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Review: “Criminal”

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

“Criminal”
2 stars

This movie stays true throughout to its goofy premise, which is something of a miracle, given the many opportunities it has to either go flat-out actioner or philosophical conundrum. No. “Criminal” stays the course, resolutely remaining a character-driven shoot-em-up with a mild sci-fi veneer, and played so straight that it is nearly a parody.
Kevin Costner reprises the sort of character situation he faced in “Three Days to Kill” a couple of years ago, a tough guy with a mortal countdown clock. Here, though, thanks to a childhood brain injury, he’s a completely amoral criminal sociopath who, for the benefit of society, is both locked in a cell and required to wear neck chains.
Seems part of his brain is missing, waiting to be filled. They might as well named his character Tabula Rasa.
Ryan Reynolds is short-lived as a CIA agent working an important case, and when he’s killed, CIA case officer Gary Oldman dragoons brain-surgeon Tommy Lee Jones to electronically drain Reynolds’ brain of memories and dump them into Costner’s empty noggin.
It works, after a fashion, and Costner’s violent lunatic is gradually tempered down into warm and fuzzy. But not so much so that he’s still hacheting people to death in the final reel.
Most of the pleasure in “Criminal” comes from witnessing Costner’s crazy killer’s befuddlement at the occasional human emotion. He’s actually very funny. And often horrifying at the same time. That’s fun to see as he seesaws between nature and nurture.
The other casting that’s fun is Jones and Oldman, because they’re essentially playing each others’ roles, at least the generic ones they’re usually offered. Jones is the cool-cucumber, cerebral scientist, and Oldman is the perpetually angry section chief. Actually, Oldman is so explosive that he needs a brain-personality download himself.
The rest of the movie? Bang, bang, bang, car crash, car crash, car crash, boom-boom, wango-tango. All delivered at top volume and pyrotechnics, and competently executed, but that’s about it.
“Criminal” is a kind of mash-up between “Charly” and every somberly gray-toned, big-city shoot-em-up you’ve ever seen. If you don’t take it seriously, it can be fun.

Review: “The Jungle Book”

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

“The Jungle Book”
3.5 stars

Although anthropomorphism and personification have existed as literary devices for — literally —thousands of years, there was a real explosion towards the end of the Victorian era. In addition to Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” tales, there was “The Wind In the Willows,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Peter Rabbit,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Tarzan of the Apes,” right up to more recent bouts with serious literature, like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Watership Down,” and “Animal Farm.”
All this background because the newest incarnation of “The Jungle Book” made me wonder, who the hell is King Louie?
OK, he’s the oversized orangutang who heads a ruined temple full of monkeys, and he sings songs and acts both endearingly and menacingly, but Louie isn’t a character in Kipling’s stories. Orangs don’t live in India, and Kipling made the point several times that monkeys were incapable of being led — they were a pack of anarchists.
It turns out King Louie is wholly a Disney creation for the 1960s animated film, a character created from scratch in order to paper over the darker philosophical themes of the original work. Disney’s lawyers are careful to credit their work as “inspired” by Kipling, instead of an honest or straight-forward adaption. “Jungle Book” has been a cash cow for Disney, one they return to every few years to milk for remakes and spin-offs.
The 1967 animated film, for all that, is well-loved and a high point of hand-drawn animation. It is the last animated film that Uncle Walt personally oversaw and it became a touchstone for a whole generation. The new film is a remake of that film, not of Kipling’s canon. (It might be helpful to recall that Kipling’s books are collections of short stories with reoccurring animal characters, not a single long-arc story.)
This latest edition is also an extraordinary work of animation — apparently, the only real thing in it is little Neel Sethi as Mowgli. It also benefits from being helmed by Jon Favreau, a director who puts special effects at the service of story and character, instead of the other way ‘round. It’s also the first movie in a very, very long time that works well in 3-D. Very well!
It looks startlingly real. Favreau’s jungle is a dirty, messy, dangerous place. Mowgli (played by Sethi with a buoyant, yet cautious, optimism) is covered with bruises, stings, scars and mud, just the way a little boy in the jungle would be.
The animals do talk, in American and British accents. I guess it would be too much to have Mowgli sound like a tech-service telephone solicitor from Bombay. The animals look incredibly real, and Favreau doesn’t make them do facial gymnastics to make it look like they’re talking. Sometimes its as if we’re hearing their thoughts.
The voice casting is first-rate, and neatly encapsulates how we know the characters. Bagheera the panther, voiced by Ben Kingsley, is stern and concerned; Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray, is the vocal equivalent of sly sloth; Shere Khan the burnt tiger, voiced by Idris Elba, is absolutely terrifying. The late Garry Shandling has a swell turn as a porcupine, Scarlett Johansson’s silky seductiveness is scary as the giant snake Kaa, and Christopher Walken’s King Louie is just plain weird (in a way that works), a mix of Brooklyn gangster and Apocalypse Now Brando.
“Jungle Book” draws you right in with the frankly amazing CGI work, Favreau’s skill at visual story-telling and the existing pop-culture familiarity with the characters. The story? Same as previous editions from Disney, but this time served up with realism and verve. Some of it is actually pretty scary.
It all works up to a point, and the exact point where it breaks loose is when suddenly the movie shifts mood and tone in order to reprise the cheesy pop songs from the 1967 animated film. Way to renew copyright, Disney! The musical interludes reinforce nothing except the notion that Disney views “Jungle Book” as product instead of literature.

