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Let’s get this party started: Coogan in 24 Hour Party People.

The Fun Factory
By Ann Morrow

24 Hour Party People
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

On June 4, 1976, in a public hall in Manchester, England, TV personality Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) witnessed a defining moment in rock & roll: an early appearance by the Sex Pistols. Among the 42 people in the audience were a young band called the Stiff Kittens. A Cambridge-educated poseur, Wilson had the prescience to tape the performance for broadcast on his show. A few years later, in a huge stadium with airport-size strobe lights and a sea of ecstatic club kids writhing in unison, Wilson would witness another landmark event: New Order—formerly Joy Division, formerly Warsaw, formerly the Stiff Kittens—performing “Blue Monday,” the biggest-selling dance single in history.

Joy Division and New Order were on Factory Records, the era’s leading indie label, formed by Wilson and his cool- headed partner, Alan Erasmus (Lennie James). Factory, and its satellite club, the Hacienda, put “Madchester” on the map, transforming a dreary, post-industrial wasteland into an international hotbed of rave culture. Michael Winterbottom’s gonzo faux-documentary 24 Hour Party People (the title is taken from a Happy Mondays song), follows the rise and fall of Factory Records from the perspective of the irrepressible Wilson, who announces in his best Robin Leach-style narration, “I am a minor player in my own life story.”

That’s not quite true: The hilariously glib impresario is a larger-than-life screen presence (Coogan’s satirical performance is closely modeled on the real Wilson, who served as an advisor to the script). In fact, much of the film is not quite true: As Wilson says, he agrees with John Ford’s famous quote that in a choice between truth and legend, “print the legend.” This disingenuous attitude affords Winterbottom plenty of room for comic exaggerations, uncanny re-creations, and blatant misrepresentations—at one inspired point, the real Howard Devoto pops up to refute the film’s assertion that he was sleeping with Wilson’s wife.

And so we have Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis), the mad-genius knob twiddler, waging psychological warfare on Joy Division. And dirgey bassist Peter Hook (Ralf Little) fending off rioting skinheads with a mikestand, and singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris) suffering an epileptic meltdown onstage. Harris has the frontman’s jerky, introverted stage movements down cold, and a searing reenactment of “Twenty Four Hours” is the film’s heartbreaking high-water mark. Genius has its price, a fact that Wilson blithely accepts. The mogul’s absurdly intellectual pronouncements—“He was the Che Guevara of rock,” he declares at Curtis’ funeral—give the film the flippant distance it needs to maintain the aura of a vividly recollected rush (conveyed by Robby Muller’s imaginative camera work). Even God makes the scene, chastising Wilson for passing on Morrissey.

New wave begets rave, and New Order are followed by the trippy Happy Mondays, who personify the scene’s hedonistic extremes. As Manchester falls prey to the drug trade, the band’s thuggish “poet laureate,” Shaun Ryder (Danny Cunningham), drains the label to the brink of bankruptcy with a crack binge in the Bahamas. Wilson has no regrets: History has been made. After closing down operations in 1992, effectively ending the era (beautifully scored by the Happy Mondays’ “Hallelujah”), he tells a rival reporter that the Factory is like a dandelion, and its spores are now free to blow far and wide. An exhilarating testament to creative chaos, this film just might be its most glorious spore.

Smooth Cuts

Barbershop
Directed by Tim Story

Calvin Palmer (Ice Cube) is a malcontent. He has a successful marriage and owns a busy barbershop, but he’s not happy. To Calvin, the barbershop represents a burden, emotionally and financially. He wants to build an in-home recording studio to make a quick buck, much to the dismay of his patient-but-loving wife. Absurdly, he dreams of building a home just like Oprah’s five-room guest house (“you know, where Stedman gets sent,” he explains). Calvin inherited the shop from his father, and has squandered this inheritance by spending all his money on failed, Ralph Kramden-style get-rich-quick schemes. When Lester (the marvelous Keith David), a smooth, Mephistophelean loan shark, offers $20,000 cash for the business, Calvin snaps it up. Through the course of one typical day in the shop, Calvin comes to regret his decision.

