Little Boy (2015)

When most people say they’re praying in the midst of painful circumstances, what they actually mean is they’ve developed tunnel vision in light of their pain. St. Paul warned, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith…” Whether we’re already in communication with God or waiting to become entrenched in our circumstances, unwavering […]

Much Ado About Nothing (1993 & 2012)

This one’s a two-fer!

Shakespeare is tricky by any standards. Many universally human traits brought out by timeless situations are easily lost in translation from a long-gone language into modern culture. Fortunately, Billy the Bard still inspires story-tellers the world over. It continually surprises me that such a wide range of demographics appreciate his plays, though it shouldn’t, considering his original audience: the rich had plush seats up high with a stunning view of the entire stage while the commoners, who had to stand on the floor down in front got to hear all the bawdy jokes, i.e. something for everyone.

As filmmakers often attempt to adapt a classic play for the screen, it’s interesting how a scholarly approach and a layman’s view can be two sides of the same coin. When it comes to sifting through antiquated vernacular to interpret its meaning, just as much is overlooked by over-analyzing as by lack of context. With this in mind, both a classically-trained European thespian and an American Sci-Fi scriptwriter/ director have different yet complementary versions of what is widely considered William Shakespeare’s funniest comedy. Kenneth Branagh’s pre-millennium period piece and Joss Whedon’s post-millennium modern retelling (inspired by a wine-and-cheese reading party with friends) will turn anyone into a fan of Shakespeare.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

Writer/ director, Baz Luhrmann, best known for his pinache, made his moviemaking debut with this one. And what a first impression! Let’s face it: regardless of medium, most first attempts are sincere but earnest and eschew anything flashy, which is understandable. Yet this gutsy storyteller somehow manages to fully develop his characters in a short amount of time. Though the movie is fast-paced it doesn’t feel the least bit rushed; Luhrmann knows exactly when and where to move the camera around his stylized set.

Though he gradually drifted into the realm of cinematic adaptations, this story is truly unique as a perfect synergy of any element you can name. I initially remembered it being a creative little daydream (i.e. a much classier version of Dirty Dancing) that someone more sentimental than I made me watch. Over the years it periodically surfaced in various conversations, referenced by everyone but cinephiles. I finally decided to rewatch it, assuming it would be a subtle precursor to Luhrmann’s hyper-stylized version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which I loved but hadn’t connected as being from the same visionary. Though many movies with vaguely similar elements came to mind, I couldn’t think of a single one to which this compares. In my humble opinion, it remains his finest work.

Look at me/ Comme une image (2004)

Despite the French title being a book around which one of the main stories is centered, all the meta occurs outside the film; American critics have absolutely no idea what it’s about, which is precisely the plot! The snarkiness that runs throughout is the symptom of a larger problem. It’s easy to give advice about a particular situation but why not follow it yourself? Likely because you hear—yes, someone is talking, blah, blah, blah—but you don’t take the time to listen to what is—or isn’t—being said. I find it ironic that some people describe the script as “too wordy.” Everyone’s talking but never really saying what they mean or how they feel. Moreover, no one is paying any attention to what’s not being said: the eye roll, the shoulder slump, the sigh, the deliberate nudge given to a supposed stranger. Yet they all desperately want to be heard. Don’t we all? In an era of information overload, the best way to know someone is to see them—not merely look at them through a media lens; to watch them in their element. Try it. You’ll be surprised. The characters certainly were.

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

I hate it when a trailer for a great movie is all wrong. Who edits these? No one would ever be interested based on this random montage of clips. And that other one gives too much away. The one I’m imagining could work for the theater, TV, or radio. This would be my ideal splicing:

Narrator: This is a story about a man named Harold Crick and his wristwatch. Harold Crick was a man of infinite numbers, endless calculations and remarkably few words. And his wristwatch said even less…

*             *             *

Queen Latifah: I’m Penny Escher. I’m the assistant your publishers hired.

