IN MEMORY OF MY FATHER (2005) (A-minus) - This obscurity was one of our favorites at the 2005 Santa Fe Film Festival, a rollicking ensemble comedy about the death of the patriarch of a wildly dysfunctional Hollywood family.
Christopher Jaymes' career never took off after he wrote and directed this spirited and stinging L.A. soap opera chronicling the debauchery among a bunch of entitled and spoiled adults. He assembles a fine cast, including a few actors who did go on to some renown. Jeremy Sisto would settle into a TV career that would include "Law & Order." Judy Greer became the go-to sitcom redhead.
Sisto plays Jeremy, one of three brothers, along with Jaymes' Chris and Matt Keesler as Matt who come together upon the news that their grizzled dad, a randy old movie producer in the mold of Robert Evans, has finally succumbed on his death bed. (In his only acting credit on IMDb, David Austin mostly plays a corpse, except for a few snippets from a video that Dad left behind.) An impromptu wake assembles, and it turns into more of a therapy session for the dearly beloved.
It turns out that Dad's brother, the boys' Uncle Aled (Tom Carroll) years ago ran off with their mother (Dad's wife), scarring them deeply. That union created Meadow (Meadow Sisto), their step sister/cousin, who, of course, is on hand, mainly as a device to torture Pat (Pat Healy), the boys' old chum who has been dumped by Meadow. Meantime, Jeremy is lamenting the recent behavior of his wife, Monet (Monet Mazur), who is suddenly going through a lesbian phase. (Jeremy finds a new pal to drop Ecstasy with, ratcheting up the weirdness.) Then there is Chris' 17-year-old gum-snapping girlfriend Christine (Christine Lakin, convincing despite being in her mid-20s), who wants to get high, make out and be boyfriend and girlfriend. Chris, though, still has a bit of a thing for Nicole (Nicholle Tom), who is among the videographers capturing the evening for posterity. (Chris was recruited to chronicle Dad's final days, with the promise of a financial reward from the old man's will.)
You can see where Chris gets his cradle-robbing tendencies. Judy (Greer) is Dad's 20-something girlfriend, several generations removed. Judy is pretty vacant (she likes to shop), and she spends most of the evening holed up with Dad's body, emptying her soul. At least until Matt, a pretty-boy type, pops into Dad's sarcophagal boudoir. That could only lead to trouble.
Jaymes creates a whirling, improvisational romp, letting some fine actors crank the dark comedy up to 11. It is loose and rambling, and it cuts deep into the male psyche. It perfectly captures the emotional arc of a party, where good-natured fun gives way to troubling truths. Jaymes produced an indie tour-de-force, one worth digging for.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) (A-minus) - In re-watching this early Coen brothers romp, I was struck by how much this is John Goodman's movie. In perhaps his best performance, he manages to run rings around every other member of this great cast as angry Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak.
The seventh Coen brothers feature, and the follow-up to "Fargo," their breakthrough (and their last solid hit for a decade), shows them mastering the technique of magical movie-making and having a ton of fun with storytelling. Their dialogue is rip-roaring; their camerawork is whimsical; the visuals are magical.
Jeff Bridges stamped his career as The Dude, the idiot philosopher whom thugs mistake for the big fat rich man also known as Jeff Lebowski. A damaged carpet puts in motion a rollicking fable, a delightful folly, in which the Dude manages to charm the rich man's trophy wife, bed the man's daughter, and avoid spilling his drink (a white Russian).
The film has become iconic, eminently quotable. And while The Dude abides, his pal Walter takes no prisoners. Everything is payback for the ill-fated war in Southeast Asia. He puts everything and everyone in its place. Nihilists? Fuck them. Even Nazis had an ethos! And Steve Buscemi's Donny wants to weigh in with his opinion? "Shut the fuck up, Donny." The Walter-Donny dynamic reaches it peak with this exchange:
It's Walter who schemes to cheat rich Lebowski out of a million dollars. It's Walter who is inexplicably faithful to the holy day of Shabbas. ("Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax...") It's Walter who upholds the integrity of the game of bowling and its scoring system. ("Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?") It's Walter who dares The Dude to prove him wrong. ("You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole.")Walter: Life does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit.Donny: What's wrong with Walter, Dude?
And Goodman nails every line, every mood, every plot maneuver. By the end of the film, it's obvious that Walter is all talk and that his incessant nonsense leads to just about every bad thing that happens in the movie. Finally, The Dude -- exasperated -- lays it out for his buddy: "Everything's a fucking travesty with you!"
And this Coen brothers romp is not just a travesty, but an epic tragedy. It's Falstafian farce. It's weird and endlessly appealing. It's silly and passionate -- about the rules of society as well as the elegance of a bowling ball barreling down a lane. (One shot purports to be shot from the finger holes of the ball as it rolls along.) Colors pop. A cowboy sidles up at the bar to dispense pop philosophy. Heavy hitters like Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro sink their teeth into bit parts.
It sprawls, it shambles. It shoots for the moon. The Coen brothers were on a hot streak. And Goodman was shooting lights out.
The trailer for "In Memory of My Father":
The opening and closing tracks for "The Big Lebowski." First, Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" from "New Morning" (playing over Roger Deakins' great opening shots):
Finally, Townes Van Zandt with "Dead Flowers":