Monday, March 16, 2009

Beginner's Luck: A Very Biased Review

This is a review of James Callis and Nick Cohen's movie Beginner's Luck. It was co-written and co-directed by James, so it's kind of a big deal. Check out kixxa's beautiful images of the movie here. There's a description of the movie and characters at the Unofficial website here, and it looks like it might have been written by James himself. It's quite an old film, so I'm totally chalking up all weak points to "James was very young then".

To be honest, I feel like I'm not objective enough to review this film. I haven't had any personal contact with James, but after eight months of fangirling, I do feel close to him on a personal level, so it was like watching a family member's film. You want to like it, you really do. You see the sweat and tears of making it, their enthusiasm for the project, but then it's like... eh, this doesn't really work. It's awkward. I can't, in good conscience, gush over this film. My girlfriend was actually surprised - she said she thought that no matter how lame it was, I'd still be all "James is a genius!" I'll admit that I still consider him a genius, and I'm sure that today, James sees the film differently and doesn't necessarily feel it's his best work ever. So maybe I can be a bit critical.


This is a semi-autobiographical movie about a theatre group, the Vagabonds, made up of young people with lots of enthusiasm and very little experience. Mark Feinman, played by James, is the central character. He has these visions of an island and decides that directing Shakespeare's The Tempest would help create the island. Of course, everything goes terribly wrong.

There are three big problems with the film: zero budget, zero experience from the filmmakers, and little to no coherence in terms of narrative style. It's a mishmash: there's a voice-over, there are documentary style interview bits, dream sequences, montages. There's just too much going on here at the same time. The editing is choppy at places and it seems like a lot has been cut off. However, from the making of documentary, it sounds like the editing was a harrowing process for both James and Nick, and their enthusiasm was lost at that point. Sadly, this comes through in some places and contributes to the overall bleak mood of the film. It's not a bad film, all in all; there are things that work, and the story itself is pretty good. You get the feeling that they wanted to do a lot more, but didn't have the means to really realize their vision.

What worked:

There are two parts of the movie that I think work well. One is the opening night. I've watched it several times and it still makes me laugh. The seedy strip club. Magic Bob's lovely presentation - "They're just beginners, they need your compassion, their heart's in the right place" - and the whole disaster that unfolds when nobody except Anya can act. Overactor Jason screaming desperately, "There's no harm done!!! No harm!!!" George, the pillar of confidence, picks up his ringing cell phone: "I'm a bit busy at the moment" - and just goes on with the play like nothing happened. Alex, who looks on the verge of tears: "I be-beseech you sir... be merry." The ruthless critic who actually bursts into laughter. The disaster when the light display on the wall breaks down. This was all a lot of fun and lifted the mood of the movie.

The other bit I liked a lot is the whole Paris arc. This is where they're beginning to realize that it won't work out: literally no one comes to see their play. They're desperately pleading people on the streets to no avail. The desperation of it all is touching, but what really caught my interest was the crazy street performance scene. It was obvious the cast was having a great time there. Their youthful energy and enthusiasm is clear, and for a moment, you can see that they really wanted to make this work. James was very funny in this scene. "The greatest actors in London are here in Paris!" Hee. In the documentary, they mention that this scene was completely improvised and they didn't even get a permission, hoping they'd be arrested. So I guess the police officer in the end was not an actor. That's guerilla filmmaking for you!

I also found myself liking the characters. I was particularly pleased with the female characters - Hetty, Sophie and Alex are all pretty spunky and interesting, and while Anya could have been explored more, it fits the idea of Ariel that she was ethereal and kind of mysterious. I'm torn on Mark Feinman though - he's pretty rude to the others all through, but I also feel sorry for him when everything falls apart so miserably. The arrest scene and the scene with his father after that were particularly touching, you could sense his despair. The father-son thing was a nice and warm element that could have been explored more.

The island scenes, particularly the bit where they painted his face, added something mysterious and uplifting to the film. There was this whole tribal feel and, while the island vision felt slightly confusing, it was well-established with the dream sequences. I also enjoyed the camera run over the sea in the opening credits.

