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The Grand Budapest Hotel, 2014 / Wes Anderson

the grand budapest hotelIn an interview from the promo tour of his latest creation, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson shared an observation from his close friend and collaborator, the underrated Owen Wilson – Wilson (who of course has a cameo in this new flick) thought that with each new film, Anderson is becoming tenser and tenser. Surprisingly, Anderson not only agrees, but is even proud of this fact. It is difficult to imagine Wes Anderson as a tense man, having in mind his perfectly controlled, strict and impeccable visual style. But obviously, there is truth in Wilson’s note, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is something of a testament to this. The film, set in the 1930’s in the imaginary Central European country of Zubrowka, is the fastest-paced and the most action-infused piece in Anderson’s oeuvre. By the director’s own admission, some of his on-set instructions towards Ralph Fiennes (who perfectly embodies M.Gustave, the film’s main protagonist) involved simply shouting “Faster! Faster!” The gentlemanly Fiennes is too talented to not pull off the frenetic pace, and this contributes to one of his more different and memorable roles. To the untrained eye, if looks like Anderson has now achieved such a grasp of his famous mannered approach to film making, that he is trying to push his limits by upping the tempo and attempting to discover what is the speed limit at which true perfection can remain true.

It is, of course, foolish to think that Wes Anderson does things for the sake of exercise, or as a lab experiment. He is too obsessed with the grander purpose of creating those purely original, almost fantastical worlds that still touch upon reality at their most poignant points. He is equally obsessed with inhabiting these worlds with an array of unbelievable, yet extremely believable characters, people we are stunned to encounter but who we somehow know from before. “I wish I could have imagined all this, because I know about it deep inside, I can feel it” – is the common film-goer’s sentiment while sitting through another Wes Anderson experience. And this is because Anderson’s stories are human above all – style, symmetry and ornamentation are the bait, humor is the fishing line, but emotion is the hook on Mr. Anderson’s exquisite fishing rod.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedy more than anything else, but it still becomes Anderson’s probably most socially and politically oriented film. In the filmmaker’s very idiosyncratic style, it touches upon immigration, racial discrimination, fascism and war. It’s difficult to say these are central themes, as Anderson is, as per usual, too centered on the fate of the individual. But they are present anyway. To be sure, Anderson makes a point of stylizing them too – for instance, his take on the great war is to combine the two World Wars into one, set right between the two actual historical events and featuring and SS-like organization that is labeled “ZZ” instead. Pure genius.

The director employs a narrative technique that he borrowed from the writings of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig. He brackets a story inside a story happening 20 years later (and even those are framed by shots of another story that happens another 20 years past the time of telling). What this achieves is to sharply focus the attention upon the main plot line, turn its story into something of a fable, and romanticize its characters. It is the perfect platform for Anderson to unleash his visual panache and precision, but also to subvert expectations when he so desires. This means that M.Gustave generally behaves as he is supposed to – the noble concierge of a top European hotel with mostly aristocratic guests in the third decade of last century; but then he would suddenly start to curse like a modern gangsta.

The nesting-doll technique finds a purely visual expression, too – in the shape of the film’s shifting aspect ratios. Wes Anderson starts the film with a stylized plate instructing viewers how to set their screening devices. Similar, but much more detailed instructions were sent to theaters playing the movie. From here on, the various story brackets are played in 1,85:1, 2.35:1, and most importantly, the outdated and almost square Academy ratio of 1,375:1. The framing is of course, never compromised in any way, which can only suggest all set designs and costumes were predetermined long before the start of shooting. We can now duly expect copycat waves of films with jumping aspect ratios from all over the world.

As for the casting, it’s probably safe to say (again) that they all come running when Wes beckons. The director reunites with Adrien Brody (as an evil fortune inheritor), Edward Norton (as a noble Nazi), Jason Schwartzman (as a nervous receptionist), and of course, with his ever-present dinosaur (apart from Anderson’s debut, Bottle Rocket) – Bill-fucking-Murray. And then you have, in no particular order of importance: Willem Dafoe (as a psychotic killer, what else), Jeff Goldblum (as an honest attorney), Harvey Keitel (as a tough, bare-chested and tattooed prison breaker), Jude Law (as Jude Law), Tilda Swinton (looking like a walking corpse, as the old lady M. Gustave pleasures and then inherits), F.Murray Abraham (as the emotional, perfectly spoken storyteller of the middle plot bracket of that nesting-doll structure), and many more… Special mention should be reserved for the debuting Tony Revolori (as the young and very attentive immigrant, Zero), in the search of whom Wes Anderson apparently went to great lengths.

With The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson has managed to strip his style of all excessive fat (if there ever was any), and present a symmetrical, perfectly adorned and technically astute tribute to his love for Europe’s old world. One can hardly get bored with Wes Anderson, and should his next film follow a similar path, it will surely find plenty of fans again. But a feeling remains that his upcoming creation will be a slightly different animal. I, for one, can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

What We Do in the Shadows, 2015 / Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement

What_We_Do_in_the_Shadows_poster I’m not at all a fan of vampire flicks (Let the Right One In and Interview with the Vampire being the only exceptions I can remember) – and yet I was eagerly anticipating What We Do in the Shadows. The main reason, of course, was the big creative presence of Jemaine Clement, one half of Flight of the Conchords, who co-writes and co-directs here. To that end, the absence of Bret McKenzie (the other half of the comedy duo) was a disappointment – I could really imagine McKenzie as a shy, clueless vampire who bites into necks with an air of resigned embarrassment. This was, however, the only disappointment. What We Do in the Shadows is taut and punchy, extremely well-paced, funny as hell, technically impeccable, and in contrast to Twilight‘s vain, unsuccessful attempts – humane and touching. The movie starts with credits on a black screen, and is immediately hilarious. We are told we are to watch a documentary supported by the New Zealand Documentary Board (as far as I can tell, a non-existent organization), where the filmmakers are wearing crucifixes and have been given assurances by their film’s subjects that they won’t be attacked. This “vampire documentary” genre statement perfectly sets the tone for the next 86 minutes. With an introduction by Viago (the most delicate and well-mannered, and also the gayest of the characters – though he’s not gay), we get to meet a merry band of vampires who share a Gothic-looking apartment in, well, Wellington, New Zealand. Followed by two cameras, to which he refers with some trepidation, Viago attempts to organize a flatmates meeting to discuss house chores and the sharing of responsibilities such as the washing of dishes splashed with dried-up blood. Vladislav (Clement) and Deacon (Jonathon Brugh) are too unruly to care that much, while Petyr (Ben Fransham) is probably too old – he’s in his 8000’s and rarely leaves his stand-up coffin.

From here on the film proceeds, at least on the surface, as a loose succession of improvised scenes that sketch the daily routine of the vampire bunch. This is a bit misleading, though. All hints of improvisation disappear once we see the first scene with special effects – these awkward fellas can fly though the air or walk on the ceiling with the best of them. At the same time, the skits fall one after the other, not allowing you to finish your laugh (in comedy’s best traditions) before hitting you with a fresh one – and they seamlessly weave into a story. It’s not much of a drama considering the exquisite silliness of it all, but all three main characters get the time to show us their inner demons, and then face them head-on before the end of the film, with hilarious consequences. In various ways, and true to the genre’s biggest cliche (“vampires are agents of passion”), Viago, Deacon and Vladislav deal with love, unrequited, misunderstood or broken. With their awkwardness and simplicity, they become not simply images of lovelorn vampires, but actual human beings. And the strength of What We Do in the Shadows, I think, lies in there.

That said, let go back to the basics: I mentioned the genre’s cliches, and they are all carefully cataloged, then mercilessly, but intelligently mocked. Our guys would really love to go to a normal night club – but being vampires, they have to get invited in – by bouncers who are too thick to respond. They have to remain extremely discreet and protect their lair from humans – but then they accept a quiet guy called Stu into their apartment, no questions asked – simply because “everybody likes Stu”. They go outside, proudly flaunting their over-the-top, aristocratic clothes – and are promptly labeled as “homos” by a passer-by. All in all, the movie unpretentiously lists the random everyday problems modern vampires encounter. This makes the subjects of the mockumentary both irresistibly funny and warmly human. Just wait and see the mysterious creature called The Beast, the arch-nemesis of Vladislav, and you’ll know what I mean.

 

 

Chef, 2014 / Jon Favreau

chef_xlgChef can be an easy target for movie criticism, should one decide to savagely carve through its tender flesh with a sharp kitchen knife. The film embraces Hollywood cliches with a shrug of its shoulders; decides to ride it out with pretty much no central conflict at all – or any meaningful conflict, for that matter; bases its premise on the assumption that a star chef living a life on the top of the food chain in L.A. has never heard of Twitter; and offers an ending that borders on insulting. We can, however, get those major sins out of the way early on – that’s why I’m starting with a quick list of them – and then sit back and enjoy one of the best feel-good rides of the last several years. I’ve had great difficulty in my attempts to find a true comedy, a genuine lighthearted flick that can uncompromisingly switch off the burdens of the mind. It’s always much easier to find a plethora of Marvel bombastic soundscapes or wrist-cutting European art depressions. But a good old feel-good movie is hard to come by, especially one that doesn’t announce itself as a rom-com or a stoner written extravaganza from the Apatow wave. Well, Chef is an exception.

In its essence, the movie is a tale about a divorced star chef going through a midlife-crisis, and coming on top of it in great style. However, whatever drama the script mildly suggests, the film dispenses with in its first half. There is a stand-off between Favreau’s character Carl Casper and the owner of the restaurant he works at (a regularly casual but still great Dustin Hoffman)… Carl’s inability to spend more quality time with his son from a broken marriage, who want to “just hang out with Dad”… And the high stakes of a visit from a famous food blogger (Oliver Platt, looking pointedly disinterested in his acting) and the ensuing Twitter storm Carl initiates through a mixture of ignorance and stubborn stupidity (I did mention the midlife crisis, didn’t I?) Once Carl has lost it all, Chef turns into one very long final act of celebration – celebration of soul food, of camaraderie, of saying “to hell with it all” and going all the way back down to your roots. This final, “roots” part might be the movie’s boldest statement – we all dream of doing it, but we are all scared of throwing away twenty years of hard work to do it, but look – it will work out great. You only need to close your eyes, let go of everything you thought was dear to you but was keeping you chained instead, and jump down to the bottom. From there on a road trip awaits (the road trip is part of everybody’s dream of starting with a clean slate, I’m sure, whether it’s to New Zealand, Route 66 or the village you grew up in), broken loves are magically (and in movie terms – without any exposition whatsoever) healed, and a life’s vocation is gloriously fulfilled. Did I mention Chef is definitely a feel-good movie?

Favreau (for whom this is rumored to be a passion project) used his clout as director of the first two Iron Man films to pepper Chef with cameos that should give something to everyone – from Scarlett Johansson (restaurant hostess Molly), through Sofia Vergara (Carl’s ex-wife, though one can never tell why they were divorced), to a type-cast Robert Downey Jr. Above all, I was really happy to see the talented John Leguizamo, who for me doesn’t seem to get enough roles these days, as Carl’s loyal sidekick Martin. The major supporting role is however given to the food. Even without seeing the “rushes outtake” final credits scene, where Favreau gets taught how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, you will notice how much care was given to the way food is depicted in the film. It’s not simply food-styling, nor is it all due to the exquisite camera-work. Food is made to look alive, just like a person that you get to care for. One thing is certain – make sure you sit down to watch Chef with a plate with something really delicious on your lap. Even if you are not hungry, you will find yourself reaching for it before long, while unable to shake that slight, dumb smile from your face. Time to forget today’s serving of bad news, at least for 114 minutes.

