Film Review:- Firestarter (1984)

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Dir:- Mark L. Lester

Starr:- David Keith, Drew Barrymore, Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Moses Gunn, Louise Fletcher

Back in the late seventies and early eighties various forms of psychokinesis were in vogue in the popular cinema of the time. From raging hormonal explosions in Brian de Palma’s The Fury to exploding heads in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, there was a clear and increasing interest in the potentially supernatural capacities of the mind. Perhaps the individual who appeared to have the most consistent curiosity in such strange powers was the horror novelist Stephen King. The author had burst onto the American literary scene in 1974 with his debut novel Carrie, a harrowing tale of a troubled teen trying to come to terms with a terrifying gift/affliction. Within two years this novel had been successfully transferred to the big screen by the aforementioned de Palma, which initiated a studio frenzy wherein King’s novels were no sooner off the press than they were being brought to the big screen. Being very much at the vanguard of the pop cultural zeitgeist it was difficult for King to ensure that the adaptations of his novels maintained a certain level of quality control. For every success, like Carrie  and the entirely bowdlerised Kubrick adaptation of The Shining, there were much more uneven offerings, like Christine and the television adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot.

Firestarter is by no means a classic King adaptation, but at the same time it has managed to date a little better than some of its contemporaries, such as Christine or Children of the Corn. King has always had a fascination with viewing the horrific through the eyes of a child, or adolescent. Carrie is quite literally about a girl reluctantly becoming a woman, The Shining has Danny Torrance as the possessor of that strange gift, whilst ‘Salem’s Lot’s most grotesque moments revolve around Ralph and Danny Glick, two young brothers. The central character in Firestarter is a young girl called Charlene ‘Charlie’ McGee, who, as a result of a government experiment involving her parents, has the unusual ability of pyrokinesis, meaning that she can start fires using the power of her mind. At the start of the film Charlie is on the run with her father Andy (David Keith) from some shadowy government agents, belonging to a secret project known only as The Shop. Andy was involved in some scientific experiment called ‘Lot 6’, which wound up giving him the ability to hypnotise people by staring into their eyes. His wife Vicky (played in a brief cameo by Heather Locklear) was also part of this programme and wound up possessing telepathic abilities. As a result Charlie has both the capacity to read minds and wreak flaming havoc. Having failed to capture father and daughter, The Shop resorts to sending John Rainbird (played by George C. Scott) into the field. Rainbird is an assassin whose initial task is to bring the McGee’s in to The Shop, however over time he develops a twisted fascination with young Charlie and her gifts, which eventually leads to him working against orders.

Overall the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the 1980 novel, managing to cover most of the main plot points. However, it fails to adequately make sense of the complex back story to ‘Lot 6’ and Vicky’s death, not to mention confusingly leaving out much of the background material on Rainbird’s Cherokee heritage and increasingly unhinged beliefs. As a result some elements of the plot refuse to cohere, as the sketchiness of the narrative detailing robs certain sequences of their awesome power. One thing Mark L. Lester (who would go on to box-office success with the Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando) gets absolutely right is the casting of ET starlet and Hollywood princess Drew Barrymore. In the role of Charlie, Barrymore brings the perfect combination of cuteness and unchecked malevolence. It is actually quite frightening to observe how quickly the diminutive Ms. Barrymore goes from gleefully happy little moppet, to sullen, ferociously scowling lethal weapon. Barrymore was barely even nine years of age at the time of filming Firestarter, but it is the intensity of her performance that makes the movie something more than a missed opportunity.

Lester wisely casts some heavyweight Hollywood talent in the supporting roles, including the long forgotten eighties star David Keith and the always dependable Martin Sheen. Sheen is the military chief that is presiding over the series of tests conducted into Charlie’s potential efficacy as a combat weapon. British actor Freddie Jones has a brief role as Dr. Wanless, the scientific head of The Shop, who believes that both of the McGee’s need to be analysed and then neutralised, before either can use their powers to devastating effect. The most important role other than Barrymore’s is that of John Rainbird, who is ably played by the seemingly miscast George C. Scott. Rainbird is a fevered fanatic, who has a whole load of bizarre notions about what he can do with the young Charlie and her powers. Much like Dr. Wanless he comes to believe it is essential to destroy the girl and deprive her of her powers, so that she cannot take them with her to the afterlife. Scott manages to mix the broodingly violent ruthlessness of his military role, with a convincingly child-friendly alterego – John the Janitor, that seems almost an echo of The Shining – winning Charlie’s trust and almost manipulating her into his treacherous clutches.

