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Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Bridge to Terabithia proves a few important things studios seem to have forgotten: you can make movies for kids without treating anyone under the age of 16 like they’re rock-stupid, and you don’t have to throw in a bunch of “edgy” ironic jokes that float over kids’ heads in order for it to appeal to adults. After watching approximately 450 trailers for kids’ movies that look godawful (Firehouse Dog, Meet the Robinsons, and especially Nancy Drew), it’s easy to appreciate the warmth and intelligence in a film like Bridge to Terabithia.

A fairly straightforward adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel, it tackles some pretty weighty themes of escape, grief, and human perseverance. Somehow, both the novel and the film manage to hit all the right emotional notes while managing to keep it at a level the average fifth-grader can understand. It tells the story of Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson, Zathura), a “farm-boy” outcast with a secret love of drawing. He has no friends, four sisters, and poor parents who barely make ends meet. After practicing all summer, Jess wants to win a race for the fifth-grade boys, but he’s forced to suffer the embarrassment of wearing pink hand-me-down sneakers. On top of that, just when it looks like he’ll win the race—the new girl, Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb, Because of Winn-Dixie), breezes past him.

Their adversarial relationship turns friendly as Jess realizes Leslie lives next door, and she needs to be shown the ropes of the student hierarchy. As time passes, they become best friends partly out of necessity, but mostly because they share a deep emotional connection. This is represented by Terabithia, a fantastical kingdom conjured up in their imaginations. They just run down to the end of the dirt road, swing across the creek on an old rope, and their kingdom is there, in the isolated backwoods. Jess and Leslie use Terabithia as an escape from the oppression of school and family: it’s their place, where nobody else can find them. There, they are king and queen, with plenty of fantastical friends to help them fight their imaginary enemies. First-rate special effects blend the reality of an empty forest with a wild kingdom full of giant trolls, mutant squirrels, and tiny winged warriors.

Over the course of the film, the pair realize that they can’t hide from their problems forever. Jess and Leslie give each other much-needed confidence. Before long, they’re both confronting what they once feared, and they learn to enjoy their lives.

The film has a surprise (which is no surprise to anyone who has read the novel, but for those who haven’t, I’m withholding it) that a lesser film would have either drenched in cloying sentiment or excised completely. As with the rest of the film, screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (son of Ms. Paterson) and director Gabor Csupo handle these scenes with understated sensitivity and understanding. It also gives the exceptional cast, including Zooey Deschanel (Elf, All the Real Girls) and Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, The X-Files), opportunities to really shine.

Bridge to Terabithia is a wonderful, moving film for kids and adults. It’s another in Walden Media’s long line of exceptional kids’ movies (Charlotte’s Web, Holes). If more movies were this good, they’d actually be worth the $278 theatres charge for admission.

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Immoral Women (1978)

With their awesome powers combined, three short films form Immoral Women, a provocative and baffling film that provides audiences with the following insights into feminine psychology:

  1. Women will murder men for fun and profit.
  2. Women will murder their parents and servants as a symbol of their sexual maturation.
  3. Women will allow their huge pet dogs to chew off the tender vittles of any man, be it a kidnapper or husband, and will watch with apathy as the pain forces them to roll into an awkward jump cut that lands them in a river, where they drown.

Good times all around in Immoral Women, now available on DVD!

The first and third stories are largely a waste of time, both in terms of erotica and in terms of cinema. Though the “immoral women” featured in them (Marina Pierro and Pascale Christophe) are attractive, each section gets too bogged down in their stories to be erotic. This would be fine if not for the fact that each story manages the impossible feat of being both incoherent and plodding. The only entertainment derived from “Marie,” the third story, is the bizarrely inappropriate Kraftwerk-esque theme music assigned to Marie’s dog. “Margherita,” the first story, tries to pad its runtime with awkward papal satire, even more awkward physical comedy, and an attempt at “art” by showing the way Margherita inspired Raphael Sanzio’s later works. This would be a great sentiment if not for the fact that in the end, she poisons him to steal his money to share with her real lover. She also murders a banker. But hey, at least she’s not Marie’s dog, who has an affinity for biting off men’s penises for no coherent story reason (okay, okay, the kidnapper deserved it—but why the husband?).

On the other hand, the middle story, “Marceline,” tells one of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever seen. Unlike the other two stories in Immoral Women, this one reaches heights of complexity and dramatic intensity that make it almost brilliant. Too bad the subject matter is so vile and twisted it’s hard to recommend in any form.

