High Fidelity (2000)

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Top Five, All-Time things that surprised me about High Fidelity, (yes, I’m going to use this gimmick to write my article, I haven’t seen anyone else do it and I think it’s funny).

Number One- The film is much more recent than I thought it was, I had placed this movie in the late 80’s, early 90’s at the latest. I was off by a decade. This film’s release date was March 31, 2000. The movie being a lot more recent than I expected it to be means something beautiful for the film, which is that the characters are a lot older. This movie is about grownups, people who have steady jobs and own businesses, not young, recent college-grads trying to “figure their lives out.” The people in this movie have their lives figured out, they just don’t know how the relationships in their lives fit into that puzzle. In the case of John Cussack’s character Rob, a record store owner and lover of self-pity, he doesn’t even want to allow himself to think about that part of his future. As he says himself, he’s “always had one foot out the door.” Which is what hurts his relationship with longtime girlfriend Laura, played by Iben Hjejle. He hasn’t made a commitment, and she’s at the part of her life where she needs a commitment.

Number Two- Jack Black steals the show. As a long time fan of School of Rock, I know just how much energy Jack Black can bring to a film. And his specific talent was not wasted on this film. As record store employee Barry, Black is part of a two-person chorus that pushes Rob to try and: A) justify why he is a better person than they are, or B) become a better person than they are. The other half of the chorus is Dick, the lovable, awkward employee who just can’t stop talking, played by Tom Louiso.

Number Three-  Bruce Springsteen is in this movie. That’s all there is. He plays himself. It’s going to make your day.

Number Four- The use of fourth-wall breaking. The film opens with John Cussack speaking directly to the camera, telling us about his trials and tribulations in love, relaying to us his Top Five lists and sharing his perspective. This is some of the best fourth-wall breaking I’ve ever seen. Instead of hand-holding the audience through the picture, the fourth-wall breaking provided us a window into who Rob is, even though he thought he’d closed the drapes. It’s a brilliant use of the tool and

Number Five- I liked the ending. For the whole film I was convinced that I knew how the movie was going to come to a conclusion. Rob is a really thick guy. Over the course of the film, we realize the problems with his relationships before he starts to see the light, and we understand exactly what it is that caused the failure to these relationships that he places as him just having bad luck or being cursed with women. We scream at our screens waiting for him to wake up already! And that’s just a portion of the way into the film. So Rob’s fundamental problems, and we can make our middle-of-the-movie predictions about how the film is going to end, what the lesson our protagonist is going to learn will be, and how we think he’s going to learn it. I did this in the middle of the film, and then the movie surprised me. The movie ended with the message that I thought it was going to have, but in a completely different way. 20 minutes earlier I would have thought this was a cop-out, and then it is completely satisfying. That’s the ultimate surprise of High Fidelity. We think it’s going to be the same-old, same-old, and then it becomes something new. Just like Rob thought that his relationship with Laura was going to be the same-old, same-old, and then it became something completely different.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

planes-trains-and-automobiles-screencap-03Is there a story more quintessentially American than that of a workaholic father trying to make it home to Chicago for Thanksgiving who keeps facing disasters in his modes of transportation? Of course not. The classic Steve Martin and John Candy comedy rises above it’s simple premise and status as a “pop” film to becomes one of the nicest films I’ve ever seen in my life.

The director, John Hughes, is known for his classic high school films of the 1980’s. I may not need to list his films for you to recognize his influence on teen movie history, and he was known for bringing rich character to the archetypes of high school cliques. His first film as a director to focus on adult protagonists, John Hughes’s trademarks are all on display here- grounded character, a tender story, and undeniable comedy.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a rare comedy wherein the two main characters are legitimately good, nice people. Neal Page (Martin) is a successful, white collar worker heading home from a business trip to spend the holidays with his family in Chicago. He meets Del Griffith (Candy) while waiting for their delayed plane, where the two discover that Del stole Neal’s taxi earlier in the day. With the coldest of shoulders, Neal runs into Del again and again and again, and through a series of weather-caused travel mishaps, they become reluctant travel companions. While they frequently argue and insult one another, you can tell that they both just want to get home. Their desperation brings out the worst in them, but it is evident that this is, indeed, their worst.

The tightrope that is walked by the film is phenomenal. Without the turmoil, there, of course is no film, but the troubles that these two men face is delightful. As audience members, we crave their success and revel in their misfortune. There is nothing in the film that doesn’t need to be there and everything that needs to be in the film is included. The perfect example of this is the monologue that got the film it’s R-Rating. After one too many misfortunes Steve Martin gives a biting speech to an employee at a car rental facility. Without this scene, the film easily would have gained a PG-13 rating, but Hughes chose to leave the scene in. But the film doesn’t revel in this R-Rating either. It is a wholesome family film if I’ve ever seen one, but it kept the R-Rated material that it needed.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the film equivalent of a Thanksgiving Meal. It is at once wholesome and indulgent, best enjoyed with loved ones. Even upon first viewing, watching it feels like tradition. The film can be defined by what it is (heartfelt, original) as easily as it can be defined by what it is not (lazy, gratuitous). It is a funny, simple movie about Thanksgiving and how terrible traveling is- what is more American than that?

