Sunday, 31 July 2011

American Pie: The Wedding (2003)

THIS TIME, THEY'RE GOING ALL THE WAY

When the American Pie films began, they sought to muse on the rites-of-passage nature of the big steps in the relationships of those growing up, all whilst making jokes about semen and poop. The first film was somewhat juvenile, but also a very sweet and considered look at attitudes to sex in high school. The second film took the next step and looked at the progression of these relationships and what it was to find out whom you love. The natural next step from there is the biggest step – marriage. The planning of the event, the trials of uniting two families through matrimony and all that other stuff. Therefore, the cast (mostly) reassembled one more time for American Pie: The Wedding.

Jim (Jason Biggs) has finally found the courage to ask Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) to marry him. Now that a wedding is on the way, plans must be made for the big day. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) are back in town and won’t let the opportunity for having fun slip by.

Adam Herz returned to flying solo on this third instalment of the series he launched back in 1999. Unfortunately, he had completely run out of ideas at this point. The script is so painfully unoriginal and generic, it could have been a standalone film with no connection to the previous movies whatsoever, with any sense of character completely jettisoned in favour of poor attempts at humour. The comedy sequences are atrocious, taking wild swings at the kind of nonsense that became tired years before. And none of them make any sense, either. One sequence has Jim accidentally cover his wedding cake in his pubes because he shaved them all off (seriously, what the hell?) and, instead of just putting the hair in a bin or in the toilet, he decides to put them out the window… huh? It’s not even like he did it in a panic because someone wanted into the bathroom, he just did it. Another bit has Stifler eating a dog turd because he told Michelle’s mother it was a truffle, and she wants to eat it. That’s just stupid. It’s made even worse when Michelle’s father insists that he describe the taste to his wife, “yeah, it’s so fresh… and it’s so creamy… it’s so good, yeah.”… are you kidding me with this? This isn’t funny. This is just dumb nonsense. Then there’s the unwelcome return from the homophobia that wrinkled the last outing, only this time it’s worse. The guys find themselves in a gay bar, because of an inconvenience of plot, where Stifler proceeds to be a complete dick to everyone because he didn’t know it was a gay bar and thinks all the guys want him. One of the patrons tells him that just because it’s a gay bar, doesn’t mean every guy wants to sleep with him. It’s a fair point, but it is somewhat undermined when that same patron ends up coming on to Stifler at various points throughout the rest of the film. And Christ, the less said about the utterly ludicrous bachelor party scene, the better. This film isn’t the amusingly awkward comedy of its predecessors, but an asinine farce with all the sensitivity and comedic dexterity of plane crash.

It also says a lot that several of the gang are missing from this film. Oz – gone. Heather – gone. Vicky – gone. Jessica – gone. Nadia – gone. They’re not even acknowledged in any way, rather just completely forgotten about. Either these characters just didn’t figure into the plan this time around; or the actors looked at the proposed ideas and bolted. In the case of the former, Herz made a huge mistake. In the case of the latter, those actors were the smart ones… and Herz still made a huge mistake. These characters deserved better than that.

Directorial duties for this film were handed to Jesse Dylan (son of Bob, which I’m sure is how he constantly gets introduced) and it’s not a great job. Ninety percent of the problem is with the script, so Dylan can’t be blamed for that. Also, the fact that we’ve got a largely new crew and we’re missing some actors on the roster means that there’s little of the familiar warmth been carried over, which Dylan can’t really be blamed too much for either. What he can be blamed for is the distinct lack of energy from most of the film, and the poor pacing throughout as well. Scenes seem to go on and on because they have no idea where the line is. There’s none of the tightness of the first venture, and a real lack of charm or fun from the whole piece. It just hangs together quite poorly. Again, this is mostly Adam Herz’s fault, not Dylan’s.

The cinematography on this film is rather ugly, too. The dark tones are aggressively harsh, giving the whole film an unnaturally oppressive air throughout. There’s no subtlety or nuance or softness to any of it, leaving the lights and darks to crash together in a very unappealing picture. Though each film has had a different director of photography, there was at least an effort from Mark Irwin to make the second movie look like the work done by Richard Crudo on the first, creating a subtle sense of visual continuity. Here, Lloyd Ahern has made no such effort, so the feeling that this film bears no relation to the other two is just exacerbated.

The actors are still good for the most part, but suffer from shoddy work in the scripting stage. Eugene Levy (pretty much the sole carrier of what little heart the film has) remains decent, though he’s given a bit more focus than really necessary. Eddie Kaye Thomas actually does a better job of playing the Stifler we know and love because Seann William Scott has been forced into playing a version of Stifler that is so absurdly inflated that it’s impossible to like him at all. In the past, Stifler was egocentric and crude, but rarely if ever crossed the line into actually offensive. In this film, Stifler has been made more stupid, more obnoxious, more unpleasant and there is nothing that Scott can do about it except gurn and cackle like a fool. It’s just made worse that most of the film is focused on him this time round

American Pie: The Wedding isn’t just a weak end to the (at the time) trilogy, but an overlong and painfully unfunny send off for (some of ) the characters that everyone had come to love in the past. All character depth and potential growth has been negated in favour of the kind of crass stupidity the original film managed to separate itself from. More than that, the cinematography is unpleasant and that mild sense of homophobia that came through in the previous film gets more of a show here. Bad show, kids. Very bad show.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

American Pie 2 (2001)

IT'S TIME FOR A SECOND HELPING

Yesterday, we covered American Pie, a film about the trials, tribulations and general spurtings of a group of young people trying to get to grips with sex. It was really successful and played a big part in reviving the lost art of the teen movie, so naturally they had to do a sequel. They reassembled the whole cast (right down to the guy and his monkey) and proceeded to jump back into the fray for the next stage of romantic encounter – relationships.

After their first year at college, Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) reunite for a summer of fun on the lake. They each still have their relationship woes, but look to change all of that by the end of their summer.

For the second outing of the Pie gang, Adam Herz returned to pen the script, this time with help from David H. Steinberg. Frankly, this is perhaps a misstep right off the bat. Whilst Herz’s solo effort last time round wasn’t exactly the stuff of greatness, it held a nice charm and warmth to it, despite the jokes about sperm and poop. Steinberg’s strokes are a bit broader, so the delicate touches get somewhat smothered by reaching for the gags about lesbians and pee. It rather says a lot that Steinberg would go on to write the kind of cheap and crass sex comedies that American Pie opened the door for. Slackers, National Lampoon’s Barely Legal, even one of the relentless sequels in the American Pie franchise The Book of Love. I really can’t get around the feeling that mild sense of homophobia that creeps it head into one scene is down to Steinberg rather than Herz. The scene I’m referring to is one where three of the guys try to get a live show from two women they think are lesbians, whose house they just snuck into. The girls decide to oblige, but only if the boys go first. As such, we’re treated to the disgusted gagging of Stifler grabbing Finch's ass and Stifler and Jim making out. The actors do make it as funny as they can, but there’s still something that may feel off to some. Nevertheless, Herz is onboard and we’ve still got the same characters that were so lovable the first time round. Like the first time, the gross scenes are coupled with moments of actual considerations on the difficulty of the long distance relationship, pretending you’re over someone when you’re not and the ever-present concern of not being bad in bed. Also, the guys and girls get pretty even treatment again, both sides having their wisdom and neuroses, their kinks and inadequacies. So, for any points that feel tired or somewhat disagreeable, there are other points to pick it up again. By the way, I’m aware that all of this maybe seems like I’m being rather unfair on Steinberg, especially since I’ll never really know who was responsible for what in the script. As such, I’ll lay equal blame and praise on both of them. Well done, Herz and Steinberg, and for shame.

The direction duties have also been relocated, here being handed to J.B. Rogers. Rogers served as the First Assistant Director on the first American Pie, as well as several other films, which included time under gross-out kings the Farrelly brothers. It’s a good choice, since Rogers is able to maintain that sense of camaraderie and friendship that had been built in the last film. However, Rogers doesn’t have the same well-developed sense of pace, so American Pie 2 feels a bit too long. The lesbian sequence was one of the comedic centrepieces of the film, but there are moments when you can see even the actors think it’s running on a bit. The party sequences are also a bit of a drag. There are too many shots of people supposedly enjoying themselves in an effort to establish location and mood, as well as looting some of the more assured touches from the first film, but it does weigh things down. Also, the music used is a rather shameless grab at the top hits of the moment rather than appropriate choices, which do cast a shadow over the scenes they’re supposed to be underscoring. Overall, it’s actually not a bad job, rather it could just use a bit of tightening up.

The actors continues to do as good a job as the last time out, with a slight re-jigging of the pecking order depending on how popular characters were in the first film. As such, Stifler, Michelle and Jim’s dad get a bit more attention. Naturally, this slightly pushes some into the background a bit, like Kevin and Vicky. However, there’s no sense that there’s bitterness about this and everyone does still remain as solid and likable as the last time. Once again, it’s thanks to the cast that what could have been something of a juvenile mess instead still comes across as quite charming and funny.

