Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jailhouse Rock: Elvis' best movie?

Is Jailhouse Rock the best movie that Elvis Presley made? It’s certainly the one that comes closest to capturing, as Leonard Maltin called it his capsule review, Elvis’s “nostril flaring, pre-Army glory.”

Released by MGM in 1957, the second year of his worldwide fame, the black-and-white Cinemascope feature cast the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon in the role of a good guy who, coming to the defense of a woman being manhandled in a bar, kills a man, goes to prison, and, in the kind of lucky break that’s possible only in the movies (and not too credibly even there), learns to sing and play guitar, then scores a hit when a prison talent show is televised. Once sprung from the pen, he goes on to conquer show business.

The higher his star rises, however, the lower he sinks personally. He becomes a surly creep, stepping on everyone in his path. His former cellmate (Mickey Shaughnessy) who taught him to play guitar, is paroled and expects to attach himself to his protégé’s rising star. They agree to be partners, but Elvis is much too big for his britches, and the guy’s hillbilly act is too old-fashioned to succeed. He is soon walking Elvis’ dogs. Elvis steps on him, too, but pays for it in the end when his old buddy gives him a severe beating that damages his vocal chords.

Of course, the movie couldn’t end on such a dour note, not in the Hollywood of 1957, so his voice is miraculously restored before the finale where he sings “Young and Beautiful,” one of the few songs on the soundtrack not written by the team of Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. Those Lieber-Stoller songs are the highlight, especially “You’re So Square (Baby, I Don’t Care)” and the famous title track that provides the inspiration for the dance sequence that is the most iconic moment in his film career.

Elvis had one more movie to make before his 1958 induction into the Army. Once he returned to civilian life, his film career rapidly descended into pap. The trailer for 1965’s Girl Happy is included on the Jailhouse Rock DVD, and is cringe-inducing. Hollywood exploited his popularity, but never really tapped his talent.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


War Games: A relic from the 1980s

The 1980s weren’t that long ago, but the movies from that decade look more old-fashioned than many of those from earlier decades. Women’s hair is all pouffed up, and men frequently sport those hideous mullets, a grotesque style in which the hair in back is grown long and bushy even as the rest is fairly short. Some films are dated because of the technology. War Games from summer 1983 is one of them.

Made at a time when home computers were still an exotic item, it was about a whiz-kid played by that smug twerp, Matthew Broderick, who almost sets off a global thermonuclear war by accidentally hacking into a Pentagon computer. Those were the days when the Internet, if accessible to commoners at all, looked nothing like the colorful displays you see today, and a computer screen was nothing but a cursor blinking against a coat of blackness.

War Games was a big hit, one of the ten biggest in distributor’s rentals that year, and along with the James Bond flick, Octopussy, helped bail out the financially strapped MGM which had acquired United Artists a year or two before. It was also favorably reviewed, even getting a thumbs up from President Reagan who liked the scrappy kid that Broderick played. But it’s not a good movie. John Badham who, like Steven Spielberg, was a graduate of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, directs as if he’s confused about where to aim his camera. When Broderick’s family eats dinner, we get a closeup of the father buttering a slice of bread which he then uses to butter his corn on the cob. What’s the point of that? Is Badham offering the audience some helpful hints on dining? Is this the way that Hollywood hotshots butter their corn on the cob?

Nothing dates War Games like its cast. Broderick’s film career wouldn’t survive the ‘80s, and co-star Ally Sheedy, who plays his girlfriend, had another four years of prominence before disappearing from the screen. She peaked in 1985’s The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, “Brat Pack” flicks with such other ‘80’s relics as Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Andrew McCarthy. Then there’s Dabney Coleman who kicked off a great career as a character actor with 1980’s Nine to Five then moved on to 1982’s Tootsie and other hits, only to fritter it away with several ill-advised attempts at sitcom stardom.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Burt Lancaster in The Train

Somewhere in a cemetery in California, there’s a small headstone bearing the name of Burt Lancaster above the years he lived on earth: 1913-1994. But Burt Lancaster is very much alive on my TV screen where 1965’s The Train is airing on the “This” network.

There’s something eerie about film. It captures images and sounds and keeps them alive well into the future. It’s as though Burt Lancaster never got old, at least no older than he was in The Train, never suffered the stroke that left him paralyzed in 1991, and never died following a heart attack three years later. He’s climbing ladders, running across fields, jumping off trains, and blasting away with a machine gun. It’s spooky. Movies are time machines.

The actor once said it was unfortunate that he and director John Frankenheimer hadn’t started the movie together. Arthur Penn had been fired from the production, by which time the actors had already set about establishing their characters. Lancaster, the American movie star, was playing a Frenchman, but he makes no attempt to sound like one. Lancaster later regretted not attempting a French accent, and believed he would have if Frankenheimer, with whom he had already made Birdman of Alcatraz, had been directing from the start. As it is, The Train is a superb action film that gave the then 51-year-old former acrobat many opportunities to run, jump, slide down ladders, climb hills with a machine gun strapped around his shoulder, etc.

But The Train raises a provocative question: which has greater value? A man’s life, or the art that represents his noblest achievement? In The Train, the Nazis attempt to loot France of its art treasures in the waning days of World War II. Lancaster, though questioning the value of works by Picasso, Van Gogh, and other artists in relation to the lives that would be lost to retrieve them, sets out to stop the train carrying these canvases as it makes its way to Germany. The chief Nazi, played by Paul Scofield, has no doubts about the value of these paintings. To him, Lancaster is a mere brute incapable of appreciating beauty.

