Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Shame of “The Scarlet Letter”

I’m not going to put up any pictures for this post. No pictures of the DVD cover, no promo pictures – nada - because I don’t want to encourage you to see this movie. If, after reading this review (such as it is), you still feel the need to inflict this piece of crap on yourself, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The opening credits of the film state that the script was “freely adapted” from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn. “Freely adapted?” Ha! The film was loosely based on the book. Very loosely, in that it contained most of the same characters as the book and some of the things that happened in the book also happened in the film – but not in the same vein, the same tone or with the same meaning.

So loosely was the adaptation that it seems hardly fair to even try to compare the two. As a matter of fact, there are many who feel that the film should be judged on its own merit without comparing it to the book, claiming that the cinematography was beautiful (it was) and the soundtrack was fantastic (it was not). Well, hey, cinematography aside, there’s plenty to criticize, even without comparisons. And yet, because this film claims to be based on Hawthorn’s novel, viewers who have actually read the book (and contrary to what Demi Moore thinks, there are many, many who have, indeed, read it) will expect to see the same story, the same characters, the same chain of events. They will, of course, be left wondering what the hell book the screen writer read. And because the film claims to be based on Nathanial Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter and not Joe Bob Smith’s “The Secret Lives of Mistress Prynne and The Slave Girl,” I do feel it is appropriate, even necessary, to draw comparisons.

I was actually disappointed when I originally heard that Gary Oldman had been cast as Arthur Dimmesdale. Prior to this he had been cast in the role of fairly strong characters. Ok, there are some notable exceptions; Sid Vicious and Jack Grimaldi come quickly to mind. Still, I was really not interested in seeing him portray a sniveling, shackled coward, which I had always considered Dimmesdale to be. And, thanks to this script, I didn’t have to.

In fact, we didn’t get to see Oldman portray much of anything. The Arthur Dimmesdale in this film is an ‘almost character’ – a shallow, shadow of a character that was barely even loosely based on Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Arthur Dimmesdale. To make up for this – I guess – there are aspects of the movie Dimmesdale that, while enjoyable, even titillating to many of Oldman’s fans, were not evident in Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale. For example; the movie Dimmesdale’s apparent penchant for swimming in the nude. Whew! The chat rooms and forums are still buzzing over that. Apparently it was a very big deal for some of Mr. Oldman’s fans to get to see a shadowy underwater image of his package. Yeah…...more on that later.

We see hints of humor in this Dimmesdale that I don’t remember seeing in Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale. Considering how well Gary Oldman incorporates humor into his roles and considering that the novel needed a little leavening to make it palatable to the majority of movie-goers, that would not have been an unwelcome addition. But those hints of humor are never fully developed and pass by almost unnoticed. It’s almost as though they were scribbled in pencil in the margins as an afterthought. Or maybe that was just Gary Oldman’s inner hilarity peeking out at us as he laughed at himself for ever agreeing to do this rotten thing.

We do see evidence of the inner torment Hawthorn imbued in Dimmesdale over his “sin” with Hester in scenes where he speaks to Hester, both in private and in public; once begging her to reveal her lover before the town when she stands on the scaffold for public chastisement. But, again, these scenes are so underdeveloped that a lesser actor would never have been able to convey the Reverend’s inner torment with these woefully inadequate lines. Oldman does manage to convey Dimmesdale’s pain and guilt, but only to a certain extent. I was left with the feeling that Dimmesdale was giving lip-service to his guilt, more than anything, and that he was really more than happy to keep his part a secret from the community. This was about the only thing that rang true to the character of Hawthorn’s Dimmesdale but it did not gibe with the rest of what it seemed the movie was trying to depict. That is….I think…..well, it’s kind of hard to figure out what the movie was trying to depict.

We also see evidence of Dimmesdale’s inner torment in scenes where he stands on the scaffold in the town square at night, in the rain, scoring his palm on a nail sticking out of the gallows. Huh???? Give me a break. The scene would have been better if Dimmesdale had just been standing in the rain crying and beating his breast.