It does feel longer, it’s sometimes more soundtrack than film, and the comedy sequences are really just a rehash of the previous film’s big moments. That said, it does still have an eye for some of the slightly complicated aspects of relationships, and the cast remain as good and charming as ever. It doesn’t really have the same impact as the first, mainly because it doesn’t have the poise of the previous outing and its reliance on formula removes the potential for surprise, but it’s still a fairly decent follow-up to the first.

Friday, 29 July 2011

American Pie (1999)

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR FIRST PIECE

Teen movies were big in the 80s. They became big business because of films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and pretty anything John Hughes made. At some amidst this, a sub-genre took a spike as some filmmakers wanted to focus more on a specific aspect of teenage life – Sex: The Quest to Get Laid. This was an element present in Hughes films and Fast Times, but it was only part of them. Lesser titles were pretty much just cheap T&A flicks set to titillate, but in the end were rather disposable. Stuff like Private School, Losin’ It, Valley Girls, Hamburger: The Motion Picture or the more lasting Porky’s. At some point, maybe because of the whole AIDS scare thing, sex took a bit of step back from the teen flick. However, by the later portion of the 90s, the tradition was revived, assembling an attractive young cast and seeing what hormonal hi-jinx they got up to, with the film American Pie.

Jim (Jason Biggs), Oz (Chris Klein), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) are four friends who make a pact that, before they graduate high school, they will all lose their virginity, with prom being the deadline for them to reach their goal.

The script by Adam Herz, his first, is clearly a rather fond throwback to the likes of Porky’s (Herz wrote his dissertation on Porky’s in university). As such, it’s really more of a collection of gross or awkward scenes. Not that there’s no story. There is, although it does feel somewhat episodic because of the focus on the Pale Ale scene or the Stripping scene or the Pooping scene. These scenes are quite pronounced and they are the thing you’ll remember long after the film ends, but they’re used as part of a trade-off with the audience. The scenes of gross-out humour are what bring the youngsters in, but the reason it wants to talk to them at all is to talk about sex.

What separates American Pie from other sex comedies aimed at young folk, like Porky’s or Slackers or even National Lampoon’s Animal House, is the frank and actually rather considered approach to the character’s attitudes towards sex. Yes, they talk about it a lot and can’t wait to do it, and the film takes great fun in dragging out their hormonal exploits, but there is some actual growth in these characters. Towards the end, they begin to consider the idea that being in a rush to lose their virginity may not be as high priority as they think. And even if they do, it’s still no one’s business but their own. Pressure to get it done, whether from friends or yourself, will just end up making you hate sex before you even have it. There’s also genuine conversation about love vs. lust, which goes beyond just the tokenism displayed in other teen comedies.

Further to this careful discussion, American Pie holds a cast of really rather well drawn characters, defined from each other and all holding some aspect of familiarity with the audience. In your school years, you know people like Jim or Stifler or Michelle. That we are already so familiar with these types of people means that the message of the film is presented in a far more approachable manner. It wouldn’t work if the characters were too abstract or too flat. They do seem real and so their thoughts and feelings do, too. What’s actually very refreshing for this type of film is the care taken with the female characters. So often are they nothing more than The Goal, and so tend to be one-dimensional and unrelatable. In American Pie, the girls are just as confused by their hormones as the guys, they just handle it a bit better. None of the girls in our immediate range are bitchy or dumb or a target for our spite. No one is. Even a dick like Stifler is still strangely likable.

The cast all pull their weight admirably. Jason Biggs is a great nervous presence as Jim (and Eugene Levy is superb as his lovable, repressed dad); Seann William Scott simply is Stifler; Natasha Lyonne’s Jessica is great; and Alyson Hannigan steals the whole film with a performance carefully controlled and geared towards a single line of dialogue. Even Tara Reid is good.

American Pie is a deceptively sweet film, which nimbly offers the standard gross-out gags along with a surprisingly mature perspective on sex as relates to teenagers. The premise is sufficiently simple to allow an easy flow of humour, the characters are defined and the performances are good all round. The franchise may have been somewhat devalued by the subsequent straight-to-DVD sequels, but the first time out is certainly worth the watch.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

American Ninja (1985)

THE DEADLIEST ART OF THE ORIENT IS NOW IN THE HANDS OF AN AMERICAN

Martial arts were big in the 1970s. Thanks to a major influx of kung fu movies on the grindhouse circuit, many of them courtesy of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, and the rise of the even more legendary Bruce Lee, the public taste for martial arts flicks was stimulated. By the time the 1980s had come along, American audiences wanted to see these skills in the hands of people they could more readily identify with onscreen. As such, there was an explosion of low-rent action films with a martial arts theme, making stars of people like Chuck Norris, Cynthia Rothrock, Loren Avedon and Billy Blanks. In 1985, there was another name added to that list. His name was Michael Dudikoff and the film was American Ninja.

Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikoff), a reluctant private on an American army base in the Philippines, gets caught up in an attack on a military convoy by a group of rebels who are trying to steal the shipment and kidnap the base colonel’s daughter, who happens to be along for the ride. Using his apparent martial arts skills, Joe rescues Patricia (Judie Aronson), but everyone else in the platoon is killed, so his superiors turn on him. Meanwhile, those responsible for the attack want him dead and send an army of ninja after him.

Okay, it’s going to be kind of difficult to do any kind of serious review of this movie because it is so wilfully ridiculous. It’s meant to be. It was never really intended to be anything serious, rather just something that would sell tickets, popcorn and generally cash in on the American martial arts craze. As such, I’m going to resort to an occasional thing I do with bad films whereby I look at it from two different ways: Critic Hat On/Critic Hat Off… here we go.

Critic Hat On: What is going on in this film? Seriously. The conception of the film is so unbelievably hollow, it’s amazing the film doesn’t literally fall to bits in your hands. An American in the Phillipines with amnesia and exceptional martial arts skills finding himself in the US Army because of a court order? Are you kidding me? Did they throw this together in an afternoon? And why does no one know who he is? His name is on his shirt and his locker, and he would have to have gone through some degree of paperwork to get in, but no one knows his name. He’s just “the new guy.” And what is actually happening? A bad guy wants to steal a piece of military equipment, which is apparently a single rocket launcher, to sell to another bad guy. Who is this first bad guy? Where is he from? His accent would suggest French, but his name would suggest South American. The general’s daughter even refers to him as Senor Ortega. Surely it should be Monsieur Ortega. And why is he in the Phillipines? And the other bad guy, is he Italian? There’s something about him wanting supplies to fight Communists or something, but surely there are better ways of getting weapons than buying them from a crooked French/South American businessman who steals the goods from the local military base. And why does Ortega have a private army of ninja, who all wear different colour outfits like the world’s most threatening Benetton advert? Where did he meet this head ninja guy, known as Black Star Ninja because of a black star tattoo on his face? And why do the ninja all wear black when fighting the good guys, even in broad daylight? Ninja are meant to be stealthy, silent assassins, but this lot leap around the place and constantly give away their position long before attacking. And what kind of plan is this overall? If Ortega had the most senior officers on the base on his payroll, why did he have to hijack anyone? He seems to have an import/export business, so why can’t he just have stuff delivered? Seems pretty straightforward with a single truck and a bit of fudged paperwork. And pretty much everything involving the old gardener guy… what in the hell is going on here? How did he find the young baby Joe Armstrong? Why did he choose to keep him in the jungle and train him in the ways of the ninja? Since when is this guy a ninja? At one point he literally fades away because of his ninja skills. And did anyone working on this movie ever bother to find out what a ninja actually is, or was it just a case of watching another bad movie featuring them and going from there? Since when did ninjas follow the Bushido Code? All of the ninja in this film are appalling fighters, doing that ‘attack one at a time’ bit. And they constantly use the smoke pellets when it’s not necessary. And why, amongst all of his other weapons, does Black Star Ninja have a flamethrower and laser gun? That’s right, a laser gun. Why is Italian guy bothering with a rocket launcher when he could speak to Black Star and get himself a freaking laser gun?

That’s a little over 500 words worth of plot holes and half-baked ideas, and I haven’t even touched on the love interest, the best friend, the corrupt sergeant, the colonel, the rebels… Christ, this is weak.

Critic Hat Off: Who cares about the story? It’s really only there as an excuse for the action sequences. If you’re watching this movie for a good story, then it’s your fault you’re not enjoying it. America Ninja makes no claims at being good, just at being action-packed. There’s fist fights, gun fights, car chases and explosions. And besides, is it so hard to swallow the American soldier with amnesia and exceptional martial arts skills? You liked the Bourne films, and that’s not exactly as dissimilar a starting concept to this, is it?

Critic Hat On: The producers wanted their lead to have a kind of James Dean quality because… I don’t know why. So they cast Michael Dudikoff as their American Ninja, despite the fact that Dudikoff had absolutely no martial arts training or knowledge. I’ll say that again. At the time of making American Ninja, the guy playing the title role knew no martial arts whatsoever. Dudikoff doesn’t so much fight as throw poses in the hope that it looks good onscreen. When he’s required to actually act, he’s quite bad. Not the worst thing ever, but still not great. Frankly, no one’s particularly good in this. Most of them are really unconvincing, like Guich Koock’s Colonel Hickock (emote, for God's sake), which actually makes Dudikoff look better by comparison, but he’s still bad.

