Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Road to Hell Starts at 42nd Street: The Lady in Red

Oh, it figures. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have every other film critic on the Net waxing nostalgic over the B-films of the 1970s and yet the one such B-film that keeps popping up in my mind is one of the few films that no cybercritic apart from me wants to remember.* I am referring, of course, to the 1979 effort The Lady in Red.

Why do I remember this film so fondly? Well, for one thing, it was one of the first B-films writer John Sayles wrote prior to becoming famous with more respectable efforts like Lone Star and Return of the Secaucus Seven. Moreover, it is his one attempt at writing an old-time gangster movie -- and quite an interesting attempt at that.

The movie has a somewhat memorable performance by actress Pamela Sue Martin, a former TV star who back in 1979 was most famous for playing girl detective Nancy Drew in ABC's The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries. In many ways, the character Ms. Martin plays in this movie -- farm girl Polly Franklin -- was similar to the character of Nancy Drew. Both characters were rather sweet, clever women with a capacity for getting in trouble. Yet they were different.

For one thing, Ms. Franklin came from a more rural environment than Ms. Drew. She had a more tragic story arc than Ms. Drew and she encountered problems Ms. Drew never ever encountered on the TV show. It has been said that this movie was Pamela Sue Martin's first attempt to change her image from that of the goody two-shoes-ish Nancy Drew, a change she would later complete when she got a role in the 1980s primetime soap opera Dynasty. Ms. Martin had several nude scenes throughout this film in which viewers saw far more of Ms. Martin than would have been possible in her Nancy Drew days. She also had some sex scenes as well, and it is no coincidence that that this movie used to be shown after hours when it hit the cable channels.

The character of Polly Franklin was based on Polly Hamilton, the real-life girlfriend of Depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Did the movie accurately portray Ms. Hamilton? That is a question for the viewer to decide.

As the movie starts out, Polly is singing the title song from the movie 42nd Street while she collects eggs from the chickens on her widowed father's farm, even going so far as to improvise a clumsy but heartfelt imitation of 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler's dancing. Movies obviously play a big part in Ms. Franklin's life, and since her father is not depicted as being a warm and loving patriarch, it is not hard to guess why.

When Polly goes into town, she can not resist parking by the local movie theatre which just happens to be showing 42nd Street. Assuming that no one is watching, Polly helps herself to two movie photos posted outside the theatre, only to find herself being watched by a slightly older lady in red. (Not necessarily the lady in red of the title, but a lady in red, for sure.) The woman proves to be part of a gang of bank robbers who may or may not be affiliated with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. She abducts poor Polly at gunpoint and forces her to stand on the getaway car's running board while her gang tries to outrun the local cops.

Poor Polly is eventually released unharmed, but her troubles do not end there. She is interrogated by the police, seduced by a reporter, and beaten by her father. And that is just in the movie's first half-hour. Eventually she runs away to Chicago, where she starts work in a garment factory and gets involved in a new mess of trouble. Every time she seems to be out of one crisis, she winds up in another, going from one bad situation to one far worse until she ends up working in a whorehouse. Circumstances beyond her control force the whorehouse to close, and Polly starts working a relatively honest job as a waitress. But then she gets involved with John Dillinger and then her life gets even more complicated.

She is falsely accused of being the infamous “lady in red,” the notorious femme fatale who lured Dillinger to his death in front of -- you guessed it -- a movie theatre. She resolves to avenge herself on the true culprit and along the way, decides to stage a bank robbery to get back at yet another nemesis. Eventually her life comes full circle and she finds herself pulling a gun on an innocent farm girl the same way a gun was once pulled on her. And guess what? By that time, she really is a lady in red. Do Polly's actions affect the farm girl in the same way the original Lady in Red's actions affected Polly? Sayles wisely prefers to leave the answer to that question to the audience's imagination.

At the end of the movie, Polly is seen hitching a ride to California. Are her troubles over at last? Probably not, but Sayles has enough compassion for his protagonist to give her a brief respite. And that is one of the reasons I like this movie more than the usual B-grade gangster film. Sayles' script shows a genuine compassion for Polly's plight that I rarely see in such movies.

That does not mean that the script does not have its share of clunkers. There are quite a few scenes that are way too melodramatic -- even by B-film standards -- not to mention a “I am Spartacus” moment in a garment factory that comes across as being far less realistic than it should be. Sayles never once seems to show a cop in this film who has the public's best interests at heart, and he is hardly subtle when depicting the misogynistic religious sentiments of Polly's father.

