Thursday 30 June 2011

Adventureland (2009)


Coming-of-age stories – something we can all relate to, I suppose. Many have already done it and many are in the process as we speak… but when does it actually happen? At what point can you officially say that you are “of age” in that awkward, moderately existential kind of way? Is it defined by a single act? Does it happen when you have reached a certain age? Or is it something a bit more profound than that? In a manner of addressing such questions, Greg Mottola delves into his time as a young adult working at an amusement park to bring us the nostalgic period comedy Adventureland.

It’s 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated high school and is all set to make a trek around Europe during the summer before college starts. However, his parents have hit rough times, so he has to get a job to pay for school himself. He ends up taking a summer job at the rundown local amusement park, where he meets all kinds of new people, including Em (Kristen Stewart).

Though he had been working as a director for a while, mostly in the world of television, his career was given a major boost in 2007 from the comedy hit Superbad. More associated with the rise and rise of Judd Apatow, Mottola still managed to capture a nice retro feel to the picture, drawing from it the mild haze of a 70s high school comedy that had become kitsch, not to mention a genuine sense of minor epiphany. With a bona fide hit to his name, Mottola was given the chance to make his follow up, another coming-of-age tale based partly on his experiences of working in an old amusement park, which he wrote himself.

Mottola’s hand over Adventureland is firm, but casts itself with subtlety. Given its 80s period setting, the expectation is to over-saturate the film with gimmicky nods to the time, a la The Wedding Singer. It works great there, but Mottola takes this story more seriously. Considering that he probably knew the people that are the basis for these characters, he doesn’t want to cheapen them with easily identifiable stereotypes or comedic broad strokes. The temporal references are not shoved in your face, which gives the whole the feeling not just of a time remembered fondly, but of a time remembered honestly. The only real exception would be the character of Frigo, but he is the one trapped in the times, refusing to grow out of his juvenile ways. And yes, there are ventures into some horrible Day-Glo discos of the time, but that’s what they had back then. Some memories are true.

Jesse Eisenberg is one of those actors that, in everything I’ve seen him in, has never let me down. Here, he is as solid in this as he always is. His particular brand of understated acting suits the material well, all gawky intellectual charm. He’s rarely one for big movements, preferring to convey everything in his eyes. Watching how his eyes flit from left to right, or how he looks awkwardly around, or even when he just stops and stares. He almost doesn’t need to do anything else, but he still backs it up with a great line of head tilts and arched eyebrows and smirks and a sporadic… way of speak-uh, of speaking. He gets the initial frustration of being there, but also the resigned malaise of knowing he’s stuck there, and then he perks up as things get more interesting. The boy’s got some skills.

I had almost forgotten how good an actress Kristen Stewart actually is before I saw this movie for the first time. She’s way more known for her work in the Twilight movies, and so it’s easy to forget that she’s done other stuff. Adventureland kind of reminds you of what she can actually do, given the chance and some decent material. It’s perhaps also easy to dismiss her performance here as too like her performance in Twilight. It’s true that there are some similarities, but they’re slight ones. Both Em and Bella are needy and torn, but Em is so much more than that. Bella is flaky, whiny and, frankly, a pain in the ass; Em has more depth, so you can actually see the conflict sitting under her skin. Em is at a loss in herself, but still needs comfort and contact, so she makes bad decisions, and she hates herself for that, which makes her feel worse. She also got character and strength, standing up to stranger and friend alike for things she disagrees with. Bella is a poorly drawn caricature; Em is an actual person, damaged but real.

Ryan Reynolds initially feels like an odd casting choice, given the fairly small role he’s in, but therein lies the point. Reynolds is a much bigger star than this, so he’s expected to be doing better, but that’s exactly what is at the heart of Connell. With his good looks and easy cool, he probably thought he’d be bigger in life, making a killing with his band. As it is, things didn’t work out for him, and now he’s the park’s (apparently only) maintenance guy, a walking symbol for dreams unfulfilled. However, he’s deeper than that, too. He’s come to terms with this, instead using this aura of cool to score with the prettier girls who work in the park, despite being married. He’s a dick who takes advantage, but strangely you don’t entirely hate him, either.

There’s great support from the rest of the cast, too. Martin Starr’s Joel is the very embodiment of personal social awareness. He knows his smoking a pipe is disgusting, he knows his education is of little real world value (Russian literature and Slavic languages), and he knows a moderately trained monkey could do his job, but he accepts his lot with a deadpan fatalism that just makes him better to watch. You kind of feel that someone like him should be annoying, but he’s really quite likable. Everyone should have a friend like Joel. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig also do a great turn as the couple that run the park, although Hader gets the much showier role.

There’s also a rather wistful element to Adventureland, which helps to maintain that nostalgia factor, and it’s not entirely because they use the bittersweet pop mainstay of 80s soul-searching montages, Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’. We enter into things with the knowledge that this job is temporary, a summer thing, something to endure before James heads off to college and begins his life for real. As time goes on and friendships are made and broken, feelings are exposed and hurt, when you come to the end of the summer, it feels like something more significant has ended with it. It’s the same kind of feeling many had when they left high school, that it may be the last time you see any of these people again and the world seems a little bit bigger. Clearly, James and his ilk didn’t really have that feeling when they left school, too busy planning the next step in their lives to notice their here and now. It’s only when the plan stalls and they’re forced to stand still and watch things go by that they notice what life really looks like.

Perhaps that’s what Adventureland is saying it means to “come of age.” It’s not defined by an act, like the first time you have sex, and it’s not defined by an event, like school graduation. It’s defined by the moment you realise that the world is much bigger than you and your plans. All you can hope for is to make the most of what you get, and if you can find someone or something that helps make the passing of time better, then it’s down to you to make the leap and hold onto it. When John Lennon sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” he pinpointed where that slight internal ache, that pulling, comes from - knowing that you’ve lost something you can’t get back because you were too busy looking elsewhere. It’s not that you won’t ever be happy, not at all, but it’s something that never quite goes away, and all you can do is think back to the time when you had such potential and wonder ‘what if?’

Adventureland is a low-key, but still rather sweet and charming film. Less concerned with the bigger, more outlandish laughs of Superbad, it spends more time concentrating on the drama between characters and tentative connections they make over a period of time they know is fleeting. It’s still got some laughs to it, but they are pretty subtle and far between. Really more drama than comedy, but worth it for a rather affecting and nostalgic story of growing up.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Gene Wilder. Where would we be without him? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I like living in a world with Gene Wilder. I like seeing him as Leo Bloom and Dr. Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and, of course, Jim (give yourself a point for knowing that one). One of his other lesser-known, but still great turns is as Sherlock Holmes’ embittered younger brother Sigerson in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Bringing with him the comedy talent of Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn, whom he worked with through Mel Brooks, this also marked his second crack at feature writing and his first try at directing.

Sigerson Holmes (Gene Wilder), younger brother to the famous detective, is put onto a case of blackmail, brought to him by Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn). Assisted by Sgt. Orville Slacker (Marty Feldman), the pair try to solve the mystery of who’s behind it all and put an end to it their criminal deeds.

As I’ve previously mentioned, this was Wilder first time in the director’s chair, as well as being both writer and star. It should be understood that this was not a decision born of vanity. After the major success of the previous year’s Young Frankenstein, which earned both Wilder and Mel Brooks an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Wilder wrote another script, this time based on the one-off escapade of the great fictitious detective’s more fictitious brother. After writing it, he took it to his good friend Brooks and asked him to direct it. However, he declined the job, saying that he felt he couldn’t direct a script he didn’t write himself, and instead encouraged Wilder to try it himself. Though he did indeed take on the task, he said that it was “a terrifying commitment.” Clearly, he was nervous about being spread so thin on this, his first solo project.

