Tag Archives: B+

BILLY ELLIOT

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B+

“Billy Elliot” could be described as “Brassed Off” with tutus instead of trombones, or even as “Footloose” set in the mining areas of northern England, but such encapsulations would be unfairly dismissive. The picture, about a working-class teenage boy who finds personal (and social) liberation in the study of ballet–much to the initial chagrin of his eminently down-to-earth dad and brother–is, to be sure, formulaic and more than a trifle manipulative, but it’s been so deftly made and well performed that rather than being cloying and calculated, it ends up as charming and exhilarating. This could be the sleeper hit of the fall season.

The dramatic pull of the film lies in rooting for a likable protagonist overcome incredible obstacles to fulfill his dream and win almost impossible success, and since the story has a musical background, it’s comparable in effect to 1996’s “Shine,” which also warmed hearts rather than causing gastric distress in spite of its shrewd application of sentiment. The tale is set in during the coal mining strike of 1984, when the Thatcher government’s policy of closing down unprofitable sites had resulted in conflict between the highly-organized unions and police. Both the widowed father (Gary Lewis) and brother (Jamie Draven) of teen Billy (Jamie Bell) are on strike, and the lack of income turns their family, which also includes infirm and increasingly senile grandma (Jean Heywood) into a morose group and their dwelling into an exceedingly bleak place: indeed, a sequence showing an impoverished Christmas during which furniture (including the late mother’s prized piano) must be broken up for kindling is almost Dickensian. (One wonders what modern British filmmakers would do had it not been for Margaret Thatcher, whose government they take remarkable joy in excoriating at every opportunity.) Nonetheless Dad still shells out a few bob for Billy to take boxing lessons at the local club. But the boy is more interested in music than pugilism, and when a ballet class begins practicing in the gym, he gravitates toward it, despite the fact that he’s the only male who does– the sight of him, still in boxing duds, learning steps amidst a herd of tutu-clad girls is quite winning. (This represents a nice twist on the old formula, prevalent in British films from time immemorial down to the recent “TwentyFourSeven,” according to which troubled lads learn discipline from joining boxing clubs–here the club is abandoned in favor of dance clothes.) The teacher, stern but obviously maternal Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) sees potential in him and takes the boy under her wing, while Billy conceals his new studies from his father and brother, who he knows would find them unmanly. A subplot contrasts Billy with his truly effeminate best friend Michael (Stuart Wells). The obligatory crisis erupts when Dad and Tony find out what Billy’s been up to, especially after the boy is offered the opportunity to try out for a spot in a prestigious dance academy. Can the impoverished working-class family accept and nurture the youngster’s talent, despite their own prejudices and the financial hardship it would entail? And does Billy have the stuff to succeed?

These questions are answered in ways that are really quite predictable but manage also to be touching and endearing, mostly because the cast is so talented. The standout is unquestionably Jamie Bell, a fine-featured youth who moves effortlessly from gawky to graceful as Billy’s talents are refined; this newcomer does an amazing turn, not only in terms of his dancing (which is fine, as one would expect), but also on the acting side, showing the youth’s toughness as well as his vulnerability. He’s matched by Lewis as Billy’s father; he beautifully catches the incredulity of the man at the realization of his son’s skill, and a scene in which he turns scab in a desperate attempt to make money for the boy’s tuition is surprisingly powerful. Walters, though she’s the best-known member of the cast and is top-billed, is really playing a supporting role here. Nonethless she achieves a nice combination of gruffness and understanding. Jamie Draven is good, if a trifle too broad, as Tony, while Jean Heywood keeps grandma Elliot on this side of caricature.

There are flaws in “Billy Elliot.” One long dance sequence in the streets of the town, in which the boy expresses his need to break free of the confines of his situation, goes too far in the direction of the famous barn scene in “Footloose,” even if it is well executed. The epilogue, which gives us a glimpse of Billy’s future and his family’s reaction to it, is overly pat and, to this viewer at least, rather badly staged; it strives too hard to be uplifting in every sense. But there’s so much that’s right about the picture that these are mere quibbles. And in Jamie Bell it has a young performer of such grace and poignancy that he virtually silences criticism. He may never make another film, but this one is quite good enough.

AMERICAN PSYCHO

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B+

If style were everything, Mary Harron’s filmization of Brett
Easton Ellis’ notorious 1991 novel would have to be called an
absolute masterpiece. As it is, the picture is a gorgeous
work of cinematic artifice throughout its 97-minute running-
time, but only the first two-thirds match its craft in terms of
content; the last half-hour, though still fascinating to
watch, becomes progressively less coherent, and the denouement
more confusing than satisfying. Still, “American Psycho” is a
remarkable achievement on so many levels that it would be a
shame if it were dismissed with the same kind of blind contempt
as the novel (rather unjustly) was.