The frenetic pacing of the opening to the film, with its convoluted flashbacks, is nicely balanced against the test sequences in its middle third. These scenes, in which Barrymore sets fire to water, dry ice and cinderblock, have a deeply disturbing quality, as they revel in the ways in which young Charlie is forced to perform her feats for the benefit of The Shop, against her better judgement. Barrymore looks ridiculously vulnerable in these scenes, isolated in a sci-fi testing chamber, being voyeuristically spied upon by a cast of middle-aged men. Lester also manages to inject real passages of pathos into the film with some lovely visual juxtapositions, such as when Charlie and her father are shown to be asleep in the same pose in their bedrooms, desperately clutching at their bed-clothes. As with Carrie there is a deeper tragedy revealing itself here, the inability for these characters to even find a little solace in the only thing we all possess, namely ourselves. The startling pyrotechnic jamboree at the movies close is one of the more impressive pre-Jurassic Park visual effects feats. There is something bewitching and horrifying about seeing a small child walk through bullets and wreckage, whilst everything else around her burns to the ground. The great eighties electronica outfit Tangerine Dream provide yet another fantastically atmospheric soundtrack that helps to paint over some of the more drably realised visuals, whilst heightening the impact of this impressive ending. Of the early adaptations of King’s work Firestarter is perhaps most worthy of a solid re-evaluation, if only to wipe out the memory of the awful 2002 mini-series sequel, starring Malcom McDowell

Film Review:- Brubaker (1980)


Dir:- Stuart Rosenberg

Starr:- Robert Redford, Yaphet Kotto, David Keith, Tim McIntire, Matt Clark, Jane Alexander

I don’t like Robert Redford. It’s an inbuilt prejudice I have, that inspired my hackneyed theory that there are two types of film-lover, those who like Robert Redford and those who like Paul Newman, the latter being infinitely preferable. Why this dislike of Redford? I’m not sure, but I think that the film Brubaker goes some of the way to helping me explain myself. For some reason I had a memory of this film being the one in which Redford finally played ‘bad’, on reviewing this turgid prison drama however, I can only assume I was thinking of something else, or my memory really has become an imagining mirror.

Watching Brubaker shortly after Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz really emphasises the deficiencies in the former. Both Redford and Eastwood like to cultivate a certain screen persona, but whereas Eastwood’s screen persona feels like a convincing construct, leaving a suitable gap between actor and character, Redford’s is much more directly linked to his private self, making many of his pet projects nothing but grandiose extensions of his political convictions. Such political convictions as Redford espouses seem generally decent enough, yet when applied to cinema in movies like Brubaker, The Electric Horseman, or The Milagro Beanfield War, tend to leach the films of both dramatic tension and that elusive entertainment value. Unlike, for example, George Clooney, Redford’s politics tend to swamp a film, rather than inform it. All of this is still palatable enough in movies of ingenuity, such as All The President’s Men or Quiz Show, but in Brubaker the audience is left with over two hours of depressingly dull and increasingly cliched cinema, with an added dose of sanctimonious idealism to boot.

Redford has always struck me as a ‘surface’ performer. Like Eastwood he never really inhabits a role, but rather just riffs off his pretty-boy charm and winning smile. In his double-header with Paul Newman (Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid, The Sting) this approach dovetailed nicely with Newman’s more earthy realism. Furthermore in vehicles like Indecent Proposal and The Great Gatsby it was this alluring veneer that drove the dramatic intrigue – was there ever a better piece of casting than Redford as Gatsby? Yet this ‘surface’ work prevents Redford from ever really being believable in a role where he has to struggle, to toil, to suffer. He simply doesn’t do things the hard way.

