Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In 1999, the highly anticipated Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released and soon followed by subsequent installments, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Returning to the director’s chair for the first time since Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, George Lucas chronicled the tumultuous events that preceded the adventures of Luke Skywalker. While a massive financial success, the Prequel Trilogy was roasted by film critics and derided by a significant portion of the franchise’s fanbase, many of whom had grown up with the Original Trilogy. Personally, I felt that Lucas had betrayed the essential elements that made those movies so magical and so special for me at such an impressionable age. The real issue I have with these movies was Lucas’ inability to recreate the feeling of excitement and wonderment of seeing the Original Trilogy for the first time and how it captivated my imagination.

After Revenge of the Sith, Lucas said that he would not make any more Star Wars movies. I resigned myself to the idea that never in my lifetime would I be able to return to Tatooine or see the Millennium Falcon fly through space, which were a part of a rich universe that has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

In October 2012, he sold the Star Wars franchise to Disney and shortly thereafter it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be directing a new movie entitled, The Force Awakens (2015). It would take place approximately 30 years after Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) and not only introduce a new generation of characters played by the likes of John Boyega, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, but also see the return of cast members from the Original Trilogy such as Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill reprising their much beloved characters.


Burned by the Prequel Trilogy, I was understandably wary of this new movie but any lingering doubts were put to rest by a strategic media blitz that reassured the faithful that Abrams was one of us. He would be shooting this new movie on film stock instead of digitally as Lucas had done with the prequels, he would be shooting on location instead of green screen soundstages, putting an emphasis on practical effects over CGI, including building a full-scale Millennium Falcon, and, most significantly, bringing back Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the screenplays for Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi, to co-write this new movie with him.

Years after the events depicted in Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone off the grid after an attempt to create a new order of Jedi went disastrously wrong, resulting in his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) going over to the Dark Side where he soon became a leading figure in the First Order, a group that rose out of the ashes of the Galactic Empire and bent on continuing Darth Vader’s plans. To this end, they want to find Luke and kill him thereby eliminating the Jedi for good. The Resistance, led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), also wants to find Luke and send their best pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his loyal droid BB-8 to find him. This takes him to the planet of Jakku where he is subsequently captured by the First Order.

Meanwhile, a reluctant First Order Stormtrooper (John Boyega) witnesses a horrible massacre of a village on Jakku and decides that he can no longer be a part of this destructive group and helps Poe escape. They return to Jakku and are separated after the Tie Fighter they stole is shot down and crashes. Eventually renaming himself Finn, he accidentally crosses paths with a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has found BB-8 with the coordinates to Luke’s whereabouts. They run afoul of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and team up to get Luke’s location to the Resistance who is gearing up to stop the First Order’s Starkiller Base, a planet converted into a superweapon that makes the previous Death Stars look like tinker toys. This new base absorbs the power of a nearby sun and redirects the energy into a blast that is capable of destroying multiple planets simultaneously.


Unlike Lucas, Abrams knows how to work with actors, especially younger ones, and get the best performances out of them. All the newcomers to the Star Wars universe acquit themselves admirably with John Boyega, Adam Driver and, especially, Daisy Ridley being the heart and soul of The Force Awakens. All three bring their characters vividly to life. Driver wisely doesn’t play Ren as a one-note villain and is given the screen-time to portray someone struggling with inner demons that threaten to engulf him. There is a satisfying character arc to Ren as he succumbs completely to the Dark Side of the Force. Ridley’s character represents hope as Rey embraces the Light Side. She is a strong-willed character more than capable of handling herself and the young actress brings an undeniable charm and charisma to the role as she does an excellent job of showing how Rey comes into her own over the course of the movie. She is smart, proactive and more than capable of getting herself out a jam. Ridley’s performance is the kind of exciting breakout role that Elle Fanning did in Abrams’ Super 8 (2011).