Critic Hat Off: One thing I will say for Dudikoff is that he really does go for it. You can see he’s trying to be good, and he literally throws himself into the action scenes, even if it’s not really necessary. This certainly goes towards our being able to take him a bit more seriously as a fighting machine. Also, he runs and jumps around with such readiness and skill, that I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Michael Dudikoff was a major figure in the development of parkour. Also, you can see a bit of a James Dean quality in Dudikoff… not in the acting department, just the looks, but still. And, come on, Steven James was awesome.

Critic Hat On: According to the IMDb’s trivia page on American Ninja, director Sam Firstenberg said that he loves this film because it has “a special quality of innocence, true friendship, love and youthful idealism”… what utter horseshit. What kind of a short-sighted idiot thinks that American Ninja has anything even remotely close to any of these themes in there? Why can’t he just admit the truth about the film? I’d at least respect him a bit more if he did. And the editing, good lord… The editing is so choppy, the action sequences so badly done that, in the beginning, you’d be sure that no one has actually thrown a single punch. It’s all close ups of fists and feet and then people falling over. They can’t even keep track of what foot is delivering the kick. At one point, Dudikoff kicks with his left foot and the following shot shows his victim falling away from his right foot. And the fact that there’s a flubbed line still in the film (“I will honour the… code, father.”) is just incompetence. And half of the vehicles seem to be made of nitro glycerin, since they explode on the slightest impact. If you’re going to blow up the car, at least make me think the crash was bad enough that a fire is a possibility. Also, the music seems to have been taken from one of the weaker episodes of The A-Team or Magnum P.I.. And don’t get me started on problems of simple logic between scenes.

Critic Hat Off: … no, no excuses. It’s incredibly piss poor work, even by crap 80s movie standards, and the director’s clearly delusional, but you’re still taking it far too seriously. Just enjoy the nonsense, you ass.

As you can see, I jumped around on this one a lot. American Ninja is bad. Really bad. It’s more hole than plot, the direction is terrible, the action sequences are a mess, the acting is woeful and it seems to have absolutely no conception as to what a ninja really is. However, picking on such things is really taking the film in the wrong spirit. It exists as something to be laughed at and enjoyed as “so bad, it’s good”. The proverbial perfect guilty pleasure. Personally, I can think of other films that do this better, but that’s neither here nor there. So long as you watch this with your brain switched off (or missing), you’ll likely enjoy this.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

American History X (1998)

VIOLENCE AS A WAY OF LIFE

Racism… feel the eerie chill that runs through the room when the subject is brought up. It’s an old issue, but still holds all of the power to antagonise and divide today. Some people believe it’s a simple issue of perception; others believe it to be one of, if not The most complex and thorny subject in society. It’s a heavy topic and, in the tradition of the artist’s need to explore the many problems of society, it has been the focus of so many works, from novels to films to music to painting to sculpture… like I say, it’s a big one. In 1998, another film was released to explore this subject: American History X.

A brutal skinhead named Derek Vinyard (Edward Norton) is tried and sent to prison for the murder of two black men who tried to steal his truck. When he gets paroled three years later, Derek emerges reformed, but finds that his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong), who grew up idolising his brother, is following him down the same path. Derek resolves to save his brother from the same fate.

American History X had something of a tortured birth. It was the first script from writer David McKenna and the first film for director Tony Kaye. The story has a good central conceit and Kaye certainly seemed to have an idea of, at least, how he wanted to the film to look. The problem came much later on, during the editing process. Kaye, who was editing the film himself, was taking a while to finish. New Line Cinema, who were behind the film, didn’t like his version and made several suggestions as to what they wanted from the final cut. Kaye begrudgingly then came up with a second, much shorter version of the film. New Line apparently rejected it right away and took the task of editing away from Kaye, bringing in editors Jerry Greenberg and Alan Heim (who got final credit) and Edward Norton to come up with a new version for release. Angry at this decision, Tony Kaye disowned the film and tried to have his name taken off of the project. However, because he openly spoke about his reasons for doing so in Variety, he violated the rules of the Director’s Guild of America and was not allowed to remove his name. Kaye then sued both the DGA and New Line for violation of his right to free speech. Pretty messed up, isn’t it?

I suspect the reason that Kaye was taking so long to come up with his best edit of the film was because he saw a problem with it that he was trying his best to cover, which pretty much seems to exist at the scripting stage. In the chronology presented by the film, Derek starts off as a teenager in high school, intelligent but naïve. We see that the beginnings of his hatred, or at least mistrust, of people of other races rests with what his dad taught him at the dinner table. Derek’s father was clearly a big part of his life, as he alludes to how important he was to him. However, we really only have this one scene to show what the father is like and how that inevitably leads to Derek becoming the skinhead we meet at the film’s opening. It does make a kind of sense, but it still seems like quite a leap, especially since this is the only time we see the father. We already know that he was killed when he was shot trying to put out a fire in black neighbourhood, which Derek immediately takes as being clear evidence that black people have no respect for law, property or life. A couple more scenes would perhaps have helped sell this trajectory more, but as it is, it’s a lot to hang on a single scene.

Also, there is a constant shift in narrative perspective, though this is made easier to handle due to Kaye’s decision to film past events in black and white and present events in colour. Most of the film is told in flashback, narrated by Danny as he tries to write a paper on his brother. He recounts the big moments that he was present for in Derek’s growth into the skinhead leader, which serve for some powerful scenes. However, because all we can see of the past is what Danny saw, we don’t get answers for some questions that would have been very interesting. For example, how did Derek fall in with Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), the man who fed him the white supremacist stuff, to begin with? This is a hugely significant moment of Derek’s life and incredibly important to our understanding of his development, but since Danny was not privy to this, neither are we. It just happens. Even then, there are some slight holes in this point of narration, such as his mother talking to Murray outside their home. Then we have the moments of the present, which are free of narrative constriction, so we can go where we want, follow whomever we want. Under these conditions, we split our time mainly between Derek and Danny, with the occasional deviation into glimpses of other characters. Then there is a second, more extended flashback sequence from Derek, telling Danny about his time in prison. So, within the film, there are three shifts in perspective. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the whole feeling a bit disjointed.

Ultimately, the problem with the script is that it tries to do too much. It wants to open a debate on racial politics, it wants to meditate on the nature of hatred, it wants to show the brutal actions and the more brutal consequences of these characters, it wants to scare, it wants to educate, it wants to offer a small glimmer of hope… the script simply can’t do all of these things in a concise and erudite manner. As I said, I think that’s what Tony Kaye was trying to compensate for in the editing suite. He saw that some scenes were not really carrying the full impact that they should have, and tried to work around it. Not that the edit we see is without problems. Often, characters are ignored when you really feel they would have had something to say. For example, there’s the scene where the Vinyard family are at the dinner table and Derek’s father is telling him not to swallow all of the “affirmative black-tion bullshit”. This scene seems to exist only for Derek and his father… but the rest of the family are present. Don’t they have any thoughts on this? We know Davina, Derek’s sister, would disagree, but she stays silent. There isn’t even a shot of her during all this. Why? Again, this seems like the kind of thing that results from a script that hasn’t been properly conceived and a direction that hasn’t been properly focused. Saying that, there is report that part of Norton’s input in the editing process was to give himself more screen time, which could also explain such a problem.

So, yes, I do think that there some problems with the film on a basic level of conception, but this is all stuff that speaks to, for lack of a better way of putting it, my filmic intellect. If I ignore the problems of narrative or plot, what does the film do on an emotional level? It’s a very emotive subject, so it would be foolish to ignore the impact that emotion has. I find the film very disquieting and unsettling, but I say that in a good way. The film may seem more like a string of scenes on some occasions, but these scenes do have power to them. This is pretty much thanks to some excellent performances onscreen. Edward Furlong often gets relegated to simply watching events happen, being that he is the conduit for the viewer, but he does carry himself well in the role. He shows that Danny isn’t really a believer in all of this neo-Nazi crap, but goes along with it because it gives him a sense of being and a social life, not to mention because it makes him feel closer to his brother, whom he clearly admires. Ethan Suplee’s Seth is a repulsive individual, offensive in almost every aspect, even to his own friends, who put up with him only because he’s so intimidating. Avery Brooks is a firm and dignified presence in the film as Sweeney, one of the few people willing to meet Derek and engage with his ideals. Guy Torry gets overlooked a lot, but his is a rather important role. His Lamont is Derek’s first real interaction with a black person as equals, which only happens because Lamont wins him over with humour. If he wasn’t convincing, there would be a real weak spot to Derek’s story. Beverly D’Angelo also gets a rather overlooked show in the film, but is rather touching as Derek’s much put-upon mother. However, this film belongs to Edward Norton. He’s a force in this film, both emotional and physical. He comfortably carries the early Derek’s slightly unsure teenage self; through to his rather scary incarnation as an instigator of hate (the look of pride on his face after he murders two people is very unsettling); and finally to his reformed and repentant self, trying to severe his connections to his past life for the good of his family.