Ellis’ book, of course, was so controversial–it was widely
condemned as misogynistic–that its appearance was actually
delayed when its first publisher decided not to go ahead with
the printing. And when it finally did come out (in a cheaper
paper format), it was savagely reviewed, and damned by slews
of people who never bothered to read it. To be sure, it is a
flawed work: its device of relying on endless streams of
expensive brand-name products to get across its attitude toward
eighties materialism is overused, becoming repetitious and
tiresome over the course of some 400 pages. But it’s a serious
effort, if an imperfect one.

Harron’s adaptation is an improvement on the source. Cleverly
drawing some major episodes from the novel while discarding a
great many others (the book, after all, was hardly the best-
organized piece), Harron and co-writer Guinevere Turner (who
also plays a brief role as one of the psycho’s victims) have
turned the original into an icily cool, cerebral black comedy
about a soulless Reagan-era Wall Street yuppie who’s capable
of assuaging his inner emptiness, it would appear, only through
acts of mayhem, whether sexual, murderous, or both. Patrick
Bateman (a moniker obviously derived from that other American
psycho Norman Bates)is all expensive surface, and his obsession
with appearances and one-upsmanship is what finally leads him
to acts of uncommon brutality, even if–as the film’s portrayal
of him suggests–the inclination was there all the time. The
picture is as much a dark meditation on the time in American
history that Bateman represents as much as it is a serial-
killer movie in any real sense.

Bateman’s vacuity is beautifully caught by Harron’s placing
him in settings of chilly perfection, showing him single-
mindedly fretting over his physique, and having him babble on
endlessly about perceived slights and injustices. He and
his buddies seem never to do any real work, but they’re loaded
with dough, and their idea of a catastrophe is to fail to get
a reservation at a newly-in eatery or to have observers find
a competitor’s business card more impressive than their own.
(A particularly cutting scene is built around that very curious
rivalry.) Bateman’s notion of an “intellectual” activity is
to comment, in hilariously overblown ways, on such contemporary
musical artistes as Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and Whitney
Houston. In short, the problem with poor Patrick is that
there’s essentially nothing there behind the poses.

And to fill the void he indulges (or at least seems to indulge)
in bursts of sexual and physical violence. These are portrayed
here in far less graphic and direct a fashion than was the case
in the book; the presentation is as stylized as it was in “A
Clockwork Orange” (before the first murder Bateman even does a
little dance reminiscent of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence
from Kubrick’s film) and often the director cuts away to avoid
the more gruesome possibilities. Moreover, an undercurrent of
nasty humor is maintained even at the most brutal moments.

For the first sixty minutes this approach works beautifully,
affording much creepy amusement as well as tension. (Even the
title sequence, which fools us into thinking we’re watching
spurts of blood when we’re actually seeing something equally
central to the picture’s spirit, is a marvelous conceit.) And
Christian Bale makes Bateman a wonderfully off-the-wall
protagonist. (One can only imagine what a totally different,
much inferior effect would have resulted had Leonardo DiCaprio,
as originally suggested, taken the role.) Bale’s tall, lanky
presence suggests a buffed-up Anthony Perkins–a perfect
touch (accentuated by the mood of Bateman’s conversations with
a detective played by Willem Dafoe, which hearken back to
Norman Bates’ interrogation by Martin Balsam’s Mr. Arbogast)
–but to it he adds an arch, refined vocal style that
recalls another curious cinematic villain–Jeremy Irons’ highly
mannered Claus von Bulow in “Reversal of Fortune.” The
combination is a fine joke, splendidly realized. And if the
women surrounding Bale–played by such excellent actresses as
Reese Witherspoon, Samantha Mathis, Chloe Sevigny and Cara
Seymour–aren’t nearly as engrossing, it’s more the fault of
the story than the performers: after all, we’re seeing them
necessarily from Bateman’s egocentric perspective.

Unfortunately, the film’s virtues are diluted in the picture’s
final half-hour, when the protagonist goes totally off the
tracks and supposedly engages in acts of massive slaughter.
Two sequences in particular (one involving a blood-soaked
apartment, a chainsaw, and a chase through a strangely silent
corridor, and the other a police pursuit) take the picture into
the realm of the surreal–not without purpose, since they’re
followed by an ending which suggests that Bateman’s descent
may not have been into slaughter but fantasy, and that the
character’s emptiness has become external as well as internal.
But while that’s a perfectly defensible denouement (and the
episodes themselves are still stylistically quite impressive),
the construction and staging of this last act of the script
don’t possess the sure grasp of the picture’s earlier portions,
and viewers are apt to leave disconcerted and mystified.

Some will argue that, like its protagonist, Harron’s “American
Psycho” is a thing of surface beauty but inner emptiness. That
would, however, be unfair. The picture may lose its footing
toward the close, and its observations might not be exactly
profound, but it’s not merely an exercise in style–it has
ideas, although they’re somewhat muddled. And a fair-minded
viewer should, in any event, be able to appreciate the
remarkable level of craft on display in a cinematic feast like
this one, even if he finds the dish as a whole only partially
satisfying.