Honestly, it kind of shows. Script-wise, the story is actually quite simple, though peppered with numerous red herrings that ultimately just stem from Jenny Hill constantly making stuff up. Also, there are some lapses in logic, on a level of story and common sense, which occur for the purposes of simply making a joke. These are less funny as a result, but they’re inoffensive enough that you can overlook them. It’s the direction that holds the most obvious problems, though. Scenes which don’t actually feature Sigerson are handled pretty well, but when Wilder could not actually be behind the camera during the scene, he does struggle, and you can see evidence of his uncertainty onscreen. There’s some fairly clumsy blocking here, a slight insecurity in the pacing there. There’s a moment near the film’s climax where you can actually see him cueing the entrance of other players. He tries to be subtle about it, but it is quite obvious.

However, for all the troubles with the direction, Wilder shows a very heartening willingness to try. Others that found themselves in the same position would be tempted to just put the camera on the spot, lock it off and let the scene play out before them. Wilder is a braver man than this. He moves the camera, involves it, and therefore the audience. Yes, it’s not as sure-footed as other directorial debuts may have been, but nor does it shrink from the challenge. Wilder clearly has a sense of the audience watching, and he wants to give them a proper film. Along with the set pieces and musical numbers (yes, I said musical numbers), little jokes and character gems are scattered throughout the film, showing further evidence of his comic sensibility and his awareness of the audience’s enjoyment. As such, for all its flaws, it’s actually a rather touching effort. Wilder cares, and I truly thank him for that.

Another sign of Wilder’s good sense is to surround himself with people who are not only his friends, and can therefore provide moral support, but they’re also a wealth of talent… and Wilder does not waste it. The comedy of the film largely depends not so much on character, but on context. The moments when people break character or pretence are what make it funny. Marty Feldman was always famous for playing weirdos and oddballs because, well, look at him. He just has one of those faces. Here he largely plays against type, being the straight man of the duo, with Wilder providing the ranting, egotistical (and damn funny) counter. Feldman’s Sgt. Slacker is a normal(ish) officer of the police records department, but he also has a phonographic memory. He remembers precisely everything he hears, but he can only access these mental recordings by smacking himself in the head. He spends most of the film in proper clothes, nice hat and pleasant demeanour, occasionally looking rather perturbed at the peculiarities of Sigerson, but when he slaps himself and then recounts an entire conversation in two different voices, neither of them his, it’s great comedy.

Equally, Madeline Kahn, also already established as a great comedienne, gives a great show as Jenny Hill, a beautiful showcase singer, governess and compulsive liar. She pulls off the elegant and easily flustered side of Hill wonderfully, but when she cracks, she becomes near hysterical. A fine example would be when she is sharing a carriage home with Sigerson and Slacker and two other carriages, replete with sinister types, pulls along either side of them. Upon spotting them, she signals her distress to the others simply by saying, “Scream.” Not actually screaming, not even screaming the ‘scream’, just saying it. She just whimpers it again and again. When they still haven’t got a clue what she’s doing and they ask her what she means, her response is: “I mean… AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!” It’s that it almost comes from nowhere is exactly why it kills.

And who knew Leo McKern could actually be this funny? He’s so full of great twitches and tics here that he damn near steals entire show. The scene where he opens the bidding on the secrets documents at the heart of the mystery is pure gold, and he’s got such a great partner in Roy Kinnear, who is just invincible as McKern’s put-upon assistant. The real triumph, though, is the whole scene between McKern and Dom DeLuise, who actually pretty much does steal the show. Equal parts business deal and full-on fight, it’s so absurd and ridiculous and at such a great pace (Wilder actually was behind the camera on this one) that it’s a riot from beginning to end. Make no mistake, this might just be the funniest DeLuise has ever been.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is a great film. Its direction isn’t as assured as it could be and there are some holes in the script, but it’s an absolute delight of absurdity. The cast is populated with some superb comedic talent and there are great laughs to be had in almost every scene. You may not have heard of this, but you owe it to yourself to give it a watch.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Address Unknown (2001)


Did you know that, technically, the Korean War is still going? Begun on June 25th 1950 when the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel border and invaded South Korea, the war quickly escalated into a full-scale global conflict with the South being backed by the US and the North being backed by China. The war continued until July 27th 1953 when an armistice was finally signed by those involved. However, there was never an actual peace treaty agreed upon, so no official end to the war. This fact casts a rather unsettling shadow over Korea, which is still divided into North and South to this day. To some extent, Korea seems to be defined by war, in a near constant state of conflict or occupation by other countries, like China or Japan or the US or itself. Korea is a country with such a sad and tormented past that it must have had quite an effect on some of its citizens. To this end, infamous South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk addresses these feelings in Address Unknown.

A small Korean village serves as home to broken families, frustration and rage in the wake of conflict and colonialisation. Through the interweaving stories of three young people - Chang-guk (Yang Dong-kun), Jihum (Kim Young-min) and Eunok (Ban Min-jung) - we see how they, and the small population in general, scrape through their days in a haze of love, misery, friendship, cruelty, honour and abject hopelessness, all under the heavily felt presence of the nearby American military base.

The one thing you understand about this film right from the beginning is that it’s going to be one harsh endeavour. With a very short prologue set in 1970, we see a child saw up old US military crates, working with an old tube and scraps of metal. With these items, he builds himself a crude but very effective gun. He places a can on his sister’s head, takes aim and fires… the can doesn’t move, but then the girl clutches her right eye. As far as openers go, this is pretty tough. Fast forward some years, and these kids have grown up. The girl is Eunok, and her eye is now a cloudy white, so her hair covers the right side of her face. She’s a quiet girl, picked on by little kids for looking so strange, and pretty much ignored by everyone else. Her only friend is a puppy that she keeps chained in her home, partially so it can’t run away, mainly so no one will steal it.

That’s a pretty common practice here, dogs being stolen or bought. In a village with little industry or provisions, a supply of dog meat can make a fine meal for some. This is where Chang-guk comes in, serving as assistant to his mother’s boyfriend, the intense and sadistic Dog Eyes. Dog Eyes makes his living by buying dogs so that he can sell their meat. It’s not so much this that makes him despicable, though, rather the manner in which he dispenses with the dogs. He has Chang-guk hang them from a tree, whilst he beats them to death with a baseball bat. It’s never shown onscreen (even the camera can’t abide such sadism), but the effect is still sickening. To his credit (in as much credit can be given for it), Chang-guk hates this job. He wants to work in the local factory, as an honest labourer. However, the fact that he is of mixed race means that the workers will never accept him as one of them. His mother wants him to be free of this kind of judgement. It’s her that writes to America, trying to connect with her son’s father, a soldier long since gone home. Everyday she waits for word from her saviour, but every letter returns without finding its destination. There’s no escape from here. Salvation is an address unknown.