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

wilderpeoplehecricky-0If there is a director right now worthy of keeping your eye on, that director is Taika Waititi. The New Zealand born, Oscar nominated friend of Flight of the Conchords has directed three exceptional films to this point: the recent Sundance film festival hit What We Do in the Shadows, the touching, tiny drama Boy, and now this film. Hunt for the People is a pure delight. It is a story that could only be told in New Zealand by a director who loves his country and loves the characters he is writing about.

Wilderpeople is the story of Ricky Baker (one of the best movie names, played by Julian Dennison), a troubled young man who has been shuffled around the foster care system. The state has found him a new home on the outskirts of the New Zealand bush with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Heck (Sam Neil). Bella really takes the reigns with Ricky and it’s not long before his uber cool exterior (his usual dress is a patterned hoodie and animal-print trucker cap) is melted by her warm welcome. Heck is less involved with Ricky- in fact he doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But when Ricky disappears into the Bush, it’s up to Heck to go out there and save him!

The film is as fun and silly as the last sentence of that synopsis. Waititi manages to bring this fun, weird energy to the whole movie while still being able to deliver big emotional hits. As Heck and Ricky learn more about each other and learn how to survive the Bush with one another, they start to get along, they start to form a beautiful and unique relationship. They rely on each other utterly and completely as they encounter weirder and weirder fellow travelers in the woods.

One of the things I admire most about Waititi as a filmmaker is that he really understands how to make movies about kids. Both with this picture and the earlier film Boy, Waititi brings an interesting angle to movies about children. He doesn’t baby them, but he also doesn’t hold them to the same logic that he would hold an adult to. He respects his child characters as having a logic, but it’s not exactly the same playing field. His children characters have completely exposed emotional nerves that come from them not having enough time to finish construction on their walls.

The film is also a tribute to the New Zealand Bush. It is shot with an eye of wonder, capturing the beauty of the wilderness. Most scenes begin with a beautiful, sweeping helicopter shot capturing some part of this wilderness. It never feels boring, it never gets old, we are just being shown this part of the world in all it’s glory. While Ricky and Heck are lost in the Bush it never seems like they are trying to fight against the wilderness. The Bush is not an enemy to them, it’s just a force that they have to learn to communicate with and exist in- and they do. Overtime they become bona fide Bush People (sort of). Ricky trades in his red and white letterman jacket for some flannels. This becomes a part of their home.

This film captures New Zealand’s wilderness and New Zealand’s totally unique style of comedy. People are more laid back than they should be. They use casual language in very serious situations. They take themselves way too seriously. They point out when other people are taking things too seriously. They say things that they hear people say in movies (there is an excellent joke in this film about Miranda Rights). New Zealand comedies (particularly Waititi) are, at their core, very silly things with big heartfelt messages.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fun movie. It’s got characters who we care about. It’s got a great adventure plot. The ultimate word I can use to describe it is “nice”. Check it out.

Old and French: Belle de Jour (1967)

Every once in a while you get to discover a classic movie. What I mean by this is exactly what happened when I watched Belle de Jour: I had always known about this movie. I had seen the poster, heard the title, known it to be a classic, even brought it up in conversation, all without knowing what the movie was actually about. I often got it confused with La Dolce Vita, and the two movies are pretty phenomenally different. So, the other day, when I read what the actual plot of Belle de Jour is, I was able to be really really excited about this movie that came out 50 years before I was born. I watched it immediately.

The plot that grabbed me so is a uniquely French story told by Spanish filmmaker Luis BuñuelA housewife who has anxiety about being intimate with her husband begins working at a brothel in the afternoons, before her husband gets home from work. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is happily married to her husband, a doctor, Pierre (Jean Soreal). She loves him, she is devoted to him, she cares about their relationship, and yet (or maybe because of all that) she finds it impossible to be physically intimate with him. The two don’t even share a bed.

Séverine is haunted with guilt and pressures based on this anxiety that she has. A friend of the couple, Mr. Husson, is always trying to seduce her, to get her away from her husband for a moment of passion. She is beset by strange dreams where men in a carriage punish her in front of Pierre for transgressions unknown to the viewer. And while her husband is understanding and doesn’t intentionally pressure her at any time, his language implies that he’s not the most excited to be in a relationship without a physical aspect.

