Monthly Archives: September 2012

15. Any Given Sunday

Smiley Rating:

One thing that sometimes infuriates me about sports movies is when the “sportness” of that movie comes off as fake or inauthentic.  Not explicitly so, like mistakenly calling a touchdown a homerun, but in subtle ways that you’d only recognize if you were an avid sports fan.  Like, the way a pitcher winds up to throw a baseball.  Or the way a basketball player dribbles down the court, while calling out a play.  These seem like small, insignificant details, but if they happen to come off as false, it can be deadly, as the worse thing a movie can do is seem phony.  That being said, Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999) does a really good job of getting it right.  Despite the fictional football league, the fictional teams, and the fictional players, it actually feels mostly authentic.  Helping this matter, of course, is the fact that the movie is populated by a ton of former players and coaches.  From Jim Brown to Lawrence Taylor to Barry Switzer, these appearances elevated Any Given Sunday to a more authentic level.  Be that as it may, I do have to say that if you’re not a sports fan, or a football fan in particular, you may not catch these details and there’s a decent possibility you’ll be bored before halftime.

Luckily, there’s a lot going on here other than football, especially stylistically speaking.  Some noteworthy choices are the cinematography, which is largely done in inspection-like close ups, as well as the loud, pounding score, which gets the adrenaline rushing.  But perhaps the most interesting technical element is the editing style, which appears to be driven entirely by montage.  By this, I mean the movie is constantly cutting from one shot to another in a rapid-fire way, like you might see in a crazy action sequence or an experimental music video.  Apparently it took 4 editors to accomplish this, and while it led to a fast paced, ultra kinetic movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if it also led to a pounding headache for the viewer.  All of these choices ended up shaping a tone that felt more like a war movie than a sports movie, which creates an interesting parallel between the hierarchies of the military, the hierarchies of professional sports, as well as the spectator nature of the uninvolved citizenry in both.  We happily cheer for our soldiers and our players when they’re in battle, but what happens afterwards?  After the war is over?  After the game has finished?  Do we bring that same intensity in helping these people rehabilitate after the fact, or do we look to save money and write them off instead?  On that note, I actually think Any Given Sunday was way ahead of its time, as it is now fairly common to discuss players’ safety and the effects the game has on the body and mind.

On a lighter note, I probably shouldn’t go on any further without mentioning Al Pacino, who I think is perfect for the role of an aging head coach.  I mean, really, what’s better than Al Pacino constantly yelling at the top of his lungs and giving fiery halftime speeches?  Offering their support is an extensive cast of actors (everyone seems to be in this movie) all of whom give strong performances, most surprisingly of which were the football players themselves, including Lawrence Taylor, a non-actor former football player, who was actually really powerful in this movie.  Even L.L. Cool Jay was competent in his role.

The movie is close to three hours in length, and so it’s more than just a story about an old football player clinging on to his legacy while a young player strives to build his own.  It’s also about race.  It’s about drugs.  It’s about ego.  It’s about war.  It’s about sacrifice.  It’s about coming together.  It’s about loneliness.  It’s about the tension between young and old.  The tug and pull between the past and the future.  But most importantly, it’s about respect.  It’s about how the younger generations and the older generations, while they may not always understand each other, need to learn to respect each other.  The young can learn from the traditions of the old, but the old can also learn from the naiveté of the young.  Together, with mutual respect, I’d say there is no limit to what can be achieved.