Jihum is the closest we have to a "normal" character, in that he has no physical peculiarities or hindrances. He even has a job that pays. His shortcomings are less obvious, because he is, at his core, a victim waiting to be victimised. He doesn’t have the imposing physicality of Chang-guk, nor the ability to simply lock himself away like Eunok. He must go out into the world, and the world doesn’t care for him much. Specifically, his suffering comes at the hands of two boys his age who mock and bully him simply because they can. Only if Chang-guk is around is he safe, but not because they’re friends. Chang-guk just wants to fight, and Jihum gives him that excuse. As it is, Jihum is also kind of in love with Eunok. It’s not a particularly healthy love, but it’s something. However, it’s this love that just leads to even more pain and suffering for both of them. No matter how it pans out, love was never the dominant emotion here.

There are numerous other aspects to Address Unknown, like the older generation’s inability to move past their old glory days of the war, when honour was key; or the American soldiers gradual mental breakdown in the miserable surroundings of this village; or that the village itself seems to have been built on the bodies of defeated enemies. War is such a part of this place that it exists everywhere, even where you can’t see it.

However, for all of the tragedy that has fallen on these characters, no one is innocent here either. Everyone abuses those beneath them, be it out of anger, frustration, cruelty or simple loneliness. As much as Chang-guk is victimised for his mixed-race status, shunned by almost everyone, he regularly and brutally takes this out on his mother. His mother’s boyfriend, Dog Eyes, hates to see this happen and so beats Chang-guk. This is turn sees him be attacked by Chang-guk’s mother, vainly trying to protect her son. The two boys bully Jihum regularly because they believe themselves to be smarter than him, since he never went to school and can’t speak English. They mock him in a language he can’t understand and take his pay-packet and push him around as they please. Jihum in turn abuses Eunok, though not directly. He spies on her every night, watching her undress through a hole in her wall. Eunok herself is abused by almost everyone. By her seemingly uncaring brother, by Jihum and the two bullies who torment him, and by the American soldier who makes promises of a better life if only she’ll sleep with him. Eunok has only one entity she can feel superior to… her puppy. It’s not even a physical pain she subjects the poor creature to, but it’s abuse nonetheless. The whole village is a vicious cycle of people tormenting others, trying to appease their tormentors, whilst taking out their own wrath on the weaker ones in their lives in a bitter attempt to find some kind of respite from their own depleted sense of self. It’s not a Nanny State… it’s a Bully State. These characters are so polarising that it’s easy to feel sorry for them, but it’s very difficult to find something in them worth liking.

Kim Ki-duk’s direction throughout is excellent. His visuals capture the unremitting empty desolation of the villager’s surroundings. With Seo Jeong-min's cinematography, the picture looks grimy and cold, like it’s been dragged across the damp, dirty ground before being processed. There’s very little in the way of the pretty or picturesque, the colour palette exuding a subdued and murky feel. Also, he maintains the heavy sense of metaphor within the piece. So often do scenes go on behind closed doors, or are obscured by plastic sheeting, branches or chain-link fences. Much of it also unfolds at a distance. These characters are trapped in this place, beyond the help of others, whether they know it or not.

There is something that rather bothers me about this film, though, beyond its crushing sense of anguish. The acting from the Korean cast is of a pretty decent standard, but the American cast are absolutely atrocious. I mean bad. I mean really, really bad. They’re like children vainly struggling to convey emotions beyond their understanding or simply just stating each line with no emotion whatsoever. What in the hell is that about? At this point, I’m going to engage in what could perhaps be a moment of over-analysis, looking to find some explanation for this other than the director simply hired piss-poor actors and failed to notice their lacklustre performances.

Within the film, the American presence is always felt, be it in the form of the soldiers, the fences, the fatigues some characters wear, a picture of an eagle and flag in Jihum’s workplace. There’s even a moment when action stops because a military plane flies overhead, and it doesn’t continue until the plane has gone. Some characters hold on to the notion that the US is their escape, their only escape. Chang-guk’s mother wants to connect with his American father, hoping to escape from her plight. She even lives in an old US bus, which we could read as her readiness to leave at a moment’s notice. The English language is also used as a kind of status symbol - if you don’t speak English, you’re to be looked down upon to some degree, as in Jihum’s treatment at the hands of the bullies. And there’s a regular mention of how easy it would be to fix Eunok’s eye with American surgery, which is regarded as the best, certainly better than what’s available in this village. There’s an association built up between America and escape, freedom, a better life. So why are the actors playing the soldiers so inherently unconvincing? Well, perhaps that’s the point. Kim Ki-duk doesn’t seem to believe that American ways are the best things for these people or this village or this country. By being so unbelievable as characters in the film, he may be trying to highlight just how unbelievable they are as a viable option of redemption and hope. Perhaps the characters should be looking to themselves for help. If this is indeed his point, and the method by which he chooses to convey it, it’s a risky one. This is just the kind of thing that could turn an audience off to a film. It asks a great deal of patience and faith on their part, and this may be a bit much for some to give.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for it, or one that at least compliments the above. Now, some of you may have seen the film’s tagline at the top there and thought, ‘that seems strangely familiar.’ It should. It’s almost exactly the same tagline as Platoon ('The first casualty of war is innocence'). There’s also a shot of a military helmet that’s vaguely reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket. Maybe Kim Ki-duk is actually taking a swing at American war films like these, set in places like Vietnam or Korea. Films like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket often follow the soldiers as they go to war in a foreign country and find moral crises, terror, Hell. That’s what Chris Taylor talks about in Platoon, saying, “Somebody once wrote: ‘Hell is the impossibility of reason.’ That’s what this place feels like. Hell.” Well, for Chris, his struggle is long and tough, but if he holds out, he can leave and go home… but what happens when you can’t leave? What happens when your home is Hell? The problems of a rookie soldier exposed to the ravages and immorality of war for 18 months are nothing compared to the lifelong desolation and depression of someone born and raised in a place without reason. Maybe the Americans in Address Unknown are so unconvincing because Kim Ki-duk remains unmoved and unconvinced by the spiritual ennui of Chris Taylor and his ilk. Compared to Chang-guk and Eunok, they know nothing of Hell.

After his 2000 film The Isle, Kim Ki-duk was heavily criticised for the cruelty to animals that goes on in the film, which were completely real by the director’s own admission, saying, “I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films. And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life.” With Address Unknown, the first thing the film shows is a disclaimer, stating that no animals were harmed in its making. Clearly, the issue hangs heavy on him still at this point. However, if the statement at the film’s opening is true, that no harm actually did befall any animals, then they walked right up to the line and kicked some dirt on it a bit. It’s the first thing that the filmmakers want said, so let’s look at it a little. Was the, frankly, obvious mistreatment of the animals in this film really necessary to convey its point? Whilst there are no onscreen instances of direct blows landing on any animals, they are still shown being dragged around and hung from a tree in preparation of their demise. I, like I think many would do, have something of a problem with this. Is it really required that an artist be cruel in order to make a statement on cruelty? Is there no other way to convey this? There’s a famous quote by a Chinese author named Han Suyin, who said, “Moralists have no place in an art gallery.” Now, there are numerous thoughts and papers and treatise on this quote and the debate it identifies, so I won’t go into any great depth here, but it would seem that it does apply here somewhat. If someone is to negate their own moral sensibilities for the sake of their art, should they be condemned? Is it preferable for the viewer to ignore their own sense of outrage on the subject and choose to engage with the piece objectively? What worth is the art piece that asks someone to forgo their own morality? What worth is the person who is okay with letting their morality go for such a frivolous purpose? Certainly, the fact that Kim Ki-duk does show a degree of mistreatment to animals helps to solidify the sense of wrong within the film, but that’s hardly surprising. Trying to shock people by showing something genuinely shocking is not artistry… it is a kind of bluntness that verges on sadism. He does have a point to all this, but there are other techniques that he could have used to make his point, or a more thoughtful approach. I really can’t say I agree with the methods Kim Ki-duk uses in this film. Of course, this is all just my thoughts on the matter, and even then it’s wading pretty shallow into the debate. I’ll let you all make up your own minds.

