Abra

For the dwindling number of film-goers of the Fifties who witnessed the first scintillating moments of James Dean on the screen, the death of Julie Harris on the 24th will not go unnoticed.

Harris played “Abra” as the female lead in Dean’s first film, “East of Eden” that came out in April of 1955.

I thought at the time that Harris was miscast.  And I still think that.   It was hard to believe in Abra, that she could command the attention, much less the love, of such a wild creature as Dean’s “Cal Trask.”  And, on reflection, maybe that was the point, to contrast Abra with Cal’s mother, “Kate,” who abandoned the family and later operated a whorehouse.

Harris’s Abra was dutiful, a good girl but her passion for Cal and his affection for her just didn’t click with me.  She had the vehicle to do great things with the role and didn’t grab the chance.

Among the cast’s leading characters,  Harris’s death leaves only Richard Davalos, now 82, the same age Dean would have been had he survived.   Raymond Massey (the Bible-strict father, “Adam,”) died in 1983; Burl Ives, who played “Sam,” the sheriff, died in 1995; and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar for her Supporting Role in “Eden” as the hard-hearted mother, in 1996.

Harris died at her home in her home at Chatham, MA.  The reported cause, congestive heart failure.  She was 87.

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On the film “Argo:” Cowboys and Indians

I went out last weekend to see what I thought would be a serious film about the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran.  The film is called “Argo” and is based on a true but lesser-known story of that troubled time.

And too I hoped “Argo” would in the process provide insight to the Iran of today and the tense stand-off over nuclear weapons.  Why else come out now with a film of events 33 years old unless only to make money?   And how could that be?  Two serious and politically-astute guys were behind the film.  George Clooney was a producer and Ben Affleck the director and lead actor.   Visions of “Syriana” danced in my brain.

I stepped into the theater with limited knowledge.  I had read no reviews and had only an inkling of the plot:  The attempted rescue in Tehran of six Americans who fled the over-run U.S. Embassy and secretly holed up nearby in the Canadian Embassy during the anti-American riots.  Their lives are at risk.  Time is short.

A CIA operative, Tony Mendez, devises a goofy plan.   He will pose as Kevin Harkins, the producer of a phony sci-fi movie, “Argo,” and with help of two Hollywood friends,  incorporate the six Americans into a group seeking a filming location in Iran.  From there, the “film crew” will try to return to the U.S., passing  through intense airport security in Tehran via phony passports, visas and film “documents.”

To be sure, “Argo” is an intense and thrilling film.   It likely will do well at the box office.   But the flaws are many.

Events are too compacted and over-dramatized, the characters other than Mendez (Affleck) too wooden and false, the agent’s family issues over-played and the direction far too pandering to the CIA and American patriotism.  Not to mention the last 10 minutes of “Argo” should be laying on the cutting-room floor.

So a serious film?  In two words, no,  no.

In the sum, “Argo” is akin to an old oater, a western with heroic cowboys (Americans) v. villainous Indians (Iranians) .  Black and white, no gray.

What, pray tell, would constitute a more serious film?  I would have preferred a more balanced depiction of American and Iranian points of view.  Perhaps a larger role for the Iranian security chief as he tried to puzzle out the missing Americans and why it was so important.    Maybe he was thinking of his family as Mendez had.

The U.S. has a long dark history in international affairs.  Think Chile, Nicaragua, Iraq, Panama, Cuba or numerous other countries where American interests have changed or tried to change the course of history like in Iran.

At a moment in time when relations between Iran and the U.S. seem to grow more tense with every passing day, “Argo” is a disappointing film.   The stand-off begs for more understanding, not caricature.

Through actual film clips in the beginning, “Argo” attempts to show oil-starved America meddling in Iranian affairs with the installation of the murderous Shah Pahlavi regime of the 1950s.  But the thrust of the entire film overpowers it.  “Argo” paints Iranian  brutality in broad strokes, that the government is wild-eyed  and evil-doing with  no justification for denouncing good ol’ America.

I hope I kept my theater stub.  Maybe I can get a refund.

‘The Descendants’ as propaganda

As I watched `The Descendants’ unfold a few nights ago at a local movie theater, it began to dawn on me this Oscar-nominated film was not only unbelievable and high-end soap opera but, worse, an attempt to douse the flames of what the right calls “class warfare.”  You know, the resentment many Americans feel about the super-rich upper 1% ripping off the rest of us.

Here we have Matt, ahem, King, one of the real-estate moguls in Hawaii, played by one of the most likeable and charming actors of our time, George Clooney, cast to soften us up.  Matt is trustee of his family’s vast estate of virgin land on the island of Kauai, all passed down to the descendants of King Kamehameha the Great who unified the Islands in 1810.

The plot has two strands of melodrama.  One is family.  Matt is dealing with a boating accident that has left his unfaithful wife in an irreversible coma and two self-destructive daughters, Alexandra and Scottie.  The other is business.  Matt is on the verge of signing off on the sale of the last of his family’s land holdings for $500 million, land that will be turned into a huge resort community.

But Matt is not what most of us see in one-percenters.  Far from greedy, he lives below his means.  He is faulted by the father-in-law for withholding a life of luxury from his wife.  He cares deeply for his children and actually listens to them.  He is forgiving of his wife’s infidelity.  He is tactful and unusually sensitive to others.  In the end, he cares more about the intrinsic, spiritual value of the land than the riches his family can attain by selling it.   In all of it, Matt King is god-like and unbelievable as a human being.

