Monthly Archives: October 2012

23. Big Fish

Smiley Rating:

Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) is about the importance of imaginative storytelling, and how the quality of one’s storytelling actually correlates to the quality of one’s life.  In doing so, it negates the importance of “fiction” or “non-fiction,” “fact” or “non-fact,” and replaces it with subjective interpretation.  In other words, whether what a person says is a truth (fact) or a lie (fiction) is totally irrelevant, because the very spouting of said words more accurately reflects the person and how he views the world, than whether those words are legitimately true or not.

Take any work of fiction, for example.  Say, James Cameron’s Avatar.  By all means, none of what happens in that movie is literally “true” or “real.”  It’s all made up.  It’s a lie.  It’s a fiction.  It’s a story.  But putting that aside (because it’s irrelevant), what you actually get from that subtext is a crystal clear understanding of what James Cameron’s perspective on the real, actual world is.  That, regardless of what happened to him in his real life, the aggregate of which and his interpretation thereof, led him to the viewpoint that nature is beautiful and should be loved, respected, and salvaged before it’s too late.  Whether you agree with that perspective or think it’s “true” or not is irrelevant, because what matters, and what’s undeniable, is that that perspective exists.

To make myself clear, let’s consider a different hypothetical.  Imagine a young child experiences something tragic.  He loses a parent, or a sibling, or a friend.  Or maybe he suffers a really awful injury.  It’s something tragic.  It’s something we all fear.  Now, how that child ultimately deals with that tragedy is what will become a story he tells for the rest of his life.  Indeed it will be his life.  Because just like it says in this movie: “you tell your stories so many times, you become the stories.”  So, maybe that child’s story is grim and full of ruin and he feels like he can’t overcome it.  This leads to relationship problems and deep sociological issues.  Maybe he turns to drugs or violence or something worse.  Conversely, maybe he tells a different story.  An imaginative, uplifting story in which he learned a vital life lesson, and it motivated him positively and has helped shape who he is today.  Each is a story, and each would reflect a drastically different outcome, but that outcome isn’t dependent on facts, rather, how well that person can tell his story.

I mentioned “fear” just a bit ago, and another important element in Big Fish is the way fearlessness is rewarded.  Ed Bloom’s character (Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney) in particular, is totally fearless.  He confronts the big, scary, bad giant (played memorably by Matthew McGrory), fearless.  He approaches the nasty, frightening one-eyed witch (Helena Bonham Carter), fearless.  He navigates the ominous dangerous unknown trail, fearless.  On and on Ed Bloom operates devoid of fear, and every time he is rewarded for it.  As it turns out, the big bad scary giant isn’t a bad scary giant at all, but the gentlest of humans that you could ever imagine (giant or otherwise).  The one-eyed witch isn’t nasty or frightening, but wise and kind and helpful.  The trail isn’t dangerous or ominous; it’s just full of life with a greener, brighter destination waiting at the end of it.  All of this, not because Ed Bloom is fearless, but because he knows there is no such thing as fear.  It’s an illusion.  It’s a story.  Like this movie, fear is a tall-tale.  But so is your life, so tell it.  Tell it fearlessly, and tell it well, and you will be rewarded too.

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22. Best In Show

Smiley Rating:

Have you ever seen that zany Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, the one about the pet cemetery and the people who have their pets buried there?  Well, if you haven’t seen it, and if you like the documentary format in particular, you might want to check it out.  But the actual reason why I mention that movie is because just like this movie, Best In Show (Christopher Guest, 2000), it’s central theme is coping.  Yes, Best In Show has an extremely amusing context about a colorful cast of character’s entering their dogs in a competition, but underneath that, it’s really about coping.  It’s about people coping with people, mostly, but it’s also about dogs coping with people.  And ironically, how dogs (or any other pets for that matter) allow people to cope more effectively in the first place.  Basically, there’s a lot of coping going on.

And behind all of this coping is the usual cast of brilliant comic actors who always seem to find themselves in Christopher Guest movies.  Jane Lynch is great.  Jennifer Coolidge is great.  Catherine O’Hara is great.  John Michael Higgins is great.  Michael McKean is great.  Parker Posey is great.  They’re all great.  They all have their moments.  Especially Fred Willard who provides a volcanic amount of humor somewhere after the halfway point.  It’s nonstop and it’s hysterical.  “Tell me, do you know the difference between a rectal thermometer and a tongue depressor?”

