Millennium Actress (2001)

Millennium Actress is a Japanese animated movie that stretches the movie-analogy machine to breaking point. With most movies, you can say something like “it’s like Seven Samurai in space” or “it’s like King Kong but with a robot”. With Millennium Actress, I can make no analogies because I have seen nothing else like it.

The movie tells the story of a Japanese actress through three parallel story-lines that are blurred together. In the “present”, the old actress is being interviewed by a producer and his cameraman. In flashbacks, we see what her life was like, but scenes from her life are intercut with scenes from her movies to tell a dream-like story.

I’m doing it no justice at all in this review, but please know that it touches a nerve for me, the way Big Fish does: that you can’t tell the story of anyone’s life by just relaying the facts. Sometimes you have to tell a good story to convey who someone was. Facts are waypoints.

Follow That Bird (1985)

In 1985, we piled into my mother’s car and went to watch Follow That Bird. My sister, her friends and me. I loved that movie; it was a road movie, before I knew road movies. It was a classic Muppet movie that wasn’t really a Muppet(tm) movie, before I really knew Muppet movies. This was the 6-year olds equivalent of an SNL sketch that turns into a movie. A full length Sesame Street movie.

Earlier this month, my older daughter went to watch Little Women with her best friend, while I stayed home with the 6-year old. And we watched Follow That Bird.

It’s still pretty great for 6-year olds.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

“Of course, I aIways have believed that in that fighting liberaI facade, there must be some sort of reactionary bigot trying to get out.” — Monsignor Ryan

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner the story of a mixed race couple having their ostensibly liberal parents come to terms with their relationship over the course of one evening in the ’60s. It’s dated, for sure, but it’s iconic all the same.

None of the characters could be characterized as racist in 1967, except Hattie who gets an earful from Hepburn in the clip below. Every one of the characters, except for the couple, would be characterized as racist in 2010.

My immediate thought was that someone should do a remake where the kid brings home a gay partner, and watch the fighting liberal parents come to terms with it.

But there are two problems with that:

  1. In 2010, it’s hard to play the theme as serious drama. Probably why the Kutcher/Bernie-Mac remake Guess Who is a comedy.
  2. I just remembered- somebody already made that movie, and it’s fantastic. It’s Birdcage.

I could talk about how you should see this movie, but you can figure that out for yourself. I wanted to focus on two of the three scenes that define the movie for me.

First, we have Katherine Hepburn, in one of the most epic telling-offs in cinema (the good part starts at about 0:50s): Continue reading

Ghost World

A few months ago, I put Ghost World among my favorite movies of the past decade. I would go further to say that it is one of my favorite movies of all time. The following is a “film note” I wrote for the local independent Brattle Theatre, for their screening of Ghost World, with author/screenwriter Daniel Clowes in attendance. I write about Norman, the character that inspired this little short story of mine back then.

“I wonder if he’s just totally insane, or he really thinks the bus is coming?” says Enid, as she watches Norman sitting at the bus stop, waiting for the bus that never comes. This is probably the most enduring image from the 2001 cult classic Ghost World, which has a wide range of powerful iconography to choose from. From the opening sequence set to 1960’s Bollywood pop, to the angle of the shot in the final scene, every scene is full of detail for those paying attention.

But our minds keep returning to Norman. Is he insane, or does he really think the bus is coming. It is more likely that both of these are true. There is a quiet assuredness to Norman, so we are never quite sure. We feel for the old man. We don’t want him to sit there waiting forever, for a bus that was cancelled two years ago. But then, an even more frightening thought hits us. Maybe this is all he has. Where would Norman go, if he did not sit at the bus stop? He seems funny, but we don’t laugh.

And that is how it is with Ghost World. Each character could play the lead in a riotous comedy about their life, but this film is not playing their quirks just for laughs. We see ourselves in some of them– in the rebellious teenager Enid, and the lovable misanthrope Seymour. And in others, like the video store clerk who can’t tell the difference between 9 1/2 Weeks and Fellini’s 8 1/2, we see the world around us. The ghost world.

Enid is on the verge of graduating high-school and is being forced to be a very specific kind of adult very quickly. She is a jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong box, a box that most of the people around her seem to fit quite well. She loves Seymour, a lovable nerd who hates the world, but is beginning to realize his cynicism is not sustainable. “Maybe I don’t want to meet someone who shares my interests. I hate my interests,” he tells Enid. Seymour is what Enid probably imagines she will become in another twenty years, for better or worse.

As the movie progresses, we wonder if Norman is the only one who has a grip on his life, if not on reality. He has a purpose in life and cannot be moved from it. If this is insanity, maybe it is preferable to the chaos of those around him. He is the only constant, until the point at which Enid’s life really needs a constant to lean on. At that point, he is gone.

The significance of Norman and his bus have been discussed for many years by fans of the original Daniel Clowes comic book on which the movie is based. What the bus means to you may tell you more about yourself than about what the writer intended. Some people think it is death, and have found subtle clues pointing to this explanation. A better way to think of it is that the bus is an escape. The bus shows up for the first time at the precise moment when Enid’s life is hitting its lowest point. She needs an escape. What do you think happens to those who get on the bus? Here is a hint– look at the words on the bench after Enid sits down at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, this hint is not the answer, but maybe it will help you come up with your own. Whatever your answer may be, as the final shot of the bus driving out of town fades in to the Bollywood pop credits, Ghost World will leave you with a lot to think about. It is a film that a certain kind of teenager must see before they are thrust head first into adulthood. Before they become part of the ghost world.

And to tell you the truth, Norman at the bus stop is only the second most enduring image of Ghost World. The most enduring– and terrifying– image from Ghost World is “mirror, father, mirror”. That is the stuff of which cheesy nightmares are made.

Daniel Clowes at The Brattle on 4th May, 2010
Daniel Clowes at The Brattle

It Might Get Loud


Imagine you were in a large open-air stadium with ten thousand people. There’s a cold wind blowing and it’s silent. And suddenly one of these three openings start playing:

One, two or three.

Would you get goosebumps? If so, you really need to watch the Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) documentary, It Might Get Loud. He uses a meeting of the three great guitarists, Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White as an homage to the guitar. The movie is like comfort food for music fans. [trailer]