Boyega’s Finn is somewhere in the middle between Ren and Finn, starting off on the wrong side but as the movie progresses he makes a choice by taking a side and believing in something. Boyega also gets the bulk of the movie’s humorous moments, demonstrating fantastic comic timing and then turning on a dime when it comes to the more dramatic scenes. The scenes between him and Ridley are among some of the strongest in the movie. Initially, Finn and Rey have somewhat of an antagonistic relationship that develops into something more meaningful as they learn to trust each other with their lives. The chemistry between them is excellent and feels genuine. Unfortunately, Oscar Isaac is given not as much screen-time as I would have liked. Poe shows up early on only to disappear for most of the movie and reappears near the end in deus ex machina fashion.

For fans of the Original Trilogy there is a definite nostalgic thrill in seeing Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca and other characters again. The introduction of each one gives off its own unique emotional spark and then they are seamlessly integrated into the narrative with Han and Chewie, not surprisingly, getting some of the best moments in the movie as they banter back forth just like old times. I couldn’t help but tear up a bit when Han steps back onto the Millennium Falcon for the first time after all these years and Ford’s expression said it all, which made me wonder just how much of it was acting on his part. The veteran actor hasn’t looked this engaged in a role in a long time and it looks like he’s having a great time slipping on the blaster again. Sadly, Carrie Fisher’s Leia is mostly relegated to the sidelines in what I can only assume is a symbolic passing of the torch to Ridley’s Rey.


Clearly Abrams learned from the mistakes of the Prequel Trilogy by jettisoning annoying offensive characters like Jar Jar, utilizing actual locations whenever possible (the last scene in particular is breathtaking) and relying more on practical effects, which gives The Force Awakens a tangible quality – something that had gone missing since the Original Trilogy. Most importantly, this movie has an emotional weight and heart to it, which was sorely lacking from the prequels. For example, The Phantom Menace introduced a cool-looking villain named Darth Maul only to kill him off at the end of the movie, but it didn’t mean anything because we knew nothing about him – his fears or his motivation. Not so with Ren and this is what makes him a much more interesting character and formidable antagonist.

Structurally, The Force Awakens is a carbon copy of A New Hope albeit with a few variations but this seems intentional as Abrams and Kasdan are saying that those that don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it and this certainly applies to the First Order as they stubbornly follow in the footsteps of the Galactic Empire like some kind of perverse intergalactic version of Groundhog Day (1993). It should be interesting to see where the next installment takes it from here.

How does this Star Wars junkie feel about the first Lucas-less movie? Honestly, I’m ambivalent about it all. On the one hand, the franchise was his baby. Lucas became a legend on the shoulders of the Original Trilogy and rightly so. Almost 40 years in, my friends and I continue to gleefully debate which movie is the best. For years, we had cast Lucas out as the Darth Vader of his own universe, banished for the sin of betraying our childhood memories by constantly tinkering with his movies with needless changes. Over the years, he had gone from being an upstart rebel filmmaker to the emperor of his own vast empire. He had made the classic mistake of getting high on his own supply and had to have his own creation taken away if it was to thrive and survive thereby giving the world a new hope. By selling Star Wars to Disney, Lucas made the most beautiful sacrifice a parent can make for their children. He had to walk away from it all and let someone else take the reins and that couldn’t have been an easy thing to do.



In many respects, The Force Awakens acts as a bridge, transitioning from the Original Trilogy to a new generation. As a result, Abrams gets to have his nostalgia cake and eat it too by giving fans what they want and then building from it. Best of all, he has instilled his passion for Star Wars in every frame of this movie in a way that Lucas was unable to in the Prequel Trilogy. I was pleasantly surprised at how much this movie affected me emotionally and how invested I became in it. The Force Awakens is an unabashed entertaining and engaging movie that managed to recapture the sense of wonder from the Original Trilogy and transport me back to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Friday, December 18, 2015

King Kong

Considered to be one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, King Kong has enjoyed many cinematic incarnations, most recently Peter Jackson’s lavish love letter to the 1933 classic. There is something inherently and powerfully mythic about Kong that inspires filmmakers to revisit the monster time and time again but none have managed to best the original despite innovations in special effects technology. Why is that? At its heart, King Kong (1933) is a cautionary tale about the hubris of man and the dangers of interfering with the laws of nature.