Dead Man, 1995 / Jim Jarmusch

dead-man-1995“Every night and every morn, some to misery are born. Every morn and every night, some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight; some are born to endless night.” William Blake, poet / Nobody, Native American

In probably Jim Jarmusch’s darkest, blackest – but still somehow light and gentle work, Dead Man, Johnny Depp becomes William Blake. Blake is a young, innocent-faced Cleveland accountant who travels west in pursuit of a new job, but ends up on a spiritual journey with a final destination: death. The anti-utopian “acid western” (the sub-genre term was actually coined for this particular film) tells a simple if a bit psychedelic story, classically painted in black and white. It’s my favourite Jarmusch film, a construction that features the trademark Jarmusch low-key naivety of visual expression – but that works on so many levels that the three times I’ve viewed it are far from enough.

The film starts with a sequence of shots that depict William Blake already on his journey, aboard the Iron Horse that cuts its way through and into the heart of the American West. With simple strokes, relying heavily on fade in/outs as Blake dozes in and out of sleep, Jarmusch quickly lets us know that the new life Blake moves towards is not one of hope and unlimited possibilities. Instead, the landscape becomes more savage and decrepit; Blake’s fellow train travelers – rougher, dirtier, and more menacing. Through a surreal conversation between Blake and the train’s fireman (a soot-covered Crispin Glover), we quickly become aware of the main character’s primary goal in the story – he is headed to the town of Machine to become an accountant in the metal-works factory there. Yet we already know that this will not be what Blake will be doing for the rest of Dead Man.

The film borrows a classic western movie’s storyline (involving a pretty prostitute, a jealous, violent lover, an imposing, cruel town-master, and a bunch of crooked headhunters) to change the direction of Blake’s journey and set him on a new course, peppered with new, dangerous obstacles. But the mold is broken by the fact that Depp’s character in effect “dies” within the first act of the film. This is not really a spoiler, it’s more a prerequisite for Dead Man‘s theme and success. William Blake is transported upon a new plane, a more spiritual on, where the mystery of whether he will survive or not is the least mysterious one. He is chased and attacked, but we are no longer worried for him in an everyday sense – his quest is for something more. What this something is – that’s left for everyone to decide for themselves.

On this new plane, somehow stuck between life and death, but unquestionably headed towards the latter, William Blake is joined and helped by an amusing companion – a Native American going by the name of Nobody (perfectly brought to life by Gary Farmer). To Nobody, Blake is just another “stupid white man”, whose only value is based on the amount of tobacco he carries (none – as Blake does not smoke). The saving grace, weirdly, is the fact William Blake shares a name with the famous English poet, and Nobody – maybe jokingly – accepts that the poet’s spirit has come to him for help in the body of Depp’s character. Nobody is well-versed in the works of the poet – and this is not merely a quirky detail imported by Jarmusch to give the film colour. It’s a conscious choice to show a Native American (and a goofy reject at that) as a poetry-fan, while the supposedly closer situated to the English culture Americans care less for art than they do for eating human flesh (as one of Blake’s pursuers does). Logically, Nobody’s affinity for William Blake the poet is explained through his back story of kidnap and European travels. Nobody is far from perfect, but he is much more in touch with life’s spiritual, meta dimensions than any of the “stupid white men”, including even the main protagonist, William Blake. Nobody is overweight, obsessed with tobacco, and makes sex like and animal, so he is far from the Native American stereotype of cheap, superficial spirituality. But he knows the importance of maintaining a connection to the higher powers. So his soul is probably salvageable. His figure, aligned to Blake’s journey in the second and third act, gives us a clue of the main character’s conflict: will William Blake be finally able to leave the physical world in the right way? He is a dead man, that’s for sure, but what will happen to his soul?

While classic westerns traditionally deal with the notion of good vs. evil, Dead Man deliberately and openly chooses a different approach. Once shot and put upon his path towards death, William Blake turns into a killing machine, obliterating even mildly aggressive characters. Nobody does have a part to play n this, telling Blake: “That weapon will replace your tongue. You will learn to speak through it. And your poetry will now be written with blood.” The context is traditional – the Wild West, young America. All Jarmusch does is be very simple and open – life has no value here, so why tangle with useless concepts of good and bad?

The acting posture which Depp later in his career perfected to a degree that became even a bit irritating – that of bored slash innocent slash naive bravado mixed with a healthy dose of humour – serves his character and the film perfectly. Strangely, it sets him apart from all other characters in Dead Man, who are in different ways more down-to-earth than he is. So Depp’s characters “floats”, separated from everybody else even when talking, fighting, or being in any kind of physical contact with them. This is one of the bigger achievements of Jarmusch as a director, and my suspicion is that it was much more the result of casting a man with the proper exuberance, than of molding the actor into some imagined human figure. That is to say, Depp is William Blake probably more than he becomes William Blake.

Dead Man appears cryptic, or spontaneously constructed at best – and as a great piece of art, writing about it in the attempt to explain or deconstruct it does not do justice to the experience of simply sitting down and watching it. So it’s best left to the individual to decide what this film is about, what its main theme is. To me, it seems Jim Jarmusch tries to go back to the origins of the American dream, and show in his very particular style of writing and film-making how this very American dream was crooked at its birth. It was built upon the “way of the gun”, upon cocky disregard of life’s basic laws, even an epic, deliberate, maniacally joyous struggle against these laws. The American dream was based, from its inception, on destruction and death; the search for the West frontier was not a limitless flight towards freedom, but an irreversible plunge into hell. And in this collective fall, to which we all still contribute on a daily basis (because, lets face it, we all in one way or another live the American dream), the individual is by definition A DEAD MAN. His only meaningful struggle would be to try and float above all else, above the filth, and leave (not live – this is virtually impossible) this life in a dignified, synched with nature way. Our brightest hope is that Death is a journey towards a mysterious salvation of the spirit.

Dead Man features cameos from giants like John Hurt, Robert Mitchum, Gabriel Byrne, Lance Henriksen and Iggy Pop, and the unforgettable soundtrack by Neil Young (for the composing of which he famously locked himself alone in a studio with Jarmusch’s fresh edit and improvised the hell out of his guitar). If you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t delay.

 

3-Iron, 2004 / Ki-duk Kim

three_iron_ver6Let’s start with the bad: apart from its two main protagonists (young roamer Tae-suk and depressed and violated house wife Sun-hwa), 3-Iron boasts some impressively bad acting. But then: it’s also a movie well worth your time. Ki-duk Kim’s success – and his perceived lack of popularity in his home country – is more often than not rooted in his fable-like, poetic approach to writing. And 3-Iron makes no exception – it’s a visual poem that suffers on the rare occasions one of its characters opens their mouth. Maybe it’s because it centers on the themes of the beauty of invisibility, transcending of all kinds of prison walls, and breaking the boundaries of perception. Put this way, it all sounds a bit too general, and that’s why, like any Kim film, this one is better left not commented on. It’s better to simply see and experience it.

Still, on my little personal quest to cut through and uncover the structural (and with much greater difficulty, the emotional) foundation of almost everything I see – I am foolishly tickled to dive into terminology and formula application. 3-Iron has a surprisingly clear-cut plot. The hero has no apparent purpose in life, until he meets the girl, who is in trouble. He rescues her and makes her fall in love with him, but her troubles catch up with them. They fight with their antagonists and struggle, but are separated. So as she patiently waits for him, he hatches a plan that will help him be with her. In the end, as he vanquishes his antagonists, one by one, they are reunited. Sounds very simple, and it actually is – but in Kim’s terms, which is to say every next scene is both modest, true, surprising and yet feels like the natural thing to happen. Kim makes everyday life scenes look quite weird, often purely magical, and at the same time… well, everyday. You can’t help feeling that the writer and director is big on patience, and all his major characters (that I am familiar with) are blessed with plenty of this meditative patience. Some would say they behave in ways that show they are bigger than life itself, but there is rarely a hint of grandiosity. It’s replaced by humility.

Initially, Tae-suk does not seem to have a clear goal, apart from the everyday task of finding an empty apartment to spend the night. He never says a word (in fact, we never learn if he in fact is even able to speak), and he freely takes baths, watches TV, rearranges objects or wears the apartments’ owners clothes. But somehow, his is not a creepy presence. He explores the invaded homes in a way that makes us wonder what this would feel like if we were doing it. There is a certain freedom about the whole process, especially after it becomes clear how, to its owners, every place is both a loved, cozy nest, and a prison. As Tae-suk comes across the abused Sun-hwa in her own home, his goal is driven into focus – he needs to takes her out of her prison. It’s a classic – the independent and strong male feels the need to care for the wounded and fragile (and of course pretty) female. That’s a good plot foundation for Kim, as it allows him to step on it and then let his imagination run more freely when it comes to character motivations and poetic expressions of theme.

A very simple, but original plot thread shows how Sun-hwa’s attempts to tame Tae-suk’s inner rage lead him to commit a mistake and cause a serious bodily harm to an innocent minor character. It’s a little twist that forces a change in Tae-suk (he starts to feel shame and question himself), and prepares us for the events in the second half of the film, when he will be wrongfully imprisoned. This little episode is what will make Tae-suk accept his later imprisonment without trying to defend his obvious innocence (which otherwise would have been an extremely illogical action, to the point that it could have harmed the audience’s suspension of disbelief).

Coming back to the theme of “home as a prison” – Kim inserts a place that provides the exception to the rule. It’s the home of a young, kind and relaxed couple, which, in contrast to all other apartments, has a more open, nature-friendly feel. Kim, unapologetic, selects a location for it that openly resembles a Buddhist temple, thus continuing one of his favorite, oeuvre-defining themes, about the way in which a Buddhist way of life provides clarity, purpose, and meaning. In this home, three scenes take place: the fist kiss between Sun-hwa and Tae-suk; a moment when Sun-hwa’s returns there alone, while Tae-suk is still in prison – and, without saying a word to the owners, simply lies down on the sofa and takes a nap (to me, probably the strongest scene in the movie); and the return of Tae-suk there, after his escape from prison, as one of the steps on his quest to re-visit all previously shown apartments – but this time as an invisible, all-seeing ghost. The last scene, though it does serve a plot purpose, is still something of a mystery to me, and I will keep watching it to look for a deeper meaning (though there simply might not be one seeded there).

The third act is surprising mostly because of the method Tae-suk chooses to use for the final fight for his girl – he learns to become invisible. It is not a course of action a Hollywood-brainwashed mind would expect – and yet, it’s the one and only weapon he can call upon. This is what he has done all his life – staying silent, out of people’s view, sneaking through life. Now, however, he has a passionate motivation, a painfully clear goal. And this helps him perfect himself, change by moving to a higher level. A meditative scene inserted by Kim suggests the upgrade is, most of all, spiritual. And you wouldn’t expect anything less from this director.

If you’ve seen the film’s official poster, you’ll unfortunately get a major hint about what happens in the end. Still, it’s beautiful.

Just be prepared to suffer and squirm through some of the supporting characters’ weirdly poor acting…

 

L’enfant, 2005 / The Dardenne Brothers

L_EnfantThe Dardenne Brothers’ L’enfant (“The Child”) is a hard-hitting, raw and merciless drama, a classic example of contemporary “social realism” film making. It’s a tight and perfectly-paced story, not overloaded with characters – which keeps it moving all the time but also gives the main protagonists room to breathe (even if their onscreen lives are seldom allowed such luxury). It’s rare and very difficult to achieve such a good balance between observing people in the simple, casual moments that constitute the majority of our lives; observing them in the moments when they are making life-defining moral choices; and “the meat” of the script – people going about the fulfillment of their goals, through pure physical actions. The film succeeds by not being about simple things, but going about conveying them in a very simple way.

