Category Archives: Altered States

Friends with Money (2006)

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends with Money analyzes a very particular dynamic—that of being a luckless and careerless lonely girl (Jennifer Aniston) in an L.A. circle of friends (Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack) who are all married and rich. Seems preposterous, given the casting, but nobody in this country uses as sympathetic a microscope as Holofcener when examining the conundrums of modern women, and Aniston is convincing and sad. With Jason Isaacs.

Friends with Money
Friends with Money (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You Can Count on Me (2000)

A literate, mature indie about a single mom (Laura Linney) who’s stuck in her childhood home after the early death of her parents, saddled with an obnoxious boss and an evasive boyfriend, and raising a son who needs a man around the house. Trouble rolls into town in the form of her screwed-up brother (Mark Ruffalo). Sounds slight, but it adds up—to a portrait not just of a woman’s love life, but of her entire life, and all the emotional complexities it entails. Both stars are remarkable; Ruffalo found himself a career after You Can Count on Me, and Linney was nominated for an Oscar. With Matthew Broderick.

Erin Brockovich (2000)

A film designed to win its star an Oscar if there ever was one, Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich sets up Julia Roberts as a working-class single-mom heroine for the oppressed, legally battling corporate giant Pacific Gas and Electric on behalf of the scores of poor locals who have endured decades of tumors and other illnesses thanks to the illegal use and dumping of poisonous chemicals. Filthy with character details and robust righteousness, the film is also notable for its dismissal of love and even parenthood in favor of doing justice, fighting the good fight, and working your ass off at something you believe in.

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Single, alone, and discouraged? Rather than resume the soul-crushing hunt for a suitable, or even bearable, mate, consider entertaining the notion that’s at the wide-eyed core of this seminal, postfeminist war chant: the solution to your problem is to run. There aren’t many males of the breed worth one of your airborne toenails, and, since males run the world, your best bet is to stick it to the man, grab a gun, climb into a big, brightly painted vintage automobile, and make a break for the frontier. This remarkable movie actually makes this dead-end gambit seem worth the price: Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, both smashing in faded denim and desert-wind-swept hair, revel in all things masculine (cool cars, firearms, the West, teaching lowdown varmints a thing or two about how to talk to a lady), then simply take their own spectacular exit rather than submit to the laws of patriarchal privilege. As a rebel yell,

Thelma & Louise
Thelma & Louise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thelma and Louise couldn’t be more extreme—or more fun. Anyway, you can’t be blamed for thinking you’d rather drive off a cliff than endure another round of speed dating. Introducing Brad Pitt.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ellen Burstyn snagged an Oscar for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, an unpredictable, somewhat odd tale, in which the heroine—a single mother who works as a diner waitress and dreams of becoming a club singer—tries to keep the future looking bright in the Arizona flatlands for her smart-mouthed son (Alfred Lutter), even as patient hunk Kris Kristofferson waits out the brawls. Martin Scorsese directed, clearly without having ever met a midwesterner. With Harvey Keitel and Diane Ladd.

Rachel, Rachel (1968)

Rachel, Rachel
Rachel, Rachel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most sensitive portrait of feminine loneliness in the post-Eisenhower period, this Paul Newman–directed drama gets under the epidermis of a wilting-lily, thirtysomething schoolteacher (Joanne Woodward) who hopelessly embarks on an aimless affair as she otherwise faces her grim middle years alone. The profound sympathy brought to the heroine’s plight by all concerned keeps Rachel, Rachel very far from being depressing.

I’m No Angel (1933)

What better company, if you’re without a man and frustrated, than Mae West, a woman’s woman who’s built like a battleship, is in complete control of her sexual identity, and is ready to use up men like tissues, with no more than a smirk and tossed bon mot? In I’m No Angel, West remains an invigorating, optimistic object lesson in how to be comfortable in your own skin, how to love sex for sex’s sake, and why you need never rely on a man.

Screenshot of Mae West from the trailer for th...
Screenshot of Mae West from the trailer for the film I’m No Angel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003)

Lovely to look at and filled with improvised Buddhist exercises, Kim Ki-duk’s film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring  takes place entirely on a gorgeous man-made lake, in the center of which floats a monk’s shack. Five seasons (spanning decades) transpire, tracing the hardly simple spiritual education of a young boy. The tug-of-war between the body’s need for satisfaction and the mind’s need for purity is vividly played out.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Ersatz New Zealand visionary Vincent Ward had his last Hollywood shot with What Dreams May Come, a poundingly romantic dream tribulation, in which Robin Williams, enjoying a digitally splashed-out heaven, must travel down to the depths of the underworld to save the soul of his dead (by suicide) wife (Annabella Sciorra). No painterly, impressionistic (or expressionistic) idea has been left out, and the oddly affecting thing about the film is that everybody involved seems to mean it.

What Dreams May Come (film)
What Dreams May Come (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

One of Woody Allen’s richest films, and one that dares to take on the weightiest of moral dilemmas, as Martin Landau’s tortured Manhattan ophthalmologist is confronted with saving himself, his wife, and his lifestyle from the destructive forces of Anjelica Huston’s unstable girlfriend. Crimes and Misdemeanors asks: what can we live with? What price can we, and others, pay for peace and happiness? With Mia Farrow and Alan Alda.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Danish heavyweight Carl Dreyer shot this French film using bare, expressionistic sets, the immolated saint’s actual trial transcripts, and a stage actress named Maria Falconetti, who delivered what many have considered to be the most beautiful and affecting film performance of all time. Of course the issue at hand is spiritual integrity—do you surrender your beliefs, or say you do, in exchange for clemency from an evil empire? Who does God’s work, anyway? One of the faithful, Dreyer was intent on communicating the tormenting experience of spirit-body conflict, and The Passion of Joan of Arc, a well-worn art-house cornerstone, still astonishes.

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Perhaps the closest a Hollywood movie has ever gotten—and probably will ever get—to the free-associative shotgun spray of Salvador Dali’s and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, this first film by the team of director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is an ingenious, incredibly entertaining, Rorschach blot of a metacomedy.  The primary metaphoric vehicle of Being John Malkovich is a mysterious, slimy tunnel that leads directly from a small door in an obsolete office building into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. After fifteen minutes spent in Malkovich’s head, however, tunnel travelers are interdimensionally chucked out onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, but the orgasmic thrill of living inside Malkovich’s skull  spurs the characters (including office clerk and formerly unemployed puppeteer John Cusack, his frumpy—yes, frumpy—wife, Cameron Diaz, and sultry business chick Catherine Keener) to repeat the experience and steer Malkovich’s actions into fulfilling their sexual fantasies.  Charlie Sheen shows up, as himself, blabbering about “hot lesbian witches!”

Being John Malkovich
Being John Malkovich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Little Big Man (1970)

Director Arthur Penn (of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde fame) was never a subtle craftsman, and this shticky yet intelligent rendition of Thomas Berger’s big, absurdist farce Little Big Man fit him like a glove. Dustin Hoffman plays a 121-year-old man who claims to have been everywhere and witnessed everything, from the death of Wild Bill Hickok to Custer’s Last Stand.

 

Little Big Man (film)
Little Big Man (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Escape (1963)

This perennially popular World War II POW-camp adventure is the least traumatic war film you can imagine—a precursor to TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, it’s peopled with glib movie stars doing “outwit the Nazis” shtick and exhibiting the Allies’ “we can take it” wherewithal. As you might guess, The Great Escape is not an emotionally demanding film: Steve McQueen suffers time in solitary with a mitt and baseball, James Garner manages to scrounge everything but the kitchen sink in the middle of nowhere, Charles Bronson’s “Tunnel King” digs toward the fences despite his claustrophobia, and so on.

 

Laura (1944)

The chattiest, dreamiest, and wittiest of noir mysteries, Otto Preminger’s Laura begins with a murder and a romance—cool cop Dana Andrews falls for the dead woman, personified by Gene Tierney’s wall portrait. Then Tierney’s heroine walks in from a weekend away, and no one’s sure who the body belongs to. All in all, the film is virtually owned by Clifton Webb, the feyest and most acidic character actor of the 1940s.

Laura (1944 film)
Laura (1944 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Peter Strickland‘s seething and self-conscious Berberian Sound Studio offers a dynamic that’s impossible to resist: being trapped in a Kafkaesque netherworld of vintage Euro-genre film post-production. It’s Italy in 1976, in that post-dubbing-crazed industry’s seediest foley studio, where Toby Jones, as a shy British sound engineer, is imported to fabricate the soundtrack for what seems to be an absurdly gory Dario Argento-ish giallo. We never see the film in question, but only hear it, as a thousand cabbages and melons are decimated with knives and sledgehammers, and as the brittle Gilderoy finds himself lost in whimsical Italian bureaucracy and appalled by the bloody mayhem on the screen. His strained subjectivity takes over, and the two films he’s “in” cross-fertilize each other – until there’s almost no film left.

JFK (1991)

Maybe this Oliver Stone blitz should be listed under “Election Day” (although that may depend on your political predilections), but it’s also one of our modern era’s most convincing paranoiac screeds. Much of JFK —which revolves primarily around actors like Kevin Costner acting out one of several semi-possible conspiracy scenarios regarding the events that occurred in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963—is questionable, but just as much is not. At least credit Stone for having the cajones to have Costner’s Jim Garrison, unraveling a plot that reaches straight to Lyndon Johnson, spit the word “facism” during his in-court summation. With Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Joe Pesci, and Sissy Spacek.