So what about the reason for Arthur Dimmesdale’s inner torment? Just what did he do that caused him to carry around so much guilt? He had a love affair with Hester Prynne that resulted in a pregnancy. And when it was discovered that Hester was pregnant she refused to reveal her lover’s identity and asked Arthur not to admit to the town that he was her lover; and Arthur agreed to keep silent. They had a couple of conversations about this – nothing really heated or passionate, just slightly intense conversations – and Arthur appeared to be trying to look unhappy about the agreement, saying something like “You’re strength strangles me.” I saw more obnoxious rebelliousness than strength in Moore’s portrayal of Hester and the implied helplessness in Arthur came out sappy and poorly romanticized.

The reason that Hester had to keep the name of her lover secret is muddled and never intelligently explained. According to the movie, the two faced hanging if they admitted their “sin” together. Arthur was especially at risk of being hung. But if Hester never named her lover she would not be hung because adultery was a crime but pregnancy was not, even after Hester admitted that she was carrying a bastard child; not to mention that her husband was presumed dead and had never even been in America before his presumed death. Huh???? I can’t really follow this reasoning and I won’t even try. That way lies idiocy. But ok, for the sake of the……..plot? Yeah, that’s it, the plot; we’ll say that this is true. If the two of them admit it together they’ll be hung but if Hester, alone, is caught in an out of wedlock pregnancy she won’t be hung.

Anyway, this is the reason for Dimmesdale’s inner torment. He feels guilty because Hester has to bear the solitary burden of punishment for their affair. Oh, did I forget to mention that Dimmesdale’s guilt and anguish are major elements of the book? Yeah, well, they are - major elements of the book. They are just thrown in to the movie - another after thought. “Oh yeah, Dimmesdale’s supposed to feel bad about Hester taking all the blame and stuff. Oops. Let’s have him stagger out into the rain some night and….ummmmm….. hmmmm….oh hell, he can gash his hand open on a nail or something.”

Of course, after all the scenes of Demi Moore naked, Gary Oldman naked, and Mituba, the slave girl, masturbating with a candle in the bathtub (WTF?), there wasn’t an awful lot of room left over for most elements of the book. My personal opinion is that this production was already in the works before anyone actually read the screenplay and then someone yelped, “Oh my god, have you read this? This’ll never sell. Quick add lots of skin and some sex! Give people a good enough look at Demi’s naked body and no one will ever notice how bad the script is.”

I don’t think the ploy worked. says the film cost $46 million to make and only grossed a little over $10 million in domestic ticket sales.

I thought that Gary Oldman did an adequate job in his role and that’s just not something I ever wanted to have to say about Mr. Oldman. But frankly, I didn’t see the possibility for anything other than adequacy in the role he was given to play. Even though I was not thrilled about the prospect of seeing Gary Oldman play Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Arthur Dimmesdale, I was even less thrilled to see him forced into this shadow of a character; this pathetic attempt to sell lots of tickets to ignorant movie-goers just for the sake of a couple of big box-office names. “Ooooo, it’s got Demi Moore and Gary Oldman. It’s gotta be good. Two tickets, please.” Yeah, well, I guess the American viewing public isn’t as stupid as Hollywood thinks it is. Or wasn’t. Methinks the times they are a-changin’.

And that’s why I decided to write about this movie, although, the Spirits know, I did not want to. I saw this thing way back in 1995 or 96, when it originally came out, hated it and did my best to never think of it again. But, foolishly, I watched it again last week on Flix. Don’t ask me why; I just don’t know. That perverse part of me that can’t look away from a train wreck changed the channel and there I sat, mortified for Gary Oldman all over again.

Well, there was one reason I watched; I wondered about the reason behind Flix’s programming. According to their promotions, they were running films starring various members of the Brat Pack – Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Andrew McCarthy, etc. The two films they were promoting for that weekend were “From the Hip” with Judd Nelson, and “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore. It had been a long time since I’d seen the movie and I really didn’t remember all that much about Demi Moore’s performance in the film. Since Flix was running this particular film for Demi Moore instead of something she was actually good in, I thought I might have been wrong about how bad she was in “The Scarlet Letter.”

I was not wrong. In fact, the casting of Demi Moore in the role of Hester Prynne scores right up there (or down there) with the writing on this film. There are actors, like Gary Oldman, who can play any part. They are virtual chameleons, changing their body language, their voices and their appearance to give astounding performances. But those actors are few and far between and Demi Moore is not one of them. Although I will say this for her, she does a damned good love scene. I found myself comparing my intimate-moments-self to her performance and coming up severely lacking. I could really hate that woman, ya’ know? Poor Mr. Oldman was just along as a prop in that scene.