Marceline (Gaëlle Legrand) is a childish teenager (it’s never said, but I think we’re supposed to believe she’s 15 or 16) in 19th-century France. She spends the bulk of her time with a pet rabbit. This rabbit… How do I put this politely? She has trained him to lick her where it counts, and they maintain an alarming “secret” relationship until Marceline’s parents decide it’s time for her to grow up. Their servant/cook kills the rabbit, cooks it in a stew, and they all tell Marceline it’s lamb. After Marceline has made a big meal of it and expressed how much she enjoyed the lamb stew, her father explains the manner in which they’ve traumatized her (clearly not the first trauma Marceline has faced).

Horrified, Marceline runs away to the slaughterhouse from which the family gets most of their meat. I’m not sure why. I guess so she can run into a delivery boy who felt up Marceline at the beginning of the story. She asks to see the living lambs, so he takes her to their pen…and then rapes her. Viewers know a sex scene is coming (no pun intended), but anyone who thought it would be a horrifying, intense, suspiciously well-acted rape scene—seek help. Afterward, the delivery boy thinks he’s accidentally killed Marceline; there’s virginal blood everywhere, and Marceline has fallen asleep. The delivery boy tries to hang himself, then begs for help when Marceline awakens; instead of helping, she lets him die, then goes back home to kill her parents, framing the delivery boy for the crime.

This is 1970s European erotica, a relic of a bygone era where pornography had story, character, and halfway decent (in some cases exceptional) acting. Sadly, this era has passed mostly because the stories are half-assed (in more ways than one!) and incoherent, the characters usually have one trait (“lustful”), and they usually become so focused on a story few viewers care about that there’s little time left to be erotic.

One thing that makes the “Marceline” section so special is that nothing about it is remotely erotic—it’s very sexual and contains excessive nudity, but it’ll leave you more nauseous than aroused—and yet it tells a focused story with well-drawn characters. Disturbing as hell, yes, but it’s using the “advantages” of erotica—excessive nudity and an ability to unflinchingly portray bestiality and rape—to underscore its story, rather than tossing in some T&A for the hell of it.

Perhaps the biggest complaint of these three stories is that two of the three of these “immoral” women are victims; in fact, aside from lying idly by while her dog chewed off her husband’s johnson, Marie is a victim for every frame of her story. It’s never made clear why she allows herself to be repetitively victimized, and while it sort of makes sense that she’d be happy that her kidnapper/rapist and oppressive husband are disposed of by her loving dog, Marie herself doesn’t take the “immoral” action. Meanwhile, Marceline is a victim first of abusive parents, then of a terrorizing rapist of a delivery boy. Does it justify triple-homicide and accessory-after-the-fact to a suicide? One of the reasons “Marceline” stands out is that a case could be made to justify either side of that argument.

The only character who isn’t a victim is Margherita, the sultry and unpleasant minx who seduces and then murders two men for money. We never find out what motivates her, other than pure greed, which perhaps is enough. A more accurate title is Immoral Woman Plus Two Victims of Horrific Misogyny.

If you want a movie to disturb you without remotely arousing you (despite what the back of the DVD box suggests), at least look at the “Marceline” section. The other two aren’t really worth the time. Hell, “Marceline” will give you nightmares if you have any decency. Happy viewing!

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Private Collections (1979)

Viewers of Private Collections, an anthology of 1970s “erotica” from three “masters” of the medium (Just Jaeckin, Shuji Terayama, and Walerian Borowcyzk), might find the title Issues with Women: The Movie a bit more truthful. It’s obvious from the get-go that the bulk of pornography (past, present, and undoubtedly future), which is largely dominated by male “writer”/”directors,” is little more than a fount of negative views of women. The difference is, prior to and after the wave of semi-mainstream “legitimate” erotica, budget and time restrictions precluded frivolities like plot, characterization, or craftsmanship. The result? While most no-budget pornography contains endless examples of both bizarre misogyny and repressed homosexuality from its male “protagonists,” they manage not to come across nearly as sadistic or baffling as their “artistic” cousins from the erotica boom in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Perhaps this is why none of the three films that comprise Private Collections are particularly erotic. They all spend so much time hating women that it’s hard to work up the courage to find anything in these films titillating, despite ample nudity and vague, confusing attempts at “sexy” situations.