American History X is a good, but flawed film, which holds some great performances, especially from Norton. However, there is something that stands in the way of it being the really great film that you know it wants to be. There are small technical issues with some of the camerawork, but the structure of the film remains the biggest the obstacle to overcome, which sees the final message maybe a little hard to nail down. Nevertheless, I do like the film. It’s provocative and deeply unsettling and doesn’t really offer a clean conclusion. I’m not sure it makes its point as powerfully as it wants to, but it does at least try.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

American Graffiti (1973)

WHERE WERE YOU IN '62?

Once again in this journey through my movie collection we have come across a director digging into his own youth for his filmic work. Greg Mottola went back to the 80s for Adventureland, Cameron Crowe went to the 70s for Almost Famous, and now George Lucas is heading back to his youth in the early 1960s for his tale of growing up, making out and trying to figure out just what it is a young person wants to do with their life. It’s a time of rock n’ roll music, drive thrus, cruising the streets with your friends in American classic cars. His film was American Graffiti.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) have gotten into college and are due to leave in the morning, so they decide to spend their last night of summer riding through the streets and remembering old times. However, Curt is having second thoughts about leaving, while Steve tries to patch things up with his girlfriend before leaving.

American Graffiti may actually be probably the most important film in George Lucas’ career... now here’s why. When Easy Rider was released in 1969 and became the instant hit and seminal classic that it is, it showed a different way of making films. Studios saw that they could make films for cheap and potentially reap great rewards. Universal Studios decided to follow through on this and, hoping to recreate the same conditions that Easy Rider was apparently made under, opted to give five young filmmakers a chance to make a movie under the rules that each film be budgeted as $1,000,000 or less, directors would be given final cut and that the studio would not interfere in the filmmaking process. This was an incredible opportunity. Lucas himself had made one feature film in 1971, his sf cult classic THX 1138, but it was a bitter experience. The studio behind it, Warner Bros., hated it and demanded their seed money back from Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola, who had produced the film under his company American Zoetrope. The money was repaid, but doing so nearly closed down Zoetrope, forcing Coppola to take on another project for the money, The Godfather. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. wanted to make changes to THX 1138, cutting five minutes from the film before releasing it. The film was quite unsuccessful, with Warner Bros. blaming the downbeat nature of the film, and Lucas blaming the studio for tampering with the project. This experience effectively taught Lucas two things: 1) Always have complete control of the film; and 2) Downbeat films aren’t terribly successful.

As such, when Universal began rounding up projects, Lucas made his pitch. He, along with Gloria Katz and William Huyck, wrote a script that was a nostalgic look back to the early 60s and a celebration of everything about the period. There would be classic cars, young people doing young things, humour, memories and a huge amount of rock n’ roll music. Essentially, Lucas wanted to make an upbeat financially successful movie. Now, by 1972, they had already produced four films – Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Milos Forman’s Taking Off and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. Universal were somewhat hesitant about giving the last shot to Lucas, who only had one feature under his belt, which was not a success. Concerns were only assuaged when Coppola, fresh off of the monster hit that was The Godfather, came on a producer. Once more, Lucas was given a shot at the big time.

The production itself was littered with problems. A crewmember being arrested for drug possession the day before shooting started; camera troubles put the schedule off on the first day; their filming licence was revoked because of complaints from local businesses; a fire halted filming; members of the cast and crew were injured or fell ill; and cars would break down. It was troubled to say the least. Even upon screening the finished product, Universal exec Ned Tanen, a notoriously aggressive individual, took a real dislike to the film. A compromise had to be reached whereby the studio could suggest changes to the film, much to the annoyance of Lucas. Nevertheless, it was released in 1973 to widespread acclaim and was even nominated for Best Picture. The reason it did so well, as Lucas well knows, is that the film made people happy. Where THX 1138 was a downbeat financial disaster, American Graffiti was an upbeat success. People loved seeing it and reliving an aspect of their youth, or seeing the youth of the previous generation. It had the music people love, fresh-faced young people, and generally resonated with people in a way that they will always enjoy. People love to look back on their younger years and remember their friends, their old haunts, the good times.

I say that American Graffiti may be the most important film in Lucas’ career because it taught him the value of a film with high positive emotion behind it. People want to feel good and there are fewer better ways than a real feel-good movie. To evoke a world that people can get lost in, with characters they can identify and connect to, with it all ending in a huge surge of happiness and positivity. Plus, the importance of having complete control over the project… really, this was all the information that Lucas needed to avoid Warner Bros. and Universal and take his next project to 20th Century Fox. Make no mistake, without American Graffiti, there would be no Star Wars.

This is all well and good, but… what’s the film actually like? Is it really any good? The truth is… yeah, kind of. Lucas clearly put a great deal of love into the film. His characters do have that ring of familiarity to them, like you knew some of them when you were at school. The music is so much a part of the film that it evokes the period effortlessly, and there are some really great songs in there. Some of the performances are also great, like Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith and Mackenzie Phillips. I particularly liked Phillips since she is easily the funniest thing there. Her attempted drive-by zinger of, “Your car is uglier than I am… that didn’t come out right.” is golden.

On the other side of things, it does feel quite long. It is meant to take place over a single, very long night, but the various storylines and subplots weigh the film down somewhat, which makes it drag. Also, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams aren’t terribly convincing. I do believe that they would be having relationship troubles, but mainly because I don’t buy them as a couple to begin with.

Ultimately, whilst I do get the classic status of American Graffiti and certainly like some aspects of it, I can’t really say that it’s a particular favourite of mine. Its nostalgia and warmth are clear to see, but it’s a nostalgia and warmth for a very particular time and place that is just too far removed from me to connect. I can understand small strands of it here and there as a more general experience of youth and looking to the future, but the diners, the cruising, the whole youth culture of that period just seems too foreign to me. However, that’s really more my problem than the film’s. As it is, it’s a film clearly made with love and evokes that period wonderfully. I just can’t say it carries itself over to me that much.

Monday, 25 July 2011

American Gigolo (1980)

HIS BUSINESS IS PLEASURE

Writer-director Paul Schrader came up with the Hollywood ‘Movie Brat’ generation of the 1970s, his contemporaries being Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese, but his youth was nothing like theirs. Whilst Martin Scorsese spent all of his time watching movies, Schrader grew up in a very strict religious household. So strict that he wasn’t allowed to watch any films at all. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 18 years old and a college student that he saw his first movies. From then on, he was hooked and ended up becoming part of the generation that, for better or worse, changed the face of American cinema forever. Come the year 1980, Schrader had written seven films, and directed three of them. American Gigolo was the third he directed.

Julian (Richard Gere) makes his living as an escort to the wealthy older women of Los Angeles. Around the same time he begins a relationship with the wife of politician, Michelle (Lauren Hutton), one of his clients is murdered and the police start looking at Julian as the prime suspect. As the investigation goes further, Julian thinks that he’s being framed.

There’s a particular character type that Schrader returns to quite regularly throughout his career. It’s a character that was seen a little in his first script, the Japanese-set thriller The Yakuza, but was then given the full show in his next script, 1976’s Taxi Driver… the character is that of God’s Lonely Man. Schrader seems to be almost obsessed with the notion of the isolation of his main characters, which is often a state of self-imposed isolation. Men of means and actions wilfully cutting themselves off from the run of normal society, living as exiles amongst the civilised, walking ghosts in the land of the living. In American Gigolo, the Lonely Man on show is Julian, a good-looking male escort who makes his money off of the city’s wealthy older women, either widowed or just ignored by their husbands. There’s a lot to suggest that this life agrees with Julian. He makes good money, has a steady client base, drives a sweet convertible Mercedes, lives in a nice apartment, has some very stylish clothes, he speaks five or six languages and he keeps himself in great shape. Best of all, he gets to bring love and comfort to those who need it, as long as they can pay for it. Really, this guy is probably the envy of so many other guys. However, this is just the starting point for Schrader. The whole idea is to show a character study of what lies beneath someone like Julian, who seems to have so much going for him. He certainly doesn’t complain about his life. He likes what he does, so you won’t hear him bemoaning his situation. What’s important for us is that we can see what Julian does not, which is just how lonely he is. He claims that he prefers older women because younger women present no challenge for him, that older women appreciate his skills more. There is the constant suspicion that Julian goes for older women because they are just as lonely as he is, that the younger women wouldn’t appreciate him because he takes the notion of seduction so seriously, that he is trying to satisfy some sort of Oedipal complex and gain a motherly approval. He doesn’t see himself as a prostitute, even though that’s exactly what he is. He thinks of himself as a companion, a hired friend to have fun with, which includes getting laid.

