Wednesday 31 August 2011

As Good as It Gets (1997)


As far as prolific filmmakers go, James L. Brooks isn’t really one of them. Certainly, his televisual output is far more regular, and he’s certainly no Terrence Malick, who very much likes to take his time between films. Nevertheless, Brooks has proved himself rather sporadic, but also with some real success. His first film, 1983’s Terms of Endearment, won him three Oscars, and 1987’s Broadcast News earned several awards and nominations. His 1994 follow-up was less successful, though not without its charms. However, he made a much bigger splash when, in 1997, he reunited with friend Jack Nicholson for a typically acerbic romantic comedy that put him back on much firmer ground in the film world.

Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a cranky, bigoted, obsessive-compulsive writer living in New York. When his gay artist neighbour Simon (Greg Kinnear) is beaten and hospitalised, Melvin is forced to look after his dog. His brief time with the dog prompts some change in Melvin, leading him to try and help the son of Carol (Helen Hunt), the only waitress who will tolerate him in the only restaurant he’ll go to. Initially, Melvin just wants her there to serve him breakfast, but it becomes obvious there’s more to it.

The script for As Good as It Gets was written by Mark Andrus, making it only his second script to be produced. His first film was a sort of time-travel comedy called Late for Dinner, which did decent enough business. His next project was entitled Old Friends, which was about the most despicable man in New York and his gay neighbour. Despite interest from some very talented people (Kevin Kline, Ralph Fiennes and Holly Hunter, no less), the project remained unproduced until James L. Brooks got a hold of it. Given Brooks’ own predilections in writing, and some apparent problems in the initial draft, he gave it a rewrite, though kept the same tone and overall feel. As it is the characters themselves are wonderfully drawn and defined. One of the most defining aspects of Brooks’ work as a writer and director is the nicely observed details in his characters. In As Good as It Gets, Simon explains his artistic process to his latest model:
Simon: “All right, what I do is…I watch people. Do you ever watch someone
who doesn’t know that your watching them? An old lady on a street corner, or
some kids getting on a bus to school? Well, they stand there and you look, and
all of a sudden this… flash comes over them, and you know it has nothing to
do with anything external, because that hasn’t changed. They just suddenly
become realer and more alive. If you look at someone long enough, you can
discover their humanity.”

It’s not just Simon that works this way; as a writer, so does Melvin, as he admits later to Carol. The only difference is that Melvin takes these observations from afar. Nevertheless, they both do it, and this is most certainly how Brooks works, too. Only Carol is free from this affliction, mainly because she doesn’t have the time. Between her work and her sick child, her few attempts to look beyond her very limited space rarely work out well for her, and even then she feels a little guilty for taking focus away from her work or her son.

Indeed, this comes to be something that connects these three characters, that they have all, at some stage in the film, given up on some aspect of their lives for one reason or another. Melvin long since gave up on having any kind of real relationships with other people because they annoy him too much, and he’s too caustic and crazy to maintain them, so he’d rather just avoid the whole issue. Carol gave up on herself having a life where someone else finds her desirable or attractive in any way other than someone to bring them food, which makes her that little bit more of an overbearing mother. Simon gives up on himself completely after he’s attacked in his own home, leaving him too physically and psychologically damaged to work, as well as being hit with huge debts from his medical bills. It’s through these connections, and despite their rather obvious disdain that flows between them, that brings them together. They all begin to feel something beyond themselves for the first time in a long time.

There’s a rather pleasing air of the old fashioned about As Good as It Gets, too. If you just drew back somewhat on the language and some of the more suggestive points, there is a slight flavour of the classical Hollywood in there. This is somewhat interesting considering the decidedly modern nature of many aspects of the film. Each of the characters would have had a tough time shining back then as they do here. Melvin, though of a classic curmudgeonly type, is an utterly vile person here. He’s racist, misogynistic, abrupt, nasty. He insults people not because he wants to be funny, but because he wants to injure people. Hell, the film opens with him putting a dog down a garbage chute. If it were anyone other than the legendarily charming Jack Nicholson in the role, you’d wonder why anyone would talk to him, let alone want to interact on a semi-regular basis. Simon, the openly gay artist neighbour, would not exactly be so openly gay if it were back in the 40s or 50s. Even if he were, he’d be a much swishier stereotype than Kinnear allows him to be. Carol would fare better, but her woes with the medical insurance companies feel like a more modern complaint. As it happens, I was listening to an episode of This American Life a few days ago in which they discussed the US healthcare system and, in that particular episode, they mentioned how popular opinion on insurances companies and HMOs had been greatly affected by this film, with many audience members cheering and applauding when Carol spits, “fucking HMO bastard pieces of shit!” Strong words, and they clearly struck a chord with the viewing public. Perhaps the most distinctly old-fashioned thing about As Good as It Gets is its desire to be a “feel good” picture. The characters turn corners within themselves to shoot for a more positive ending, albeit somewhat unrealistically. Yes, it is indeed something of a stretch that some things turn out in certain ways, so you’ll need to suspend disbelief a little harder here and there, but the film does mean well.

The performances throughout the film really are some great work. Helen Hunt nicely captures all the different emotional pulls in Carol. The worry for her son, her frustrated annoyance and shocked affection for Melvin, her anger with the medical companies, her sympathy and friendship with Simon. There’s really little to dislike in her performance. Greg Kinnear also gives some wonderfully affecting work as Simon, who is clearly gay, but never in such a way that feels parodic or mocking. That his growing despair is down without overdramatic wails and cries just makes it more moving. And, of course, there’s no touching Jack Nicholson in this film. It’s a role he clearly and so absolutely relishes that you can see the glint in his eye throughout. The fact that you really don’t hate him like you should, even when you know he’s crossed a line, is evidence of the man’s charm and skill. There’s also some great support from Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simon’s art dealer and Shirley Knight as Carol’s mother. Plus, as a fun game, you can try counting the minor roles and faces in the background that would go onto greater success in television roles… not counting Yeardley Smith, I saw four.

As Good as It Gets is somewhat flawed, with interesting points of character being occasionally overlooked in favour of heading in a more agreeable, if slightly artificial denouement. However, it is a warm film, made even more affecting by the fact that it wrestles such a genuine glow from some moments of such despair in its characters’ lives. The acting is some fine work, with the three leads shining superbly. Naturally, it’s Nicholson that steals things, delivering a character of such gleeful acidity with the skill of someone who seems incapable of not being charming. You don’t have to ignore its flaws, but just try to take in the sincerity and remember the film just wants to make you feel better, even if only for a little while.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Article 99 (1992)


Healthcare has long been a touchy subject for most people, but particularly in America. So many people get lost in the miasma of bureaucracy from the insurance companies and hospitals and government health initiatives, it’s hard to find much light in a system that, from certain angles, seems to place more emphasis on cost-reduction than life-saving. One of the many groups that get caught up in all of this is the veterans of America, who were promised lifelong medical care for their sacrifices, but are met with a wall of red tape when they try to claim. In 1992, a film was released that sought address the indignities suffered by those who once fought for their country, but now have to fight against it in order to get health cover.

In a severely underfunded veterans’ hospital, a group of doctors, led by Dr. Sturgess (Ray Liotta), must try to treat too many patients with too little supplies. The main cause of their problems is the bureaucratic belt-tightening by the hospital callous chief administrators. Determined to do their jobs as best they can, with the help of some patients and nurses, they defy the orders of management, stealing supplies and performing unauthorized operations.

As far as Article 99 is concerned, veterans are the ones who, in terms of medical care, get hit hardest. Despite the soldiers being promised free care at army hospitals, there is a system in place that seeks to stop this from happening as much as possible. The title refers to a clause that, although the patient may indeed need medical care, the veterans’ hospitals and the government cannot provide such care since it cannot be proved that the problem was a result of injuries sustained from war. This in itself is enough to angry up the blood of most people. It essentially presupposes that the only health concerns a soldier would ever have, mental or physical, would be those directly attributable to their wartime efforts. It neglects such things as later life heart disease, which is the very complaint our first character has. A decorated veteran, he needs a triple bypass and so heads to the VA to get the paperwork approved so he can get himself fixed up. Unfortunately, he’s met with such an all-consuming bureaucratic nightmare that it has men lined up all over the place to fill in one form to get some more forms to be filled out and taken to the next line to fill in the form to get… good lord, I need a seat. Our man is taken aside by Luther, played by Keith David, the man who knows how rotten the system is and explains the pitfalls to the poor guy, and us. Luther tells him, “the only thing that’s gonna get bypassed is you.” Not two minutes later, another former soldier, diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, having just received an Article 99 letter, pitches his truck through the lobby of the hospital and goes on a rampage through the building with an automatic rifle. With the underpaid security dealing with problems elsewhere, it’s up to the doctors to take him down with a defibrillator.

