Thursday, 31 May 2012

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Dir. Gus Van Sant
Starring: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver

In my review of The Departed I described Matt Damon as “always-watchable”. That’s a relief because he is in 90% of the scenes in Good Will Hunting and delivers an outstanding performance as the 20-year old genius from the blue-collar South Boston projects 

We open with Will Hunting (Damon) working a menial janitor’s job. He hangs around with his three best mates, dividing his time between “batting cages and bars”. An orphan and past victim of physical abuse, he has a hair-trigger temper and has a lengthy rap sheet. But he has one defining characteristic: he is an absolute prodigy. He has a photographic memory and can recall huge chunks of text or arguments – and can synthesize them in such a way that he can draw his own conclusions on the works. After he is spotted solving a mathematical problem on a corridor chalkboard (he works as a janitor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he is taken under the wing of Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd) who attempts to foster his abilities at mathematics. He is also forced to attend a therapist. After refusing to co-operate with those initially provided, Lambeau eventually takes him to his old college room-mate, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), who teaches at a community college. Sean comes from the same background as Will and pushes back. Eventually a break-through is made. Will is then presented with the problem of what he wants to do with his life. Does he stay in South Boston with his friends and working at “honourable” labouring jobs, or does he embrace the regard from MIT professors, attend the interviews Lambeau has set up for him, and build a career utilising his gifts, or does he follow Skylar (Minnie Driver), the British Harvard student he falls for, as she moves to California? 

It is, like Ordinary People, one of those movies that use therapists as a device to get characters to open up. However, like Ordinary People, it handles it well. It is a two way process where Will and Sean both learn from each other. Sean is not some God-like genius; he is a flawed individual who has gone through just as much shit as Will in his life, and is at peace with it. And he is also willing to argue back when Will tries to put him down: “I thought about what you said to me the other day. About my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep and haven’t thought about you since. You know what occurred to me…? You’re just a kid. You don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.” He pushes Will to open up and allow people into his life. His theory is that Will has been hurt so many times he pre-emptively destroys relationships to stop himself getting hurt emotionally. This is why Will refuses to open up to Sean at first, why he belittles the work he is doing with Lambeau, why he runs away from Skylar. Will’s perfect state of grace is for things to remain the same as they always have: him having a laugh and a drink with Chuckie, Morgan and Billy down in his home neighbourhood. These are the people he can trust implicitly, as Sean recognises (“Chuckie’s family; he would lie down in fucking traffic for you.” 

Everyone has their idea of what they want for Will. Best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck) wants him to escape Southie: “Tomorrow I’ll wake up and I’ll be 50 and I’ll still be doin’ this shit. And that’s alright. That’s fine. I mean, you’re sittin’ on a winning lottery ticket. And you’re too much of a pussy to cash it in, and that’s bullshit. ’Cause I’d do fuckin’ anything to have what you got. So would any of these fuckin’ guys. It’d be an insult to us if you’re still here in twenty years’ time. Hangin’ around here is a fuckin’ waste of your time.” Lambeau wants Will to realise his genius even though it is killing him to realise that what he works so hard for comes intuitively to this twenty-year-old (there are shades of Amadeus here with Lambeau the Salieri to Will’s Mozart): “Most days I wish I’d never met you ‘cause then I could sleep at night. I didn’t have to walk around with the knowledge that there was someone like you out there. I didn’t have to watch you throw it all away.” Skylar wants Will to take a chance on their relationship and come with her to San Francisco. For the first time in his life he has expectations placed upon him and he doesn’t like it. He can synthesize other people’s arguments in books and come out with ideas of his own, but he finds it very hard to harmonise all these expectations. 

The script is surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because it was co-written by Damon and Affleck. In many ways it is a shame that they didn’t stick to writing. Affleck got too big, too fast – Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Jennifer Lopez. He crashed. But the pair of them are good value for their screen-writing Oscar. And Affleck taking a smaller role, leaving Damon to get all the headlines is very unselfish. It reminded me that they started off in Kevin Smith independent movies and were recognised as a talent. For direction they brought in Gus Van Sant – thankfully he didn’t bring in the clever-clever ideas and Shakespeare references of My Own Private Idaho but let their script speak for itself. Together the joshing of Damon, Affleck and their two friends (Cole Hauser and Casey Affleck) is believable. Yet again Robin Williams does a good serious performance (though he did improvise some of his character’s funniest lines – such as the one about his wife farting in bed). He is not creepy as he was in Insomnia, but he is so much more enjoyable to watch as a straight man in my view. Minnie Driver as Skylar is the surprise casting. I wonder if the character was originally meant to be British, or whether they just rewrote it to suit her. I’ve never met a Brit called ‘Skylar’ however (I’d only ever heard the name before as the [male] villain in Heroes). Ben Affleck has now gone on to write (and direct) two further Boston-set movies: Gone, Baby Gone and The Town. Having now seen what he is capable of doing when he is not a blockbuster romantic lead I am much more likely to give them a watch. I’m aware that there has been a bit of a backlash towards Good Will Hunting, but for me, watching it for the first time 15 years after it was released (15 years? Christ, I was at Cambridge myself at that point!) I thought it stood up very well. It is definitely worth a watch. 

Two geniuses: Damon and Affleck scripted the film,
starred in it, wrote the femetoon, sang the femetoon...

What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
The Southie projects of Boston are 40 minutes by train and a world away from the university areas of Cambridge. South Boston is full of beaten-down houses with junk-filled yards and neon-lit bars full of Irish-Americans. The sense of humour is defiantly crude and working-class. Cambridge is another world, and is home to two absolute world-class universities in MIT and Harvard. Interactions between the two generally do not go smoothly: witness Lambeau finding the university maintenance department or him seeking out Sean in a pub and asking for a Perrier (“That’s French for ‘club soda’”). There is arrogance amongst the academics; Lambeau thinks that Sean teaching at a community college is a sign of failure and that the other man must by default be jealous of him.
Baseball is a central focus of life. Will and his mates even go to watch a Little League match. And the entire city focuses on the Red Sox baseball team. The easiest way for Sean to explain how much his wife meant to him is to recount how he passed up the chance to watch a legendary match to talk to her.  