But there’s a performance here in particular that I wanted to point out, and that is Christopher Guest’s.  While watching Best in Show it occurred to me— and I could be wrong about this— but it occurred to me that he seems to the most chameleon-like of all the actors in this cast.  By that, I mean, he’s consistently the most unrecognizable.  He seems to disappear into his roles slightly more so than the rest, physically speaking.  Which isn’t to say that the other actors don’t play a variety of diverse roles, because they certainly do.  And it also isn’t to say that Christopher Guest is always the funniest character, because he isn’t, and he isn’t in this movie either.  In fact, his character comes off as a bit sad to me.  He’s very likeable.  He’s cordial and he’s nice.  But there’s a visible tinge of loneliness and sadness throughout, especially in the ventriloquist scenes.  I guess you could say he’s coping with loneliness (aren’t we all), and luckily, at the end of the day, he has his dog to cope with.


21. Being John Malkovich

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Right now I’m looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, which is spotty and needs to be cleaned.  Instead of whipping out the Windex, I look past the water spots and examine my hairline, which, by the way, is receding way too quickly.  At least, in my opinion it is.  I look at my nose.  I look at my ears.  I look at my probably unhealthy skin, and at the wrinkles on my forehead and around my eyes…  Fuck…  My gaze then fixes upon my gaze.  My eyes are looking at my eyes.  And I wonder, “am I me?”  Is the voice inside my head legitimately mine?  Or does it belong to a shifty, morose puppeteer pulling at my strings somewhere from within?  If so, how did he get there?  And more importantly, how the fuck do I get him out?  Shit.  Is God a morose puppeteer?  No.  Stop it.  It can’t be.  I’m in control.  I am.

I think I am?

These uncertain philosophical questions regarding the nature of self is what Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999) is essentially about.  Take the mind/body problem, for example.  How can the mind— invisible formless matter— be confined and relegated to a single body, a physical, tangible, touchable thing?  Why doesn’t the mind simply just float away?  Does it float away?  Can it float away?  Or is it truly bound to the physical body?  … Is there a physical body?  Look, what I’m trying to ask is this— is the mind a result of the body or is the body a result of the mind?

Perhaps offering an answer to these unanswerable questions, through a sort of hypothetical, bizarre trial and error system, Being John Malkovich demonstrates that the body is indeed the result of the mind.  Or, in other words, you are who you are, despite the physical body in which you reside.  Even if you could crawl through a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor and into John Malkovich’s body, that wouldn’t change who you quintessentially are.  The body, in time, would simply change to reflect that mind (just as John Malkovich’s body does in this movie).

Deep metaphysical questions aside, what this movie also does is it examines our “15-minutes-of-fame,” reality-TV-obsessed culture.  Why, for example, would someone, anyone, want to change bodies?  I presume it has something to do with looking into the mirror and not liking what you see reflected back at you.  This feeling of inadequacy is inflicted by a superficial, manipulative society that places too much importance on physical appearance, rather than inner appearance (the mind), which as I discussed earlier, is actually what is relevant to who you are.

Speaking of manipulation, one of the more intriguing characters in Being John Malkovich is Catherine Keener’s Maxine, the one character who seems to be in total control the entire time.  She, unlike the others, seems to always get what she wants, either through manipulation or otherwise.  Ironically enough, she is also the only character who doesn’t desire to crawl through the portal and into John Malkovich.  In this way, she is the master puppeteer.  Not in a cynical way necessarily, but because she is the most confident.  She knows who she is, and she accepts it, thusly allowing herself to be open to following through on her instincts.

Now, I’ve spoken a lot so far about metaphysics and strange ethereal ideas, but I should also say this movie is damn funny.  It’s smart as hell, for sure, but more importantly, it’s funny.  It’s funny when John Malkovich crawls into his own portal and is confronted by a world populated by only John Malkovich’s.  “Malkovich, Malkovich?”  “Malkovich.”  It’s funny how Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) takes his profession as a puppeteer so damn seriously.  It’s funny that there is a seventh-and-a-half floor.  It’s funny that one gets spat out onto the New Jersey turnpike once your 15 minutes of being John Malkovich are up.  It’s funny, it’s funny, it’s funny, and who knew philosophy was so full of hilarity?