The main characters are Bruno and Sonia – two young Belgian outcasts who’ve just had a baby. Bruno provides for the young family through an assortment of petty crimes, committed by the juvenile gang he’s the leader of. A recurring motif throughout the film is Bruno getting hold of various objects and then trying to resell them at a profit (the concept of profit in his world is usually characterized by the circumstances of the last hour of his life or so). So this in a way defines his goal – making it through today by providing the next meal for himself and Sonia, and finding a place to spend the night, be it a dilapidated hole under the motorway, a homeless people shelter, or, when the money permits – even a rented dodgy apartment. He has no ambition of getting a regular job and changing his way of life, and the appearance of his newborn son does not change this even slightly. As he is left alone with the baby for the first time, and makes another off-the-cuff decision, he is suddenly faced with his main conflict: Sonia takes a moral (or instinctual) stance he doesn’t understand. It was at that moment that I felt the title of the film refers as much to Bruno as it does to his newborn son. Bruno is the child. Deprived of the social circumstances that help a child gradually form into an adult, he has managed  to survive only by relying on instincts, by staying a child. Suddenly now, life requires him to behave like an adult, and make an adult’s choices – and he’s immediately lost. The brilliance of the direction and acting (by Jeremie Renier) is that at no time do we hate Bruno for the choices he makes. We understand them, as unspeakable as they are, because we understand the character who is making them.

I found it very interesting that, in the end, Bruno is saved and finds redemption because he sticks to the only moral code he knows and respects – the code of loyalty to his gang. And more to the point, to a fellow delinquent criminal, whom Bruno cannot allow to get punished instead of himself. Making this particular choice (and how conscious is it? that’s also a very interesting point), Bruno finally cuts through his Gordian knot – getting off the street, escaping his street troubles and the long-term menace from senior criminals, achieving redemption through accepting his punishment, and most importantly, finding a way back to Sonia (as well as, from a filmmaker’s point of view – resolving the central question). As cheesy and set-up as this sounds, it’s nothing like it – it’s painful and real and stirring to observe.

It’s easy to define the film’s central theme as something along the lines of “how society’s inability to support the individual comes back to hurt society”, or “how lack of education and a family structure turns man into an animal.” To me, it was about the impossibility to define morality. What would be considered moral and righteous and soul-saving by you or me or a greater part of a particular society might be morally useless – or even detrimental – to somebody else. What is important is to have a moral system at all, however flawed it might appear to other people. In the end, after all, it will give you your best chance to define yourself as a human being and not an animal.

 

 

On The Road, 2012 / Walter Salles

on_the_road___official_trailer_2012_[hd]_kristen_stewart_mov_mpeg2video_21032013_1640_480p_wmp4Sprawling and trying to stay true to the character of the original book that inspires and informs it, On The Road eschews an easily identifiable, visible structure. The film is very much character-based, and, at least for about two-thirds of it, meanders around New York, California, Denver, and the US countryside, obediently following the chaotic and impulsive paths of main characters Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and Marylou. I’m sure there is a three-act structure hidden in there, but the only clearly present act is the third one, where the main relationship and underlying conflict (Sal vs. Dean) comes to a head. For a film with a subject matter with such potential for conflict, the resolution is not too dramatic, but this somehow feels right, once you’ve accepted On The Road for what it is. Bringing such an iconic piece of literature to the screen is bound to be impossible to please every critically-awaiting fan.

Sal’s goal is to write a great book – and we all know what that book came to be, so the following the goal fulfillment throughout the film happens with ease. A degree of predictability cannot be avoided, as we also pretty much know how this goal will come to be achieved. Sal’s main conflict, to me, seemed to be with a person (Dean Moriarty) but at the same time quite internalized. Sal adores Dean, theirs is a true friendship, and he can’t help but keep searching for Dean’s company, and following him on his crazy trips. There is the desire to experience good times with a young, free-spirited and inspiring friend; there is the temptation of an unbounded life away from his traditional family; there is Sal’s sexual attraction to Dean’s on-and-off girlfriend, Marylou; and there is his quest for true inspiration for his writing – a quest both overriding and casually neglected on his whirlwind travels. At the end, living through and acting out (over several years) his main conflict, turns out to be the only path to achieving his goal. There is not much drama associated with it, though our hearts eventually stay with the doomed character of Dean Moriarty – and I believe that was the director’s point. Dean is justified and his legacy is saved, though, going irreversibly down, he himself does not realize it.

The film touches upon multiple themes – friendship and loyalty, the impossibility of the struggle against the system, (the ubiquitous one of) coming of age – and outgrowing dependencies and people, the desire to achieve one’s potential. It seems to me, however, the it is the latter two that concentrate the film’s central question: will Sal eventually be able to find the Holy Grail – to complete his literary masterpiece? And since we know the answer in advance, the question is modified as “how” rather than “whether”, which dilutes the dramatic impact of On The Road. This is probably an inherent challenge when creating a biographical film, especially about a well-known person or event. But just think about 127 Hours as an example of a film that is by default stripped of its greatest mystery, but which manages to be extremely fresh and surprising as it tags along its true-story event line.

To be sure, 127 Hours benefited from a great acting performance (by James Franco), and On The Road can boast some impressive turns as well. Sam Riley (Sal) is a believable incarnation of Kerouac (though I somehow imagined a wilder figure), Kristen Stewart entices in the time she is given, and there are plenty of star-power peppered on top of the film through the cameos of Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams (wished she was given more, as I really respect her as an actress) and Steve Buscemi. But the top performance is that of Garrett Hedlund as Dean. And it’s exactly this performance – vulnerable and bold – that underlines probably the film’s greatest lack. I waited and waited for the characters and events to get crazy, to finally brim over and unleash themselves on me, grab me by the throat and take me not only on a road trip, but on a real ride. Instead, I was lead on respectfully by the hand. On The Road is still an enjoyable, visually impressive walk, but it could have been – and probably should have been – something more.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, 2003 / Ki-duk Kim

1BQ7armxSGFQT6huPZ1mZGMubL8As clearly suggested by its title, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring has a structure split in five acts. The four seasons – with the repeating Spring book-ending both the plot development and the main character’s life arc – are visually prominent, as the story takes place on a monastery (a Buddhist temple) floating on a small lake. Nature is an essential character here, and Kim saturates each scene with simply observed images of the lake’s surroundings – a frozen lake, a rain-battered lake, a small river, rocky hills, mountain tops and lush greenery. The carefully planned shots are never just self-serving beauty frames – nature provides not just the setting, but the backbone of the story. Kim is obviously a nature’s man (evidenced through his impressive acting turn in the last two segments) – and the film benefits greatly from his decision to set this fable of a film away from the big city and civilization as a whole.

The main character is a boy who grows up to become a young man, to experience love, passion, and doubt; to leave the monastery, despite the cautioning of his old master that “desire leads to attachment, and attachment leads to the intention of killing”; to then return, after committing a crime, in search of the necessary inner peace that precedes redemption; and to later take the place of his old master, but only after becoming synchronized with the world that surrounds him – and ultimately, after being able to understand this world. That’s the skeleton of the film’s plot, and – infused with Kim’s spiritual attitude to film making – it is closely connected with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring‘s theme. This theme has Buddhist undertones I am not qualified to discuss, but which are openly suggested by Kim through his visual choices and fable-like scenes (for instance, the prominent and somewhat mysterious presence of animals such as snakes, a rooster, a cat, fish and frogs). I guess the theme has to do with the necessity to live through and overcome carnal temptations, to first be weak and make mistakes and sin, before you can achieve balance and discover your own place in the world.

The main character’s goal is not readily visible or simply defined. The most obvious answer is that he is trying to be with the girl he loves, but this is only clearly valid through the second (Summer), and then resonating in the third (Autumn) segment. Later, on his first return to the monastery, his goal becomes to try to escape from punishment for his crime; and then – on his second return – to atone for mistakes made earlier in life. The changing goal works in the set-up of this particular film – I guess simply because the film encompasses a full life cycle, and also because the story is so openly set as a fable.

The main character’s conflict is predominantly an inner one – a struggle between his devotion to his teacher and the way of life the teacher is trying to inspire in him, and the temptations of the “secular” world and his own human nature: a child’s cruelty, sexual lust, jealousy and rage, the urge to avoid taking responsibility for his own mistakes (selfishness). There are external manifestations of this conflict – the confrontation with the teacher when the latter decides to send away from the monastery the girl he loves, or his attempt to hide from the police officers pursuing him after his crime. But the conflict is ultimately an inner one, and in the end the hero is left to tackle, on his own, his own weakness, and to pay his debt to nature and nature’s divine order. As the conflict is resolved, the hero is literally positioned on the top of the world (in Kim’s visual language – a mountaintop overlooking the small lake with the floating monastery), naked and alone, clean and ready to care for another person. That person is a young boy brought to the monastery and left there by his faceless mother. The circle of life closes on itself, and is complete – only to start again from the beginning.

 

Miss Bala, 2011 / Gerardo Naranjo

miss_balaSomehow, I have the feeling I managed to hit the London Film Festival at just the right time, in just the right spot. Midway through the festival I secured the viewings of two films and two only, but my gut feeling tells me they’re probably two of the very best in the programme. I’m yet to see “The Boy Who Was A King” by Andrei Paunov (BG cinema in London, yeaaah), so more on that one later I guess. But last night I sat in a movie theater, my wife clinging, terrified, to my elbow, gripped by the true, brutally honest, politically and physically and visually charged spectacle that is Miss Bala. There are very few movies that are so categorical in what they are that they grab you by the throat and don’t let go, and don’t allow you to question yourself – whether you like what you are seeing or not – until after the credits. Miss Bala is one of them. It’s a tense, terse, violent thriller that moves solidly in one direction, stays the course, and doesn’t ask unnecessary side questions.
Miss Bala is actually Laura Guerrero (played by the brilliant Stephanie Sigman), a regular Mexican girl from Tijuana with dreams of becoming a beauty queen. By the end of the movie her dreams are fulfilled in a devastating, soul-destroying manner. It’s no good giving out any plot points – as the director Gerardo Naranjo told in his post-screening chat, he initially set out to do a thriller, and, in this sense, Miss Bala is a powerful success. But it also offers a very painfully sober, bleeding view of a problem that haunts the society of a large country on pretty much daily basis. It seems Naranjo and his crew did their homework while researching the inner workings and the real-life vibes of the conflict “drug cartels-police” in present day Mexico. The way that the life of an unsuspecting nobody (Laura) gets caught up – and eventually grinded to dust – in these vile machine movements, is depicted with skill, precision, and love for the actual states of mind a real person experiences (as opposed to the parallel-world reality of, say, any ordinary Hollywood action movie). From the very beginning of Miss Bala, one gets transported inside the skin of Laura, and travels her journey together with her, actually sensing her terror, panic, temporary relief, hope, desperation, resignation… I really don’t know which is Naranjo’s bigger achievement – extracting such a performance from Sigman, or visualizing with such realism-based precision his obviously quality script. And coming back to the issue of films that grab you by the throat: once Miss Bala let go of mine, I realized the film had meanwhile planted the seeds of many important questions inside my mind. And that the time for gaining a perspective into such a major problem as the Mexican drug cartels are, the time for contemplating the moral of the film, the time for deciphering, post-factotum, the motivations behind each scene, each character’s acts, each relationship – has just begun. A definitely recommended movie, but be prepared to experience increased heartbeat rates.