Can we go there?
This is another film set in Boston. Again, South Boston features prominently, contrasted against the university area of Cambridge. But while some exteriors were filmed on location, most of the film was made in Toronto. The University of Toronto stood in for both MIT and Harvard, with the McLennan Physical Laboratories there providing the classrooms. Wycliffe College was the real-life location of Skylar’s dorm. The Harvard bar where Will so memorably puts down an arrogant student was supposed to be the Bow & Arrow Pub, but was actually the Upfront Bar & Grill on 106 Front Street East in Toronto. It was used as another ‘Boston bar’ in the John Cusack version of Fever Pitch in which the lead character supported the Red Sox rather than Arsenal. The novelty store Will later visits with Skylar was Ontario Speciality Co on Church Street – freakily after 73 years of operation it closed its doors forn the last time today.

The pals’ Southie local was in Boston however – Woody’s L St Tavern at 658 E Eighth Street (and these days it does cash in on its links to the film). The road in the closing credits is the Massachusetts Turnpike heading west through Stockbridge. And a number of exteriors were used, particularly around Harvard Square (where Will spots his history student competition through the window of Baskin-Robbins-Dunkin’ Donuts - “I got her number. How d’you like them apples?”). The Bow & Arrow and that branch of Dunkin’ Donuts have now been replaced by the Grafton Street Restaurant and Bar (the web address freaked me out because I used to live very near to Grafton Street in the real Cambridge in England). Also gone is ‘The Tasty, where Will and Skylar share a pickle-y kiss. They later meet up again at Au Bon Pain. Dunster House at Harvard served as the exterior of Skylar’s dorm, Sean taught at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, and Chuckie collects Will outside South Boston District Municipal Court. Wills house was at 190 W Sixth Street in South Boston, and is privately owned (by someone who has never seen the film). Sean takes Will to Boston Public Garden for his lecture. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Departed (2006)

Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg

The Departed. Otherwise known as the film for which they finally gave Martin Scorsese the Oscar. Or Oscars – Best Film and Best Director. At the time I thought the trophy seemed more of a lifetime achievement award, a rectification of previous oversights. Knowing that the film in question was not set on Scorsese’s trademark New York streets and that it was a remake of Hong Kong actioneer Infernal Affairs did nothing to put my mind at rest. 

Thankfully the finished article made me feel happier. The Departed is a twisty-turny tale of deceit and deception where the bullets fly as thick as the f-bombs. And rather than focusing on Italian mobsters in NYC, here the setting is Irish mobsters in Boston – and the cops trying to bring them down. 

Frank Costello is the criminal kingpin here, played by Jack Nicholson (of Chinatown  and The Shining) at his roguish, devilish best. He combines charm with casual matter-of-fact brutality (appearing from a back room up to the elbows in gore or waving a severed hand around the breakfast table). And of course he goes to the opera (see The Untouchables for an exploration of why listening to opera in an American movie automatically makes a character a villain). The Massachusetts State Police send a mole into his organisation, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan, to bring him down. But Costello has a mole of his own high in the State Police, Staff Sergeant Sullivan (Matt Damon). It then becomes a race against time for Costigan and Sullivan to identify the other “rat” before their identity is revealed. 

There are other dangers too. It becomes clear that both moles are under strain from their double lives even without this extra threat. Billy constantly pops pills and it is implied that Sullivan has problems in the bedroom. 

The storyline might not be original, but Scorsese knows how to make a great film. The first twenty minutes, establishing the characters, is told almost as an extended montage. Once the chess pieces are in place, then we have the titles. The game can begin. And the chess analogy is a good one. Yes, there is violence (a lot of violence), but this is an intellectual battle – literally a war of intelligence. It relies upon positioning. Both Costigan and Sullivan have to protect their own positions within their respective organisations while at the same time doing enough to help thwart their rivals. They play the long game and have to think through their actions: what am I trying to achieve and how do I explain my actions to my superiors? So when the police pick up one of Costello’s men Sullivan marches in to the interview room pretending to be his attorney. By giving him a phone he allows the mobsters to be warned, and then sends his men to bust the location where they had been. My mind was often tying itself in knots trying to figure out how they would get out of their current predicament. Frank’s earlier words rung eerily true: “When I was your age they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I’m saying to you is this: when you’re facing a loaded gun what’s the difference?” 

Matt and Leo loved playing Whack-a-Mole

In terms of the actors there is not a single weak link. Scorsese can call on whoever he wants, and here the star power includes not just the high-watt charisma of Nicholson, the always-watchable Damon, and DiCaprio (who, after seeing him in this and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? I am rapidly coming to warm to for the first time in my life), but also Alec Baldwin (last seen as Jimmy Doolittle in Pearl Harbor), the avuncular Martin Sheen, and the ferociously sweary Mark Wahlberg as the cops, and Ray Winstone as Frank’s number two. Even a relative newcomer like Vera Farmiga as Madolyn, the apex of the Costigan-Sullivan love triangle gives a great account of herself. The love triangle is the one element that I don’t feel is properly integrated. Obviously she is there as the one person the two moles can open up to, but I fail to see why Sullivan would risk exposure by letting her into his life, and I fail to see why she would suddenly start a relationship with Billy (okay, I know he’s Leo DiCaprio, but is threatening suicide really the way to win a woman?). Other than that though, it really is a high-stakes intelligent action film and a great watch. Looking back at the Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Director from 2006 I can see that actually there was not any other outstanding competition on the short-list (except for Paul Greengrass for United 93 possibly). It might not have been a Raging Bull or Goodfellas but then again it wasn’t a Gangs of New York either. So I shall no longer bemoan that Marty finally won the Oscar. 