Whether approached for its thoughtfulness or simply as an action film, The Train is one of Lancaster’s best.

Brian W. Fairbanks
January 7, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom

Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom is a revolting film, the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director who was murdered shortly after finishing this, his final film. In an essay by Naomi Greene included in The Criterion Collection's disc of the film, Pasolini is quoted as saying, “artists must create, critics defend, and democratic people support . . . works so extreme that they become unacceptable even to the broadest minds of the new State.”

With Salo, Pasolini certainly succeeded in making a film that was extreme enough for even the most open-minded viewer. As the English translation of the title indicates, it is based on the notorious book by the Marquis de Sade.

Here you have a remote castle at which the upper class members of society have created their own world populated by masters (them) and slaves (everyone else). Sex of the most perverse kind is their way of life. The slaves are presented nude before their masters and subjected to whippings for failure to comply with orders which include kneeling on the floor like dogs and fetching pieces of cake embedded with nails that the masters toss at them. The slaves are also fed excrement.

Like de Sade’s novel, the film has no subplots. It’s all about sexual degradation, a portrayal of a lifestyle cut off from all but the basest, most contemptible forms of behavior. Is this art? Perhaps. But it is art that would likely speak only to those who fantasize about a similarly decadent way of life. What are we to make of such obsessions? To resign oneself to a life of abuse, whether as the abuser or the abused, could be a reaction to suffering. By focusing only on being a victimizer or a victim you can shut yourself off from all other feelings.

In another of those essays in the DVD booklet, someone named Neil Bartlett says, “Salo is not only a film that has been forgotten (a film that some people and organizations have, throughout its existence, actively made efforts to ensure is forgotten), it is also a film about forgetting.”

Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom is a movie that I'm glad to have seen, but I would also just as soon forget it. That, however, may be impossible.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


Frost/Nixon: History reimagined

The 37th president, Richard M. Nixon, struck me as a man who mourned even as he celebrated victory. David Frost, the British talk show host, was more a pursuer of pleasure. These two unlikely combatants met in 1977 for a series of televised interviews, the first that Nixon granted following his August 9, 1974 resignation from the presidency. The event became the basis for a play, then a 2008 movie directed by Ron Howard. Frost/Nixon earned several Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor for Frank Langella (who lost to Sean Penn of Milk). It’s a surprisingly riveting drama about two men in search of redemption. Nixon resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment, and Frost’s talk show, syndicated throughout the U.S., had been cancelled and the host reduced to emceeing a show on Australian TV. Frost, eager to reclaim the success he once enjoyed in America, sets out to scoop the news media that regards him as a lightweight, a “performer” rather than a journalist, by convincing Nixon to agree to a series of sit-down interviews.

Money talks, and it was money that got Nixon talking at first - $600,000 that Frost had to dig into his own pocket to provide since sponsors looked askance at both Frost, a British talk show host with no real experience in hard news, and Nixon, who a majority of the American people had not forgiven for Watergate. The fact that Frost paid Nixon was also controversial. The supposedly more respectable news outfits complained of “checkbook journalism,” but since CBS had offered Nixon exactly half of what Nixon received from Frost, the English “performer” was probably correct when he dismissed their complaints as jealousy. Once Nixon had agreed to what his agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, believed would be a “big wet kiss. This guy’ll be so grateful to be getting it at all, he’ll pitch puffballs all night and pay a half million dollars for the privilege,” Frost attempted to sell the shows to the American TV networks, none of which expressed interest. Fact is, Frost was a lightweight.

“Success in America is unlike success anywhere else,” he tells his producer. “You know, there’s a restaurant in New York called Sardi’s. Ordinary mortals can’t get a table.” When Frost had a talk show in America, “the place was my canteen.”

Frost is not content to be a success in his native Britain. Having conquered America once, he needs to conquer it again. Nixon, on the other hand, has his own selfish motives. He wants to regain the respect he once enjoyed on the world stage. Nixon calls the interviews a “challenge to a duel.” Frost initially denies it’s a duel, but knows that Nixon’s sizing up of the deal is accurate. It’s a duel and only one can win. Nixon keeps the upper hand throughout most of the sessions, and the journalists whose services Frost enlisted to help him in preparing the questions regard the interview as a failure and an embarrassment until the finale when Nixon loses his cool and expresses his view that if “the president does it, that means it’s not illegal. That’s what I believe.”

I’ve always had a certain admiration for Nixon. The fact that he was forced from office suggested to me that he was less a villain than a victim. Like John Kennedy, he must have been in the way of powerful forces and had to be removed. Plus, Nixon had a persecution complex. In a late night phone conversation, Nixon rambles on to Frost that both were looked down on by snobby elites and their subsequent careers were motivated by a desire for revenge: “No matter how many awards or column inches are written about you or how high the elected office is for me, it’s still not enough. We still feel like the little man, the loser they told us we were a hundred times.” Frost reluctantly admits that Nixon is right. Both are “looking for a way back into the sun, into the limelight, back onto the winner’s podium. Because we could feel it slipping away. We were headed, both of us, for the dirt, a place that snobs always told us we’d end up. Face in the dust, humiliated all the more for having tried so pitifully hard.”
Nixon, his rage fueled by alcohol, say “To hell with that!,” then vows to “show those bums. We’re gonna make them choke on our continued success, our continued headlines, our continued awards, and power and glory! We are gonna make those motherfuckers choke!” He then asks Frost if he’s right. “You are,” Frost says, but adds “Only one of us can win.”

