Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind: Game Show Host By Day. . .

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind opens in a seedy New York hotel room at the dawn of the 1980s. As Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office for the presidency of the United States on a nearby TV screen, Chuck Barris stands naked before a mirror and engages in the kind of grim self-analysis that is a symptom of a mid-life crisis. When you're young, he muses, there's no telling what you might become. "You might be Einstein. You might be DiMaggio." Barris is not without his claim to fame. A TV producer with popular but now cancelled shows like The Dating Game and The Gong Show to his credit, he's widely condemned as the King of Schlock, and the title unnerves him.

"He couldn't take it," his colleague, Dick Clark, says.

Perhaps that's why Barris claims, in the "unauthorized autobiography" on which this film is based, to have moonlighted as an assassin for the CIA. TV producer by day. Cold blooded killer by night. It's a preposterous claim, almost as preposterous as believing the star of Bedtime for Bonzo could be elected leader of the free world, but it makes for an engrossing film and a very successful directing debut for actor George Clooney.

Barris begins his TV career as a page at NBC, moves up to management, is fired, then lands on his feet behind the scenes of Clark's American Bandstand. Before long, he's sold ABC on his idea for The Dating Game, a huge success that inspires a spin-off, The Newlywed Game, neither of which have the impact of The Gong Show, the "talent" contest generally regarded as the forerunner for much of the muck currently polluting American television.

But even before his first show hits the air, he attracts the attention of a CIA agent who believes Barris has the right stuff to kill for his country. The agent appeals to the 32-year-old Barris's ambition and insecurity. "Jesus Christ was dead and back again by the time he was 33. You better get crackin'."

After training, Barris gets crackin' for America in the Cold War. The movie suggests that The Dating Game's winning couples were sent to Helsinki and West Berlin for their romantic getaways simply so Barris could carry out assassinations while officially acting as the couple's chaperone.

If juggling his TV and CIA duties isn't stressful enough, Barris also maintains an on-again, off-again relationship with Penny (Drew Barrymore), a flighty but sincere girl whose love does not deter him from pursuing sex wherever he can find it. His dalliances include one with an enemy agent (Julia Roberts) who finds him cute "in a homely way."
Clooney, directing from a screenplay by Charles Kaufman, may have sprinkled clues throughout his movie to indicate whether or not he believes Barris's tales of government intrigue, but he keeps things moving at such a rapid pace that, if the clues are there, it's hard to spot them.

What is obvious is Clooney's skill as a director. Like most first-timers, he can be accused of being self-indulgent, but since this story is so much concerned with self-indulgence, that's hardly a handicap. He stages scenes imaginatively and brings out the best in a stellar cast. Drew Barrymore is as charming as Roberts is suitably cold, and Rutger Hauer, an almost star from the 80s, has a nice bit as one of Barris's colleagues in killing. Clooney himself is aces as Barris's hard-boiled sponser from the CIA and cloaks his character in so much mystery that it's certainly possible he exists only in the same imagination that envisioned The Gong Show.

At the center of it all is Sam Rockwell as Barris. Aside from the permed hair and the short, stocky build, he may not look much like Barris, but he captures his body language and, it seems, his self-loathing only too well.
Why Barris should be so down on himself is something of a mystery itself. Critics charge The Gong Show gave people an opportunity to humiliate themselves for a few minutes of fame. Those who make that charge seem unaware that the contestants were always in on the joke. Their only crime was an ability to laugh at themselves, something Barris secretly was unable to do. If Barris's life as a hit-man for the CIA is a fantasy, what does it say about him, or perhaps American society, that he thought he could redeem his reputation by claiming to be a killer? This movie is smart enough to let us answer that question for ourselves.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal
© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks


Road to Perdition

Road to Perdition is one of the most anticipated films of the year. In addition to giving Tom Hanks an uncharacteristically dark role, it is director Sam Mendes's follow-up to 1999's Oscar winning American Beauty. Based on a 'graphic novel' (a fancy term for a comic book) by Dick Tracy writer Max Allan Collins and illustrator Richard Piers Rayner, it takes us to Chicago in the winter of 1931 where Michael Sullivan (Hanks) plies his trade as a hit man for crime-boss John Rooney, played by Paul Newman.

Rooney, we are told, provided a home for the orphaned Sullivan after he was deserted by his father. Now an adult with a wife and two children, Sullivan's devotion to his employer goes beyond economic indebtedness. He is like a son to the old man which does not sit well with Connor Rooney, the mob lord's genuine flesh and blood offspring. This is made clear early on when during a wake for a slain comrade, Sullivan and Rooney perform a duet at the piano while a jealous Connor angrily looks on.