What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
A lot. It might all be learnings about Boston, but I sure did learn a lot. For starters everyone is Irish. The Irish run the city, on both sides of the divide. No one else gets a look in, be they Sikh, Puerto Rican or black. Particularly not if they are black (they are, apparently, "fucked"). Among the Irish families there is a lot of clannishness and distrust of the police force. The Irish influence (and that of the Catholic Church) can be seen everywhere, from the religious processions, to the police bagpipers, to the inter-service rugby.  

The Irish are principally situated in the poorer areas in the south of Boston (the “Southie projects”). The middle classes live on the North Shore of the river. And ne’er the twain shall meet. They even speak differently, dropping ‘R’s as they head south. Their only rivals in organised crime are the Italians who come up from Providence, Rhode Island. It might be a different state but it is not very far away. 

The state police are a breed apart from the normal cops (though even they are kept in the dark by the FBI). They tend to go in all guns blazing. 

Oh, and people refer to other people as “Guineas”. I don’t know why. And everyone wears baseball caps. 

Can we go there?
The film is set in Boston. But comparatively little of the film was shot there – Scorsese kept the action closer to his New York home (mostly because the tax breaks were better). Even the view of the Massachusetts State Capitol seen from Sullivan’s apartment is fictitious (that view can only be obtained from the roof of Suffolk University. 

Some locations were genuinely Boston however. Movie tours can show you some of them. The police play rugby against the fire brigade on Boston Common. Costigan chases Sullivan through Boston’s Chinatown. Queenan and Dignan meet Billy by Neponset bridge in Dorchester; they later confront Frank at Long Wharf. Queenan and Costigan meet on the Red Line. The roof top scenes (at ‘344 Wash’) were actually at 12 Farnsworth Street (home to the Flour Bakery). The mob hangout (where Frank is shown up to his elbows in blood before calling in ‘new guys’) is actually the premises of the Charles Street Cleaners. The final bust on Costello’s gang was filmed at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. 

So where in New York was the film shot? The opening scene, where Frank first meets the young Sullivan was filmed at the (now-closed) Park Luncheonette, 334 Driggs Avenue, Brooklyn. The police academy shooting range, classroom and graduation scenes were filmed at Fort Schuyler on the campus of State University of New York’s Maritime College. The Irish Haven bar at 5721 4th Ave (also in Brooklyn) was where Billy ordered his cranberry juice (did he have to let it linger?). 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The Crucible (1996)

Dir. Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen

From the Blair Witch we progress to the tale of the Salem Witches. We arrive in Massachusetts as the first settlers did, scratching a living on an unforgiving shore. America was a new land, and these hardy souls were barely a toe-hold on the edge of a continent. But they brought many things with them – their religion, their sins and their superstition.

The settlement in question is Salem, Massachusetts, and the year is 1692. After dark the girls of the town gather in the woods. They ask Tituba (Charlayne Woodard), the Reverend Parris’s Barbadian slave, to cast folk spells to make the objects of their desires fall in love with them. But the Reverend (Bruce Davison) surprises them. In the shock two of the girls, including his own daughter, fall unconscious. Rumour gets around that it was the devil’s doing. One by one Tituba, Abigail and the other girls realise that the population want to blame everything on the devil. By confirming this belief, recanting their sins, and blaming others they can clear themselves of the guilt for their relatively minor wrongdoings. Whereas if they deny that the devil was involved they are seen as willing witches covering up his doings and must be punished. This gives the girls great power – they can name anyone in the community they wish. Abigail seizes upon the opportunity to name Elizabeth Proctor (Joan Allen) as a witch – she is in love with Elizabeth’s husband John (Daniel Day Lewis), with whom she had an affair. John is therefore keen to prove that these tales are lies and save his wife. However, he is in an irrational situation. Refusing to confess guilt is taken as a sign of guilt. Only the innocent who lie and claim guilt are safe; the innocent who refuse to lie are sentenced to hang. “If you do not know what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?”

Everything is hence topsy-turvy. It proceeds from a faulty premise – that there is witchery at work in Salem. Thereafter it is like a game of tag; once named a suspect has to pass on the blame to someone else. And so the mania spreads and the list of those arrested likewise spreads. John Proctor’s initial hope is to disprove that first premise, based on what Abigail told him. To do so he must condemn himself as an adulterer (“the crime of lechery”). Moreover, the authorities, as personified in Paul Scofield’s riveting performance as the steely Judge Danforth seem to be aware that there is a subjective element to all this. When Abigail later names Reverend Hale’s wife he sternly tells her “You are mistaken child. Understand me?” The forces of law are not willing to countenance some charges; at the same time they may be motivated themselves by fear of the girls. Abigail does essentially threaten him at one point: “Let you beware, Mr Danforth. Do you think yourself so mighty the Devil may not turn your wits?” Everyone is out to protect themselves, from Tituba, to Abigail, to Reverend Parris, to the judge himself. The Puttnams, while devastated by the loss of their children, are clearly also eager to use the opportunity to acquire the land of their neighbours – a fact dwelt upon more heavily by Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1957 film version produced in collaboration with Communist East Germany. The only ones who refuse to condemn others – such as John and Giles Corey (Peter Vaughan) – must, inevitably, according to this skewed logic, face death.

Devil's Advocate: Danforth is judge, jury and executioner

The story is based in truth. Or two truths. The Salem Witch Trials really did occur, though the events were amended for dramatic license. But another set of trials influences the script: Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. During the late 1940s and into the ‘50s public grillings were held to look for evidence of Communist agents or sympathisers in government, entertainment and other areas. Witnesses were often asked to name people they suspected of being Communists. Those who did – such as Elia Kazan, director of Splendor in the Grass and A Streetcar Named Desire) - were treated as ‘friendly witnesses’. Those who refused were blacklisted. Arthur Miller, writer of The Crucible, was called before HUAC himself in 1956 and convicted of ‘contempt of Congress’. McCarthy’s search for ‘Reds under the bed’ is now routinely classified as a ‘witch-hunt’. It was Miller who first made that parallel clear with his 1953 play of The Crucible.

