Film Review: Fahrenheit 451 (dir by Ramin Bahrani)


(Before reading this review, make sure that you’ve read my review of Ray Bradbury’s novel!)

(And then make you sure that you’ve read my review of the 1966 Truffaut film!)

The latest HBO original film, Fahrenheit 451, is bad.

For all the talent involved, for all the hype, and for all the hope that many of us had for it, it is extremely bad.  It sets up its targets and then fires at them with all the aim and success of a myopic archer.  By almost any standard, it’s a misfire of almost Vinyl proportions.

The film, of course, is based on Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia where the population is kept in line through pharmaceuticals and mind-numbing television and where firemen burn books.  Michael B. Jordan plays Montag, the fireman who develops doubts.  Michael Shannon plays Beatty, Montag’s boss. Sofia Boutella is Clarisse, who inspires Montag to question why.  And no one plays Montag’s wife because that character was apparently cut from the film.

From the minute this version starts, it’s obvious that this film was inspired less by Bradbury and more by Black Mirror, Blade Runner, and the Purge franchise.  The entire world is defined by neon and dark shadows.  Gone is Bradbury’s suggestion that a world without books would be a bland one.  Instead, a world without books is now one that looks like every single recent sci-fi film.  People may have stopped reading but apparently, they’re still watching old Ridley Scott movies.

Gone too is the idea of Montag as a middle-aged man struggling with an existential crisis.  Now, he’s Michael B. Jordan, who comes across as if he’s never had a moment of doubt in his entire life.  He’s less Montag and more Creed in an authoritarian future.  Also gone is the weary relationship with Captain Beatty.  Now, Beatty is almost a father figure to Montag.  Of course, Montag’s real father died mysteriously years ago.  Nothing indicates a lazy screenwriter quicker than a character with daddy issues.

As I mentioned earlier, in this version, Montag is not married.  Instead, he lives a bachelor lifestyle in a glitzy apartment and he spends most of his time asking questions to the future’s version of Alexa, Yuxie.  (“Yuxie, was Benjamin Franklin the first fireman?”)  Of course, in the novel, Montag’s wife stood in for every citizen who never questioned why books were being burned.  It was Montag’s dissatisfaction with his bland home life that led to him getting to know Clarisse and eventually questioning his job as a fireman.  Now, Montag starts to doubt after a random rebel says that Benjamin Franklin didn’t support burning books.  But why, if Montag has spent a lifetime refusing to question anything, would some rando rebel suddenly make him reconsider?

The Book People are still around but now they’re kind of a pain.  I love books but I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of them.  They’re a humorless group of people who live in a farm and apparently being a book person means you can’t wash your hair or something because seriously, everyone looked a bit grimy.  I mean, it’s important to rebel again authoritarianism but that doesn’t meant you can’t look good while doing it.  Each Book Person has memorized a book and you have to wonder how they decide who gets to memorize which book.  We’re told that one Book Person has memorized Chairman Mao but if you’re battling censorship, would you really want to hang out with a person who has devoted her life to the guy behind the Cultural Revolution?  Another Book Person claims to have memorized all of Proust but I think he’s a damn liar.  I mean, how is anyone going to check that?  I’m guessing he probably only memorized the first 20 pages or so of Swann’s Way.  What I want to know is who got to memorize the Twilight books?

This version of Fahrenheit 451 is a bit of a mess.  I’m not one to demand that literary adaptations stick exactly to their source material.  (For instance, the film version of The Godfather was greatly improved by ignoring 60% of what happened in Mario Puzo’s novel.  For that matter, we can all be thankful that It didn’t end with the Losers Club solidifying their bond by having group sex with Beverly.)  But, in this case, the changes don’t improve on the original.  Instead, they just turn Fahrenheit 451 into yet another shadowy dystopian film.

When it comes to Fahrenheit 451, my advice is just to read the book.

This Is What A Mountain Of Coke And A Deal With HBO Will Get You: Disco Beaver From Outer Space (dir by Joshua White)


So, this happened:

Every Saturday, I get together with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang and we watch a movie.  I’m usually the one who picks the movie.  I usually try to pick something fun and kinda silly.  For instance, every Christmas, we watch Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.  Last week, we watched Tobor The Great.  And this week, I selected a 51-minute program from 1978.  The name of that program?

Disco Beaver From Outer Space.

Now, I have to admit that this was one of the rare instances where I didn’t actually bother to watch the entire movie before selecting it.  I did watch the first five minutes on YouTube.  It featured someone in a beaver costume walking around New York City and eating stuff while disco music played in the background.  That was all I needed to see.

