Tag Archives: drama

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).

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15. Any Given Sunday

Smiley Rating:

One thing that sometimes infuriates me about sports movies is when the “sportness” of that movie comes off as fake or inauthentic.  Not explicitly so, like mistakenly calling a touchdown a homerun, but in subtle ways that you’d only recognize if you were an avid sports fan.  Like, the way a pitcher winds up to throw a baseball.  Or the way a basketball player dribbles down the court, while calling out a play.  These seem like small, insignificant details, but if they happen to come off as false, it can be deadly, as the worse thing a movie can do is seem phony.  That being said, Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone, 1999) does a really good job of getting it right.  Despite the fictional football league, the fictional teams, and the fictional players, it actually feels mostly authentic.  Helping this matter, of course, is the fact that the movie is populated by a ton of former players and coaches.  From Jim Brown to Lawrence Taylor to Barry Switzer, these appearances elevated Any Given Sunday to a more authentic level.  Be that as it may, I do have to say that if you’re not a sports fan, or a football fan in particular, you may not catch these details and there’s a decent possibility you’ll be bored before halftime.

Luckily, there’s a lot going on here other than football, especially stylistically speaking.  Some noteworthy choices are the cinematography, which is largely done in inspection-like close ups, as well as the loud, pounding score, which gets the adrenaline rushing.  But perhaps the most interesting technical element is the editing style, which appears to be driven entirely by montage.  By this, I mean the movie is constantly cutting from one shot to another in a rapid-fire way, like you might see in a crazy action sequence or an experimental music video.  Apparently it took 4 editors to accomplish this, and while it led to a fast paced, ultra kinetic movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if it also led to a pounding headache for the viewer.  All of these choices ended up shaping a tone that felt more like a war movie than a sports movie, which creates an interesting parallel between the hierarchies of the military, the hierarchies of professional sports, as well as the spectator nature of the uninvolved citizenry in both.  We happily cheer for our soldiers and our players when they’re in battle, but what happens afterwards?  After the war is over?  After the game has finished?  Do we bring that same intensity in helping these people rehabilitate after the fact, or do we look to save money and write them off instead?  On that note, I actually think Any Given Sunday was way ahead of its time, as it is now fairly common to discuss players’ safety and the effects the game has on the body and mind.

On a lighter note, I probably shouldn’t go on any further without mentioning Al Pacino, who I think is perfect for the role of an aging head coach.  I mean, really, what’s better than Al Pacino constantly yelling at the top of his lungs and giving fiery halftime speeches?  Offering their support is an extensive cast of actors (everyone seems to be in this movie) all of whom give strong performances, most surprisingly of which were the football players themselves, including Lawrence Taylor, a non-actor former football player, who was actually really powerful in this movie.  Even L.L. Cool Jay was competent in his role.

The movie is close to three hours in length, and so it’s more than just a story about an old football player clinging on to his legacy while a young player strives to build his own.  It’s also about race.  It’s about drugs.  It’s about ego.  It’s about war.  It’s about sacrifice.  It’s about coming together.  It’s about loneliness.  It’s about the tension between young and old.  The tug and pull between the past and the future.  But most importantly, it’s about respect.  It’s about how the younger generations and the older generations, while they may not always understand each other, need to learn to respect each other.  The young can learn from the traditions of the old, but the old can also learn from the naiveté of the young.  Together, with mutual respect, I’d say there is no limit to what can be achieved.


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?


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.”