Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chasing Amy (Smith. 1997)

"She was the girl, I know that now. But I pushed her away. So, I've spent every day since then chasing Amy..."

I am not sexist. I am active in the fight for women’s rights and I was practically raised by only women.  I do not believe in the double standard that says a woman who has multiple sexual partners is a whore, while a man with the same is some sort of stud. Does that mean I support having sex with a ton of people? Absolutely not.  I don’t endorse the double standard because I believe that anybody who randomly has sex or does sexual acts with a variety of people is doing something bad. I may have very loose morals in some respects, but I take sex very seriously.  I do not have any religious pre-disposition or anything like that, I just believe that people should take be more willing to wait for love. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

I am fully aware that sex is fun. I mean, I have it. But I have only ever had it with two people – both of whom I romantically loved. Am I telling you this to brag? No. I merely would like to be open with any reader and maybe they will be easier on me for being so uneasy after watching Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. I am not saying that I thought the movie was bad, because I didn’t. I just think I related with the wrong character. Kevin Smith is obviously a big supporter of equal sexual-liberation. And honestly, I would love to be as easygoing about sex as he makes some of his characters. But I’m not. It isn’t that Alyssa is a female that bothers me; it is that she is a person in the first place. Man or woman, I am not sure I could be friends with a person like Alyssa. Did I mention that I used to date an Amish girl?...

Chasing Amy tells the story of Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) who work together on a sophomoric comic book, "Blunt Man and Chronic" to significant underground success. Everything is going great for the duo until Holden meets a female comic book writer named Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). After a short, but charismatic conversation over a game of darts, Holden becomes enamored with Alyssa. I could see that happening. They are both kinda grungy people with an abundance of short-sighted opinions and foul stories. There is one problem. Alyssa is a lesbian. 

Taking a break from the story, the aforementioned dart game scene is a perfect example of what you can expect from Kevin Smith’s direction. Like in Clerks, Smith chose to simply set the camera down and allow it to frame the action. “Shooting-style” does not play a part in the movie, but rather the characters always remain the central focus. Most of the time, they are doing something completely mundane or ordinary while having witty, natural-feeling conversations. Writing is Smith’s strongest asset as an artist and filmmaker. His dialogue gives the green light for the actors to tell the story themselves without bells, tricks or whistles. I like the realistic lack of style in Smith’s early movies. It was refreshing then, and it remains that way in the days where Michael Bay forces explosions down a moviegoer’s throat. 

What I don’t like about Chasing Amy specifically is what the movie is about. I think it is exceptional at being about what it is about; I just don’t like my own visceral reaction to watching it. It made me feel like a bad person. Maybe I am. Maybe I totally missed the point. That could have easily happened. Because I personally sympathize with Holden, a lot, and that is not where my head should want to go. 

Alyssa eventually falls for Holden and leaves her gay lifestyle to pursue a heterosexual relationship. In doing so, she tells Holden that she has never been with a man in a sexual or romantic way. In what turned out to be another great cameo, Jay and Silent Bob inform Holden that Alyssa has been with men. In fact, she’d been with two men at the same time. Not them, but rather two men with whom Holden attended high school. Alyssa had “fingercuffed” with two men at the same time, two men Holden knows, two men Holden has hated for several years. 

After this knowledge is passed along, Holden starts to second guess his entire relationship with Alyssa. And why not? She did lie about never being with a man; let alone being with two men at the same time. More of her sex life becomes an issue as the movie progresses and eventually Holden cannot handle it anymore. The demise of their relationship is due to the fact that he cannot get passed her previous sex life and accept that she only wants to be with him now. Of course, Alyssa doesn’t make it easy. Maybe that is my issue. She did lie to him. And instead of ever really apologizing to him for lying, she makes excuses for her past and passes it off as something that shouldn’t be upsetting to Holden. Why wouldn’t it be? He just had a wall dropped on him.

I would never break up with someone because they’ve had sex with more people than me – no matter how icky those situations may seem in my opinion. But if I had learned this information in the way that Holden did I might expect that my girlfriend be patient with me and give me some space. Because I have a feeling Holden was not mad at Alyssa, but rather he was hurt that she lied, embarrassed that he fell for it and uncomfortable about the whole thing. I understand that. I side with Holden. Do I think he takes it too far by the end? Of course I do. I’m a prude, not an animal. 