Anyway, I was curious about the reactions of other people to this movie, since Flix chose it for their Brat Pack showcase, and I went to a couple of websites to see if there were any recent comments about it. There were. And that’s where I got really pissed.

Yes, there were plenty of bad reviews, plenty of people angry because of the rotten screenplay and because of the way it detoured around the book. But there were even more people who were gushing and cooing over seeing Gary Oldman naked. What???? These people profess to be fans of Gary Oldman and yet all they seemed to notice in this movie was his bare body. People! WTF?

This is why we get such crappy movies. This gushing and drooling over seeing an actor in the buff takes precedence over seeing an actor give a good performance with a well-written script. Instead of getting another “Immortal Beloved” or another “State of Grace” we got “The Scarlet Letter”. And instead of screaming that we’ve been cheated you people are delirious because you caught a glimpse of Gary Oldman’s penis!

And you wonder, in your forums and your chat rooms, why he hates publicity? You wonder why you don’t see him out and about more and you pine for just a glimpse of him. He doesn’t come out because he’s afraid you’ll grab his crotch and run, you idiots! If I were Gary Oldman I would never leave the house without a big, bushy wig and a fake nose.

Even when we get a performance that astounds, you talk about how beautiful he was, how sexy he was, and never mention his performance. Someone please tell me, how do you get “sexy” out of Shelly Runyon? And why aren’t you more impressed with Oldman’s flawless mastery of a Midwestern accent than with the color of his eyes? Why don’t you carry on about how he looked and walked and moved completely different as Shelly Runyon and then again as Buford Dill?

Professing to be a fan of someone while completely ignoring their actual accomplishments baffles me. If Gary Oldman was nothing but a pair of blue eyes on top of a sweet, sexy mouth with no appreciable talent, I could understand this. Hey, I didn’t watch “The Fast and The Furious” twice because I like fast cars. But when an actor consistently gives performances that amaze and astound, when he proves his skill and talent in role after role, how can his so-called fans continually ignore his incredible performances in favor of his appearance? And how can his fans fail to be upset when he is given absolute rubbish to play? How can you do it, folks?

I don’t blame Mr. Oldman for being tired of acting. I would imagine it’s very hard to maintain your enthusiasm for an occupation when the talent and skill and hard work that go into that occupation are constantly ignored and instead you are judged solely on your physical appearance.

And I can’t really blame Hollywood for churning out the crap they’ve been shoveling to us these past few years. Hell, why bother paying good money for a decent script and actors when all you have to do to keep the public happy is show some pretty bodies? Unfortunately, those of us who are not satisfied with crap are left wanting.

Monday, July 30, 2007

"Criminal Law"

USA Release: April 28, 1989
Starring: Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon
Directed by: Martin Campbell

Now's a good time to talk about "Criminal Law" because Encore Mystery will be showing it on August 26th.

Another movie starring Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon and once again Kevin Bacon steals the show even though Gary Oldman's character, Ben Chase, is definitely the lead character in this one. Ben Chase is a defense attorney who used to work for the District Attorney's office. Ben successfully defends Martin Thiel, played by Kevin Bacon, in a murder trial. After the trial, Ben realizes that Martin is really guilty of the rape and murder for which he was acquitted and that Martin is not only lacking in remorse, he has done it again and he plans to continue brutally raping and murdering women.

The movie is the story of Ben Chase's efforts to stop Martin Thiel and it's a fairly good story. The main plot is well developed and keeps the viewer involved and interested throughout the film. I've read a lot of criticism about the screenplay, saying that it was not well developed, that it had too many plot holes, that the characters were not developed well enough and, in the case of Ben Chase, I would have to say that the last criticism is true. As for the rest of the complaints about the script, frankly, I didn't have a problem with it. I liked the story and didn't have any problems following it. There were a couple of slow spots but they were pretty short and did not detract from my enjoyment at all.

But this is not my favorite Oldman film and I have to say the directing is what spoiled it for me. Oldman's character goes from a thoughtful, methodical courtroom attorney to a screaming lunatic with little provocation. His go-for-broke performances in this film are not always appropriate to the scene and judging by the interaction in one scene between Ben Chase and his love interest, Ellen Faulkner, played by Karen Young, those go-for-broke performances were directed. If they weren't, they should have been toned down by the director. They spoiled the tone of the film and were a little bit irritating.