If they’re lucky enough to actually get into the hospital, they’ll spend their time being “turfed” from one department to the other until the paperwork can be sufficiently fudged that they can get the help they need. Until then, they populate the wards, the corridors, the basement, the laundry room, all fragile men with their dignity long since stripped away by their fight to get some help.

So like I said, the filmmakers have picked themselves a highly emotive and complex subject. Writer Ron Cutler and director Howard Deutch clearly feel like they have something to say about the way things seem to be. Indeed, who wouldn’t? They have also assembled themselves a superb cast, featuring Ray Liotta, Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker, Lea Thompson, John Mahoney, Eli Wallach, Kathy Baker, Keith David, John C. McGinley. Sutherland himself apparently felt especially passionate about this project, since his maternal grandfather was Tommy Douglas, the guy who started Canada’s own healthcare system, leading him to be voted as the greatest Canadian ever.

Deutch has found the occasional image that lends itself quite nicely to the project. For example, there is a nice bookending image of the inscription on the steps of the VA hospital. When we first see it, it’s upside down; at film’s end, it’s the right way up. Given the focus on those in the military, this would be a clear reflection of the idea that when flying a flag, to fly it upside down is a sign of distress or something wrong. It’s a perfectly elegant way of suggesting the system is broken before even entering the building.

However, the main problem with the film is that, frankly, it treats the subject a little too… light-hearted? I don’t mean to suggest that it makes it seem like it’s all fun and games, but there is an undeniable feeling that some of the people involved are having fun here. Honestly, you know what Article 99 reminds me of? Scrubs. And not just because John C. McGinley’s there, and that his performance as Dr. Cox in Scrubs was likely more than a little influenced by Ray Liotta in this film. It feels a little like a sitcom because there’s no real sense of scale to the problem. It’s not really about healthcare in America, just in this particular hospital. The filmmakers seem to have confused the dramatic conflict of the film’s character with that of the higher subject matter. Perhaps they were afraid to be too much of a downer, so they bumped up the joke count slightly to combat the woes of medical misappropriation. There is something of a tonal schism in Article 99, similar to the kind of episodic trajectory that occurred in …And Justice for All. It wants you to acknowledge that there is something wrong, that the system is broken, but fails to offer up any kind of hope outside of the over-dramatic escapades that only happen in the movies or on TV. Overall, it makes things feel false… disingenuous… wrong. If they had given the film an extra half hour in which to develop characters more, or had a more widespread consideration of the problem, they would have done better. However, the simple fact is that they just weren’t up to the task at hand. This subject matter deserves a more balanced and comprehensive approach to work as a dramatic piece, but it’s all too neatly tied up here. If this really is such a massive problem, it would take a lot more than a relatively brief protest to solve.

Article 99 clearly has an agenda of sorts, but it’s doubtful as to whether or not it actually succeeds in addressing it properly, so it’s difficult to consider it as anything other than a failure. Even removing its aspirations of social change, and despite a couple of decent performances and the occasional nice piece of direction, it simply doesn’t hit any higher than an average episode of TV drama or sitcom. And its ending is something of a mixed message, too.

Monday 29 August 2011

Art School Confidential (2006)


In 1989, comic creator Daniel Clowes published Eightball, a series that featured numerous short stories and character pieces, as well as small diatribes and rants on various subjects. Amongst these stories was a four-page comic piece entitled Art School Confidential, which showed up in issue seven in 1991. Essentially a satirical exposé based on Clowes’ experiences in art school, the short piece became a fan favourite, most of who recognised the very character types Clowes wrote about. After the success of the film version of another Clowes property, Ghost World, the idea was struck to bring another one to the big screen. The popularity of the Art School Confidential piece made it the natural choice, with Clowes getting back together with Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff for the latest adaptation.

Jerome (Max Minghella) is a young guy from the suburbs who wants to be a famous artist, and heads to New York City’s Strathmore College for his freshman year as a drawing major. However, his fellow students are all nuts and the faculty care more about their own art projects. Even worse is the serial killer murdering people in the immediate area. Jerome also falls for Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model for his life-drawing class, but she seems more interested in Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose primitive work draws raves from everyone, and the influence of the cynical failed artist Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) does little to lighten his mood.

As I said, what really sold the idea of adapting this piece into the next film version of a Daniel Clowes work was its great popularity amongst the comic book’s fans. When he wrote it originally, Clowes imagined only a handful of people would get it, and those would all be friends of his. It was perhaps a little short-sighted of him, since his Eightball series would have most likely earned him a fanbase amongst the art school crowd. Since this was the case, these art school students loved seeing someone expose the “million-dollar racket” of their college experience, shining a light on all the different kinds of oddballs, clichés and cretins that populated their hallways and classrooms. And the character types he looks at are great stuff, and they certainly make the transition from page to screen well, with several new additions.

Jerome is the film’s main character, and he’s the sincere guy who wants to be an artist because art is what he loves. He’s initially a little bland because he knows what kind of stuff he wants to do and merely wants the proper recognition and guidance to help him get there. When he finds himself surrounded by the various hipster/hippy/beatnik/angry/untalented/precious types, who all seem to get along much better than him, his confidence is shaken and he starts to become desperate to win the accolades and attention he thinks he should have. Indeed, it’s his exposure to his fellow students’ hostility and his teachers’ apathy that make him interesting. His one ray of hope in the whole place is that he seems to be making some headway with Audrey, the stunning young woman who poses nude for his class. However, it’s the increasing sense of despondency and bitterness he feels that makes it harder for him to get very far. Max Minghella plays Jerome well, a fresh-faced kid who does become more cynical as the film moves on.

The whole film is strewn with other great and interesting characters. Joel David Moore plays Bardo, the one who introduces Jerome around. Bardo is in his third year in the school as a freshman, because he constantly drops out and comes back with a different major. He knows the system and the people that come along every year, so he is able to spot the clichés a mile off, ticking them off with an amused derision as he points out each of them to Jerome in class. He’s also not above counting himself amongst the clichés, so he’s clearly very self-aware.

Jerome’s two roommates are Matthew and Vince. Matthew, played by Nick Swardson, is a pretty standard kind, the obviously gay, but completely closeted fashion student. Frankly, there’s little done with Matthew that’s funny, moving or even affects the plot, so he’s not much use. On the other hand, Ethan Suplee is on great form as Vince, the incredibly excitable and aggressive film student who has all the subtlety of a brick going through a plate-glass window… filmed in Cinerama… with surround sound… in 3D. He’s obsessed with making a film, but he seemingly has absolutely no concept on how film works, so it’s just garbled mess. I’ve been to film school (of sorts) and I have totally met this guy.

John Malkovich and Anjelica Huston each play teachers at polar ends of the scale. Huston is the unnamed Art History teacher, who seeks to engage with her students and discuss what art can mean as a representation of the artist and society. However, she is only met with contemptuous snorts from the class, who seem to think that because she used Hamlet, War and Peace and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it means she’s saying that good art must come from dead, white males. Her mild frustration is clear, but she remains unrattled by her students’ sneering defensiveness. Malkovich is the flip side to this. His Professor Sandiford is a pretentious ass, still trying to make it as an artist himself, so mostly shows indifference to his students’ work because, as Clowes puts it in the comic, “the last thing they want is more competition.” He’s also got a mild hint of the sexual predator about him, which his students seem to mistake as teacherly guidance, and think the world of him.

The two best characters, and the ones that come closest to the tone of the source material are Jimmy, the alcoholic failed artist and Strathmore graduate, and Marvin Bushmiller, the unabashedly hostile success story of the college art program. Jimmy is played by Jim Broadbent, and his frankness and unbridled cynicism make him a great antidote to the pomposity of the college, even if he is quite unsettling. Marvin Bushmiller is even better, played with caustic egotism by Adam Scott. Bushmiller is the one artist who made it, and returns for an evening of questions in which he seeks to mock the institution and try to get everyone to realise just how rich he is. When someone asks him what art will be like in the future, he dismisses it as a stupid and completely irrelevant question. When someone asks why he’s such an asshole, he responds, “Now, that’s a great question. No, it really is!”

Considering all of these characters, and the spirit of the source material, you’d think that the film would virtually write itself into something full of wit and irony… sadly this is not the case.

