Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 20/01/2004
They pick 'em, I flick 'em (or something): the annual get-together of Spank's Pals over four of the most interesting movies released in 2003, as revealed by that picture over there.
You want the truth? You can't handle the truth. Unlike Spank's Pals, who appear to be on some sort of verité bender right now. That's the only way I can explain the results of the VidBinge 2003 poll. As regular readers will know (and irregular readers can find out here), every December I obtain twenty DVDs of films that have been released in UK cinemas during the year, and ask the Pals to vote on their five favourites. Collating the results, I then organise a party at Spank Towers on the weekend before Christmas, during which the four or five films with the highest number of votes are screened. And the results for 2003 show that the four films with the most votes have one thing in common: they're all based on stories torn from the pages of real life. To one degree or another, anyway.
Take Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, for example: the fourth most popular choice, and the first one shown on the day. It's the story of Chuck Barris, who changed the face of television with his gameshow ideas. American psyches were scarred (and standards lowered) by The Dating Game and The Gong Show, whose formats have been exported all over the world (Brits will know the former show better as Blind Date). This is all documented fact. But when Barris wrote his autobiography back in 1981, it had this whole other thread running through it about his secret career as a CIA hitman. When dating couples won a holiday on his show, he'd travel with them and use them as cover while he whacked guys for the Government. This is less easy to verify. With such an uncertain mix of truth and bollocks, the question is: how do you adapt this story as a film?
George Clooney, in his first film as director, takes the safest approach: assume it's all true, and play it straight. (The audience are fairly bright guys: they'll figure it out.) At least, he plays it straight dramatically: but visually, there's a lot of messing about that identifies this as a debut. Some people have sneerily noticed how much work Clooney does with Steven Soderbergh these days, and have virtually accused Soderbergh of directing the movie for him: but that's obvious nonsense. The parallels are closer with the earlier work of the Coens, where most of the visual wizardry is performed live on the studio floor. The long single takes where scene changes occur around the actors, the early sequence in the NBC lobby that covers three time periods in one shot: all small acts of practical magic, only really counting as film effects in the sense that a camera was running when they happened. The other main directorial influence is David O. Russell: Clooney uses cameraman Newton Thomas Sigel from Three Kings, with similar colour distortion effects to the ones in Russell's film. On a repeat viewing, these don't hold up so well. There's a strange matt process used in the early scenes where every trace of shininess appears to have been leeched out of the images, presumably to make the glitz of Barris' TV career more apparent, but it's used in a very inconsistent fashion.
But on the whole, I liked this a lot. You could draw all sorts of ugly parallels with Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher: released at roughly the same time, it's another directorial debut based on an autobiography, with the director trying to hide in a supporting role as the lead character's mentor. They'd be ugly parallels because Antwone Fisher is a terrible movie, while Confessions succeeds in most of what it's trying to do. Charlie Kaufman's script isn't quite as out there as his work on Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, but it kind of implodes towards the end along with Barris' psyche, which may have been the point but doesn't make for a satisfying ending. The personal catharsis at the climax of Kaufman's earlier scripts isn't there: all we really get is Barris locking himself in a hotel room for a bit and realising he needs to sort himself out. But we do get a rather smart climax to the CIA strand, a deft piece of visual storytelling that shows how good a director Clooney will be once he stops showing off. The generally excellent performances also pay tribute to Clooney's skill, and those of us who've been waiting for Sam Rockwell to become a star since Lawn Dogs shouldn't have much longer to wait after his rather good turn as Barris.
Next up, the most conventional biopic of the four: Julie Taymor's Frida, a study of the life and work of artist Frida Kahlo. Taymor's earlier film Titus topped the poll for VidBinge 2000, so I'm guessing some residual love for the director is partially responsible for her reappearance here. In both films and in her theatre work, her eye for a visual image is her main selling point. And with the life of a flamboyant artist - two artists, in fact, because her story can't be told without that of Diego Rivera - the possibilities for visual overload are endless.
There's usually a problem with artist biopics, when you've got to tie in the art with the story of the people who made it. Taking a recent example - Ed Harris' generally worthwhile retelling of the life of Jackson Pollock - there's a sequence where he accidentally drips some paint from his brush onto the floor, and you can almost see a lightbulb come on over his head. It's a slightly painful scene, but it's trying to externalise an interior moment, and it's hard to see how else it could be done in a movie. Similarly, there are a couple of scenes where Harris makes characters give the audience a lecture on why these paintings are good, as if he can't trust us to come to that conclusion ourselves. Taymor has equivalents of both of these scenes in Frida, but they're only a small part of the whole. Her key decision is to tell the story of Frida and Diego in the same colour palette that the artists used, thus tying the life inextricably to the art. Because in the end, this is a movie about a couple, and thanks to Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina we have an entirely believable relationship that gives a heart to the film.
Enjoyable as Frida and Diego are, one of the attractions of a biographical film about them has to be the huge number of famous people they rubbed shoulders with during their lifetimes: and if there's a flaw to Frida, it's the huge parade of celebrity cameos that distract you from the drama and the art. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky over here, Salma's boyfriend Edward Norton as Rockefeller there, Antonio Banderas popping up for one scene. Actually, the Rockefeller sequence is even more distracting than that, covering the time where Rivera was commissioned to paint a giant mural for the Rockefeller Center: a painting that was subsequently destroyed because of its political themes. A few years ago, Tim Robbins' film Cradle Will Rock used this story as a sub-plot, along with a number of other related true tales relating to radical art in America in the thirties. Seeing Norton and Molina arguing over the content of the painting is very strange, if you can remember John Cusack and Ruben Blades having exactly the same argument. But concentrate on the art, the look, the love and the inevitable girl-on-monkey action, and this is rather fine.