The Conversation (1974)

Between the Godfathers, Francis Ford Coppola crafted The Conversation, a nerve-racking essay on privacy and surveillance; Gene Hackman is a bugging expert who’s so good at his job that he’s emptied his life rather than be bugged himself. Murder might result from one assignment, sending him on a guilty, destabilized tear—which in turn makes him the subject of the surveillance he’s always dreaded. Indelible. With Harrison Ford.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

This strange and irresistible film more or less begins with a Bunuelian idea: a smalltown man (Ryan Gosling), grieving for his dead mother, solves the problem of his lonely neurotic existence by ordering a full-size sex doll and then puts her forward to his family and close-knit Midwest community as his new, wheelchair-bound girlfriend. What comes of that for us is a queasy balance between ghastly comedy and devastating melancholy – we’re never instructed by the movie to react one way or the other about Lars’ blank-eyed insistence on the doll’s humanness, and every shot featuring “Bianca” is a masterpiece of painful farce. But then Lars and the Real Girl becomes something else: the focus imperceptibly shifts away from Lars-as-problematic-protagonist and onto the busily populated neighborhood around him, who for their own reasons accept Lars’ doll as a real person, and end up inadvertently allowing Lars to find an emotional escape hatch out of the impossible corner into which he’s painted himself. It turns out to be one of the most convincing and generous portraits of smalltown American life movies have seen in years, and still a portrait of adult lostness that hurts to think about. With Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider.

Lars and the Real Girl
Lars and the Real Girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High Fidelity (2000)

In this adaptation of Nick Hornby’s farcically self-pitying novel High Fidelity, John Cusack plays a going-nowhere record store owner and pop-music obsessive who, after his latest relationship collapses, takes the viewer on a tour of his past romances. With Jack Black and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Cover of "High Fidelity"
Cover of High Fidelity

The Swimmer (1968)

The Swimmer (film)
The Swimmer (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The loneliest lonely-man movie ever made, based on what you’d think would be an unfilmable John Cheever short story: Burt Lancaster is a Connecticut family man who, apropos of nothing, appears in a neighbor’s yard and dives into the pool. He proceeds to “swim” a long circuit of his rich neighbors’ pools, “going home,” as he says. The Swimmer is a journey that reveals along the way what the pool-owners already know: that this buoyant, athletic guy has nowhere to go.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Cropped screenshot of title from the trailer f...
Cropped screenshot of title from the trailer for the film Double Indemnity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The concept of the “femme fatale” was old hat when James M. Cain wrote his vicious thriller Double Indemnity, but (with some help from this film adaptation, which was coscripted by Raymond Chandler and director Billy Wilder) he made the man-eating antiheroine into the dramatis persona of the postwar era.

Calendar Girls (2003)

Calendar Girls
Calendar Girls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In youth-obsessed America, where it’s entirely possible to start feeling over the hill at age twenty-five, this film is a refreshing, good-natured slap in the face: a comedy, based on a true story, in which a group of Yorkshire women nervily bare all for a yearly fund-raising calendar, which becomes, as we see, a sensation. These women aren’t making fitness videos on the side, either—these are real bodies, belonging to undoctored women (including Helen Mirren, Julie Walters, and Linda Bassett) who are willing to be judged by a shortsighted world. The script of Calendar Girls isn’t overly sweet, although the saucily affirmative tone and the wheezy tai chi coda are trying.

Wonder Boys (2000)

Middle-aged literature professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is having a bad day: his wife has just left him, he’s having an affair with his boss’s wife (she also happens to be the chancellor of the university), and his editor is coming to town expecting a finished manuscript—of which he’s written very little, although he’s already used up a full ream of paper in the attempt. His own “wonder boy” years as star author far behind him, he embarks on a snowy Pittsburgh weekend odyssey that ends up involving a stoned literary prodigy (Tobey Maguire), a transvestite, a dead dog hidden in a trunk, a manuscript more promising than his own, and the stolen jacket of Marilyn Monroe. Michael Chabon’s novel of midlife crisis is wisely centered in the academic milieu: is there any more constant reminder that you’re past your prime than being surrounded by the flush of youth 24/7? We could feel our own age lines expand as we watched, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t smart, quick, witty, and lovable—it is. With Frances McDormand.

Shirley Valentine (1989)

At long last, a midlife crisis movie about a woman who’s actually in the middle of her life. Manchester working-class housewife Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins) addresses the camera as if she’s revenging all the ridiculed English women in Alfie (that 1966 Michael Caine–as–womanizer affront), venting her frustration and disappointment at who she’s become and how she lost herself along the way. She hitches a free trip to Greece to discover, thankfully, that being over forty doesn’t have to mean an end to skinny-dipping in the Aegean Sea and drinking retsina by sunset. Unembarrassed by the film’s staginess, Collins looks like a real middle-aged woman whose hips have borne children and whose chin hasn’t been lifted above her eyebrows.

Shirley Valentine (film)
Shirley Valentine (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)