Well, apparently Charlie Kaufman knew, who, I get the feeling, was making it all up as he went along.  As if he thought of this incredible concept and just dove head first to see where it took him.  This is an admirable, bold way to tackle a screenplay, and while the result is a somewhat uneven journey, it’s also one that is full of laughter, surprises, distinctiveness, wit, and it ultimately leaves you in an unsuspecting place you never expected to be when you first began the journey.  For that, I’m thankful.

Oh.  And disregard that thing I said at the outset about my receding hairline.  I’m actually having a FABULOUS hair-day today.


20. Beginners

Smiley Rating:

This movie is about one of the most important lessons of all and that is seizing the day.  This movie is quirky.  This movie is quintessentially modern.  This movie is about coming to terms with who you were, who you are, and who you want to be.  This movie is cathartic.  This movie is playfully inventive which reminds me of the French New Wave.  This movie is charming like Melanie Laurent.  This movie is adorable like that Jack Russell.

This movie is emotionally powerful like Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award winning portrayal of a gay man, who, following the death of his wife of 45 years, comes out of the closet at age 75.  This movie is a celebration of life.  This movie is funny like one of those t-shirts that has an ironic slogan written on it.  This movie is about communication, both verbal and nonverbal.  This movie is about how nothing is permanent, how attitudes change, how styles change, and what is considered acceptable and unacceptable changes as well.

This movie is about love.  This movie is about death.  This movie is about life, love, and death, just like a flower represents life, love and death.  This movie is about acceptance.  This movie is full of small intimate details that speak to everyone.  This movie is about seizing the day before it’s too late, which I already said, and I said it again because it’s important.  This movie is about forgiveness.  This movie makes me cry.  This movie makes me smile.  This movie makes me laugh.  This movie is about not knowing what happens next but going for it anyway.  This movie is about the first day of the rest of your life.  This movie is Beginners (Mike Mills, 2010).


19. Batman Begins

Smiley Rating:

I should probably start by declaring that I have yet to see the third and final installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  I should also say that it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the second installment, The Dark Knight.  And so, while I can’t say for sure what this all builds up to in the end, I can confidently say that this entire franchise is essentially Christopher Nolan’s reaction to the War on Terrorism.  And I don’t mean to bring politics into this, or to be divisive, but Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), more than anything, establishes and initiates a dynamic conversation regarding idealism and realism.  Both domestically and in regards to foreign policy.

Putting that aside for the time being, I can’t help but think that this “Batman” is the “Batman” its fans have been waiting for and clamoring for their entire lives.  Which isn’t to say that Tim Burton’s “Batman” was entirely inadmissible, because if nothing else, those movies were at least somewhat entertaining, and even somewhat funny.  They, at least, had a certain discernable quality that can be attributed to the vision of Tim Burton.  However, that tongue-in-cheek approach will always result in a tongue-in-cheek movie, which at best is somewhat amusing and at worse is Batman and Robin (1997).  To me, this approach reflects filmmakers who don’t quite believe 100% in what they are doing.  Let’s just say, it can go wrong.

Batman Begins, on the other hand, takes the complete opposite approach.  Here, they decide to hire a competent, self-assured, established director whose style not only meshes well with the content, but who is also an artist that doesn’t take his subjects anything but seriously.  This resoluteness reverberates throughout.  And the result is a fully realized movie pregnant with meaning, as well as a consistent, unyielding tone that compliments the core of the story, and creates a perfect environment for all of the technical departments to thrive in.  What you end up with is an inspiring epic that is visually impressive, psychologically complex, and dark and gritty— just like its main character, Bruce Wayne.  Speaking of, one of the more fitting lines of dialogue now comes to mind: “A guy who dresses up like a bat has issues.”  Couldn’t have said it better, Bruce.  Couldn’t have said it better…  And in this way, among many other ways, Batman Begins is about mental health.  Or should I say mental sickness?  At any rate, it’s about how fear lies at the heart of all of these conflicts, whether mental or otherwise, and that fear is the essence of the entire “Batman” saga/persona.