Just Jaeckin (clearly the real name of the director of Emmanuelle and The Story of O) has the first entry, “L’Ile Aux Sirenes,” in which a doughy French sailor gets thrown overboard and washes up in a deserted island—or is it?! No, it isn’t; it’s populated by a bevy of topless natives led by Laura Gemser (Black Emmanuelle). Despite the endless nudity and occasional sex scenes, this is portrayed almost as a thriller rather than an erotic film. The natives begin talking behind the sailor’s back; he doesn’t understand the language, but he keeps discovering not-entirely-subtle suggestions that that they have bigger plans for him than endless sex. Eventually, they turn on him—and try to eat him. Or at least chase and bite him and enjoy his blood. It has a “surprise twist” ending that doesn’t manage to undo the damage of misogyny.

The second entry, “Kusa Meika” by Japanese director Shuji Terayama (Fruits of Passion), left me baffled. I’m not great with experimental cinema to begin with; experimental erotica is a whole new level of strangeness. Maybe the abstract imagery and relentless symbolism makes sense to people smarter than me; perhaps something was lost in translation (the dialogue is in Japanese, with French dubbing/narration that are subtitled in English). Either way, the emphasis on women-as-abusers (the protagonist is essentially tortured by nymphomaniac sorcerors) combined with the overall strangeness will leave viewers either confused and frustrated or enlightened, but I doubt anybody will find it erotic. At all.

The final entry comes from Walerian Borowczyk, whose issues with women have already garnered an entire review from me. Although this time around he isn’t portraying victimized women as evil and immoral, he creates yet another film whose sole erotic moments seem like an afterthought. His film, “L’Armoir,” is really a misguided exploration of Sartrean philosophy more than anything else. In 19th-century France, a depressed man (who rambles endlessly in voiceovers) pays a dance-hall girl to have sex with him, then plays mind games with her for his own amusement. They spend the bulk of the film just talking and talking and talking, and we come to realize that Our Hero is thoroughly unpleasant; despite this, Borowczyk doesn’t really shift our sympathies over to the girl. It still feels as if we’re supposed to rally around the bored rich man who sees emotional torment of women as entertainment.

Maybe these films are trying to accomplish more than your average porno flick; it’s an admirable goal to put thought into using the art of cinema to titillate. Unfortunately, all of these films overreach to the point of failure. They suffer from the inherent misogyny that underscores depraved male sex fantasies.

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The Wedding Party [Die Bluthochzeit]

Hermann Walzer (Armin Rohde) is a man used to getting his way, often (we learn) by way of violence or temper tantrums. While at the reception for his son’s wedding, his new daughter-in-law (Lisa Maria Potthoff) complains that the shrimp cocktail appetizer seems to have gone bad. Hermann reacts first by shouting at the hotelier/restaurateur, Franz Berger (Uwe Ochsenknecht), then stalking off without paying the bill.

Unfortunately, in his rage and haste, Hermann leaves the bride and his own wife behind. Berger decides to hold them as hostages until Hermann pays the bill, locking the front gate to keep the Walzers out. What follows is a baffling—but hilarious—hybrid of comedy and war film, maintaining a tone as dark as midnight in a coal mine. It builds an uncomfortable tension as the level of violence escalates, heading toward a disturbing conclusion.

When guests at the inn notice Berger has kidnapped two women, they decide they want to leave. He reluctantly allows it, but they are caught by Hermann sneaking out of the back entrance and held hostage themselves. Hermann sets up a base of operations in the abandoned winter home of an American, where they find an arsenal of weapons to aid in what becomes a series of inept attempts to invade the inn.

Writer/director Dominique Deruddere (adapting a comic book by Jean Van Hamme) adds a variety of subplots stemming from this conflict, most of which subtly reenforce a theme questioning which is better: rational diplomacy or “cowboy” violence? There are quite a few characters, from wedding guests to hotel guests to employees, that Deruddere services ably, managing to bring them all together in the grim third act. His balancing of the myriad subplots and characters is impressive considering usually films (especially comedies) with an excess of either suffer for it. Deruddere also strikes a great balance between the comedy and drama; as the stakes are raised over and over again, the tone shifts, and by the end the comic elements are completely abandoned.

This attention to the tone keeps the suspense tightly wound, but it also allows me to forgive some of the schmaltzier moments. One of the more interesting subplots involves Hermann and his “weak” son, Mark (Arne Lenk). When Mark finally attacks his father physically, resolving the subplot by finally expressing his pent-up rage and winning his father’s respect, what could have been sappy sentimentality feels ingrained enough in the characters to satisfy.

The Wedding Party is an excellent combination of dark humor, suspense, and psychic angst. Unlike many recent American thrillers, it’s smart enough to know few situations have clear-cut heroes and villains. Most folks are a little of each.

