Tuesday 9 July 2013

Beau Hunks (1931)


We return to early days, the year 1931 to be specific, for another look at a film from comedy legends Laurel & Hardy. As you may (or may not remember), the only time we’ve looked at a film from this pairing before, Be Big!, turned out to be something of a damp squib… in my opinion. Timing was off, ideas were short, and laughs were, as a result, thin on the ground. Well, today’s venture sees us looking over a film the pair produced in the same period/year, still working under contract with Hal Roach. Fortunately, there seems to be a bit more potential in the set-up for this one. This is Beau Hunks (also known as Beau Chumps).

Ollie (Oliver Hardy) is in love, smitten, all aflutter with feelings of amore. He informs his friend Stanley (Stan Laurel) of his plans to be married to his sweetheart, Jeanie Weenie. However, within minutes of this announcement, he receives a letter informing him that the relationship is over. Heartbroken and disillusioned, Ollie decides to join the French Foreign Legion to forget his heartbreak, and he’s bringing Stanley with him. Once there, though, in the harsh arid heat of the desert, the pair very quickly find themselves in over their heads.

There should be an immediate moment of recognition with this film for anyone who is familiar with Laurel & Hardy, even if they’ve never seen any of their films. There are effectively three (arguably four) images of the comedic duo that have become somewhat iconic for them. One is them in their classic garb of suits and bowler hats; one is them dressed in police uniforms; and the third is Ollie & Stan dressed as a pair of soldiers in the Foreign Legion (in case you’re wondering, the fourth would be them as hobos). You’d certainly think that the film that presented the world with this image would be worth the watch, and not just some kind of excuse to put them in a funny costume. Well, it was, but that can work out quite well sometimes.

And fortunately enough, it worked. Beau Hunks is a solid outing from the pair, with a good pace, good gags and a pretty good story that runs through the whole to keep things moving. Sure, perhaps some may consider it a bit of a leap that a guy would go off to an inhospitable foreign land to serve out the rest of his days as a soldier for an army he can’t leave all because he was so heartbroken… but then it’s not really too much of a leap given the context. Hollywood movies relied on the idea of the French Foreign Legion being populated by men of desperation, the troubled ones, the wronged ones, and they made a great use of it. This is kind of a spill-over from literature, predominantly the novel Beau Geste, where this film gets its title. Besides, even if you do find it somewhat difficult, it’s a Laurel & Hardy comedy from the early 1930s, which puts it not too far above a Bugs Bunny cartoon. We can give them some leeway for shenanigans.

And the set-up is handled very well, and gives them some pretty good gags. Even moments separate from the plotting are a fine trove of visual gags, callbacks and physical gaffs, which come off much better here than they did in Be Big! because they don’t feel like they’ve been stretched out past breaking point. The opening few minutes of this film has a much better hit ratio. Aside from showing off Ollie’s actually rather sweet singing voice as he serenades (from afar) his loved one, Jeanie, Stan accidentally cuts a square of fabric out of the seat of armchair, and tries to cover it up. After Ollie finishes his song and confesses his intentions to marry, Stan says he doesn’t believe him, asking who would marry Ollie. His answer, “A woman, of course. Have you ever heard of someone marrying a man?” Stan says he has. A little surprised, Ollie asks who. Without missing a beat, Stan replies, “My sister.” Classic.

Once the pair arrive at the fort of the Foreign Legion, things start to get under way. Stan flubs the roll call, they both get on the wrong side of the commanding officer (who they constantly refer to as a different rank every time they address him), and Ollie discovers a truth about his beloved Jeanie Weenie. From the beginning, Ollie has clutched a picture of his true love close to his heart, and it’s only in this picture that we ever see her… it’s an autographed picture of Jean Harlow. When they arrive at the barracks, whilst Ollie looks forlornly at her image, Stan looks around the other new recruits, and every one of them is also tearfully clutching an autographed picture of Jean Harlow. So, it turns out that Ollie has perhaps had nothing more than an unrequited crush on a beautiful movie star, literally just like everyone else. That he received a letter from her breaking off their relationship seems to be neither here nor there, since, it would seem, so did every other guy. This theme then becomes one of the better running gags of the film.

The direction of Beau Hunks actually feels stronger, more visually coherent thanks to director James W. Horne (on viewing this, we would have to surmise that Parrott was the one responsible for the directorial flatness on Be Big!). The first time we find ourselves introduced to the communal sleeping quarters of the new recruits, we see it through an extended rifle rack, presenting an apparent image of these men being behind bars… made of guns. That’s a pretty strong and striking image of the world our pair now find themselves in, where these men are now effectively trapped in a life of military servitude from which there is no escape. When you think about it, that’s kind of a harsh image to put in a Laurel & Hardy comedy. Later, as the troop are marching in the desert, on their way to their first real assignment, we get what is basically handheld camerawork, with the camera bobbing and shaking in front of out intrepid duo, marching along with them and heightening the difficulty of their effort. And this was in 1931, before the camera advances that came from World War II news reporting made such manoeuvres less cumbersome. Visually, Beau Hunks is a kind of a treat.

There may be some issue with Beau Hunks as concerns the depiction of Arabs in the film, being that they are the villains of the piece, all barefoot and Allah-praising. That said, I’m not entirely sure how much of a problem it really is. They aren’t actually as hideously stereotyped as they could have been, certainly when considering the time period of the film. Nor are they overly evil, or regarded as any kind of godless heathens or savages. They are painted pretty broadly as simple bad guys for our heroes to fight. Bad guys that would, given the temporal and geographical setting, would make sense to use. It’s probably not good that they would have been just straight up used as the bad guys, nor is it necessarily the best defence to say that they aren’t as badly portrayed as they could have been, but they aren’t really demonised, either. It’s perhaps just a point of note.

Again, speaking from a personal perspective, there are some moments where I think a couple of jokes go on a bit long, the one that springs instantly to mind is when Stan gets his rifle caught in Ollie’s belt and can’t get it loose. However, that’s kind of just getting picky at this point. Plus, that’s just my own personal taste.

