Tag Archives: comedy

27. Boogie Nights

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Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997) is a bitingly funny, boldly crafted melodrama that insists less is not more – more is more.  As in, thirteen inches more.  As in, more characters.  More storylines.  More virtuosic camera moves.  More sex.  More nudity.  More passion.  More grit.  More drama.  More vulgarity.  More drugs.  More everything.  The result is a lengthy, highly ambitious project that unfolds like a Robert Altman film, interweaving a myriad of characters and storylines so that they compliment the material in a comparative and contrasting manner.  This keen approach echoes the half & half structure and provides insightful commentary on themes regarding family and sexuality.

That “family” happens to be a disparate group of filmmakers and artists (or pornographers and porn-stars, if you prefer) who were somehow lucky enough to find each other in the seedy underbelly of the porn world during the late 70’s and early 80’s.  These dysfunctional characters are introduced with a feverish pizazz in an opening that demonstrably puts the “fun” in funky.  This dazzling sequence establishes the environment in such a captivating way that it allows the audience to fully immerse itself in this unsavory, unsettling world.

Helping these matters are the incredible performances lent by the stellar cast, all melding perfectly in their roles.  These memorable portrayals are offered by Burt Reynolds; John C. Reilly; Don Cheadle; Heather Graham; William H. Macy; Julianne Moore; Philip Seymour Hoffman; Alfred Molina; Mark Wahlberg (and many more).  Now, if that sounds like a lot of characters and a lot of well-respected actors, that’s because it is.  Not only that, but they all relish their moments on-screen and turn this eclectic group of what could have been quirky caricatures, into fully developed human beings with depth and complexity.

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Speaking of depth, it is rumored that some of the sex in this film wasn’t exactly “acted.”  In other words, the talent was sometimes totally fucking on-screen.  Like, for real, real.  (Talk about method acting!)  Whether that rumor is based in truth or not is a moot point, because the otherwise brutally honest approach permeates the entire film and the consequence is a certain rawness that may alienate some viewers.  But let’s face it.  Boogie Nights is about porn.  So if nudity, drugs, and vulgarity offend you, then this movie wouldn’t be appropriate regardless of what was shown on-screen or how real the sex was.

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However, if you are able to look past the sex, what awaits you is some very effective melodrama, which contrasts sharply with a steady stream of humor.  The result is a synthesis that is sometimes uneven, but is ultimately held together by a smart score and an exhilarating soundtrack.  This clashing of unlikely elements (the melodrama and the comedy) is further grounded by the forceful performances as aforementioned, and the self-assured direction provided by Paul Thomas Anderson.  It is easy to imagine this all going wrong if it were in lesser hands, especially when considering Boogie Nights doesn’t depend on an overly explicit plot to move the action forward.  Rather, it appears to be character-driven, giving Anderson the opportunity to take his time in developing this myriad of characters and the world in which they reside.  Conversely, this sometimes makes for a slower, more leisurely pace, which may turn off some impatient viewers.  This is precisely why the captivating opening sequence is so vitally important, because it gives the audience a reason to be patient.  Without it, the audience would not be as forgiving, and would possibly be dazed and confused by the start of the second act.  But this is not the case, and while the story sometimes feels stagnant, it is always steadily thrusting forward and the end satisfyingly pays off the patience of the viewer.

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Which brings me to the inflammatory punctuation that brings Boogie Nights to a close.  Of course what I’m talking about is the on-screen reveal of that “one special thing” Dirk Diggler was blessed with.  I mentioned that the end is satisfying, but I feel ambivalent to whether this shocking reveal is the best way to finish off the movie.  In fact, I wonder if the less is more approach would have been more effective here.  After all, some things that are left off-screen make for an even more vivid image in the mind.  I don’t know.  Maybe the shock-factor is the suitable pay-off for a movie that is otherwise raw and unflinching.  In this case, perhaps more IS more.

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24. The Big Lebowski

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The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998) is a ramblin’, complex, ambitious “who-dun-it?” story, in which the answer is ultimately revealed as: nobody.  Nobody dun did it.  Like the Nihilists in this movie, the plot essentially amounts to nothing.  In this Hitchcockian sort of way, the entire plot is merely an excuse to experiment with all of these outrageous characters, most notably, of course, is The Dude, played awesomely by Jeff Bridges.  And while The Big Lebowski feels like a convoluted, plot-heavy film— with “lots of ins, lots of outs”— it’s actually more akin to an intimately detailed character study.