The Crucible was hence initially a stage-play before it was a film. The provenance is impeccable however – Miller himself adapted his play for the screen and was nominated for an Oscar for his work. The transition from stage sets to film sets gives the film an added dimension. Whereas, say, Streetcar still looked like it was filmed on a stage set (albeit a large one), The Crucible suits the bleak marshes and mudflats of its cinematic setting. The cold grey sea and sky and the ever-present wind remind viewers that this is a harsh landscape where these settlers were only just able to subsist. And it was directed by a man well conversant with the stage: Nicholas Hytner, one-time director of London’s National Theatre (and old boy of the same school as yours truly). He was also responsible for the successful stage-to-screen transfers of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George and The History Boys. (He is best off sticking to theatrical adaptations however, as his next gig after The Crucible was the abject written-for-the-screen Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Object of My Affections). Some of the language does betray its stage origins. Perhaps not surprising – the events in question happened less than a century after Shakespeare was writing, and I’ve often thought it difficult to suspend disbelief entirely when watching Shakespeare simply due to the alienness of much of the language to a modern ear. Miller tried to use the cadences of the King James Bible to inform his characters’ speech patterns. The believability of the characters hence depends on how well they can breathe life into these phrases. Scofield is genuinely superb as Danforth – he commands ever scene he is in as the stern servant of the law with only flickers of humanity brought to the surface by Giles Corey’s self-taught lawyerisms. Most of the cast give a good account of themselves. Vaughan has some trouble translating his essentially comic character to the bleak tragedy presented, and Ryder is not wholly successful at wrapping her mouth around such awkward phrases as “I will bring with me a pointy reckoning that will shudder you… I have seen some reddish work done at night.”  

But Ryder is generally good as the leader of her cabal of hysterical and impressionable girls. Daniel Day Lewis is Daniel Day Lewis – he did not bathe for the duration of filming and built the Proctors’ wood house himself to get in character. He must have impressed Arthur Miller with his portrayal as Miller later allowed him to marry his daughter Rebecca. There are some notable others amongst the cast that brought me up sharp. There is some exceptionally odd casting. Peter Vaughan, who played Corey, is most famous to British eyes as criminal kingpin Grouty in the sitcom Porridge. Thomas Puttnam is played by Jeffrey Jones, also known as Dean Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And it took me ages to place the distinctive gravelly voice of George Gaynes as Judge Sewell before I twigged that he had previously starred as the hapless Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy series!

What have I learnt about Massachusetts?
Frankly, the first settlements here don’t look to have been a barrel of laughs. It was brought home to me as never before just how tough life would have been, with the ever-present wind coming off a steel gray ocean to sough through the marram grass on the mudflats. I got the impression that these colonies really were outposts stranded on the very edge of a vast continent, with one eye turned to sea. That sea was their highway, with ships sailing from Boston to Barbados as normal. Those settlers brought with them an idea of collective working as shown by their meeting hall; they also brought with them their Christianity and superstitions, and the local reverend would seem to be the most important person as a community leader. But because they were so intertwined and close to each other disputes would have to be resolved by outside parties. Land to be passed down through the generations was the only important thing. That, and one’s name.

Can we go there?
Yes – the film was shot as near as dammit on location. The town of Salem has now grown up and merged into the surrounding northern suburbs of Boston, but a similar location was found for shooting along the coast to the north-east – Choate Island in the estuary of the Essex River in Massachusetts. It is part of the Crane Wildlife Refuge, which explains its unspoiled state. There are a couple of colonial-era buildings within the refuge too, although they are 18th century rather than 17th – the Choate House on Choate Island and, intriguingly, the Proctor Barn on neighbouring Long Island. Some interiors were filmed in Beverly (home of Reverend Hale) at the Old United Shoe Factory (now the Cummings Center) on Elliott Street.

The genuine Salem itself has plenty to see and do to remember the real witch trials – particularly around Halloween. The town is home to the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch History Museum and the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Overall Rating: 2/5

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Week 22: Massachusetts

"Talk about the life in Massachusetts,
 Speak about the people I have seen,
 And the lights all went out in Massachusetts
 And Massachusetts is one place I have seen..."
 - 'Massachusetts',
 The Bee Gees

RIP Robin Gibb, for whom the lights have indeed all gone out. And in his memory we are going back to Massachusetts. (And we are going back - we visited Fenway Park with Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams if you remember).

I have dreaded having to write about films from Massachusetts for one main reason: I find it very hard to spell Massachussetts. Massachussets. Massachusetts. Hell, I can hardly pronounce the word. Not usually an issue, but I did have to use the phrase "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts!"  in a play once (a reference to the fact that in the 1972 presidential election - the one that featured at the end of All the President's Men - Massachusetts was the only state that voted for the Democrat McGovern over the Republican Nixon).

Which I suppose brings us on to perceptions of the Codfish State. Maybe more than any other, politics is engrained in its DNA. It was one of Britain's most important colonies and Boston one of its most important colonial cities, thriving on trade and commerce. It was here more than anywhere else that the sparks were lit that started the American Revolution. During the Continental Congress the other delegates were rather afeared of the Massachusettsians - hence their opting for the rather more conservative landowner George Washington to preside over their deliberations. Regardless, it has produced a large number of influential politicians, such as John Adams (the second president of the USA) and his son (the sixth) - and of course the Kennedys. (In more recent times  state governor Michael Dukakis competed for the presidency in 1988, current state senator John Kerry competed did likewise in 2004, and Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee this year, served as governor too.