Drama requires that only one of these duelists emerge triumphant, and the writer, Peter Morgan, throws the spoils to Frost who, we are told at the film’s conclusion, “continues to work as a TV presenter and news interviewer,” whereas Nixon, who died in 1994, never escaped controversy” and “remained largely absent from official state functions.”

Frost’s costly gamble certainly paid off. The interviews, syndicated to local television stations in the spring of 1977, were a big success, and earned cover stories in Time, Newsweek, and TV Guide.

Nixon did not win the redemption he sought, but he remains a towering figure in American politics. It was Bill Clinton who did much to bring Nixon back into the limelight, inviting him to the White House and soliciting his advice. It was Clinton, who, speaking at Nixon’s funeral, said it was time to judge the man on his complete record, not only on Watergate. One wonders what Nixon would have thought about Clinton’s own scandal during the second term of his presidency. Nixon was threatened with impeachment, but stepped down before Congress could take that action. Clinton was impeached, but refused to resign in an act of defiance that one would have expected from Nixon.

Frost/Nixon is probably Ron Howard’s best film. The performances are excellent throughout with Michael Sheen nailing David Frost. He captures the man’s rather smarmy charm, as well as his voice and tendency to sometimes swallow his words. Frank Langella has the greater challenge. Few presidents are as recognizable or as quirky as Nixon. There’s those prominent jowels, the widow’s peak hairline, and the hunched shoulders. It’s not an easy role to play, but Langella meets the challenge and makes Nixon real.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


Pam Grier is Foxy Brown

After Leo the Lion roars to inform us that we are about to watch a movie from Metro Goldwyn Mayer, we sees stars against a night sky that form the word “Orion.” Oh, so it’s an Orion picture and not from MGM. As quickly as Orion disappears, an A in a circle appears followed by the name of American International.

Foxy Brown, the movie being introduced by three different studios (two of them now defunct), immediately identifies itself as a movie from the early 1970s with its garishly colorful opening titles (sort of cut-rate Maurice Binder). Pam Grier, the beautiful black actress in the title role, is shaking her booty while the names of her co-stars appear on screen, and this viewer asks “Whatever happened to“? when he spots the name of Peter Brown. He was Chad Cooper, one of the Texas Rangers on Laredo, a TV western that was a favorite in my youth. After it ended its two-year run in 1967, his career must have hit the skids since Foxy Brown, despite its charms (Pam Grier), is grade C stuff. Another co-star, Antonio Fargas was on the rise, soon to be cast in a recurring role on TV’s Starsky and Hutch. He often turned up in movies as funny, trash-talking street hustlers before dying from AIDS-related complications some time ago. Brown and Fargas are bad guys in Foxy Brown. The good guy, who isn’t around long, is Terry Carter, a sidekick for many years on NBC’s McCloud.

Low-budget or not, Foxy Brown is enjoyable mainly due to Grier who acquired many devoted fans through her appearances in the kind of movies categorized as “black exploitation.” She’s a good actress and beautiful to boot. Sexy, too, but despite ample breasts, she exudes sensuality more than cheap sex appeal.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Monday, May 27, 2013

Electra Glide in Blue: Artistic ambitions but little art

(WARNING: Spoilers aplenty!)

Electra Glide in Blue is the movie that almost made Robert Blake a star in 1973, not just of the talk shows where he was a regular known for bizarre, frequently disturbed rants about his miserable childhood and thwarted ambitions, but on the big screen where he had not been a stranger, but had also not broken through to the kind of household name status enjoyed by Robert Redford, his higher billed co-star in 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.

As a child actor, Blake was one of the Little Rascals in M-G-M's Our Gang Comedy shorts, and shared the screen with such legends as Humphrey Bogart to whom he sold a winning lottery ticket in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. As an adult, he was one of the soldiers on trial for rape in Town Without Pity (with Kirk Douglas) and leader of The Purple Gang in an Allied Artists B flick starring Barry Sullivan.

His breakthrough to the A list should have came through In Cold Blood, the 1967 film version of Truman Capote’s much hyped “nonfiction” novel based on the pursuit, capture, and execution of two ex-cons who murdered a farm family in Kansas eight years earlier. As Perry Smith, the more thoughtful of the killers, Blake had the juiciest role and the most dramatic. The title had a dual meaning, referring both to the cold-blooded nature of the crime itself, as well as to the equally cold-blooded manner in which the state carried out the execution of the culprits. It was Blake’s hanging that the audience witnessed immediately before the final credits appeared while the death of his accomplice, Dick Hickok played by Scott Wilson, took place off-screen.