Yet he never once depicts things in such an unrealistic fashion that I find myself rolling my eyes and saying, “Oh, yes, stuff like this could never have happened back then.” It might not have necessarily happened to one person, but I often got the feeling that it did happen. After all, farm girls did get beaten by their fathers back then. Farm girls did tend to run away from home when they were beaten. And of course, runaways did -- and do -- tend to come to sticky ends in the big cities of any era. As much as one would like to think elsewise, the exploitation of female factory workers and prostitutes was not something Sayles just made up for the sake of the movie.

As for the direction, Lewis Teague is not likely to be numbered among the great film auteurs of our time. But like Sayles, he keeps things moving at a fast rate. After seeing all too many modern B-films that go on and on and on with storylines that are not quite as exciting as the filmmakers think they are, I was quite surprised at how fast-paced this film seemed. Sayles likes big speeches as much as any screenwriter, but he also knows something about how to pace a story so that I learn just enough about a character to have the story make sense without getting so bored that I start glancing at my watch.

The result is not likely to get a thumbs up from the Merchant-Ivory crowd, but then this movie was not aimed at that crowd. I like to think that the fact that this movie still rattles around in my memory more than a decade after I first saw it means something positive. Of course, it could simply mean that I have the same taste in movies as director Quentin Tarantino. But I prefer to be a bit more optimistic than that.

* Okay, Quentin Tarantino remembers it quite fondly, too, because he used it in a recent film festival, but he does not count as a cybercritic.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Literary Quote I Like

It just seems to me that half of America lives in hell and the other half gets its rocks off watching.
--Scout in Ben Elton's Popcorn

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Science Fiction Mix

1. “Flying Saucer” -- Brave Combo. A novelty song that actually manages to make the quest to see an actual UFO seem downright poetic if not philosophical.

2. “Galaxy Song” -- Monty Python's Flying Circus. Speaking of philosophy...

3. “Mr. Spaceman” --- The Byrds. Long before the advent of Mulder and Scully, the Byrds were producing their musical take on the whole UFO phenomenon with a tune that doesn't sound all that dated.

4. “Planet Claire” -- The B-52s. Everyone's favorite New Wave group has fun with sci fi.

5. “Space Cowboy” -- Steve Miller Band. A song from the late 1960s that has no relation to a certain Clint Eastwood movie with a similar title. Bet you weren't ready for that.

6. “Space Oddity” -- David Bowie. Apparently a lot of people in the late 1960s were thinking of outer space. Can't imagine why. That moon landing, perhaps?

7. “The Martian Boogie” -- Brownsville Station. A not so serious take on the whole alien encounter theme. Fortunately, there was no follow-up about the Venusian Hustle.

8. “They're Here” -- Boots Walker. A song about paranormal paranoia that you can dance to.

9. “U.F.O. Attack” -- The Asylum Street Spankers. A Texas group comes up with almost every sci-fi cliché you can think of--as well as a few you would rather not have thought of.

10. “X-Files Theme (DADO Paranormal Activity Mix)” -- DJ Dado. The best of the many tunes that were allegedly inspired by the X-Files TV series. Its one line (“Do you really want to know?”) is probably the most serious question raised by a sci-fi song to date.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

All the New Movies That I Have Seen

1. Waitress (2007).

Actress/director Adrienne Shelly's last movie. Interesting if uneven. Worth seeing even if it seems to be attracting a larger female audience than most movies. (I wasn't the only male at the afternoon matinee I attended, but I was definitely outnumbered by female movie-goers.)

2. Hot Fuzz (2007).

The Shaun of the Dead crew spoof police action thrillers. And do a remarkably good job of it. Yet more proof -- apart from Flushed Away -- that we Americans might have to start outsourcing our comic films to Great Britain.

3. Spider Man 3 (2007).

The last -- and least -- of the Spiderman trilogy. Sam Raimi has done better work. Still better than most films out there but not quite as magical as the first two films in the series.

4. Music and Lyrics (2007).

Hugh Grant plays yet another dysfunctional personality with connections to the music industry. Not quite About a Boy Two -- mainly because it's nowhere near that good -- but watchable. The 1980s video parody in the opening sequence is the best part of the movie, so if you wish to leave after the first ten minutes, you probably won't miss much.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

“Those Were The Days”: An Appreciation

“Those Were the Days” -- Mary Hopkin. Oh, geez. Those of us who were born in the early 1960s (the tail end of the baby boom) never had a chance. Not only did nostalgia for decades we had never lived through turn out to be the big trend of our teenage years (not to mention our twentysomething years, our thirtysomething years, etc.), but songs like this were embedded in our memories during childhood, making it almost impossible to enjoy our youth without wondering if we were going to turn out like the poor woman in this song.

