What I’ve Been Watching: Best in Show and From Dusk Till Dawn

 

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I haven’t posted in what feels like forever, and I feel pretty not great about it . . .  Anyway, here are a few quick thoughts on two movies that I recently watched for the first time.

Film: Best in Show
Director: Christopher Guest
Primary Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgins, Don Lake, Ed Begley Jr., Jim Piddock, Bob Balaban, Larry Miller, Linda Kash
US Release Date: 20 October 2000

I’ve been vaguely aware of Christopher Guest and his mockumentaries for some time—one of the first DVDs my father bought was A Mighty Wind—but I never took the time to watch one until Best in Show showed up in my Netflix suggestions the other day. Now that I’ve seen Guest’s work in a film other than The Princess Bride, I’m sure that I’ll make time for a few more of his comedic endeavors sometime soon.

For whatever reason, I generally have a harder time enjoying comedic films than I do non-comedic ones. While I may just be too picky when it comes to comedy, I find it more likely that comedy is simply more difficult to execute than drama (as many have already claimed). Regardless, I am always pleasantly surprised when I watch a comedy that delights me, and Best in Show certainly did.

Best in Show is presented (and structured) as a sort of documentary about the strange world of dog shows. But while the ridiculousness of dog shows and the people who care about them certainly helps to make the film funny, it is much more about the various people it depicts than it is about its apparent topic. Perhaps the very best thing about Best in Show is that it presents viewers with an array of eccentric and memorable characters, many of whom end up revealing more depth and complexity than audiences might expect. Together, Guest and the rest of the film’s cast form a well-developed and lovably odd bunch. Moreover, even though Best in Show has more “main” characters than is typical, none of them feel flat. The many performers in the film know their characters inside and out and they work to bring them to life as full-fledged people with every line and facial expression. Real people are weird, and Best in Show uses that fact to its advantage.

As solid as the film’s cast is overall, a few performances still stand out from the others. I especially enjoyed Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, and  Fred Willard’s scenes, although I suspect that everyone who watches Best in Show gravitates toward a different set of characters (luckily, there are plenty to choose from).

This zany film moves quickly and unfolds effortlessly. It’s also the sort of comedy that relies more on awkward people, personalities, and situations than it does on clear-cut jokes or gags, but that doesn’t mean that it’s short on laughs.

Best in Show may be a tad bizarre, but it isn’t loud or flashy. In fact, compared to some of today’s high-grossing comedies, the film might seem rather subdued. In truth, the film strikes a near-perfect balance between loud laughs, quirky elements, and realistic restraint. Best in Show may not be every viewer’s cup of tea, but it does just about everything that it attempts quite well. Even those who don’t enjoy this faux dog show documentary would have a hard time arguing that it didn’t take a good deal of brains and improvisational talent to make it.

For what it’s worth, my fondness for Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows may have somehow increased my enjoyment of Guest’s Best in Show. Where someone with virtually no knowledge of popular culture could possibly mistake Best in Show for an “actual” documentary, the same certainly can’t be said for Waititi’s comedy about vampires. And yet, it’s very clear that Guest helped pave the way for the largely improvised What We Do in the Shadows, which recently demonstrated that there is still room for creativity, hilarity, and growth in the world of mockumentary films.

Film: From Dusk Till Dawn
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Primary Cast: George Clooney, Harvey Keitel, Quentin Tarantino, Juliette Lewis, Ernest Liu, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, Tom Savini, Fred Williamson, Danny Trejo, Michael Parks, John Hawkes
US Release Date: 19 January 1996

For whatever reason, I’m never quite sure how I feel about Robert Rodriguez films. I suspect that this has something to do with my lack of experience with the sort of pulpy B-movies that he clearly has a good amount of respect for. I also seem to have an innate aversion to certain elements of his aesthetic. And yet, I carry on, and I watch his movies anyway. Why? Because, even when they are messier than I might like, they are still a whole lot of fun.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that what Rodriguez wants most is for his audiences to have a really good time at the movies. That doesn’t change the fact that many people probably hate From Dusk Till Dawn, but it’s a respectable goal regardless. There is a joy and an energy in Rodriguez’s work that’s unmistakable, and that’s something worth celebrating. Even though Tarantino wrote the screenplay, Rodriguez’s presence is felt strongly throughout, and the result is a film that jumps from the screen.

Rodriguez loves blood and action and gore. Tarantino loves blood and characters and dialogue. In From Dusk Till Dawn, their two sensibilities work well together well, and for the most part, each seems to enhance the other. The film isn’t all shootouts and slaughter, and it isn’t all talk and character development either; as crazy as much of it is on the surface, it’s also pretty well-balanced.

When the film makes its rather abrupt jump from hostage movie to vampire movie, the transition is easy to accept, in part, because the film is self-possessed enough and is well-developed enough for it to make sense. Long before Salma Hayek’s Santanico Pandemonium sticks her foot into Quentin Tarantino’s all too eager mouth, Rodriguez makes it clear that From Dusk Till Dawn is a film in which anything goes. Even the film’s opening scene works to establish that there are no rules here, and that shit can—and will—hit the fan at the drop of a dime. The first half of the film also follows a largely realistic and perfectly logical progression that coerces viewers into accepting whatever comes next.

If someone made a film depicting the same events as From Dusk Till Dawn without giving it a sense of humor, it would most certainly fall flat. Luckily, Rodriguez and Tarantino both approach this bloody crime/vampire flick with plenty of humor, and viewers who enter the film ready to laugh—at anything and everything—will have a much better time watching From Dusk Till Dawn than those more inclined to maintain a straight face. The film is irreverent and wild, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and anyone looking to enjoy it should follow suit.

There are plenty of moments in From Dusk Till Dawn that don’t really work, and the script—especially where Richie Gecko is concerned—is not perfect. And yet, even the film’s many potential misfires still feed into its campy and deliberately trashy nature.

Like the rest of film, its cast is largely hit-or-miss. Clooney makes for a great lead, and Lewis is impressive as well, while Keitel does a decent job with the material he is given. That said, Tarantino’s entire performance seems to be fueled by some desire to make audiences feel uncomfortable, and Liu is more or less useless.

From Dusk Till Dawn won’t ever be one of my personal favorites, and it’s certainly flawed, but it’s entertaining and full of life all the same.

Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! Even when I’m not posting here, I’m usually saying something on this blog’s twitter, which you should follow.

Also, I saw The Nice Guys earlier tonight, so I should be posting a review of it here soon.

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