Beau Hunks is a good and worthy use of the comedic talents of Laurel & Hardy, showcasing some of their best skills in a variety of comedy disciplines, not to mention being a fine show for the acting and singing talents of Oliver Hardy. On top of that, it offers some surprisingly deft use of camerawork and visual metaphor that you wouldn’t necessarily equate with this kind of picture, particularly for its time, thanks to Horne. Beau Hunks may in fact be the longest Laurel & Hardy film, but it’s certainly up there with their best.

Excellent. Good to find the guys back in a good place for me.

Thursday 27 June 2013

The Beach (2000)


There exists in most people, not everyone, but most people an urge, a fundamental need to travel beyond their own borders. Specific reasons for this need can vary from person to person, ranging from the relatively low end (“I wanna try the beer of every country in that continent”) to the more high minded (“I want to experience other cultures firsthand”) to the boundary pushing (“I want to be more connected with how I live every day of my life”). However, perhaps the most common thing is a deep-seated quest for freedom, to shake off the constraints of the world in which you’ve grown up and just go, hoping to find adventure, peace, excitement, new experiences, paradise. And what if you were to actually find that paradise? A literal location of beauty and tranquility free from the hassle of the “real world”. And if you found it, what would you do to keep it? To protect it from the others looking for it, too?

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young American, travels to Thailand to experience a world that is unlike his own back home. Whilst there, he meets the possibly psychotic Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who possesses a map he claims leads to an isolated beach, a tropical paradise. Later, when Richard finds the body of Daffy, a victim of suicide, he takes the map and, inviting along a French couple he has me, sets off to find this new bliss on a secluded island.

Around the mid-90s, specifically 1994, the boys of Figment (director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald) landed on the British film scene with a hell of a first film, Shallow Grave. Pretty much still standing up there amongst the best feature debuts ever, they then managed to outdo themselves two years later when they released Trainspotting, which gave them an instant passport to worldwide recognition. Perhaps inevitably, their next year’s follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary, saw them stumble a bit. Now, I will eventually get to all three of those films along this journey, but the effect of that third title was something of a temporary retreat for the Figment team. Part of what made A Life Less Ordinary such a flop was the erratic sense of tone and loose focus of the film, trying to make a romance, a crime story, an ethereal road movie, an anarchic comedy… it was kind of all over the place, at least as was seen at the time. Certainly ambitious, but there was no real escaping the fact it was a major departure from the laser-like focus of something like Shallow Grave. Their first flop, it sent the boys back under for three years, during which time they released only one short film in 1999 called Alien Love Triangle, starring Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, Courteney Cox and Alice Connor.

However, the following year, they made their return to the feature market, with an adaptation of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach, in which a disconnected young Brit travels to Thailand seeking adventure and ends up discovering a secret paradise beach on a remote island.

Some of the events that led up to the making of the film are actually quite interesting, given that they are somewhat indicative of some of the problems with the film, of which it undoubtedly has a few. One of the first regarded the casting of the lead. Director Boyle wanted to cast his regular star Ewan McGregor as the lead, however this was not to be. Some stories vary as to when it actually happened, but the primary thrust is that the decision was made over Boyle’s head. McGregor hadn’t quite fully capitalised on the rise to stardom in a major way just yet, and it certainly didn’t help that the last time McGregor and Boyle paired up was a flop. As such, the studio wanted someone much more bankable and “hot” for the lead, and they chose Leonardo DiCaprio, who was still riding the wave of popularity from his heartthrob status and the wild success of 1997’s Titanic. Though Boyle wound up holding DiCaprio in high regard, it was the first of the concessions that had to be made to deliver the product 20th Century Fox wanted, rather than a more accurate depiction of the novel.

By the director’s own admission, The Beach would seem to be kind of an odd choice of project for Danny Boyle. Previously, his films were set in urban environments, locating themselves very much within contemporary modern society. In The Beach, the point is about actively distancing oneself from it, getting away from usual trappings of the urban construct and striking out for parts unknown. As the man said himself, “I liked the actors, we had a great time, but I didn’t like the characters. I’m an urban person. I love cities and I made that film about a load of hippies in the countryside, nothing in common with them at all. You’re there making the film and you think, ‘I can’t relate to these people at all. What are they doing here? I am so bored.’” So, given this point, you would have to ask why exactly he picked this project to return with. Well, looking beyond the “hippies in the countryside” comment, these characters do share a common link to his previous ones: a selfish pursuit of pleasure.

Now, this definition does shift slightly as you look to his previous work. In Shallow Grave, three friends compromise their own morals, and friendship, when presented with a chance for substantial financial gain. In Trainspotting, every character is engaged in a pursuit of their own thrills, be it through drugs, sex or violence. Even in A Life Less Ordinary, Robert and Celine engage in an extended crime spree through desperation and greed… yes, okay, and love. The point is that the characters Boyle has a tendency to focus on aren’t necessarily the most sympathetic or likable, though there is still the argument of how he expects to make an audience relate to these characters when he cannot do so himself. Nevertheless, I believe I can see something of an attraction for Boyle to working on this project, aside from the chance to visit a nice locale.