Which brings me back to my original point regarding politics and the War on Terrorism.  Fear is at the core of the terrorists, as well as the politicians who react to the terrorists.  So, in a way, the initial incarnation of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” represents our initial reaction to the terrorists.  That is, beat them at their own game.  Crush them.  Put fear into their hearts.  The problem with this— and this is reflected in the moral struggles and lessons Bruce Wayne learns throughout— is that this fear-based reaction, however righteous the initial intentions may be, actually makes things worse.  It prolongs the cycle.  “All creatures feel fear, especially the scary ones.”  By this rationale, if an increased amount of fear is implemented to deter the enemy, that enemy will only become more fearful and therefore incrementally scarier (i.e. the Joker).  This behavior, in the real world, is referred to as an escalating “arms race.”

Speaking of the real world, Batman Begins works as an economic allegory as well.  Just take a look at the setting in which the movie takes place.  Gotham City, which consists of deteriorating infrastructure, too much crime, a widening gap between the rich and the poor, a corrupt government, corrupt corporations, and well…  I can go on further, but I have a feeling you get the idea.    And before I start to sound too gloomy, let me end with what I think is Christopher Nolan’s overall impression he wants to leave us with.  That is, in a word: cooperation.  Not idealism or realism.  Not liberalism or conservatism.  Not public or private.  Not “or,” but “and.”  Idealism AND realism.  Liberalism AND conservatism.  Public AND private.  Both!  Like “Batman” himself, who epitomizes the idea of a private corporation serving the public, not for profit, but for the greater good of mankind.  Economic patriotism, if you will.  A cooperative merging that isn’t based on a blind devotion to an ideology, rather, a devotion to an ideal.  And together we will move towards that ideal— rebuilding together, struggling together, and ultimately confronting and facing our biggest fears… together.


18. Barton Fink

Smiley Rating:

Movies, like dreams, are the life of the mind, and Barton Fink (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1991) is one of the most mysterious, paradoxical minds of all.  The story— a bizarre mix of classical filmmaking and abstract surrealism— is about a critically acclaimed playwright turned screenwriter who is battling expectations and writer’s block while the pressure from a major Hollywood studio mounts, as does the temperature outside.  “We’re all expecting great things from you,” the executive cryptically says.  But just like good screenwriting, Barton Fink is more about what it doesn’t show, than what it shows.  It’s what’s on the other side of the peeling wallpaper.  It’s what’s outside the frame.  It’s what’s inside the box.  It’s what’s inside the head.  Hell, it’s what dreams are made of!  This dream just happens to be more of a strange nightmare, the lingering unsettling kind that you can’t quite shake after you wake up.

Dreaming aside, Barton Fink is an exquisitely made movie that boasts an all-star cast, all providing superlative performances.  The most noteworthy of which is Michael Lerner’s, whose portrayal of an alpha, silver-tongued movie executive is both outrageously hilarious and frightening at the same time.  The cinematography offered by Roger Deakins is crisp with a golden glow (speaking to the “Golden Age of Cinema”), and contains all of the playful camera movement typically found in a Coen Brother’s picture.  The art direction is apt, especially in terms of the creepy, dust-layered, seemingly secluded Hotel Earle that acts as another character unto itself.  And in addition to all of these well-executed elements, is a baffling screenplay that makes you think you know what’s going to come next, but then suddenly goes in a completely different direction.  It is ripe with visual rhymes and echoing motifs, consisting of an uncountable number of references to boxes and heads, including the Eraserhead-like hairstyle of Barton, the mysterious picture frame that constantly prods us to look deeper, as well as the ominous package left behind by John Goodman’s character.  By end, all of this poetry and perplexing depth almost makes you want to pull off your own head (pun intended).

But there is yet another thing this movie does— and perhaps this deals more with its commentary on Hollywood— and that is it creates a paradoxical tension between the creator and the subject.  Between Hollywood and the Audience.  This duality is exemplified in the relationship between John Turturro’s Barton Fink and John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows.  On one hand, Barton’s passionate appeal to making more stories about the “common-man” comes off as arrogant, judgmental, and condescending.  Though his intentions may be well placed, they are misguided.  “You think you know pain, but you’re just a tourist with a typewriter.”  This seems to suggest that the insular Hollywood is clueless, and is thusly misreading and misrepresenting its audience completely.  Or as Charlie clarifies: “You don’t listen!”  With this, the Coen’s are either saying that the audience is stupid, and that they desire only formulistic, easy to understand movies; or that Hollywood doesn’t give the audience enough credit for being smarter, and therefore should provide more thought-provoking material.  Whether that’s what the “common-man” actually wants or not, I can’t say.

