The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; Party Monster; Mystic River; Spellbound

 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Because the main characters in this extravagant adventure are literary figures, most of the critics seemed to be expecting some kind of literary and literate film. What with Alan Quartermain from King Solomon's Mines, Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Tom Sawyer, The Invisible Man (or, at least, someone who stole his formula, both Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray (and eventually his portrait) and one woman, Jonathan Harker's wife, Mina, who had, of course, been vampirised by Dracula. And the villain is... well, only by seeing the film will you find out who that
literary villain is (and an excellent choice it is at that).

But... The screenplay is based on what were once were comic books and now are Graphic Novels. Author Alan Moore has had his graphic novel on Jack the Ripper filmed under the title From Hell. Graphic novels are not strong on words. It is the simple and straightforward image that counts. So it is here (with pounding sound engineering to add to the atmosphere). The characters all display their idiosyncrasies (with explanations for those who are wondering who all these people are and why they have been summoned). The enjoyment is in the imagining of their interactions.

It is 1899 and a villain called The Phantom has developed tanks and other weapons of mass destruction. He is using them to provoke an arms race and then a war between Britain and Germany. His contemporaries are stuck in the more single combat, bright uniform ideas of war and to imagine a world war seems infinitely fanciful. The M of 1899 summons this league to stalk the Phantom and thwart his ambitions.

An old priest friend once remarked that in movies, he liked a good stoush. This is a film with stoushes galore, and them some. It is full of explosions and mayhem, which makes dialogue sometimes superfluous. After all this is a motion picture of a graphic novel. Sean Connery is himself as Quartermain (but acknowledging he now needs glasses for long distance shooting). Captain Nemo is Indian (which reviewers assure us is genuine. Stuart Townsend is appropriately Wildean and dilettante as Dorian Grey. Jason Flemyng has to double as the slight Jeckyll and gross makeup that
makes him look like an ancestor of The Hulk.

The twist may be a bit obvious, but it is the identity of the obvious that is intriguing - as long as you know your literature of the time.

Party Monster

There have been several films about the club scene in New York City, for instance, The Last Days of Disco and 54. This is a story of the club scene of the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, a time of hedonism and a cult of celebrity just for being there (and trying to demonstrate how eccentric you were). It was a period of drugs in abundance. And it led to mindless violence.

A young man from the mid-west, Michael Alig came to New York, hung on to the coattails of party goers and established himself as the king of mad parties, on subways, in diners in the Limelight club. They were gaudy and self-indulgent, often using horror movies for a bloodfest motif. He persuaded Peter Gatien, the owner of the Limelight to bankroll him. He relied on his love-hate relationship with cross-dresser, James Saint James, and a strong of acolytes, both men and women.

Alig and one of his friends murdered their drug dealer, cut up and disposed of the body and boasted about what they had done. Alig is now serving a gaol sentence for manslaughter.

Soon after the trial, documentarists Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato made a film for television, with interviews of the main protagonists, including Alig and his mother and James Saint James. The video clips of the actual parties were fascinatingly repellent. The film-makers gave information, dates and situated their story within a historical context. It was called Party Monster. Now the directors have used the same title for a feature film. It offers portraits and mood. To that extent the documentary is more real and effective. The re-created parties lack the pizzazz and drama of the clips of the real thing. They also now omit dates and times so that the events are in some indeterminate period after the death of Andy Warhol.

On the acting side, Macauley Culkin impersonates Alig as a spoilt, sometimes naive, go-getter who believes in his camp image. Diana Scarwid compares very favourably as his mother with the interviews in the documentary. In fact, one learns a bit more about her from the movie and her involvement in her son's scene. The movie is stolen, however, in an
excellent performance by Seth Green as James. The nuances and quality of his acting show up the impersonations of the other members of the cast.

But, then, you might not want to spend the time watching a group of hedonistic, self-destructive would-be somebodies.

Mystic River

At the end of Mystic River, the Columbus Day parade goes on. People celebrate the American Dream. They are not dead, as they are at the end of Dogville, but so much has died inside. One of the characters has said that the secrets and lies should come out. But, they don't. People hide their sorrows, their breaches of conscience and, sometimes defiantly, carry on.

However, Clint Eastwood's film is about how the central characters got to that situation. In his 24th film as director, making it at the age of 72, Eastwood has settled for intelligent adult drama and a dramatisation of moral issues. His film is also finely crafted, with the city of Boston and the Mystic River almost becoming characters as well. The film is quite
long, is measured in its pace and, while it does show a police investigation into a murder in some detail, the interest is always in the characters and the tangles of their interactions.

In the prologue, one of the three neighbourhood kids is abducted and molested. This crime, focussed on one boy, will have consequences and ramifications for many people and for the community decades later.

The three men are expertly portrayed, Sean Penn standing out as the punk grown into middle age, devoted to his family, grieving the murder of his daughter but deciding that he is to be the arbiter of justice. Tim Robbins does well as the man who still mourns the childhood he never had because of the abduction. Kevin Bacon (with Laurence Fishburne as his partner) is the straight-arrow successful detective. Eastwood is well served by both Laura Linney (whose speech at the end to her husband is key to the decisions made) and Marcia Gay Harden as a bewildered wife who makes a terrible
mistake of judgment.

Eastwood has contributed to our movie consciousness in so many ways. Here, he contributes reflection on our conscience.


No, not a re-release of Hitchcock's classic 40s thriller let alone a remake. This is a contemporary documentary that is more interesting and entertaining than many a fiction feature which finds release.

The title is a nice play on words. The eight children at the centre of the film are quite under the spell of the national competition that they are so diligently preparing for. In fact, they are bound for a spell - they are on their way to Washington DC for the annual national spelling bee. Who would have thought a film about spelling could be so good? However, it did provide something of a humiliation for many of us reviewers as we found that we would have been eliminated at early stages. Surely iridescent has to r's? Isn't heleoplankton spelt helioplankton? Apparently not. And so many of the words that you and I have never heard of and couldn't guess at their meanings.

What Spellbound does is take eight of the contestants and tell their stories. What emerges is a fascinating picture of multi-cultural contemporary America. Two of the finalists (and another boy we see) all come from families who migrated from India. Their hard work is admirable - although one father drives his son relentlessly. Others come from wealthy
Connecticut or rural Missouri. Not only do we get a portrait of each of the students but we learn a lot about their parents as well. The directors have been judicious in their choices providing a lot of serious insights but a great deal of humour as well. The film is often very funny.

And then there is the competition with its rather po-faced examiners grinding out the often impossible words, sometimes intimidating the children as they pronounced, gave country of origin and illustrated the word in a not always helpful sentence. I was happy with the winner - and got the final word correct: logorrhea (a bit ironic for the competition!).

LONDON - 17 October 2003 - 1,475 words

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