Review: “13 Hours”

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

“13 Hours”
Three Stars

By Burl Burlingame

When a movie states at the outset “This is a true story,” as “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” does, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate story. It can’t be. The simple physics of time and space mitigate against a true moment-by-moment replay. In this case, 13 hours are shoehorned into a couple of hours, and characters are combined and events blended.

Here’s the kicker — movies aren’t reality. They’re, at best, impressions of reality, strained through a filter. Well, duh.

“13 Hours” actually spans about a week, during a critical, dangerous time in Benghazi. It’s just after the revolution, and just before the 9/11 anniversary in 2012. American ambassador Chris Stevens is trying to woo the disaffected Libyans, but there are dangerous anti-American elements out there, and it’s hard to tell who’s who. He’s holed up, not in well-guarded embassy, but in the seized compound of a former Libyan millionaire.

Only about a mile away, in a similar set-up, the CIA has an office. The difference between them is that the ambassador’s security is thin and new at the job, and the CIA’s security has a half-dozen tough, ex-military contract soldiers.

At the same time riots break out all of the Middle East over an anti-Allah YouTube video, militant forces of indeterminate origin assault Stevens’ compound, overrunning it, and then hit the CIA base. During the attack on Stevens, the CIA security team mounts an ad-hoc rescue mission and manages to retrieve some of the Americans at Stevens’ place, but not Stevens, who has already died in the smoke and fire.

They return to the CIA compound and fight off wave after wave on insurgents. It’s all very Alamo.

Needless to say, this is all soup and nuts for director Michael Bay, who never met a script he couldn’t blow up. Bay has peculiar talent for grand, crashing chaos — the sturmiest of drangs — and it’s all on display here. As a plus, Bay has discovered cameras mounted on drones, and so the eye of the screen flies merrily through the whizzing bullets and smoking rockets and shrieking bad guys and gut-crunching explosions. Yeah, baby.

This is probably Bay’s best film to date. It also has the baggage of political expectations. Hillary-haters will be disappointed, as the movie is focused on the firefight, not on political fireworks. But Hillary-haters already have their minds made up, so it doesn’t matter.

What “13 Hours” does do, and does so brilliantly, is recreate the absolute chaos and stifling options of urban warfare in the third world. It is the best film to do so since “Black Hawk Down.” Warfare in this region of the world is done door-to-door, with individual weapons, and the narrow streets lined with buildings of no more than two stories are shot traps and sniper fields. Add to that the near-impossibility of telling friend from foe, and you have essentially a no-win scenario.