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is a fearless adventurer/filmmaker who travels all over the world looking for dangerous animals to capture on film. He represents said hubris and sums up his larger than life ambitions quite well early on when he tells his backers, “I’m going out and make the greatest picture in the world – something that nobody’s ever seen or heard of. They’ll have to think up a lot of new adjectives when I get back.” Denham was the James Cameron of his day.

This time around, however, he has to have a woman in his movie because the public wants romance. He finds his leading lady, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), on the street, caught trying to steal a piece of fruit, and is struck by her beauty. She is just desperate enough to accept Denham’s vague yet persuasive pitch. Pretty soon, everyone is on board for a long cruise to a distant and exotic land. On this latest excursion, Denham has not disclosed to the crew of the Venture where they are going or for how long.


Once the ship reaches a certain point, Denham reveals his mission to the Captain (Frank Reicher) and the first mate, Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot): he plans to find an island not located on any map. Its denizens are far removed from civilization and worship a god known only as Kong, a mythic creature he hopes to find on the island and photograph. Denham describes him as “neither beast nor man. Something monstrous. All powerful. Still living, still holding that island in a grip of deadly fear.” It’s a tantalizing teaser that makes us want to know more.

The first 20 minutes of King Kong do an excellent job of establishing the main characters and their relationships with each other while creating an air of mystery about their destination. Denham remains elusive about his intentions until the Venture arrives at specific coordinates. They find the island and it is revealed in an atmospheric sequence that begins with a memorable shot of the ship enshrouded in fog. The closer they get, the faint sound of tribal drumming can be heard, which effectively creates a foreboding mood. The establishing shot of Skull Island is incredibly evocative and is an impressive sight to behold, capturing an eerie tone that is quite thrilling to behold.

Once Denham and his crew land on the island, they run afoul of the natives who offer Ann as a sacrifice to Kong, a giant ape. It is a fascinating snapshot of the times – the thinly-veiled xenophobia as Denham thinks he can fast talk his way through negotiations with the village chief, as if this place is just another location that is there for him to use. From this point, King Kong becomes a rousing action/adventure movie as Denham and company discover just how dangerous this island is as they encounter all sorts of lethal creatures that do a good job of thinning the away party’s numbers.


Peril lurks at every turn as Kong is forced to take out a Tyrannosaurus Rex in an exciting and fantastically-realized battle. The stop-motion animation is particularly impressive here – giving the knock-down, drag-out fight a visceral quality that is missing from Jackson’s movie with its heavy reliance on CGI re-imaging. There’s an almost tangible quality to the ’33 version that no amount of then-state-of-the-art motion capture work in Jackson’s incarnation can hope to replicate. The Kong effects still hold up after all these years and one marvels at how the big ape’s fur ripples in a given scene or how the filmmakers expertly cut back and forth from long shots of a stop-motion animated version to close-ups of his head crushing some hapless victim in his mouth or large hand or foot stomping someone that gets in his way. Conversely, the pained expression on his face when he realizes that he’s bleeding from machine gun fire during the film’s climactic battle is particularly heartbreaking.

Robert Armstrong plays Denham with the kind of can-do, might-makes-right, self-made man qualities that would be popular in many 1980s action movies. For example, once Ann is captured by Kong, Denham and Jack go rampaging through the jungle needlessly killing a dinosaur after they’ve already subdued it with gas grenades. Denham represents naked ambition – a man that will risk life and limb to get what he wants even if it means taking an impoverished woman off the street and convincing her to make a film on an exotic land far away. She’s starving and has nothing to lose, which makes her decision an easy one. He wants to capture the giant ape so badly that he even considers using Ann as bait. All he sees is dollar signs – fame and fortune no matter the cost.

