Film Reviews - Dazed and Confused@30, A Haunting in Venice


Looking back on Dazed and Confused (in cinemas again to celebrate thirty years since its release) is almost like looking back on one’s past.  A slow burn success, partly due to misleading marketing, it’s charms have only become apparent to a wider audience as time went by and perhaps because it contains early performances by the likes of Mathew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey.  They are part of a tapestry that depicts the last day and night of a typical American high school summer semester in 1976, the Bicenntial year though there is no celebration of that, not even from the teachers.. You might say- as some have- that nothing happens in this film when in fact it is packed with small incidents it’s just that events unfurl at an unfussy natural pace. These are not our personal memories of such a formative time yet they seem as if they are.  Nowadays this sort of filmmaking is much more commonplace than it was in 1993 so in some ways the film may not seem as groundbreaking now.

The film takes us through the rituals, traditions, rules and rule breaking of the high school experience touching on friendship, peer pressure, tradition, music and culture but never feels over cluttered by these themes. Director Richard Linklater is himself now much better known for a variety of interesting films and as this was only his second feature its surprising how assured it is, how subtly it moves and how he manages to make even the most ordinary events seem interesting. 

Some things may stand out to our more discerning palettes in 2023. The humiliation of the initiation rituals for next year’s freshmen are apparently accurate of the time but seem less acceptable now if they ever did. The girls are rounded up, covered in ketchup and eggs and made to propose to older boys. The boys are pursued and walloped with wooden paddles. Yet after all this some of them are invited to join in more convivial pursuits, their hazing over, their new status assured. There is no sense that any of this is wrong, even the more sympathetic seniors join in.

Perhaps in view of modern headlines, the character of Wooderson may also jar with our sensibilities. Somewhere in his twenties and long out of school, he hangs out with the kids ostensibly to try his way with “the latest crop” of girls. A star making turn from Matthew McConaughey, Wooderson’s lines are oft quoted especially; one where he states, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, I get older, but they stay the same” is an example of his outlook.  To be fair he’s not just a creepy character and indeed his philosophy of “L.I.V.I.N” seems aspirational to the seniors and perhaps some of the audience. Also his wherewithal enables an alternative event to be set up when a planned party goes awry in some of the film’s funniest moments. The widespread use of dope and other drugs is also all over the film personified in the character of Slater whose stream of consciousness lines get the movie’s biggest laugh. Constantly stoned he comes up with some way out theories as the evening progresses.

 While the narrative may seem to meander, the point of all this activity moves these characters on.  The seniors- in particular star quarterback Randall Floyd - gripe about new rules the coach has introduced which appears to be their first real bridling against the system. Meanwhile freshman Mitch Cramer is taken along after a bad beating by some of the seniors and proves adaptable to the point where he buys some drinks despite being under age, chucks a bowling ball through a car window and ends up getting his first kiss. The film even has a sort of commentary courtesy of a trio of intellectuals who dislike the rituals and the macho behaviour yet somehow become drawn in after their cynical distance leaves them driving around bored. This is a far less melodramatic call to `seize the day` than a film like Dead Poets Society or any of those too cool for their own good teen movies.

Anyone who saw the film first time round will know what an indelible musical impression it makes. Even now if I hear `Sweet Emotion` I have a mental image of that car turning in slow motion that opens the film. It’s a sound track for the ages, one that is both as 1976 as any film could be yet still sounds great in 2023. There are no big tragedies or major incidents yet by the end the main characters have changed a little in different ways in what remains a well observed slice of a particular time and place.

Oh dear. The two chatty ladies sitting behind me when I saw A Haunting in Venice are not best pleased. “Agatha Christie would be turning in her grave” is their verdict as soon as the credits roll on what admittedly is an odd adaptation. Such an approach is not without precedent though as some of the later David Suchet led tv Poirot episodes did bend to the whims of writers and directors. And you’d think two teachers who lead their pupils in singalongs of Katy Perry songs might be more forgiving of someone adding their own stamp to things! 

This movie directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh is loosely adapted from a less well known 1969 story called Halloween Party. Set after the war, Poirot is now retired and living in Venice though is still pestered to take on cases. When old friend, the writer Ariadne Oliver persuades him to attend a seance at a supposedly haunted palazzo, his scepticism is soon challenged when events turn decidedly weird. 
Sporting a less excessive moustache this time Branagh is a restrained detective compared with some of the other actors who have played the role adding a naturalistic side to the Belgian’s tics. As a director he shows less restraint turning the film into an archetypal horror with jump scares, distant voices, a spooky child and a dramatic storm outside. Some of this works really well even if many of the incidents are familiar to anyone versed in the horror genre. And I have to admit that however dramatically the direction tries to ramp up the tension I was never quite as excited as I should have been. 

Considering this group were trapped overnight (and I wasn’t that convinced bad weather would really seal them off in the middle of a city) there isn’t enough tension when it counts. Characters disappear for too long and as the story unfolds it stretches at credulity considering the genre we’re supposed to be in.  When Poirot does his final reveal of whodunnit it makes you realise that certain characters ought to have done different things or tried to make a break for it but people seem content to wait it out. Then again it is always refreshing to see a different angle on familiar territory.

Ironically I only went to see it because the real life weather was so atrociously stormy I was sort of stuck there so I could identify with the group. The ultimate reveal is clever and you’d be hard pressed to guess it, however to work really well the rest of the film needs to be more extreme in every direction.

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