The competition between them turns deadly when Sullivan and Connor are ordered to have a 'talk' with a recalcitrant co-hort. The violent Connor's words are supplemented with gunfire. Unfortunately, Sullivan's oldest son, also named Michael, is curious about his father's profession and has stowed away on the mission, witnessing the bloodbath, and is discovered in the process.

Can he be trusted to keep quiet? His father thinks so, as does the elder Rooney, but Connor is unconvinced. In one of the most effective moments, Sullivan learns he has been targeted by Connor for execution. After turning the tables on his assassin, he returns home to find his wife and youngest son slain. Now he heads out, with the younger Michael, on the road to the place of the title, literally Hell. Hoping to hit his employer where it hurts, he sets out to rob the banks where mob money is held, elude Harlen 'The Reporter' Maguire (Jude Law), a killer who photographs his own victims as they prepare to enter eternity, and protect his son, not only from the killers on their trail, but from a life as lawless as his own.

The question for Sullivan is who commands greater loyalty from mob patriarch Rooney? The hit man who is like a son to him? Or the literal son, Connor? It's answered in a series of bloody, artfully staged battles including a nearly silent mob war in which the only sound heard is that of the rain, so heavy it threatens to flood the streets.

It is the legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall who leaves the most dramatic mark on Road to Perdition. Photographing everything in dark, muted colors, the film suggests an Edward Hopper painting, as does the impressive art and set decoration by Richard L. Johnson and Nancy Haigh. The performances also command respect. Hanks shakes off his boyish nice guy image and comfortably eases into his doomed character's bulky overcoat (perfect for hiding a machine gun) and burdened conscience. Newman is equally good as Rooney, suggesting both the kindness and cruelty required in the head of a family whose business means bloodshed. Jude Law, however, is given little to work with beyond a pair of badly stained teeth, and seems superfluous.

But then Road to Perdition itself is rather superfluous. Its attempt to be something more than a rat-a-tat-tat gangster movie is a failure. The blame for that belongs to director Mendes, perhaps the most overrated talent in Hollywood today (the Oscars for American Beauty really weren't deserved). He obviously wants his movie to be a commentary on the relationships between fathers and sons, sin and redemption, and assorted other 'big' themes. Like I said, it looks like an Edward Hopper painting, and in the end it's a little too much like a painting for its own good. Too preoccupied with effect to be affecting, it's nice to look at, but it's canvas is too small for its frame.

Brian W. Fairbanks

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


Sean Penn directs Jack Nicholson in The Pledge

Few actors of his generation have received the acclaim accorded Sean Penn. But acclaimed or not, what he really wants to do is direct. Penn's first film, The Indian Runner, showed a real cinematic flair that spoke well for his auteur ambitions. Unfortunately, Penn also wanted to write, and his screenplay for his next film, The Crossing Guard with Jack Nicholson, sabotaged what might have been a worthy successor. This time he has left the writing to others and justifies Nicholson's faith in him.

The Pledge starts off looking like it's going to be a festival of cliches. Nicholson is Jerry Black, an aging Nevada cop reluctantly stepping down but with nowhere to step to. His retirement party is interrupted by a report concerning the grisly murder of a 14-year old girl. Black, who sees nothing to celebrate anyway, tags along to the crime scene. When his less experienced colleagues balk at bringing the bad news to the girl's mother, he volunteers for the assignment.

Holding a cross made by her daughter, the girl's mother asks Black to swear on his "soul's salvation" that he'll find the killer. He accepts the challenge, but the way the scene is played it's hard to believe the mother's words haunt him enough to dominate his life. When the police arrest a mentally retarded Indian for the crime, they consider the case closed after the suspect commits suicide, but Black is not satisfied. He continues the investigation on his own, even going so far as to buy a rundown gas station because it's where the killer's car is believed to have made a stop.

By this time, it becomes clear that the scene between Black and the victim's mother was right on target. Black is not driven by his promise to the mother, but by his own private demons. A lifelong bachelor, his job was his life. The suspects he interrogates, the witnesses he interviews, his fellow police officers--they are his only community. Without his job, he is a man adrift. Scenes of Black fishing alone surrounded by nature's beauty never suggest the tranquility such scenes usually evoke, only isolation and despair. When he takes up with a waitress played by Robin Wright, the relationship only fuels his obsession because Black sees the woman's daughter as bait to lure the killer.