Fay Wray is excellent as Ann, a woman drawn to Denham’s expedition as a way to escape her poor living conditions only to become a part of something that she hadn’t bargained for in her wildest dreams (or nightmares). Her screen test for Denham does a nice job of showcasing Wray’s acting chops as Ann has to react to her director’s instructions. The actress is so convincing that she has the ship’s crew invested in her performance. Right from her first on-screen appearance, we empathize with Ann and care about what happens to her, which is important when she arrives on the island and is immediately put in peril. Wray also has the challenge of acting opposite Kong and it is her reactions that help flesh out the creature and make him sympathetic.


Kong’s “inspection” of Ann is that of an adolescent discovering women for the first time – he’s inquisitive and tentative, intrigued by what she wears and even how she smells. It is a fascinating scene in large part because it gives Kong some depth – he’s not just some dumb monster rampaging through the jungle but rather a curious creature fiercely protective of Ann.

The movie was remade in 1976 and again in 2005 by Peter Jackson who re-imagined it as an epic, mega-budget, fanboy love letter to the original that inspired him to become a movie director in the first place. Clocking in at double the running time of the ’33 version, Jackson’s movie is an ambitious juggernaut that, like his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is ambitious in scale and scope and yet still has that personal touch.

Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a struggling Vaudevillian actress whose venue has been closed down due to poor attendance. The country is in the grips of the Great Depression and times are tough. Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a filmmaker working on an adventure film that is in danger of losing its funding. However, he has come into the possession of a map to a mysterious island that may save his film. Denham even tricks up-and-coming screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) to stay on board so that he can finish the film’s screenplay. In desperation, Denham steals the existing cans of film and assembles a cast and crew (including Ann) and sets sail for the island on his map.


Jackson follows the story structure of the original quite faithfully but fleshes out each segment so that we spend more time in New York City/on the boat, Skull Island and back in the city. He takes the elements from these segments and amplifies them. For example, Kong doesn’t fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he fights three of them! Jackson also goes to great lengths to flesh out the main characters and show what motivates them, developing their relationships. By the time we get to the action sequences we know what makes them tick, what is at stake and what they have to lose thereby making the action sequences more compelling.

He still manages to think like an independent director by inserting whimsical interludes, like those early on in the film between Denham and his assistant (Colin Hanks). It is these details that are just as important as capturing Manhattan circa 1930s. Jackson thinks on a macro and micro level unlike Michael Bay who works on a grandiose level.

The attention to period detail is incredible. ‘30s era Manhattan is faithfully recreated with the extensive use of warm, golden lighting being quite inviting. There is a scene where Denham convinces Ann to join his expedition that takes place in a diner, which looks like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Another example is the glowing, warm light that comes out of the portholes of the Venture in the background of a scene that suggests warm life and a more intimate feeling. There is a connection between the characters and all the elements in the scene.


Jackson is also a master at creating the kind of atmospheric worlds in his movies that immerse the viewer completely. The places the characters inhabit have that lived in look and an authenticity that gives this world texture. The lighting in this film is impressive with nods to Classic Hollywood cinema. For example, Naomi Watts looks absolutely radiant in the initial scenes on the boat as Jackson manages to top the visual splendor of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). In sharp contrast is his depiction of Skull Island as a horrifying, foreboding place, a harsh environment filled with jagged rocks and inhabited by nightmarish natives. There is something very unnatural about them and it’s in their wild and crazed eyes.

The movie takes us deeper into the island as the rescue party sets out to find and bring back Ann from the clutches of Kong. This is an action-packed section that manages to top anything seen in the first three Jurassic Park movies. The Brontosaurus stampede, for example, is intense and exciting as is the Tyrannosaurus/Kong rumble in the jungle.

Jackson is able to create almost unbearable amounts of tension out of every exciting chase as the rescue party is picked off by Kong and other nasties on Skull Island. He also gently guides us into terror as we go from the whimsy of the Ann-Jack romance to the tension and an unease of the fog-enshrouded, uncharted waters of the island. Its first appearance, cued by ominous music and then the sight of the massive wall appearing out of the fog is impressively staged.


