01/08/13 Film Essay # , ,

All The Real Girls (2003)

All The Real Girls (2003)
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: David Gordon Green
Stars: Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson


Not until girls became real persons could a movie like All the Real Girls be made. Now, even young men are noticing. Girls and women are not figments of the male imagination but real, live, hot-blooded human beings with needs, desires and ideas of their own. Conceptualized, written and directed by two men, “All the Real Girls” captures that heightened poetic moment when Mars falls in love with Venus. But because Venus is a real girl, not a dreamgirl, she holds her own orbit just long enough to send life-changing tremors through Mars while she makes a few of her own.

In this way, an old story gets a fresh twist. Paul (Paul Schneider), a bored small town stud with too much time on his hands, is captivated by Noel (Zooey Deschanel), his best friend’s younger sister returning home after graduation from a girl’s boarding school. Theoretically, Noel should be just another conquest but instead she arouses feelings in him that confuse Paul, making him shy away from his usual modis operandi of fast kisses, quick sex and cool exits. But Noel, a virgin on the verge, launches her own agenda. She flirts with Paul hoping her big brother’s friend will provide an answer to her budding sexual desires.

All the Real Girls opens with Paul and Noel talking in the shadows of an alley, stopped on a walk around town by obvious tones of mutual attraction. Noel’s forthrightness contrasts with Paul’s hesitation. Noel asks Paul, “Why haven’t you kissed me?” He answers that he doesn’t want to kiss her like he’s kissed other girls. She suggests he kiss her hand, seducing him easily from her hand to her mouth. She’s ready. He’s not. When Noel leads Paul into a passionate first kiss, an equality of spirit is established.

This may be a girl who can be swept off her feet but she is far from passive. Virginity may be an alluring sign of purity to a man but, for a young woman, it marks a burgeoning potential. Noel is on the brink of discovery, breaking through to a time of empowerment where sex and feelings converge into self-knowledge. It’s not about Noel yielding to the flattery of Paul’s discovery that she’s ‘the one’. All the Real Girls explores rather than trivializes the rich emotional territory of a young woman’s arousal of sexual desire. Noel wants to know how she feels about Paul. And she wants Paul to want to know what she can only know after she knows herself as a sexual woman, not settling for less. It’s not all about Paul. When Noel tells him, “You have my heart”, she speaks a truth she can stand behind. Thus, sexual desire takes a turn into emotional awareness, revealing a truth so obvious that it’s invisible. Love between a man and a woman is an intersection of feeling, a profound transition beyond expectation or design.

Once Paul meets Noel, he can’t seem to help himself from talking in poetic phrases. Even though he’s a small town hick who has slept with every girl in town, a natural elevation of aesthetic expression takes place when he’s in her presence. He picks up her trombone and plays – badly but with soul. Delightfully symbolic, Paul dances behind Noel’s back in the lanes of a bowling alley. And he says he could do it forever. On a more serious note, he stops cracking jokes about girl’s bodies. But his determination to realize his fantasy puts Noel on a timeworn pedestal; one from which she can only fall. He won’t kiss her like he’s kissed every other girl nor will he sleep with her like he’s slept with every other girl. He’s reaching for something special – and he gets it. Paul gets carried into a river of change; he goes from a boy realizing his dreamgirl fantasy to a young man facing the fact that he’s not the only one who matters in the matters of love. And it’s not just about romance. ‘Real Girls’ puts intense loving back into friendship as well as family.

When Paul finds out that Noel finds out that she loves him by having sex with another man, a stranger, his fantasy gets struck to the ground but his relationships with his mother and his best friend deepen. No way Paul could have ever anticipated that Noel would have sex with another man while they were in his fantasy. It opens his eyes to the sheer existence of other people as people in their own right. He begins to see his mother, Elvira (Patricia Clarkson) as a real person, making the best of her life as a single woman. Elvira is a truthful woman, a little bit wacky but strong enough to convince her son to don a clown suit, brightening a day for children at a local hospital. She doesn’t back down from confrontations with him about his puerile attitudes and, on one occasion, hits him for his stupidity. To his credit, he doesn’t run away. Paul also goes from bad boy posturing with his best friend to some soulful hugging as they both knuckle under to emotional needs they would rather not have. These two young men turn from friends who conquer fear with bravado to ones who battle demons of loss, shame and limitation together. To deal with the women in their lives, they develop an honesty of feeling they’d rather not have.