I think what Chasing Amy did was made me realize that I am a very insecure person. Holden obviously is, and I believe in his cause. What does that say about me? What does it say about anyone who agrees with me or him? Kevin Smith did maybe what he was trying to do. His movie has forced me to do some serious self-reflecting. So far, I am embarrassed about what I have found. I think that might make it an important movie...

Chasing Amy: B+

Monday, August 27, 2012

Alice (Svankmajer. 1988)

"Now you will see a film... made for children... perhaps..."


I know I shouldn’t admit this, but there have been some movies on the "1001" list that have left me speechless. Like with any other physical reaction to something, there are multiple levels at which a film can leave someone speechless. Consider a movie like Avatar, for example, that inspired so much in terms of human imagination that the audience never even had time to formulate words. They were, as they say, rendered speechless. Then we have a movie like No Countryfor Old Men which inspired a dumbfounded look of confusion, fulfillment and closure that combined to drop a figurative anvil on my ability to speak.  Those are two movies that undoubtedly impressed millions of people, so a speechless audience in this case is a great thing. Is it always a great thing? Because Alice left me without words. I cannot accurately describe its weirdness, nor can I clear-consciously write that I hated it. Because I didn’t. At least I don’t think I did. Like I said, I was speechless….

Jan Švankmajer is the writer and director of the aforementioned Alice. I recently looked up a picture of him on Wikipedia and I must say I expected him to look creepier than he does. I have made the observation that you can tell what kind of a movie a director will make by his/her physical appearance. I mean, look at George Lucas, Luis Buñuel or even Quentin Tarantino. These men LOOK like their art. Švankmajer looks like a normal guy. His art, based on my significantly tiny sample size, is anything but normal. 

Alice was Švankmajer first venture into feature length movies and he could not have made a more immediate statement. His screenplay is a free adaptation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” that was meant to underline the real narrative in Carroll’s story. He did not like that other interpretations acted as if Alice’s story was a fairy tale with a moral to teach kids. He argued that Carroll was simply documenting a dream with no other motives. Or at least that is how I have had it explained to me. I should point out that when I was a child I read the “Alice” stories with great interest. I love surrealism and nonsensical narratives. Because of this, I was ready to love this movie. But there is something about it that makes it unlovable. That something may be difficult to pinpoint, but I personally attribute it to the animation. 

Do not get the wrong idea – I am not criticizing the animation in any way. It is pretty obvious that Švankmajer’s stop-motion-puppets and animated characters are the things that make Alice memorable. On top of documenting the darker imagery inherent with Švankmajer’s apparent style, the film also thrusts an audience into a slimy seeming half-animated world that is uncomfortable, random and inhabited by sock puppets and cartoons. The movement of these characters is smooth and vivid and the film itself is visually captivating. Sometimes, with examples being live pieces of raw meat and abundant cockroaches all over the floor, the movie toes the line of being disgusting. Even some of the central characters, like the caterpillar and the white rabbit, are scarringly unpleasant for the eyes. Everything is uneasy – except the animation style. It is a conflicting visual style that may be bolder and more original than it is entertaining. 

And maybe that is why Alice left me speechless. Very little actually happens in the film, but there certainly is a lot of action. I didn’t learn anything, but I didn’t hate watching it. I cannot hold down any concrete feelings about it because there isn’t anything concrete about it. The ideas and execution were all unseen in movies before and after Švankmajer made them reality. I would say he is a master filmmaker, but his work isn’t very much fun. He certainly is not a conventional director. I would never expect to see him make a blockbuster. I bet he likes it that way…

I will begrudgingly admit that, in this case, my letter grade does not hold much bearing. I watched the whole movie, uninterrupted and without distractions. I just, have no idea how to feel about it. Alice is impressive to look at, but impossible to pigeonhole. It belongs in a museum with other movies of its kind. Maybe it and Heaven and Earth Magic should get together for drinks…

Alice: B

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Care. 2002)

"Don't you ever tell me to get real. I know what fucking real is, okay!?"


