Saturday, May 02, 2009

Is Anybody There?



What makes a good film or a good book or a good drama for the stage?  I suppose in the end the answer to this question lies in one’s very own likes and dislikes.  I suppose, critics believe they are objective – more objective than the mass of us normal viewers or readers or whatever.  The other night I was viewing John Kelly’s Arts programme on RTE 1 and his guest reviewers were an actor, a writer, and yes a critic.  My brother Pat and I were wondering how does one become a critic?  Surely, unlike journalism even, these days, there is no specific course for critics?  Surely one cannot take a degree in criticism?  Anyway, be that as it may, I ended up last evening going to Michael Caine’s recent film called: Is Anybody There?   It would seem to me that the film is rendered good, and thereby saved from ignominy, by  Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr.’s (Caine’s real name which he always uses when not acting!) brilliant performance.  He outshines all other actors in the film and makes a rather depressing film enjoyable.

For me this film did not work, and I have not figured out why.  Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film Gran Torino did work.  I juxtapose these films mainly because the plot of both involves the relationship between an old man and a young boy.  I found the relationship between Clintwood and his young boy character thoroughly believable while that between Caine and his young boy character impossible to relate to.  Perhaps this was and is a fault in my own critical abilities.  However, I note that it has got some mixed reviews, though all agree on Michael Caines’s outstanding performance.  I agree to some extent with the assessment given in Slantmagazine.com site though, in giving this film 1 and a half stars out of 4, it is going too far. . However, I agree with it with respect to the following views:

t's a testament to Michael Caine that Is Anybody There?, a squishy drama about the friendship between an unhappy young boy and a regretful old man, is even sporadically palatable.  Caine's deftness at simultaneously evoking remorse and anger, surliness, and sweetness, goes a small way toward alleviating the schmaltz of John Crowley's film, which often wants to be taken seriously, only to then revel in broad, dim humor (sic) that devalues any profound pathos.  (see this link: Film Review)

Is Anybody There? is directed by British filmmaker John Crowley, who has only directed Intermission and Boy A previously. The screenplay was written by TV writer Peter Harness, of Frankie Howerd: Rather You Than Me previously. This first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year where it was picked up by Optimum Releasing.

Maybe the fact that this film is far too close to the bone was why I just did not like it.  I am quite ready to admit that this film does not pull its punches with regard to the mortality of the human animal; that life, in short, is terminal and that’s that.  However, I found it depressing, gray and black.  Indeed it has humorous moments, being filled with a black humour which only occasionally evoked a laugh from me though quite a number from the friends who accompanied me.  I began to wonder was it the film or was it me? Now let me tell you about how the film begins. 

The opening scene of Is Anybody There? is a little too close for comfort.  As the camera keeps a very tight close up on an old man’s (Karl Johnson) mouth, the only sound we hear is his breathing, his rather laboured and dying breathing at that. And then we don’t. These are Mr. Arnold’s last breaths. And we feel intrusive, even a little inappropriate, in observing.  Should we really be present at this man’s last inspiration in this world.  Then, a few moments later, we see young Edward (wonderfully played by the young actor Bill Milner) is listening to Mr. Arnold’s last breaths, but this time on a tape he secretly made, on a recorder he stashed under the deathbed. Like most 11-year-old boys, Edward’s curiosity knows no bounds, but less like his peers’, his is focused on death, or more specifically, what happens after. Then the story continues. 

Enter, our tragic hero, or rather tragicomedic hero Clarence (Michael Caine) who arrives at Lark Hall. We know right away that Edward will at last come to appreciate this old person “as a person,” and that this grumpy, slightly befuddled retired magician will soften, thanks to Edward’s youthful influence. In this, the film doesn’t offer up much that’s new. Still, Is Anybody There? provides an insightful and sensitive look at the pain of isolation and the connections between people, no matter their ages.  However, as I have stated I found this relationship between the old man and the youngster not at all credible, and I am more than well aware of S.T. Coleridge’s great insight of the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  I, in short, just was not willing to suspend mine.  This, I feel, must surely be the fault of the film.  I say this, having willingly suspended my disbelief for the film Gran Torino.  I note that one of my favourite Film Review sites Rotten Tomatoes gives it 67% on the Tomatometer.  This, I feel, is a reasonable rating for a fairly good film, though in no sense an excellent one.  Michael Dwyer, the Irish Times film critic gives it four out of five stars, an 80% rating.  I believe that is far too high and that the Tomatometer is far more realistic a rating, while 37.5% as given by Slant Magazine is more than likely far too critical and far too low indeed.  I’ll give it a percentage of 55%.  However, my final words are:  This is Michael Caine’s film and the 76 year old actor scores a 100% on anyone’s rating.  Well done Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr.



Above, the great actor Michael Caine at his very best in Is Anybody There?

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