At the time, Kong was arguably the most realistically CGI rendered character ever put on film (even topping Jackson’s previous achievement with Gollum from the Rings films) and this is due in large part to Andy Serkis providing the basis for the ape’s movements and the realistic expressions on the animal’s face. For example, there is a scene where Darrow performs for him and we see his mood go from anger to bemusement and back to anger when she stops. We see all of these emotions play out on Kong’s face in completely believable fashion. It really is an astounding achievement as over the course of the movie we begin to empathize with Kong just like in the original.

I’m of two minds when it comes to this cinematic incarnation of Kong. On the one hand, I appreciate the skill and artistry that Jackson instills in every single frame of his movie, but on the other hand, it still feels like nothing more than a really expensive fan letter to the original with the mandate that bigger is better. That being said, it’s a really well-made fan letter to the original.

The ’33 King Kong version is ultimately a tragic monster movie as the poor ape is taken from his natural habitat and exploited for profit only to meet an untimely demise amidst the concrete jungle of New York City. The real villain is Denham whose lust for greed results in the deaths of many people during the course of Kong. The movie is certainly a stinging indictment against the hubris of American culture imposing itself on foreign civilizations. Denham and his landing party interrupt an important ritual thereby offending the natives and they don’t expect any kind of reprisals? And then they capture Kong and exploit him like some kind of freak show for the rich and privileged to gawk at in amazement. No wonder Kong gets mad, breaks free and trashes New York City in an attempt to be alone with Ann, the woman he has fallen in love with. By the end of the movie, Denham has a lot of blood on his hands and a lot to answer for.



What makes Kong such a compelling monster that still beats all the CGI creations of today is that his creators were able to impart a personality by giving him such an expressive face that is able to convey a wide range of emotions – anger, curiosity, pain and even love. It is really a shame that most people who were raised on CGI effects laden movies probably won’t appreciate the artistry that went into making Kong and laugh at the dated effects. For those of us who grew up in the pre-CGI days, weaned on glorious Ray Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Kong still thrills. It is also one of the best action/adventure films ever made.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

24 Hour Party People

by Lady Fitzsimmons and J.D. Lafrance

“I’ll just say one thing: Icarus. If you know what I mean, great. If you don’t…you should probably read more.”

Cue the music.

This is our introduction to Tony Wilson – scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man all – is both heart-full and heartless, dependent upon whether on-camera or off – in public or in private as he stumbles onto the scene. The man of mystery that was Tony “Barabbas” Wilson, via Manchester, would take credit for everything from alternative club music to recreational pill-popping, one has to wonder how much of the product, and by-products, of “Madchester” would ever have existed if not for this strange, ego-tastic, hang-gliding creature.

The 1980s was a decade infested with bad music, from bloated hair metal to insipid New Wave music. In England, however, the city of Manchester was the breeding ground for a new generation of music. It was conceived in England’s late 1970s punk scene, when Joy Division recorded two landmark albums before their lead singer committed suicide. Arising from their ashes came New Order and, shortly thereafter, the Happy Mondays, spearheading a dance sound and movement fueled by heroin and ecstasy. At the center of it all was television presenter and demigod “producer” Tony Wilson who was so taken with the emerging music scene coming out Manchester that it moved him to partake in the creation of Factory Records. It gave him a platform to promote bands he liked; although he had a certain nose for talent, he had absolutely no sense of smell when it came to the business side of things.


After the label’s meteoric rise and fall, Wilson wrote a colorful account of it and the bands he signed through his hyperbolic point-of-view. It was material ripe for cinematic treatment with versatile filmmaker Michael Winterbottom bringing it to the big screen. Being a restless director, he’s dabbled in numerous genres, from war (Welcome to Sarajevo) to western (The Claim) to science fiction (Code 46). With 24 Hour Party People (2002), he tackles the musical biopic, but playfully turns its conventions on their head for an irreverent take that attempts to capture Wilson’s prose, as well as the spirit of the times, on film.