Emma Thompson (the Narrator): The spy.

Queen Latifah: The assistant. I provide the same services as a secretary.

Emma: I don’t need a secretary.

QL: Then I will have to find some other way of occupying my time.

Emma: Like watching me like a vulture in case I get distracted, because they—the publishers—think I have writer’s block, isn’t that right?

QL: Do you have writer’s block?

*             *             *

Narrator: And although this was an extraordinary day—a day to be remembered for the rest of Harold’s life—Harold just thought it was a Wednesday.

Will Ferrell: “Harold thought it was Wednesday.” Did you hear it?

Lady at bus stop: Who’s Harold?
Will: I am.

Lady: Don’t worry, Harold. It’s Wednesday.

*             *             *

Will: Dave, I’m being followed.
Tony Hale: How are you being followed? You aren’t moving.

*             *             *

Linda Hunt: Mr. Crick, you have a voice speaking to you?

Will Ferrell: No, not TO me—ABOUT me. I’m somehow involved in some sort of story, like I’m a character in my own life. But the problem is that the voice comes and goes, like there are other parts of the story not being told to me. And I need to find out what those other parts are before it’s too late.

*             *             *

Emma Thompson: Is there any way to see the people who aren’t going to get better? …I’d like to see, if at all possible, the ones who aren’t going to make it. You know, the dead-for-sure ones.

ER nurse: I’m sorry, are you suffering from anything?

Emma: Just writer’s block.

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: “Little did he know.” That means there’s something he doesn’t know, which means there’s something you don’t know, did you know that?

*             *             *

Emma Thompson: I’m not in the business of saving lives; in fact, just the opposite.

*             *             *

Will Ferrell: Ten seconds ago you said you wouldn’t help me.

Dustin Hoffman: It’s been a very revealing ten seconds, Harold.

*             *             *

Queen Latifah: I will gladly and quietly help you kill Harold Crick.

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: …The last thing to determine conclusively is whether you’re in a comedy or a tragedy. To quote Italo Calvino, “The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.” Tragedy, you die. Comedy, you get hitched.

*             *             *

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Listen, I’m a big supporter of fixing potholes and erecting swing sets and building shelters. I am MORE than happy to pay those taxes. I’m just not such a big fan of the percentage that the government uses for national defense, corporate bailouts and campaign discretionary funds. So I didn’t pay those taxes. I think I sent a letter to that effect with my return.

Will Farrell: Would it be the letter that begins, “Dear Imperialist Swine”?

*             *             *

Dustin Hoffman: Have you met anyone recently who might loath the very core of you?

Will: I just started auditing a woman who told me to get bent.

Dustin: Well, that sounds like a comedy. Try to develop that.

*             *             *

Maggie Gyllenhaal: Go home, Harold.

Will: OK… You made those cookies for me, didn’t you? You were just trying to be nice and I blew it. This may sound like gibberish to you but I think I’m in a tragedy.

*             *             *

Kristin Chenoweth: So can you tell us the title of the book you haven’t written, yet?

Emma Thompson: I’m calling it Death and Taxes.

*             *             *

Will: I may already be dead, just not typed.

*             *             *

Will: Karen Eiffel, my name is Harold Crick; I believe you’re writing a story about me.

Emma: Is this a joke?

*             *             *

Emma: …It’s a book about a man who doesn’t know he’s about to die and then dies. But if the man does know he’s going to die and dies anyway, dies willingly, knowing he could stop it then… I mean, isn’t that the type of man you want to keep alive?

 

Black Snake Moan (2006)

The epitome of “difficult to describe” and “impossible to classify,” this story has a lot going on. The initial marketing—especially the incongruous movie poster—was ticket bait for those looking for frenetically salacious and lewd content; anyone with a sense of decency avoided it in disgust.

