Monday, 29 March 2010

The Blunder Years

For someone who during his school years, possessed zero co-ordination skills, instead seeking solace in comics and fantasy films, and was more than a few times on the receiving end of the dreaded “I like you as a friend” rebuff when asking girls out, I feel a particular kinship towards the short lived, eighties-set coming of age ‘dramedy’ Freaks and Geeks. In fact, having watched all the episodes (only eighteen were produced) with my girlfriend, the sense of sadness and loss I now feel is greater to than when I finally got to the end of The Wire.

For those who haven’t seen or heard of this series before, the lazy shorthand way to describe it would be “it’s The Wonder Years meets Dazed and Confused” but that really does the show a massive injustice. Created by future Hollywood one-man comedy factory ,Judd Apatow, the freaks and geeks of the title are two social groups who exist on the outside fringe of popular high school society. Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a straight-A student and a dedicated ‘mathelite’ who’s growing desire to rebel and forge his own identify leads to hanging out with the freaks - a band of misfits, including one Seth Rogen (looking really young), whose exchanges literally take place under the school stairs and sports stands (I believe ‘bleachers’ is the correct US term) - these setting cleverly reflecting the groups own social standing. Lindsey’s younger brother Sam (Bones regular John Francis Daley) is part of the trio of Dungeons & Dragons playing, sci-fi loving geeks. The two siblings act as the main focal point for each group, and we also get the chance to see the changes at home as their parents feature in each episode.

One aspect of the show which I found particularly impressive is the darker tone and the depiction of kids living outside the accepted norm - something which is not really represented in this genre. Presumably this was part of the reason why it didn’t catch on with the mainstream. The familiar twin adolescent themes of acceptance and alienation are instantly recognisable and have been covered in other shows before, but it’s done here without the usual clichéd ‘life lessons learned’ moments and with dialogue which hasn’t been written by adults who have no actual memory of what it was like to have lived and talked as a teenager, choosing instead to showcase their verbal dexterity (Dawson’s Creek scribe Kevin Williams is one such culprit, amongst many others). Conflicts here go unresolved and the school experience is never given a sugar-coated treatment. To say I was a huge fan of The Wonder Years growing up would be a vast understatement, but having revisited a number of episodes recently, I found it hard to swallow some of Kevin Arnold’s more wistful and overly-sentimental voice over and some of the more syrupy content.

Freaks and Geeks has only had a limited showing over here in the UK, and to very little fanfare. This is a real shame because aside from being well-written and incredibly astute in its observations of teenage hardship, the ensemble cast are amazing. Having seen all of Apatow’s work on the big screen beforehand, it was a nice surprise to see the number of actors here who have gone on to populate his films. Amongst the standouts (and there are many) is Martin Starr. Playing one of the geeks, he delivers a brave and vanity-free performance which alternates between hilarity and heartbreak, sometimes in the same episode.  In fact, it’s a performance that is so on the money, I can only guess that he was somewhat living the part. Starr was the housemate who was ridiculed for refusing to shave his beard in Knocked Up, and I’ve seen him in other smaller comedic roles, mostly within the Apatow-produced stuff. Full-blown stardom can’t be far around the corner - he could easily carry a film like Rogen and Jason Segal (another successful cast member to go onto bigger things).

Perhaps the best comment on love and relationships during the teenage years can be found in an episode which involves Sam finally realising he doesn’t have anything in common with his dream girl, who he’s managed to start dating. He takes her to see The Jerk which she doesn’t find remotely funny, arguing that “it’s just dumb” when challenged by Sam. It’s perfect in its simplicity. There’s no big dramatic break-up scene where the two contemplate a life without each other and feel the need to explain away their differences in agonising detail (I’m paddling back up that Creek again). Just as The Wonder Years turned me onto all kinds of music from that era, Freaks and Geeks has a great selection of music which really helps to compliment the strong period detail established. It’s also led me to download a number of tracks by self-indulgent, delightfully over-the-top progressive rock masters like Rush and Styx.

Above all, Freaks and Geeks is an engaging slice of nostalgia which champions diversity and illustrates the notion that your social status and attitude in school doesn’t necessarily reflect how you will turn out in later life. If only this programme had been made a decades or so earlier, it may have made my transition from adolescent through to adulthood much smoother.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Stuff I own on Region 1

3. Lone Star

It’s truly puzzling when films like this are readily available in the Region 2 format and this John Sayles gem from 1996 isn’t. It’s a fantastic movie and up there with Matewan as Sayles’ greatest work.