Blake’s performance was hailed by critics, but the rumored Oscar nomination did not result in a year when Rod Steiger was honored for In the Heat of the Night over Warren Beatty (Bonnie & Clyde), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), the late Spencer Tracy (Guess Whose Coming to Dinner), and Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate). Blake may not have able to gain inclusion at the expense of those actors, all of whom appeared in more popular audience-friendly films, but any chance he had was hindered by Columbia Pictures’ advertising campaign for the film. The selling point was the book and the director (Richard Brooks, by then a “name” thanks to such earlier successes as Elmer Gantry and The Professionals), not the cast whose names were conspicuously missing from the posters and newspaper ads. The eyes of the actual killers, Smith and Hickok, were pictured but not the actors who played them.

Blake endured, getting cast opposite Redford in the aforementioned Western (albeit a Western with a “message” about race rather than the exciting shoot-em-up that might have succeeded at the box-office), and starring in a racing drama titled Corky.
It was Electra Glide in Blue, however, that seemed likely to give him the leg up he needed to join Jack Nicholson, James Caan, and Al Pacino, other actors in their early to mid 30s who were receiving the best roles in a decade that most critics now regard as Hollywood’s second golden age.

Blake promoted the film heavily on Johnny Carson’s show and elsewhere, boasting of its warm reception at the Cannes Film Festival where it was in competition for the Palm d’Or. That fancy title (which refers to a motorcycle that Blake’s cop rides when busting motorists for speeding) gave it a distinctly art-house feel, as did the trailer that hailed the film’s first time director, James William Guercio, previously a music producer best known for his work with the top 40 hit makers, Chicago, as a new voice in cinema, one to be reckoned with.

Once Electra Glide in Blue went into general release in fall 1973, United Artists clearly wasn’t aiming to attract an art-house crowd. They devised an ad campaign more suitable for an action film similar to the company’s two biggest hits of the previous summer, Live and Let Die (the James Bond flick) and the Burt Reynolds car crash smash, White Lightning. Artwork depicting Blake, gun drawn and knees bent, poised for combat beside his cycle, was surrounded by a montage featuring a scantily clad woman on one side and a motorcycle crashing through a restaurant window right below them. The tagline also promised action: “He’s a good cop, on a big bike, on a bad road.” The film failed, and after another UA cop movie, Busting, which teamed Blake with Elliott Gould, he retreated to television, where he did achieve true stardom as the tough talking detective of ABC-TV’s Baretta, a re-tooling of the earlier Toma, whose star, Tony Musante, bailed out after one season.

Electra Glide in Blue
, it turns out, was more of an art-house film than the commercial fodder that UA tried, futilely, to sell to audiences. Artistic aspirations do not always result in art, however, and director (and composer of the score) Guercio’s aspirations are merely that, with the end result being mere pretension.

The opening pre-title sequence is effectively shot and brilliantly edited (by The French Connection Oscar winner, Jerry Greenburg). We are in what appears to be a shack, or a modest home so ill-kept that it might as well be a shack, as a man whose face we never see places pork chops in a frying pan, some tablets in a glass containing his dentures (uppers), and drops the needle on a vinyl record that plays an instrumental that sounds like something recorded in the 1920s, then goes about the business of dressing and loading a gun with Remington shells (the brand is clearly identified in a close-up). He turns the pork chops over, and after several more cuts back and forth to his various activities, we hear a gun blast followed by the sight of splattered blood.

This apparent suicide is actually a murder, and though it’s solved before the film concludes, it doesn’t add up to much. It’s significant only in that it gives Blake’s character, a motorcycle cop named John Wintergreen, his shot at the promotion to detective that he craves. Having exchanged sharp words with an easily enraged coroner (Royal Dano) about the true cause of death and been supported in his theory by the chief (Mitchell Ryan), Wintergreen gets his chance to prove he’s capable of solving crimes with his head rather than just arrest the suspect with a gun in their back. Wintergreen is impressed with the fancy suit he gets to wear, along with ruffled shirt and white Stetson, than he is with the more demanding intellectual requirements of the job, but his illusions about this seemingly more glamorous side of law enforcement are quickly shattered as he observes his boss, whom he tails during the investigation, come close to an emotional crack-up, when he learns that the barmaid whose favors he enjoys had been sharing them with Wintergreen. The scene in which this is revealed makes little sense, and is badly scripted and acted, especially by Jeannine Riley as the barmaid who dances about, taunting her lovers and lamenting the failure of her dreams of Hollywood stardom.

Wintergreen is soon back on his bike, stopping speeders and other petty criminals, alongside his partner (Billy Green Gush of Five Easy Pieces), a redneck who takes considerable pleasure in harassing hippies. Hippies, then still quite prominent in the U.S., are this Southern town’s idea of the worst possible offenders of civilized society since both cops use a poster of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on the road in Easy Rider for target practice. The memory of that 1969 film was still potent in 1973, and it inspired Electra Glide in Blue’s dramatic ending in which Wintergreen stops a van carrying two hippies, one of whom he recognizes as the hapless victim of his partners abuse earlier, and saying, “I owe you one, don’t I?,” lets them go without so much as a rudimentary search. Once they take off, Wintergreen realizes he has the driver’s license. He mounts his bike and tries to wave them down as he follows them on the road. These hippies are not the gentle souls who the song by Joni Mitchell described as having congregated at the Woodstock festival five years before, and as Wintergreen approaches on his cycle, a shotgun emerges from the van’s rear window to blast him into eternity. Wintergreen falls from his bike which rolls off the road, and his bloody body settles in the center lane as the camera moves on until he’s just a speck in the distance. The credits roll while a song penned by the director is heard on the soundtrack.