Address Unknown is unrelentingly bleak. It’s powerful stuff, hard-hitting and filled with despair. Moments of potential levity or hope are dashed quickly and decisively… but it’s not altogether without some point to it, even if it is rather depressing. This really isn’t for everyone, and people who have a problem with cruelty to animals or unmitigated misery would be advised to avoid this, but if you can stomach it, it is a perspective that is at least worth considering.

Monday 27 June 2011

Adaptation. (2002)


In Googlewhack Adventure, when Dave Gorman tries to describe his attempts to write a novel, he rather succinctly puts it, “Ooooh, it’s hard work.” It’s difficult to argue with that. There may be some out there who can knock out a bestseller in the space of six months without beading their brow, but for most people, it’s a real struggle, particularly when you want it to be good, to make sense, to mean something to people. When you know the power that a book or a film or any piece of art can hold in people’s lives, the weight of responsibility is a heavy one. More so, then, when the artist already has one huge success under their belt and there’s the expectation from others for another one. If you take on the task of adapting someone else’s work into another medium, the pressure becomes even greater. The responsibility to yourself, the audience and the original author to make something great is enough to cripple some people with anxiety and depression. Such is the world of Adaptation..

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) is struggling to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a film script. He wants to keep the spirit of the book alive, but its lack of a real story is causing him problems. At the same time, he’s facing a mid-life crisis, made worse by his twin brother Donald (Nicolas Cage), a much less talented but much happier person, who wants to write screenplays like his brother. Amongst this, we see the book’s author, Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), as she researches her book and her relationship with John Laroche (Chris Cooper), the title character and main focus of her writing.

Just so we’re clear, Charlie Kaufman is a real guy. After spending some years in the world on TV comedy writing, he finally dropped into the world of film in 1999 with his first feature script, Being John Malkovich. I’ll eventually get to reviewing it somewhere down the line, but suffice to say that it was a huge hit. It was fresh, creative, clever, kind of mean, and very funny. Above all else, it was clearly the product of an original mind. Kaufman was nominated for an Original Screenplay Oscar and he became one of those ones to watch in the future. At the same time, one of his other projects was to adapt a novel, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. However, Kaufman had problems with it. He clearly loved what the book was about, but the big concern was that nothing really happens. The book is about flowers. He wanted to get this across, but he didn’t know how to do it without forcing some artificial premise onto it. He doesn’t want it to be a romance or a thriller or something that would feel dishonest. Why can’t there just be a film about flowers?

Well, because no one wants to see a film about flowers. They want to see a romance or a thriller or something that has an actual premise or story. Kaufman’s struggles with the project clearly took their toll on him. He suffered for himself, for Susan Orlean, for the movie-going public, for his craft, for his art, for flowers… the guy was in a bad way. However, this is still Charlie Kaufman. Rather than relenting to the pressure and giving his principles a rest, he wrote Adaptation., which effectively tells the story of his difficulty with adapting the book. He wrote himself into the script, not just once, but twice. There’s Charlie, all sweaty and racked with awkward tension, and there’s Donald, Charlie’s identical twin brother, who is neither burdened with Charlie’s talent or his self-consciousness.

Just so we’re clear, Donald Kaufman isn’t a real guy. Within the context of the picture, Donald is the living example of what Charlie would be like if he was less concerned with what other people thought. If Charlie would just ease up on himself, his professional and personal life would go so much smoother. Within the context of the real Charlie Kaufman’s head, Donald is a sounding board for ideas, or rather an anti-sounding board. Donald doesn’t care about what makes good art, and this is precisely the kind of self-contained influence Charlie needs to go in the other direction. As valuable as he is, Donald may as well be a real guy. In fact, not only is the script for Adaptation. credited to both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, but the film is dedicated to him, too.

So, we’ve got the real Charlie Kaufman (and his imaginary brother Donald) trying to adapt a book with no real story into a movie, and it ends up being about Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to turn that very book into a movie, whilst his now flesh and blood brother Donald is showing him the easier route to go by writing a screenplay about three people who turn out to be the same person… got it? That in itself is a lot to work with, but the real Charlie Kaufman still wants to adapt the original novel, so the film becomes interspersed with moments from the novel about the writer Susan Orlean and her interaction with her book’s protagonist, John Laroche. As Charlie struggles with the right way to tell the stories, each of them becomes more affected by conflicting advice until they each devolve into the more standard fare he wanted to avoid in the first place – the romance, the thriller. And as these storylines go on, nowhere near each other, they progressively start to run parallel, and then intertwine. As movie Charlie says himself, “I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s eating itself. I’m eating myself.” Both he and his script have become the Ouroboros, the symbol of the snake eating its own tail. By eating, he lives; by eating himself, he is doomed. Goddamn, can you imagine the knot he worked himself into to get to this point? Well, you don’t need to imagine it, cause it’s right there on the screen for you to observe.

There’s an interesting consideration that’s hinted at throughout the film, though not directly addressed. Books are clearly a great inspiration within this film. Laroche is somewhat inspired by Darwin and his On the Origin of Species; Charlie Kaufman is inspired by Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief; and Donald Kaufman is inspired by Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible Story. The consideration comes from the lessons of two of these books and how they can be applied to the treatment of the third. Put more simply: Which book is more valuable in the interest of adaptation – On the Origin of Species or Story? Think about it. One may be a scientific text, but it posits the notion of change and growth as the way forward. Set within the restrictions and confines of pre-set rules, how can something truly flourish? In order for something, anything to grow, it has to be allowed to be free of restraint. I’m pretty sure this is (kind of) what the second law of thermodynamics is about. However, from this method, the process of growth could be a long, slow, painful ordeal and the end result may be something that only a few will like or appreciate. On the flipside, the other book, one that deals specifically with the writing process, is filled with rules and directives that actually do yield results, and quickly with the right amount of effort. However, by applying the standard method of conventional narrative drive to a story, you rob it of its unique nature and the less chance it has of being something worth surviving. Which do you go for? The more artificial, but effective process of standardisation; or the long, drawn-out method of natural evolution? It’s machine versus nature… “like technology versus horse.”

Spike Jonze, who also directed Being John Malkovich, is a great partner for Charlie Kaufman. Given the absolutely hectic nature of the script, it would be so easy to lose track of plot lines or shift focus one way or the other in the interest of making a more coherent story for audiences to follow. Fortunately, he doesn’t. He keeps it all in check, capturing the odd moments of humour and frenzy and drama without losing the overall picture. He even manages to make the difficult subtle shift in tone as the picture comes closer to its end. It’s a light touch, but it’s absolutely resolute in its capability. Not only does he capture every aspect of the script that Kaufman gives him, but, with his final shot, he gives Kaufman what he seemed to want from the beginning. It’s about flowers.