Calvin is the lead character, but Ice Cube—who also co-produced the film—knows enough to hang back. This is an ensemble comedy, with the requisite cast of nutty-but-not-crazy characters: Ricky (Michael Ealy), the ex-con; Terri (Eve), the woman with perpetual man trouble; Dinka (Leonard Earl Howze), the African immigrant; Jimmy (Sean Patrick Thomas), the smug college student; J.D. (Anthony Anderson), the thief with cosmic bad luck.

The entire cast is quite good—particularly newcomer Ealy as the troubled Ricky, and Thomas as know-it-all Jimmy—but the most consistent scene-stealer is Cedric the Entertainer. Cedric portrays Eddie, the philosopher of the barbershop. Eddie is like an old bear: Gray and ragged at the edges, he spends the day snoozing in his chair, growling his comments at everyone, lording his age and questionable wisdom over the other barbers, and retreating, easily bruised, at the slightest provocation. He gets the biggest laughs in the picture with his riffs on the history of the civil rights movement and the things black people “need to admit to themselves.” (Hint: One involves the question of O.J. Simpson’s guilt.) Cedric has the master comedian’s talent for creating an indelible character with carefully chosen physical and vocal details. No matter how obnoxious Eddie may be he’s always engaging.

What Calvin comes to realize—as his employees interact with customers, and the good talk flows—is that the shop is essential, both to him and the community. It’s a place where black people can meet to talk about anything. It gives Calvin his place in the community. The filmmakers get this theme of empowerment and identity across deftly, without letting the message get in the way of the humor.

Will Calvin save the barbershop? The filmmakers employ just enough restraint and subtlety to keep the film from having an unbelievable, fairy-tale quality, without spoiling the happy ending the characters—and the audience—deserve.

—Shawn Stone

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

One Hour Photo
Directed by Mark Romanek

This film has all the elements of a terrific thriller. There is a twisted-but-sympathetic protagonist with a fascinating compulsion, a carefully designed cinematic look, and a dramatic situation pregnant with horror and dread. Unfortunately, One Hour Photo is woefully underdeveloped.

Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) is a man who processes film at a Wal-Mart-style superstore. He is devoted to his customers and his work, endlessly obsessing over print quality with the irate Agfa film representative. Sy is particularly solicitous toward the picture-perfect Yorkin family: Nina (Connie Nielsen), Will (Michael Vartan), and their 9-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith). Nina needs three rolls of film developed in 45 minutes? No problem. Will needs help finding some computer software in the store? Sy immediately pages the appropriate salesperson. Jake has a birthday? Sy gives him a free disposable camera. He remembers their home address, and kiddingly refers to himself as the family’s “Uncle Sy.”

Except, as it turns out, Sy isn’t kidding: He lives with the delusion that he is part of their family. While the Yorkins reside in a palatial suburban abode, Sy lives downtown in an antiseptic apartment building. His flat has little furniture and is largely unadorned—except, of course, for the shrine to the Yorkins that Sy has installed on one living-room wall. Evidently, whenever Nina Yorkin drops off a roll of film, Sy prints copies for himself: The wall is covered with hundreds of perfectly placed pictures. There are adjustable spotlights, a rolling stepladder, and a handy magnifying glass to allow Sy to contemplate his “family” for hour after hour.

As anyone who has seen a movie about a crazed stalker knows, it doesn’t take much to turn adulation into hate, and serene contemplation into violence. Watching him sit in his car, across the street from the Yorkin home, the audience can’t help but wonder when Sy will act, and what he will do.

Unfortunately, none of this pays off. The film is perfect in the details, but the details simply don’t fit together. For example, everything shown on screen is pristine and perfectly arranged, including the store—not just Sy’s photo area, which makes sense, but the entire SavMart. If the film were being presented through Sy’s warped point of view, this would make sense; however, as specific scenes are set aside as being part of Sy’s psychosis, this is clearly not the case. The art direction outsmarts itself.

More troubling are the games writer-director Mark Romanek plays with audience expectations. When important issues are raised—like the basic question of whether Sy is disturbed but harmless or a knife-wielding killer—the film cheats with coy red herrings and smug camera tricks. It doesn’t heighten suspense in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock or even Brian DePalma; it just serves as a distracting irritation.

As for Robin Williams, he is terrific. Playing the opposite of his comic persona, Williams internalizes his prodigious energy and produces a powerful sense of frustrated emotion. Even before he starts to unravel, Sy is seriously scary. That’s why the film’s failure is such a letdown: It isn’t worthy of its lead performance.

—S.S.


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