One scene in particular irritated the heck out of me. Ben Chase finds the body of a recently murdered woman in a wooded park, at night, in the rain. Now, just the description of that scene makes me think gloomy and frightening. I don't even need to see it on screen to conjure up those feelings. But gloomy and frightening did not happen on screen. The scene looked wet and miserable, not gloomy. It took forever for Ben to find the body, slogging through the rain, stopping along the way to tie his shoelace, which breaks. Ok, just what did that add to the scene? Irritation, yes, but not gloom - not apprehension. He gets slapped in the face by wet tree branches but he's more irritated than frightened. I can see myself slogging through a park on a dark, rainy night, getting slapped in the face by tree branches and being scared out of my pants. But Ben Chase wasn't scared therefore, the viewer wasn't scared. Ben was just fine; wet and uncomfortable, puzzled about why his client, Martin Thiel asked him to meet in the park on a night like that, a little irritated but emotionally stable, until he found the body. And then he completely lost his mind. He screamed, he froze in terror, he ran, he fell, ran some more, screaming all the way, and finally made his way to the nearest house where he was nearly incoherent because he was so totally panicked out of his mind.

Is this how a person in the 'real world' would act? Probably. I've got a big picture of myself going completely bat-shit if I were to stumble across a dead body on a bright sunny day in Downtown Fort Worth. But "Criminal Law" is a movie and I expect a certain mood to be set and maintained in a movie. It helps draw the viewer in and involve him in what's happening on the screen. That did not happen in this scene.

If the mood had been set, if there had been an ominous or frightening tone leading to the finding of the body, Ben Chase's reaction would have been perfect. The viewer might have felt like screaming, running and babbling in terror, too, and would, at the very least, have experienced empathy with the character of Ben Chase. Instead, we are left staring at this fool on the screen who is totally over reacting. Or over acting. I've often read comments about Gary Oldman's tendency to over act. Frankly, anytime I've ever seen a performance where he could have been accused of over acting it's always been more about the direction of the entire scene than about his performance.

And this is why Kevin Bacon stole this show. Poor direction. Oldman did have some very good scenes in this film. He was cute, he was likeable, he was troubled, he was dedicated and determined to bring the murderer to justice. And there were some suspenseful scenes that he pulled off with typical Oldman perfection. After all, this is Gary Oldman we're talking about. He always manages to give the viewers their money's worth - and then some.

For my money, the film is worth watching just for the final scene with Oldman and Bacon. They were both brilliant. Bacon shows me just how and why three college kids decided he was "the center of the entertainment universe" in this scene. And Oldman plays to his charcter so beautifully that any flat feelings you were left with from previous scenes completely dissipate.

I won't go into great depth on Kevin Bacon's performance but he was great. His portrayal of a psychotic serial killer is so real. His character, Martin Thiel, feels that he is doing the work of an avenging angel. Bacon pulls the viewers into the psyche of his character and takes us on a sick tour of his motivation and objective. In the final scene we feel pity for Martin instead of horror.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not my favorite Oldman film but it is by no means a bad film. Especially for fans of Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon, this one is absolutely worth catching.

"Track 29"

USA Release: September 1988
Starring: Gary Oldman, Theresa Russell, Christopher Lloyd
Directed by Nicholas Roeg

Pussy Willow has already talked about this film on both BloggerParty and on BlogFeast. In fact, she raved about this movie, calling it “A True Pussy Willow Kinda Movie.” And I have to agree with her. I won’t bother repeating what my alter ego has already said (you can read those posts by following the links if you are of a mind) but I will say this much, this movie is fantastic! Fans of Nicholas Roeg will love it. It’s a great example of a Roeg mind-boggler with plenty of blind-alleys, twists and turns. Fans of Theresa Russell will love it as will fans of Christopher Lloyd. And Gary Oldman fans? Fuget about it! He’s over the top in this film.

True, true, as pointed out in a couple of comments on, Oldman’s style is a little raw in this film. He had not yet achieved the maturity and polish we see in later films. But frankly, I find this one of the most interesting aspects of the film. It’s a chance for us to see part of the journey Oldman has been on in perfecting his techniques and performances. But even as young and unpolished as he is in this film he still manages to give us an outstanding performance. I really cannot think of any other actor capable of giving us the kind of performance we see from Oldman in this movie. His performance is essential in maintaining the mood of the film, in keeping the viewer guessing, keeping the viewer doubting that what they have seen is actually what is happening. I loved every minute of it!

