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Monday, July 26, 2010

American Psycho 2: Shut up, Meg

The relationship between this sequel and its predecessor is flawed. American Psycho 2 would likely be a better film if it weren't for American Psycho. For the record, the 2000 original is one of my favorite films. Out of context, the dialogue is very distinctive. It is dark, narcissistic, edgy, and often hilarious. In context, it creates an atmosphere where Bateman's insanity is indistinguishable from the backdrop of 1980s superficiality.

Very few people involved in the sequal noticeably give a damn about the original. But as "Brian," Robin Dunne delivers his lines like he belongs in a junior version of the American Psycho world. Frankly, I really appreciate that. This film could not have disappointed me, because I had zero expectations. I wish that as long as these films shared a title, more of the writing and acting could have played along.

For instance, Mila Kunis' narrative segments could have bounced between exceedingly blase and seething intensity, as Christian Bale did as Patrick Bateman. Or Kunis could have composed something unique to subtly indicate her mental disturbance. Unfortunately, I kept hearing Meg Griffin's voice from "Family Guy" and responded the way Seth MacFarlane has conditioned me to.

Except Kunis' character can't afford to have a tell, because in order to hide her crimes, she has to blend in as a typical teen (Yeah, teen. Not many college freshmen can order drinks on a date). The most wonderful aspect of American Psycho is that though Bateman can hardly conceal his madness, his slips go unnoticed in a mad world.

Additionally, it is my contention that the violence perpetrated in American Psycho does not occur in the real-life narrative. Rather, these are fantasies had by a man who has no other way to relate to others. Bateman has no real relationships with other people. He works and plays with the same group, but they are certainly not friends. Thus they are reducible to obstacles and entertainment objects. Like most anyone else, his ability to hate others is not proportionate to his knowing them.

Patrick Bateman is a man in a perpetual state of road rage, but rather than honk and curse, he engages in a violent fantasy. The fantasy alone is innocuous, but the confession at the end of the film could indicate the dissatisfaction and loneliness of a man starved for human contact that is not mediated by superficiality and self-centeredness.

American Psycho 2 invalidates the above theorizing by firmly establishing Bateman as a serial killer. But if that were the simple truth, nothing about the first film would be nearly as interesting. Not to say that the sequel isn't entertaining, but it does not really inherit the legacy of the original in the way a sequel ought to.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wait Until Dark, and films based on plays

It's time to pay respect to my all-time favorite film, Wait Until Dark, directed by Terence Young from 1967. This picture stars Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman unknowingly in possession of a doll filled with heroin. Trying to locate the doll are three criminals, played by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston. These men devise and perform an elaborate con to gain access to the apartment and talk their way to the doll. The film builds to a harrowing climax which takes place in total blackness (the theatrical run carried a warning that the theater was to be darkened to the legal minimum lighting for this scene).

I absolutely love everything about this movie. The performances are captivating and the plot is intricate and detailed. But what I can identify as its greatest asset is the dialogue. Wait Until Dark was adapted from a play written by Frederick Knott, so the task of sorting out what does and doesn't work in the plot had already been tested on live audiences. This results in a finely-tuned film that conserves its resources. The plot is totally dialogue driven, and is supported by visual cues. This style of screenwriting doesn't show up much anymore. It's tough to keep dialogue interesting.

The Big Sleep (1946) comes to mind, where Raymond Chandler's book was adapted as a film that sounded a lot like a book on tape. It's embarrassing to admit to being bored by a classic, but I think we've come away from that mode of storytelling in film for good reason. Wait Until Dark isn't wordy, but it somehow manages to develop its intensity through verbal exchanges, without relying on anything too over-the-top. That makes it lifelike.

Years ago, I started listening to movies to fall asleep (any music keeps me awake). I eventually moved on to old time radio programs from (which I can't recommend enough), but ever since I have heard Wait Until Dark dozens of times. This film has a lot in common with radio dramas, because it's quite possible to enjoy the film without any visual aid. I discovered this when I tried to let Psycho run at bedtime and was awakened in the most horrible panic a third of the way through, every night. Changing over to Wait Until Dark was a good choice.

I typically enjoy films based on plays, because the director recognizes that he has serviceable material on his hands and tends to approach it with respect, so we end up with everything great about the original, plus very tasteful film-only additions, like fully-imagined sets and evocative music. Other films in this style that I can recommend include Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Dial M for Murder (1954, also written by Knott).