Day Three - The final ten, a cross-culture collection teeming with big ideas, larger than life visions, and perhaps the greatest documentary on rugby you’ve probably never heard of.
Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, James Caan, Robert Musgrave
(Columbia Pictures; US DVD: 22 Dec 1998)
Director: Wes Anderson
When an artist has a unique vision or style, no matter what their medium, more often than not it is that first piece of theirs you make contact with that strikes the deepest chord. It is the one you hold closest to your heart. So it goes with Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket.
From the outset we are slowly absorbed into a world that is entirely recognizable yet somehow sensationalized. Much like an oversaturated photograph, we can see the picture is real, yet the heightened colors give it a surreal, almost cartoon-like, quality. It is Wes Anderson’s characters that add these bright flourishes of color to the film, so realized that almost every line delivered reveals a keener sense of their psyche. The great humorist and writer Mark Twain once wrote “Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow.” This sentiment pervades all of Wes Anderson’s films, though never are the characters quite as humorously pathetic and human as in this one. Anderson would of course go on to develop and explore his ideas to more mainstream success, but the essence of his characters also began to get more masked in deepening idiosyncrasies over time. In Bottle Rocket, while the characters are indeed quirky, they are also in their rawest form, making this the most relatable and realistic of all his films.
Bottle Rocket speaks directly to that disheartening period of life—for some, and in particular the characters in this film, it is in the mid to late twenties, but of course it needn’t be. It is simply that moment that occurs, to many of us, when we see life simply isn’t going to turn out the way we had planned or hoped, and it will not get easier. In the film, Anderson’s three leads represent three aspects of our personalities that reflect major determinants in how and when this moment will come to us: fear, rationality, and the dreamer. These three elements push and pull and battle within, because they simply cannot entirely coexist, until ultimately one or more of these warring factions is suppressed or released completely.
While some of the humor is more overt, it is the film’s subtlety that is something to behold. In fact, it’s not feasible to pick up on every humorous detail in the film upon first viewing. Each repeat viewing reveals more buried moments, even though the film never asks, demands, or even expects for you to pick them out, or any metaphorical elements for that matter, to enjoy it. On a pure, straight-forward comedic level, the movie is still immensely satisfying. The understated soundtrack by Mark Mothersbaugh, of Devo fame, manages to mirror the film in tone and concept. It is subtle, a touch goofy, and yet beautifully crafted. Yet it is within the moments that Wes Anderson employs songs to convey, or intensify, a scene that he is at his best. He uses this device sparingly in the film, probably more due to budget constraints, but it makes each occurrence all the more poignant.
It is in Bottle Rocket that we get to see Wes Anderson’s unique and distinct vision unobstructed by bigger budgets or stars (keeping in mind the Wilson brothers, who star in the film, were making their big screen debuts here. It should also be noted that Owen Wilson co-wrote the film and deserves as much praise for the dialogue as Anderson.) While his characters here are often propelled as caricatures, they are always painfully human in their actions. Through his creations we see the simplistic splendor and humor that life holds, while always propped up on an underlying layer of recurring sadness that can just as easily take hold. After all, “It ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”
This is why Bottle Rocket is indispensable. Rory O’Connor
Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Dina Meyer, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, Clancy Brown
(Tristar Pictures; US DVD: 28 May 2002)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
“The Goddamn bugs whacked us, Johnny.” “You’re some sort of big, fat, smart bug, aren’t you?” “Would you like to know more?” Every day, at least one of these lines rattles through my head on ‘repeat’. There’s nothing I can do. I’ve tried everything—pills, ointments, doses of Nicolas Cage’s The Wicker Man injected intravenously into my veins—but nothing can seem to wean me off Paul Verhoeven’s fascist masterwork, Starship Troopers. If every DVD in the world was to be destroyed, save this Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Neil Patrick Harris (pre-“NPH”) vehicle, I’d be perfectly OK.