When you don’t consider the popularity of the original Art School Confidential as a factor, what makes the fact that it was chosen as the next adaptation so odd is that it is literally four pages of storyless rants. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been known to indulge in such things myself. And what’s there is really very funny and honest, if incredibly bitter, although nothing that was as developed as Ghost World, which spanned eight issues and did have something of a story to it. As such, the decision to develop this much smaller piece into a film would require coming up with a story with which you could actually string these somewhat disparate segments together. Given the format of the original comic piece, and the retention of the title, you would expect perhaps some sort of journalistic thread that would run through it all. Perhaps the main character could offer a narration in the form of diary entries or letters home. Has it been done before? Yes, plenty of times. However, not only would it fit the tone of the piece, it would be infinitely preferable to the utterly generic murder subplot that becomes the main drive of the film. Although it does provide some good stuff for Vince’s attempted filmmaking project, it starts to take over the whole film, infecting the various relationships in the film and crippling their development. Perhaps Clowes and Zwigoff were trying to say something about the lack of inspiration in art, or a statement about bad film adaptations, which Clowes actually wrote about in Eightball, as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. But, if this is what they were shooting for, they missed considerably. It seems more likely that Clowes simply had no idea as to what to do with it, and so hastily constructed some slapdash crime plot for his characters to wander through. It’s as if Clowes and Zwigoff took inspiration from Natural Born Killers or Ace in the Hole, making some attempt at media satire, but without the clever savagery of either. Hell, even Airheads hit the mark better than that. It would have worked out much better for Art School Confidential if they had taken inspiration from something like Rushmore. Now, obviously we don’t really need another Rushmore, but I’d be much more satisfied with that as a conceptual muse rather than something you’d get on a bad episode of Criminal Minds… and I really like that show.

Art School Confidential could have been a witty, insightful and perhaps a rather touching film. The performances are decent and the characters will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s ever studied any kind of art. However, the whole is fatally compromised by the serial killer subplot, which just steals time, focus and destroys any kind interest you’ve built up for these characters. If it had been kept as a straight character piece, it could have worked, but the common crime aspect is just too much to take.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)


Madness. Mass murder. Marriage. Three things that some may think are not to be considered an appropriate subject for comedy. After all, what exactly is so funny about two supposedly sweet old women going around killing people with poisoned wine? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot actually. In fact, there’s a great tradition in stories that takes an irreverent and humorous look at something that is inherently dark and unfunny, such as death or war or madness. Often these films are incredibly sarcastic and witty, albeit in a very pessimistic kind of way. In 1944, Frank Capra, the man known best for films of unbridled optimism and hope, made a film that would come to be a fairly early example of the kind of dark humoured films that we call the ‘black comedy’.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a drama critic and author, well known for his criticism of all things matrimonial. Now, though, he has married Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) and is about to go on his honeymoon. All he needs to do is stop by and tell his two aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). However, whilst there, he stumbles upon his dear aunts’ secret: murdering lonely old men that come to stay with them, and burying them in the cellar.

Arsenic and Old Lace began its life as a play on Broadway, written by Joseph Kesselring. Although he originally conceived it as a straight dark drama, he was convinced to turn it into a dark comedy instead. Clearly, it was good advice. It became the most successful play Kesselring ever wrote, and an instant hit with audiences. Such was its immediate popularity that a film adaptation was put into production in the same year the play premiered, in 1941. The film itself would remain unreleased for three years, having been contractually obliged to wait for the play to end its theatrical run, so as not to end up competing for an audience. As such, 1944 was the year of release for the film.

The play underwent some changes in the transition from stage to screen, which was adapted by twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. Owing to the same Hollywood Production Code that I mentioned back in my look at Angels with Dirty Faces, the body count was reduced slightly and the fate of the two murderous old aunts was subsequently altered. There was also a slightly post-modern in-joke put in regarding the character of Jonathan, Mortimer’s sinister and sociopathic brother, who was played onstage by the great Boris Karloff, most famous as Frankenstein’s Monster. Although three members of the stage production were given leave to star in the film version (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander), Boris Karloff was kept back for the stage version, since they didn’t want to lose the draw of their biggest star. As such, there is a recurring joke about how Jonathan, now portrayed by Raymond Massey and some facial prosthetics, looks so much like Frankenstein’s Monster, which he always takes very poorly. There’s also a line of Mortimer’s toward the end of the play in which he says the word “bastard”. This was changed to comply with the Production Code’s regulations on profane language. However, the main points of the film stayed intact. The plot essentially remains the same, and the characters remain just as mad. And when I say mad, I don’t mean in that overused sense that people do nowadays (“I’m mad, me. I put butter on everything!”... sigh). No, these people are legitimately out of their minds. As Mortimer tells Elaine, “insanity runs in my family... It practically gallops.”

Frank Capra was the man tasked with directing the film version, which seems like a weird kind of joke in itself when considering the fare that Capra is most famous for, but it really makes perfect sense. Capra’s name has long become synonymous with happy endings and good feelings, thanks to the idealistic and hopeful likes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, what really typifies Capra’s work is his ability to take the audience down genuine avenues of darkness and despair before wrenching them back again. It’s precisely because he embraces the darker sides of his films, occasionally dropping the comedy side of things altogether to craft moments that are legitimately sinister, that makes him such a great choice for this film. His direction is often a bit stagey, which is always a potential problem when adapting a play, but it never crosses the line to where you feel like you might as well have seen the stage version. What Capra does bring is a relentless pace to the whole affair, furthering the idea that things just go from bad to worse with an uncontrollable momentum. Indeed, the fact that many of the main characters are mad seems to seep into the film itself, creating a sense of slightly farcical mania about the whole thing. It’s incredibly amusing to watch.

Cary Grant has said that his performance in Arsenic and Old Lace is his least favourite performance of his whole career, considering it too over-the-top and frantic. To be honest, he’s kind of right, but that’s actually part of what makes it work. At the beginning of the film, and in light of his very public declarations about the saccharine nature of all things romantic, Mortimer’s biggest fear is being revealed as a newly married man. It’s also absolutely typical that he would chose to get married on Halloween. The fact that he then has to deal with the fact that his dear sweet old aunts are serial killers, not to mention the repeated interruption from his brothers Teddy and Jonathan, his new wife Elaine, and the police… I’d say the guy is rather justified in being somewhat frenzied. And Grant is so wonderful to watch in this mode. He has the look of a gazelle grazing who suddenly senses a predator and sits bolt upright, eyes wide open. Grant may not like his performance much, but it’s very enjoyable, and is the key to maintaining the energy of the film.

Hull and Adair are an unadulterated delight as Mortimer’s aunts, Abby and Martha. The pair of them so utterly hit the sweet-natured, slightly dotty nature of these characters that it just makes it so much funnier that they are what they are. The key to their characters is that they are not secretly evil or sadistic or even slightly nasty. Everyone thinks they’re all sweet and lovely because they are. They believe they’re just being helpful, taking in the old and lonely souls that have no one else and putting them out of their misery with a nice glass of poisoned wine and a good Christian burial in their cellar. In serial killer terms, they are what would be known as ‘Angels of Mercy’, taking it upon themselves to do away with people they think have no other reason to live, like family or friends. Yes, it’s absolutely appalling, but they are so lovable that you find yourself looking past this homicidal behaviour.

John Alexander plays Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Once again, he’s a character that should be quite tragic on some level, especially since his aunts take some advantage of him. It’s Teddy that buries the bodies in the basement, believing that the holes he’s digging are locks for the Panama Canal and his aunts’ victims are people who died of Yellow Fever. However, Teddy is still really funny, regularly spouting Roosevelt’s catchphrases (“Bully!”, “Dee-light-ed!”) or racing up the stairs yelling “CHARGE!” or blowing his bugle at all hours, hence all the visits from the police.

Raymond Massey is superb as Jonathan, a tall and very imposing presence in the household, always speaking in calm tones and menacing implications. From the moment he enters the house, he remains a constant and legitimate threat to everyone near him, except for Teddy, who holds the real Roosevelt’s lack of fear. A great help in selling just how scary Jonathan really is comes from Peter Lorre, who plays Dr. Herman Einstein. Einstein is Jonathan’s reluctant partner-in-crime and plastic surgeon. He’s also an alcoholic, and is responsible for the face that leads so many to comment on how Jonathan looks like Frankenstein’s Monster. Einstein lives in constant, cowering fear of reprisals.

Priscilla Lane isn’t in the film as much as others, because Elaine keeps getting sent to her house next door so Mortimer can try and clean up the can of worms he’s unwittingly opened. That said, Lane is a welcome presence in the film, mainly because she’s looks so pretty and always shows such worry for Mortimer.