As we watch Black futilely try to hang onto his former life, we are also watching Jack Nicholson return to the kind of role worthy of his talent. After a decade in which the three time Oscar winner spent his time in high profile product requiring little more than his "Jack" persona, Nicholson is an actor again, not an icon. In Jerry Black, you can even hear faint echoes of his earlier roles: the restless Bobby Dupea of Five Easy Pieces, the disillusioned brother of King of Marvin Gardens, and even a touch of J.J. Gittes, the private eye whose morality was no match for the corruption in Chinatown.

We are also watching Sean Penn come into his own as a director. With a talented crew behind him, he fulfills the promise he showed in The Indian Runner. This is a man who may have even studied silent films when preparing to direct because he uses silence beautifully, especially in the memorable scene in which Black tells the victim's mother of her daughter's fate. Not a word is spoken between them, yet the scene has more impact than a dozen car crashes from a dozen lesser films.

Penn also surrounds his star with a first rate cast. Vanessa Redgrave, Robin Wright, and Sam Sheperd, among others, all provide excellent support. Penn even gives Mickey Rourke an opportunity to rehabilitate himself, which he does in an affecting cameo as the murdered girl's father.

The Pledge is being sold as another serial killer thriller. That may be the bait to lure you into the theater, but it's Jerry Black's torment that will stay with you when the lights are turned on.

Brian W. Fairbanks

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


The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with dialogue in two dead languages (Aramaic and Latin) is a film that has been debated and condemned for a year now, often by people who hadn't seen it. Now it arrives, still controversial, but now capable of being assessed on its merits or lack of same. This is not a film one can "like." Rather, it's a film to admire. The effect is visceral. One is either moved spiritually or emotionally by Gibson's film or one is not. I was moved.

The film deals with the life of Jesus, but unlike other cinematic interpretations of the Gospels, Gibson focuses on the passion, a word often associated with love but originally used to describe Christ's sufferings. But love is the ultimate point. This is no white-washed politically correct version of the Gospels with Jesus cast as a hippy philosopher, but one that wholeheartedly accepts his divinity and role as savior of all mankind, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.

Gibson dispenses with the usual opening titles, instead devoting the first frames of film to a quote from Isaiah. We then see Jesus (James Caviezel) praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God the Father to let this burden pass from his shoulders, but vowing to follow through on the Father's commands. Bathed in an eerie pale blue light (the cinematography by Caleb Deschanel is superb), Jesus is alone except for Satan (Rosalinda Celentano), presented here as a female androgen, beautiful, yet barren of spirit. Jesus' meditation is interrupted by Roman soldiers who come to arrest him. Accused by the Sanhedrin of blasphemy, Jesus is passed from Pontius Pilate to King Herod and back to Pilate, who sentences Jesus to death in order to satisfy the Jewish religious leaders.

Here is where most of the controversy originates, but charges that the film is anti-Semitic are ill-founded. Jesus was, after all, a Jew, as were his apostles and many of those who protested his crucifixion. More importantly, Jesus lays down his life of his own accord. His death, like his resurrection, was prophesied in the Old Testament.

The remainder of the film is devoted to Jesus' suffering, and it is presented in graphic, often disturbing detail. Yes, the film is bloody, and very violent, but Gibson somehow avoids being gratuitous. By these wounds we are healed is the message, and the film hopes to communicate the extent of Jesus' suffering on our behalf.

Although the film does not dwell on Jesus' teachings, several flashbacks give us a glimpse of the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper, as well as Jesus' life as a carpenter. One of the most affecting flashbacks occurs during the long march to Golgotha. His cross too heavy to bear, Jesus drops to his knees and his mother rushes to his side. A flashback shows Mary (a luminous Maia Morgenstern) doing the same when a youthful Jesus stumbles and falls.

Although this is only Gibson's third film as a director (the second was 1995's Oscar winning Braveheart), he shows himself to be a master film-maker, capable of creating inspired and inspiring imagery, notably a heavenly view of the crucifixion in which a single teardrop forms and drops near the foot of the cross causing the earth to tremble. Gibson ends his film with a brief but beautiful depiction of the resurrection, a scene that brought applause from the audience I saw it with.

One way to determine whether a creative work qualifies as art is to observe the reaction it triggers in those who experience it. No one who sees The Passion of the Christ is likely to be indifferent to it. You may praise it or condemn it, be inspired or enraged by its violence. It is a movie, but it is the result of Gibson's desire to express his beliefs and proclaim them to the world. It's an act of faith. A work of art.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2004 Brian W. Fairbanks