Americans have always been quick to blame ourselves rather than credit the enemy. Chris Stevens was killed by a rabble of thugs, not by protocol glitches. It’s too bad that our tough contract soldiers were not able to rescue the ambassador, but the ambassador, by his own choice, was way out there in the badlands. There was no way to get aerial help to him in time — planes only fly so fast.

But should the air assets have been mobilized anyway? That’s one of the few questions raised by the film. My impression — and I thank “13 Hours” for the impetus to think upon it — is that modern warfare and modern communications work at cross purposes. The ease of communication leads to battles being commanded at long-distance, by multiple levels of command, instead of relying on the initiative of those few on the scene. Tragedies like Benghazi occur when there’s too many people in command and no one in charge.

“In the Heart of the Sea” — That She Blows!

Friday, December 11th, 2015

“In the Heart of the Sea”
1 star

By Burl Burlingame / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Call me unimpressed.

True confession time: As a wee lad, I lived in a remote place where the local library was so small there was no division between children’s and adult books. In fifth grade, I pulled “Moby Dick” from the shelf and read it. It was tough going at first, but you get used to the rhythm of Herman Melville’s rich language. I became fascinated with the man-against-the-sea challenge of harpooning whales.

So, here we are a few years later, and killing whales is just about the uncoolest thing anyone can do. And here we have “In the Heart of the Sea,” Ron Howard’s visually ambitious retelling of the true story of the Moby Dick yarn, studded occasionally with pop-up segues of plot exposition with an actor playing Melville. The bookending — plus, essentially, chapter headings — by the Melville actor (Ben Whishaw) makes the whole thing seem, well, a little book-reportly, rather than seamlessly organic storytelling.

At a time when whale-oil was all the rage for lighting cities, the dauntless whalers of Nantucket roamed the seas looking for whales to kill. Once slaughtered, the creatures were diced up and the chunks fed into pots for rendering. It was a very dangerous, filthy, grotesque way to make a living, and naturally, New Englanders proudly excelled at it.

“Sea” tells the tale of whaler Essex, her snooty, neophyte skipper (Benjamin Walker) and surly first mate (Chris Hemsworth) on the hunt for whales, and how one whale got fed up and bashed the ship to pieces, and how the surviving sailors drifted across the Pacific for 90 days. They even had to feed on each other as they died, but the movie studiously looks away when that happens.

This really happened. The angry whale, which had white patches on its blubber, became the role model for the “great white whale” Moby Dick. “Moby Dick,” however, is a work of fiction, and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a work of fiction memorializing a true story that became a work of fiction.

Movies aren’t reality, they’re impressions. And so “Sea” does its best to drop you into that particular time and space, but because it’s a movie, the whale is given motive and personality, and because the movie is supposedly a true story, the universal themes are sucked out of the main characters and they seem pale and dull next to the whale.

It’s all very sea-going and wet. At least no one says “Yo-ho-ho!” Howard is reliable at building an action scene, gets good work out of his actors, and the art direction is first-class. The editing is a bit turgid, and the movie is longer than it needs to be, but that’s not the primary problem with “Sea.”

The movie is fatally compromised by a marketing decision. Not just hurt by this decision, but killed dead, as if there were a quivering harpoon in its heart.

The problem is that it was made to be projected in 3D, which affects all visual aspects and compositions.

Let’s get real. 3D only works in intimate settings. “Sea” is a story about the grandness of nature, the boundless horizon of the ocean, and the smallness of man. It requires visual storytelling of the highest order. But to make this production work in 3D, everything is shot in extreme closeup. There are virtually no establishing visual compositions, which completely scuttles the storytelling choreography. This, in turn, leads to jittery editing. To hammer home the 3D aspects, the movie regularly resorts to extreme close-ups of inanimate objects, as long as one end of the object is closer to the screen. The water scenes even leave fake drops of water on the “camera lens,” because it looks more 3D that way.

