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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.

 

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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.


5. Across the Universe

Smiley Rating:

Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007) is a grand experiment more than it is anything else.  The experiment?  Take a handful of existing Beatles songs and shape a story based on the lyrics of those songs.  The result is an uneven, yet entertaining musical set in America during the Vietnam War.  It includes a heavy stream of anti-war imagery as well as a mentionable psychedelic callback to Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary (think: Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).  But really, this is a simple coming-of-age / love story wrapped in a clever concept.

That being said, the musical sequences are definitely the standout, memorable moments of Across the Universe.  And while a few of these numbers certainly fall flat and feel forced (“Dear Prudence,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”)— the majority are highly effective, including: “I Want to Hold Your Hand;” “With A Little Help From My Friends;” “Let It Be;” “Come Together;” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy);” “I Am the Walrus;” and “All You Need is Love.”  Whether all of these classic songs mesh well within the same film, I’m not sure.

Which leads me to what I believe is the greatest shortfall of Across the Universe, and that is its sprawling nature and numerous characters.  Perhaps this concept would benefit from a slightly more focused storyline with fewer characters.  Which isn’t to say that the problem is simply that there are too many characters.  The problem is some of them feel forced, as if they exist solely to bring about a particular song / plot point, which takes us out of the story, and adds length to an already long movie.  Perhaps the filmmakers are overly ambitious here, as they strive to cover what seems like all that was the counterculture during the Vietnam War era.  The consequence is a lot of passionately inspired musical sequences that don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying whole.

It makes me wonder how this experiment would have played out if given a different, more unexpected context.  For example, instead of a flowerchild, Vietnam era period piece, maybe a modern day setting would have been more prescient.  Instead of a main character from Liverpool who looks exactly like one of the Beatles, perhaps the opposite of that would have been cool.  Instead of a sprawling multi-plot structure, maybe a more intimate, smaller story about love would have been better fitting.  Of course this is all in retrospect, and let’s face it, there are A LOT of Beatles songs, and this concept could have gone in any number of directions.

In any case, I do love this concept and I am glad this movie exists.  I love that all of the characters names are based on songs (Jude, Lucy, Sadie, Maxwell, Prudence).  I love Joe Cocker’s cameo in “Come Together” and Bono’s in “I Am the Walrus.”  These sequences alone make the movie worth seeing.  The performances are strong across the line, and the music is superb throughout.  Conversely, if you’re NOT a Beatles fan, I’m not sure this movie has much to offer you (unless you’re doing research on modern musicals in film or are interested in the counterculture era during the Vietnam War).  However, if you ARE a Beatles fan, I’d suggest taking a look at this movie.  You may love it, you may not, but I can confidently say that you’ll leave this movie humming the tunes in your head.

In the end, though, when all is considered, I think I’d prefer to just sit back, put on my favorite Beatles album, and “get high with a little help from my friends.”


4. A Clockwork Orange

Smiley Rating:

“VIOLENCE SPEAKS VIOLENCE,” and in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) its voice belongs to Alex DeLarge— an articulate, manipulative, passionate, charismatic, uber-sexual, violent, sociopath— in other words, the spawn of a broken society perpetuated by a corrupt political system.  Or should I say, a violent society perpetuated by a violent political system.  Again, “violence speaks violence.”  An eye for an eye.  This circular logic lies at the heart of A Clockwork Orange, and it is most encapsulated by the notable character arc of Alex DeLarge (portrayed brilliantly by Malcolm McDowell).

And as far as violence goes, so goes the first section of the film, in which Alex DeLarge is… well… at large.  He, along with his three buddies (“droogs,” as they call themselves)— routinely and joyfully inflict horror upon the town.  The crimes inevitably grow more serious, until ultimately, Alex kills a woman with a giant penis sculpture (ouch).  This appalling murder, along with the betrayal of his so-called friends, ends the provocative first half of A Clockwork Orange, a first half that can be characterized simply as: the opposite of the Golden Rule.  That is, “do unto others that in which you would NEVER EVER do unto yourself.”  Like, kill a woman with a giant penis sculpture.

Speaking of killing women with giant penises, there are a noticeable amount of objectified representations of women in this film.  These incendiary images appear throughout, including the inert naked-woman-tables at the milk bar, as well as the tantalizing portraits of women that decorate the walls of the murder victim.  I’m not sure if these images are supposed to comment on the objectification of women or the sexual freedom of women or the oppression of women, or all at the same time.  Which raises an interesting question: What is the difference between sexism and sexuality?  In the dystopian world Kubrick creates, I’m not so sure.

Before I move on, I wanted to quickly point out an important line of dialogue, spoken by a Priest in the second act.  He says:  “When a man cannot choose, he seizes to be a man.”  In the context, he’s speaking to the morality of whether a choice is good even if you have no power to make that choice.  However— and I’m probably reading too much into this— but by that same rationale, wouldn’t it also be true that if a “woman cannot choose, she seizes to be a woman?”  I could be wrong, but perhaps this is a subtle Pro-Choice stance taken by Kubrick.