My mother used to own an album with this song on it, and even as a child, I had a mixed reaction to this song. Was I supposed to feel sorry for the woman in this song who had apparently seen her youthful dreams slip away like so much dust and ash? Or was I supposed to feel more sorry for her friend, who at the end of the song seemed way too oblivious to realize that he was supposed to feel sad about anything?

And even allowing for the fact that the song is a remake of an old song, how odd is it that this particular version was being sung by a woman who wasn't even yet twenty when she recorded it. Was she waxing nostalgic for junior high? Grammar school? Kindergarten? The womb?

No wonder my generation was so obsessed with nostalgia. Welsh singer Mary Hopkin was already pushing the stuff upon us big time before we were even old enough to have a youth for which we could wax nostalgic.

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Thoughts on the Opening of a New Restaurant

A new Hooters-style restaurant named Twin Peaks is opening in Plano. Somehow I doubt that the waitresses will be wrapped in plastic.

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Thoughts on Viewing a Display of Discounted Easter Candy

I can understand the reason why someone might want to devour a chocolate rabbit, a chocolate chick or even a chocolate lamb.

But why would anyone in his or her right mind want to eat a chocolate bug?

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Random Thought

Should I not find it more than a little scary that a recent amor de mi vida looked more than a little like the Ali Larter character on Heroes?

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Cartoon Quote of the Week

What this country is in need of
Is a lot of hi-de-ho,
Boop-a-doop and chocolate ice cream.
--Mae Questel, “Betty Boop for President” (1932)

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All the Not So Classic Books That I Have Read, Part Two

1. Voltaire! Voltaire! (1961) -- Guy Endore.

Not quite a novel. Not quite a history book. An account of French philosophers Rousseau and Voltaire and the odd relationship between them. Very interesting.

2. King of Paris (1956) -- Guy Endore.

Endore does for Alexandre Dumas, Sr. and Jr., what Voltaire! Voltaire! did for Voltaire and Rousseau. A very entertaining book. However, it does bring up the question of why no movie maker in this country has ever tried to make a movie about either member of the Dumas family. It's certainly not because the two of them are uninteresting.

3. Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls (2003) -- Matt Ruff.

A young person with MPD discovers a kindred spirit.

4. The Gun Seller (1996) -- Hugh Laurie.

A comic novel that actually lives up to its rep. And yes, its author is the same Hugh Laurie who starred in Blackadder and House.

5. Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) -- Jeff Lindsay.

A novel about a heroic serial killer--yes, you read that right. Inspiration for the current Showtime TV series Dexter.

6. Red Dragon (1981) -- Thomas Harris.

The first of the Hannibal Lecter novels.

7. State of Fear (2004) -- Michael Crichton.

Crichton's controversial take on global warming and the “true” menace to society--eco-terrorists.

8. Aztec (1980) -- Gary Jennings.

A long but interesting novel about an Aztec who lives through the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

9. The Journeyer (1984) -- Gary Jennings.

The uncensored life of Marco Polo.

10. Spangle (1987) -- Gary Jennings.

A pair of Civil War veterans join a circus that goes on a tour of post-Civil War America and Europe.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Quote of the Week

Once you accept the idea that the representation of violence is in itself harmful to society, much of the finest world cinema would be banned, from Eisenstein to Kurosawa to Kubrick and Polanski to Coppola and Scorsese. Most genre films would have to go too: film noir, horror, gangster films, Westerns. This form of censorship, taken to its logical conclusion, clearly means the end of art. However, it does have a point, because no matter how moral or ironic or satirical a filmmaker might think a work is, he or she can have no control over how a member of the audience will receive it. No sane person could watch Taxi Driver and decide that it was a good idea to shoot the president -- but an insane person did. And who is to say that your audience will always consist of the sane?
--Mary Harron, director of American Psycho

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Cinco de Mayo Is “Diss the Mexicans” Day

The DJs on one local radio morning show that shall remain nameless used the recent Cinco de Mayo holiday to go off on all things Mexican. They dissed illegal aliens, they dissed Americans who were sympathetic to illegal aliens, they dissed the Mexican government, and they dissed Mexicans in general.