Forget the schmaltzy last scenes trying to provoke sobs from viewers.  The film is trying to send a message.

Some may say “The Descendants” is a parable on how the rich should deal with their vast wealth, their families and us, their minions.  But, to my mind at least the film says, see, some rich people are no so bad after all.  Lay down your arms, surrender to the kings around us, trust them.  The one-percenters can be benevolent and alturistic.

Unbelievable in this day and age.

The film fails as art, serving only as propaganda in an era that can not help itself from politicizing everything.

No liberal media in `Green Zone’

 

Amy Ryan's portrayl of Lawrie Dayne was right-on, almost.

Lawrie Dayne, the Wall Street Journal reporter in the film “Green Zone,” is the worst kind of journalist.  She’s an insider.  She gets most of her information about the war in Iraq from one “trusted” and highly-placed source in the government.  A source, as it turns out,  with a hidden agenda, a source that uses her to further his aims.  Or in reality, the aims of the Bush administration.  Worse, she never questions the information given her.

Two forces drive Dayne, played admirably by Amy Ryan.  One is to get an interview with “Magellan,” the fictitious Iraqi source who knows where to locate the elusive and equally-fictitious weapons of mass destruction.   The other is to feed her ego.  She is overly ambitious.  She wants to be a star at all costs.  She no doubt wants to win a Pulitzer for her reporting.

 This is a film a day late and a dollar short.  Most knowledgeable readers long ago concluded  the war was concocted by Bush and his cronies for political reasons.  The war’s “shock and awe” was as much a high-dollar pyrotechnic display  for the gullible American public as it was to scare the Iraqis.  It was like the Fourth of July.  “America, the Beautiful.”   Wow, look at those bombs, baby.   

Still the movie was right-on with the war and right-on with the media’s role in abetting Bush as he led us down that primrose lane from 9/11, all fueled by Big Oil, big corporations, and profiteering.

Dayne symbolized the media’s own gullibility and the sense of superiority and arrogance that their stars exude.  Think of TV’s talking-heads.   Dayne has every resemblance, by actions and looks, to the discredited New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had a pipeline to the White House and used it not only for “news” about Iraq’s WMD but the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson as well.  It does not seem strange then that the real truth-seeker and Dayne’s polar opposite in “Green Zone,” is also named Miller.  The Matt Damon character, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller.  He is what she as a reporter should be.

I have only one objection to Ryan’s Dayne.  No star reporter would risk career suicide by confessing her reporting sins to the likes of Chief Miller.  Never.  She would do as Judith Miller did in real life.  String it out, never fully admit to wrong-doing.  Save some measure of the career at all costs.  The flaw is not Ryan’s.  The confession served director Paul Greengrass’s script.

Those bombastic conservative propagandists (Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage et al)  have only to take a hard look at Dayne, and ultimately Judith Miller, to see there is no “liberal media” to chastise.  If anything, reporters play along with those in power and their bosses, those powerful right-wing CEOs that run a great majority of America’s news outlets.   It’s called career preservation. 

And, in the case of the war in Iraq, the media swallowed the swill of the most dangerous president of our lifetime.  Most dangerous so far.

Secondary roles, major flops

I was thinking about a couple of the character-driven movies I’d seen recently.  But it was not the main figures in Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 that bothered me. It was the secondary characters, the two female journalists, that caught my attention.

Having some expertise in the journalistic field, I was struck by the possibility that Jean Craddock, in Crazy Heart,  and Maureen “Mo” Simmons in Mr. 3000, might be taken seriously, that they might be sublimated far beyond what they were.   As journalists, these two characters are flawed and misguided posers.  They truck on nothing but their good looks to crawl up a disgusting media ladder to nowhere, a ladder long shaped by style over substance, by opinion over fact, by beauty over brains. 

Of the two journalists, Simmons is the lowest of the low.  Played by beautiful and brassy Angela Bassett, Simmons is a veteran TV “reporter” for ESPN.  She is romantically involved with one of her subjects, Sam Ross.  Ross (Bernie Mac) is a baseball has-been trying to make a short comeback with the Milwaukee Brewers.  It is a big story for Simmons because Ross is the center of national attention being only three hits away from the magical 3000 Club, a feat he thinks will propel him into the Hall of Fame.  

In Crazy Heart, Craddock, played by moony-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal,  is an inept “feature writer” for a newspaper in Santa Fe.   She too becomes romantically involved with the subject of a profile she plans to do on another has-been, the country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges).  Craddock has the excuse of being new in the business and totally untrained.  

The problem with Simmons and Craddock is not that they have affairs with their subjects.  That happens often enough and is no great sin.  The problem with these two so-called journalists is that their conflicts of interest do not ring a bell, that both continue to go about business as usual with their subjects-lovers.  If known, not exactly an atmosphere that breeds the all-important trust of the reader or viewer.  

In real life, if discovered, this behavior would be a career-ender.  Or it should be.   Both would be fired.  Such conflicts can be extremely embarrassing to a media outlet.  The heads on the periphery, those of editors and producers, may even roll as well.  In the real world, Simmons and Craddock would have come clean.  They would likely have revealed the conflicts to their bosses, kept the romance going and trotted off with new assignments and perhaps new gold stars pinned to their lapels.

This is the problem with character-driven films.  Directors are so focused on the central character, the Bad Blake and the Sam Ross, that they often fail to pay close attention to minor parts.  They kiss them off.  They get sloppy with reality.  And their attempt at plausible story lines falls flatter than flat.

In this way, Crazy Heart and Mr. 3000 are undeserved bad news for journalism.