And Max Steiner’s music is excellent, showing a great ability to score the scenes of comedy and darkness with equal precision, throwing in subtle nods and musical cues here and there.

Arsenic and Old Lace is an absolute triumph of mixing real darkness with real comedy. You’ll be amazed at just how much you actually laugh along with the film despite that fact most characters are genuinely insane and have done some appalling things. It’s by virtue of the clever writing, the well-paced direction, and the superb performances on show that make the film such a joy to watch and a classic to this day. If you haven’t seen it… why the hell not? Go. Now. CHAAAARGE!!!

Saturday 27 August 2011

Armageddon (1998)


Michael Bay. For many, this man is the Devil. A Devil made of overblown visual excess, superfast editing, heavy stylisation and heavy-handed patriotic images that seems to want to pound the merry hell out of the viewer’s brain, forcing it into submission. He’s also one of the most bankable directors on the face of the planet. He may spend an absurd amount of money on his films, but he makes it all back and more. In 1998, he released one of his most successful films ever, a disaster movie about an asteroid heading for Earth and total destruction. The fact that another similarly-themed film came out only a couple of months prior did little to diminish its business. Michael Bay had more zoom, more bang, more Bruce Willis saving the world. And thus, like the Devil would, Michael Bay brought us Armageddon.

A meteorite the size of Texas is heading towards Earth, and will destroy all life on the planet. With only eighteen days until impact, NASA come up with a plan to fly out the rock, drill to the core and blow it apart with a nuclear bomb. To do this, they enlist the help of Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), the world’s best deep core driller, to train their astronauts for the job. However, Harry thinks the astronauts can’t be trained in time, and decides to take his own crew and do the job himself.

I’ll be honest, it’s a bit unfair to be laying all this blame at Michael Bay’s feet. Equally as guilty of pushing the much-lamented line of overblown Hollywood excess is über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. They’ve had a steady partnership since Bay’s feature debut with 1995’s Bad Boys and, between the two of them, they have racked up an impressive list of big budget smash hits ever since. In fact, Bad Boys is the film that did the least amount of business, only managing to make around $141 million from a $19 million budget… that’s, uh… that’s some failure there. Since then the budgets skyrocketed, with Armageddon’s (coincidentally) being around $140 million, with a final box office of just over $553 million. Good lord, that is a lot of money. It’s with such numbers that Michael Bay has always felt that he can effectively counter any criticisms about the quality of his films. After all, if the film’s were really so bad, how can they be making so much money? And even if he did accept what critics say of his work, he’d be drying his artistic tears with $100 bills. Such is his life. Now, enough of all this financial talk. What’s Armageddon really like?

We’ll leave the visuals aside for now and look at the script itself first… Armageddon is stupid, insultingly so. Whilst the premise of an asteroid hurtling towards Earth with global annihilation on its mind is hardly far-fetched, the stuff that comes after it is wilfully ridiculous. In fact, this stupidity is so deep-rooted in the film, it actively tries to make people stupid by fostering a rather unsubtle form of anti-intellectualism. Watching it, there’s a common element that is returned to over and over again throughout: smart people are dumb, and the common man always knows better. The idea that sending a crew of deep core drillers into space to tunnel into a meteorite is insane. They do initially suggest that qualified astronauts, who have already been training for eight months for a (coincidentally) similar space drilling mission, receive some extra guidance from Stamper on the best way to proceed. However, since Stamper says that it takes a lifetime to know how to become a real roughneck, he makes the call that it would be easier to train drillers how to astronaut than training astronauts how to drill. That’s ridiculous. On this point, there is a story that, supposedly, when Ben Affleck was discussing the script with Michael Bay, he questioned the logic in this point. Michael Bay’s response? “Shut up.” Of course, this offers up further questions, like what kind of response is that to a perfectly legitimate point? Why wasn’t this point discussed further? Why did Affleck agree to do the film if that’s the answers he gets to basic questions of story logic?

Bay has actually openly talked about how the film’s solution doesn’t really make sense, and that many aspects of the film’s relationship with reality are nonsense. For example, why are there so many massive explosions and fires in space? Where’s all this convenient gravity coming from? Why are the communications signals using a separate, weaker satellite to transmit than the weapons remote? Why do both driller vehicles have machine guns? Apparently, the filmmakers were aware of all of these problems and inaccuracies and holes in the film, but chose to leave them be because it would make it more entertaining, and that your average film goer doesn’t know enough about these things to be able to really question them… and this is how we come to something close to an answer as to why Michael Bay seems to hate intelligence. The less you know, the more receptive to this kind of agonising drivel you are. And Bay compounds this by repeatedly suggesting that the smart people are idiots, easily outclassed with straight-talking and "common sense". In Armageddon, Jason Issacs plays a NASA scientist and is introduced as “pretty much the smartest man in the world.” However, even he is left looking sheepish after only a few minutes with Harry Stamper, who puts down his technical capabilities and seems shocked that this big-time smart NASA science guy can’t come up with anything better than a one-shot drilling expedition to save humanity. That’s why Stamper gets on so well with Billy Bob Thornton’s Dan Truman. He may be a smart engineer guy, but they’re cut from the same straight-talking, “just the facts, ma’am” kind of cloth. The rest of the NASA boys all seem to be sweating a lot and on the point of nervous breakdown, which sits in remarkable contrast to how we saw things not too long ago in Apollo 13. Those guys knew the stakes, but they also knew that staying calm and rational was the best way to approach a crisis.

There are a few concessions made towards allowing smart people to have some kind of dignity. Amongst the crew that Stamper selects to take with him are Oscar Choice, a brilliant geologist played by Owen Wilson, and Rockhound, another geologist and certified genius played by Steve Buscemi. However, their dignity does not last long. Oscar never really gets to show how smart he is, since he doesn’t last long on the flight. Rockhound, so named because he’s constantly horny (and the closest we’ll get to a live-action Quagmire from Family Guy), ends up going nuts with space dementia and has to be physically taped up after he starts shooting the superfluous machine gun. The fact that these guys are said to be very smart is really just so we don’t question why they’re being allowed to go along on this mission, but it’s just so transparent. It all actually reminds me of old cartoons from the 1980s like Inhumanoids and The Centurions. Those shows were full of hero characters said to be accomplished chess players and military strategists and thrill-seeking master chemists, and all for a show that was just about people fighting monsters in spacesuits. The ridiculous character bios were just something to make it “more plausible”. The difference is that those cartoons actually put forward the idea that being smart was a good thing, whereas Armageddon will only let you be smart if you don’t ask questions about the plot and have some sort of other serious character flaw, like being a sex-pest or a corpse.

Okay… now the visuals. The special effects are superb. Honestly, they are really very good. They should be, it’s a Michael Bay film and that’s what he does best. We’ll have to just accept that with great effects come great stretches on the limitations of movie physics, such as the fact that the world seems to be in a near perpetual state of sunset. I understand that Bay likes sunsets, because they look cool. And they do. However, if you’re going to show a short montage of moments from around the world, how in the hell can every country be at sunset at the same time? Also, Bay has this thing of constantly moving the camera, sliding from side-to-side or, his favourite, moving the camera around the character as they turn in the opposite direction whilst in slow-motion. It’s cool to look at, but it does speak to a weird sort of visual hyperactivity that many find unsettling.

Yet another disagreeable thing that bubbles up out of this film: in the first ten minutes, it’s really quite racist. Just look at the scene in which the first wave of smaller meteorites hammers New York City. Eddie Griffin appears as a bike messenger with a small dog called Reggie and, I swear to God, you could replace every single one of his lines with “Aw shiiit, son!” When Griffin has a run-in with a Samoan street vendor, Eddie unloads a light bit of racial abuse (“If I wasn’t a Christian, I’d be throwing your fat, pineapple-eatin’ ass through the window!”). Then there’s Mark Curry, who plays a cab driver and, once again, he might as well be saying “Aw shiiit, son!” over and over. His passengers, an Asian couple, aren’t much better. The husband never says a word, but his wife speaks in deliberate stunted English “I! Want! To Go! Shopping!” Christ, what the hell is this? Armageddon was the highest grossing film of 1998, and it has this kind of crap in it? If you can reduce most of your characters’ dialogue to a single stereotypical catchphrase without losing any hint of personality or affecting proceedings in the slightest, you know you done wrong. Even Peter Stormare doesn’t seem to be playing a Russian cosmonaut so much as a thick Russian accent that happens to be wrapped in a cosmonaut. However, he’s okay because he’s just a regular guy, who fixes multi-million dollar pieces of equipment by cracking it with a wrench and yelling at it.

