2003 TIFF Update #6: "Hard Boiled"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Some might think that the weather is irrelevant at a film festival. After all, most of the time is spent indoors in a theater. The truth is, however, that bad weather is as big an enemy of film festivals as it is of outdoor amusement parks. In fact, just about the only thing done under cover is movie-watching. Much of the travel from theater to theater and the line standing occurs out in the open. Nothing can put a bigger damper on a good movie than entering it after having stood outside for 30 minutes in a downpour. Even those with umbrellas are likely to be soaked. Fortunately, the weather this year couldn't be more perfect (although, sadly, the movies could). The temperatures are temperate and there hasn't been a drop of rain since I arrived (nor is there expected to be until late in the weekend). This year, for gloomy, rainy atmosphere, festival attendees have to rely on the filmmakers.

Which brings me to some movies about crime and punishment, all of which work better than the failed Carl Franklin/Denzel Washington feature, Out of Time (discussed yesterday).

These days, it seems that nearly every television series ever devised for the small screen is getting a motion picture treatment. The trend arguably started with Star Trek, but gained steam in the late '90s as Hollywood recognized how little creative effort was required to recycle old, familiar material. The Singing Detective, however, is a little different. In the first place, the original six-part BBC mini-series was not watched by tens of millions of people; it showed on PBS in the mid-1980s and garnered a small-but-passionate audience. It was an important TV event, but only for those with an artistic bent. Most mainstream viewers either never heard of it or tuned in then quickly changed the channel when they discovered that it was "weird." In the second place, the movie adapatation is not intended to please mindless audiences. Despite the presence of Mel Gibson (who is almost unrecognizable) in the cast, this film will not be a box-office blockbuster, primarily because teenagers won't be interested. The film's screenplay was written by the late Dennis Potter, who created the mini-series, so there's no question of someone other than the original author taking over the property and ruining it. The Singing Detective (the movie) is as much Potter's vision as The Singing Detective (the TV series).

Potter wrote the screenplay for The Singing Detective in 1992, two years before his death. It kicked around in Hollywood for nearly a decade before director Keith Gordon, star Robert Downey Jr., and producer Mel Gibson became attached. From there, it ended up on the fast track. The result is a fine example of entertainment - an eclectic mix of drama, film noir, and comedy, with plenty of fantasy musical numbers thrown in for good measure. The style isn't nearly as offbeat as that of the television show, but that's in large part due to time constraints. At 109 minutes, the motion picture is less than one-third as long as its inspiration.

Downey Jr. plays Dan Dark, a pulp fiction author who is flat on his back in a hospital, suffering from a debilitating skin condition. If anything, his mind is in worse shape than his body. As he slowly recovers, he imagines scenes from his first novel, The Singing Detective, with himself as the lead character, a gumshoe who croons on the side. His ex-wife, Nicola (Robin Wright Penn), visits him at the hospital and plays a key part in his imaginings. He also has dreams and visions of his childhood, where he saw his mother (Carla Gugino) have an affair with his father's partner, Mark Binney (Jeremy Northam). His psychotherapist, Dr. Gibbon (Mel Gibson), believes that things he experienced as a child have led to his bleak view of life and sudden outbursts of violent temper. It is Gibbon's job to heal Dan's mind in tandem with his recovering body. Other characters who float through Dan's real world and imaginary one are pretty Nurse Mills (Katie Holmes)and a Laurel-and-Hardy-like pair of hoods (Adrian Brody, Jon Polito).

There are three major differences between the TV series and the movie. The setting has been changed from post-WWII London to 1950s Los Angeles, resulting in a shift in the musical numbers. Instead of '40s British pop songs, they have become early rock 'n roll tunes. Most of The Singing Detective storyline has been jettisoned. The film dramatizes some scenes from Dan's books, but, unlike in the mini-series, it is not developed as a parallel storyline. Finally, the ending is more optimistic. When Potter wrote the TV program, he was going through a bleak period in his life. By the early '90s, he had mellowed considerably, and that change in persepective is reflected in the movie's conclusion.

