Saturday, November 08, 2008
Saturday Night At The Movies
Goddamn right it’s a beautiful day (uh-huh)
By Dennis Hartley
"OK then, class-Is Africa a continent or a country?”
So what is “happiness”, anyway? (If you say “…a warm gun” I swear I will punch you right in the head). According to Roget’s Thesaurus, it can be defined as a state of:
beatitude, blessedness, bliss, cheer, cheerfulness, cheeriness, content, contentment, delectation, delight, delirium, ecstasy, elation, enchantment, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, exuberance, felicity, gaiety, geniality, gladness, glee, good cheer, good humor, good spirits, hilarity, hopefulness, joviality, joy, jubilation, laughter, lightheartedness, merriment, mirth, optimism, paradise, peace of mind, playfulness, pleasure, prosperity, rejoicing, sanctity, seventh heaven, vivacity or well-being.
The lead character in Happy Go Lucky, British director Mike Leigh’s new film, appears to exist in a perpetual state of all of the above (and a large orange soda). Her name is Poppy, and her improbably infectious giddiness is brought to life with amazing verisimilitude by Sally Hawkins, who can count this reviewer amongst her newest fans.
The appropriately named Poppy is a single and carefree 30 year old primary school teacher. She breezes around London on her bicycle, exuding “young, colorful and kooky” like Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl. She is nothing, if not perky. Some might say she is insufferably perky, but all she really wants is for everybody else to be happy, too. Her best friend and flatmate, Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) “gets” her, as do her young students, who naturally gravitate to her own childlike delight in all things shiny and fun. No one can harsh her mellow, not even that gloomiest of all Gusses, The Sullen Book Store Clerk (I don’t know how it is in your neck of the woods, but we’ve got a lot of them here in Seattle. Some day, I will learn why they frown so when my purchase does not meet their highly developed sense of literary aesthetic, and upon that glorious day, perhaps I will finally learn how to snatch the pebble from their pale, vegan hands…but I digress).
Now, before you think this is heading in the direction of a whimsical fable, a la Amelie, you have to remember, this is a Mike Leigh film, and he doesn’t really do “whimsical” (with the possible exception of his atypical 1999 backstage musical about Gilbert & Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy). Through a string of consistently thoughtful, astutely directed and beautifully acted ensemble pieces about contemporary British life (High Hopes, Life Is Sweet, Career Girls and his two genuine masterpieces, Naked and Secrets and Lies) Leigh has proven himself to be a fearless storyteller when it comes to plumbing the well of real, raw human emotion. He is the heir apparent of sorts to the aesthetic of the British “kitchen sink” dramas of the early to mid 1960s (Look Back in Anger, Billy Liar, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner).
This “Leigh-ness” comes into play with the introduction of a character that will test the limits of Poppy’s sunny optimism and faith in humanity. His name is Scott (Eddie Marsan, in a brilliant, intense performance) and he is Poppy’s private driving instructor. Scott has a lot of “issues”, manifesting in some decidedly anti-social behaviors that suggest a dark and troubled soul. Undaunted and determined to uncover the “good man” lurking somewhere beneath Scott’s veneer, Poppy continues her lessons, long beyond the point where most cognizant people would have decided that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to get into a small vehicle with such a dangerously unhinged individual (one red flag would be: A racist driving instructor with chronic road rage? That can’t be right.)
But this is where we learn something essential about Poppy. Her desire to assure the happiness of others isn’t borne from a clueless, self-centered “girls just wanna have fun” naiveté, but rather from a genuine sense of Mother Theresa-like selflessness and compassion for others. This attribute is conveyed in two protracted and extraordinarily acted scenes, one involving Poppy’s late night encounter in a dark alley with a mentally ill homeless man, and the other involves her reaching out to one of her troubled students.
When all is said and done, I venture to say that Leigh is actually making a somewhat revolutionary political statement for this cynical, post-ironic age of rampant smugness and self-absorption; suggesting that Poppy’s brand of bubbly, unflagging enthusiasm for wishing nothing but happiness unto others defines not just the root of true compassion, but could be the antidote to societal ills like xenophobia, child abuse and homelessness.
Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming. Like that Martin Luther King guy.
R.I.P. Michael Crichton
By Dennis Hartley
I’m sure that you’ve heard the news by now about Michael Crichton’s untimely passing earlier this week. A true renaissance man, the prolific, Harvard-educated MD turned science fiction author/screenwriter/director/producer nearly singlehandedly invented the modern “techno-thriller” genre. He was the master of the science-gone-amuck/chaos theory narrative, a theme that informed his best books and screenplays. Crichton’s novels have become synonymous with edge of your seat thrills and nail-biting suspense, tempered with fascinatingly detailed and (mostly) plausible science. He was also the creator of ER , one of the most successful ongoing medical drama series on television. He leaves behind an impressive film legacy as well; for what it’s worth, here’s my Top 5:
Westworld-This 1973 cult favorite marked Crichton’s first foray into film directing, and admittedly things feel a bit clunky in that department at times. But the film has two very strong suits in its favor: Crichton’s taut, sharply written screenplay and Yul Brenner’s memorable performance as a psychotic android gunslinger (the original Terminator!). James Brolin and Richard Benjamin also have an appealing on-screen chemistry, which livens things up (although Benjamin is an odd choice as an action hero). The “amusement park attractions killing the tourists” concept was an obvious warm up for Jurassic Park. Brenner reprised his role in the dicey 1976 sequel, Futureworld (watch at your own risk).
Jurassic Park-Is this movie really 15 years old? Crichton adapted the screenplay from his own original novel (with assistance from David Koepp). Years of re-watching on the home screen may have diminished the pure visceral thrill of drinking in the sheer cinematic artistry of several key scenes (that unforgettable T. Rex attack in the driving rainstorm, for starters) but this film undeniably remains a truly groundbreaking affair; thanks to the impressive pool of talent involved. My favorite line: “Must go faster.” Director Spielberg, Crichton and Koepp reunited for the sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park; while the special effects were impressive, it was a relatively tepid rehash.
The Andromeda Strain-What’s the scariest monster of them all? It’s the one you cannot see. I’ve always considered this 1971 Robert Wise film to be the most faithful Crichton book-to-screen adaptation. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that reproduces itself at an alarming speed. With its atmosphere of claustrophobic urgency (all the scientists are ostensibly trapped in a sealed underground laboratory until they can find a way to destroy the microbial “intruder”) it could be seen as a precursor to Alien . It’s a nail-biter from start to finish. Nelson Gidding adapted the script from Crichton’s novel. The 2008 TV movie version was a real snoozer.
The Terminal Man-Paging Dr. Jekyll! This is the real sleeper in the Crichton film catalog, IMHO. George Segal is excellent in the lead as a gifted computer scientist who has developed a neurological disorder which triggers murderously psychotic blackout episodes. He becomes the guinea pig for an experimental cure that requires a microchip to be planted in his brain to circumvent the attacks. Although it’s ostensibly “sci-fi”, this 1974 effort shares some interesting characteristics with the post-Watergate paranoid political thrillers that all seemed to propagate around that same time (especially The Parallax View, which also broached the subject of mind control). Director Mike Hodges (who helmed the original version of Get Carter) adapted his screenplay from Crichton’s novel. Unfortunately, the film remains obscure because it has yet to be released on DVD.
Twister -I admit, I went into the theater with low expectations, but this 1996 popcorn adventure about storm chasers tearing through Tornado Alley turned out to be quite the guilty pleasure. Crichton co-scripted with Anne-Marie Martin. The film doesn’t have any threatening reptiles or rogue androids, and the science isn’t as complex as the typical Crichton story, but some of his signature themes are there (the violent unpredictability of a tornado-there’s your “chaos theory” at work!). Also, note that the protagonists (Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt) have the same dynamic as Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s scientist couple in Jurassic Park. Action director Jan de Bont (Speed , Lara Croft - Tomb Raider) isn’t a very deep filmmaker, but he certainly knows how give you a cinematic thrill ride.
Also worth a peek: The 13th Warrior, Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun, Looker, Coma
digby 11/08/2008 05:30:00 PM