Monday, July 27, 2020

Target Number One: good film, bad title, plus why I like Josh Hartnett

I am predisposed to like Josh Hartnett, for a somewhat unusual reason.

Y'see, the school I was posted to when I taught in Japan wasn't altogether a good school. It was a suburban high school for working-class families, not unlike the high school that I went to in Maple Ridge. There were a lot of kids whose main focus was shop, soccer, and cigarettes, among whom a masochistic, macho aesthetic prevailed: it was not unusual to see boys with cigarette burns on their arms, inflicted by themselves in schoolyard pissing contests, for example. There were kids who were fascinated by gangs, drugs, and so forth: one kid scratched "Clips" into his desk, out of an apparent identification with, yes, the Crips. No idea what he got up to after school. Academic ambitions and hopes for getting into a good university were low, as were, generally, the English levels of the students; despite it being a senior high school, a lot of the kids couldn't get much further beyond the "How are you?"/ "I'm fine thank you, how are you" phase. With textbooks laid out with translation, memorization, and testing in mind, not conversation or mastery - which also reminded me of my old high school and its approach to French - and a rather uneven range of approaches from the teachers, there were plenty of excuses to give up on the language, to hate it, even. All the same, there was a handful of students who truly cared about interacting with me, who truly wanted to speak in English, for whatever reason, some of whom I remember quite vividly: Jungo, Shota, Satomi, and Mika. I have stayed in occasional touch with Jungo and Shota, the guys, but have no idea what Satomi and Mika are up to. It blows me away to think they're in their late 30's, now, possibly with families and careers and so forth. Every now and then, I think of looking them up - but I don't.

Anyhow, Mika, in particular, was a very cheerful, bright, and friendly girl, and is 100% the reason why I have a fondness for Josh Hartnett, because it was from her that I learned about Hartnett, who was his #1 schoolgirl crush. Even though he was right at the start of his career - his first film was in 1998, and I went over there in 1999 - she was following his work enthusiastically, and had written him (in less than perfect English, no doubt) a glowing fan letter: which he replied to, sending her a signed publicity photo and a personalized note - which she showed me one day in the language lab, beaming with teenage love for Hartnett. It was adorable, and it meant a lot to her that he'd written her back, and I've always thought he was a pretty good fella for giving her that connection to the outside world (which also no doubt encouraged her in her language learning!).

Since then, I've pretty much been open to seeing anything Harnett has done, and if there's only a couple of films of his I've really liked to now - The Faculty and 30 Days of Night - because of the Mika-association, he's one of those actors whose name on a cast list makes me pretty much predisposed to say "yes" to seeing it, even if it's not a film I would normally seek out on my own.

Which brings us to Target Number One - also being distributed as Most Wanted. Nevermind my Hartnett bias: it's a good movie, and in this COVID-inspired run of repertory fare hitting movie theatres, is one of only a small handful of first run features you have access to right now. There is a slight oddness to the experience of watching it, then trying to figure out what you've just seen - several questions come up, none of which I know the answer to. First and most significantly: why did they choose to fictionalize the story of Alain Olivier?

I mean, people LIKE true stories about scandalous true-life cases. Consider another Canadian-made film, The Hurricane, about the wrongful imprisonment and eventual liberation of boxer Ruben Hurricane Carter; under no circumstance would that film have been improved by creating a fictional version of Carter. So why does Alain Olivier become Daniel Legere in this film? The story seems to follow fairly closely to the Olivier case, insofar as I understand it, and was made with Olivier's apparent endorsement (it's mentioned on his website). It involves somewhat lazy and corrupt Canadian cops (led by Stephen McHattie!) who entrap and coerce a clueless young junkie, who ends up serving 100 years in a prison in Thailand for crimes far more sophisticated than he would have been able to pull off himself, until a crusading journalist (Hartnett) takes an interest in his story. As with Rendition, another well-meaning film of relatively recent memory, inspired by the stories of Khalil El-Masri and Maher Arar, the film changes the victim's name and details, while Victor Malarek, the journalist, is a real person (albeit one who looks very little like Josh Hartnett). Why swap out Olivier? I am sure there is a story here, but I haven't read anyone telling it (might be out there, tho').

Another question: why did they end up with such an awful title? (And you can pick either one - whether you think of it as Target Number One or Most Wanted, they're equally generic, lazy, boilerplate titles, suggesting, maybe, some direct-to-video late-period Steven Segal actioner. The film has an obvious, good title just begging to be used, too: Goliath, which evokes both the code name of the sting that sets the main character up, and the whole David-and-Goliath mythos, with the state as Goliath and Malarek as David. I would be much more drawn to Goliath as a title - it's enigmatic, memorable, original, and relevant. No one with a distinguishing palate is going to be sold on a title like Target Number One - it sounds like something to avoid, not embrace. Which is a shame, because it's mostly a pretty great little film; once its threads start to come together and you realize that it is, indeed, a "muckraking journalist" movie, it does seem to get a little generic, but it's at least a good muckraking journalist movie, and there's plenty of freshness to how it tells its story, and lots of solid turns by its cast (Jim Gaffigan is impressively demented at times, and Antoine Olivier-Pilon does a fine turn as the film's patsy.)

Patsy, that would have been another good title, or at least better than either that got chosen.

No blame if you're not ready to go back to the movie theatres. I'm not sure it was worth it - same as with the concert below, I will now spend the week second guessing myself, worried that maybe I have caught something (tho' I must say, Cineplex Scotiabank did a fine job of making sure the audience was spread out). But Erika and I enjoyed it plenty, and it made a fine follow up to a repertory matinee screening of Jaws that I caught earlier that day (for a mere five bucks!).

Showtimes for Target Number One here...

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