Richard’s whole quest for paradise is born of the same pleasure-seeking temperament as those in Boyle’s previous films. However, in The Beach, it goes beyond just that of a personal quest. The film itself is a more ambitious attempt to pursue and embrace a higher sense of paradise, one that can be reached, embraced and enjoyed by all… provided they are worthy. This idea of a religious conceit to the film is one that is hinted at here and there, though this could perhaps have been built on better were it not for an apparent need to please the studio, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Paradise as a term has its roots in a religious context, referring to a place of peace and contentment, which rests as a contrary ideal to the abject misery of human existence and, more so, to the torment of a Christian Hell. Despite being located within an Eastern territory, it’s Christianity that is the reference point, since those that come to stay on the titular beach are from the Western world (America, France, Britain, etc.). It would make some sense that the notions of what Paradise is and how one gets there spring from a more Westernised concept of spirituality, hence the fact that many of the Westerners we see in Thailand tend to ignore the beauty of that culture and either stay in watching American movies or go out and get drunk. This Western spirituality returns as an undercurrent in the character of Keaty (Paterson Joseph), the beach resident who brings Richard and his two friends, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet), to the beach after they make the literal leap of faith from atop a waterfall. Keaty, an Englishman, is said to have only two loves in the world: Christianity and cricket. And there’s a moderately recurring sentiment in Richard’s voiceover, as he makes occasional reference to Paradise and sin. Within the beach community itself, they have developed their own system of ritual and language. Every member is tattooed with three marks on their arm, performed by the last person to arrive before the new ones. They also play a game that involves learning a new language (in this case, Serbian) simply by picking it up and learning odd phrases. Richard gets much praise for his ability to pick up on this quickly.

As is unsurprising, the longer the residents spend in their tropical paradise, the more reluctant they are to return to the main land. When the group’s supply of rice needs replacing, the group’s leader, Sal (an on form Tilda Swinton), a proverbial iron hand in velvet glove, announces that someone needs to accompany her to the mainland for supplies. No one wants to go. Partially because they don’t really want to leave their beautiful idyll, but mainly because going back is now such an unpleasant experience. When you spend your time in a gorgeous paradise, the act of jumping back into normal civilisation, even temporarily, to be surrounded by the miserable wretches of the real world as they stagger and vomit and bellow… it’s not surprising that they want to stay away.

It’s on this run, having been effectively voted into going, that Richard starts to get a better understanding of the maniacal ranting of the man who led him to the beach, Daffy. When he meets Daffy, the man is unhinged. Shouting, swearing, rambling about the parasites of civilisation. At the time, Richard responded as most would: “No offence and all, but, you’re fucked in the head, right?” Now, after having seen the beach and having experienced paradise, Richard understands exactly what Daffy was talking about. Returning to the hectic, grimy, decadent morass of everyday life isn’t just upsetting, but actually kind of painful, even infuriating. Before this, Richard has always had some understanding of the cost of keeping their new home a secret, such as when he watches a fellow member plea for a dentist, but watches as Sal (looking very similar to the Buddha statue at the film’s opening) flat refuses. But Richard understands. “We have a secret here, right? Sometimes people need to take a little pain to keep it that way.” These are words that will certainly come back to haunt him. Now, having been changed by his new surroundings, he knows that there is a cost, and is becoming increasingly more comfortable with protecting paradise from those that he believes are not worthy of it.

This is itself at the heart of what The Beach tries to discuss: the exclusionary nature of Paradise. Everyone that reaches the beach, which before had only been something regarded as rumour or local legend, does so by believing enough in its existence to put themselves at great physical peril. When their faith is rewarded, one of their first thoughts is that this new place must remain a secret, protected from outsiders at all costs. Effectively, it’s the classic traveller vs. tourist dynamic. A traveller is one who seeks out new places, hoping to soak up everything it has to offer before the tourists come along and ruin it, exploiting it and making it just another place to go. However, by putting conditions and exclusions on entry into paradise, doesn’t that contradict what paradise truly is? Were it left up to whomever was the first to reach Paradise to decide who was allowed in thereafter, the exclusivity instilled would, by its nature, create disharmony. On his trip to the mainland with Sal, he does say that they are special because they know, they can live better than this, but that’s not true Paradise. It’s either open to everyone or no one. Otherwise, Heaven is no better than one of those country clubs that won’t let in minorities. And you certainly can’t protect it with violence and force. As it turns out, Paradise corrupts.

There is plenty to think about underneath everything in The Beach, however it does have more than a few problems, which does tend to devalue the whole as a viewing experience. Numerous changes were made between the book and the film and, as I mentioned earlier, these were clearly concessions made to the studio. For example, there is a romance between Richard and Françoise in the film that does not exist in the book. In the book, Richard does have feelings for Françoise, but this never goes further, with Françoise remaining with Étienne. This would rest thematically closer with the idea of something desired, but remaining out of reach that runs through the story. However, in the film, Richard and Françoise do get together, mainly because the studio can work better with a romance plot, plus it’s nice to see pretty people get down in the sand. This has something of a knock-on effect through the rest of the story, as now Étienne is cast aside, and complications arrive later on in the film as a result. It’s not a complete sell-out, as John Hodge does manage to tie it into what must be done to maintain the secret of Paradise.

One of the more regular criticisms made about the film in regards to differences from the novel is the lack of real development in Richard’s character in regard to his obsession with war movies and video games. These elements do come to play in the film, but they do seem hollower than they would if it had been built better. As it is, sequences where Richard literally transposes himself into a video game fantasy are what fill the gaps, or, on a more subtle level, moments when Richard starts to unravel in the jungle strike a very Apocalypse Now feel since Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji seem to be purposely trying to recreate the lighting and atmosphere of that film’s final scenes, as well as giving Richard a red head band, recalling The Deer Hunter.

The biggest problem with The Beach is that, in all of its tone-hopping, going from romance to adventure to thriller, with war motifs and religious undertones, it all feels a bit clumsy. Danny Boyle did say that if the film had a smaller budget, he would have been more likely to ignore studio directives. However, since he had been handed around $50million (easily the biggest budget he’d been given at that point), he felt more obliged to acquiesce to their demands. There was also an alternate ending not used, which may be more of a downer, but would at least have felt truer to the film's message. And because the filmmakers spent some time telling the story, and some time giving the studios what they wanted, any potential subtext gets lost in the haze.

The Beach is a beautiful looking film, with many beautiful people in it. And there isn’t really a bad show in there, though Robert Carlyle and Tilda Swinton are the clear standouts, especially since they’re served with some of the better-written roles. And it’s not like there is nothing worth talking about, either. It just falls short too often to get a real handle on what it wants to talk about.