Opening Night, 1977 / John Cassavetes

opening_nightWhat can I say, Cassavetes films are one of a kind. I’ve seen three of them so far, and on each of these occasions (yes, they are occasions) was taken on a very organic, totally unpredictable, truthful, inspired trip. Opening Night resonates with me in a particular way, as it depicts the world of theatre, a world special to me. I’ve always wondered about the relationship between cinema and theatre, and how possible it is to depict theatre on film. Soderbergh does something very interesting in Full Frontal, though the play there is not really such a central part. Cassavetes goes to an extreme in that respect, putting us viewers in the middle of long long scenes on stage, keeping the camera rolling, basically filming the play as it develops. Of course, the movie needs to be extremely smart for him to be able to pull this off, but above all it’s a very heartfelt movie, which is why it works. An accidental death of a fan triggers an emotional and mental breakdown in the life of its main character, actress Myrtle Gordon (the brilliant, powerful Gena Rowlands). And that’s it basically, as far as the plot is concerned. It’s a way to stimulate the action, but from that point on (the death comes in one of the opening scenes) nothing is straighforward or predictable. Cassavetes was renowned for his improvisational techniques, building characters with flesh, blood and tears, never forcing upon his heroes unconvincing, fabricated scenes. As in his other works, here again the script appears impossible to invent – everything rather flows as if lifted from real life, as if the film maker was luckily there with a camera as things were actually happening. It’s rather impossible to describe…

Myrtle is a woman about 45-50 (she never reveals her actual age, which is a manifestation of one of her deeply lying problems – the difficulty of accepting the advance of aging). She has no one (no husband, no lover, no children) but her art and her reputation as a major film and stage star. Grappling with issues such as growing old and loneliness (you know about lonely nights? how about those lonely days?), she is good friends with alcohol, but not so good friends with the writer of her new play, “Second Woman”. Uncharacteristically, Myrtle can’t find a thing to identify with in the new text she is working on. The struggle to create a believable character is exacerbated by the death of a young female fan – a 17-year old who dies seconds after meeting Myrtle outside a theatre. The image of the rain-soaked, crying, almost collapsing in her emotions young woman haunts Myrtle into a mental state that crumbles further as the film progresses. Who is this young girl? Or, rather, what is she to Myrtle? Searching for the answer of this devastating question, Myrtle resorts to visiting the girl’s funeral, then a spiritualist, to letting go of herself on stage and improvising with abandon, even viciousness, before actual audiences. No one who has ever been to a theatre performance can help but feel uneasy while watching these sequences. In this sense, Opening Night is a quite visceral experience.

I found it extremely interesting that Myrtle had no one to turn to outside of the theatrical world. She could only look for help from the director (Cassavetes fave Ben Gazzara), the producer, even the writer, to whose face she openly admits, “I don’t think we could ever be friends.” All these people however, despite harbouring some kind of love, or at least respect, for Myrtle, are after their own agendas – keeping up reputations, ensuring the success of the play, maintaining political or artistic control. Myrtle is basically on her own, fighting demons, wrestling with solitude, trying to preserve the last shreds of her integrity. All leads up to the final scene – the New York premiere of the play, the actual opening night. I don’t want to spoil it for you (if this is relevant at all in a Cassavetes movie), but I should say what happens is the living nightmare for any theatre director. The interaction between Myrtle and Maurice (played with verve by Cassavetes himself) in that closing scene is electrifying. So human, so wonderfully weird, so worthy of being captured on film. The end is only natural, as Myrtle fights with her last ounces of strength to do probably the one thing she can – get out on that stage and give everything she has, and to hell with it. We as an audience can only applaud this reincarnation of life.

Half Nelson, 2006 / Ryan Fleck

Half-Nelson_bWhat’s with the title of this movie? Half nelson is a something most men are familiar with, possibly from their school yard years – a wrestling hold where you partly immobilize an opponent by constricting one arm and putting hand upon his neck. I guess the movie borrows this name as it refers to a feeling of both a total inability to release yourself, and the tantalizing sense that what holds you down cannot actually be stronger than you. Half nelson is more of a smart, cheeky entanglement than a brute force. It allows you just a little leeway of space, challenging you to push just a bit harder, roll over with a bit more determination, scream a little bit louder… and you’ll be free.

Ryan Gosling’s character in the film, Dan Dunne, looks like he’s been caught in a half nelson for the best part of his life. By his drug addiction. Dunne is a teacher in a predominantly black New York primary school. Disheveled, deprived of normal sleep, living a double life, he is, as Alicia Keys put it, in a “constant state of going nowhere”. An owner of a weak will and a good heart, he seems to awaken only in class, when he teaches history to his 13-year old students – energetically, in an almost inspired way, not instructing them but utilizing their own language and attitudes to challenge their interest. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Dunne does not go to the level of his subjects on purpose, as a smart educational approach. Rather, he is one of them. He is a child – very intelligent, but at the same time naive, playful, loving the display of bravado and attitude, and often lost.

The main conflict of the movie pits Dunne versus one of his students – Drey (Shareeka Epps). She’s got issues of her own – a brother in prison for drug dealing, a family associate who constantly tries to seduce her in becoming his drug mule, a missing father and over-worked mother. As Drey becomes aware of Dunne’s drug problems and is drawn towards helping him (he is probably the most likable of teachers around), he sees in her the one chance to really help that “one person”, to really change the life of just one, to make his contribution to the world. Drey’s salvation is his own. He does not actually realize this – rather, he follows his blind, desperate instinct. And he really does not know how to go about saving her, oblivious to moral lines in their relationship and crossing them repeatedly.

Dunne is such a sympathetic character because it’s very easy to identify with his lack of spine. We are all like him in some respect – we all go round and round in our own very personal and at the same time very universal vicious circles, we all alternate between keeping the faith one day and despairing on the next. Drug addiction is a very real problem (and a dramatic one, which works cinematically) – but it could be anything. Mine is not finding the strength to drag out the stories in my mind and bring them to life. Yours might be something very different, like accepting baldness or cutting down silly spending. It’s all very human. So kudos to the filmmakers for recognizing this and just letting the film BE, rather than forcing the film to TELL – it’s the toughest job in the business I reckon.

In the end, it is suggested Dunne saves Drey by going to the extreme of being himself. The great part is that this is not presented as a conscious choice of his. He simply disintegrates to the point of inspiring a change, if such a process could even exist. It’s maybe just a coincidence, fate, or an example of the beauty of life even in the most fucked-up situations.

For some reason, Half Nelson makes me put on Alicia Keys’s Unplugged on. Everything out there is tough and cruel, but there’s always a reason to keep breathing. Just keep waking up every day, and one of these mornings, something might be different, the hand upon your neck might have loosened a bit…

A Serious Man, 2009 / The Coen Bros.

a_serious_man_posterIt’s a film I really love (big big fan of the Coen Brothers generally), but I have postponed writing about it until after my third viewing, which happened last night. Mainly because I have the feeling that trying to decipher A Serious Man is somewhat foolish. For one, I’m not Jewish and have no deep knowledge of Jewish religion and customs. But then, nobody really reads this blog anyway. And also, this is a film that tickles you, urges you to discuss with friends and attempt deconstruction. So let’s try kinda going scene by scene, definitely spoiling the movie for anybody who hasn’t seen it…

Of course, the relation of the opening scene to the rest of the movie has garnered plenty of media attention. It’s rather a vignette set two centuries prior to the main action in the film. A Yiddish family is faced with a weird (in a very Coen Brothers way) encounter with an old man, whom the wife sees as an evil spirit, a dybbuk. We are not really given the answer is he or isn’t he, and respectively is a righteous act committed, or a crime. But we are left with thoughts about “the sins of our predecessors and how they reflect on the next generations”. Maybe this is what this scene is about…

Next, we meet the main character, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He is already on a sloping plain towards the disintegration of his so far stable and respectable life. Actually, his story reconfirms the Coens’ reputation of being quite cruel to their main characters. Larry undergoes a thorough medical check, including an X-ray scan, and it all seems to be fine, as far as health is concerned.

Meanwhile, his son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), has problems of his own. He owes 20 bucks to a bully of a classmate, but they get confiscated, together with the portable radio on which he secretly listens to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”. It’s here that the drug references start to pop up, and it’s difficult to find their relation to the whole story. Danny frequently smokes marijuana, and Larry himself indulges in a smoke later in the movie, but not before he has seen his world collapse. Is doing drugs the suggested antidote to the ultimately pointless struggle towards respectability, stability and logic? Danny uses because he is young and still innocent, his mind unburdened with questions of “why?” or “what is the reason for this?” On the other hand, Larry uses after he starts finding out that these questions probably have no answer, or that the answer is seemingly out of his reach. And then, this Jefferson Airplane song echoes through the entire movie, preaching psychedelia and nothing else but love…

The next problem crashes upon Larry’s head in the shape of Clive, a student (Larry is a physics teacher) disgruntled with his F grade, who seems to try to bribe Larry by discreetly leaving him an envelope with cash. Larry would try, unsuccessfully, to extract himself out of this embarrassing situation, all the while expecting the school’s decision on granting him a tenure.

At home, the problems keep mounting. His Nazi/extreme Republican-looking neighbour is obviously trying to claim a portion of Larry’s own front yard. Larry’s brother lives with Larry’s neurotic family and doesn’t seem to come out of the bathroom, let alone start looking for a place of his own. And Larry’s wife demands a ritual divorce, informing him of her closeness with fellow Jew, Sy Ableman.

Back at school, there follows an amusing scene involving Larry and Clive, the disgruntled student. Larry confronts him on the issue of the attempted bribe. Larry wants Clive to understand that actions always have consequences, while Clive agrees that “yes, they have consequences OFTEN”. This seems to enrage Larry, who for the first time mentions his moral convictions. Actions have to have corresponding consequences, right? And Larry has been a good man, a serious man all his life, trying to be morally upright, always trying to do the right things. So, the consequence to this has to be a good, morally upright, stable life. Not much to ask, right? Well, suddenly this does not seem to be the case with Larry, and he’s getting more and more lost with every new misfortune that comes crashing upon his head.

In a following scene, Sy Ableman, unable to get in touch with Larry, appears at his doorstep. Sy is a superficially gentle, kind, soft-spoken, but also oily, large-framed figure. A truly passive-aggressive man, he professes his love for Larry (and seemingly all human beings), touches, caresses and hugs him, while trying to talk him into agreeing to a “gett”, a ritual divorce that would allow Sy to marry Larry’s wife “in the faith”. Later, it will be suggested that Sy has written anonymous letters to the school committee responsible of the decision on Larry’s tenure, slandering him. Sy could be viewed as a figure inspired by the Devil, though this is in no way consistent with the fact that Sy actually dies in a car accident – thus providing Larry with a measure of relief in his misfortunes.

It’s relevant to mention that A Serious Man seems to be based – or inspired by – the biblical story of Job. A blessed, righteous man, Job was confronted with a series of great misfortunes. They happen after Satan challenges God, claiming that Job is faithful to God simply because God protects him. As a result, God removes his good will towards Job, to prove Satan that Job’s faith is true – and more importantly, that Job’s faith will remain firm even if Job is given no answers why misfortune has befallen him. Job proceeds to look for explanations for his misfortune, consulting three friends (the three rabbis in A Serious Man are a clear parallel). But he never turns against God, and is later rewarded with the restoration of his wealth, health and good fortune. Something the Coens do not do with their own Larry, hmmm…

Urged repeatedly by Danny to fix the TV aerial on the roof, Larry climbs up, and sees the wife of one of his neighbours, sunbathing full naked. Temptation is brought into the story, but to the morally correct Larry this simply seems like one more piece of misfortune.

In yet another enchanting scene with Sy Ableman, it is suggested to Larry that he should move out of his home and to a hotel. I can’t help but mention Sy’s extraordinary vocabulary – he refers to the hotel’s room as “eminently habitable”. Fred Melamed’s performance as Sy is a joy to observe again and again.

There follows a scene that seems quite important to me. Clive’s father comes to visit Larry, and threatens to sue him for defamation – for suggesting Clive has tried to bribe him. When Larry offers that they simply forget about it all, the father demands that Larry gives Clive a passing grade. Larry declines. Then the father says he’ll sue him – for accepting a bribe. Larry counterattacks: “So there was actually a bribe?” The father counter-counterattacks: “This is defamation!” Larry does not see the sense in this – either there’s was a bribe, or there wasn’t. Accept the mystery, is the father’s response.

The thing is, Larry is unable to accept the mystery. He needs answers why this is all happening to him. Unable to find them in logic or moral laws, his next step is to turn to a rabbi.

Before his visit to the first rabbi, Larry expresses the questions on his mind verbally for the first time, in a conversation with a female friend.

