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Adaptation (2002)

Dir: Spike Jonze

“Writing is a journey into the unknown”

How do you come up with a follow up to Being John Malkovich? For Charlie Kaufmann the answer lies in adapting the best seller The Orchid Thief. Except, like most movie based film-writers, Charlie has writers’ block. So starts Adaptation, a film about writing a film featuring a script about writing the script. Confused? Well fortunately, despite its multiple levels, the film never loses sight of its aims – despite it paradoxically being about losing sight of your aims. Adaptation is used not only in the sense of the screenplay adapting a book (with all the moral dilemmas facing a writer tackling someone else’s work) but also in the Darwinian sense. Indeed Darwin himself makes a couple of appearances and the narrative at times moves from the dawn of life right to the modern age. Structurally too the whole piece flits from one time frame to another, leaping around from the (filmically) present to the past and to events in the book, as we try and unravel the films mysteries. These mysteries essentially revolve a around gap-toothed orchid hunter and a New York journalist’s attempt to write a book about his compulsive and impulsive life (“One day,” the once-ocean obsessed horticulturist mentions “I said ‘fuck fish'”)

Chief stumbling point for Kaufmann lies in his inability to get across the concept of “flower” in film script terms. He is struggling to become the screenwriter as artist, eschewing the manufactured blandness of the Hollywood factory to the extent that words like “pitch” or “the industry” send him in paroxysms of rage. These matters aren’t helped by his less uptight twin brother who decides, apparently at whim, to become a screenwriter too. Only while Charles is becoming embroiled in a cycle of self-loathing (“I’m losing my hair, I’m fat and repulsive”) and dead-end ideas striving for artistic credibility brother Donald launches straight into a high concept serial killer film called The 3 with help from screenwriting seminars.

Rather like Being John Malkovich this is a strange and unusual film the likes of which you have never seen before. All the elements are recognisable but its skewed look on its subject makes it so fresh. Cage is great as both brothers (and the effects to have them interact on screen together are seemless – the best since Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers), abley supported by a top notch cast. Intelligent, indulgent and original – proof that Hollywood can still turn out a piece that is witty, left-field but not preachy or unduly complicated. Clearly a lot of effort went into making a film appear so effortless.

American Pie 2

Dir: J.B.Rogers

Scr: Adam Herz

St: Jason Biggs, Shannon Elizabeth, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Natasha Lyonne, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Chris Owen, Tara Reid

Fresh from freshman year the five feisty fella’s fancy a fine summer of frolicking and fun with any fit female that falls their way. So, no change there then. And what better plan to fulfil their libidinous excesses than at a holiday beach-home funded by daytime painting jobs? For Jim this is the ideal time to brush up on his love skills in anticipation of Nadia’s imminent return, skills which in the words of band camp veteran Michelle “suck”. Not that he is alone in his inexperience…

American Pie 2The first films combination of character driven plot mixed with gross-out sexual humour in the Porkys/Lemon Popsicle mould made it a surprise hit with not just audiences but critics as well. This despite the fact that awful direction and a fuddy-duddy set of cuts by the MPAA saw off any merits in the screenplay or performances. Second time around and once again the screenplay tries to have its pie and eat it by providing its sexism in the post-politically correct mode, only this time the direction is merely bland. Unfortunately this leaves American Pie 2 feeling like the aforementioned Lemon Popsicle films by way of Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, another inexplicably critically lauded film that sledgehammers “soundness” under the guise of gross comedy. Indeed the debt to Smith is apparent in the numerous sf references in the dialogue, the beach scene love of Jaws and the Star Wars lines (“The force is strong in that one”). But there the similarity ends – Smiths films tend to favour discussion of acts while American Pie et al like to show them (as much as an R rating will allow).

Central to American Pie 2’s success is the characters and it is to the film’s credit that it manages to balance such a large central cast with apparent ease. Jim’s dad is back with his own special blend of liberalism and inappropriate fatherly monologues, Jim still has problems with his sex life, Stifler is still a total animal, Finch is still lusting after Stifler’s mum to the extent of honing his tantric skills to a fine art and so on. Everyone slips smoothly back into character as though they’ve never been away and there in lies the sequel problem – too much like the first and it’s a rehash, too little and you alienate the base audience. American Pie 2 relies too much on its previous outing to win over any new admirers; characters constantly refer to Jim’s webcast, Nadia, band camp, Stifler’s mum etc in what ultimately is nothing more than a time wasting nod-and-a-wink to the in-the-know. And then there are the money shots of gross-out that are the bread and butter of the modern youth comedy. American Pie 2 has its fair share of these and a number are wince inducing in the way they are so painfully drawn out, most notably in the scene where three of the gang are playing an escalating game of sexual humiliation with two “possible lesbians” whose house they have broken into – a Chasing Amy style debunking of male fears/desires about homosexuality sadly thumped with all the subtlety of its inspiration. Just as cringe inducing, though far more enjoyable, is when Jim mistakes super glue for lubricant and is accosted by the police with a porno vid stuck to one hand and his member in the other.

In the final analysis American Pie 2 works far better as a feel good character drama than it does as a comedy with some of the funnier moments coming from small throw-away little incidents than the oft-touted set pieces. It’s not art, it’s not actually that good, it’s not all that funny but somehow it works adequately under the circumstances and is for the moment superior to its peers (Scary Movie , Road Trip et al). Either go out and see it with some tanked up student mates or wait for it to turn up on tele.

Angel Eyes (2001)

Sharon works for the Chicago Police Department, it’s a hard job that has meant hard decisions, including busting her own father for domestic violence ten years previously. Although she knows she did the right thing (her parents are to renew their wedding vows) it has led her to estrangement from her family, disillusionment about her life and a sense of sang froid about emotional entanglements. When a stranger, Catch, saves her from having her head blown off by a disgruntled gang member who has already let two rounds off into her jacketed chest it looks as though perhaps the two of them can make a go of it. But Catch has his demons too; he spends his days walking around the city helping unappreciative people without looking to help himself, he has shut out his past and lives his life in a barren room. The bond that is tentatively growing between them is rendered fragile by the grip of the past, a past that unites them as much as it keeps them apart.

The central male may well wander the streets of a major American city helping people and moping about in a trench-coat agonising about a past he is trying to erase or atone for, but this is no Buffy spin-off, despite the occasional “head down in a dingy alley” shots. No instead Angel Eyes is one of those heart-wrenching tales of two traumatised souls requiring redemption from themselves and absolution for moments in their lives that have permanently scarred them. Both are incapable of tears; Sharon by out-drinking her buddies and beating up criminals and Catch by his “angel of mercy” routine that sees him perform such deeds as turning off car headlights to save their battery (the owners naturally thinks he’s going to nick it) or rescuing stray dogs. As the film progresses he weans off the Samaritan bit, gets a little bit better at shaving and finally starts the nightmare of sorting out his pad with flat-pack furniture, while she tries to confront her fear of her oafish father, while curtailing the temper that she has inherited from him. But all this is futile – this is a film where people trying to do the right thing or victims get psychologically traumatised or abused while the perpetrators walk around unscathed and unchallenged.

Rather like Sweet November the outcome is perhaps not entirely as you would anticipate and better for it but ultimately Angel Eyes comes burdened with a number of issues that renders it average at best. Lopez gives a fine central performance (as indeed does everyone else, the acting is believable throughout) especially when in gutsy “Dirty Harriet” mould, but the whole tale is wallows in everyone’s self-misery to such an extent that it’s hard to care that much. Her family hate her for being a cop but she doesn’t confront the very thing that makes her that cop, as Catch points out “Do you ever think about how many people are walking around this town because you saved them?” He fares little better while virtually everyone incidental in the picture (with the exception of the virtually abandoned little boy who lives down the hall from Catch and Sharon’s long suffering police partner) are selfish people living miserable self-centred lives. Now it’s not that life is a bed of roses or anything, but the sheer turgid futility of it all gets wearisome so that by the time you finally reach a scene of any emotional content you are too numb to respond. This linked with the very opening scene justifying some co-incidental bond between Sharon and Catch at the very moment of loss to him seems a trite device that isn’t required for their relationship to progress. This is a shame as at least the film-makers are trying to create a romance out of the squalor and psychological damage of modern life, but in the end its claustrophobic structure offers little beyond the miserable lives it portrays. See it on telly when you need the comfort of watching people more screwed up than yourself because frankly Angel Eyes is the anethema of enjoyment.

A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) (2001)

Dir: Stephen Spielberg

Jude Law in AIConsider the situation: you are parents incapable of having further children and your solitary offspring has got himself banged up in hospital with slim chances of recovery. What do you do? Wrong! You get a prototype robo-kid, activate his “genuine love ®” module to let him pour out feelings and then dump him like a piece of trash when real boy recovers, leaving the distraught robo-boy to wander around the creepy forests, get tied up in the seedy underworld of android prostitution and develop an obsessive Pinocchio complex to compensate for maternal rejection. Parents: one. Robo-brat: nil. Armed only with a walking teddy-bear the love-filled simulacrum sets about on his quest to become a real boy without ever realising (big sniffy Kleenex time) that he is more human than humanity itself.

Roll up! Roll up! It’s the slag off Spielberg show as once again the “last great hope” for Hollywood cinema spectacularly pulls off another class A irritant of a film. Before the vitriol and disbelief flies it should be made clear that AI is by far the best film Spielberg has directed since Empire of the Sun. The opening act is designed in line with 1970’s sf films and photographed to match with particularly impressive use of focussing. After the dubious exposition at the beginning things really settle down into family drama mould – the “when shall we turn him on” dilemma’s, the adjustments to family living and finally the reintroduction of their “real” son. The last event triggers one of the films most memorable images as the misunderstood android stares wide-eyed from the bottom of his parents swimming pool – his time with his adopted family coming to an end. Rejected by the mother he is befriended by bot-on-the-run Gigolo Joe, complete with his Jiminey Cricket heel clicking and queasy listening in-built stereo. The two descend into a world half Wizard of Oz and half Hell. This middle section is a visual delight running from the neon excesses of Total Recall’ls Mars to post-Apocalyptic Mad Max arenas. In this later segment we are treated to one pointless bit of air-punching as a crowd of violence seekers are convinced not to axe a child robot but its a minor point – there’s a teddy-bear robot that (wait for it!) is not a saccharine companion, magical quests, demolished cities and a fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be. The acting is superb (especially from Jude Law), the music is spot on and the whole piece is filmed with an air of assured maturity that has been lacking in sf cinema for far too long. A triumph for Spielberg up to the very last frame?

Ah, but there’s a rub. The “fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be” unfortunately does not come at the end of the film. Oh no. And if you were one of the many people incensed at the lacklustre conclusion of this years Planet of the Apes (what did you expect, a sudden about face from the rest of the film?) this one will have you enraged. Close on two hours of quality film-making are thrown away on an ill-advised, over-long, feel-good piece of extra-terrestrial nonsense that seems to exist only to provide a happy conclusion of monumental crassness and to showcase some whizzy special effects for no good purpose. Up until this point the effects had been dictated by the story and relatively underplayed despite their complexity but suddenly we have Close Encounters of the Turd Kind tacked on and the whole thing gets flushed down the pan. The only thing that can make you sit through the end credits is the stunned disbelief that yes, he really did screw it up that badly and that once again you parted with your hard earned cash to be pissed off by Mr Spielberg.


Black Dahlia (2006)

Brian de Palma adapts James Ellroy’s exhausting and meticulous novel about one of Hollywood’s most notorious and gruesome murders. The cold exacting text of the semi-fictionalised book would be difficult to pull of cinematically whilst maintaining any audience identification so Josh Friedman’s screenplay centres on a few key players and necessarily has to come to some kind of closure. The results are always watchable but the film is uneven.

Boxing policeman Bucky and Lee find themselves tackling the gruesome case of Elizabeth Short – an actress found dissected, disembowelled and horribly mutilated. Their investigations lead them into a complex labyrinth of property dealers, prostitution and porn flicks, of vice, drugs and misery.

The Black Dahlia makes a valiant attempt to keep together the huge mountain of facts and sub-stories that encircle the case – like real life the clues don’t necessarily relate to the case in hand, there are diversions, red herrings and personal problems to deal with. Elizabeth Shorts death is but one of the multitude of issues and cases that affect Bucky and Lee but it seems to be the catalyst. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks Elizabeth Short is dead before the films timeline begins, and like her the presence of her dead body is always the focus of apparently disconnected events. Everything from a police pay rise to a modern painting seems inexorably linked but everything always comes back to Elizabeth.

De Palma relies on his usual arsenal of long steadicam shots and occasional operatic set pieces to tell this bloody tale. What he does do though is shy away from the sheer horror of Elizabeth’s death, focussing instead on the repercussions of it. It’s probably a wise move – he shows enough to let us know that we don’t want to see more but doesn’t shy from the murder or wallow in it, it’s sordid enough as it stands.

The washed out, sepia tinged cinematography shows off the set designs to great effect. Like The Untouchables The Black Dahlia looks to real events in a fictional context but unlike that films sense of jour de vivre The Black Dahlia is a more sombre piece.