Richard Gere serves the film very well as Julian. Gere is a good-looking guy in a boyish kind of way, and he captures a very particular and important thing… how Julian moves. When you watch him enter the bar where he meets Lauren Hutton for the first time, you see that his gait is very smooth and sleek and deliberate, somewhere between a catwalk model and a jungle predator… a sex panther, if you will. It’s all in the economy of his movement, the deliberate manner of his steps. Gere shows more than just Julian’s ability to walk effectively, too. For all of the veneer of confidence, he’s a little bit naïve, even rather dumb. He knows he’s lonely, does his best to convince himself otherwise and sometimes maybe even succeeds. However, you can always see it in him, it’s always there under the surface. It’s never enough to spoil Julian’s affect, but it is clear, to all but himself. Lauren Hutton’s Michelle is also a very capable performance, although there really is little in the way of surprise in her. She effectively acts as a mirror to Julian, attractive and lonely. She puts no pretence on how she feels, which serves to both attract and repel Julian. Her neediness troubles him, but his need to both comfort and be comforted trump his worries. The scene where Michelle wins over Julian is a delicate one and handled very well by Gere, Hutton and Schrader.

Given the world that the film exists in, what is important to note about the places we go and the people we see is that, for all of the hedonistic touches of the sex and drugs and money, there is a real dullness to everything. Schrader doesn’t show you these people, these places, in the hope that you’ll get caught up in them and want to go along for the ride. That distance is important. We see pre- and post-game, but not the acts themselves. We don’t get much in the way of vicarious thrills. We get the preening, the stalking, the journey to and from the job, the shop talk. Schrader doesn’t want to lose us in the fray -- he’s got a point to make. I do remain unsure on the handling on the one and only sex scene, between Julian and Michelle. It’s rather clumsy and awkward and really quite unerotic. I say I’m unsure because I don’t know if this was really Schrader’s intention, continuing the lack of vicarious thrills bit; or if he tried to make it erotic, but just failed. Maybe you can work it out.

As it is, it’s not a completely flawless show. It’s very much a period piece, and feels very 80s. The film’s musical theme is Blondie’s Call Me, which is a great song, but the whole underscore rests on various cheesy synth interpretations of it that nowadays somewhat undercuts attempts at drama. Also, the oft-parodied view of the gay club as a place full of half-naked, leather-clad moustachioed men ends up being more funny, or more offensive, by today’s standards than was probably intended. It also seems like it ends about four times, which feels more clumsy than anything. Sound is also an issue in the film, too, with dialogue occasionally being drowned out by the sounds of the city… of course, that last one could be the result of a lousy DVD transfer job by Paramount or whoever did it. Nevertheless, it’s a bit off here and there.

There is an interesting element regarding homosexuality in the film. Julian himself refuses to do what he calls “fag work”, and the previously mentioned short scene in the gay club is the kind of thing that a person who didn’t like gay people would imagine a gay club to be like. There’s even a scene where Julian pretends to be a very effeminate German decorator to play a joke on someone. The film at times is really quite homophobic. However, there is something of a double-play going on there, too. I also mentioned earlier about that many men would be very envious of Julian and somewhat attracted to his life. Even Schrader’s camera seems to be a little enamoured of him, with its lingering shots on his body and the care taken to show him as being physically appealing. The interesting part comes from when you consider that the point of the film is to show how very unattractive this life is. The film is almost asking whether or not it’s the lifestyle that you find attractive or Julian. It shows an attitude towards gay men that is quite ignorant, but at the same time questions whether or not the men watching may have some mildly gay feelings towards the main character. Of course, all of this is in 1980, before the huge AIDS epidemic that rose up in America later on in the decade.

American Gigolo is a little dated in some of its production detail (regular synth music and 80s styles) and the plot does seem to have more of a soap opera quality about it, but it does still maintain the poignancy in its illustration of Julian. There’s no beating you over the head with any attempt at moralism, it’s largely a rather bleak affair in a subdued kind of way. Schrader invites you to watch someone that beforehand you may have envied, but ultimately feel sorry for. That’s a hell of a trick.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

American Cousins (2003)

YOU THINK YOU'VE GOT FAMILY PROBLEMS

Phew… thought I was going to miss today’s entry. Anyway, today marks our first trip into the territory of Scottish cinema. One of the things that Scottish people hear most from people in North America is how everyone there originally comes from Scotland. Irish people get that a lot, too. Everyone has family back in Scotland whom they either just came back from visiting or will be visiting soon. Americans seem to be very proud to have roots there, even if it’s a distant thing. In 2003, writer Sergio Casci wrote a script about two guys from New Jersey finding it necessary to stay with their Scottish relatives and the things that can happen when you’ve got family in the right place at the right time.

After their latest deal goes sour, two American mobsters, Gino (Danny Nucci) and Settimo (Dan Hedaya), take refuge in a Glasgow cafe owned by their Scottish cousin Roberto (Gerald Lepkowski), who cares more for frying fish and collecting stamps. Gino and Settimo try to repay Roberto’s hospitality by chasing off some thugs who wants his property, but they have problems of their own.

Casci’s script for American Cousins has an intriguing premise and is well handled for the most part. It’s a classic ‘fish out of water’ play, manages to keep the differences and similarities in pretty good balance. There is also some great cracks of humour and a plot device involving half-cooked chips shows that there is certainly some invention going on. If there is something to be quibbled with in the writing, it’s that perhaps the some characters are a little bit stock (they always tend to be in these types of stories), and that it maybe has a bit too much going on. There’s the mobster’s fitting in with the shop, a love triangle, the debt collectors, the English thugs hired to track down the mobsters… it’s all decent enough and enjoyable, but there is the feeling of being spread a bit thin. The relationship between Roberto and Alice, his assistant manager, feels like it’s taking leaps that aren’t sufficiently set up, so it seems a bit fast. Also, the ending is a bit much to take, but if the movie has won you over by this point, it won’t change your final opinion of it. Overall, though, it’s still got a good sense of personality.

Donald Coutts direction is rather inconsistent, having trouble flitting between the contrasting tones of the piece (tough mob guy bit followed by heart-warming romantic bit followed by funny bit with grandfather), though it does show an active engagement with the material. Some moments should feel bigger, more substantial, but there isn’t really enough behind them to fully sell the effect he’s shooting for. It is largely left to the actors to do this. For example, a scene between Settimo and Roberto talking about a painting of the family doesn’t quite have the connection it should, largely because it spends most of the time going from only one or two angles. Hedaya and Lepkowski do their job, but it still feels distant. It should try to create more of a relationship between these two men and the painting, and therefore with the family, and therefore with us. Also, the ceilidh scene doesn’t quite capture the full charge of these kinds of spirited dances… and I say that as someone who hates them.

The acting overall is of good standard, with most being convincing in their roles. Hedaya and Nucci serve well as the two New Jersey fish out of water in Glasgow, with Hedaya keeping it nicely reserved and Nucci being a bit more of the loudmouth. Lepkowski carries the ebb and flow of Roberto well, even though there are occasions when the script does seem to make a bit of a leap and the direction doesn’t always follow him. Shirley Henderson does make Alice endearing, although she also isn’t quite matched by the direction. Russell Hunter is the best on show as Roberto’s grandfather, managing to capture the few moments of real heart. It’s not all great news, with the other end of the scale being held by Stevan Rimkus, whose performance is wildly all over the place. At one point, he’s a cackling maniac, but only seconds later, he’s much less so. His is the one show that really stands out as being too much for the film to handle.

American Cousins is a perfectly charming film. It’s got warmth, humour and also has some touching moments. The script does spread itself a bit thin, the direction isn't terribly strong, not every performance is up to scratch, and it does feel more like a TV expedition than a big screen one, but it certainly does do enough to satisfy as a viewing experience.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

American Buffalo (1996)

THEY HAD A PLAN. IT WASN'T WORTH A NICKEL.

David Mamet is a writer who knows a thing or two about the ways of desperate men, primarily because all men are desperate. A primary concern of his is the idea of a man’s struggle to reach the top, to get just one shot at the brass ring. Surely it runs that for every one guy that reaches his goal and makes it all the way, there are dozens who don’t. These are the ones Mamet looks at. Even if they think they’ve given up, got too old to for the fight, or have convinced themselves that they’re happy where they are, it only takes the least little glimmer of light and they will do some pretty messed up stuff to make the grab. Back in 1975, Mamet wrote a play about this very idea, centred around two men, one boy and a coin.

Don (Dennis Franz) runs an inner-city junk shop, and feels rather put out when he discovers he sold a coin for much less than it was worth. He decides to rob the man he sold it to with the help of teenager Bob (Sean Nelson). On finding out about the plan, Don’s friend Teach (Dustin Hoffman) proposes a new plan, where he’s in, Bob’s out and the job becomes about more than just a coin.

It’s pretty hard to poke holes in the script for American Buffalo, which Mamet himself adapted from his own play. Considering that upon its debut, it would win awards for Best New Play, has been revived on Broadway a few times and, in 1983, was called “one of the best American plays of the last decade” by New York Times critic Frank Rich. It’s an absolutely blazing work, full of anger, spite and real tension. Part of what makes it interesting is that it is, effectively, a ‘heist gone wrong’ story, but here the heist goes wrong before it’s even begun. These characters think they know what they’re doing, and to some degree, they actually might. However, whatever skills they may have don’t mesh and they are in constant conflict over every detail of the proposed venture. They trade notions of ‘what if’ as if it were a gunfight, crippling themselves by trying to outthink the other. It’s classic paralysis through analysis. The dialogue is fierce, profane, incendiary… it’s pure David Mamet. Teach is something of a self-anointed gutter philosopher, pontificating viciously on life and the way of the world. “The world is lies. There is no friendship,” says Teach. It’s precisely this kind of bitter cynicism that has held him back all this time, but he genuinely sees no other way it could work. If the world was fair, he’d be better of, but he isn’t. The world has cheated him out of what is his, so parrots this behaviour back to other people. He’s the kind of borderline nutcase who thinks that everyone is just like him and to pretend otherwise is a sure way to get taken. Don is the same, only he’s convinced that he’s stepped back from the fray, watching it all go by from the window of his shop. As he tells his student, Bob “There are people on this street, they want this, they want that, do anything to get it. You don’t have friends this life.” It’s twisted, it’s cruel, it’s mean and he really does mean it.