The first rabbi is actually rabbi Scott (Simon Helberg from “The Big Bang Theory”), the young deputy of rabbi Nachtner, whom Larry goes to see originally. Inexperienced but passionate, rabbi Scott gives Larry probably the most useful, and definitely least obscure advice out of the three rabbis. Still, this advice does nothing to help Larry decipher the cause of his misfortune and see the path he should take.

The second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner, chips in with the extremely amusing and well-shot story of “The Goy’s Teeth”. Basically, it’s another instance of Larry having his hopes of finding explanation dashed, in a way that actually increases his confusion. The second rabbi is older, presumably wiser, and his advice is ultimately… blander. To Larry, it now seems being wise has to mean being bland, being non-active, not really caring. His universe is shattered. However, Larry continues to see this new situation as a chapter in a story – something has to happen, this is not the end of it, there will be developments that will shed light on all the confusion. So he is now desperate to see the third rabbi. The fact that that third rabbi – rabbi Marshak – is impossible to through to, only spurs Larry on, increases his frustration, but somehow preserves his dying hopes of clarity still alive.

Soon after comes a scene where Larry teaches a class at school about “the uncertainty principle”. Scribbling a large blackboard full of complex mathematical formulas, he proves by the means of mathematics (probably his only pillar of stability left in the world) that… nothing is certain. As his students leave, he shouts after them that even though they can’t figure anything out, they would still be responsible for this at the exam.

Larry then knocks on the door of Mrs. Samsky (the neighbour’s wife which he saw naked before). I guess what takes him there is some parts desperation, some parts an instinctive, unrecognized drive to look for solutions in places where he wouldn’t venture in his “normal” life, if his mind was still intact. In a sexually charged scene, Mrs. Samsky, who at times frighteningly resembles a lifeless mannequin, gets him stoned on marijuana. For Larry, it’s a mental state of detachment that briefly puts him out of his misery. We are left to wonder if this would be the only recourse left to his character after the end of the film…

The story line involving Larry’s brother, Arthur (brilliantly clumsy Richard Kind), is curious. He seems a bit autistic, definitely neurotic, possibly suicidal man, obsessed with creating/figuring out the Mentaculus – a probability map of the Universe. He actually uses it to rake in money at out-of-town casinos. The funny thing is, Arthur is a social outcast, a man without a family or an own home, emotionally depressed, and only good at mathematics. he’s been like this all his life. After two-thirds of the movie, it seemed to me Larry is pretty much in the same position – about to lose his family, living in a hotel, totally lost, his moral universe crumbling with a mocking thud. So I guess the figure of Arthur is in the movie to pose the question: so what if Larry has always been the more successful of the brothers, when both they end up pretty much the same? What has been the point in creating a social structure and believing in some unnamed natural laws, when everything can evaporate in a flash? Who’s better off? Possibly sensing this, Larry dreams of helping Arthur escape (in a row boat!) and start a new life in Canada. This dream ends with Larry’s Nazi-looking neighbour shooting Arthur in the head, then going after Larry himself…

A scene that closes the cycle of the “three rabbis” shows Larry desperately trying to make his way past rabbi Marshak’s door, only to be rebuffed. Has Larry met the ultimate failure?

And as it appears as if it cannot get any worse… it doesn’t. Rays of hope break through the clouds above Larry. His son, Danny, passes his Bar Mitzvah, an occasion for the family to get together and feel hope for the next generation. Sy Ableman is gone and there is a hint that Larry’s wife might have a change of heart and take him back. The slandering letters sent by Sy Ableman have stopped, and the school committee finally grants him his tenure. At the same time, Danny is granted access to rabbi Marshak, who gives him the most obscure of advices – quoting the omnipresent Jefferson Airplane song, and restoring to Danny the portable radio. How this radio has found its way to the hands of this biblical looking old man is a mystery which the Coen Brothers willingly leave unresolved. But, innocently, Danny seems to understand what his meeting with rabbi Marshak is all about.

We have arrived at the happy end. Larry is genuinely relieved. he has received no answers to his dilemmas and questions, none at all. He does not understand the logic behind the myriad of bad things that have happened to him. But his condition has been remedied, so he has “accepted the mystery”. Maybe he will now have a new life credo – simply to accept what is happening to him, without trying too hard to make sense of it. There is no point, right? Besides, it would eventually all end up alright. Normalcy would be restored. There is no such thing as a cause-and-effect law in this world. Larry is actually so relieved that he wants to be good – he decides to correct Clive’s grade to a passing one. After all, this was the advice of the second rabbi, rabbi Nachtner: “We know nothing at all, but as for helping others? Coudn’t hurt.”

So Larry helps Clive. In the next instant, his phone rings. His doctor – remember, the one giving Larry a general medical check at the very beginning of the movie – wants to discuss with Larry his X-ray results. In private.

So Larry probably has cancer, we’re led to believe. Why is this so? Is it a mystical consequence of Larry’s action – betraying his morals by changing Clive’s grade? But no, because the X-ray tests were done much earlier. We, people, are the one choosing to “read signs”, design our own imperfect explanations of the inexplicable, search for archetypal story arcs in our daily lives, believe in the power of the combination “action-consequence”. According to the Coen Brothers, all we need to do is to accept the mystery. With the good and all the bad it brings us. Asking questions and looking for their answers is absolutely pointless, in the grand scheme of things.

But then, we are only humans…

Such a great movie…

Easy Rider, 1969 / Dennis Hopper

EasyRiderI plugged this glaring gap in my film culture only recently. By today’s standards, Easy Rider can easily seem a bit mundane, apart from the LSD-inspired montage near its end. I guess it depends what type of movie buff one is. But there is a reason why it’s considered an eternal film. The coolness of Peter Fonda as Wyatt (a clear reference to Wyatt Earp)… the freedom and lightness of the several pure riding scenes, where nothing much seems to happen apart from Wyatt and Dennis Hopper’s Billy (a clear reference to Billy the Kid) riding their bikes cross-country with cool smiles and to the soundtrack of classic tunes… the three confrontation scenes – with a bunch of hillbillies at a roadside diner, with the same bunch by the fire in a forest, and the final one on a narrow interstate road… the history-recording and culture-commenting scenes such as the hippie commune visit, or the portion of the film where Jack Nicholson takes centre-stage as a a drunk-lawyer who drops his cyclic life to hop on the bike behind Wyatt and ride cheerfully towards the end of everything… and of course, the cemetary/LSD scene that has to go down as a film history all-time highlight… Easy Rider still works today, and will surely work years from now not because it simply yet magically captures a potent period in American history. But because it is a metaphor for every man’s dream – that one day we will drop everything we own, everything that ties us down to society and chokes us, one day we’ll say “screw you” to all laws but our own emotional morals, and ride ecstatically towards the inevitable end, great music blaring in our ears.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, 2010 / Banksy

banksyExit Through the Gift Shop is a unique movie. I’m not saying unbelievable, or a classic, just unique. Maybe I just haven’t seen enough films, but this one caught me by surprise. One note – if you go and see it, try not to read anything about it in advance. All I knew beforehand: some guy approached Banksy with the idea of making a documentary about him (if you don’t know much about Banksy, you have some catching up to do, so start now – though I’m not saying start here). Guy was so weird and interesting that instead of telling him to fuck off, Banksy decided to turn the tables and make a documentary about him. Cue Oscar nominations and shit. Well, it’s nothing like this. Of course, there is a hint of such storyline, but that was one lame synopsis I’d read. In fact Exit Through the Gift Shop goes much deeper, many levels and layers deeper, twists and turns, mostly on itself, but at the end – on you. Am I sure what I saw? Am I sure I got it? I don’t know for sure, all I know this documentary/mockumentary/piece of art/movie graffiti does work… I have a vague suspicion Banksy had to in some way respond, with a statement in his style, to the claims of him turning into a sell-out. But that’s just a vague suspicion. More than that though, the film is a statement about the nature of art today. Of what we make of it, how we make it be, how we build it up from nothing using purely the all-powerful tool of HYPE. Hype is a widely accepted means of misrepresentation, and Banksy happily embraces this tool, making the joke be simultaneously on the main character (typecast French weirdo Thierry Guetta), on himself, on the art world, and since all of these in the end seem to be non-existent (yeah, Banksy actually doesn’t exist, all these conspiracy theories and educated guesses and non-educated guesses about his identity define him as such), so, since all of these in the end seem to be non-existent, the joke lands on us viewers. We are all part of the shit, we make it be, we feed the shit every day. Exit Through the Gift Shop manages to be at the same time extremely funny, true to history, quite depressing and all made up. But it serves its major purpose – it makes us think. Think, think, think, keep thinking as you squeeze your eyes and make your way out through the gift shop, cause that’s the only way out. We’ve made it that way.

Just watch the film, all I can say…

Doubt, 2008 / John Patrick Shanley

doubt-movie-poster-2008-1020437077I waited for several days before sitting down to recap Doubt in my mind. So first things first – the central part for me was the performance of Meryl Streep. As an actress, she is definitely in a class of her own, a living classic. So yeah, her talent is undoubted, and could be taken for granted, to some degree. Not her personality though. Not Meryl Streep the human being. Because it’s exactly this part of her that brings uniqueness to her roles – her humanity. I do have a crush on Meryl Streep, in a way that I wish she was my favourite aunt. I would spend days on end with her.

Being such a vital person, it’s incredible how perfectly controlled her performance in Doubt is. She is a conservative bitch that truly hates modernity, and seems immovable in her views on religion, the secular world, education and race issues. But as you watch through Shanley’s adaptation of his own (apparently successful) theatrical play, you cannot help but feel there is something beneath her surface. Something simmering very low down there, something driving her, some secret that maybe even she cannot define for herself. There is the feeling of a woman trapped, or should I say – of a human being trapped within her own limitations and belief system. And this only becomes truly apparent in the final scene between Sister Aloysius (Streep) and Sister James (Amy Adams)…

Otherwise, it’s a movie about the very current pedophilia-in-priests issue – but not really. Instead of going documentary or didactic on the subject, the script rather focuses on exploring the shades of doubt within a set of characters – Aloysius, James, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in yet another near-perfect role), and an African-American mother (Viola Davis, with a very understated, but powerful performance). Doubt is a very universal, and then a very personal thing, and all we know is that we can never know. One of the flaws of the movie is that it in a way nudges us in one of the possible directions, suggesting a truth to be discovered – while there is the sense that keeping viewers on the very edge till the very end could have given the film even more weight. Anyway, it’s worth watching even only because of the two confrontation scenes involving Streep – vs. Hoffman and vs. Davis.

The Informant!, 2009 / Steven Soderbergh

the-informant-matt-damon-movie-poster1For some time, The Informant! appeared to be a movie from the same family as Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh’s again) – an exploration on corporate wrongdoing and the role of a conscious individual in exposing it. But at one point, the conscious individual in question – Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a real-life high-ranking executive on the giant agricultural business corporation ADM – starts acting kinda weird… And the movie goes in a completely different direction. Corporate greed is just a part of it, but it’s more a movie about Whitacre himself – a funny, bipolar, even maniacal man with an honest devotion to the truth but an even more powerful obsession with lying. Whitacre is so fascinating that I was dragged in simply following his crazy path, juggling with secret listening devices, hidden cameras, his fellow executives, Japanese and French partners whose price-fixing practices he is trying to expose, and several layers of FBI professionals who build their case on his good will and watch it unravel as his own lies come tumbling out in the open. So the morals of The Informant! are not as straightforward to decipher, and by the end it’s much more difficult to say what this movie is about. Maybe it’s a fable about the delusions suffered by (any) big-company executive in our greedy world, delusions that undermine the solid basis of sound economy. Or maybe it’s simply the story of the split personality of an extremely interesting man who gets entangled in some very complex situations with some very important people and with some very serious consequences. Anyway it’s quite an entertaining movie. It was shot on Red Camera (high-end digital), but the post-production is so good and precise that it’s almost impossible to tell. And the music – a great mix of “spy themes” that betray Whitacre’s view of himself as an “Agent 0014” (cause he’s twice as smart os 007). It was also interesting to learn about Soderbergh’s and Scott Burns’s (the screenplay writer) approach to the off-screen narration that is read in the voice of Matt Damon. This internal monologue is a series of thought-vignettes that “do nothing to propel the story forward” – but without which the film would not be what it is, would not be sufficient. They were completely made-up by Burns, but as it turns out, the real Mark Whitacre (who eventually served almost 9 years in jail and is now the owner of a high-tech company in the US) thinks the filmmakers “nailed them”. So that says something about writing for film, I guess. Here’s my favourite of these vignettes:

“When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in, because they’ve got those black noses. They’d blend in perfectly if not for the nose. So the question is, how do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water and think, “I’d be invisible if not for that.” That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear.”