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Some Film/TV Reviews

Ooh, professional!

The “Human” Factor

My Boys

The Wild Blue Yonder (this was a terrible, terrible movie)

A Perfect Day

Family Plan

Final Move

State’s Evidence

Gamerz

Bridge to Terabithia

Immoral Women

Private Collections

I thought since the reason I haven’t been blogging is because I’ve been doing other things, whenever I can’t think of something to rant about, I’ll just post some links to shit like this. A lot of these movies are pretty bad (The Wild Blue Yonder is by far the worst, but State’s Evidence and Final Move are also pretty crappy), so it’s sort of like getting several rants with a few pleasant surprises.

If you’re wondering about the wild fluctuations in genre, time period, and medium, it’s because I’m technically an “editor*,” not a “writer,” and so therefore I only do reviews once in awhile, and it’s usually the dregs nobody else wants to touch. I’m fine with it, because it lets me look at a wide variety of material that otherwise I’d never see (though in some case, I’d be better off not seeing it). So far I’ve only requested two films (Bridge to Terabithia and my upcoming review of The Motel), but I think I’ll stop. I requested those films because I thought they’d be good, and they were, but it’s way harder to explain why I think something’s good than it is to explain how something bad could be good.

* I put “editor” in quotation marks because yes, I put these articles into a shoddy, horribly coded GoLive HTML file, and yes, I upload them to the server, but I am not allowed to edit any of the content (which sucks, because some reviews are just awful) unless I happen to notice some spelling or grammar errors—I’m not even required to fix that, but I do if I notice it because it’s horrible not to.

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Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue

After bandleader/songwriter/producer/arranger/brother Brian Wilson’s breakdown in 1967, the Beach Boys had to fend for themselves. It was a strange, tumultuous time, producing some of the band’s most ecclectic and bizarre music. Some of it is great; most of it is awful. In one of the band’s many hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-depressing ironies, Dennis stepped up as the brother who was by far the band’s best songwriter (after Brian).

Rarely taken seriously by the other band members, mostly because he rarely took the group seriously, many of his songs were rejected in the group’s democratic selection process for album cuts. Dennis was considering a solo album as early as 1970, and Beach Boys versions of songs that would later appear on Pacific Ocean Blue were being played live as early as 1969. If you look at the band’s creative output from 1969 (when his first compositions appeared on Friends) through 1979, the standout songs are nearly always written by Dennis. (One notable exception, Brian’s “‘Til I Die” from 1971’s Surf’s Up, remains one of the Beach Boys’ best songs.)

With Dennis’ rampant drug and alcohol abuse and womanizing, it’s probably not a huge surprise that a solo album originally conceived in 1970 was not finished until 1977. But part of this has to do with the difficulty of his recording process; despite many liner-note attributions to the usual gang of Beach Boys session musicians (no actual Beach Boys, because even back then Mike Love was lawsuit-happy and threatened to sue if Dennis Wilson tried to release a solo album featuring other Boys), legend has it that Dennis played every instrument and most of the vocal parts himself, meticulously experimenting with arrangements (thanks to the relative safe haven of Brother Studios, where he could record for free).

The third contributing factor was that the Beach Boys simply didn’t have enough material for complete studio albums. Even though nobody respected Dennis’ efforts (or perhaps they were jealous that somebody who was so much more interested in having a good time could write songs that were far more interesting, mature, and contemporary than anything they could create), he still wrote and produced a whole lot of songs for the Beach Boys, many of which were originally intended for the solo album. That put him behind, and unlike Bruce Johnston and Mike Love, he wanted a solo album that wasn’t just rerecordings of material from Beach Boys albums.

The end result of Pacific Ocean Blue came at the Beach Boys’ weakest period. After a hiatus partially prompted by a total lack of good material and extensive touring*, a huge “Brian is Back!” campaign led up to the release of 15 Big Ones, fifteen songs, most covers of hits from the 1950s. It has a few supposed Brian Wilson originals that don’t sound like anything Brian wrote before or since, leading to theories that these had music by Mike Love and lyrics by Love and either manager/scumbag Jack Rieley or therapist/scumbag Eugene Landy. It’s easily the worst album in their history. Even worse than Wild Honey.