Perhaps the real legacy of the film comes from the treatment of the island itself during the production process. In order to make the already gorgeous beach of Ko Phi Phi Lee a bit more “paradise-like”, 20th Century Fox had crews bulldoze the beaches to flatten them and ripped up some of the natural landscaping to widen the beach. They even introduced trees that were not native to the land because they looked better… yeah, I know, right? Fox did set aside money with which they could return the beach to its previous natural state, but environmentalists still sued, claiming the ecosystem had been permanently damaged. Some of the natural state of the beaches was restored by the tsunami in 2004, but that same disaster actually also caused other portions of the beach to literally collapse and break apart. In telling a story about the corruptive influence of Paradise and the terrible things people will do protect it, the filmmakers tried to improve on the look of a genuine island paradise and ruined it… bloody tourists.

Monday 10 June 2013

Be Kind Rewind (2008)


Despite the huge hiatus I took from this already enormous project, I think it should be pretty damn obvious at this point that movies mean a lot to me. If they didn’t, I don’t think I’d be even remotely close to the person I am today, let alone attempting to review every film I own one by one on the Internet. I love movies, and so I especially like it when a film comes out that so clearly comes from that same place in the filmmaker. Michel Gondry is one of those filmmakers that can do this. Idiosyncratic, quirky, absurd and possessed of a unique visual style, Gondry looked back to the films of the past to tell a story of what they mean to people and how they can bring them together through the acts of communal memory.

In Passaic, New Jersey, Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a video rental store in a condemned building he claims was the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. Facing foreclosure, Fletcher goes on a business venture, leaving his foster son Mike (Mos Def) in charge of the store. However, when Mike’s friend Jerry (Jack Black) tries to sabotage a nearby power station and becomes magnetised, he inadvertently erases every tape in the store. Mike and Jerry quickly hatch a plan to hide the disaster by making homemade versions of every title to rent and save the store. With help from the local community, their films develop a cult following.

When Gondry first talked to Jack Black about the project, specifically the premise of two friends who accidentally erase all the tapes in a video rental store and have to quickly make up new versions themselves, Black assumed that it was to be a period piece, set in the 70s or 80s. Gondry corrected him that it would be set today, that it would be a video rental store that, now in a world of DVD players and digital playback, was now finally on its way out. Right away, there is a rather wistful sadness to this idea. That this store, its name of Be Kind Rewind now being something that's redundant in this modern day, has held on for way longer than it really should have and is now on the verge of collapse. This point is actually quite literally made, since the entire building itself is due to be condemned, failing to meet some of the most basic requirements for safety and public use. Progress is coming, whether they want it or not.

The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher, is clearly someone who could never really hack it in a fast-paced world. Early in the film, whilst having lunch with Mike and Jerry, they ask him why he was never married. He answers, “Well, the common story is, the girl that you was gonna ask, you waited too long to ask. She went on to marry somebody else and then you can’t find anybody to compare to her. So, what happens? You get old.” And old itself has a sort of double meaning here, too. Yes, Mr. Fletcher has indeed got old and is now too far gone to catch up, but the force of progress that threatens to oust him and end his business comes in the form of a neighbourhood gentrification project, which plans to clean up the rundown area and rename it Olde Passaic. Mr. Fletcher wants to keep his home and his business, but he needs time to do it.

His foster son Mike (I say foster son, though I’m not really entirely sure as to what the relationship actually is between the two, but it seems the most likely) also wants to hold on to the old neighbourhood, as opposed to the Olde neighbourhood, for a few reasons. Like Mr. Fletcher, he wants to keep things the way they are. He wants Mr. Fletcher to be happy. And he likes the neighbourhood, though when pressed he has kind of a tough time giving reasons as to why. When he and Jerry argue about it, both have their viewpoints on Passaic.
            Jerry: Mike, you have zero ambition.
            Mike: What?
Jerry: That’s your problem. You’re gonna be stuck in this dump
for the rest of your life. Good night.
            Mike: What? What? What’s a dump? What’s a dump? My shop
is a dump? You live in a junkyard.
Jerry: Not just the store… this whole city is a swamp.
            Mike: It’s a swamp now?
Jerry: Yeah, a dump swamp. When you get stuck here, you’re
stuck for life. Come on, Mike, what is so great about this town? Huh?
            Mike: … the people.
            Jerry: The people? You’re gonna make me cry. The people. The
only reason there’s anybody here is because they have nowhere to go.

Perhaps Jerry’s less positive outlook can be forgiven. At least Mike has reasons to hold some affection for his neighbourhood. He grew up here, has something of a life, albeit not a particularly good one if we’re honest. And he’s proud to have lived in the very building in which jazz great Fats Waller was born. It’s the story that Mr. Fletcher has told him since he was young, and is the story that we are told right at the start of the film, that Harlem wasn’t the capital of the jazz scene back in the day; Passaic was. How can you not want to hold on to such an important part of history when it’s so close to you? That’s why he tries to paint a mural of Fats beneath an overpass, to give the people of the neighbourhood something to look to and in which they can take some level of pride.

However, with Jerry, he has comparatively even less than Mike. Jerry does live in a junkyard, in a trailer, right next to a power station. Worse still, he believes that microwaves from the power station are causing his brains and the brains of everyone else to become affected, which is all part of a government conspiracy to alter behaviour. To buy things, to accept things… yeah, he’s a little strange. And people do dismiss him as the paranoid oddball for his strangeness. The local cops even make something of a joke of visiting his trailer in the night, taking turns knocking on his walls, claiming to be from the government, that the black helicopters are here and such… but Jerry has a plan: sabotage.

When Mr. Fletcher leaves town to go to a Fats Waller remembrance ceremony, leaving Mike in charge, Jerry enlists Mike in his plan to scale the fence of the power station and destroy it by swinging a grappling hook onto it and……. well, that’s actually it. Jerry thinks that should be enough to stop the microwaves from controlling everyone, somehow. Mike initially declines, but goes along anyway (it’s kind of plot hole, but not a particularly major one). However, halfway through the mission, Mike gets cold feet about the plan and abandons Jerry and takes off. Jerry stays to follow through, but in a moment that you’d think could only happen in films from the 80s, the power station fights back and sabotages Jerry.

The next morning, when Jerry visits the store to tell Mike about the previous night, Jerry gets in an argument with a customer when he keeps re-arranging all the tapes in the store. It’s not until a little later that we find out that this is the moment when Jerry, having been magnetised by the attempted sabotage, has inadvertently erased every single tape in the store. After an initial period of worry, and under the threat that Mr. Fletcher will be told how poorly Mike is coping, he has an idea. Grabbing a VHS camera and the blank tape of Ghostbusters, he announces to Jerry, “I’m Bill Murray, you’re everyone else.” They are going to personally remake every title in the store, using themselves as cast and crew, from memory, thus keeping the store in business.

Yes, the premise is bizarre as all hell, but don’t you just love that? For the potential downer that Be Kind Rewind could become (the end of VHS, for these people, for this neighbourhood), there is an absurd whimsy and warmth about the whole thing that is incredibly charming. Instead of succumbing to the inevitable, these two guys fight back, armed with a camera and some of the most ridiculous props and costumes available. And as they go, their notoriety escalates. They become so famous that people from all across the state come to see what they’ve made, like their 20-minute version of Ghostbusters featuring a ginger cat as Zuul and proton beams made of Christmas tinsel; their remake of Boyz n’ the Hood in which gunshots result in a literal pizza on the ground standing in for blood; or their take on RoboCop, where the titular character is made entirely of autoyard scrap.

Not only do Mike and Jerry become moderately famous in the city, but the community comes together to help them make more films, effectively becoming an enormous production crew and repertory company. Everyone bands together to make new versions of these films, but all in the uniquely zero-budget way they called “Sweded”.

It’s in this nature of Sweding that we see some of the great tricks of what is effectively guerrilla filmmaking, many of which Michel Gondry used himself growing up. They utilise depth of field and perspective tricks to create a sense of scale between a giant Jack Black-shaped King Kong and the screaming woman he snatches through a window; they flip the camera to negative in order to film night shots during the day; and they use cheap scale models for scenes like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacking New York. It’s such a wonderful combination of crass cheapness and incredibly imaginative technique. What’s even better are some of the titles they claim to have Sweded, either from what is seen on shelves or are mentioned during filming montages. Return of the King is one such title that would be absolutely hilarious to see as rendered by three people using a budget of about $20 and filmed in New Jersey. On the other end of the scale is mentioned a Sweded version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which, if you’re familiar with that film, proposes an idea of such absurdity since Gummo is as close to the real world equivalent of Sweding films as it’s possible to get. (Harmony Korine even outdid that in 2009 when he made Trash Humpers, a film made entirely on VHS and edited using two VCRs instead of actual editing equipment.) There is even a shot in Be Kind Rewind of genuinely impressive staging in which we are presented with a montage of the films being made, but it is actually one single, uninterrupted shot, with everyone moving from set-piece to set-piece, taking in films as diverse as King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Men in Black and Carrie. It’s a great shot.

Eventually, things do start to catch up with the Be Kind Rewind crew, with representatives of movie studios looking to enforce copyright law showing up to end their business. It’s here once again that the idea of progress, or at least a contrary sense of progress, seems to enter the film. Even though what they are doing is a violation of copyright law, the films that they make are helping them to progress and make some headway in saving their business, and also fostering a sense of community. Indeed, what they are doing can be found on the Internet and in most film schools, with students remaking scenes and sometimes whole movies in order to develop and progress their skills as filmmakers (I once happened upon a short piece of film on an edit suite in which some students were re-enacting a scene from Twilight… it was pretty funny). And this idea of creativity being derived, borrowed, flat-out stolen from what has gone before has been acknowledged by some great innovators in the world of art. Pablo Picasso famously said that, “good artists copy; great artists steal” and that, “every act of creation is an act of destruction”. Indeed, the history of creating new art or technology or science is a history of taking what has come before and reworking it into something else, something new. That the studios go after the Be Kind Rewind crew is as much an act of desperation that their product will be devalued as it is the defence of intellectual property. In a weird way, Gondry's film that revolves around the anachronism of VHS being overtaken by the new technology of DVD, and those that fight to save it, finds its parallel in the studio executives (like those who try to shut down this small movement) who find themselves on the line of being ousted by the surge of independent filmmakers who rise thanks to the new media opportunities of the Internet and digital distribution... hell of a thing, that.

This idea of taking from the past and turning it into what you want or need it to be is addressed directly in the film when, after the visit from the studio reps ends their Sweding run, the community band together for a last chance at saving the neighbourhood by making something new. It’s no longer about the community banding together over the shared love of other films. Now, it’s about keeping that community together by creating something that speaks for them all. As Jerry says, “We can make any movie we want… they can’t sue us if we’re making new ones.” And the story they choose is simple… a history of Fats Waller’s life as lived in Passaic. They want to tell the story of someone who Mr. Fletcher called “a happy man.”

Given that the film is as much as ode to community as it is to film, Michel Gondry embraced the real community of Passaic as much as he could. Some roles were given to real residents of the area. Pretty much every extra you see was local to the area they were shooting. And the final shot that assembles the community at large is a genuinely heart-warming sight. In making a film about a community coming together, Gondry really did bring a community together.

Be Kind Rewind may require you to screw on something of a whimsical head at certain moments (if you can take Jerry’s attempted sabotage of the power plant as the hilarious throwback that it is, you’ll be fine), but it is a truly warm and charming film, with a deep affection for film, for music, for people. Everyone is great, from Mos Def and Jack Black’s odd double act to the delightful Melonie Diaz to the slightly spaced out kookiness of Mia Farrow. In this film, Gondry has created something of sincerity and obvious love, and it is most certainly worth the watch.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Be Big! (1931)


Today, we going to be going back into the long, long ago… well, the early 1930s. We’re going to look at a comedy short from the early days of the “talkies” from one of the most legendary comedic duos ever… Laurel & Hardy, classic combination of the skinny Limey and the fat Yank. Though both began as established actors in their own right, they ultimately began officially working together under the roof of Hal Roach’s studio in 1926, where they stayed for 14 years, becoming one of the most beloved comedy treasures that Hollywood has ever given the world. During their time under Roach, they released the film that we look at today - Be Big!