The performances themselves are okay, though nothing really goes beyond that. There is one performance that really drags things down, and that is Affleck. Now, I’ll admit to being something a fan of the guy. Kind of. I like him in a few things and I certainly think he gets more flak than he really deserves. However, almost every scene with him here is either way overblown or it seems like they just interrupted him having soup in order to film. So he’s either cocky in a uncommitted kind of way, or he commits too much, shooting way over the pitch of everyone else. Maybe at some point, he asked Michael Bay for direction and got told to shut up again.

Was there anything I even liked about it?… the music was pretty good, all stirring and effectively drawn. As I said, the effects were good, and so was the sound… hmmm…

Armageddon is unbelievably stupid. It makes little to no sense, most of the acting is of a standard no higher than alright, and it shows a level of ignorance on so many things that it’s actually rather impressive in its scale. What’s worse is that the film actually relies on its audience being more stupid than itself, actively encouraging them to distance themselves from logic, intelligence and basic common sense. It’s a hateful film, and no amount of Bruce Willis as The Great American Jesus stuff will put this right anytime soon.

Friday 26 August 2011

Arizona Dream (1993)


Part of the reason I have so many movies is that I have a tendency to buy stuff that looks interesting, but that I’ve not really heard of. Taking a chance on something you have little to no knowledge can occasionally yield some fine results. It’s part of what makes people like me work, the hope that by wading through a lot of dreck you’ll come to find something that makes you glad you put in the effort of looking. In 1991, Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica made a Hollywood film that seems to be so unlike what they normally produce that distributors Warner Brothers only gave it a very, very limited release in late 1994, hoping that it would come out and go away quickly. Just look at that tagline up there... they weren't even trying to understand it. Despite a European release the previous year, and a good showing on the festival circuit, its American gross was a little over $112,000. With that kind of story behind it, it’s got to be worth a look, right?

Axel Blackmar (Johnny Depp) works in New York, tagging fish for the city’s Fish & Game department. He’s happy there, but his cousin Paul (Vincent Gallo) brings him to Arizona for his uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis)’s wedding, though it’s partly a ruse to get Axel to take over Leo’s car dealership. On the lot, Axel meets two passionate, if rather unhinged women – Elaine (Faye Dunaway) and Grace (Lily Taylor). Axel gets involved with Elaine, while Grace wanders their house, playing her accordion to turtles and threatening suicide.

We’ve all had some pretty weird dreams in our lives, am I right? The kind of dreams that you wake up the next morning and, from the little you may remember about them, think to yourself, “what the hell was that all about?” I once had a dream where Charles Dickens got into fistfights with people in New York, just so he could draw a crowd and start discussing the city’s architecture… Dreams are a funny thing. And by dreams, I mean both the surreal visions that you have when you’re sleep and the ones you hope to achieve in your waking life. Early in the picture, Axel tells us in voiceover that the way to see someone’s soul is to look at their dreams… the fact that he spends his time looking into the dreams of fish, and similarly letting them look into his, makes little difference to him. He likes fish. As far as he’s concerned, fish are much smarter than people. That’s why he likes his job so much, and is loathe to leave it in order to travel back to Arizona, where he grew up, and be talked into taking over the Cadillac dealership his uncle owns. The only reason he winds up there is because his cousin gets him drunk until he passes out. When he comes to, the first thing he sees from the backseat of the car his cousin is driving is an automotive graveyard, the dusty Arizona roadside sporadically lined with old cars on stilts. Welcome home, Axel.

Johnny Depp plays Axel, a young guy who, since moving to the Big Apple, has rather forgotten what it is to be the kind of oddball that his hometown produces. He’s still kind of an oddball, but he’s become more subdued about it, less likely to drag other people into his particular brand of strangeness. Right from the moment we enter Arizona, we begin to meet people more accustomed to living according to their own dreams, regardless of how bizarre or difficult it makes them seem. When he finds himself back at his uncle’s home, back with the man he calls his “childhood hero”, he tries to fend off the old man’s request that he be the one to take his place as owner of a Cadillac dealership.

I’m going to stop now before I essentially recount the plot of the film, largely because it would remove from the absurd joy of watching it all unfold before you. I’ll let you look out the film for yourselves so you can see Johnny Depp’s numerous attempts to build the kind flying machines that Klunk would have come up with for Dastadly and Muttley. I’ll let you watch Vincent Gallo interrupt a screening of Raging Bull by climbing in front of the screen and acting the scene out for the audience whilst it plays on the screen behind him. I’ll let you ponder the fish from Johnny Depp’s dream at the movie’s opening that returns again and again for reasons fuzzy. You can enjoy the mariachi band; the failed bungee suicide; Johnny Depp’s chicken impression; the game of Russian Roulette; Gallo’s hilarious talent show entry; and the most awkward dinner to involve an escaped turtle, someone singing a song from The Wizard of Oz and the repeated use of “Papa New Guinea”. I’d say you’d understand more if you saw, but I’m not sure you would. I also don’t think you’ll care, cause it’s just so damn enjoyable to watch.

What writer David Atkins and director Emir Kusturica have created is a world where people so openly follow their dreams that, within the context of the film world, they can actually affect the reality around them. This can lead to moments that are actually quite touching, if rather absurd. The film itself is so richly layered with film references, from stuff like Nanook of the North to The Wizard of Oz to Terminator 2: Judgement Day to North by Northwest to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It really is a diverse palette. One of the recurring ideas of Arizona Dream is the influence of films on dreams and dreams on films. Paul’s whole life seems to be about pursuing a life in film, and part of achieving this is to live his life as close to a film as possible. He even recites lines from Raging Bull in his sleep. As Axel’s relationship with Elaine grows, he talks about running off to Alaska with her, attempting to live out his initial dream, which he refers to as his “movie dream”. Kusturica himself seems to draw some influences in his manner of direction. For example, the whole dinner scene is like watching some early Robert Altman, only with a more dynamic camera style. He has also scattered the film with hints of a lighter touch, subtle nods and visual metaphors that sit unobtrusively as things for people who care to look closer.

What helps to hold all of these scenes of absurd comedy together is that there is, beneath it all, a well-developed and drawn set of relationships at play. You don’t spend your time wondering why exactly these people know each other, or why they don’t just split from each other at the first opportunity. It’s virtually without structure, but at the same time, it doesn’t push things so far that stop caring about these people. You really do invest yourself in them, which is quite a thing to do when you’re watching Jerry Lewis and Johnny Depp talking about fish in an Inuit language.

The performances of the film are excellent, each and every one expertly jumping between the comic and tragic. Depp is able to pull a great trick of being both understated and somewhat intense; Lewis is on top form, rendering Leo as both disarmingly sweet and forceful, with a nod here and there to his better known goofy persona from his days with Dean Martin, and still without compromising the moments of pathos; Dunaway gives us a kind of firecracker in Elaine, though tempered with an insecurity that feels like it may cross the line into inconsistent (read as: schizophrenic), but never does; Gallo evokes a great caricature of manhood, both inspired by real-life and classic movies, and does a decent Joe Pesci/Robert De Niro double act on his own; and Lili Taylor is an absolute delight to watch in every single thing she does, and here she’s all half-smug glares and sneers and wry smirks… God, I love that girl.

Arizona Dream is an absolutely absurd, but utterly wonderful film. It’s often incredibly funny, run through with wit and slapstick, but it’s occasionally rather sombre, too. It may be a bit long for some (about two-and-a-half hours), but every performance is a treasure, the direction is superbly rich and it remains consistently interesting. This is one of those gems that people often forget or overlook or just plain never hear about. Do yourself a favour and look this one out.

Thursday 25 August 2011

The Aristocrats (2005)


For as long as there has been comedy, there has been the drive to push boundaries of what you can get laughs from, be it the anarchic violence of a Tom & Jerry cartoon or the verbal hammer blow of what Bill Hicks would call “a big purple-veined dick joke.” The history of comedy is a history of societal taboos and hang-ups having a light shone on them for satire, for shock, and for laughs. Do you have a comedy line? Is there any particular subject that you absolutely refuse to laugh at or find any humour in? Maybe you don’t have one. Maybe you think any subject is fair game for comedy. In 2005, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette produced a documentary that would focus on the various subjects often considered too close to the bone for audiences, and how they go to play in the conception and delivery of a joke notorious amongst comedians, but largely unknown to everyone else.

There is a joke that virtually every comedian knows. A joke only told by comedians to other comedians … the Aristocrats joke. 100 comedians are interviewed to discuss the joke, what makes it funny, the varied tellings and interpretations they’ve heard, the history of the joke and have a crack at telling it their own way.