It’s not just one thing, or even a few things, that make this two-disc special edition indispensable. It’s everything. Sure, Verhoeven consistently gives the best damn commentary tracks around, and the featurettes show him chasing his cast across the sets with a broom screaming in his thick Dutch accent, “I’m a bug! I’m a bug! RAAWWRR!” but the proof is in the pudding. The movie is a pastiche of every dream I’ve ever had of American cinema. It’s got the melodrama and beauty of a soap-opera (during development the crew referred to the film as “Melrose Space”). It’s got the self-aware B-movie dialogue that rivals Roger Corman’s best (my personal favorite: Michael Ironside, stone-coldly delivering, while fingering a hole in someone’s head with his prosthetic, metal hand, “They sucked his brains out”). It’s got all the gore you can cram this side of Robocop, featuring a decapitation from the top of the jaw and multiple appendages melting. All of this is presented with an overarching, self-aware message so densely compacted into every frame, every musical note, and every edit, that it informs each head explosion, each transparent character interaction, each WWII-inspired propaganda interlude, and each of your squeals of delight as cinema glory is passing you on-screen.
The film somehow manages to imagine all of these brilliancies under the banner of a science-fiction, futuristic, fascist utopia—and, oh yeah, there are gigantic, flesh-eating arachnids.
And it’s inside that utopia where Starship Troopers shows Verhoeven at his exploitative best—using all of these Hollywood meta-devices to promote his frightening idea: “War makes fascists of us all.” The society the film illustrates is one without sexism, racism, crime, poverty, and, for the most part, unhappiness, but is predicated on a simple fact: “Violence is the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived.” If you believe that statement, then this world truly is your utopia. People who serve in the federation are higher in stature and are imbued privileges not allotted to those who do not, and dying for your country is more important than dying for a friend. The film is a journey of young teens coming to believe these societal ideals for themselves. And though Doogie Howser may start the film a class clown, he ends the third act wearing a Gestapo uniform like everyone else. In this world, war is hell, and hell is desirable. I’ve never seen that idea more vivid and transfixing than through the eyes of Paul Verhoeven.
If you’ve ever wondered: “How would we fight a war against interstellar spiders if Hitler had won World War II?” look no further than Starship Troopers. I sure don’t. Marc Calderaro
Living with Lions
Rob Howley, Will Greenwood, Doddie Weir, Barry Williams, Mark Regan, John Bentley
For all of the genre’s cheesiness and predictability, we all have a soft spot for the occasional sports movie. You know the type. Team of misfits come together, find their bond and unite, before overcoming the odds and dethroning the huge favourites in dramatic fashion.
But what if that movie wasn’t a Hollywood fairy tale or historical re-enactment seen through rose-tinted spectacles, but a document of actual events as they unfolded? That, in essence, is the eternal appeal of Living With Lions, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the 1997 British and Irish Lions’ Tour of South Africa, culminating in the now legendary three-game series against the world champion Springboks.
I’ve written about Living With Lions on PopMatters before, but the brilliance of this movie, which remains virtually unknown outside rugby circles, makes it well worth revisiting.
The game action is, of course, fantastic. The 1997 Lions team featured players who can rightfully be considered among the greatest of all time. But what makes the documentary so enthralling and inspiring is its warts-and-all access to the players, coaches, and medical staff, revealing the shocking brutality of a world of sportsmen for whom winning is everything, while violence and the risk of serious injury are daily realities.
This is a world of men whose bodies and wills have been forged in iron. Playing for nothing apart from the honour of wearing the red shirt and the prospect of becoming only the second Lions team to win a Test Series in South Africa, the commitment to the cause, to never take a backwards step, is unwavering.
The highlights are too many to relate here. Punches are thrown in training. Team captain Martin Johnson berates the doctor stitching up the gash in his face to hurry up so he can get back into the game. Rob Howley’s tears after breaking his collarbone. But best of all, it’s the shared moments before the games that make Living With Lions a unique document of the passion that makes winning possible at the elite level.
“This is your Everest,” whispers coach Jim Telfer as the eight best forward in Britain and Ireland gather in silence before the first Test as tension drips from the walls. “You’ll have to find to find your own solace, your own drive, your own ambition, your own inner strength; for the greatest game of your fucking life.”
“Say their names,” growls Martin Johnson, moments before he leads the Lions out to face the Springboks. “Venter! Kruger! Teichmann! They all fucking get it!”