We go back to 1976 where Winterbottom starts poking holes in the artifice of film by having Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) address the audience – and point out the symbolism of the opening scene – in cheeky and pretentious fashion, which quickly establishes the man’s personality and also the playful, self-reflexive style that the film is going to use. Enter the Sex Pistols on a night, in a concert hall, with an audience of 42. Madchester was conceived in an orgy of synaptic fire that the musicians – both on the stage and in the crowd – created on June 4th, 1976. Instead of recreating the band’s performance, Winterbottom cuts back and forth from archival footage and his own as Tony explains the significance of this moment, how the few people in the audience were “feeding off a power, on an energy and a magic”… and drugs that would inspire the creation of Joy Division, Mick Hucknall to form Simply Red and mercurial music producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) to help create some of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Tony also held the reins of the only musical T.V. show coming out of Manchester. Not that this fed into any visions of grandeur and godliness he may have been nursing, but yeah, it did. He brought Little Known Artists, such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash to the public. From there, Tony creates a showcase for bands at a local nightclub one night a week. This was not your parents’ pub sing-a-long.


It is there that he meets Joy Division and their a decidedly mercurial introduction to lead singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) in an amusing scene where Winterbottom’s kinetic but purposeful hand-held camera captures the moment and then segues into a powerful recreation of a live performance of “Digital” with Sean Harris’ uncanny take on Curtis’ unique stage presence. Winterbottom films the band performing at certain times in black and white as an homage to Anton Corbijn’s iconic video for “Atmosphere.” It is both striking and sad. Black and white film conjures images of films from the dawn of modern culture. The digital camerawork gives its scenes a you-are-there immediacy by following the characters around, moving in close to eavesdrop on conversations.

The film grooves along and, much like Tony, flies fast and furious with the facts. Then, this isn’t a documentary. Whether Tony’s wife (Shirley Henderson) had sex with Howard Devoto (from the Buzzcocks) in a bathroom stall while Tony got head in a van out in the venue parking lot – we’ll never know for sure. To quote Tony, “… I agree with John Ford: ‘When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend.’” In a cheeky moment, the film has the real Howard Devoto appear on-screen, break the fourth wall, and comment on something that their fictional incarnation claims that never actually happened, only to be reinforced by Tony’s voiceover narration. A common complaint leveled at biopics is with their historical inaccuracies, which is ridiculous because these films aren’t documentaries – they’re artistic interpretations. This film openly acknowledges and makes fun that it plays fast and loose with the facts.

24 Hour Party People is given a comedic jolt when Tony meets Martin Hannett out in the middle of nowhere recording silence (until Tony got there… then he recorded Tony fucking Wilson) to recruit him to produce Joy Division’s debut album. Hannett was a legendary music producer and notorious perfectionist who immediately butts heads with fellow self-enthusiast Tony. Hannett proceeds to infuriate the band with his demanding approach (“Faster but slower,” he tells their drummer) and insults (“You wear it very well…now play it like a fucking musician!” he tells the bass player).


Winterbottom puts Joy Division, and what they’re doing, into historical context by having Tony narrate over actual news footage documenting neo-fascists demonstrating in the streets of London, gasoline rationing, garbage men and nurses in London going on strike, and even gravediggers in Liverpool refusing to bury the dead (with 150 bodies stored in a factory at one point)! It shows the socio-political conditions that influenced Joy Division and other bands either consciously or subconsciously. The film only touches upon the complexity of Ian Curtis’ problems that drove him to commit suicide, portraying him as something of an enigmatic figure.

People have discussed, debated and written about Joy Division – specifically, Ian Curtis’ suicide – for decades. People who didn’t know the particulars were, as I recall, offended or, at the very least, divided when it came to the suicide scene. They thought that Winterbottom was once again adding comical surreality to a human tragedy. These details – the music (Iggy Pop’s The Idiot), the movie (Werner Herzog’s Stroszek), this scene in the film – were all true. Like many funerals, sometimes one suddenly gets an urge to laugh and Winterbottom treads a fine line of being respectful to Curtis’ memory and legacy and being irreverent. “That is the musical equivalent of Che Guevara,” Tony says of Curtis while observing the singer’s body at the funeral home. He caringly leans down, kissing his friend on the forehead, saying his good-byes.

