Thursday 7 May 2015

The Class Analysis (2014)

Director: Webb Pickersgill
Stars: John Henry Whitaker, Gerald Dewey, Fouad Hajji, Armando DuBon Jr, Doris Morgado, Paul Thomas Arnold and London Kim
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2015 films.
There's an irony in The Class Analysis following Stolen Afternoon in the Home Grown Shorts selection at this year's Phoenix Film Festival, because the latter was made by Aaron Kes and T J Houle, who took over as program directors at IFP Phoenix from Webb Pickersgill, who directed the former for IFP award-winning filmmaker Jim Politano, who settled for producing this one. Traditionally, Politano's films, like Love Sucks and The Sisters of St Mary's, were poor technically (given that they were made on budgets close to zero with Politano himself as the entire crew) but rich in dialogue and humour. With enough money to make a 'real film' on a 'real budget', as he would put it, he hired Pickersgill and a strong cast of California actors (and Arizona actors who took that one road to Hollywood) to create the hardest hitting short I've seen in quite some time. While it was inspired by true events that anchor it to a very recognisable point in time and space, it extrapolates out easily to any time and any place and will remain timely from here on out.

Technically, we're not where I initially assumed we were after a couple of times through the film. It's just an everyday neighbourhood bar in an unnamed mining town, albeit one with a notably diverse clientele. The man who provides the opening narration, 'Where does nonsense end and wisdom begin?' then walks away from the camera to wait the film out is clearly of Chinese heritage. The barman is a white Vietnam veteran; his doo rag and country music hint at redneck, but his customers are all over the map, as far as class, race and religion. A well-spoken and well-outfitted black businessman chats at the bar with an old friend of Arab descent. Over in a booth, a Hispanic couple chat away in Spanish over food, clearly happy but perhaps also a little worried about the fact that she's very pregnant. And, to stir this melting pot, in walks a big Aryan Brotherhood biker with profanity tattooed on his knuckles and a mighty thirst. When the cast is this diverse, we know there has to be a reason and we know roughly what's coming, right?
Well, we get that but more so. The spark is a nothing moment, as they tend to be, as the barman fails to hear a drinks order from the men at the end of the bar and the businessman's polite but testy reaction is escalated by the biker. Suddenly it's on, with the biker bringing up the first racial slur and the black man hurling the first profanity. Jim Politano's story was adapted to the screen by Ioannis N Skiotes and he has no intention of holding back at all, so it's hardly comfortable viewing. The hatred that rapidly surfaces is equal opportunity; while we might assume the biker is going to be the bad guy and someone else, if not everyone else, is going to be the politically correct good guy, that's far from the case this time out. He's certainly ready and willing for a fight, but the businessman is overly sensitive and just as ready to react. His friend keeps out of it until his religion is brought up and then he's straight into the fight. Everyone is touchy about something, it seems, not least the barman who attempts to break it all up.

The film succeeds for a few reasons. One is that the writing is blistering, leaping around believably from college loans through the Crusades to modern day Bosnia. These characters hurl out whatever comes to mind and the majority of it is as valid on all sides as it is inappropriate to bring up in a bar. The acting is another, because, as much as this is a war of words, we can easily believe it becoming something more. Gerald Dewey, who won Best Actor for the year's IFP challenges for his work in Politano's Flight Fright, is even better here. John Henry Whitaker is note perfect as the biker, successfully avoiding the stereotype of stupidity and violence by infusing his character with intelligence and bitterness both, then letting the latter out slowly and easily like a provocateur who enjoys what he does. Paul Thomas Arnold and Fouad Hajji are just as strong but less obvious in roles that are quieter until, well, they're not. Armando DuBon soon gets his chance to join in and is immediately up to the high standards already set.
If the third reason is the golden oldie country music that wafts through the bar, as innocent as the chatter isn't, the fourth is the first twist, which of course I won't spoil. Suffice it to say that, as I'd seen the picture before and knew where it was going, I paid a lot of attention to the audience. It was clear that the deluge of vehement abuse and profanity had the audience shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, especially one this early in the morning and which included a bunch of kids there to support other films. Yet, almost nine minutes in when the first twist hits, it felt like they didn't just stop shuffling, they stopped breathing too. I don't believe I found a quieter moment during a screening any time during the Phoenix Film Festival. The script is tough and it's wordy but it knows when to shut up and let the background roll over everyone. It's not the only twist but it's the key moment and it's superbly handled. Instead of watching what the actors do, we watch what they don't do and it's even more powerful.

I have to add praise for London Kim, the pilot in Flight Fright, who brings the picture home with suitable gravitas, and the other actors who have less to do but nonetheless do it very well indeed: Doris Morgado and Lino Dumont especially. Fortunately the crew doesn't let the side down either, but they mostly keep a lower profile, succeeding not by thrilling us with their mad skills but by proving what mad skills they have by not making their work stand out above the rest of the production. Most notable were the camerawork of Rich Robles and the editing of director Webb Pickersgill, who was also responsible for the visual effects, but everything is strong. I was surprised when this didn't win for best Arizona short, because it seemed to be the obvious choice. Perhaps the judges, along with the audience, found it a little too disturbing to call out with an award. I'm just happy it played and played well and had people talking afterwards. As many actors happily returned for Flight Fright, Politano's next Hollywood film, his future is clearly a strong one.

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