Considering that there are only three actors ever seen on screen, it is important for them to make their presence felt… and lord, do they work for it. Sean Nelson doesn’t nearly have enough time of screen as the other two, but he keeps his end up very well. Bob clearly wants to please his friend and learn from him, but he’s just not quite able to hold the same level of cynicism as Don and Teach, perhaps because he knows that, young as he is, he still has a shot. Dennis Franz continues his great line in searing looks that served him so well in the interrogation scenes in NYPD Blue. Don is tough, and seems to have let go of unrealistic dreams of the big time, but it’s an act that’s there largely to fool himself. The fire still burns in him, even if it’s just a little bit. All he needs is for the window to open just a little bit and it’ll burn him up all over again. Franz carries this so well. However, as it would be, it’s Hoffman that steals the show. Teach is fierce. He can’t let things go, either because he’s too stubborn or too dumb to recognise when he’s beat. He thinks everyone has an angle or a cheat or a con or some way that gives them the unfair advantage over him. Where Don has let his inner fire cool over the years, Teach is still consumed by his. He’s a man frustrated and Hoffman is a ball of tension and anger. Also, what continues to amaze me about Hoffman is that even though he is this short, unassuming guy, he can still be very intimidating when he wants to be. Just look at the scene where Teach and Don are quizzing Bob, who they think is acting suspiciously. All Hoffman does is sit in his chair and wheel it back and forth, staring at the boy. It’s menacing as hell. Both Franz and Hoffman work really well together, too. They keep great pace with each other, spitting the dialogue back and forth like they’re trading blows. It’s Mamet dialogue as a weapon in the hands of those who know how to use it.

Frankly, if there is one thing that lets down American Buffalo as a film, it’s Michael Corrente’s direction, which lacks any real invention to make it as completely searing as it could be. He certainly understands the high tempers of the piece, the feeling that what you’re watching is two fierce animals stalking around in a cage. At any moment, one of them could blow and someone will get hurt, but Corrente misses out on the capability of the camera. With the camera, you can get right in there with them, close enough to read their faces. However, the camera often keeps at a distance, not really wanting to get involved. Sure, it’s great to see Hoffman and Franz share the screening, sparring, throwing out their test punches, but you can get this from the stage production. Several times, the camera literally hides behind items in the junk shop, so we get a partially obscured vision of what’s going on. Also, there are moments where the framing of the piece would suggest that the two are on the same side, rather than in opposition, which is clearly the real heart of the matter. This is a boxing match, masquerading as a conversation. The performances more than meet this, but the camera does not.

American Buffalo is a superb script that’s acted with force and gusto, but the direction is just too unimaginative and lacklustre to really succeed as a film. The performances do make it absolutely superb watching, so it’s not exactly a wasteful watch. It would just have been better served under the direction of someone possessed of more visual flair.

Friday, 22 July 2011

American Beauty (1999)

... LOOK CLOSER

There’s something about the notion of the perfect American family living in the perfect American suburb that has made it be the regular focus of plays and novels and films. Blue Velvet, Happiness, Revolutionary Road, The Stepford Wives, Safe, even The ‘burbs… they all proffer the idea of suburban living as something unsettling, a fragile veneer covering a dark secret, that there’s something ugly beneath that perfectly manicured lawn. Well, what happens when the people living there simply can’t take it anymore? In 1999, writer Alan Ball and first time director Sam Mendes had their crack at the subject with American Beauty.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a depressed suburban father who is completely ignored by his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch). When Lester enters a mid-life crisis, brought on by feelings for his daughter’s friend, he decides to turn his life around and try to recapture whatever it was he lost in his life.

I’m a big fan of Alan Ball, and I would feel pretty happy saying that even if all I’d seen of his work was True Blood. Working in sitcoms through the 90s, American Beauty was his first feature film script, and it is an excellent start. It’s a black comedy that’s really very funny, it’s a poignant drama musing on the human spirit, it’s a satire with elements of a mystery, and it’s a love story. Several, in fact. Far from being an unfocused story, swinging wildly at multiple genres for lack of real structure, it’s also incredibly concise and literate. There is so much that can be drawn from or discussed in the film - the apparently hollow nature of suburban life; the crushing sense of being trapped in one’s job or life; the meaning of beauty; the benefits of crime; the importance of conformity; the implications of sexual repression. These are classic themes and, to those that know his work, pure Alan Ball. The characters are also treated with great care, free from judgement or any crude lack of depth. One of the film’s great strengths is the courage it has to let the characters be alone. Seriously, have a look at just how often they are just left by themselves doing nothing, where they can let their mask slip away. It’s a less common practice than you might think.

Like Alan Ball, this was Sam Mendes’ first film. Already a very well-respected theatre director, he took great care in selecting the script for his debut. American Beauty was his selection and he directs it with a superb visual style and a great sense of meaning. Mendes was clearly very aware of the subtext of the piece, and brings them to life with ease. For example, just look at the first time we see Lester at work. Look at the drab surroundings, recognisable to all of those who have worked in an office. Then there’s a shot showing Lester reflected in his computer screen, where the columns of numbers seem to create an image of Lester behind bars. Then there’s the moments when he’s in Brad’s office, with Brad the supervisor appearing giant and powerful and Lester looking positively tiny in his chair. There is an absolutely superb level of dexterity going here and throughout. The sense of colour in the film is also excellent, where bland walls and furniture of greys and whites are punctured by small shards of red or blue or green, inviting you to notice the small glimpses of life in the lifeless world. Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography here is equally rich and solid.

I’m also a big fan of Thomas Newman’s music. He’s got a very distinctive sound, and always manages to capture a kind of soft ache, a longing wistfulness in his work. Here, his echoing piano, gentle woodwind and eerie strings beautifully capture the nuanced play of the characters and overall feel of the film. Just listening to it on its own is enough to lull you into an introspective mood.

Performances throughout are excellent. Kevin Spacey is on top form. His face is one that just exudes the kind of humour and sadness and disappointment that characterises Lester. The look on his face when he looks across the room at a party to his wife laughing wildly at a joke just encompasses everything he’s feeling about her, himself, this party, their life. He also has, and this is kind of important, a particular smile that creeps in at specific moments as Lester rediscovers his old self. Annette Bening is superb as Carolyn, who has invested so much of herself in an image that she finds it difficult to live up to and tries so hard not to let the cracks show. Her reaction to another day of an unsold house is both heart-rending and a little unnerving. There’s great support from elsewhere in the cast, too. Mena Suvari brings out every inch of the moderately Lolita-esque nature of Angela Hayes. She’s vampy and trampy, but she is so clearly still a child covering a supreme level of low self-esteem. Thora Birch and Wes Bentley give wonderfully understated performances as Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts, respectively. Jane begins so placid, so used to being ignored, but slowly comes out of herself as the film goes on. Ricky is equally unassuming, but it’s an affect grounded in a great self-confidence. He knows how to handle himself, illustrated by his manner of dealing with authority, especially his father. Listen to the way he says what his dad wants him to say, firm and yet without conviction. He says it because he knows it’ll get his dad off his back. Speaking of Fitts Senior, Chris Cooper is a menacing presence in the role, an overbearing bully, tough and severe. His is a way of discipline, doled out by force if necessary. Allison Janney’s Barbara Fitts is perhaps the most saddening character of all. Someone so utterly strangled of life that she is a ghost in her own home. Janney is more familiar to many in more vibrant and outgoing roles (she is superb in The West Wing), so to see her smothered like this gives a real glimpse as to how worn down the character really is.

American Beauty actually reminds me a great deal of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop called Filling Station. It’s a wonderfully vivid description of an ordinary filling station that Bishop once happened upon. She describes the dirt and oil that marks it all, the rather dull visage it makes, the overall lacklustre effect of its initial impression… but then she notes the small details that stand out from it - an individual plant, a single doily, a small taboret, the specific arrangement of the oil cans. From these peculiarly delicate additions to the otherwise gruff and boring surroundings, Bishop notices the small graces that someone has put into the scene to make it more pleasant for others. It may be an ordinary and rather dreary place, but if you look closer, you’ll see the little glimpses of beauty and heart in it. This is exactly what rests at the heart of American Beauty. It’s not about simply looking into the American Dream and satirising it for its iniquity and spiritual malaise. It does see these things, but it goes that extra step and sees through even that to the flashes of life and colour and love that rest beneath that. Other films are content with showing the life of the suburban family as being secretly dark, ugly, or even crazy; American Beauty wants to show what lies beneath even that.