This tale, which should be expansive and grand, is hijacked by the demands of the 3D process, making it small and crowded, myopically claustrophobic and deeply murky. The movie begins and ends with a character who makes crude, tiny ships inside dirty bottles, which is actually the best visual metaphor that “In the Heart of the Sea” can say about itself.

Review: ‘Black Mass’

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

“Black Mass”
Three stars

By Burl Burlingame / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-ADVERTISER

Johnny Depp has certainly played a number of odd characters over the year, but this is the first time in memory he’s played a monster. And what a monster. “Black Mass” is the bizarre, perfectly true tale of psychopathic hood “Whitey” Bulger, and Depp has, as usual, zipped the character up over his head and disappeared into it.

There’s just enough of Depp’s wry humanity evident to make Bulger disarmingly — and disturbingly — real. After all, Bulger loved his mother. He loved his son. After both of them died, Bulger loved killing others.

It’s to “Black Mass” credit that the film does not dwell on murder, while at the same time it makes murder both terrifying and banal. There are monsters among us.

These monsters lived in Boston, circa the 1970s. Bulger was a neighborhood tough, and his brother Billy was an up-and-coming politician. Childhood friend John Connolly has gone straight and joined the FBI. Reassigned to Boston to “clean up the gangs,” Connolly has what he thinks is a bright idea. He recruits Bulger as an informant, but Bulger only snitches on the rival gangs.

The Italian gang is taken down. The Irish gang, Bulger’s, thrives. It’s your basic deal made with the devil.

It all goes sour. You knew it would. The amazing thing — and again, this is a true story — is that it went on for nearly two decades.

Depp’s general dark appearance is transformed into a ghostly thug so pale that his friends nicknamed him Whitey. It’s a startling and spooky transformation, revved up by Depp’s quiet, cobra-like malevolence. OK, it’s likely an Oscar nom.

The central character, though, and the dramatic throughput of the story arc, is FBI agent Connolly, played with Boston brio by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton. After all, the last time we saw Edgerton, he was shaved head to toe, playing Ramses in “Exodus,” and here he’s all ’70s trash and flash, complete with a Breck Girl pompadour. His self-delusion and hero-worship of Bulger is nearly as scary as Bulger himself.

The Boston Southie locations seem real and set in the proper time frame. The film is not an action movie, and has long periods of creepy quiet. It might seem long and dull to a generation raised on “Grand Theft Auto,” but it is immersive in a grim world that seems both broad and claustrophobic.

It’s what you might call a character study. In Bulger’s case, it’s a study of a lack of character.

The title comes from the true-crime book by a couple of Boston Globe reporters. I’m sure the title means something in the book, but there’s no context for it here. “Black Mass” just seems like code words thrown together at random. When an associate of Bulger’s is interrogated and asked what his relationship was, he replies, “Strictly criminal.” There, folks, is your movie title.

Godzilla’s Big Foot

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

“Godzilla”
2 stars

It’s always interesting to see places you know well on the silver screen, and it’s even better if these places get destroyed by gigantic monsters. So when, in “Godzilla,” a military functionary announces there’s an “anomaly northeast of Diamond Head,” we barely have time to think “Kaimuki?” when the scene shifts to a trackless jungle dozens — maybe hundreds — of miles away from civilization, and the automatic reaction is, “That ain’t right …”

Spoiler alert: Movies aren’t reality. Movies are a fever-dream impression of reality. That’s why McGarrett and Danno can make a left turn on Waialae Avenue and immediately be on the North Shore. And why Godzilla can wade ashore on lovely evening in Waikiki, tear the joint apart, get attacked by fighter jets, and then hightail it across the Koolaus without waking up folks over in Waianae.

It’s interesting. The early Hawaii scenes are clearly filmed in Waikiki, but the mountains appear a little too close, or maybe they’re quite a bit too tall. They are towering over Waikiki. And uninhabited, because there’s no suburban streetlights visible. But we barely have time to focus on Waikiki before we discover that Oahu’s rail-transit system is already up and running, and the international airport has expanded mightily, with enclosed glass-window concourses. (And, alas, neither proves to be monster-proof.)