In fact, Martin is my favorite Oldman character. He really is remarkable in this role. In turns, he was strange and frightening, he was compelling and seductive, he was weird, he was affectionate, he was violent, he was friendly and likeable – and then again, sometimes he was all these things all at the same time. He pulled it off beautifully. In fact, Mr. Oldman’s performance is what made me keep doubting what I was sure the rest of the film was telling me. He was sooooooo believable. Or maybe he was just so compelling as Martin that I wanted to believe him.

Hmmmm…..compelling. According to
1 : to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly
2 : to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure

The character of Martin was certainly compelling. The scene where Martin shows up at the Henry house while Linda is in the pool left a lasting impression on me. You already know that Martin is looking for his mother and you have a good idea that Linda is who he is looking for. And yet Martin is seductive in his conversation and actions with Linda. Martin begins to apply overwhelming pressure to Linda with his insinuations about his mother and with his sexually charged behavior.

Honestly, watching this scene I didn't know whether to be totally creeped out or turned on. I think those are the exact feelings that Roeg wanted us to see in Linda and Mr. Oldman hit it dead-on. Linda was beginning to feel an irrestible urge where Martin was concerned. Martin was beginning to drive Linda in the direction he wanted her to go. But in what direction? What did Martin want from her? This scene set the stage for the entire film and Oldman's performance was absolutely magnificent.

So, here’s my question…..Why can’t I get a DVD of “Track 29” in USA format? Why???? What the heck is going on with Island Distributors that they can’t get the DVD released in the US? Spain can get the DVD, the UK can get the DVD – and it was never even released in theaters in Spain or the UK. But in the US you can only get a VHS copy of this film and sometimes you can’t even find a new VHS copy. When I first went looking for a copy of this film I had to settle for a used VHS tape. Today I went on another search to see if some new ones had popped up on the market and did find new VHS tapes available on and on at reasonable prices. The only new copy I found a few months ago had a price tag of $25.00 – not exactly reasonable when you can get a newly released blockbuster on DVD for less than $20.00.

So tell us, Island, when are you going to release the DVD of “Track 29” in USA format? There are more than a couple Gary Oldman fans who would really, really, really like a copy.

Friday, July 13, 2007

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

Directed by David Yates

Great movie!! Loved it, loved it, loved it!!!

But as much as I loved it, I’m not going to do a full rundown of this film. There are already so many reviews of it out that it would just be overkill. Let me just touch on a couple of things before I get into Mr. Oldman’s performance.

I love the way the young actors, Radcliff, Watson and Grint have matured in their acting skills. Because the film, naturally, focuses on the issues of Harry Potter, I think we are seeing just the tip of the talent that lies in both Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. I am really looking forward to seeing them branch out into other productions.

Daniel Radcliff, on the other hand, has a chance to really show us how much he has grown in his acting skills. I’m quite looking forward to the release of his new film, “December Boys,” this fall and to seeing him in a role other than Harry Potter.

The film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” also keeps to the pattern of maturing along with the characters and the actors. This is not really a movie for eight or nine-year-old children. Naturally, there is no inappropriate material but the content is more mature, as is the mood. The tone of the film is tense and dark. There are very few of the giggly, feel-good moments we saw in the first three films in the series, although the Weasley twins, as usual, do give us a couple of very good laughs.

I was a little disappointed with the clarity of the screenplay. There are one or two places, most notably at the end of the film in the scene in the Department of Mysteries, where you really can get lost if you haven’t read the books. Huey, Dewey and Lewey, who saw the movie with me, haven’t read the books and they were a real pain in a couple of places wanting me to explain what was happening. Sheesh! I wish those guys would just read the books!

I did enjoy Imelda Staunton’s portrayal of Dolores Umbridge and I didn’t think I was going to when I first saw the previews. To begin with, she’s much prettier than I had pictured Umbridge and her costumes were much too easy on the eyes. And initially her sickly-sweet manner appeared too genuine – she appeared too much a follower, not really capable of any foul deed on her very own. And therein lies the genius of Staunton’s interpretation, because soon enough we are given a glimpse of the real Dolores Umbridge and, much to our surprise, she’s a nasty piece of work capable of very evil things, indeed, all by her sickly-sweet little self.