The Kennedys are the most important figures to focus on, because they tick off a number of the traits most associated with Massachusetts. They were Democrats, the party that seems to have the state sewn up between the blue-collar vote and the 'Massachusetts Liberals'. They were of Irish descent, and Boston seems to be the most Irish city in the US. They were quite anti-British (Joseph Kennedy warned Roosevelt to keep out of the Second World War and his son Edward spoke in favour of the IRA) which accords with the state's revolutionary origins. And they were (allegedly) corrupt, with JFK's political campaign being (allegedly) helped by mobsters and union leaders.

But at the same time Massachusetts is a state (sorry, 'Commonwealth') with history and culture. It has produced writers such as Hawthorn and Melville. In Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology it also has two of the world's top universities. It may not be the biggest state in America, but there are certainly grounds for arguing that it has been the influential.

So there's a lot of facets to cover in just three films. I think I've managed to cover quite a few, but by necessity my gaze has been drawn towards Boston, its capital. The three films chosen are:
  • The Crucible (1996)
  • The Departed (2006)
  • Good Will Hunting (1997)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Dir. Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez
Starring: Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard, Patricia DeCou

Lightning only strikes once. And with The Blair Witch Project it struck so ferociously and so brightly that it could never again be recaptured. The film is the perfect storm of suspense, improvisation and guerrilla marketing. 

The film tells the story of three student film-makers, Heather (Donahue), Mike (Williams) and Josh (Leonard). For a college project they have decided to make a documentary about a local legend: the Blair Witch. They head to the nearest town and interview the locals about the legend. They then hike into the woods to find some of the sites associated with the myth. They get lost on the way out. And a series of unexplained phenomena starts to follow them, slowly terrorising them. Maybe the stories about the Blair Watch are true…? 

Firstly, the film really works on the suspense. It does not have monsters looming out of the mist. Everything is subtly done. We are first presented with a variety of legends about the Blair Witch. These are left to percolate in the viewer’s mind. We then see the sites of some of these horrific attacks – ‘Coffin Rock’ and a cemetery with seven small rock cairns. And then things start to escalate. Night-time rustles in the bushes. More stone cairns, outside the tents. Strange stick figures hanging from trees. Children’s voices. Something shaking the tent. Something seen of-camera. Goo over Josh’s gear. A disappearance. A blood-soaked bundle of twigs and clothing containing a tooth. Screams in the night. And finally a climax at a ruined house in the middle of the woods, its walls marked with runes and the imprints of children’s hands, and then a scene down in the basement that tied in to those earlier stories. Frankly, never before have a few small stones and twigs been so frightening. And all the while we have the three film-makers’ growing hysteria and terror. What we see might not seem that scary to us, but it clearly scares the shit out of them, and fear is so contagious. We get sucked in to their increasing desperation. Blair Witch holds true to the inadvertent lesson learnt from Jaws – the longer the monster remains unseen, the scarier it becomes. And in this case, the monster is never seen.  

Sticks and stones may break your bones...

The reason the reactions of the characters seem so genuine, is because they were. They were hired to improvise. They were given general guidelines on what to do and how to behave and directions to take them from scene to scene. But their reactions are their own. When their tent is attacked in the middle of the night it genuinely did come as a surprise to them, and their screams and the flight is honest (as is Heather’s reaction to something she sees but the camera doesn’t). When they walk all day and find themselves back at a log over a stream they had passed first thing that morning their anger and dismay is real. They did not know how the film was going to end, and they did not know that the original stories about the Blair Witch were all made up. Those people they interviewed at the start of the film were all plants. 

What turned it from a clever piece of film-making into a phenomenon was the marketing. It was made on  shoestring budget (apparently the cameras used were either returned for a refund or sold on ebay after shooting was completed). Once picked up by a studio the framing device could be publicised. The meta-story is that the events depicted really happened in October 1994, and that Heather, Mike and Josh were never seen again. Their cameras were discovered a year after their disappearance and that what is seen is a true record of their week in the Black Hills. The DVD even contains a 45 minute documentary, The Curse of the Blair Witch, which supposedly is a documentary about their disappearance and creates some sort of back-story for the witch. It includes snippets of the film, interviews with friends and family, references to historic documents and clips from a 1970s documentary. All were faked. It blurs the line between fiction and reality. It is a mockumentary, and as such clearly influenced a hole host of 21st century media, from Paranormal Activity to The Office. The internet was cleverly harnessed to spread the story and stoke up interest. Basically, it is the first example of a phenomenon ‘going viral’. 

I remember watching it sometime in 1999 or 2000. Fittingly it was watched on a computer monitor in a friend’s room at university. Coming back to it twelve years later the film still felt fresh. Even though I knew the story, and knew how it would end I still got goosebumps as the end drew near (and this on a sunny summer evening). If anything, the second watch was more rewarding – I paid attention more to the legends at the beginning and could then tie them in to events that happened in story. I wouldn’t say that I was scared, but I was certainly thrilled by it. The Blair Witch Project is a masterpiece of what can be done on $25,000 if the idea, the execution and the marketing is right. Michael Bay should take note… 

What have I learnt about Maryland?
The film focuses on Maryland's colonial history. In isolated settlements back in the 18th century witchcraft could be believed in and feared by the residents (the Curse of the Blair Witch documentary argues that this might have arisen because Elly Kedward was a Catholic is a predominantly Protestant town). And local myths and legends can be taken seriously even today if there is enough colour or evidence behind them. Where one might not give credence to these stories in the middle of a city or in the suburbs, travel out to the small towns in the wooded hills and they become much more plausible. 

Can we go there?
Burkittsville really exists. It is in southern Frederick County, near the border with Virginia. It was never called ‘Blair’ however, and the locals are apparently sick and tired of their link to this film. The ‘Welcome to Burkittsville’ sign was stolen so many times they now have a completely different sign welcoming visitors. The cemetery was really in Burkittsville; it doesn’t have a preponderance of children’s graves from the 1940s however.