For all of its moments of tension, cynicism and frustrated anguish, American Beauty really is a gorgeous, gentle and rather uplifting film. It’s a wonderfully subtle blending of genres, both sad and funny, and carries itself with a superb artistry and elegance. It doesn’t shy itself from elements of bitter darkness and despair, but it ultimately rests with its firm and sincere belief that there is just too much beauty in the world to ignore.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Amélie (2001)

ONE PERSON CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE FOREVER

Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet had been collecting things since 1974. Anything really. Stories, images, memories, impressions, people. He filled notebooks with things that he found interesting or worth remembering. It would seem he never really found any particular endgame in his collecting, at least not a specific enough one to be able to quantify his endeavours. It was, for all intents and purposes, just his hobby. When he eventually became a filmmaker, he would have continued picking up these scraps of life around him, likely dipping into them for ideas or inspiration. However, in 2001, his hobby would give him what is quite possibly his masterpiece. A fantasy about love and joy centred on a young woman named Amélie Poulain.

Amélie Poulain (Audrey Tautou), an innocent and naïve young waitress living in Paris, decides to help those around her rediscover the joy their lives as a way of making herself happier. However, she does find it difficult to find real joy for herself, until she (sort of) meets a young man named Nino (Mathieu Kassovitz).

The script for Amélie was written by Guillaume Laurant, based on a story by both Laurant and Jeunet. The two had previously worked on The City of Lost Children to pretty decent results, so when Jeunet finally decided to tackle those notebooks filled with the odds and ends of existence that he had amassed over all those years, it was Laurant that he enlisted to help him. The script itself is at once beautifully detailed and also rather scattergun. There is, for the longest time, little in the way of an actual story. It’s really more a collection of characters, stationed in various settings, with Amélie as the one connection that runs through them all. Things happen to them, either by the machinations of Fate or of Amélie herself, but there isn’t really an overall arc for it all. It’s okay, because it’s really more about what this random gaggle of misfits and oddballs get from each other if only they would look up once in a while. There are moments of grand absurdity, and even some glimpses at a rather dark humour, but it’s all taken as part of a widespread fantasy. Given the importance of the characters in the film, they each shine wonderfully. Even if they’ve only been given the slightest tick or affect, it is built on beautifully. There is a point being made about what you can understand about a person from only the briefest glimpses, and the importance of trying. Nino becomes obsessed with a particular man in his photo collection, and longs to understand what his story is. Amélie’s neighbour, Dufayel, paints the same picture (Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party) over and over again, but always has difficulty with the one girl whose face is mostly obscured by a glass. As such, he considers her his greatest challenge. In this world, people who try to understand more about those around them are the ones worth listening to. When there is a story to look at - Amélie’s infatuation with and pursuit of Nino - it’s so incredibly charming that you almost can’t help but go along with it.

Jeunet, a great visualist, creates for the film a vibrant sense of colour and atmosphere. Wanting to ape the look of Brazilian artist Juarez Machado, Jeunet and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel bring an appropriately painterly look to everything. So much so that you could pick almost any random frame from the film and hang it on your wall. Giving the fantastically striking nature of the Paris on show, every scene is composed and rendered in complementary colours, with reds in greens and yellows in blues. This is a world that is so alive and vivacious that it’s almost cartoonish. Some may feel like it’s a bit much, but there is no denying the sheer vitality of what’s on screen.

Yann Tiersen’s music is equally infectious. It’s minimalist, it’s absurd, it’s memorable, it’s unique, it’s versatile, and it’s an unmitigated delight. It never overpowers the picture, but enhances it to a splendid degree. Even as I’ve been sitting here writing this, the music is running through my head.

Performances throughout are solid. No one fails to make an impression. This is partially due to the slightly over-the-top pitch of the film that the actors must live up to, but they do so without any trouble. They all own such a distinctive look, they speak and move in such a unique way that, cartoonish broad strokes or no, these people are alive. However, this is Amélie’s film and Audrey Tautou is its beating heart. Tautou is absolutely adorable, capturing that child-like nature and slight emotional reserve of the character superbly. She always looks like she’s just barely keeping a secret, like she knows that it’s all a film and is trying not to let all the other characters in on the joke, thus keeping it going that little bit longer. It’s this kind of playful nature that rests at the core of Amélie. She’s not embarrassed or troubled by what’s happening… it’s just all part of the game she’s playing with everyone else and she wants it to go on for as long as possible.

What is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Amélie is that the film is not really Amélie’s fantasy, but director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s. Here, he has, in some way, created a wonderful relationship for himself, or at least a fictionalised version of himself. Amélie’s love story is, by equal measure, the love story of Nino, played by Mathieu Kassovitz, who is also a filmmaker. Let us consider Nino as the filmic surrogate for Jeunet. The filmmaker connection is obvious, but look closer at Nino. Like Jeunet, Nino keeps a scrapbook of the things that people throw away, in this case the unwanted, torn-up photos from photo booths. If this is true, Amélie can be considered as the story of a pretty young women, full of joy, coming to love and appreciate the filmmaker for all his quirks and oddball habits. It’s not really a vanity project. After all, Amélie is a simple girl, and just as weird as he is. It’s more of an act of mercy to his younger self. Nino’s relationships don’t last long, probably because he’s a bit strange. Jeunet himself might have had relationship woes growing up because he himself was a bit strange. Today, Jeunet is married and a world famous filmmaker, but there does still exist in his memory the image of himself as a somewhat lonely young man, looking for companionship in the world. The reason Amélie exists in such a fantasy world, and in fact seems to be the only one aware that she’s in a film, is because she is there as an agent of Jeunet’s psyche, there to bring hope and happiness to the young man who wants nothing more than to have someone who understands him.

I’ll be honest… the first time I watched Amélie, I wasn’t convinced. I thought it was a little too quirky, too precious, too saccharine, too fantastically naïve to really connect. The fact that it was so lauded with praise only served to baffle me further. This is not the first time this has happened to me with a film. Both Taxi Driver and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford got the same reaction. By film’s end, I could appreciate the technique and understand it all, but I just couldn’t say I felt it. It was only when I realised that I was still thinking about Amélie days after seeing it that it sank in. The same goes for those other two, which I now count amongst my favourite films. The next time I saw Amélie, it was a different story. I got it. I felt it. There are still some things I still don’t quite buy into, but the rest of the film is more than enough to make up for this.

If you haven’t seen Amélie, then I would certainly recommend it. I would perhaps be prepared to give it two shows, if you’re anything like the moderately hard-hearted person I am. However, you may be lucky enough to get it on the first go. Amélie is a truly lovely film, rich in atmosphere, colour and such a sense of (yes, I’m going to say it) joie de vivre. Plus, if it convinces a couple of people to be nicer in the world, then I’d consider that a success.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Altered States (1980)

IN THE BASEMENT OF A UNIVERSITY MEDICAL SCHOOL DR. JESSUP FLOATS NAKED IN TOTAL DARKNESS. THE MOST TERRIFYING EXPERIMENT IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE IS OUT OF CONTROL... AND THE SUBJECT IS HIMSELF.

What if somewhere buried in your memory there was an untapped depth, a memory for your memory? And within that memory is held the billions of years of evolution that man had to go through to get here? If it were possible to tap into that part of your mind, and engage with your primitive ancestral self, what could you learn? Would you even want to? This would seem to be the root conceit of Paddy Chayefsky’s novel Altered States, which was eventually made into a film by British director Ken Russell, a man to whom upsetting imagery is another tool in the bag. He enjoys controversy, loves confrontation. So a story about a man trying to regress to the point of meeting God should pose something of an interesting work for him.

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is a Harvard psychology professor doing research into different states of consciousness, with the aid of mind-altering drugs and an isolation tank. Soon, he begins to experience physical changes that may mean he has begun to regress to an earlier state of evolution.

Paddy Chayefsky, the author of the original novel, provided the screenplay for this adaptation. It’s largely very faithful to the source, with most of the dialogue appearing verbatim in the film. It’s also completely batshit crazy. It’s basically a story of a mad scientist whose experiments go too far, kind of like a trippier version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Eddie is a man disconnected from the world on most levels, and who seeks to break free from it completely by means hallucinogenic. His disconnection comes from the loss of his father and loss of his own connection with God, so he is trying to reconnect with an early version of himself or of man or of the universe in an attempt to reconnect with God or, at least, prove to himself that there is something beyond it all. That his journey causes him to see all kinds of incredibly weird stuff and physically change is a price he is willing, even eager to pay. Despite the strangeness of the project, the script is concerned with very big concepts, weighty and important. As it is, upon seeing some of the performances on show and the visuals on display, Chayefsky had his name taken off of the project before seeing the final run. It’s not difficult to see why.

