at it. Like Hayden, Brady is wiped clean off the screen by Crawford and McCambridge.

The supporting cast is a little stronger. Western vets Ward Bond, Royal Dano, and John Carradine are on hand, along with a pre-Marty Ernest Borgnine. And, of course, you have Paul Fix. Hell, you always have Paul Fix. The man has been in almost every western ever made, usually appearing as a sheriff or doctor.

Johnny Guitar is visually beautiful. Filmed on location in gorgeous Sedona, Arizona in a process called Tru-Color ("by Consolidated," as the announcer excitedly shouts in the trailer), the colors are frequently so bright there’s an almost 3D quality at work. Joan Crawford’s overly red lips jump off the screen (yes, I know, it’s a frightening thought), and this effect is heightened by the contrast in the costumes. While the Crawford camp generally favor colorful attire, the forces led by McCambridge dress in black ("Funeral clothes," as Crawford calls them). Perhaps that’s director Ray’s way of suggesting that the supposed good guys are really the villains; dull, colorless people whose lives are ruled by a blind respect for law and order, and are intolerant of lifestyles that are in opposition to their own values. Crawford and company are suspected of misdeeds but the charges are never proven. The shadow of the McCarthy witch hunts hangs heavy over a scene in which a participant in the bank robbery is bullied into implicating Crawford.

The dialogue in Philip Yordan’s screenplay is frequently a hoot. When Hayden is asked for his name and he answers, "Johnny Guitar," Brady says, "That’s no name." That’s not funny in itself, but keep in mind that Brady is playing a character known only as "The Dancing Kid." At the conclusion, there’s also a fairly insipid title song performed by Peggy Lee who co-wrote it with the film’s composer, Victor Young.

Johnny Guitar is a lot of fun with a uniquely kinky touch. It may not be the work of a director worthy of being placed on a pedestal beside D.W. Griffith and Orson Welles but some sort of pedestal is in order for Ray. Rebel Without a Cause is a classic study of alienation with touching performances by James Dean and Sal Mineo. In a Lonely Place is unique because, like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, it puts the unsung hero of the cinema, the screenwriter, in the spotlight for a change. It also features one of Humphrey Bogart’s most complex performances. Nicholas Ray ranks somewhere on the level of Samuel Fuller as a director whose films are much more interesting than they were considered to be when first released, though they still fall short of competing with the works of a genius like Welles. And so it is with Johnny Guitar.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks