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Thursday, 25 November 2010

Mood Swings and Roundabouts: Due Date

When The Hangover hit big, it was a bit of a mystery to a lot of comedy fans. Sure, it was mildly funny, but weren’t we in the middle of a golden age of big screen major funny coming out of the US? Not if you liked your comedy simple and straightforward we weren’t, and so while once sure-fire hitmakers like Judd Apatow (with Funny People) and Will Ferrell (Semi-Pro) struggled at the box office with something a little different from the norm, The Hangover went big because it did exactly what it said on the box. Forget layering in serious drama or pushing stereotypical characters to the limits – this was a film where a bunch of loveable douchebags had wacky adventures, often involving naked Asian men or injuring a baby.

So approached from that angle, it’s more than a little surprising to discover that Due Date is – you guessed it – a film that layers in serious drama and pushes stereotypical characters to their limits. Not that it looks that way at first: Peter (Robert Downey Jr) is an uptight middle-class professional trying to fly home to L.A. in time for his wife to give birth to their first child. Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis) is a would-be actor and serious tool who screws up Peter’s plans by getting them both thrown off the plane. Two words: road trip! Oh wait, didn’t director Todd Phillips direct Road Trip back in 2000?

That’s an important element in Due Date’s construction that’s been glossed over with all the “by the director of The Hangover” publicity here: Phillips has been making comedy for well over a decade now, which in Hollywood terms makes him an old hand. Once you’ve made films like Old School and Starsky & Hutch, it’s hardly surprising if you start to seem a little jaded when it comes to getting laughs.

While Due Date’s basic plot promises the trad comedy riffs that made The Hangover so popular – and plot-wise it does tick all the road trip boxes, with various one-off wacky encounters with big name cameos (Juliette Lewis, Jamie Foxx, Danny McBride) and the usual car-crashes and quick getaways (oddly, no encounters with hot chicks tho; this is strictly a bromance) - where it diverges from the well-beaten track is in the characters of Pete and Ethan.

On the surface the double-act of a straight-laced uptight type and a freewheeling arty guy is about as old as they get. But instead of keeping them soft around the edges, Phillips pushes them about as far as they’ll go. Ethan is an annoying, pretentious moron, so we side with Peter – after all, he just wants to get home to his wife, while Ethan wants to go to Hollywood and become an actor, complete with wanky scarf, little dog and obsession with Two & a Half Men. Then Peter turns out to be the kind of guy who’ll gut-punch a little kid and spit on a dog, and we’re off into uncharted territory.

But that’s not exactly true, is it? There’s a long tradition of comedians deciding that this whole “comedy” thing is getting a bit boring. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore doing “Derek & Clive” is a prime example, where they pushed their usual double-act into a dark and obscenity-packed world simply because they (well, mostly Cook) were tired of just going for easy laughs. It’s a different thing to the trend for “dark” comedy in the early part of this century too: that was / is often about trying to get laughs from taboo subjects or being weird for weirdness’ sake. This sticks close to the road trip formula, generally plays it safe (drinking a dead man's ashes by mistake is about as taboo-busting as it gets) and is overall a lot less weird than a lot of mainstream US comedies – Step Brothers or Hot Rod are both a lot stranger (and funnier) than this.

Due Date is simply a film that often feels like it doesn’t care if you’re going to laugh at its characters or not. Yes, there are plenty of jokes and wacky set-ups, and excellent performances from Downey and Galifianakis; there are also a lot of mean, unpleasant or just plain dull moments, usually swiftly followed by an attempt to pluck at the heart strings (Ethan’s dad just died; Peter really wants to be there for the birth of his first child) and keep the audience on side.

It’s usually hard not to applaud someone trying to push a boundary or two with their film. In Due Date’s case though, for every step forward there’s a quick shuffle back followed by someone’s arse getting kicked by a war vet in a wheelchair. If there’s a reason why this patchy and uneven film really never comes together, it’s there: rather than having the courage to make its unpleasant characters seriously and consistently ugly, it’s constantly having them act like jerks then pulling back, right up until an ending that tries to pull off the “aww, now they’re best buddies” vibe but can’t make it stick and just gives up. We’re supposed to feel that they’ve mellowed towards each other bromance style for that warm, fuzzy feeling as we leave the cinema, but the tone of the film’s been so uneven for so long that the feeling we’re left with is that five minutes after the end credits one of them would be shitting in the others hat.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Prisoner of Adaptation: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

How do you judge a film adaptation of a novel when the novel isn’t all that good? Because much as we’d all like to think a film stands alone in the audience’s mind, when you start to get down the best-seller end of things it’s impossible to deny that for a lot of people what they’re coming to see on the big screen is the book. But what if staying faithful to the book results in a bad film?