Noel’s turnabout on Paul wakes him up to the depth of despair that comes with disillusionment, creating empathy for the young women that he’s betrayed. But, as the wind blows and time passes, it’s not simply the error of his ways that impresses itself upon Paul. His imperfections take on greater meaning. Life and love are beyond control of the human ego. Children die. Noel’s younger brother has Downs Syndrome. Paul’s aging uncle has a young daughter (pointedly called Feng Shui) left in his care after his wife, her much younger mother died unexpectedly. His womanizing best friend decides to marry a girl he’s gotten pregnant so he won’t be alone. His mother clowns to cover up pain that won’t go away.

Decisions come not from the head but from accidents of nature, strange bedfellows of fate and the hearts of star-crossed lovers with different agendas. Choice goes back to the only place it can, where it belongs – in the hands of a man or a woman who knows little more about what they’re getting into than that they will get wet.

But, if no leap into the unknown realm of feeling is made, one sits upon the bank of the river watching life pass by. Not even a dog would do that.

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14/11/11 Film Essay # , , ,

Buck (2011)

Buck (2011)
Director: Cindy Meehl
Stars: Buck Brannaman, Gary Myers, Bibb Frazier


IF you’re interested in how to discipline with a cool hand

SEE Buck put rowdy horses and frustrated horse owners in sync

BECAUSE the soul heals when dancing.

Buck is not just an extraordinary man – which he is. Buck is an extraordinary movie. Seeing Buck in Buck is an uplifting experience. Buck’s “love in action” brings the audience as well as his horses and their trainers into a profound realization of relating as well as healing. Buck keeps circling back to a key message for all of us. We first have to get ourselves in order before we can get anyone else or any horse in order. Once we can feel ourselves grounded in a sense of well being within ourselves and in our relations with others, once we can get in charge of our emotions in stressful circumstances and once we can acknowledge the importance of evolving as we live our lives, we can accomplish much more in the world than we imagined would be good enough.

Buck – man and film – embody a sensibility of love that celebrates the desire to please and to be someone who is worthy of being pleased by others. It’s a message carried by the sound bite “Be All That You Can Be” but goes further to illustrate exactly what that means when the chips are down. When faced with difficulty, we have to become more to deal with it. A larger, more skillful respectful love is required. In particular, Repeatedly he shows that spirit is a nature-given plus lying beneath a block of fear that once released is a beautiful thing to behold.

Releasing spirit is Buck’s gift. Showing him in action while releasing spirit from a scared animal in mild, ordinary and extreme situations is a profound sight not to be missed. We see him walking a horse through complicated maneuvers with a gentle turn of his body. We see him riding his horse dancing like a ballerina in a field of green grass. We see him urge a deadly stallion into a horse trailer without raising a whip. We see a live demonstration of kindness merged with discipline as he teaches with a firm hand and a loving heart. Sadly, the deadly stallion was beyond even the help of Buck but its owner learned enough about herself to know that putting the horse down was a better choice than having him beaten mercilessly by another owner. A limit can be a worthy adversary, a provocation to open our hearts and expand the meaning of love beyond what we’ve known it to be.

Seeing is believing. That’s what movies can do. They can change your life. Bring you into a fresh realization of yourself. Some movies. Some movies turn a story into more than a story. They turn story into myth. When I see a film like Buck, I feel like I’ve touched an ether wind, the invisible wind that brings light to earth. Myth is not a lie. It’s a living presence that guides and informs and sustains the spirit of being alive. I feel more in sync with my own nature as a result of seeing Buck.

As the man says, to train horses means learning more about ourselves than about horses. In particular, Buck makes the point to stop mistaking fear for who we are and for who others are. Bad behavior is not evidence of evil or worthlessness. It’s not an invitation to be harsh. It’s self-protection coming from a darkness of mind that can be eased in most cases – not all – by learning to feel safe. Buck transforming bad behavior into a thing of beauty reminds me of Luke Skywalker learning to follow the force. Beyond fear is spirit, a through line to love of being.

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30/01/04 Film Essay # , , , ,

Monster (2003)

Monster (2003)
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern


“Monster born or monster bred? It’s a question often asked. What causes a serial killer? Monster depicts Aileen Carol Wuornos as homemade, crafted straight from a childhood of abuse and triggered by the disillusionment of romantic love.”

Monster is not a pretty story. Abuse of Aileen Carol Wuornos – a serial highway killer of seven men in the 1980’s – began early, reducing a sweet child to a teenager desperate for affection and turning a hungry young woman into a dollar a night hooker. But, as Aileen (played by Oscar award winning actress, Charlize Theron) says, the real story all began one night in a bar when she met Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). She wasn’t looking for anything more than a beer but she was down to her last five bucks and in a strange, suicidal frame of mind. If life had anything to offer, it had better come soon.