Just about to leave for the train station for a vacation in Atlantic City with their wives, Stanley (Stan Laurel) and Oliver (Oliver Hardy) get a phone call from a fellow lodge member who tells them a surprise stag party is being held in their honour that evening. Initially hesitant because of their plans, they accept and Oliver feigns illness to get out of leaving that day, suggesting Stanley stay to look after him and sending the wives on ahead by themselves. What follows is a series of physical pratfalls as the pair attempt to get ready for their big night.

What’s that rule about comedy? You know, the famous one. The one about how important something is to the telling of a joke. It’s only one word. It’s the key to comedy. Why can’t I remember it? Well, I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad about not remembering that one rule, since it seems that Laurel & Hardy and most other people involved in Be Big! had forgotten it, too. There’s something ver-TIMING! That’s it! The most important thing in comedy is timing! Thank God, that would have annoyed me for a long while. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh right…

There’s something very laborious about this venture from the guys in the bowler hats, like they're just going through the motions because it's time to make another film. The premise itself is actually a pretty decent set-up for physical gaffs and energetic clumsiness. Two guys want to go to a party with their friends, but have already made plans with their wives. As such, they invent some scheme whereby they can get out of the plans they already have and do what they want, all without their respective spouses being any the wiser. Let’s be honest, it smacks of crazy shenanigans, which is exactly what Laurel & Hardy were all about.

And probably the best thing going for the film was the general conceit that gives the film its title. As Olly himself says, "No man is bigger than the excuses he makes to his wife. So... Be Big." It all ties to that idea that in order to have a successful marriage (read as: fool their wives and get away with their scheme), they need to lie… a lot. This idea is actually a pretty common one: if you make up a lie, the smaller and more convincing it sounds, the less likely it is that people will believe it. As such, the best way to go is to have an excuse be so big and ridiculous and implausible that it would have to be true, so they would have to believe it. One guesses that this idea has been of greater use to comedy writers over the years than people who actually are trying to lie effectively. I actually remember this idea being the basis behind an episode of Cheers ("Let Sleeping Drakes Lie") involving Norm, Tom Skerritt and a swarm of bees. And to be honest, Cheers did it better.

What really gets in the way of Be Big! being good is the incredibly clumsy way in which the central conceit has been handled, and it’s all down to a combination of bad direction, poor timing and simply not knowing what to do with that idea. The film itself is just under a half hour long, around 27 minutes or so. I’m not kidding when I say that around 12 of those minutes are given over to one single joke: the pair accidentally put the other’s boots on, Oliver becomes stuck in Stan's boots and they try to get them off… almost half of the film’s duration sees the two clumsily, awkwardly, utterly failing to free old Olly from these boots. He tries pulling them off himself, Stan tries to pull them off, they try using a bootjack, they try using brute force, all without success. In doing so, they break a chair, a mirror, some curtains, Olly sits on a nail, and they each get their foot caught in the other’s sweater. This may sound all zany and the like, but it feels like it goes on forever. I understand they’re going for the hilarious notion of so much bother caused by such a simple task, as is the mainstay of physical comedy, but it’s just tiresome. And it’s all just basically one joke, repeated over and over and over and over again. It constantly aims for silly and hits stupid almost every time instead. As an example, there is a moment when Olly tries to explain to Stan just how simple this process should be. He has Stan put on one of his (that is, Olly’s) boots just so he can take it off and show the ease with which they should be able to the same for Olly. However, this is just kind of ridiculous considering we know the boot will come off Stan’s foot easier because it’s too big for him. In fact, we previously saw him literally jump out of one earlier, so this whole bit is just nonsense. And yes, I know that part of their dynamic was that Olly would try to explain to Stan how simple some things should be with disastrous consequences, but that doesn’t mean it always works.

Another problem comes from a trademark of both men: Olly’s looking into the camera with consternation; and Stan’s looking awkwardly confused. They, of course, do this several times throughout the film, but all it does here is get in the way, stretching out the gaps in action and killing what little momentum they managed to build. If the film were better paced, or the physical gaffs were better, these moments would add to the moment, as they do with the pair's other movies. Directors Horne and Parrott really drop the ball in this instance since there was a way of bridging the gaps between these gags without constantly stopping things. When the wives arrive at the train station, they find out they’ve just missed their train and there won’t be another one until tomorrow. As such, they get back in their taxi and head home, saying how they can’t wait to see the look on their husbands’ faces. That’s the last time we see them until the end. We could have cut back to them, just once or twice, showing their progress, maybe giving them an obstacle to draw out the journey a little, just to build a bit of tension and allowing quicker set-ups between Olly and Stan’s boot-pulling attempts.

Of course, it’s all well and good me saying this 80 years after the fact. Besides, there would have been some constraints to deal with, the biggest of which likely being a reluctance to cut away from Laurel & Hardy, who were the stars of the picture and the thing people wanted to see. It’s doesn’t really excuse the problems, but does at least explain some of them. The fact that they have only one comedy idea for the whole film which just gets repeated again and again is the thing that remains without explanation or excuse.