24 Hour Party People takes on a funnier, in parts more absurdist turn during the second act with the introduction of the Happy Mondays. Tony says, “I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said, ‘American lives don’t have second acts. Well this is Manchester. We do things differently here.” It’s a low point in the city’s music scene with Curtis’ death and a low point in Tony’s life with his wife leaving him. The Mondays were a chaotic, flippant band and Winterbottom adopts this tone for the second half of the film. This is evident in the scene where the Ryder brothers – Shaun (Danny Cunningham) and Paul (Paul Popplewell) – poison several hundred pigeons that start falling from the sky to the strains of “Ride of the Valkyries” in mock Apocalypse Now (1979) fashion, pigeon first-person perspective and all.


And then, a miracle of epic electric: the heavens, the powers that be, an alien spacecraft… whomever it was, decided these Merry Pranksters needed a Divine Intervention – and begat unto The Mondays and the world – Bez (Chris Coghill). He beams down in front of Shaun Ryder while Tony says in voiceover, “Every great band needs its own special chemistry and Bez was a great chemist,” while mock angelic music plays ironically. He was the catalyst that completed the Mondays, their muse and mascot.

Tony soon finds that one of the biggest differences between Joy Division and the Happy Mondays is that the former were much more serious musicians than the latter who were notoriously lazy and unfocused, testing even Martin Hannett’s resolve. More importantly, historically even more noteworthy than The Mondays’ entire back catalog, they signaled the beginning of rave culture, “the beatification of the beat,” as Tony puts it, where the disc jockey was the star. Winterbottom does a concisely creative job of showing Tony getting caught up in the hedonism of this enticing culture and lost touch with reality, thanks to a raging cocaine habit, fertilized by hanging out with The Mondays way too much. This, and his myriad of bad business decisions – allowing drugs into his nightclub, indulging the bands on his label, not bothering with proper legal and fiscal securities, to name a few – led to Factory Records’ demise.

Steve Coogan delivers a career best performance as he captures the self-mythologizing, self-importance of Tony Wilson. He’s not afraid to portray the man’s negative aspects and is clearly having fun playing a large than life figure –and the film’s Greek chorus. Coogan is also very adept at taking himself out of the film and addressing the audience in a way that feels both very natural and very funny, utilizing several styles, everything from the sad clown to pratfalls that border on self-abuse.


24 Hour Party People also features a Who’s Who of then up-and-coming English actors: Sean Harris playing Joy Division’s iconic lead singer Ian Curtis as sometimes abrasive but always with a doomed air about him; John Simm as Bernard Sumner – the guitarist for both Joy Division and New Order – a bemused figure initially but who gets increasingly tired of Tony’s antics; Paddy Considine playing Rob Gretton, the long-suffering manager of both bands; and Shirley Henderson as Lindsay Wilson, Tony’s first wife. Special mention goes to Andy Serkis’ immersive take on Martin Hannett, nailing the notoriously perfectionist producer’s mercurial personality as well as transforming himself physically into the man in his several stages. The actor manages to steal every scene he’s in, no easy feat when acting opposite someone like Steve Coogan.

Director Michael Winterbottom and producer Andrew Eaton were in a logging town in British Columbia scouting locations for The Claim (2000) and got to talking about making a film about music. Winterbottom liked Factory Records and suggested making it about the label. When they got back to England, he met with writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and told him that he was thinking about making a film about Factory Records. They had worked together previously on Butterfly Kiss (1995), Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), and The Claim (2000). Cottrell-Boyce felt so strongly about the subject matter that he told Winterbottom he’d kill him if he got someone else to write it. The writer said: “At first you think it’s the story of Ian Curtis, a rock ‘n’ roll suicide, or that of Shaun Ryder, classic rock ‘n’ roll excess,” but realized, after meeting Tony Wilson, that they were just two of many stories about the Manchester music scene, that the best way to tell them was through the T.V. show host because he was often in the middle of it all.