But Monster is not only ugly, it’s scary because it’s not only about the deliberate murders of seven men by a crazed prostitute. It’s about something familiar exaggerated, taken to an extreme but still within the realm of sympathy for anyone who’s fallen in love and been betrayed. It’s about the way the dream of romantic love can turn to murderous rage when the illusion cracks. It can’t be said that Aileen was happy being a dollar a night hooker but it can be said that she was quiet. She accepted her fate, took her hard knocks, slept where she could and kept to herself. She only had one friend, a Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) who sympathized with her post-traumatic plight. This was a woman who had long ago given up any idea that she could do any better.

Falling in love changed all that.

At a bar one night, she met Selby, a young lesbian who had struck out so many times that even attention from a hooker felt good. The two hit it off. Loneliness and cynicism had a drink, shared a cigarette and made an old-fashioned match. Lee, as Selby called her, was far from being a lesbian but they inspired each other to try for the dream. Regardless of gender preference, falling in love is a sure thing for igniting hope. Selby hoped she had found a woman to fulfill her smoldering desires. Aileen hoped she had found someone who wanted her for more than sex, someone who truly loved her.

They tumbled together in the bliss of new love and, for a few moments of eternity, enjoyed what had eluded them both. Love. Aileen felt emboldened to go out into the alien world of the workplace and apply for a job. She wanted to give up the sordid life of a hooker, make a normal life with Selby. But the more she interviewed, the more she looked into mirrors of rejection that exaggerated her abnormalities. The fantasy of a house on the beach, an SUV and the soft glow of candlelight that was sold, stamped and delivered in magazines, movies and billboards of romantic love was slipping away. It didn’t seem within the reach of a woman who couldn’t even get a filing job in an office.

So Aileen went to work at the only job she knew. And one night she slid into the open door of a car with a man that she knew instinctively was bad news and, in a scene too nightmarish to describe, was raped beyond her senses. Pent up rage from a lifetime of abuse broke loose and she, believing but not knowing for sure that he would kill her, blew her attacker to smithereens. Her fierce drive to return to the loving arms of Selby, not to die ripped apart on the seat of a car, turned Aileen into a murderer. And from that moment on, a fabricated monster woman took over. She no longer walked or talked in ordinary reality. She lived in frantic fear that Selby would leave her, continuing to kill with impunity the enemy of her obsession – any man with money in his pocket and on the road looking for sex. “He” represented what stood between her and normal life. And the murders that she committed in the name of that enemy stood between her and final despair.

Regardless of Aileen’s efforts, it wasn’t long until Selby was threatening to go back home. No money. No food. Nowhere to go. Aileen wasn’t living up to her promises. Desperate to keep Selby with her, Aileen hooked and murdered. She would fulfill their honeymoon dream with money. Money could buy happiness. It was the American way. She walked back onto the highways, took the ride offered – and shot the men behind the wheel. She turned more tricks than she’d ever turned before. She needed Selby to believe they could accumulate a big pile of money, enough to get them to dreamland. But the door to dreamland opened up a new door for Aileen, one that she wouldn’t have entered before. Risk. Going for the gold ring, she swung out a little farther than she would have when there was nothing at stake.

In one particularly poignant moment, Aileen sees Selby recoiling at the realization of her as a murderer. She pulls herself up into almost noble stance and, fighting back tears with grotesque grimaces, “I want you to know I’m a good person”. She attempts to separate the killing she’s done from a deserving self. The murders she committed in the name of that enemy who had stolen whatever little hope she’d been given for a few moments cannot be forgiven. But her effort to honor the love she felt for Selby was extraordinary and something audiences identified with, a wrenching picture of a survivor’s instinct after hope is gone. Aileen, at least the way this film tells it, held onto her love for Selby right up to the end in spite of the fact that she knew Selby had joined the police against her.

The film ends with Aileen shielding herself and Selby from the truth of betrayal. Monster, like Bride of Frankenstein, is a stiff reminder of the suppressed fear and anger that lie beneath a psyche pieced together from leftover, deadened body parts. Hope became a dangerous, explosive thing when placed into the already heavily damaged hands of Aileen Carol Wuornos. But the murderous rage, rising to the surface when hope was rallied, then rudely recalled, constitutes a dark reality of dreams punctured that goes further than a personal story.