In order to present the story without alienating or confusing the viewer, director Gordon has employed a different style for each aspect of the movie. The real-life hospital scenes are presented with a bright, antiseptic look. The Singing Detective scenes are very stylized, with lots of shadow and darkness. The dream/memories also have a somewhat "unreal" feel to them, but it's not as strong as the book sequences. Then there are the song-and-dance numbers, which aren't depicted as big production numbers, but employ stages and colored lights. Two of the most memorable are "At the Hop," where doctors bicker over how to treat Dan, and "Mr. Sandman," in which he imagines a sweet romance with Nurse Miles.

Personal problems notwithstanding, Robert Downey Jr. is one of the best under-40 actors working today, as his multi-faceted performance here illustrates. The Singing Detective displays his range. He goes from scenes in which he shows explosive rage to fantasy sequences where he lip sychs to '50s standards and sends up film noir conventions. This is very much Downey Jr.'s movie, much as the TV series belonged to Michael Gambon. Mel Gibson, wearing a skullcap and coke-bottle glasses (and recognizable only because of his voice), Katie Holmes, and Robin Wright Penn, are effective in understated supporting performances. And Adrian Brody and Jon Polito are hilarious as the two hapless thugs who come after their creator in a quest to discover their identities.

The Singing Detective works not primarily because it's a strange and original brew, but because it accomplishes its goals without seeming to force things. The blending of reality with dreams, memories, and imagination is done flawlessly, aided by the occasional appearance of a fictional character in the hospital, the way in which some individuals suddenly and unexpectedly break into song, or the use of actors to play multiple roles. Many of the real people in Dan's life have alter-egos in his book. Ultimately, the film is about one man coming to grips with his demons and finding the path to redemption, but the process by which this is accomplished is much different from what one normally encounters in movies.

Fantasy gives way to reality for Veronica Guerin, the Joel Schumacher-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced story of the Irish reporter who was murdered in 1996 when her investigations ruffled the feathers of one too many crime bosses. For 90 minutes, this is an effective look at the attempts of a dedicated wife and mother to make a difference. However, in an effort to soften the tragic ending and make Guerin's death seem more noble, the screenplay forces us to endure a five minute epilogue in which all the bad guys are rounded up and thrown in jail, and the war on drugs in Dublin is declared to be won. What a way to nearly spoil an otherwise effective motion picture.

Veronia Guerin chronicles the last two years in the lead character's life as she movies from writing "safe" stories for her newspaper to delving into organized crime. The catalyst that transforms Guerin (Cate Blanchett) from a bystander to an activist is visiting a Dublin neighborhood and seeing children playing with disused heroin needles. She begins to name names and attempt to interview some dangerous people: Martin Cahill (Gerry O'Brien), the infamous "General;" Gerry "The Monk" Hutch (Alan Devine); John Traynor (Ciaran Hinds), a.k.a. "The Coach;" and, most dangerous of all, John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley). After receiving warnings about sticking her nose where it doesn't belong, Veronica begins to receive more tangible reminders - threats to her family, a gunshot in the leg, a vicious beating, and, eventually, a hail of bullets that ends her career and life. Her June 26, 1996 death made newspapers around the world, and she became one of the most famous journalists killed in the line of duty.

For most of the film, Schumacher gets things right. His approach is straightforward and doesn't require any fancy photographic trickery. (The film also makes a nice companion piece to John Boorman's The General, with Brendan Gleeson as Cahill.) Schumacher also doesn't shy away from depicting violence. The unexpected, brutal beating that Veronica receives at the hands of one of her quarries is especially effective because it is shocking. Veronica Guerin builds the lead character into a three-dimensional woman, not just a righteous crusader. In one scene, we see Veronica crying in her husband's arms because she's frightened of what might happen to her. The epilogue is a mistake, but not an unforgivable one, and, despite the irritating dirge, it does not undo all the good things that come before it.