The big problem with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows isn’t that it only adapts the first half of the novel. On that level it actually works fairly well, ending on an ominous note without going flat-out for a cliffhanger, while the story structure – slam a whole bunch of action right up the front, then have our heroes on an extended camping trip for much of the second half – works just fine. It doesn’t even feel unbalanced dramatically: the slam-bang chases and attacks early on simply happen to the leads, while the countryside wanderings provides a chance for them to reflect on what they’re going through – the second half is when all the action actually has an impact on them, so in that sense there’s a balance to it all even if it feels a lot quieter.

The problem comes from J.K Rowling’s amazingly lazy plotting. Forget the now-typical “we’ve got to find this character that’s never even been mentioned before RIGHT NOW!!” moments and quests for amazingly powerful items no-one’s bothered to bring up once over the previous six books: There are at least two super-powered magic items / characters on the side of good who can literally turn up anywhere at any time. How can there be any sense of effort on the part of Harry and his buddies when, whenever they’re in a jam, something literally appears out of nowhere to help them? Of course the story up until now has all been about magic, but at least then the quests involved actually looking for people and items: here Harry et al just wander around kinda hoping something magic will turn up to push the plot forward, and aren’t they lucky when it does.

This kind of thing doesn’t just make for lazy story-telling – plenty of equally lazy films are still fun thanks to big effects or great performances or snappy dialogue – it strikes at the very core of what the Harry Potter story is supposed to be about. It’s a story about a boy becoming a man (becoming a werewolf… sorry, that's a 30 Rock reference there) – basically, a quest for adulthood, preferably one where he won’t be threatened / killed by the forces of evil.

As such, and in contrast to a story about, say, surviving a shipwreck (where how you survive is important, but the story still works whether you survive by your own actions, are rescues, or just fluke it), it’s vital that Harry does his own heavy lifting. It’s his story, it’s about him, and we want to see how he overcomes the challenges put in his way – otherwise it’s just a story about some entitled chump with friends he doesn’t deserve.

When those challenges are defeated by “oh look, that magic sword that can appear anywhere at any time has arrived just in time” or “thank goodness Dobby the teleporting elf has arrived to help teleport us out of here”, anyone could do them. And if anyone could do them, why are we watching a movie about Harry Potter, especially as pretty much every single other character in this film is more interesting than he is? After all, they all have a goal – to either protect or harm Harry Potter. Potter’s goal is to, um… smash a bunch of magic amulets?

Of course, by the seventh film in the series chances are you don’t need to be convinced that Harry is worth paying attention to. And if he doesn’t do much of anything in this installment, presumably he’ll make up for it in the next. But it’s still disappointing because clearly the extended period of countryside wandering the three main characters go through is meant to be the last big chance for us to get to know them as people. No doubt in the final film there’ll be too much action and magic explosions and special effects for us to get much breathing space to take note of the kind of people we’re cheering on, but the camping sequences here – which serve much the same purpose of meeting up with friends at a pub for a drink or two before all going off to a concert where you’ll be doing something fun together but won’t actually be interacting with each other much – seem to be just an excuse to make people think “oh look, Harry’s not in Hogwarts any more”.

Again, it’s not the film’s fault. There just isn’t all that much more to J.K. Rowling's characters than “Ron is decent and loves Hermione but is a little scared of her and isn’t great with his emotions” and "Hermione is serious and smart and a bit of a buzzkill but kind of knows it so she’s likable anyway”. And Harry is the chosen one, so that’s him sorted then. Supposedly the magic amulet thing with part of Voldemort’s soul turns them all surly and evil from exposure, but it’s only really Ron who suffers seriously from this, and he only storms off in huff so he can come back - there's never any real sense that we're being shown any hidden resentments at the core of his character, and his belief that Harry and Hermione are secretly getting it on might have worked if Harry actually seemed like someone who'd ever really get it on with anyone.

(that said, How cool would it have been to see Hermione really crack it with the guys? Oh wait, that’s her regular personality 80% of the time. No wonder this stuff drags.)

The end result is a film that’s so off-the-boil weird – pretty much every big fight / attack scene and sequence has almost no impact, but the opening dinner table chat with the forces of evil is amazingly disturbing and effective even though they just really just chat – that it's hard to tell if it's the most interesting or the least interesting film in the series. Some major characters die off-camera: others’ equally tragic deaths are lingered over at tear-jerking length. Subplots progress in dreams, everything stops for a wedding between two characters who barely figure in the story and for an extended period our three main characters are wearing other people’s faces. If J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing, all this would make a lot more sense – and be a lot less interesting for it.

Anthony Morris

Thursday, 11 November 2010

For the Chop: Machete

Nothing lives without a heart - okay, plants do, and some real estate agents, but let's run with this metaphor - and while it might be small and withered even the exploitation film needs a heart pumping blood through its veins to stop it from being nothing but a lifeless automaton. Unfortunately, whatever his merits as a writer and director - and most of those merits seem to involve making good-looking films fast and relatively cheap - Robert Rodriguez isn't someone known for putting any kind of heart in his films.