In Brubaker he plays a prison warden/reformer, called Henry Brubaker, who sneaks into the prison he’s about to take over, the subtly named Wakefield Prison (like Hawthorne’s eponymous character these prisoner’s have absented themselves from society), so that he might examine firsthand the degradation and corruption that he has set his sights on reforming. During a none-too-convincing negotiation with a deranged inmate (played by a wild-eyed Morgan Freeman), Brubaker reveals himself to be the new man in charge and sets about changing things in the corrupt institution with a mixture of liberal humanism and eccentric idealism. It isn’t too long before he has alienated the constituents of the parish, upset the local businessmen and politicians (who are invariably all corrupt) and pissed off a sizable contingent of his inmate population. Then the bodies start to emerge.
Like Escape from Alcatraz, Brubaker is loosely based on real events (adding a new appellation to the screenwriters jargon ‘suggested by’) detailed in a novel by Thomas Murton, a prison reformer in Arkansas. The fictional prison of Wakefield, is modelled on ‘the farm’ version of prisons in which inmates work a designated area of land owned by the institution, planting and harvesting crops for potential profit. Redford’s Brubaker is at pains to point out the flawed logic in a system that treats criminals as indentured slaves, to maximise profits on crops and livestock, that could otherwise have been channelled into making these institutions self-sufficient. The outrage for Brubaker is that this system he preaches could be more profitable than the corrupt system that the money-men and politicians have put in place, but their isn’t just a resistance to prison reform, but more directly to change itself.

Brubaker is a film that wants to be taken very seriously and yet it strikes me that cinema is just not the place to carry out the kind of incisive exposes that it believes it is unearthing. With such a limited running time all that a movie can hope to achieve is to paint out a political situation in the broadest of brushstrokes. In trying to do a little more than this, Brubaker sacrifices any intrigue or suspense, without adding much sophistication to the general binary form of the arguments on offer. For Brubaker the degradation the prisoners suffer merely reinforces their basest instincts, removing their humanity (the pinch-cheeked, granite-headed Everett McGill on hand to embody the worst of this process), whilst the obvious external corruption simply perpetuates an internal corruption within the ‘trustees’ of the prison population. Against this we have the ‘money’ argument of Murray Hamilton’s Prison Board head (a go to man for depictions of supercilious self-interest in the 70’s and 80’s), which first of all asks why a criminal should be given any of the taxpayers money to dignify themselves? Then in the face of Redford’s profit projections, Hamilton claims that none of this money should be funnelled into improving the lives and living conditions of those who have raped, robbed and murdered. It is a fundamentalist attitude, the zealotry of which is attenuated by the foul stench of sweaty-palmed corruption. For the sake of balance the movie throws in a middle-ground position, that is rejected by the idealistic Brubaker as cold pragmatism, espoused by Jane Alexander’s politician, which seeks for Brubaker to give a little, so that he might reap a little. Brubaker accuses Alexander and her colleague of weak liberalism, by preaching something that they have no intention of actually backing up with constructive and active reform.

Around this simplified political struggle we also have the world of the inmate, which the movie paints in a particularly confusing light. There is supposedly a structure to operations when Brubaker arrives at the prison, with barrack prisoners being the workers, desk prisoners being the bureaucrats and trustee prisoners being the managers and disciplinarians. What Brubaker observes however is institutional chaos, that allows prisoners like McIntire and McGill to literally get away with murder. The large cast of character actors all deliver sterling performances in this respect (in particular the unctuous Matt Clark, as the wardens snitch clerk, and the unpredictable Kotto, as a trustee who remains resistant to Brubaker’s ideas even though he knows the system is failing), however performances cannot dig a film out of a morass of dullness.

In the opening moments, whilst Brubaker is still undercover, there is a tiny, vital spark of interest. Rosenberg initially seems to experiment with a limited exposition, forcing the audience to try to make sense of the confusion in the prison. Yet once Brubaker reveals himself the movie ploughs through one turgid piece of explanation after another, driving like a milk-float toward its denouement, that like later movies such as Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet’s Society, sees the ‘radical’ being ousted and those he inspired come rallying round him on his departure. In Brubaker it makes very little sense as characters like Kotto’s (who unconvincingly leads the standing ovation) do not even seem to have been affected by Brubaker’s rather shambolic reforms, whilst Brubaker himself has, as Alexander’s bureaucrat suggests, frittered away the possibility of change in pursuing his own agenda and digging up the bodies of those inmates murdered and buried in the field. The complexities of the issue of prison reform and the way we treat those who have been perceived to have transgressed in society demand more than this chaotic and rather pat sermon of a movie. I’d recommend you give Redford and his raw cauliflower crunching quirkiness a body-swerve and instead pick up the boxset of the deeply unsettling HBO prison series Oz.