In the roles of both Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Nicolas Cage is outstanding. There’s often been a degree of duality or mental fracture going in some of Cage’s roles, like he’s in a state of constant inner-conflict, but here he’s given the chance to just run with it and play opposite himself. He certainly doesn’t do the chalk-and-cheese approach to the characters either. Charlie and Donald may be very different people, but there’s also a sameness to them. A less skilled actor would have had Charlie be the flannel shirt-wearing sad sack, soaked in sweat and self-doubt, while Donald would be slick as hell, from his nice shoes to his leather jacket to his shit-eating grin. Cage’s approach is different. By showing how alike they are, it highlights the very fine line that separates them. The whole crux of their relationship is how easy it would be for one to become the other, but for their own inability to change. Neither do we care more for one than the other, which is a real feat. We respect Charlie for his principles and the value he places on art and writing and the beauty of flowers, but he’s still kind of a dick, particularly to Donald. Equally, Donald is everything that good art should be against, with his lack of real effort or thought or feeling going into his work, but Donald is so likeable because of his carefree nature and the fact that he clearly and very genuinely loves his brother. Having one great and nuanced performance in a movie is something; having two in the same movie is almost just showing off.

Chris Cooper, always one of the most dependable character actors going, gives a great turn as John Laroche, too. Laroche is a character marked by great contrast. As far as appearances go, he looks like a toothless hick. However, he’s incredibly intelligent. So intelligent that, twice in the movie, he refers to himself as “the smartest man I know.” Further to this, he’s a man of great passion, fierce passion. Passion for orchids (he’s the thief of Orlean’s book), for turtles, for tropical fish… but just as profound as his passion is for these things, he can just as easily decide that he wants nothing more to do with them and cut them from his life. He’s a man of contradiction and confrontation. It seems his passions are selected, not for their depth of meaning for him, but for their potential to get him in trouble, because when he gets in trouble, he can show off just how smart he is to a new group of people. He wants people to be wrong just so he can be right, and he doesn't much care for it when people prove themselves his equal. He’s utterly fascinating, and Cooper gets this wonderfully. He gets the temperament and the sly hint of smug that rests just under the surface of Laroche. As it is, Cooper got himself an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this role.

Meryl Streep is, well, Meryl Streep. The woman is almost incapable of doing a bad job. The Susan Orlean of the film (no idea what she’s like in real life) is, like Kaufman, a writer in crisis to some degree. A journalist by profession, down to do a story on Laroche’s latest escapade, she finds herself drawn to him by his passion. A passion that she feels she lacks in her own life. Sure, she has a comfortable life and a husband and friends, but she’s missing something… or at least she thinks she is. Her life is spent reporting on the adventures of others, she believes she is without that thing in her life that she values above all else. When she meets Laroche, she sees something attractive, something that draws her in. So strong is his devotion to orchids that she gets pulled along, wanting to share in his zeal, wanting to lose herself in his world, in him. Streep sells this so well that when it turns out she can’t be reached by the transcendent beauty of a rare orchid, we’re just as surprised as she is. In a role that could feel at times a bit stock or like the kind of thing that would feature some over-acting, the whole performance is anchored by a great subtlety instead.

And I can’t talk about performances without giving a mention to the brief, but great turn by Brian Cox as screenwriting guru Robert McKee. In Adaptation., McKee is a blitzkrieg of abuse and helpful advice. He’s established himself as an expert in the field of writing and he will cut you a new asshole if you should question his methods. Cox does this opinionated aggression so well. Kind of like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross, he shows up, explodes as a force to be reckoned with, and then leaves again. It’s thoroughly amusing.

Adaptation. is a film that is wonderfully rich and alive. It’s alive with ideas, with characters, with observations, with conflicts, there is nothing wasted in the pursuit of something. Kaufman’s script is equal parts novel adaptation, original creation, psychiatric journal and documentary work, and Jonze’s direction is suited beautifully to the task. Each performance is superb, with particular credit going to Nicolas Cage work as the brothers Kaufman. It may be best to see this film after watching Being John Malkovich (much of it relies on a kind of recall to that film), and some of the finer points may be lost to those less familiar with the world of filmmaking, but it is an absolute delight from beginning to end.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)


So, as we covered yesterday, 1994 gave the world Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. It was a huge success, raked in lots at the box office and made a star of Jim Carrey. One year later, and they were back for more, under a new writer and director, but bringing Carrey back to reprise the title role in… Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.

At the request of the African consulate, Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) is drawn out of a self-imposed exile in a remote Himalayan monastery and travels to the Dark Continent to help track down a sacred white bat and stop an impending war between two tribes.

I vaguely remembered thinking it was okay when it came out, but I was 12.  I’ll just flat out say that I didn’t particularly care for this film now. As such, it’s probably prudent to go into the reasons why I did not care for it, and why it’s perhaps not really worth your time either.

Firstly, the script is an absolute nightmare of poor character development, ridiculous padding and plot conveniences that are an insult to all. Rather than the writers from the original film coming back, the job was given to Steve Oedekerk. Oedekerk, best known perhaps for his comedy shorts involving thumbs (Bat Thumb, Frankenthumb, The Blair Thumb, Thumbtanic, you get the idea), is possessed of a comedic sensibility that’s based on absurdly broad strokes and easy stereotypes. That’s not to say he’s never funny, because he can be, but it often comes from a cheap place. As you’d expect from the title, When Nature Calls is cut from the same cloth. There’s just no kind of logic or sense anywhere, precisely because of this cheap laugh strategy, so holes just crop up everywhere. For example, Ventura is promised a $20,000 payment to find the bat, which he does consider. If that kind of money can sway him, where in the hell did he get a full-size robot rhino? That probably cost quite a bit of money in itself. Did he build it? Did he steal it? For another example, when Ventura compares two different darts that he was shot with, he sees, just by looking at them, that they were made from two different types of tree that come from different parts of the jungle… how does he know that? He only arrived a few days ago, which is hardly enough time to acquaint himself with indigenous trees, let alone their specific locations. Hell, the guy he was with was a native tribesman who had lived there his whole life, and he didn’t see this. For yet another example, when a huge herd of various animals storm the consulate, there’s lions and elephants and monkeys and a skunk… wait, what? A skunk? In Africa? No, no, this is just ridiculous. Skunks are found in Indonesia or the Americas, not anywhere in the Dark Continent. These are just the small examples. A bigger one would be: why was Ventura hired in the first place? He actually does ask this question, and is told that he was brought in to give the appearance of an effort to try and stop the war. Couldn’t you just have hired someone else? Someone not as good, but easier to find? They literally went to the ends of the Earth to find the guy, when it would have been easy enough to say, “Well, we tried to find him, but he’s nowhere to be found. However, we do have the number for this other guy, Buck Michaelson: Animal Locator…” These points, and so many more besides, just show that Oedekerk really screwed the pooch on the story here… and I didn’t even mention the inane Cliffhanger parody as the film’s opener.

It’s also borne of a great misunderstanding of the comedy coming from this kind of character that made the first film work. Ace Ventura is a ridiculous character, deliberately the most outlandish and insane person in any room. The kind of guy that makes everyone uncomfortable because he makes everywhere he goes his own personal playground. He doesn't fit in anywhere, so he can go anywhere. As such, trying to make him the centre of a ‘fish-out-of-water’ type story puts everything off to a very bad start. The character is further confused by making him more aggressive in his love of animals, physically attacking people who so much as think of mistreating animals. It might as well be called Ace Ventura: Agent of PETA. The character gets muddled even further by taking this well-established lover of all animals and making him both terrified and disgusted by the creature he’s been brought in to find. This isn’t interesting character depth or a great flaw to overcome… this is bullshit. This is character so inconsistent that it borders on schizophrenia.