You can’t script stuff this great. Robert Collins
Very Bad Things
Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Stern, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Jon Favreau, Jeremy Piven
(PolyGram Filmed Entertainment; US DVD: 5 Nov 2002)
Director: Peter Berg
Black comedies are a risky proposition. By definition, they skirt the edges of taste, daring us to laugh at things we shouldn’t find funny: despair, misery, and mostly violence or murder. Ultimately, it’s also a disturbing reflection of ourselves—how morbid are we and why would we laugh at these things? Maybe that’s why it’s never been a burgeoning genre or one that’s well-respected: AFI’s top 100 U.S. films includes Dr. Strangelove as its token black comedy.
Peter Berg’s 1998 film Very Bad Things didn’t fare well itself. Despite having Christian Slater and Cameron Diaz at the top of the marquee (alongside Daniel Stern, Jeremy Piven, and Jon Favreau), it didn’t get good reviews (Roger Ebert hated it), and didn’t do well at the box office either, making back less than a third of its budget. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) was similarly full of evil characters and lacked a real hero, but because it was a grim Western, reviewers and ticket buyers forgave that and embraced it.
Maybe Berg’s film didn’t resonate because it hit too close to home in some ways. The main premise is a bunch of old friends who lose their mind over a murder and turn on each other while trying to keep enough control to make a wedding happen. Diaz plays the bride-to-be and is just as obsessive and insanely driven as the groom’s friends who try to hide their crimes—even when she finds out what they’ve done, she’s more concerned about the ceremony than any blood-letting. Slater’s character masterminds most of the crimes and manically tries to keep things together. Gradually, the wedding party is picked off one by one, consumed by fear as they desperately try to conceal their secrets. The humor comes out in how conniving the friends become when faced with being exposed as killers. Not only is Berg knocking the American obsession with marriage, but also the dark rivalries that are hidden in male bonding. Because of the context he puts the story in, he makes both traditions seem like ridiculous jokes and pathetic mores. It’s not exactly something that popcorn-munching audiences like to ponder, even if they should sometimes.
Part of Ebert’s complaint is that the initial victims are minorities, and others have pointed out that there’s no police hounding the suspects about the string of murders. In an amoral universe like this one, neither point matters. These are disgusting people and the law and morality have nothing to do with it. Movies provide us with escape, but also ideally swoop vengeance on the wicked, and though Diaz’s character gets comeuppance in the end, it’s a spiritual agony she’s left with and not jail time or her own eye-for-an-eye demise that we usually crave and expect.
Though Berg has since done Friday Night Lights (the movie and TV series) and has the Will Smith hit Hancock under his belt (not to mention an ongoing role on Chicago Hope before that), Very Bad Things is his most powerful piece of work and a monument of cinematic grim humor. Jason Gross
Being John Malkovich
John Cusack, John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Mary Kay Place, Orson Bean
Director: Spike Jonze
There is no film I hated more on this planet than Being John Malkovich when I was 15 years old. I saw it in the theater with my parents because I just liked the concept of it (it may have even been my first R-rated flick)... and I hated it with all my being.
Only a few years prior, Peter Weir‘s The Truman Show had an unsettling yet profound effect on me (altering my perspectives on what reality truly is), and Malkovich‘s concept—about people crawling around inside the brains of others and ultimately controlling them—unnerved me to the core. I wanted to walk out of it during the screening, but I
to see the ending—and I had nightmares for days. The movie just wouldn’t leave my head. I was thinking about individual scenes ad nauseum, as if my brain was somehow still digesting the whole experience.
I finally relented and gave it another viewing: and I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it—I just enjoyed it. A few weeks later, I saw it again. Then bought it when it came out on DVD. Then booed when Charlie Kaufman lost the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Now, I have grown to love the movie, as it is every movie I have ever loved: the first half-hour is the sharpest, wittiest, and most downright surreal comedy ever made. Then, it becomes a dramatic meditation on the true natures of love and celebrity. Finally, it transforms into a tragedy of near Shakespearian proportions.
It also features career-defining performances from Malkovich, John Cusack, and a wonderfully defrumped Cameron Diaz, but, really, it is Kaufman and director Spike Jonze who are the stars of this show (and the gloriously bizarre, misleading special features on the DVD). No other movie features monkey flashbacks, horny marionettes, and a jazzy dance number called “Malkovich Malkovich”—and no other movie will leave you as emotionally shaken as this one. If I leave this earth with only movie in my grave, it would proudly be Being John Malkovich. Evan Sawdey