Tag Archives: B+

ANIMAL FACTORY

Steve Buscemi’s second feature (following the little-seen “Trees Lounge”) is an audacious film, though it hardly seems so. It’s just a small prison drama focusing on frail, mousy Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a young marijuana dealer who’s sentenced to the joint as an example of zero tolerance law enforcement. The kid doesn’t seem to have much chance of surviving long in the hostile environment (at least not unharmed), but he’s “adopted” by older, savvy con Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who undertakes to protect him and teach him the ropes, even trying to help him gain release.

Ordinarily one might imagine this relationship either to take a harsh sexual turn, or conversely to turn into a sticky, sentimental tale of platonic friendship behind bars. What’s surprising about “Animal Factory” is that, despite its genre, it avoids the pitfalls on both sides. It emulates neither Frank Darabont’s moving but calculated “The Shawshank Redemption” nor HBO’s powerful but frantic “Oz,” remaining instead nicely understated without being dull. The atmosphere is grim, but it’s never romanticized or exaggerated, and while there are occasional bursts of violence, they’re presented so matter-of-factly as to avoid appearing melodramatic. The connection between Decker and Copen, moreover, is kept satisfyingly ambiguous: sporadically one can feel a hint of sexual tension in it, but that element is never brought to the fore or played up. Instead one glimpses the hardened long-timer making sacrifices on behalf of his younger charge which have a certain gritty nobility to them, and Decker responding with a wary respect that gradually grows into something like real admiration.

The subtlety of characterization is made possible through Buscemi’s deft treatment of his actors, which employs restraint and incisiveness instead of a sledgehammer approach. Dafoe, whose sullen visage can sometimes seem merely impassive, here creates a rich, multi-textured portrait of a complex man with a hard-boiled intelligence, and Furlong puts his natural vulnerability and haunted look to good use as a young man trapped in dangerous circumstances. And the excellence goes well beyond the leads. Seymour Cassel is beautifully laid-back as a guard friendly to Copen, and Tom Arnold, of all people, does a striking turn as a redneck inmate who comes on to Decker. Most ostentatiously of all, Mickey Rourke amazes as a transvestite cellmate of Decker’s named Jan; he doesn’t overplay, but the combination of his buff bod and effeminate ways seems exactly right. All of the lesser-known supporting players offer penetrating performances, too.

“Animal Factory,” based on a novel by Edward Bunker (who has a cameo in the picture, as does Buscemi himself as a world-weary prison official), is probably too modest an effort to attract a wide audience; and its appearance on Cinemax before making its way to a few theatres won’t help, either. But as a depiction of prison conditions it seems remarkably authentic, and as a drama of a sort of redemption behind bars it makes its points with rare understatement; even the ending, which could have been played as a Big Moment, is treated in an almost throwaway fashion. One has to admire Buscemi’s film not only for its achievement, which is considerable, but also for the traps it gingerly avoids, which were equally great.

BILLY ELLIOT

“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.