Waiting for Guffman (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
The sesquicentennial anniversary of Blaine, the heart of Missouri, is coming up so the small town’s community is very excited about the special show to be performed at the end of the festival. This year, the mayor (Larry Miller) and his council appoint a high school drama teacher, Corky St. Clair (Christopher Guest), along with a music teacher (Bob Balaban), in charge of the highly anticipated play that is expected to cover the town’s rich and idiosyncratic history.
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, “Waiting for Guffman” is a highly energetic mockumentary that skewers community theater and yet it does not humiliate its subjects. Thus, the picture works a good-natured comedy. Not once is the audience made to feel as though the characters are mere caricatures. It points out the eccentricities of American small towns but it has a loving attitude toward them, too.
The picture is divided into chapters: the audition, the rehearsal, the night of the play, and three months after the performance. The casting by Parker Posey as a Dairy Queen employee, Levy as a dentist, Catherine O’Hara and Fred Willard as a married couple who ironically run a travel agency even though they have not been outside the country, and Guest as a former New Yorker who hopes to make it to Broadway some day is near perfect because these are actors who know how to adapt with one another’s rhythm.
Notice that in scenes that come across as ad-libbed, and they are quite easy to spot, they do not break character when someone says or does something that is way out there. Instead, they all play along even though there unintended smiles are drawn across their faces. Small moments that would have been typically removed in the cutting room floor are left here. These moments are actually brilliant, arguably some of the funniest bits in the movie.
Its extemporaneous nature and approach is crucial to the success of the film because we get a sense of realism. The rehearsal scenes do not feel at all rehearsed or controlled. Rather, everyone is trying on a hat. The comedy comes in the form of the hats not quite fitting perfectly. We even grow increasingly worried as the night of the play approaches. I was surprised that I cared whether those who made it through the casting process would make a fool of themselves in front of their peers and neighbors. Some of them think they are more talented than they actually are.
The long-awaited performance is a joy to watch, from the colorful personalities that drive energetic numbers, ballads, and comedic exchanges to props that surprisingly work despite a few distractions—for instance, a figure being too prominent relative what we are supposed to be paying attention to. “Waiting for Guffman,” directed by Christopher Guest, is an entertaining spoof with a discerning eye but loving hands.
Daytrippers, The (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
It appears to be yet another typical day in the D’Amico household. After Louis (Stanley Tucci) leaves for work, Eliza (Hope Davis) decides to clean the house. While putting things away, out of the corner of her eye, she spots a folded piece of paper lodged between the wall and cabinet. She picks it up and reads it. Her eyes reflect heartbreak: it turns out to be a love letter from a so-called “Sandy.” Following the initial shock, Eliza convinces herself not to make a big deal out of it. Her husband, after all, works in a publishing company so there is a chance that it is from a fictional work, all of it just a big misunderstanding. Still, she feels compelled to tell her parents about her discovery.
Written and directed by Greg Mottola, “The Daytrippers” is highly enjoyable because it is not clear whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. It works that it is a little bit of both. Just about every giggle is almost immediately countered with a melancholic undertone. This makes the picture come alive, especially since we think we may have a true idea of what might be going on and where we expect the story is heading.
For instance, when Carl (Liev Schreiber) decides to talk about the novel he has just written about a man born with a dog’s head, it is funny because no one seems to really understand what it is all supposed to be about. Jo (Parker Posey), the dutiful girlfriend, appears to have his back. And yet at times Jo comes off somewhat desperate to try and pretend that her boyfriend’s novel has something profound to say. He looking good makes her look good. Many of us are likely to think Carl is being pretentious.
The script is clever and surprising because we often learn plenty about a character when he or she is not the center of attention. When I noticed that Eliza barely speaks, it made me question the method employed for characterization because the picture is supposed to be about her journey in finding out whether or not her husband is indeed loyal to her. Having realized that the material is also about how people react to those who have the chance to speak, there is a wealth of information embedded in the awkward pauses, subtle frowns, and looking (or not looking) someone in the eyes.
Eventually, Eliza visits the city to confront her husband with her family in tow for moral support. Although the car ride starts off relatively swimmingly, the travelers inevitably get on each other’s last nerves. Most fascinating is the way the emotional fissures in sharp-tongued Rita (Anne Meara) and taciturn Jim’s (Pat McNamara) longtime marriage are revealed. Rita’s little verbal jabs that most of us may consider sassy but entertaining later reveal an ugly sting. I wished that the older couple had more scenes together but at the same time I admired that the writing does not intend to iron everything out for the sake of our entertainment. In other words, it avoids feeling too movie-like.
