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.

 


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.