It’s frankly a little difficult to discuss the content of The Aristocrats because, honestly, they do a pretty good job of doing that in the movie. The joke itself gets told a handful of times, but the majority of the film is taken up with a multitude, a plethora, a veritable overabundance of comedians talking about the joke from various different angles. And they all have interesting ideas about it. They openly pontificate on what they think makes the joke work, what subject gets the best laughs, what the limitations of the structure are, the flaws of the joke, what you can tell about the person telling the joke from what subject they spend the most amount of time describing. On a broader level, they use it to talk about the reactions people can have to the more problematic areas of comedy, like incest, or rape, or race, or bodily fluids. All of the comedians seem to be aware that there is a line in people, but take great pleasure in trying to find that line and then cross it. As far as dissection and deconstruction goes, it’s fairly thorough. Since this is the case, I’ll talk more about whether or not I think the film itself works.

The first time I saw The Aristocrats in a theatre, I was one of a little over a dozen people. Only around fifty percent of the audience made it to the end of the film, the rest having walked out before the halfway point. I mention this because I get the feeling that there are two kinds negative reactions that people can have to The Aristocrats. One is that they are very offended by what they are hearing, their limits of taste and decency having been pushed too far. The other negative reaction is that, despite the grotesque images being conjured up, many people will genuinely not like it because they just don’t think it’s funny… Have you ever been told a joke that you didn’t think was funny, and the person telling it then accused you of being “too serious” for not laughing? This is how some will react to the film. In fact, there are a few people in the film that don’t get the joke, that don’t understand why it’s meant to be funny, that simply don’t laugh because they think it’s a bad joke. It’s even something they talk about in the film, before making the point that it’s the absurd journey of the set-up that draws the laugh and not the admittedly weak punch line. You may find yourself spending more time awkwardly waiting to laugh than actually laughing. It's also quite likely that many of the people who said they never laughed so much at a movie in their lives were trying to avoid being regarded as too uncool or serious to "get it."

I laughed a lot the first time I saw The Aristocrats, and still laugh when I see it now, though not as much. There is a lot of flab to the film, what feels like pointless gurning in an attempt to drag a particular laugh from the audience. This seems to come from a lack of real direction from Provenza. It seems like he thought that if he just interviewed as many comedians as possible about this joke, the direction would reveal itself in the edit and he would be able to construct something of great comedy and great insight from there. Sadly, this is not the case, with so much of the film feeling like padding, a showcase for a vast array of comedy talent. As such, there’s a cacophonous element to the film that it never really gets over, as if they all want to be the one you remember by film’s end by screaming the joke the loudest.

Several of the comedians on show equate comedy in general, and this joke in particular, to jazz: “it’s the singer, not the song.” I’m a big fan of jazz, but I can certainly understand why some people don’t like it. It’s something you need to kind of learn how to appreciate. Really good jazz can take an old standard and build on it, improvising and experimenting, utilising the talents of great musicians to create a single piece of great music that’s very satisfying to hear; really bad jazz can have a group of disparate musicians openly competing with each other for supremacy, turning that old standard into a ragged string of dissonant notes and sounds that’s often quite painful. The Aristocrats film has more of the latter than the former. There’s an undeniable feeling of some people striving to get the biggest overall laugh with their piece. It’s natural to understand that they would try, but… have you ever seen a stand-up try to flog laughs from a dead joke and get nothing? That’s what it feels like every now and then. The primary rule of comedy is timing and, in truth, this film would have been much better served if it lost about half an hour from its running time.

However, there is still some truly great stuff in there. A silent version of the joke as acted out by Billy the Mime is excellent for its uniqueness; Gregg Rogell’s telling, though broken up in the edit somewhat, is great for the superb way in which he’s structured each part of the joke and the enthusiasm he puts to it; just Bruce Vilanch’s delivery of the phrase “fountains of jism!” is superb; Kevin Pollack’s impression of Christopher Walken telling the joke is brilliant, even if he crumbles before he gets to the end; the animated South Park piece is really very funny; and Sarah Silverman’s abuse confessional is a stellar piece of acting. You will also likely gain a newfound respect for Gilbert Gottfried from the segment of him telling the joke at Hugh Hefner’s Comedy Roast, which served as the inspiration for the documentary itself. And there are many smaller laughs to be had throughout, so you should be able to find a chuckle or three in there somewhere.

The Aristocrats is certainly a very interesting film, which will have a multitude of effects on different people. It has moments of comedy genius, and even manages to tap into what makes comedy such a vital part of society. However, there is also a lot of the film that is a bit of a slog, with stuff that you just have to get through until the next funny bit. There’s just a lack of overall direction or pace or an idea as to what they want to say that makes it feel like there’s still something you’re not getting about the whole thing. It’s got great stuff in it, but it’s not all gold.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

The Arbor (2010)

Andrea Dunbar began her career as a playwright at the age of 15, starting her first play, The Arbor, as a school English assignment. After some encouragement from her teacher, the work was further developed and was first professionally premiered when Dunbar was 18. Her raw, harsh and incredibly frank work garnered her much attention, with her next play, Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, eventually being made into a critically acclaimed film. With such promise for a long career, Dunbar was also plagued by alcoholism, depression and a tough family life, before being struck down before her 30s by an ailment unrelated to her self-destructive side.

Andrea Dunbar was a playwright who grew up in a broken down Bradford estate, writing two semi-autobiographical plays about her life growing up before dying of a brain haemorrhage at the age of 29. He family life was always traumatic, which extended beyond to her children’s lives.

For director Clio Barnard’s first feature length film, The Arbor, she has chosen to tell the story in a very interesting way. The first words of this documentary are the following:
This is a true story, filmed with actors lip-synching to the voices of the people
whose story it tells.
Essentially what this means is that she has interviewed many people about the life of Andrea Dunbar (her children, her brother, her sister, her friends, and so on) and then employed actors to re-enact these interviews as pieces to the camera, lip-synching along with the audio of the actual people being interviewed. Woven into this narrative are segments in which some of these same actors perform scenes from her plays and clips from a 1980 BBC documentary speaking directly to Andrea and her family about her life and work. This is a very bold way of working. It’s also not built without any sort of pre-set basis. Dunbar’s plays were of a deeply personal and autobiographical nature, so for the lines to be constantly crossed between performer as real-life character and their fictional counter-parts is fascinating. Beyond this, as is discussed in the film, Andrea Dunbar’s life was revisited in 2000 in play called A State Affair. This play looked back on how Dunbar and her family were affected by her work, her life and her death, with actors performing the words of the real people by lip-synching on stage, which is the main inspirational template for this film.

What is also very interesting about this film is that only the first half looks at Andrea, who effectively dies halfway through and is rarely mentioned again. After this, the focus shifts onto her children, with most attention paid towards her oldest daughter, Lorraine. Lorraine herself grew up in the same area her mother, but born of a Pakistani father. As well as being abused for being of mixed race, she took heavily to drugs, was involved with a few very abusive partners, suffering a miscarriage, going through a failed marriage, was briefly a prostitute and served some time prison. If anything, her story is so much more harrowing than her mother’s. I won’t really spend too much time talking all about what happens in the film, since you can see it for yourself if you want. What I shall talk about is the form of the documentary.

As I previously said, it’s a very rich and multi-stranded mix of straight performance, straight documentary and a blend of the two. Since Dunbar’s plays talk directly of her own life and experiences, the performances of brief moments from them serve to fill in gaps of her story, effectively told as openly and as honestly as possible by the best person for the job, herself. These fragments of her work as actually performance on the very estate that she grew up on, Brafferton Arbor, which is where both her first play and this film get their name. They show her turbulent family life, fraught with bitter fighting and abuse; they show her awkward first steps in a relationship with men; they show her interactions with friends and non-friends. Just from these pieces, it’s clear her life was, to say the least, rough. It’s an interesting idea that the film does focus on the legacy left by Andrea Dunbar, but looks more at the direct, genetic legacy, rather than on the work she produced. Indeed, her life and her work were so clearly intertwined, it’s impossible to tell the story of one and not include the other. That the pain and anguish that Dunbar wrote about was then experienced with even greater intensity by her daughter is something that only heightens the tragedy and pain of it all.

The bulk of the film is taken up with actors performing along with the recorded interview pieces with the people in Dunbar’s life, continuing this theme of art imitating life imitating art imitating life. Sometimes the actor will walk around the estate, or make a cup of tea in the kitchen, or perform some menial task, all whilst addressing the camera directly, giving body to the disembodied voices telling the story. Other times, the words will act more as a simple voice-over, telling a story about something that happened in that person’s life, which will be acted out as if it is happening then and there.