Still, it’s not like the exploitation genre requires a big personal statement or anything, right? And Machete (based on a fake trailer made for his and Quentin Tarantino's uneven Grindhouse experiment) certainly manages to look like everything you could ask for in an exploitation film. The story is certainly trashy enough, as machete-wielding Mexican Federale Machete (Danny Trejo) sees his family killed in front of him by an evil drug lord (Steven Seagal) then turns up three years later as a day labourer in a Texan border town where the forces of immigrant-bashing evil (a vigilante-leading Don Johnson, Robert DeNiro as a crooked senator) are up against "the network", an organisation led by a taco-shack owner (Michelle Rodriguez) that helps Mexicans cross the border. Machete gets hired to kill DeNiro's senator as part of a re-election scheme, only when they double-cross him it turns out Machete is hard to kill - unlike pretty much everyone he goes up against.

This is hardly an abject failure. Certainly individual scenes are over-the-top in all manner of enjoyable and entertaining ways. Having Machete get it on with every woman he comes across to the accompaniment of a sexy bass line never gets old, and most of the many machete-based executions are laughably excessive - as are most of the scenery chewing performances, though Seagal's "Mexican" accent deserves special acknowledgment. So what more do you want from an exploitation film? They’re meant to be churned out quickly and shoddily, so as long as you tick the right boxes it should all work just fine, right?

In that light, the appeal of the exploitation genre for Rodriguez is easy to fathom. Even when he takes his time he films tend to feel rushed and shallow, as if he was bored with them long before it came time to actually make them (which might explain why he has a co-director here, and he handed off his Predators script to another director entirely). But it’s also a fundamental misunderstanding of the exploitation genre, which is why Machete never really works.

Exploitation films were made fast and cheap and typically couldn’t afford the usual audience draws: decent acting, smart scripts, big effects and scenes. So often they’d grab hot-button topics - “Ripped from today’s headlines” – to spice things up. Rodriguez understands that much, which is why his story is built around illegal Mexican immigrants. But he doesn’t have the courage of his exploitation conviction here: rather than actually tap into the fears and tensions around this issue by, say, having the Mexican immigrants be out-and-out evil (like the Cubans in Chuck Norris’ Invasion USA), or having the evil white folks be just plain evil, there’s a whole load of double dealing as just about every bad guy turns out to be either breath-takingly cynical and / or in the thrall of Seagal’s drug lord, who is safely Mexican (okay, “Mexican”), so it’s okay for whites to hate him. The hot-button issue is safely defused – no-one’s going to get riled up over this vision of American border policy – but it drains the drama and excitement from the film as well.

Exploitation works best when it works with black and white. You don’t watch a Death Wish film for a nuanced look at the social problems that cause street crime: you watch it because you want to see scum blown away. The hero’s character might be paper-thin, but there’s always just enough there to motivate their brutal actions. But despite having his family killed in the opening minutes of the film, Machete isn’t really driven by anything: the next time we see him it’s three years later and he’s working as a day labourer! That isn’t the actions of a man driven to avenge the deaths of his loved ones – and in fact, his family are never mentioned again. The hero is at the heart of the exploitation genre, but here he’s a void, an empty space around which the massive supporting cast swirl.

It doesn’t help that in trying to shoe-horn in every one of the moments from the original trailer, Rodriguez makes many of them seem rushed and flat. The threesome between Machete and the wife and daughter of the sinister Jeff Fahey should have been a high point of the story, a scene where our hero displays his total dominance over the villain. Instead, it’s a throw-away scene that comes out of nowhere and means nothing. Same for Machete surfing an explosion on a motorbike with a minigun bolted to the front, same for Linsay Lohan as a killer nun, same for pretty much every cool moment in the original trailer. They’re all here, but they don’t mean anything.

Machete ends up a film that sounds cooler than it is. Even the trashiest exploitation films gave you a reason to care about – or be horrified by - what was going on: for all the blood splashed about on screen, this remains a disappointingly lifeless affair. Still, if nothing else, it remains a film you could make an awesome trailer from… oh, wait.

Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Hicks In Stix Nix Pix: American: The Bill Hicks Story

Bill Hicks is a man with a church going up around him, and for some of us that doesn’t feel right. There are biographies of him; there is a book collecting his stand-up routines, interviews and articles; there are DVDs of his shows and about his life; the four albums he recorded during his life have been re-released and re-packaged numerous times, while other live shows (both official and bootleg) are also available. Funnier comedians and more popular comedians haven’t experienced nearly the range and depth of examination that Hicks has, nor have they received the same level of near-universal acclaim. So for some of us, the question going into American isn’t so much “will it be any good?” as it is “how much more hero worship does a dead guy need?”

