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Monthly Archives: July 2007

If you don’t yet know about writer/director Judd Apatow’s arsenal of great comic actors and actresses and his crude sense of humor with a twist of sweetness, you really need to get out more. Get out from under that rock, take your head out of the sand, and go rent 40-Year-Old Virgin. Then, when you’re nice and ready, check out Knocked Up, which I will (cautiously) say is one of the best movies of the year (so far).

When I saw Virgin when it was released into theaters, I fell in love with the movie, Apatow, Paul Rudd (who I used to hate as a screen persona), and… uh, that chunky guy. He didn’t look familiar, but he was hysterical! Then Jim Emerson, one of my favorite critics right now, highlighted him, Seth Rogen, when talking about You, Me, & Dupree. When I saw he was loved by someone else, I checked his filmography, only to see he hadn’t done much more than Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared (both with Apatow writing or directing). I knew I came upon someone very special.

I knew I had to see Knocked Up once I saw the trailer. It’s partially because I have so much faith in Apatow, but I was also struck by the prominence of Rogen, who isn’t the type who plays leading parts, in this movie. He’s the Peter Lorre of his day: undeniably talented, but not fit for leading-man roles in Hollywood movies. Yet he plays the main character in this film about a likable, but not preferably attractive or financially stable, guy who impregnates another twenty-something during a one-night stand and supports her during her pregnant months. And his performance works: it clicks. I don’t doubt the part was practically written for Rogen since it fits his style so well. But even then, who else would have successfully played this part, that of an unemployed guy who smokes pot all day, without bringing in stereotypes and non-realistic reactions to the very serious situation of being a father?

Which brings me to my next point: the story is incredibly realistic. I know that sounds like a cliché or that it’s the movie’s job, but it’s so true. I’ve shared the same exact exchanges with friends that Rogen’s character does with his in the movie, maybe not with the same wit, but with the same tone and vocabulary. The morning after their sexual encounter, Rogen’s and Katherine Heigl’s characters act appropriately awkward given their differences. Rudd and Leslie Mann’s portrayal of the other couple is dead-on, hitting on the downside of marriage with the bite of a great satirist. One of the big laughs is a moment featured in the trailer. Rudd is discussing how unhappy the married life is, and he says, “Marriage is like an unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond. But it doesn’t last twenty-two minutes. It lasts forever.” Such dialogue is so carefully and skillfully constructed by Apatow, a great comic writer.

When I fully took in Apatow’s brand of wit, I was delighted that I could go to a comedy at the movie theater without being insulted by the film. While I think I laughed more in Virgin, I cringed more in Knocked Up, but not in a bad way. The characters are so honest that the audience feels a little embarrassed, as if one of its best-kept secrets has been let out. The joke about Rudd’s character ruining all the good towels has most people “ew”-ing, but that moment has one of the biggest laughs; a moment that was once just between a man and his wife is now on the big screen in thousands of multiplexes. The audience ends up laughing twice as hard: once for the giggles, and another time to sedate the pain. And Apatow makes it so worth it.

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Here, in Sicko, we see a new-and-improved Michael Moore in his best film to date. The camera shooting-style may still be “in your face,” but Moore’s face has very little screen time. He still has that same acerbic, smartass brand of humor, but it isn’t as mocking as it used to be. Moore has even visibly lost a little weight. But most importantly, he isn’t cocky and showy. He still thinks he’s right, which is only natural of anybody with a point-of-view. However, he’s more than willing to act as someone who’s open-minded and learning a few new things than a Gnostic letting us lesser folk in on a lil’ secret.

Moore effectively decides to pull an “Al Gore” in his new movie attacking the U.S. health care system by addressing it not as a political issue but a moral issue. He doesn’t take the easy route and, instead of showing those who don’t have health insurance to attack health care, he shows middle-class citizens who have insurance and have had to battle against the corporate powers that are insurance companies. In one funny scene, a father attempts to get a second hearing aid for his deaf daughter by threatening to send Moore to the insurance company: they immediately complied with his request. Even though most of the stories have a moment of humor, all the stories are very sad, and Moore uses these testimonials to make his case. He no longer has to lecture to the audience, for we can see the injustice ourselves.

Okay, so Moore isn’t known for always telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Even he knows it: he pokes fun at such flaws about his filmmaking occasionally in the movie. But that doesn’t mean Moore is wrong. One can usually tell when Moore is butchering rallies and speeches and interviews in his previous films, but there is a shadow of honesty in Sicko. We feel he’s matured and learned that only by being more more-or-less honest, and not by card stacking or not telling whole truths, can he really convince someone that he’s right.

