Fried Green Tomatoes is one of those films that presents two narratives, simultaneously woven together and unbound by the laws of past and present. A character from the present tells tales of the past, and the film jumps ever back and forth between the two, until a connection emerges. You’ve seen it in stuff like The Notebook, where it works beautifully, and both stories support each other. That’s the issue with this film: One of the narratives is lovely and works quite well. The other? Mmm…not so much. Kathy Bates plays a hospice worker in a retirement home who is charmed by stories of life, freedom, injustice and romance from long ago, all told with wit and passion by an excellent Jessica Tandy. She tells of life growing up during the early 1900’s in the American southwest, of free spirited tomboy Idgie (a fierce and emotional Mary Stuart Masterson), the girl she loves (Mary Louise Parker, radiant) and the whirlwind of trouble and conflict going on around them. Idgie lost her brother and best friend (a short lived and very young looking Chris O ‘Donnell) to a horrible accident, and sort of has a lost pup complex, holding on to Parker for dear life and trying her best to extricate her from an abusive relationship with her monster of a husband (Nick Searcy is evil incarnate). It’s whimsical, touching and flavored with just the right touches of sadness and danger. Now, the story with Bates in the present just feels aloof and silly. The scenes with her and Tandy fare better than glimpses of her home life and attempts to empower and change her for the better. Don’t get me wrong, I love that idea, the notion of inspiration transcending time and the ability to help others simply with the spoken word and the wisdom of the past, but it just didn’t work in this case. As for the scenes in the past, I fell hard for them. Masterson is a terrific actress who usually gets saddled with light, fluffy roles, but here gets a chance to let some raw emotion out. Parker is more reigned in but every bit as soulful, as the girl in a situation no one should have to endure, her soul practically screaming out through those beautiful brown eyes. I suppose you could say that it’s half of a great film, that couldn’t quite pull off it’s own narrative flow.
Radioland Murders (1994) was one of George Lucas’ rare forays outside of the Star Wars universe and like others (Willow and Howard the Duck) it was a critical and commercial failure. Lucas seemed to be following in the footsteps of Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987) by paying homage to the heyday of radio in the 1930s before television and when it was the source of news and entertainment for millions of Americans. It was a time when The Shadow captured people’s imaginations and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast fooled thousands into believing we were actually being attacked by Martians. It is the twilight of this era that Lucas’ film depicts.
It’s 1939 on the night that WBN radio goes nationwide and the whole station is abuzz with activity. Roger Henderson (Brian Benben) is the head writer and his wife Penny (Mary Stuart Masterson) is an assistant to the director (Jeffrey Tambor). They are forced to deal with an unhappy sponsor who doesn’t like the scripts, unhappy writers who don’t like their working conditions, and unhappy actors with inflated egos. As if that wasn’t bad enough, during the opening musical number the orchestra’s trumpeter dies from a heart attack.
Soon, the station’s director turns up dead as well from an apparent suicide. However, it is revealed that both deaths are actually murders. Radioland Murders starts off as a farcical comedy and gradually mutates into a classical whodunit with no shortage of suspects and with the Hendersons out to solve the case while keeping the radio show going. Roger and Penny are married but their union is in big trouble because she caught him with another woman (the star of the station’s radio programs no less) and hasn’t forgiven him while he claims that nothing happened. To make matters worse, Roger ends up becoming one of the primary suspects and has to rush to clear his name.
Mary Stuart Masterson looks beautiful and is lit like a glamourous 1940s movie star but with screwball tendencies. However, she’s let down by the screenplay and saddled with a miscast co-star in the form of Brian Benben who’s not very funny. His character is a sap and it’s hard to see what Penny sees in him.
The problem with Radioland Murders is that it relies too much on broad, slapstick humor with many of the jokes falling flat. There is also too much going on. The movie gets too busy at times. A stronger director might have been able to handle it better but then again, maybe not because the problems are inherent in the screenplay. The movie is written by four different people and this may explain why it is such a mess. Screenwriting by committee is rarely a good idea.
The vintage big band music and the slick production values are the film’s only highlights. There are even cameos by Rosemary Clooney and George Burns (unfortunately his last film role) but they do little to help this mess of a movie. It’s not hard to see why Radioland Murders failed and why Lucas returned back to the safety of the Star Wars universe. One of his contemporaries, Francis Ford Coppola, also ran into difficulties trying to recreate a bygone era with The Cotton Club (1984). Obviously, people are not particularly keen on revisiting the 1920s and the 1930s, or, at least, the way Coppola and Lucas envisioned it.
Phil Joanou’s Heaven’s Prisoners is a great little sweaty southern crime yarn that, as I recall, went through a modicum of production hell which some people seem to think stunted any chance it had. I for one think it came out just fine, a moody little neo noir with an intense yet laconic turn from Alec Baldwin, a gorgeous lineup of femme fatales to contend with played by some of the most talented gals out there, and a wily supporting turn from a cornrow sporting Eric Roberts. Baldwin plays Dave Robicheaux, an ex New Orleans who is rousted from tranquil relaxation on the bayou when a mysterious Cessna plane crashes into the marsh near him. Upon exploring it he turns up a considerable amount of drugs, no doubt on their way from somewhere bad to someplace worse. This is the catalyst for a whole whack of trouble falling into his lap, literally and figuratively. He is drawn into a lethal dragnet involving corrupt DEA, his old pal and drug lord Bubba Rocque (Roberts, a prince in the limited screen time he gets), his dangerous moll (Teri Hatcher, sexy and malicious), and more. Baldwin navigates it all with a cold eyed cool of a professional who has been to these places before, both as actor and character. The stakes are high though, as he has a wife of his own (Kelly Lynch) who could potentially be dragged into the mess, and a former flame (Mary Stuart Masterson) who blows back into his life like a tropical storm cell. This film is based on a series of novels by James Lee Burke, all starring Robicheaux and chronicling his hard boiled adventures. You can also check out the excellent In The Electric Mist, another of these yarns from 2008 where Tommy Lee Jones takes up the mantle. Joanou knows the ropes and rigs of film noir, and paces this baby nicely, never too loud or proud and always with the laid back, simmering vibe of the south.