Friday, August 31, 2012

10 Film Characters Who Deserved More Screen Time

Don't you hate it when an interesting character is introduced in a movie, but you only see them for no more than 20 minutes? This post goes out to those characters who have stolen the show from the protagonists, or who have at least been thoroughly compelling in such a short space of time. This is not a definitive list. I'm just picking the first 10 who spring to mind! These are in no particular order.

1. The Cowboy (Mulholland Dr., 2001) 

What a mysterious character! Then again, do we expect anything different from David Lynch? Played by Monty Montgomery, the Cowboy communicates with very little emotion, and I was fearing for Adam (Justin Theroux) throughout this whole scene. It's the Cowboy's interrogative questions that creep me out the most.

2. Nick Nightingale (Eyes Wide Shut, 1999)

Nightingale introduces Bill to an underground cult that revels in sexual rituals and orgies, and this not only gives Bill a new lease on life, but also launches us—the audience—in a different trajectory to what the film was getting at. We can never really trust Nightingale. He seems nice, but we don't know where his loyalties lie. Todd Field shows he is as good in front of the camera as he is behind it.

3. Arthur Jensen (Network, 1976)

This scene seemed to come from nowhere. Jensen (Ned Beatty) berates Howard Beale (Peter Finch) for urging the public to protest a deal between his TV network and a larger media conglomerate. Beale has been dubbed "the mad prophet of the airwaves," and Jensen wants to remind him that this title doesn't give him free rein to do whatever he likes. What a powerful monologue!

4. Mystery Man (Lost Highway, 1997)

For me, Mystery Man (Robert Blake) ranks among the most terrifying film characters of all time. He's fairly important in the context of the film, yet I still feel we don't see enough of him. One can't help but draw a comparison between Mystery Man and Death from Bergman's The Seventh Seal, insofar as they look eerily similar.

5. Vi (Storytelling, 2001)

Todd Solondz's Storytelling is divided into two parts: 'Fiction' and 'Non-Fiction'. Unfortunately, Solondz only gives us around 20 minutes of Fiction, which is where we see Vi (Selma Blair). We see her go through so much emotional turmoil, and we want things to get better for her. We never find out if they do.

6. Sam #2 (Happythankyoumoreplease, 2010)

First of all, allow me to say that this film is underrated. Now, if you're not watching any of the video clips in this post and are just looking at the default frame, the woman you see above is not Sam #2. Sam #2 is a male played by Tony Hale. Sam #2 is a stereotypically dorky dude and at times seems suspiciously nice. Hale has a charming screen presence and it's great to see that he gets the girl in the end (excuse the spoiler; it's not a big one). Of course, the story arc between Malin Akerman and Tony Hale is secondary to the one between Josh Radnor and Kate Mara, but I wouldn't hesitate to see it the other way around.

7. Duane Hall (Annie Hall, 1977)

Everyone forgets that Christopher Walken is in Annie Hall, and I don't blame them—he gets very little screen time. I'll be honest and say there's not much that can be done with his character. Still, Walken is so subtly hilarious in this scene that I just wanted to see him somewhere later on. On a side note, I think Woody Allen deserves credit for how he plays along with Walken in this scene. 

8. Barbara Fitts (American Beauty, 1999)


I'm not sure whether I wanted to see more of Mrs Fitts, or whether I just wanted her to say more. It's never revealed why Barbara is so silent, apathetic and almost catatonic. Maybe her husband has abused her. Maybe she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Maybe she's just been lulled into a dreary existence by the quiet of American suburbia. It could be anything, really. Allison Janney gives a convincing performance which sometimes looks like an effective non-performance.  

9. Frederick (Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986)

Max von Sydow is an outstanding actor, and is always a pleasure to watch no matter how much screen time he gets. Now, I thought Woody Allen gave the character of Frederick a reasonable amount of attention, but it's just weird seeing a film where von Sydow isn't even one of the five most important characters. Thus is the power of Woody Allen to attract amazing talent. He wanted to work with von Sydow as he admired his performances in Ingmar Bergman's films.

10. Dean Trumbell (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002)

I like to think of Punch-Drunk Love as "the most normal strange film ever made." It's somewhat surreal and dreamlike, but it's not like we get close to crossing over into Lynchian territory. I like it, but I feel it's not consistently engaging (many will disagree). That's why I enjoy this performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman so much. He pours so much emotion into the character of Dean Trumbell—owner of a mattress store and supervisor of a phone sex hotline.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Teeth

If you've spoken to me face-to-face in the past two or so years, you've probably noticed it. A build-up of tartar on my lower incisors. I appreciate your politeness in not mentioning it. You see, I am 19 years old but have never been to the dentist. I have a self-professed phobia of the place. My mum would try to drag me along when I was a kid, but I'd resist—even breaking down in tears to gain her sympathy in the hope she'd let me off. She always did.