Now for direction. Originally, Tom DeCerchio was put in the director’s chair, but he left shortly after shooting began for reasons that I don’t know. As such, the duties were handed to… Steve Oedekerk. Sadly, his direction is as ham-fisted as his writing. Rather than adopt Shadyac’s uninspired, but at least well-suited approach to the first film, Oedekerk’s camera tries to grab cheap laughs anywhere along the way ('look at the silly monkey'), and he seems to have given instructions to his actors to the effect of, “Bigger! More reaction! I don’t want to see a hint of nuance on that screen!” And the editing rhythm and continuity is a joke.

Jim Carrey gives just as committed a performance here as he does in the first film, but this is really for two reasons: 1) He is a professional; and 2) He was paid an absolute shitload of money to be in it. Since the first film came out, his career skyrocketed. He didn’t have to do this film and, in fact, it would probably have been advisable to not bother. However, as I said, his fee was colossal – $5 million. Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

The rest of the cast, regrettably, are strewn with great actors who are inexplicably lowering themselves to be in this nonsense. Simon Callow, Ian McNeice, Bob Gunton and Sophie Okonedo are all fine actors, each of them above this. It’s more understandable in Okonedo’s case, since this was her second feature and it was at least a high profile gig for her, so she did well from it. However, Oedekerk’s broad sensibility means they spend most of their time in stereotype mode, which just makes them look a bit uncomfortable. McNeice suffers from this the most.

Where the original outing was merely silly and pretty harmless, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls is insultingly stupid. The script is so full of holes you could put the Nostromo through them, the direction is clumsy and desperate, the whole premise is completely misconceived and it’s simply nowhere near as funny as the first one. More than that, there is a shocking waste of talent onscreen, too. This was nothing but a cheap grasp for more money on the back of a film that, against all odds, did quite well. Goddamn, I’m depressed now.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)


Character comedy is one of the quickest ways to make someone a star, mainly for those who come from America’s premier comedy showcase, Saturday Night Live. Both Mike Myers and Will Ferrell have each made a sound career of bringing whatever characters they think of to life on the big screen. Though never an official part of the SNL cast, in 1994, Jim Carrey launched himself into the stratosphere with his comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, directed by Tom Shadyac. Essentially a vehicle for Carrey to show off his particular brand of insane, limb-flailing comedy skills, his career took off instantly and he’s never looked back since.

When the Miami Dolphins’ team mascot, a dolphin named Snowflake, is stolen just weeks before Superbowl, the management call in a pet detective – the incredibly bizarre Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey). As Ace follows the few clues he has to find out who took the mascot and why, matters escalate as the Dolphins’ Head of Operation ends up dead and their star quarterback is kidnapped.

What do you say about something like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? Treating it as a film is almost taking it too seriously. It’s really just a collection of scenes strung together by a narrative thread of questionable strength for the purposes of making someone a star. It would be regarded as a vanity project if it weren’t for the fact that, at the time, no one really knew who Jim Carrey was. In fact, many thought this was his first film, despite previous roles in The Dead Pool, Once Bitten, Peggy Sue Got Married and Earth Girls Are Easy. Given that Carrey is the central… well, really the only focus of the movie, Shadyac’s direction is entirely geared towards giving him the stage. There’s little in the way of real direction throughout the film. It’s mainly about pointing the camera at its star and trying to keep up. There are moments of humour found outside of Carrey’s performance, like the use of the song from The Crying Game to amusing effect, but then there is some rather shameless product placement (Isotoners anyone?). In all, Ace Ventura could probably have been directed by anyone, so long as they knew their place. This wasn’t Carrey’s first film, but everyone knew that it was his film.

I hesitate to use phrases like “comedy tour de force”, mainly because they seem like they were invented solely to get some critic’s name on the poster, but it kind of applies here. Not to say that this stems from the unbridled popularity of the character (most loved him, many didn’t), but it’s more that Ace Ventura is a complete comedy package. Everything about him is geared to be funny, and replicated to some degree by those without a personality of their own (like me in high school). He looks like he dresses in the dark, his hair seems to be what happens when the brain explodes, his expressions are peculiar, his behaviour is insane, and his dialogue is a constant stream of blather… and Carrey commits to absolutely every aspect. He holds back nothing, constantly going for the joke, be it a well-timed one-liner or a maelstrom of physical insanity. Not only is this an incredibly impressive performance, it’s an incredibly brave one. If Ace Ventura hadn’t been the hit that it was, Jim Carrey could have been forever relegated to the straight-to-video world, alongside Pauly Shore. However, the enormous commercial success of Ace Ventura, plus the release of The Mask and Dumb & Dumber in that same year, elevated Carrey to instant star status and he’s been there ever since. So not only is he very talented, he’s also incredibly smart, and maybe a bit lucky, too.

There should be some concern over a degree of homophobia or transphobia from the film, though. Whilst I doubt that it’s ever meant to be mean-spirited or judgemental of the transgender community, the reaction of the lead character, and many others later on, to the news of one person’s transgender status is a tad severe, even if it’s just playing the whole thing for laughs. As I said, I don’t think that anyone involved in the film meant any harm. As a sneaky foreshadowing of this plot point, there are clues dotted around that are clearly coming from a juvenile mindset. That particular character’s office has two apples and a banana strategically placed on their desk, for God’s sake. That’s stuff that kids do. It’s immature certainly, but it isn’t intended to offend.

Still, it’s no fun to feel laughed at for something so personal. The fact that it’s so easily dismissed as “a bit of harmless fun” should maybe be the real cause for concern. For someone to feel legitimately victimised on some level is bad enough; worse when such feelings are shrugged off as being too sensitive or touchy on the subject; worse still when people feel they can’t say anything for fear of offending someone. This is the prickly world of comedy… it’s all subjective. For my part, these considerations never even occurred to me when I first saw this film back in the day, but then again, I’m not 11 anymore. It didn’t ruin things for me, but it did give me pause.

Whilst the movie perhaps works best in the 11 to 25 age range (I laughed way more then than I did now), it’s still got some laughs to be had. The story is a pretty standard mystery shtick, but that’s not really what Ace Ventura is about. It’s all about seeing what kind of cartoonish anarchy Jim Carrey can create in any given situation, and that’s just exactly how it should be taken – as a live action cartoon. The character may grate on some, but there’s no denying Carrey’s skill in character immersion or the returns of his first big hit. It’s fluff, but it’s still occasionally funny fluff.

Friday 24 June 2011

Accidental Hero (1992)


What makes a person? Specifically, what drives them to be self-centred shmucks as opposed to selfless do-gooders, or vice versa? Is it possible for someone to step outside of his or her own character and, more importantly, will anyone believe it if they did? Such is the central concern to Stephen Frears’ comedy-drama Accidental Hero. Part media satire and part morality play, the action surrounds three disparate individuals – a selfish conman, an almost jaded news reporter and a destitute war veteran – as they find themselves thrown together by circumstance and opportunity in the shape of a plane crash.

Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is a cynical hustler whose life is quickly falling in on itself. Whilst on his way to his son’s birthday, he witnesses a plane crash right in front of him. He begrudgingly goes on board to help, and rob, some people, including television reporter Gail Gayley (Geena Davis). It’s too dark to see who it is, so Gail starts a campaign to find the hero, offering one million dollars reward. In steps John Bubber (Andy Garcia), down-and-out nice guy, to claim the credit and reward. Media attention grows as Bubber’s conscience starts to creep in, and Bernie wants his money.

