Thursday, December 17, 2009

Desert Island Director?

How about something a little (or a lot) less theological this week? As you'll no doubt already have noted, I love movies. In my perfect world, every day would end with a movie after dinner. One of the things that has always fascinated me is the stamp (or lack thereof) a director puts on a movie. Sometimes, you can just tell. For instance, I bet you could pick out a Darren Aronofsky movie if I showed you one. When I'm thinking about this "directorial stamp," I always think of the Alien Quadrilogy. In no other case that I can think of have four different directors taken on the task of bringing a very similar story to the screen. Sure, there are many Robin Hood movies, but rarely are they made very close to one another, leading to generational differences in filmmaking. The Alien movies star many of the same actors!

Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) directed the first, while James Cameron (Titanic, Terminator 2) took on the second. David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven) took the reigns for the third, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) helmed the final installment. Crazy, right? What disparate visions! What could the directors of Terminator 2 and Amelie possibly have in common? What shared vision might they bring to the story of a woman standing between a race of ravenous poison-blooded aliens and the extinction of the human race?

But this post isn't going to deconstruct the "directorial stamp" as it's seen in the Alien interesting an undertaking as that would be. Rather, I bring it up to ask a question: Who's your desert-island director? In other words, if you could only watch the movies of one filmmaker for the rest of your life, who would it be?

Some folks in the running for me:

Scott (The Duelists, Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, American Gangster, Body of Lies)

Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, the Indiana Jones movies, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich)

Tony Scott, yes, Ridley's brother, (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire, Domino, Deja Vu)

Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood)

The Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan) (Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading)

Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill vols. 1&2, Death Proof, Inglorious Basterds)

Of course, all of these directors have made more films (except for Anderson), but I've listed the one's I've seen and liked. I'm leaning toward either Spielberg for sheer volume (with the exception of A.I. he's basically never made a bad movie...) and toward the Coens and Tarantino for consistency (I like everything they've ever done). Anderson's movies are brilliant and moving, but he hasn't done enough yet to tide me over for the rest of my life.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Little Miss Sunshine and Losing

With one of the indie hits of 2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (directors) and Michael Arndt (writer), introduced us to the quirkily disfunctional Hoover family. In Little Miss
Sunshine, it is little Olive (Abigail Breslin) who drives the plot. She is seven years old, and is invited to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant in Redondo Beach, CA. The trick is, the family lives in Albuquerque, is poor, and nobody trusts anybody enough to leave anybody behind. So they all pile into the family's VW bus and hit the road. The driver is patriarch Richard (Greg Kinnear), purveyor of a self-help Nine Steps to something book. His wife, Sheryl (Toni Collette), doesn't have a trait to pigeon-hole her, but she's the manic glue that holds the family together. Sheryl's brother, Frank (Steve Carrell), is fresh off a suicide attempt and may or may not be the world's preeminent Proust scholar, depending on who you ask. Richard's father (Alan Arkin, who won an Oscar for the performance) is along for the ride, too, having been kicked out of his retirement home for lewd behavior and rampant cocaine use. Completing the family constellation are Olive, the would-be pageant queen, and Dwayne (Paul Dano), a Nietzsche-reading sulker who, in his own words, "hates everyone." Quite the rogue's gallery.

A family such as this is certainly ripe for conflict, and much conflict arises on their two day trip across the Southwest. The particular conflict that I want to focus on today is Richard's conflict with his family over his Nine Steps. Fundamentally, the Nine Steps are like any self-help program: They posit a capability inherent in everyone and then attempt to teach you to access it, and then to use it, to achieve your life goals. Richard has drunk his own Kool-Aid to the point that when Frank comes to their house from the hospital, he explains to Olive that Frank "gave up on himself, which is something winners never do." As you might imagine, all the winners vs. losers talk around the home has alienated his son, pushed away his father, and
brought his marriage to the brink of divorce. And then, in the ultimate indignity, Richard himself is shown to be a loser, when the book deal he's been counting on falls through.

The losing ways of the Hoovers are brought into sharp relief by the filmmakers upon their eventual arrival at the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. It is immediately obvious that Olive, sweet, precocious and talented as she is, is no beauty queen. There is a quiet push from the family, now closely bonded together due to the harrowing experiences they've shared on the road, to pull Olive out of the pageant.

Ultimately, Olive herself is asked what she'd like to do. She's clearly intimidated by the other girls, and has never been more sure that she's fat, but she decides to go on anyway. As the family expected, she is woefully out of place, and that's never more apparent than in the talent portion of the competition. But, amazingly, when Olive fails spectacularly in her dance routine, the family runs up on-stage and joins her in the dance, embracing their collective loser-hood.

And really, that's what Little Miss Sunshine is all about. It's about a man, but really a family, who is so afraid of being a loser that he creates a system that "guarantees" winning. But the winning (a happy family) only gets created when the losing is acknowledged and embraced. We might draw the parallel to the Church's "law." The church attempts to create a "Nine Steps" to a good life, to happiness, by giving us all kinds of things to do. But the law can't make us good. In other words, its requirements don't give us the power to keep them. It's only in realizing that we're losers that true winning is possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Truth in Marriage: A Killer?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is oh-so-much more than the film that created Brangelina. Thought it was on this set that Brad and Angie met and started their takeover of the world, one underprivileged orphan at a time, the movie itself consists of more layers than are present at first glance. On it's finely gilded, shiny-smooth surface, it's just a film about a suburban husband and wife, on the downside of their marriage, who are each secret professional hit-people. They work for rival companies, so know nothing about each other's violent side. The conflict arises when they are contracted to kill each other, and the truth comes out.

The interesting wrinkle in this movie is the way in which it portrays marriage...or at least what marriage often turns into. Angelina says to a marriage counselor: "There's huge gulf between us. And we fill it with all the things we don't say to each other. What's that?" "Marriage," the counselor responds. The winking question that the movie asks is: "What would happen if you didn't repress all of your primal urges in a relationship?" When Brad sees the counselor with Angelina, he professes to be at an "8" on the happiness scale. When he goes back alone, he says that he wants the best for his wife, but sometimes, he just wants to strangle her!

Through the course of plot, Brad and Angelina (John and Jane Smith, of course) are put into a situation where they are asked each to kill the other, to save their own lives. Luckily, they both think, they don't love their spouse. The killing should be painless, at least for the killer. But, as you might imagine, a funny thing happens. Freed from the oppressive lie that has been their lives, they begin to tell each other how they really feel. Brad tells Angie that she's a terrible cook and that he hates the drapes she's chosen for the dining room. Angie tells Brad that he's distant and constantly underestimates her. Most of this while firing automatic weaponry at each other.

After tearing up their beautiful suburban home trying to kill each other, they come to the traditional Hollywood pose: guns at each other's heads. Then, they do the Hollywood thing: Drop the guns, tear off the clothes, and make passionate whoopee all over their ravaged home. They DO love each other! And all it took was a little honesty and a murder contract to bring it out.

The movie is fun, and slick, and made by Doug Liman coming off his triumphs with Swingers and The Bourne Identity and before he fell off the Jumper cliff. A good time will be had by all. But most importantly, for our purposes at least, it begs the question: Are we better off expressing the truth about us, even if that truth is dark? Is it healthier to be honest about our feelings, even if they contain incipient violence? Mr. and Mrs. Smith espouses Jesus' radical teaching about truth and honesty, that, dark as it might be, it will set you free.
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