Another bit I really liked: the small moment where Mark is listening to an answering machine message from a very arrogant-sounding theatre manager in Edinburgh. "We do not book Vagabonds here." There were a number of moments where Mark's ambition is crushed against the harsh reality, and this and the opening night were perhaps the best examples of that.

What was missing:

There are a number of things that should have been addressed. For one thing, we don't really know any of the people's motivations for joining the theatre group. There's no backstory for any of them. Hetty and Jason seem to be friends with Mark from before, but it would have been nice to see how he got them into the idea. (Although I did enjoy the insane bath tub/shower scene.)

I would even have liked more backstory on Mark. What does he plan to do with his life? Is he out of school and out of work? His mother is very briefly visited, what is their relationship like? The father-son thing is good, but more could have been done with that.

Another thing I wanted to see was more camaraderie between the group. There weren't many fun moments, and there was a lot of fighting. A movie is easily weighed down with too much fighting. On the other hand, there were a couple of scenes where we weren't shown the confrontation - what did the others do when Jason tried to cut off his hand? How did the house owners react when they saw the Vagabonds living in their house without permission? (Yes, we saw them call the police, but then it's cut off, and it felt a bit strange.)

Personally, I would have lost Scott (the dumb guy) and Charlotte (the fat girl). I think they were both simply brought on to be the comic relief, and Scott in particular was very cardboard. There were many characters to keep tabs on already. Scott's audition scene was kind of funny, but not funny enough to be essential.

I'll also admit that I don't get most of James' acting choices here; it's quite over-the-top in most scenes. This is also true of all the other actors, with the exception of Julie Delpy, who brought a calmness into it all. I'm not really sure if the hyper acting is supposed to be intentional or not. Maybe it's meant to show how ridiculously intense Mark is about his goals. I think it might be ironic - the voice-overs are calm and well acted, and in some scenes, James is beautifully desperate and quiet. I tend to prefer subtle acting, so I would have liked to see more of that in the film.

The autobiographical element:

OK, so Nick Cohen really did have this kind of theatre group, and James did join it. That's all we know. Basically, James is playing Nick here. So if Mark Feinman is Nick Cohen, then it follows logically that Jason Caratos is James Callis. BUT: Jason is a complete nutcase. He sells his mother's jewelry to buy them a van, then claims the cat ate it. He tries to cut his own hand off in a fit of jealous rage. Did James actually do all these things? I realize they were improvising a lot while filming, but come on. Kind of worrying.

I was hoping the making of documentary would shed some light on these issues, but it did no such thing. So maybe it's best left behind a veil of mystery. This movie didn't give me as much inside knowledge of YoungJames as I had hoped, but based on one scene, he seems to take his coffee with milk and possibly sugar, which did give me a little thrill. Interestingly, he doesn't smoke in this role, but is shown with a cigarette in most of the documentary clips, so I wasn't completely deprived of the smoking fetish.

A slight alleviation to the whole fat girl thing:

I've already posted about the fat girl scene, but on a rewatch, I found a few things that slightly alleviate my feelings. There are a couple of stereotypes missing - she's not named Bertha, doesn't eat in any of the scenes, and most importantly, doesn't clutch onto any single man. In fact, while Jason doesn't want to kiss her, she doesn't want to kiss him either. This brings an important dimension into it: the fat girl can also be the rejecter. I like that. Furthermore, Charlotte is possibly the smartest of the lot, because she has the sense to leave. If she had stayed on a bit longer and had more of a likeable personality, I might almost overlook the "no man would kiss her" thing. That said, I still feel bad watching her scenes, so I think I'm just going to have to say "James was young then" and skip them altogether. He wouldn't do this again today. (Right? Right?)


Basically, I feel the movie is too ambitious. It would have worked better, had it been simpler. This is also a good sign. It does show that James and Nick have talent and ambition and can do something beyond this movie. So, while it's not a gushing review, I can end on a hopeful note. I'm sure that with almost ten years of more experience and maturing, they could turn out a really great movie today.

No comments: