By Tenzin McGrupp © 2003
13 Conversations About One Thing (2001)
Writer and director Jill Sprecher weaves multiple stories and conversations about happiness, life, and love within several seemingly unrelated characters, that are all linked and associated in an unusual way. Troy (Matt McConaughey) is a young hot shot lawyer. His life gets changed for the worse when he’s involved in an unexpected hit and run accident. Beatrice (Clea DuVall) is an optimistic cleaning lady, secretly in love with one of her wealthy clients, and awaiting a miracle that never happens. Walker (John Turturro) is a rigid Physics professor who is cheating on his wife (Amy Irving) that attempts to grapple with her suspicions of her husband’s infidelity. Gene English (Alan Arkin, whom was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his role) is a grumpy office manager, dealing with his son’s legal troubles, and looking to exact revenge on a carefree, happy-go-lucky always positive co-worker, while waiting for his promotion to become effective. The story lines jump back and forth between characters in real time and in flashbacks. If you are not paying attention, it’s easy to get confused. One of the last lines of the film, uttered in a bar, paraphrases one of my favorite lines from the philosopher Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.”
Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999)
“All About My Mother” is the best film from renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. Shot on location in Barcelona and Madrid, his film follows the life of Manuela (Ceclia Roth). She is recovering from the tragic death of her teenage son after he gets hit by a car trying to get the autograph of his favorite actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). She travels to Barcelona to reunite with her son’s father, a transvestite named Lola who has disappeared. He/she has no clue that he’s/she’s been a father for almost twenty years. Manuela meets up with an old friend Agrado (hilariously played by Antonia San Juan), yet another aging, foul mouthed, wacky, trick turning transvestite. She introduces Manuela to a pregnant nun, Sister Maria (Penelope Cruz), a young and misguided woman headed for El Salvador. Manuela gets hired by Huma as her personal assistant, with one of her tasks caring for Huma’s junkie girlfriend Nina. Pedro Almodovar’s film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1999. A well written script, eccentric characters, and excellent performances from the ensemble cast made this film one of Pedro’s best to date. He manages to jab at serious themes of life and death, womanhood and motherhood, sexuality, and overcoming life’s obstacles, while incorporating classic pieces of theater and film, the likes of “A Street Car Named Desire” and “All About Eve”.
Written and directed by Mike Figgis, this is one of the most ingenious films I have ever seen. Shot digitally in real time, in one take, he incorporates a split screen throughout his entire film, having four separate cameras follow four different story lines. He had a loosely written script and depended on the actors to do a fair amount of improvisation in their scenes. Taking place in Los Angeles, and primarily at a Hollywood production office, the action shifts back and forth between places and people. Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn) is jealous of her lover Rose (Salma Hayek). She suspects she’s cheating on her with film producer Alex (Stellan Skarsgard) and tries to catch them. Alex is a self-serving, self-destructive, booze guzzling, coke snorting asshole considering his retirement from the industry. Alex’s wife Emma (Saffron Burrows) walks from her therapist’s office to see Alex to tell him that their marriage is done. She ends up hooking up with a coked up actress friend (Leslie Mann) after they run into each other at a bookstore. Alex is busy trying to have an afternoon tryst with Rose, while fending off bad ideas and suggestions for future film projects. Overall, the film and plot is not really great. But considering what Figgis was trying to accomplish, it was a ballsy chance. Shooting a feature film in real time, in one continuous take, and relying upon smooth improvisations from his actors required a lot of trust as well as ingenuity. I heard that he shot the film over two weeks, each day being a different continuous take, and that he ended up using the first take in the film. If you get the DVD, in the Special Features Menu, you can watch another alternate version of a different take, and see the subtle and drastic differences in both cuts.
Roger Dodger (2002)
Written and directed by Dylan Kid and shot on location in New York City, he introduces his main character Roger right away from the opening scene: Roger is lecturing his co-workers during lunch about his views on evolution and Darwinism regarding the futility of being a male and the eventual shift from reliance upon males in our culture towards a more dominated female culture. Roger is a smooth talker, with sharp wit and amazing observational skills who thinks he’s mastered the art of manipulating women for casual sex and has figured out exactly what women are all about. His chauvinistic approach to women becomes tested and his utopian views become sidetracked after an affair with his boss (Isabella Rossellini) abruptly ends and his shy nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) from Ohio shows up unannounced, looking for tips on women. Roger takes Nick under his wing and in a late night crash course, begins to school the young, humble, bumbling virgin in the art of picking up women in NYC, where sex is everywhere and anywhere, and available to be had. Eventually things don’t go as planned, and Roger begins to realize that maybe the entire time he’s just as clueless as his nephew, after Nick seems to charm a couple of girls (Elizabeth Berkeley & Jennifer Beals) that Nick picks up at a bar (filmed on location at Opaline in the East Village) and they whisper to him “We need more men like you.”
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young woman that has been released from a mental hospital after being institutionalized for cutting herself after she becomes addicted with self mutilation. Although she hasn’t fully kicked her habit of self inflicted pain, she applies for a job as a legal secretay for Mr. Grey (James Spader). Mr. Grey is grouchy, temperamental, meticulous, slightly disturbed boss and Lee quickly develops a crush on him and his odd quirks. One day after Mr. Grey catches Lee trying to cut her self, he quickly steps in and assumes the dominator role in the beginnings of a lustful, sadomasochistic relationship. The S & M scenes are intense but not overly kinky and exaggerated. Sometimes they are more humorous and sad than anything else. But the director, Steven Shainberg, did an excellent job delving into the relationship between sexuality and power, and the intensity behind those relationships. Based on a short story by Mary Gatskill, the authority rapport between Lee and Mr. Grey is clearly defined, but underneath that twisted intensity is a sincere love story and a young woman’s struggle to maintain self affirmation in a world where’s she’s had little or no self esteem. The underlying framework takes away the abrasiveness of the overt S & M context. Both Spader and Gyllenhaal’s effort is some of their best to date. In each scene Spader does his job, because you are either rooting for him because you feel sorry for him, or you’re totally against him because he’s a selfish psycho.
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.