Electra Glide in Blue has some nice directorial touches, and Blake is very effective in an essentially nice guy role, but the film is a muddle with no discernible point. Conrad Hall’s cinematography is impressive, and some of the supporting cast, particularly veteran character actor, Elisha Cook, Jr., come close to approaching Blake’s sincerity in the lead, but Electra Glide in Blue is neither the artistic endeavor it tries to be, nor the action pic that the audience expected based on the ad campaign. Blake earned a Golden Globe nomination, but not stardom.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: A celebration of death

When the 1966 Italian western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, opened in American theaters in January 1968, it was a box-office hit (#21 in distributor’s rentals for the year), but pretty much reviled by critics and the guardians of morality. The latter included The Catholic Universe Bulletin which placed the film on its “condemned” list where the occult thriller Rosemary’s Baby would also earn a place of dishonor later that year. Today, the film starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone enjoys a reputation as lofty as its principle personnel.

Eastwood was a fairly minor TV star and still unfamiliar to most U.S. moviegoers when the film opened, but would soon emerge as the world’s most popular movie star, and, much later, a highly respected Oscar winning director. Leone would only make three more films, but he is hailed as a master by Quentin Tarentino among others. The film, regarded as a violent, morally reprehensible entry in a disreputable genre (an “Italian western,” as opposed to an American horse opera), is now a nearly unassailable classic; not quite Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but certainly equal to The Godfather and Star Wars. It was recently ranked fourth on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 films, as voted by its members, and when writing an appreciation for a recent DVD reissue, critic Roger Ebert admitted that it was a four star movie and that he knew it in 1968 when, aware that the film was considered, as already noted, disreputable, he gave it a mere three stars.

And yet it’s hard to fault the Universe Bulletin for condemning the film. It deserves high marks in every area, from Leone’s direction to Ennio Morricone’s evocative music score, but it is a celebration of death and the worst possible human behavior. The three main characters, played by Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, may be described in the title as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but they’re all bad, motivated by greed and even less admirable impulses. One can argue that the film is not endorsing such repellent behavior, only portraying it, but the general tone is one of moral ambiguity. It’s a brilliant film, but an unsettling one, at least to a middle aged man who feels a bit differently about life than he did when he first saw the film as an 11-year-old.

Brian W. Fairbanks
January 30, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


Antonioni's "serious" Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point is Michelangelo Antonioni’s pretentious and pointless follow up to the acclaimed Blow Up. It’s rather characteristic of a “serious” film from 1969 that nothing happens. It concerns a couple of aimless young people in L.A. at the time of Flower Power, war protests, etc, that can fool some viewers that Antonioni is making a “statement.”

Rod Taylor, a fairly big star at the time, has a supporting role as the conservatively dressed employer having a fling with the female lead. Taylor’s name never appeared in advertising, but is prominent in the opening credits but only after such unknowns as Mark Freshette and Daria Halpern. His time on screen is brief, and how he got involved in the film would be a more interesting story than anything occurring in the film itself.

Except for Taylor and other veterans like Paul Fix, the acting is amateurish, but suited to the dialogue.

“Do you do secretarial work?” Taylor’s businessman asks Halpern.

“Well, it’s not something I really dig to do. I only do it when I need the bread.”

Taylor later claimed he didn’t understand the film, so he had little to tell the FBI when they paid him a visit to inquire about his participation in what they saw as a radical endeavor. It seems that as long as you have an Italian name with many syllables, you can be considered an artist of the highest rank whether or not you possess the talent to justify it. Antonioni had enough of a reputation that Jack Nicholson rhapsodized about his abilities in the DVD commentary for 1975’s The Passenger, but though more coherent than Zabriskie Point, that film, also rather cryptic in its story and characterizations, is only marginally better.

As art, Zabriskie Point is all style without being notably stylish. Halpern is lovely, as is the desert scenery, but the movie is a bust. The score is credited to Pink Floyd, but the theme song heard after the explosion that concludes the “story” is performed by Roy Orbison.

Brian W. Fairbanks
February 28, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks


That Championship Season: Overwrought melodrama

Robert Mitchum heads a big name cast (Stacy Keach, Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, and Paul Sorvino) in the 1983 film version of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, That Championship Season. Fairly dreary overall, this was an attempt by Cannon Films, a now defunct studio specializing in low-budget Chuck Norris groin-kickers, to play on the same field as the big boys and maybe sneak into the race for Academy Awards. They failed, and would fail again when letting novelist Norman Mailer direct a film based on his Raymond Chandler homage, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, later that decade.

Miller wrote That Championship Season as an unemployed actor then turned down a multi-picture contract with Warner Bros. after his success as an actor in The Exorcist to continue writing, but he never got lucky again. It’s surprising he got lucky at all.

That Championship Season is overwrought, melodramatic stuff in which the members of a college basketball team reunite with their coach (Mitchum) years later to relive past glories and open old wounds. The coach, the supposed voice of wisdom in this gang of overgrown children, tries to calm the troubled waters and teach them valuable lessons about life, but he seems no wiser than they are. If he was the sage they think he is, why would he be as lost in the past as they are?

