Category Archives: Now Showing

THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE

Grade: C+

Anyone looking for a journalistically objective, intensive
investigation of the fallen PTL ministry and its superstar
televangelist duo Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye needn’t stop here;
this gentle documentary by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbain
comes to treat the wide-eyed, easily-weepy distaff side of the
couple with consideration rather than disdain, and certainly
has no intention of burying her in the sort of snide, catty
contempt that she’s regularly received. The approach, which
makes for some poignancy and humor while avoiding a really
critical stance, isn’t just a crude rehabilitation job, but it
does definitely tell the tale of Tammy Faye’s checkered career
from her own–assuredly biased–perspective, and while one
shouldn’t dismiss its largely positive portrayal out of hand,
he shouldn’t take it as gospel, either.

From the point of view of these “Eyes,” Tammy Faye and her
husband weren’t scoundrels at all, but rather clueless, hopeful
people who have been perpetually used and then abused by
supposed friends–among them Pat Robertson, who took “The 700
Club” away from them when it became successful, and most
particularly Jerry Falwell, who seized the PTL Network
ostensibly to save it but then destroyed it, and its leaders
as well. In the reading offered here, the Bakkers weren’t
criminals as much as they were victims of their own success
and naivete.

Many will find this interpretation hard to swallow, but
however much one resists it, the picture should at least make
him a trifle more sympathetic to Tammy Faye, who’s portrayed
as a virulently gregarious, slightly ridiculous and somewhat
pathetic character–but one who, like the Energizer Bunny,
just keeps on running whatever the odds against her. The
producer-directors aren’t afraid to camp up the proceedings
to make their star both a bit absurd yet still lovable (the
use of sock puppets, who periodically introduce segments of
the story in a “Babe”-like formula, is the most notable
example, but the presence of RuPaul as narrator isn’t far
behind). Gay audiences will probably find the protagonist
especially iconic, since she’s not only very florid but
surprisingly tolerant.

Still, it’s often difficult to accept the basic premise that
Tammy Faye is in fact a talented performer (excerpts of her
singing remain pretty excruciating, and her notions for a
television comeback are appalling) or, even more, the idea
that she and her former husband were innocents overwhelmed by
events and misled by conspiratorial colleagues. The closest
that the picture comes to a negative point of view is provided
by a North Carolina reporter who broke the PTL scandals, and
even he is now, it seems, reduced to a sort of fandom in
Tammy Faye’s presence.

“The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is, therefore, a fast-moving, often
lightheartedly amusing and occasionally touching treatment of
its star, but a searing “60 Minutes” segment it’s most
definitely not.

SHAFT

John Shaft might have first appeared on screen nearly thirty
years ago, but he’s still one cool dude. Actually the hero of
John Singleton’s smart, sassy reinvigoration of the 1970s
series isn’t the original Shaft at all, but his nephew, a New
York City cop of all things, who chucks his badge in revulsion
at a judicial system that lets a racist killer off the hook
and becomes a lone wolf vigilante, as his uncle had been. But
the spirit and style of the new flick is very much one with
that of the earlier three pictures based on Ernest Tidyman’s
character, and the result is not just a successful bit of
nostalgia but a vibrant, classy sample of American pulp
entertainment in its own right. It’s also a triumphant
reassertion of the promise that John Singleton showed in his
first film, the powerful “Boyz N the Hood” (1991); the young
director stumbled badly in his sophomore feature, the dreary,
pretentious “Poetic Justice” (1993), and his third effort,
“Rosewood” (1997), didn’t get the approbation it deserved
(despite some flaws, it was a intriguingly mythic tale), but
here he shows himself in fine command again.

Singleton’s helped, of course, by a tight, exciting script
marked by Richard Price’s flair at capturing the gritty
atmosphere of urban life and streetwise patois while providing
spurts of macabre humor and stylish violence; working together
beautifilly, Price and Singleton (along with co-writer
Shane Salerno) nail the tone that a twenty-first century
“Shaft” should have, in the form of a happily convoluted plot
involving not only the hero’s crusade to get his man but also
elements dealing with a damsel in distress, police corruption,
the power of wealth in the judicial system and drug gangs.
What’s remarkable is that although the narrative is quite
complex, the writers and director manage to keep it clear and
crisp; only rarely will a viewer ponder why something’s
happening. And Isaac Hayes’ familiar throbbing score keeps
things moving splendidly.

The cast excels, too. Samuel L. Jackson brings his patented
blend of offhanded charm and underlying menace to the title
character, achieving a sense of street nobility that’s just
perfect for the character. He’s seconded in a few scenes by
Richard Roundtree, smooth and suave as the uncle who’s still
in the mix and still in shape. The younger Shaft also has
some amusing assistants, most notably a wild-eyed, jive-spouting
driver played by Busta Rhymes, who gets a good many chuckles
even if at times he seems an updated version of Antonio “Huggy
Bear” Fargas from “Starsky and Hutch.” There’s also a nice
turn, for a change, from Vanessa Williams, as a tough female
cop who’s obviously sweet on Shaft.

But it’s the pair of villains that gives the picture its final,
most important lift. Christian Bale, fresh from his amazingly
controlled turn as Bateman in “American Psycho,” uncoils nicely
in this followup, bringing intensity and fearsomeness to the
rich, spoiled racist Walter Wade whom Shaft pursues. Even more
impressive is Jeffrey Wright (the star of “Basquiat”), who
mixes humor and viciousness in flawless proportions as
“Peoples” Hernandez, a local drug lord who links up with Wade
to off a potential witness against him and build up his own
business in the process. Wright gives a witty, impishly evil
spin to the character (and a great accent to boot); the screen
hasn’t seen anything to match it since Benicio Del Toro nearly
stole the show in “The Usual Suspects.”

There are, of course, some flaws here. The members of the
Hernandez gang are presented in the cliched Keystone Crooks
fashion; they fire interminable rounds of ammunition at our
hero, but never manage to hit a thing. (Are there any worse
marksmen in the world than action-movie heavies?) The pace
of the picture occasionally goes a bit flat. The “police
corruption” angle isn’t handled as smoothly as it might be (and
one character’s “return from the dead” isn’t properly explained).
The final confrontation between Shaft and “Peoples” isn’t
nearly as exuberantly staged as one might have expected. And
the last twist seems like something lifted from an old “Law
and Order” episode.

These are relatively minor problems, however. Recent years have
seen a plethora of bad remakes of old films and dismal
bigscreen versions of beloved television shows, but this time,
they’ve gotten things just about right. “Shaft” offers an even
better time that its seventies predecessors; despite its
occasional lapses, it’s great fun, easily the best example of
pure popcorn escapism that the summer season’s offered so far.