Then of course they complained about the way that Mexican-Americans were always accusing people like themselves of racism.

Heh. Irony.

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Literary Quote I Like

Or, and this he didn't like to admit even to himself, perhaps he had become a private investigator because in his daydreams he saw himself as a hero.
--Rudolfo Anaya, Zia Summer

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Literary Quote I Don't Like

“You think I'm Mex.”

“Nothing like it.”

“Yes, you do. You're not the first one. Well, get this. I'm just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little that way, but I'm just as white as you are. You want to get along good around here, you won't forget that.”

“Why, you don't look Mex.”

“I'm telling you. I'm just as white as you are.”

“No, you don't look even a little bit Mex. Those Mexican women, they all got big hips and bum legs and breasts up under their chin and yellow skin and hair that looks like it had bacon fat on it. You don't look like that. You're small, and got nice white skin, and your hair is soft and curly, even if it is black. Only thing you've got that's Mex is your teeth. They all got white teeth, you've got to hand that to them.”
--James M. Cain, The Postman Rings Twice

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Adventures in Profiling, Part One

I used to think I knew what Middle Eastern people looked like because:

1. I had read a lot about the Middle East.
2. I had gone to school with Iranian immigrants.
3. I had once worked with a Pakistani.
4. My family is rumored to have had Arabic ancestors.
5. A few of my relatives have Arabic features and one was even nicknamed “Arab Princess” by my late father.

So imagine my surprise last autumn when a friend introduced me to a redheaded guy who was the father of her daughter's baby and then casually admitted later on that the guy was Iraqi.

Given the amount of racial intermarriage in the Middle East, I shouldn't have been that surprised. But let's face it. Red hair is not exactly a physical feature commonly associated with Iraqis. And while I don't know the man's religious affiliation -- he could very well have been Muslim but he could have been Christian as well -- I could not help but wonder what would happen if our enemies abroad chose to recruit people who looked more like that redheaded guy than like a Muslim who had a more conventional type of appearance. After all, it's hardly reasonable to pretend that people fighting the USA pay no attention to the number of conservatives who urge our law enforcement agencies to only focus their terrorist fighting efforts on people who look Muslim. And to pretend they won't make an effort to foil our expectations by recruiting people who don't look like our idea of terrorists assumes that our enemies are stupid.

No doubt some of our foes have proved less than geniuses. But to assume that they all are that way is to assume that our enemies are stupid, and assuming stupidity on the part of the enemy has never been a smart move.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

All the Not So Classic Books That I Have Read, Part One

Again a not so complete list.

1. Emma Who Saved My Life (1989) -- Wilton Barnhardt.

A novel about New York City in the 1970s and '80s as seen through the eyes of a naive young man.

2. Gospel (1993) -- Wilton Barnhardt.

A pair of scholars wander the globe in pursuit of a possible new version of the Gospel. (Not to be confused with The Da Vinci Code.)

3. Show World: A Novel (1999) -- Wilton Barnhardt.

A young woman fights disillusionment in a variety of areas: family life, politics, business, etc.

4. Inside, Outside (1985) -- Herman Wouk.

An old Jewish man looks back upon his life and notes the many conflicts between his Jewish background and his life in the secular world -- including his love for a Gentile showgirl.

5. The Winds of War (1971) -- Herman Wouk.

The novel that inspired the TV mini-series of the same name.

6. War and Remembrance (1978) -- Herman Wouk.


7. Marjorie Morningstar (1955) -- Herman Wouk.

A young Jewish woman learns about life and love while in pursuit of an acting career.

8. The Egyptian (1945) -- Mika Waltari.

An Egyptian doctor becomes a royal insider during the reign of Akhenaten, Egypt's only monotheistic pharaoh.

9. The Adventurer (1948) -- Mika Waltari.

A Finnish bastard makes his way through Europe in the time of the Reformation.

10. The Wanderer (1949) -- Mika Waltari.

A sequel to The Adventurer.

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Things I've Learned from My Mother

1. People are the product of their experiences.
2. Five years are going to go by, regardless of your actions, so you might as well do something useful with that five years.
3. True love is loving someone despite the fact that he or she imperfect, not because he or she is perfect. After all, if you only reserve your affection for people who are perfect, how can you possibly expect to love yourself when you discover yourself to be imperfect?

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Movie Quote of the Week

Now Sid, don't you blame the movies. Movies don't create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!
--Skeet Ulrich, Scream (1996)

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