And as I write this, I realize Barton Fink, the movie, would be laughing at me right now.  Laughing at me for writing this.  Laughing at me for reading so much into it, and trying so desperately to interpret the various meanings.  I admit this; I say this, because the movie explicitly tells me so.  It’s written in text, in the Bible, so it’s clearly important.  I even paused the movie to be able to write this text down:

“And the king, Nebuchandnezzar, answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known unto me my dream, and its interpretation, ye shall be cut in pieces, and of your tents shall be made a dunghill.”

My initial reaction to this strange text is that it is absurd and ironically reflects the absurdity of an eager viewer like me trying to desperately interpret this movie.  It’s like trying to recall and interpret someone else’s dream for them, simply by dissecting the way they are eating their salad at lunch.  It’s absurd.  But this text also self-reflexively comments on writing in general, and in particular, writer’s block.  That is, writing isn’t the physical act of typing words into a typewriter, or even seeing words on a page.  Writing happens before that.  It happens in the mind.  It is the intangible challenge of recalling an unknown distant dream, making known that dream unto yourself, and then interpreting it in a way that appeals to all, even the “common-man.”  To be unable to recall this dream, however close to the tip of the tongue it may be, is to be stuck as a writer.  It’s to be me at the end of this movie.

 


17. Away We Go

Smiley Rating:

Imagine you’re enjoying a hot cup of Joe at the trendiest, most eco-friendly coffee shop in town.  In one of the corners, an ultra hip hipster strums his acoustic guitar and sings Phillip Phillips’ “Home” in a soothing, laid back manner, which provides for a nice meditative atmosphere.  And as you sip at your brew for over an hour and a half, you overhear a spattering of very intimate conversations between a diversity of young adults.  Some of these conversations are bizarrely funny, some are deadly serious, and others are just outright strange.  This is how I’d describe the tone of Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009), a road-trip romantic comedy that tends to be more of a drama than a comedy, with subject matter that surrounds a young couple who are urgently trying to figure out the best way to raise their soon-to-be newborn child.  Luckily, these unorthodox characters have a great sense of humor and share an even better chemistry, which helps us navigate through this serious material.

The end result is a cozy, yet intimate movie that poses two universal questions.  The first is, what is home?  Is it simply a collection of things and people stuffed between four walls in a specific place?  Or is it something more?  If it is something more, what is it and how would you describe it?  The other question, which is perhaps more elusive, is what’s the best way to raise a child and start a family?  These basic, fundamental questions are what the main characters are exploring throughout, as they travel from place to place, with each new locale providing a different perspective on these inquiries.  Interestingly enough, what these characters reflect is a new, up-and-coming generation who are seemingly untethered from the traditions of the past, and who are searching for perhaps a newer, better way.

What they ultimately discover utilizing this open-minded approach is that on one hand “home” is not just a collection of stuff accumulated in a certain location, rather that STUFF is just the raw materials that creates a foundation.  What holds all of this together, what makes it a “home” regardless of where it is or what is actually in it— is love.  Home is where love is, and in theory, love can be anywhere, shared between anyone.  Now, regarding the other question (how to best raise a child and start a family), their discovery is two-fold.  On one level, Away We Go suggests that the traditions that have been laid before us are indeed the best way to raise a child and start a family.  They are tried and trued.  But on a contrasting level, it simultaneously claims that some of those traditions are demonstrably flawed.  “Bad parents still get to be bad parents.”  With this, the filmmakers seem to be suggesting that there is no answer.  Because, inevitably, the question becomes, “what is best?”  Define “best.”  And “best” is relative.  So, of course there is no answer because there is no one right way.  There is only your way.  You can only do the best you can.  You hope that you’re lucky.  You hope you know the answers.  You hope you teach the right lessons.  You hope that you’re not a fuck up.  And regardless of the methodology you employ and eventually pass on, at the end of the day there is but one thing you can consistently hope to bank on:  home.