An alien beaver eating New York!?  I thought, Disco music!?  How could this possibly go wrong!?

Add to that, the movie only had 51 minute run time.  Even if it’s terrible, I thought, at least it won’t be long!

However, once the film started, I discovered that 51 minutes can be a very long time indeed.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the beaver wasn’t actually in much of the film.  He showed up at the start of the movie and then he popped up in the middle and finally, he showed up again at the end.  That the beaver was cute and came with his own disco song made it all the more regretful that he wasn’t in more of the film.

Anyway, it turned out that the film itself was a collection of vaguely connected sketches.  The idea was that a husband and wife were looking for something to watch and , as a result, they kept changing the channel.  One channel featured a country western singer.  Another channel was showing Masterpiece Theater.  And then there was this movie about a vampire called Dragula.

The joke about Dragula was that he was gay and … well, that was pretty much it.  Dragula was gay and everyone he bit turned gay and eventually Lynn Redgrave showed up as Dr. Vanessa Van Helsing and she managed to destroy Dragula.  If you think this sounds homophobic … well, it was.  When the humor wasn’t homophobic, it was misogynistic.  I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m not easily offended and I’ve never been the type to need a safe space but I have to admit that I spent the majority of Disco Beaver cringing.  Of course, the problem wasn’t that the humor was politically incorrect.  The problem was that the majority of it just wasn’t that funny.

Disco Beaver was produced, for HBO, by National Lampoon.  In fact, HBO was only 6 years old when it broadcast Diso Beaver so I’m going to assume that this may have been one of the first original programs ever specifically made for the network.  Perhaps that explains why the entire production has a sort of “look how naughty we can be on cable!” feel to it.  “We just dropped the F bomb!  Here’s a whole skit about breasts!  And now, here’s a  skit about how to spot a homosexual.  We’re so daring!”

From the minute that Disco Beaver started, I felt as if I could literally hear the coke being cut backstage.  How many lines of cocaine were snorted over the course of the making of Disco Beaver?  Remember that scene at the end of Scarface where Al Pacino had a mountain of white powder on his desk?  I imagine that’s what the Disco Beaver production office looked like.

Anyway, we survived Disco Beaver and, at the end of it, we swore that we would never speak of it again.  And I learned a very valuable lesson!  Always watch the entire movie!

Film Review: Paterno (dir by Barry Levinson)


There’s a great scene that occurs about an hour into HBO’s latest original film, Paterno.

Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), the legendary and aging Penn State football coach, has been accused of knowing and failing to report that one of his former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson), was a pedophile.  With Paterno and his family plotting out strategy behind closed doors, a group of Penn State students gather outside of the Paterno home.  Instead of being angry that children were molested at their college, they’ve come to show their support for Paterno.

“JOE PATERNO!” they chant.

Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg) hears the chants.  Scott is a lawyer and appears to be the only member of the Paterno family to truly understand the seriousness of the accusations.  Scott steps outside.

“JOE PATERNO!” the crowd continues to chant.

Scott thanks them for their support but then says that they also need to show the same support to all of Sandusky’s victims…

“JOE PATERNO!” the chant continues.

Struggling to be heard, Scott again asks them to remember that the children molested by Sandusky are the ones who need the most support…

Suddenly, the chant changes.  “SCOTT PATERNO!” the crowd starts to chant.  It’s not because they’ve heard anything that Scott’s said.  Instead, it’s because Scott’s a Paterno and, in the eyes of the crowd, that makes him royalty.  As the crowd continues to chant his name, Scott gives up and reenters the house.

Paterno could have used more scenes like that, scenes that explicitly showed the danger of blind hero worship as opposed to just telling us about it.  For the most part, Paterno feels like a well-written Wikipedia article.  You can’t deny the skill with which the film was made but, at the same time, it’s difficult not to get frustrated by Paterno‘s refusal to really dig too far underneath the surface of the story.

Some of the problem is with the film’s structure.  The film primarily takes place over the final six days of Paterno’s career.  Paterno spends the majority of the film locked away in his house, passive aggressively avoiding the question of what he knew and when he knew it.  His wife (Kathy Baker) and his other son, buffoonish Jay (Larry Mitchell), make excuses for him while Scott tries to get everyone to understand that the accusations aren’t just going to go away.  This is the part of the Paterno story that, in most films, would be summed up by an end credits title card.