Miller directed this stagebound film version, and the stage is as drab as the characters. It’s set in the coach’s dreary house with wallpaper the color of chewing tobacco. Earth tones are comforting. They can also be dull.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sean Connery escapes from Bond-age in The Offence

If Sean Connery wanted to change his image and escape from the shadow of James Bond, he could do no better than his role in The Offence. One of two movies (the second was never produced) that United Artists agreed to finance as part of his deal that brought him back to Bondage in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, it’s a gritty, unglamorous policier that had a limited release in 1973.

Working for the third time under the direction of Sidney Lumet (The Hill, The Anderson Tapes), Connery, sans hairpiece and with a bushy mustache, plays a British police sergeant whose frustrations with his job and the unpleasant characters he encounters finally come to a head when he assaults a suspected child killer during an interrogation and inadvertently kills him.

A man who keeps his emotions bottled up, Connery’s attempts to communicate his fears to his wife only lead to bickering and physical abuse. As the wife, Billie Whitelaw is as drab in appearance and as grim in demeanor as she was light and bubbly as Alec McGowan’s daffy spouse in Hitchcock’s Frenzy the year before.

Much of the film is taken up by Connery’s own interrogation by Internal Affairs investigator Trevor Howard. This section goes on too long, but is played with more restraint than the flashback that follows in which Connery, alone with the suspect who becomes his victim, breaks down. A heart-to-heart between them, meant to exorcize the suspect’s demons, is more successful at revealing Connery’s tortured soul and it’s here that their meeting turns fatal.

The Offence crawls along too slowly much of the time, and the actors, including Connery, are sometimes unintelligible, speaking in heavily accented English which may be authentic for the lower class characters being portrayed, but may prevent the viewer from fully following the story’s developments. Connery performs well, but I couldn’t help thinking how much better he was when playing Ian Fleming’s master spy. Despite his own working class background, he seems more at home in James Bond’s tuxedo, moving confidently about in a world of taste and sophistication. Is it because he’s an actor, and, as an actor, he’s more comfortable when pretending to be someone completely unlike himself? The former truck driver from Scotland whose casting as Bond initially caused some grumbling among 007 fans who did not consider such a scruffy former laborer an appropriate choice for the well-tailored spy could let loose, cast off his inhibitions, and truly act.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Lame-brained and shallow Conspiracy Theory

Mel Gibson may very well be crazy which could be why he’s not especially convincing when playing a character too much like himself. He’s not required to act, but play himself, and as Richard Widmark once said, “The only one who can play himself is a baby.” A case in point is Jerry Fletcher, the paranoid cab driver of 1998’s Conspiracy Theory. We’re given a quick introduction to him in a montage that plays along with the opening titles in which one passenger after another is subjected to his rambling conspiracy theories:

“George Bush knew what he was saying when he said ‘New World Order’. . . he was a 33rd degree Mason, and as ex-director of the CIA, he knew that saying that would send conspiratologists everywhere spinning their wheels. They destroy their own credibility.”

“Ever wonder about those right-wing militia and survivalist types? They say they’re defending the country from U.N. troops. They’re yelling so loud, my theory is that this is a conspiracy: they are the U.N. troops! They’re in place!”

Based on his public statements, these theories represent Gibson’s own way of thinking. “As far as conspiracy theories go, I give some credence to them,” he said in explaining his attraction to Brian Helgeland’s script. “I have no doubt there’s a covert force at work somewhere, keeping things undercover and admitting only certain things to the public.” In a Playboy Interview three years earlier, he dismissed then President Clinton as a Rhodes scholar, and we know about those Rhodes scholars, don’t we? They’re groomed for public office where they do the bidding for powerful figures that remain behind-the-scenes. Gibson refused to elaborate further, saying he’d better shut up unless he wanted to be rubbed out.

As Fletcher, he’s a bundle of energy, manic but in a comical way as if he’s parodying the character instead of playing him. We’re meant to laugh at him, and regard his theories as crazy. But this is a Hollywood movie, so while most of Fletcher’s theories are meant to be regarded as a joke, one of them turns out to be true. Conspiracies in movies usually turn out to be true, and are very credibly portrayed with all the elaborate smokescreens that conspiracy theorists, like the fictional Jerry Fletcher and the real life Alex Jones, try to see through. But no matter how believably conspiracies are dramatized in such films as The 39 Steps, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Parallex View, any mention of conspiracy in real life is shot down with ridicule, as they must be. Success depends on silence.

The film acknowledges several conspiracies that are known to be true in including the MK-Ultra program in which the CIA conducted mind control experiments on hapless members of the public. Watergate was a conspiracy, and so was 9/11. If you want to know the truth, you’re more likely to find it at the movies than in the “news,” even if the movie is as lame-brained and shallow as Conspiracy Theory.

Julia Roberts is on hand as Gibson’s romantic interest. Yes, even a conspiracy obsessed blue collar guy who kills cockroaches in his apartment with a spatula must have a romantic interest in the movies, and not just any girl will do. Roberts plays some hotshot government lawyer who rides a horse. No, no, no, she doesn’t ride a horse while joining Gibson in the running around that the characters are required to do in a thriller. She rides a horse for fun.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


James Dean: The First American Teenager

James Dean: The First American Teenager is not too enlightening about the star of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause who died at age 24 in a 1955 car crash shortly after completing his role in Giant. It has a cut-and-paste feel about it much like a biography compiled from newspaper clips, but instead of yellowed news stories, we get film clips.