Right from the off, Frears tries to evoke a sense of the olden days, with the stirring music of Auld Lang Syne playing over the opening credits. Not the real olden days, though. The olden days as filtered through the haze of nostalgia and filmic memory. A time when many who saw Accidental Hero when it came out were young, when life was simpler, when there was no real complexity to moral questions and problems. There was right and there was wrong and you didn’t need any kind of moral compass to know which was which. God, if only it could all be this simple.

Things are then dragged into the here and now with a resolute introduction to two of our main characters and the world in which they live. Bernie LaPlante is in court, being defended by a young lawyer fresh from school, watching proceedings with a look of both bafflement and cynical resignation. Whilst the judge and lawyers work out the terms of his case, Bernie, noticing his lawyer’s unguarded purse, snatches it up, empties it of all cash. After they leave, he then gives the money back to his attorney as a repayment for a loan she gave him the week before… and then takes it right back again because, you know, he needs some gas money to go see his kid. His family life is, as you’d expect, not exactly glowing either. Long since split from the mother of his child, he’s a part time dad at best, and given some of the advice he dispenses to his son when they do get together, you get the feeling that maybe the boy would be better off without his father’s influence. In a single trip to a diner for lunch, he ditches the bill, keeps a wallet that his son found (and tried to return himself) and tells the youngster that he should try to avoid feeling bad for homeless people because most of them have plenty of money anyway and are just looking for more. In Bernie’s worldview, everyone’s like him… a hustler, a conman, someone just looking to take advantage. As far as Bernie’s concerned, being honest about dishonesty makes him the honest one… what a scumbag.

Our introduction to Gail Gayley isn’t exactly a shining one, either. We meet her as she interviews a man, a respectable man, with a nice suit, nice hair and something of warm smile on his face. When their interview concludes, he promptly turns round and jumps off the ledge he was standing on. Turns out that Gail was there, standing right on the ledge next to him, to get the final words of this man’s story before he leapt to his death. She is shocked that he actually does it, of course, but she’s clearly in conflict with herself about the situation. The second the poor sap lands, she says to her cameraman, “Did you get that?… Did I just say that?” She knows it’s her job to get the story at all costs, because there’s nothing worse than being scooped, but she is aware that this need to get the story is having an adverse effect on her personality. So, from the start, we’re shown that our protagonists (for now) are both at some stage of moral compromise.

Later that night, when Gail is flying back from a ceremony where she was given an award for her tireless pursuit of truth (where her acceptance speech is a rather frank dissemination on the nature of the media’s propensity to reduce individuals to stories than human beings), a disaster strikes. Gail’s plane crashes, trapping everyone on board. At just this moment, Bernie is driving along nearby, and sees the plane go down… but he doesn’t want to help out. Why would he? It’s wet out there and it’s dangerous and he’ll end up ruining his $100 shoes. Eventually he relents, swims through the muddy water the wreckage and opens up the emergency hatch. After a little boy begs him to save his dad, Bernie heads into the flaming fuselage to drag people out. When he stops to help the attractive redhead (Gail) from her seat, he can’t help but steal her purse and award, too. Well, he should get something for all his trouble. After all, he does end up losing a shoe in the process. When everyone’s safe, Bernie gets out of there because he’s late for his son’s birthday.

After the crash, the media are all over it, with everyone trying to find out who the mystery rescuer was. A massive campaign is started, headed by Gail, to find him. When they offer a $1,000,000 reward to the hero, every crazy person comes out of the woodwork, claiming to be him. Bernie can’t make it, though, because he gets arrested trying to sell Gail’s credit cards to some undercover cops. In court, he hears news that the mystery hero has come forward… John Bubber, an impoverished war veteran whose sincere eyes and humble words make him an instant hit. Bernie now has to get himself out of jail as soon as possible so he can get what’s coming to him. Sadly, he’s such a parasitic low-life to all that know him that his cries fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, as the world, and Gail, become more enamoured with their new media sensation, John begins to feel the strain of being so loved for something he doesn’t deserve.

David Webb Peoples provides a wonderful script, with intriguing characters that oppose and parallel in equal measure. There’s a concern with legend or notoriety versus fact that Peoples used to near perfection in the same year’s Unforgiven. Bernie deserves the attention, but doesn’t want it; John doesn’t deserve the attention, but thinks he can handle it; and Gail knows that the attention is, for the most part, fleeting and all just a matter or perception, but it's her job to give that attention. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and pulled off very nicely. Peoples has also got a great sense of the dialogue for his players, giving Gail a media-savvy air to her words; lending John an eloquent, old-time corny manner of speaking honestly about life; and distilling Bernie’s cynicism into a few choice, occasionally profane, phrases… his simple rules of cutting through bullshit with even more bullshit. At some point during proceedings, when John wants to come clean and tell the world of Bernie’s heroism, Bernie tells him, “I don’t take credit, I’m a cash kinda guy.” Tell me you don’t get a sense of this man just from that one line.

Whilst it never just comes out and says it (which would be a bit much), Accidental Hero plays on the notion of morality, not just in the heavy maelstrom of a media blitzkrieg, but more when it actually counts. No one believes Bernie is capable of such selflessness, except for his son. John doesn’t think he could have done that, though everyone is positive it’s within him, including Bernie. Perhaps these guys are representative of the struggle within every person when faced with any kind of moral decision – John is who we want to be, with his humble nature and desire to do good and inspire good in others; Bernie is who we really are, with his more self-centred and cynical ways, wanting to be sure that he never gets taken advantage of. And within all this is the consideration that, when crisis comes knocking, we know we can depend on Bernie… we’re not 100% sure of John.

As previously noted, Stephen Frears does a nice job in bringing about the feel of an old screwball comedy from the 40s, as if Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks were in the director’s chair. Even the musical underscore echoes this kind of throwback, with it's play on songs by Gershwin and the patriotic stirrings of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Within this, though, he doesn’t lose sight of the contemporary concerns of the film, like the satirical take on the modern media’s hysterical propensity to deify and manipulate, creating their own stories that can be mined as long as the star player holds out. It almost feels like Network if it were directed by Frank Capra.

There are maybe some points where this approach seems to contradict itself. Capra was a master at emotional manipulation, but for a good cause. With Accidental Hero, there are some times where you will watch the careful deification of a hero in an editing suite, the emotional manipulation to create an idol for a news story, only to have yourself be on the receiving end of a different form of emotional manipulation for the film. Fortunately, Frears is savvy enough a director to be aware of this. At a key climactic scene, he turns his camera away from the moment and points it at another camera, which just stares right back at you. Some moments are too personal to be shared with the world. Sometimes they’re just for those involved.

The cast handle themselves beautifully, too. Andy Garcia brings such a humble, ‘aw shucks’ quality to the role. A soft-spoken, wide-eyed charm that makes John Bubber, who could so easily have been too saccharine or preachy, feel like such a genuinely nice guy trying to do good. Geena Davis is equally charming, capably handling the role of a woman divided between being the battle-hardened journalist and the caring human being. Each has its draws and drawbacks, and Davis works it well (although her last conversation with her boss may be a bit too sob-filled for some). As it would be, it’s Dustin Hoffman who’s the standout. He’s always had that downtrodden sad-sack look about him, but tempered by a fierce emotionality that he can focus into a single look, which is ultimately what sells Bernie. For all his indignation and ranting and speeches about a terrible world, one look in his eyes and you can see that he’s not the soulless misanthrope he thinks he is. His biggest con is against himself. He’s just as vulnerable as anyone; only he’s got himself a much better shield.