The land around Burkittsville is hilly, but there are no ‘Black Hills’, ‘Tappy Creek’ or ‘Coffin Rock’. In fact, as the film shows, the filmmakers trek across some pretty flat terrain. This was Seneca State Park, near Gaithersburg, just north of Washington D.C. The abandoned house that Heather and Mike discover at the film’s climax was in Patapsco Valley State Park near Ellicott City, just west of Baltimore. It was called the Griggs House in real life, but it has now been torn down. 

There are a plethora of minor locations seen in the opening sections of the film. Mike’s house is in Wheaton, Maryland. They then stock up on supplies at Staub’s Country Inn in Beallsville (now HarBro Protection Solutions). They interview the waitress at the Silver Rail Diner (now Mommer's Diner) in Brunswick, and are told about the child murders outside Adamstown Village Market (now Stup’s Market) in Adamstown. The motel they spend their first night at is the Hillside Motel in Knoxville. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Hairspray (2007)

Dir. Adam Shankman
Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken 

And so from a John Waters film to a film based on a Broadway musical that is itself based on a John Waters film. 

With a cry of “Good Morning Baltimore!” we are introduced to Tracy Turnblad (a brilliant debut from Nikki Blonsky). It is 1962 and she lives for just one thing: the music and dancing on TV’s The Corny Collins Show. When the show announces that it is looking for a new dancer Tracy is determined to apply. The only problem is, she’s not the usual teenage pin up. She’s, well, almost as big as her beehive. And this is an era in which conformity is prized. Anyone different, be they Tracy with her extra baggage or Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), host of the monthly ‘negro day’, is seen as a threat by station producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, now all grown up from her previous appearance, in Scarface).  

The film, then, is – true to Waters’ vision – about not being afraid to be different. Tracy and her even larger mother Edna (played by John Travolta) find acceptance and self-belief. More inspiring is the move towards integration of the black community, whether it is the ending of segregated TV broadcasts or the budding romance between Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Penny (Amanda Bynes). The candlelit march to the TV station to the tune of 'I Know Where I’ve Been’ is the emotional core of the film, and is moving. In this, really only Velma, the police / security guards, the news networks that exaggerate Tracy’s brush with the law and Penny’s straitlaced and fundamentalist mother (The West Wing’s Allison Janney) are the bad guys. Even Velma’s daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) turns away from her mother at the film’s end. The TV show’s sponsor is willing to bend once he sees the way the wind is blowing and heart-throb Link (Zac Efron) looks out for his career and then regrets abandoning Tracy when she does the right thing. In comparison her joke-shop owning father (Christopher Walken) loves Edna whatever she looks like, as he expresses in the song ‘You’re Timeless to Me’. Corny Collins is an enthusiastic integrationist and Maybelle is colour-blind. And, as the end shows, the viewing teenaged audience have no racial prejudice.  

Okay, so the film shoots into an open goal. So what? It has a period setting for a reason – in the ‘60s there was a divide between black and white, and a lot of people supported that. Today the storyline is not shocking. In fact, Tracy is not even particularly fat; she is big-boned rather than obese. And the conceit of having Tracy’s mother being played by a man isn’t shocking either. In Water’s 1986 original drag-queen Divine played the role; 21 years later and it is Hollywood star John Travolta. The portrayal is not particularly controversial: Travolta plays Edna like a pantomime dame. If you’re British you will have seen something similar by your sixth Christmas. Still, he seems to be enjoying himself in women's dress (perhaps not surprisingly if one believes current news stories...). But the basic storyline and the central themes is still mostly that of Waters. Baltimore is seen as a haven of individuality, from the beehive hairdos to Wilbur’s Hardy Har Hut to the eccentric characters Tracy sees on her way to school (one of whom, “the flasher who lives down the street”, was played by Waters; the woman he exposes himself to is his long-time collaborator Mink Stole, who played Sylvia Mallory in Cecil B. Demented and Tammy in the original Hairspray). Other cameos from the original film include Jerry Stiller (Ben’s dad) who was the original Wilbur and now appears as Mr Pinky and Ricki Lake, the original Tracy (and who also appeared as Libby in Cecil B.) appears as a talent agent. 

Not so Divine: Travolta makes it big on the main drag

But it is not directly comparable to the original in one key respect: the nature of the film. It is not a quirky independent film with a limited budget; it is a big budget studio (uh-oh!) production of a glossy Broadway musical! It is big, bold, brash and bursting with energy. The colours are vivid, the characters stylized, the comedy obvious. And it is full of music and songs. And many of the songs are very good. As well as the aforementioned Good Morning Baltimore and I Know Where I’ve Been I also have to single out I Can Hear the Bells. And You Can’t Stop The Beat has become a modern classic. The music is often clever: witness the two different (white and black) versions of The New Girl in Town. And it is added to with good, well-choreographed dance routines. There’s comedy pitched at different levels – I appreciated Maybelle’s wry comments that “if we get anymore white people in here, this is going to be a suburb” or that whites have less to fear on black streets than blacks do on white streets, but I also appreciated Wilbur’s Whoopee Cushion air-mattress too. All in all it is a really entertaining crowd-pleaser. 

What have I learnt about Maryland?
Again with the seafood! Velma is a former ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’. The initial shot shows Baltimore as a harbour city so maybe that’s no surprise. Baltimore also seems to be a city of terraced housing with corner-shops populated by eccentrics and individualists. The locals call each other “hon”. A lot. 

But most of all it depicts Maryland as a Southern state with open racial segregation and discrimination (interracial marriage was actually illegal in Maryland until 1967, so I hope Seaweed and Penny were not planning on settling down too quickly). 