There’s just enough reality to lend reasonable suspension-of-disbelief to the rest of the proceedings. And the reason gigantic monsters destroy recognizable landmarks is because the landmarks are recognizable. D’uh, bro. The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed so many times in movies that I’ve lost count. The bridge eats it here too, naturally, when the monsters destroy San Francisco. Only the Transamerica Pyramid is unscathed, likely because its image is copyrighted and the Golden Gate Bridge is in public domain.

Oops, did I say monsters, plural? The “Godzilla” trailers have been most excellent in playing up the awesomeness without getting very specific on details. There are three, count ‘em, three monsters for the price of one in “Godzilla.”

How has it come to this? There’s no size limit where it comes to metaphors. The bigger the better. And when you’re dealing with a filmic metaphor that encapsulates both the harsh resiliency of nature and the bumbling hubris of mankind … well, the sky’s the limit.

Toho Studios’ surprise 1954 hit, “Gojira,” which was redubbed into English and some additional American scenes added, was released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, KIng of the Monsters” in 1956, and a classic movie monster was born. There have been dozens of versions since, and a not-so-subtle recasting of Godzilla from a Tokyo-stomper into a Japanese folk hero, but basically, all the films since boil down to a guy in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood model skyscrapers. You gotta love the schadenfreude involved, and the movies are the perfect arena to experience destructo-porn.

The original film, however, was a fairly dark — and not-so-subtle — metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war. This notion has pretty much evaporated, paralleling Japan’s increasing dependence on nuclear power.

The American nightmare that provides context and weight is the 9/11 attack, and the long shadow of that horror has permeated American films since. Add to that the crushing natural disaster of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture that swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant, and you have a modern-day recipe for a Godzilla movie.

This grim background gives the new film some karmic weight. It all starts out promisingly a bit more than a decade ago as a nuclear plant in Japan has a meltdown, perhaps due to a concurrent and mysteriously regular seismic disturbance. The guy in charge (Bryan Cranston, looking bug-eyed crazy) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, looking fab) are harshly effected by the disaster, and when “Godzilla” zips up to the present day, their Seal-team son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself dragged back into the mystery as the seismic drumbeats start up again. Also on board are a freaked-out Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe, with odd English diction) and his Sancho Panza, a sidekick (Sally Hawkins) who doesn’t seem to have a name and exists mainly to provide expository dialogue.

Director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous series credit was the independent thriller “Monsters,” does a fine job here with Spielbergian camera moves and composite shots, plus that hard-to-capture sense of overwhelming awesomeness,

Predictably, on a human level, “Godzilla” is meh. The human “star” actors don’t last long, and the second-string actors who carry the rest of the film are, as you might expect, fall under Godzilla’s shadow. They’re mostly reduced to staring upward in horror or dusting themselves off after being buried by rubble.

The real stars are the monsters. Big, big, sprawling monsters. There’s the Big G himself (The film notes state that Godzilla is 350 feet tall, but who’s measuring?) plus some awkward-looking insectoid / pterodactylish / bullfroggy creatures they call “Mutos.” Godzilla spends much of the film getting from here to there so he can thrash them. Godzilla is so focused on this that he doesn’t notice the convoy of US Navy ships keeping him close company, or that he’s stomped Waikiki into brightly-painted rubble. Big G doesn’t even stop to eat.

Come to think of it, there’s been a curious switch in Godzilla’s diet since 1954. Instead of being a poster child for the horrors of nuclear radiation, Godzilla and the Mutos “eat” radiation for breakfast. Godzilla has retained his morning-after radiation breath, however.

Eating radiation? So much for science.

Hey, Mr. Science, can there really be giant monsters like Godzilla?