It does, however, provide enough hints in terms of how each relationship will eventually turn out. We do not feel cheated from its seemingly lack of resolution because by allowing us to spend time with the characters, hearing them speak, and understanding their point of views, it trusts us to imagine what is next for them. “The Daytrippers” is smart about not putting people in defined boxes. Though its characters can be argued as archetypes, they are allowed to break the rules in surprise and welcome ways.
Broken English (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nora (Parker Posey) imagined that by the time she was thirty, she would be married, have kids, and flourishing in a career she wanted. Now that she is several years past thirty, Nora has grown weary and accustomed to the routine. Her friends and family think she does not go out enough to meet new people yet she complains about how everyone else is in a relationship. After two promising yet ultimately unfulfilling dates, Nora meets a guy at a co-worker’s party. His name is Julien (Melvil Poupaud) and he is from Paris. Initially, the Manhattanite is slightly put off by how intense he was. Slowly, however, she is won over. Will what they have last?
Written and directed by Zoe R. Cassavetes, “Broken English” is a romantic comedy that manages to entertain despite the fact that it is uncommon for the protagonist to get exactly what she wants. Part of the reason why it is so watchable is because of its honesty. Like life, nothing that is of value comes too easily. There is always a trade-off. Take a look at the men in Nora’s life: Although what they share may appear to work on the surface, upon closer examination, she discovers that there is always a catch. The question is whether the drawbacks are worth the investment.
For a character who whines a lot, Nora remains to be someone worth rooting for. Credit to the casting director for choosing Posey to play the miserable subject because she has a way of coming off very needy and annoying yet balancing such qualities with sarcasm and sense of humor. We get the impression that she knows she is not at her best—and that it is likely that everyone else is tired of her complaining—but it is better than internalizing unhappiness and eventually attempting to overdose on pills. If the lead character had been played with a one-dimensional performer, the result would have been catastrophic.
There is chemistry between Posey and Poupaud. From the moment the characters they play meet at the party, we are convinced that the two will get together. What I did not expect was in how their friendship, relationship, or whatever is that they have, is going to be challenged. Like the other men in her life, Julien is not perfect. But neither is Nora. I liked that the screenplay is able to create sudden shifts in tone which allow us to wonder whether Julien will remain attracted to Nora.
There is also love in terms of friendship. Audrey (Drea de Matteo), Nora’s best friend, gets a subplot about being an unhappy wife which is not completely effective because it is rather undercooked, but she and Nora share a few nice scenes. For instance, Audrey is not afraid to tell her friend when the self-pity has reached an unhealthy point or whether an idea is crazy or just plain stupid. In a way, Audrey is the audience’s conduit. Their relationship is sweet, with unacknowledged complications, funny, and genuine. I kept waiting for their relationship to devolve into someone sitcom-like duo but the material never makes that mistake.
I read a review claiming that there is nothing particularly funny about the film because the character is so sad, so desperate, verging on depression. I disagree. I was amused and entertained by “Broken English” because the writer-director is not blind to small ironies. Every so often it requires the audience to look closely at a situation and what the character expects out of it. When it works out, we feel glad for our protagonist. But it is far more interesting when it doesn’t. We anticipate her reaction. We feel her humiliation. Then we watch how she tries to pick herself up.
Doom Generation, The (1995)
★★ / ★★★★
Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) and Jordan White (James Duval) are most alive at night: partying, doing drugs, and getting caught up in stupid things that young people are entitled to experience. But things turn for the worse when Xavier Red (Johnathon Schaech) is slammed against Amy’s car by several guys who jumped him. Somehow Xavier manages to get inside the vehicle and the trio go on a road trip.
Written and directed by Gregg Araki, “The Doom Generation” is trashy and proud which makes it sort of fun. There is something devilishly magnetic about the rock ‘n’ roll, reckless lifestyle of the main characters. However, the messages it wishes to portray are largely inconsistent which makes it frustrating and confusing at times. Are images of doom and gloom supposed to inspire us to think about how we react to violence as a society as well as individuals? Are we supposed wonder about the level of violence intrinsic in all of us? Or is it all supposed to be for fun?