Be Big! isn’t really one of the pair’s better efforts and not a good place to start for those new to Laurel and Hardy, mostly just feeling inane thanks to flat direction, rather choppy editing and what feels like a complete lack of ideas given the golden ticket of the titular idea. Given that almost half of the film’s running time is taken up with a single extended gag, which runs out of steam very quickly, it would seem that this film was made as a piece of filler rather than anything that was meant to last. Had the film been half as long, it would likely have been greatly improved. As it is, it’s a rather untoward bump in the golden comedy road for the duo.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Battle Royale (2000)


In an interview back in 2010, Wes Craven was asked, given his experience of scaring kids in film throughout the decades, what he thought it was that scared kids today. He answered that what scared kids remained the same pretty much regardless of time: “Adults. Incompetent parents, police that don’t understand what’s really going on.” And though this question was relating more towards his film My Soul to Take (which is just… just terrible), he’s not wrong with regard to what scares kids. Everyone, regardless of age, is afraid of being subjected to a stern authority against which they have no power (look at the works of Kafka or Dostoyevsky for better ruminations on that subject), but kids (as well as the elderly) are the ones that get the rawest end of that problem. Being left to the whims of authority, which is effectively everyone above their age, they end up feeling the brunt of whatever rules are put upon them, with no say as to how fair or arbitrary they may be. And if those rules start to push them in a terrible, even dangerous direction, what can they do but get pulled along? If there is one director in the world who understood this notion better than anyone, it’s not Craven… it’s Kinji Fukasaku… and he gave us Battle Royale.

It's the beginning of the 21st Century, and the economy of Japan is near a total collapse. Employment rates have crashed, students have begun boycotting their classes and crime rates are rising. To deal with this issue, the government approves a new law: the Battle Royale Act. One class is randomly selected and the students are taken to an island, are each given a weapon and three days to kill each other off. A new class of 42 has been selected, and only one student can survive.

The choices of project that director Kinji Fukasaku’s made over his roughly 40-year film career have much to do with experiences from his youth, specifically during World War II. Barely aging in the double digits by the time the war started, Fukasaku found himself working in a munitions factory when his class was drafted into aiding the war effort in 1945. Being a munitions factory, this was, of course, a target for Allied air raids. On one of these raids, the factory was hit, with Fukasaku and his classmates getting caught in the crossfire, and many ultimately being killed. Fukasaku himself said that he and some others survived only by literally hiding under the corpses. At 15 years old, Fukasaku had to help dispose of the bodies of his classmates, some of whom he didn’t even get a chance to know. Suddenly aware of what he believed were lies told by the Japanese government, from this point on, Fukasaku held a deep distrust and hatred of authority, and this would then be reflected in his subsequent film career. He spent much of his career making period samurai films, or focusing on post-war Yakuza stories (it was he who brought us the Battles Without Honour and Humanity films), but always maintained a focus on the struggling underdog, often a former soldier or ex-con. Perhaps his most notable of films for the “underdog going against authority” tale from this period of high output is 1972’s Under the Flag of the Rising Sun, in which a widow attempts to discover the truth behind her husband’s death during the war from Japanese government officials.

Fast-forward nearly thirty years and we find ourselves at the film to be considered today, Battle Royale, the one that would act as both the film that brought renewed interest in Fukasaku as a filmmaker, as well as Japan as a serious filmic entity, but also as the last film the man would complete under his own steam, sadly dying mid-production of the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem.

However, there is a reason that Battle Royale was key in bringing attention back to Japanese cinema with such force, and by extension the whole resurgence of interest in Asian cinema in general… Battle Royale is a goddamn masterpiece.

Instead of his usual look back into the past, Fukasaku went into a not-too-distant future by taking on the film adaptation of the novel by Koushun Takami, published in 1999. Despite (or perhaps because of) some controversy on its release, the novel became a surprise bestseller, and the next year saw its adaptation into both a manga series (by Takami himself) and the feature film we look at today. The script was written by Kenji Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, which makes some degree of sense for a couple of reasons. On a practical level, a story that follows a group of post-millennial teenagers would perhaps pose something of a challenge to a man of nearly 70 years of age to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. Though he may have held a strong spiritual connection to youth in some way, that doesn’t mean he would necessarily be able to bring that to the page. As such, having his son Kenta as the screenwriter helps to bridge the generation gap between the director and the characters. And the characters are vital in this film.

I get the feeling that it was very important to Kenji Fukasaku that the audience understand these characters, or that we at least take something from them, that they resonate somewhere with us. This should of course be of great importance to all filmmakers and storytellers, but it would be of particular importance to a man who had lost classmates under terrible circumstances without getting that chance. As such, we get a little bit from almost every character, which is something considering how many of them there are. We get something about their family life, their hopes, their relationships. You get to see how these people react when they are all given permission to kill, and the reasons why they might want to. One of my favourite aspects of the film is to see how some characters instantly go looking for their friends, or even the one from their class they really liked in the hope of protecting them, even dying with them. It’s rather affecting to see just how some of them won’t give themselves over to the darkness of their situation, choosing to be better than that. It’s almost a final act of defiance against the adults who put them there. Were I ever to be in that situation, I wonder if I'd be the same as them... I certainly hope so.

Another reason it works nicely to have Fukasaku Sr. and Jr. working on this film together is that it also serves as a nice undercurrent to a major theme of the film: that of parental relationships. Several characters have an interesting, even defining relationship with a parent, or parental figure, such as Nanahara’s emotional baggage from his mother’s abandonment and his father’s suicide; Mimura’s relationship with his soldier uncle; and Kawada’s repeated, if conflicting references to his father being the reason he’s so good at medical care and cooking. Which rather brings us to the most visible parent in the film… Kitano.