Of course, I and everyone else in the audience were looking forward the the Guantanamo Bay stunt, but Moore does something else that really got my attention. Maybe it was just because there was so much hype about the Cuba sequence even before the movie premiered at Cannes since Moore is being investigated by the government. Even though it is powerful to see his and his companions’ adventure in a Cuba, I was also very touched by the story of the guy who runs the anti-Moore website Moorewatch who had to shut down his site because he had to pay his wife’s medical bills. Oh, sweet irony. (That may sound kind of hateful, but I haven’t told you the rest of the story. See the movie to see why the story is so bittersweet.)

Moore delicately ends the movie with Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy,” asking us to not be afraid to voice our opinion about universal health care. The old Moore would have probably ended with “Wild World,” leaving us feeling pessimistic and bitter, but he has a new attitude. It’s no longer enough for Americans to be angry: that was the first baby step. Now if things are to change, Americans need to take action like the French do (as Moore shows various demonstrations in the movie). It’s now up to us, the people, to make a difference and take the next step.

I can see how the average filmgoer would be absolutely disgusted by Eraserhead, whether because of the movie’s surreal imagery, disturbing qualities, or that it’s in black-and-white. However, I don’t believe that David Lynch, a director identified by his bizarre and unique artistic palate, attempted to please everybody, for this seems to be his most personal work yet. Film history has shown us that a director’s most confessional and insightful movie is usually the one that will divide most of its audience. Take for example Vertigo, which critics didn’t like upon the movie’s original release but is now agreed to be Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Lynch has done some dynamite work, but few of his movies come close to what one experiences when watching Eraserhead.Like in pretty much every sci-fi dystopia, industry has taken over. In Eraserhead, though, it’s more problematic: industry, while mutating people into automatons, has also taken over people’s biological functions. In the opening shot, we see Henry, played with beautiful Keaton-esque deadpan by Jack Nance, floating horizontally. What seems to be a deformed sperm cell emerges from Henry’s mouth. A strange man at a window pulls a lever, launching the sperm, which lands in a puddle of what seems to be watery mud. Yes, this is only the beginning.

As bizarre and random as it sounds so far, Lynch brings up an interesting idea in this sequence: Why is this sperm deformed? Is it because Henry just has bad sperm? Or could it be that the consequences of industry on one’s offspring only gets worse and uglier? Since Lynch loves to work with symbols, he exhibits his talent through his mastery of context. He can take the most surreal images and convert them into ideas that seem more practical than reality itself.

Lynch also doesn’t waste his images. For example, when we see odd shots of puppies feeding off a mother dog and a mini-turkey bleeding in between its legs, we realize later these foreshadow Mary’s pregnancy. Also, while some directors, like Tim Burton and Jan Svankmajer, like to use stop-motion animation to weird-out the audience, Lynch likes to make things look as realistic as possible. The shots of the baby and tiny turkeys cannot possibly be computer-generated, the movement is too fluid to be stop-motion, and animatronics would surely be too expensive for his shoestring budget. The only other logical explanation is some creative form of animation or that it’s real. (While I doubt the latter, the possibility lurks in the back of my head.) Like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali before him, the surreal is Lynch’s language.

What holds the film together is that, most of the time, Henry seems just as clueless as we are. So it doesn’t matter how weird it gets; since he lives by these rules and is still confused, we don’t feel so bad for not fully comprehending the movie by the end. The lyrics to the song the girl sings lead us to think about exactly where we are. If it’s true that “In Heaven, everything is fine,” are we in Hell? Or just on Earth? Another planet, maybe? That could be why the Mars-looking planet blows up in the end. Henry’s world is gone, but he has found his escape and can be fine.

Of course, all my speculation of the meaning of Eraserhead is one of a myriad of theories. Since there’s no set-in-stone interpretation of the film, everyone who leaves it walks away with something different, which is the beauty of Lynch’s work. No one looks at Eraserhead or Lost Highway or even Wild at Heart the same way (some people appreciate it for its parallel shots with Wizard of Oz and not necessarily just for the sleaze-and-cheese factor). However someone takes Lynch’s films, whether she loves them or hates them, ends up walking away with a one-of-a-kind experience that can’t be found anywhere except in the movies of David Lynch.