Actually, no. The problem is the tensile strength of the average cell. There is an upper limit to how much strain can be placed upon the cells in bones and muscles, and the enormous mass of such a creature would rend the cells apart. Even though some of the dinosaur sauropods were dozens of feet long, they were long and narrow in their physical structure. Cetaceans such as whales have large body mass, but they are supported by water, which is 800 times denser than air. Not to mention the caloric intake required by a Godzilla-sized creature to supply nutrients throughout its gigantic frame. A monster the size of Godzilla would collapse under its own mass, the pressure actually liquifying the body cells into a kind of protein ooze.

Gee, Mr. Science, you’re kind of a bummer. Think I’ll escape reality by going to the movies.

Watch out!

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Here’s a snapshot of a new lobby card for an upcoming comedy film. I actually said “Ouch!” out loud when I saw it. I can’t imagine the kind of damage control going on at the distribution company right now.

Beauty fades, friendship endures

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Clifton Webb feeds chocolates to Marilyn Monroe and Laurette Luez on the set of 'Sitting Pretty,' 1947. Well, SOMEone had to do it.

Though it is said that Helen of Troy’s beauty was such that her face launched a thousand ships, it was the girl on the cigar box that stopped Richard Blackburn dead in his tracks.

That face! That figure! The vision of womanliness reached out to him through the cheap gold foil of the package. Blackburn was only eight years old at the time, in the mid-’60s, but he remembers holding up a checkout line while gawking at the cigar label.

He memorized the face. He memorized the figure. He was transfixed.

As he grew older, as he learned where to look, Blackburn began seeing her everywhere. Pulpish girlie magazines such as Modern Man. Hollywood publicity stills. The covers of girl-in-danger mystery paperbacks, the kind that invariably showed her bursting out of a peasant blouse, on a darkened staircase, being menaced by a fiend. Among the sea of faces in crowd shots; an extra in B-movies. A long-running role as the evil daughter in the 1950s ”Fu Manchu” TV serial, available later on videotape. And, all too rarely, a star in movies like “Kim,” with Errol Flynn, in ”D.O.A.” with Edmond O’Brien, in “Ballad of a Gunfighter” with Marty Robbins, and for one glorious, cheesy, fur-bikini moment, the name above the title in the 1950 ”Prehistoric Women.”

It was a time when a woman’s fuselage was celebrated for its natural shapeliness, not its artificial toning.

The cigar girl’s name, Blackburn learned, was Laurette Luez. And that she came from Hawaii.

Elizabeth Taylor, as a young actress, avoided being photographed next to Laurette Luez.


Born Loretta Luiz, she spent her first year cradled in a guitar case as her English-Portuguese parents worked the Far East vaudeville circuit. Mother Francesca was a glamour gal herself, and danced on the stage while father Frank sang in Spanish. As a Honolulu teenager in World War II, Luez became one of the favorite pin-ups of GIs fighting in the Pacific. She was occasionally featured on the cover of the Star-Bulletin’s Sunday magazine.

Hollywood took notice, and her first role was as a Malay dancing girl in ”Dr. Wassell” with Gary Cooper. When the war ended, 17-year-old Luez was signed by 20th-Century Fox and cast immediately in ”Anna and the King of Siam.”

Over the next decade Luez found herself cast primarily as exotic, foreign beauties in a variety of not-great movies. Along the way, she suffered a fractured skull on location, was romanced by Howard Hughes, married and divorced actor Philip Soldano — whom she met at a screen test — and was briefly engaged to producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. When Luez dumped Goldwyn uncermoniously a few months later, all Hollywood wondered why. She then married the producer of “Prehistoric Women,” a union that fell apart when the picture wrapped.

Luez also befriended another budding actress in drama class. Norma Jean Baker was searching for a new name, and Luez had a theory about allitertive names that echo famous people. She suggested combining the names of actress Marilyn Miller and the Monroe Doctrine. Luez believed she was the source of Marilyn Monroe’s screen name.

By the late ’50s, Luez’ career arc essentially peaked, and she was only in her late 20s. In 1957, Luez married a fellow named Robert Creel, which lasted until he died two decades later. Afraid of the effect Hollywood would have on her three children, the couple eventually settled in Florida. She considered returning to film, but a nagging health problem that turned out to be diabetes derailed that dream.