And then, compelled by strange intrigue, Séverine finds herself at a Brothel. By even stranger circumstances, she finds herself working there. And then, although it seems bizarre to the viewer and to the woman herself, she finds herself enjoying it. Not necessarily the sex, which the movie never revels in (considering its subject matter and the reputation of the country of origin, the film is rather tame in the nudity department). Under the pseudonym Belle de Jour, she works the early afternoon shift at the house of Madam Anais (Geneviève Paige), and finds herself a sought after client. In this work, Séverine is able to find a low pressure form of physical intimacy that doesn’t include the emotional connection, and which allows her to maintain the emotional relationship with her husband without bringing in the physical aspect that she is so uncomfortable with.

Many of the films themes are discussed through dream sequences and strange conversations. These segments highlight Buñuel’s identity as a surrealist filmmaker– things are just barely stranger than they are in real life. But this is no Eraserhead. There is nothing here that should scare mainstream audiences away. It holds up remarkably well, at times seeming like a film from the last 10 years. The technique is not showy here. What is on display is content, this woman and her relationships, her insecurities and her budding new confidence. People are hurt, people make bad decisions, those decisions are worked through in a very human way. The movie is very grounded and a weird enough to keep it from being another movie about a bored housewife.

The star, Deneuve (who is also spectacular in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another of the many films I watched trying to find a French movie to write about here) is spectacular in her role. Séverine is a difficult woman to understand, and is often quite chilly to the people around her, but I never found her unsympathetic or unreasonable. There is a good portion of humor to the film as well, provided by Anais, the other women at the brothel, and the patrons.

One of the selling points of the film, I think, is that the audience is never given cause to pity Séverine. We are not presented a portrait of a housewife who becomes a sex worker because of desperation. We don’t ask ourselves, “How could she have fallen so low?” Instead of a picture of destitution, we are given a genuinely interesting story about a woman grappling with a separation between physical and emotional intimacy and trying to keep the two separate in her life. We are witness to her journey without being put in a position to pass judgement on her. And if we were to pass judgement, it wouldn’t matter much- she is on this journey because she needs to be.

Say Anything… (1989)

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I cannot count the amount of fights I heard about Say Anthing… (1989) during my first semester at college. In my life I have a very vehement fan of the film, as well as a person who thinks it is a problemaode to negative relationships. I knew a lot about this movie going into it. I knew about kickboxing and I knew how the movie ended, I knew about the scene in the car (for those of you who maybe haven’t seen this movie I’ll try not to give too much away). What I didn’t know what the connective tissue, and where I would come down on this iconic film.

So, I watched it recently, and I’ve been thinking about exactly what makes Say Anything… so classic, and apparently divisive, today. The film has many obvious strengths. Lloyd, played by John Cussack, is one of the best high school movie boyfriends I’ve ever seen. He is genuinely kind to Diane, played by Ione Skye, a sheltered and intelligent girl who graduated at the top of her class. Lloyd himself comes from the other side of the tracks- he doesn’t have a lot of money, his friends are all girls and all punks, he was something of a slacker in high school. But he really likes Diane, he really cares about her and respects her, and he treats her very well.

The film also sheds some light on the lack of self-awareness that many young people have when they’re in their relationships. Lloyd’s best friend Cory, played delightfully by Lily Tyler, has written dozens of songs about a boy who she has recently broken up with, who was cheating on her for the entirety of their relationship. And Lloyd and Diane are no different. They take their relationship very seriously, and say things to one another that only those with the least possible emotional armor can say. Diane and her father have these types of conversations as well, showing us that some of the adults in this world also never developed that sense of self-awareness.

Diane’s father presents a lot of the things that I found problematic with the film, and since I have a lot of faith in director Cameron Crowe, I do think that these problems are intentionally included in the film- they are what makes the movie a classic instead of another forgotten romantic comedy of the 80’s and 90’s. The core problem of the film is that the two men in Diane’s life- her father and her boyfriend- think that there can only be one man in her life. When Diane wants to do something Lloyd doesn’t (or not do something Lloyd does), he always asks, “Did your dad tell you that?” When Diane says that she is going out with Lloyd or doing something with him, her father brushes him off and tries to talk about all the plans that he and his daughter have made. They put Diane in a position where she thinks that the two people are mutually exclusive. She has to choose one of them, and once she does, she has to lose the other forever.

Naturally, this makes no sense to her. She operates with complete honesty when dealing with the both of them, and is confused when they react negatively to her honesty. Her naivety makes her a great girlfriend and a great daughter, but opens up the opportunity for her to be taken advantage of by her father and boyfriend- which is ultimately what happens to her, over and over again.

I do think that this film works- I think that Lloyd and Diane have a very flawed relationship, but that the film is respectful of this. And while the end of the film initially may suggest that the world is sunshine and roses at the end, I think going back and thinking more about the “ding” will give it more meaning than on first viewing.