It’s actually all very impressively staged throughout, and the actor’s do, for the most part, an excellent job of maintaining the pretence, performing all of the tics and stutters and flubs that come as a natural part of these real people talking, as well as giving a proper physicality to it. This could so easily have been a case of the actors trying so hard to maintain the right rhythm of lip-synch that they forget to actually act along with it, but they all do an admirable job. The actual performances of the segments from Dunbar’s plays are equally well handled, bringing the raw emotion and harshness to life in a fine and vivid manner.

If there is one thing to say as a downside, apart from the decidedly bleak nature of what is being discussed and that those at its heart are still very sensitive about it all, it is that the fractured manner in which the story is told makes things, initially, a little difficult to follow. The reality, the performance of reality, the performance of performance based on reality, all weaving in and out of each other… in the first fifteen minutes or so, it’s difficult to pick up on who’s who and at what point the events they’re discussing took place. It’s something you will get used to and be able to follow from then on, but the first steps can make things a little confusing.

For myself, I can’t really say that ever really knew who Andrea Dunbar was until this film walked me through it. I wasn’t really familiar with her work, with the exception of the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too!, which, if I’m honest, I never really cared for. I had never known that the life of the woman who wrote the film was so fascinating and so deeply tragic, as well as her family’s story. I’d certainly say I’ve come away better informed on Andrea Dunbar as a person and artist for having seen this.

The Arbor is a very interesting film, nicely conceived and staged, though it tells a very bleak tale of very damaged people. Occasionally, the shifting nature of how the film is told makes it a little difficult to follow, but it is something you can adapt to quickly enough. I can honestly say that, thanks to this film, I learned several things about a person that I knew very little about before, which is really what a documentary like this should do.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Apt Pupil (1998)


What is it that makes a person evil? Is it something that must be taught, or is it something deeply inherent in some people? If it were something that is handed down through lessons of a sort, what kind of person would actually seek to learn those ways? It’s the classic case of Nature versus Nurture. For director Bryan Singer’s follow-up to the very successful crime thriller The Usual Suspects, he chose to consider this subject by filming an adaptation of a novella from Stephen King’s Different Seasons book. Two of the stories contained therein had already been filmed, 1986’s Stand by Me and 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption. The next one in line concerned the story of, essentially, a boy who traps a monster – Apt Pupil.

High-schooler Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that an old man living in his neighbourhood, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is actually wanted Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander. Todd blackmails Dussander into telling him stories of Dussander’s work in the death camps during WWII or else he’ll tell the authorities. Dussander grudgingly accepts, regaling the boy with horrifying stories of murder and death. However, the more Todd hears, the more it starts to affect him, and the more it awakens the dormant psychopath resting beneath Dussander’s surface.

In 1942, before he wrote the Narnia books for which he is best known, C.S. Lewis published another book, The Screwtape Letters. The book itself is a series of correspondence from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his junior demon nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood regularly asks his experienced uncle for advice and help in tempting his human charge away from God and towards an eternity in Hell. It’s a damn good book, which you should go read if you haven’t already. It also seems to serve as something of an inspiration for the source story of Apt Pupil. Upon learning of the Nazi’s murderous efforts in the Second World War, and that one of the people in his neighbourhood is one of the more notorious members of the Third Reich, Todd sets out, not to expose him, but to learn from him. He’s not looking for tips on genocide, he just wants to know more about what the Nazis really did in the camps. As he puts it, “everything they’re afraid to teach us in school.” Dussander has no intention of doing so to begin with, simply wishing to be left alone in his aging dormancy, but Todd blackmails him, telling about photos and fingerprints and dossiers on record in databases. Honestly, this is probably the weakest part of proceedings, offering little in the way of explaining how a 15-year-old boy is able to acquire a file on a wanted Nazi officer, complete with photos, fingerprints and notes, in 1984 Southern California. It’s a hole, but the film wisely skips over it quickly. With such apparent evidence in Todd’s possession, Dussander has little recourse but to comply with the boy’s request. As the months go by, the pair meet almost every day, Todd going to Dussander’s home under the guise of assisting an old man with poor eyesight... his parents are so proud. He learns about the gassing, the “special soap” the Nazis made, and other such atrocities in the old man’s past. Todd’s most regular question: “what did it feel like?”

There’s the sense throughout that Todd is more than just an overly curious student with a fascination many would call “morbid”. The feeling one gets is that he is feeling the first stirrings of something much darker than mere curiosity, that awakening inside him is the personality of a psychopath. He wants to know how Dussander felt as he killed hundreds, thousands, even millions of people because he wants to know if it matches his own feelings of latent murderous brutality. There are signs throughout that this is the direction he’s going. As the film progresses, he takes recognisable steps on the path of the psycho: he already has a clear and unhealthy obsession with murder; he displays many signs of the manipulation of others; he begins to take his aggression out on small animals (an already injured pigeon); he seems to be impotent, unable to maintain an erection, despite the efforts of the girl he’s with. Todd is gradually unfolding as a predator, and has sought the council of a more experienced monster, whether he really understood why at the time or not.

More interesting is the trajectory of Todd’s new teacher, Kurt Dussander. Formerly one of the most notoriously vicious Nazi officers in Germany (in the book, he is referred to as the “Blood Fiend of Patin”), he long ago escaped from prosecution for war crimes and landed in a suburb in Southern California. Here, he has become a feeble old man, someone with every intention of spending his last days under everyone’s radar. When Todd overturns the rock under which he has been hiding, over the course of the film, Dussander slowly uncoils, finding his own homicidal tendencies to be waking up, too. As he recounts the tales of his exploits to the young boy, Todd eagerly listening and asking questions, there are small hints that Dussander is beginning to enjoy this walk down memory lane. When Todd asks what it felt like to kill people, Dussander lets the briefest of smirks slip across his face before composing himself and dispassionately answering with the party line, “It had to be done.” A scene where Todd buys Dussander a fancy dress costume, an SS Nazi uniform, gives more vent to Dussander’s old self. Todd demands he march for him, which he does, but memory kicks in and the old man begins to rigidly stomp and salute on his own. Without realising it, Todd has unlocked the cage in which Dussander has kept his own monster locked up for years. After this, Dussander becomes more like his old killer self. The old excuse that the Nazis that were caught and tried for their crimes was that they were “only following orders.” It’s clear that, at least with Dussander, he was a monster with or without the orders… he killed so well because he liked it so much.

That the two never entirely trust each other (indeed, why should they?) is a constant battle between them. Todd gets his way through blackmail, but Dussander is still smart enough to know that he needs to protect himself from this boy. They each try to find something else to hold over the other, looking for the upper hand, two fierce creatures circling each other before a fight. Within this, though, they remain somewhat protective of each other. They hate each other intensely, but they need each other, too. Not only do they each claim to have evidence on the other in a “very safe place,” but they can be more comfortably themselves with each other than anyone else. As such, Dussander becomes a positive influence on Todd’s studies, and Todd a great help for when Dussander really needs it. The simple fact is that they are pretty much one and the same. They both project an image of being good and harmless and of no threat to anyone, but they are both very much wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The only difference between them is that Dussander already knows it, and Todd soon will.

There are numerous differences between the film and its source material. The original story is much more violent, with Todd’s killer instinct becoming much more severe. His nightmares, only really touched on in the film, are much darker, and it all adds more credence to his stance as a burgeoning serial killer. The biggest difference is the ending, which many have decried as being too weak in the film when compared to the book’s climax. The book goes for a more hysterical frenzy, with Todd snapping and going on a spree. It’s certainly a far more dramatic ending, but the film aims for something much darker and bleaker. The relative success of that will largely depend on the given viewer, but I rather like it for its sinister implication, and also because it sits much better with the thematic core of the piece. Book Todd didn’t learn his lesson; Film Todd did. If there is one thing I wish was maintained better in the transition from one medium to the other, it’s the radical shift in Todd’s personality before and after his “lessons”. In the beginning, he’s the good, clean-cut, all-American boy, with good grades, a winning smile and wholesome habits. The more he hears from Dussander, the less wholesome he becomes. The fact that he never cursed before meeting Dussander is a big change for him. We simply don’t have time to establish this as a baseline for Todd in the film, so we rely on his scholastic performance as indications of his personality change. It’s not a fatal flaw; it’s just something that stuck with me.