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14. Annie Hall

Smiley Rating:

This girl once asked me what my favorite movies were.  I wasn’t prepared at the time to give a substantial list of movies; so instead, I chose to rattle off a bunch of directors’ names that have influenced me.  Truffaut.  Kubrick.  Anderson.  Tarantino.  Lynch.  Jarmusch.  Linklater.  Apatow.  Bergman.  Godard.  Kieslowski.  I’m not sure exactly what names I spouted at the time or if they were impressive, but we ended up talking about Woody Allen.  And in particular, we started talking about Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).  And I remember she asked me, in a very straightforward way: “why do you like it?”  I was completely taken aback by the pointedness of this question, and I hadn’t seen the movie in some time, so I struggled mightily to formulate a satisfying response.  If I were to be asked that same question now, on September 24, 2012, some thirty-five years after the initial release, I would say this:

I like Annie Hall because even after all of those years, and after all the rip offs and imitations, this romantic comedy still somehow comes across as surprisingly fresh, wickedly smart, and extremely experimental.  The disjointed structure and the breaking of the fourth wall, reflects all of those qualities, and more importantly, allows the story to stay fresh no matter how many viewings.  Speaking of fresh, the dialogue is witty almost beyond belief, resulting in too many one-liners to keep track of.  One-liners like, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love!”  Or, “My grammy never gave gifts.  She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”  Or, “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Adding to the brilliant script is the gritty cinematography offered by the master of darkness, Gordon Willis.  The simple rawness, and the graininess of the film print comments perfectly on the messiness of relationships as well as the setting in which the story takes place (New York).  And while the photography comes off as simple and straightforward, there is actually a lot of movement and some really beautiful, breathtaking compositions.  The fact that this does not intrude on the story or bring too much attention to itself, demonstrates exactly how great a director of photography Gordon Willis actually is.  I often wonder why more comedies don’t aspire to this kind of higher level, photographically speaking.  I’m sure there are many logistical reasons for this, including budgetary restraints, but I would be really interested to see a Judd Apatow-type movie shot by, say, Roger Deakins.

Another timeless, ever-lasting element of Annie Hall is the sizzling chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  They seem perfect for each other.  This palpable energy creates the impression that these two characters are a real couple that has shared real memories.  This, in turn, compliments the way the story unfolds in its hyperactive disjointed manner, which conjures the tone of a casual conversation between two former lovers commiserating about the past.  And just like in real life, these conversations don’t unfold in chronological order, but in chunks of random memories, that remind you of other chunks of memories, that remind you still of other memories.  And despite this disjointedness, I never felt lost, and actually found it rather easy to follow along, which speaks almost entirely to the strength of the transitions between scenes.

But alas, this is a romantic comedy, and therefore it is about love.  In particular, it’s about an island of a character (Alvy Singer), a person who typically shuts himself off from others, but because of this amazing woman (Annie Hall), he is finally able to start to open up, and he even gets a glimpse of true love.  Problem is, it’s too late.  The feeling isn’t mutual.  In this way, I admire how Annie Hall is different from most other romantic comedies.  In most, the love is obvious.  It’s a special feeling one gets when in the presence of their soul mate.  It’s a golden light that emanates, and it’s just a matter of time before they both realize it.  And maybe this “true love” sensation exists in real life, but I think that that’s actually something else.  It’s lust.  Good chemistry.  Kindred spirits, perhaps.  But true love, true love as shown in this movie, is born out of time.  Out of ups and downs.  It happens gradually and it isn’t a specific feeling, it’s something that dawn’s upon you over time.  And most importantly, it’s not guaranteed.  It’s never ever guaranteed.

With that, I’ll go ahead and wrap my impression of the entire movie up with one metaphor.  If Annie Hall were a cupcake, I’d say its foundation would be misanthropy, comedy would be the icing, and sentimentality would be the sprinkles on top.  I have to say, it makes for one hell of an original confection.


13. A Mighty Wind

Smiley Rating:

Christopher Guest’s movies remind me of a rare, amazing traveling theater troupe whom every now and then reunite to tell a wonderful little gem of a story.  I’d like to call these stories “movies of the theater,” because in a lot of ways they are more like stage-plays than movies.  For one, they are bursting at the seams with excellent performances from a massive ensemble cast (all of whom, by the way, are having so much fun bringing these zany characters to life, you can’t help but have fun too).  These performances are simultaneously over-the-top and constrained at the same time, which sounds like a contradiction, but the very form of “mockumentary” lends itself well to this realistic style of acting approached in a somewhat theatrical way.  Basically, the actors are playing a ridiculous moment, very seriously.  Thusly, the more ridiculous the moment, the more serious they play it, the more hilarious it ends up being.  This phenomenon can be summed up in a single line of dialogue, which is serious, ridiculous, and hilarious all at the same time.  “I’ve come to understand as an adult that there had been abuse in my family, but it was mostly musical in nature.”  Seriously ridiculous.  Ridiculously hilarious.

The other component in A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003) that is more akin to a stage-play than a movie is that the story is conveyed almost entirely through dialogue (or song, in this case).  As a result, there is A LOT of talking, which may lead to wandering thoughts and glazed over eyes for some eager viewers.  However, if you manage to listen, really listen, you’ll find yourself being rewarded by laughter more often than not.  True laughter, too.  I’m not talking about a joke in a movie that you know you’re supposed to laugh at, because it’s an obvious joke, and everyone else is laughing, so you chuckle too.  I’m talking about genuinely funny moments that are derived from small, bizarre details that remind you of moments in your own life; human moments that are somehow so funny you can’t help but laugh out loud.

And as far as the story is concerned, A Mighty Wind is simply about a handful of folk bands reuniting and coming together for one last show to honor the recent passing of a pioneer to their beloved folk music.  All of this comes off very natural and unforced, which is a testament to how great a filmmaker Christopher Guest actually is.  The way all of these disparate characters are brought to a cohesive life in what seems like an effortless manner is actually really difficult to do.  On top of that, all of the music is really well done and is full of joyous life.  Yes, it’s folk music, but it’s catchy as heck, sometimes funny, and at it’s best is emotionally impactful.

Ultimately, A Mighty Wind is a bittersweet story about characters desperately trying to reconcile their past, while coming to terms with who they are in the present.  Some succeed.  Some don’t.  It reminds me of that Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are a-Changin.’”  In that you can clutch onto the past as ferociously as you’d like, but it is no contest for the wind that blows the sands of time, for it is a mighty wind indeed.


12. American Pie

Smiley Rating:

If Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1982) date-raped The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and they had babies, American Pie (Paul Weitz, 1999) would be the plaid wearing, socially awkward, perverted, 17-year-old son, who lacks self confidence, receives middling to average grades, and wants nothing more than to lose his virginity.  On top of that, he masturbates too much, he is humiliated day in and day out, and he displays absolutely zero tact when it comes to communicating with the opposite sex.  Luckily, he makes us laugh.

Yes, indeed, American Pie makes us laugh.  We laugh because it’s shocking.  We laugh because it’s gross.  And most of all, we laugh because it’s awkward.   You know, like, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity or asking someone to prom.  This universal sentiment of humility is expressed most effectively in the one-on-one scenes between father (Eugene Levy) and son (Jason Biggs).  In these scenes, these two guys are completely and utterly inept at communicating with each other about sex, and the result is seat-squirming hilarity.  For a moment, I wonder if women (mothers/daughters) have the same sort of communicative issues, but my wonderment ends quickly as I imagine these early sex-talks between parent and child are awkward for all involved, regardless of gender.  I suppose this sort of “prudeness” is a cultural thing, rather than a gender thing.  That being said, I just realized that maybe these scenes were the most effective purely because Eugene Levy and Jason Biggs are by far the most superior actors in the movie, and therefore have the best comedic chemistry.

Conversely, the biggest flaw in American Pie is that nothing is really at stake.  Except for maybe a moment of humiliation or a slight strike against the ego, these characters seem to have nothing to lose… except for their virginity.  Perhaps something as simple as a small money wager would have increased the suspense, but when considering the galore of quotable lines, the satisfying conclusion, and the handful of outrageous iconic moments, I’d say this flaw is minimal and worth over-looking.