With this movie, Cate Blanchett adds another fine performance to her resume. She effortlessly brings Veronica's passion and courage to the fore, while also depicting her as loving mother, wife, and daughter, and by showing the very human side of her that fears the demons she has unleashed. As her main adversary, John Gilligan, Gerard McSorley is a frightening individual, and there's not a thing about his performance that's campy or over the top. No recent villain, real or imaginary, has unsettled me this much, and much of the credit for that must go to McSorley (who usually plays more genial parts).

The film is an unsual crime story in that Veronica's lone weapon is a pen, and the only way she can fight back is by writing articles. Frankly, she doesn't do much during the course of the movie except ask questions and solicit comments. This isn't a detective story; Veronica's investigations are incomplete at the time of her murder. She doesn't match up well against the men who are after her, and it's something of a miracle that she survives for as long as she does. For the most part, this is a memorable portrayal of a woman who doggedly pursued, and died for, an ideal. And, although the final pre-credits sequence tranforms Veronica Guerin into a martyr, the rest of the film shows her as a flawed, believable human being.

I'm Not Scared, the latest movie from Italian director Gabriele Salvatores (whose Mediterraneo won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1992), tells of a crime and its impact from the point-of-view of a ten-year old boy. What begins as a fairly commonplace coming-of-age story (a genre that is prevalent amongst imports) gradually develops into a mystery, then a thriller. By keeping our perspective in synch with that of the young protagonist, Salvatores allows the film to generate more intrigue than the plot, if presented in straightforward manner, might allow.

It's the summer of 1978, and Michele (Giuseppe Cristano) and his family are spending the season as any rural Southern Italian family might. When he isn't required to do chores, Michele is out playing with his friends, doing dares, and riding his bicycle. One day, while searching around an abandoned building, Michele discovers a covered pit. At the bottom is a boy named Filippo (Mattia Di Pierro), who is constrained from leaving by a chain around his leg. At first, Michele is intimidated by the boy, but he eventually climbs down into the hole and makes contact. He and Filippo initiate a tentative friendship. For Michele, key questions remain. Who is Filippo? And why is he trapped in the pit? Gradually, the answers become clear, and they have disturbing implications for Michele, his mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), his father (Dino Abbrescia), and a Brazilian stranger named Sergio (Diego Abatantuono), who has only recently arrived in the village.

The most impressive thing Salvatores has accomplished with I'm Not Scared is the successful fusion of multiple genres. The nostalgic, innocent flavor of a period-piece coming-of-age tale is very much in evidence, but it gives way to a growing sense of unease as we realize that all is not right in this seemingly idyllic village. By the final act, this has become a thriller, with the possibility of death or other bad consequences looming over the young protagonist. What makes this such an interesting movie is the screenplay's perspective. How many movies of this sort are made with the world seen through the eyes of a ten-year old? (The only other recent example I can recall is 1992's Flight of the Innocent, also from Italy.) Things that might be obvious to adults are not obvious to Michele, and Salvatores successfully keeps us in the dark with him.

The acting is strong across-the-board. Internationally, the best-known of the cast members is Aitana Sanchez-Gijon (A Walk in the Clouds, The Chambermaid on the Titanic), whose role is a staple of the coming-of-age movie: the strong mother whose driving goal is to keep her family safe and together. Diego Abatantuono, who plays the close-mouthed Sergio with more than a hint of the ominous, is a familiar actor in Italy, and previously appeared in Mediterraneo. For Giuseppe Cristiano and Mattia Di Pierro, this represents their film debut, and both aquit themselves admirably. We never see the actor behind the character.

Miramax Films, the North American distributor of I'm Not Scared, is pushing the film heavily - not surprising, considering the number of awards it has won at film festivals. With its unique perspective on both the coming-of-age and thriller genres, the movie deserves to be seen by a wider audience than the one that normally frequents subtitled movies.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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