They followed 15 Big Ones with Love You, the most bizarre album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve listened to a lot of weird shit out of morbid curiosity. Weirdly, repeated listens (which come as a result of the initial amusement/”what the fuck?” factor) actually reveal the album as something…well, “good” is too strong a word, but it’s not nearly as bad and off-putting as it initially seems. It was also a mild triumph because, insane as the music is, it’s all pure Brian Wilson. He wrote and produced every track, and you can tell because it sounds like the kind of album a lunatic would love.

This was followed by 1978’s M.I.U. Album, 1979’s L.A. (Light Album), and 1980’s Keep the Summer Alive. And holy shit, if there’s a worse run of albums in any band’s catalog, I’d love to hear about it. The uneven output from the late-’60s through mid-’70s all had at least a few great songs that transcended the mediocrity (or outright shit—thanks for “The California Saga,” Mike and Al!). Excepting Love You and the tiny offering of Dennis Wilson songs on these albums, there is nothing to redeem these albums. They are absolute shit from start to finish, with Light Album tamping down the shit with its 10-minute disco remix of a song from Wild Honey (their worst ’60s album) that wasn’t even good in the first place. Shit!

It’s really tough to believe that Pacific Ocean Blue even came from the same universe as the Beach Boys of the late-’70s. An album full of passionate, heartfelt, depressing songs, with boundless surprises and an interesting contemporary sound—the total opposite of the cold, calculated, deliberately out-of-date style of lounge-lizard-wannabes Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. At this point it seems like Carl had just given up, Al was along for the ride, and it’s a known fact that Brian went back to bed after Love You. How could the same band—the same lead singer, in this particular case—produce a song as bad as “Mona” [download link removed 3/13/08] in the same year Pacific Ocean Blue came out?

I guess the important thing is we have it, the one and only Dennis Wilson solo album. A second album, supposedly titled Bamboo, was in the works, but only a few songs (of varying quality and stages of completion) survived. Brother Studios—and Brother Records, the band’s imprint—were shut down shortly after Pacific Ocean Blue, so he had nowhere to toil. He had no money. He—I swear I am not making this up—knocked up the illegitimate daughter of cousin Mike Love (he knocked up his assistant in the mid-’60s) who had been largely disowned by the family. She was underage at the time, but he was determined to see this through—and only a year and a half after the baby was born, Dennis drowned. He had alcohol and drugs in his system (no surprises there), but at the time he was pretty beaten down and many of his close friends suspected suicide. Quite a downer. But it’s nice that we have this one album…

…Oh, except we don’t. Even though you can buy the entire late-’70s Beach Boys shitfest (a shitfest that continued through the ’80s and ’90s, CDs of which are all currently available), Sony Music has left Pacific Ocean Blue out of print since 1992. Does the twofer release of Light Album and M.I.U. really sell that well?** Jesus.

So fine, then. Fuck Sony. I have it. And I’m putting out there for the Internet masses (all both of you who read my blog, who have probably stopped reading by this point because as soon as you realized this was me ranting about Beach Boys history, you checked out). Because what will Sony do? Say I’m depriving them of money from an album they no longer print? Hell, if anything, I’m promoting this album, exposing them to it so Sony realizes there’s demand for this album and it will make money. Also, I’m saving all the people trying to buy out-of-print copies for hundreds of dollars. Sure, maybe the CD copy will be better—if it’s actually one of the original CDs and not just somebody burning a CD-R of these same lower-quality MP3s. So download to your heart’s content.

Update, 3/13/08—Sorry, random Internet folks. I offered a download of this album, in its entirety, for the reasons above—but some sites have abused it. These spiders troll the Web, looking for illicit MP3s, so if you do a search, up pops all the MP3 links—without this entry. Consequently, the server was getting hammered to hell with requests. It has nothing to do with a C&D from Sony or anyone else, which once again demonstrates how little folks care about this album. It has more to do with bandwidth abuse and reducing the server load. (A site with virtually nothing but HTML text—even six years’ worth of my long, rambling entries—should not be approaching 1GB of bandwidth usage 13 days into the month. That’s inexcusable.)

If you aren’t a Beach Boys fan but like ’70s rock, this is worth checking out. It sounds absolutely nothing like the Beach Boys (from any era), even to the extent that Dennis Wilson’s voice was so ragged by the late-’70s that it doesn’t even have a sunshine-pop vocal sound. It’s more like Bob Seger with a sore throat.