On the other hand, another recurring visual motif is that of the penis.  Especially throughout the first act (penis graffiti, penis sculpture, compositions where the pelvic region is in the dominant position of the frame)— but not so much in the second act, which brings us to the movement in the film which could be titled: “Alex’s Castration.”  The power of the penis is replaced by the power of the state… so to speak.  This is all captured in the iconic brainwashing scene (the scene we’ve all seen even if we haven’t seen the movie) in which Alex’s eyes are literally clamped open as the experiment unfolds.  It’s horrible and it is supposed to be horrible (“violence speaks violence”).

However, to me, there is a far more interesting scene buried in the second act.  It’s a scene that I think speaks to Alex’s character most.  In this scene, he reads about Jesus’ crucifixion, and while he’s currently incarcerated and is being oppressed (even tortured), he somehow sides with the Romans in the story.  He doesn’t empathize with the tortured Jesus, instead, he fancies himself as the guy beating Jesus himself.  This scene is both hilarious and frightening at the same time, which means it’s perfect satire.  And like all satire, it speaks to something truthful.  Perhaps the truth is that Alex’s point of view actually represents the majority of people, Christians in particular.  By this, I don’t mean that Christians (or anyone) consciously think of themselves as the Romans.  But the way people obsess over the violence in the bible, and the hating of the gays and the women— while glossing over the pacified teachings of Jesus— one might assume that they are more akin to the violent Roman than the peaceful Jesus.  I might be out of my mind, but I think a lot of Christians would adhere to an eye for an eye philosophy, rather than the turn the other cheek philosophy.  On a random side-note, I just realized that I dislike the term “turn the other cheek.”  Can we replace this with: “a hug for a hug?”

At any rate, Alex undergoes the groundbreaking experiment and is released back into society.  He’s cured!  Of course, he has fewer choices, and a lot less freedom.  Yes, he gets kicked out of his parents’ house, and is then harassed by a crowd of homeless people.  Sure, he’s tortured by the police, who happen to be his ex-buddies.  But he deserves it.  Right?  An eye for an eye?  Bad karma?  And as far as bad karma goes, the now vulnerable Alex ironically finds himself at the doorstep of one of his original victims.  The victim, characterized as a Liberal, reflexively invites Alex into his home.  At this point, he does not realize that Alex is the perpetrator who raped his wife and crippled him in the first act.  So, he proceeds to care for Alex— feed him, draw a bath for him, etc.  Until the man discovers that Alex is the bastard who ruined his life, and his reaction is the same as everyone else’s.  Revenge.  An eye for an eye.  So, despite the Liberal man’s pacifist ideology, he too tortures Alex, almost to the point of self-influenced death.

Which brings us to the final scene, where we learn that whatever the government had done to brainwash Alex, has been erased and he is back to his original sick self.  This pessimistic ending, which completes Alex’s circular character arc, implies many things.  On a political level, it states that Alex (who represents us) is a pawn for the differing political ideologies to use him in an attempt to make a point, regardless of its dehumanizing effects.  With its negative depiction of both Liberals and Conservatives (as well as all other people), A Clockwork Orange almost comes off as a Libertarian howl for freedom.  More importantly, though, this is a film showing the anti-Golden Rule.  That is, “violence speaks violence.”  Negativity begets negativity.  Hurt people hurt people.  It sounds simplistic and overly idealistic, but Kubrick is speaking to this self-sustaining, infinite cycle of violence.  I gather that if we are to avoid a dystopian future (or present), perhaps we should disturb this cycle of violence.  That is, to say, “LOVE SPEAKS LOVE.”  Not an eye for any eye, rather— a hug for a hug.


Prologue

I sit on this couch from Ikea, with this precious cat sleeping nearby, watching “Hardball With Chris Matthews.”  I’ve just applied for a data entry position at the Directors Guild of America, and now I’m not sure what to do.

So, my idle mind wanders, and my eyes fix upon this beautiful antique cabinet that sits on the edge of the room.  This cabinet, I should say, has some interesting history.  It once was the top-half of a medicine cabinet in a psychiatric hospital, and was found in a ditch on the side of the road many decades ago.  It was kindly passed down from one generation to the next, and now holds the entirety of my movie collection.  Although, when I say “my,” I really mean “we” (as in, my wife and I).  Our collection.  In total, we have exactly 201 movies between us.  Some gifts, some box sets, some hers, some mine, some I haven’t even seen.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to watch EVERY single movie in the collection in alphabetical order (all 201 of them), which will then be followed by a corresponding review.  Well, not a review, per se, more of a “casual commentary.”

At any rate, the first order of task:  do inventory.