Quality acting helps ground potentially off-the-rails characters as the story deliberately shows them at their worst to establish the misunderstood subversive behaviors, for which they are publicly ostracized. A solider with recurring panic attacks returns home to discover his girlfriend is missing. Meanwhile, she gets dumped out of a pickup truck, battered and in her underwear, along the side of the road. A hot-headed recluse drags her to his home where she wakes up chained to the radiator. Madness, right? That’s the point. Though everyone seems crazy at the outset, the beauty of this story is the bonds they forge along their journey toward healing despite complex struggles.

Normally, I wouldn’t give nearly so much of the plot away but in this case it’s the only way to justify seeing past such a depraved opening. As it turns out, the young woman was abused as a child; as with most victims, she feels a combination of guilt and confusion over her body’s response. So when she grows up and develops romantic feelings—even for guy who genuinely cares about her—she’s confused about how to give and receive affection, thus trapped in a vicious cycle of promiscuity. The antisocial loner, who initially holds her prisoner for her own safety, turns out to be a religious Blues musician who struggles with alcohol abuse following a contentious divorce. Heartbreak has left him closed off to the world.

As they compare the vices that serve to distract them from haunting memories, the two strike up a friendship that functions more like a father showing his wayward daughter some tough love, which includes having the local preacher over for lunch to hear his two cents:

“Ima tell you something and it’s just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about Heaven too much, like it’s some kind of all-you-eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There’s sinning in my heart, there’s evil in the world. But when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness; not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live, or no more good to do, but today, right now… what’s your Heaven?”

Across the Universe (2007)

Though the title borrows the more popular lyric/ song title, this film could’ve been aptly named “Nothing’s Gonna Change my World”; the irony being the massive upending of life as everyone knew it prior to the turbulent 1960s. To craft a plot from a collection of music not written as a cohesive narrative is tricky enough; to seamlessly infuse the playlist with a personification of the music and events that equally influenced and inspired each other is a true work of Art. The inclusion of live musical performance, choreography, imaginative cinematography, depiction of history and socio-political commentary take this mesmerizing spectacle way beyond a Beatles-inspired musical.

This Beautiful Fantastic (2016)

Apparently, I’m not used to Art that isn’t at least a little bit pretentious because I initially struggled to enjoy this one. Since I could find no particular fault in the movie I figured the problem must be with me. The plot has many classic elements that make you realize how much effort modern and/ or American movies put into manipulating your emotions. As far as plot twists, no big shockers; just a simple story—that might even be a tad predictable—about growth, both personal and floral. Love and imagination blossom in a delightful British story that’s so sweet it’s almost a fairytale.

The Twilight Samurai (2002)

In Japan’s “twilight” period, during the Meiji restoration, widower, Iguchi Seibei leaves work each night at twilight to go home to his aging mother and two young daughters rather than out drinking and carousing with his coworkers. Though he’s only a low ranking soldier, the position holds more distinction better than his current duties as a warehouse bookkeeper but ut since his wife’s funeral was so expensive he cannot afford to take a new bride as he pays off the funeral expenses.

Then Tomoe, the sister of a childhood friend comes to stay to get away from her high-ranking abusive husband, who suddenly shows up in the middle of night. Seibei is forced into a duel but manages to overcome despite having the flimsier weapon. This victory wins Seibei the respect of higher ranking officials, who want him to revisit the violence of his former profession. Meanwhile, his friend urges him to marry even though it would be a mismatch; Seibei supplements his income by making bug cages in his spare time and has been neglecting his personal hygiene. However, he loves Tomoe and she’s grown fond of his senile mother and two sweet daughters. Torn between loyalties yet bound by honor and tradition, Seibei is forced to fight.

So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993)

With a title that’s a dead giveaway—or is it??—the initial charm of this quirky dark comedy is in its spirited characters; the enduring appeal is in the chemistry between them. Bursting at the seams with talent, cameos and quotable lines, particularly as the lead actor also plays a caricature of his real-life Scottish (i.e. loud, tactless, accordion-playing, Rod Stewart-idolizing) father.