The Last Picture Show, 1971 / Peter Bogdanovich

Last Picture Show“I want to make movies like the ones I used to like”. That’s what Peter Bogdanovich said shortly after completing his second feature, The Last Picture Show. He was 31 at the time, and had just achieved a feat to be respected. The Last Picture Show looks like a movie made in the 1930’s, due the choice of black&white as opposed to color. And due to the simple, even naive shot selection and montage. It’s like a classic created with the purpose of being a classic. The movie sat in my computer for several months, and I was somehow not attracted to watching it, until last night. And I saw it immediately after a very new and “quirky” American indie, World’s Greatest Dad, which aimed to be original (with some degree of success), but left me unmoved when I was supposed to give in to emotions. Just the opposite to the second movie of the double-bill night. Bogdanovich’s film has this star quality, this sense of timelessness and depth that is very difficult to find in modern films. The characters live in a very ordinary world, and are very ordinarily bored and lost and prematurely wasted. But they are larger than life, they seem to come from a distant time and bring something intangible, inspirational, hard to comprehend, but easy to feel. They are characters that are very probable to stay with you forever, in some capacity at least. Just pick an arbitrary scene – the last meeting between Sonny, the main hero, and Ruth Popper, the fortyish-year-old wife of his school coach, who is having a very gentle and romantic affair with Sonny… the way she acts – she did the scene without rehearsals, first-take… the death of the (apparently) slow boy, Billy, who was always sweeping the dusty streets that are constantly swept by the Texas winds anyway… the way Sonny used to flip his baseball hat around on Billy’s head, even during the funeral of their father-figure (for lack of real fathers), Sam the Lion… the scene at the “turtle tank” and Sam’s speech… the blonde starlet Jacy, mean or calculating or confused or just plain lonely, and her striptease at the pool… Duane punching holes in the wall with pool balls, or fretting on the lack of erection while trying to deflower Jacy – so just pick a scene and watch it separately, as a little short film on its own. It’s so worth it. The sad thing is, it seems more than certain a movie like this is impossible to make today. A very young director working in the 70’s created a movie based in the 50’s that looks like it was shot in the 30’s. Such an impossibility… or is it?

GFE: Girlfriend Experience, 2008 / Ileana Pietrobruno

gfe_onesheet_011Interestingly enough, I watched through this entire movie thinking I was seeing Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh’s film was released an year later, in 2009, and I’ve no idea who borrowed ideas from whom, if at all… but apart from unsuccessfully straining to recognize Sasha Grey (who plays the main part in The Girlfriend Experience), I had no doubt I was watching a Soderbergh film. Pietrobruno’s GFE has the same structural boldness and self-referential elements as Full Frontal, for instance. Made as a fiction-documentary, or better said, documentarised fiction, it centres on the dissolving life of a man obsessed with paid sex. In particular, with an expensive provider of special sex+emotions services, known as girlfriend experience (GFE). Pietrobruno has a background in documentary film editing, which probably explains to some extent the assuredness with which she tackles the unorthodox narrative form. The movie is interspersed with fake “re-enactments” – episodes in which the main character, Daniel, plays himself, while another actress plays the part of Adrian, his GFE love interest. So you get an actress playing the role of another role played by another actress… sounds a bit too complicated, but it’s basically a movie within the movie, and Daniel gets to interrupt and provide corrections to the way the second movie represents events that have happened in the first movie. Hence my confusion with Soderbergh’s style. You get good acting, especially from David Lewis, the guy who plays Daniel, and who owns a very weird tattoo. You get some erotically charged scenes, especially one where a woman plays with her own kitten, literally. You get interesting camerawork, and nicely framed shots where all the important action happens over a tenth of the screen and in the corner. You finally get an action-packed ending sequence that brings on some nice irony, but that cuts off to the credits quite abruptly, and somewhat self-importantly. Anyway, if you too happen to download or rent or buy the “wrong” Girlfriend Experience movie, do not be too quick to get rid of it.

Inglourious Basterds, 2009 / Quentin Tarantino

inglourious-basterds-movie-posterSo, how far is a director’s responsibility supposed to go? Is one supposed to try to satisfy everybody’s tastes, expectations and moral orientation? I think these questions probably have more to do with Tarantino than with any other active director. The guy gets glorified, but then he gets slaughtered too. From what I’ve heard from him, he is smart enough to generally stay away from commenting back on the innumerable attempts to dissect his greatness/lameness. Maybe this is not only the best approach, but the single one he can have. You will never make the entire world happy, so you’d better just keep your mouth shut, and stick to making movies.

Tarantino’s latest, Inglourious Basterds, is no exception to the rule – the movie is adored and hated. I quite enjoyed it. Even more – coming out of the theatre, I thought “This will be an all-time great.” I’m no movie critic – when I write, I only do it to try to understand a movie better (hmm, this actually might make me a critic, I don’t know). I haven’t read or studied enough of film history or film philosophy or film aesthetics. So after I see a movie, I like to have it “explained” to me again, by different people, with various points of view. And this is how I came across this article. Senses of Cinema is a very good film critique website, I believe, and writings there are deep, informed and thoughtful, though sometimes too dry and complex even for the deliberate reader. But some articles there can be quite inspiring – like an interview with Terry Gilliam they had published recently that made me delete my Facebook account. This one, on the moral grounds of Inglorious Basterds, had me really thinking, even if I had to read some sentences three times to get what they mean. Basically, the article says two things.
One, Tarantino has done an exceptional job in most scenes of the movie, succeeding to draw the audience to unwittingly identify with some of the Nazi characters (especially Colonel Hans Landa, played exquisitely by Cristoph Waltz). Take two suspense-laden scenes, for instance – the opening with Landa interrogating the French peasant, and the one in the underground pub, where the German SS officer plays a game of cards with some of the Basterds and the German actress. In both, we have a bad guy – a Nazi – slowly and excruciatingly teasing the truth out of the “good guys” – and we can’t help but feel with the Nazis’ skins, anticipate through their minds. And that’s an accomplishment for the writer and director.
Two, you can’t just take a real historical moment, and one laden with such heavy moral importance, and turn it into pulp fiction. Tarantino has fucked up the whole point of remembering the Holocaust, he is smearing history, even deleting it.
I don’t agree with that second one.
I accept a filmmaker has to feel his or her responsibility towards the world. That he or she has to think in advance about the potential effect of their movie (more so if you are an established director, I guess). But at the end of the day you can only make one movie at a time. One movie, which will most of the time have a single ending. So Tarantino wanted to make his WWII movie. And, being big on revenge, now he got his revenge on the Nazis. In his own Tarantino way, which not all of us might approve, but I think we all enjoy. Even for those of us who were still unborn when WWII ended, our conscious and subconscious has been so saturated with the horror of those times (and I really think – rightly so), that a movie like Inglorious Basterds is one we’ve always wanted to see. One that says, “Let the fuckin’ Nazis have it!”. And that actually “lets them have it”. So, in the very least, this movie is a joyride, a joyride that all of us had wanted to go on. And a Nazi film that is a joyride is something worthy. You can’t blame a single director for attempting to erase history. Especially when, a) he does what he does on purpose, all “historical reality cards” on the table for all the viewers to see and b) his movie is one of the very few, if not the only one, that plays with history in that way; an exception to the rule, and not the history-deleting or history-changing rule the Senses of Cinema article supposes it to be. But oh, yes – it’s a powerful exception…
To me, Tarantino should be able to enjoy some leniency from his fiercest critics even if only because of the closing scene of The Basterds. The one that takes place, remember – in a movie theatre. Where the final destruction is based on the sacrifice (or should I say – self-sacrifice) of a giant pile of film material and of the theatre’s projection screen. To me, it was a metaphor of cinema taking things in its own hands. Correcting history, the way we all have always wanted it corrected, within the realm of cinema’s own imagined world. Cinema reveling in its power – the power to which Tarantino has always bowed down to. Cinema giving us what we’ve always expected from it – a distraction that is a satisfaction that is an inspiration that is a change within us.

Kill Bill vol.2, 2004 / Quentin Tarantino

kill-bill-vol2-body-count-posterTarantino once considered releasing Kill Bill as one whole movie, playing it as two two-hour parts with an intermission between them. He decided against this idea though. My own intermission lasted for several years, and as I watched Kill Bill Vol.2 a couple of nights ago, I had to strain to remember some of what happened in Vol.1, or even guess what must have happened during the previous stages of The Bride’s revenge quest. Anyway, I suppose separating the two parts as physically independent movies was a good decision by the director, as Kill Bill Vol.2 holds its own as a film of its own. Of course, it’s best to make sure you start at the beginning and see Vol.1 first, so that you get familiar with the intentions of this double header as a tribute to genres and pieces of cinema history that Tarantino has been in love with for all of his life… and as an attempt to create a mythical world that feeds on the classics but has a distinct personality and a life of its own.

I am one of the people who like the vignette style of Tarantino. Many slate him for various reasons, but – love or hate the guy – he’s a good entertainer and a great supporter of cinema. Vol. 2 is stylish in its emotionality and generous with its characters. Maybe not with its heroes, but definitely with its characters. In his scripts, Tarantino may kill people without compassion, but I don’t think he kills them without glorifying either their personality, importance to the story, or – at the very least – the extremely graphic and/or amusing way they depart. It might be cruel to an extreme to leave a central character eyeless and screaming with pain and powerless fury into a trailer inhabited by a super-deadly black mamba. But if you talk about mythology, it’s hard to underestimate Elle Driver’s (Daryl Hannah) powerful presence and it’s equally hard to forget the character she created.

So negative critics (whom Tarantino actually seems to like as a breed) probably should not be so hard on the writer and director. At the very least, there aren’t many like him left in the movie business. I’m a supporter of the view that, even if you can’t find in a movie anything that will enrich you spiritually, anything you can learn from, but if that movie genuinely entertains you – it’s worth it. Vol. 2 entertains, has fresh ideas on old movie cliches, every shot is constructed beautifully, and all characters will stick with you for a long time. Some of them – Beatrix Kiddo a.k.a The Bride (Uma Thurman, for whom Tarantino wrote the part exclusively), and Bill (the late David Carradine, what a loss), could very well stick with you for even longer. It’s much more thoughtful and in a way, slow-moving than the action-and-blood-filled first part. But in no way is it less of an entertainment.

W., 2008 / Oliver Stone

w_ver5_xlgMr. Stone delves into the biopic genre once again. Third US president movie, first one on a president still in office. Starting with the technical impressions – the camerawork is very good. I quite enjoy the hand-held style, and here it’s accomplished, sharp, loose but at the same time spot-on with framing and emotional impact. I know this is to be expected in a big Hollywood production, but it still gets me… Speaking of big, this movie actually wasn’t that big – another project Stone was working on disintegrated, so he jumped into W. and completed it with a relatively low budget and a short shooting schedule that was aimed at premiering before last year’s presidential elections in the States. With this in mind, one might presume the film was designed as an electioneering, pro-Dem tool, but if anything, it’s actually the opposite. I loved the approach in trying to show Dubya in human dimensions, and in building his character as one that is very active, very motivated, and, in a way, very distanced from the popular preconception of him as a puppet with no personal will. On the contrary, Bush Junior is always the one taking the major decisions, even if he decides to faithfully follow the advice of certain members of his key staff (Cheney, of course, and Karl Rove).

Central to the storyline of the movie and – we are led to believe – W.’s personal and political life (and consequently the world’s plight), is Bush’s relationship with his father, former president George H.W. Bush. Junior is born into the shadow of Senior, and feels like he’s never quite managed to win his dad’s approval, or to edge ahead of brother Jebb (Governor of Florida, where the 2000 election was famously and controversially decided) in the parental affection-level tables. So, initially he drinks his way though life, then gets ambitious politically, loses his first election, then wins the second, for Governor of Texas… and the rest is history. Where Bush Senior refrains from going all the way to Baghdad, out of political sanity, W. has all the internal, very personal reasons to let himself be convinced in the validity and necessity of going all the way to, into and through the city of Saddam. So basically, instead of going political, Stone just went personal, tried to give his take on history (yet again), but also tried to base it in reality, on thorough research. The fact so many White House insider scenes seem so absurd, so close to a children’s game now looks even more terrifying… cause at least some of these things really happened.

Politics is a charisma game, so I particularly enjoyed how carefully the cast must have been assembled. Josh Brolin, who plays W., is probably the least charismatic of the lot, but I don’t think anybody would remember Bush for his charisma anyway. Brolin was initially against playing this role, but later admitted it’s his most challenging, maybe his best. He’s in practically every shot, so casting powerful actors to surround him must have been essential. Richard Dreyfuss is repulsive and impressive as Dick Cheney, though I imagined the old dick had even more direct power over the President’s decisions. Jeffrey Wright displays the right amount of quiet forcefulness as Colin Powell, and Scott Glenn owns a great Donald Rumsfeld face. While Thandie Newton gets the closest visually to the character she portrays, her Condoleezza was probably the most schematic, caricatured image out of the White House posse. Can’t say I knew much about the way Karl Rove looked or operated, but Toby Jones portrays his duties and part in the group chemistry quite believably. James Cromwell, another actor that usually glues me to the screen, even makes George Bush Senior look something of a positive figure.

It’s quite fun entering into what Stone imagined to be Dubya’s inner mind – a nightmare of a boxing match with his Dad in the Oval office, and a series of baseball-inspired moments, including the closing scene… Georgie running backwards, squinting at the sky, waiting for the ball to fall, though the ball never appears… the perfect metaphor for a flawed, real man, stuck with his own issues and in his world’s uneasy circumstances, with some big ego to serve and some tough choices to make…

There Will Be Blood, 2007 / Paul Thomas Anderson

there_will_be_blood_ver4I guess it’s quite safe to say any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis in it is a treat for eyes and mind. Respect to the man for taking his time with choosing every project he gets on, doing his research, not sparing his body and psyche anything… and above all, for his undeniable talent. There Will Be Blood… now he’s Daniel Plainview, an early 20th century business animal, tapping into the oil industry that is just starting to burgeon…a strong-willed, cunning and hard-boiled character, mercilessly pursuing the American dream, with all means allowed – or not – by law. That’s the facade I guess… but to me, his real, dramatic, inner conflict is with his responsibilities as a father to a boy he adopts after the real dad, a worker for Plainview in his early endeavours, gets killed under the oil rig. It’s not the last death or heavy injury sustained in the rough reality of the oil business, through which Plainview navigates his way with a bull’s determination. A driven man, he seems to have in him this little grain of humanity and tenderness, that is visible only in the scenes with the little boy. After another bad accident on the oil rig, however, the relationship with his son starts going downwards, dragging Day-Lewis’s character towards the inevitable conclusion of the movie. And that’s a gut-wrenching closing scene, but one quite worth sitting through…

Now to Paul Dano’s character, Eli Sunday… Even though Dano admits playing opposite Day-Lewis gave him no chance but to elevate his game, he is a fine actor in his own right. He has his way of staring people down, his own quirkiness and psychotic influence on the men who face him. As Plainview stands – in rough definitions – for oil, and Eli stands for religion, they both stand for power, for the striving for power and influence that is part of the American dream, and maybe not only of it, but of many a dream. The parallels to the current world are there for everyone to make and think upon. But the great thing about the story is it’s powerful to start with, and then – told in a very straightforward way. Day-Lewis enjoyed the level of freedom afforded to him and the rest of the cast by Paul Thomas Anderson… he speaks about being open to, allowing a state of chaos to occur, in which to search for the true performance. It is quite inspiring to realize such open, brave view of film making has wielded as a result a film like There Will Be Blood.

Cloverfield, 2008 / Matt Reeves

cloverfield-poster-800-75I somehow missed all the hype surrounding Cloverfield… the smart trailer, inspired by Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the mysterious nature of the force set on destroying The Big Apple, the online discussions, the origins of the film title, it being a J. J. Abrams project, the debut, the top dollar, the unusual point of view (the traditional monster flick – inverted)… So last night I asked Kalo and Rash if it was a good night-time, alone-at-home movie. They confirmed. So I watched. And they were right.

A simple, great fact to start with – it’s only about one hour and 20 mins long. As a true American would say: awesome! That’s a novelty in itself. And one good reason why it’s a good night-time movie – there is a lesser chance you would fall asleep. Another good reason might be the way it’s shot – seemingly through a hand-held camcorder all the way through (actually many cameras were used, some 25 klios heavy, but trust me, it doesn’t show). So if you put aside believability issues like how come the battery lasts for hours, and how come the filming character never quits filming, while all hell breaks loose… well, put that aside, really, at the very beginning, as this is not what lies at the heart of the movie. It’s a glorious ride through the streets, bridges, high-rises and tunnels of Manhattan,  it’s visceral and so real, it recreates the modern fear of an urban apocalypse, with throwbacks to September 11, plane crashes (or, to be precise, helicopter crashes), crumbling buildings and what have you. The greatest thing about the approach might not even be the somewhat revolutionary decision to play it all as an approximation of a one-shot movie… the greatest thing is the film’s smart reluctance to subject its great premise to the loudness of any special effects. The effects are there and are great, but are seamlessly integrated in the style – hand-held, a specific person’s subjective POV, don’t you forget it. So some potentially great “impact moments” are simply lost while the filming character frantically runs for his life  through ruined streets, or, filled with adrenaline to the brim, tries to zoom in on the sudden drama and crazy carnage that just happened a few step away. And the fact these moments are “lost” makes them the more effective in their absence. For some reason, maybe surprisingly, the acting is not something really worth commenting on, though I read many views on the cast – graded from the ridiculous to the sublime. The filmmakers wanted non-familiar faces, they got them, and I think they do the job.

And one last thing, you might have missed if you didn’t read about it (I did) – in the film’s closing shot, which replays old footage on the same tape that captured the monster story, there is a tiny little detail, let’s call it a splash… Reeves and Abrams’s signature, and idea about the origin of the monster, and – some say – a gateway into a sequel… Whatever it is, it’s fun to discover!

Nights Of Cabiria, 1957 / Federico Fellini

За Кабирия доскоро бях само чувал, най-вече покрай професор Делчев, за когото това ми се струва е любим филм…как иначе да си обясня, че кръщава свои творби на филма на Фелини. Ако Амаркорд ме разхвърля в различни посоки и ме остави малко объркан, а LaDolceVita movie_3720_posterстилно и тежко претовари сетивата ми, Нощите на Кабириябеше едновременно лек и вълнуващ. Лек – вероятно защото Кабирия (съпругата на Фелини, Джулиета Мазина) играе като или поне напомня Чаплин, а лентата сякаш е нарочно, макар и почти неусетно забързана, т.е. навява на комедия от предвоенни години. А вълнуващ най-вече заради наивизма, който споделяш с героинята, но и който, за разлика от нея, наблюдаваш – от сигурно разстояние – как разбива на пух и прах надеждите й.

Сякаш нарочно Фелини почти не обръща внимание на последователността, на continuity, особено в задния план или в масовката, така че филмът е рай за ловците на филмови грешки. За мен тези „грешки” са радост за окото, повод да превъртиш сцената отново и отново, и да се насладиш на това как режисьора търси само най-важното, открива го и се интересува само от него. Историята е доста свободна, нормално за Фелини, и все пак затваря някакъв неизбежен, тъжен кръг. Всъщност не съм сигурен за тъжен, защото последните кадри, когато всичко „разказвателно” вече е приключило, са истинска класика, ровичкат се в душата и я оставят объркана, нито угнетена, нито успокоена, а някак си гладна. Кабирия върви по черен път, млади хора се веселят и се запътват „към къщи”, а тя гледа объркано, усмихнато, отнесено, спокойно, ведро, очаквателно, безпомощно, безнадеждно, с крехка увереност…но всъщност е абсолютно безмислено да описвам. Години по-късно Фелини бил казал, че Кабирия е единствения му герой, за който все още се притеснявал. Може би и той самия не е знаел какво очаква просълзената проститутка, която върви незнайно накъде до самия край на филма…или дори сам не е могъл да определи какво е прочел в очите й, преди да спре камерата.

Breakfast At Tiffany's, 1961 / Blake Edwards

And I said, what about Breakfast At Tiffany’s…Симпатичен филм, романтична комедия, която гледам вече втори път, значи понася repeated viewing. Одри Хепбърн, която играе със съзнанието на звезда, каквито тогава е имало наистина… и Джордж Пепърд, шейсетарски хибрид между Брад Пит и Кари Елуис (един от любимите ми актьори, само заради ролята си в Robin Hood: Men In Tights). Чисто забавление си е филма, особено ако харесвате динамично-театралното актьорско присъствие от онези години, и по-скоро се усмихвате умилено, отколкото се дразните на нарочното чувство за хумор (най-вече играта на Мики Руни като японец). В някои кадри, особено от партито в квартирата на Холи, определено има актьорски попадения: вижте забавната панорама, която завършва с мъжки крака, подпрени на стената, с главата надолу. Някъде сред всичките карамболи се появява бивш съпруг, който вкарва романтично-тъжна южняшка, мъжествена нотка, и в този стар филм тя не стои не на място. А финалната сцена е прекрасна, макар и толкова клиширана…Специално внимание заслужава и set design-а, който, макар и някак театрален, се обживява от герои и камера крайно успешно. Има си дори диван-вана…

The postman always rings twice, 1981 / Bob Rafelson

Филмът е римейк, и ако беше направен през 2005 например, не знам защо, но съм сигурен, че нямаше да ме прикове така още с първите кадри. Заснети сякаш с лекота, светлината се усеща естествено – когато е тъмно и героите почти не виждат, и ние не виждаме всичко…А и винаги някъде отдолу го има усещането, че се случва повече, отколкото се вижда. Впоследствие филмът се оказва доста дълъг, и при положение, че има в общи линии само трима герои – леко разводнен. Не че ми се прииска да го спра и зарежа. Джесика Ланг е сексбомба на млади години, Джак Никълсън си е леко плешив и както винаги заплашително-чаровен, а любовните сцени са заснети с вкус и чувственост…затаиха ми дъха сякаш съм тийнейджър, който знае, че гледа нещо забранено. Five Easy Pieces от същия режисьор определено е много по-добър филм, но и двата си струват. И защо пощальонът винаги звъни два пъти? Има ли пощальон въобще и кой е той? Или по-скоро – кой е този, който не звъни два пъти, и който не е пощальонът? Не съм сигурен за края…Рафелсън казва, че филмът няма как да не свърши така, или с подобна вариация, но може би тази му убеденост му изиграва лоша шега, и краят стои леко поставен, като after-thought…Все пак, Пощальонът е визуална наслада най-малкото защото идва от началото на 80-те, тогава сме правили и гледали малко по-различни филми, а оригиналният блокбъстър, Jaws, е едва на 6 години, и тепърва Холивуд ще започва да се изродява до сегашните се умопомрачителни нива.