Understanding how rage relates to the breakdown of an illusion in a film can provide insight into how it can happen to a society. In a recent essay in the Los Angeles Times, “Transplanted Democracy Will Wilt in Infertile Soil”, Shlomo Avineri argues impressively that a change in the Arab world must come incrementally, from the inside out. He warns that “To imagine Western-sponsored democracies flourishing anytime soon in the Arab world is a dangerous illusion, doomed to bring about violent resentment and rage against U.S. ” (Italics are added to the original text.) In other words, Americans should not fall in love with the idea that democracy is realizable without considerable healing in the Middle East. Arousing hopes of a quick democracy may have a paradoxical effect. Rage can be spurred by the break down of romantic illusions on a larger cultural level as well as on the personal. Unquiet times.

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15/02/03 Film Essay # , ,

Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation (2002)
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Susan Orlean (book)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper


So, if you were to set out to make a movie about a woman seeking her soul’s desire in the form of a rare white orchid, how would you do it?

Would you begin with a blank screen and a man lying in darkness bemoaning his poor fat stupid body?

Would you pit a woman’s search for passion against a man’s search for the end of his screenplay?

And would you miss your metaphor, skipping past the inspirational glory of insect to flower insemination, soul mating in nature’s garden with uncanny instinct of matched forms to land on an idea that sounds good as long as you don’t say it out loud — “It’s what you love, not what loves you” that matters.

But then there could be a method in your madness. Missing the metaphor of the first two-thirds of Adaptation may indeed be the point after all. It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood has an ending for a film about the pursuit of spirit here on earth. And maybe that’s it. ‘Without a clue, go to the obvious.’ The ending for Adaptation is so familiar that any film buff in the audience could’ve written it themselves.

So there you are, with your audience in full swing believing they are on the verge of discovering the Holy Grail, and, suddenly, you tack on the expected ending of sex, violence and drugs?

There is an alternative but that would not be an Adaptation to the modern world of film making. For a moment, think of what would’ve happened if Meryl Streep’s character had been told by the ever-lovin’ screenwriters how they found her in the swamp. Suppose they revealed that her passion loving guru had posted her on his porn site. She would’ve marched them all into the swamp, taken their boots and let the alligators have lunch. She, meanwhile, would’ve gone back to her well-paying job, sweet husband and rare beyond rare New York apartment on the upper east side — and lived happily ever after as a feminine hero who had found the secret, resisted it being tarnished by commercialism and taken it home.

I can’t be the only viewer who balked at the nonsensical, hackneyed Hollywood ‘boy geek gets dream girl’ ending that sells movies these days. Who believes that a mature, accomplished and beautiful woman would give up her life to be the druggie lover of a guy living in the swamps? For that matter, who believes a man who had spent his life passionately seeking his heart’s desire would throw it away to be a porn site businessman warehousing sacred substances for grade school children. Nope, I just can’t be the only one.

Well, that’s show business — surely it’s not the secret of evolution. But hey, tacking on happy endings is good for laughs. And, when you think about it, the ending is pretty provocative about what Adaptation really means. Beware of what you match with, for it will have its consequences.

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24/01/03 Film Essay # ,

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Chuck Barris (book)
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, brilliant or bizzare, suggests that a man who discovers that the most despicable ideas in his mind make incredibly popular TV shows is a man who wrestles with an enemy of the people within his own psyche. Killing an audience, killing a supposed enemy and killing the soul merge into a deadly game of intrigue and entertainment.”

Snuggling up close to a concept made popular in the Oscar award winning film, A Beautiful Mind, this film — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — creates a Chuck Barris alter-ego (George Clooney) who cannot be pinned down as fact or fiction. And then it goes one further. It shows the wreckage of madness as nothing special — just ordinary, everyday workaday interactions around the office that can’t be sorted out as fact or fiction. Barris (Sam Rockwell) writes, pitches and hosts without detection. His girlfriend, Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes and goes, proposes and disappears, discovers his infidelities and comes to his rescue. And, not unlike Beautiful, it’s the love of a very special woman who provides him with a safe haven. The saintly character of Penny (Drew Barrymore) may be believable only as a creation of a man’s mind. But Penny is all the more remarkable for projecting a vision of a woman who lives her own life fully while Barris, her true love, flip flops on the margin.

Confessions delves deep into the darkness of a tortured mind while standing aside and taking the worst of truth with a grain of salt. Taken as brilliant,Confessions addresses the question of what passes for sanity in an insane world and gives fair warning that there is no such thing as ‘playing make believe’ when it comes to dancing on the edge. Taken as bizarre, Confessions suggests that madness and sanity dance together without a definitive line and anyone can get away with almost anything.