Singer’s direction is perfectly decent, but it’s the acting that is the real strength of the film. Both roles are filled very well. Brad Renfro was the young and good-looking type (I say “was” because he actually died in 2008), but he was capable of projecting a coldness about him, a mean streak that undercut the wholesome veneer nicely. Indeed, that’s what rests at the heart of Todd. You need to believe that he could be the top of his class and a hit with the ladies, but equally so that he could lie, blackmail, and even kill with the same ease. Renfro does this well. Even better is Ian McKellen, who is excellent as the shuffling old man who turns out to be cruel psychopath. The way McKellen holds himself, slightly stooped and slow, belies the keenness of his eyes and the vicious delight in his smile. It’s a dark, unsettling and superbly unnerving performance from the man. Another performance of note is from Elias Koteas, as a homeless man who makes the mistake of buying into Dussander’s act of the harmless old man, much to his regret.

Apt Pupil is a fine and dark film, nicely touching on the nature of evil and where it comes from. Some will likely be disappointed with the deviations from the book, which is a far more violent affair. However, the film achieves a bleaker, if quieter, sensibility than the book. Singer’s direction is strong, and the performances from Renfro and McKellen are both excellent. It’s a sinister and interesting film, and well worth a viewing.

Monday 22 August 2011

Appaloosa (2008)


In the mid to late 2000s, there was something of a revival of western films, like Seraphim Falls, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seemed like the classic American movie genre had returned for the beginning of the new Century. One of the quieter releases to gets its release around the time was the second directorial effort from actor Ed Harris, following his debut Pollock in 2000. Reuniting with his A History of Violence co-star, Viggo Mortensen, Harris co-wrote, directed and starred in an adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel Appaloosa.

Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) make their living as sheriffs-for-hire, taking on another job in the town of Appaloosa, as marshal and deputy. Their job is to face down the gang of the powerful rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons), who killed the last marshal and his two deputies. Their job is complicated slightly when Allison French (Renée Zellweger) arrives in town and starts on a quick romance with Virgil.

There are a few different types of plot available to the maker of westerns. Some films are about the struggle of settlers trying to push through the harsh landscape to find land of their own. Some films are stories vengeance, with one determined gunslinger heading out take their revenge on those that wronged them in some way. Appaloosa is an example of what is generally called the ‘Evil Rancher’ story. The town itself is in such a remote area that the only way it survives is through the business brought by the wealthy rancher, whose cattle trade becomes the primary lifeblood of the town’s economy. If not for them, the town would be abandoned and the residents would have to start again from scratch somewhere else. However, precisely because of this enviable position of power, the rancher figure believes that he owns the town and can do whatever he wants in it, a feeling that is shared by those who work for him. Before you know it, the town is plunged into a state of fear, with the ranch-hands getting drunk, assaulting people, shooting up the saloon and treating the town and its citizens like a plaything. Law ceases to exist, either because the rancher killed him or put him on payroll. Under such circumstances, the townspeople must look for outside help, bring in someone that can stand up to the rancher and clean up the town. This is precisely where Appaloosa begins, with Jeremy Irons acting as the Evil Rancher and Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen the men hired to restore order to the town. For the most part, it’s pretty standard stuff.

In such a case, when the familiarities with plot may become a burden, it’s down to the characters that populate the script that make all the difference… and Appaloosa has some fine characters going. Virgil Cole is the man hired as marshal, the primary force of law. Though he has a liking for things of a more refined nature, he’s not exactly a smart man, often trying to use fancy words, but stumbling on their pronunciation or meaning. Clearly, he has an appreciation for things of a more sophisticated measure, even tries to understand them, but knows that they will always be just beyond his reach. His strength lies in his ability to set aside any form of erudite pursuit in order to do the dirty work of killing people. Emotionality is not really something he’s good at. In fact, there’s evidence that he is rather poor at keeping them in check, such as his whirlwind romance with Allison, which borders on the adolescent, or when he beats down a drunk in the saloon for speaking in too vulgar a manner. Nevertheless, he believes in the law, which is why he’s so good at bringing it to the lawless.

Everett Hitch is Virgil’s long-time friend, and his partner in crime-stopping. Hitch is much smarter than Virgil, more in control of his emotions, and a better hand with a gun. It’s Hitch who helps Virgil with his poor vocabulary, and backs him up when trouble rides into town. What stops Hitch from being the frontman of this duo is that he is less resolute in his belief in law. He knows that not everything is black and white, that there are shades of grey in the mix, that the law is only a solid as the man that upholds it, and it’s all precisely because he’s much smarter than Virgil. This is why he needs Virgil to lead him, because, even though he has his morals, without that extra guiding hand, he’s no better than your average lawless gun-for-hire.

Randall Bragg is a nasty piece of work. He’s just as smart as Hitch, and just as ruthless as Virgil, and has friends in some incredibly high places. It’s these very qualities that have seen him become the successful rancher. With his financial hold on the town, and his influence his prominent circles, he knows he need exert only a little force to get what he wants. Allison French is perhaps the most interesting character, although to explain why would be to give away too much about her and the relationships of all those above. All I will say is this – she is a survivor.

The interaction between these characters, and others, is all a matter of delicate subtlety, and the actors all play it out with an understatement that matches the tone of the script. Harris and Mortensen particularly play well off each other, showing the kind of easy relationship that Virgil and Hitch would have spent years developing. Theirs is not a friendship built on long conversations about life, but of a simple, quiet understanding of each other’s habits and ways.

There is also an interesting consideration within the film as a political text. Within the western genre in general, there is often an association made between the law, and those represent it, and the United States as a country. This is, after all, the quintessential American genre, and such associations helped garner John Wayne the nickname of ‘The Ultimate American’. It’s a political version of the standard civilisation versus wilderness measure, civilisation being the law and, thus, America. Now, with such a notion in mind, look at the representation of law in this film. Virgil is not particularly smart and he’s hot-tempered, but he’s a decisive man of action and resolute moral standing, not to mention with a great faith in his partner. Hitch is equally trusting of his partner, but he’s also smarter than him and less likely to act in the best interests of the law with his influence. Can we not perhaps consider this some sort of meditation on the potentially partisan nature of the American government? With one as Republican, the other as Democrat? It would seem to be a rather hopeful vision of sorts, since the two can co-exist and act as a force for justice and good. If it’s intentional, it’s intriguing and wonderfully noted; if it’s accidental, it’s still interesting.

However, there is a problem within the film… I did not particularly care for Appaloosa, mainly because it’s kind of a waste. It’s got a great cast, and the characters are very interesting, but they are just not handled well by Harris the Director. There is a delicate subtlety in the writing that he is simply unable to convey on the screen, which makes it feel occasionally choppy or weak. In Harris’ vision, there are no subplots, only primary plots that greatly alter the way the film feels. It begins as two men bringing law to a lawless town, but then that just stops and becomes a romance between a man and woman, with the other guy looking on. Then that stops and the law bit comes back. The law bit plays out until it becomes a different story altogether in the wilderness… there is a distinct lack of subtlety in the direction. Harris is unable to effectively weave these stories together, so they crash into each other, passing the buck from one to the other with no grace or dexterity. Also, the point of narration occasionally shifts, which is kind of a rookie mistake. The whole film is being recounted by Hitch, as evidenced by the voice-over at the beginning and end. This works well at times, with the manner we discover the relationship between Virgil and Allison being done in a suitably low-key fashion. However, there are instances that we move away from him to Virgil. It’s not exactly the worst problem ever, but it certainly highlights the problems within the methods of storytelling being used.

Also, everything just feels so flat. There’s little sense of the atmosphere of the period setting or the surroundings. The town of Appaloosa is a small and sparse place, but it feels so hollow. It’s less a town, more of a purpose built set. And the camera always sits at such a distance from things. It could be that Harris wants to incorporate this sense of open space as a regular visual motif, or highlight the metaphorical distance between characters, but it just makes things feel too remote. Given the slightness of the work on show, in the acting and the script, we could have used a discrete closeness to the camerawork. And the editing is a might clumsy on occasion, such as when the film tries to convey the days and nights that Bragg sits in jail after he’s arrested. It’s all in the visuals, but it’s too blocky, with little care taken on transition or thought given to how one scene connects to the next.

In the end, Appaloosa could have been great, because it had so much going for it. The script was fine and subtle, the cast assembled was excellent, they all did great work, and there’s the potential for allegorical discourse within. However, the lacklustre effort from Harris behind the camera fails to evoke the proper sense of drama or tension, which makes becoming emotionally involved an effort placed entirely on the viewer. I certainly don’t mind doing my part, but you’ve got to meet me halfway.