Do The Right Thing, 1989 / Spike Lee

do_the_right_thingThere is one great danger to watching Do The Right Thing 20 years after its release – you might get sucked into romantic nostalgia. So much so that you cast a negligent eye on the movie’s central conflicts, rendering them in your mind as inconsequential, casual, even somewhat cute. That’s what I did to an extent, which is why the violent, oppressing end of the film caught me by surprise, when I should have seen it coming. It’s all very cool to enjoy Spike Lee’s powerful first steps as a filmmaker (as well as his substantial acting role), and the old-school NYC feel, to savour the freshness and truthfulness of every next scene, but above all this stands a movie about a deep, deep problem that still permeates every single society on this weird, sad planet – racism. OK, I live in the Obama era (or, at the very least in its hopeful early days), so it’s a bit diffucult to imagine this happening on a New York street today. But hey, it still happens in Paris. I’ve enjoyed every Spike Lee joint I’ve seen, but this one must definitely be the spiciest, most flavoursome, character-full to the brim. The great thing is that almost all the amusing Brooklynites Lee has created are given plenty of their own space and time to stake a point or throw a fit, but they don’t overcrowd each other, don’t oversaturate the senses. They are natural people of a society, coming together or facing off with each other on a day when the termometers in the Big Apple mark new heat records. In a very American city there are only non-American ethnicities clashing – Italians, African-Americans, Puerto-Ricans, Koreans. They form a network that looks like it’s working, not perfectly, but OK. Sal (Danny Aiello, such a charismatic actor) owns a pizzeria in a predominantly black neighbourhood which he runs with the help of his sons Pino and Vito (John Turturro and Richard Edson). A Korean family runs the grocery store across the street, seemingly selling on credit to every soul in the hood. There is only one African-American who seems to have a job (Spike Lee himself, as delivery boy Mookie); probably the one guy who you’d expect to bridge communities, but actually one of the first to actively precipitate the meltdown. The final half hour of the movie is a great metaphor about how any at first sight negligible, unimportant little problem a society contains in itself, is a tiny timebomb, one sure to start rolling a tiny snowball, which is bound to gather in size, then hit and destroy a very important part of our delusionally stable lives. Do The RIght Thing does not give answers, because nobody has them yet…But it does what a great film of its kind always does – keeps minds awake, reminds and stirs, pokes you in the heart and stomach, asking: so what now, what’re you doing about this shit, man, that shit that you live in, pretending not to see it?

I Am Sam, 2001 / Jessie Nelson

8199I finished watching I Am Sam at three at night, having not managed to hold my emotions twice. I thought, damn you you film critics if you dare to shoot this movie down. Next day, Rotten Tomatoes blinked with 35% approval. Anyway, there’s some points of view and other points of view, and I have to admit that if you watch I Am Sam with your head only, you might not be too impressed. If you choose to see it through your heart though, it’s difficult to not be moved. And, for god’s sake, how could you watch this movie with your mind only? I could not and would not want to. Some say Sean Penn deserved an Oscar for his performance, others claim it’s easy to act-pretend a retard. Go do it yourself, if it’s that easy! What the movie does, to be sure, is take a stand, keep a side throughout. It’s the side of Sam, his daughter Rita (Dakota Fanning), and the lawyer-shark Rita (Michelle Pfeiffer). It’s not that the opposing side’s motivation and reasoning are not presented – you will understand why the state wants to take Sam’s kid away from him, you might be tempted to justify it. Maybe, maybe time would show she is better off living with a foster family…but to me the film was not mainly about whether it’s morally right and logically justified to separate a girl from her parent on the premise of him being with a lesser mind than hers…it was about the power of love, the feeling of belonging in a family, however small and imperfect it might be. I also generally liked the camera style – lots of shaking, floating, whip-pans (though the latter might have been tempered down a bit). It made the film feel alive, real, unpremeditated.

The Queen, 2006 / Stephen Frears

u2hnP5ZV1bCkrNRgiEH5YJ7OaWXI read a couple of interviews with Stephen Frears on The Queen and it seems he does not cherish tender feelings about the British monarchy. About a third into the movie you’d be forgiven to think he makes this known in a too explicit manner. So much so that you start to wonder how this supposedly very good film can be so in-your-face biased. Then a scene comes that is often commented upon, it involves the Queen driving out alone, which somehow turns the tide, and suddenly you are not sure what’s gonna happen next, and how the characters will behave at any given moment. Even if you know in detail what has happened, since in its core it’s a movie based on history. I think that’s the main beauty of The Queen – it is gently surprising, made with lightness that envelops the gravity of the situations described. It is a magical mystery to me how a director would know and feel an entire piece in such an assured way that he would deliberartely, confidently take you in one direction and then cause the course of your feelings and thoughts to change at the moment he decides. It all feels very familiar, maybe because our minds were brainwashed with TV in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death. At the same time it is completely fresh and new, as it enters, matter-of-factly, and observes a family from within – but none other than the Royal one. It’s exciting to see the stereotypes that are Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles come to life, and be endowed with doubts, haughtyness, stubbornness, compassion, nervousness, grief and regrets. It’s funny how Diana, the only deceased character, actually is presented as herself, through documentary footage, while all the Royals, still alive (apart from the Queen Mother, who passed away in 2002), are played by actors. Frears hinted physical resemblance was not a priority in casting , and claims he was shocked how much Hellen Mirren looked like the Queen when he first saw her in make-up and wardrobe. She does look like the original a lot, maybe slightly younger than what we are used to seeing (don’t forget the Queen was younger then). But even if the great English actress had nothing to do with the Queen visually, it would not have mattered. She is extremely good, and the high expectations set by her Oscar (and numerous other awards) win are met. But anyway, you should know by now that Hellen Mirren is a merciless beast when it comes to acting. Michael Sheen (nothing to do with Martin and Charlie) is a convincing Tony Blair, and I think truly looks the original, though Frears says he truly does not. Helen McCrory as Cherie displays a stronger character than her husband’s, and was filmed as a housewife a bit too much for my liking. Alex Jennings is way too handsome for Prince Charles, but his character stands so far away from what we would expect from the Prince that it kind of makes sense he looks so different. My favourite shot: the Queen coming out to the Westminster’s gates, piled with flowers and cards, slowly strolling and demonstratively looking at the messages, while the camera observes her from the back, across the heads of the ordinary people gathered there. In the scene, the Queen is powerful, lost and isolated at once – and she appears as such throughout the movie.

King Of California, 2007 / Mike Cahill

king_of_california_ver2Can’t say my impression of this movie is based on pure viewing as I saw it in three overnight installments, falling asleep not because it was boring, but simply out of exhaustion. I’ve always liked Michael Douglas in a way, because of the potential to be good I’ve felt he has, rather than for being good actually. Well, I think he is good in this one, leaving behind his characteristic onscreen sluggishness. He portrays a bipolar father, ostensibly in search of a Californian treasure, but really – of his daughter’s respect and affection. King of California was one of those indie American movies that I always sit down to watch eagerly (don’t know why, but I’m somehow more ready to believe them, to like them). Haven’t found such a movie in quite a while, ever since  C.R.A.Z.Y. (which was Canadian I think) and Mean Creek a couple of years ago. I’ve grown a bit more critical and harder to please maybe…So this one wasn’t exactly a revelation, but still had me watching dreamily through the full credits, a good testament to a movie that leaves some aftertaste, stirs a thought or an emotion. Here are some moments that impressed: the scene where Charlie (Michael Douglas) is approached by a policewoman for trespassing, only to successfully hit on her…his face bathed in light, eyes behind goggles half-filled with water, looking up and ready…Pepper, the mellow, brave accomplice to the break-and-enter operation that frames the culmination of the movie…the way the treasure was portrayed…and the often surprising, refreshing, even beautifully uncomprehensible use of the soundtrack to push expectation and emotion into unconventional planes (funny when supposed to be dramatic, Mexican trumpets-epic instead of prosaic). The flashbacks were dross, and I did not get the Chinese invasion at the end, though I’m sure it has something to do with “a rebirth out of the water” or whatever…Evan Rachel Wood is good but unfortunately not sexy enough (to me!) which is a must if you want to give the film that extra special edge!

Wall-E, 2008 / Andrew Stanton

wall_eFirst things first – most of the time, it was almost impossible to believe such visual achievements are possible. Rich, layered, sprinkled with tiny, tiny details that are usually given fragments of a second to impress the eye, but which probably took weeks to perfect, each. Of course, that might not sound such a surprise, given the quality of earlier animation flicks such as The Incredibles ot Happy Feet, but actually it IS that impressive. Wall-E has animation that looks so real and convincing that from the first minute you naturally let go and go along with anything, at a very high speed (the main character is a speedy robot, but it actually is one of the slowest creatures in the movie, apart from the fat futuristic humans with washed away skeletons). So far so good, but that is risky in itself, as the creators’ quick success in grabbing every fibre of your attention means they have to “simply” keep it up for another hour and a half or so. Which they do. Even more impressive is that Wall-E actually manages to be subtle in a very nice manner when it comes to suggesting plot development but then flipping it all over. Just see how you feel about Wall-E’s love, Eve, as she arrives into the film, and then later on the Axiom. Wall-E is a revelation, a robot with a heart that not only kids would fall in love with. My personal favourite though was Eve, so truly futuristic, efficient and…believable. Almost made me wanna be a robot. If I have to chew out a weakness it would be the unnatural transformation of the humans’ motivation for jumping out of their vegetative state of being, and especially that of the Captain. But hey, it’s a kid’s movie after all, and I would’ve loved to be able to see it with my kids. Will definitely be saving it for a screening for them – hopefully not 700 years from now!

Apocalypto, 2006 / Mel Gibson*

apocalyptoAnother Mel Gibson epic, a metaphor for and a parallel world to our current civilization…a bit too in-your-face at times…do not blink though, for fear of missing the jaguar’s jaws clamping on a human head, a skull crushing against an underwater rock, plenty of beheadings, flesh-piercing arrows, tomahawks busting bones, giving birth underwater, great make-up (some of it must have been real), great animatronics, great jungle sequences. The main character truly reminded me of Anthony Kiedis, another good reason I quickly took up to him. A straightforward chase-movie (very speedy, on foot!)-come-revenge flick, at least it felt like this. Camera was great (four of them actually, one steadycam which keeps extremely busy) – that is to be expected, but not taken for granted. One problem was: maybe not enough time was dedicated to showing how a civilization cracks from within (the Maya) – they were presented as a grotesque freak-show, true, but to a distant National Geographic-schooled viewer the Mayas were impressive, very impressive, but in a National Geographic kind of way. That might not be Mel Gibson’s fault though…we might have known too much in advance. Anyway, maybe a take a bit too one-sided and hence cruel on the Maya, but I guess you have to take a side, it’s entertainment after all, and you need bias to stay with a movie. Recommended, especially to men – see it and you’ll know, or even feel – we were savages once. “Do not fear,” the main character’s father said just before a key moment in his own life.  What I’ll try to remember:  Do not fear not finding an inspiration…

* Movie name, Year / Director (title format to stay on in the future)

The personal website of director Ivaylo Minov

I am a Bulgarian-born filmmaker working between Sofia and London. Over the last six years, I have been directing TV commercials for agencies like DDB, Leo Burnett, Lowe Swing, Publicis, Huts JWT, Demner Merlicek & Bergmann. I have worked for a wide range of clients – from mobile telecoms through charities to a viral campaign for a presidential candidate at the 2011 elections in Bulgaria.

I have a film making diploma from the London Film Academy, following a BA degree in Journalism by the American University in Bulgaria. I have worked in media and theatre, before discovering my passion for film making and turning it into a full-time devotion.

Find me at:
liaminov (at) gmail.com
0044 7757 428696 (UK)
00359 886 880564 (BG)

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