Can we go there?
Like the original John Waters films, the setting is Baltimore. However only the first establishing shot of the city by the bay actually was Baltimore. The rest was Toronto and Hamilton in Canada. The intersection of Dundas Street West and Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto was used for many of the street scenes. Lord Lansdowne Public School was used for all school exteriors and some interiors, with the remainder being shot at Hamilton’s Queen Victoria School. Other scenes took place on sets at Showline Studios. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cecil B. Demented (2000)

Dir. John Waters
Starring: Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier

To commence any cinematic exploration of Maryland, one would have to start with something by John Waters. Baltimore’s own maverick film-maker has been producing work close to his heart (and close to his house) since the ‘70s. His work includes 1972’s Pink Flamingos (famous for the scene in which transvestite Divine eats dog faeces), 1988’s Hairspray (starring Ricki Lake which later spawned a musical remake), and 1990’s Cry-Baby (with Johnny Depp). I could have watched any of those movies, but I was recommended to seek out the more recent Cecil B. Demented.
Cecil B. Demented can be seen as Waters’ testament. It is his chance to take a pop at all those things about Hollywood / the studios / mainstream American cinema that irk him. In it Hollywood star Honey Whitlock (an exceptionally game Melanie Griffith) is kidnapped by the eponymous Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff) and his gang of guerrilla film-makers (the SprocketHoles). They aim to cast her in a piece of agitprop cinema outside control of the big studios. They are devoted to the great auteurs of world cinema and believe that movies should be art – which means that it might well be offensive, tasteless, violent, pornographic and, well, un-popular. At first Honey is held against her will. However, as shooting (in all senses of the word) progresses she realises that the old her had a reputation as an unlikeable, diva-ish hack actress. The knives are already out for her. And so she resolves to go for it, and give the performance of her life. She even contributes her own ”vision” of what they should be doing – in her case, invading the set of a Forrest Gump sequel, ‘Gump Forever’.
This shows the sort of enemy Cecil and his demented followers have identified. When Fidget (Eric Barry) wavers and wants to return to his parents, the other SprocketHoles remind him of his folks’ bad taste: “Just remember, your parents liked Godzilla…They wouldn’t even let you see R-rated films as a child… They’ve never even been to a midnight movie… They enjoy classic TV sitcoms turned into feature-length films… They’ve never rented a porno movie… And to top it all off, they talk out loud in the theatre once the feature has begun.” Even Honey agrees that that last trait “really is unforgivable”. There are plenty of other pot-shots along the way: Pauly Shore marathons, multiplexes showing nothing but Star Wars or Star Trek, the director’s cut of Patch Adams, the Flintstones sequel, directors who take classic European films and then remake them for an American audience (prompting said director to splutter that American audiences will not read subtitles). The Moving Picture Association of America (“Hey, hey, MPAA – how many films have you censored today?”) and the Baltimore Film Commission get extra special ribbings. Basically, if it’s safe or unadventurous or mainstream or – heaven forbid! – popular it is precisely the sort of thing that Cecil and his SprocketHoles hate.
So what do they love? Well, they have their agitprop-y slogans: “I’m a prophet against profit!”, “Technique is nothing more than failed style!”, “Family is just a dirty word for censorship!” The SprocketHoles worship those directors who, like Cecil, imprint their works with their own personal vision and style: Otto Preminger, Andy Warhol, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Kenneth Anger, Pedro Almodovar, Sam Peckinpah, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The gang comprises the outcasts and unmentionables – drug addicts (Adrian Grenier), ex-porn actresses (Alicia Witt), satanists (Maggie Gyllenhall), homosexual rednecks (Mike Shannon), and heterosexuals ashamed of their heterosexuality (Jack Noseworthy). And in key segments they are helped by kung fu movie fans, the occupants of a porn theatre and an ironic student crowd at a drive-in cinema. If something could ever possibly be described as a ‘cult movie’ then it is certainly in the good books of this cult of movie-makers – appropriately enough as John Waters revels in his reputation as a cult movie-maker. There are elements of his own cult style in there. Regular collaborator Ricki Lake (yes, the chat-show hostess) appears as Honey’s publicist, and Fidget’s mother is played by Patty Hearst (the heiress who was, in real life, kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Front and later joined them in their activities – a clear influence upon the story here).

Shooting in Baltimore: Melanie Griffith becomes a cinema terrorist

Overall though, this is Waters let loose with a big budget. No more small-town stories, this has a huge cast, a Hollywood star, guns, explosions, car-chases and stunts. One might almost say that this is John Waters going mainstream. Hollywood movies are all about action rather than personal dynamics, and I would say that this film is, yes, an action movie. Laced with plenty of humour along the way. This is Waters’ own Blues Brothers (though with fewer musical numbers and, if I’m honest, better jokes). So it is not quite as revolutionary as Waters, I think, intends it to be.
What have I leant about Maryland?
It seems to be all about the seafood here. Honey is sick of the crab cakes and steamed crabs. Later, the movie execs literally get sick on oysters.
I get the feeling that Baltimore’s style is not for everyone. Honey is furious when a white limousine is sent to pick her up. Obviously though, Waters celebrates the quirkiness of the city’s inhabitants, from the extremes of the SprocketHoles’ various personalities, to the dinginess of its porn cinemas, and to the zeitgeist-y irreverence of the drive-in’s patrons.
Oh, and obviously the Baltimore Film Commission has quite a lot of sway. They are portrayed as wanting to attract movies to shoot in the city.
Can we go there?
As one might expect from a John Waters film, the entire movie was shot on location in Baltimore. Honey Whitlock is at first ensconced (in the Presidential Suite) of the Harbor Court Hotel, before she is kidnapped from the Senator Theatre (currently closed for renovations). The Hippodrome (now the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center) was used for the gang’s lair. And Bengies Drive-In was used for the film’s climax.
Overall Rating: 3/5

Week 21: Maryland

"William Zanziger who, at 24 years,
 Owns a tobacco farm of 600 acres,
 With rich wealthy parents who provide and protect him
 And high-office relations in the politics of Maryland,
 Reacted to his deed with a shrug of his shoulders..."
 - 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll',
 Bob Dylan

From the far north of Maine I am heading down the Atlantic seaboard to Maryland, one of the northernmost Southern states. In fact the famous Mason-Dixon line runs along Maryland's northern and eastern borders separating the state from Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Delaware? Oh great. Delaware was a small state ranged along the shores of Delaware Bay, and I had awful trouble finding films set there. Maryland is a small(-ish) state ranged along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Is it likely that I will have trouble finding films set here?