The rest of the cast gave their usual fabulous performances. Although we didn’t get to see as much of Maggie Smith as I would have liked we did get to see David Thewlis as Remus Lupin again, which was a real treat. Alan Rickman was at his snide, snarling best as Snape and David Bradley, as Filch, was such a fantastically toady creep – I just loved him!

We didn’t get to see much of Robbie Coltrane either and that was disappointing. Emma Thompson’s role was whittled down and then toned down way too much, I thought. I was so looking forward to seeing Professor Trelawney flip out as Umbridge fired her. I think the taming down of that scene was a real loss to the film.

As much as I miss and mourn the loss of Richard Harris, I must say I have enjoyed Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledor immensely. And at the end of the film, while facing Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic – shades of Gandalf, he was great!!! He was fierce, he was wise, he was valiant! That scene was everything I had hoped it would be.

And now we come to Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman. Finally! Of course, a great deal had to be cut from the 800-something page book to make this movie and, sadly, a large part of Sirius Black’s character never made it to the screen.

Long before he had been cast in the role I knew that Gary Oldman would be the perfect actor to play Sirius Black. This multi-dimensional character requires an actor of unsurpassed talent and fortunately, I wasn’t the only one to recognize that. I was thrilled when I learned that he had been cast.

And yet, we don’t get to see the full Sirius simply because they just could not cram it all into a two-hour film. Ach!! As if Sirius wasn’t more important that that silly old flap between the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts.

Seriously though, I do think that the relationship between Harry & Sirius needed more detail in the film. That relationship is very important in showing how Harry’s support system is first built up and then swept away from him. I think it’s a crucial element of the story that is not receiving enough attention in the films. Too bad the film’s makers didn’t see fit to consult with me. If they had we would have been treated to an unforgettable performance by Gary Oldman.

That’s not to say his performance was forgettable. Oh, no!! Anything but! Even though we only get to see one side of Sirius’s personality, Oldman shows that side with incredible skill. If you didn’t absolutely love Sirius before, after seeing this movie you will – you most certainly will.

The film shows only the best sides of Sirius; the loving, supportive side, the talented and skilled wizard side, the wiser, more mature side and, very briefly, the frustrated side that is forced to remain in hiding from the Ministry of Magic, unable to take a full part in the fight against Voldemort. And I could be just reading what I want to see in the character but I do think we see a little of the wounded side of Sirius come out in Oldman's protrayal. Sirius is quiet, sitting off by himself at the dining table, subdued when talking about what's going on in the Wizarding World. I think Mr. Oldman put as much of the full Sirius into the character as he could, given the amount of screen time he got, and it was very effective.

This is Gary Oldman as we’ve rarely seen him. No wild man stunts, no craziness. It was great, I tell you, great, to see him play this tragic character. His tones of voice, his facial expressions, his body language all take us straight into what his character is feeling.

He made us love Sirius; made us long to see Sirius give Harry the home and father-figure that Harry so desperately needs. He made us feel confident that the war with Voldemort could be more easily won because we had Sirius on our side. Harry’s world, the entire Wizarding World, was safer, happier, more complete with Sirius in it.

And then, of course, we lose him. And it’s a terrible loss, a devastating loss; for Harry and for us. (If you haven’t read the books…..well, I’m sorry I spoiled that part for you.)

For Harry, the loss of Sirius means the loss of his only real tie with his parents, the loss of the chance for a real home, the loss of the chance to have a father-figure in his life, the loss of the support he needs in his battle against Voldemort.

For us it means all that and more. For us it means we can no longer look forward to seeing Gary Oldman in the next movies in the series. A truly shattering loss.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

“Murder in the First”

Starring Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater and Gary Oldman
Director: Marc Rocco

This is one of the most painful movies I have ever watched so let’s just get this over with right off the bat. Now let me be clear, this movie is a beautiful piece of work. It’s the subject, the story line, that makes it difficult to watch.

Based on actual events, “Murder in the First” is the story of Henri Young, played by Kevin Bacon, who, at the age of 17, was convicted of a Federal crime for stealing $5 to feed his starving younger sister. Henri was sent to Alcatraz and after a failed escape attempt is placed in solitary confinement and subjected to the rehabilitation methods of Associate Warden Milton Glenn, played by Gary Oldman.