*Ironically, their biggest hit album of the ’70s was a compilation of all their old hits that coincided with American Graffiti and exploited the nostalgia craze for all it was worth. Even more ironically, while the band could barely play their instruments during their initial wave of popularity, the mid-’70s incarnation of the Beach Boys was one of the best live acts around, despite Mike Love’s horrid between-song “banter.” [Back]

**I’m aware that Capitol owns all the old Beach Boys stuff and Sony owns the Dennis Wilson album, but come on! [Back]

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American Masters — Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built

When Ahmet Ertegun founded Atlantic Records in 1947 with the $10,000 investment of his dentist, he never guessed it would be a lifelong career. The son of a Turkish civil servant, Ertegun was so certain that his record label would be short-lived that he penned songs under the name “Nugetre” so that, when he followed in his father’s footsteps and entered a career of government service, nobody would know he had spent a few years writing “obscene” songs.

Atlantic began as a three-person operation, with Ertegun and co-founder Herb Abramson producing the music and doing the A&R and promotion work, and Abramson’s wife Miriam doing all of the office work. As its reputation grew, the label got slightly bigger but still operated as a small independent, amassing artists like Ray Charles, Ben E. King, Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Darin, along with the songwriting team of Leiber & Stoller and legendary producer Phil Spector. Atlantic managed to outlast the many other independents of the R&B and early rock era thanks to Ertegun’s sensible approach to running a record label: he signed artists he liked and hoped the world liked them just as much. Fortunately for him, they did.

American Masters presents a two-hour retrospective, mostly in chronological order, that both reveals Ertegun’s life story (told largely in the form of anecdotes told by Ertegun, his wife, and many Atlantic artists) while telling the history of the label, highlighting its big “gets” and detailing the adaptability that allowed the label to survive in the sea of major labels. While Ertegun passed away in December of last year, his interviews are spirited and entertaining—he’s obviously a man who’s young at heart, even into his 80s. It’s clear from the affection of legends like Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger that they all have tremendous respect and admiration for this man and the record label he built.

The piece drags a bit in certain spots, mostly when the chronicling relies on narration or third-party anecdotes rather than Ertegun’s own interviews. However, the classic jazz, R&B, and rock music and great archive footage of live performances more than make up for it. The last half hour is pretty bumpy, though, as the classics give way to contemporary acts that haven’t stood the test of time, and the narration gets repetitive as it winds down.

Overall, this is an entertaining look at a music icon who probably doesn’t get his due outside of the business because much of his work happened behind the scenes. By believing in himself and his artists, and being a music lover before a businessman, Ahmet Ertegun created a successful business and revolutionized the music industry.

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Gideon’s Trumpet (1980)

They don’t make TV movies like this anymore. Hell, they don’t make many TV movies at all, but these days few outside certain cable outlets would make a movie featuring a 12-minute scene containing nothing but lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court (and justices arguing back)—no background music, no flashy camera work or bizarre editing, nothing but impassioned oratory and incredible acting.

Gideon’s Trumpet, an excellent made-for-TV movie from 1980 that finally comes to DVD via Acorn Media, stars Henry Fonda as an elderly fellow who becomes a victim of both circumstance and shoddy law enforcement: he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when the court refuses to appoint an attorney, Fonda stumbles through the trial in an attempt to defend himself. He’s a man of average intelligence, without any real idea of how to conduct himself in a court of law, and watching scene after scene of his awkward cross-examinations becomes heartbreaking. Fonda was the king of the “everyman,” able to elicit sympathy just by being there, shoulders hunched a bit, hands in his pockets, shifting his confused and humiliated gaze from the judge to the witness. It’s no surprise that he’s found guilty, but it is surprising that he’s given the maximum sentence—five years in the state pen.

The crime? Breaking into a pool hall to steal $25, some beer, some wine, and some Coca-Cola from a pool hall. Granted, the film takes place in the early 1960s, so $25 was a fair chunk of change, but is it worth five years in prison? Well, maybe it is—one of the nice things about Gideon’s Trumpet is its unwillingness to pull punches. Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon is not a bad person, but the film is very effective at painting his flaws as well as his heroism: he’s a drifter who’s been jailed four previous times for petty crimes. The judge’s stiff sentence serves to teach him a lesson, and while Gideon admits to the previous crimes, he’s outraged when the state convicts him of this theft.

While in prison, Gideon spends much of his time at the library teaching himself about the law. When he realizes he’s been unfairly—and illegally—treated by the state of Florida, he writes an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. How the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case feels a little simplified, on par with Schoolhouse Rock, but Gideon’s Trumpet is based on fact so the bottom line is, the Supreme Court got word of Gideon’s request for appeal.