It should be noted that the last names of our protagonists are primary colors. Side-by-side, they complement each other looks- and personality-wise. Individually, they fascinated me somewhat. As I looked at them during the first act, I wondered what each of them is capable of. Are they people who are so insecure that they are hungry to impress or are they immoral beings? Surprisingly, when the two colors blend, through the intense act of sex, the material falls flat. On the contrary, it should demand our attention and allow us to see or feel the repercussions of their actions more clearly.
For instance, Jordan is rather obtuse intellectually and it takes him a while to process certain situations, but how does he really feel or think about, after having the chance to absorb the information, when he sees Amy, who is supposedly his girlfriend, engaging in casual sex with Xavier? He is shown looking lonely or sad but I did not have a gut reaction to his response. There is a gaping disconnect among what is on paper, the acting, and the viewers. Is he genuinely hurt by what he saw? It he surprised that he does not care at all and feel he must put up a front to reflect how people normally act in similar circumstances? Either way, we are not given enough information with regards to the nature of Amy and Jordan’s relationship. Jordan can look sad all he wants but I did not care all that much.
There are a few interesting images. The devil’s number, 666, are featured on signs in supermarkets and there are banners and graffitis that warn about the end of the world. They paint a metaphor that Amy, Jordan, and Xavier are traversing a hellish wasteland. With each place they visit, they end up in a fight and someone ends up seriously hurt or dead. Their luck is bound to run out.
With each encounter, someone almost always recognizes Amy. One of the most memorable is Brandi (Parker Posey). She considers herself to be Amy’s slave. Amy, fresh and cool with her big sunglasses, potty-mouth and chain-smoking ways, turns out to be a girl of experience. Still, random strangers recognizing her ends up nowhere. Eventually, it starts to feel like the trio are only together to inflict or experience bloody violence.
And then there is the smoldering sexual tension between Jordan and Xavier–the best part of the movie. They are never shown as intimate–at least not sexually with just the two of them. What they have is not exactly a chance to explore their latent homosexuality or bisexuality. Instead, it plays upon the idea of how their transgressions, usually driven by the continually unfulfilled id, will never allow them to reach happiness that is pure and true.
“The Doom Generation” features images of punk anarchy. Sometimes its sense of humor is sick but a little sad, too. There is a scene where Amy accidentally runs over a dog. It turns out that she and her friends show more reaction to a dog dying compared to seeing a person, a clerk at Quickiemart (Dustin Nguyen), getting murdered. Perhaps the writer-director wants us to recognize that there is something wrong with that.
★★★ / ★★★★
On her first day as a temp in the Global Credit Association, Iris (Toni Collette) was asked to wait in a chair until someone came and assigned her what to do. She waited for two hours, not once speaking up that she was there and ready to work. While typing some letters, stentorian and hilarious Margaret (Parker Posey) introduced herself, showed the new girl around, and gave her some tips on how to appear working while on the clock. Iris was later introduced to sarcastic Paula (Lisa Kudrow) and quiet Jane (Alanna Ubach) during lunch. Despite the four having different and polarizing personalities, they got along. That is, until personal items started go missing in the office and the four became the prime suspects. Written by Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher, “Clockwatchers” was an effective workplace comedy because it wasn’t afraid to wrestle with details about boredom, apathy, even jealousy and paranoia. We watched the ladies form an unlikely bond which was later challenged and inevitably unspooled because of the pressures they were put under. Some pressures were light-hearted and silly but others were quite serious. It got to the point where cameras had to be installed in their floor because the perpetrator was very elusive. Although it must be kept in mind that just because Iris, Margaret, Paula, and Jane were under suspicion, it didn’t mean that one of them was the petty thief. I’ve never been a temp, but I imagined it might’ve been fun to be in their little group, from their inside jokes, the way they couldn’t help but laugh whenever they were in each other’s vicinity, and the sassy comments they whispered to one another about someone else, especially the new girl (Helen FitzGerald) hired as a permanent personal assistant. At the same time, if I wasn’t in their clique, especially if I were their superior, I probably would’ve been annoyed because it seemed like they played more than they got things done. While I enjoyed the scenes which established that the four women were able to support each other in and out of work, the script eventually focused in the fact in most jobs, essentially everyone was out for herself, especially if one was as disposable as a temp. The four women, whether they could readily admit it or not, knew their place. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have behaved as they did. And who could blame them? As the picture went on, it began to get interesting tonally. While amusing bits still transpired, a dour feeling began to seep through and threatened to take over. The director, Jill Sprecher, was skillful in allowing us to feel just like the characters. It is certainly true that an uncomfortable and unwelcoming workplace, whether the source was the environment itself or the co-workers, is so much worse than a boring one. This I’ve had experience with and I could relate to how energy-sucking it was to come in and immediately not want to be there. On the outside, you create an illusion that everything is all right. In reality, you just feel like screaming and craving for a private session with a punching bag. In my case, I continued to come in because of the money, the protagonists’ seemingly only source of motivation, and I felt that I had a responsibility for the young minds I was in charge of. The four women did not have the latter, or something of that sort, and I could only imagine how unrewarding it must’ve felt for them.