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08/02/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Amelie (2001)

Amelie (2001)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Writers: Jean-Pierre JeunetGuillaume Laurant
Stars: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz, Rufus


“Honey, take your honey. Amelie is a four star date movie.”

Amelie was already buzzing after its premier at the Telluride Film Festival. Now it’s sweeping up awards, gaining momentum and heading straight for an Oscar nomination. Everyone comes out of Amelie with a smile. Amelie is a “feel good” movie that makes every girl wish she’d started out as a wallflower and leaves every guy wishing he’d have the good fortune to have an Amelie fall in love with him. But Amelie also takes on some very hard questions of life and gives them a fresh spin.

For those of you wondering whether you are a prisoner of a dull or crazy childhood, Amelie sets you free. Whoever came together to put you on this earth, Amelie makes it clear that you were born to blossom. You are first and foremost a child of your imagination, free to make yourself up while eating raspberries off your fingers, skipping rocks across puddles and photographing cloud animals. Amelie’s very neurotic mother dies in a bizarre accident and you wonder – would it have been any better if her mother had lived? Probably not. Left alone to grow up with a reclusive father, not a bad man but one seriously out to lunch, you wonder – did he notice when she turned seventeen and walked out the door? Probably not. But you do.

Amelie may begin with the accident of birth – yes, a sperm literally swims across the screen to meet an egg, an awesome accident to be sure. But to be sure you don’t miss the point, Amelie’s life really begins with Princess Di’s car accident. Well, not really. That’s just the accident that causes the accident of finding a box hidden behind the tiles of her bathroom wall that sets Amelie off on a path of do-gooding that transforms her from a wallflower stuck inside her imagination into a young woman flying along on the back seat of a handsome young man’s motorbike. Amelie is a dream come true. She dreams herself from nobody to somebody.

Amelie celebrates the small, the silly and the insignificant. When you identify with this young woman who tends tables at The Twin Windmills Café wearing clothes so wildly colorful she’s part of her own technicolor background, you fall down a rabbit hole. Suddenly, you are as large as the girl on the screen. You give a man back a box he hid when he was a boy, feel the joy of his recovering long lost memories and you’re magical. You get bright ideas. You scheme to get people what they long for. You start a gossip chain that brings two lonely, nutty people together. You’re a matchmaker. You gaslight the grocer who ridicules his retarded helper, tricking him into believing that he’s losing his mind. He turns from mean to meek. You’re a savior. You befriend an old painter nicknamed The Glass Man with bones so brittle he has to pad his furniture. The video you send of a man with a peg leg dancing on his padded TV is a sight to behold. You even figure out a way to get your father out of the house and travel the world.

And then Amelie falls in love with a man after her own heart, a heart that (with a little help from special effects) visibly thumps and flashes in her chest when their eyes meet. He’s fishing torn photos out from under a photo booth in a train station. He puts people back together again after they’ve torn themselves apart. He collects these patched personas in a big notebook but he’s obsessed by a search for one man who regularly visits all the booths in all the train stations tearing himself up over and over again. Why would a man do such a thing? Is he a man afraid of death, seeking immortality in photographs? Is he trying to come into being, a ghost without an image until he sees himself? Amelie sets her mind to the quest. Who she finds will make you laugh.

But, now what? Amelie is a figment of her imagination and she’s fallen in love with a real man. He has a job. He has a hobby. He has a motorbike. He even has a name. Nino. But, does he have a girlfriend? Is he going to like her? Will he feel about her the same way she feels about him? Either she will have to cross the line, get out of her fantasy or lure him in. She does both. Just like a woman. She seeks him out. Then she retreats. She’s bold. She wears big black boots and photographs herself dressed up like Zorro. But she’s shy. She doesn’t confront. She draws blue arrows, slips him secret notes and gives him directions that bring him to her door. Then she doesn’t answer. If you didn’t love her so much by this time, you’d tear your hair out. Finally, The Glass Man socks it to her. Well, as much as an old man with brittle bones can. He sends her a video of himself saying, “It’s time for you to take a real risk. Of course, you can choose to live in a dream if you want to. You have a perfect right to mess up your own life.”

You know the end. All romantic comedies end the same way. First, one fantasy accidentally bumps into another. Then they get together. And then, since no two fantasies are ever the same, only the photo booth knows what will develop.

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