Two flawed but fascinating movies premiering this weekend focus on rebels against repressive regimes.
Based on the incendiary 1953 novel by Ray Bradbury, HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451” is set in a not-too-distant American future where books have been banned. The government has established special squads of “firemen” who track down the remaining books and burn them. (The title refers to the temperature where paper catches fire.)
The fire squad in Cleveland is led by the ambitious Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon) with Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) as his as his second in command. The two men have in intense relationship fueled by hidden secrets. Montag has begun to wonder why anyone would risk their life to protect books; Beatty secretly reads some of the books he is supposed to burn.
Directed by Ramin Bahrani (who co-wrote the script with Amir Naderi), the HBO adaptation does a great job at exploring the twisted bond between the two men but is less successful in updating Bradbury’s concerns with how mass media can support repressive governments.
The powerful opening sequence shows this very clearly. The movie starts with a fierce boxing match between Montag and Beatty. Their brutal fight (in which Montag loses a tooth) is part of a training session that whips the squad into a destructive frenzy. The scene in the firehouse seamlessly segues into a classroom assembly where the children clap and cheer while books are burned. Bahrani’s direction is clear and controlled.
But while Beatty and Montag’s fiery propaganda is a very effective way of providing exposition and establishing the world of “Fahrenheit 451,” the backstory is murky. There are references to the “Second Civil War” and a “Happiness Index” that go nowhere. The network of rebellious readers (clumsily called the “Eels”) are somehow scheming to implant books directly into human DNA. This confusing new framework only gets in the way of the story.
Written and directed by the ingenious and openly queer writer/director/performer John Cameron Mitchell, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” turns to the rebels in London’s wild punk scene circa 1977. After a chaotic concert by the Dyschords, Enn (newcomer Alex Sharp) and his mates John and Vic (Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis) get lost on the way to the afterparty.
They accidentally stumble on another gathering filled with people dressed in bizarre color-coded costumes and engaged in exotic party games. At first, the lads happily join in. Enn (short for Henry) meets the lovely but odd Zan (Elle Fanning); John leads an ecstatic dance; and Vic gets entangled in a kinky bisexual threeway.
Finally sensing that something is very wrong at this party, the friends flee with Zan and head to a punk club run by Queen Boadicea (Nicole Kidman). They discover that Zan and her friends are aliens on a sinister mission and the battle between the anarchic punks and the highly regimented aliens is on.
Mitchell’s remarkably inventive movie is an entertaining tribute to the radical energy of the punk scene. The script, written by Mitchell and Philippa Goslett and based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, is sharp and fresh (if occasionally incoherent).
The performers all have a great time with the material. Kidman makes a refined punk goddess, but her bitter speech about all the performers who have left her behind is hilarious and delivered with pitch-perfect comic precision.
A delicious and delirious mess, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is destined to be a cult classic. John Cameron Mitchell (creator of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and his clever collaborators clearly had great fun making this tribute to the unruly punk scene and their joy is contagious.