A few justices’ opinions haven’t changed since a decision made 20 years earlier, Betts v. Brady, which ruled that courts are not required to appoint defense attorneys unless the defendant has “special circumstances” (illiteracy, race discrimination, mental problems, etc.). An unfair decision that doesn’t take into account the complexity of the law and the simple inability of men of “average intelligence” to properly defend themselves, many states had already rectified the decision in the intervening 20 years. Florida was not one of them. The Supreme Court sees this as an opportunity to overturn the decision at a federal level and, despite a few disagreeable justices, agrees to rehear the case.

After hearing the arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of Gideon—but like many others, he’s not off the hook right away. They’ll retry him with a lawyer, and if he’s found guilty a second time, that’s it. Gideon stubbornly argues that this is double jeopardy, not understanding that it qualifies as part of the appeals process. While an ACLU rep and lawyer try to explain this to him, Gideon flies off the handle and sends both of them away, insisting on being represented by local attorney Fred Turner (Lane Smith, from V and Lois & Clark, who blends a shabby Lionel Hutz appearance with Darrow-like passion). The film is bookended by the two trials: the first showing Gideon’s tragic incompetence, the second allowing Turner to easily poke holes into witness statements and circumstantial evidence, which not only reveal Gideon’s innocence—but the guilt of the key witness.

Aside from Fonda and Smith, the film is a veritable who’s-who of “Hey! It’s that guy”-type stars: John Houseman from The Paper Chase (who served as executive producer of this film) as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny, Cyrano de Bergerac), Fay Wray (King Kong), Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle), and dozens of veteran character actors like Dolph Sweet (best known as the chief from Gimme a Break!) and Gary Grubbs (most recently on The O.C.). The pseudo-vérité style the film sometimes employs succeeds despite the plethora of recognizable actors—they manage to blend in and, through the strength of their performances, lend more realism to the story.

Anybody looking for a dramatization of a landmark case we now take for granted—our right to a public defender—will find an exceptional story in Gideon’s Trumpet.

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Cracker: A New Terror (2006)

Perhaps wanting to distance himself from international success as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies, Robbie Coltrane returns to his other famous role, Dr. Eddie Fitzgerald, an abusive, insecure, alcoholic forensic psychologist. A New Terror takes a “ripped-from-the-headlines” approach by drawing parallels between America’s War on Terror and the terrorist acts in Northern Ireland and England. I know some about this political situation, but not much, and that’s kind of the point.

Like A Touch of Frost, Cracker: A New Terror cuts between Fitz’s domestic woes (he’s come back to England from Australia, where he and his wife have lived for 12 years, for his daughters wedding) and getting roped into a murder investigation, and the life of the soon-to-be murderer, a former British soldier named Kenny Archer (Anthony Flanagan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress in the wake of his own involvement in quelling Northern Irish terrorist forces. He plays Russian roulette while on the phone with suicide hotlines, saying things to the social worker like, “If I don’t kill myself, it’ll be somebody else.”

True to his word, he kills an American stand-up comic who makes a series of obscene, on-the-nose jokes comparing al-Qaeda to the Northern Irish. Archer is, by coincidence (I assume?), in the same bar getting trashed, and he decides it’s an appropriate time for murder. But the plot thickens: Archer is a cop, and the stand-up comic is the son of a wealthy American businessman and his socialite wife. Let the commentary begin!

Yes, Cracker: A New Terror features an overwhelming amount of angst over American foreign policy: globalization, the War on Terror, our cultural ignorance about happenings abroad. It’s pretty harsh, and unfortunately pretty true, but let this serve as a warning for folks who might not take criticism of our country lying down: watching this won’t make you happy.

Archer’s actions excel, especially when he’s assigned to protect the wealthy American family. He kills the father, tries to make it look like a robbery, but it strikes Fitz as a little too suspicious. It’s perhaps inevitable that Fitz will get his man, which is why the writers pad the episode with trouble involving his wife. I’ve never seen the original Cracker series, but it appears his wife wanted Fitz to retire for a reason; she’s not pleased about him getting dragged back into the underworld of murder and depravity when he’s supposed to be spending time with his daughter and grandkids. The conclusion of the procedural aspects probably won’t surprise, but the ending of his domestic woes are a bit more shocking.

Fans of the Cracker series regard this as a mediocre-at-best “episode” of the series, but I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. If this is mediocrity, I look forward to checking out the original Cracker series.