I couldn't expect to avoid the dentist and live my life with pristine teeth. I knew that I would have to go for a check-up one day. Well, this day is coming around sooner than I thought. Last night, before I brushed my teeth, I was pressing down on a bit of the tartar, when a chunk of it snapped off. I was terrified. I knew I hadn't cracked part of my tooth, but this snap left me with a very jagged gumline. It made my teeth look even more hideous, and I looked at myself in the mirror with disgust. I stared my reflection in the eye and said, "That's it; I've got to go to the dentist." When I told my mum about it, I just broke down in tears. I don't know why. I just couldn't stop bawling. She comforted me because she's a good mother.

On reflection, I think I cried because I was lifting a proverbial monkey off of my back. This cluster of tartar has been weighing me down so much, emotionally. I can't remember the exact moment it formed, but I've been extremely insecure about it ever since February 2011. Not a day has passed since that month where I haven't felt ashamed of my teeth. Here's the moment that spurred my insecurity, and made me aware that my teeth were ugly. I was having breakfast at McDonald's with my friend, Alexander. We were casually chatting when I noticed him staring fixedly at my teeth. He interrupted me with, " me your teeth." I giggled, then said "I don't want to show you my teeth." He brushed this aside and said "I think you've got a bit of hash brown on your bottom teeth." I knew it wasn't hash brown. I just called it "discolouration", and we changed the topic.

Since that, that moment, my bottom incisors have been an immense burden to me. You'll notice that I never reveal my bottom teeth in photos I take of myself. The mere act of talking is difficult for me, which is a shame because I do love intense conversation. Whenever I speak to someone in person, I tense certain muscles in my face so my lips don't open too far apart. It's horrible, and I've had enough of it. I aspire to be a journalist one day, and the field of television journalism doesn't appeal to me because I would be filmed and people would see my ugly bottom teeth. I would have to enunciate words properly. No muscle-tensing would be permitted, so those sickly incisors would be on show for home viewers. There's a video of me on YouTube where I'm impersonating Woody Allen, and I did several takes of the impression (it was more than just a few lines) just to make sure my tartar build-up would not be visible to the untrained eye. It's little things like this that kill me.

Without a doubt, the most serious ramification of my insecurity is that I am too afraid of entering a romantic relationship. Sure, I'm naturally shy, but if I had a gleaming set of pearly whites and the right girl came along, she could coax me out of my shell. As it stands, I don't want a girlfriend because we'd inevitably arrive at the first kiss and I don't want her to experience the displeasure of sticking her tongue past my tombstone-like teeth. I'm even afraid that she'd accidentally slice her tongue on a sharp edge of tartar.

So why exactly do I fear the dentist? I think dentists are demonised in popular culture. More specifically, the experience of a visit to the dentist is portrayed as terrifying. For example, most of us can recall that episode of The Simpsons: 'Last Exit to Springfield'. "DENTAL PLAN; LISA NEEDS BRACES." I find it hard to watch the scenes where Lisa is in the dentist's chair. The dentist shows off his menacing tools, shows Lisa 'The Big Book of British Smiles' and uses computer imagery to show Lisa what her teeth will look like in the future if she neglects them. Of course, this is all rather comically exaggerated, but when you're as scared of the dentist as I am, it takes on a whole new meaning. And what about that saying: "I'd rather have a root canal!"? Seriously, who invented that phrase? Of ALL the things that could have followed "I'd rather have a", it had to be 'root canal'. Does this mean that root canals are the most extreme form of pain that humans can endure without dying? Granted, some people have told me that they actually enjoy going to the dentist (my mum is one of those people), so that gives me some hope that it's not so bad after all.

This is all I have to say about my fear of the dentist. I hope I've shed some light on what life with bad teeth is like. If you know someone whose teeth aren't exactly aesthetically pleasing, don't give them a hard time about it. I will admit that I used to playfully mock one of my friends because he had some enamel damage, and I feel incredible guilty for doing so. This was before my tartar had accumulated, but that doesn't change the fact that I was being a dickhead. And if you, my dear reader, are not so happy with your own teeth, I hope you have found some solace (however slight) in this post. You are not alone in your struggle.

I am going to the dentist for the first time early next week. Yeah, I'll be nervous, but I can't expect life to be one euphoric wave. A bit of suffering and vulnerability is healthy, because it's often a catalyst for courage. I just hope it's not too painful. I just want to lie on that chair and forget where I am. Hopefully everything will run smoothly and I'll be flaunting wide, cheesy grins in no time. I want to show my friends that I can impersonate James Stewart. I've been too afraid to exhibit this impression before, because it requires my lips to be considerably apart. If you're lucky, I might start a video blog series (something I would have done a while ago if I weren't so ashamed of my teeth). You might even see me reading the six o'clock news one day. And who knows? Maybe I'll finally be comfortable with letting a girl kiss me, and kissing her in return.