Ken Russell, a man who sure does love the odd bit of filmic blasphemy, has created a film as fractured as its main character. Clearly with some heavy influence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps some from the previous year’s Alien, Altered States is at once something of slow-burning, uneasy tension and of frantic mania. Russell’s Altered States is quite different to Chayefsky’s Altered States. Where Chayefsky’s is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of man and God and the universe punctuated with mind-mending weirdness, Russell’s is less a meditation and more of a panicked fever dream, hurtling images of Hell and damnation straight into the viewer's retina. He has given some care to the more sedate moments of the film, giving them a sense of eerie tension. His framing also involves lots of corridors and doorways and windows, breaking the frame into partitions. Through these, the actors can regress into the background, and progress into the foreground, echoing the emotional and psychological journey of the characters. However, it’s the moments where the crazy starts to fly that really take over. Eddie’s hallucinations are filled with the kind of heavy-handed religious metaphors and downright unsettling imagery that Russell is more fluent with. These are what you’ll remember most from the film. Not the discourse on energy as memory, but the bit with the seven-eyed devil goat.

With such a premium placed on the hallucination scenes, the need for the effects to be up to the task. By today’s standards, the visuals are crude and a little cheap looking, but they are still capable of making an effective and striking impression. More importantly, the sound is still great. There’s an oppressive quality to the sounds of “reality”, so there’s something to be said for Eddie’s desire to retreat to the quiet tranquility of the tank. And the sounds of the “other reality” is nightmarish swirls of screams and booms. The music from John Corigliano is also supremely disquieting.

The performances are of an equally fast-paced and frantic manner. William Hurt, here in his film debut, is both intense and reserved as Eddie Jessup. He manages to keep pace with the film nicely. His co-stars don’t come off quite as well, but mainly because we’re following Eddie’s journey, not there’s. We can see the ebb and flow of Eddie, so we can understand when he flies off the rails, but the rest seem to be more contrasted because of our lack of involvement with them. Blair Brown is a quiet rationality for the most part, as is Bob Balaban. However, by film’s end, they’re both yelling so loud and talking so fast, it’s kind of difficult to understand what the hell they’re saying. Charles Haid is a bit more of a consistent presence overall, since his feelings don’t take the same hysterical leap as others do. Saying that, he’s still yelling along with the rest of them, it’s just that he’s been doing it for the whole movie before.

There are things that the film raises, issues of interest and points of discussion, but nothing much ever really comes of them. This is pretty much a problem with Russell’s direction of the material at hand. He’s less interested in the concepts at play, the theorising, the intellectualising… he just wants to shock with images. It’s not really like it’s a gratuitous effort of stomping on the written word with little care for the subtext. Indeed, it follows along some of it nicely, about the death of God and the consciousness of man. However, it feels like the ideas being discussed are being thundered through in order to get to the more visual stuff. The performances somewhat echo this notion, too. For example, there is this exchange between Eddie and Mason:
Eddie Jessup: Memory is energy! It doesn’t disappear… it’s still in there.
There’s a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousnesses. There has to be; and I’m telling you it’s in the goddamned limbic system.
Mason Parrish: You’re a whacko!
Eddie Jessup: What’s whacko about it, Mason? I’m a man in search of his true self. How archetypically American can you get? We're all trying to fulfil ourselves, understand ourselves, get in touch with ourselves, face the reality of ourselves, explore ourselves, expand ourselves. Ever since we dispensed with God, we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life.

That’s incredibly involved and interesting, but it’s all blurted out at such a rapid-fire rate that we just don’t have time to register the argument as a whole, but only brief soundbites. If they just slowed down a little, the viewer could be more engaged by the cerebral aspects of the picture and not just the visceral.

Altered States is certainly interesting, though I’m not entirely convinced at how good it really is. The concepts being addressed are fascinating, and there are elements of some fine filmmaking going on, but the near hysterical pitch of the piece brings it into the realm of an intense fever-induced nightmare. I suppose that’s really the point. It’s certainly engaging, but the relentless pace and rather frenzied performances do somewhat obscure the intended depth and meaning of it all.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Almost Famous (2000)

EXPERIENCE IT. ENJOY IT. JUST DON'T FALL FOR IT.

Cameron Crowe is someone whose teenage years should be envied by everyone. When he was young, still in school, he became a music journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, and went on tour with The Allman Brothers Band. He was almost in a plane crash with The Who. He wrote the liner notes for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s live One for the Road album. And for all of this, he was still only about 15. Eventually becoming a filmmaker, Crowe would make many a film that concerned itself with the lives of teenagers, but it wasn’t until 2000 that he tackled his own. As such, he made his story into the film Almost Famous.

It’s 1973 and 15-year-old William Miller, a high-school boy and aspiring music writer, is given the chance to write a story for Rolling Stone Magazine, joining up with Stillwater, an up-and-coming rock band on their concert tour. Along the way, he tries to be a professional, but gets caught up in the world of the band and band aides, led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

There are two things that shine through Crowe’s script for Almost Famous, and the subsequent film he shot. The first is an unbelievably rich and detailed account of the events as remembered by a young writer in a world others could only dream of. There are so many small moments, looks and minutiae throughout the film. The specific albums that William’s sister gives him, the band’s leader singer using shaving cream as hair gel, the pre-show rituals. This gives things a sense of authenticity to the moment, a rich feeling of legitimacy. The second thing that comes through is the sheer love of the people that made it possible for him to be involved in it. She may be over-bearing and severe, but there is nothing but love for William’s mother. He may be distrustful and rather self-centred, but there is such awe for Russell Hammond. He may be blunt and have a taste that borders on the oppressive, but there is deep respect for Lester Bangs. And she may be spacey and lonely, but you can still feel the pangs for Penny Lane. Crowe’s script is, at its heart, a road movie, and road movies are about self-discovery and change. You really can see and feel the change in William because of his journey, and you know it’s the same change that Crowe felt in his. As a man looking back on his younger years, Crowe has the wisdom to know that without these people, he would not be the same person. It's actually rather touching just for the sheer gratitude that comes through. The script is occasionally so personal that it would feel uncomfortable if it weren’t for the fact that it’s told with such affection and joy.

There is no one else that could have directed this film but Crowe. Not even just because of its personal nature, but because another director may have missed out on the small things that make it so wonderfully textured, or even because they may have changed things to reflect their own personal feelings on the subject or the time or the characters. Only Crowe would have remembered to show the tape on the floor used to mark a pathway to the stage, or known the simple power of having the band reconcile on the bus by singing Tiny Dancer. And he has such a great ear for the music of the period, so the film is positively soaked through with such great stuff. As much as the film is a love letter to his youth and the people that made him who he is, it’s a love letter to the music that inspired him to want to become who he is. The soundtrack is awash with greatness, from Sabbath to Zeppelin to Elton John to Joni Mitchell to Cat Stevens to Yes to Jimi Hendrix to the Beach Boys… even the stuff from the film’s fictitious band, Stillwater, is great.

The cast for the film are superb, and done with a great sense of stature. William is played by newcomer Patrick Fugit. This was really his first feature role and he does great. With his boyish looks and his mildly self-conscious air, he totally sells that he is new to this world of egos and hedonistic fun. Frances McDormand is excellent as William’s intellectual mother, a firm presence of authority, but not so domineering that she smothers her son in something he truly wants to do. It’s kind of a tightrope walk, but McDormand can certainly handle this kind of thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman is, as expected, great as Lester Bangs, William’s writing mentor. Bangs exudes the snobbishness of a real music lover, but also the sincere and firm belief that to be good at what both he and William do is to be “honest and unmerciful.” Jeff Bebe is played with great passion by Jason Lee, who brings Jeff’s swagger and frustration to life beautifully. Billy Crudup is equally great as Russell Hammond, a role that also something of a tightrope, since one slip and he would lose that spark that makes him so compelling. The casting of these two is superb, since Lee is the one people may be more familiar with, that we recognise more, thus being the band’s front man. However, Crudup is the one people, including William, seem to lock on, partially because we don’t know him as well. He really is the guitarist with mystique. The real triumph is Kate Hudson. She may have spent her career since wandering aimlessly through the world of mediocre romantic comedy, but here she is a gem. There are many times where she seems like a girl playing dress-up and hanging with the grown ups, but that’s precisely what rests at the heart of Penny Lane. Rock stars are the friends she plays with, and she has such a great connection with their music, but at the same time she is looking for a deeper connection to them. She constantly refers to some other place, somewhere else, “the real world.” Her world is a place of fantasy, of constant playtime with fun people. So when she gets reminded of the artifice of it all, or the lack of solidity in her relationships, it hurts. When William tells her how she was literally lost to another band in a poker game, along with a case of beer, her reaction is heartbreaking. The smile disappears, there’s a slight confusion, some tears, and then she puts on a brave face and asks, “What kind of beer?” She tries to make it fun again, but you can see the damage is done. Hudson really is the best thing on show.

Almost Famous is a great movie, and exudes such a genuine affection, and gratitude, for the people and the world it looks at. There is such warmth from the film, such great detail from the script, and such superb performances throughout that it’s almost impossible not to be taken by the spirit of the whole. The love of the time and the music is so infectious that I suppose the real test of how much the film succeeds is down to whether or not, after watching it, you feel the need to listen to some music of that era… in my case, success. And in case you wanted to know, I listened to Focus’ Moving Waves whilst writing this.