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Chancer: Series 1 (1990)

For the first three episodes of Chancer, I listened to a great deal of high-finance jargon and dry British wit, witnessed obscene actions of manipulation and deceit, but if asked to explain the story I would have stammered and stumbled and given up. I had no clue what was happening or why. I had to plunge forward for the sake of the review, however, but if it had just been me, catching a marathon of reruns at 2 a.m. on BBC America, I would have shut it off in frustration.

I couldn’t tell you if the show made sense to British audiences in 1990; maybe the intrigue and confusion of the high-finance world appealed to that post-Wall Street era more than it does to a person living in the collapsed rubble of the e-Conomy bubble. But as the characters formulated and as the dust and debris of the machinations of the first three episodes settled, Chancer turns into an enjoyable epic of corporate corruption, city “ethics” versus country morality, and globalization.

The story begins with a fire at Douglas Motors, a small company that manufactures luxury Leopards (I assume this is a play on Jaguar) selling for ridiculous amounts of money. Each Leopard is hand-crafted, but decades of automation and decreasing car prices are leading Douglas to collapse. To the bank, the fire is the last straw. Robert Douglas (Benjamin Whitrow, giving perhaps the strongest performance on the show) refuses to let his company die like this. His son-in-law, Gavin (Matthew Marsh), offers to talk to his business consultant friend in London.

Enter Stephen Crane (Clive Owen), a manipulative risk-taker who somehow manages to come out on top, every time. Even after some light insider trading during the first few episodes, Crane joins up with Douglas Motors and offers himself a huge salary to consult without having anything like a business model, a strategy to cut the competition, or investors. Who needs them?

The first half of the series revolves around Stephen Crane’s brash, citified business anti-ethics getting in the way of Robert Douglas’s close-knit, family-operated motor company. When Douglas finally accepts that Crane has the best of intentions, the series shifts more to focus on how Crane will manage to keep the company afloat by doing fairly illegal things while trying to avoid getting caught. It’s especially difficult when business rival Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd) and former boss Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) are out for blood.

The story builds to massive payoffs in the last three episodes. Each is constructed as a nearly standalone thriller as Stephen Crane’s past misdeeds catch up to him, and he has to deftly maneuver to stay ahead of businessmen who share his craft and cunning but have the added emotional investment of crushing Crane, and by extension Douglas Motors. The angst boils over until the series froths to its depressing, existential conclusion.

Once the show lays down its business ground rules and gives the impression of what it will be about, Chancer is a wildly entertaining, unpredictable series. However, it has the occasional misstep in the form of soap-opera subplots that go nowhere. Perhaps this is what audiences went for at the time (maybe it’s what audiences still go for now, if the popularity of Grey’s Anatomy is any indication), but it mars an otherwise complex, interesting show. We have the mysterious story of the prodigal son, Jamie Douglas (Sean Pertwee, giving an alternately bizarre and irritating performance), returning to the family for the first time since his mother’s death four years earlier. Other than giving Benjamin Whitrow some great material to work with, it doesn’t add up to much, and Jamie’s pretty much forgotten by the writers a few episodes after he leaves.

There is a similar preoccupation with romantic entanglements. Gavin cheats on his wife with a store clerk in town (among others); Stephen Crane dumps kindred spirit Joanna Franklyn (Susannah Harker) for Robert Douglas’s tedious, egotistical daughter Victoria (Lynsey Baxter). Joanna gets involved with Crane’s rival, Piers. At best, these tacked-on stories reveal new insights into the characters. I still wish they’d done more to justify their existence, considering the way many of them peter out without satisfactory conclusions. Victoria simply waltzes off to a new job in America and Crane forgets her almost immediately. Gavin’s story leads to a lot of melodrama and goofiness.

Joanna’s relationships with both Piers and Crane are probably the most interesting, nuanced, and necessary romantic stories. Her father is a tycoon investing in Douglas Motors whose role grows more and more prominent as the show progresses. Joanna is also a co-conspirator in Crane’s insider trading early in the series. She shares a chemistry with Stephen Crane unmatched by Victoria, who wants to while away the hours arguing with Crane while a “look how cute I think I am” smile creases her face. I’d rather have the histrionics of selfish Gavin shouting at his wife Penny (Caroline Langrishe) than that.

Still, these subplots can’t keep Chancer down. They pad the proceedings a bit, but in the end it’s a series well worth watching, especially for Clive Owen fans. Although Benjamin Whitrow’s Robert Douglas has King Lear-esque shades of depth and vulnerability, the show belongs to Owen. He starts the series as an unabashedly unpleasant grifter, but by the end, audiences will find themselves cheering for him and his misanthropic actions. That’s no small feat.

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