Henri remains in solitary confinement in the dungeons of Alcatraz for three years and two months. There is no light in his cell. There is little room for him to move around in the cell. There is no plumbing. For three years and two months Henri lives cramped in total darkness with foul food, no bed, no clothes and only the occasional blanket. From time to time the guards do allow Henri a shower – in the form of a bucket of icy water, thrown on him as he sleeps.

Henri is allowed out of his dungeon for brief periods. Once every year he is allowed 30 minutes of exercise in the prison yard. And, of course, let’s not forget his visits with Associate Warden Glenn. Visits that generally consist of Henri being hung by his arms from the ceiling while Warden Glenn administers “rehabilitative treatments” in the form of vicious beatings.

Henri is released from solitary confinement after three long years of torture and deprivation and within one hour of his return to the general prison population he is goaded into murdering the fellow prisoner who alerted the guards to his escape attempt three years earlier.

Henri is charged with first degree murder and Attornery James Stamphill, played by Christian Slater, fresh out of law school and brand new to the Public Defender’s office, is assigned to defend him. With the zeal and compassion found only in young, not-yet-jaded lawyers, Stamphill sets out to discover why, after a life completely free of violence, Henri suddenly committed murder in front of hundreds of witnesses. What he uncovers will place the Warden, the Associate Warden and the very institution of Alcatraz on trial for crimes against humanity.

The details are often gruesome, the story is heartbreaking. As I said, this is a very difficult film to watch, made more so by the fact that it is based on a true story.

Make no mistake about it, this is Kevin Bacon’s movie. His performance is astounding. His transformation into a scarred, crazed and frightened victim of power-gone-mad is complete. He draws you in and shares his pain with you. It is not a pleasant experience.

Christian Slater, as the young, compassionate James Stamphill, is also wonderful. Slater's protrayal of a zealous young attorney who is at first determined to "save" his wronged client and then humbled by the realization that what he wants for his client is, in reality, not what his client wants and may not even be the best thing for his client, is truly believable. And his scene with Warden Glenn on the witness stand is one for the books, folks. Slater holds his own with Oldman and turns it into one of the best scenes in the film.

And then there’s Gary Oldman, playing Associate Warden Milton Glenn, the Head Monster in this real-life monster movie. And as we’ve come to expect, he is brilliant. So brilliant that I hated him – detested the very sight of his smug, self-righteous face. I think if I had come face-to-face with Gary Oldman after my first viewing of this film I would have spit in his face - or slugged him – or both. Yes, he was that good.

In fact, I think Mr. Oldman may have given his character more depth that the real Milton Glenn actually had. From the loving, doting father and husband, to the fawning Associate of Warden Humson, to the brutal, self-righteous monster who terrorized prisoners and guards alike, he gives a performance that becomes almost too real.

The character of Associate Warden Glenn doesn’t get much on-camera time in this two-hour film and every glimpse we get of him has to connect. If Glenn doesn’t make an impact on us in his brief appearances the fate of Henri Young will not be near as affecting – or near as believable. As usual, Oldman meets this challenge and then some.

I read a comment somewhere, might have been on an IMDB forum, and it kills me that I can’t find it again. It gives a real indication of the affect Oldman’s performance had on people. The comment was something to the effect that Gary Oldman got so into his role that he had to be forcefully pulled off of Kevin Bacon while filming one of the scenes where Glenn is beating Young. Sorry, I’m not buying that one unless I hear it from Gary Oldman, himself. Still, this comment does show how deeply the viewer is pulled into the character of Milton Glenn, how real Oldman makes him for us.

Should you see this movie, if you haven't already, or should you see it again?


Yes, it's painful to watch. Yes, it will leave you with residual feelings of anger and helplessness, sadness and regret. But you will never regret seeing these brilliant performances. And while the complete authenticity of the story has been called into question many times, it is also a little bit of history; something to point out how far we really have come in our society - no matter that we still have a long way to go.

You can sometimes catch "Murder in the First" on a cable movie network, like Encore, but don't expect to find it on regular TV. There are too many adult situations, language, nudity, etc., for it to make it to TNT or USA. I suggest you check it out at Blockbuster or Netflix - or buy a copy on Amazon.