Some of the content was lifted, with permission, from The James Dean Story, a much earlier documentary in which Robert Altman had a hand. The interviews with the likes of Sal Mineo (smoking a cigarette and guzzling from a can of Schlitz), director Nicholas Ray, and Natalie Wood look current for the time, but might have been filmed for another project. A lot of grainy black-and-white photos and even grainier black-and-white Kinescopes fill us in on Dean’s youth and early appearances on live television, and scenes from his three major color films fill in the rest.

The narration by actor Stacy Keach falls back on clichés (Dean was the first American teenager, the first rebel, an acting genius, etc), and the whole thing reeks of something made directly for home video even though it was released before the introduction of the Betamax.

Brian W. Fairbanks
March 18, 2012

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


The "elaborate tease" of In Cold Blood

Richard Brooks’ film of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood opens with the ominous blasts of discordant horns. After the title is displayed on an inky night backdrop, we are introduced to the killers. Perry Smith (Robert Blake) is on a bus. We first see the sole of his boot as a young girl approaches him to retrieve a quarter while he’s strumming a guitar. “Excuse me,” she says as she returns to her seat. Smith strikes a match to light a cigarette and we see his visage in the light of the flame.

Seconds later, his accomplice, Dick Hickok (Scott Wilson), makes a similar entrance, his face illuminated by a flashlight as he looks through a chest where he keeps his shotgun. Quincy Jones’ loud, throbbing jazz-infused score continues its moody accompaniment to Conrad Hall’s shadowy cinematography.

When we first see the Clutters, the farm family that will be victimized by Smith and Hickok, it is daylight. Birds are chirping as Mr. Clutter (John McLiam) surveys the morning alongside his dog. He steps inside and daughter Nancy descends the stairs to the sound of strings as soft, gentle, and innocent as the earlier music was dark and threatening.

The contrast is a little too contrived with the characters painted in broad brushstrokes, but the killers are presented with more detail, especially Smith whose past is acknowledged in several flashback sequences, while the Clutters are merely sketched, their wholesome goodness emphasized in a way that makes them stereotypes rather than flesh and blood figures. But it’s their blood that’s shed (in black-and-white) in the dramatic sequence at the film’s midpoint.

In 1967, the year of the film’s release, In Cold Blood was almost as acclaimed as Capote’s book which he insisted was an example of a new literary form, the “nonfiction novel.” In Douglas McGrath’s 2006 film Infamous, the second of two cinematic accounts of the book’s creation, Capote tells his friend, Nell Harper Lee, who accompanied him to Kansas to conduct research, about his “novel,” and she ruffles his feathers by insisting that the only way to bring fictional techniques to reportage is to “make things up.” McGrath, though praising both Capote’s book and Brooks’ “wonderful” film on the DVD commentary track, believes Capote invented quite a bit, including Smith’s apology just before the noose is placed around his neck prior to his execution. Alvin Dewey, the detective on the case (played by Jeff Daniels in McGrath’s film and by John Forsythe in In Cold Blood), witnessed the execution and claims Smith made no statement. “He just chewed his gum.”

It’s been 35 years since I first read the book. I was impressed, but gave no thought to literary techniques at the time. I’ve seen the film multiple times since I saw it at a drive-in in summer 1968. I wasn’t impressed then, but was when revisiting it on television when it aired on CBS in 1973. (The film had its TV premiere one year earlier, in November 1972, but WJW-TV8, the local Cleveland affiliate, pre-empted it in favor of a rerun of The War Wagon because claiming the language in In Cold Blood was too rough and in violation of their standards.)

I’m older now, and hopefully wiser, and watching In Cold Blood on DVD recently, I find that I agree with Renata Adler who, in 1968 as a columnist for The New York Times, dissected the film in an article titled “Cold Blood, Cheap Fiction.” The film, she believed, “reveals, by what it finds necessary to explain, and paper over, and underscore, just what sort of book Truman Capote’s much publicized non-fiction novel was.” The book and the film are an “elaborate tease,” all building up to the murder scene and the senseless violence that both allegedly condemn. The murder scene is expertly handled by Brooks, but its placement in the middle of the film as a flashback during Perry’s confession is meant to create anticipation, to make the audience wait and look forward to the shock they really came to see.

“I guess that the film must somehow say that this tragedy is to some degree the responsibility of all of us,” Richard Brooks told The New York Times before filming began in 1966. “None of us can turn away from one another. It’s our problem, not that of a few people in Kansas. That, I suppose, is our basic dramatic intention. I’m not sure how I’ll convey it but that’s the intention anyway.”

In Adler’s view, “The pacing of the book (and now of the movie) has been set up in such a way that only the killers have any reality at all. The book, the movie, the killers, the audience is stalking the family together.” In that sense, Brooks succeeded in saying the murders are “the responsibility of all of us” because the film makes us participants by making Smith and Hickok sympathetic. We learn about their troubled pasts, join them on their whimsical trek through the desert picking up soda bottles with an old man and his grandson to cash in for refunds (we know it’s whimsical because Quincy Jones’ score turns amusingly light at this time), but learn little about their victims except that they are decent, which seems to be a way to also suggest they’re uninteresting. “The Clutters might comfortably inhabit any aspirin or mouthwash commercial,” Adler writes. “They are set up as coldly and two-dimensionally as in a shooting range. . . They are there to die.”

