Cartoon Noir

Various directors

I’m not a big booster of Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity, yet I shuddered when I heard that the movie version of this middling comic novel about record-collector mania and romantic self-analysis had been moved from Hornby’s hometown, London, to John Cusack’s, Chicago. Director Stephen Frears, who’s British himself, insists that the book is not “particularly English,” although he concedes that “people are furious about the switch.” After seeing what Cusack (who shares the script credit) and Frears have done, the novel’s cult following will probably still be furious. Most everyone else, though, will be pleasantly surprised. High Fidelity is in many ways faithful to the original, and in some ways an improvement.

The film’s Rob Gordon (Cusack) has much in common with the book’s: He runs a small, struggling record store on the north side of town and broods about the recent departure of live-in girlfriend Laura (Danish actress Iben Hjejle). Rob uses the occasion of Laura’s exit to investigate his “top five” biggest previous breakups, though he suspends pondering his romantic failures for the occasional sexual triumph. But Rob’s store is now in Wicker Park—the “Guyville” of Liz Phair fame—and music is considerably less important to his story, if not to his life.

Although it features pieces of 59 different songs, High Fidelity bungles the musical aspect of Hornby’s tale. The soundtrack does include several songs released on a Chicago indie label, Drag City, but that’s not enough to give the film a musical sense of place akin to the novel’s. And although the roles of the two pop-obsessed clerks who work in Rob’s store are nicely rendered, the movie can’t find the music to illustrate the aesthetic divide between shy Dick (Todd Louiso) and belligerent Barry (Jack Black): When Barry indignantly removes Dick’s stereo-system choice, British pop-rock combo Belle and Sebastian, it’s only to replace it with something slightly more upbeat by British pop-rock combo Katrina and the Waves.

Cusack and co-writers D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, who collectively rewrote the original script by Scott Rosenberg, may not understand the subtleties of rock snobbery, but they’re adept at romantic comedy. Their screenplay owes much to Hornby—Rob recites large chunks of the novel directly to the camera—yet they’ve managed to make their protagonist’s romantic travails both more appealing and more convincing. Of course, the love stuff was the weak part of the book anyway: Hornby’s notion of the fundamental incompatibility of men and women seldom rises above the level of Nora Ephron/Jay Leno schtick.

It still doesn’t really, but in energizing stale material, movies have a number of advantages over books. There’s all the music, of course, but here there’s also a parade of lively actresses—some of them well-known—in cameos as Rob’s various lovers and potential lovers; even though the point of view remains Rob’s, the presence of actual members of the opposite sex opens windows for the occasional glimpse outside of Guyville. (Because the very idea that some of these glamorous women might be involved with a sloppily dressed used-record-store owner is one of the jokes, their names don’t appear on screen until the final credits, and they shouldn’t be revealed to anyone who hasn’t seen the film.) The movie is too long, and Rob’s fantasies of assaulting romantic rival Ian (Tim Robbins) are too obvious, yet most of the proceedings are spry, witty, and well-paced.

Somewhere between the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and Love’s “My Little Red Book,” High Fidelity raises issues of love and death. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has anything in common with such edgy Frears films as Prick Up Your Ears and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Think of the movie as the Wicker Park sequel to such scruffy but unthreatening Frears comedies as The Snapper and The Van—so warm, playful, and cheery that Barry and everyone like him will hate it.

At the beginning of The Skulls, working-class Ivy League striver Luke (Dawson’s Creek co-star Joshua Jackson) makes a superhuman effort to win a rowing race. Director Rob Cohen shoots the scene skillfully, with a flurry of cuts and close-ups that make the mechanical process of propelling a racing shell seem heroic. Unfortunately, that’s the only strategy he has for telling the entire story.

Luke is about to be recruited by the Skulls, a secret society modeled on Yale’s Skull and Bones, whose members reputedly include various men named George and Bush. Although he’s not cut from the same preppie cloth as such other new recruits as arrogant, pampered Caleb (Paul Walker), Luke is receptive because he’s heard that the Skulls will pay his law school tuition. Of course, he plans to become a legal do-gooder, not the sort of buttoned-down hustler the Skulls traditionally groom.

Once accepted into the society, pudgy-faced Luke and chiseled-cheeked Caleb are assigned to work as a team. Their new rapport breaks down immediately, however, when Luke’s best friend, aspiring investigative reporter Will (Hill Harper), decides to investigate the Skulls. Will soon turns up dead, and Luke decides he wants out. But quitting the Skulls is unthinkable, and Luke finds himself in the middle of a feud between two society elders—Caleb’s ruthless father (Craig T. Nelson) and a manipulative U.S. senator from Virginia (William Petersen, reveling in a Southern accent he’s probably wanted to use for years). The only person on campus Luke can trust is his pal Chloe (Leslie Bibb), who, of course, has secretly loved him as long as he has pined for her.

The Skulls moves as sleekly as a shell through water, although John Pogue’s expository dialogue is often superfluous to the point of hilarity. If the film can’t keep itself from reveling in the evil bounty bestowed on the newly inducted Skulls—cash, sports cars, call girls—that’s entirely in the spirit of these who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire times. The problem is that Luke has no problem renouncing all that the Skulls provide; because the society is implicated in the death of his best friend, he must act against it. The movie would have been more interesting if Luke entertained doubts, perhaps because the death didn’t directly affect him. (What if it had been somebody else’s best friend who died?) Under Pogue’s scenario, however, the movie’s central dilemma is not a moral one. It’s simply mechanical.

In film circles, the term “noir” usually refers to the hard-boiled, morally ambiguous demimonde of detectives, gangsters, and molls. Cartoon Noir, however, doesn’t stroll those particular mean streets. In fact, the animation anthology might have been more accurately titled—trademark issues aside—X-‘Toons. Although it seldom explores the turf claimed by Mulder and Scully, it does include a film based on the accounts of people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens.

Made for Britain’s Channel 4, Paul Vester’s Abductees has the most narrative content of these six shorts. Its approach to the material, however, is impressionistic. As people (sometimes shown on screen in degraded images) recount their imagined alien encounters, the film depicts them in a variety of graphic styles. Visually, the film is arresting, but it is, after all, nothing more than the fantasies of bozos who think they’ve been nasally probed in flying saucers.

Two of the other shorts are quite long by animation-fest standards: Jiri Barta’s Club of the Discarded takes 25 minutes to stage a stop-action clash of old-fashioned and newfangled mannequins in Prague, a metaphor for the post-Warsaw Pact generation gap. Only a minute shorter, Suzan Pitt’s Joy Street propels a suicidal woman from her bleak house to a world in a fecund state of animated nature.

Polish ‘toonsmith Piotr Dumala’s Gentle Spirit is derived from the Dostoevski story that’s also the source of Robert Bresson’s Une Femme Douce, but Dumala’s hushed 10-minute version, rendered on what look like timeworn canvases, makes Bresson’s look garrulous. More confrontational is Ape, by Julie Zammarchi, who also worked on Joy Street; the human pretense to civilization breaks down at the dinner table in this garish tale of the nightly meal.

Their images are vivid, but all five suffer from following The Story of the Cat and the Moon, the shortest and the most fluid of the films. Although it’s black-and-white, is set during nighttime, and stars a black cat, Portuguese animator Pedro Serrazina’s contribution is noir-ish only in color scheme. Indeed, it’s a marvel of movement, from the animated tracking shot across streets, steps, and rooftops to the title character’s feline grace. The film is no Double Indemnity, but it’s the best of the lot. CP