Cottrell-Boyce started working on the screenplay, interviewing people involved with the Manchester music scene for three to four months when Winterbottom asked him to do a rewrite on The Claim. Instead, he spent the next four days writing approximately half the script for 24 Hour Party People. He then finished rewrites on The Claim and went back to work on 24 Hour Party People. He eventually met with Coogan and they went through the script, rewriting a lot of it. Cottrell-Boyce then sent Wilson a copy of the script and “I thought he’d send out a hitman to kill me,” but instead called the writer up and asked to meet over drinks, which resulted in more changes to the script.


Winterbottom approached Steve Coogan before the script had even been written and asked if he’d be interested in starring in a film about Factory Records and Manchester. As it turned out, the actor had actually worked with Wilson in the late 1980s on a late night T.V. show and had gotten to know him for a bit. The actor even used to do an impression of the man, which anticipated his eventual casting in the role. Coogan’s take on Wilson was “that sort of foppish, self-conscious thing he has, it’s quite effeminate actually, and you can’t work out whether he’s being incredibly eloquent or just bullshitting, and it’s sort of in the middle.” Winterbottom picked Coogan because “the whole film was going to be built around that one person [Tony Wilson], we had to have someone who would really be able to not only carry the film but to create a real person out of this string of incidents.”

24 Hour Party People received mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The movie works so well because it evokes genuine, not manufactured, nostalgia. It records a time when the inmates ran the asylum, when music lovers got away with murder. It loves its characters.” In his review for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, “It’s worthwhile alone for Mr. Coogan’s fine portrayal of Mr. Wilson as a sly, cantankerous question mark of a man who provokes more queries than he answers.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “ B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “This may be the first rock movie that isn’t really about a band, or even a movement, but a scene, a vibe, and the cultish buzz that attended it.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Kevin Thomas wrote, “Coogan’s rendering of Wilson on a larger-than-life scale is endearing and quixotic. Coogan invests Wilson with a capacity for self-awareness, even at his most foolish.” The Guardian’s Philip French wrote, “If Wilson hadn’t existed, Steve Coogan, who impersonates him so engagingly, might well have invented him.” Sight and Sound magazine wrote, “But Winterbottom genuinely doesn’t seem to have an agenda beyond committing to celluloid the vibrancy of a particular scene that might otherwise have been discarded.” Finally, in his review for the Village Voice, Dennis Lim wrote, “Winterbottom and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce cultivate a tone of arch, upbeat piss-taking to recount a parade of immortal moments: alliances formed, clubs named, bands christened, signature sounds originated, deals signed in blood.” What did the real Tony Wilson think of the film? He claimed that it was “all made up. Which is good! … I tried hard to get them to make the film about the two really great stories, Curtis and Ryder, but I gave up when I realized where Coogan was going to go with it. And that’s fine. It’s his gig.”


To quote Robert Frost, “Nothing gold can stay.” Nothing great, truly sublime, can last forever, save the soul…as is thus demonstrated in the Hacienda’s last night. The spirits, the ghosts of a thousand Mancunians bloomed. As Tony says at one point: “It was like being on a fantastic fairground ride, centrifugal forces throwing us wider and wider. But it’s all right, because there’s this brilliant machine at the center that’s going to bring us back down to earth. That was Manchester. That is the Hacienda. Now imagine the machine breaks. For a while, it’s even better, because you’re really flying, but then, you fall, because nobody beats gravity.” Even though it closed in the summer of 1997, the bands that played there and the music they created lives on. This is perhaps Tony Wilson’s most fitting legacy for the manager, talent scout and raconteur helped the likes of Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays get their start and create records that have not only stood the test of time but have inspired and influenced countless others.


SOURCES

“Frank Cottrell-Boyce.” 24 Hour Party People Production Notes. 2002.

“Michael Winterbottom.” 24 Hour Party People Production Notes. 2002.


Morley, Paul. “Shooting the Past.” The Guardian. February 23, 2001.