And so Luez vanished into the mists of popular culture.

Blackburn, by now a deputy sheriff and manager of his family’s Los Angeles apartment buildings, owned a copy of “Prehistoric Women” on videotape, and would watch it when he was feeling low. He was still entranced by the sloe-eyed girl, and a Spanish maid he employed kept telling him she knew where the lady in the video lived — nearby, almost a neighbor. Blackburn laughed it off.

Later, he became consumed with curiousity about Luez and began a search for her fan mail address. It turned out the maid had been right. Luez and Blackburn had been unknowingly crossing paths for 20 years.

He sent flowers to the address, but they were returned. Luez had moved out shortly before. In 1998, he tried a long shot, wiring flowers to a white-pages listing in Florida, and that night Luez called him.

They became telephone friends and confessors. Blackburn learned that Goldwyn used to beat Luez, that she suffered from emphysema due to cigarettes, that Greta Garba had made a pass at her but Howard Hughes never had, that her pregnant mother had been told by a swami in India that the child would be world-famous.

“We discussed each others’ problems and thought of solutions together,” said Blackburn. “I wanted to meet her in person; she was 100 percent first-class. She sounded very nice and had a high-class voice.”

Blackburn sorted her memorabilia for her and created a website devoted to Luez. They planned to meet.

And in mid-September, 1999, Blackburn received an email from Luez’ daughter Claudia. The star of “Prehistoric Women” had died suddenly at age 71, at home in Milton, FL. The only obituary of Luez was written by the Los Angeles Times, noting only her career in film was that of an ”exotic brunet beauty.”

Blackburn, stunned, took solace in the thought that Luez’ ashes were scattered over the Atlantic, rather than the Pacific, because she believed that all oceans — like all lives and interrupted careers and unexpected friendships — were interconnected, a part of a whole, and that there was a reason a girl’s picture on a cigar box would, and could, stop a boy in his tracks.

Movie Review: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”

Saturday, July 31st, 2010


Gad, what a needy woman. Joan Rivers’ idea of a nightmare is a blank page in her datebook. This new documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” follows the comedienne around for a year, and she has plenty on her plate, generally three appearances or projects a day. Does she sleep? And when she does, does she dream about not meeting goals for herself?
It’s all self-inflicted, so we don’t feel too sorry for her. The fallout is that she’s rich and surrounded by supportive people. On the other hand, she’s also desperate for money, deserved or not; and her supportive people basically burn out. Even her long-time manager, Billy Sammeth, during the course of the film, disappears, which calls for Rivers to weep lonesomely and then fire him. (Sammeth recently sued Rivers over his portrayal in the film, although Rivers had no control over how the film was edited. In show biz, keep your friends close, your legal advisor closer.)
Rivers is in her 70s, following a schedule that would kill people half her age. Much is made of her extensive plastic surgery, which by now resembles a kabuki mask melting in place like that guy in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
There’s relatively little related about her early years, fixating mostly on her needy relationship with Johnny Carson, a subject that provides a tipping point in a play she wrote about — of course — about herself, “Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress,” the tryouts for which consume a third of the film. The play meets middling success in England, but because there are no raves, Rivers abandons the project instead of bringing it to the U.S. She talks endlessly about her need for approval as an actress. The comedy, she claims, is just a side gig until she can make it as a thespian. What are we to make of that? What drives her to desire what she hasn’t got?
The filmmakers keep a cool distance, as if they’re stalking wild game. Joan Rivers is no slacker. She’s pointy, obtuse, crude, daring, fragile, angry, a case study of an overachiever in a business that celebrates mediocrity and cruelty to yesterday’s headliners. She’s mean to, but meaner to herself.
Joan Rivers is a master at making you laugh, sometimes in surprise, sometimes in wonderment, mostly in shock at self-revelation. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” may be the most entertaining slow-motion train wreck ever filmed.

Movie Review: Curse you, “Red Baron”!