City Of God got the second highest number of votes this year, but ended up being the most popular film (not as impossible as it sounds, as I'll explain later). As frequently happens, the Pals were all out for a Christmas meal the day after the VidBinge, and this is the film that was generating the most discussion over the turkey and sprouts. Regular readers will be aware that I first saw it at LFF 2002: since then, it's had a pretty successful release in the UK (apparently outside of its home country of Brazil, we Brits have embraced it the most enthusiastically). Both Empire and Total Film - as film magazines go, about as Hollywood mainstream as you can get - independently voted it the best film of 2003.
I was very ambivalent about City Of God back in 2002. After years of seeing movies at the LFF, I'm slowly coming to realise that the hothouse excitement of an early festival screening can heavily colour your initial reaction to a film: in the cold light of a public screening some months later, things can look a lot less interesting. So when I got the full-on adrenalin rush of City Of God for the first time, I was reluctant to join in with some of the hyperbolic praise it was getting even at that early stage. As I said in my LFF 2002 round-up, it "wowed me so much on first viewing that I'm suspicious that it's just surface wow, and want to see it again". So I did, when it was released in UK cinemas early in 2003: and it blew me away. Under the high-speed editing and frantic camera, there's a hard-hitting tale about the hell of life in the favelas of Rio, and you're completely caught up with the characters. You're left grasping for any signs of hope that someone will escape under their own steam rather than in an ambulance, and the sense of relief when it finally happens is glorious.
On this third viewing, it's still a massively powerful story: but as The Cineaste said on the day, this is the point where the pacing starts to become an issue. First time round, the sheer relentless speed carried you through everything: once you've got over that shock, it becomes apparent that the entire film is running in one gear. A tremendously high-powered gear, of course, but it does leave you wanting a little light and shade in the pace of the film. But it's stunningly directed by Fernando Meirelles (and Katia Lund, whose buried credit as 'co-director' caused a minor scandal in the early days of release, happily sorted out now): and it does have one of those soundtracks. Maybe the music's not quite a dinner party fixture as yet, but it frequently accompanies breakfast on Sunday mornings at The Belated Birthday Girl's Cronenberg-endorsed house. Inevitably, Wilson Simonal's Nem Vem Que Nao Tem has already appeared in an Ikea commercial, and more will probably follow. Advertising people just don't get irony, do they?
As I said earlier, just because a film gets the most votes at VidBinge, that doesn't necessarily make it the most popular, never mind the best. In the case of 8 Mile, this year's winner, I'm assuming the mental processes of the Pals went something along the lines of 'I didn't really want to see it at the cinema, but now I can watch it for nothing'. Apart from being the first film of the day not to start with a Miramax logo, this is notable for being the only one that wasn't explicitly selling itself as being based on a true story. Except it's the story of Jimmy 'Rabbit' Smith, a white kid using his rapping talents to escape his trailer trash background, played by Eminem, a white kid who's used his rapping talents to escape his trailer trash background.
Again, I saw this one at LFF 2002: but unlike City Of God, this time my opinion of it hasn't changed all that much. Although Curtis Hanson's never claimed to be telling the Eminem story, it's easy to see why people may think that: the character of Rabbit is Eminem with the nasty edges taken off. So many of the scenes, like his standing up for a gay workmate or protecting his mom from her slob boyfriend, just feel like special pleading in the wake of his known history. Quite why Eminem's trying to airbrush his past like this on film, while at the same time keeping up his bad boy image on record and elsewhere, is beyond me. (Though the conflict between the two did lead to what may be the funniest message board ever created on IMDB [now sadly deleted]. "The final scene had the audience I watched it with howling with laughter. There is almost no way to disarm a nuclear device using only rap.")
And then there's the whole issue of the kid. Eminem's daughter Hailie is a major part of his personal myth, the way he's struggled to be a good father to her despite all the evil women in his life: and in Lose Yourself he complains about he 'barely knows his own daughter'. So when Rabbit first talks to Lily, the little girl that's living with his mother Stephanie (Kim Basinger), you assume that it's a similar relationship. But it's never made clear: and in one almost subliminal piece of dialogue, Stephanie's departing boyfriend refers to her 'two homeless kids' - the only indication that Lily might actually be his sister. I suspect the ambiguity's left in there purely to trade off the Eminem story we know, though the critic in Sight And Sound came up with an even more disturbing theory: that there's a Chinatown-style 'my daughter (slap) my sister (slap) my daughter' thing going on, if you know what I mean. But sticking with the assumption that Rabbit isn't that much of a motherfucker, 8 Mile is a curiously old-fashioned movie when all's said and done: I still stand by my initial analysis of it being a contemporary Elvis movie with more swearing. (And what I missed first time round is that Rabbit is referred to as 'Elvis' a couple of times in the movie, presumably as an insult in terms of a white man ripping off black music.) Even playa haters like The Notorious BBG managed to muster a couple of smiles at the climactic rap battle.
Anyway, that's it for another year. Thanks again to the Pals for their usual fine work in selecting this programme: that's Lee, SeaPea, Jon, The Cineaste, The Belated Birthday Girl, Lesley, Old Lag and Nick. I can only assume we'll be doing this all again same time next year. And you know I'm telling the truth. Being a monkey, and all.