Capote’s book and Brooks’ film may be meticulously crafted, but both are, as Adler says, “cheap fiction” even though the crime at the heart of the story is factual. Both have the depth of a “true crime” story the likes of which have been the basis for dozens of bestselling novels in the years following In Cold Blood, or perhaps an episode of Unsolved Mysteries and 48 Hours. It is a dramatic work in which the author’s hand is visible throughout.

“I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman,” Perry Smith says. “Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.”

If Perry Smith actually said those words – the most famous in Capote’s book – his flair for the dramatic was as strong as the author’s. In Infamous, a film that takes liberties with the truth as much as In Cold Blood did, we see Capote telling variations on Smith’s remarks to several friends,. He writes then down then compares their effectiveness, placing a checkmark next to the one he eventually chooses for his book.

Brian W. Fairbanks
October 4, 2009

© 2009 Brian W. Fairbanks


Clint Eastwood and Lance Black on J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar is not a great film, but Clint Eastwood’s 137 minute biopic of the legendary FBI director is a surprisingly touching look at a man who doesn’t usually inspire sympathy. Those critics who call it a love story are correct, but since neither Hoover nor his lifelong companion, Clyde Tolson, are comfortable expressing their affection, the film implodes with repressed emotions. The rumors that Hoover was gay are pretty much accepted as fact in Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, but one assumes (at least I do) that the questions about Hoover’s sexuality were the main attraction for the openly gay screenwriter of Milk.

Hoover was far from open-minded on sexual matters and forbade homosexuals from serving in the FBI, but he lived with his mother until her death, never married, rarely if ever dated women, and had a friendship with another man that aroused suspicions that became more widely considered after his death in 1972. By then, sacred cows were being slaughtered with glee owing to anger over the Vietnam War and the abuses of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Hoover abused his power, too, by wiretapping Martin Luther King, whom Hoover regarded as a Communist, and blackmailing presidents, however subtly, as when he reveals to FDR that his wife is having an affair, but saving the most damning information - that Eleanor Roosevelt was romantically involved with another woman - just in case he may need it later to protect his position.

Hoover’s life could have inspired a very different movie. As the nation’s leading crime fighter, Hoover could have been the subject of a rip-roaring action film. Oliver Stone would likely have done it with more razzmatazz and some rock tunes on the soundtrack during the scenes set in the ‘60s. Eastwood has given us a quiet film but with more emotional depth. Like the man at its center, it’s somewhat repressed, seemingly holding back at times, but it’s beautifully crafted. Although it relies on the somewhat contrived device of having Hoover telling his story to a prospective biographer (alas, no such biography, “as told to” or otherwise, ever appeared), it avoids another pitfall of the “biopic” by shifting back and forth from the past to the present rather than offering a straight-forward narrative.

Leonardo DiCaprio may not be the perfect choice to play the stout and rather plain looking Hoover, but as he did as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, his performance makes you forget outward appearances. Armie Hammer is equally impressive as Tolsen. One little drawback is Eastwood’s score. Come on, Clint! Stop composing those dreary melancholy piano-driven themes for your films and hire a real composer to add power to the emotional scenes. Like Eastwood’s scores for Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the music in J. Edgar barely registers.

Brian W. Fairbanks
November 11, 2011

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Truer Grit

I was kind of hoping to hear Matt Damon sing the theme song for the new True Grit, as Glen Campbell did in the 1969 film version of the Charles Portis novel. After all, Damon plays Le Beuf, the Texas Ranger role in which the country crooner who took “Witchita Lineman” to the top of the charts made his film debut.

The new True Grit doesn’t have a theme song, but it has Hailee Steinfeld, a pig-tailed cutie, as Mattie Ross, the girl who hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father. Cogburn, the role that won an Oscar for John Wayne, is now played by Jeff Bridges who wears an eye patch over his right eye (Wayne favored his left) and speaks in such a grizzled tone that I was reminded of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade. Bridges is more slovenly than the Duke, but he has less to live up to. A fine actor, and, like Wayne, an Oscar winning one, Bridges is not a larger than life icon.

I can’t say I remember too much about Glen Campbell in the original, except when he gave Kim Darby’s Mattie Ross a spanking, a scene that Damon and Steinfeld reenact, but I’m sure he was more clean-cut than Damon who’s impeccably groomed compared to Cogburn, but looks like what he’s supposed to be: a guy who doesn’t bathe too often.

The first True Grit was produced by Hal Wallis, whose credits included everything from Casablanca to most of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies and all those tropical island movies that Elvis made. It was directed by Henry Hathaway, generally regarded as a “studio director,” a patronizing label suggesting he was a competent craftsman but not an artist as Joel and Ethan Coen, the directors of the updated True Grit, are considered to be. Frankly, I’ll take Hathaway’s work, which includes Kiss of Death and 23 Paces to Baker Street, over the Coen brothers’ oeuvre any day, but their take on True Grit is more straight-forward than their previous films, and their True Grit is a very enjoyable ride. It’s nicely atmospheric and dark in tone.

Brian W. Fairbanks
December 27, 2010

© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks