Monthly Archives: September 2012

8. Almost Famous (The Bootleg Cut)

Smiley Rating:

Dear Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000),

This isn’t so much a love letter as it is a “like” letter.  I like you, Almost Famous, I really like you.  But I don’t love you.  I certainly don’t love you the way Cameron Crowe loves you, which I suppose is why he extended your stay by approximately 40 minutes to a staggering 2 hours and 42 minutes in total length.  I have to say, I liked you a lot better when you were shorter.  When you were focused and took yourself less seriously.  You were more likeable and a lot less redundant.  Almost Famous, you were perfectly adorable just the way you were!

But don’t worry.  I still like you.  In fact, I like you a lot.  I like your warm glow.  I like your brilliant ensemble cast— everyone from Kate Hudson, to Patrick Fugit, to Philip Seymour Hoffman, to Frances McDormand, to Jason Lee, to Billy Crudup.  All were great, and I give you a big thumbs up on that one!  I like how you make me feel nostalgic.  I like how you remind me of my father’s extensive vinyl collection of classic rock.  I like your cuteness, Almost Famous, and your cheesy little jokes.  I like the way you love your characters, and also the way you love yourself.  It really shines through.  I like the music that you love, and you know I’d dance to your hip tunes any day of the week.  I like talking about you and reminiscing over your various parts, especially when you’re not around.

Like that time when “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” plays against the backdrop of a warm, lazy Californian winter.  So perfect!  Or that time when everyone happily sang along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on the tour bus.  My God, it was so sentimental it almost made me cry!  Oh, and remember that one time when Billy Crudup yells, “I am a golden God,” and then jumps off the roof high on LSD?  That was fun, too.

Almost Famous, I’m grateful for the time I spent with you and I cherish all of your broad, coming-of-age, philosophical musings.  Like, when you said, “music sets you free.”  Or, better yet, “music chooses you.”  Totally love it.  And how about that profound question you asked that one time— “Who put such a high premium on being typical?”  Great question.  Oh, and what about that really sage-like comment you made in regard to writing?  I believe it was something, like: “it’s what you leave out.”  Yes, that’s right.  You yourself might want to ponder that one…

Anyway, it’s getting late and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to see you again.  And I don’t mean to be insensitive, but I hope next time I see you, you’ll be back to your original, short, sweet, adorable self.

Sincerely,
The Enemy

PS.  Don’t do drugs.


7. A History of Violence

Smiley Rating:

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) is akin to a screaming bullet tearing through flesh with the sole goal of revealing the mangled bloody mess that resides beneath it.  Or, to put in a slightly less graphic way, it’s about the various facades we as Americans put up in order to hide that in which we truly are.  And the implication in this movie is that what we truly are is violent (hence the title, A History of Violence).  Everything else is a façade to hide this.  Marriage.  Family.  Police protection.  Small-town niceties.  The “good-mornin’s” and the “how-ya-do’s?”  The white picket fences.  The slogans.  The entire “American Dream.”  All of it is a phony façade that hides and maintains our naturally violent selves.

This serious proposition is captured in the riveting opening scene, which, if for no other reason, I’d like to point out because I really like opening scenes.  I have a “thing” for them, you might say.  And just like any other opening scene that’s worth it’s salt, this one is a microcosm of the entire movie.  First, we see an image of the outside of a building.  Bricks.  Siding.  A closed door (doorways are an important visual rhyme throughout).  In short, we see a façade.  The next image we see is two ominous looking men emerge from the inside of this building, exposing themselves to the light of day.  And finally, the scene concludes with a sudden act of needless gun violence performed by one of the men.  Façade + Exposure = Violence.

So goes the rest of A History of Violence, a suspenseful drama that is at times intense, at times funny, at times shocking, at times explosively violent, and even at times sexy.  It’s technically taut.  The performances are memorable.  And the sound design is impeccable.  The aftereffect is a disturbing movie that mostly examines the gap between the façade’s it’s characters raise, and the truths that lie beneath them.  For example, there’s a scene late in the movie where the father tells his son, “We don’t solve problems by hitting people.”  The son responds by making a mean wisecrack, and then, SMACK!  Father hits son.  Like a child first realizing his parents are actually people too, this surprising moment acts as an obvious demonstration of the gap between façade and truth.  The contradiction between saying and doing.

These themes are articulated in many of the filmmaker’s choices, including, but not limited to, the style of acting.  It’s not quite melodrama, but it’s definitely not realism either.  The performances exist somewhere between these two poles, creating a sort of half-real world, which is a perfect tone to comment on the façade vs. natural elements.  Adding yet another layer to this is the hometown in which Viggo Mortensen’s character is originally from.  That choice is specifically Philadelphia.  I mention this, because it could’ve realistically been any other city.  New York. Chicago.  Miami.  Los Angeles.  Any big city where we could imagine a mob syndicate being located.  But the choice is Philadelphia, and this, of course, speaks to the themes of façade vs. truth in a very sardonic way.  On the surface— on the façade— we know Philadelphia as “the City of Brotherly Love.”  Sounds great.  But underneath that, we know that Philadelphia is one of the most violent cities in the world.

And what I’m left with in the end is an unanswerable question that Cronenberg poses with this movie.  That is, are we naturalized to be violent, or is violence natural?  If you’re an optimist you might say we are naturalized.  That, however difficult it may be, violence is escapable and avoidable.  On the other hand, you may say that violence is indeed natural, and indeed inescapable.  That we’re just born bad.  Maybe so.  But regardless of what your answer may be, one can’t deny that we tend to sweep these nasty things under the rug and out of sight behind an artificial façade, in a desperate attempt to pretend they don’t exist.  This, perhaps, is more dangerous than what actually lies beneath.


6. Adaptation.

Smiley Rating:

It’s been two days since I finished watching Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) and now I’m sitting in front of my computer, drinking coffee with too much sugar, struggling to figure out how I should write this article.  I consider writing it as a musical, but the logistics of that seem difficult, and besides, I’m a lousy singer with a nasally voice.  So, I think about why I set out to write this blog in the first place.  That is, because I’m passionate about movies.  But I also want this blog to be original and unique.  I want it to be simple and straightforward.  Honest and real.  In essence, I want to find my voice.  This can be difficult at times.  It’s difficult to overcome self-doubt and negative obsessive thoughts.  It’s difficult to battle cliché and create something that is truly original and honest.

In these ways, I totally and full heartedly sympathize with the protagonist in this movie— a miserable, fat, balding character named Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage), who co-wrote Adaptation. with his fictional identical twin brother, Donald (also played by Nicholas Cage).  The result of this unlikely collaboration is an Academy Award nominated screenplay revolving around a morose screenwriter who is struggling mightily to adapt a book about flowers into a screenplay.  So, really, just as you have two writers, you have two movies here.  In one movie, you get a simple, straightforward adaptation of the book, “The Orchid Thief,” which, by the way, is a real book in the real world written by a real person (Susan Orlean, played by Meryl Streep).  In the other movie, you get a self-reflexive story about a lonely screenwriter failing in both love and in adapting Susan Orlean’s book (mentioned above).  These two complimentary stories interweave with one another in a symbiotic way until they literally crash into each other in the end.

This is a remarkably creative way to adapt a book into a movie.  But what’s even more remarkable is that Adaptation. does what I think is almost impossible to do.  It dramatizes the act of writing and somehow makes it entertaining to watch.  This is done so effectively that even if you’re not a writer, you can empathize with the ups and downs of Charlie’s life, the supreme feeling of inspiration followed by the sharp pain of self-doubt.  But what really makes this movie work is the humor.  Without it, the movie would be bleak and I’m not so sure it would hold an audience’s attention.  That’s not to say that this is a broad, raucous, slapstick, laugh out loud movie.  On the contrary, a lot of the humor is very understated, including jokes that feature the mispronunciation of the word, denouement (dey-noo-mah, whose definition is: “the final part of a narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are resolved”).  These types of brainy jokes can go over the head of many, but luckily, a good amount of the humor surrounds Charlie’s twin brother, Donald, an obliviously cheery character, whom never seems bothered by anyone else and who is always optimistic regardless of the circumstances.  The way these brothers play off each other’s opposing ideologies is hilarious, and because of this, the invention of the identical twin brother is perhaps the smartest conceit about this movie.  Not only does this invention fit perfectly within everything that is bizarrely “Kaufman-esque,” it also adds light to an otherwise dark-ish movie, which allows Adaptation. to be that much more accessible.

Adding to the themes of self-doubt, loneliness, and finding one’s voice, is the adaptation part of Adaptation.  In these sections, Meryl Streep’s Susan Orlean struggles to find her voice as she writes what will eventually become her novel, “The Orchid Thief.”  But as she observes her charismatic subject (Chris Cooper’s John Laroche), she realizes that there’s something quintessential missing in her own life— passion.  Early in the movie, she states that she wants nothing more than “to know what it feels like to feel passionately about something.”  Thusly, Laroche is Susan’s Donald.  Or, conversely, Donald is Charlie’s Laroche.

What this all leads up to is a mad-dash, hectic third act that ironically embodies everything that Charlie Kaufman (the writer of the script) is adverse to.  Sex.  Drugs.  Car chases.  Emotional manipulation.  Adaptation. becomes what Charlie Kaufman most despises in movies, which is an interesting choice to say the least, and the outcome is a movie that both dispels clichés and reinforces them at the same time.  Speaking of clichés, something else happens here.  Charlie undergoes change.  He finds confidence.  He discovers his voice, which is the brutally honest screenplay that we see play out in front of us.

And that brings me to my very own denouement, in my very own article.  How to wrap this all up in a meaningful way?  What impression do I want to leave you with?  How about this: I’ll tell you what I left with.  What I left with was a feeling of satisfaction.  I left feeling that Nicholas Cage’s performances were unexpectedly delightful.  I left feeling that Meryl Streep was her usual powerful self, and that Chris Cooper was impossible to look away from (he did win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, after all).  I left feeling that Adaptation. was smart, dramatic, funny, and unexpectedly full of heart.  But I also left feeling a renewed passion for finding my own voice.  Regardless of how “fantastic, fleeting, and out of reach” it may sometimes feel.  Yeah, I like that.  That feels conclusive.  That’s how I’ll end this article.  That’s what I’ll leave you with.