As a result, Paterno never really deals with why Joe Paterno not only didn’t report Sandusky but also apparently protected him and that, to be honest, is the most important and troubling part of the story.  Since Sandusky is only briefly seen, we never get any insight into his relationship with Paterno and we never understand why Paterno would go to bat for an assistant who he, at one point, refers to as being “a pain in the ass.”  Was Paterno truly clueless about what was happening or did he just think he could sweep it under the rug and nobody would say anything because he was Joe Paterno?  Were Paterno’s actions the result of willful blindness or hubris?  It’s not so much a problem that the film leaves certain questions unanswered as much as it’s a problem that the film itself doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with the answers.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the Paternos, it’s concentrating on the reporter, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who originally broke the story.  However, these scenes are never quite as compelling as the film seems to think they are.  Riley Keough, who was so great in American Honey, seems miscast here.  For the most part. Sara seems to be there so that she can witness the Penn State students rioting and chanting, “Fuck the Media” after Paterno loses his job.

The best thing that Paterno has going for it is the lead performance of Al Pacino.  Pacino plays Paterno as a man who is very comfortable with the routine that he’s built up for himself.  His life revolves around Penn State, his team, and finally his own legend.  When the Sandusky story first breaks, Paterno can’t understand why he even has to be concerned about it.  He’s got a game against Nebraska coming up!  Awkward even around his adoring family, Paterno only seems to be truly comfortable when he’s coaching.  Pacino plays Paterno as a fragile and sickly man, a once ferocious lion brought down by a combination of cancer and scandal.  When we first see him, Paterno is coaching his team to a record-setting victory and he seems like a larger-than-life figure.  By the end of the movie, Paterno seems much smaller, a confused man who still can’t seem to bring himself to deal with why everyone is getting so upset.  It’s a great performance in an uneven film.

 

Here’s The Latest Trailer For HBO’s Fahrenheit 451!


Earlier this year, I read Ray Bradbury’s original novel so I hope the upcoming HBO film version of Fahrenheit 451 will do justice to the book’s themes.  The trailer below feels a bit more like Blade Runner than Bradbury but Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon both seem to be ideally cast.

So, we’ll see!

Horror on TV: Tales From the Crypt 1.2 “All Through The House” (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


For tonight’s excursion into the world of televised horror, we have the 2nd ever episode of the HBO anthology series, Tales From The Crypt!

In this one, a woman (Mary Ellen Trainor) kills her husband on Christmas Eve, just to discover that she can’t properly dispose of the body because a psychotic escaped mental patient (Larry Drake), who just happens to be disguised as Santa Claus, is hanging around outside of her house.  It’s a bit of a mess, especially since the woman’s daughter is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa herself.

This originally aired on June 10th, 1989 and it’s an enjoyably insane package of holiday cheer and menace.  And, of course, it was directed by none other than Robert Zemeckis!

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #232: Tyson (1995, directed by Uli Edel)


If any heavyweight champion from the post-Ali era of boxing has lived a life that seems like it should be ready-made for the biopic treatment, it is “Iron Mike” Tyson.  In 1995, HBO stepped up to provide just such a film.

In an episodic fashion, Tyson tells the story of Mike Tyson’s rise and fall.  At the start of the movie, Tyson is a child trying to survive on the tough streets of Brooklyn.  The events that unfold should be familiar to any fight fan: Mike (played by Spawn himself, Michael Jai White) gets sent to reform school. Mike is taken under the wing of the legendary trainer, Cus D’Amato (George C. Scott). Mike becomes the youngest heavyweight champion, marries and divorces Robin Givens (Kristen Wilson), and eventually falls under the corrupting influence of the flamboyant Don King (Paul Winfield).  After failing to train properly for what should have been a routine fight, Tyson loses his title and subsequently, he is convicted of rape and sent to prison.

Tyson aired shortly after the real Mike was released from prison and announced his return to boxing.  Unfortunately, much of what Mike Tyson is best known for occurred after he was released from prison.  As a result, don’t watch Tyson to see Mike bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear.  Don’t watch it expecting to see Mike get his famous facial tattoo.  All of that happened after Tyson aired.  Instead, Tyson tells the story of the first half of Mike’s life in conventional biopic style.  There is even a montage of newspaper headlines.

The best thing about Tyson is the cast.  Even though the film does not delve too deeply into any aspect of Tyson’s life, all of the actors are well-chosen.  In some ways, Michael Jai White has an impossible role.  Tyson has such a famous persona that it had to be difficult to play him without slipping into mere impersonation but White does a good job of suggesting that there is more to Tyson than just his voice and his anger.  Scott and Winfield are both ideally cast as Tyson’s contrasting father figures, with Winfield especially digging into the Don King role.

HBO’s Tyson is a good starter if you do not know anything about Mike’s early career but the definitive Mike Tyson film remains James Toback’s documentary, which also happens to be titled Tyson.