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The (F)Arthouse Critic: Reviews of "Thirteen Conversations about One Thing" and "24 Hour Party People"

2003-01-30 - 8:55 a.m.



Have you seen "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing?"

Or how about "24 Hour Party People?"

If not, then now is the time, my friends, now is the time.

Both of these films, waiting patiently for you at the video joint around the corner, are--if you're like me--films you've probably read about a couple of times but forgot about. And if you live in a place like The G Spot, they more than likely didn't come to any theatre near you.(Lying bastard, that Preview Voiceover Man is).

Both films got critical acclaim but somehow got less attention than ones like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which someone recently (and very aptly) described as a big-screen sitcom.

So, let's cut right to the chase, shall we?

"Thirteen Conversations," is a beautiful collection of inter-related stories or vignettes, (as the title more or less gives away, duh,) but it's one that doesn't require you to take notes to remember who is connected to who and how.

Among its many fine points are these:

1. An ensemble cast that doesn't deliver a single false note.

We get Alan Arkin, who is utterly, touchingly believable as a grumpy insurance man; the versatile John Turturro as a physics professor whose marriage recently ended; and Matthew McConaughey as a lawyer with a terrible secret, in his most disciplined, understated performance yet and perhaps his best since he first shone on the scene in his tight Texas pants in "Dazed and Confused." (I say "perhaps" because I haven't seen his entire body of work).

The ladies shine as well; Clea Duvall, as a girl twice spared from death, expertly delivers some of the toughest lines in the film.

2. Writing and directing that makes the film, directed by Jill Sprecher, (Clockwatchers) work like a nicely-formed book of short stories. Basically the "conversations" all revolve around questions about our paths and vicissitudes in life; our choices, fate, faith, and luck; and essentially the meaning of happiness.

But that makes it sound more weighty than it is. The movie may not be lighthearted, but it lets you laugh at some of the flaws in peoples' lives, like when John Turturro tells his lover that she's saved him from a depressing life of routine--and then proposes they meet again at the exact same time on the same day of the week. The characters are well-developed for an ensemble-cast film and avoid veering toward the stereotypical.

3. The cinematography and editing. If you haven't seen it yet (but you rent it because I demanded that you must), look for these shots: Matthew McConaughey's blood dripping onto his legal pad; the bright light of his medicine cabinet as he reaches in for a band-aid; a flutter of white paper over the roofs of the buildings where Arkin's son is shooting up; the kaleidoscope of colors at the flower stand where Amy Irving buys flowers to take to Clea Duvall in the hospital.

Overall, it's a real horrorshow picture, me drugies.

And then there's "24 Hour Party People," which every pop music lover and pop music history buff should see. It details the rise and fall of Factory Records, which was home to seminal groups like Joy Division (later New Order) and the Happy Mondays.

I was worried--because it's a music-industry period piece that attempts to recreate actual moments of rock history--that it might take itself too dreadfully seriously, like "Velvet Goldmine", but in fact it was quite unlike any other rock-related film I've ever seen.

"Party People" is more concerned with showing the rise of a certain movement than it is about following the dramatic story of a certain rock star. In fact, the film is so enjoyable because it's a fresh detour from the typical arc of rock history movies: rocker wants to be heard; rocker gets heard and discovered; rocker gets blow jobs and coke vials galore; rocker sucks coke out the carpet, screaming something like "I need the stuff, man!;" rocker gets the shakes in rehab; rocker's career goes down the shitter.

Sure, there are the inevitable rock-movie elements, but they're handled in a pretty original way-- they're more of a part of the story rather than the entire story.

(Well.... there is a scene where a Happy Mondays member licks methadone off the floor, but hey. It isn't a carpeted floor.

Instead it centers on Factory founder Tony Wilson, how the company spawned a movement in Manchester and introduced that moody post-punk rock to the rest of the world.

Though there's a moment when Tony, played quite brilliantly by Steve Coogan, looks right at the camera and says, "This movie's not about me," don't let him fool you. It is.

It's funny and touching and told in a fast-paced and non-linear way.

Perhaps the key to this fresh storytelling, and to what keeps it from getting too heavy-handed, is that the story of the company's rising is paralleled by the story of what was initially paying the bills: Wilson's day job as a "serious journalist," (which gets increasingly cheesier, until he is a poof-haired host of the British "Wheel of Fortune."

It might've been a little too sweeping of a generalization to suggest, or state outright--as this movie does--that this Manchester musical movement was the birth of Ecstacy-popping and rave culture, especially when, after Wilson states this as a fact, we never really seeing any raving or Ecstacy-taking going on.

But like any good piece of work about rock history, it meditates upon the way musical movements are inspired because of (or in spite of) each other, and upon the way musical movements are fleeting and yet have enough lasting power to influence everything that follows.

that was then - this is now

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