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.