Tag Archives: oscars

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.

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18. Barton Fink

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


14. Annie Hall

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This girl once asked me what my favorite movies were.  I wasn’t prepared at the time to give a substantial list of movies; so instead, I chose to rattle off a bunch of directors’ names that have influenced me.  Truffaut.  Kubrick.  Anderson.  Tarantino.  Lynch.  Jarmusch.  Linklater.  Apatow.  Bergman.  Godard.  Kieslowski.  I’m not sure exactly what names I spouted at the time or if they were impressive, but we ended up talking about Woody Allen.  And in particular, we started talking about Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).  And I remember she asked me, in a very straightforward way: “why do you like it?”  I was completely taken aback by the pointedness of this question, and I hadn’t seen the movie in some time, so I struggled mightily to formulate a satisfying response.  If I were to be asked that same question now, on September 24, 2012, some thirty-five years after the initial release, I would say this:

I like Annie Hall because even after all of those years, and after all the rip offs and imitations, this romantic comedy still somehow comes across as surprisingly fresh, wickedly smart, and extremely experimental.  The disjointed structure and the breaking of the fourth wall, reflects all of those qualities, and more importantly, allows the story to stay fresh no matter how many viewings.  Speaking of fresh, the dialogue is witty almost beyond belief, resulting in too many one-liners to keep track of.  One-liners like, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation – it’s sex with someone I love!”  Or, “My grammy never gave gifts.  She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”  Or, “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Adding to the brilliant script is the gritty cinematography offered by the master of darkness, Gordon Willis.  The simple rawness, and the graininess of the film print comments perfectly on the messiness of relationships as well as the setting in which the story takes place (New York).  And while the photography comes off as simple and straightforward, there is actually a lot of movement and some really beautiful, breathtaking compositions.  The fact that this does not intrude on the story or bring too much attention to itself, demonstrates exactly how great a director of photography Gordon Willis actually is.  I often wonder why more comedies don’t aspire to this kind of higher level, photographically speaking.  I’m sure there are many logistical reasons for this, including budgetary restraints, but I would be really interested to see a Judd Apatow-type movie shot by, say, Roger Deakins.

Another timeless, ever-lasting element of Annie Hall is the sizzling chemistry between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.  They seem perfect for each other.  This palpable energy creates the impression that these two characters are a real couple that has shared real memories.  This, in turn, compliments the way the story unfolds in its hyperactive disjointed manner, which conjures the tone of a casual conversation between two former lovers commiserating about the past.  And just like in real life, these conversations don’t unfold in chronological order, but in chunks of random memories, that remind you of other chunks of memories, that remind you still of other memories.  And despite this disjointedness, I never felt lost, and actually found it rather easy to follow along, which speaks almost entirely to the strength of the transitions between scenes.

But alas, this is a romantic comedy, and therefore it is about love.  In particular, it’s about an island of a character (Alvy Singer), a person who typically shuts himself off from others, but because of this amazing woman (Annie Hall), he is finally able to start to open up, and he even gets a glimpse of true love.  Problem is, it’s too late.  The feeling isn’t mutual.  In this way, I admire how Annie Hall is different from most other romantic comedies.  In most, the love is obvious.  It’s a special feeling one gets when in the presence of their soul mate.  It’s a golden light that emanates, and it’s just a matter of time before they both realize it.  And maybe this “true love” sensation exists in real life, but I think that that’s actually something else.  It’s lust.  Good chemistry.  Kindred spirits, perhaps.  But true love, true love as shown in this movie, is born out of time.  Out of ups and downs.  It happens gradually and it isn’t a specific feeling, it’s something that dawn’s upon you over time.  And most importantly, it’s not guaranteed.  It’s never ever guaranteed.

With that, I’ll go ahead and wrap my impression of the entire movie up with one metaphor.  If Annie Hall were a cupcake, I’d say its foundation would be misanthropy, comedy would be the icing, and sentimentality would be the sprinkles on top.  I have to say, it makes for one hell of an original confection.


11. American Beauty

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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?”


9. Amelie

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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)

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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.


6. Adaptation.

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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.