Former teacher to the class, now the instructor of the program and the man overseeing this horrific ordeal, Kitano, played by the almighty Takeshi Kitano in some sort of twisted version of himself (you know Takeshi's Castle? Yeah, same guy). He is really the only adult we spend any time with over the course of the film. A former teacher, abused and belittled by his students, as well as his own child, he is effectively our model of authority in the film. And, despite what he becomes, there are times when he does garner our sympathy. He shows up to teach the children, only to be greeted by a message on the board informing him his students took the day off because they wanted to. On leaving the classroom, he is attacked by one of the students, slashed on his behind with a knife. It’s hard to not feel something for the guy, to consider that all he may have wanted was to help educate and guide the youth of Japan, only to be rejected in a manner most callous. Indeed, that’s how Nakagawa sees him, a man cast aside for no reason other than wanting to help. At one time, as we see in flashback, it would seem that they look to have been friends of a sort – Nakagawa seeing a lonely man in need of company; Kitano seeing a compassionate girl, and a hope for the future. However, Kitano ultimately goes too far in his disconnection and revulsion with the others of Nakagawa’s generation. It doesn’t help that his relationship with his own daughter, whom we know only as a voice who also clearly hates him, has compounded his loathing of the younger generation. He’s like Lee J. Cobb’s Juror no.12 in 12 Angry Men, disgusted and angry with his own child, desperate to take it out on someone else, only taken to a horrifying extreme. The most visible authority figure in the film is ultimately shown to be a full-blown sadist, one of who gleefully sends children he knows off to slaughter each other, and who even has no compunction about killing them himself. He is a monster, but rather unsettlingly a monster that you can understand where he came from.

It’s very important that we understand, to some degree at least, the one who sends these children to die. In the preamble to the film, we are told that by the point of the film’s temporal setting, Japan’s status as a financial superpower in the world has, effectively, come to an end. The bubble has burst, and the future of the nation’s inhabitants is no longer secure. Jobs are becoming scarce, money is becoming short, and the hope that may have been held by those growing up in this climate has now all but dried up. Despondent and angry at a seemingly clear indication that there is nothing left for them, the young abandon their education and career prospects for the simple nihilistic thrill of enjoying what they can while it still exists. As it is, this is a situation that was pretty much directly influenced by reality in Japan. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Japan’s economic growth was sustained by the asset price bubble, where stock prices and real estate value was inflated to such a point that it ultimately burst, plunging Japan into a recession that it took over a decade to finish dropping into (look into Japan’s so-called “Lost Decade” for more on that). Jobs were lost, money was lost, hope for the future was diminished. It’s exactly this kind of post-Lost Decade world where the world of Battle Royale takes place. This fits well into Fukasaku’s overall body of work as he has had a preoccupation with what kind of future can be formed in the ashes of a faltering, apparently hopeless governing authority.

This not only offers a very bleak vision of a very dark future, but it also offers an interesting take on politics, specifically the value of a proportional response to a given problem (and yes, I basically just lifted a line from The West Wing there). Within the world of Battle Royale, the government was faced with a particular problem: the revolt of a disaffected, dissatisfied youth. Their futures were squandered, so they responded by rejecting what future was left for them. Obviously, this would create a great sense fear amongst the older generations, since they now no longer had anyone to whom they can hand over the reigns. Along with that fear, there would be no small amount of indignation, that these young people would be so cavalier in their lack of foresight, that they would have such apparent disrespect as to give their elders the finger and invite them to spin. The response of the authorities was not a proportional one. They passed a law that allowed them to randomly select groups of children that would then be forced to murder each other, and thus solve their problem. It’s an ugly decision born of a brutal and heartless bureaucracy made way out of proportion to the problem it tries to solve. It may seem like a harsh indictment of Japanese authorities, which is perhaps why they sought to have the book, manga and film banned, not to mention the difficult transition beyond its borders. However, I’m sure Fukasaku, who you’ll remember had no love of his government during WWII, wouldn’t care too much if they took offence to that. I’m sure that was part of his point.

The influence of Battle Royale can’t really be underestimated. As previously stated, Fukasaku’s film turned a great deal of attention to the resurgence of film coming from Asia in general, wetting the world’s appetite for what it would come to get from Japan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan… you get the idea. However, more specifically, the film has a profound effect on many individuals, too. Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, made his debut in the film world as writer on this film, and he would go on to make his way as a filmmaker in his own right, following with Battle Royale II: Requiem in 2003 (taking over directing duties after the death of his father), as well as several other films, like X-Cross, Black Rat and We Can’t Change the World. But, We Wanna Build a School in Cambodia. Many of the young actors in Battle Royale would go on to have further careers as actors, too. In fact, one of them would cross paths with another filmmaker who has taken a great amount of influence from Kinji Fukasaku recently… Quentin Tarantino.

After Jackie Brown’s release in 1997, it would be six years before Tarantino would return to our screens, which he ultimately did with the first part of his highly stylised samurai revenge epic, Kill Bill Vol. 1. Amongst the many now iconic aspects of that film, several things jump out immediately as being direct lines to Fukasaku. Generically, there is much drawing upon the world of samurai and Yakuza flicks, where Fukasaku spent his early career. Then, there is the casting of Sonny Chiba, a Fukasaku regular with whom he made many features (Chiba even repeats his line from Samurai Reincarnation - “If you encounter God, God will be cut.”). Further to casting, Chiaki Kuriyama, who played Chigusa in Battle Royale, also appears in Kill Bill Vol. 1 as Gogo Yubari, the psychotic bodyguard dressed in the schoolgirl’s uniform. And lest we forget, the music from the trailer that was played freaking everywhere… Battle Without Honour and Humanity by Tomoyasu Hotei, a piece which gained its title from Fukasaku’s Yakuza film series mentioned earlier. It’s worth noting at this point that, in 2009, Tarantino made a video list for Sky Movies in which he listed his favourite movies to come out since he became a filmmaker in 1992. Although most of the list is simply given alphabetically, the first film he names is his outright number 1, the film he most wishes that he had made... can you guess what that movie is? Have a watch of that video here, and definitely check out the other films on his list, too.

I’m not kidding when I say how good Battle Royale is. It works on many levels, as a horror, an actioner, science fiction, drama, thriller, even romance. Generically, it manages to run the gamut, but does so in a way that I don’t think ever feels clunky or awkward. Fukasaku keeps a firm hand on the film and, with a running time of around the two-hour mark, the film positively gallops along. The stakes are never in question, and everyone in this film sells it brilliantly.

I’m going to stop writing now, because you need to run and go watch this movie now… go… Run!