There are some movies out there that really didn’t mean to seem as silly as they ended up seeming. Good intentions do not only pave the road to Hell, but they can also be the downfall of an overzealous screenwriter.  In this case we have two screenwriters, Jeff Stockwell and Michael Petroni. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys lacks most shreds of believability due to the upmost good intentions that the writers obviously wanted to implement in the story. This is a film that wants to cover some heavy material and say some important things. Sadly, it is just too much for the young cast and inexperienced director to handle. There is no emotional payoff in the film because the climax, dialogue and character behavior is so unrealistic that it halts any real compassion from the audience. It is made clear that everyone involved tried their best to make a meaningful teen drama. They didn’t…

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys follows the childhood rebellion of four Catholic school boys in the 1970s. They, like so many other Catholic school children, hate their strict teacher and constantly plot against her. I have been a young boy in school before. That is pretty much what we do. A boy’s life is a constant fantasy about how they’re gonna take down a person who’s wronged them. Well, at least to a point. When a boy reaches a certain age, the only freakin’ thing he will think about is sex. And that plays a major part in the movie. As do drugs, violence, cigarettes and cuss words. All of these seem like pretty normal adolescent things – but the way the characters introduce, act and react to these normal things is abnormal. Realism is a victim to adding the edge to certain characters. 

And the characters who hurt the most are the two leading young men, Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin. They play tortured teenage intellectuals who would rather get into trouble than be bored. Culkin’s character, Tim Sullivan, is presented as a Holden Caulfield-type, but he nestles in our memory as more of a silhouette.  Hirsch plays the protagonist in the movie (if there is one) named Francis Doyle. Hirsch is a much better actor than Culkin, and it is pretty awkward to see/hear them interact. Doyle is a character that seems more curious than confident. Tim is the polar opposite. He is dangerous and sometimes stupid. He reads Robert Blake and spouts it as if he himself wrote the flowing words. When I was a teenager it was Edgar Allen Poe. I can still do the entire “The Raven” without missing a line. 

Francis, Tim and their two other friends scratch a notebook-paper comic book called “The Atomic Trinity” in which they all have superpowers and fight the disenfranchising Nunzilla (symbolizing their teacher).  In some scenes we see the comic come to life with visually enthralling animated action sequences meant to help symbolically push the story. These are my favorite moments in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys because they do not try to beat anything over your head with realistic melodrama. As long as the film is not a fantasy, which Altar Boys is not, a filmmaker can get away with so much more using animation.  If I had any issue with these scenes it would be that there were not enough of them, and that the snaps back to live-action reality happened too quickly. 

But I have sort of strayed from my original point; The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys merely has hands in too many fires. Francis has idealistic feelings toward a classmate named Margie, played by the undervalued Jena Malone, and they eventually do end up becoming quite the adorable couple. I write another blog on this website and I recently wrote about my favorite movie kisses. Jena Malone is a great kisser in movies. I couldn’t decide whether to include Margie and Francis’ first kiss, or her kiss with Jake Gyllenhall from DonnieDarko. I eventually went with the latter.

 Through love, Malone can show depths of suffering, pain and emotional turmoil that is unmatched by most actresses her age – especially at her age in the film. Though it has been well documented that I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Malone, I do not mean to over-hype her character. Margie is, at first, the closest to a real person the audience sees in the film. And then, as is the curse of Altar Boys, she reveals an awful secret that drops the floor out from under the entire movie to that point. 

What I like most about The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys is that it closely examines the role of sex in a way that we do not normally see with teenagers. Countless movies have been made about how teenagers want to have it, but very rarely does an audience get to see how sex impacts people differently. The boys are obviously really horny. They want to get some – including Francis. But when Margie reveals her horrendous secret, he is mortified. For Margie, sex is not something that is just fun to have. Rather, it has greatly impacted who she is and how she ranks her personal self-worth. Sex is a complicated thing, at the very least Altar Boys does not dumb it down – which is potentially how the MPAA arrived at an R rating. 

The biggest issue I have with the film is the climax. The boys decide to drug a cougar, steal it from the zoo and trap it their teacher’s office. Of course, this is with the goal of getting her killed. Dudewat? I watched an entire “coming of age tale” where the screenplay threw everything from ghosts to animated poop in my face in an effort to make the lead characters look like tortured intellectuals and THAT is their final scheme?! After being emotionally exhausted from attempting to feel everything the film wanted me to feel, the payoff is a dud. I won’t spoil the ending, but I promise you won’t care by the time you get there. You can only invest so much in fictional characters. 

This is a hard movie for me to review. I want to like it a lot. I appreciate its ambition and originality. It has a good heart. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys simply tries to climb too many mountains. It needed to focus more on the climb and less about what's waiting on the other side. Sometimes the best advice a person can give comes right out of a Miley Cyrus song….

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: C-