Scream 3 (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Post-college life was tough for Sidney (Neve Campbell) as she moved away from her friends and family to live in a house deep in the woods with her dog. Who could blame her for being traumatized after a masked killer, or killers, exhibited a fixation for murdering those she was closest to? “Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro,” a successful horror franchise, was in production in Los Angeles but the actors were attacked and killed by Ghost Face. It seemed like the killer’s plan was to murder the actors in which they died in the movie in order to attract Sidney’s attention and come out of hiding. The two obviously had issues to resolve. There was only one problem: Sidney, Gale (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) had no idea which script Ghostface had in hand because three versions were written. It meant there were three different order of kills and three different endings. Still directed by Wes Craven but the screenplay helmed by Ehren Kruger instead of Kevin Williamson, “Scream 3” had potential for excellence but the execution was too weak to generate enough tension to keep me interested. What I enjoyed was Sidney, Gale, and Dewey’s doubles (Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey and Matt Keeslar, respectively) because they were exaggerated versions of the real ones. What I didn’t enjoy as much was they weren’t given very much to do other than waiting to die in a gruesome fashion. And while the material played upon the actors’ self-centeredness despite being second- or third-rate celebrities, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What made the first two movies so enjoyable was the fact that the comedy and horror were connected in a smart way. In here, the material relied on spoiled celebrities as a source of comedy and Ghostface’s hunt for Sidney as a source of horror. Since the two failed to connect, the script felt painfully stagnant. I wondered where the story was ultimately heading. Furthermore, the chase-and-stab formula became less exciting over time. It was awkward how the film would stop in the middle of the suspense and cut into a less exciting scene. In doing so, the scares lost considerable amount of momentum. And when it finally decided to return to the murder scene, it just looked silly and gruesome. It began to feel like a standard slasher flick. “Scream 3” still winked at itself, like the villain in a trilogy becoming seemingly superhuman, but it lacked the edginess combined with other necessary elements to bring the movie to the next level. It just didn’t feel fresh anymore. When the unmasking arrived, I just felt apathetic. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the clock every other scene to check the remaining minutes you have to sit through.
Happy Tears (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Jayne (Parker Posey) and Laura (Demi Moore) returned home to take care of their father (Rip Torn) who showned initial symptoms of dementia. While taking care of their father, the two vastly different sisters began to work out their differences as well as their misconceptions about their father in relation to events that happened when they were little kids. I wanted to enjoy this movie more than I did because I have a weakness when it comes to stories about family members returning to a place due to some life-chaning event and they eventually having no choice but to face the demons in their past. Unfortunately, I think that Mitchell Lichtenstein had so much trouble balancing the comedy and the drama to the point where the heart of the story was not always the focus. Particularly problematic for me were the fantasy and the flashback sequences of Jayne. I understood that she was the more optimistic, outwardly funnier sister who was often unaware of what was really going on around her but there were times when such sequences made her look childish in comparison to her sister. I think those sequences worked against her character because the picture hinted at the two women being strong and able to carry on without their husbands. I would also have liked to have seen them interact with their own families more often to serve as a contrast with how they were when they spent time with their father. For half of the movie, I didn’t understand why they treated their father the way they did. I had a premature evaluation that they didn’t care about their father and they just wanted to send him to a nursing home as quick as possible so they could move on with their lives. Since I initially thought that they were selfish, it took me some time to really connect with them and to learn more about their motivations outside of their actions–which were very different from what they chose to show to others. The movie was at its best when Posey and Moore were forced to look into each other’s eyes and measure each other up. Both had a presence about them; the two couldn’t be any more different but they were magnetic in their own rights and in a way I found parts of myself in both of them. One of the major emotions between them was jealousy and I found them very relatable when they often avoided talking about it with each other. Instead, the jealousy was embedded in the sarcasms and the sly remarks about how one chose to live her life. “Happy Tears” had good moments but it didn’t quite moved me as strongly as I’d hoped. With a stronger script and more natural direction, I think I would have liked it a lot more because the performances were already solid.