There’s great support throughout, too. Joan Cusack is always a treat, particularly when you watch her react to other people in the scene. She’s a goldmine of comedic twitches and inflection. Chevy Chase, in keeping with the old-time feel of the piece, channels some of the great screwball comedy bosses, all sharp tones and staccato sentences, and Stephen Tobolowsky is a great partner for these moments. Kevin J. O’Connor is also a light joy as Gail’s cameraman, Chucky, a guy who can’t help but give a running commentary on the visual poetry he tries to create with every shot, convinced that each one is a prize-winner. Even James Madio does well as Bernie’s son, Joey.

Accidental Hero is a great, and surprisingly overlooked, little film. Performances are strong, the direction and script are great, and it’s a genuinely affecting piece of work. The message it holds may not be anything new, but it is a worthy one. Even if you don’t come away with the desire to give a helping hand to some poor bugger in the street, or be a better person to those around you, it’s still warm, funny and well worth the time you give it.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Above Us the Waves (1955)


During World War II, there was a German battleship called the Tirpitz. Based in the northern coast of Norway, it was considered a real threat to Allied communications and, by extension, the war effort in general. Determined to remove this threat, two separate attacks were devised. The first was to send in Chariot human torpedoes (two navy frogmen riding a big bomb), but it was aborted at the last hurdle after a storm damaged the payload and they were lost. The second was to dispatch the new X-class midget submarines, carrying huge explosives. A book was written about these events and eventually turned into a film - Above Us the Waves.

1942, and the greatest threat to the British navy is the Tirpitz. Anchored in a Norwegian fjord, any attempts to attack it have failed. Plans are then drawn up to send in newly built mini-submarines to attack it, by planting powerful explosives directly underneath it.

Above Us the Waves doesn’t exactly hang around, waiting to get going. Within the first twenty minutes, the threat is established, the plan proposed, the crew assembled and trained, the project questioned and proved, and then the initial mission is undertaken. Now, that’s a lot of stuff to cover in a very short amount of time, and it does all this by adhering to a very simple policy – be functional. That’s it. There is no time taken to give the audience a chance to appreciate just how much of a threat the Tirpitz is. We’re told it was a threat, that’s it, move on. The same goes for commander and crew. Only the most necessary of information is given, and in the quickest amount of time possible.

This is a very frustrating thing to deal with. You want to know more about the crew, the mission, the threat, but you’re expected to get all this from brief moments here and there. There isn’t even any real direction or editing that goes on. The camera is aimed at the people talking, and then the scene just dissolves into the next one. There is no sense of atmosphere or mood. The filmmakers seem so desperate to tell the story that they’d rather just do away with the preamble and get down into the submarines, where all the tension and action happens… but there is no tension or action, precisely because we skipped all of the stuff about character motivation and dramatic weight. The film is so stingy with information that there are times where you actually just don’t know what’s going on, so when something goes wrong, you’re not sure how bad it really is. Simplicity is not something this story can boast, so treating it as such is a serious misstep. And the lack of a real ending is quite disappointing, too.

(I do wish to point out that when Above Us the Waves was submitted to the British Board of Film Classification in 1955, it had an initial running time of 105 minutes, but that was cut down to 95 minutes. It’s possible that this lost ten minutes may have made a difference, but I doubt it.)

There are only a few moments where the film rises out of itself a bit and, typically, it’s when the crew are faced directly with German soldiers. The moments on the Tirpitz when John Mills (solid, but under-used) is being politely uncooperative is amusing, but only a little bit. Sadly, for the most part, the subdued nature of the picture makes it hard to care. This may have been less of a hurdle at the time of the film’s release, just ten years after the war. It was still fresh in people’s minds, so it was perhaps easier to stir their emotions with this film. However, even if that were the case, its power has certainly eroded over time.

Despite its status as a classic war film, Above Us the Waves isn’t actually particularly good. The acting is of a moderate to good standard; but the script is quite basic, Ralph Thomas’ very weak direction robs the film of almost every bit of tension or emotion that it could have, and the effects, even for the time, are quite poor. It’s a shame, because this is a great story here, and a real heroism to be shown. Both the story and the men involved deserve a much better telling than this.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Above the Rim (1994)

In the early part of the 90s, there was a run of inner-city dramas, thanks mainly to Spike Lee leading the way through the 80s. As such, there was now a market for films like Menace II Society, Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, Sugar Hill, Friday and so on. There were some common tropes and themes in these movies, amongst the most common being basketball, crime and the desire to make it out of the hood. For Jeff Pollack’s 1994 debut as director and co-writer, he took on these elements and gave us Above the Rim.

Kyle (Duane Martin) is a promising young basketball star looking to use his talent to make to the big leagues, but his quick temper often gets in the way. Looking for a shortcut, he falls in with Birdie (Tupac Shakur), a local drug dealer who wants Kyle’s talent to win him money. Meanwhile, Birdie’s big brother Shep (Leon), a troubled former basketball star now employed as a security guard, tries to keep Kyle on the right track.

The strongest thing that this film has going for it is its cast. There isn’t really a poor player there, and collectively they raise the game of the whole movie. Duane Martin convinces as the brash and arrogant, but talented young Kyle; Leon’s onscreen presence raises what could have been a rather bland role to another level; and Tupac Shakur, who has proved his worth as an actor on more than one occasion, brings a needed edge to Birdie… even if it’s not exactly a stretch for him to play a criminal thug.

Decent work comes from the supporting cast, too. Marlon Wayans does funny and pitiful as only he can; Wood Harris’ Motaw is a suitably threatening figure as Birdie’s right hand man; Bernie Mac makes a decent impression, even if his character is really only there to be abused; and Tonya Pinkins is solid as Kyle’s mother.

Probably the strongest aspect to the film, though, is the soundtrack. It may put off some who don't care for rap or hip hop, but it's an incredibly strong collection of work and probably amongst the best soundtracks of the 90s. If you're old enough to remember when MTV actually played music, it's pretty much a guarantee you will have heard 'Regulate', the moody song of gangland life from Warren G and Nate Dog. The soundtrack is unquestionably better than the film it's attached to.

For the good points to be had in Above the Rim, there are also some pretty bad points. The script is rife with cliché, so you pretty much always know where each scene is going to go. As such, relationships are not subject to any great surprises either.

Also, there are some technical issues throughout, primarily with sound, so the dialogue in some scenes is difficult to hear, such as the opening sequence or anytime we’re in Birdie’s club. As it is though, these can be mostly chalked up to the relative inexperience of Pollack as a writer and director, the kind of thing that should get better over time.

Perhaps the biggest problem in the film is the manner in which everything gets tied up in the end. Kyle’s hot-headed ways seem to resolve themselves a little too quickly, as does Shep’s difficulty with his past, so it feels like the filmmakers had maybe become a little impatient to get things over with. Also, the use of violence as a way of resolving issues is a little unsettling, which again likely comes from the lack of a real ending. If there had just been an extra 15 or 20 minutes to allow things to play out in a more considered manner, it may have felt a bit more satisfying.

Above the Rim is a decent enough flick. The cast is strong, the energy’s pretty good and the basketball scenes are done well. It does have more than its fair share of clichés going, there’s the odd misstep on the technical side of things and it all feels a little rushed to end. However, it does manage to be a rather effective little basketball movie. It’s not for everyone, but if this is your kind of thing, check it out.