The usual ingredients of his films are present here – astute social commentary, a brilliant ensemble cast and riveting dialogue - but all this is also framed within an intriguing and engrossing murder mystery, which begins when old bones belonging to a racist sheriff who vanished without trace decades before, are found. This discovery stirs up old feelings and secrets within a mixed American and Mexican community. Sayles regular Chris Cooper plays the sheriff of the town who suspects his own late father, the sheriff before him, of having a hand in his colleague’s death.

Matthew McConaughey plays the role of Cooper’s father, giving a truly commanding performance in the beautifully staged flashback sequences. Why McConaughey has sullied his career by starring almost exclusively in crappy, lifeless romantic comedies is beyond me. This role, together with his turn in Dazed and Confused, really signalled the arrival of an actor who had the potential to encapsulate the style of classic Hollywood players like Newman and McQueen. Shame.

Seek this out if you can as it really deserves to be seen.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

A cinematic coming-out tale or: How I stopped worrying and learned to embrace my inner geek

“I’ve got one for you - what was the real name of the black guy in Aliens?” This was the question fired at me by a work colleague and fellow film enthusiast back in my early twenties. He knew of course, and so did I, although I wasn’t letting on. Yaphet Kotto was the actor in question (a name which admittedly, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue). I first knew of him as the freaky Bond villain in Live and Let Die, and later as the third lead in Paul Schrader’s directorial debut Blue Collar - a film I admired greatly. Also, he was one of the heavies who met an early demise at the hands of Schwarzenegger on the hunt for his kidnapped daughter “Chenni” in the classic Commando. No wait…..that was Bill Duke. Kotto played opposite Arnie in The Running Man (with Duke subsequently going on to star with Arnie again in Predator, alongside another Running Man co-star, Jessie Ventura). I was well aware of Yaphet Kotto and his films, but all I did was feign forgetfulness and eventually stuttered “is it someone who name begins with Y or something?”

Back then, I considered my encyclopaedic film knowledge more of a curse than a blessing. Having recently starting seeing my first, long-term serious girlfriend, I felt I had to keep my passion largely suppressed, as I was initially afraid that she may be put off. As a result of this, I would find myself in social situations with her, grinning through clenched teeth when someone in our company made a filmic faux-pas that I knew I could easily rectify.

When a rabid football supporter names his or her children after favourite players, no one bats an eyelid. If I were to christen my new-born Martin Quentin Ethan Wes Joel Paul Thomas Lowes, I would be mocked and ridiculed till the end of my time on this earth. I’ve never heard the term ‘footy geek’ (or even ‘sports geek’ for that matter), banded around as an insult. Is it because sports are seen as a more mainstream and masculine pursuit, as opposed to the cineaste, who festers away fervently absorbing vast quantities of films, usually within the constraints of a dark room?

Two things eventually helped me to reveal what I had been concealing for so long. Although I had a couple of friends who were as well-versed in cinema as myself, it was the internet where I finally discovered that not only were there thousands of likewise geeks (some who possessed an even richer degree of filmic knowledge), but that some were actually making a fantastic career out of it, reaching a huge amount of fans via a grass-roots level and gaining levels of readership that the esteemed, old-school circle of film critics could only dream of. Secondly, there came a point as I reached my mid-twenties when the devastating realisation that I would never attain anywhere near the Fonz-level of cool I had once dreamed of, finally dawned on me. It was time to come to terms with who I was.

Nowadays I’m only too happy to wax lyrical about the latest Coen brothers feature to anyone in earshot, regardless to whether they’re interested or not. The number of hours devoted to reading film news and gossip on-line and the constant cross-referencing on IMDB is sometimes frowned upon but otherwise accepted by my other half who amazingly, still wanted to share her life with me after I revealed everything to her in the early stages of our relationship. Although being much more open about my love for cinema in general, I have found a way to keep a lid on it sometimes, in much the same way as Bruce Banner fights to attain the ability to control his inner urges and preventing himself from ‘Hulking out’.

Just don’t try and convince me that Michael Bay is an underappreciated auteur. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.