That character, The Dude, closely resembles the tumbling tumbleweed shown in the opening prelude, as he is so easily blown from one escalating plot point to the next, with each subsequent episode mounting in absurdity, containing more outlandish characters, and displaying an increased amount of preposterous visuals.  This tumbling tumbleweed of an apathetic character is exemplified in his own motto: “fuck it,” as well as the place in which the story takes place— Los Angeles.  The Dude is Los Angeles and Los Angeles is The Dude.  What’s most bitingly ironic about this lazy, pacified characterization is that the entire crux of the story depends on The Dude reacting to the inciting incident in a way that defies his very own ethos.

In other words, because of the persuasive abilities of his outspoken friend Walter, The Dude breaks with his usual pacified mentality, and decides to take a stand against what he perceives to be unfair, unchecked aggression.  After all, they peed on his fucking rug!  Adding to this irony, of course, are all of the disastrous, unintended consequences of taking said action, which could have been avoided if The Dude were only to stick to his original “fuck it” motto.  All’s he had to do was let it be, and cope with a pee-stained rug.

But alas, that is not what happened, and I get the feeling— based on the movie’s popularity and cult following— that the story could have been just about anything, and what makes this material work are the supremely detailed characterizations of it’s many zany characters.  I mean, just take John Turturro’s “Jesus” character, for example.  This character is totally ludicrous, and is entirely irrelevant to the actual plot of the story.  He doesn’t push the story forward; instead, like so many other moments in The Big Lebowski, he is simply a digression.  Even so, because the details are as specific and peculiar as they are, and because the casting and performances are so spot-on, these moments and characters not only work, but they end up being some of the most effective, memorable, entertaining parts of the entire film.  Speaking of memorable, the screenplay penned by the Coen’s is so smart, and is full of so many quotable lines of dialogue you will need to drink a spiked “White Russian” just to get them out of your head (not that you would want to).

But putting aside all of the kooky madness The Big Lebowski has to offer, what ends up rising to the top is an hallucinatory morality tale about power, perceived power, and using that power for leverage.  What’s interesting about this dynamic, particularly the way it is framed in this movie, is that the perceived power— whether the source is money, sex, or violence— is merely that: a perceived power.  An illusion.  Its only power if the so-called “lesser” person agrees to give it power.  By feeding it.  And I get the impression that the Coen’s are suggesting that meeting an aggressive act with an aggressive act is what feeds it.  Or, like I mentioned earlier, The Dude’s troubles could all have been avoided if only he were to ABIDE by his original pacifist worldview and life-engrossing motto: “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.”


23. Big Fish

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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.


22. Best In Show

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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

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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).


16. Art School Confidential

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One of the aspects I admire most about a Terry Zwigoff film— and Art School Confidential (Terry Zwigoff, 2006) in particular— is that they seem to be entirely devoid of pretentiousness.  Well, except for maybe Ghost World, which has some definite quirk to it, and therefore is probably the reason why I like that Zwigoff film the most.  I guess I just prefer pretentiousness in movies… but that’s a different story.  As far as this film goes, there’s no razzle-dazzle photography.  The structure is straightforward and to the point.  It doesn’t attempt to break ground stylistically or otherwise.  It just is what it is, and it doesn’t care what others think.  And that’s not only why this film is endearing, but it also happens to be the underlying message.

Now, whether this film accurately portrays “art school” or not, is beside the point.  What it does do, and this is more important than the context, is it captures the “feeling” and the mind-set of what it might be like to go to “art school.”  Funny enough, it reminds me of this segment I recently saw on the Oprah Winfrey Network, where she was interviewing a high-ranking film executive from Paramount.  One of the more indelible lessons from that interview was about “staying in your own movie.”  By this, they meant that everyone’s life is like a movie, and that each of us is the star actor of that movie, and our director just happens to be God.  But what they stressed most about this metaphor was the importance of “staying in your own movie,” and in a way, that’s exactly what Art School Confidential is about.

Or to put in a slightly less metaphorical way, it’s about finding and expressing your true nature.  It’s about the desire to fit in and the quest of finding that place in which you truly do fit.  Juxtaposed to this, and thus illustrating the point, is an eloquent line of dialogue delivered by Malkovich’s character:  “He’s trying to sing in his own voice using someone else’s vocal chords.”  This, in a nutshell, is every artist’s, and even every human’s dilemma.  Who am I?  Why am I?  And while some may find their true calling rather easily (lucky bastards), most of us will struggle in making this discovery.  The reason for this, I think, reflects what I was saying earlier about “staying in your own movie.”  When we envy other people’s success, and compare ourselves, and get caught up in other people’s lives (or in other peoples’ movies), we get discouraged and lose our way.  When we’re in denial, or have unrealistic expectations, or have flawed motives— we lose our way.  We end up trying to sing with someone else’s vocal chords rather than our own.  In this way, Art School Confidential is a strict order.  That is, “listen.”  Listen to your voice.  Stay in your movie.  Stay on your path.  In the end, you will get to where you need.