Saturday, August 4, 2012

Personal Bits: American Beauty

This is a piece I wrote for The Reel Bits, which was featured in their 'Personal Bits' column. Here's the article as it appears on the site: Attentive readers of my blog will notice this piece is an amended version of a previous post of mine, which can be read here.

American Beauty - Roses

When I think of impressive directorial debuts, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty races to the forefront of my mind. Written by Alan Ball (in his screenwriting debut), it is a richly nuanced film, and of all the films I’ve watched in my life to date, I’m happy to call it my favourite. In a nutshell, it’s about a middle-aged man named Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), whose apathetic existence is injected with vitality once he grows attracted to his teenage daughter’s  friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Below the surface, it is about a whole lot more, and that’s what I’d like to espouse throughout this article.

It pains me that people dismiss the film as ‘sick’ because they hear about the relationship between Lester and Angela. I’ve heard people declare that they refuse to watch it because of this plot point, and others have watched the film and disliked it for this reason alone. The mark of a great film, or a great piece of art in general, is that it can focus on a theme that is generally frowned upon by society, and make the audience accept it. I didn’t feel the slightest bit sickened by the relationship between Lester and Angela. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they enter into a relationship, per se. Both characters seem enthusiastic about the possibility of sexual exploration, and at no point is sexual harassment evident or implied. Again, I must stress that American Beauty does not use this element of the story as its fulcrum.

At its heart, American Beauty is about Lester realising that he lives an unhappy, monotonous life, and taking steps to fix that problem. He comes to realise that the ‘American Dream’ is just a myth, and that he needs to start doing things that make him happy—not things that society believes leads to happiness. We see Lester change his lifestyle by rebelling against his family and society’s expectations in general. He lusts over Angela, as his marriage to wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) has been reduced to a semblance of what it once was. He starts smoking marijuana once he is acquainted with his new next-door neighbour, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). He quits his job as an office worker to work in a fast food restaurant. He eventually buys his dream car – a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, without his wife’s knowledge. All of these actions help Lester to recapture the essence of his adolescence—a time when life’s challenges weren’t so distressing.

Lester’s wife, Carolyn, symbolises the irritating demands of society. She is a real-estate agent who is a portrait of materialism, without even knowing it. She doesn’t have to be happy to find contentment. Seeming happy is good enough for her. Her life revolves around the constant struggle of projecting an image. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, she fails to sell a house, and afterwards slaps her face with brute force and bawls her eyes out in that very house she failed to sell—all behind closed doors, of course. She tries to keep herself together by listening to a self-help tape which features the mantra “I refuse to be a victim.” Carolyn becomes involved in her very own adulterous sexual exploits, as you will find out.

American Beauty - Kevin Spacey

Ricky Fitts is characterised as an ‘outcast’ of society. Or, for lack of a better term: the weird kid. He sees beauty in a dead bird, and in a homeless lady freezing to death. In arguably the film’s most recognised scene, he shows Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed: a plastic bag ‘dancing’ in the wind. Ricky explains the significance of this bag to his life:

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air; you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and…this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. The video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember…and I need to remember: sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”

Ricky’s words resonate as the film’s enduring message. There is, after all, so much beauty in the world. We just don’t always realise it, as we don’t attempt to look closer. “Look closer” happens to be the film’s tagline. By the end of the film, the major characters have all taken a close look at themselves, and they come to realise that the dreams they aspired to at the beginning are nothing but mere illusions. Some of them realise the beauty in this, whilst others are left to slay their personal demons.

American Beauty - Mena Suvari

Examining the film on a technical level, Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography beautifully encapsulates the underlying beauty and personality of a quiet American suburb. There’s a particular scene where Hall creates the illusion that Chris Cooper’s character is disappearing as he walks into the rain, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking considering what takes place before it. It’s also worth taking note of how the colour red is used as a motif for a life force than cannot be suppressed. Thomas Newman’s score is the film’s pulse, and it complements so many pivotal scenes perfectly. His track Dead Already will sound awfully familiar, even if you haven’t seen the film. That’s because so many ringtones sound like it.

I have vague memories of first watching American Beauty when I was six years old. Fast forward nine years, and I could only remember specific images from it, but that was enough to make me buy the film on DVD, one Thursday afternoon in 2008. I immediately watched the film when I arrived home, and my eyes were filled with tears when the end credits began to roll. The film touched me in a profound way, and I knew that I had watched something special. One of my greatest values in life is truth. Many people have labelled American Beauty as a satire of American suburbia. I agree with that view, to a certain extent. The backdrop of American suburbia elegantly complements, though paradoxically contrasts against the film’s truthful elements. Though the film’s story is fictitious, I felt for the characters as though they were real people. I felt their joys, however scarce they were, and I occasionally ached for them. Let it be said: American Beauty is a film you need to watch experience at least once in your life.

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