Thankfully, the answer is 'no'. Maryland seems to have quite a lot going for it. I know that it was founded specifically as a Catholic colony, that its port city of Baltimore was historically one of the largest and most important cities in the U.S. and that, bizarrely, it is one of only seven American states where it is illegal for atheists to hold office. Baltimore still holds a powerful attraction, whether it is as the seedy drug-gang-ravaged setting of the TV series The Wire, or just as the home of the campily kitsch (or possibly kitschly camp) film director John Waters. And in case that's not urban enough for you, the northern suburbs of Washington D.C. spill over into Maryland too.

So all things considered, I shouldn't have too much trouble finding three films set here - even if I have to use three John Waters films. I'm not going to do that however. I hink that just one Waters is plentiful... and another film based on his works. My three films are:
  • Cecil B. Demented (2000)
  • Hairspray (2007)
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Lake Placid (1999)

Dir. Steve Miner
Starring: Bill Pullman, Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Brendan Gleeson

A diver is bitten clean in half in Maine’s remote Black Lake. This provides the start for monster movie Lake Placid. A hapless band of 'experts' is drafted in to catch the creature responsible. This band comprises Brendan Gleeson’s bad-tempered local sheriff Hank, Department of Fish and Game agent Jack Wells (Bill Paxton), out-of-her-depth palaeontologist Kelly (Bridget Fonda) and the eccentric crocodile-worshipping millionaire Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt)l. And sure enough, they come to the conclusion that a thirty-foot crocodile lurks beneath the calm waters of Black Lake.

So far, so Jaws. But Lake Placid is not afraid to play up the laughs alongside the underwater menace. The dysfunctional interactions of the main quartet (and more than a couple of expert prat-falls) provide moments of humour to lighten the movie. There’s even a tacked-on romantic subplot. So for a horror movie, the film is actually not that, well, horrifying. There’s some suspense, there are a few moments of shock and peril, and there’s some gore, but all-in-all Lake Placid is actually pretty watchable. I certainly enjoyed it.

So what makes Lake Placid different to The Mist, my other Maine horror film? Well, as stated, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Mist had a po-faced insistence that it was a Serious Horror Movie. In comparison Lake Placid goes for the lighter touch. The lead characters are a gang of oddballs, sniping humorously at each other. Kelly is a fish out of water who seems to have never been out of the city before and has a thing about mosquitoes, ticks, worms, timber, and the wilds in general. Plus, she keeps getting heads thrown at her (“I will NOT calm down! This is the second time I’ve been hit with a severed head and I DON’T LIKE IT!”). Hank is a deadpan snarker, wearily trying to do his job without interruptions from other US agencies, hoity-toity big city types and lunatic millionaires. Plus, he keeps falling into snare traps (“I could probably cut him down but there’s this odd look of mayhem on his upside-down face.”). Hector is, by-and-large, a nutjob, a sort of mystical Austen Powers. And then you’ve got Betty White, America’s favourite grandma, last seen in Hard Rain, as sassy Dolores Bickerton – there’s nothing like hearing  venerable LOL (little old lady) calling people “cocksuckers” or “Officer Fuck-meat” to keep you amused. The friction between the outdoorsy locals and the academic city-folks provides a lot of the comedy. For instance, when Hank protests that he has never heard of a crocodile crossing an ocean Hector replies “Well, they conceal information like that in books.” Kelly says that she has never been to Maine before – “I have good hygiene. I’m not welcome.” The central premise is some very dark humour – a lady has been rearing giant crocs out in the backwoods). The film knows that the source material is somewhat hokey too – witness the moment the 30-foot killer croc attacks Hector’s helicopter. It plays on B-movie tropes. Hell, it’s practically an homage to Jaws. If only someone had uttered the immortal lines “We’re gonna need a bigger chopper…”

Croc vs Copter:
"We're gonna need a bigger chopper..."

Yet, for all that, the nature of the threat is known. A giant crocodile in a Maine lake might be unexpected, but we are not talking about tentacular beasties from another dimension. The goals of the team can be understood at once: find out what killed the diver, locate it, neutralise it. And whatever the creature is, it has to be trapped in the vicinity of the lake.
The action keeps moving. The film is only 75 minutes long (a relief compared to most movies I have been watching, which seem to be two hours minimum). It goes for thrills and spills more than suspense (and the addition of a soundtrack helps to create suspense in the scenes that need it). It remembers that its aim is to entertain the audience, something which The Mist was at times in danger of forgetting I feel.
What have I learnt about Maine?
It really is seen as another world to city-dwellers. Kelly, with her fly-spray and her worries about Deliverance, does not ‘get’ the delights of the wild backwoods. Nor do Hank and Jack have much sympathy towards urbanites.
To be fair the rolling hills cloaked in mile after mile of forest are wholly different to anything one might see in NYC. So is the wildlife. We see Maine’s mosquitoes, beavers, moose, bears and crocodiles (though strictly speaking, that last one shouldn’t have been there).
Can we go there?
Black Lake is fictional, and it’s hard to figure out precisely where it’s supposed to be. It’s in Maine’s largest, northern county, Aroostook, some twenty-five miles from the nearest town, but only a mile from the ocean?
It seems unlikely that Asian-Pacific crocodiles could have migrated to the Atlantic side of America. The film wasn’t even shot on that side of the continent however. It was filmed in Canada’s British Columbia at three separate lakes: Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, Lake Hayward, near Mission, 60km east of Vancouver, and Buntzen Lake in Anmore. Highlander and Freddy vs. Jason were also shot at Buntzen Lake, with Roxanne being filmed nearby.
Overall Rating: 3/5