I’ll end with an observation:  I was a horny 16-year-old going on 17 when this movie was first released, so naturally, American Pie spoke to me.  I’ve seen it many times since then, and while it is still enjoyable, I can’t honestly say that it gets better with age.  Unlike sex, the first time was hands down the most entertaining.  Which brings me to the original tagline, a line that speaks to why this film in particular was successful and also the reason why I believe the sequels to this franchise have all but completely failed.  That is, “There’s something about your first piece.”  Yes.  There most certainly is.


11. American Beauty

Smiley Rating:

How are you?

In your best Tony-the-Tiger impression, you exclaim: “I’m grrrreat!”  And maybe you really are great, maybe you’re not, maybe you’re somewhere in between, or maybe you’re none of the above.  Either way, the answer to this question is basically your own personal commercial for how “normal” you are, even though you know you are anything but.  And it is this disciplined way of masking our genuine selves that American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) is essentially about— how there is an “entire life behind things.”  All things.  Even dancing plastic bags.  And that there is no such thing as ordinary.  Everything, everything, everything… is far from ordinary.  Like you.  Like me.  Like life itself.

But because we are disciplined, structured, well-adjusted citizens, we instinctively give a politically correct answer.  Like, “I’m good.”  Or, “I’m okay.”  If you don’t give such an answer, you risk being fired, or sent to a mental hospital, or put on drugs, or yelled at, or questioned, or judged.  So, instead, we suppress our true feelings and go about our daily lives in a sedated manner, constantly enabling the forces behind the status quo, “masking our contempt for the assholes in charge.”  This anaesthetized way of life might be preferred for a complacent society, but the danger is, this kind of lifestyle will fester behind the white picket fences until it blows up and causes a mid-life crises.  Or divorce.  Or plastic surgery.  Or murder.

Which brings me to the most important, most haunting line of dialogue in American Beauty“Never underestimate the power of denial.”  This pointed warning is accentuated in all of the character’s, from Allison Janney’s devastating portrayal of a shell of a human to Kevin Spacey’s nuanced portrayal of a married man going through a mid-life crises.  From Annette Bening’s failing real estate agent to Chris Cooper’s homophobic colonel.  All are living in varying degrees of denial.  This heavy specter hangs over the entire film like the red motif that appears throughout, and lingers in the mind far after the conclusion due to the tragic climax.

Technically speaking, American Beauty masterfully walks the line between a biting, smart dark comedy and a phenomenally executed tragic melodrama.  This adroit combination led to five Academy Awards and a film that really struck a chord with the zeitgeist at the time.  And perhaps it struck such a chord with audiences because, in a way, the movie acts as a grand therapeutic session.  Along the way, as these deeply flawed characters hide themselves, reveal themselves, revolt, throw tantrums, breakdown and cry, we too go through a similar journey, and by the end we feel like we’ve gotten something off our own chests.  We feel relieved.  More importantly, we feel grateful for life.

Considering this, I can’t help but think that all of these characters could have been helped if they only had a therapist.  They just needed to talk to someone.  They just needed to be asked, “How are you?”


10. The American

Smiley Rating:

The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) is one of the few movies in my collection that I have never seen before (it was a gift from my bro-in-law.  Thanks!)  And while the cover art and advertisements suggest a suspenseful thriller, after viewing I’d actually describe the movie as more of a minimalist drama than an intricate thriller.  Let’s just say it was sexier than it was exciting, and more restrained than it was wild.  Mirroring these characteristics is the icy melancholic mood of the film, which creates a persistent feeling of isolation, paranoia, and loneliness.  Basically, “a place without love.”

All of which is personified by the closed-off protagonist, played here by George Clooney, who is an aging, covert arms dealer looking to retire after one more dangerous assignment.  With a leering camera perspective that creates the aura of being followed, Clooney’s character goes about his job in a methodical, deft manner.  Along the way, he starts seeing a prostitute (are they this gorgeous in real life?), whom he predictably grows warmer with throughout, despite his distrust and paranoia.  He finishes the assignment practically without a hitch, until the final sequences, where all hell breaks loose and an ironic twist of fate is climatically revealed.

One of the inherent problems with this movie, although it’s not a problem so much as it is a characteristic, is the movie’s closed-off nature and prickly tone.  The result is a movie that is hard to embrace fully, and a protagonist that is difficult to gather a fair impression of.  For example, I’m not sure what Clooney’s character actually does or why he chose to do it.  Is he an arm’s dealer?  Is he a private contract killer?  Is he an undercover government operative?  I don’t know.  All’s I do know is that it’s a dangerous job and he’s really good at it.  Which leads me to wonder if The American is at all a statement regarding the United States’ own foreign policy.  If so, it seems to be suggesting that we, the American citizens, are a detached, paranoid, uninterested group of folks when it comes to what we do around the world.

Political quandaries aside, one of the more interesting thematic elements in The American is that Clooney’s character is referred to as “Mr. Butterfly” at least three times.  The first utterance reminded me instantly of the movie M. Butterfly (David Cronenberg, 1993), which contains similar themes of betrayal and secrecy.  Whether there’s supposed to be or is a direct correlation between the two, I’m not sure.  Either way, “Mr. Butterfly” works as a fitting metaphor for Clooney’s character, one that wades in a cocoon-like, closed-off nature, until finally he has the desire to shed that shell and break free.  This echoes the sequence during the opening credits, where Clooney’s existence is portrayed as a long dark tunnel with only a shred of light at the end of it.  The question is, will he get to the light or will it be too late?


9. Amelie

Smiley Rating:

At the core of it’s beating red heart, Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001) is a charmingly simple “boy meets girl” love story enveloped by a mesmerizing scavenger hunt full of deliciously small details.  Small, specific details like the puckering of fingers when in the bathtub too long.  Or clingy wet swim trunks.  Or delightful little details like removing dried glue from your finger.  Or skipping stones across the creek.  Amelie contains endless details like these that are so particular and full of life that they end up being the most universal moments of the entire film.

These unforgettable details ultimately create a colorful menagerie of indelible characters, all of which seem fully realized and perfectly aligned within the film’s sparkling daydream-like tone.  Most memorably, of course, is the titular character of Amelie herself, played by Audrey Tautou, who is so effin’ infectious she literally makes me want to the learn the entire French language if only so I’d be able to write this article in the movie’s native tongue.  Speaking of, there is a lot of dialogue and a lot of voiceover, which, if you’re NOT fluent in French, results in a lot of reading instead of watching.  This takes away from the impressive visual style and the kinetic energy given by the camera’s smooth moves, and because the cinematography is so strong, it may warrant repeat viewings.

With that said, just like Amelie herself, this movie is many things.  It’s smart, mysterious, simple, complex, cute, mischievous, funny, sad, lovely, dark, light, and most important of all, full of heart and a contagious do-good attitude.  All of which is enhanced by the movie’s central metaphor— Princess Dianna (takes place during the time of her death)— a powerful element that parallels not only the altruistic nature of Amelie, but also the spying, voyeuristic, reality TV, tabloid nature of our culture.  This kind of obsession over other people’s lives rather than their own, is Amelie’s most obvious character flaw, thus commenting on one of the underlying messages: you can only live life vicariously through others to a certain degree.  In other words, it’s fine to be inspired and influenced by people you admire, but at some point, you must take your life into your own hands.  You can’t just live life vicariously through the traveling Gnome.  No, you must travel the world yourself.  You can’t just live life vicariously through Princess Dianna.  No, you yourself must help others.

But there is an even more important message buried beneath the details of this endearing film.  That vital message is this: “In such a dead world, Amelie prefers to dream.”  This notion is especially important in today’s day and age, which is mired in downtrodden perspectives and economic turmoil, because no matter how awful or horrible the world may sometimes be, it’s your imagination and dreams that will set you free.  But be warned, because while we may be able to lose ourselves in the tiny, little details of life as well as our dreams (allowing us a reprieve from the cruelty of the real world), it’s even more important to apply those dreams to reality.  First you must dream.  Than you must do.