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010


Every once in a while a movie comes along that you can’t wait to see, but when you finally get to see it, you realize — sigh — that it’s just a movie, and not a very good one at that. “The Red Baron” hit me that way.
Made a couple of years ago, “Der Rote Baron” was supposedly the most expensive film ever made in Germany, and when it was released, it was a tremendous flop. It was hard to figure out why from reviews. The YouTube clips of the flying sequences looked tremendous. Apparently, Germans don’t care much for war movies these days, even those that star a great national hero.
It took from then until now for the film to be released on disk. I tried to pick one up at Suncoast, but the girl there told me tartly that a film like that doesn’t appeal to “their” class of customers. Shrug. Order a copy of “The Red Baron” on Blu-Ray, which arrived promptly. I prepared by previewing Roger Corman’s “Von Richthofen and Brown,” from 1969.
The Red Baron is Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, the highest-scoring ace of the Greta War, with 80 victories, one of the first superstar pilots and a pop-culture icon. He was the terror of the Western Front until he was shot down by either Canadian pilot Roy Brown or a gang of Aussie soldiers on the ground popping off with rifles.
“Von Richthofen and Brown” was a low-budget actioner that contrasted the command styles of the two men, von Richthofen the dashing, titled Prussian; Brown, the dour, common realist. The remaining cast is a rogue’s gallery of famous aviators, including Hermann Goring, Ernst Udet and teenage Werner Voss, von Richthofen’s rival and friend. It is a snapshot of the changing face of warfare, and is largely successful as a movie. But it suffered from its small budget, and the aeroplanes and other details were inaccurate, although likely only us rivet-counters noticed.
Flash-forward to now, with a grand budget and the latest CGI techniques, and “The Red Baron” looks terrific and the aeroplanes are wonderfully accurate. The old gang is here, particularly Voss, although the new movie makes him a grizzled veteran instead of a talented teen. Nikolai Müllerschön, who wrote and directed, also adds a fictional Jewish pilot, although there were plenty of real Jewish pilots in the Fliegerkorps, such as Wilhelm Frankl. It’s an odd political move that smells like apologia.
Both movies, interestingly, make much of the German pilots’ veneration of ace Oswald Boelcke, almost as if he were a religious figure.
Virtually every review of “The Red Baron” points out it fails whilst on the ground, although it soars while in the air. Absolutely true. Taking the audience along in the dreamlike trance of flight is something movies are good at. It’s not only a thrill ride for the audience, it also helps explain the motivations of the pilots.
There are many things that go wrong here. One is the reoccurring figure of Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes) who seems to slip through the Western Front with ease just to have chitchats with von Richthofen. Another is a drummed-up romance with nurse (Lena Headey) that relies on her having abrupt changes of personality in every scene. And it’s storytelling suicide to cheat the audience out of the the two most famous dogfights in the Great War, von Richthofen vs. Brown, and Voss vs. a whole sky full of British SE.5s. These battles, that should have been the cathartic heart of the film, are simply shrugged away.
It also doesn’t help that Matthias Schweighöfer, who plays the title role, is thuddingly void of command charisma. It’s partly the fault of the script, which pushes the image of von Richthofen as a rather sweet, sensitive soul who just happens to kill dozens on men in vicious aerial combat.
The main problem, though, is that Müllerschön just couldn’t decide what his film was about. It needed a tough rewrite from someone who could keep eyes on the prize. Is “The Red Baron” a meditation on the evolving spirit of German martial ardor during the 20th Century? An analysis of the conflict between command and celebrity? A three-way romance between a pilot, his gal and his fighter plane? An engaging bio-pic about someone was once a world-famous figure, and is now a label on a frozen pizza?
This last is the worst. If you’re going to tell the story of a historic character, even if you have to telescope events and personalities, at least get his personality right. Otherwise, it’s literally character assassination. Von Richthofen was a dangerous, wily aerial tactician; a killer; a charismatic leader; a superb manager of public image. That’s an interesting person. This rather damp, twee youngster posing in aviator togs in “The Red Baron” is just playing dress-up.