For Hick’s “true” fans, the ones that believe he had a unique message to spread that went to the core of America and life itself, too much is never going to be enough. Parts of Hicks act played into this: for a comedian he certainly wasn’t above taking himself seriously when it came to the spiritual side of life. But blind hero-worship doesn’t really do him any favours either. Yes, he had a lot of insightful things to say about drugs and politics. He also made a lot of dick jokes. The dick jokes were usually funnier.

So for starters, it’s a relief that this film isn’t packed with celebrities talking about how amazing he was and how influential he is. Instead, this uses archival footage – Hicks recorded a lot of his work himself – interviews with family and (actual) friends, and bursts of animation to put together a comprehensive picture of his life. Like a lot of creative people, that life isn’t all that exciting: basically, he wanted to be a comedian a whole lot and he worked really really hard at it, while also getting stuck into booze and drugs for a while.

Unfortunately for those interested in the comedy side of things, Hicks’ persona requires that his material be largely presented as an amazingly ground-breaking surge of unspeakable material telling truth to power, rather than an offshoot of where American comedy was heading after the boom of the mid-to-late 80s. That’s not to say Hicks’ didn’t break ground in his own way, but in much the same way as Nirvana was the highly visible tip of a growing movement in music at around the same time, so too Hicks was a comedian who – after a lot of time touring and honing his material waiting for things to come his way – would have found America had come around to his way of thinking… if he hadn’t gone and died of cancer in 1994.

It’s possible to argue – not that this comprehensive but understandably uncritical documentary does so – that dying young and having his segment cut from the David Letterman show less than a year before his death were bigger factors in his posthumous fame than anything he actually said or did on stage. They shape the narrative of his life into something saleable: here was a comedian who, after years on the road and clearly no-longer giving much of a shit about saying anything but what he wanted to say, had come up with an act that expressed a lot of discontent with the way things were. Then, just when it looked like he was about to finally reach a wider audience with his act, corporate America censored him – proving his point about America - and he died.

Without those two things – the latter of which had nothing to do with his actual act (unless you think performing stand-up comedy gives you cancer), the former of which isn’t exactly unheard of in the world of American television – you couldn’t make a documentary like this. That doesn’t make it a bad film by any means. It just means that, on some level, it’s a film about a man who’s life is a good story, not the story of a man who led a particularly good life.

For example, when the press release for this film (currently showing at Melbourne’s ACMI) says “[Hicks] was poised to become a major voice in America when in June 1993 at the age of 31 Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer”, it’s not exactly a controversial statement amongst his fans (the "major voice" part that is - there's no debate at all about the cancer). Trying to predict what might have been is a mugs game, but the reality of comedy in America at the time of Hick’s death suggests he may have already peaked: the stand-up boom of the 1980s was all but over, and the biggest name in comedy at the time was Jerry Seinfeld. Unless Hicks made an unlikely move to television – Wayne’s World aside, comedy film in Hollywood wasn’t really thriving for most of the 1990s – he would have most likely found his US opportunities drying up. The next big thing in comedy wasn’t Hicks-style, “tell-it-like-it-is” material (even notorious Hicks-a-like Dennis Leary jumped off the comedy bandwagon for bad movies throughout most of the 1990s), but Friends; Hicks might have enjoyed George Carlin-like success to this very day, but Carlin died a year or so ago and no-one’s rushing out a movie about his (long & very interesting) life.

Put another way, one of the more obvious things to say about Hicks' stage act is that he liked to present himself as a cross between a rock’n roll legend (all those Hendrix references) and a preacher; the now all-but-forgotten 80s comedian Sam Kinison not only was an actual preacher before he became a comedian, he appeared on stage with rock bands and recorded below-average (but in one case, best-selling) singles. He said controversial things (one of his better-known rants was about how, instead of constantly sending food to Somalia, we should move the Somalians someplace where they wouldn’t constantly need food) and died young(ish) in a car crash in 1992. But he was also popular with the Andrew Dice Clay crowd of sexist frat boys, his crap music was high-profile (unlike Hicks’ below-par music on his CD Arizona Bay) and so hard to gloss over, and no-one tried to censor him. So no books, movies and adoring post-grave fanbase for you, Mr. Kinison.

None of this is to downplay Hicks’ skills as a comedian, and the parts of this documentary that focus on his comedy material are easily the most interesting. But it’s important to realise that for all his good work Hicks’ success from beyond the grave has more to do with factors outside his act, factors that enable people to package him as an easy symbol of rebellion, factors that don’t make him a better performer or human being. This is a solid, informative documentary that’s a great introduction to Hick’s work and full of footage that’ll be of interest even to long-time fans. It’s just a shame that a lot of other comedians who were (and are) just as funny and insightful don’t get the same treatment.

Anthony Morris